Always at War
Professor Patty Pell, Assistant Professor of Cultural Engagement
Originally published in Engage Magazine, Fall/Winter 2021
Have you noticed that we are constantly at war? War language clutters our speech and permeates our attitudes. War against poverty, war against crime, war against drugs, war against freedom, war against families, war against oil and gas, and war against whatever is the current rhetorical strategy in the public square’s struggle for dominance. One can find war language in the pages of our newspapers, in the news industry’s television and radio coverage, and on every conceivable social media platform. Whoever disagrees with you is now “at war” with you.
On one hand, war language signals the seriousness of a challenge. War language is used because it communicates an existential threat that, in theory, spurs people to action. War language is used because those using it assume that highlighting a threat will inspire people to stand and fight.
But there is an insidious danger inherent in using war language because being at war requires having an enemy. The treacherous nature of this language is that as sinful, broken people we slide so easily from a war on “something” to a war on “someone.” We can rapidly and uncritically move from a war on poverty to a war on the people who are impoverished. In our humanity, we have difficulty separating the rhetorical war language from those who represent that against which we “war.” As humans, we find it nearly impossible to wage a war on a concept or even an injustice without waging war against an enemy, and the only response—in this world—to enemies is to destroy them.
Destruction of the enemy is the strategy when one is at war. Culturally, we have adopted war language in reference to almost any social concern, which leads us down a road where destruction of those with whom we disagree is not only accepted but encouraged because winning a war necessitates it.
Unfortunately, followers of Christ have not been immune to the use of war language. The Church has frequently embraced the same kind of vocabulary and framework, thinking that war language would inspire believers to zealous fighting in various culture wars, while at the same time communicate to the world that the Church cares deeply about the particular social concern or manifestation of immorality. What might be our response to the pervasive use of war language in the culture around us and in the church? Let’s refer to four specific commands from Scripture.
THE SCRIPTURE COMMANDS US TO LOVE
The Old Testament commands Israel to love in three very specific ways. In Deuteronomy 6:4–5, Israel is commanded to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength. The command to love the Lord is foundational to Israel’s re-orientation from life as an enslaved people under physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic oppression and into a life of liberation in relationship with a God of abundance. Israel had lived for hundreds of years as an enslaved people where their bodies were commodities, where they lacked human agency and where they were restricted from worshipping their God. When God rescues them and carries them “on eagles wings” to Himself (Ex 19:4), they needed to learn what it meant to be in relationship with Him as His people and how to protect and preserve the freedoms they had been given. Loving God with their entire being was foundational to Israel’s identity and to their ability to live in freedom as a community and to preserve the holistic redemption they had received.
The second command to love is found in Leviticus 19:18 where Israel is commanded to love their neighbor: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The love of God was to flow directly into love for one’s neighbor. Love of God found its practical expression in the way Israel was to view those in the community. The love of neighbor was an active rather than a passive love, exhorting Israel to treat one another in a way they would like to be treated rather than just avoiding mistreatment.
God had commanded His people to love Him with every part of themselves and to love their neighbors. And just in case Israel wanted to define “neighbor” as people just like them and put boundaries around who they were required to love, God commanded them to love the foreigner. “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD” (Lev 19:34). The temptation for humanity to love those who are similar and to exclude others is so strong that God explicitly commands Israel to see the “other” not as foreigners, not as those who differed in some way, but as the native-born—in essence to see them as neighbors. Thus, if they were neighbors, they had the right to be loved by those who loved the God of heaven and earth.
But by the time Jesus arrives on the scene, Israel had reverted to a very narrow and limited definition of who their neighbors were and whom they were responsible to love. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus explodes their understanding of who their neighbor is and for whom they were responsible. The implication in the parable is that those in the kingdom of God are responsible for everyone, even those who are different.
The ever-expanding circles of love that we see in Scripture reach a climax in the fourth command to love in Matthew when Jesus says, “You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43, NIV). Hating your enemy is not found in the Old Testament law, and yet it had become the way in which Israel approached their enemies; it had become embedded in their attitudes and actions. Israel had redrawn the boundaries and redefined who their neighbors were and whom they were responsible to love.
Jesus shatters this narrow understanding. The new community—the people of God’s kingdom— is motivated and powered by a different kind of love. They will love God, their neighbors, foreigners, and now their enemies! This love of the enemy is the ultimate reflection of what Jesus will do for His people and the ultimate expression of who the people of the kingdom should be. Jesus will give Himself up for sinners—He will lay down His life in love for those who reject Him, for all people. The Apostle Paul in Romans says it like this: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). We could just as easily say: “While we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.”
The social concerns and struggles in our communities and in the world are serious, complex realities, and there is genuine disagreement on many matters, but embracing war language justifies seeing others as enemies rather than neighbors for whom we are responsible and to whom we are called to extend love. Instead of trying to inspire a world through a rhetorical call to arms, the Church has an incredible opportunity to love God, love our neighbors, love the foreigner, and love our enemies. What kind of powerful witness of the kingdom of God might the Church be if our language and our lives rejected the battle and embraced the depth of love? Let us be conformed to His image.