I’ve been meaning to address this for some time, as the thought has been rattling around the recesses of my addled mind. Once again, as I watch the live-stream of our quadrennial General Conference I find myself drawn into MacJournal to finally compose my thoughts…
Faith is not a battle.
Look, the whole reason I find myself ruminating on this issue is that even today, in what I would hope is a Church increasingly open theologically and ecumenically, I have had others express concern – and condemnation – in word and action because my personal views contribute to us “losing” the battle for people’s souls. Such comments are reflective of an outdated view of Christendom that Christian faith is a battle we are called to fight – that people are equivalent to the spoils of war we are called to “win” or “lose” by our actions. I would suggest that, even if just rhetorical, equating faith with warfare leads to initiatives such as the Crusades or denominational exclusivism.
Sadly, sometimes the image and language of battle and “winners” and “losers” also makes its way into church life, decisions, and polity. It is hard to watch the live feed and Twitter comments regarding our ongoing General Conference and not experience some implication that we are even at battle among ourselves! When we face controversial issues or decisions, we speak of “sides”; and often, both sides use similar tactics: salvos of Biblical proof-texts “proving” one’s viewpoint; arguments that “the church will continue to decline” so long as the other side pushes/pursues its agenda; passionate pleas of advocacy invoking personal stories or the intent of tradition…
Friends, I recall to your attention that our faith – collective and individual – is not based around a super heroic figure who rode into Jerusalem in the armor of a white knight, to bring the truth to the godless heathen via political or spiritual conquest. Our faith is centered in the very Lamb of God, who entered the citadel of religious order of his day with great humility and at great price; who brings truth to you and me through transformative means of grace, not the habits of war. So how can we equate salvation in Christ to a battle that has to be won against people whose views, faiths, or perspectives differ from our own?
I say it again, emphatically: faith is not a battle!
Well… except when it is.
Indeed, I would suggest that in a critical way, faith is a battle. An ongoing, imperative battle that all Christians are called to fight. A battle that we can be well-equipped for. That equipment is well articulated on a coin that I keep on my desk or in my pocket (a Christmas gift from a church-member who is in the military). On the coin is an image of a knight’s armor, and a quotation from Ephesians 6:11-13. Here’s a longer quotation for context:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 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. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
According to Paul, we do face a battle against external forces – but Paul asserts that it is not against other human beings, e.g. “flesh and blood,” but (as the NCV tries to simply it) against “the spiritual powers of evil.” We are called to battle, against evil. In the words of the membership vows of The United Methodist Church, we accept the power and freedom of God to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We are called to take stands for good, for justice, for equality. In essence, we are called to manifest the very direction of God:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
As Christians, we are called – and equipped – to resist evil and injustice. We are called to battle the power and influence of evil, whether we define it as the “schemes of Satan” or as the result of humanity’s bent toward evil. As Methodists, we articulate specifically that we are called to “do no harm” and to “do good.” And like a battle, this is a difficult and mighty work to which we are called.
Thankfully, according to Paul’s word of encouragement to the Christians in Ephesus, we are equipped for battle:
- the belt of truth
- the breastplate of righteousness
- the gospel of peace for our feet (I like the notion that it is the gospel of peace that is to get us moving!)
- the shield of faith
- the helmet of salvation
- the sword of the Spirit / word of God
These are the means by which we are called to go forth into the world to resist evil and injustice – truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word / Spirit.
Think for a moment about what it would mean to re-define “winners” and “losers” based off such a call and utilizing such tools. I would suggest that there can be justice, kindness, and humble faith amid great religious and spiritual diversity, so the battle we face is not about “winning souls” to “our side.” I would suggest that the very description of the equipment we are given gives a particular framework for the battle we face, and it is not the sense that we often hear or use.
And I would suggest that despite the fact that our struggle against evil may result in myriad actions for good and justice in the world, the first and primary battlefield is the same for us all. And to that I’ll turn in my next post.
For now, I reassert: faith is not a battle… except when it is.
And I leave you with a benediction that I also address to myself this day:
May your “battle” for faith not drive you into conflict with other people;
may you find “truth” and “faith” to be means of protection against the onslaughts of evil;
may you be encouraged and enabled to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves;
and may you, O Mortal, know and do what is good: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.