On Singing O Holy Night In White Evangelical Churches

https://ia800301.us.archive.org/BookReader/BookReaderImages.php?zip=/3/items/cantiquedenolc00adam/cantiquedenolc00adam_jp2.zip&file=cantiquedenolc00adam_jp2/cantiquedenolc00adam_0003.jp2&scale=8&rotate=0

One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.

In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.

Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”

He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”

Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:

As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”

What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”

Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.

Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.

When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.

But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.

When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.

O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?

“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”

“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”

“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”

O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?

Thoughts for Sunday

Image result for pine trees in the snow chickadees

Under pine trees in the snow,

the chickadees around my head,

I wept for the will of God,

this hungry woman fed.

All the shadows shifted

while my back was turned.

Once and always on my finger

one soft and small gray bird.

Not a twisting

due to prayer,

but all its own,

and mine together.

And so I bear the gift,

carry it through time–

this deepest darkness,

astonishing grace.

Magnificat, by Mary F.C. Pratt