Does the “armor of God” imagery communicate as intended?

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Where does this battle language come from?  Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20.  These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se. 

I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life.  It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation.  Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general.  The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good.  “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:

  • “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
  • “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
  • “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
  • Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)

The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two.  Here’s an example:

Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word

I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.

“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:

  • “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
  • “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)

Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.”  To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives.  Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer.  On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.

The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:

I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!  (Yes, sir!)  

As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song.  And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)?  The actions are fun.  Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle.  Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a  song called “The Army of the Lord.”  This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka.  At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic.  At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes.  Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.

In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind.  For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays?  Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6.  Put differently:  if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble.  On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.

The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all.  His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group. 

Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame.  Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.²  The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view.  The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.

Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match.  The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³  Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.

Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds.  The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization.  Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways.  Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  W. Churchill, 1941)

It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.”  It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.”  Yes, presumptuous:  the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory.  So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?

In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.

(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York:  Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)

Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery.  In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines.  It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord.  Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve.  In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2:  the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.”  And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).

The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many.  My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title.  “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking.  I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”

Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern.  The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about.  As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence.  In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18


¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera.  Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works.  It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music.  Aside:  Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry.  See this Wikipedia link for more information.

² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.

³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη  | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.”  Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition.  Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle.  The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.”  Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

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Freedom reflections

“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value.  What, though, is the referent of “freedom”?  It depends on the context.  Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹

I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent.  I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause.  I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings.  There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday.  I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.

We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages.  What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege.  We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made.  One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters.  The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments.  Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).

The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement.  Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us.  But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.

In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament.”  Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context.  He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people.  This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of.  On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25)  This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable.  In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting.  Hurtado’s point seems valid.

I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own.  Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.

Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.

– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18

Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism.  Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant.  I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking.  In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.

As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then.  But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action.  The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically.  It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion.  So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.

The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results.  Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people.  But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic.  Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.

The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well.  There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment.  But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people.  Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look.  One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals.  In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities.  But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement.  This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others.  The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.

– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)


For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.

For more (roughly) seasonal reading:

Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)

The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers.  Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:

Former enlisted man now a CO  (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)


¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.”  Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.

Two empires (2 of 2)

Now posted on my other blog here:  a second set of quotations on the kingdom of God from Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto.  Ostensibly moving from the “manifestos” of Marx & Engels and Francis Schaeffer, these packed-with-punch authors pen powerful statements such as these:

Justice does not assume freedom from suffering.

The kingdom is a presence that we enter, a gem-like gift that we receive and treasure, a new creation that engulfs and embraces us. In other words, the kingdom of God is Jesus the Christ, and his righteousness.

Christians don’t follow Christianity.  They follow Christ. 

Click here to see this whole second set of quotations, and here for the first set.

 

A reasonable step and an ill-conceived stance

A reasonable step
At first, I didn’t think so, but I now believe the President’s step was a reasonable one:

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” – President Donald Trump, 12/6/17

Could it also be time to pass a proclamation that trumps the long-standing rule against splitting infinitives?  (I digress before I really get started!)

I assumed the decision was intended to play to the “conservative Christian” element among the voting public.  I no longer assume that is a major factor.  I was under-informed on Tel Aviv, as well, thinking there had been an official Israel capital there.  If that had been the case, the U.S. President’s move to “recognize Jerusalem” in this way would have been silly.  Regardless, I was wrong.  It seems there has not been a single capital per se:  Tel Aviv was set up as a temporary headquarters in 1948, but the Knesset is in Jerusalem, and the recent history of Israeli capitals seems complex.

After having read the President’s statement in full, I don’t find much fault with it, insofar as it goes. The only concern I would have is the underscoring of the presumed, scant connection between the ancient Jews of King David’s time and the Jewish state today.

So the US Embassy will be built and will open soon in Jerusalem.  The content of the President’s proclamation notwithstanding, people will be all over the map as to the intentions and ramifications.  Zionist Jews and Zionist Christians will celebrate a conclusion I find baseless.  A Muslim in Jerusalem was quoted in his use of a foul epithet to describe the President’s news.  One source intimates that President Trump was making a gesture to his “close ally,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  The left-leaning American media will surely huddle in a corner.  Maybe I’ll listen to Monday’s NPR report to see who thinks President Trump is risking a deterioration of relationships with Palestinian Muslims while establishing even firmer ties to Israel’s Jews.

An ill-conceived stance
The cover blurb on the book Standing with Israel (2006) begins with these words:

David Brog has written a passionate and personal testament on the ever-growing support and affection that many Christians have for the State of Israel.  He has brilliantly captured the spirit of brotherhood between the Jewish people and American Christians.

The back cover continues as follows:

Written by a committed Jew, Standing With Israel provides an insightful explanation of why so many Christians are dedicating themselves to supporting the State of Israel. . . .

Inasmuch as Brog has written an account of historical events and coalitions founded and formed over time, it is a valuable set of insights he brings.  I’m chilled, though, when I read some of the things recounted in this book.  For instance, Jerry Falwell stated this in 1980:
I firmly believe God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew.  If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable, and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel.  (pp. 138-139)
In 1994, Pat Robertson referred to his own commitment following the 1973 Yom Kippur War:
I made a solemn vow to the Lord that whatever happens, however unpopular it would be, whatever the consequences, that I personally, and those organizations that I was in charge of, would stand for Israel.  And we have not deviated.  (p. 139)
In 2002, Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Robertson’s organization, formed a new group called “Stand for Israel.”  The political impact of all the above is documented in Brog’s book.  Have Falwell, Robertson, and Reed ever been known for standing for Christ?  Clearly, that has not been their priority.  To the extent that they wish to be politicians, they made their intentions known and remained loyal to their principles.  But we must not make the mistake of thinking that such positions and loyalties are Christ-ian (of, or belonging to, Christ).  They are political, and they are to some extent social.  They are philosophical.  They are perhaps “Christian” in an ironically secular, “Christendom” sense.  But they are not of Christ.

Brog’s description of the scenario seems studied and is doubtless apt, but the stance to which he attests is ill-conceived.  While American Christians have the intellectual right to feel supportive of one political entity over another, the very idea of a Christian’s taking a stand for or against another country seems even less appropriate than standing in some limited way for one’s own country.  (Save me from the now-cliché Lee Greenwood lyrics, “I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.”  Probably only 10% of those who would sing those words would actually do the defending.)  Actually, we ought to be more about moving than standing:  walking intentionally as disciples of Jesus the Messiah.  Insofar as we plant ourselves, though, taking stances, let’s reconsider which ones to spend time with.

Take a stand, I say, for the kingdom of God or for the Lord Christ or for His church—or for love or justice or grace or right vs. wrong.

Take a stand for responsible, contextually aware Bible study or for meaningful Christian assemblies.

Take a stance against dogmatism or sectarianism.

Take a deer stand into the woods near a meadow, and take a hunter’s stance before aiming for your venison.

Take a music stand home to practice.

Take an aggressive, serious-business batting stance if you want to hit the baseball well.

But, Christians, we ought to avoid taking stances for or against political entities.

(Hucka)been there, done that

Crossposted from my other blog, a bit of a diatribe on something from the typical “conservative Christian” world:  https://subjectsofthekingdomblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/huckabeen-there-done-that/

Here are a few excerpts:

“God’s love for the U.S.” is an idea concocted out of thick air—thick with people who not only believe, but also blithely promulgate, the idea that God especially guides the United States.  These people are almost as common as, and even more deluded than, those who think they can play the guitar.

. . .

God is not about geopolitical entities.

. . .

I would assert that God did specially orchestrate some events for the ancient Jews for centuries, but the scenario then changed.  

Xposted: Kingdom glances (3) — allegiance

Faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus will ultimately be significant to everyone.  This final installment in a short series on my other blog speaks in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

Among other challenges, Matthew Batesʼs Salvation by Allegiance Alone aims to move us toward a fuller, more apt understanding of pistis (“faith” in English Bibles).  Please click below (to my other blog) to read more on faith as allegiance to Jesus as King:

https://subjectsofthekingdomblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/kingdom-glances-3/

Apologies to readers who receive posts by e-mail for this blog.  I clicked prematurely yesterday.  If you have already read the linked post above, know that nothing has changed there other than a correction of a typo. 

Xposted: 2 Kingdom glances

Here are two links to last week’s postings in a 3-part “Kingdom Glances” series on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  These two, as well as the final installment yet to come, are all duly connected to the kingship of Jesus the Christ.

The Divine Conspiracy (the sequel)

King Jesus (a 1992 song)

Coming on Wednesday morning:  the 3rd and final glance in this series.  The first two were important to me but might have seemed more like mere references or historical curiosities to others.  I earnestly believe that faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus are, or at least should be, significant to everyone.  And the installment yet to come will speak in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

I sincerely hope you will look for this and read it on Wednesday.

 

Cross-posted: signifiers

Do you think Christianity and nationalism go hand in hand?

For you, is “church” an extension of civic life, merely one of your clubs or organizations?

If your honest answer to either of those questions tends toward “yes,” you might not want to read this from my Kingdom blog.  On the other hand, if you consider yourself able to consider potentially challenging ideas without feeling offense, I hope you will read it.  If you do, please know that, while the ills I describe are pervasive, the examples I use are mere examples.  It could have been any church or Christian group.  Most have issues in this area.

Church signs and signifiers   (revised & expanded 2/15 – 2/19)

Were they serious?

MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.

Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age.  The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one:  “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.”[1]  Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:

  1. The moon landing
  2. JFK’s “Ask not …”
  3. The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote

I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight.  That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me.  King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational.  To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact.  The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work.  Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.

Image result for will campbell
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013)

In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode.  I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either.  Allow me to introduce you to him.

Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956.  He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:

Campbell still has much to teach us all.  Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…

In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation.  The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives:  “Unrealistic!”  “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!”  . . .  Most often, however, another word is best:  Gospel.  Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.

If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat.  The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.

Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:

The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows:  Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom.  They have done something about it.  In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites.  In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action.  That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)….  Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time.  (177)

It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age.  Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.”  (back cover)   “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers …  that divide and dehumanize.” (vii)  “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover)   I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.

Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks.  He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South.  After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group.  Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31)  I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so.  I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.

Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one.  Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ.  Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment.  For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city.  “Seven hundred and eighty church houses.  But religion is a dangerous thing.”  (77)  “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.”  (back cover)

In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.”  He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there.  Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:

He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law.  Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel.  (89)

The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.

I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?”  (93)

It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism.  The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.”  In that event, there would be some hope.  Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.”  His stinging rejoinder:  “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.”  (93)

My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what.  He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):

I don’t like the word ministry.  It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic.  I don’t have a ministry.  I have a life.  (123)

In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar.  (xi)  Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals.  In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.”  That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process.  Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time.  I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.

For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here.  Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.


[1] On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.

Allegiance: Boltz, Camp, & Mullins (part 1 of 2)

I think it was during my late teen years that the notion of the Christian believer’s foremost allegiance began to stick with me.  More than once during those years, I read every word of my grandfather’s paper on the Christian and government.¹  In the sub-context of stating a Christ-based unwillingness to serve in the military (but also revealing a broader philosophical stance which I also affirm), Granddaddy wrote, “I will try to be submissive insofar as this submission does not compromise my basic allegiance to Christ.”  Such thinking has been a part of my theological chassis for some time.  Many welders have strengthened the undercarriage, so the allegiance frame is pretty unlikely to break at this point.

Some years later, when I heard Ray Boltz’s² rather unique song “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb,” it added a “contemporary Christian” bit of support to my thinking.  A Christian should have one primary allegiance, I knew, and that allegiance should obviously not be to the flag of a country, but Boltz had stated it well in the positive:  Jesus the Lamb was the One to Whom loyalty is due.  I wonder now whether Boltz was responding creatively (either consciously or subconsciously), knowing something was amiss in the popularity of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which was then more than ten years old and had become the anthem of the U.S. military, beginning in the Gulf War era.

Image result for rich mullins songs album

Also sometime during the 1990s, I had come to the songs of the late Rich Mullins.  Just a couple of days ago, I happened to put one of Mullins’s CDs in my player, as I seem to every couple of months.  The song “If I Stand” has often moved me, through years, filling up my eyes, and it did so again.  It is not the word “allegiance” first that struck me, but a synonym:

There’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment.

Nationalistic patriotism in most people (not all, I understand) has most often struck me as mere sentiment.  One or two good friends have challenged my concept of patriotism, and I do acknowledge that it can be a neutral or even good thing even in the believer’s life.  Still, Mullins’s sentence has stuck with me through the years.  Whatever the inner sentiment of a national patriot, surely loyalty must outlast and outshine the sentiment.  And it is the same for a believer:  it’s not that there is no sentiment; it’s that allegiance to the King must be real and transcendent.

In the song “If I Stand,” Mullins and co-writer Cudworth continued,

The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things.

In internalizing these thoughts sporadically for more than two decades, my own allegiance has been both (a) shown to be the weak thing that it is and (b) impelled forward.  Five songs later on the disc, Mullins offered “My One Thing,” showing once again that he desired to embody a surpassing allegiance:

You’re my one thing!
Save me from those things that might distract me.
Please take them away and purify my heart.
I don’t want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing,
‘Cause what will I have when the world is gone,
If it isn’t for the love that goes on and on with my one thing!

In 2015, I was introduced by Richard Hughes to the writing of Lee CamImage result for lee camp mere discipleshipp.  First poring over Camp’s Mere Discipleship, I was impressed by his depth and his on-target courage to speak into the fray of modern Christendom, not to mention his skill with written expression.  In the course of this book, Camp depicted worship as allegiance, and I have yet to dive into that connection, but something compels to do so.  Allegiance is a rather massive, compelling ideal.

In part two, I will mention a (relatively) new book by Matthew Bates—Salvation by Allegiance Alone.  I’ll also say some things related to faith and allegiance in Paul’s (old) letter to the Galatians.  Allegiance is a concept with substantial, longstanding history.


¹ Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.’s paper is in the public domain and is reproduced in my book Subjects of the Kingdom. 

² Only in writing this post have I learned that Boltz’s allegiance to his own desires later eclipsed his allegiance to Christ and to his wife.