Do You Hear the People Sing?
There has, of course, in the past couple of days been much talk about Obama’s inauguration speech (and just about as much talk about Michelle Obama’s haircut and dress, but that’s a whole different issue). It is difficult to even begin to comment on the speech because as soon as you say anything supportive or positive you get labeled as an Obama-worshiping fanatic. So just to be clear – I have some serious issues with Obama, especially with his record of violence and for sometimes being too weak to stand up to bullies and just get stuff done already.
That said, I was fascinated with the tone of his inaugural speech.
I honestly could care less that he used the language of the right to promote leftist (actually, more like centrist) ideas. What I loved was the language of action and hope.
As I was watching the inauguration I cringed a bit as I heard the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir start to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The triumphalist eschatological imagery of “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on” isn’t exactly the sort of Christianity (even in a civil religion guise) that I want to see on display, especially at an event like this. Then I was reminded that this was an abolitionist hymn. The coming of the Lord was in fact the Union soldiers trampling the South. In its odd postmillennial theology this hymn teaches that the crushing of the South was in fact part of a much larger series of events—the very Second Coming of Christ and the realization of God's kingdom on earth. The hope is that we, with our own actions, can bring about the realization of the full and complete reign of God on earth.
But barely a decade after writing those lyrics Julia Ward Howe had changed her tune. She had witnessed a bloody war and the detestation it wrought. No longer was she advocating violence as the means of bringing about the reign of God, but instead was a proponent of peace. For anyone with open enough eyes to see the realities of war and the pain in the world, it is hard to hold onto such a vision of hope through military conquest.
As I heard that song sung at the inauguration I could not help but be reminded of the final song from Les Miserables –
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
While in stage productions of the musical this song is sung by the entire cast, the recent movie had it sung on the barricades by those who had died. That disturbed me. Here are the miserable of the earth, those who suffer under the system that cares little for their needs, and the message of hope is that someday after death in the garden of the lord the chains of oppression will be broken and all will have their reward. After seeing Cosette and Marius have their “hey look we are rich and happy now” wedding this message that someday the miserable will escape and find comfort did not play well. It doesn’t matter if we hear the people sing or dream of a world beyond the barricade (much less work to make it a reality) if all that matters is that reward comes in heaven someday after we die.
This message is just the flip side of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Hope – the realization of the Kingdom of God – in these views must be fully here and now or only in the world to come.
The problem is that neither view is actually hopeful and both are a bit dangerous. Either one assumes responsibility for saving the world (which is never our responsibility to bear) and becomes discouraged and disillusioned when it doesn’t fully happen or one doesn’t see the need to work for change in the present since what matters most is the life to come. Meanwhile the poor are always with us and the miserable remain.
So it was with these thoughts about the failings of such eschatology that assumes either an already or not yet view of the Kingdom that I listened to Obama’s speech and found in his words a balance of these extremes. That is not to say that I liked everything he said or that I think Obama or politics is our only hope (so don’t even go there). What I liked was that he modeled a way of talking about hope that admits to the realities of suffering in the here and now and that doing what we can for those who suffer is a neverending process. There were no promises of a perfect world or guarantees that we can eradicate poverty, hunger, or prejudice in our time, but instead a reminder that our job is to join in on the ongoing struggle to put into effect our values. We are following that guiding star, Obama noted, just like those before us did at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Working on the side of hope is never something that we ever finish doing or something we can put off for another day, but the essence of our very day to day journey.
That, sadly, is a message that many in the church seem to have forgotten. Hope can be present here and now, but it is also always something to be seeking as well. God’s Kingdom is both to come and made present now when we live in its ways.
I applaud the President’s speech for highlighting that reality. But I also wonder, why does it take a Presidential address for this message to be stated? Why isn’t the church the one known for speaking of hope in such ways?