I like the way that two contrasting ideas, or two very different pictures, sometimes show up alongside each other and give either a fresh insight into a reality or make us ask some questions about the nature of things.
Earlier this week we spontaneously decided that I could take a vacation day mid-week so we could go up to my folks and process some garden produce that was ripe and ready to be done. So I did a little rearranging of schedule and we headed up and had a great day working under the shade of Mom and Dad’s big maple tree cutting up and bagging sweet corn and green peppers to freeze for the winter. The sharp contrast came toward the end of the day. Throughout the day we had been talking some with my cousin who is my folks’ age. She has been staying with Mom and Dad and is soon to move in with her sister in out West. These last number of years she’s had some difficult health problems, hasn’t been able to work, has had some financial struggles (connected to not having health insurance), some depression, and is now having to whittle down her belongings to just the basics so she can move in with her sister. This was being extremely heavy for her this week. And then at the end of the day as we were saying goodbye to her it started pouring down rain and Eve and Lily stripped off all their clothes and startedfrolicking around out in the yard in the middle of the downpour. So we were hugging our late-middle aged cousin who had the weight of the world of her shoulders, and we were looking at this perfect picture of carefree bliss with our laughing naked daughters. This is life.
I think putting unexpected images alongside each other or trying to merge them together is also a strategy that works well in visual art. I visit the Red Tree Art Gallery and Coffee shop here in Oakley fairly regularly. They change their displays about once a month and this past month they had the theme of superheroes. So all of the art had something to do with superheroes. The painting that caught my attention the most was one of a person from the waist on down, she’s wearing a kitchen apron, with the words beside it, “I wear my cape around my waist.” Common apron as domestic super hero. I liked it so much I had this scheme to buy it and surprise Abbie with it on her birthday. I got as far as getting it down from the wall and handing the manager my credit card with painting in hand until I realized that I had completely mis-read the price tag. I think my brain wanted it enough that it imagined it as being affordable. Oh well, the idea is still valuable.
We’re at the end of Ephesians, and at the end of this series of “Being the Church,” and I think Ephesians 6 is another good example of contrasting, or unexpected images held together in a way that might give some fresh insight. You can turn there if you’d like, and I’ll read verses 10-15:
NRS Ephesians 6:10-15 “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
It goes on to mention taking up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. So, this is the gospel of peace, coming at you in full battle armor. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the contrast.
I can’t remember what it was exactly, but last week there was some point where I caught myself using a violent metaphor in a conversation. It was just regular conversational language and a common metaphor, but after I said it I mentioned out loud that I had just realized what I’d done and I tried to find another way to say what I was trying to say. This was before I read this passage this week, so it was interesting to see here how living out the gospel of peace is spoken about in the language of warfare.
I was kind of curious about how we sometimes use language with violent images without really realizing it, so I did a Google search on “violent metaphors” and came up with some interesting things.
One link was a description of a workshop called “The language of peace: constructing non-violent metaphors” given at the University of Florida. The website gave this opening example of how violent metaphors can be contradictory or send the wrong signals: “Johnny don’t fight at school. Your mother is helping the war on cancer. Your father has his battles everyday at work. Your sister has to attack her studies. We just can’t have you fighting at school.”
It goes on to list alternative metaphors for different common phrases. http://at.ufl.edu/~hardman-grove/peace.html
Another site said, “The first way in which we make war an ‘appropriate’ response to problems, is that we metaphorize the non-violent as war, as in the following examples. We wage war on cancer / war on drugs / war on crime. In medicine we attack, treat aggressively, use ammunition from a pharmacological arsenal stocked with big gun antibiotics. In the end we conquer disease. We try to conquer someone we love by dressing to kill, by fighting for love, by winning someone’s love.” http://www.iheu.org/node/1140
One site warned: “Caution: violent metaphors can blow up in your face” http://www.metafilter.com/21966/Violent-metaphors
Well, OK, I get the point, and agree in many ways. Looking through scripture, though, it’s hard to escape violent metaphors and I wonder if there isn’t something more going on to pay attention to. Instead of doing away with the contrast of the gospel of peace and engaging in battle, what happens when we let them stand right beside each other?
Ephesians 6 is explicit both about a great struggle in which we are engaged, and also that the enemy is never another human being. Verse 12 says “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood.” The armor of God’s righteousness, and salvation and faith is a nonviolent, yet aggressive movement against the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil, personified as the devil.
Some commentators have speculated that Paul, in writing this passage, is looking over his shoulder at a Roman guard and imagining ways that these weapons of war could be used for advancing the peaceful kingdom of God. Sounds possible. Others have claimed that Paul is taking these images directly from Isaiah, who would portray God as a warrior dressed for battle.
If this is the case, then Isaiah 59 would be one of these: “God put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on God’s head.” Isaiah 11 is another. This is the passage about the shoot that “shall come out from the stump of Jesse, the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding.” It also gives the image of the peaceable kingdom – the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. But right in the middle of this, we get “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”. And then the armor imagery. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waste, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” This has the appearance of violent imagery, but what is the weapon? It’s the rod coming out of his mouth. It’s speech. It’s the power of words. It’s that rich Hebrew understanding of the nonviolent creative power of spoken language, the very power by which God created the universe. God spoke, and it came to be. The stump of Jesse, the leader who reflects God’s ways, slays wickedness through the rod of his mouth.
All throughout the story of Scripture God is working to overturn the aggressive violent forces of evil with the equally aggressive forces of peace and reconciliation. It’s hard to imagine the Gospel narratives of Jesus without this kind of framework. Jesus confronts the devil in the wilderness, casts out demons from people, talks about the Satan as a strong man whose house he’s going to plunder. First, you must tie up the strong man, then take over his house Jesus says in Mark 4. The drama of the cross is portrayed as a confrontation with the forces of death themselves. Colossians says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities, and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross. Jesus willingly, without retaliation or calls for vengeance, goes to his death and it’s treated as a victory over the forces of death. How bizarre and wonderful is that?
The book of Revelation takes this battle imagery to a whole other level and, because of this has inspired some pretty bizarre and troubling literature about end of the world scenarios involving great physical battle scenes. One of the culminating scenes in Revelation is the rider on the white horse, who judges and makes war, whose eyes are like flames of fire. The armies of heaven are following him, and it says, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” This is Christ, the one who used to ride on the donkey, now on a war horse. Unfortunately people miss the punch line that it is a lamb who is the one doing battle, and that he is referred to as the Word of God, the word warrior whose truth slays an enemy not of flesh and blood.
It may be easier to swallow some of this imagery if you consider 20th century folk singer Woody Guthrie. He believed that his greatest weapon against the evils of his time, including fascism, was through his music. Imagine a picture of Woody Guthrie with his guitar, which said on it, “This machine kills fascists.” Then reread the line from Revelation “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations.” (I’d love to take credit for this juxtapostion, but saw this very image HERE: http://www.culture-voice.com/Home/Olorin/WhenMetaphorsAttack/tabid/273/Default.aspx Jesus confronts and overcomes evil on a completely different plane than evil itself. He lives life with a completely different set of weapons – in the words of Ephesians, weapons of truth, righteousness, faith, salvation. That’s the song Jesus sings and it undermines the very foundations of the droning powers of death. It’s such a different way of being in the world that we’re still trying to let it convert our imaginations which have been so taken up by physical violence.
I have to admit I still have mixed feelings about violent metaphors, but if we are going to wear this armor, then for the church to be the church, it means that we are engaged in an active and pro-active process. Pacifism is not passive. Nonviolence is not noninvolved. We are challenged to be fearless in doing our own soul work. The internal battle. In confronting the demons in our own lives, our own inner struggle to let the gospel of peace be planted firmly within us.
And as we do this we become strong in prayer and word and deed. In the manner of 21st century warfare, maybe we need to think of ourselves as going around and dropping cluster bombs of joy. Or we should get in the driver’s seat of the Humvee of reconciliation. Or we could learn the techniques for rigging up IED’s of forgiveness. Sounds like explosive stuff.
Twenty five years ago, at the Mennonite World Conference held in Stasbourg, France, Ron Sider gave a speech that still gets talked about. He challenged Anabaptists to consider all of the resources, and energy, and commitment and loyalty that go into physically fighting for peace. He observes that “Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.” He then had some extremely challenging words. In short, he called on the church to approach its mission with the same energy, passion, and willingness to give one’s life for the way of peace that we proclaim. He called on the church to form and train peacemakers who would be willing to develop and implement nonviolent means to intervening in conflicts around the world. In many ways, this is a vision that is yet to be fulfilled. From this speech did come the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who continue to serve in various conflict areas, not nearly on the scale of what Sider was calling for, but they have done amazing work.
Not all of us will serve on a Christian Peacemaker Team, but the thrust of the speech brings home the point. The church, to be the church, is a church in mission. And that mission happens wherever God has placed us. For example, right here in the Cincinnati area. A church actively engaging the world through the same Spirit, singing the same subversive song, as Christ. To know this call as a church but to be not engaged in this way, would be setting up two of the most bizarre, most disjointed, contrast of images yet.