Soldiers in Our Father’s World
For more on this topic please read the chapter “Violence in Defense of Justice” in The Moral Vision of the Old Testament by Richard B. Hayes.
I can still hear the joyful singing of “We Are Soldiers” in the corridors of my memories. I am sure many of you can hear it too.
“We are soldiers in the army/we have to fight although we have to die/we have to hold up the bloodstained banner/we have to hold it up until we die.”
The blunt reality of the lyrics and the themes addressed in the song strike me more now than they did before. In my youth, I sang this song countless times and yet the military imagery failed to astonish me. It is only now that I consider the apparent conflict between these common images in our Bibles and hymnals and the pacifist notions of Scripture. God seems to endorse peace but also accepts military images to describe the Christian experience. It is the contrast between the atrocities seen in photographs of war painfully and New Testament biblical militaristic imagery that puzzles me.
Indeed, there seems to be dissonance between spiritual words of peace and words of conflict in the spiritual arena. For example, there is strong contrast between the aforementioned children’s song and the hymn “This Is My Father’s World.” The latter goes “This is my father’s world/The birds their carols raise/The morning light, the lily white/Declare their maker’s praise.” Both may be accurate; but how can we embrace both peace and the sword?
It is imperative to realize that the sword of the Spirit and sword of the flesh differ in their purposes and their way of thinking. The sword of the Spirit and the flesh are both double-edged and cut to the innermost parts of man. Nevertheless, one cuts unto edification while another cuts unto destruction. (Hebrews 4:12, Ephesians 6, Proverbs 5:3,4) A greater question arises when considering the conduct of Christ on earth.
During the times of Christ there were issues of social justice and corrupt government institutions similar to those that presently exist. Nevertheless, we do not see Christ directly championing retaliation against these powers; instead He addresses a higher power and conflict. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). His kingdom is not of this world and yet by waging radical warfare against the higher powers, He reclaims it.
Furthermore, He challenges His disciples to embody this countercultural form of warfare. His request is more difficult to carry out than the natural responses of revenge and retaliation: “…do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other
cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:39-40). Some would say Christ’s mandates intensify and exceed the commands of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, there are evidences of this concept in the Old Testament too. (Proverbs 25:21-22)
As Christ followers we are to embody a kingdom mindset. Christ does not endorse coercion or force as a solution. Instead of championing the removal of an institution Christ champions the changing of the mind and way in which we relate to one another. He appeals to the ultimate authority which can destroy the soul and the body (Matthew 10:28).
From a literary perspective another question arises. What is the benefit to utilizing such imagery in Scripture? For example, the armor of God with its helmet of salvation, shield of faith and sword of the Spirit as opposed to the Fruit of the Spirit. The potential of imagery to obscure a meaning or make it easier to understand contributes to the benefit or detriment of its communication and utilization. Military imagery has its benefits in emphasizing the seriousness of an invisible reality and bringing it closer to the immediate reality. Conversely, the imagery could be detrimental when coupled with a negligent hermeneutical method. These factors could lead to a misunderstanding and the eventual taking of actions that were not intended by the author.
Upon pondering these issues of pacifism and militaristic imagery, I find a deeper question of authority. Ultimately, if the Bible places more emphasis on spiritual warfare than physical, then the former must eclipse the latter in importance. Furthermore, by faith we know in the end God will realign the physical and personal order of this planet. As the ultimate authority, He has the final word. Recalling and reflecting on the hymn once more, I remember this stanza, “This is my Father’s world/O let me ne’er forget/That though the wrong seems oft so strong/God is the ruler yet.”