When I was in seminary, I could be a bit of a firecracker; if I had an opinion, I was more than happy to make it known. This mode of operation worked out just fine, with a couple exceptions. I couldn’t skip class much, because my absence would be altogether too apparent. Just as thunder strikes after lightening during Midwestern summer storms, it was a safe gamble that I would pipe up when certain theological issues came up. One of those issues was—and is—violence. Violence and the bible, violence and Christian history, violence and video games. And it was on one of those occasions that violence came up in class that my tendency to mouth off bit back. It was History of Christianity, pre-reformation. We had made it as far as the Crusades, the brutal “Holy Wars” that Christians and Muslims waged in Medieval times. Little bewilders and angers me more than killing in the name of the Prince of Peace.
I took one look at the textbook illustration of a soldier dressed in armor adorned with a cross, and my hand shot up. I don’t remember precisely what I said, but it had something to do with dismissing the Crusaders as true followers of Christ. Now, if I was a firecracker, my professor was a cannonball. She hastily put me in my place, lecturing me on the need for respect and historical objectivity.
I learned a few things that day. Though my conviction regarding church-sanctioned violence did not change, I learned that respecting my brothers and sisters in Christ is crucial, even when their beliefs differ from mine, and even when they have been dead for a millennium. And I also learned that I was not cut out to be a historian. I was incapable of putting my core beliefs on the back burner to explore Christian history as an even-handed academic. I cannot study the Crusades without tearing my hair out. I am one of those Christians who are glad that Onward, Christians Soldiers was left out of our hymn book, though I have grown up enough not to dismiss your faith if it is your favorite hymn.
As you can imagine, I struggle with this week’s scripture from the book of Ephesians. In this rousing closure to his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul borrows the language of battle to describe the divine power that strengthens and protects Christians. We are to put on the whole armor of God, to encircle ourselves with God’s might so that we may be kept safe and secure from the powers of evil. This scripture, as with every scripture that reveals the works of our Heavenly Father, bears witness to good news. Yet I confess that it is a challenge to hear the gospel enfolded in the metaphor of tools for battle, when throughout history Christians have drawn swords sharpened not for the Spirit but for the killing of men, women, and children created in the image of God. It is jarring to consider the gospel in metaphorical images of war, when literal images of war are altogether too commonplace.
I read an article this week about a Reformed Rabbi who preached against the war in Iraq in her Orange County congregation. As she condemned the mistreatment of prisoners by members of the US military, she was abruptly interrupted. The commotion in the pews was so pronounced that she assumed there must be a medical emergency. But then a man raised his arms in an X, and shouted, “You have no right to talk about politics in the pulpit. It has no place here!”
I don’t know if I agree with that man. I don’t know if I agree with that Rabbi, either. I do know that it is neither responsible to ignore what is going on in the world around us, nor to paint the pulpit Republican-red or Democrat-blue. Today I heed Paul’s teaching to proclaim the Gospel of Peace. It is impossible to wear the shoes of peace during a time of war without treading in a complex current that includes politics.
Know that I do not intend to stand behind a bully pulpit. You are welcome to disagree with me. I do not intend to draw a line and invite each of you to stand on one side or the other. My prayer for us is that we become ever more shaped by that bold supplication we raise every time we worship: that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Paul talks about a present darkness, about spiritual forces of evil, about powers and principalities. And sure enough, God’s earth is cloaked by evil. We live in a world corrupted by disaster and plagued by illness. Though the soil and water of Creation produce an abundance of food, some starve while others count a surplus. Nations battle for access to resources. The intoxicating lure of power, privilege, and prestige infects human hearts. Dictators scramble for control. People inflict harm and terror upon other people, and whether it is on the scale of genocide between warring nations or domestic abuse between a husband and wife, God weeps for the evil power clutching his children.
As followers of the Risen Lord, we are invited to involve ourselves in a force more powerful than hatred, than violence, than evil. We are given tools: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the Word of God. Through that Holy Word, we receive Christ’s teachings about a peaceable Kingdom where God lives and reigns forever. No matter our convictions about war in general or any war in particular, as Christians we share a vision of a world no longer marred by violence and conflict, a fully redeemed Creation in which justice replaces inequality, mourning gives way to dancing, and the nations gather for worship, not war. The present darkness may seem dense, but our God has already begun the work of redemption through the radical love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The forces of evil have no chance against the power of God’s gentle and Holy Spirit.
That we are a nation at war troubles me deeply. My heart broke anew this week as I saw a photograph of a young mother preparing to leave her five-month-old child to return to active duty in Iraq. Her sacrifice is too great for me to fathom. And yet as a Christian, my compassion cannot stop with her. I know that God’s love and grace flow just as freely in other lands and languages.
Paul ends this passage with a reminder to pray in the Spirit at all times. It would seem that this is what our shiny armor prepares us for: the simple act of communicating with our Creator. And pray we must. In a time when it seems the world, and even our own nation, is divided into enemy camps, we must remind one another that Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will, not ours, to be done. We must share the gift of prayer generously, praying not only for the men and women proudly recognized in the Narthex, but that all persons might know the peace and protection of God.
The Christian struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but spiritual powers. As persons entrusted with the whole armor of God, not only our nation but every nation desperately needs our continual prayer for peace, witness for peace, and work for peace. We are clad in spiritual armor so that all of Creation may be released from the force of evil and ushered in to God’s just and peaceful Kingdom. This is a battle that cannot be lost, for in this battle, we are all on the side of God. May it be so.