For Everyone Born – a problematic hymn

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  I went to the first new PC(USA) hymnal launch event in Pennsylvania last fall, and I’ve heard this hymn sung MANY times – at Field Ed, at General Assembly, at Princeton Seminary many times in chapel, at the Worship and Music conference.  This hymn is quickly becoming a favorite of churches and seminaries.

It’s catchy.  It’s easy to sing.  It has a central message of unity, though it stumbles with some equality concepts.  The refrain is really pretty and mentions all sorts of good things.

But it has a problem.  Several problems really, but I’m going to concentrate on one.  This problem has been pointed out to me by several friends.

Recently I’ve been noticing a pattern among my friends – primarily my female friends and close relatives.  I’m becoming increasingly alarmed at how many have been abused – usually physically or sexually.  It’s not that far from the truth to say that all adult women that I know well enough to have heard such stories have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse.  Or controlling behavior.  ALL of them.  Some more than once.  I’m alarmed, and trying to figure out what to do with the anger.

For these friends (and certainly others), verse 4 of For Everyone Born is a problem.  Here’s the verse:

For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
(Copyright 1998, Hope Publishing)

At a first glance it seems pretty benign – that abuser and abused should be able to participate in the church and Eucharist equally.  We truly believe that.  It’s not really a problem.

But then you read it again.  And you notice that the injunctions are all against the abused.  The abused has a need to forgive.  (What does the abuser have to forgive?)  The abused is called to have a mindset of mercy.

And worst of all – the abused is expected to be at the same table as the abuser.  THIS is psychologically damaging for everybody that has talked to me about this.  The idea of sitting at a table, a Holy Table, with one’s abuser is painful.  It causes panic attacks.  It causes anger.  One friend felt a call to walk out of a service in the middle of the hymn (though she didn’t).  This verse of this hymn turns our sanctuaries from places of safety to places of danger.  Danger in the triggering of abuse victims, and danger in the very real implication of sharing space with their abuser.

This becomes even more insidious when the abuser is a family member or significant other.  People who have suffered abuse have it repeated again through family pressures.  Family members urge or even demand that they reconcile with their abuser (often without knowledge of the abuse) “for the good of the family.”  The abused person becomes the problem in that they split the family, rather than having the responsibility for the split properly lodged with the abuser.  Some people continue years later to have nightmares about the abuser and the abuse, and this demand in this hymn can bring up all of that again.

The refrain calls on us to create justice, compassion and peace:

and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!

I question whether any of these are possible when calling for abuser and abused to be in the same place.  The abused will not feel justice.  They will not feel compassion – they will feel the opposite.  They clearly will not feel peace, or joy.

I doubt that the hymn’s author intended to make this statement.  Still, the verse remains imbalanced.  Some call for repentance and reparation might balance it.  But perhaps it would be better just to leave it out.  When this hymn was sung as the Class Hymn at my Princeton Seminary graduation last May I chose not to sing this verse.  I almost sat down for the verse, but I was in a place where that would have been difficult and nobody would have understood what I was doing anyway.

So if you want to use this hymn, please consider skipping verse 4.  Or consider skipping the hymn entirely – there are other hymns that say the same thing without triggering the many (many more than you realize) victims of abuse.  Or at least know that you may have some work to do after it is sung.


4 Comments on For Everyone Born – a problematic hymn

  1. Mike Capron on Thu, 24th Jul 2014 10:09 am
  2. Mark, your compassion does you much credit and you have pointed out a very real and practical issue about abuse, the wounds it inflicts and how one can never expect/command reconciliation that victims are not ready for.

    Yet doesn’t that make testimonies where extraordinary forgiveness is possible all the more inspiring? I’ve heard some amazing testimony out of Truth & Reconciliation movements, including a Central American widow who allowed the torturer and killer of her husband to come to her home to do yard work every week. It was penance for him and helpful for her.

    Will Willimon once recounted a conversation after worship where an abuse victim asked him if his sermon meant she had to forgive her abuser. He started to back-peddle and qualify his general comments about forgiveness even as she started thanking him for helping her be released from her bondage to her pain. He felt that the Spirit used his sermon (not really covering that topic) to help her heal that day. He imagined God speaking to him saying, “Who are you to get in between my people and what I am doing with them?”

    So while I really respect your cautionary note, I advise you not to move the pendulum so far that you assume such miraculous reconciliation is never possible and proliferate that message in your leadership. There is a very fine balance here. I expect your empathy and faith will help you find it.

  3. Andrea on Thu, 24th Jul 2014 12:01 pm
  4. I think that something about the fourth verse is less about the psychological trauma and difficulty of the abused suffering anxiety during the Supper, and more concerning the fact that at the Great Banquet table, there will be no anxiety in the relationship, and the steps the song suggests for eating at the table now make the current Lord’s Supper a closer reflection of the Great Banquet to come.

  5. Leslianne Braunstein on Thu, 24th Jul 2014 3:59 pm
  6. I used this hymn once. Hadn’t fully processed it when I did. If I could have pulled it back that Sunday morning I would have for the very reasons you articulate here, Mark. That verse is patently value laden and requires a much larger conversation than four lines in a hymn. To require it sung in the congregational setting –where we clearly cannot know everyone’s story –has the potential to further abuse. Thank you for these eloquent thoghts.

  7. Kristine Gabster on Thu, 24th Jul 2014 4:33 pm
  8. Thank you so much! As a survivor of child sexual abuse (once was at the hands of the treasurer of the church where my dad was a minister), and a survivor of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of my husband (and the list goes on), I agree with your friends 100%. While I doubt it was intentional, and I do understand (I think) what the hymn writer had in mind, I agree that it absolutely puts a responsibility on the abused that simply is not there while ignoring the responsibility of the abuser to atone for the abuse. This has the potential for perpetuating abuse, and we simply need to cut that hymn to the quick, in my opinion. Those who are not effected by this have clearly not experienced this kind of abuse. I do not hold that against them. I believe that the brokenness that is within both the abused and the abuser can and will be taken care of after death in whatever way God sees fit.

    It is not my job to impress people by forgiving my abusers. It is difficult enough merely to survive without hatred. The anger is still there. The pain is still there. This is after years of ongoing therapy and a lot of hard work on my part. Do I walk around constantly thinking about the abuse or my anger? No. Have I forgiven them? No. This will not create anxiety in the relationship. That was created at the hands of the abusers. If there is forgiveness, it will come from heaven above, for them, and for me. Have any of my abusers atoned for their abuse? Absolutely not! In fact, my ex-husband’s family blames me for every aspect of the dissolution of our marriage. That’s all right, though. I believe that in the end (and I mean the end of life itself), there will be more healing love than I will ever find here on earth. That’s not meant to be a crack on the human race, or a disdain for life here on this earth. It is something, if not the one thing, that I can hold onto that assures me that – if it does not happen while I am alive – one day, I WILL feel pure love wrap around me and heal the pain that no human power can rid me of.

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