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Elvis, The Iron Lady, Dort, and Dante

Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, died on April 8, 2013. To the extent I can recall, she was celebrated for being Britain’s first female Prime Minister and for her tag-team act with Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. No one recalled Elvis Costello’s biting tribute to Thatcher, at least on the media outlets I frequent. Maybe Tramp the Dirt Down, released by Costello in 1989, had been long forgotten by then. Maybe it was considered just too rude and inappropriate to bring up.

For those of you that don’t want to watch or listen to the entire song (Tramp the Dirt Down), I’ll give you just a few of the choicest lines. Singing about a Thatcher campaign appearance with a young child, Costello says “Can you imagine all of that greed and avarice coming down on that child’s lips.” Later, “When England was whore of the world, Margaret was her madam.” Then the chorus, from which the song gets it title
Well I hope I don’t die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Yes I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savor
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.
Contemptuous and acerbic don’t even begin to describe it.

What’s my interest in Margaret Thatcher? Really, nothing at all. Rather, it is Costello’s sneering sentiment that interests me. What I want to know is—to whom would you like to sing such a song? Whose grave do you want to stand on and tramp the dirt down? Who do you want to be sure you outlive so you can spit on their gravestone? Who do you relish imagining in the lowest rung of hell?

Okay, all you who just checked out, who are shocked that a fine Christian minister would even ask such a question, you can stop reading now. Or better yet, write some screeching comment below. Really!

I know, I know. What about decency and respect, let alone Christian love and mercy? What about “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? What about one of my favorite parts of the Canons of Dort (not a phrase you hear often)—“We are to think and speak in the most favorable way about those who outwardly profess their faith and better their lives”? And given the enormity of the grace of Christ Jesus, shouldn’t we hope that perhaps there is no hell, or if there is, that it is very sparsely populated?

I could try to make a theological argument that what I’m doing here is naming and assessing evil. Is it quantity or quality, breadth or depth? What is the worst sort of evil? Who personifies it? Are there mitigating factors to consider? Is hell an important necessity, a reminder of accountability and consequences?

Or I could say that this is simply a guilty pleasure, an amusing and goofy exercise. Let’s not be so Reformed and so uptight—overthinking everything, fearful that fun might break out.

Who do you like to imagine in hell? I’m not real familiar with Dante’s Inferno, but I think he placed Judas and Brutus in the lowest circle. Cain too, perhaps? I’ve had more recent contact with the irreverent musical The Book of Mormon and its deliciously terrible song, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. As I recall the worst of the worst were Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran (“I got O.J. free!”).

So if you’re still with me—who’s in your five? Sure, there can be private figures. The kid who tormented you in middle school. The boss who fired you. Your ex.

Maybe more interesting are the public figures worthy of note. It’s harder than you expect, isn’t it? Can you just give a blanket verdict to slave-traders, child-abusers, pimps, and poachers? Or do you have to see a face and give a name? Boko Haram or ISIS with their unspeakable violence? Again, is it problematic, maybe even unfair, to damn an entire group, rather than individuals? Stalin? Pol Pot? Bin Laden? I found that lots of nominees are finally more pathetic than atrocious. It’s not easy to have sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray. Still, a discussion like this causes me to think, “They’re patsies, pitiful victims in their way.” It starts to feel like a darkness where all cats really are a shade of gray.

Now, we are very close to the nub that actually began this dreadful mess. I heard a young woman being interviewed on the radio. She told how her husband came home from Iraq—broken and restless. In a matter of days, he took his life. I listened and mumbled so that only God could hear me, “There should be a special place in hell for Dick Cheney.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Henry Ottens says:

    So where on the Atrocious–Pathetic continuum do Thatcher and Cheney fall? In Cheney you’ve discovered someone who, unlike Stalin, Pol Pot and the like, is truly black and irredeemably hell-bound. Interesting.

  • Mary Huisman says:

    This article brought me back to a reading in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years! “It is a peculiarity of the Orthodox tradition of public worship that it contains hymns of hate, directed towards named individuals who are defined as heretical…. and goes on to describe the “wretched end of Nicaea’s arch-villain in fatal diarrhoea on the privy:

    Arius fell into the precipice of sin,
    Having shut his eyes so as not to see the light,
    And he was ripped asunder
    by a divine hook so that along with his entrails
    he forcibly emptied out
    all his essence (ousia!) and his soul,
    and was named another Judas
    both for his ideas and the manner of his death.” (p.428)

    Seemingly embarrassing in our contemporary world but maybe singing (in a minor key, of course) is better than burning at the stake – or burning in hell!

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Henry, I recently read somewhere, “There are no enemies, only people whose stories we have not yet heard.” I am drawn to that sentiment even as I wonder if it owns the depth of evil. I have no idea about Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s stories and so am not prone to be especially understanding of them. Likewise, I have no idea why Dick Cheney is the twisted man he seems to be.Since I don’t know their stories, I think I tend to place them all nearer the atrocious and farther from the pathetic. Maybe my mumbling comments to God about Cheney demonstrate the need for a concept of hell when it feels like all other venues and hopes are gone.Somewhat similar, I guess, to the many times Jesus uttered “Woe to you…” statements. Thanks for engaging.

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