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For Christianity in Time of War, There are No Painless Choices

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We need only to reread the New Testament to see, in stunningly resonant imagery, what awaits a follower of Jesus in a world full of unbelievers. As many of my scholarly friends debate Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, I offer my own viewpoint, which might or might not conflict with a Benedict Option, depending on how one parses it.

My view comes from the advice of Christ and His disciples: Christianity is a contact sport. It is, in fact, war. So it has been, from the beginning — a war waged in the spiritual realm.

A host of recent books and articles have lamented that American Christianity is at a nadir and may vanish entirely within two or three generations. Fortunately, the Bible’s inerrancy and sufficiency guarantee that we will not lack for advice. Ecclesiastes counsels perspective, while Psalms and Proverbs offer us plentiful reasons not to view the depravity of the 2010s as unique. While Jesus still wore a mortal body, He said, “This generation is an evil generation” (Luke 11:29).

Wartime presents many options, but all are painful. The lack of a painless choice does not mean that we are being forced into one set course of action. God gives us free will. We have had it since the Garden of Eden.

Wartime Options

What are Christians to do when we face so much cultural animosity? The temptation in such times is to seek comfort in a setting where it seems that enemies cannot harm us. But that defies Jesus’s own commands: “Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.” (Luke 10: 3-5).

The New Testament does not shrink from characterizing a Christ-driven life as a war, and this world as a battlefield:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph. 6: 10-13)

To love Christ, we know, is to be at war with a world that does not want Him to deliver it from its sinful ways. But the tactics of spiritual war are far less straightforward than the principles offered by Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz.

The Fog of War

If loving Jesus means fighting for Him, then the Christian must accept one glitch as a constant challenge: the “fog of war,” when the enemy, in our case the devil, is difficult to identify. Consider a pagan example: Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. As Troy burns, Aeneas loses most of his fellow Trojans to other Trojans who mistake them for Greeks in nocturnal, urban combat:

But here, here first, from the temple gable’s height
We met a hail of missiles from our friends
Pitiful execution, by their error
Who thought us Greek from our Greek plumes and shields
Then with a groan of anger
Seeing the virgin wrested from them
[Greeks] from all sides
Rallied and attacked us. (48)

It would be helpful if our war were always a case of us acting as David against the devil as Goliath. Unfortunately we more resemble Aeneas, watching his own city razed while he must fight not only the violent trickery of the enemy but also the foolish errors of his own side. Life offers no safe space into which the Christian can retreat. Wherever we go, Trojan horses can find their way into our sanctuaries and fumblers in our ranks can do just as much damage as nasty foes.

An even clearer indication of our likely battlefield comes from the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion comes after a triangulated conspiracy, rife with infighting, among Roman authorities, high Jewish authorities, and an uncontrollable mob, not to mention traitors within Christ’s camp.

The Jewish experts who “love salutations in the market places and … places of honor at feasts” (Luke 20:46-47) work with collaborators and “spies” (Luke 20:20) among Jesus’s friends and among the masses to bring Jesus before the Roman provincial authorities. The latter initially do not want to take any action against Him: “Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.’” (John 18:31).

The Jewish authorities avoid the physical execution. The Romans avoid direct responsibility for the verdict first by claiming that the laws are inscrutable to them, then by offering to free Jesus after only whipping Him. But then the mob demands that the violent Barabbas go free and Jesus be crucified in his stead.

The famous lines, “Crucify Him!” are chanted neither by the Jewish authorities who mastermind Christ’s downfall nor by the Romans who must carry out the killing. It is a large crowd of people with forgotten names, driven by passions and so diffuse in their collective will that no obvious culprit is identifiable.

This crucial event in the story of Christianity is maddeningly convoluted. Who killed Him? When I was growing up, mentors told me the crucifixion had to happen this way, so that we would know that God died for all humanity’s sins. Providence demanded that guilt be so dispersed that Christians would have to conclude that every human being is just as guilty as anyone else. Those in the mob who failed to stand against the others are, in this reasoning, just as guilty as Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate. Inaction, complicity and apathy exist on a spectrum alongside bloodlust, slander and violence. All who live in this sinful world partook in the deicide.

The early church father Athanasius of Alexandria provided a similar rationale in On the Incarnation, written in the fourth century. For Athanasius, every detail of Christ’s tribulation served a distinct purpose in persuading the stubborn and ignorant mortal mind. Athanasius writes:

Death came to the body not from him but from plotting, that he might destroy that death which they brought upon the Savior (Inc. 24).

In this interpretation, “plotting” had to be the key factor in the death, rather than a mere physical attack. Humans retelling the story must see how much harm is done through evil motives and wicked persuasion. If Christ died with a simple blow from a violent bully, our imperfect minds might not notice the sins rooted in our interior lives and cultivated in our complicated social interactions.

Perhaps the contorted plot leading to Christ’s death is also meant to instruct Christians about the nature of fighting the devil. The “wolves” are not only those who openly hate us but also those who are supposed to be on our side.

How Christians Must Fight

Many of the best lines about this spiritual warfare come, again, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. ” (Eph. 4: 26-27). Christians are to remove from themselves “ bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander,” as well as “malice,” “sexual immorality,” “impurity,” “greed,” “coarse and foolish talking” and “crude jokes” (Ephesians 4:31, 5:6).

At the same time, however, Christians are not to allow enemies or supposed comrades to dupe or undermine them. In the same letter, Paul says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words,” and “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Ephesians 5: 6–11).

Christians will feel torn, unsure of what to do, doubtful of whether they are comforting their brethren out of Christian love or cowardly complacency, uncertain whether they are rebuking others out of hypocrisy or righteousness.

The fog of war inevitably gathers. In that fog, we know prayer is a proper response. But other “options” may seem difficult to gauge. In a culture full of impurities, do we choose silence, lest we become crude? Do we avoid the “fruitless works of darkness” by staying away from wherever those works are carried out?

In choosing military analogies I risk the criticism that I am confirming the stereotype of evangelicals as dangerous gun owners who might become violent at any moment (of course, I also just published a book called Wackos Thugs & Perverts.) The martial vocabulary predates me by quite a bit, however, since “culture wars” are wars.

As people debate how to grapple with losses inflicted by culture wars on our side, the one firm stance I can offer is this: we did not choose the culture wars we had to fight. These are ancient battles. My daily excursions through Twitter remind me, in so many surprising and exciting ways, how many are willing to stake their jobs, businesses and liberty to defend life, chastity and countless other Christian causes. If we embrace pessimism and retreat, that is our free choice. We are accountable for it. We still have other options.

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