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This Heaven-Rescued Land: On National Anthems and Christian Faithfulness

by the Rev. Carol Carlson

One of the ways to make a new year genuinely new is to learn to simply see things differently from our usual modes of observation. My own usual modes of observation had never included professional hockey games until last weekend; but as part of the pickup choir from Praise Cathedral and Holy Cross who sang the American and Canadian national anthems at an Erie Otters game, I got a new perspective on these songs.  I’m a big fan of the tune to our “O Say, Can You See,” an 18th-century drinking song called “Anacreon in Heaven.”   As a national anthem, however, it has much to be desired.

First, it’s almost impossible for amateurs to sing so that anyone would want to hear it (this includes the HC/PC crowd); but its real problem is in its sentiments.  Taken in context, who would not sympathise with Francis Scott Key, anxiously waiting all night to see if Fort McHenry would fall to the British attackers, and his relief that at dawn “our flag was still there?” But is this rather trivial incident from the War of 1812 (the war that also brought fame up north to Oliver Hazard Perry) really worth memorialising every time Americans want to express loyalty to their native land?

When you compare it to “O Canada,” its difficulties become apparent. When our neighbors to the north sing about loyalty to their own native land, it’s not about warfare, violence and conflict. The things that glow for Canadians are their hearts, and with “true patriot love,” not the “red glare” of rockets and bombs. They ask God to make their land “glorious and free.” We claim that ours is already that way, extolling it as “home of the brave” (as if those British tars bombarding the fort were not also brave) and “land of the free” (ignoring the millions of human beings it kept as slaves in the very time and place Key was writing, each reckoned as just three-fifths of a real person).

It makes you wonder how much sentiments like these contribute to the making of a nation that still treats the descendants of those slaves as less than human, and kills 30,000 of its citizens every year (a large majority suicides and toddlers) with those guns we sing about so fondly.  Canadians have their own history of violence against Native and Metis (mixed-race) populations, for which the government has formally apologised; but they don’t wake up every morning wondering which school, church, synagogue or family celebration is going to get shot up that day, while all of us grimly wait to find out where this week’s carnage will occur (not if, of course, just where).  Could it be that what they sing helps create their situation, while what we sing helps create the violence and terror of ours?

America has a national anthem that any Christian could subscribe to without a qualm. It’s called “America the Beautiful,” and it brings tears to my eyes every time I sing its third verse: “O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees, beyond the years, Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” Those cities undimmed by tears are still only a dream after 150 years; and few of us these days seem to define patriotism as clinging to that dream and struggling to bring it to fruition. But it’s worth considering whether what Key called “this heaven-rescued land” might not be different – and a lot better – if we reoriented our patriotism away from the guns that define our whole culture to the rest of the world (and those 30,000 dead people), and toward that dream of cities in which no one weeps; if we got love for our country and love for God and neighbor into a little better alignment. Couldn’t we Jesus-followers start by calling attention to so seemingly small a thing as what we sing?