The Impossible Task and the Peaceable Kingdom

Philip Jones Griffiths

Philip Jones Griffiths

 And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

- Revelation 22:2

The sixties were an anxious time...

Wikipedia defines the Sixties in the following way: "The term "1960s" also refers to an era more often called the Sixties, denoting the complex of inter-related cultural and political trends around the globe. This "cultural decade" is more loosely defined than the actual decade, beginning around 1963 with the Kennedy assassination and ending around 1974 with the Watergate scandal."

In the sixties, the world always felt like it was ending. After two wars meant to end all wars, confusing conflicts continued all over the world, and communism moved through Europe, South America, and Asia, often with violence in its wake. Martin Luther King Jr. fought bravely and, sometimes it seemed hopelessly, for civil rights. Settling into the new technology, there were many plane crashes. Socially, everything was being tested, rejected, re-entrenched, and redefined. Nothing felt steady. 

And most unsettling of all, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over every moment.

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The Sixties madness:

- Assassinations: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rober Kennedy.

- War/Violence: Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Vietnam War (1955-1975, 58,220 casualties), 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963), 

- Political Upheaval: Watergate Scandal(1972), Battle for Civil Rights (Civil Rights Bill, 1963),  Communism Movements (Cuba, USSR, Vietnam, Laos, China).

- Cultural Changes: Sexual Revolution, Civil Rights, Woodstock.


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In the wake of this general unrest comes some of my favourite music. People in this era seem to be asking...

"How do we live in times like these? How do we love and live and build something in a world that always seems to be falling apart?"

Perhaps that is why it is so easy to connect with music from this era. Because we still ask the same questions.

Getty Images - Terry Fincher

Getty Images - Terry Fincher

The music from this time expresses this uncertainty and frustration. It seeks to figure out how to live in a weird and unsteady world.

Sometimes this was in a playful way, like in Joni Mitchell's almost humorous song "Big Yellow Taxi."

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Scarborough Fair/Canticle (1966)

Simon and Garfunkel

Written in the middle of the sixties, "Scarborough Fair" or "The Canticle" by Simon and Garfunkel is a song that beautifully illustrates the tension of wanting to live well, lovingly, and fruitfully in a violent and unsettled time. It is a story song in which the singer relays a message to a lost love, giving her tasks to do. If she accomplishes all the tasks, they will be reunited. It begins describing the lover in the past terms ("She once was a true love of mind") but sets the tasks as a predicate for a possible future ("Then she'll be a true love of mine"). In that possibility there is hope.

But there is a catch: all the tasks are impossible.

The song is an adaptation of a 17th century British folk tune.

It is thought that perhaps the song was written in response to one of the plaques, which wiped out much of the population of Europe. Just as the tasks are impossible for the lover to accomplish, it is impossible for those who have been lost to death to be reunited.

Three Impossible Tasks:

- Weaving a Cambric shirt with no seams

- Finding an acre of land between the shore and the ea

- Washing the Cambric shirt without getting it wet

Here is a beautiful rendition of the traditional Folk tune.

Lyrical Comparison:

Here are the lyrics of both the original ballad and Paul Simon's rewrite.

Original Balad:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Remember me to one who lives there,

For she was once a true love of mine.


Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Without any seam or needlework,

Then she shall be a true love of mine.


Tell her to wash it in yonder well,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Where never sprung water or rain ever fell,

And she shall be a true lover of mine.


Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,

Then she shall be a true lover of mine

Paul Simon Version:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

On the side of a hill in the deep forest green
Tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown
Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
Without no seams nor needle work
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

On the side of a hill in the sprinkling of leaves
Washes the grave with silvery tears
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call

Tell her to find me an acre of land
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea strands
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions
Generals order their soldiers to kill
And to fight for a cause they have long ago forgotten

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

As you can see, Simon both truncates some of lyrics, and also adds to them. It was an anti-war song written in response to the Vietnam war 

On the Side of a Hill

Paul Simon:

On the side of a hill in a land called "Somewhere"
A little boy lies asleep in the earth
While down in the valley a cruel war rages
And people forget what a child's life is worth
On the side of a hill, a little cloud weeps
And waters the grave with its silent tears
While a soldier cleans and polishes a gun
That ended a life at the age of seven years
And the war rages on in the land called "Somewhere"
And generals order their men to kill
And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten
While the little cloud weeps on the side of a hill

As if two voices answer eachother, Simon places the tasks that the lover must do in counterpoint with the scenes of war and upheaval from his other song. One voice sings of tasks that will restore love, which are all imagined in agrarian terms (land, weaving, washing). The other voice sings about a war that never ends but no one can remember how it started. 

By weaving these two songs together, Simon makes a compelling point:

trying to live a loving and fruitful life in a violent and unsteady time can feel like an impossible task.

One voice sings of a gentle, loving, planted but impossible life.

The other of endless wars and forgotten innocence. 

Is it an endless battle?

The first answer is no. There are always, as Mister Rogers reminds us, helpers. People who stand against violence with kindness. People who sew mercy where harshness prevails. People who sew gardens while others destroy the earth. People who lay down their lives while others would destroy life.

But sometimes, that is not enough. We need more of a promise, more of a hope. Something like this:

They will not labor in vain,
    nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
    they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
    while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
    and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.
— Isaiah 65:23-25

The strange hope of the Kingdom of God is one in which the very fundamental nature of reality is flipped, redeemed. That is what we long for. That is what Edward Hicks sought in his paintings.

The Peacable Kingdom

Edward Hicks (1780-1849)

Hicks, a Quaker preacher, was a pacifist. He held the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light, which held that as you devoted yourself to God and turned your will to him, you would become redeemed and become and agent of redemption. He worked out this idea in his 62 versions of the painting "The Peaceable Kingdom" based on Isaiah 11:6-8 and Isaiah 65 23-25. These verses depict a world where want, need, and violence are no longer the fundamental realities, but where neither harm nor destruction will rule. He painted these pictures to work out that idea again and again.

As you bow the King Jesus, you begin to live like a subject of his Kingdom, where peace and justice and mercy are the ruling principles. 

As members of the peaceable kingdom, we can sew the seeds of peace as we live faithfully. And we can trust that death, violence, and ugliness will not have the final word. The task of goodness is not impossible, but the world is still fallen. 

Hope sews the seeds that will someday bloom

In the new Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom.


Sixties playlist

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