Bruce Cockburn

Christian soldier finds hope in a fallen world
by Alex Roslin
Prairie Dog News

August 2, 2007

“I was never a pacifist. I think peace is better than war and that non-violent solutions are much better if you have the option of finding those… But I think sometimes it comes down to you have no choice.”

We all know Bruce Cockburn is a deep guy. Hey, he’s the dude who sang about rocket-launchering “some son of a bitch” after a visit with Guatemalan refugees in Mexico during the U.S.-sponsored death-squad wars in Central America in the ’80s.

“How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say,” he sang. “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.”

Heavy stuff for sure, but I bet you weren’t aware just how deep Cockburn really is.

Did you know, for example, that Cockburn has six honorary doctorates — the latest one in divinity from Queen’s University? Or that Cockburn became a devout Christian in the early 1970s and still is today? Or that his politics and love ballads alike are rooted in a deep spirituality that also draws on Sufism, Buddhism and C.S. Lewis?

Mind you, Cockburn isn’t the same kind of Christian as George W. and his buddies. He’s, well, you know, the deep kind — a hippy Christian, one might say.

“Other Christians might not call me a Christian,” Cockburn tells me from England, where he is on tour before he comes here for the Regina Folk Festival on Aug. 11.

“Now I don’t really know what I am,” says Cockburn. “But I am someone who feels that God is important and that spirituality is something around which life centres. What bears paying attention to is the force around which the cosmos turns. I want to know what that force is and how it bears on my life.”

And if you’re wondering if Cockburn has mellowed out or something silly like that, fear not. He hasn’t. Twenty-four years after his 1983 hit “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, the 62-year-old Cockburn may have 29 albums under his belt and be an officer of the Order of Canada. But he says he still believes in the same principles.

“I was never a pacifist,” he says. “I think peace is better than war and that non-violent solutions are much better if you have the option of finding those… But I think sometimes it comes down to you have no choice.

“I can say for myself, ‘You go ahead and shoot me; I don’t care. I’m not going to raise a hand against you. The guilt’s on you.’ But I can’t say that on behalf of my granddaughter … If I’m in a position to try to defend her, I have to exercise that choice. This is where the notion of pacifism breaks down for me… Sometimes you just don’t have the choice.”

Does Cockburn see anywhere today where he feels a rocket launcher is warranted?

“I don’t know of a situation I can think of readily where it’s clear cut,” he says. “[But] what happens if the equivalent of the Taliban becomes ascendant in North America? What do we do about it?”

By Taliban, Cockburn is talking about some of the Christian fundamentalist types who support George W. Bush. As you can see, he doesn’t like some of his co-religionists much.

“[Their] desire to inflict on the world this rigid, narrow view of things can’t be tolerated,” Cockburn says.

“I could see that somewhere way down the road that might turn into a situation that involved violence,” he adds. “I think we’re a long way from that actually, but I could imagine a scenario where that might become viable. I see it as something I would resist if it came my way or, more specifically, if it came in the direction of my female loved ones… I’m not going to put up with a lack of intellectual freedom, and I’m not going to put up with a whole bunch of other things. So sooner or later, that attitude might get me into a violent confrontation with someone.”

Apparently, despite views like that, Cockburn isn’t on the no-fly list. At least not that he knows.

“So far, no one’s told me,” he says, laughing. “I got here on a plane.” How is that possible, you ask? What kind of dumb-asses are they hiring at the CIA these days?

Cockburn says he’s never even noticed anyone following him in dark glasses. “The only time I felt I was followed around was in Pinochet’s Chile.”

Cockburn’s latest album, Life Short Call Now — his first studio album in three years — bares his thoughts on life, love, the environment, and Iraq, which he visited in 2004, and includes a duet with fellow guitar virtuoso and politically minded songwriter Ani DiFranco (who, incidentally, headlined last year’s folk festival).

He chose the title because it highlighted the loneliness he felt at the time (he was between relationships) and the “precariousness we live with at the moment,” he says.

“[But] if you bother to think about things, life is always precarious, and it’s a reflection of that too... Partly, it’s to do with age. The further you get from zero, the closer you get to the other zero.”

As for Iraq, Cockburn thinks Bush is going to hell. “It was a horrible thing to set in motion. Bush and company have a lot to answer for. They had problems [in Iraq under Saddam Hussein]. But they had a level of security that they sure don’t have now. We should be protesting. We should be voting against it and trying to mitigate it however we can,” he says.

But Cockburn is heartened that today’s anti-war movement stacks up well against the peace movements of the ’60s and ’80s. He says he saw few protests during his tours of the U.S. when the war was first launched, but that’s now changed.

“For a while it looked discouraging. All the people with official voices couldn’t wait to fall in line behind the war. Touring the States in that period, you felt fear everywhere,” he said.

“That’s changed. Now, while there is fear, people are speaking out much more.”

At the same time, Cockburn believes we get the kind of society we deserve and that, moreover, we all have the seed of evil within us. Cockburn included. “I do have it within me for sure,” he says. “I’ve been lucky. I never had a situation where that was fostered. I’m certainly capable of fits of unthinking anger. [But] I’ve had good teachers and good role models.”

After his shows in Western Canada — his tour includes stops in Alberta and B.C. —Cockburn’s busy schedule includes heading to Argentina for a six-week Spanish course and a trip to Nepal with a Canadian humanitarian-aid group.

During his convocation speech at Queen’s University in May, Cockburn talked about an earlier trip to Nepal. He said he was hiking in the foothills around Mount Everest when he came across an elderly American former seminary teacher who had come to Nepal 25 years earlier to preach the Gospel and was returning to the U.S. “He was bitter and seemed diminished,” Cockburn said. “He said that in 25 years he had not made a single convert. His words were, ‘These people don’t want to know about God.’

“I felt terrible for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spiritual surroundings. He’d spent a quarter of a century not learning what he might have about God!”

Cockburn tells me he’s felt the “magic” of God — or some “bigger reality,” as he puts it — many times in his life, and that’s what gives him hope.

“There is a lot of magic out there in the world. There is incredible stuff that happens. In worldly terms, I’m not very hopeful. But where there is hope is in those moments of magic.”