Executive Director of CSBV Helen Paynter explains what led her to write a new hymn for Remembrance Sunday and the importance of allegiance to Christ, the Kingdom of God, and ‘the things that make for peace’.
In a world of pain and sorrow
Where power conquers right
We receive the fresh commission
To fight the cause of Light –
With the weapons you permit us:
Patient love, self-sacrifice;
By the stirring of the Spirit
Our fortitude will rise.
As by love and grace and mercy,
The captives we release
Most of all, our Master, teach us
The things that make for peace.
May we live the deep reality,
The realm we cannot see;
Your peaceful reign of freedom
Where the government is Justice
With a bias to the poor,
Where we celebrate our difference
And hasten not to war;
Where suspicion, fear and prejudice,
The seeds of hatred, cease;
So above all, Master, teach us
The things that make for peace.
To the foes of God and humankind,Lyrics © Helen Paynter 2013. Tune: Thaxted (G. Holst). Reproduction of the song for congregational use is welcome provided the author is attributed.
Pride and hostility
We will raise the cross of Jesus Christ:
All the broken and fragmented
Find their purpose in that place;
Lost are found, sick find healing,
And prodigals find grace.
Here is reconciliation
Of former enemies;
Here we find our Master’s remedy –
The cross that makes for peace.
I wrote this song in 2013. It is intended to be sung to ‘Thaxted’, the majestic hymn from the central portion of Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, in his Planets suite. This choice was deliberate; Thaxted has been used for one of the more jingoistic of our English anthems, ‘I vow to thee, my country’ (lyrics: Cecil Rice). In that hymn, allegiance is offered to England (or Britain?); allegiance which will offer neither scruple nor hesitation in the offering of the ultimate sacrifice.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
While that national allegiance is not explicitly trumping the singer’s allegiance to the Kingdom of God, it is set in parallel relationship to it, by means of the second verse.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
Such conflation of devotion to country with devotion to God is a marker of what Robert Bellah titled Civil Religion, a phenomenon which has dogged many societies over many centuries, and now manifests itself in various forms of Christian Nationalism. Rice’s hymn was penned before World War One, and in fact the version we sing is his substantially revised version of 1918—the original was altogether more belligerent:
And around [my country’s] feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.
It is perhaps surprising that songs such as this one (I also think of Land of Hope and Glory, which contains the egregious words ‘Wider still and wider/ Shall her bounds be set/ God who made her mighty/ Make her mightier yet’) did not die a death after the colossal failure of that war to end all wars, even with the War Poets’ excoriation of such sentiments:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a quotation from the Roman poet Horace, and translates ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s homeland’. The sentiment is echoed in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem Horatius, written in 1842:
How can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.
This is the price demanded by nations which arrogate to themselves the divine right to sacrifice their sons (and daughters) to wars of their own making. This is part of the great blasphemy of Christian Nationalism.
In an attempt to subvert the warmongering of such songs, which still resonate within our national memory, I therefore chose the familiar music of Thaxted to accompany my own lyrics, which seek to explore something of the wonder and beauty of the Kingdom of Peace. When Jesus began his descent from the Mount of Olives on what we now call Palm Sunday, he paused and wept over the city:
If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.(Luke 19:42-44, NIV)
Jesus’ tears are for the city of Jerusalem, whose tragic downfall under the Romans he foresees. But the reason he gives is their failure to comprehend ‘the things that make for peace’, which are implicit in their failure to ‘recognise the time of God’s coming’. As he rides into Jerusalem to great acclaim, a casual onlooker might be forgiven for recalling the triumphant entries of Alexander the Great, Judas Maccabeus or Pompey, all great generals in whose hoofprints his donkey is treading – though the differences should be stark to those who are paying attention. But lest we miss the true significance of the moment, the wider context of the Old Testament prophecy which Matthew quotes should make it plain:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!(Zech 9:9-10, NRSV)
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As Jesus enters the last week of his life, he is bound for the Cross. And he will be crucified, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, outside the city. Caught between the demands of two cities which claimed eternal status—Jerusalem and Rome—Jesus is taken outside both and put to death by both.
Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.(Heb 13:12-14)
The kingdom of God exposes all the claims of ultimate allegiance as blasphemous perversions of the true allegiance that we owe to the kingdom of peace and its King. May we follow him outside the cities and empires of this world. May we learn this Kingdom’s ways, and the things that make for peace.
Now there’s a country to vow to.
Revd Dr Helen Paynter is founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. Alongside her role as director of the Centre, Helen is a Baptist minister in Bristol, England and a tutor at Bristol Baptist College. Her PhD thesis was on seriocomic humour in the book of Kings, and her current research interests focus mainly around the narrative hermeneutics of Old Testament texts of violence. Helen’s most recent book is available from November 2023: Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Biblical Theology of Human Violence Zondervan, 2023.
 Lyrics © Helen Paynter 2013. Tune: Thaxted (G. Holst). Reproduction of the song for congregational use is welcome provided the author is attributed.
 Lyrics by Arthur Christopher Benson, music Edward Elgar, 1901. Land of Hope and Glory is the theme song of the annual Last Night of the Proms, held in London.
 Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est, published posthumously in 1920.