Jesus’ teachings are hard, especially this one: “Love your enemies.” Because this command of Christ feels defiant to logic and experience, many jump backwards to the Hebrew Scriptures. Rightfully so… well, at least to some degree.
God as a conquering warrior is a primary image in the Old Testament. CONFESSION: Many Christians, especially those of us who believe in nonviolence, minimize this fact. For several reasons, people find it difficult to understand how a God who, in the New Testament, teaches us to “not resist an evil person” and to “love our enemies” can also be the same YHWH who commanded acts of violence and at times, genocide. In light of the recent death of Osama bin Laden, this issue is worth reflecting upon.
First, it seems that God comes down to the level and culture of the people that he wants to reveal his truth to. I have heard this described as “incarnational flexibility” or “biblical accommodation.” Perhaps God chose to use humans within a barbarian culture with a willingness to accommodate his “ideal” for the sake of moving the narrative of redemption forward?
Clearly “redemptive movement” is present in the Bible. In other words, God starts with culture but then transforms and moves peoples closer to his design for the sake of ushering in the new creation of peace. By the time we get into the N.T. and beyond (and even in O.T. passages like Isaiah 65 and Micah 4.3), YHWH is revealing where he wants all civilizations to ultimately head: a new heaven and new earth that will be fully peaceful. So, yes, the God-as-warrior motif is present, and at times he invites humans into physical battle during those days (never in the N.T.), but God’s destiny for creation and humanity is shalom (peace).
Second, God’s passion for social justice reveals the warrior motif as well. Consider this passage in Isaiah:
Yes, truth is gone, and anyone who renounces evil is attacked. The Lord looked and was displeased to find there was no justice. He was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm, and his justice sustained him. He put on righteousness as his body armor and placed the helmet of salvation on his head. He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion. Isaiah 59.15-17
YHWH is a saving God who does not tolerate injustice, especially against the marginalized, helpless, and poor. In this passage we have a picture of YHWH who acts on the behalf of the downtrodden as a warrior. Interestingly enough, when we get to the N.T. there is the all too familiar “armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6.10-18 (notice the clear parallels between these two passages). Paul uses the divine Warrior motif to talk about God’s armor that is at the disposal of the church to fight spiritual battles against “principalities and powers.”
By simple inference, demonic powers are the source of the social injustice embodied in the Roman Empire at the time. But, the key to Paul’s evocation of this image for God is that it gives us a clue into how to not “write this off” or ignore the warrior motif altogether. Paul makes it clear that our enemies are not of “flesh and blood!” Therefore, God is still a warrior but in the age of the church, only God may take physical life. The church may only do spiritual battle against demonic powers, but never against even the worst of “flesh and blood” humans. If someone has “flesh and blood” we are called only to love… yes, even enemies.
This raises a question about Christians and the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. If God is a warrior… and if his ultimate goal is peace… and if he fights for justice for the oppressed… and if he invites us to do the same while making clear that the ones we battle against are not “flesh and blood,” but spiritual powers of evil… then what are the implications for Christians and violence in the present?
It seems to me that the killing of Osama bin Laden ought to be understood as something completely separate from any sort of Christian action or else we run the risk of going beyond the permission of the narrative of Scripture. Any time we demonize and thereby dehumanize “flesh and blood” (aka humans) we are no longer acting on the paradoxical command to love our enemies and to take our stand against the devil. The violent warrior God of the Old Testament is the same God who enables us to choose love as our greatest weapon of warfare as people of the new covenant of peace. Let’s do everything we can to keep the killing of bin Laden detached from anything having to do with Jesus and his kingdom. If we fail in such a distinction, the cross may soon look more like a sword, and the kingdom of God more like an Empire of the world.
* A great post that I simply want to mention is at the Broken Telegraph called: Osama bin Laden is Dead, But This is No Time to Celebrate