Fighting Words
            The tragic shooting in Tucson, which critically wounded a Congresswoman and left six people (including a nine-year old girl) dead, has sparked a national conversation about overheated political rhetoric. There’s a lot of sensitivity now about words that imply violence: one national news network even apologized when a commentator used the phrase “in the crosshairs” to discuss a political battle. At the State of the Union address, Congress sat together across party lines to show that political disagreement does not have to poison people’s attitudes toward one another.
          A parallel discussion is going on in football. With NFL players suffering more and more brain-damaging concussions, the league is considering measures to limit bruising collisions on the field. While language is not front-and-center in the sports controversy, some commentators have suggested that words like “blitz” and “sack” contribute to a climate of violence.
           How about in the church? The language we use to talk about faith sometimes has a whiff of violence about it. I’m not talking about the sometimes-hilarious headlines that describe parochial school sports matches (“St. Margaret Mary Smashes St. Dominic”, “Christ the King Annihilates St. Charles”). I’m thinking, rather, of language we use in our spiritual lives.
          To begin with, there is the very way we describe God–the Lord of hosts, which means “Lord of armies”. God is seen as a military commander with legions of angels at His disposal. (We sing “Lord God of Sabaoth” during communion–and “sabaoth” means “hosts” or “armies”. So every time we celebrate the Sacrament, we are reminded of this Biblical image of God-as-Patton). Then there is the language that the Psalms sometimes use:
            Arise, O Lord; save me, O God. For you have struck my enemy on the cheek;
            you have shattered the teeth of the wicked. (Psalm 3:7)
            Break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer. (Psalm 11:15) 
            God will shoot at them with an arrow (Psalm 64:7)

The Bible also tells us, as individual Christians, to consider ourselves warriors:
            Put on the whole armor of God...and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the
            Word of God. (Ephesians 6)

Interesting, too, is the word “crusade”–not a Biblical word, but a word that is often used in Christianity. Whenever Billy Graham planned an event to spread the Gospel, it was called a “crusade”. The athletic teams at our own Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School are called “the Crusaders”. Yet the word “crusade” basically means “holy war”--the Christian equivalent of jihad.
            Do we need to get rid of images of warfare and violence? Some Christians certainly think so. There has been a real effort to purge our worship of warlike imagery. The modern translation of “Lord of hosts” as “God of power and might” is one example. Several beloved hymns have also come under attack recently (“under attack”–gosh, it’s hard to avoid this kind of imagery!) Another Lutheran denomination recently issued a new hymnal that left out “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”, and “The Son of God Goes Forth to War”. Alas, these “militant” songs are among the best-loved of Christian hymns (in fact, my favorite hymn is “The Son of God Goes Forth to War”), and it would be tragic to lose them.
            We really can’t give up the war-related imagery of the Bible. There are forces opposed to us in this world: the Devil, the power of evil, and the sin that lives within us. When we ask God to “smash the teeth” of our enemies, it’s sin and the Devil that we’re talking about. When we talk about armoring up and fighting–those are the enemies we are battling against. Sin, death and the Devil seek to destroy us. Our struggle with them is not a friendly game of cards or a casual game of Monopoly–it’s a death match. Only the language of warfare can do it justice.
            But the warfare we’re talking about is spiritual. “Battling against sin” does not mean taking up arms against the sinner. When Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him and said: Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Sometimes our government does have to use actual violence against those who would harm our nation–and certainly the vocation of the soldier is a noble one. But the church is never justified in using violence. Ours is a spiritual combat:
            Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers
            ...the spiritual forces of wickedness. (Ephesians 6:12)

In some versions of Islam, the word jihad means not just holy war, but also a spiritual
struggle against sin. And this is precisely what Christians mean when they use military language, or words like “crusade”. We are not advocating physical violence. We are defending ourselves against the Devil, and the sin within us–using the spiritual weapons of faith and God’s Word.
            There is one literal, physical act of violence at the heart of the Christian faith–and that is the crucifixion of Christ. He was nailed to the cross for our salvation. But He did not use violence against others; He suffered violence Himself. As “Lord of hosts”, He could have called armies of angels to come to His defense–but instead, He meekly submitted to suffering and death.
            One of my favorite Christian images is the wounded, victorious Lamb (it’s on our church stationery). It captures something wonderful about Christ: by suffering and dying, He triumphed. A seemingly weak, helpless creature–the Lamb–is victorious. So Christ wins the victory, not by force of arms, but by His weakness and His suffering.
            Again, that is the one piece of physical violence in the Christian faith–and it’s the violence of a lamb being slain. Any other religious use of actual violence is illegitimate. When we talk about war and struggle, it’s meant spiritually. In our society’s current discussion about violent language, we need to be clear on that.
            And “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”
(I Corinthians 15:57). 

            God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 82 - No. 2


Dec 26 Sermon <------ click to listen to Sermon