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FIRST-PERSON: ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ a viable hymn for these days

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–On the local Top 40 station, Bette Midler croons about a weeping God who watches us “from a distance,” though unable to do anything to help. Meanwhile, on the local country station, Merle Haggard defiantly warns, “When you’re runnin’ down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” In a time of national crisis, a survey of differing perspectives is as close as the nearest radio dial.

Only a few years ago, denominational leaders in various mainline churches decided that some hymns simply had to go. The first to get the axe was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” After all, it was argued, the song is too militaristic. It is too “masculine,” with the image of Jesus as a conquering monarch, leading his armies toward the absolute defeat of all his foes. What we need, it was suggested, is to give the contemporary world a new image of God in Christ. God is our “Mother,” binding up our wounds and nurturing us through the trials of life. God aches with us through the tumult of history. As one evangelical scholar recently concluded, the universe is more of a democracy than a monarchy anyway.

Our nation is moving toward a frighteningly unpredictable kind of war, while still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11. As we prepare for this new reality, however, very few people are crying out to Bette Midler’s distant nurturer. For that matter, very few people are finding much comfort in the swaggering assurance of Merle Haggard’s self-reliant nationalism. Instead, it may be that more and more Americans are realizing that, in the face of undeniable evil, the “militaristic” and “masculine” images of a righteous Warrior-King aren’t so irrelevant after all.

This kingly, martial language doesn’t come from a hymnbook or song sheet, we should remember. It comes from the pages of Scripture. The very earliest prophecies of the coming Messiah would not be deemed acceptable for Oprah Winfrey’s “Listening to Your Spirit” broadcasts. Rather, the prophets tell us that this Messiah would be a mighty Warrior who will “crush” and “tear down” the enemies of God (Numbers 24:17-19). He would be a King who will rule over the wicked “with a rod of iron” (Psalm 2:9). His kingdom will grind to powder every rogue state that stands in its way (Daniel 2:44).

That’s why the Bible’s picture of what happened that evening in Bethlehem sounds so very different from the sweet, non-threatening homilies of our annual Christmas broadcasts. After all, upon finding out that she is pregnant with the Messiah, Mary does not hum a comforting Nat King Cole tune. She sings a rather militaristic song about this One who scatters the proud and brings down rulers from their thrones (Luke 1:46-55). Herod is troubled by reports of the birth of Messiah (Matthew 2:1-11), not because it would one day culminate in “The Walton’s Christmas Special,” but because it would mean that every rival kingdom would stand doomed before the promised King of the cosmos. Herod was right. This kind of talk makes some uncomfortable, especially at a time like this. But the kingly rule of our Messiah is not like the bloodthirsty capriciousness of Allah. Jesus vanquishes his foes, but he does it by offering up himself, making peace between his Father and a world full of terrorists-at-heart (Colossians 2:14-15). He does not push back the principalities and powers by directing thugs to murderous savagery. Instead, he conquers by the “sword of the Spirit,” the preaching of the gospel, as he rips willing hostages from the clutches of the Evil One and transfers them to the kingdom of Christ (Col 1:13).

As evangelical Christians, we may disagree with one another about exactly how God’s sovereignty interacts with human responsibility in the face of this horrifying tragedy. We may disagree with one another about precisely to what degree our government should wield the sword against these evildoers (Romans 13:4). We can agree, however, that Bette Midler’s god cannot help us now. We can also agree that the “god” of a terrorist jihad may be able to pull down the twin towers, but he cannot hold back the terrifying truth that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever and ever (Revelation 11:15).

America is at war. For many of us, the patriotic anthems of our homeland never have been more welcomed. For some of us, Merle Haggard’s lyrics pretty well sum up our outrage at the carnage we have seen on our television screens. But, in the face of this horror, these things are not enough. Let us remember that there is a more ancient evil behind this evil, there’s a more violent terrorist behind these terrorists, and there’s a more certain victory than anything that may happen in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Let’s sing our hymns. Onward, Christian soldiers.
Moore teaches Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is executive director of its Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He writes a weekly column for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

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  • Russell D. Moore