In church on Sunday, after a string of impeccably orthodox and instantly forgettable Ascension-tide hymns, I was woken up by the amazingly incorrect but rousing Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Wow! You think. Go Sherman! Go Grant! Die, evil slaver Rebs! But then you realize: this is what it feels like to be a crusader, a warrior in the name of God – a jihadi.
There is mercifully little art that directly expresses crusading zeal. The ancient victory songs of the Tanakh – the Song of Deborah and Psalm 68 – glorify sanctified violence but seem to refer to defensive battles. The Book of Joshua documents, or imagines, its hero’s ghastly ethnic cleansing without any poetic appeal to our sympathy. The Magnificat is triumphalist but does not imply human violence. The First Crusade of 1095-1099 was indeed a mass outpouring of Christian jihadism that had no parallel in its dreary, but less bloody and effective, successors; and I can’t think of any worthwhile art that expressed it. The long Spanish Reconquista was seen by some players – such as the military orders – as a crusade, but again, where are the battle songs? The early Lay of the Cid is chivalric and practical in feeling rather than religious; the Cid sees himself as a professional warrior, and fighting Muslim soldiers is “como se gan el pan”. The fanaticism of Ferdinand and Isabella who completed the Reconquista and set up the Inquisition doesn’t seem to have inspired artists; the funerary monument of the Doncel, Isabella’s page, in Sigüenza is elegiac not militaristic in tone.
The same goes for the bloody struggles of the Reformation. You get a trace of jihadi feeling in Luther’s great hymn Ein feste Burg, but it’s clearly defensive not aggressive. The coruscating literary talents of Elizabethan England ignored in their work the great politico-religious drama of their own time – SFIK there’s no contemporary Pathetick Tragedie of Wm. the Silent or Defeate of the Mightie Spanish Armada. It was perhaps too dangerous to enter into this territory and maybe make England’s enemies unacceptably sympathetic: the pioneering playwright Thomas Kyd was arrested, officially for Arianism of all things, and tortured so badly that he died a year later. Perhaps also Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser and Jonson didn’t want to make a bad situation worse by whipping up religious hatred. As a landowner in Ireland Spenser was prepared to entertain genocidal policies against Irish rebels, but did not advertise them as a poet.
It’s nice to note therefore that for whatever reason, Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn is about the only readily available work of art that fully expresses the crusading spirit, in her case that of hardline Northern abolitionists. This was even clearer when it was written: In the original version, the line now sung as “Let us live to make men free” was “Let us die to make men free”: an explicit call to shahid. I avoid the term martyrdom as in the Jewish and Christian traditions martyrs must be non-violent victims.
The Union cause in the Civil War was a far better one than the “Great War on Terror” that George Bush recklessly cast as a crusade right after 9/11. (The word was later dropped, but not the spirit.) Abraham Lincoln still went out of his way to avoid any such characterisation. The Gettysburg Address of 1863 followed a two-hour oration by the then famous Edward Everett, who bought into the crusading metaphor by describing the Union dead in his peroration as “martyr-heroes”.
The occasion placed Lincoln under enormous pressure to sacralize the casualties and their cause. But his speech, a masterpiece of politics as well as of timeless oratory, carefully channelled this feeling away from any definition of the Unionist cause as a crusade against an evil foe, and of the dead as martyrs. By a brilliant sophistical manoeuvre he pleaded against the building of a memorial shrine : and he won – Civil War battlefields aren’t I think marked by the huge and impressive, if aesthetically indifferent, monuments that rise above Verdun, Arras, the Somme , and Stalingrad. Lincoln’s Address deflected the sacralizing impulse away from the actual causes for which the war was fought – slavery and the Union – onto a fuzzy but noble spirit of democracy; a historical travesty, but a way that left the door open for reconciliation with the defeated.
Lincoln knew as Bush does not that the object of war is not victory but peace. And peace is incompatible with jihad.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic still closes the conventions of the party that carries the name of Lincoln’s. Do the delegates of the deep South, the beneficiaries of Nixon’s abandonment of Lincoln’s principles, men who fly the Confederate flag on their bumpers, actually understand the words?