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Hymns as Subversive Activity

John L. Bell gave this address on October 18, 2013,  when he accepted the Community of Christ International Peace Award


I am deeply honoured to be present among you and to receive, on behalf of the Iona Community, this peace award from the Community of Christ. It seems barely believable that a denomination of which, hitherto, I have know little, should recognise the work of people on the other side of the Atlantic about whom, hitherto, you have known little.

And it may seem unusual that rather than donate the award money to the work of the Iona Community, I should wish to disburse it elsewhere. This is no indication that we have a surplus of revenue; indeed at the moment we are fundraising to sustain our work.

But the Gospels teach us it is more blessed to give than to receive and, for me, this has to be more than a nostrum.


I live in a nation from which, to my knowledge, no one flees because of persecution. But we do have a considerable number of people who flee to Britain, often because our previous imperial conquests divided up vast areas of the continents of Africa and Asia, and we forcibly repatriated people in areas which were not always friendly to them. Hence some money will go to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns which works with genuine Aslyum Seekers.

I live in a nation where you are not persecuted if you are a Christian. This is not the same in Nepal, but the New Life Church bears witness to Christ’s affection and yearning for all. Hence some money will go to that and to the Marion School, built by villagers in an area in the Himalayas where there was no school, and now the classrooms are overflowing.

And I live in a country where, were  a British national or an American national to be injured in the street, they would be given the best medical attention free of charge at the point of delivery. But this is not true of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and sometimes we are fooled into imagining that Israel and Palestine are equal in economic wealth and welfare provision. Hence some money will go to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

But I am also aware - most recently by sharing a train journey with a former Israel soldier - that there has to be a movement for peace as well as the amelioration of pain in the Middle East, and therefore some money will go to an organisation called Breaking the Silence, which gathers the testimonies of the now thousands of Jewish Israeli soldiers who see the continuing aggression against Palestine as futile and who lobby people of all persuasions in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora to seek a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict.

You have enabled us to be generous and for this I thank you most sincerely.


It may also seem strange that a peace award go to a hymn writer. Well, that was your decision and not mine, but having made the choice one of the consequences is that I might just ask you to sing…which I intend to do right now.

I’m going to sing the first half of a line of a song know mostly to people over 50, and I invite you to finish the line. Here goes:

You’ll wonder where the yellow went

For those who don’t recognise that beautiful spiritual, let me indicate that it accompanied an advertisement for Pepsodent Toothpaste.

In the sixties and seventies, many television and radio advertisements relied on jingles which were instantly memorable.

If this were the UK, I could also invite you to sing:

A million housewives every day
pick up a tin of beans and say,
‘Beans means Heinz.’

Or, the slightly more moving ditty for bathroom soap

You’ll look a little lovelier each day
With fabulous pink Camay.

What these advertisers were doing with jingles is something which in previous eras, governments did with songs.

National Songs   - UK
Should you ever make it to the Last Night of the Promenade Concerts in the Albert Hall London, you will be present at a musical orgy of Britishness which will inevitably include a prominent and busty female soloist filling the hall with her rendering of the song

                        RULE BRITTANIA!   (Hymns as Subversive Activity handout,  page 1)

Now, if you peruse the lyrics of this particular ditty, you might wonder whether it is more fanciful than accurate.

I have never met a geologist who claimed that when the earth cooled. Britain was the first nation to emerge.

Not have I ever met a theologian, angeologist or mystic who would defend the statement that the favourite text of Guardian angels is Rule Brittania!

The reason for this and other similar songs is that to enable the expansion of the British Empire, the British people had to be behind the colonial exploits of their political masters. Indeed, they had to provide the troops and the civil servants who would maintain law and order and administer the infrastructure of fledgling nations on every continent.

And the political masters knew that what would enable this would be popular songs which spoke of a divine commission for Britain to civilise and evangelise the world; and the more catchy or memorable the tune, the more likely the words would colour popular opinion.

 -and USA

The same thing happened in this beloved country, as is indicated in two verses of very different texts.

While Stephen Foster (THE OLD FOLKS AT HOME, handout, page 1) mimics African American patois and seems to suggest that black people had an affection for plantation life, the abolitionist James R. Lowell, (MEN WHOSE BOAST, handout, page 1) asks whether people dare consider themselves to be free or brave if they have no empathy for people who are shackled.


What both advertising ditties and popular songs indicate is something which the Church forgets at its peril, namely that singing is a highly influential and at potentially subversive activity, because people who sing tend to believe the texts that they articulate. Recent research done by Mennonite scholars in the USA and Anglicans in Great Britain give academic witness to this reality.

Words set to music are much more memorable than words simply spoken. And you and I will know this because, had we all the time in the world, we could probably sing to each other songs and choruses, hymns and advertising jingles which we learned and which we have retained from before we were able to read.

Hence, recent pioneering work in the area of the care of Alzheimer’s patients has confirmed that to let people with dementia occasionally hear songs that they sang as children or teenagers, can bring them even momentarily from what seems a fog of confusion into the sunshine of awareness.

Militaristic Hymns and an Antidote
Because the Christian church, likes its Jewish antecedent, has placed a high priority on sung text, we need to be aware of the power which that has over our perspectives on life, faith, God and ourselves.

I first recognised this around 20 years ago on one of my first engagements in the USA. It was a seminary in Bangor, Maine, and I asked the class in advance of my visit to write an essay regarding how their childhood hymns had affected their adult life.

I remember vividly one submission.

It was from a man who grew up in an independent church which seemed to overdose on hymns with military imagery:

 Soldiers of Christ arise
 March on my soul, with strength,
 Hear the battle cry
 Onward Christian soldiers

 And for the children:
 I’m in the Lord’s armee   
 There’s a flag flying high in the castle of my heart.

Steeped in this militaristic spirituality, the man - then a teenager - was conscripted and served a spell of duty in Vietnam. There he went to the chapel services where the same kind of heroic hymns were sung.  But he began to have a troubled conscience. How could he who was affecting and infecting the Vietnamese land and people with Agent Orange and Napalm Gas subscribe to a belief in a God who seemed to endorse this activity?

Do he became an agonistic, and never returned to faith until years later, giving God a last chance, he opened the New Testament to discover that Paul may use the militaristic metaphor three times, but Jesus never does.

Jesus never says, ‘I am your commanding officer.’  Jesus says, ‘I have come among you as a servant.’

The point of this anecdote is to underline the very real effect which sung text - particularly religious sung text - can have for good or ill on our faith and discipleship.

In contrast, I would like to introduce you to a hymn from my community which the Mennonite Church in Canada, completely unknown to us, had found probably in a photocopied manuscript version during the 2nd Gulf war. They encouraged congregations every Sunday of the conflict to light a middle eastern styled lamp and to sing  

            IF THE WAR GOES ON (handout, page 6)

The Passive Jesus
Two things have for long puzzled me about the Christian church. The first is why Jesus has been depicted in song and in portraiture as a very passive person.

Now one reason - as regards physical art - is because it is easier to represent a passive than an active person. Hence the baby in arms and the saviour on the cross are much easier than the one who turned tables in the temple.

But there is no excuse for hymn writers.  Words like commotion, disturbance, anger, confusion, division, bewilderment  - all of which Jesus caused  - are as easy to put into verse as words like tender, mild, meek, gentle.

But the latter adjectives have been more commonly chosen.

Witness AWAY IN A MANGER (handout, page 2) . . . where Jesus as a baby who never cries is the kind of infant whom most parents would worry about.

ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY (handout, page 2) suggests that this passive behaviour goes on ‘all through his wondrous childhood’ which means up to his bar mitzvah in early adolescence.  I imagine that most mothers here would be greatly concerned if their 11 year old as to be found lying in their arms while other kids the same age were chasing girls or playing baseball.

And when it comes to the adult Jesus - as celebrated by Edward Denny in WHAT GRACE, O LORD, AND BEAUTY SHONE (handout, page 2) - I have great difficulty in finding verification in the gospels that ‘NO UNGENTLE MURMURING WORD ESCAPED THY SILENT TONGUE.’

Nor do I believe that his heart ‘COULD ONLY LOVE.’  It could also rage against injustice as both his disciples and the Pharisees discovered to their embarrassment.

Contrast, therefore, the text of THE FAMILY (handout, page 4), each verse of which is based on incidents in Jesus active ministry to which few songs in the history of Western hymnody allude.

                        (sing THE FAMILY, handout, page 4)  

We might similarly make a comparison regarding how the HOLY SPIRIT has been typically depicted as a predominantly unobtrusive calming presence.

This is understandable as long as we only think of the Spirit as the gentle dove. But Pentecost - when the Spirit came - is not an experience of docility. It is a time of excitement, disturbance, confusion, noise as God upsets conventional wisdom as regards who will speak for the Almighty and who belongs in the kingdom,

The Holy Spirit comes early in the morning in tongues of fire, not in mid evening in silence. It took students in an ecumenical seminary in Bangalore to turn this from a scriptural insight to a sung truth:

                        (sing GOD’S SPIRIT IS HERE,  handout, page 4)

The Negative Understanding of Change
But the other conundrum I which for a while puzzled me was why within the churches of all denominations, change is seen as the enemy rather than the ally of faith.  I cannot speak for the USA, but I do remember in a church in the North of Scotland, an elderly man saying that he could not understand how if a preacher said that she or she had doubts about the Virgin Birth, no one would bat an eyelid.

But if she or he decided to move the altar six inches, all hell would break loose.

Perhaps the Community of Christ is absolved from such expressions of discontent, but I have witnessed it in every country in the Northern Hemisphere in which I have worked. Anything from changing the time of the morning service to removing a few pews in a church which has a surfeit of empty seats suddenly rouses the ire of the liturgical conservationists…

 …And this despite the fact that in the Bible no one and nothing which has been touched by the living God remains the same. … and one could go further and note that at the centre of our faith is the resurrection of Jesus in which there is the transformation from a mouldering corpse to a resurrected body.  Jesus wills, explicitly, that all shall be changed and made new.

However, the dear senior in the North of Scotland who posited the problem, also pointed to one potential cause.  He named a hymn sung widely throughout the Western world, which begins with the words ‘ABIDE WITH ME.’

Look at what it says in verse 2 (handout, page 1)


 ‘The church’ said my old friend, ‘ is the only place where I automatically associate change with decay.’… and all because of one line in a hymn.… a notion which incidentally appears in other well known hymns, including PRAISE MY SOUL THE KING OF HEAVEN.

But it is a two-part bind.  Not only is change associated with decay, but change is regarded as something about which the Almighty knows nothing:


 This notion is also witnessed in IMMORTAL, INVISIBLE, GOD ONLY WISE (handout, page 1)

 ….undoubted, but then:

We wouldn’t hear Moses saying AMEN to that, who on at least four occasions saw God change his mind.

Nor would Jonah assent to that sentiment who became furious precisely because God did change his mind.

Nor would Jeremiah who accused God of duping him.

Nor could those who heard Jesus radicalise the previous statements of the Almighty, whenever he began a sentence with the words:

" You have heard it said….. But I say to you."

That God should change his mind is as permissible as for us to change our minds. But the primary motive force for God is not personal advantage, irrational anger or personal pique. God changes the divine mind when love demands it.

                        (Sing: THE MIND OF GOD, handout, page 3)

These two conundra -- "Why was Jesus always depicted as passive?" and "Why do good Christian people get upset about change?" -- have been long-time puzzles.

Hymnody About and From the Developing World
But more recent has been my curiosity as to why within my own country there was a reticence to sing songs from outside the European/North American axis. Your tradition and mine has for long sang in translation hymns from

Germany   -     O sacred head, sore wounded
Sweden    -    O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Italy           -     All creatures of our God and King
France       -     Thine be the glory.

But - as I once discovered at a missionary rally, there was audible resistance when confronted with the possibility of singing material which came from the global south.

We cannot blame the theologians for this, for in 1910 at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, an American academic, John Mott suggested that in our engagement with those in lands other than the imperial nations, we might just encounter what he called ‘A LARGER CHRIST.’

The theology of missions began to change from being paternalistic to being reciprocal in 1910, but that never crept into the songs of the church which preferred the previous benefactor/suppliant mentality as witnessed at the foot of page 2 (handout):


It has, for my colleagues and I, been one of the great liberations of our life to realise that the Holy Spirit has given bountifully to the churches in Latin America, Asia and Africa rich gifts of music and song which are for our growing in faith.

Not only is much of this music accessible, but when we - and particularly when we with our children - begin to share the spiritual gifts of people in lands which we once invaded, patronised or whose corrupt regimes we kept in place - do we begin to make visible and transformative signs of reconciliation.

We may even be led into a deeper appreciation of scripture, especially the psalms which were given not just to provide us with please praise songs, but in their texts which articulate corporate despair, to take us in intercession into the lives of those who are persecuted for their faith even at this present time.

So here is Psalm 94, as sung in the Salvadorean Mass with words which predate Jesus and which Jesus sung, which today might allow us to feel for people in Northern Nigeria, Syria, Egypt who are persecuted for their faith.

                        (sing O GREAT LORD AND GOD OF THE EARTH, handout,  page 5)

And here, from that same country, is a text based on the writings of a contemporary martyr, Oscar Romero, who changed from being a very conservative catholic priest to being a thorn in the flesh of the establishment because he dared to speak out for justice and for peace

(sing THE LORD OF THE EARTH, handout, page 3)

Singing within the Christian church is not a neutral activity.

It is meant also to teach what we believe, therefore it has to be true.

It is meant to honour God and therefore has to be passionate.

Thank you, in honouring my Community, for recognising the great potential in the song of the church to lead to or deflect from the joy and justice Gospel of Jesus Christ, whom may we praise in song for ever.