In several places in Paul’s letters he uses a martial metaphor to describe the Christian life. Both words in that phrase–martial metaphor–are important. First, Paul believes there is a war of sorts. The Christian life is not merely a game (though Paul can use metaphors from the Greco-Roman games of his day). The Christian life is not a private self-improvement strategy (à la The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). There is something martial–indeed, militant–about the Christian life. But, second, Paul is using a martial metaphor. In one place he is quick to say:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”
Elsewhere he calls followers of Jesus to “put on the full armor of God”–but qualifies: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood”–and he lists “armor” that is obviously metaphorical in nature. What a massive qualifier: no other humans are the enemy in this war.
So…Paul can describe the Christian life using a martial metaphor. He doesn’t say that at times the Christian life feels like a war. It is, surprisingly, always a war: on several occasions Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good [or, perhaps more accurately, noble] fight.” And writing from prison, he exhorts Timothy to “join me in suffering, like a good soldier of Jesus.”
The apostle even crosses the line of our cultural sensibilities, taking the martial metaphor in the direction of the violent:
“…if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
“Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
The metaphor of warfare assumes that all less extreme forms of engagement–e.g., diplomacy, economic sanctions–are either ineffective or (alarmingly) simply not worth it. These less extreme forms of engagement fail to recognize either/both the gravity of the situation and/or the nature of the enemy: there can be no compromise, nor should there be any desire for the rehabilitation of the enemy. (Think of the martial language we use when speaking of illnesses: “I’m battling a cold”, or, more seriously, “She is battling cancer.” There is no desire for cancer to remain; it needs to be eradicated.)
Our culture’s sensibilities have little place for the concept of justified violence, because all enemies can be rehabilitated. Use of violence, then, can mean only that the agent of violence has utterly failed to show (a deserved) compassion upon the recipient of violence.
My wife and I have watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers several times. The WWII series follows the 101st Airborne’s “Easy company” from its inception at Camp Toccoa (GA) through the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, through the end of conflict in the European theatre.
The second to last of these episodes is called “Why We Fight.” The episode’s events are recounted from the perspective one of the company’s officers, Lewis Nixon (brilliantly acted by Ron Livingston), who has suffered repeated and seemingly senseless loss, watching good men around him but especially under him die one after another. Unable to handle the loss and growing ever more suspicious of “the point of it all,” he turns more and more to alcohol.
Through Nixon’s eyes, the episode contrasts the overwhelming chaos and inexplicable horrors of war with the Easy Company’s accidental discovery of a concentration camp and the horrors found within–horrors far greater than they ever thought possible. Significantly, it is only toward the end of their costly, horrific struggle that they stumble upon a reality so grim that it revolutionizes their perspective and unquestionably vindicates their struggle–though it only deepens their sense of the enigma of evil. Though evil remains enigmatic, though the trauma and heartache of war remain visceral, they have every reason to fight.
Capt. Nixon, trying to take in the unspeakable
Using the episode’s title “Why We Fight”, I will occasionally be writing posts that give reasons for “Why We Fight”–for why we must not give up and give in to despair and to the myriad of despair’s anesthetics–rage, depression, porn, vocational “success”, etc.–that exploit others, degrade ourselves, and make us even more a part of the problem than we already are.
I write these posts because–well, for the reason that I write most of my blog posts–for my own sake, yet in the conviction that what helps me may help others. As a minister, I see so much carnage…. So for me Paul’s war metaphor resonates instantaneously. For me and for my family, there is a war, and we live with a wartime mentality. For us there is so very much that is enigmatic, so much that is traumatic and seemingly senseless, and yet we believe we have every reason to fight.
But on whose side?
Jesus had been casting out an evil spirit when–OK, I know, we empiricist-junky Westerners have run comprehensive tests with our inerrant scientific instruments and have decisively concluded that there are no such things as spirits and demons, and never mind that France, regarded as one of the most secular countries in the world, nevertheless has the highest per capita participation in the occult (channeling, etc.). If you would, join the majority world (and the majority of world history) for a moment and imagine that maybe there are forces at play in our world that might help account for the horrific evils that we experience and that just maybe a guy like Jesus of Nazareth might have actually been someone who could do battle with these preternatural forces. So…Jesus has just cast out an evil spirit from a person. And he provides the following violent metaphor to help witnesses of the exorcism to interpret what he has done; and he then follows this metaphor with a characteristically Jesus-like ultimatum (the man never negotiated):
“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
Whose side do I (and my family) aim to be on? On Jesus’ side. At times we are not. We have to realign ourselves regularly (that’s called repentance). Whose side are you on?