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  • Pastor A.J. Houseman

"What do you bring to the battle hymn?" by Pastor A.J. Houseman

A quote from the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC about a song, “Patriotic songs have the power to bring people together in a musical celebration of unity and love of country. But what do people sing when their country tears itself apart? For four years, the fate of the country hung in the balance as two parts of America took aim at each other. For the victors, one song came to represent all they were fighting for. To the conquered, it was a musical slap at their honor and pride.” The time: the American Civil War and the song is the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The American Civil War broke out in 1861 as a response to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Southern states slowly left the United States as a response. They feared this liberal President who disagreed with slavery would interfere with their states rights… specifically, the right to own slaves.

Slavery had been a thing since the colonization of the European occupation of the Americas. As early as 1508, natives were enslaved for labor in building the “new world” and as their need increased, they started importing. And over the course of the next 250 years, over 600,000 of the 12 million kidnapped persons of African descent were shipped to the United States as property.

It was thought to be a divine right to hold slaves. Almost a divine duty. That God had divinely ordained the white race through Christianity and it was their charge to shepherd and drive the lesser races.

But there were just as many who invoked God to support slavery, as there were invoking God’s name that slavery is wrong. And among the abolitionists, those who favored the abolition of slavery, was Julia Ward Howe.

Julia and her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, were traveling to union camps because Dr. Howe was a part of the Military Sanitary Commission, along with Rev. James Clarke. In the midst of a camp, the battle song “John Brown’s Body” was being belted by all. This song was a union army battle song, not originally written about John Brown, the notorious abolitionist leader who laid siege to the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859, though it was later attributed to him.

The original song was a Methodist hymn, sung around campfires as a spiritual, it is not known if it was originally an African Spiritual or from the European Methodists, but it was called “Say Brothers, will you meet us?”

“Say brothers will you meet us,

on Canaan's happy shore?

By the grace of God we’ll meet you,

where parting is no more”.

The lyrics of the John Brown’s Body version are a bit more gruesome. And while they were listening to it, Rev. Clarke suggested to Julia Howe, a highly educated woman and poet from New York, that she should write some new lyrics to it. Inspiration came to her in a dream that night and she woke in the wee hours and jotted them down as fast as they came to her.

“Mine Eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,

his truth is marching on.”

This song, originally written as an abolitionist song about freedom and fighting for what's right alongside the God of hope and justice, has taken on new meanings throughout its history since its original publication.

It originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, for which Howe was paid $5, and the editor, Edward Fields gave the song its name we know today, “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps,

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,

His day is marking on.”

Throughout American history since Howe wrote this song inspired by union troops fighting for enslaved freedom it has been invoked as a patriotic song by many groups in this country.

For many, they may not know that this is an abolitionist war song and not just a hymn, because they have only ever sung it at church.

This song has been used at anti-gay rallies and to justify racism. It was also used in Mark Luther King, Jr’s famous “Mountaintop” speech the day before he was killed. Dr. Birgitta Johnson, an ethnomusicologist at the University of South Carolina, told NPR that, “How people relate to patriotism is kind of how they come into the battle hymn.”

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”,

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.”

Dr. Johnson says that after Dr. King died, “his home congregation made the song about him and his truth of the civil rights movement. But when you see white nationalists digging deep into THEIR heavy patriotism message, they bring up things like the battle hymn and it becomes their battle cry just as easily as it can become the battle cry for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.”

This day, July 4th, this battle cry gets invoked a lot. Like a lot. And for many, depending on how you, as Dr. Johnson describes, come into the battle hymn, makes all the difference in the world. Is it fighting for America first? Is it fighting for freedom? Or is it fighting for Justice?

We find ourselves today, in a place where our country feels like it's torn down the middle,at battle with one another. The lines are drawn down state lines these days, but still at the root is patriotism and what it means to each of us. What we bring to the battle hymn.

For some of you, you are thinking, “Pastor A.J., I just want to drink some beer, eat some cake, and watch some fireworks. I don’t want to think about all of this.”

But the thing is, as followers of Jesus, our identity of what we bring to the battle hymn is influenced by our faith and practices. So what do we bring to the battle hymn?

In our lesson from Second Corinthians today, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth because another group of missionaries, also there to make them Christian, or at least “their version” of christianity. Paul paints these other missionaries as, “violent, arrogant, moralistic, power hungry, and boasting strength.”

We, too, can get caught in the middle of the cultural American ideal of “strength”. That we need to be strong as a country. That we need to show the power and might of America to the world. That we, ourselves, cannot show weakness, that this is wrong.

But Paul’s response to this display of strength and power is this: he says, “listen, I don’t have it all together”, astheneia (as-then-i-ah) in the Greek, which I think best translates as “hotmessness”. But Paul’s hotmessness is his strength because, this is where God works. In the places where we don’t have it all together, in our weakness.

America was in the 1860s a hot mess and through this hotmessness, this is where God was firmly at work for justice and love through the abolitionists and those fighting for freedom. This is fertile ground for God’s redeeming love to be at work in the world. In our hotmessness, this is where we see God at work.

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marking on.”

On July 4th, 2021, we don’t have it all together. America is still, or yet again, in a place of astheneia (hotmessness). And so on this day of freedom, I come to the battle hymn as a prayer, invoking the same thing the abolitionists did 160 years ago, invoking God to use our weakness as fertile ground for love and justice.

On this day, what I hope we can all bring to the battle hymn is what Julia Howe brought: hope in a God working tirelessly in our hotmnessness to bring a burning desire for justice and equality of men and women of all races and cultures in our country.

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. Amen.


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