Epiphany: Jesus, Alexander Hamilton, and the World Turned Upside Down

By: Art Wright, Scholar in Residence for CBFVA

Like much of the city of Richmond, I was caught up in the Hamilton hype late in 2019. The award-winning broadway show came to Richmond for several weeks, and my social media feeds were awash with people going to see it. My wife and I have listened to the soundtrack seemingly non-stop in the weeks following the show. One song by Lin-Manuel Miranda has gotten stuck in my head more than the others: “Yorktown (World Turned Upsidedown).”

Towards the end of the song (after 3:30 in the linked video), the cast sings the haunting refrain over and over again: “The world turned upside down. The world turned upside down.” The British army has surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. According to legend, as the British troops departed Yorktown, the army’s band played an old drinking song: “The World Turned Upside Down.” The unthinkable has happened. The ragtag American army has won independence from the powerful British empire, and the melody of the Hamilton song reflects the disorientation all parties must have felt in this world-altering moment.

Believe it or not, the British drinking song is actually based on Scripture. In Acts 17, Jewish authorities and “ruffians” attack a Christian convert’s house and drag him and others before the Roman imperial authorities, saying, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also . . . . They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7; emphasis mine).

Another empire. Another world-inverting moment.

As we move from the Christmas season into Epiphany, I am struck by the ways in which the life and story of Jesus turned the world upside down—and should continue to do so.

Unlike the British and Roman empires, God’s power was made manifest in the vulnerability and weakness of the tiny Christ child. This child would grow up to challenge the status quo of religious and political authorities whose power was primarily self-serving. King Herod was right to fear the birth of Jesus announced to him by the Magi (whom we commemorate on Epiphany). In Acts 17, it’s no wonder that the opponents of the nascent Christian movement are alarmed at the ways in which the followers of Jesus undermine the authority of the Roman emperor.

Yet it seems that, for so many churches and Christians today, we are more interested in maintaining the status quo than turning the world upside down.

What would it look like for followers of Christ to turn the world upside down today? How does your church reflect a Gospel that Mary’s Magnificat claimed would turn the world upside down (Luke 1:51–53)? What could this look like for you as a Christian? How might your congregation live this out in your community and in the larger world? Does it have anything to do with bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, as we pray weekly in the Lord’s Prayer? I imagine it has a lot to do with acts of self-giving love and caring for “the least of these.”

My prayer for the season ahead is that we as churches and individuals will find ways to “turn the world upside down.” If so, I have no doubt that I will have Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song stuck in my head when we do.