On 22nd August the RCL readings include Ephesians 6, the ‘armour of God’. CSBV research associate Peter King reflects on the challenges this presents.
August 22 – Ephesians 6: 10 – 20. RCL Year B
I have to admit that I have problems with Paul’s call to put on the “whole armour of God”. Even when concerned colleagues have tried to tell me that the armour Paul describes is essentially defensive, not offensive, I am uneasy with being described as a soldier for Christ.
I’m sure I am not alone in this, and it may be that it is time to acknowledge it more widely and to enable people in our congregations to be honest about their unease with the military imagery both in the Bible and in our hymns and prayers.
The problem becomes more acute as churches become increasingly aware of the importance of Justice & Peace issues, working and praying for peace, yet at the same time using very different language in their hymns and prayers and readings. Does it make sense to work for peace and to see ourselves as peacemakers, whilst at the same time using the language of warfare ? Maybe it does, but I am not convinced.
Another reason we might start asking questions about such language is suggested by this comment from a blog post discussing militaristic language in worship:
Taking a very high view of the formative power of worship and singing … both for the individual and for the congregation, is it acceptable to have violent imagery in songs of praise and worship ? It strikes me as odd to protect [children] from being influenced by violent imagery at home, only for the imagery to come in church !!
Once we have become aware that Samson might be seen today as a suicide bomber, how do we feel about him as a Sunday School hero, his story presented to children alongside other heroes of the Old Testament ?
Furthermore, how many of those who are concerned about the Bible’s violence fail to notice the explicit or implicit violence in our hymns ? Yet, as Brian McLaren observes:
The combined imagery of the songs we sing creates a kind of inner construct or lens through which we see the world. If the background music and imagery of our lives is predominantly hostile, fearful, aggressive, or dominating, if it sends us into the world primarily as warriors, then we will find ourselves encountering the world, including other people, in a certain way.
Is this the way we want to encounter the world ?
What we sing in church matters, and even more so if it is true that we internalise and remember what we sing far more profoundly than what we say or hear.
In his 2005 article Peace and War in Hymns David Wright suggests ten reasons to stop using military language in hymns. The ten reasons are well worth reading and reflecting on, as is the whole article. Wright is writing in 2005 and he observes that there has been no real conversation about violent hymnody, even in the aftermath of 9/11, and over fifteen years on it seems we are still waiting to have that conversation. Perhaps now would be a good time to start it.
Faced with these questions, coming from others if not from ourselves, what does a peacemaking church do with all the imagery in our tradition which seeks to describe us as soldiers for Christ and the Christian life as a battle ?
So how might we start a conversation in our congregations ?
Firstly, I would suggest we acknowledge that there is a problem with these images. However harmless and right they may seem for some, for others they contradict our core beliefs about what it means to be followers of Christ.
Secondly, I would suggest we look at the hymns and prayers we use week by week and ask ourselves what picture of God they are presenting, and whether that picture is one which we would wish to identify with ourselves and communicate to others. It is very easy to take certain words and images for granted, so much so that we actually don’t consciously realise exactly what we are saying and singing week by week.
Thirdly, I would suggest that we reflect on the ways in which we are all formed by the words of our worship services: how the stories, liturgies and hymns of our tradition have formed us through the years, and how in turn they might form – or deform – others.
Interviewed about his peacemaking rewrite of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” a few years ago, Brian McLaren observed:
When I am in a congregation that sings songs like these — songs that consciously or subconsciously play into hostility and fear and imperial or warlike sentiments — I feel that we are flirting with dark and dangerous currents that are very unsacred.
… if we get more and more worship teams making policy decisions to stop using dangerous warfare language and to stop avoiding the essential Christian discipleship theme of peacemaking … and then if we help congregations sing powerful songs that celebrate this and other important themes, then five, 10 and 50 years from now, a cumulative impact will build.
To return to the language of Ephesians 6. Writing about “Violence & Ethics in Revelation” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 73:4, pp. 777 – 796), but in words which could equally well apply to our text here, Susan E Hylen suggests that
what seems dangerous about the metaphor of [the] sword is how it may shape and constrain the imagination. … in employing these metaphors [the writer] invites the reader to imagine the world in a particular way. He asks the reader to envision spiritual advancement as a battlefield – and to reason in these terms.
In most congregations I suspect there will be a diversity of views on these questions, but this is no reason to avoid the issue. This week’s New Testament Reading offers us a way into a conversation. So, what does a peacemaking church do with the armour of God ?