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Opinion: It’s time to decolonize the hymnal

For church-goers in the United States, services on patriotic holidays may end with an “America hymn,” one of those patriotic songs that somehow made its way into the hymnal like “God Bless America.”

Patriotic hymnody

But why do we sing these songs in worship? The Kingdom of God transcends our borders and even the world itself.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

John 18:36

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9

In an age of increased honesty about societal injustice I believe that it is inappropriate to sing American patriotic songs in Christian worship. American Christianity and American nationalism have become dangerously intertwined, even in our sacred music.

Consider the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was inspired by the American Civil War:

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.

Alluding to Biblical imagery in the book of Revelation, the phrasing of this hymn is easily misused to rationalize violence in pursuit of “truth”.  The words “His truth is marching on” and the rousing refrain that follows (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”) could be used to wield the wrath of God as a justification for terrible evil, despite Jesus’s warnings about judging others (Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:1-11).

Many denominational hymnals contain overtly American and even nationalistic material. For example, the United Methodist Church has half of its membership outside of the United States but the United Methodist Hymnal contains songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Why is it that the hymnal for a global denomination has included explicitly American patriotic songs?  

Somewhat less overt patriotism is found in hymns with militaristic imagery, such as “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” and “Faith of our Fathers,” which can both be used to conflate American military power with Christian freedom. For example, the line “In this free land with thee our lot is cast” in “God of the Ages…” describes America’s entanglement with God while praising political freedom. This text would be problematic for the Apostle Paul, who, prior to being brutally killed by a corrupt empire, explained that Christian freedom is about liberation from sin and death by the spirit of Christ.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death … For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:2, 6

Hence, using hymns to justify American political interventions (“From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence”) or to proclaim the United States as “sovereign,” can undermine the freedom that flows from the Christian Gospel. Furthermore, claims that America is divinely led, infallible or “chosen” mirror the attitudes of Hebrew priests before the fall of the temple in the sixth century BC.

A harsh reality of human history and American history is that God has been invoked to justify nationalistic evils such as death of thousands of indigenous people under the banner of “manifest destiny”. Other faith-fueled atrocities include America’s “original sin” of slavery which has yet to be atoned. Public consciousness has not come to realize that “free societies” are usually built at the expense of the poor and marginalized, which the Bible consistently denounces1:

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by iniquity!

Habakkuk 2:12

This is not Christian freedom. This injustice under the guise of nationalistic freedom.

In the beginning, Christianity was distinctly anti-empire.  The statement “Jesus is Lord” (kyrios Iesous) was a first-century threat to the lordship of Cesear, who is codified by the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13. The Jesus-following communities were seen as a danger to a powerful social and religious order so Rome was determined to use military power to end them just as they tried to end Jesus. The martyring of the early church was so profound that early Christians became the archetype of an oppressed people. With this backdrop, giving praise to a government or empire in worship disrespects God’s justice, especially when the empire hides behind quasi-religious notions of freedom.

Rather than singing about national pride, let’s sing about God’s justice and God’s concern for all of creation—humans, the earth and the entire cosmos.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
   the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord

Psalm 33:4-5

Let’s sing about God’s acts of redemption, unity and compassion that repair breaches in our relationships and communities.  To start, songwriter Audrey Assad has crafted an alternative to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which begins

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
You are speaking truth to power
You are laying down our swords
Replanting every vineyard 
Til a brand new wine is poured
Your peace will make us one.

1 See Isaiah 10:1-5, Psalm 37:14-15, Proverbs 29:7, Luke 16:19-25, Acts 5:1-6, among many other passages.