“If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a
private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.” (William James)
Many these days are understandably allergic to using military images and themes in thinking through theology, ministry, and discipleship. To do so, however, is to forfeit one of the fundamental strands of biblical imagery and thought about these things. I suspect that many experience the church’s theology and ministry, following James’ citation above, as “private theatricals” divorced from reality, nowhere close to compelling enough to sustain their continued involvement, precisely because we have eschewed military imagery of the conflict we are engaged in as Christians.
To use such imagery as a Christian is necessarily to “baptize” it with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This means emphatically rejecting the usual meaning of the imagery as physical combat or war as nations and peoples have practiced it through history. It means accepting that we truly are in a struggle that can properly be characterized as war or combat, with a decisive difference – Jesus Christ!
He is the lens through which this imagery must be run to be properly appropriated by the church. Here are a few of the elements that get rethought in this process.
Jesus – the Supreme Subversive Counter-Revolutionary (see next entry), the only one really. It’s his life and power that enables and animates our own participation in this divine movement. His call to us is a call to enlist in this movement and undergo the training (baptism) to become a regular in this movement which is sustained by the rations of faith (the Eucharist) which is the means by which Jesus’ life is renewed in and expressed by us.
Church – the new people of God are Abraham’s family, that people charged with being the vehicle through whom God intends to bless all nations. This people is what I call, deliberately using military imagery, God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement. To bless the world means first standing against all the distortions and dehumanizing practices, systems, and institutions established in sin to validate and enable the human drive to running its life by its own light and wisdom. This is the unavoidable conflict becoming a member of the church implicates you in.
Weaponry – this conflict is prosecuted by what Oscar Romero wonderfully called “The Violence of Love.” The way of life Jesus calls us to, for example, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7), is the way we fight. Jesus’ Beatitudes are who we will become. Prayer and the “sword of the Spirit” (God’s Word) are our weapons (Eph.6:17-20) and God’s own armor equips for the struggle (Eph.6:13-16). Non-violence is our way of life as well as the weapons of our warfare (2 Cor.10:3-6).
Enemy – not human beings but rather the “powers” that stand behind chaos and disorder (Eph.6:10-12) and other spiritual powers (the devil) that foment organized strategic attacks against God’s people using death and fear of death as their chief weapons. Though defeated at the cross (Col.2:15) these beaten powers continue to fight to the end creating a situation not unlike the interlude between the Allies’ defeat of Axis powers in the European theater at Normandy, after which the outcome of the war in that theater was no longer in doubt (D-Day) and the actual end of hostilities on V-Day nearly a year later. The church lives in such an interlude – enemies defeated at the cross (D-Day) yet still resistant and dangerous till Christ’s return (V-Day) – still on full alert rooting out these pockets of resistance to Christ’s victory.
Well, I suspect you get the idea. In genuine Christianity life is a “real fight” that makes a difference in the cosmos. The danger and adventure attendant to it are real as well. The community, or better “communitas,” evoked by it is far deeper and more compelling than what you find in church-so-called. We bear God’s armor and weaponry as one rather than as individuals. Here you have one another’s back and it matters whether you are there for each other. And so on.
Church like this is a compelling drama that allows no spectators, only participants. No “private theatricals” here from which one can simply walk away – or even want to!