Only a Pawn in Their Game

In thinking about my last post, Tales of the Demonic, about how we become violent by playing our roles within the structures of the Principalities and Powers, I was struck today about how well a Bob Dylan song articulates this theology.

I don't have the Dylan cred my friend Mark has, but let me try to give you a bit of background about the Dylan song I was listening to today. The song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" is a song off Dylan's third album, the 1964 The Times They Are a-Changin'. The first song on the second side of the album (or track six on a modern CD) is "Only a Pawn in Their Game."

"Only a Pawn" is song about the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers. The song is important theologically because it is a commentary on Evers' assassin, Byron De La Beckwith. In "Only a Pawn" Dylan suggests that De La Beckwith "can't be blamed" for the murder. Why? Dylan goes on to discuss how De La Beckwith, as a "poor white man," is just pawn within a larger socio-politico-economic system that keeps the status quo by having poor whites hate poor blacks. Dylan suggests that De La Beckwith is a captive to these demonic socioeconomic forces. The song is significant in Civil Rights history because it was one of the first songs that tried to identify with and understand the poor whites who gravitated to the Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizen's Councils. The song doesn't exonerate the violence but it does echo Jesus's cry from the cross, "They know not what they do."

Only a Pawn in Their Game - Bob Dylan

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught.
They lowered him down as a king.
But when the shadowy sun set on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.
Dylan sang the song at the 1963 March on Washington. You can see it here starting at the 3:33 mark:

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6 thoughts on “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

  1. Richard,

    We might do well--individually and collectively--to consider Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody.  Whom shall we serve: God or the gods of our making?


  2. I have been a Bob Dylan fan since first seeing him live in NYC in 1966.  Having said that, I do not agree with the thesis of this song, nor do I accept your assessment that:

    "De La Beckwith is a captive to these demonic socioeconomic forces".

    This is blame-shifting, and from many quarters it continues to denigrate good people.  I grew up poor in father-less family during the 1950's.  I had many friends who lived in what were known back then as "the projects" -- a euphemism for low-income government housing.  I attended a church that was 85% black from 1955-1970 (I am white).

    Neither I nor any of my friends turned to crime, bigotry, or despair.  Through strength of character, we survived within the system as it was and still is.

    You do a great disservice to all the people who grew up in the same socio-economic environment as De La Beckwith and did NOT "become pawns".  We far outnumber his ilk, and the responsibility for his crime rests solely with him.

  3. I'm sitting here chewing on the common thread(s) that pass through your recent posts since June 20 starting with "A home for demons..." (excluding Anson Light Busted). Some thoughts that are coming together in my head: 

    The current world system of buying, selling, earning, spending, debt, and the increasingly automated humanless practices hold great symbolic similarities to Babylon as described in Revelation. The world system affects all of us. Jesus served to interrupt that system by caring for the least of humans, and made himself interruptable. The good Samaritan was further evidence of being interruptable and inconvenienced for the good of another. But our system (Babylon) doesnt care, and the more intertwined we are with our system the less we care. Being in the world but not of the world is difficult. But until God opens our eyes we are indeed pawns of the system. But even when our eyes are opened we are always on the verge of being lulled back into the system. The system is where humans are devalued, ignored, deceived and held hostage. Every evil known to man is there, because "where there are greed and envy there you have every other kind of sin."

    Woe to those who conjoin the American Dream with the Gospel

  4. I think its characteristic of Dylan's protest songs to reserve the strongest condemnation for failures of the "system" rather than individuals.  (Check out "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol", for example, although "Masters of War" is an exception to this).  To me the artistically beautiful and effective thing about Pawn is that Dylan's ironic non-condemnation of Beckwith is actually a lot more biting than a real condemnation, since it is depersonalizing ("like a dog on a chain... taught how to walk in a pack.. hide neath a hood...").  At the same time, Dylan takes the moral "high road" by condemning the corrupt system, which of course was very in back then.  But I think it would be hard to nail down a Dylan theology; he is a complicated guy.

  5. Your situation, growing up in an integrated neighborhood is not what Dylan was describing. You are also a generation behind Beckwith, whose prejudices were fully ingrained by the 50's and the civil rights movement. Did you grow up with Jim Crow laws?

    You can't deny that society played a part in that assassination. Beckwith was a hero to his peers. Hatred was taught to divide the poor. That doesn't mean it reached everywhere. But it did exist.

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