April 4, 2017

“The Battle Hymn of . . . .”

Two weeks ago, I played the hymns for my grandmother’s memorial service. My uncles, father, and aunt had quickly gathered to plan the service, which was held only five days after her death. I wanted to serve my family and Grandma, and thought this was a good way to honor and remember her.

But I am thankful I pushed the microphone away from the piano and asked my brother-in-law to lead the hymns. Because during the final hymn, I choked up.

We sang “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” the 1861 Julia Ward Howe hymn, commonly known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I have never sung this at a funeral or memorial service, and when I learned we were going to sing it, my thoughts immediately went to the common categorization of the hymn in hymnals. Two examples I have at home included the Evangelical Covenant Church’s hymnal, that categorized it in “Nation and Society” and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, my childhood denomination, that organized it into “Seasons and Occasions: National.” I wondered what nationalism had to do with a funeral, and I was not alone. A sibling texted me: “Righteous war rhetoric at a celebration of life? An odd mix.” I silently agreed.

But then, I began practicing the hymn and realized that, even though it is frequently categorized as a “patriotic” hymn, and was sung at the national service of prayer and remembrance after 9/11, this hymn is far more robust than the “patriotic” category allows.

The Kingdom of God

This hymn is about the kingdom of God. It is about the “already” in the “already-and-not-yet.” Despite its birth amid the Civil War and use during the Civil Rights Era, it is not just a hymn for Americans, but is for anyone in the Church who desires to proclaim Christ’s victory and join Christ’s Kingdom. “Let us die to make men/all free,” the older lyrics proclaim, inviting us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. More recent hymnal committees who have chosen to include this song have changed these lyrics to be: “Let us live to make all free.” This is good, too, for this hymn does not proclaim worldly political victory, but instead proclaims the Lordship of Christ over all and the victory of Jesus over sin, death, and the satan. Glory hallelujah! God’s truth is marching on!

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King gave an impromptu speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke prophetically, and referenced Howe’s hymn:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

So, I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

The next day, Dr. King was assassinated.

Kingdom workers like Martin Luther King remind us that the Kingdom of God is among us. Our citizenship is in this Kingdom, this Kingdom that Jesus came to establish, and this Kingdom that Jesus will come to finish, and this Kingdom where the presence of the Holy Spirit empowers us to share the Good News and proclaim freedom. As N.T. Wright notes, “It is . . . that people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.” Glory hallelujah! God’s truth is marching on.

Marching On

And God’s truth is marching on as I choked up on the last verse of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” as my aunt carried the urn, wrapped in burlap, down the aisle of the church.

And God’s truth is marching on amidst war and cancer, amid refugees and human trafficking, amid abuse of power and assassinations and death. It is through this hymn choice that Grandma spoke to me one last time, proclaiming her trust in the victory of Christ. Although her death was nothing like Dr. King’s, she died without fear or worry, hoping in the glory of the coming of the Lord.

This Battle Hymn—not of the “Republic,” but of Jesus Christ—is a celebration of Christus Victor, the apocalyptic vision of Christ defeating all evil, all sin, all death, and all chaos. And we live in this tension, the tension before the final resolution, we pray “Come, Lord Jesus,” just as it is engraved on my Grandma’s tombstone.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.