The Theology of Hamilton

I love Hamilton. I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack numerous times. What’s most impressive to me is how integrated and layered the story is throughout the entire musical. There are themes and sub-themes repeated constantly.  There are also a lot of theological ideas that are threaded throughout. But first, enjoy the song.

Right Hand Man is the 8th song in the musical. The Revolution is happening and Hamilton, the poor orphan, is looking to make a name for himself.

[HAMILTON]
As a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war
I knew that I was poor
I knew it was the only way to—

[HAMILTON/BURR/MULLIGAN/LAURENS/LAFAYETTE]
Rise up!

[HAMILTON]
If they tell my story
I am either gonna die on the battlefield in glory or—

[HAMILTON/BURR/MULLIGAN/LAURENS/LAFAYETTE]
Rise up!
_______________

We all want to be a hero. We want to be the subject of a story. Hamilton is consumed with  creating his legacy. This can, but doesn’t have to be, egotistical. Our life is a gift from God, and it’s only fitting to offer it back to Him as a life well-lived (cf. Rom 12:1). That’s stewardship.

Hamilton gives us a lens into the Theology of Martyrdom. Those who die for the faith are martyrs. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).Martyrdom has always been exalted because it is proof of your faith in Christ. I imagine most people as they grow in faith have at least some fantasies about being a martyr. I certainly have (note though that my ‘fantasies’ involve a quick and painless martyrdom rather than anything lasting too long, or being too gruesome). If I’m being honest though, my ‘desire’ for martyrdom isn’t so much about the glory of God, it’s more about the glory of myself. True martyrdom is a gift from God, it is NOT to be sought. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23). The driving force for Hamilton toward martyrdom is to create his legacy. It is not a selfless, but a selfish martyrdom. Throughout the entire musical (with few exceptions) he seeks this without regard for his family (the birth and later death of his son does briefly change him).

A more mature desire ought to be The Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux. The Little Way is a vocation to love. True love in every situation. It is not glamorous or flashy. It starts at home. Love your mom. Love your dad. Love your family. Love your neighbor. Start Local. I can be the most loving person in the world to strangers, and even to my friends, but if I’m not loving to my family it’s meaningless.

I have work to do.

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” – G.K. Chesterton

 

The early Christian story of St. Polycarp illustrates true martyrdom. A man named Quintus sought martyrdom for his own glory. However, he got scared when he saw the wild beasts that were to devour him and then committed apostasy (giving up his faith in God). Polycarp (69-155 AD), the Bishop of Smyrna, was a disciple of the Apostle John, who was a disciple of Jesus. He did not seek martyrdom, but was arrested during a local persecution. Upon his trial for being a Christian the proconsul urged him to renounce his faith. He responded:

“Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”  -St. Polycarp

He was threatened with wild beasts. He remained steadfast. He was threatened to be burned alive. Still, he remained steadfast.

“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”  -St. Polycarp

____________________

BACK TO HAMILTON. There is a great difference between the martyrdom Hamilton seeks and that which sought Polycarp.

[HAMILTON to WASHINGTON]

Your excellency, you wanted to see me?

Have I done something wrong, sir?

[WASHINGTON]
On the contrary
I called you here because our odds are beyond scary
Your reputation precedes you, but I have to laugh

[HAMILTON]
Sir?

[WASHINGTON]
Hamilton, how come no one can get you on their staff?

[HAMILTON]
Sir!

[WASHINGTON]
Don’t get me wrong, you’re a young man of great renown
I know you stole British cannons when we were still downtown
Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox wanted to hire you…

[HAMILTON]
To be their Secretary? I don’t think so

[WASHINGTON]
Why’re you upset?

[HAMILTON]
I’m not—

[WASHINGTON]
It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger
I was just like you when I was younger
Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?

[HAMILTON]
Yes

[WASHINGTON]
Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder

_____________________

Hamilton has a gift with words, but he’s still living with his fantasies about being a martyr. Dying is easy. Living is harder. Washington has the maturity to recognize this. Hamilton’s true vocation is to do the less glorious task of serving as Washington’s secretary. Hamilton’s ego hinders him from this.

Our gifts ought to be at the service of others. Sometimes this will lead to fame, but mostly it won’t. Seeking fame for its own sake isn’t helpful to anyone. By listening to Washington this ended up working out for Hamilton. His legacy ended up being much greater than it would have been had he died early in the revolution.

This is also illustrated in the song Meet Me Inside:

[HAMILTON (OVERLAPPING)]
Charles Lee, Thomas Conway
These men take your name and they rake it
Through the mud

[WASHINGTON]
My name’s been through a lot, I can take it

[HAMILTON]
Well, I don’t have your name. I don’t have your titles
I don’t have your land
But, if you—

[WASHINGTON]
No—

[HAMILTON]
If you gave me command of a battalion, a group of men to lead, I could fly above my station after the war

[WASHINGTON]
Or you could die and we need you alive

[HAMILTON]
I’m more than willing to die—

[WASHINGTON]
Your wife needs you alive, son, I need you alive—

[HAMILTON]
Call me son one more time—
______________________


As we grow in maturity, we come to seek our vocation rather than what glorifies us. In my own life this has played out. When beginning to discern the priesthood, it was romantic to dream about being a missionary to some far off place in rural Africa. I’d be a hero. Everyone would talk about it. My parents could brag about it. Some people do have an authentic vocation to be a missionary in a far-off land. However, I’m not one of them. When I experienced a call to the priesthood and prayed about it, over time it became clear that I was called to serve as a parish priest in my home diocese. God called me to be a priest for the good people of Northeast Iowa. We need priests here too.

Along with this subject, I’m often asked: “Where do you want to go as a priest?” This question is completely well-intentioned, but it is a bit misguided. My vocation is a call from God to serve as a faithful priest of Jesus Christ. That’s it. It doesn’t really matter about where I want to go. The bishop’s job is to assign me to a church. My concern is to be faithful in whatever assignment I am given. Hamilton shoots too large too soon. Fortunately, he has a wise friend in Washington to temper his rashness and guide him. We should strive to be faithful in small matters first, and then if God wants to put more on our plate He is more than capable of bringing that about.

In our life it is good to have aspirations. However, the important thing is that we reflect on our motives. Is this for the Glory of God? Is this truly about the good of society? My family? Or am I being selfish? Being a lawyer to work for authentic justice is a wonderful aspiration which can glorify God and benefit the community. Being a lawyer to make a ton of money and host fancy parties might not pass the test. Being a politician is a noble form of public service, provided that one forgoes the temptations to solely serve oneself.

In a world where it seems like one needs to start an orphanage to get into a top-tier college, maybe we have focused too much on the extraordinary to the detriment of the ordinary. Maybe our exotic dreams miss the mark a little.  Maybe we shouldn’t fantasize about being a martyr. Instead, maybe we should seek to simply be an everyday saint, and see just where that might lead us. Maybe we should listen to the wise guides like George Washington in our life. That’s the Little Way, which turns out to be not so little. Just ask Mother Teresa.