Keep on Pushing

Late crooner Johnny Cash had an affinity for black, a knack for existential song writing, and a life-long devotion to Christ.

Johnny Cash's was essentially a prophetic and eschatological orientation toward the world. His was a posture rooted in empathy, but ultimately one that went beyond his participation in the suffering of others to call the rest of the world into account. Cash's was a world in relation to which it was and still is impossible to remain neutral, just as the monolithic specter of his lanky frame draped head-to-toe in mourner's black cannot be ignored, even now that he is gone. Like the outsized and outwardly quixotic gestures of some of the Hebrew prophets--like, Hosea, who married a prostitute to demonstrate divine love, or like Jeremiah, who, to convey hope, bought a plot of land just as it was being seized by invaders--the force of Cash's witness to what is and what could be remains undeniable.

Born of the poverty that he knew as the son of Arkansas sharecroppers--and later, of the tyranny of his addiction to drugs--his vision of dignity and justice compelled him to stand unwaveringly with oppressed, beaten down people and to bid others to join him. His sometimes dour persona and the priority that he gave to the lives of downcast people might not radiate the positivity of Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner" or "Move On Up," yet Cash's witness offers a powerful word of uplift just the same. Throughout his embattled life he lent a voice to those without one and, with it, a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of transcendence.


Cash was a man of faith, one with deep roots in the Baptist church who, despite periods of dissipation and doubt, remained a Christian throughout his life. His identification with people on the margins, though, tended to stem more from his hard-fought inner struggle than it did from a theologically grounded vision of transcendence like that of the beloved community or train to glory. Cash's striving was rooted in faith, certainly, and its implications for human community are many and far-reaching. Yet more than anything, his hunger for transcendence was tied to his ongoing fight for self-integration, to his basic but far from simple urge for wholeness. Only from there did his struggle seem to open outward-and prophetically-onto the larger world.

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