Martyrdom and the Theology of Hamilton

by on August 11, 2017

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, with a lot of theological ideas threaded throughout. The Revolution is happening and Alexander 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, but 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.

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.

St. Polycarp 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? 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.”  Though he was threatened with wild beasts, St. Polycarp remained steadfast. He was threatened to be burned alive and still, he remained steadfast.

There is a great difference between the martyrdom Hamilton seeks and that which sought Polycarp, evidenced later in the same song:

[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 had a gift with words, but was still living with his fantasies about being a martyr. Dying is easy. Living is harder. Washington had the maturity to recognize this. Hamilton’s vocation was to do the less glorious task of serving as someone’s secretary, but his ego hindered 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.

[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—

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.

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. 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.

As we grow in maturity, we come to seek our vocation rather than what glorifies us.

In a world where it seems like one practically 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 St. Therese.

This article was repurposed with permission. It can be viewed in its original format here.