Monday, May 19, 2008
"In the beauty of the lilies ..."
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
From Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe, 1862
Yes, your eyes do not deceive you--that's a verse from a hymn/patriotic anthem cluttering up the front page of this freethinking Neopagan anarchist perfume blog. What gives? Well, I heard the song somewhere recently, I can't even remember where, and it's been running through my head for days. That particular verse was once very important to me.
As some of you know, I wasn't born into my present cultural niche. My pedigree is 100% Tennesse redneck. I'm a preacher's granddaughter, raised in the Church of the Nazarene, and I clocked a lot of childhood hours listening to sermons, not to mention all the time spent in Sunday school and at tent revivals. And I sang a lot of hymns. Battle Hymn of the Republic wasn't sung during services, but it was a big favorite whenever the kids were corralled into singing at vacation Bible school, church camp, etc. It's an easy tune to carry, and the violence appeals to children. (Click here to read the complete lyrics.)
Not surprisingly, we generally sang only the first, second and fourth verses. The third verse, along with the final verse above, are a little too overtly abolitionist. Talk of liberation was not welcome in Nazarene churches back when Jim Crow was in his death throes. I doubt it's any more welcome now. But I didn't understand that at the time, at least not with any clarity. I loved the "lilies verse," and it baffled me that we never sang it. All the judgment and swordplay in the other verses distressed me, while the image of Jesus born among the flowers was beautiful. And dying for freedom seemed like the best death you could have, since death was inevitable. The connection between beauty and freedom in the words stirred me deeply. I loved them so much that I would sometimes sing them sotto voce while everyone else was singing about sifting out the hearts of men.
Remembering that little rebellion gives me a lot of hope. There was nobody whispering subversive ideas in my ear, nobody telling me to question the rigid, fearful, hateful view of life that I was being taught. There was just an instinct within me that led in another direction and I followed it--as so many people do. That's what gives me hope, the realization that there's a commonplace impulse toward liberty, and it routinely survives attempts to suppress it. There have been times these last few years that I've despaired when I thought of all the kids being raised on the venom that spews from the pulpits of megachurches, and the way they're indoctrinated with the fear and bigotry of the "War on Terror." How stupid of me. There have to be millions of children who feel the same way I did as a kid, knowing--without any help from anyone--that there's a better way. I wonder what they're singing?