Sun, Aug 26, 2018

Metaphorically speaking?


"Onward, Christian Rambos,

spoiling for a fight,

wave the flag of Jesus,

knowing that we're right:

load the gospel rifle,

throw grenades of prayer,

blast the Spirit's napalm:

evil's over there--

Onward, Christian Rambos,

spoiling for a fight,

wave the flag of Jesus,

knowing that we're right.


Feel the thrill of bloodshed,

guns, and holy wars.

We don't really mean it,

it's all metaphors.

Nuke the Devil's Empire,

for in God we trust.

Yes, we'll love our enemies,

when they bite the dust.

Onward, Christian Rambos,

spoiling for a fight,

wave the flag of Jesus,

knowing that we're right."

(Brian Wren, ©1986 Hope Publishing Company. Reproduced with permission under CCLI licence No 372309)


In 1986... 

the editorial committee for the new Methodist Hymnbook in the United States...

voted to omit "Onward, Christian soldiers" for being  "too militaristic".

They eventually relented...

after receiving thousands of letters of protest from disgruntled Methodists.

In response to that, Brian Wren penned this 'hymn'.

Amid his hyper-exaggerated imagery--

I think that Brian Wren has highlighted something serious and quite sinister.

No, it's not "all metaphors"--

not by a long way.

Language matters.

Our choice of language, imagery, and metaphor is never neutral...

and neither are its consequences.

How we say something says as much as what we say.

How we say something sends its own message irrespective of what we say.

Or, perhaps, to adapt a famous saying of Marshall McLuhan's--

the metaphor is the message.


In our reading from Ephesians, this morning, the author uses strong imagery--

borrowing from the vocabulary of ancient weapons and warfare--

to describe living as a person of faith.

And, frankly, for much of Christian history the metaphor has become the message.

And it's a message that has been heard and taken to heart, literally.

Take, for example, Anders Breivnik--

who slaughtered seventy-seven people in Norway;

or Dylann Roof--

who killed the minister and eight others in the African-American church in Charleston;

or Wade Michael Page--

who killed seven at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee;

or Timothy McVeigh--

the Oklahoma City bomber.

All of them saw themselves as defenders of Christianity--

of white Christian society--

against the evils of Muslims and multiculturalism.

But, before we label such individuals as, simply, "religious nut-jobs"...

let's just pause...

and reflect upon how often religion has been at the very heart of so much violence and bloodshed...

through the ages.

Indeed, the French anthropologist-- 

René Girard-- 

argues that violence is at the heart of archaic religion.

And, if we're honest, it's been at the heart of so much Protestant Christianity--

certainly, as it's often been interpreted.

At least since the nineteenth century...

we have understood the Easter story as founded on the premise that God is angry with us... 

and that God would have continued to be angry... 

if someone-- 

namely Jesus--

hadn't taken the blame and the punishment for us.

This interpretation is dependent upon the whole notion of 'sacrifice'. 

And 'sacrifice' works-

in a religious sense-

as a way of placating or appeasing an angry, vengeful god...

by offering someone or something as a substitute.

But what Jesus tried to show us is that God isn't like that.

God isn't angry and vengeful... 

and God doesn't need to be placated or appeased.

Rather, God loves us and wants the best for us.

And the only way that God could get through to us--

and show us that God wasn't like the way that we assumed or imagined-- 

was to let us kill God. 

So Jesus-

symbolically, sacramentally God with us, God as one of us-

substituted himself. 

Jesus became our sacrificial victim...

in order to demonstrate... 

that the anger and vengeance needing to be appeased is-- 

in fact-- 


By allowing us to sacrifice Jesus, God is, effectively, appeasing us

We are the angry deity who needs placating. 

We are the ones who cling to anger...

require its satisfaction...

and demand revenge.

It is we who require death... 

because that, unfortunately, is the way of the world.

We maintain our human structures through victimisation.

We seek security through violence. 

We use death to avoid death. 

And we project all of this back onto God.

It is we who assume that we need sacrifices to placate God, because we do. 

In the gruesome death of Jesus... 

God became our victim to show us that we need never do so again.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was confronting us with our own innate violence...

and trying to offer another way to be human...

and another way to relate to God.


But, let's be honest, that's so counter-intuitive--

that goes so against our human natures and proclivities--

that we struggle to comprehend it.

We always have.

And we see that dissonance even in our reading from Ephesians.

The people to whom the author wrote were struggling.

They would have been treated with contempt and suspicion...

because they were different...


because they had turned their backs on the gods of their cities and the Empire.

They probably would have experienced insults and threats...

maybe oppression and injustice...

even violence.

And, in the face of that, the author wants to encourage them...

to be strong...

not to conform to the world around them...

not to give in to the pressures that they faced...

nor to give up.

But he does so by embracing a thoroughly militaristic metaphor...

about putting on a suit of armour--

God's armour, no less.

Yes, some of the things that he enjoins are good and noble--

urging his readers to a life shaped by truth...

and righteousness...

and faith...

and prayer.

But note...

he doesn't urge them to a life of peace--

as a lived reality or a way of being--

but, rather, to a "readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace".

There's something slightly "off" about that.

It's like he's urging them to tell others to be peaceable-

most likely those whom they feel are oppressing them-

rather than living and embodying peace themselves.

And the sense that there's something "off" here is reinforced by what's missing.

Nowhere in his exhortation is there encouragement to love.

Love is never mentioned.

And yet, surely, love is our highest calling as followers of Jesus.

Indeed, the injunction to "love your enemies"--

and to "pray for those who persecute you"--

is one of the most challenging sayings found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.

Clearly, it's too challenging for the author of Ephesians.

The metaphor is, indeed, the message.

And it's a message that is at odds with the gospel itself.


As people of God we are, indeed, called to a life of truthfulness...

right living...


and prayer.

But we are also called to embody peace and love--

not least toward those whom we find difficult or challenging...

and towards those who harass us or seek to do us harm.

That is always the challenge before us as followers of Jesus Christ.

And we are challenged to do so in a way that is consistent with how he lived...

and with what he tried to show us--

that the way of God is not...

and can never be...

predicated on violence--

even in a metaphorical sense.

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