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

Battle of Nandorfehervar (image public domain in the United States)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.

How Islam is no more a “religion of violence” than is my faith

Muslims for peace

Sometimes a single Facebook post can restore your faith in humanity just a little bit.

Like when a friend who’s a Boston-area church leader shared that she was engaging in a dialogue with her Muslim counterparts, reflecting together on the Boston bombings and the days ahead.

What a concept.

Talking WITH people of the Islamic faith instead of just talking ABOUT them or, worse, listening to Bill O’Reilly talk about them.

On his show, O’Reilly complains that too many Muslims are “silent” about violence perpetrated in the name of their religion. Yet as my friend pointed out after actually spending time with Muslim leaders, they have condemned these acts repeatedly. They see them — and denounce them — as heretical distortions of their faith.

But they feel like their voice gets ignored by a 24-hour news cycle which prefers a simpler narrative.

O’Reilly says he can’t hear any Muslim voices denouncing violence. Maybe if he stopped pontificating for two minutes and tried listening…

The truth is, we all see and hear what we want to. And we’re all blind to that which we just don’t want to see.

“Islam is a religion of violence.”

That’s the prevailing notion among many Christians, most of whom don’t know a single Muslim person.

Perhaps these Christians heard a fragment of the Quran that sounds like it’s promoting violence. Usually quoted without any context.

Sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes it’s just what we think the Quran says — because, let’s be honest: most of us (myself included) couldn’t quote a single word of Islam’s holy book if we had to.

Sure. Islam has its “problem texts.”

But I’m a Christian, and that means I’ve got my share of problem texts to deal with too.

Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns. (Numbers 21:2-3)

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys [Heb. taf, or “little children”]. (Numbers 31:15-18)

At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women and children. We left no survivors… the Lord our God gave us all of them. (Deuteronomy 2:34-36)

You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. (Deuteronomy 13:15)

In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

The church has various ways of dealing with these and other violent texts in the Bible. Some Christians suggest they’re no longer applicable because they’re Old Testament, as if genocide was all well and good for Israel but not so much for us today.

Some traditions read these texts allegorically. Others question their historicity, noting that archaeologists have unearthed scant evidence for any wholesale extermination of Canaan’s indigenous population during the second millennium BC.

Still others have pointed out similarities between the Old Testament’s violent imagery and that of other ancient Near Eastern religions, suggesting the Israelites borrowed some less-than-ideal notions about God and violence from their neighbors.

And some of us would note that whatever path you take to get there, eventually you end up with Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount puts a categorical stop to the whole “death to our enemies” business.

So yes, we have ways of dealing with our problem texts. But they’re still in the Bible. They’re still etched into parchment, there for anyone to read. Seemingly legitimizing violence, warfare, genocide.

The thing is, if someone used these texts to typecast Christianity as a religion of violence (as some indeed have), I wouldn’t be too happy about it. I’d probably say they were proof-texting my holy book. That they hadn’t considered the full scope of Christian thought and the various options for interpreting these problem texts.

I would probably suggest that as outsiders who are evidently hostile to Christianity, they probably aren’t the best ones to judge whether Christianity is, in fact, a religion of violence.

So why do we think it’s OK for us to read a handful of verses from the Quran and conclude that Islam is a religion of violence?

I don’t want someone demonizing my faith on the basis of a few “problem texts.” So maybe I should treat people of other faiths with the same courtesy. Maybe I should give my Muslim neighbors the same benefit of the doubt that I want them to give me.

How the Iraq War changed everything

John Moore / Getty Images
Ten years ago.

Close to 200,000 people dead. Most of them civilians.

To say nothing of the more than 30,000 US soldiers wounded — many with debilitating injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Or the undetermined number of “excess deaths,” likely in the hundreds of thousands — those who died not necessarily from bullets or bombs but from the general disruption of war.

Or the 3 to 5 million people displaced, many driven from their homes forever — including most of Iraq’s Christian minority.

Or the nearly $2 trillion price tag of this war. Never paid for, and about 25 times higher than what was promised.

Or the most recent projection, which puts the final price tag at $6 trillion, once the full cost of veteran care is accounted for.

That’s $6 trillion we don’t have to spend on our children’s education, healthcare, international aid, infrastructure, environmental cleanup, or any number of other worthy endeavors.

All in the pursuit of weapons that didn’t exist.

Was it worth it?

For me personally, Iraq marked a turning point. It was the last war I will ever be lured into supporting.

Like most Americans, I threw my support behind the call to arms. September 11 showed us how vulnerable we are (even though Iraq had nothing to do with the events of that day).

I wanted to feel safe again. I wanted to believe that a little bit of “shock and awe” could deliver on its promise of security.

It couldn’t and it didn’t, because there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is no such thing as a war to end all wars. Violence only ever breeds more violence.

“Peace through victory” is the myth of empire. It didn’t work for the Romans, and it will not work for us.

May God forgive us for what we’ve done to ourselves and to the people of Iraq.

Ten years on, kyrie elieson. 

Lord, have mercy.