On the long ride to the Poconos, the only thing on NPR was the Prairie Home Companion. Normally I can only get so far with the redundancy of Garrison Keillor, but he hooked me with his broadcast for Memorial Day. He was at the Wolftrap in Virginia, near Manassas, the site for two great Civil War battles—and he referenced Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in U.S. history (on the U.S. side, at least). The show was sprinkled with songs from the American war-song book, but Keillor was singing for peace. He was in sync with President Obama, who remembered Memorial Day by visiting Hiroshima and calling for a “moral revolution” to make a world free from nuclear weapons.
One of the songs the cast sang was a soulful rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Keillor led the crowd to join in. Everyone seemed to know it, since this very–religious song is still taught in school. It was, quite appropriately, sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, who I lately accused of misleading the public to think that the United States military power was God’s instrument of policing the world, right down to calling new missiles “peacekeepers.”
This hymn, written by a staunch abolitionist, saw the Union Army as God’s instrument of bringing about His judgment on the evil of slavery (as even Thomas Jefferson concluded was inevitable). Julia Howe’s allusions are all to Isaiah 63 and the book of Revelation, which promise that the day of the Lord will not be pretty for the disobedient. Her song assured the army that the Civil War was a foretaste of the wrath to come.
My problem is not with God’s judgment. I rely on the fact that evildoers will receive what they have been committed to achieving. My great problem is with the rest of the theology she promoted. I think if you ask a random Christian, they will, most likely (and unfortunately), still be headed in the wrong direction she was leading the troops. The problems are in every verse. For instance:
Verse 1: He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
The leaders of armies have been telling soldiers that God is on their side for as long as I can remember. Right now, Daesh is the evil. It was added on to drugs, terror etc. The Union army was told it was God’s sword.
Verse 2: I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp
Very few soldiers saw their camp fire as one before an altar I am sure. But the allusion reminds us that Christians reinstituted an altar worship when Constantine installed Jesus at the center of every town in the Roman Empire, right where the altar to the false gods once stood, often in the same building. But, in truth, Jesus made the body of Christ the temple; altar worship is obsolete – not merely the Jewish altar, but the very idea of needing a place of mediation where men make sacrifices to please God.
Verse 3: 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.
I gave you the whole verse. By now, you get it. The song assumes the gospel uses violence for its ends. It teaches that violence redeems. Regardless of the Lord’s own example of nonviolence, the powers that rule the world convince noble-minded women that 13,000 men should die, be wounded or go missing in one day at the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam and those losses should be considered holy, and even the fulfillment of the spirit of prophecy.
Verse 4 — He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
In the song, the “sifting” is about the latest war. It is not about being in God’s kingdom or another’s; it is about being on the right side of the nation’s history. As you notice from the most recent era of polarization in the U.S., people are still sifting and are still ready to condemn those who align on another side. But unlike what Howe teaches, in truth, Jesus is not presiding over the animosities which run the United States and which threaten to loop us all into an endless cycle of judgment. Jesus died and rose to end that cycle.
Verse 5 — As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
This is where most versions of the song stop (even though Howe included a last verse). It is an appropriate climax for the song, and it is the apex of its wrong theology. The “sacrifice” the soldiers are preparing around the “altar fires” of their encampment is supposedly like the sacrifice of Jesus. The thought is the 10,000 casualties at Manassas will be worth it because the cause is one with the Lord’s.
The problem is that Jesus died and rose so that we would no longer be sacrificing animals or one another to save the world. The old is gone, the new has come. The very thing she is exalting is exactly what He brought down. Yet in the name of Jesus, Howe is celebrating the sacrifice soldiers make to His “truth” that is marching on – they are to believe that this war is for that truth.
Every war song since has said the same thing—dying for country, dying to preserve freedom, dying to protect your brother soldiers, dying to protect American interests, making the world safe for democracy, protecting the homeland from communism, extremism, from people who would destroy our way of life. It is always justified with the most serious, even majestic tones. I have often been told that I could not do things like write this blog unless the sacrifice of brave men had made my freedom possible. Yet I am not free from their sacrifice. I honor their courage and devotion, and I don’t think every choice we need to make is as easy as writing a blog post. But I don’t worship at their altar. They are the saviors I never asked to receive. I don’t believe my true Savior asked them for their sacrifice on the altar of preserving His rivals who continue the way of sin and death—and put it to music.