Today Americans celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s remembrance, in light of recent national events, provokes interesting social commentary, to be sure, given King’s penchant for non-violent responses in the face of aggressive resistance to the pursuit of justice. To whatever extent it’s true that “silence is violence” (a fascinating discussion for another day, assuming one is willing to engage in dispassionate, heuristic dialogue), newspaper op-eds and the various spheres (Twitter-, blogo-) of social media are rife with pacifists, such is the significant volume–quantity and loudness–of the commentary these days.
All this has put me in mind of one of my favorite hymn texts, “Lead on, O King Eternal.” Andover Theological Seminary student Ernest Shurtleff, apparently at the encouragement of his peers, wrote the song in 1887 for his graduating class’ commencement ceremony. Kenneth W. Osbeck, in the classic Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, quotes Shurtleff’s motivation: “We’ve been spending days of preparation here at seminary. Now the day of march has come, and we must go out to follow the leadership of the King of kings, to conquer the world under his banner.”
If that sounds eerily like rhetoric emanating from our nation’s Capitol a week and a half ago, stay with me here. Take a phrase or two from “Lead on, O King Eternal” out of context, and you can make a case for all kinds of behavior that is irresponsible at best and directly counter to the cause of Christ at worst, what with talk of “lift[ing] our battle song” and the “crown [that] awaits the conquest.” “Lead on, O God of might,” indeed.
But the “might” to which Shurtleff alludes is what the brilliant theologian Robert Farrar Capon refers to as “left-handed power,” in his theology of Christ’s parables: Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment:
Unlike the power of the right hand . . ., left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain. Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. . . .
Which may not, at first glance, seem like . . . an exercise worthy of the name power. But when you come to think of it, it is power–so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There! Just try and get me to take that back!”
Following graduation, according to Robert J. Morgan in Then Sings My Soul (Book 2), Shurtleff pastored several churches in America before accepting a call to plant a church in Frankfort, Germany, where he and his wife ministered to European students. “When World War I broke out, Ernest labored to exhaustion in relief ministries, feeding the poor and the displaced. He died in Paris in 1917, during the war. His life was the embodiment of his hymn. . . .”
As we inaugurate a new President on Wednesday, as rhetorical uncivil wars and rumors of literal civil wars abound, I commend, in the spirit of Dr. King, the second, lesser-known, verse of Shurtleff’s “Lead on, O King Eternal,” especially the concluding quatrain, my prayer for my fellow American Christians in 2021:
Lead on, O King Eternal,
Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace;
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy
Thy heav’nly kingdom comes.
The Lord be with you!