One of my earliest memories in church is singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army” in choir on Sunday mornings. I was five years old at most and really excited about all the war imagery. While I may never fly, shoot, etc, I performed all the motions with gusto.
Once I hit third grade, my parents enrolled me in Boy’s Brigade, a children’s ministry much like AWANA in which every Wednesday I lived in a community of boys with a military motif. It makes sense; what could be more exciting than uniforms and badges and skills and gritty songs? It fits perfectly with being a guy. And everyone loves a good “sword drill,” the game where you hold your Bible/sword in the air and practice wielding it by finding passages as quickly as possible.
This theme of being a Christian soldier became deeply embedded in my identity. At summer camp I memorized the entire “Armor of God” passage and can still recite it almost word-for-word. As a teen I wanted to be a superhero for Jesus, someone who could wield miraculous faith at the enemies of God. I didn’t have any high notions of justice for the poor, just conquest. My name is Joshua, after all, still considered by many to be one of the greatest generals in history (or so I’m told). My middle name is David, the violent Israeli king who slew wild animals and giants, who cut off way more Philistine foreskins than necessary, who cut down the husband of his mistress and then raged against himself unknowingly when Nathan confronted him with a parable. He even had enemies killed after his death. God Himself said David was a man of blood. Come to think of it, many of my Biblical heroes were men of violence.
I don’t conjure these memories in order to defend pacifism or debate American military involvement abroad; those are topics for another day. What startled me this week was the realization that at some point in my life this call to war became a call to do battle with my neighbor.
As I think back, I don’t ever recall a time when someone explicitly told me that the enemy was other people. I clearly recall many times when I was specifically told that we do NOT wage war against other people. And to this point everything I was taught was true: there IS biblical imagery of war, the Bible DOES call itself a sword, and spiritual warfare is very real. God is at war (albeit a war that is already won; ask me about that if you don’t know what I mean) and so am I. So where did this idea come from that my enemies are men like me?
I believe I received this instruction implicitly from the evangelical Baptist traditions I have been raised in. Whether expressed or implied, my friends went to Christian schools because public schools were corrupted by the enemy. I myself was home schooled. Some friends were not allowed to listen to music that was not Christian or watch movies. Growing up, the liberal democrats were evil, trying to stamp out Christianity. Maybe no one said these things, but somehow, at least in my life, I came to understand that I was at war with my culture. All around me were forces seeking to corrupt and destroy. What is one supposed to do with a sword except cut down you-know-whats?
In this war I became something of an extremist. My desire was to restore America to its former Christian glory, casting aside comfort and wealth and fashion. I wanted to join the battle of ideas, to prove that the faith was true so I could “win” converts. I had the purest of motives; this is what my King wanted me to do. I poured my life into ministry and tried to convince everyone else to do the same because the only thing that mattered was being on the front lines. Today I feel as though I wasted whole years of my life.
Now don’t get me wrong; I repeat, there is a spiritual battle being waged, but it is against Satan and his demons. Yes, there are evil people out there opposing God’s will. Yes, it is important to share the good news of the Gospel of Christ with all people. What cannot stand is the idea that the Bible is a weapon against my neighbor. There is no “them” before my eyes; the forces I fight are invisible.
I don’t blame my parents or teachers at all for any of this. I love them dearly and owe them so much. I believe we all have unwittingly inherited a war that began back in the midst of our nation’s founding, when the children of the Enlightenment and the children of the Reformation began to butt heads in the New World. I was raised a fundamentalist and have only this past year begun to realize what this means.
I write today to publicly repent of being a separatist, an adversary, a radical in this way. With the best of intentions I have attacked my fellow men, and I am ashamed. I gave my neighbors a litmus test, and when anyone failed, I set myself against him. Maybe I’m overstating the case; I would like to think so. But I have come to see that I have been dramatically mistaken about my identity as a Christian and as a human being.