In 1522 a 7 year old girl convinced her brother to run away with her from their home in a tiny Spanish village. Her name was Teresa and she is said to have had the heart of a warrior. Intrigued by the legends of King Arthur, she dreamed of being a Knight. Knowing that this would be impossible for her as a girl in the 16th century, she devised a Plan B. She talked her brother into going with her to be martyred by the Moors, Muslims who had recently been driven out of Spain into North Africa by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Fortunately for the children, an uncle found them outside the city walls and brought them back home.
Teresa never realized her dream of becoming a knight, but many of her biographers claim it was her warrior’s heart that allowed her to do the work she felt called to accomplish. She is known today as Saint Teresa of Avila and she is admired still for her passionate and steadfast service, her writing ability and for the founding of many Carmelite convents.
As Christians, in our efforts to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible, we emphasize the need to love our enemies and we reject the violence we sometimes find in the Bible. In our own time we see all too often that religion and violence are comingled in unwholesome and unholy ways. So when St. Paul tells us, in Ephesians, that we are to put on the armor of God and prepare for battle, this probably makes us a little uncomfortable.
Ephesians is a letter written to a community who lived in a fairly violent time: many of its readers had survived the Roman invasion of the area only a short time before. Some in the community would have suffered persecution as Jews while others would have suffered it as Christians. Armor was something every one of them would have appreciated.
Here’s my (perhaps lame?) attempt to update the reading: “Therefore, take up the standard issue uniform of God, so that you may be able to withstand the evil day, having done everything to stand firm. Fasten the gun belt of truth around your waist, and put on the Kevlar vest of righteousness. Put on your combat boots, which will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace. In addition, take the gas mask of faith, to survive the poison gas of the Evil One. Put on the helmet of salvation, the automatic weapon of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”
I am not any more comfortable comparing the Spirit or Word of God to firearms than any of you are, and yet, it seems to me that this is the image Paul sets before us. And when I hear this language it makes me think of all the holy wars of the past as well as the holy wars being waged by religions today. To me, the very idea of a “holy war” is the best argument against organized religion! Finding a passage that could be used to justify killing is not what I look for in the Bible. So, we have to ask, is that what this passage is about? Is that what God intended us to understand? Because whether or not we like it, we have to deal honestly with the message if we really are following Jesus.
You will not be surprised to learn that I do not consider this passage a justification for war, on the contrary, I think it is essentially an antiwar passage. It is the armor of God we are to wear instead of the armor of human institutions or governments. This passage was not written to a military superpower, it was written to those who were being persecuted. It was written to those without any human power, reminding them that they had an even greater power than their foes. Let’s also remember that this passage tells us that our enemies are not flesh and blood: in this struggle, it is our moral choices, our willingness to speak truth and our insisting on the way of peace that matters. It is our realization that God has saved us from a pointless existence of violence and revenge, and we will have the strength to endure and not be consumed by the evil around us.
In the news we still hear of refugee camps in the Sudan and Cambodia, for example. We could fight on behalf of the victims by killing as many of their oppressors as possible, but an evil spirit would survive. We name that evil spirit “genocide”, and when it invades a group, individuals act and react in ways they previously would have rejected. It is the power of an idea, one that leads to actions based on fear. The evil created by genocide grows exponentially and takes on a life of its own.
So if military might won’t work, we might look to St. Paul to help us craft our response to this kind of evil. Instead of fighting flesh and blood soldiers, we are to use truth, to tell the real stories and expose the reality of what is happening. We are to live responsibly and morally ourselves so that our words of truth will be in harmony with our actions. It is God who saves, and in the meantime, it falls to us to wage peace, inside ourselves and in our world. Our trust in God’s care is the armor we are to wear.
From our limited perspective, it can feel weak or ineffective to wage this kind of war. We talked ourselves into invading Iraq and Afghanistan for this very reason. After 9/11 there was a widespread belief that it would be better to do something—even the wrong something—than to do nothing at all. So we allowed ourselves to be lied to and willingly believed that we were “defending ourselves”, which makes almost anything justifiable. But as the wars drag on, every poll shows increasing dissatisfaction with those initial emotional choices. We wanted action, and in a crisis prayer and faith are often seen as doing nothing.
So let’s think about that belief. Is telling the truth doing nothing? Is it nothing for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence to tell the truth to someone and then for that someone to tell the truth to others? Although it was more common 20 years ago, there are still women (and some men) who risk their lives by coming forward. Some are beaten. Some have died. And yet, every counselor knows that speaking the truth to oneself is the first necessary step to becoming whole again, and this leads to a change in society’s attitudes.
As a direct result of telling the truth and taking the risk involved, today’s laws exist to protect victims of abuse. There are safe places in almost every city where they can go, and societal attitudes have evolved to the point where abuse is everywhere found unacceptable. Peace is not for the faint of heart, as Gandhi pointed out when he said that nothing worthwhile can be accomplished by cowards. He also believed that a violent person could find the path to transformation from violence to nonviolence, and in fact, early in his work with people, training them in the ways of nonviolent resistance, he suggested that people first join the army and then come to him to have that training completed in the ways of nonviolence. While he did not continue this practice as he moved further and further from the powers of violence, it is true that he insisted that anyone who was committed to peace and justice had to possess the heart of a warrior.
This brings us back to Teresa of Avila, who saw the struggle in much the same way. She writes in her work, Interior Castles, “Let the soul be manly, and determined to fight…and realize that there are no better weapons than those of the cross.” She spent her life passionately dedicated to service for Christ and in so doing was both loved and despised. She worked tirelessly until her death at the age of 67 when her warrior’s heart beat its last. Teresa believed that unless we perceived the stakes involved in the cosmic and personal war on behalf of truth, we would become complacent. Her weapons were not swords, but rather the willingness to act, to speak truth and to accept the consequences, even if that meant personal suffering. She knew, as we are just beginning to realize, that peace is not a position of weakness or impotence. It requires courage and trust in God over and above our reliance on our own strength and weapons of destruction. This is as true in our outer world as it is in our inner world.
We have spent the 20 centuries after the death of Jesus claiming to follow him, insisting that we have even built our civilization on his teachings, and yet we have continued to make war and inflict violence in direct opposition to our stated beliefs. The consequences of those choices surround and threaten us even now. Ephesians reminds us of another possible path for humanity, and maybe now that we have come to this juncture in our history, maybe we are finally ready to consider another future for our children.