Bono sings an old song, again

It was a room full of religious believers -- Republicans and Democrats -- who were used to praying together and even hearing guest speakers quote the scriptures.

Bono looked around, studying the faces through his blue rock-star sunglasses. Reaching out to the sick and the suffering in Third World nations is not a matter of charity, he said. It is a matter of justice.

U2's charismatic lead singer kept returning to this theme. Forgiving Third World debt is a matter of justice, not charity. Leaping legal hurdles to provide drugs to parents and children with AIDS is a matter of justice, not charity. The issue is whether people of faith will do what God wants them to do.

"I am a believer," said Bono. "Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God."

The man that many call "St. Bono" -- some with a smile and some with a sneer -- was not speaking into a microphone during this gathering back in 2001 and there were no television cameras present. In fact, the doors were closed and this conference room in the U.S. Capitol contained a small circle of staff members from key offices in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

For years, the rock star has talked about his faith in media interviews. Then, a few years ago, his work with DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) pulled him into small prayer meetings in Washington, D.C., on college campuses and in other settings across America. When asked what he was up to, Bono gave a simple answer: The path into the heart of America runs through religious sanctuaries.

Eventually, this path led to the 54th National Prayer Breakfast, where the big rock star with the equally big messianic complex talked openly about his faith and what he believes is his divine calling to use his celebrity clout to help the poor. But this high-profile Feb. 2 sermon merely represented a change in venue for Bono, not a change in his message.

Bono has been singing this song for more than a decade and there is no sign that he will quit any time soon.

Speaking at the same breakfast, President George W. Bush said the key is that the singer has been willing to move beyond inspiring words into practical actions.

This reminded the president of an old story about a Texas preacher whose sermons kept inspiring a man in the pews to leap up and shout "Use me, Lord, use me." Finally, the preacher confronted him and said, "If you're serious, I'd like for you to paint the pews." The next Sunday, the man leaped up during the sermon. But this time, said the president, he shouted, "Use me, Lord, use me, but only in an advisory capacity."

What is different about Bono, said Bush, is that "he's a doer. The thing about this good citizen of the world is he's used his position to get things done."

On this day, the singer's message ranged from the book of Leviticus, with its year of Jubilee in which the debts of the poor are forgiven, to the Gospel of Luke and the moment when Jesus begins his ministry with the cry, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor."

The bottom line, said Bono, is that humanity can pass its own laws, but these laws can clash with the higher, eternal laws of God. When government budgets and medical patents clash with the life-and-death needs of the poor, believers have to ask themselves what their faith requires of them.

"While the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject," said Bono, with the president seated a few feet away. "That?s why I say there is the law of the land and then there?s a higher standard. And we can hire experts to write them so they benefit us -- these laws. ... But God will not accept that. Mine won?t. Will yours? ...

"Let?s get involved in what God is doing. God, as I said, is always with the poor. That?s what God?s doing. That?s what he?s calling us to do."