Our hymns are full of military themes. We sing how We Are All Enlisted in A Royal Army. We are Christian Soldiers and we wield the sword of truth. These songs were written in a very different era. The role of soldiers was often merged with the police force. Every city had their own militia and it was needed to protect the cities from roving bandits. Mobs would spontaneously gather and commit acts of violence. The soldiers were a common sight and needed for basic protection. Violence was the solution to violence.
That is not the world we live in today, at least not in much of the developed world. Police have taken up the roles of local militia. Police learn deescalation techniques and seek non-violent solutions. We have come to expect this from the police, and are appalled at police brutality and shootings. Rather than armies lining up to fight off the invading enemy forces, we have terrorist attacks and mass shootings. We have more lone actors committing horrendous acts of violence. Violence is more one-sided while the soldiers and police are the ones trying to keep the peace. Rather than seeing soldiers use violence to protect us, many people in our congregations have been scared from domestic abuse, school shootings and threats of violence. Violence is now almost exclusively associated with the bad actors.
That isn’t too say there isn’t a place for military hymns. The scriptures are full of military stories with inspiring messages. The imagery of being bold and courageous like soldiers as we fight evil resonates with people. Many hymns focus on the self-defense role of armies, like putting on the armor of God or comparing missionaries to the Army of Helaman.
However, others focus on the attacking aspect of military. Consider the lyrics to Hope of Israel:
Strike for Zion, down with error;Hope of Israel #259
Flash the sword above the foe!
Ev’ry stroke disarms a foeman;
Ev’ry step we conq’ring go
Not every strike disarms a foeman. Sometimes we make mistakes, and end up hurting the progress of the kingdom of God. Even in our own history, overzealous members have hurt the Church by striking their enemies. Episodes such as the Daviess County expedition, the termination order against the Timpanogos, and the massacres of Circleville and Mountain Meadow should always remain in our memories and stand as reminders that we are not always in the right. Rather than striking, we should use discussion, persuasion, and compromise.
There is also the question of who we are fighting. We ask “Who’s on the Lord’s Side?” making it seem as if there is only two sides. We are on the Lord’s side and the world is our foe, assisted by legions infernal. In recent years, the Church has focused on building bridges with the community and different faith traditions. We believe “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Instead of looking at ways people are our enemies, let’s look for areas we have in common.
Several of the military hymns are favorites, and inspire people to stand strong against evil. However, other people have been scared by acts of violence and are uncomfortable with singing about violence. This especially might be problematic as the Church spreads into war-torn regions. Our hymns need to set the example of charity and love, and seeking out the good in others.
How do we handle this? Do we remove all references to war and violence? Do we remove references to striking? Do we remove references to the world being our foe, or there being only two sides? Tell us what you think.