On the militeristic language of scripture

There is a good blog post by Susan Stabil over on her blog which sets up this blog post.  I initially posted this as a response there.

The issue is this: is it ok to use the militaristic language found in the Bible when we pray?  Generally no.  While it might be acceptable on occasion, it is right there in the Bible after all, generally speaking, citizens of the greatest military war machine ever, should not conflate the violent language in scripture with the real world violence that is antithetical to the ways of Christ.  Why?  Because this conflation has led to innumerable exercises in military might when there might have been alternatives.  Paramount to understanding this position is a recognition that in war, it is not just the guilty who die but always the innocent as well.  If we believe the myth that modern warfare is clean and surgical, we will never understand the problem.  But when we come face to face with the reality of war, the real men women and children affected, we come to realize the increasing need for the transforming values of Christ, contrasted to the myth of peace through might which primarily brings suffering.

The following comment was left here.

Dr. Tierno,

Your observations are undercut by the fact that we live in a heavily militarized world and are the beneficiaries of injustice and oppression. Like the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) of Christ’s day, you and I experience a great deal of peace and tranquility, not through the power of the Holy Spirit, but rather through the blunt instruments of war. Instruments which kill, maim and destroy both the guilty and the innocent, creating an elusive Pax Americana, sustained only at the great expense of both coin and blood.

When you are a member of the persecuted minority, (the Palestinian Jews under the thumb of the greatest military power at that time) it might be acceptable to use the imagery of war. But we lose the moral authority to use that language when we support and are the beneficiaries of that might.

I’ll never forget the day I targeted my first cruise missile at a target in Afghanistan as a member of the US Air Force. As I did so, for a split second it occurred to me that there was a good chance that on the other side of the globe, (I was seated comfortable in a cubicle in Omaha NE.) standing next to the legitimate target I was aiming for, there were another 18-22 year old, who like me came from the lower tiers of society and merely joined up for the modest financial benefits. Don’t worry though, this thought only registered for a split second. It was quickly replaced by a deeper and more succinct thought, “Ahhh, fuck-em.”

When the Biblical imagery of warfare gives way to a massive military war machine devoted to fighting not against spiritual forces, but against our fellow flesh and blood which reflects the image of Christ. And when Church and State, and the glorification of both bleed into one another, and all at the expense of the ways of Christ. (Which in turn leads me to sodomize my neighbor. See Ezekiel 16:49) Then there is a problem, and the overuse of militaristic language is just one example of this.

All of this being said, your probably likely to write me off as a standard left wing fundamentalist, but actually I’m an Evangelical.

I got here by taking the Bible seriously, and specifically the teachings of Christ. Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus Christ is the exact representation of God’s being. So when I look at scripture and all of its varied imagery, imagery which you rightly point out uses both violent language and action from time to time, I look to the one I know perfectly represented God on earth to help me interpret that language. Sometimes I can’t reconcile the two. But I can take refuge in the words of Christ who said:

“Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”


“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.”


“The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Generally speaking, swords, and AK-47′s and cruise missiles, they are not the bearers’ of good news for the poor, or freedom for prisoners, nor do they deliver sight to the blind, quite the opposite in fact.

While sometimes you do have to fight fire with fire, and for that reason I am not fully a pacifist. Christian citizens of the “greatest nation on earth,” citizens who spend more on their military industrial complex than all other nations combined, do not have the moral authority to talk about spiritual warfare using overly militaristic language. We should be a counter-cultural movement of Christ calling for peace and reconciliation where ever possible. Doing otherwise directly undercuts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


jb1203 said...

Is there not room for differentiation between spiritual warfare and living in the immediate world with love for fellow humankind?

David Best said...

I think there certainly is room for that kind of differentiation. The problem is a cultural one.

No particular persons use of violent language necessarily bothers me, rather it is the systemics, the prevalent use of violent language, (for spiritual warfare or otherwise) coupled with the support for violent methods.