Not so long ago, a colleague of mine told me that his congregation was marching around their church’s neighborhood to claim it for Jesus, by prayer. When I questioned him further, he suggested that some demons were pretty territorial, and since the devil can’t stand up against prayer, the best way for his church to get a foothold in the neighborhood was by praying the demons away.
Other Christians see a host of immoral activities—lying, cheating, bitterness—as evidence of demonic possession or oppression, rather than as acts for which one is personally responsible. In some Christian circles such problems are dealt with through exorcism or “binding of demons” rather than repentance and sanctification—Christian lingo for facing up to the wrong you’ve done and deciding to do something about it.
This is the language of spiritual warfare and it is everywhere in Evangelical circles. From the demon-under-every-bush-fiction of Frank Peretti to the slightly subtler Nicolai of the “Left Behind” series to books on exorcism such as Francis MacNutt’s “Deliverance From Evil Spirits” or C. Peter Wagner’s “Supernatural Forces in Spiritual Warfare,” contemporary evangelicalism is awash with fascination for outsize evil spirit’s below and battling angels above.
This sort of preoccupation with spiritual warfare seems, to me, to be very dangerous. I think it rooted in a kind of pride in one’s own religious correctness that can—especially under the influence of the language of warfare—become destructive of others, whether locally or globally.
It isn’t that you can’t find language that resonates with warfare images in scripture. Of course you can. Though not very commonly, the writers of scripture did sometimes use military images of the Christian life as a struggle against evil—even though more often, they wrote of Jesus as having decisively defeated Satan. Scripture certainly suggests the creature called Satan ought to be resisted—but that is a far cry from suggesting he ought to be warred against. Even the famous spiritual armor described in Ephesians—a breastplate of righteousness, shield of faith and even, somewhat ironically, feet ready to move in tune with the gospel of peace—all this armor seems better suited to turning the other cheek as the Christian way of resisting the devil than taking him straight on.
But contemporary Christians persist in allowing the language of spiritual warfare to be one of their guiding metaphors. It reminds me of how the language of jihad has taken on a powerful and dangerous life of its own, too. In the shadow of 9/11’s destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, few words are so misunderstood and scorned in the West as “jihad.”
The most common sense of the word “jihad" in Islam, has to do with the religious duty to “struggle” to become a better Muslim. In this sense “jihad” is similar to the Christian concept of engaging in spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, and study.
But this most common sense of the word “jihad” has been eclipsed for us in the West because a misguided, militant minority of Muslims, who even call themselves jihadists, think of jihad as a struggle against the thrones and dominions, principalities and powers of the “Great Satan,” by which they usually mean the United States and the West in general. This minority of militant Muslims now uses the primarily benign concept of jihad as a religious cover for terrorism.
Talk of Spiritual Warfare has the same potential for spinning out of control. In fact, in the history of Christianity, we have often channeled our spiritual energy into physical destruction of others who did not agree with us. Consider the crusades, for example, where hordes of Europeans trampled over the Near East carving out kingdoms for profit and spiritual indulgences. In the Salem Witch trials, the overwhelming sense that life was a spiritual struggle with Jesus on one shoulder and the devil on the other led to many innocents being killed in the name of spiritual warfare. More recently, preacher Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations movement used their twisted interpretation of the Bible to invite race war against people of color. And genocides against Jews in WWII or Muslims and Christians both in the former Yugoslavia were fueled by in large measure by spiritual pride that found expression in violence. Christianity has a long history of taking the offensive in the mistaken belief that the other side was demonic.
So no more “Onward Christian soldiers as to war,” and no more talk of spiritual warfare or demons or even Satan. What should we focus on, instead? Well, that Christianity is really about trying to overcome every form of verbal or physical violence by “not resisting an evil person,” and “turning the other cheek” (Luke 5:39). Not spiritual warfare, but giving the coat off of one’s back, forgiving seven times seven, and refusing to judge others. Jesus adds that it is the meek who inherit the kingdom of God and peacemakers who are called children of God. Not spiritual warfare, but walking humbly with God. Not spiritual warfare, but self-examination as to whether or not the light of Christ lives in us.
Faith has to be immunized against violence in word, deed or intention. Such faith ought to avoid the language of spiritual warfare.