As our 100-year anniversary of the armistice at the end of world war one recedes, and our remembrance activities give way again to everyday activities, it is worthwhile reflecting on the categories of war and war related terminology used in the Christian faith.
People take part in acts of remembrance for many reasons - honouring the
endeavours and personal sacrifices made by those in generations before
us is one. Ensuring that as a society we remember the harsh
reality of physical war and hope that it serves as a lesson to us and
our descendants is another. Neither of these is hard-set against the
gospel message, though in the light of the gospel hard questions about
war naturally arise.
Yet Paul used military-like terminology, claiming we are in a spiritual battle (2 Corinthians 10 verses 3 to 5). He talked of weaponry and armour (Ephesians 6). Yet it is also clear that Paul saw this very much as a spiritual struggle and in no way advocated anything remotely close to the physical (and military) struggles that the people of his own heritage had undertaken (characterised chiefly by the book of Joshua).
Paul experienced push-back and opposition. He saw this in spiritual
terms and was not reluctant to describe these in terms of dark forces
(e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2 verse 18).
We see that Paul wanted advance - but it was gospel advance, not human-force or human-power advance. Yes he wanted to be persuasive and compelling ... but all in the spiritual sense targetting heart, mind and spirit. This means ultimately the advances would be advances of God loving people - demonstrating Kingdom which would mean setting people free rather than any coerced compliance.
So whilst in society we might rightly remember those fallen in conflicts, and whilst we might usefully use (like Paul) military metaphor or imagery to help awaken us to the importance (and difficulty) of the spiritual task before us, we must not confuse war as generally understood by society with the gospel.
Recently a friend posted this quote by Spurgeon, writing in Victorian times (therefore before the great wars, yet still in a period of various military campaigns and expression of military might):
'The great crime of war can never promote the religion of peace. The
battle, and the garment rolled in blood, are not a fitting prelude to
'peace on earth, goodwill to men'. And I do firmly hold, that the
slaughter of men, that bayonets, and swords, and guns, have never yet
been, and never can be, promoters of the gospel. The gospel will proceed
without them, but never through them. "Not by might." Now don't be
fooled again, if you hear of the English conquering in China, don't go
down on your knees and thank God for it, and say it's such a heavenly
thing for the spread of the gospel – it just is not.' (C.H. Spurgeon, in
a sermon preached 1857, during the Indian Mutiny.) h.t. Mark Woods
This captures it well for me. Some may believe that physical war or military action becomes necessary in some circumstances (people will differ on this point). Yet as Christ-followers we cannot believe that it will ever rightly bring the gospel of peace.