Warning: This is all spoilers. I realize that an analysis of Hamilton is not the hot take it might have been two years ago, but if you for whatever reason haven’t seen it, don’t read this.
Here’s a potentially awful essay idea: The hit musical Hamilton, especially the second act, is one of the best articulations of ancient Christian doctrine I’ve ever seen – specifically what happened on and after the cross.
I know. Appropriating slightly-dated pop culture for a teaching. The hipster within me is cringing. But here’s why I feel compelled to write about this: I think this play is actually better (even much better!) in articulating some difficult things than any heady tome on salvation you might find in a seminary library. I’ll get to why in a bit.
I didn’t come into the play expecting theological reflection. I came because my family dragged me there, unexpectedly buying the tickets the night before. I also didn’t expect to be in tears the whole second act.
There’s a subversiveness to Hamilton’s narrative. The titular politician is front and center, and his tragic tale is trod from beginning to end, but the play isn’t about him. If there’s a centralized “message” to the play, which isn’t afraid to do some of its own preaching at times, it’s not about the dangers of ambition or pride or certain political attitudes. Rather, it’s about what it takes – what it costs – to redeem a man whose strengths and weaknesses are hopelessly intertwined. I think the play as a whole belongs to Hamilton’s wife, Eliza – and I think it knows it, too.
This isn’t because Eliza is necessarily the most memorable character. Jefferson is funnier, Burr burns with a deeper pathos and longing, and we could all watch another hour of king George doing whatever he does. Angelica, the older sister, is more conventionally “strong” in terms of wit, confidence, and bold love. We also don’t see much of Eliza. The staging follows Hamilton’s lead in taking her for granted, acknowledging her presence but content to leave her sidelined and as “Helpless” as her first song would suggest, until the end. And yet, i started to see parallels between Eliza’s story and the promises of the Bible, especially as summed up in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a suffering servant (Isaiah 53, for those who like reading along). I would be surprised, as the second act unfolded, just how far this parallel would go.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Eliza is not nearly as remarkable as everyone she is surrounded by, and that compounded with the role of women in her time and place together suggest that this will not be her story, no matter what she does. Nobody expects her to be the hero.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
By the end of the play, Eliza has lost both of the dearest loves of her life, and has experienced the pain of unfaithfulness, even though we’ve been given nothing to suggest she did anything herself to lead to that outcome.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem
On top of the grief of loss, Eliza has been dishonored. Both of her family members died by losing duels, and she has been labeled as a disgraced wife by Hamilton’s affairs. Her name and family are now associated with infidelity and death. Hamilton’s self-defense publication have dragged his own wife’s name through the mud in front of the general public.
But here’s the crux (pun intended). We can feel pity for victims, but experiencing suffering doesn’t inherently make us Christ-like. Plenty of people suffer all sorts of awful things. The difference isn’t about what is done to us, but the way we respond to it. That moment for me hit home in the middle of the song “It’s Quiet Uptown”. Hamilton is walking with Eliza, singing how he wishes that he could exchange his life for her son’s. He also wishes he could take back his affair, or in some way repay her for what he took from her through his selfishness.
But he can’t. What could he possibly give her, in this context? Money? A nice vacation? A piece of jewelry? Hamilton has taken from her what he can’t replace. He’s sinned against her in ways that he can’t atone for. But he loves her, he sees her again, and he realizes what he has long ignored – the pain his selfish actions have caused. He’s the helpless one, now. They stand, facing each other and the audience, tears pouring down their faces at the enormity of it all. And then she takes his hand, and it hit me: She’s taking his sin upon herself. The chorus is cooing the word in the background, but the emotions speak more to the reality than any terminology. Forgiveness. That’s what it means in this situation. What it has to mean. Someone has to pay the price, because the damage is done. And in deciding to forgive, for the sake of love, Eliza is assuming the full weight of Hamilton’s sin. In doing so, she redeems him – giving him another chance to be good and to live again.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
This is the drama of the cross of Christ, writ small and intimate amid the turmoil of a turning point in American history. There’s an irony here that I have to assume was intentional: Hamilton’s downfall was obsessively creating a system about assuming debts – states can be credited by the federal government in order to invest large sums in their goals and needs. In doing so, they can create industries which allow them to pay back their loan. And yet in making this system, Hamilton racks up a toll in his own life that he has no power to reimburse. This is the impossible situation that I find myself in with God – when everything I have is God’s, when all of the world is God’s, what can I do to repay my wrongs? It’s just as absurd as Hamilton taking Eliza to a fancy dinner, except more so.
I see the death of Jesus on the cross as a one-time display, in history, of an eternal reality – an illustration of what it means for an innocent God to live with a guilty creation: to remain in relationship means to assume our debts, over and over and over. When we have nothing to offer, it’s the only way. That’s an uncomfortable thought for me, to be in that position. In the playwright’s words, it means acknowledging and owning “a suffering too terrible to name.” But when we approach the cross to understand it, or to analyze it, it can fall flat on the page and in our worship services – as unemotional and unreal as contemplating infinity. We just can’t do it. This is why I think Hamilton is actually a better illustration of the cross than all of our talk of justification, substitution, satisfaction, ransom blah blah blah – it’s something too big for our minds and hearts to grasp, couched in metaphors of debts and courtrooms and ritual sacrifice. But in Hamilton and Eliza’s mutual tears, in Hamilton simultaneously humbled and freed by Eliza’s action, In Eliza broken but ultimately the stronger one, I see what all of that language is trying to point us to. This is what grace feels like, what it means – and it is too powerful to name.
Yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
So where does this leave Eliza, or Jesus for that matter? Eternally victims, written out of history as collateral damage of evil and oppression? Does it matter that they made the choice to forgive, when it is their oppressors who benefited from that forgiveness? Doesn’t that kinda make them enablers, technically? Thankfully, both Isaiah and Hamilton end on a note of hope:
And though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
“Who is going to tell my story?”
In its final song, the play seeks to undo the damage done to Eliza. It operates on the understanding that victors write the history books to sing their own praises, at the expense of true heroes who do not seek their own glory. In its final moment, the cast ends by giving us, the audience, the charge to tell Eliza’s story – to replace her dishonor with honor, to replace her silence with her voice, to un-erase her from history and let her life teach future generations how to live. There’s a word for this: It’s vindication. In this case, it’s a also a sort of literary/historical act of resurrection.
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied
This is where the play once again intersects with scriptural claims. If the cross is a display of God’s willingness to suffer for our sins, the resurrection is another kind of declaration: that it’s not in God’s nature to forget the suffering of the innocent. That God is not satisfied just by the redemptive injustice of forgiveness. God wants full justice. And so, on the third day, Jesus is resurrected by God’s power – vindicated as innocent, declared just, proudly placed in a position of honor. Jesus chose to forgive in his death, but God was not content with that being the final say – just as Hamilton is not content with letting Eliza be the saint behind the scenes. She’s earned herself a place of honor, the play says, let’s give it to her. We owe it to her, actually.
In the end, Eliza wins a sort of victory – but not one of revenge, not one that sorts the world into bad people and good people, not one of attaining the political and military power that the men around her cause so much pain in accumulating. She gets the final word (literally) in a play that up to this point has refused to be about her. Her story is told, of preserving her husband’s legacy and going on to care for orphans. She is restored the place of honor she deserved all along. Only an authority outside of the situation could give her that justice. In Hamilton, it’s the audience. In the Bible, it’s God’s testimony through the resurrection and the witness of the church.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong
Hamilton would be a powerful story, even if Jesus hadn’t come yet. The moments it captures are deeply human, emotionally powerful, and capture some of our human potential to be beautiful in a way God made us to be. I’m grateful to the show for taking a hard look at the weight and power of forgiveness, even between two people. Watching it, I’m reminded that a message of forgiveness is always deeply personal, even when it’s universal.
There are still plenty of things about the Gospel message that I don’t understand, especially in terms of how we are called to participation in it. There’s parts of the Bible that still go way over my head. What is do know is that I serve a God who is willing to do the unimaginable for us, who asks me to take his hand and let him take my guilt upon himself, and who calls me to tell His story and give him the praise that He rightly deserves. I’m not throwing away my shot.