“A God of forgiveness and you’re going to burn for all eternity?” – Jesse Leach
The evolving spiritual philosophy of Jesse Leach is all over his lyrics.
The Killswitch Engage vocalist is someone who, in a genre sometimes defined by its fantastical imagery, looks inward to the larger mystery of the esoteric and the spiritual. He’s never preached, he’s never proselytized, but he’s never shied away from revealing his struggles with the Christian faith, as someone committed to justice, progressive values, and old-school hardcore ideas like independence, self-reliance, and unity.
Killswitch Engage is one of the defining bands of the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal. Jesse Leach was the vocalist for Killswitch Engage on their self-titled debut album, released on the fourth of July in the year 2000, as well as their breakthrough and high-minded creative achievement, Alive or Just Breathing. He turned to the band for Disarm the Descent and Incarnate and is currently tracking vocals for a new album.
To this day, Jesse will rep classic hardcore, Rocksteady, two-tone, and ska bands on his t-shirts and patches in photos, videos, and onstage, at huge festivals, co-headlining with Anthrax, and headlining their own tours.
I was thrilled to have Jesse as my guest for the second episode of No-Prize From God.
What follows are excerpts from that in-depth discussion, which you can listen to HERE.
SON OF A PREACHER MAN
JESSE LEACH: My father has always been a searching, wandering guy, looking for the true meaning of God after he found Jesus in the 1970s.
My mother was predominantly the supportive wife and did nursing third shift. She would be sleeping during the day and my brother and I would be left to ourselves, living in Florida, Missouri, inner-city Philadelphia, out on a farm in Wisconsin. We moved around a lot because my dad was constantly in search of something. My parents are great. They did the best they could to raise us but I definitely think that my brother and I and later on my sister were raised with a certain mindset and indoctrination with the Christian faith, which was really good and also I believe a little bit inhibiting [to our] growth as well.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: What do you know about your father’s conversion moment in the ’70s?
JESSE LEACH: My father from a young age – going from being a greaser gangster in the streets, getting into the fashion and drugs and all the stuff in the ’60s eventually leading him to the hippie movement and a healthy dose of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the folky stuff, [Jimi] Hendrix, Woodstock, all of that. He bought himself a Harley Davidson and became a biker.
This was all a search for him. He was trying to figure his life out between his relationship with his alcoholic father – basically trying to find a Heavenly Father figure, if I could go deep with it.
The ultimate for him was when he started to learn about Buddhism, when he was a biker. He wanted that peace he felt that monks could give him.
He actually thumbed his way from Rhode Island to California. His plan was to make money somehow in California to get to Tibet. But along the way, in California, he met a guy who told him about Jesus and from that point on, he became hippie, Jesus loving guy. From there he drove back home and had to tell his family about Jesus. That’s when he met my mother. It’s been a quest since day one for this man.
Now he’s a full-time professor. He’s always had his plate full. The guy has two masters degrees and a P.H.D. in theology. He’s a very learned person. I’ve never seen him stop.
“Behind the scenes, a lot of these people are severely hypocritical.”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: When I think about that time in American culture and those extremities in philosophical thought that were being explored – you have everything within that hippie culture, everything surrounding it, whether it’s the Black Panther Party; Liberation Theology as that was developing with a lot of Latin American priests; the Krishna Consciousness movement was around that time way before its association with hardcore punk; Rastafarianism; all of these very interesting, complex things. [For] a lot of people it sort of led them to Christianity but through a different prism than the traditional sort of puritanical Christianity, like what we know now as the evangelicals.
JESSE LEACH: Yeah which is predominantly an American Christianity. Over in Europe and in the East, they have more of a mysticism involved with their beliefs. Americans are kind of the ones who turned it into almost a cult or a terrorist movement with some branches [laughs]. And I chuckle, but it’s true. I don’t think people recognize [it].
RYAN J. DOWNEY: And there’s the mentality in certain American churches where people who use curse words, or female bloggers who dare to question [the patriarchy], these are the kind of “issues” that a lot of evangelicals are focused on, particularly the white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.
JESSE LEACH: Whereas behind the scenes a lot of those people are severely hypocritical. You talk about a life of sin. There’s a lot going on that’s never discussed. They point the finger so hard at other people but if you truly believe in what your Bible says, you should be pointing that finger right back at yourself and being humble. It’s a total and absolute contradiction of what they say they believe in.
“We were the only white family in the entire area.”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: The juxtaposition between inner city Philadelphia and rural Wisconsin; what are some of the things that helped shape you from living in these different places?
JESSE LEACH: You mentioned the Black Panthers and you mentioned Rastafarianism.
Where we lived in Germantown, this section of Philadelphia in the 1980s, there was an active Black Panther chapter and in our neighborhood, we lived next to a Rastafarian woman. I could see her — she would go outside naked in her backyard and perform rituals. I’m not sure if she was into voodoo or what she was into. But I vividly remember watching her prancing around her backyard, her dreadlocks going everywhere, chanting, from a young age being totally fascinated by that. Of course I was thinking it was “evil” because of my indoctrination, but I was still fascinated. “What is this ‘other’ thing going on? This other practice?”
And also being a minority. We were the only white family in the entire area. So we were exposed to a different type of Christianity, more of the Baptist, some Christians call it the “happy clappy” stuff – singing and dancing, the early Pentecostal stuff. Philly was probably my first memories. My memories begin with living in Philadelphia in a pretty bad part of town but also having a pretty tight knit community there. And Bible studies my parents would host.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: Did you have any encounters or recollection of the MOVE organization?
JESSE LEACH: Elaborate on that. What is the MOVE organization?
RYAN J. DOWNEY: MOVE was these very progressive, spiritual, predominantly black, liberation [activists].
They had other people of color and I think even some white people involved. They were vegans and did composting and homeschooling —
JESSE LEACH: Yeah, this sounds very familiar. I’m not sure if it was the same thing, but [a] particular radical group, I’d have to look it up or ask my parents if it was them, they were in our neighborhood. I remember the vegan food. I remember prayer groups across the streets. We were intermingling with a radical group there. My parents weren’t a part of it but they were our neighbors.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: They might have been MOVE. They were rather infamously bombed by the Philadelphia Police. [Six adults and five children were killed. 65 homes were destroyed.]
JESSE LEACH: Ok, then that’s who it is, that’s exactly who it is, because I remember that. That was in our neighborhood. We knew those people.
“Our supervision was a pimp named Moses”
JESSE LEACH: There was violence in our neighborhood pretty frequently. We were pretty sheltered from it. We had a big iron fence around our yard and we weren’t allowed outside of it without supervision. And our supervision was a pimp named Moses, ironically enough, who lived next door to us. His job was to protect my family and make sure my mom made it to the train.
So we had a pimp named Moses with a sawed off shotgun in his trench coat – I had no idea he was a pimp or that he had a gun on him – but we had his protection because we needed it in that neighborhood.
They called my dad “The Preacher” and he was very well respected by people in that community. He’d also be the handyman. He was a professional carpenter. So he was the preacher man that helped people.
My parents were constantly showing their faces and lending a helping hand.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: Boogie Down Productions, Professor Griff’s solo album, X-Clan. A lot of stuff that was happening in hip-hop at that time was expanding my mind. I’d imagine for you, as the son of a preacher man so to speak, hearing Chuck D say, “Farrakhan is a prophet who I think you ought to listen to,” what did that do to your mind?
“Seeing the inequality that was going on, that really angered me at a young age.”
JESSE LEACH: That kind of started me getting into recognizing other religions; still sort of shunning it, because I was – again – very indoctrinated. But the curiosity was peaked. Because I was getting heavily into hip-hop as well as hardcore. At that time in music, being a Muslim was a fairly [popular] thing in hip-hop. You had a lot of people talking about it, from Gang Starr to like you mentioned, X-Clan, who were kind of more on the extreme side of things.
I was into all of that and having been raised in an African American community, I could relate to that. They raised issues of not just religion with the Muslim belief system but also black rights and black suppression. Being exposed to that at a young age and seeing the inequality that was going on, that really moved me and angered me at very young age, which led me further into hardcore and angry music.
Getting back to [Islam], it opened a door for me of curiosity and wanting to know what that was about. While I was going through that, coincidentally, my father co-wrote a book with a couple of other preachers, which is a dictionary of religions, sects, and cults. It’s a guidebook where you can look up that particular thing and it will tell you what it is and give you information on it. I started to devour that book. [I was curious] about Buddhism, as well.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: I encountered books as a kid that were like, “Here’s why you should be scared of these things.” And then there were some that were just informational. Which one was this?
“We had to get sat down for a lecture about ‘the devil’s music’”
JESSE LEACH: This was more informational. But I definitely had books in my house that my father would teach on, because he also used to do a youth group as well, that was during the time when all the fundamentalist Christians were going after rock n’ roll. So whether it was artwork, or messages, or people who claimed that AC/DC was of the devil, or Journey. It was absolutely ridiculous stuff.
My brother snuck a cassette tape of Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast into our house and my father found it. And we had to get sat down for a lecture about the devil’s music [laughs].
RYAN J. DOWNEY: Little did you know that a few years later it’d be Nicko McBrain, a born again Christian, playing drums in Iron Maiden going, “Hey, this is a story about the Bible.”
JESSE LEACH: [Laughs] Exactly. Also my dad was a feared authority figure when we were younger. We didn’t question him.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: I remember reading in a metal magazine somewhere when I was a teenager, this great line about how Iron Maiden was more likely to send a kid to the library than to the devil. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”? “Flight of Icarus”? “Alexander the Great”? “The Trooper,” “Aces High,” “Run to the Hills.” It’s literally world history.JESSE LEACH: [Laughs] Absolutely! It’s educational historical metal!
“When you look at what issues we’re truly facing in this world [as opposed to] what the Christians who are in the spotlight choose to focus on, it’s just so disappointing.”
JESSE LEACH: It’s hysterical, the fear mongering with rock music in the 80s, Satan worship, and all of that other nonsense.
Nowadays whether or not gay people should be married is a hot button issue. It’s absolutely asinine. When you look at what issues we’re truly facing in this world and what the Christians who are in the spotlight choose to focus on, it’s just so disappointing and something I’ve distanced myself from further and further as I get older, get more educated, travel the world more, and meet more people.
The human element of organized religion is what destroys, I believe, any semblance of what a God would be. It’s just such a contradiction. I mean we chuckle about all of this stuff, but that’s real stuff. And that stuff is still going on in different ways. They’ve gotten smarter with masking it.
And it’s not just Christians. It’s religion in general. Any means that we’re using to control people, there’s automatically fear there. You’ve got to fear something. And I’m just at this point in my life where I just don’t buy it anymore. I don’t think that this Supreme Being would want us to be this subservient and not liberate us. If God is truly love like a lot of religions claim, all of this segregation, separation and judgment we’re doing is a total antithesis of what love is.
“A God of forgiveness and you’re going to burn for an eternity?”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: Rob Bell’s book Love Wins created all of this controversy for daring to question whether or not hell is a literal place. If God were our loving father, what parent would want their child to barbecue for all eternity?
JESSE LEACH: A God of forgiveness and you’re going to burn for an eternity?
I’ve just sort of let go of a lot of things I used to cling to that made me feel safe. You could say that religion is that for a lot of people. It’s something that makes you feel safe in this crazy, dark, messed up world. And I get that.
But when you’re telling people where they’re going to go after they die – on whose authority? If you’re reading a Bible and trusting every single word you’re reading – where did those words come from? A human being had to write it down at some point, inspired by God as they say. But whom do you trust when it comes to that stuff?
Especially when you look at the Bible, for example, King James. You had a political figure come in and manipulate the scriptures, take stuff out, move stuff around. What are you actually reading with our modern translations through different languages and whatever has happened to that scripture? There are passages out of the Bible that completely contradict other passages in the Bible.
So it’s really hard for me to say that I could stand on scripture and say that’s exactly what I believe. Especially when you’re talking about hell and persecution and who’s living in sin and who’s not? It’s all over the place. It’s chaos to me.
“If you question it, you’re a heretic.”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: It’s wild when you think about someone like William Shakespeare and the academia and scholarship, the volumes and volumes of work written about his work. And all of the adaptations, versions, and performances of it, things that are inspired by it. To think about how there are questions of authorship. Were some plays written by him and other people? Was he even the real guy that we think that he was?
To think about the lifetime you could spend studying Shakespeare and the things you could still be unaware or incorrect about and then to extrapolate that to the world’s great religions? To think that anyone could have a complete handle on how something like the Bible was assembled, what became canon, what this or that means, the idea that anybody has anything more than a great idea that works for them, or for their community, is so narrow and so dangerous.
JESSE LEACH: And something you can’t question! If you question it, you’re a heretic. And people got killed for questioning that.
Another thing I have to throw in there is that the scriptures were written in Latin in the early days and the common [person] didn’t speak Latin. So you couldn’t even have access to read them yourself. All you got was it filtered through a priest who was part of one of the world’s largest corporations, the Roman Catholic Church.
So a lot of that particular sect of religion was all filtered down through the priests. So it gets even more diluted when you think about all of these rules and laws and principles that are set about to control us that have nothing to do with the original manuscript, I’m certain of it.
“I do believe in the mysticism of God. I do believe that there is a higher power, a supreme being, a designer, a something else, because of things that have happened to me in my life that I can’t explain.”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: One thing that’s such a shame is that on the other side of the coin, there is such mystery, beauty, depth, and things to explore within a lot of spiritual traditions that the fundamentalists and literalists – [they inspire] a lot of people to just reject the whole thing. I think that does a great disservice to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Joan of Arc, a long list of revolutionary and mystic prophetic figures in history who were inspired by some type of relationship to faith.
A lot of the so-called “New Atheism,” there’s this racism of low expectations. When you bring up liberation movements and the role that spirituality has played, there’s this condescending and patronizing dismissal of religious viewpoints and spirituality when it comes to the role that it plays in communities of color. There’s a subtle but persistent racism to that. “I’m a smart white academic, I’ve figured out that it’s all dumb, but I guess it works for ‘them.'”
JESSE LEACH: Yeah. It’s frustrating for me because I know people like that. I’ve had conversations with people like that and they usually end with me saying, “Agree to disagree.”
I’m obviously being very outspoken about what I don’t believe in these days – I do believe in the mysticism of God. I do believe that there is a higher power, a supreme being, a designer, a something else, because of things that have happened to me in my life that I can’t explain.
I believe in science but I also believe that there’s much more than our human knowledge of this world. I mean hell, we continue to discover things. There’s so much more to be discovered.
Maybe we’ll even discover everything. That is where you sort of go into the realm of what God is, the mystery of this world. It’s sad for me to think that there are people who don’t believe in any mystery at all. You can’t explain everything.
RYAN J. DOWNEY: I think people like you and I are very frustrating for most people.
JESSE LEACH: [Laughs] Because they want a period on the end of the sentence. I can’t supply that. I thoroughly enjoy an open-ended discussion, which is rare for me. Getting into ancient cultures. In Egyptian culture there are so many fascinating elements that deal with the spiritual world. Whether it is The Book of the Dead or the pineal gland, all of these things that we’ve suppressed in the Western world.
Look at Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, there are just all kinds of open-ended things and they respected those things and saw them as the spiritual walk, the other part of the brain. I’ve been embracing that, fully. There’s so much even in our American culture that’s subdued when it comes to the way we see the world.
“It’s a very taboo thing to question the authority of the church. And for me I’m questioning everything these days.”
RYAN J. DOWNEY: I feel like God is in the mystery, in the exploration, the uncertainty, the doubt, and in the faith. Of course it’s ridiculous believe in a sky wizard that sits on a throne, grants your wishes, and listens to your thoughts. But on the other side of the coin, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to throw thousands of years of culture and tradition and idea into the garbage.
Who am I to presume that I know more than a monk who had dedicated his or her life to following a particular spiritual path? I have core values. I have things that I believe in strongly and will advocate strongly. But when it comes to life’s biggest questions? Certainty is the most terrifying thing to me at this point and the thing that I find to be the most dangerous. When you mentioned earlier that religion offers a comfort and a safety for a lot of people, because it gives them explanations for things that are scary to contemplate, I would say that I agree with that. And I would add that a lot of ideological systems, philosophies, and lifestyles do that. A lot of things are opiates in that sense.
People who are addicted to conspiracy theories. Do I think there’s more to the assassination of JFK? Of course I do. [But the more outlandish stuff…]
When we wonder what makes someone susceptible to it, I think the explanation is that people like an explanation. If you believe in lizard people illuminati running the world it gives you a simple answer for complex questions that don’t necessarily have answers. Now you have a way to look at everything, a list of bullet points with which to view the world, and explain away every inexplicable thing that comes their way.
I have some empathy for people that look for these easy answers. I understand that. I think what takes a lot more courage is to push yourself through the uncertainty and to accept it.
JESSE LEACH: People have a fear of being ostracized as well. I find myself in the middle of both of those things. I definitely look deeper into conspiracies. I’ve learned a lot because I’ve allowed my brain to go there. I think that’s healthy. I think it’s good to question. But that itself can become almost its own religion. If everything is a conspiracy then you’re just as bad as the people who are saying it isn’t and everything is totally fine.
It’s the same with religion. It’s a very taboo thing to question the authority of the church. And for me I’m questioning everything these days.
As I get older, I have more questions. It helps me take what I believe in seriously. I’m not just following blindly. Like you said earlier, that’s part of the journey. That’s part of the process. It’s the breaking down of the indoctrination, whether that’s with nationalism or with belief in God. Any certainty, any standing on this one thing and saying it’s 100 percent absolutely accurate, is dangerous thinking. I want no part of that, as I get older.
“What is the most important commandment?”
JESSE LEACH: One of the memories that sticks out from my childhood is when I asked, “What is the most important commandment?”
What is the core? I was a thinker as a kid. I was studying Latin in private school. I had a very interesting childhood. I always had sort of a philosopher’s spirit. So I always wanted to know. I asked one of my teachers, “What is the core belief?” The thing that she said was, “love one another as yourself and do unto others as you’d have done onto you.” It’s what she said basically summed up the whole religion. And I still carry that with me.
I think you can start there. If you start there and think about what love is and that God is love and then you go through whatever religion it is or whatever you believe in, then keep referring back to that, you’re going to get extremely frustrated with some of these laws and these rules that are put upon us by institutions that don’t match up to essentially God being love. I’ve gone back to that basic principle and started to add onto it about what I think is the concept of God. That falls within the Christian religion. It falls within certain Buddhist texts I’ve read. It falls within certain conversations I’ve had with Muslim friends of mine who are extremely frustrated with American culture these days. It carries on through every religion.
I’m not going to go to a temple and worship but for me, I’m okay building on my own knowledge and experience, especially having traveled the world. It opened my eyes to see a much broader vision than the one that we have in this country and the one that I had been given through my indoctrination through an American Christian faith. I’m excited to add onto that, to continue forward with that, and have that weave itself through my music. NPFG
Listen to the full conversation HERE.