However, the militaristic nature of this hymn derives largely from the marching music to which the poetry is set. If you sit down and read Julia Ward Howe's poem, you'll see that the text refers to war primarily through symbolism. It's a rich text of imagery that includes tender moments like the opening of verse three: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea; with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Set that text to a lullaby and nobody would consider it in any way militaristic!
Verse three continues with my favorite line in the hymn: "As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free." Here, the richness of the tune and text combine to allow multiple levels of meaning. As American heroes died in war, as Christ died to save us, and as early Christian martyrs died for their faith - in recognition of all those sacrifices, let us live our lives thankfully and joyfully, working to make the world a better, more loving, more Christian place. All of that meaning in such a short line of text!
That particular line of text also sent me to my boxed DVD set of The West Wing to rewatch the episode "Isaac and Ishmael." In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the show devoted one episode to a forum for discussing politics, religion, and war. In response to a student's question about martyrs, the fictional President Bartlet replied, "We don't need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he'd much rather live for it." It reminds me of another famous text that "they'll know we're Christians by the way we live." It's a sentiment I think most of us can agree with, and I think it's a sentimenet we all struggle to implement daily.