I write this as a reflection on Eric Janzen’s “Prophetic Culture of the Kingdom” (part 4).
In pondering your well-thought, well-stated articles on the Kingdom of God, part 4 gave me pause to consider your admittedly biblical use of military and imperial metaphors.
Re: military metaphors, you describe Christians as living ‘upon a spiritual battleground where a very real battle is underway.’ You continue,
The kingdom of heaven opposes the kingdom of darkness and opposes the powers of this world that do not worship Jesus as their lord, their savior, or their king… We are the presence of the kingdom wherever we gather and we are to express that presence on the battleground.
All of this is familiar territory to Biblicists who read about spiritual battles, armies, and weapons in New Testament passages like Eph.6, 2 Tim. 2, Rev. 19, etc. And of course, you acknowledge that while this battle is ‘real,’ it is also ‘spiritual.’ The weapons of our warfare are notthe literal weapons of the world (swords, scuds, and lawsuits); they are metaphors for the Christian practices of love (as you explained),forgiveness (Rom. 12), and prayer (2 Cor. 10). In other words, the military metaphors are not merely spiritual counterparts to the physical realities. They also function ironically. Christ did not simply talk about overpowering evil forces by means of more lethal, spiritual ammo. He calls his followers to disavow violence, harm, hatred, and force altogether. Our new weapons are upside down kingdom traits like meekness, mercy, and mourning. An entirely new set of actions is called for: turning the other cheek to the enemy that strikes you; blessing the enemy that curses you; praying for the enemy that abuses you. These aren’t just spiritual symbols … it’s irony, virtually sarcasm if we’re talking about ‘armor.’ The disciples eventually got that.
To cite Eugene Peterson from a Joe Beach’s article,
When James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus simply rebuked them. No rhetoric. No argument. A simple ‘NO, There is to be no violence or hatred in the cause of God.’
… in the religious atmosphere of the day [killing] was the most natural thing in the world to do. Why didn’t they? The simple answer is that they were following the resurrected Jesus, and the Jesus who was now living in them wasn’t killing anyone.
Here is my issue. WE DIDN’T GET IT. In missing the irony, the Church often missed the metaphor altogether, making hatred and even violence towards our enemies first allowable, then acceptable, then preferable in these stages:
- Initially, the Church understood that when Christ said, ‘Put down your sword,’ he meant it … literally, absolutely, universally. Violence was completely unacceptable for the follower of Jesus. Forgiving love and blessing prayers were the only firearms that Jesus sanctioned for warfare with one’s enemy.
- Then we softened this to mean, love is the first and best option for overcoming evil. But when that fails, violence is allowable as a last resort.
- Then we slipped further to mean, love is appropriate for certain circumstances and violence is acceptable / appropriate for other circumstances … such as dealing with anything we label evil.
- Finally, we disavowed the Sermon on the Mount altogether with something like, ‘love is for idealists; violence is for realists.’ In the face of evil, violence is the practical and preferred response … the only real choice.
And thus we go, off to whatever crusade or war we deem necessary, with a Cross painted on our shields, our banners, and the noses of our bombers and missiles. It’s not enough that we justified the violence in our hearts, we actually sanctified it as part of our ‘very real battle’ against the forces of evil in this world. Islamic people become spiritual forces to be destroyed with literal worldly weapons as part of God’s mission to advance his kingdom (with its newfound accretions: ‘freedom,’ democracy, and capitalism).
What I am getting at is this: with our proven inability to perceive the military metaphors of the New Testament as spiritual realities and ironic reversals, I no longer see how we can justify using them, even on biblical grounds. In the most serious and violent ways, we just don’t get it. And thus, I propose the Church at large take a one century fast from using military metaphors until it can be said of us what Isaiah said of true kingdom people, ‘Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ It will be a wonder when this actually occurs for the nations, but for the Christian, the mandate was established 2000 years ago.
Oh, it’s easy to point the fingers at Americans who proclaim with conviction, ‘Two people have died for you. Jesus Christ died for your sins and the American G.I. died for your freedom.’ But here in Canada, I see images of WWI soldiers embedded in the stained glass of our cathedrals. I hear Christian street-evangelists describe premeditated violence as part of their ‘arsenal’ when faced with injustice in the ‘heat of the battle,’ all justified because it’s on behalf of third parties.
Until we comprehend these militaristic metaphors as Christ’s ironic subversion of fleshly violence, we probably shouldn’t use them.
Re: King and Kingdom metaphors, I have an even greater difficulty because here we are dealing directly with the very words of Jesus. He described himself as the King of a Kingdom. In this case we do have a true counterpart for competing kingdoms, each demanding allegiance to very different lords. In one way, Christ is really and truly our King.
And yet … we must not fail to see that in Jesus day, he uses the political language of basilea that we would recognize now as ‘empire’—an empire or kingdom that Jesus claims (to Pilate) is decidedly not a kingdom of this world. Not the Holy Roman Empire, not the restored kingdom of Israel (including 1948), and not the globalized corporate empire of America. In truth, again Jesus is speaking ironically. His triumphant entry lampoons the military parades of the Roman Empire. His kingdom is a parody of every government’s claim to power and authority. It is citizened by peasants and slaves, by the disabled and by children. Our King (or more currently, our President) is so unlike any worldly king that He is the anti-king, consciously so.
When the soldiers crowned Christ with thorns and adorned Him with a bloodied royal robe, they were mocking Him. But Jesus played their charade as the great un-king who ascended to His cruciform throne where Colossians tells us “He disarmed the principalities, triumphing over them, making a public spectacle of them on the Cross.” The whole play is thrown on its head as He is cast outside the gates by the stewards of God’s Holy City (the ultimate irony).
But once again, WE DIDN’T GET IT!
Before long, we set up actual, literal human kings and parliaments as God’s chosen representatives to enact His kingship on earth … and in the most tyrannical forms. To those who espouse such theocracies, a friend of mine asks, ‘Do they read? When has that ever gone well for us?’
The irony of the subversive kingdom is dismissed as we anoint Christian soldiers for state-sponsored crusades; erect the abomination that causes desolation on the stages of our churches (the Imperial standard now replaced by the national flag); and marry faithfulness to God with patriotism to our country’s foreign and domestic policies (OR oppose them in the same spirit). When did we stop reading Rev. 17?
What I’m seeing is that we’ve exchanged Christ’s vision of an anti-kingdom (on earth as it is in heaven) for a spiritual super-kingdom that comes on earth like every other kingdom has—in greed and brutality—but with a plastic fish as the corporate logo.
But can we drop Christ’s own metaphor simply because we’re so thick? That won’t do for the Biblicists. It won’t do for the heresy hunters. Nor will it do for me. When we’re reading that Jesus came proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in our New Testaments, we can’t just replace it … except that I think we already have. Not the words, but the meaning. In the most vulgar ways. We have completely reversed Christ’s own reversal. And I don’t know how to rectify that.
Without solutions, I offer this up only as a meditation and a lament.