college travels

Friday, February 15, 2008

War! what is it good for?

Thanks to Frankie Goes to Hollywood for the title (and thanks also to Bruce Springsteen for his truly excellent cover version!). Is there any place for war imagery in our teaching the Christian life to children and young people?

Is anyone else out there old enough to remember singing: I’m too young to march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery; I’m too young to fly over land and sea, but I’m in the Lord’s army, Yes Sir!

With such a strong militaristic tone it’s perhaps no surprise that songs like this one are out of vogue today. But though we might be hesitant to encourage images of war in our kid’s clubs or youth programs, is there something we’re losing about Christian discipleship in the process?

One of the features of the book of Revelation is the prevalence of warfare imagery. This was not because John was peculiarly fond of war stories; he was drawing on a significant theme of the great end-time war against evil that appears both in the Old Testament (such as Ezekiel 38-39) and in other Jewish writings of the first century.

But what do we do with such images of violence? Surely the message that Jesus wins because he is more powerful than Satan is simply a spiritualised version of ‘might is right’. D. H. Lawrence famously described the Book of Revelation as the Judas of the New Testament – betraying Jesus’ message of love and salvation by its focus on envy and destruction.

John reinterprets the motif in light of the death of Christ emphasising three key aspects of the work of Christ and the life of Christian discipleship. Firstly it’s clear that Jesus’ victory is already complete through his death on the cross.

Revelation refers to a final battle in a number of places (Rev. 16:16, 19:11, 17-21) but without ever actually describing any real warfare. The final ‘battle of Armageddon’ proves to be no more than a final act of defiance of an already defeated foe (20:7-9). Revelation focusses clearly on the already accomplished victory of Christ on the cross (5:5, 12:7-10).

Secondly, Revelation is clear that Jesus’ victory came through self-sacrificial faithfulness. Though the images of the Lion of Judah and the Root of David (5:5) have strongly militiaristic associations, these images are reinterpreted through sacrificial imagery - The lion is the lamb that was slain (5:6). In a similar vein the conquest of Jesus’ enemies comes from the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19:15,21), not the power of his arm.

Just as the Lion is reinterpreted as the Lamb, so also the people of God as the army of Israel (7:1-8) is reinterpreted as the faithful redeemed (7:9-14). In Revelation 7:14 the victorious people of God are described as those who ‘have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ connecting Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of death with the same faithful witness of Christian disciples. This description is in stark contrast to the end time army described in the Dead Sea Scrolls who wash their robes ‘in the blood of guilty cadavers’ (1QM 14:23).

What we have in Revelation is a willingness to use culturally relevant imagery, but to make them completely servant to the gospel of Jesus. In doing this John is no different to earlier New Testament writers who also used the metaphor of war to describe the Christian life. One example is Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5.

So should we have a WWII theme for our next holiday kid’s club? Well, perhaps not. What we must do is emphasise that Jesus won a real victory over a real enemy. And we must emphasise that as his people he has called us also to be conquerors (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7). Conquerors though who don’t fight as the world fights, but who imitate Jesus – like the saints described in Revelation 12:11 –

They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

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