Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Battle Hymn of the Republic to an #AtheistEar

In honor of Veterans Day, I dug up a stirring little something about war and Grapes of Wrath. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was another favorite in our Baptist Hymnal, and having a number of Civil War veterans in my family tree, the song always felt personal to me.

Here's the Johnny Cash version, because... it's Johnny freakin' Cash:

(Lyrics are available here.)

You may have only heard it with these famous parody lyrics:

Glory, glory, hallelujah
My teacher hit me with a ruler
I hid behind her door with a loaded .44
And the teacher don't teach no more!

Well... that's wrong, but on at least some level, it's so very, very right. Because this song is all about claiming that God is on the side of the Union Army, and He is fixin' to smite whoever stands in opposition to it!

The real words to the hymn were written by Julia Ward Howe, a famous abolitionist and suffragette, and were published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, and they do not skimp on imagery that would have been readily recognized by the soldiers in the battlefield of the day.

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 marching on.

What stands out to my Atheist Ear today is the almost complete lack of mention of the cause these men were fighting for. One would expect a morally compelling argument against slavery, or at least some indication of why this bellicose God is passing His "righteous sentence" in the text. But there is only one mention of the word "slave" in the song at all:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, he is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of wrong his slave.
Our God is marching on.

That line doesn't even condemn the practice of slavery; if anything, it shows God making "the soul of wrong his slave" - a scene in which the Supreme Being is enslaving another. That disturbs me, because here we have the Armies of the Union and Confederacy squaring off over the largest issue that has ever divided this country - and still does today - and the abolitionist who wrote this song didn't feel moved to point out that slavery was the great moral wrong over which they were fighting? The Sin which God would have been punishing?

Oh, wait - there is a small mention here, in the verse before that - and you may recall hearing this line before: "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." I guess that hints that the soldiers are fighting so they can free others, but it isn't any different than the language we use to describe the freedoms that our soldiers have died for in any of our wars. There is nothing specifically about the cause of setting the slaves free. I am left with an uneasy feeling that maybe I've been projecting my own feelings about slavery and human rights and dignity onto these words and the events they describe.

As I write this on the 11th of November, people are celebrating Veterans Day by thanking people like me for our service in their Facebook feeds and on Twitter, and they are doing so in the same week that our country elected someone who was openly supported by white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan. This is the tail end of a year in which the #BlackLivesMatter movement arose to protest the repeated killing of unarmed black men by police, and was roundly branded a "terrorist organization."

Just last year, nine members of a black Charleston, South Carolina, church congregation were shot by a white supremacist, but the outrage that swept the nation centered more on controversy over removing the Confederate flag from the State House than on the lives lost. The Confederate flag - the flag of the men who killed and died for the right to own other human beings as property - was still flown by the official government of a U.S. state over their state house in 2016.

Perhaps if our Union soldiers had been singing about the actual moral cause they were supposedly fighting for instead of singing about what a tough bastard their god was, the morality of that Union victory might have sunk in.

Then again, looking at the recent choices made by my countrymen, I suspect not.

I'm still proud that all of the family I have traced so far were on the side of the Union, but that pride is tempered by knowing that they probably weren't much different from their Southern neighbors when it came to the idea of living side by side with former slaves, or treating them with anything less than patronizing contempt. The takeaway for me is that I still need to do something to make up for what they failed to accomplish.

At the very least, we need some new lyrics.

Mine eyes have seen the shooting of my brothers in the streets
And my sisters won't be safe until they're seen as more than meat
They can't breathe, but dare they struggle they face permanent defeat
Yet they're still marching on.

There's no glory in oppression.
Won't we ever learn this lesson?
Our enemy is our division,
Stop fighting, get along.

 Too catchy? Probably too catchy.

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