With the debut release from Ian Mackaye’s latest project, Coriky available at the end of the month, I thought this an opportune time to finish a write-up I had started in 2018 when the aforementioned band consisting of half of Fugazi plus Amy Farina (MacKaye’s wife and fellow Evens bandmate) performed their first show…in a church. If you have any sense of the tenuous relationship punk rock culture has had with organized religion (bands with names like Bad Religion, Born Against, and other unmentionable monikers notwithstanding), you will grasp the irony in all this. Still, I was surprised to learn about the symbiotic partnership St. Stephen and the Incarnation has enjoyed with the local DC punk scene about which you can read more here.

Coriky’s first show unofficially commemorated the 30th anniversary of Fugazi’s eponymous 1988 EP, a timeless classic that would shape and define indie rock for years to follow. Songs like the anthemic “Waiting Room” (distinguished by its epic two measure break of silence following a dub-reggae inspired bass line) along with “Bad Mouth” hearkened back to the ethos and sentiment prevalent in a few of Minor Threat’s songs, but in the overall gist of what Embrace espoused (both previous bands MacKaye fronted).

There’s no denying the DC punk movement bore its own brand of religious devotion and set of ‘better life’ principles as evidenced in Embrace songs like “give me back,”  “building,” or “no more.” Even the dogmatically spouted lines in Minor Threat’s “Out of Step” and “Straight Edge” would inadvertently spawn an entire self-righteous subculture of youth who shunned alcohol, drugs, and in some instances sex in favor of consciousness and social relevancy (a precursor to woke culture).

The clarion call to be a better person articulated in the opening lyrics of “Bad Mouth” echoes the legalistic manifesto inherent in the likes of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, as Mackaye asserts, “You can’t be what you were…so you better start living the life that you’re talkin’ about.” In other words, redeem the regrets of the past by living purposefully in the moment. While songs like “Suggestion” (which prophetically foreshadowed #MeToo culture) show their tendency for socio-political topics, songs like “Burning Too” (featured on the CD version that combines Fugazi with follow-up EP Margin Walker) invoke the same dilemma one often feels in the midst of an emotionally convicting church service. In short, there’s a sense of compunction we tend to feel when we engage with the disparity between the calls to action we love to pronounce through song and jubilation…versus the action we actually take in our day-to-day lives and in society.

We are more prone to chant Amen to a rousing sermon than we are to actually live out the challenges and directives therein. Similarly, I can remember the guilt I used to feel as an idealistic teen reciting the lyrics to “Merchandise” while knowing in my heart that I wasn’t revolutionary or radical enough to fulfill the call implicit in lines like, “When we have nothing left to give/there’ll be no reason for us to live/when we have nothing left to lose/they will have nothing they can use.” Or even the sting of feeling indicted by the lines, “Anytime but now, anyone but me, anywhere but here, I’ve got to think about my own life…” Indeed at age 17, I thought more about my own life than I did the good of society or responsible stewardship of the environment.

Fugazi’s live sets even bear a congregational resemblance in their reliance on the call and response dynamic both endemic to DIY culture and reminiscent of the African American church tradition and experience. Ian MacKaye has stated in interviews that he writes lyrics that are easily memorizable so that there persists an organic dialog between performer and audience. I can still recall seeing Fugazi live in Milwaukee in 1995 and observing as an entire sea of devoted fans flashed fingers as they bounced in unison counting off “1-2-3, repeater!…” to the classic track “Repeater.” Furthermore, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ian’s trademark move of halting an entire set to publicly humiliate those who violate the spectator rule (read ‘law’) by violently moshing and stage diving.

“Burning” and “Give Me the Cure,” though, stand out as the two tracks that feature the signature dissonant sound that bands like Hoover and Faraquet, in the DC area, or Slint, Braid, and None Left Standing, in the Midwest, would later extrapolate and develop into subsequent waves of post-hardcore and jazz-influenced math-rock. Much like the darker Psalms (Psalm 88 in particular) that maintain a foreboding tone of gloom and despair in some cases aptly capturing the impending sense of forthcoming divine judgement, “Burning” refuses to relent with its driving, chugging riff backed by a steady whine of feedback and accentuated by the industrial sound of Brendan Canty’s iconic bell in the percussion. “Give Me Cure” sequentially follows and maintains the distinctly darker tone “Burning” initiates, but offers relief eventually.

Both tracks compliment each other in a law/gospel dynamic employing medical terminology and the metaphoric language of diagnosis and death. The song’s subject remains ambiguous, but the lyrical implications call to mind a plague or terminal condition of some sort. “Give Me the Cure” unassumingly opens with an atonal twang perfectly facilitating Guy Piccioto’s articulate reflection on the imminence of mortality:

I never thought too hard on dying before
I never thought on the dying
I never ever held the hand of dying before
And now I’m feeling the dying

A monotonously played triad chord signals the bridge, as tension in the rhythm section heightens the agitation that finally gives way to release and a more hopeful timbre. Octave chords then chime in, aurally reiterating the first half of the song in a manner not dissimilar to how the gospel comes as a “second word” of relief promising hope where the former word of law only pronounces sure death and despair.

We have numerous examples in Scripture demonstrating God’s way of restating an initial word of law with a subsequent word that contextualizes His first word in a framework of grace. The gospel of Mark for example picks up the story where the last Old Testament book leaves off like a cliffhanger. Mark references Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6 confirming their fulfillment in John the Baptist’s desert ministry preparing the way for Christ. The beloved Apostle John in his first epistle mentions “the Command” (1 John 2:7-11), invoking his hearers’ familiarity with the Decalogue, and from there moves on to show its fulfillment in the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit under the new covenant (cf. also Galatians 5:14-24, Hebrews 8:7-13). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus restates the law by saying that “you have heard it said under Moses, but I say to you…”; and although by doing so, He makes the law more stringent and shows its impossibility, His recitation of the letter of the law implies that its dictates find their fulfillment in His righteousness (cf. Philippians 3:9).

I’m particularly interested in how Romans 7 displays this tendency as Paul spends the bulk of this classic chapter unpacking the ramifications of life under the law against which he contrasts the subsequent chapter concerning the deliverance found through faith in Jesus Christ. In Romans 7:7-23, Paul narrates the experience of an ambiguous “I” who wrestles through the futility and despair of life in this world…but with no hope. We can hear resonance between Paul agonizing, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing”; and Picciotto wailing,

There’s something acting on this body, something goes in, but nothing comes out…

As it concerns our ability to attain the righteousness the law prescribes, we find there’s no antidote that works, only a diagnosis that damns. The law is the good that goes in, but nothing good comes out. As Paul affirms, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Jesus agrees in His assessment of the heart,

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander…

“Burning” offers no comfort. It’s pure darkness with no light that ultimately arrives providing resolution. Instead, we are left with the constant refrain, “What is this burning in my eyes?” The Law as we experience it in daily life provokes us to consider, “What is this proclivity to sin and self-justification that I can’t escape…and of which I can’t get enough?” The law only leaves us with unanswered questions and the inevitable dilemma summarized in “I do not understand what I do.”

“Give Me Cure” recapitulates the undertone of law that undergirds “Burning” yet pivots to some semblance of hope and relief. Loosely paralleling this is the dynamic between Romans 7 and 8 wherein 7:7-23 represent law that eventually hinges to grace as we hear the cry for deliverance in 7:24. Romans 8:2 (and the flow of verses that follow) reinforces and expounds on the deliverance intimated in the transition from “O wretched man I am…” to “I thank God in Jesus Christ!”

If Romans 7 spends more time describing the grief inherent in “life under the law,” Romans 8 champions the freedom inherited by those who have died to it. In Romans 7, Paul talks about being delivered from a sinful body, yet in Romans 8 he elaborates on the implications of this deliverance. While Romans 7 concerns the body’s imprisonment under sin, Romans 8 celebrates its corporeal redemption. And like the transitional moment noted in “Give Me the Cure,” Romans 7 finally foreshadows of the hope of the gospel as we could easily substitute the song’s culminating plea, “Give me the shot!…give me the cure!” with “Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”

And herein lies the scandal of the gospel (at least in part) inasmuch as Paul audaciously identifies the locus of our earthly troubles, not in the sufferings and afflictions, the plagues and disasters “out there,” but rather in the ravaged condition of the human heart…which is hopelessly addicted to law-keeping and self-salvation. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I read Paul’s enumeration of the seven-fold affliction that can never separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39), I naturally see these calamities as the essence of life’s problems…and I quietly wonder how God could love me seeing that I haven’t experienced 1% of these catastrophes. And yet I still complain about the uncomfortable and inconvenient things in my life!

The message of the gospel insinuates that the storms of life consist not in the several difficulties we encounter, whether those sufferings include physical ailments, viral infections, financial hardships, marital tension, starvation, loss of a job; if anything, the law works through these things to reveal that the real pandemic is internal. Until we see ourselves as our greatest problem, we can’t see Christ as our only hope. The problem is, though, that I never see myself as the issue when it concerns the suffering of daily living, the misery of relational challenges, and that which I readily identify as turmoil, chaos, and confusion in my mortal existence. My tendency is always to see the external as the source of my grief, the bane of my misfortune and hapless condition.

I find great consolation, though, in knowing that even Paul’s life was plagued with this inconsistency. Arguably, this man was the greatest missionary, possibly even the greatest follower of Jesus who ever lived (after John the Baptist of course). He had more insight into the oracles of Christ than even the original “twelve” were afforded. In his own words, he worked more diligently than the Apostles who literally walked with Christ for the duration of His earthly ministry (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9). And yet even he reached a point of despair in his ministerial and vocational sufferings that he considered the circumstances of his mundane life to be more derivative of his sorrow than his own sinful disposition.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians about an unidentified conflict in the province of Asia that caused him and his ministry team to despair of life itself. Soberly reflecting on this incident, he humbly discloses that his priority wasn’t for the glory of God, but rather for the relief of his sufferings. He’s like me! Rarely when I’m going through something do I want to immediately pray Thy will be doneThy kingdom come above all things, including my personal comfort. I want to be delivered but not from what I should want deliverance from. Thankfully, God has provided the cure for what we don’t want Him to heal, namely the indwelling sin that leaves us helpless daily. In Christ, we have hope — but not in a pill, a shot, or a vaccine; rather in the One who bore our sins in his body on the cross; by whose wounds we have been healed.