The Real War

The tension that causes problems for me in Joshua is stated succinctly in the words of the people when Joshua challenges them to decide firmly whether they will serve Yahweh or other gods. The people promise to serve the God “who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” (Josh. 24: 17) So far, so good. Yahweh is the only god I know of who is interested in delivering people out of slavery and oppression. But the people go on to praise their god for driving out the Amorites before them. Destroying enemies was the job of other deities such as the gods of the Amorites. If Yahweh really is the God who delivers the oppressed from the oppressor, than Yahweh can hardly be the god who oppresses one people for the benefit of the other. Who is the real God of Israel?

In giving us a qualitatively different view of war in Ephesians 6, St. Paul lands heavily on the side of the God who delivered the people from Egypt. Paul admonishes us to “put on the whole armor of God,” not to go out and destroy other people but to fight “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Eph. 6: 12) What is this armor? What are these cosmic powers? The armor includes the “belt of truth” and “the breastplate of righteousness.” One can hardly do an effective job of invading somebody’s country with such items. Still less could we do such a thing with shoes that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace .” The enemies to be fought, then, are the forces of lies and unrighteousness, the sort that are best fought with truth and righteousness. The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt would arm us with this kind of armor for this kind of battle. Perhaps the cosmic powers should not be reduced to systemic lies and unrighteousness in human societies but it certainly includes them. That is, God would have us fight today’s systems that emulate Egypt by institutionalizing oppression for some people such as institutionalized racism in our country. The helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit would not be used for cutting up other people, but for preaching the Gospel of peace in the face of such violence. Pharaoh and Egypt understand metal swords and bombs very well. What Pharaoh and Egypt do not understand is the Word of God that is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4: 12) It is the God of this Word whom we must choose, not the gods of the Amorites.

The enigmatic words at the end of John 6 might seem to be on a totally different subject, but they develop the same line of thought as Ephesians 6 in a distant key. Jesus’ words of eating and drinking seem pleasant until we realize Jesus is talking about offering himself as the bread and wine which is eaten and drunk. His use of the Greek word trogein has strong connotations of feeding upon, of grinding the food with one’s teeth. All of this brings to the forefront the violence involved in eating, that living things are devoured so that the one who eats can live. The Eucharistic overtones in the references to the Body and Blood of Christ also bring front and center the Paschal Mystery of Jesus who was killed on the Cross and then raised from the dead. What Jesus did on the cross was to absorb the human violence committed by Pharaoh and all others like him to open up a whole new humanity that does not need to live on such violence. The shield of faith is based on this self-giving of Jesus.

Feeding on Jesus absorbs the violence of eating in such a way that it becomes non-violent. The Eucharist redefines sacrifice from a bloody and deadly rite to a bloodless life-giving rite. Earlier in John 6, Jesus has set us up for this sort of nourishment by bringing in the Jewish teaching that the bread from heaven in the wilderness is the Torah. That is, the Word of God feeds us. We also speak of being fed when a preacher speaks the word of God in such a way that listeners feel nourished by it. The past few months I have often been reflecting on what the heavenly banquet might be like. I imagine lots of lobster and caramel cake but lobsters and plants are harmed in serving up this kind of menu and surely there is no room for the sacrifice of living creatures in heaven. But if all of us offer the substance of our personalities for the nourishment of others and receive the same from others, all modeled on Jesus’ offering the substance of his personhood to us, then that is quite a banquet indeed. Meanwhile, in this life, with the institutionalized violence surrounding us, fighting the good fight requires being strengthened by the Body and Blood of Jesus which comprise the material of the full armor of God. Jesus’ offer of himself was a challenge to his followers then and to followers today to decide whether to turn back to the gods of the Amorites, which most of the followers at that time did, or accept his offer of Life through his self-giving substance that leads us to offer our self-giving substance to others.

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