Buried in the National Anthem

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave…”  A poetic phrase, embedded in perhaps the most well-known tune in America:  The Star-Spangled Banner.  We know the tune and have memorized the words.  We sing it before ball games, at the openings of town meetings, and at various community events.  The National Anthem is deeply woven into our cultural fabric.

I hadn’t known that there are four verses to Francis Scott Key’s elegaic response to the Battle of Fort McHnery in Baltimore, which he watched from a safe distance.  But the fifth line of the third verse mentions hirelings and slaves, suggesting that British army (America’s enemies during the War of 1812) would destroy what were then regarded as precious, uniquely American, assets – hirelings and slaves.   There would be no refuge for them.  At that time, African slaves were deeply woven into the cultural fabric.

We don’t sing that verse.  We sing the triumphant first verse – and over the decades I have done so with gusto and pride. And then we all stop.  Our singing frames the game, the meeting, or the event, with hope.  Which then makes it even harder to acknowledge that, buried in our national anthem – our signature vocal clarion hymn, is not just a justification of slavery, but a need to protect it. 

But there it is.

There is a temptation in all of us to focus on the appealing verses of our individual and communal lives, and to bury what lies underneath.  And when we do that – and we do it more often than we care to admit, we truncate our story by ignoring or erasing other verses.  All of which renders us less whole, less available for healing, and more resistant to transformation.

There is also a temptation in all of us, reinforced by nearly every cultural practice, to achieve happiness.  Happiness is certainly not a bad thing, but the word happiness is a conflation of the word ‘happenstance”.  Happiness is conditional.   Happiness lasts for only as long as the necessary conditions prevail.   And if we can control or manage the conditions to our satisfaction (by avoiding certain verses) we remain in happiness.  And so we keep chasing after happiness, and editing stories so we can remain in that happy place.  There are an increasing number of forces and voices attempting to weave themselves into our cultural fabric by ignoring, erasing or burying, parts of America’s story.

Joy is different from happiness.  Joy is not conditional.  Joy is abiding.  It is deeper.  Joy is arrived at not by going around difficulty and pain, but by going through it.

Most of the Christian world celebrated Easter on April 9.  There was fanfare and excitement.  No doubt a lot of happiness, as Easter invariably coincides with the arrival of Spring.  Throw in Easter bunnies and eggs, flowers, baseball, and family gatherings – and Easter can be a cornucopia of happiness.

Over the centuries there has been endless debate as to what occurred at Easter.  Did the Resurrection happen?  How did it happen?  Was Jesus raised bodily or figuratively?  What does it all mean?

What is not in dispute are the events that led up to the story of the empty tomb.  There are historical records confirming Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.  There is the story of betrayal, abandonment and cruelty that are woven through Jesus’ last days.  It was awful.  Almost too much for the psyche to remember.  Too painful for us to look at.

But that story is not buried in the scripture narratives. It is told in all its horror.  But we may ignore the story by jumping from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the discovery of the Resurrection on Easter, and skipping the middle parts.  And we end up with happiness, which lasts only for so long.

The fullness of Easter, the joy of Easter, is an invitation to look at all of it.  The human cruelty.  The physical pain.  Our doubts over details and proclamations.  When we look at it all, healing can happen.  Hope can be kindled.  New life can be the gift.  Joy can abide – in spite of everything else. Jesus took an arduous journey to get to Easter.  There were no shortcuts.

We are invited to do the same, by paying closer attention to the third verses of our individual and collective stories.  It can be the journey of hope and healing.










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