Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Onward Christian Soldiers?

I have been away from blogging for some time. I am working on a book on eschatology and needed to get some material to my editor. I am returning with a commitment to write more frequently and less lengthily! Writing for me is a way to get my thoughts in some order. I trust others will find my thoughts helpful and perhaps even interesting. In the end, however, I write to make sense of my own struggle to understand and communicate what God is doing within me and within the world. I will also use the blog to describe what I am reading. I am frequently asked about my reading, so here is my chance to let you know and to make some recommendations.

Recently I have been working my way through Peter Gomes’ book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He is widely regarded one of the country’s great preachers. I purchased his latest book (ironically at a bookstore right across the street from Harvard yard) last spring. I have been reading a chapter each morning as part of my time of prayer. I was particularly struck by the chapter “The Gospel and Conflict.” Many of these pieces were written during the run up to and the immediate aftermath of the beginning of the war in Iraq. In “The Gospel and Conflict” Gomes explores Christian squeamishness over images of and engagement in conflict.

He begins by citing the Christian tradition of militant hymnody. Many of us were raised with rousing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus”, and “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” Most of these hymns have been eliminated from mainline hymnals because of their militant images and triumphalist rhetoric. But Gomes wonders if we really read these hymns well. The Bible and the evidence of our own lives would suggest it is a struggle to follow Jesus and live faithfully in a world filled with many enemies. It is, in fact, naive to pretend otherwise. The Apostle Paul certainly understood the nature of the conflict. He encouraged us to put on God’s armor, to fight the good fight, to face down the spiritual forces ranged against us.

There is no question that our culture is engaged in deadly conflict. This conflict is not chiefly military or even political. The real conflict is over what sort of people we will be—both individually and corporately. The real conflict is, for Gomes, seen in Gandhi’s seven social sins. I would suggest Western culture is deeply entrapped in these sins and that the church must accept the role of struggle and conflict to address them:

• Politics without principle

• Wealth without work

• Commerce without morality

• Pleasure without conscience

• Education without character

• Science without humanity

• Worship without sacrifice

The first in each pair is a good thing distorted and ruined by human weakness and sin. God has called the church to the inevitable conflict engendered when Christians faithfully call for and live out the virtues that balance and ameliorate the dangers of a “good” that can become evil. If we surrender the fight, we are doomed as a culture and a people.  Without the conflict, we are lost.