Is Christianity a militant faith?

As a kid, I grew up singing “Onward, Christian soldiers” and “I’m in the Lord’s army.” There seemed to be no hesitancy in using militaristic imagery to describe our faith.

This was no Cold War blip. Christians have been using war-like imagery for ages. The Puritans drew on warfare and wayfare (life as a heavenward pilgrimage) as their primary images for the Christian life.

But this warfare imagery has always been spiritualized. As St. Paul wrote, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12).

Paul is explicit. We don’t battle against other people. The battle we fight is a spiritual battle only.

This hasn’t kept Christians over the past two millennia from taking up arms in their nations’ militaries and finding strength from the warfare referenced in the Bible. And it hasn’t kept Christians from taking up arms in unjust and inappropriate ways.

We have a history of splinter groups who have acted violently in racist and other hate-filled ways. Their deeds are ugly and their theologies are mangled, but we can’t ignore their claim to be Christians. And yet, they are such a minority it’s not unsurprising that they exist.

When you’ve got something so widespread and therefore so powerful as Christianity, there will be all kinds of heretical groups who attach themselves to us. And some of those groups will be militant. But that doesn’t make them normative. In fact, their violence highlights the lack of violence among the majority.

If Christianity were a militant faith, there would be no abortion clinics in our country. It only took a handful of bombed clinics by fringe folks for violence against clinics and abortion doctors to be roundly declaimed. And this rejection of violence is from people who think of the fight against abortion in militaristic terms. Aborted babies are considered casualties of war and yet there is a refusal to take the lives of those who take the lives of the unborn.

If Christianity were a militant faith, Charlie Hebdo and other magazines and artists who satirize Jesus and Christian faith would have suffered violence far sooner than they did at Muslim hands. Movie producers and book publishers whose output mocks our faith wouldn’t do so because of the hell they’d pay for it. And yet they continue with impunity, knowing they won’t suffer for it.

I won’t address the many atrocities that have happened at the hands of atheist regimes, but I won’t deny those that have happened under so-called Christian rule.

The often highlighted excesses of the Crusades are undeniable. Recently, there have been questions as to the extent of these excesses, but that hasn’t wiped them clean. And there are questions as to how religiously motivated they were in the first place, since there is no question that they were politically motivated by both Muslim incursions and tensions between European kingdoms. And yet, even if there were good and bad political reasons for fighting against Muslim invaders, horrors were still committed. The Pope still proclaimed and St. Benedict still preached crusade, mixing faith with military motives.

Still, even admitting failure when it comes to the Crusades, we don’t find this the norm over the past 2,000 years. If it were, we’d find it popping up continually.

No, the Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is the same Jesus who said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

The biblical vision has always been, in the words of Isaiah 2:4 — “[God] will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

And similarly in Micah 4:3 — “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

For centuries, Christians have joined with the psalmist, crying out in frustration, “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalm 120:6).

Again, biblical faith recognizes that there is conflict in the world and between our faith and spiritual and worldly forces. We are fighters. But, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:4). We recognize that even though others may treat us as their enemies, they themselves are not our enemies. These other forces are our foes.

And when it comes time to fight, these are the things we arm ourselves with: truth, righteousness, readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God (Ephesians 6:13-17). This is the full armor of God.

[Photo credit: Cornerstone]