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Henningsen: Turn Back O Man

When I was young, I attended one of those boarding schools that held daily chapel. I can’t say that exercise brought me any closer to God, but it did instill in me a lifelong love of singing hymns. One of them comes to mind now, as I contemplate the devastation likely to be visited upon the nation by the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to the federal budget.

Turn Back, O Man, Forswear thy Foolish Ways, doesn’t often appear in today’s weekly services. But to me it seems to fit this context.

English composer, Clifford Bax, wrote it one hundred years ago to protest the carnage of World War I. But it’s really a hymn of yearning for what could - and should - be.

Consider these lines:

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep...

And the notion of haunted sleep seems an apt metaphor for the current administration’s planned budget - weighed down as it is by fears unworthy of a great nation. A country that destroys public support for the culture that makes it unique - and invests almost entirely in defense - will soon have nothing left worth defending.

Public support for the arts and humanities, for scientific research, for education, and projects that celebrate the freedom of the human spirit, constitute confident investment in our collective future.

A nation that won’t plan for such a future not only won’t have one, but doesn’t deserve one. Even the mundane details of budget planning should reflect a national vision anchored in something more than desperation.

The hymn ends with a message I hope we’ll once again take to heart:

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one.
Not ‘til that hour shall God’s whole work be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry,
‘Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one.’

We should sing this more often. Just because federal budget planners are tone deaf, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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