July 4: God and Country

Below are two previous Blogs related to God and country, first an analysis of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and second my experience at a PCA General Assembly after Desert Storm, for your consideration on Independence Day.  

Hymn No Christian Should Sing - Ever

Mrs. Howe's Hateful Hymn 

Julia Ward Howe

What follows is from my old Blog, the Christian Curmudgeon, on July 4,2013. It seems worth posting here a Just a Curmudgeon for several reasons: 1. It was the third most read post at the old Blog. 2. Today is July 4, and few songs are more a part of the patriotic songbook than "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." 3. July 4, 1863 marked both the surrender of Vicksburg and the defeat of Lee's Army at Gettysburg, dealing with God's "contemners" with his "terrible swift sword.' 4. Reading some of the discussion among members of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, it seems to me that not a few men, most of them perhaps younger, share the same spirit as Mrs. Howe. They are as "righteous" and "zealous" as Mrs. Howe - and as misguided. 

What is below originally appeared as a Soul Food Column 
in the June 22, 1996 issue of World Magazine.

My friend came from old Virginia stock, spoke with the soft accents of Dixie, and should have known better. But destined for a military career and a lover of all things martial, he requested "That Hymn" during a pre-service hymn sing. The Yankee minister, however, knew better and refused to accept the request.

It was a hymn whose chorus every red-blooded American can sing. A hymn that was guaranteed to bring the crowd to its feet as the conclusion of the Pensacola Fighting Tigers High School Band's patriotic half-time show in the 1960s. A hymn whose rousing version was a standard in the repertory of the Belhaven College (Jackson, Miss.) Concert Choir during its glory days. What was it? "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Why did the New Jersey minister refuse 40 years ago to let us Southern boys sing the hymn whose secular version ("Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Teacher hit me with a ruler!") we sang almost every day? It was not sensitivity to Southern sensibilities.

Perhaps it was because he knew something about the author, Julia Ward Howe. She was a classic leftist. Born into a wealthy New York family, she settled with her philanthropist husband in Boston. Active in the Unitarian Church, she preached in congregations throughout New England and joined organizations of the 19th-century left such as the Woman's International Peace Association. And, as her hymn reveals, she had that ability to hate that liberals quickly condemn in conservatives but righteously indulge in themselves.

More importantly, our minister understood the words we so thoughtlessly sang. Before you sing "The Battle Hymn" this July 4, perhaps you will want to think about what Mrs. Howe would have you sing.

Mrs. Howe's Christ is not the Christ of the Bible. If, "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,/With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me," it was not "the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father," of "God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side," and who "became flesh" (John 1:14, 18) that Mrs. Howe saw. It was only the glory of human goodness.

If "he died to make men holy" it was to make them holy by the power of sacrificial example that would motivate them to "die to make men free." It was not to make them holy by the efficacy of an atoning sacrifice which frees from sin's guilt and power.

Mrs. Howe's eschatology is not the eschatology of the Bible. If she could not believe in judgment in the hereafter, she surely believed in it in the here and now. Her eyes had "seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" not at the end of the age, but in the 1860s. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword" in the form of the Union army marching against the South, God through them "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

One greater than Uncle Sam wants you in the righteous army which will execute judgment on the wicked whose cup of wrath is full:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on."

Mrs. Howe was nothing less than an early and ardent proponent of liberation theology. Sin is social. Salvation is freedom from structures of oppression. Redemption is by warfare. Judgment is now. Consider this little-used verse of her hymn:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished tows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;’
Let the Hero, born to woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

If she believed in moderation and toleration in religion, she gave little place to them in politics. If reason must lead to the discovery of religious truth, coercion must lead to social righteousness. She had no gospel of peace - that this day is a day of mercy in which we can be saved from the wrath to come by a God who, in love, provided the propitiation his justice demands and now pleads with sinners to be reconciled.

Mrs. Howe's hymn is a liberal hymn of hate stirred by the passions of war and based on a "God is on our side" mentality. Today, some whose patriotic zeal is high and theological discernment low might be tempted to sing it. Worse, some on the religious right may march into the culture wars singing it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Patriotic American, A Denominational Alien

Patriotic Alien

The following was published as Soul Food column in the July 1/8, 1995 issue of World .

Render your patriotism unto Caesar and your worship unto God

It’s Saturday evening, June 8, 1991 – Desert Storm Victory Day. The week has been busy and the day hectic and still there’s work to do. But about 7:00 p.m. I declare victory over the unfinished Sunday evening sermon and head for the Washington Monument to experience the day’s climactic event, a gigantic fireworks display. That evening I felt, as on so many occasions during our four years living near Washington, D. C., the joys of free-spirited patriotism. The monuments, military bands, and holiday celebrations of the capital provide regular, healthy stimulation for the sensuous patriot.

Less than two weeks later, at a national meeting of a conservative protestant denomination, there’s a service featuring patriotic music and a message by General Schwarzkopf’s chief chaplain. And while others join the celebration, I’m feeling like an alien. I’m feeling, in conservative context, almost what I felt nearly 20 years before in a liberal context as my church body voted to urge the president to pardon my contemporaries who deserted rather than face the draft.

Israel, in Babylon, asked, “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?” Tonight, in my spirit, I’m thinking, “How can I sing the songs of a foreign land in Zion?”

What’s the matter with me? Why is the United States my country when, with my fellow citizens, I’m watching fireworks explode over Washington, but a foreign land when I’m with fellow Christians worshipping? Why do I join without restraint in celebrating America on the Mall, but find I can’t do it in church?

On the Mall I experience those patriotic feelings that are natural and good. Those feelings should be strong in a person privileged to be a citizen of the United States. But in church I am reminded of a more important identity and a higher loyalty. I am, first, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, ultimately loyal to King Jesus. Since his coming into the world, no country on earth has been, is, or will be the kingdom of God. Though I gladly live in my country, work for its welfare, and pray God’s blessings on it (Jeremiah 29:4-7), I am still an alien and stranger on earth looking for a country of my own, longing for a better country – a heavenly one (Hebrews 12:13-16).

On the Mall I “render unto Caesar” the patriotic fervor he is due and then some. In a country such as this, I give it not merely as my patriotic duty, but as my delightful privilege. But in church I render unto God the worship that belongs to him and no one else. To mingle worship of country with worship of God may be unintended idolatry, but idolatry it is.

On the Mall I join with fellow citizens of the United States to reaffirm our loyalty to our country and to experience a sense of common identity. In church I join with my fellow citizens of the kingdom of God to reaffirm our loyalty to Christ and to experience the communion of the saints that rises above all political, national, racial, and cultural divisions. There I want to put my arm around my American Christian brother who opposed the war. And there I should feel more at home with my brother in Christ who fought in the Iraqi army than with an unbelieving American who fought in the U.S. Army. Though we may, in good conscience and duty, have tried to kill each other as soldiers, in church we eat from one loaf and drink from one cup.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3:25). Here I’m a patriotic alien waiting for my king to consummate the kingdom his coming established.

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