“From a Distance” is depressing and creepy.

I know it’s supposed to be inspiring, but really:

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band.
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.
Theyre the songs of every man.
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
Even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
What all this fighting is for.

"God Saves The Sea," uploaded by ePi.Longo with a Creative Commons license. Click on image for details.Shorter “From a Distance” lyrics: “God is too far away to realize how much everything here sucks. So rejoice!”

My friend Sara pointed out that the right vocalist could turn this song into a subversive critique of theism, just by singing it with a bitter, cynical tone.

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12 Responses to “From a Distance” is depressing and creepy.

  1. 1
    PG says:

    I admit to a soft spot for “From a Distance” because it was written by a friend of John McCutcheon, who taught a songwriting short course I took in college and said that the song had allowed Julie Gold to be recognized as a songwriter. You might like it better as Nanci Griffith sings it — more earnest and wistful, rather than Bette Midler’s version which makes it sound like she’s telling us how it really is and that the hunger and disease are mere delusions.

    Although your friend Sara’s interpretation is evidently popular enough to be part of the Wikipedia entry on the song, I think Gold almost certainly meant that God “from a distance” sees us as we are capable of being — the distance gives God perspective, not that it helps God ignore the problems due to our fallibility.

    I am agnostic and thus pretty indifferent to the theistic aspects of the song, but I appreciate that the song could be so popular during Gulf War I that Midler’s version would go multi-platinum and win Gold a Grammy.

  2. 2
    Deoridhe says:

    My friend Sara pointed out that the right vocalist could turn this song into a subversive critique of theism, just by singing it with a bitter, cynical tone.

    Ironically, back when that first came out and I didn’t have an mp3player, that’s how I used to sing it when it came on the radio.

  3. 3
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    It’s always been used as a pro-war song, ever since the Gulf War. I guess we could “take it back”–but frankly? I don’t want it.

  4. 4
    PG says:


    In what way has it been used as a pro-war song? “From a distance, I just cannot comprehend what all this fighting is for” doesn’t sound very pro-war. Or do you mean it’s used ironically — “from a distance” one can’t comprehend, but in up-close reality the reasons for fighting are clear?

  5. 5
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    You don’t remember the use of the song during the Gulf War? (How on earth did you escape THAT? It seems I heard it every 15 minutes or something.)

    They played it over there to inspire the troops, even. Now, maybe that isn’t the song’s fault, but I will always hear it as propaganda.


    It received a “Minute Man Award” from the United States Army for inspiring the troops and a “Seven Seals Award” from the Department of Defense.

  6. 6
    PG says:

    I remember hearing the song a great deal during Gulf War I; I don’t remember having it used as a “foot up their ass” song like Toby Keith’s or other pro-war messages.

    I don’t think telling our troops that God sees all people as friends, even if we short-sightedly are at war, is a bad message. Most American soldiers see people on the other side as human beings who also hope for peace, but it’s by no means universally understood, so if it’s “propaganda” to affirm that to the men and women we’ve empowered to kill, then yay propaganda. I wish the folks at Abu Ghraib and perpetrators of other atrocities had felt more self-conscious that God was watching them.

  7. 7
    Decnavda says:

    I have never been a particular fan of the song, but I have always thought is was anti-war. I agree with PG’s interpretation of the lyrics, and I specifically remember it being played at peace rallies. The fact that it was used to inspire the troops is bizarre, but given a conservative American culture that invokes Jesus in support of violently invading the middle east and played “Born in the U.S.A.” at rallies for Reagan, I should not be surprised.

    This type of thing should give those on the left pause when we react negatively to symbols and icons like Jesus or the American flag because they have been appropriated by the right. The right will appropriate anything liked by the American public, no matter how disconnected it is formalisticly from their beliefs and goals.

  8. 8
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    Here in the south, the song was played at pro-war political rallies, usually before a prayer… people would sing along. My point is that I cannot separate that in my consciousness. “God is watching us” was a way of saying “Make sure you make God PROUD and kick lots of ass!”

    By contrast, “Born in the USA” is an unambiguously left-wing song that the Reaganites simply were not listening to very closely… also, the song was delivered by a self-identified progressive. Springsteen immediately disassociated himself from George Will and people like that who tried to claim him as one of theirs. Bette Midler and Julie Gold have never done that, as far as I know.

    This type of thing should give those on the left pause when we react negatively to symbols and icons like Jesus or the American flag because they have been appropriated by the right.

    On the contrary, I love Jesus and the flag just fine.

  9. 9
    Decnavda says:

    The anti-war rallies where I heard the song played were in and around Greensboro, NC. Frankly, the songs seems rather unambiguously anti-war to me.

    I was not suggesting anything about your beliefs in particular, but making a general comment to my friends on the left.

    I do agree with Amp that the song- or at least Midler’s version, is depressing, although I thought that was part of the point. I never thought of the God part as creepy, just as something I didn’t really relate to.

  10. 10
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    the songs seems rather unambiguously anti-war to me.

    Why would the US Dept of Defense give the song an award, in that case? (For what, exactly?)

    “Onward Christian Soldiers” was basically just a Salvation Army song until Winston Churchill got a hold of it, too… after that, the historic context changed and it meant something violent and precise (during WWII).

    It isn’t the song ITSELF (which I like), it’s the uses of it that I object to.

    Admittedly, I hate “From a distance” anyway…

  11. 11
    PG says:

    Daisy, are you seriously contesting whether the Pentagon is stupid enough to give an award to an unambiguously anti-war song? I think the answer to that question is DUH, of course they are.

    Julie Gold has stated repeatedly that she is anti-war, and when she accepted the Grammy for the song, during the Gulf War, she specifically said that she prayed both for the troops and for peace. It seems to be exactly the type of thing Decnavda cautioned against to require Gold to be condemning of the troops in order to sufficiently “dissociate” herself from a supposedly pro-war use of the song. She stated clearly what the song meant to her, but she wasn’t going to police the meanings other people drew from it.

  12. 12
    Josh says:

    I heard Nanci Griffith say a few months ago on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” that, although the song was a big hit for her overseas, MCA would not release it as a single in the U.S. on accounta one executive said “Nanci Griffith’s voice hurts people’s ears.” So a lot of U.S.ians are only aware of a later version by Bette Midler, of all people.

    Although I can’t see how anyone paying attention would miss the anti-war thrust in the last four lines Amp quotes, I gotta say the lyric doesn’t make much sense as a whole; so Amp’s interpretation seems as good as any other.