Sunday, June 13, 2010

In Defense of the Use of Military Imagery in the Church

By: Msgr. Charles Pope
The following article appeard on on June 13, 2010 and is the follow up to the previous post.

Last week in the blog I penned what was intended as a humorous post based on a video which asked: Is the Church a Cruise Ship or a Battleship? The video rather humorously depicts how many people want their parish to be like a cruise ship: comfortable, pleasant, with a popular captain and crew, fundamentally existing to please me and serve my needs. The video, and I as well, tweaked this point of view by going to the other end of the spectrum insofar as ocean-going vessels are concerned and suggested that the image of battleship might be more appropriate. In such a ship, my comfort and good pleasure is less the focus. Mission, noble purpose, being well equipped, and effectively engaging the spiritual battle against the world, the flesh and the devil are more the focus in a battleship image.
Now, as is often the case when any military imagery is used, some of the commenters took offense, or were alarmed at what the use of such imagery might lead to. I want to address some of the concerns in this regard and make something of a defense for the long tradition of military metaphors for the Christian life and by extension the Church.
To begin, lets be clear, the primary Biblical images of the Church are the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Every other image is subordinate to these. But that said the Church can be compared to many things, all of which convey some truth. To say that the Church is like a battleship does not deny the principle images of Body and Bride any more than saying the Church is like a ship, an ark, a family, or a garden, or colony of bees for that matter. All of these images might capture some aspect of the Church worth consideration. A few of the comments from last week suggested that the metaphor of a battleship somehow precluded other images such as Bride and Body. It does not. One metaphor does not preclude another. “King Jesus has a garden full of diverse flowers” and each of them has something to say, something to teach that does not cancel the others.
But the specific concern for some seems to be military images per se. Back in January when I wrote of priests as soldiers and more recently last week, commenters had some of the following concerns:
I find your militaristic and pugilistic imagery not only off-putting, but bordering on un-Christian.
The church should have nothing to do with the military. War and all that comes with it are evil and unnecessary. The church a living body, not a machine like the military would want to treat it. The analogy is insufficient…..
Boats figure frequently in the Gospels in the ministry of Jesus–but none of them are battleships. Jesus rode in the fishing boats….Jesus was also pretty clearly opposed to the occasionally militant ideas of his (often obtuse) disciples…..peoples’ desire to make Jesus or His Church into a militaristic organization are hard pressed to find their justification in anything but the weak human desire to impose violence as a supposed solution to evil…..
Now, to be clear, the use of the image of a battleship is not to make the Church a militaristic organization. She is not, she is the Bride of Christ and also his body. But the Church and the Christian can and do have qualities LIKE a soldier or instrument of Battle. Paul for example refers to the Word of God as a sword and says that the Christian should be equipped like a soldier:
Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all (the) flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)
Now Paul, while using military images is not calling for violent action. Rather he is saying that, like a soldier equipped for battle, a Christian should realize that he too is in a spiritual battle which requires the weaponry of the truth, righteousness, faith, serenity, confidence of salvation, and the Word of God for his sword.
To me military imagery evokes things like discipline, honor, duty, self-sacrifice, laying down ones life for one’s friends, obedience, authority, chain of command, and the like. Christian tradition is rich with military themes. One of the great hymns for the martyrs is “Deus Tuorum Militum” (Oh God of thy soldiers). The beautiful hymn “For all the saints has this line: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear a distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong! Alleluia.” Another line says “The golden evening brightens in the west, soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest….” The Protestant tradition also features songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “I am On the Battlefield for my Lord.” When Pope Benedict visited the White House the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was sung and that hymn is in almost every Catholic Hymnal. The hymn bespeaks the necessity of engaging the great struggle for justice and freedom and links it to the great battle described in the Book of Revelation between Christ and Satan: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on….
The Church Militant – Then too, one of the most traditional references in the Church’s lexicon of herself on earth is the “Church Militant.” The Church in heaven is the Church Triumphant. The Church in Purgatory is the Church suffering. But the Church here on earth is the Church Militant. In other words the Church here on earth is engaged in a great battle, still. She battles against error and sin, she shed the light of the truth to a world that prefers the darkness and snatches souls from Satan’s grasp in a great battle. In the Easter Sequence Hymn the battle waged by Christ and continued through his mystical Body is described in this way: Mors et vita duello. Conflixere mirando, dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus (Death and life have clashed in a wondrous battle, The king of life dies, yet reigns (now) alive). The Church militant continues to experience the unfolding of this great paschal mystery as she, by God’s grace makes daring raids into Satan’s stronghold and leads souls to freedom and victory. Her weapons are the truth of God’s Word, the healing and powerful sacraments and intrepid evangelical souls who witness to the truth and proclaim it to the world. Yes, the Church is surely in a great battle. The Hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” describes this battle as thus:
Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,she waits the consummation,of peace forevermore;till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,and the great church victorious, shall be the church at rest.
Then too is one of the principle prayers of the Church which invokes the great leader of the Host (a word which means “army”) of Angels:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host -by the Divine Power of God -cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.
In all these images and expressions it is clear that they do not mean that the Church should buy jeeps and tanks or any worldly weaponry. But the images of battle are invoked to remind the Christian to have the virtues of the solider and to be aware that a battle is taking place all around us that requires sober vigilance and properly discerned action.
The Church for her part has a a key role in summoning Christians to enter the battle (the conflixere mirando) by defining clearly the crucial battles that much be waged on a multi-front war. As St. Paul warns, If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor 14:8). He exhorts Timothy to “Fight the Good fight” (1 Tim 6:12). He also distinguishes our warfare in these words:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (1 Cor 10:3-6)
Hence, In defense of military imagery I invoke long Christian Tradition, the witness of Scripture and the fittingness of the imagery to describe the life of the Christian and also the Church. While distinctions are important as have been made above, it remains a true fact that we are in a great battle and as such, a spiritualized understanding of the soldier, weapons and battle are both fitting and essential. As with any imagery, one is free to make use of it as it suits them. There may be some who find such imagery less helpful. But there are many who find it encouraging and truthful. It ought not be excluded as a category, image or metaphor in the Church’s self understanding.
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him….When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child..from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus(Rev 12, selectae)
Thanks to Cynthia BC for pointing me to this video: Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before. Christ, the royal Master, Leads against the Foe; Forward into battle See His banners go! Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before!

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