As Jim will tell you, my mind is generally a whirlwind of ideas, wide-ranging and seemingly disconnected ideas all swirling, and sometimes colliding, in my head. Thoughts about home improvement projects I want done spiraling alongside books I want to read and opinions about current events that make me want to cry.
The other day, I was definitely having a whirlwind-head moment, driving home from work and listening to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I’m not a big fan of contemporary Christian music, but I do have a mash-up playlist of classic hymns, Kayne West and a few CCM songs that I often unwind to at the end of the day. So I’m thinking about the time period in which this song was written, thinking about the times we are living in, and of the ways they are the same. The unrest and uncertainty. The violence and fear. The topic of race and injustice being on everyone’s minds.
I think there is another connection though: God’s uncanny ability to bring beauty out of the ugliest of situations; to salvage and even amplify joy out of great sorrow; to create glory in the midst of the horrific events. That’s what Julia Ward Stowe saw when she declared that her eyes had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Consider the America that she looked upon in 1861. I think few of her contemporaries would see glory on the march when they looked out and saw a country torn by civil war, fighting over the rights of all men to be acknowledged as having been created equal. But Howe believed that His truth was marching through the nation and that it would triumph and bring a “righteous sentence” to the guilty.
I want to see with the eyes of Julia Ward Howe and with the eyes of Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted her beautiful lyrics in the last speech he ever gave. He said “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land… 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 union soldiers huddled around their campfires that inspired Howe to write her poem made many sacrifices. Some even laid down their lives, to free America’s slaves and to reunite our country under one flag. MLK wasn’t afraid either. He saw what was coming and stood in harm’s way to further the rights of blacks in the U.S.
There is no doubt in my mind that our country continues to be guilty of a great number of sins, both against God and humanity. You might believe those to be sins of systemic racism; I might believe them to be of the slaughter of the innocent. But something Christians from anywhere on the political or theological spectrum should all agree on is that there are wrongs to be righted in the world, and if Jesus “died to make men holy” we should be willing to “live to make men free…” Free from the bondage of poverty, from oppression and fear; but also free from gluttony and selfishness, from greed and lust. We can sing of liberty all we want but no one is truly free unless they are first free in Christ.
On the one hand, we must not neglect seeking to right wrongs where we see them done and to be the voice of those who have none. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). On the other hand, we cannot preach for the sake of political power and neglect to preach for the sake of the Gospel. We are told in Luke that Jesus, speaking for one of the first times in public, said that God the Father “anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Yet he never freed one slave or spoke out against one governmental policy. I believe he left that work to be done by his disciples and those who followed them, but he focused his time on earth in freeing the hearts and minds of those he loved from the burden and guilt of sin. If we do the same, the world will be transformed into his kingdom.
So let us climb the mountain top with MLK and peer over the other side into the promised land. And then let us set about working in our minds and hearts and lives to make that promised land a reality. While God is marching on.