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Battle Hymn of the Body

[Editor’s note: As we enter into the celebration of Christmas, we’d like to share with you a profound piece from Shigé Clark that has grown more deeply pertinent since it was first published in 2019. In it, she explores the history of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in tension with the ways in which the gospel testifies that peace will come to earth.]

I now know three songs set to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The classic version published in 1862 is probably best known to all of us. I’ve sung it in triumphant chorus at church and later at West Point, where our starched uniforms with their flashy buttons lent us an extra (if unearned) level of pride in singing the military march. When I actually commissioned in the Army, I learned the tune better as the cadence “Blood Upon the Risers.”

So it was that as I sat in church and the band began playing the melody, my first flash of thought was, “Why are they playing a cadence?” Common sense immediately caught up, and as the first familiar line began, I realized, of course, it was “Battle Hymn.” I thought it was a weird choice for communion, but hey, it’s triumphant, and I’m new to this whole Anglican tradition. Maybe it was meaningful to this service in a way I didn’t understand.

Then the song changed in the second line.

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 till a brand new wine is poured Your peace will make us one

Many of you may recognize this as Audrey Assad’s recent song “Your Peace Will Make Us One.” This was my first time hearing it, and it’s a brilliant display of the power one song can hold, especially when molded and considered in the context of previous works. The song’s association with previous versions lends it greater depth and nuance than it could carry on its own.

“Battle Hymn” began as a soldier’s tune, which Julia Ward Howe crafted into a march of righteous indignation for the Union side of the Civil War. Despite these honorable origins, it has a Manifest Destiny-esque appeal—casting its singers as though they’re on God’s side of whatever conflict it’s being applied to at the time—and it has since been used as an anthem for a wide assortment of causes (sometimes in support of directly opposing sides). It speaks to God’s wrath, justice, and judgment. It speaks to the unequivocal stomping out of evil in defense of a righteous cause. This is a familiar mindset for many of us. It’s the mindset in which I joined the military. You go out and defeat evil by attacking it. You protect the defenseless by destroying those who would hurt them. There is trampling, and lightning, and terrible, swift swords.

Soldiers took the tune back up in World War II with “Blood Upon the Risers,” and it has since been an Army staple. In this variation, it’s a marching cadence about a young paratrooper who has a parachute malfunction during a jump and dies on impact in the dropzone. The triumphal “Glory, glory, hallelujah” in both other versions of the song becomes “Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die” in this one, yet the tone of the song remains triumphant, the lyrics at times simultaneously graphic and gleeful.

I wonder how often we go marching into figurative or literal battle on God's behalf when he would instead call us to gentleness. Shigé Clark

A general rule of military cadences—and of military humor at large—is that we make light of death. We sang “Blood Upon the Risers” as a way of laughing in the face of the real possibility that we could die jumping out of an airplane (or helicopter, in my case). There’s a reason we have marching songs rather than simply counting cadence. Song is powerful—song sung in unity even more so—and somehow this is recognized even in the most regimented and horror-struck corners of existence. We sang about death so that we could laugh as we huddled in bunkers beneath mortar fire; so that it didn’t catch us off guard when it came for our friends, or coworkers, or people we were trying to help. We sang gory songs like “Blood Upon the Risers” because if we could sing about it, if we could laugh at it, if we could cheer over it in unison, if death could be a thing of glory rather than horror, then it could hold no power over us.

I’m not going to go into all of the ways that’s actually incorrect, or how the civilian world often does much the same thing with the way it glamorizes and venerates military service. I say all this to set the framework for you. I need you to hold these depictions of ruthless judgment and jubilant violence as the context of your thought and imagine this familiar tune coming on, then somewhere out in the darkness a soft voice sings to the same, resolute melody:

I’ve seen you in our home fires burning with a quiet light You are mothering and feeding in the wee hours of the night Your gentle love is patient; You will never fade or tire Your peace will make us one

Peace, the music whispers to the soldier. The pounding of thunder and mortar shells gives way to a mother’s soft singing beside a crackling fire.

Peace, it whispers, as a broken and divided body stands row by row, making their way to kneel together in defiant communion.

Peace, it whispers in a steady, undeterred march. It is peace that will make us one.

The juxtaposition of these songs staggered me. The more I live and come to know my God, the more I wonder how often situations actually call for our righteous fury, and how much more often they call for our unyielding love and empathy. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in righteous causes and righteous rage. For everything there is a season, and I’ll usually be the first to tell you that there’s a time to get angry and a time to fight (just see my last post). Yet I also know that David—man after God’s own heart and perhaps the Bible’s most celebrated warrior—wasn’t permitted to build God’s temple because he was a man of war, and I wonder how often we go marching into figurative or literal battle on God’s behalf when he would instead call us to gentleness. As we come to the end of Advent, this rings even more true—isn’t it the entire story and surprise of Christmas?

Perhaps it is peace, and not retribution, that is the glory of the coming of the Lord. Shigé Clark

I had a conversation with a friend a while back, about how we as Christians today are so sure of the way God works and what’s going to happen. Just as sure as the people of Israel in Jesus’ time were—so sure from their knowledge of scripture that he was going to come marching in, all swords and fury, to save them. So sure that Christ’s coming meant all of the evil, wrong, other people would finally be put in their place, and all of the good, chosen people would be vindicated. So unable to grasp the unimaginable creativity of God and the unforeseeable depth, and breadth, and soaring, whirling, all-consuming scope of his love for us. We today read the New Testament as the Israelites did the old and believe—again—that we understand how all this is going to go down. Again, we call for lightning, and fire, and judgment, and vindication.

I can’t say for sure that isn’t how it will happen. Our God has surely shown himself exacting and just. He certainly could come with righteous sentence, mowing down evil with a terrible, swift sword. He is God, after all. He has the right.

Yet, I’d like to think that if I have to see the hearts of men sifted out before his judgment seat as “Battle Hymn” describes, then my own heart will weep in devastation for the brokenness of humanity. And if my heart would weep—my selfish, judgmental, and bitter heart—then what of the heart of the Father? Absolutely we groan for the end of all evil, but is it the trampling or the replanting of the vineyards that we yearn for? Perhaps freedom and the end of injustice look less like the warfare portrayed in the first two variations of this song and more like the dismantling of empires that Assad describes. Perhaps death, even in service of a just cause, is never something we should glory in or grow desensitized to.

Perhaps it is peace, and not retribution, that is the glory of the coming of the Lord.

What I know right now is this: First, that a “fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel” wasn’t the Gospel that reached into the darkness and pulled me bleeding into the arms of One who loved me without cause. Second, that when Jesus could have called on legions of angels to fight on his behalf, instead he told his people to lay down their swords and healed the man his disciple had wounded.

Glory, glory, hallelujah Glory, glory, hallelujah Glory, glory, hallelujah Your peace will make us one


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