I participated in a social media debate (yes, I know better) ranking classic Advent and Christmas hymns in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
The lead candidate was “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This is understandable. The melodic, somber chords beautifully convey an angsty, yet hopeful, melancholy for Advent rivaled only by music from the ’80s band Enigma.
Another familiar hymn, “O Holy Night,” was my choice because the third verse excavates all the year’s bad theology, revealing the straight, narrow path again. The convicting words of that verse are:
Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
There is nothing better than watching the “all lives matter” crowd standing in a worship service digesting this refrain with lemon-puckered lips. A thrill of hope, indeed.
As online discussions typically do, the debate gave way to “aggressive negotiations” when it became clear that some of the more melanin-deprived siblings-in-Christ viewed the third verse hyperbolically.
Christ is a breaker of spiritual chains in this song, their argument went. Nothing about Jesus, or the gospel message, reveals God’s interest in the literal physical bondage, or suffering, of the very people God created.
Jesus’ redemptive work is purely spiritual; he has no concern about the corporeal state of humanity in society, according to this perspective. The logical, unspoken corollary is that followers of Jesus can, therefore, acquit themselves of concern for their neighbor – the marginalized particularly.
In case you only hear this admonition at Christmas, allow me to offer a reminder early into the new year: the gospel heralds Jesus’ arrival as Emmanuel, God with us – here on Earth, caring for, weeping with and distraught over the condition of the marginalized as much with the security of our souls in the world to come.
In that regard, Christians across the world should be singing the good news from the same hymnal – that his law is love and his gospel is peace.
In light of this gospel, alternate claims present a frail theology. Indeed, there is great hypocrisy at work within congregations preaching a gospel where God grants certain believers prosperity now and paradise in the hereafter, but seems unconcerned for minorities victimized by reckless political rhetoric, police killings and systemic racism in the legal system.
Similarly, acolytes of this argument for God’s indifference towards the present circumstances of the marginalized must set aside the entire book of Exodus, ignoring the explicit way God demonstrated concern for foreigners in captivity, as well as the Gospels in which Jesus taught us to love one another by working for justice.
Importantly, this stubborn heresy is not limited to Christmas carols.
It has manifested itself for decades in pejorative labels applied to those calling on the church to be an advocate and place of refuge that include “uppity,” “agitators,” “social gospel proponents,” “communists,” “Marxists,” “cultural Marxists,” “woke” and “critical race theorists.”
It rears its head wherever we must remind the church that faith without works is dead. To quote Mika Edmondson, pastor of Koinonia in Nashville, Tennessee, “Marginalized people don’t have the luxury of separating religion from politics. When society has its knee on your neck, you need a God who will deliver souls and bodies.”
Undoubtedly, “O Holy Night” remains one of the most popular Christmas hymns. However, as we journey through this new year, the question for today’s church is not whether we sing the third verse, but whether we know it and embody its central message.
This is a question that is evergreen because, as Christ-followers, we are charged with considering all implications of Christ’s name. And in his name, we pray that all oppression shall cease, and then we do our part to bring this hope to reality.
An author and attorney, practicing criminal and family law in the law firm of Callahan & King, PLLC, based in Waco, Texas. As a writer and advocate, he performs center stage in the three-ring circus of law, race and religion. Robert and his wife celebrate an interracial marriage, which has gifted them with three beautiful children, two demanding dogs and a mountain of student loan debt.