On the Rhetoric of Spiritual Warfare

The job of Christians on Earth is to be like Christ in all possible ways.  We’re supposed to take the attitude of willing servants who put the needs of others before our own.  As Micah put it, we should “act justly and [love] mercy and [walk] humbly with [our] God.”

We are called to push back the Fall.

I’ve gradually grown into a progressive theology of Christianity over the past few years.  I believe that our world is largely broken, but we are capable of improving it as agents of God.  It’s foolish to say that things are always getting worse or that things are always getting better; things are in the state they’re in, and depending on the actions and moods of humanity as a whole, the scales tip more towards beauty or chaos with each moment.

Vanquishing Satan

Vanquishing Satan (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

This ongoing balancing act can be characterized as the conflict between God and satanic forces, which is at the heart of spiritual warfare rhetoric.  I’ve been thinking about this since reading a series that Richard Beck at Experimental Theology posted in the last couple weeks about how progressive Christians should reclaim the warfare rhetoric to help energize the movement.  It’s a great read, and if you have a couple hours, you should go through the entire 12 part series.

Beck’s argument for reclaiming spiritual warfare stands on two books, Greg Boyd’s God at War and John Caputo’s The Weakness of God.  I won’t bore you with a lot of details about these works, because Beck’s analysis of them is much more readable than any slapdash thing I could write.  He uses these books to come to several basic premises for why progressive Christians should adopt the warfare rhetoric:

1. Based on the theodicy as laid out in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, evil is an ever-present force in Creation.  Our job, as inhabitants of Creation and followers of God, is to oppose that evil wherever we find it.  The question of where the evil came from isn’t really relevant to our call to oppose it.

2. Evil exists because of God’s inherent weakness through his exclusive employment of “the weak force of love” to act within Creation.

3. Because God’s nature leaves him inherently weak and a plurality of other forces; including death, destruction, and dehumanization; exist in the world, the Christian life is an experience of constant battle between God’s weak force of love and all the other forces that we could characterize as satanic.

Beck establishes a theodicy that posits God is not omnipotent, because it would be against his very nature to employ brute force in accomplishing any goal.  It relates to the kenosis idea that I wrote about previously.  Because of this nonpotence, if you will, Creation is in a state of chaos where forces that rely on power are wreaking havoc.  Our job, as followers of Christ, is to oppose those forces with the tools that the Holy Spirit equips us with: kindness, mercy, love.  Though I think there are a lot of questions to deal with in engaging with a theodicy of divine nonpotence, the essential thrust of it is attractive.

In my more contemplative moments, I look at the language that Beck’s advocating for, and I see it as largely a rhetorical trick to fire people up.  You are going out to fight for something.  Heck yeah, that sounds awesome!

But it’s just rhetoric.

My fervor for opposing injustice isn’t diminished because I don’t think of myself as being in the midst of a battle.  The aggressive language of spiritual warfare hews very close to contradicting the methods that Christians are supposed to use.  We reject displays of power because Christ rejected them in favor of patient persuasion.

Of course, then I read about something that really irritates me, something that strikes me as incredibly unjust, and I feel ready to go fight.  I read yesterday morning that Texas’s House of Representatives passed the anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis opposed in their last special session with an 11-hour filibuster.  I received that news via one of my blog feeds along with some crowing about this moral victory.

It is not a moral victory.

Let me say up front that I am very much pro-life.  I wish that no one had to have an abortion.  Saying that, I know that our world isn’t perfect, and abortions happen.  They happen largely because of other societal evils like poverty.  Therefore, it’s ignorant and hateful to legislate the necessary evil away instead of trying to do something about the causes.  The decision to have or not have an abortion is a difficult, gut-wrenching one that’s complicated by economic factors as much as emotional ones, and this kind of legislation is going to make it exceptionally difficult for women who need to get abortions because their families can’t survive with yet another mouth to feed or because they will lose their jobs if they take the necessary time off to travel to a clinic where the procedure can be done.  Even more than that, what about cases like Beatriz, a young mother in El Salvador who needs an abortion to save her own life while her baby has anencephaly, meaning that most of its brain hasn’t developed.  The child is effectively dead whether the pregnancy gets carried to term or not but the El Salvador government refused to grant an exception to its abortion ban to improve Beatriz’s chances of survival.  For a more in-depth look at the medical reasons for having an abortion, check out this article by Darshak Sanghavi, a practicing pediatrician. He points out that with new legislation that prevents abortions after 20 weeks that parents-to-be who are concerned about birth defects may be moved to abort earlier in the pregnancy before they know for sure if there is a real problem.  We’re talking here about people who want to have children being put in a situation where they either have to abort early to avoid any potential risk of serious birth defects or ride out the full pregnancy and have no option to stop if they do find out about something seriously wrong with the child because it’s too late.

That is creating a burden where we should be trying to ease the ones that already exist.  In Beck’s language, it stinks of a satanic abuse of power.

In moments like those, I understand the appeal of spiritual warfare rhetoric.

God help us oppose these demonic forces of power in the world.

3 thoughts on “On the Rhetoric of Spiritual Warfare

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