The Armour of God

 Proper 21, August 23, 2015

Ephesians 6:10-17

“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.”

This verse from the letter to the Ephesians, and the bit that follows about putting on the armour of God, is one of the main passages in the Bible that talks about spiritual warfare.

Some Christians seem to thrive on this language. They embrace spiritual warfare with gusto as a way of talking about the personal struggle to be a Christian in modern society. They conceive of the Christian life as a daily doing battle with Satan, and take courage and energy from the image of arming themselves for this battle.

Other Christians – and I count myself among them – are simply turned off by this language. The enthusiastic embrace of military language – Onward Christian soldier spirituality – makes us uncomfortable. It seems to imply a literal belief in Satan that strikes some of us as naive and dangerous.  Spiritual warfare feeds into a tendency to demonize those who aren’t Christian enough, which in turn has led far too often to violence against them. Our struggle may not be with flesh and blood, but all too often flesh and blood pay the price of our spiritual warfare.

I share this discomfort with this language of warfare.  I would much rather pass over problematic passages like this in favour of those that talk of our call to peace, and reconciliation, and inclusivity. But I do fear that in my preference for less controversial ways of talking about the faith, I may have lost sight a bit of the reality of the struggle.  If I have lost sight of the fact that as Christians we do not live in a time of peace with the powers that be in this world, then perhaps that is because I am myself too much invested in the status quo.  In the world view of the New Testament, spiritual warfare is a fact of life – because we do not find ourselves in a neutral world, but in a world where powers hostile to God’s good intention are in control.  And we cannot, must not, make our peace with these powers.

“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.”

“Rulers”, “authorities” – “powers and principalities” is another translation – “cosmic powers of the present darkness”, “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.  This is what has come to be called the language of the powers, and it is found in many places in the New Testament.  We tend to ignore this language as a primitive naive superstitious way of speaking about the world, one we have moved beyond in the modern world.  Most of the time we just read over it without paying attention. When we do notice it, we are embarrassed by its naivety.

Well, certainly, if we imagine the powers to be a bunch of invisible demons flapping about the world, then we are being dangerously naive.  But in recent decades a growing number of theologians and New Testament scholars have had another look at the way the New Testament talks about the powers – and have suggested that there may be something here we should be paying attention to.  That the language of the powers may be a useful way of naming something that we have just begun to see.

As we look back over the history of the 20th century, for example, we see a time of great ideological struggles: the great war against fascism; the ravages of communism; the ongoing struggle to tame capitalism, so that it remains a tool in a healthy society, rather than a grim master; the struggles against racism, and patriarchy, and colonialism – evils that we hadn’t even recognized before; the battle against religious fundamentalism, in Islam but also in Christianity and the other religions. The list goes on and on. The point is, a first century Christian would not have been surprised by any of this.  They would have immediately recognized all this as just part of the human condition, the battle against the powers and principalities. These things are exactly what the New Testament means by the powers: aspects of culture and ideology and systems that are bigger than any one of us, invisible realities that shape human behaviour and thinking.  They are part of human society, and so are natural.  But they also have the tendency to set themselves up as absolute, to claim our whole allegiance – and then they become idolatrous, setting themselves up against God’s intention.  Oh, New Testament Christians would have recognized our world very well.

The powers have always been with us.  Why is it, then, we are only now learning to recognise them?  Well, it may be the case that we don’t see the powers at work when we are inside them; that they are only recognizable from the outside.

Think about it:

•    When we pick up a cheap gadget at Walmart, we don’t recognize the nature of international capitalism – we’re just getting a deal. But for the person who made the gadget for a few dollars a day in a sweatshop in China, the demonic aspect of the system may be a bit more evident.

•    We accept the language of security and the war on terror as simple practical necessity.  But an Afghan villager whose wedding has been hit by a drone missile, or a prisoner being tortured at Guantanamo Bay for knowing the wrong people, may get a glimpse behind the mask of what we call security.

•    Before the civil rights movement white Americans had no idea of the reality of racism –  as apparently many still do not.  Nor do most white Canadians seem to have much sense of the systemic racism experienced by first nations,

From the inside, the powers and principalities are unrecognizable. Well, since the time of the emperor Constantine the Christian church has been on the inside of power structures.  It is only now, as the powers have begun to cast us out, we begin to see the powers for what they are.  We are learning to see again with the eyes of the first century, with the eyes of a marginal church.  Suddenly the language of the powers begins to make new sense.

When Ephesians tells us to put on the armour of God, we see a quaint image out of a picture book on ancient history, or out of a museum display case.  Whether we see the image as inspiring or as oppressive, we are looking at it from a certain distance.  For a first century audience, however, there is a frightening immediacy: this was the equipment quite specifically of a Roman legionnaire. It is the face of the powers, the ideology of empire, which they would have seen on the streets of their cities as the very tangible symbol of oppression and violence. There is nothing innocent or thoughtless about this image; Ephesians is taking the costume of imperial domination, and reinterpreting it in terms of the values of the kingdom: truth and righteousness, peace and faith.  It is a declaration of war against the empire and all it stands for; but at the same time it is a refusal to fight with the tools of empire, a refusal to fight against flesh and blood with swords and armour.  Rather, it is a declaration of war that shifts the battle to where it belongs: a spiritual battle against the ideology of the powers themselves.

This passage is a call to action. A call to wake up and recognize the urgency of the spiritual battle to which we are called: a battle to defend human dignity and God’s justice against the powers that would deny and destroy them.  It can seem like a hopeless struggle: the forces that are lined up against us are all the kingdoms of this world with all their wealth and power and weapons.  But it is not a flesh and blood struggle – there we wouldn’t have a chance! – but a spiritual struggle, which is fought with prayer and truth-telling and acts of compassion and reconciliation. And there, as long as we remain on God’s side, we have good hope. Indeed, we are told that the victory has already been won for us, on the cross of Golgotha.

And we are not fighting alone in this battle. We stand together as a church. We stand together, stand firm – it is remarkable how often the word stand is used in this passage.

Stand therefore, and
•    fasten the belt of truth around your waist, alongside Edward Snowdon, and the thousands of whistleblowers and journalists who risk jobs and security to say out loud the truth that the powers are trying to hide;
•    and put on the breastplate of righteousness, like Mahatma Gandhi, who taught millions that personal integrity, and an unflagging insistence on a righteous cause, give them the power to confront armies unarmed and face them down;
•    As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, with Desmond Tutu, who taught the people of South Africa to seek not revenge, but reconciliation and peace; with those in this country, working through our own Truth and Reconciliation process to heal the wounds in Canadian society;
•    take the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, which enabled Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the countless small heros of the resistance, to escape the brainwashing of the Nazis, and retain their personal integrity in the midst of madness;
•    and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, the Word that Martin Luther King proclaimed with courage and integrity in the face of unthinkable hatred.

The odds against us may seem incalculable.  But these heroes of the faith, and the millions of unknown, ordinary heroes, show us that if we take up the battle with God’s weapons, then the powers of this world, however mighty, cannot prevail in the end.