THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:11-12.
For pacifists like myself, Paul’s call to “put on the whole armor of God” is a little off putting. Sure, I know he is speaking metaphorically-just as I know that “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Son of God Goes Forth to war” are not calls literally to engage in violence. Still, the church’s complicity with and sanction for violence over the centuries makes me wonder whether we should not relegate the two aforementioned hymns to the archives and omit Paul’s words here from the lectionary. The singing of such hymns and the reading of this lesson under the shadow of the crusades, the inquisition, the Thirty Years War and the spread of Christianity on the heels of colonialism strikes me as historically tone deaf. Paul’s use of military imagery might at one time have been an apt metaphor for a marginalized church engaging a hostile empire. But when a church that was the religious arm of the empire for a millennium and continues to be (or tries to be) the mediator of cultural norms in North America and Western Europe takes up Paul’s refrain, it sounds in a whole different and sinister key. It is a little like singing “We Shall Overcome” at a Trump rally.
Then again, maybe Paul’s language is precisely what we need. There is a subversive bit of irony in Paul’s turning the military engines of terror employed by Rome to crush its enemies into metaphors for the church’s war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul emphasizes-and this is critical-that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” The devil, of course, would have us believe precisely the opposite. The devil would convince us that our struggle is against blood and flesh, against other human beings made in God’s image, against our neighbors who differ from us in terms of their language, ethnicity, national identity, religion or political convictions. Contrary to what many folks believe, the devil has no interest in who wins any war. The devil is content to have us at each other’s throats. No matter who prevails on the battle field, the devil always wins every war.
Saint Paul is making the point, often lost on too many Christians, that violence is not a weapon within the disciple’s arsenal. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre famously said, following the horrific Sandy Hook child massacre, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Nothing so clearly repudiates Mr. LaPierre’s claim than the tragic events we are witnessing in Afghanistan these days. Severe criticism has been leveled against President Biden and his administration for his handling of that military misadventure. Much of that criticism is well deserved. But we should not forget that this war began twenty years ago with overwhelming support of the American people and the sanction of both houses of Congress. The war in Afghanistan was launched with the unquestioned belief that, with enough fire power and patriotism, the Taliban could be driven from power and a beacon of western style democracy built in its place. But, despite trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives and many more Afghan casualties, the Taliban still won.
What we are seeing today in Afghanistan is not the failure of any general’s military strategy or the incompetence of any particular president. We are simply learning the lesson we should have learned almost five decades ago in Vietnam: an idolatrous confidence in military power is not a recipe for justice, peace or security. If the most powerful and advanced military machine the world has ever seen could not stop a motely crew like the Taliban, what makes Mr. LaPierre and his followers think that more guns in more homes will cure domestic violence, violence in our streets and violent attacks upon our schools? More importantly, what makes people who claim the title “Christian” think that espousing such views is in any way consistent with the faith they profess?
Saint Paul points us in a different direction. The problem is not the guy holding the gun. The problem is the hateful ideology leading the guy to believe s/he needs a gun, that the gun can solve his/her problems and that there is no solution beyond use of the gun. According to Paul, the only way to stop a bad guy, with or without a gun, is by speaking the truth, living righteously, practicing peace, waking in faith and trusting in God’s power alone to save. Note well that these are all defensive weapons. The only offensive weapon Saint Paul gives us is the “sword of the Spirit,” that is, the word of God’s good news we are called to proclaim. Ephesians 6:13-17. Paul makes clear that this good news is that Jesus’ has reconciled all humanity to God and thereby brings hostility between all members of the human family to and end: “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Ephesians 2:14-18. True, these weapons might not stop the bad guy before the bad guy shoots you. But that is merely an occupational hazard of discipleship. Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically when he told his disciples that all who followed him must be prepared wind up on the cross.
The bottom line here is that there is no rationale for any disciple of Jesus to be in possession of a weapon designed to kill people.[i] That is and always has been the orthodox teaching of the church from the New Testament era to the present. Historically, the church has carved out a narrow exception to that rule for persons serving as agents of the government for national defense or law enforcement under what has been loosely defined as “the just war doctrine.” As anyone who follows me knows, I have grave concerns about this dogma and have urged its reconsideration on numerous occasions. But it seems to me that, at a bare minimum, every bishop and pastor should be saying to the church in no uncertain terms that, if you own a weapon and you are neither a police officer nor a member of the military, you are committing the sin of idolatry. Yes, I know how deeply ingrained the gun culture is in our society, how divisive Paul’s pacifist message can be and the ramifications for the professional and financial well being of both pastors and the church generally. But what I am espousing here is not anything new or radical. It is simply what the church has taught since its inception and what all bishops, pastors and deacons should be preaching. So put on your grownup pants and do it!
Here is Saint Francis’ prayer, not merely for peace, but that God would make him an instrument of peace. It is, I believe, a fitting response to our reading from Saint Paul.
Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
Source: This English translation of the Prayer of Saint Francis is taken from the Lutheran Book of Worship (c. 1978 by Augsburg Fortress Press). The attribution of the prayer to Saint Francis is doubtful. The first published text of the prayer appeared only in 1912. The prayer is not a part of any Franciscan Order liturgy, nor is it found in any of Francis’ known writings. Nonetheless, it captures well the piety and spiritual outlook of the saint.
[i] I deliberately choose the word “weapon” over “gun” because I understand that some gun owners use their guns strictly for sport, for hunting or to protect their livestock from predators. In these circumstances, I concede that a gun is no different from a power tool that is inherently dangerous, but when properly used serves a legitimate need. Such gun owners are to be distinguished from those who insist that their guns are necessary for self defense.