John Lennon was wrong.
John Lennon’s Imagine is one of my favourite songs. It is, after terrible events, both a consolation and an expression of hope. It is also a reminder that, in the four decades since the song was written, although everything has changed - everything has remained the same as well.
John Lennon was no revolutionary, I once heard Yoko Ono say in an interview (if I remember correctly). He didn’t ask you to join or lead a revolution. He only asked you to imagine. He asked you to give peace a chance.
In Imagine, he starts by asking you to imagine a world where everyone lives for today, not in fear or hope of a future of eternal punishment or bliss. He asks you to imagine a world where everyone lives in peace, where no one kills each other due to their nationality or religion. He asks you to imagine a world without need, without hunger.
It is indeed easy to imagine a world that has no heaven or hell - many of us believe that this is the world we live in anyway. It is easy to imagine a world without countries or organized religion. But it is much harder to imagine a world where everything is shared. Lennon recognizes that. He asks you to imagine no possessions - and he wonders if you even can do that.
Thinking about the lyrics, I am afraid that John Lennon was wrong. Not in his goals, mind you - everyone living in peace, everyone living without want - but he was wrong in the order in which these goals can be achieved. We might now think “Oh, without religion, these bad events would not have happened!” - and our first impulse would thus be to fight religion - but this is fighting the symptoms, not the causes. The order in which we can achieve Lennon’s goals from Imagine is exactly reverted.
I guess Lennon ordered it by how easy each of the goals were to imagine. He was sugarcoating his message. But for us to get there, we have to start with the last goal first. We first need to deal with need, with greed, and with hunger. We first need to ensure that no child has go to bed hungry. That every person has access to water. That no one has to endure life-threatening need, has to live through humiliation and despair, has to wonder whether they and their children will be safe and have to eat the next day.
The answer must not be war and violence. The answer must be more giving. The answer cannot be a deeper divide between us and them. The answer must be to turn them into us. To give them access to the same standard of living that we have.
Every one of us who are rich has to share more with those of us who are not. We already can produce more than enough food, cloths, shelters, and medicine for everyone. We need to do so, and we need to share with those in need. We have to ensure that every human on earth has access to all basic needs - safety, shelter, food, health, knowledge, and opportunity. Only then can we break the cycles that lead to children growing up with the belief that shooting and blowing up others is ever justified. Only then will we manage to save angry young people from the lure of the pied pipers of our time, from their promises of paradise and their easy-to-digest messages of violence and hate for those who have. We have to enable every single person to fill their own live with meaning, or else they will be hungry and desperate for meaning, searching for it in nationalism, religion, and fear.
You can’t take away beliefs, if beliefs is what differentiates one group from the others. You cannot take away organized religion and groups organized around a common belief, if this is the only way to belong to something bigger, if this is the only way that provides meaning. If you want terror organizations to stop gaining members, if you want superstitions to stop gaining believers, then you first have to give them a viable economic alternative. We need to give more. I do not know if we have to go all the way - I have trouble imagining no possessions at all - but it is obvious we have not yet gone far enough.
If we do not want to give up our freedoms for safety, and if we do not want to give up our hope for safety, we have to give up some of our wealth and share it more broadly. In order to give peace a chance.