It is not uncommon for me to hear from you about the selection of hymns on a given Sunday morning, especially on Sundays where we celebrate a holiday, or on days of special importance because of a momentous event. Mindful of this (and by the way, I always appreciate feedback. I won’t get mad because someone doesn’t like my hymn choice. That doesn’t mean, however that hymns which glorify war, or hymns that use imperialistic language to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, will be sung, despite a certain sentimentality we may attach them.) Anyway, mindful of the need to chose patriotic hymns that are appropriate, I open our hymnal to find what I can find for this Sunday, the day after July 4th. And I am again interested by the paucity of “patriotic hymns,” in our hymnal. When I open any of the contemporary hymnals that I have in my study, I find the same thing. The fresh and exciting hymnal called the African American Heritage Hymnal has 6 hymns listed in its patriotic section. The Presbyterians have 4, The Baptists and the Methodists both have 8 patriotic hymns to choose from. That makes our New Century Hymnal, with 3, clearly on the low side. Is that a good thing? Or not?
I admit to being a bit frustrated by our hymnal. Patriotic or not, one of the most eloquently theological hymns to freedom, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, is essentially missing from our hymnal. It’s there, but in terribly re-written form. Only the first verse is attributed to the original composer, Katherine Lee Bates’. But even that verse has been tinkered with. The first phrase, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” to “How beautiful our spacious skies.” That subtle change, wrecks Katherine Bates’ sensibility. From the first original words it is clear that her’s is not nationalism, not a mere celebration of “our country,” but the humble acceptance of a gift that is, sadly, often dimmed by human tears, by the daily tragedy we bear upon it, but is made beautiful by God’s grace. Her thesis is not that this grace is something that we alone, in the world deserve, but a gift nevertheless, worth claiming and worth staking our national reputation upon. Changing that first phrase, alters the direction of the hymn from a question of the common good, to a question of the comfortable, happy life. The first is an issue of patriotism as an expression of the gratitude for the moral crucible which is our country and in which human beings are brought to full maturity and democracy allowed to flourish, the second is an expression of thanks for our material wealth, in which the material benefits of this country are celebrated.
My point is not to bash our hymnody this morning. Instead I want to suggest that the paucity of patriotic hymns in our hymnal today could be because it is difficult to write a patriotic hymn. A notion which a quick glance through the old Pilgrim Hymnal, from 1931, certifies. The first hymn is “O God, Hear Thou the Nation’s Prayer.” “O God, hear thou the nation’s prayer; we lift our cause to thee. We wage the holy war of Christ. We fight to make man free.” Of course, we could understand that language metaphorically. We do experience the moral life as a struggle. But to call that struggle a holy war, in the context of a hymn celebrating a nation, raises the spectre of idolatry and imperialism that our reading from Deuteronomy warns against.
My point is obviously not about how to write a hymn, but about how we might live best in this land of liberty, this democracy. Can we celebrate our country in such a way that others do not tremble, in such a way that encourages us to execute justice for the poor, in such a way that recalls our status as sojourners in this world and not emperor? Can we see our life in a democracy as both a privilege and as a responsibility?
Winston Church is famously quoted as saying about democracy that “it is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” I’m not a Churchill scholar, so I don’t know how to read that remark in the context of his philosophy. It strikes me as a bit flippant. Churchill’s remark makes democracy seem like a suit, that if you’re democratic you suffer to wear. His concept of democracy seems stagnant — something like a rug that needs a good shaking out, but when clean, dresses up our living quarters nicely. To me, demcoracy is an ideal, and there is not a single ideal which we can simply try on — it has to be lived.
I am a bit more familiar with the philosophy of John Dewey, one of our homegrown philosophers, and called by some, the quintessential American philosopher. Dewey spent a good deal of his 50 years as a teacher, thinking about the nature of democracy and the society who lives with it. For him democracy was a way of life, something much broader than a method of conducting government, much more than a special political form qualitatively different than all the “others that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracy, as a way of life, becomes a means for humans to develop community and in relationship, and mature personality. Dewey writes, “The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together; which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”
We may not yet live in a world where the full development of the ideal of Democracy has flowered such that we are no longer moved by racial prejudice or class stereotype. But democracy as a way of life frees us, in principle, to embrace the belief that “every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his [or her] personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he or she has. ”
Patriotic songs, to be, in this sense, democratic, then, require an ability to invoke a sense of the moral — not the moral high ground of the nation, but of the universal — of the belief in the capacity of every person to her own life free from coercion” free from trembling, free from want, and free to be a part of the conversation, a part of the social maturity — a maturity which is made evident in ways we know are mature.
The struggle to sing a mature, celebrating the high and humble democratic ideals of our country is well illustrated by the story of Rene Marie.
Last summer, African American jazz singer Rene Marie approached the microphone before Denver’s State of the City address. She was there to perform the time-honored ritual of the singing of the national anthem. But her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner left residents divided. The melody was the same, but the words she chose were written of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem,” one of the three patriotic hymns in our hymnal, and one which we sang together last week for our Waterbury celebration of Independence Day.
Marie’s civil rights message, and her devotion to the ideal of democracy, has sadly threatened her career, In fact, it did not take long for state and local politicians to denounce her.
There were some who supported her. Marc Lamont Hill, a political commentator said of her actions that she celebrated
black progress, black hope, black pride. But [she’s] also keenly . . . preoccupied with the obstacles that lay in front of us. That’s reflected not just in that moment, but in the broader political moment, where people are celebrating Barack Obama as president. People are excited that the country has moved forward — but people [are] still keenly aware that there are many, many forms of inequality, unfreedom, suffering [and] marginalization that continue to proliferate in this nation. – NPR, July 3, 2009
The interesting thing about this story is that for all of the feedback she received, hundreds of emails, and phone calls, she responded to them civilly, explaining why what she did was not dishonest, and explaining to people the origins of the Star-Spangled Banner. She says that through it all she learned a lot. She says,
I had some really good phone calls from complete strangers. A lot didn’t expect me to answer the phone. They kind of sputtered for the first few seconds. ‘Well, I just wanted to tell you what I thought about it.’ ‘OK, tell me, I’m listening. That’s when I realized you don’t have to agree, but listening sure does go a long way toward peaceful relations — when people feel they are being heard.”
We clearly live in a time when what it means to be patriotic should be fully examined. To be a free people means, in part at least, to be able and willing to advance the conversation and so our social intelligence, our social maturity, around matters, even of long held tradition. And to ask whether these traditions free us, and our neighbors to live apart from fear and anxiety and for a kind of society where each takes care of the other, and where the government performs its ancient and respected role of encouraging us in our gifts of freedom to use them for freedom. By freedom, you have been freed. Do not submit, yourselves or others again to the yoke of slavery. Amen.