For those enchanted by the charm of small towns, the afterlife holds a surprising twist. Heaven, New Jerusalem, is portrayed as a bustling, vibrant, and large city in Revelation 21:2, where the Apostle John describes it as “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” The dimensions and beauty of this city are vividly detailed. In contrast, our world is plagued by darkness and evil, desperately in need of light. Unfortunately, there are many who believe that nostalgic notions of American culture offer more illumination than the gospel of Christ.
S.A. Cosby writes in “All the Sinners Bleed,” “The South doesn’t change. You can try to hide the past, but it comes back in ways worse than the way it was before. Terrible ways.” This quote reminded me of the controversy surrounding the Country music singer, Jason Aldean, and his song “Try That in a Small Town.” The song sparked debate due to the violent images in its music video, which, in at least one instance, intended to reference the unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Some footage was even taken from protests across Europe, and Aldean had to release an updated version after using a scene from a Black Lives Matter protest without permission. All this happened after Country Music Television removed Aldean’s video from its rotation because of its divisive content. As expected, the song soared to the top of the charts as supporters rallied behind what they perceived as an effort to cancel Jason Aldean. However, few have taken the time to carefully consider the lyrics of “Try That in a Small Town” and why they should be concerning, especially for those of us trying to follow Jesus.
“Got a gun that my granddad gave me
They say one day they’re gonna round up
Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck
Try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road
Around here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town
Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right
If you’re looking for a fight”
The song begins with a verse describing criminal actions such as carjacking and armed robbery, but it then conflates these behaviors with Aldean’s caricature of civil disobedience, citing extreme examples like cursing out a cop and disrespecting the flag. The lyrics send a clear threat of vigilante violence. Further, the song echoes the false claim that the government aims to confiscate guns, pitting the morality of small-town America against that of urban communities. This intended message becomes clearer when we consider that the video was filmed at the town square in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where the Columbia Race Riot began in 1946. The history of Maury County, like many other small towns in the American South, is tainted by atrocities against Black people perpetrated by white mobs, including lynchings.
In contrast, Jesus famously challenged His followers not to retaliate but to love their neighbors. It is difficult to reconcile 21st Century American Christians defending such a commitment to violence, as in Jason Aldean’s song, with the teachings of first-century Christianity. There is no biblical or Christian tradition that elevates small-town values over those of urban communities; this idea is purely an American fable influenced by nostalgic television portrayals like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. While it is true that larger cities may have higher crime rates due to their larger populations, it is evident that rural communities across the United States also face significant issues, including prescription drug abuse and various mental and physical health challenges, along with all the difficulties that plague larger cities. Our problems aren’t limited to geographic, political, or social boundaries, but American Christianity seems reluctant to herald the gospel of love and acceptance that provides answers to our problems and instead continues to embrace entertainers, politicians, and even preachers that promote hate.
Many American evangelicals seem more passionate about defending country music lyrics that advocate for vigilante violence than about practicing radical love for others. In contrast, Jesus calls us to be a light in a darkened world, comparing the influence of Christians not to small-town justice but to a “shining city on a hill.” Christ’s followers are promised to inhabit a bustling city marked by a diverse population, as described in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” Instead of guns, palm branches should fill our hands, along with love for the diversity of people who will worship before the throne of God, as we await the glorious city to come.
These are the values we should practice in the here and now, even in our small towns.