Thursday, August 23, 2018

Reimagining the Armor of God


I remember driving down the highway in Honduras and stopping at a routine police checkpoint where a man holding a machine gun eyed our van. We were on a church trip and had no reason to fear, yet the sight of a weapon appropriate for a military-style assault awakened some panic within me. Maybe that was its intent.

The NFL has changed its rules yet again to try to minimize head injuries. It has made it illegal for any player, including the one with the ball, to lead contact with an opposing player by using any part of the helmet except the face mask. It used to be that you couldn't "spear" a player with the crown of your helmet or use your helmet to hit a defenseless player. Given that rugby players typically wear either no helmet at all or a soft-shell layer of padding, it makes me wonder whether the helmet itself is the problem. Perhaps football players would self-select what kind of hits they dish out if they went back to the leather caps they wore until 1950.

I remember listening to an NPR interview of a retired police chief who described what he had learned during a violent protest in his town. Being interviewed after the violence in Ferguson, MO, he recalled how in another city, when he anticipated violence from the crowd, he ordered that his officers were to wear full riot gear and be supported by mounted police, and the crowd became violent. In his opinion, the crowd responded to the military-style gear with increased violence. Learning from the mistake, the next time there was a potentially violent protest, he ordered that his police would wear usual uniforms and leave the horses at home, and nothing terrible happened. People, he said, react to what they see and feel around them.

In Ephesians 6, when the author urges his readers to "put on the whole armor of God," he invites them to get prepared for battle--a spiritual battle with the forces of evil. They are to equip themselves with the "belt of truth...breastplate of righteousness...shield of faith...the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit." This is hardly the single tunic, no bag, and no money with which Jesus sent his disciples out into the world. Sure, they were to be "wise as serpents," but they were also to be as "harmless as doves." It's hard to be harmless when you're wearing full military armor. That's like arguing that open-carry laws are about keeping people safe. That's true in theory, but that theory depends on the threat of deadly force.

How can we reclaim the image of the armor of God? Maybe we can't. Maybe in this weaponized, NRA-influenced, gun-obsessed culture in which we live we just have to put it aside and say that the author didn't know what he was talking about. But that's not usually my approach to scripture. I want to take this image and turn it, to use Janet Martin Soskice's phrase, until it is robbed of its violent foundation, and I look to two parts of Sunday's reading to attempt that.

First, I look to the author's emphasis on spiritual warfare as distinct from physical warfare: "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." In Christian theology, the "rulers" or "powers" always represent not only the people opposed to God's salvific work in the world but the spiritual evil that they represent. You don't need a sword or a gun or a helmet to do battle with them. Instead you need truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. Those are the real focus of the author's armor image. We put on truth as fully, clearly, and tangibly as if it were a belt around our waist.

Second, I look to the end of the reading, when the author, presumably Paul, asks his readers to pray for him "that when [he] speak[s], a message may be given to [him] to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which [he is] an ambassador in chains." In chains! Willingly accepting his imprisonment and the death that awaits him in Rome. He is not asking for physical rescue but spiritual sustenance to do the work of proclaiming the gospel. This is power in weakness. This is not physical armament but the yielding of self-defense and the embrace of spiritual defense. Whether we can hear it or not, the author did not intend physical violence to be the path of discipleship, and it is the preacher's job to reverse that trend.

I'm not planning to preach on Ephesians 6, but, if I were, I would be looking for a way to engage the surprise contained in these verses. On the surface they are about preparing for battle, but, at their core, they cannot be about physical protection--only spiritual. Maybe that sounds like going out into battle completely naked. Maybe it's the film Hacksaw Ridge. Whatever it is, it's risky--just like the gospel.

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