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U2, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Prophet Jeremiah

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During the 2011 leg of U2's 360 tour, Burmese activist, author, Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1991) and long-time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi greeted audiences by video, thanking them for their support. Aung San Suu Kyi has fought tirelessly for human rights and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma) through non-violent activism. She founded the National League for Democracy and her struggle frequently raised the ire of the military government of Myanmar, which placed her under almost continuous house arrest from 1989 through to November 2010. Her video greeting at concerts was truly remarkable (I was at two of the shows, Winnipeg and Minneapolis) and its significance was not lost on U2 fans. The band has long supported Aung San Suu Kyi and Amnesty International, reminding their audiences of her story and the plight of the people of Burma. Earlier in the 360 tour, U2 even encouraged fans to wear masks with her image as a gesture of solidarity and as an act of protest against the military dictatorship intent on keeping her silent.

We find clear evidence of the band's support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma on their album All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000). The liner notes mention her ("Remember Aung San Suu Kyi, under virtual house arrest in Burma since 1989") and the band dedicates "Walk On" to her. At points during the "Elevation 2001/U2 Live From Boston" DVD ("Wake Up Dead Man" and "Walk On"), from the tour that supported the album, Bono wears a button on his guitar strap with her picture. There is also a photograph in U2's The Best of 1990-2000 & B-Sides (2002) showing Bono wearing a T-shirt with her name and picture on it. There are even hints of her influence on the album's lyrics. Aung San Suu Kyi was free to leave Burma on condition she never return, but she refused, choosing to remain in her homeland: "A singing bird in an open cage / Who will only fly, only fly for freedom" ("Walk On"). Bono may be adapting Aung San Suu Kyi's own words here: "[The children of prisoners] have known what it is like to be young birds fluttering helplessly outside the cages that shut their parents away from them. They know that there will be no security for their families as long as freedom of thought and freedom of political action are not guaranteed by the law of the land" ("Letters From Burma," 1997).

The symbol "J33-3" appears on the album's cover, a reference to Jeremiah 33:3: "Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known." I believe this is a clue indicating the way U2 here presents Aung San Suu Kyi. She resembles the prophet Jeremiah, who was active in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E., a period of dramatic political upheaval culminating with the fall of Jerusalem in 586. His unpopular message of Judah's demise brought him into conflict with the political establishment that rejected his pronouncements (e.g., 36:17-32) and frequently imprisoned him (20:1-2; 32:2-3; 36:26; 37:11-21; 38:6-13, 28; cf. 43:4-7 [cf. 42:19]). This weeping prophet is strong but not fearless. He wrestles with timidity (1:6), especially when opponents threaten his life (11:18-12:4). We even catch glimpses of extreme emotional anguish (4:19; 9:1; 10:19-20; 23:9): "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!" (9:1). He doubts his abilities (1:6) but never loses sight of his divinely appointed role (1:4-5, 17-19). "These tears are going nowhere, baby" ("Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of").

Both Jeremiah and Aung San Suu Kyi announced political change to the consternation of the establishment. For Jeremiah, this meant especially the reigns of Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah during the latter part of his ministry (ca.609-586 B.C.E.). For Aung San Suu Kyi, it was a military regime in Burma that commenced in March of 1962, following a military coup by General Ne Win. The consequence for both was imprisonment. In Jeremiah 32:3-5 we read that King Zedekiah of Judah imprisoned the prophet because of his announcement that Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, would overtake Jerusalem and take the Hebrew king into captivity (this eventually happened; see 39:4-7). Captivity is a recurring theme in Jeremiah. The prophet himself was frequently imprisoned and along with its king, the people of Judah awaited captivity and exile (e.g., 10:17-18). This too eventually came to pass (39:9).

Jeremiah and Aung San Suu Kyi were both active during their respective imprisonments. Though under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to electoral victory in 1990 (though the military dictatorship did not permit them to take office) and her writings continued to be published. Similarly, arrest by the political establishment did not silence Jeremiah. The key chapter of his book (for Bono) begins with the reception of a revelation during the prophet's imprisonment: "The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah a second time, while he was still confined in the court of the guard" (Jeremiah 33:1). Again in 39:15: "The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah while he was confined in the court of the guard." Significant for the album's message is that both prophets continued their work despite the deprivations and humiliation that come with imprisonment. Both captive "prophets" also addressed the needs of their "captive" audiences. Aung San Suu Kyi once said, "we are ... prisoners in our own country" ("The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Alan Clements," 1997). Much of Jeremiah's message was concerned to assure the soon-to-be captives of Judah that God would restore them following their own captivity (33:7, 11, 26). We read in 29:14, "I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile." The words of captives, addressed to captives.

I mentioned Jeremiah's emotional state. Bono's description of Aung San Suu Kyi suggests that she too (not surprisingly) experienced great anguish in her service to the cause of freedom. There are several touching phrases in "Walk On" that hint at the political leader's emotional state. She has a "glass heart" that might crack, it aches and breaks, "And [she] can only take so much." Alan Clements asks her, "How would you characterize yourself as a person?" Aung San Suu Kyi answers: "Well, I see myself sometimes quite differently from how other people see me. For example, all this business about my being so brave ... I had never thought of myself as a particularly brave person at all" ("The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Alan Clements," 1997).

The Book of Jeremiah includes stories and language useful for the songwriter who has in mind the plight of political prisoners. Pre-exilic Israel and modern day Burma attest to the willingness of governments to silence dissidents. The clearest picture of this is the story about the prophet's opponents throwing him into a hole: "they took Jeremiah and threw him into [a] cistern ... letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud" (Jeremiah 38:6; cf. v.22). The song "Elevation" recalls this. The singer describes himself as a "mole, living in a hole" who needs the one addressed "to elevate" him and "lift me out of these blues." The first person, prayer-like lyrics suggest that God is the one addressed; the needy narrator is speaking to "I and I in the sky" (cf. Exodus 3:13-14) and calls to "Love" to lift the singer out of his despair and speak words of truth. The image of someone in a hole occurs elsewhere in the Bible: "without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life" (Psalm 35:7); "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock" (Psalm 40:2). Bono's choice of imagery not only recalls biblical poetry, it again echoes Aung San Suu Kyi's writing in which the metaphor of rising out of painful circumstances appears:

"Intimidation and propaganda work in a duet of oppression, while the people, lapped in fear and distrust, learn to dissemble and to keep silent. And all the time the desire grows for a system which will lift them from the position of 'rice-eating robots' to the status of human beings who can think and speak freely and hold their heads high in the security of their rights" (Aung San Suu Kyi, "Freedom From Fear and Other Writings," 1995; italics added).

She also speaks of the individual's efforts to transcend painful situations:

...even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man. ... At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments ("Freedom From Fear and Other Writings," 1995; italics added).

So why did Bono (as the principal lyricist) develop this connection between Aung San Suu Kyi and the biblical Jeremiah? In doing so, he takes an ancient message of comfort addressed to Israel's captives and "recycles" them for a modern context. Difficult times are temporary, Jeremiah assures his readers (e.g., 25:11) and deliverance and justice are assured (e.g., 25:12-14; 33:6-14). According to the ancient text, God brings about this restoration. In U2's retelling of that message, restoration comes through both humanitarian efforts and divine intervention. The promise and hope of both is that all will "live in safety" (Jeremiah 33:16). Remember Aung San Suu Kyi.

I first compiled these notes in 2003. A longer version of the argument put forward here appears in the Journal of Religion & Society.