It Ain’t About Kumbaya, But About Mindless Naivete

It Ain’t About Kumbaya, But About Mindless Naivete March 21, 2019

Catholic writer Mark Shea has recently written two posts (one / two) having to do with the beautiful African-American folk song, or spiritual, Kumbaya (which probably dates from the 1920s). His point (as usual), is to bash political conservatives, but (also as usual when he does that), he is dead-wrong and, I think, entirely misses the point. Here are two examples of his choice remarks:

I was somewhat taken aback with the surprisingly bitter contempt heaped on certain songs and, in particular, for the raging hatred so routinely poured out on ‘Kumbayah’. I’ve always kind of liked it and have been made to feel for 30 years as though sticking my neck out to say that was to invite the disgust of all Right-Thinking Catholics Everywhere.

We live in an age of ‘thoughts and prayers’ Christian conservatives who use words, empty piety, and respect for symbols as a prophylactic against the weightier matters of the law. The idea that one can heap contempt on kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, love, joy, peace, patience and any talk of social justice is now endemic among super-Catholics, right next to the idea that ritual or theological correctness is all that matters.  The idea that getting your words and rituals correct is the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit is utterly foreign to the New Testament.  May God heal the schism between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

He cites his friend, Catholic writer Sherry Weddell as well:

[I]in the Catholic world – especially online – I heard the term “Kumbaya” used over and over by white “conservative Catholics” as an expression of contemptuous disDain [sic] for any kind of Catholic practice associated with the honoring of kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, love, joy, peace, patience. Any talk of social justice and of repentance was also Kumbaya.

And again:

I refuse to waste another nanosecond of time hearing some culture war conservative heap scorn on “Kumbaya”. Don’t waste your breath around me.

As one of these dreadful, pitiable, ultra-compromised political conservatives (i.e., according to the Gospel of Mark, one of those who denies the gospel and Christ, idolatrously worships antichrist Trump as a cult follower, is not really pro-life, and is a “Christianist” rather than Catholic), I have nothing whatsoever against the song. I like it (as I love many folks songs): particularly the soul-moving Joan Baez recording of it.

We used to sing it at pro-life rescues in the late 1980s, along with other songs common among the civil rights protesters of the early 60s (such as Eyes on the Prize). Now, I can only speak for myself, and not for tens of millions of conservatives (who, no doubt, have many diverse opinions, just as any large social group does), but I think Mark is missing the mark (no pun intended) by a wide margin.

As far as I have seen (and of course, speaking generally), the sarcastic or contemptuous conservative reference to Kumbaya is not to the song itself, but rather, refers to the naivete and mindless utopianism of many liberals and leftists: symbolism over substance: “talking the talk but not walking the walk”; engaging in mere self-congratulatory verbal rhetoric, rather than actually doing something to help struggling people and to solve various social problems.

I know for sure that this is how I have heard Rush Limbaugh (no small conservative influence) reference the song, many times, when he talks about liberals getting together, “throwing Frisbees for peace, lighting candles, and singing Kumbaya” (in other words, doing the touchy-feely, warm fuzzy stuff — fine as far as it goes — but not acting upon these impulses, to actually bring about positive social change. Here is an altogether typical example of Rush referring to it in this way (I’ve listened to his show off and on for now almost thirty years):

In 2008, 2012, “Obama’s gonna make it all happen: Utopia, end climate change, promote love and peace, end racism, all of that!” In 2008: Nobel Peace Prize, on the come. Obama hadn’t done anything. But just his presence, just his aura, just his existence, was gonna cause the bad guys of the world to lay down their arms and join hands and sing kumbaya. But what really happened? President Obama went on to become a veritable warmonger. (5-22-18)

That is what conservatives are driving at in mentioning the song at all. But — I can’t emphasize enough, it’s not the song itself, or what its lyrics express, but rather, how it is used in these “rituals” of “do-nothing feel-good-ism”.

It reminds me of the way the John Lennon song Imagine is viewed (as this big anthem of love and peace and harmony). I’m a huge Beatles and John Lennon fan, and love the song itself (as a melody). I have a review of the remastered Sgt. Pepper album that is on the first page of the Amazon listing (out of 3,035 reviews!). But here, John failed lyrically, and delivered a disastrous message.

The song starts out with, “Imagine there’s no heaven . . .” and later he wishes for “no religion, too.” And I always think, “yes, that thought absolutely terrifies me.” The gist of the song is typical Marxist post-religious messianic utopianism: if only we could get Christianity out of the way, there would be peace and harmony everywhere.

Hogwash!  Nothing could be more opposite of the truth. John was in one of his always-temporary phases at the time: infatuation with Marxism. In fact, a few years later (after going through about four more phases) he seriously entertained becoming an evangelical Christian, till his wife put an end to it.

In that case, the words itself were objectionable. But the song has become a symbol (with an outrageously false premise), regardless of what its lyrics convey. Kumbaya has become a symbol, too, and its association with mindless utopianism is what we conservatives object to.

When I read Mark’s posts, I was curious about the specifics of my own references to Kumbaya. I knew that I had mentioned it in the fashion that I have described. With word-search capabilities, I easily found seven usages in my own articles on Patheos. Here they are, with brief present commentary in blue:


1) The way to get beyond that is not to put our heads in the sand and go throw a Frisbee and sing Kumbaya around the fire, ending the night with a group hug. It’s talking it through: listening to each other; interacting with opposing arguments. That’s how adult Christians should be able to resolve things. But if some people want to manifest that they cannot engage in a discussion without getting angry and insulting, then it’s a free country. All I can do is delete the worst offenses. (The Preference of Receiving Holy Communion from a Priest, 12-18-13)

Here I was calling for mature, adult back-and-forth discussion of internal Catholic differences, rather than pretending we have some sort of “unity” when we do not in fact have it.

2) Catholics have community, precisely because we are united around this set of truths called “Catholicism.” It’s not just arbitrary: “hey, look, a billion people all believe thus-and-so, so I’m gonna go join in and throw Frisbees and sing Kumbaya!” It’s based on the finding of a real truth that really is there: “true truth,” as Francis Schaeffer called it. Thus, those of us who follow that ancient Christian tradition are classified as infantile nuts, because we are still so silly as to believe that we can know truth with certitude, in Christ, and in His Church. (Radically Unbiblical Protestant “Quest for Uncertainty”, 2-12-14)

True unity is found in the Catholic Church: grounded in its doctrines and moral teachings and tradition, not merely “a billion people” supposedly all agreeing on a relatively superficial level.

3) Once again, an atheist came onto my page, guns blazing, was banned, and now he is crying in his beer and gathering all his like-minded cronies about him, group hugging, with lots of warm fuzzies,  singing of Kumbaya (oops! atheists don’t sing that, do they?), and whining and crying about how nasty all the wicked Christians are (me foremost of all, of course), who deign to ban a person who violates their blog rules. This is the second time in the last ten days that an entire atheist “feeding frenzy” thread was devoted to how nasty, terrible and all-around unsavory and stinky I am. I’m Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler, all wrapped into one hideous beast. (I Actually Enforce My Discussion Policy (What a Novelty!), 10-31-15)

I was mocking an atheist whom I banned for uncivil behavior, noting that he went and surrounded himself with a bunch of fellow clones in a groupthink effort to “prove” what a nasty beast and all-around unsavory fellow I am for simply enforcing simple rules of moderation and constructive online discourse.

4) Obviously, we had to utterly defeat the Nazis. That was the existential threat to the world 75 years ago. Likewise, today, we have to utterly defeat ISIS. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be, and many more thousands will die as a result of our stupidity, cowardice, and appeasement. So we need to go and defeat them ASAP, and thereby eliminate the problem that is (largely) causing the refugees and the terrorist acts. That is more compassionate, because it saves exponentially many more lives of innocent people. When will we ever learn from history? It’s so absolutely frustrating. This ain’t rocket science. The problem won’t “dry up” and go away by means of our putting our heads in the sand and throwing Frisbees and singing Kumbaya. (Re Refugee & Terrorist Crises (My $00.02), 11-21-15)

I was making the point, again, that we had to do something about the refugee crisis, brought about in the Middle East by ISIS. Trump did exactly that, by virtually annihilating ISIS, while Obama had done nothing. So who cared more about the children and other innocent refigee victims?

5) Presidents Clinton and Obama, following Chamberlain’s noble lead, prevented nuclear conflict with North Korea all this time. Who does Trump think he is, to mess with all that peace? Trump needs to learn the wimpy, spineless jellyfish appeasing method of diplomacy, so we can be in a nuclear-free world. If only he does that, then Kim will tie all his nuclear missiles to a giant Frisbee and let them float up to orbit, while we all sing Kumbaya together and get back to agreeing about butchering preborn children: the one mass murder we all can agree is perfectly acceptable. (Trump’s Inadequate Rebukes of Rocket Man & Neo-Nazis, 8-13-17)

President Trump actually took concrete steps to get rid of the nuclear threat of North Korea, as opposed to the appeasing mentality of Neville Chamberlain (with Hitler) and Presidents Clinton and Obama. They were, as Trump says, “all talk and no action.” After the second attempt, when he walked away, even liberals praised his sensible realism and unwillingness to compromise on principle.

6) Then at length, the Protestants offered the world the spectacle of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), in which Calvinists anathematized the Arminians (a vast majority of today‘s Protestants) who dared to disagree with their extreme and false doctrines. This was no Kumbaya / “isn’t it great that we’re all one big happy family and not Catholics?!” lovefest among fellow Protestants who had honest disagreements, to be amiably worked out over ale or rum, with chicken legs, by a warm fire. (Critique of Ten Exaggerated Claims of the “Reformation”, 10-31-17)

Here I was sarcastically mocking the oft-heard Protestant claims of a broad unity amongst themselves, over against us wicked Catholics. When they actually met together formally and discussed doctrine, a hundred years after their Revolt began, the above was what occurred. Even the common contempt towards the Catholic Church didn’t suffice to create real, tangible doctrinal unity.

7) The “progressive” trend against this sort of outrage and in favor of “a common humanity” was, so [Richard] Dawkins informs us, derived from “deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution”(p. 271). Okay. Materialistic evolution (which forbids God to play any role in it at all, according to Dawkins and atheists generally) fosters respect for life and commonness among all humankind. Wonderful! Ah, but wait! Dawkins utterly contradicts all of this touchy-feely, warm fuzzy Kumbaya love for one and all in the following proclamation: [I cite his words] . . . This grotesque” “scientism” mentality then leads to the evil justifying of abortion, and for that matter, to the ritual human sacrifice of born children by the Incas, Aztecs, and many other cultures (though Dawkins seems utterly unaware of that logical consequence of his stated position). (Richard Dawkins’ Outrageous Hypocrisy on Abortion, 5-21-18)

Dawkins engages in touchy-feely mindless utopianism, based on the excess of scientism (which is not simply love of science, but making science the epistemological “be all and end all”): all the while ignoring the plight of the smallest and most helpless and innocent among mankind: the preborn child.


Lo and behold (irony of ironies), I even found an example of Mark Shea himself referring to Kumbaya in a similar way to the above, in a post of his that I host on my own blog:

The Pope [Pope St. John Paul II], of all people, is almost uniquely aware of the difference between utopianism and Christian faith (he’s lived under two utopian systems). He’s written extensively on the impossibility of utopian schemes. . . . So I think it extremely unlikely that he now imagines that the goal is a secular utopia of religious leaders singing Kumbaya. Rather, I think it obvious he is acting on the sensible counsel of Lumen Gentium to work in common with people of good will for what can be achieved while, of course, not sacrificing the truth that the Church’s revelation is — alone — the fullness of God’s revelation. (Defense of 2nd Ecumenical Gathering at Assisi (Mark Shea), 2-6-02)

There you go, Mark. The way you referenced it is the way we lowly, contemptible conservatives also do. Not that you will correct yourself . . .

As we saw above, Mark’s ultimate concern (if we can look past his ubiquitous and wrongheaded insults) was a worthy one (but wrongly applied in a broad, prejudicial, most unfair way to conservatives). He wants to combine good works with faith: a thoroughly Catholic and biblical impulse. And so he wrote in his second article:

I’m working on a book on the creed. One of the things I’m realizing is that a considerable discussion needs to happen, centering around Jesus’ saying, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” He ends with the stark and terrifying warning that those who do this will be told “I never knew you.  Depart from me, you evildoers.”  There is no comparable warning to those who do as he says but do not call him Lord.  It’s almost as though he cares more about obedience than about empty words, “thoughts and prayers”. It’s the same lesson as the parable of the sheep and the goats. . . .

It’s also the same lesson as the parable of the two son who were asked to work in the vineyard by their Father.  The one son said ‘yes’ but did not go.  The other said ‘no’ and then went and worked.  Which did the will of his Father?

Yes! I totally agree. I write about this all the time: especially when I am refuting Protestant faith alone mentalities. And this, in fact, was my primary emphasis in my thoughts, in mentioning Kumbaya sarcastically or tongue-in-cheek. We have to do much more than simply engage in empty, shallow symbolic rhetoric and feel the warm fuzzies and good liberal Woodstock vibrations. And so, to sum up my seven instances in this particular regard:

1) We have to really solve Catholic internal difference by serious dialogue; not pretend they don’t exist.

2) Catholicism provides the basis and “glue” for a truly real and profound unity, not just a pretended commonality.

3) I noted how an atheist couldn’t be civil with us Christians, and as a result retreated into his clonelike enclave of back-slapping insulting atheists. I’m not saying that all atheists are that way, but this group was, and such cliquish tribalism is very common online among all belief-systems.

4) We can’t just talk about how much we want to help poor refugee children in the Middle East. We need to take concrete steps: in this instance, annihilate the ISIS monsters.

5) We had to do something concrete to alleviate or at least lessen the North Korean nuclear threat. Trump did that, while all the Presidents before him back to 1953 sat on their hands.

6) Protestants have not actually exhibited some supposed marvelous internal unity. One prime example of that was their synod in 1618-1619. Lots of utopian, vaguely or subliminally anti-Catholic, naive talk; no true unity.

7) Atheist Richard Dawkins talks a good game about human togetherness and “common humanity”: deriving from his religion of materialistic evolutionism: all the while hideously excluding children in their mother’s wombs.

I don’t see how Mark could or would disagree with any of this, save for my #5, in which The Abominable Beast Trump did a very good thing. That’s not possible, according to Mark, because he is the antichrist (just like Trump is not truly [wink wink] a pro-lifer, either. Right). So if we took out Trump and kept the other six examples, along with Mark’s own, we see that there is no hostility towards Kumbaya whatsoever: not one shred or iota.

The point I was making every time was that we need to act upon our expressed ideals; not just engage in empty words and sit on our butts, never intending to act upon them. This is precisely what Jesus calls us to do:

Matthew 7:21 (RSV) “Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

And so (whaddya know!) it turns out that the conservative impulse and motivation in this respect is precisely like the (proclaimed) best liberal intentions (not to mention biblical commands from our Lord Jesus and St. Paul): words must be merged with action: faith and works: walk and talk, not just talk alone (sola verbe?). Mark’s two posts are divisive and will separate Catholics and promote further mutual suspicion and hostility. But I write for the sake of better mutual understanding and unity.

I humbly inquire: which approach between these two (mine and Mark’s) is more biblical and Christlike? Is it better to be conciliatory and to seek unity among Catholics, or to misrepresent other Catholics in the effort to perpetuate yet more needless division and unbiblical, unethical tribalism?


Mark Shea chimed in about this article, after I announced it underneath one of his two:

No. It’s about Kumbaya. And a religious cult that spends its waking hours passionately defending a gutless coward who stays up till all hours tweeting his hatred of a dead man who was tortured for his country while the coward was lying about bone spurs and being treated for venereal disease as his ‘personal Vietnam’ has lost all right to pontificate about ‘mindless naivete’.

I haven’t analyzed the latest controversy regarding John McCain at all. I have stated in the past that Trump’s earlier remarks about McCain’s captivity in Vietnam were dumb and indefensible. So as usual, Mark is dead-wrong about me (assuming for a moment that this has any relevance at all to the topic at hand; it really doesn’t).

And this is what passes as “rational argument” from him. It’s equal parts pathetic and absurd and sad.


Photo credit: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, 8-28-63. Provided by the National Archives and Records Administration [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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