“Nothing changes on New Year’s Day”—U2, 1983

Over the years, I have heard four different explanations regarding U2’s hit song from its 1983 War album. It is about: 1) the “Eastern Front,” where Soviets fought and then forced the invading Germans, back to Germany, through Poland, 1941-45; 2) the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; 3) the 1980 rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland; and, 4) the 1982 lifting of martial law in Poland that the regime had imposed because of the Solidarity movement.

While I will leave the final explanation to Bono, please allow me to suggest two ideas that might provide a different way of thinking about this famous song, its reputed origins, and our present times.

First, all of the explanations relate in one way or another to the totalitarian repression of the Soviet Union. The Soviet repression was most insidious of all, for it was not “merely” a dictatorship of behavior, but a repression of the mind.

The Communists dared to suggest that a better future was possible through the establishment of what was essentially a new, secular religion: the “New Soviet Man.” Such a man was scientific, atheist, and disciplined his mind in a manner that the state dictated (Stalinism). For one detailed account of this worst form of religious repression, see the 1953 classic, The Captive Mind, by Nobel Laureate, Czesław Miłosz, who tells the story of Stalinism’s allure to the Polish intelligentsia.

Of course, one reason Stalinism was imposed so severely on Poland was because Stalin himself had experienced military defeat at the hands of the Poles after the 1920 Soviet invasion of Poland (he served as a commissar on the southern front).  Lenin assumed that the Poles would rise up, join the Soviet army, and help establish communism throughout Western Europe. The Poles—who had fought the Russians throughout history, and who had just regained their independence after 123 years for daring to have an American style constitution in the 1790s—chose to fight for their freedom.

In 1944, Stalin was only too happy to conquer Poland in the name of defeating Germany, gaining his buffer zone against the West: ensuring that his religion—the Stalinism of The New Soviet Man—would not be subject to such whims as freedom, such limiting identities as ethnicity, or such superstitions as faith.

The Soviet Army would suffer one more defeat in its history: when the Soviets sought another buffer zone, invading Afghanistan in 1979. However, the Soviets would withdraw, defeated, in 1989, the same year that Poland experienced its first freely elected Prime Minister. (I returned to Poland to study its language and culture on the day Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader imprisoned during martial law, became Prime Minister.)

Nothing changes New Year’s Day, but then one day it does. Why?

My second idea is that there is something else that doesn’t change, for better or worse: belief in something greater than oneself. Whether one believes religion is the opiate of the masses, or that faith should be organizing principle of life, there it is, every day, especially New Year. Religion can be used to validate violence, including against innocent people (terrorism). But faith can catalyze a new man and woman by challenging individuals to live their internal beliefs, externally, serving God and loving neighbor.

In June 1979, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years visited Poland; and he happened to be a Pole. John Paul II gave a simple message to his homeland, reflecting his holy scriptures: “Be not afraid.” He encouraged the Poles to stand in solidarity with one another. The Poles, and most historians, believe this visit as the catalyst to the creation of Solidarity: a movement that would herald the death of Stalinism and the New Soviet Man.

In December 1979, the Soviets would invade Afghanistan, inspiring resistance from Afghanistan’s ethnic tribes, mostly Muslim, which each loved freedom so much that they only united to repel an invading enemy. The invasion would also inspire, however, a generation of fundamentalist fighters, locally and from across the Muslim majority world. These fighters sought to defend Islam against the godless communists (with Saudi and American help), and against anyone else who did not believe as they did, including Muslims of different theological jurisprudence and practice (ironically mirroring the repressive religion of the New Soviet Man).

Curiously, this generation reflected the theological tensions within Islam, revealed earlier that year. In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, setting the stage for a renewed Shia-Sunni competition for power; and in November, he seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Later that month, the Sunni-Sunni divide was brought to light with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by fundamentalists.

Of course, these tensions continue to play out today with the Sunni-Arab world abuzz regarding the potential rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, even as some foreign Sunni and Shia groups—supported by elements within Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively—declare jihad against each other in Syria, as good Syrians try to regain freedom from the regime and from the fundamentalists.

As 2014 begins, it is indeed true that nothing changes New Year’s Day. The human condition does not change: it seeks power, and it will use religion to cloak and control.

On the other hand, faith does not change either: the choice to believe in the mystery and majesty and mercy of something greater than oneself—that we should not be afraid of the worst of religion, atheistic or otherwise—still holds for people of all faiths. And as long as that remains true, then there is hope for change on New Year’s Day.

1979 reminds us—as we consider our own New Year’s resolutions, and our times—that it is our choice to engage with the best of faith against the worst of religion.

Author: Chris Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.

Image: Hands are seen holding a rosary REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha