By Charlie Clauss

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one excited that the Olympics, postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic, finally happened this August. With cases on the rise in Japan, it was not a sure thing. Was it a good idea to go ahead with such a large event? The economic benefits that are supposed to come with the Olympics did not arrive, and there were no fans to watch the events. There is some sense that Japan in the end embraced the Olympics (due in part to the record number of gold medals won by the country). If you are a lover of sports, there was plenty of sports-related excellence to go around. Of particular note was the addition of skateboarding, which shows that the Olympic movement can change and grow and begin to attract a whole new generation to its cause.

The Opening Ceremony of any Games is always a spectacle. Whether it is the hundreds of grand pianos of the 1984 Los Angeles Games or the massed drummers of the Beijing Games, there are always moments of sheer wonder. The technology used in these shows often goes unnoticed. One such point happened in the Tokyo ceremonies after the entrance of the athletes. 1,825 drones were flown in formation over the stadium in the form of a sphere, first highlighting the Olympic symbol, and then morphing into the continents of Earth.

As the drones filled the sky, the lilting tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” began to sound. To represent the five continents of the Olympic movement, five different artists or artist groups took on the song. First, representing Asia, was the Suginami Junior Chorus, followed by Angelique Kidjo for Africa, Alejandro Sanz for Europe, John Legend for the Americas, and finally Keith Urban for Oceana.

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“Imagine” has become a bit of an unofficial song of the Olympics. Just before his death, John Lennon said, “We’re not the first to say, ‘Imagine No Countries’ or, ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ but we’re carrying that torch, like the Olympic torch, passing it hand to hand, to each other, to each country, to each generation. And that’s our job.” “Imagine” was used at London 2012, Pyeongchang 2018, Torino 2006, and Atlanta 1996.

The song turns 50 this year and has elicited strong feeling for nearly its whole lifespan. Rolling Stone in 2004 listed “Imagine” as the third greatest song of all time (in their 2021 list, with the addition of more diverse music, it had fallen to number 19). But a Rolling Stone music critic said, “The singing is methodical but not really skilled, the melody undistinguished.” Some Christians banned it as “anti-religious.” Lennon was accused of hypocrisy: Elvis Costello in his 1991 single “The Other Side of Summer” asked, “Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?”  Elton John sent the Lennons a card: “Imagine six apartments / It isn’t hard to do / One is full of fur coats / Another’s full of shoes.”

I must confess that I have been a member of the derisive side. But I admit, the version from the Tokyo Olympics has softened me up a bit. It might have been the drones — more likely I really liked the five singers. Listening to the words, having watched the athletes of the world march in with the global pandemic still very much a thing, I realized a profound truth. “Imagine” represents a deep hunger in the heart of every human person. We desire peace, we desire the absence of greed and hunger, we desire that the people of the Earth live as one — no killing and no dying. These are all close neighbors of our desire for justice. These desires are, we Christians believe, God-given.

The problem I have with the song is the pathway John and Yoko laid out to achieve this state (there is good evidence that John’s wife Yoko was a prime source for the ideas of “Imagine.”) Far from being a tree to provide wood with which to build this vision, the song cuts off the branch the singer is sitting on. No heaven and no hell speak of the absence of transcendence. All that is is what can be seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and felt. There is no way to adjudicate between differing views of what constitutes the good. You are left with only an appeal to a vague sentimentality. Or with an appeal to power. It may not be an accident that Lennon was attracted to Mao’s work.

There is an even deeper issue, the idea of no more countries. That “Imagine” has been sung at so many Olympic Games — in Tokyo right after the athletes of all the countries marched in — could count as some delicious irony. That is not the real problem. Unbridled love of country has led to unspeakable evil, especially in the 20th century. Consider, however, how God seems to view “the nations”:

[Quote]After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10, emphasis added)[/End]

In the biblical narrative the nations were originally (coming, mythologically, from the sons of Noah after the flood). Further judgment at the tower of Babel caused divisions among the people.

But in a very evocative line, Revelation 21:24: says, “The nations will walk by [the light of the Glory of God], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”

God has used — and redeemed — the nations of the world. Far from going away, the glory of the nations will be forever within the new Jerusalem.

It will sound harsh, but only a white, affluent, Western male could speak in this way. The diversity we see around us is God-given. The diversity of countries is God-given. The Olympics have it just right: men and women from around the globe representing their nations, striving for excellence, and testing themselves against the best from each land. That is something worth joining!

One last serious problem with the vision of “Imagine”: it leaves the past alone. Were we to magically build this new world, all the injustice of the past would remain. Every lash of the whip, every mother’s cry over a stolen son or daughter, every poor person denied justice — every single wrong and evil will remain. What the Christian believes is that Jesus’ resurrection will eventually work its way into every nook and cranny of space and time. Every injustice will be overturned, and every death undone.

I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

About The Author

When Charlie and his wife arrived in Colorado Springs in the mid to late 1990s, they joined an Episcopal church. Living in the South, with a Baptist church on every corner, Charlie was a Lutheran. Now living in Minnesota, with a Lutheran church on every corner, he is an Episcopalian.

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