“When you spend everyday fighting a war, you learn to demonize your attackers. To you they’re evil, they’re sub-human. Because if they weren’t, then what would that make you?” – General Vanessa Kimble, Red Vs Blue
So I’ve been attending a new church for a couple of weeks and I spend most of the time at the back reading a book on my Kindle and making notes on various things. One of the things I note down are anything that stands out to me during the sermon and this has been the case over the last couple of weeks. The passage that has been the subject has been the “armor of God” passage (Ephesians 6:10-17) which, just for ease of reference, is below:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Now, the way the vicar went with this passage was about Christians being in a war with the world. We are in a war with the world and it’s ways; we are either on the worlds side or God’s side, that we need to go on the attack for the best form of defence, all wrapped up in ‘Jesus took the punishment due to us for us on the cross’ and we need to be prepared. Sufficed to say this left me very uncomfortable and not because it was particularly challenging. It was the overall narrative of conflict of Christians should be effectively be raging a war. Now I kind of agree to a point, and I will hopefully elaborate more during this blog, but I think the vicar has the wrong target in their sights, not to mention very questionable tactics which when brought together, results in things that not only don’t seem to be of Jesus, but are actually creating more problems, if not create the very problem it’s trying to solve.
Let’s start with the target and for that, lets go right back to Genesis. God created this world and He declared it good. Then a serpent came in, convinced Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the world went wrong. Now, the concept of original sin and what Genesis is about is a subject of lengthy debates, and admittedly God did seem to wipe it all out and start again, but God has never stopped loving the world. He hated what it had become, He hated what it was doing and He hated what caused it, but He never stopped loving it. Arguably one of the most famous passages, John 3:16, states “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” and Jesus was quite clear about the 2 greatest commands; Love God and love your neighbour. We are not called to hate the world, we are not called to be at war with it, we are called to care for the sick, the dying, and the poor (James 2:14-17), but I’m going to come back to this.
So, who is the enemy, who is the target? The one who came in and wreaked havoc, the one that Paul refers to in Ephesians; the devil. The devil doesn’t want the focus to be on God but on ourselves and serving our selves at the individual level. It’s easy to stand on a pedestal and say “yes, the world has adopted the devils ways”, and that would probably be true, but so have many churches and Christians which is why when you speak out for equality and peace, the biggest firestorm comes from Christians. It seems that the ways of the Church and the ways of the devil are now so closely entwined that they’re virtually indistinguishable from each other. We now see enemies at every corner that we fight ourselves more than we fight the devil. Paul is very explicit, our war is not against flesh and blood and our readiness comes from a gospel of peace. Yet from a pulpit I heard “Jesus wasn’t interested in/here for world peace but our relationship with God”. First off, there still seems to be the individual self serving nature (“our” relationship with God is meant as “mine”) but a relationship with God and world peace are not 2 mutually exclusive options. To follow God means to serve others because that’s what Jesus did, and serving others instead of fighting means world peace.
So we seem to have the wrong target, what about the tactics? Well, Jesus was not slow to go on the attack against the Pharisees regarding their attitude towards those who they deemed to be unworthy (a theme to which I will return), but he was also equally as quick to show love to people. His attack was against the ways of the devil the Pharisees adopted that resulted in people being hurt was love and healing. But people see attacking as that, an attack to hurt and defeat an opponent and the vicar used actual war examples where that was the aim to show “this works and is good and what we should do”. Peter showed though that when you adopt that strategy as an attack, people get very hurt. Jesus not only rebuked him for it though, he healed the soldier to repair the damage, (Matthew 26:51-52). Jesus used his ‘attacks’ to defend others, Peter used his ‘attacks’ to harm others and this distinction has got very lost and was missing from these sermons. It seems to be a very important distinction because passages like Ephesians get used to support Christians owning (and using) guns and authors like Ben Corey and Derek Flood do an excellent job in showing this distinction; Flood has written an entire book dedicated to this subject. I put some of my views in “Should I defend myself”
When we bring these 2 together and add in “you can only be on God’s side or the worlds side”, that’s when things start getting really quite off track. Obviously any Christian would want to be on God’s side and the world is God’s enemy, so the world is therefore our enemy and we must defend ourselves and attack is the best form of defence. The end result is Christians attacking anyone who don’t deem to be on God’s side and that’s what we’re seeing today. People leaving church because they don’t feel welcome, people being asked to leave the church because they disagree with the church’s stance on a certain doctrine, countries saying they’d prefer Christian refugees, LGBT youth getting kicked out of their home and much worse. I started with a quote about what happens when you fight a war, what can be argued has to happen to fight a war and when you start using a war-like message, it’s the mindset that people will enter into. To wage a war against an enemy is not loving them and Jesus was extremely clear on how highly he rates that command (Mark 12:30-31).
This wasn’t meant to turn into another rant against the church. It should be said that this church does a lot of work with the homeless, particularly homeless young people and they should absolutely be applauded for that. I also know that my perspective does follow a very similar conflict model which in itself may be problematic. I’m also not saying this church is causing this harm directly, but the message that got preached certainly is. Preaching this kind of conflict narrative is only going to result in a tighter circling of the wagons to protect “our own” which is going to disconnect the church from the world more than it already is. Now, there are some Christians who believe it should be disconnected, “in the world but not of it”, but Jesus came to this world, made himself part of that worldly suffering. Even if we are in a war, it’s not against the world, it’s for it and Jesus has given us our orders; love your neighbour, care for the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the poor; that’s how you win. or as Ben Corey puts it:
Update: I sent this to the vicar in question and he responded by saying he didn’t say we were at war with the world, and has offered to chat about what he actually said/meant. When and if that happens, I will update further.