The headline in Christianity Today’s analysis of the hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond” blares: “Oliver Anthony’s Viral Hit Doesn’t Love Its Neighbors.” The sort of people who read Christianity Today, however, should be asking themselves if they love Virginia resident Oliver Anthony, who wrote and sang it.
In one of the most stunning passages of the Bible, Jesus tells the parable of a man robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead on the road. A priest and a Levite both pass by, but when a Samaritan saw the bleeding man, “he had compassion” (Luke 10:33).
The lesson is that such compassion is the embodiment of a love for God that encompasses heart, soul, strength, and mind. The lesson hits home today because it’s so easy to relate to the priest and the Levite. It is hard to muster compassion for those we don’t know. Harder still for those we outright disdain.
In his prophetic book “Coming Apart,” Charles Murray argues: “Our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.”
If the past 10 years haven’t borne the truth of that claim, it’s evident in the responses to Anthony’s massive hit.
There are those for whom his tune is the battle cry of a generation, an anthem for the age in which we are reckoning with the results of 50 years of globalization and financialization. And there are those who insist Anthony’s diagnosis is ignorant, his grievances are misdirected, and he just needs to bootstrap his way up the income ladder.
The writer and singer of “Rich Men North of Richmond” wrote Thursday on his Facebook page that he is a high school dropout whose legal name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford and that Oliver Anthony Music, the name under which he releases songs, is a tribute to a grandfather who lived and worked in Appalachia.
“At this point, I’ll gladly go by Oliver because everyone knows me as such,” he wrote. “But my friends and family still call me Chris. You can decide for yourself, either is fine.”
Here I must take the plank out of my own eye.
In 2016, when the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination for whom I was working ended his campaign, I went to work for a U.S. senator representing my home state. My office was in a space shared by the county’s Republican Party, making it the place to go for Trump campaign schwag. Day after day, I listened as his supporters came to grab a MAGA hat and a yard sign.
It was rough for me at the time, having invested so much of myself in campaigning for someone else. It was a constant stream of conspiracy theories, utter disdain for anyone who wasn’t Donald Trump, and unwillingness to be “reasonable” and reckon with what was considered such an obvious fact by people like me: that Trump was guaranteed to lose the election and hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton.
Who were these people who were ruining everything?
In time, however, I began to listen. Despite my persistent pride and disappointment and anger, grace broke through. I began to understand that for years, rather than listen, rich men north of Richmond had been waving them off, pointing to white papers full of statistics proving that the lived experience of so many Americans just isn’t so.
Having had enough of being told to ignore their lying eyes, those Americans, representing an unprecedented political coalition, sent Donald Trump—the onecandidate for president who seemed to get it and give voice to their concerns—to Washington with a mandate to blow the whole thing up.
The wake-up call of 2016 continues to baffle many. What a merciful gift of God it was to give me the opportunity to tune my heart toward compassion early in this era.
How easy it would be for me to be a rich man north of Richmond today. For as I write, though I can see the U.S. Senate office buildings through the windows of my corner office, I understand that the elitists of whom Anthony sings are not condemned by virtue of their circumstances, but of their hearts.
They are not condemned for the mere presence of wealth or power, but for their greed and self-interest. And I understand what’s sought is not retribution or redistribution, but justice and compassion.
Again, Charles Murray:
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisors cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.
A video making the rounds on the internet is an assortment of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life listening and reacting to “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Watch it.
Absorb the phenomenon of black men wiping away tears as a white man from Appalachia sings about being left behind.
Those who profess to want to heal the fractures in our country should start by listening—really listening—to Oliver Anthony of Farmville, Virginia. Perhaps then they will find within themselves the compassion to respond accordingly.
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