The Church is not an Army, and We are not Soldiers

The Church is not an Army, and We are not Soldiers August 10, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a church group I am on the mailing list for, one that really set my teeth on edge. (I am going to leave the specific group out of it, as it is not relevant to the point I want to make.)  The email approvingly shared something labeled the Soldier’s Creed of the Catholic Army:

I am a soldier of GOD. 
I am a warrior and a member of TEAM JESUS. 
I serve the “People of GOD” and live the Christian virtues and values. 
I shall always place the mission first. 
I shall never quit. 
Surrender is not an option. 
I shall never leave a fallen Catholic comrade. 
I am disciplined; 
I am physically, mentally, morally and spiritually tough as nails. 
I am trained and proficient in my spiritual warrior tasks and skills. 
I always maintain my spiritual weapons, my equipment and myself. 
I am an expert and I am a professional in the sure knowledge and practice of my Catholic faith. 
I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of GOD and of souls in close and immortal combat. 
I am a guardian of the glorious freedom of the children of GOD and the Christian way of life. 
I am a soldier of GOD, 
I am part of TEAM JESUS.

The email attributes this to the Catholic speaker and radio show host Jesse Romero, but it is not clear if it originated with him.  A quick Google search turned up several versions going back a decade: e.g., see here.  This is openly modeled on the Soldier’s Creed, which is recited by Army soldiers at the end of basic training (and plays a small role in their careers at other times):

I am an American Soldier.
I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America, in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.
So why does this bother me?  It is not simply the use of military images to describe our lives as Catholics.   I use them in my own speech and writing:  legion, forlorn hope, “embrace the suck” (via the Marines in Fallujah), and other appear in both secular and spiritual conversations.   And such images dot traditional Catholic writing, ending with the old man who embraced me after my confirmation and wished me well as a “soldier of Christ.”
Such language is grounded in the New Testament, particularly St. Paul.  In his writing he uses some military images for the Christian life, describing his collaborators as “fellow soldiers”  (systratiōtēs, comrades in arms), encouraging Christians to put on the “armor of God” or the “armor of light” (panoplia, complete suit of armor, “full kit”;  hoplon, weapon or instrument of war), and so on.  This is, however, a relatively rare image; as best as I can tell it is used in an extended way once, in Ephesians 6:10-17, where he explicitly spells out the metaphor.
In contrast, Jesus in the Gospels almost never uses such imagery.  The only example I could find was Matthew 10:34:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”  (machaira, large knife or small sword).
In any event, however, these images in the New Testament exist in a broader context, where multiple images, metaphors and analogies are used to make the reader understand what is meant by the Kingdom of God and the demands and challenges of the Christian mission. They appear elsewhere, whether in hymnody (“A mighty fortress is our God”, “Onward Christian Soldiers”) or in other expressions, but again, are one among many.
The Soldiers Creed of the Catholic Army, in contrast, distills Christian identity down to a single dominant image, military service and more especially, violent combat.    By modeling it on the US Army’s Soldier’s Creed, the author is setting as its context not scripture, but the military traditions of the US.  It appears to me that the author is proposing this as an oath that all Catholics (or perhaps all Catholic men–see below) should swear.  And if that is the case, I respectfully decline.
The Christian life is not combat against nameless “enemies of God”–or rather, it is not solely that and cannot be reduced to that alone.  There will be struggle and conflict, but the struggle will often be in our hearts, against our own sins and weaknesses, and not against some external foe.  And even in those case when it is, we are called to love and convert our enemies, and not to kill them.   “But what about the Devil?” someone might ask.  All I can answer is that I have never fought or seen him directly, and I suspect that the Father of lies wants nothing more than for Christians to kill others in a righteous quest to “destroy evil” or win the “culture war”.
This creed (though it bears no resemblance to the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds that are the backbone of our faith) makes no reference to the harder and more pressing duties of a Christian:  “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8), “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37), “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).  Instead, it dresses the Christian life up in military, indeed militaristic images, drawing upon popular conceptions of soldiers as warriors and all-around tough guys.   Conceptions that owe as much to movies and video games as they do to the reality of military service and actual combat.
Above I suggested that this oath is intended primarily for men.  It seems to draw on a strain of Catholic thought that tries to define what “real” Catholic men are, usually in the context of bemoaning the femininzation of Catholicism.   Such definitions usually  reinforce a variety of cultural stereotypes about masculinity:   men are leaders, protectors, providers, warriors, knights of God, and so on.  Men are tough, ready to fight and win for “TEAM JESUS”.  (And, implicitly, women are weaker and need to be protected.)
I have been thinking about these false, misguided and often misogynistic images of Catholic manhood for a while and hope to blog about them in more detail.  But their connection to this oath was brought home by an Instagram post I found when trying to find the author.  The man who posted it wrote:
I included the soldiers creed tonight in our evening prayer.  My girls enjoyed it, but my son’s face lid up when he heard it. See every male instinctively is attracted to battle and is willing to die for the greater Good of his family and God; I mean who doesn’t want to be the hero at the end? I know this soldiers creed really effected my son in a good way. And it serves as a reminder that we are in spiritual warfare. The soldiers creed was written by Jesse Romero a great catholic apologist. As you read it imagine if every Catholic man lived his life on these principals? The world would be a way better place. Read this out loud to your boys let them know you are preparing them to be a soldier in the battle that is coming.  (Emphasis added.)
 I raised three sons; they are now adults.  I would never have read them this creed, except perhaps when they were older (say in high school) and used it as a bad example–an illustration of how not to live out the faith I had been modeling and sharing with them since their baptisms.
More importantly, I do not this is how Catholics, either men or women, should view themselves or their baptismal mission.    Jesus gave us the creed we should recite, drawing upon the Torah and shaping it for the new Covenant:
The most important commandment,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
This is the creed we should recite, this is the oath we should swear.  Or as God told the Israelites:
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.  (Deut. 6:6-9)
Not an army, but the People of God, not armed with weapons but embracing the love we are commanded to bring to the world.  We are not soldiers, but children of God.
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