Chains Shall He Break


*A reflection by Julie Clawson in her book, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices


The nineteenth-century hymn “O Holy Night” is one of my favorite Christmas carols, but for years I sang it (off-key and with gusto) without really considering the lyrics.  I thought it was just a pretty song about the night Jesus was born.  Yet shortly after the release of the original French version in 1847, a French bishop denounced the song for its “lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion.” Apparently its author, Placide Cappeau, faced opposition for his extreme political views, namely his opposition to inequality, slavery, injustice and other kinds of oppression. The bishop didn’t consider such stances to represent proper religious values.  Fortunately for us, the minister who (loosely) translated the song into English shared Cappeau’s values as well.  The themes of justice and opposition to slavery appear in the lines.

            “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”.


This song captures Paul’s message to Philemon, a message seemingly forgotten in most of the church by the nineteenth century.  Yet a few brave people were willing to adopt the unpopular, “extreme” views because they recognized those views in the Bible.  They grasped the revolutionary nature of the call to embrace the slave as our brother, and thus they took on the challenge of ending slavery in their own day.  This wasn’t just a social movement; this was a spiritual commitment to seek justice and love their neighbor.  And despite opposition, they succeeded.

You can listen to it by following this link:

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