Words matter: the language of warfare in a kingdom of peace

Last week I was at a conference in Bangkok where the military metaphors flowed freely.

“We’re raising up an army.”

“Fighting for God.”

“Doing battle with the enemy.”

“Going to war for this generation.”

It felt like an awful lot of violent imagery for a conference that was all about kids and faith.

It’s true you’ll find military metaphors in the New Testament, as friends on Facebook and Twitter pointed out when I aired my concern the other day. Jesus talks about bringing a “sword” of division. Paul greets his friends as “fellow soldiers,” counsels believers to put on “the armor of God,” and urges Timothy to “fight the good fight.”

But there is, I think, a crucial difference between us and the earliest Christians: the pre-Constantine church was united in its opposition to violence of any kind. As Preston Sprinkle writes on Scot McKnight’s blog (and in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence):

While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.

The early church rejected the distinction that some like Mark Driscoll try to make between “authorized” and “unauthorized” killing. Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius — they condemned killing, period.

The Church Fathers prior to Constantine were united in their opposition to military service. For example, Tertullian argued that, “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.”

The New Testament writers took pains to emphasize the metaphorical (or at least non-physical) nature of the church’s “fight.” Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world,” meaning that his followers would not fight. Paul insisted that our struggle “is not against flesh and blood” and that we “do not wage war as the world does.”

The New Testament’s military metaphors must be read in light of its larger commitment to nonviolence — a commitment to which the early church held unwaveringly. For ancient believers, there was no mistaking the significance of these metaphors — or what they didn’t signify.

But all that was before Constantine.

That was before Augustine and Aquinas and just war theory.

That was before the Crusades.

That was before a millennium of wars fought in God’s name by those who saw themselves as God’s people doing God’s work.

That was before God’s name was invoked in our own lifetime to justify military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was before some Christians in Uganda, backed by others in the US, rallied behind an anti-homosexuality bill that included the death penalty for some offenses.

So when Christians today speak of “raising an army,” “going to war,” or “doing battle with the enemy,” what exactly do they mean? After centuries of killing and war in God’s name, is it still just a metaphor, as it was for the early Christian writers? And if so, is that clear to those listening on the outside?

I’m not so sure.

The origins and implications of our words matter, as David R. Henson’s thoughtful post reminds us. The language we use should reflect our commitment to the teachings of Jesus — including his call to nonviolence.

Choosing our words carefully is perhaps even more important, precisely because we haven’t always lived up to this call.

2 thoughts on “Words matter: the language of warfare in a kingdom of peace

  1. Charles Spurgeon used military metaphors (as did the Apostle Paul) but he made the meaning crystal clear: “…Now with that caution, whatever I shall seem to say will not sound as though I loved or excused ordinary warfare—for nothing can be more abhorrent to the Christian man than wholesale slaughter.” http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/spurgeon-christian-soldiers-war-peace-pacifist/

    Paul was also clear on this matter: http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context-sword-pacifism/

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