In our last post we considered how conflict is intrinsic to stories. Nevertheless, I maintained that there is a place for reading such stories to our children as we can interpret the violence as a picture of the spiritual war waged against us. Depending upon the age of the child, we will be able to say more or less on this subject.
In this post, I would like to further consider this great irony–Jesus’ calling to a life of peace, meekness and nonviolence means war. I alluded to this previously when I spoke of leading peace advocates such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Jesus, all of whom were murdered. Of course, we also have countless individuals from the early days of Christianity who were committed to living and proclaiming a life of peace, to doing good to everyone, to taking care of the poor and sick (even of their Roman oppressors), who were nevertheless slaughtered because of their convictions.
Hence, the seeming contradiction that peace means war was obvious to the early church. They saw their martyrdom as part of a great cosmic conflict with Satan. Well-known, for example, is the story of a young noblewoman named Perpetua who chronicled her story while waiting to be thrown to wild beasts in the arena. She tells of her passionate love for Jesus that made her refuse to recant her faith even though she had a nursing baby. Her heartbroken father begged her to recant and at one point he rolls on the ground and plucks out his beard with grief. Yet Perpetua remains strong as we see from her diary:
“Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”
And he said: “No.”
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
With Perpetua is her slave, Felicity, who is pregnant and gives birth while in prison. Felicity too refuses to deny her Lord and they are both martyred for their faith in A.D. 203 in Carthage, North Africa.
The night before she was to be executed Perpetua has a vision of herself fighting with a terrifying Egyptian warrior. The vision teaches her that she is embroiled in a spiritual war and that the real enemy she fights with is Satan. In her vision the warrior strikes at her heal, but she treads on his head and is victorious. The editor who continued Perpetua’s diary after she was taken by the guards describes her and Felicity’s end:
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.
That Christians are in a war with a vicious, invisible enemy has always been the church’s understanding. As Greg Boyd writes in God at War, much of the New Testament does not make sense without understanding the reality of the dark forces coming against us.
“Jesus’ teaching, His exorcisms, His healings and other miracles, as well as His work on the cross, all remain, to some extent, incoherent and unrelated to one another until we interpret them within this apocalyptic context—until we interpret them as acts of war. . . . Jesus never once appeals to a mysterious divine will to explain why a person is sick, maimed or deceased.
In every instance, He comes against such things as the by-products of a creation that has gone berserk through the evil influence of a satanic army. Many times, he attributes sicknesses to direct demonic involvement.”
Jesus leaves us in no doubt concerning the reality of this war, but also the kind of weapons he uses to defeat the powers. Whereas the devil and his forces fight by stealing, killing and destroying, Jesus overwhelms with life and that abundantly (John 10:10. He destroys the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) by healing and doing good (Acts 10:38). Similarly, Paul informs us that we do battle with darkness by being kind to our enemies, giving them food and drink if necessary. In so doing we “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
Early Christians knew Jesus’ battle strategy and they eagerly enlisted for this war. Ignatius of Antioch, whom tradition says was a disciple of the Apostle John, speaks of the battle with Satan. Despite the cruelty of the enemy, Ignatius fights with “meekness, by which the devil, the prince of this world, is brought to nought.” Ignatius saw himself in a spiritual war right up until the end when he was torn apart by wild beasts for the entertainment of the crowds in a Roman colosseum.
The Bible writers link peace with warfare. Paul tells his Roman readers, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16:20). Part of the believer’s clothing for spiritual war will be “shoes” that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). And the greatest peace offering– Jesus giving his life for our salvation–is described as an act of war by which he destroys the devil (Col. 1:20; Col. 2:13-15;Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 2:6-8).
Perhaps there is no better chapter in the Bible than Luke 10 to see how the gospel of peace is God’s plan to vanquish the forces of evil. Jesus prepares his disciples for an evangelistic mission by making it clear that they are headed into war. He tells them, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (v3) and giving you “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy”(v19). At the same time, he gives them assurance of absolute victory by explaining that Satan has already been defeated. Jesus, in fact, witnessed him being thrown out of heaven (v18). Therefore, Jesus can guarantee his followers that “nothing will hurt you.”
He explains they will not fight by earthly weapons nor in a spirit of anger. Rather, they are to come against the evil one by bringing a spirit of peace to everyone they meet, by graciously eating whatever they are offered, by healing the sick and announcing the great, comforting news that, “the kingdom of God has come near you.”
So how do we apply this to our current context, a world increasing in hostility daily it seems? How do we deal with angry people filled with a determination to fight for their rights and mercilessly punish anyone who disagrees with them? Like those first disciples, Jesus calls us to “let our peace” come into our environment. He asks us to listen to those we disagree with, to put ourselves in their place and not judge them. God tells us to not let their bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander or malice infect us (Eph. 4:31).
Of course, this is completely different than the spirit of the world. Even some Christians bristle at the thought of not responding with anger to those who oppose them. But that’s precisely what God calls us to do. In fact, according to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, if we are not making peace, we’re not children of God (Mat. 5:9). He reiterates this point later in the sermon when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them, to practice the servant life if someone takes advantage of them and even to love their enemies. Only then, Jesus says, will we be God’s children (Mat. 5:38-45). As we see from Perpetua, Felicity and a host of other martyrs, truly this war takes courage!
In our next post, we will turn inward and consider the war being waged in the battleground of our minds. We will see that dark powers can keep us in a state of turbulence if we refuse to take the responsibility given to us as God’s image-bearers.