What did you do this summer? Do they still ask school children to write such essays? I’m sure George Williams never asked for an essay on, “My Most Memorable Summer,” in his English classes here. If they did, I would be happy to tell you about my worst summer. After my Junior Year of college, I spent an unforgettable nine weeks as Uncle Sam’s guest at an exclusive camp for boys known as Fort Bragg.
There, in spite of our drill sergeant’s efforts, I proved that I was one of the worst soldiers this country has ever produced. Five-mile runs at dawn and days of K.P. and field rations quickly convinced me that Uncle Sam needed a great many other people before he needed me.
Even today, it is only with great difficulty that I pass through Fayetteville, North Carolina because of my bad taste at Fort Bragg.
Recently, a friend and I were discussing our days in boot camp and he told me, “I served a year in Viet Nam during heavy fighting, and if someone gave me the choice of going back to Viet Nam for a year or spending nine weeks at Fort Bragg — I’d have to think about it.”
Can you see why, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is not one of my favorite hymns? Ben Smith says it’s been at least 18 years since that hymn was sung in this chapel. I don’t even think all that kindly of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — which Dr. Brodie’s great grandfathers sang as they came down this way to do mischief to my great grandfather. I am put off by mixing military metaphors with the religion of the Prince of Peace.
But what am I going to do with the Bible? From cover to cover the Bible is full of warfare, battles, armaments. No, it’s not just the Hebrew Scriptures, but our New Testament as well. Take today’s lesson from Ephesians:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may he able to stand against he wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness… put on the breastplate of righteousness… taking the shield of faith… the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Why is it, in speaking of Christian life in the Bible or now, we invariably reach for military metaphors? Because if you’re going to live for God in the 21st century, you may be in for a real fight.
Here you are in the Chapel. You drag out of bed, get dressed, go to church. But did you notice, on your way here, that more of your neighbors are sitting this one out? Even on this church-traditional campus, even here “in God we trust” America, you begin to feel like a member of a minority faith, a counter-cultural group, this church. Church isn’t “in” at progressive, “hot” colleges.
This is so not only here, in academia where one expects more than a little apathy about religion. Thumb through a magazine, go to a movie, switch on the TV, examine our national budget, check out how people spend their money and you find that the world is buying a different set of goods than those peddled here from eleven to twelve on Sunday.
“The church, nice thing, the church. Good for national morale, the morals of the youth, and a few passing references during political campaigns,” but let that sweet little church dare to question national policy on nuclear arms or South Africa, or the lifestyle of the stars in People magazine, and the church finds who is running the show. And it’s not Jesus.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. I’m not implying that we North American Christians suffer like our Christian brothers and sisters in China, or Africa. We’re not paying in blood for belief. And yet, even here, there is a price, a price by which the military metaphors of Ephesians 6 don’t sound so far fetched. The materialism, narcissism, militarism, commercialism–what Paul would call “principalities and powers”–tempt us, mock us, often subdue us. We’re not fighting the same battles as the Ephesians–no totalitarian Caesar is on our backs (not yet), no bloody persecutions for us. And yet, if you’re honest, you must feel sometimes that we are locked in a sort of struggle.
It’s tough to pay for one’s faith in blood like the Ephesians. But it is also tough to be ignored, ridiculed, dismissed by one’s culture, a culture which is not, on the whole, willfully unbelieving. It’s simply too self-consumed, too jaded to make the effort to believe or to disbelieve.
Jesus speaks, and the world yawns and goes to the beach.
Today’s religious assertion is quickly co-opted into tomorrow’s soft drink commercial. If it can’t be put on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, the world doesn’t care.
As Paul says, we’re not talking about mere flesh and blood, a few bad people misplaced in high places. We’re talking about “principalities and powers, world rulers of this present darkness, hosts of wickedness in heavenly places”; a fancy, first-century way of saying that it is as if evil is organized; a great, faceless bureaucracy, transforming us, like Kafka’s poor character in “Metamorphosis” into insects, numbers on computer printouts. “Principalities and powers” is the biblical way of saying that evil is systemic, bureaucratic, nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault. GM, Exxon, Microsoft, the Pentagon, Communism, and the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles all moving against us.
The great watershed mark of my undergraduate years was the upheaval in the mid-sixties at the University of California at Berkeley. Students took to the streets and shut down a great university, demanding to be heard, demanding change in the system. It was a fire that spread to every campus in the country before it burned out.
I am told that it all began when a student, attempting to meet with a professor in a course in which he was having difficulty, failed on three consecutive days to get in line to see his teacher. The professor had office hours only three days a week for one hour a day. Determined to see the professor, he got to his office at noon for a mid-afternoon appointment. But when the appointed hour came, the secretary came out and told the student that Dr. So-and-So was taking the day off.
That young man ran screaming from the building, out into the Berkley campus and called his fellow students to shut down the university.
But what can you do? At least protesting students of the sixties thought they could change the system. “We can change the world, rearrange the world,” was the song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. You don’t hear songs like that anymore on campus.
We feel trapped. Don’t agitate, adjust. Milk the system for all it’s worth rather than modify it. Everybody else is doing it. Nine out of ten Americans can’t be wrong.
A character in the movie My Dinner With Andre, remarks: “We are like inmates of a vast concentration camp. The doors to the camp have been unlocked for years. We can go if we wish. But we stay, not because we’re happy, but since we helped build the camp, we are so proud of how it looks. We may be slaves here, but who knows what lies outside the gate? So we stay and redecorate our cells.”
Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, “You aren’t contending against minor obstacles, a few little hurdles. You are at war. So you had better be ready. Get the necessary armor or you won’t make it.”
Frankly, Paul’s talk of “principalities,” “powers,” “this present darkness,” sounds a bit paranoid. Or is it a bit realistic? Paranoia–that’s when you only think that they’re out to get you!
The one who wrote this call to arms refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains.” It had not been smooth sailing for this friend of Jesus.
My last church was next door to the Jewish synagogue. They used the parking lot on Fridays; we used it on Sundays. The Rabbi and I got together on Mondays for coffee. One of these mornings he was telling me, “It’s tough to be a Jew in Greenville. We’re always having to tell our kids, ‘That’s fine for everybody else, but not for you. You’re special, you’re a Jew. You have a special story, a particular way of life. That sort of talk is fine for everybody else, but not for you. You have your own values, your own way of looking at things.”
I said to him, “Rabbi, you won’t believe this, but I heard very much that same conversation last week right here in my own church, right here in Bible-belt Greenville. A young couples’ church school class was saying, ‘We’re always having to tell our children, those values are fine for everybody else, but not for you. You are special. You are a Christian.'”
Young Christian parents report that they increasingly argue over which television programs to allow the children to watch, what to do about materialism, which values to affirm, how to form a lifestyle which is something more than merely selfish.
The principalities and powers are the air we breathe, the commercials on TV, the heroes we admire, the country we love, the things we want. The hosts of wickedness become as innocent as the quick glance of disapproval from your friends when you have stepped out of line with the status quo, the raised eyebrows of the professor whom you admire, even the gentle nudgings from the parents you love. Fit in, go with the flow, don’t rock the boat, they will tell you. Accommodation is the name of the game — who needs a shield, sword, and buckler for that?
You already know how little I liked Fort Bragg. I especially resented the regimentation, the shaved heads, the hard-nosed discipline. But all that started to make sense when our Major told us, “Men, you are not here for a tea party. You are here for only one purpose — to train you to lead soldiers into battle, to kill or be killed. When you get over in Nam, you will have thirty people who will be totally dependent on you. You must be so tough, so disciplined, so quick to respond, that you will bring most of them back alive.”
Suddenly, I understood. Everything-the uniforms, the shaved heads, the hardships-served to prepare us for nothing less than war. You may not care for the purpose, but you must admit that the training fit. It gave us what we needed to, in the words of Paul, “be able to stand.”
Of course, if being a Christian is only a matter of doing what comes naturally, feeling a few warm thoughts in your heart when you’re seated in Chapel, pondering an occasional noble religious sentiment, then you don’t need armament. But if we are about something not unlike war–all-out attack, guerrilla raids, or undercover operations — you may need more to sustain you than your own good intentions. Is that what impelled you here this morning? In some subconscious way, you have come seeking strength to stand.
Gentle Jesus was not treated gently by the principalities and powers, nor were His disciples.
A number of years ago, we watched a horrifying documentary on the rise of neo-Nazi and facist groups among farmers in the Midwest. In Idaho, Arkansas and Wisconsin, financially desperate farmers were arming themselves with automatic weapons, in para-military groups like “Christian Identity,” and the Aryan Nation,” espousing violent, anti-Jewish hatred. Judge Sam Van Pelt of Nebraska said, “I just never could understand how those terrible things happened in Nazi Germany until I talked with these people. Let me tell you, it’s happening right here.”
How could it happen? Here is one suggestion: People without firm Christian commitment and understanding, people who are poorly equipped to evaluate truth claims, people who have been told that it is their right as Americans to have what they want when they want it no matter who gets hurt; are ripe for the violence, scapegoating, and perversity of these Heartland Nazis.
Armed with nothing more than self-interest, self-pity, and self-protection; they become easy targets for the principalities and powers.
See the little band of first-century Christians? See them huddled together with nothing more to uphold them than their psalms, their prayers with nothing more to defend them than these hymns, this chapel, these words called Scripture? Hopeless?
Yes, were it not for the word that this cause is also God’s–that God has made the peace, justice, and salvation of the world His own. That word is their armament. Thus Luther teaches us to sing:
A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood,
Of mortal ills prevailing;
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
One little word shall fell him.