Disarming Onward Christian Soldiers

By Mark Tooley Published on April 2, 2016

Liberal post evangelical/emergent commentator Brian McLaren has rewritten Onward Christian Soldiers to remove the “Islamophobia, xenophobia, overt and covert racism” purportedly corrupting the old hymn.

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has offered a fine rebuttal in defense of the hymn’s spiritual purpose. But more needs saying about McLaren’s social critique, which is increasingly prevalent in contemporary Christianity.

Controversy over Onward Christian Soldiers is not new, especially for liberal Protestant groups. My own United Methodist denomination, during a 1980s hymnal revision, debated deleting it and Battle Hymn of the Republic, both of which were deemed by the review committee as offensively militaristic. But publicity, fed by Reader’s Digest, generated thousands of protests, preserving the hymns in the new United Methodist Hymnal.

McLaren is a pacifist who’s also concerned about militarism. He was especially prompted to action by recent Republican presidential debates in which candidates spoke of Jesus and carpet bombing “in the same breath.” But his opposition to the hymn is more comprehensive. In a recent interview he explained:

The fact that Islamophobia, xenophobia, overt and covert racism, and other ugly social realities are still so strong in our heavily churched culture tells us that our churches are either a) avoiding these topics, b) trying to address them but failing, or c) often working on the wrong side of these issues. I wish “b” were the case, but I think it’s more often “a” and “c.”

He hopes “worship teams” will start choosing to “stop using dangerous warfare language and to stop avoiding the essential Christian discipleship theme of peacemaking.” More specifically, McLaren is troubled that the hymn “speaks ambiguously of ‘the foe’ — which could (in the minds of some) refer to our neighbors outside the church,” instead of more acceptably targeting “corporate greed, racism, domestic violence, apathy or pride.” His new alternative lyrics highlight Christian “peacemaking.” McLaren admits his own church sings “songs that consciously or subconsciously play into hostility and fear and imperial or warlike sentiments — I feel that we are flirting with dark and dangerous currents that are very unsacred.”

Here’s the first stanza of McLaren’s revised hymn, whose other five stanzas are here:

Onward, all disciples, in the path of peace,
Just as Jesus taught us, love your enemies
Walk on in the Spirit, seek God’s kingdom first,
Let God’s peace and justice be your hunger and your thirst!
Onward, all disciples, in humility
Walk with God, do justice, love wholeheartedly.

In his response to McLaren’s rewrite, Russell Moore riposted that accusing the hymn of touting violence “requires a crude literalism rendered incoherent by the lyrics themselves,” which have Christians “marching as to war,” as a simile. “To do away with spiritual warfare imagery is to do away with the Bible, with Jesus, with the gospel,” surmises Moore, who further suggests that the call to spiritual warfare makes physical violence less likely, as Christians subordinate their passions to divine leadership. He concludes:

We are able to be a joyful happy throng precisely because we know that we are an army — a victorious one with a triumphant King already in the heavenly places. That’s why we can love and forgive and bear persecution. That’s why we can move onward, into the future. We should sing that, and sing it loudly, like an army marching as to war.

McLaren lengthily reacted to Moore’s defense of Onward Christian Soldiers by complaining about the “context” of the 1850s British hymn, composed when “building their global empire,” behind the “banner of the cross,” like Constantine, amid “echoes of the militant Christian imperialism that periodically resurged from the 4th to the 20th centuries.” America has “too much” in common with the British Empire, McLaren warns, so “it is pastorally wise to fund our imaginations not with taking up swords and spears (or whatever) and ‘marching as to war,’ but with beating them into plowshares and pruning hooks, and going into the world not swinging swords or dropping bombs, but sowing seeds of reconciliation, respect, and service.” America in the age of Donald Trump is even less equipped to handle such a potentially toxic hymn, McLaren ominously adds.

Scenes from the Lambeth Conference, held in the summer of 2008 at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Scenes from the Lambeth Conference, held in the summer of 2008 at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

If American Christians were “more firmly and deeply involved in peacemaking (as the early Christians were), we might be inoculated against the potentially destructive effects of warrior imagery,” McLaren observes. “But we American Christians, especially white Christians, generally lack that inoculation … with our history of genocide, land theft, enslavement, segregation, homophobia, nativism, Islamophobia and the like,” amplified after 9-11, when America “seemed to enter into a kind of warrior trance of our own, mirroring violence with violence, and too many of us have been living in a revenge narrative ever since.”

“In a nation with a damaged soul like ours, for our churches to fund our imagination with more warrior imagery adds fuel to a fire that already is in danger of raging out of control,” McLaren bewails, imagining American Christians as unrestrained conquistadors.

First, McLaren misreads the Trump phenomenon, which is not about ambitious global conquest, but almost the opposite, withdrawing behind “America First,” and demanding that former allies fend for themselves, while America rebuilds infrastructure and cuts military budgets, themes that ought to appeal to McLaren.

Secondly, McLaren accepts a conventionally superficial leftist critique of American history as little more than a catalogue of imperialist and capitalist criminal exploitation by white heterosexual male plutocrats. There are indeed sins galore among Americans, as among all people. But McLaren willfully ignores that America, thanks to Christian influence, is one of the most egalitarian, pluralistic and self-consciously diverse societies in human history, offering unprecedented protection and opportunity to hundreds of millions. America is the kind of society where someone like Brian McLaren can arise, expound, gain a following and prosper. Yet McLaren in his crude anti-Americanism seems blind and ungrateful.

Finally, McLaren largely ignores Moore’s point that the language of warfare is profoundly biblical, and it’s not all spiritual metaphor. The God of the Bible has indeed directed armies into battle. He is forever the Lord of Hosts. Onward Christian Soldiers is primarily a summons to spiritual warfare against human sin, not just systemic sin, as McLaren and liberals prefer, but also and mainly against our own, under the Spirit’s direction. Yet when American and British seamen with FDR and Churchill in 1941 at the Atlantic Conference sang this hymn, the warfare to which they were called was both spiritual and physical. For them, and nearly everyone else in the real, flesh and blood world, McLaren’s anodyne pacifist rewrite would be wholly inadequate.

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