Is that why they're sanitizing the hymns?
Is "soldier" a dirty word? Are soldiers barbarians?
Unfortunately, a group of Protestant church leaders may have such a bias.
A number of churches have created hymnal revision committees that intend to sanitize traditional liturgy of military images. Old favorites such as Charles Wesley's "Soldiers of Christ Arise, and Put Your Armor On," and Isaac Watts' "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" will probably be eliminated. In May a committee of the United Methodist Church on a 10-8 vote axed "Onward Christian Soldiers," a hymn that has been one of the top five of all protestant denominations.
Stanzas similar to "Through dust of conflict and thro' battle flame" and "Lord of our farflung battle line" don't stand a chance of remaining. Congregations will no longer have the privilege of singing the beautiful Psalm 148:
Praise God from the sky,
Praise God from the heights;
Praise God, all you angels,
Praise God, heaven's armies.
I'm glad the sanitizers were not around when the Old Testament was compiled. The heroic lives of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Saul, David and many others might have been rendered so immaculate that we wouldn't have recognized them. The greatness of the Scripture is due, in part, to the fact that there wasn't a committee of censors around. An endless line of saints and sinners parade before us. Scripture is a candid camera shot, not a posed and perfumed portrait, of humanity.
What is the origin of this passion for liturgical purity?
For many people, the Vietnam tragedy -- unlike World War II and the Korean War -- irrevocably sullied the honored status of the military defender. For them, sailor, soldier, airman and marine now belong to a realm of darkness from which redemption is impossible and humane existence is excluded. Military holy worldliness is impossible in a two-world, post-Vietnam cosmology because a good/evil, light/darkness, civilian/military dualism prevents it. To enter the military is to be swallowed up in a heart of darkness trauma so graphically filmed in "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter."
Hymnal sanitizers should realize, however, that the soldier as barbarian is an image, not a norm. To regard the soldier as either below or above the human, either bestial or demonic, violates Scripture. Jesus most often excoriated the professional clergy (Pharisees) and lawyers (Scribes), not the military. In healing the son of a Roman centurion, Jesus declared this soldier's faith unique in all of Israel. Another centurion at the cross affirmed Jesus innocent and praised God.
Moreover, if the vocation of the soldier were corrupt, would the author of Ephesians have used the armor of the Roman legionnaire as a metaphor for the struggle for faith in the world? And what are we to do with Revelations, where Christ leads an angelic army arrayed in white linen against earthly wickedness at the end of history?
Moreover, the image of soldier as barbarian runs counter to the Protestant doctrine of vocation. In repudiating the Greek-medieval dichotomy between sacred and secular, "above" and "below the stairs," Luther affirmed it was the spirit and not the nature of the work that made a vocation Christian. Like those in the police and judiciary, their civilian counterparts, many military persons I have known are motivated by altruistic ends -- the restraint of evil and the protection of the defenseless.
In addition, the image of the soldier as barbarian is at odds with the Western literary tradition. If the soldier is a vocational leper, how can I teach the heroism of Achilles and Hector in "The Iliad"? What is one to make of Plato's wisdom of giving the Guardians a central role in "The Republic"? How can one empathize with the protagonist in hundreds of novels such as "The Red Badge of Courage" that dramatize the struggle for moral courage if the soldier's calling is intrinsically immoral?
And how are we to regard countless others, great and small, who were sensitive and humane military persons: Joan of Arc, Ignatius Loyola, George Washington, Lord Nelson, Andrew Jackson, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower? Even Pope John Paul II served for a time in the Polish army.
I am sorry that "soldier," "battle," "war" and other military terms are abrasive to some religious feelings. Could it be that such persons are functioning from a fundamentalist or literalist mode of interpretation? Instead, the military terminology of our liturgy should be taken as a poetic symbol of the battle against evil. Paul said our fight is "not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
The danger of sanitizing our hymns of "words that hurt" -- and soldier may join many others, such as father, pilgrim, black, blood, Lord, snow, men, slave, king, sword, army and navy -- is that the end result might be liturgical pablum. If hymnal revisionists are primarily interested in not hurting anyone's sensitivities, they may end up impressing few worshippers.