July 14, 2005
Jesus and the Buddha at Live 8
-- Jon Pahl
Jesus and the Buddha both made appearances at the July 2 Live 8 concert here in Philadelphia. The two peacefully coexisted at this pluralistic justice-fest, where ethics of interdependence and love merged with a dash of Protestant missionary revivalism.
The event sought to convert concert-goers to caring about Africa. I estimate the average age of the audience was about twenty-five. How many of the 600-800,000 actually gained a sharpened awareness of the causes and cures of poverty in Africa is as impossible to gauge as the efficacy of any conversion process. There was no altar call, but there were plenty of earnest preachers among the actors, musicians, activists, and poets who shared the stage on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And there were booths where representatives of organizations like the American Friends Service Committee distributed literature and invited attendees to join e-mail lists.
Missionary zeal centered on the "One" campaign, initiated here in Philadelphia in May by Bread for the World, CARE, World Vision, and other organizations. Almost every performer wore a white "One" wristband, as did many of the attendees. The campaign's declaration, available to "sign" online, reads like a creed. "We believe," it begins, "that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest peoples of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty."
More pragmatically, the "One" campaign asks the G8 leaders to take three steps to assist African nations: strengthen fair trade provisions, provide debt relief, and help end political corruption and violence where it exists. The slogan "One" also refers to the goal of directing an additional one percent of the U.S. annual budget toward meeting Africa's basic needs, and to the conviction that "one person, one voice, one vote" can make for "a better, safer world for all."
An ethic of love was articulated by many of the artists, perhaps none so clearly as Stevie Wonder, whose forthcoming album is entitled A Time to Love. Erotic love was certainly celebrated throughout the day, as lovers held hands, kissed, and danced up and down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. More than a little altruistic agape-love was also in evidence, and not only in the set by evangelical songsters Jars of Clay. Attitudes of gratitude made the event a remarkably peaceful party, with only four arrests. On this day, Philadelphia lived up to its name as a city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.
Actor Will Smith, the Philly native who emceed the event, opened the festivities by invoking interdependence with a shout: "We're all in this together!" Near the end of the day, actor Richard Gere, another Philadelphia native, used a tad of hyperbole to remind participants about the ethic of interdependence, juxtaposing the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 with the concert, dubbing the latter "a declaration of interdependence."
"Justice" as a theme emerged in contrast to the previous concert in this series, Live Aid, held in 1985. That event was a charity-fest. But organizer Bob Geldof indicated that "we've learned too much since then" to imagine that charity can solve Africa's problems. Consequently, he sought to organize a concert that would engage people in the "long walk to justice," as the slogan on the back of the t-shirt I bought at the event puts it.
Jesus and the Buddha got along just fine. On the Jesus side, hip-hop artist Kanye West performed his recent hit, "Jesus Walks." The lyrics of the chorus run: "Jesus walks/God show me a way because the Devil's trying to break me down/Jesus walks with me." As West rapped, a huge crucifix was projected on the screen behind the stage, and also on the Jumbotron screens up and down the Parkway.
The Buddha, aside from the references to "interdependence," was most prominent in a ten-foot-tall statue near the performers' food tent. Restaurant mogul Stephen Starr had set up a mobile version of his Buddakan to serve the culinary needs of the performers.
The pluralistic mix of Live 8 also saw the presence of members of the Nation of Islam, who helped with crowd control.
It will, of course, take more than concerts to solve the complex problems facing Africa. But if religious rituals can have any effect, Live 8 might point to a pluralist path in which, as Stevie Wonder put it in his closing anthem, "superstition ain't the way."
Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.