The Gospel According to the Avett Brothers – Empathy

You and I, we’re the same, live and die, we’re the same
You rejoice, I complain, but you and I, we’re the same

– The Avett Brothers, “Live and Die” (2012)

“Live and Die” is the first single off The Carpenter album (and the first Avett Brothers song I ever heard).  It is a delightfully singable song with a melody that will resonate in your heart for days (I think I’ve even heard my 18 month daughter trying to hum the tune with my older children – they’ve heard it a lot!).  Though the lyrics lack the depth of some of the other tracks, like “Once and Future Carpenter” (see previous post), the simple message of the chorus – “live and die we’re the same”-  is worth exploring.

We tend to develop an identity according to what distinguishes us from the mass of humanity one hand, but also by what we share in common with some subset of humanity on the other.  Thus, we define ourselves on the basis of race, religion, profession, social status, nationality, and so forth.  The way we build our identity by how we as individuals or how our group differ from others often becomes the source of personal conflict and social strife in the world.

Evangelical theologian and Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, a Croatian immigrant whose hometown Osijek saw some of the worst fighting in the ethnic conflicts that raged in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, diagnoses human conflict, especially of an ethnic nature, in this manner:

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1996)

The book from which this quote is taken originated in a lecture Volf gave in Berlin in 1993 about his theological reflections on the war that was raging in his home country at the time.  He identifies two basic areas of sameness upon which we can empathize with others that I wish to explore:  our shared human nature and our common sinfulness.

Human beings are distinct from all other living things in that we are each made in the image of God.  In addition to the creation narrative in Genesis 1, which reveals God’s decision to create a special being after His own likeness, the image of God concept appears in a number of other passages in Scripture.

After God rescues Noah and his family from the flood which wiped out the rest of humanity, he affirms this shared identity (Genesis 9:6-7):

Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.

The Apostles James uses this identity to expose hypocrisy in how people treat one another (James 3:7-10):

 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

Cursing other people while blessing God is inconsistent and hypocritical because people bear God’s image, and thus deserve to be spoken to and about respectfully.  When we ‘curse’ –  condemn or wish harm upon other people, especially our enemies –  we are excluding them from “the company of humans,”  ignoring our share identity as divine image bearers.

While this shared identity as image bearers confers great dignity to everyone, we are nonetheless a fallen, rebellious species, born into a state of enmity with God (Romans 3:10-12):

For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.”

‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ represent the opposite poles of ethnic diversity:  no two cultures could be more dissimilar, yet both groups are alike in their shared sinfulness.  The reason we are all infected with this spiritual disease called sin is that we have all inherited it from the same ancestor, Adam.  Thus, we are all under the curse of death:  “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  Perhaps this is why Jesus warned us against condemning others (“Judge not lest you be judged”).  When we condemn another person or group, writing them off, regarding them as unworthy to live or to associate with us, we are excluding ourselves from “the community of sinners,”  forgetting that we too deserve condemnation for our sin, so that when we condemn others we at the same time condemn ourselves.

This posture toward those who are ethnically and religiously ‘other’ is the one the prophet Jonah took toward his people’s’ archenemies, the Ninevites.  Most people know the story of how Jonah was swallowed by a whale (the Bible actually says a great fish and doesn’t specify a whale) while he was attempting to run from God, who had commanded him to preach a message of God’s forgiveness to the Ninevites.  Contrary to popular interpretation, Jonah did not run because he was afraid of this mighty people or because he lacked faith that they would respond well to his message, but because he did not want them to receive the blessings of God’s mercy, but instead wished destruction upon them.   Thus, when his enemies repent and God forgives them, Jonah grieves with pitiful self-pity (Jonah 4:1-3):

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

After rebuking him for his distorted values, God declares, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).  Often I have puzzled over why God mentions the cattle here.  This Avett Brothers song may stimulate some insight.  Perhaps mentioning the cattle reminds Jonah, and us, of the simple truth that even our enemies have to eat too.  They share everyone’s extraordinary ability to domesticate other creatures (only humans do this!) because being made in the image of God endows us with this capability, and are the same time dependent, finite creatures themselves who rely on God’s provision for food.  

Such simple truths about can help us look past the differences we have with our enemies to acknowledge our common humanity, an essential first step to achieving peace and harmony.  


4 comments on “The Gospel According to the Avett Brothers – Empathy

  1. This entire article is a very helpful look at the value of EVERYONE, because EVERYONE is made in God’s image, and therefore worthy our respect and dignity. However, I particularly like “cursing other people while blessing God is inconsistent and hypocritical because people bear God’s image, and thus deserve to be spoken to and about respectfully”. I find this is not only critical in how we treat others, but also vital in all efforts of evangelism. We are never to talk down to people, as all are created in the image of God, just as I am. Rather, approach all relationships as fellow pilgrims in search of life. Thanks Jeremy. . . tremendous post!

  2. Wow…Quick comment. Wise application, my friend. Let me know if there are any sites you think might be good to mention these posts on to get some AB fans’ attention.

  3. This reminds me of my life group’s current study on holiness and how we often misunderstand or misapply God’s appeal for his people to be holy. I find it interesting and difficult to balance God’s call for his people to be set apart and holy, particularly considering the Old Testament prophets who appealed to God’s desire for ethnic cleansing, with the writings of the New Testament apostles (and Jonah’s example) that our holiness comes from our status in Christ rather than our work or relationship to other people.

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