taking the words of Jesus seriously

 

Dear Dr. Moore,

 

I don’t believe we have ever had the opportunity to meet, but I hope we will meet someday and have the opportunity to get better acquainted in person.

 

I have respected your courage in speaking up against the rise in Evangelical and Southern Baptist support for Donald Trump. I share your concern about the ugly current of racism and xenophobia that still runs deep in American culture and in many sectors of the church, and I share your commitment to speak out against it.

 

This presidential campaign is bringing that current to the surface so responsible people can deal constructively with it. Although you and I no doubt have many disagreements, I sense we are in deep agreement that the venom, ignorance, and sleaze unleashed in this political season are good neither for our country nor our souls.

 

In your recent article on my rewrite of Onward Christian Soldiers, you correctly say that I believe “that hymns with war imagery can lead to hatred and violence, ” and that I would like there to be more hymns that call us to live as peacemakers, as Jesus taught.

 

When you say, “He’s wrong, ” I hope you are only referring to the former assertion against war imagery, and not the latter call for more hymns on the theme of peacemaking and reconciliation. If we are to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly … as we “teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, ” then surely Christ’s teachings about peace should have a more prominent place in our songs.

 

I have had trouble thinking of a single well-known song, traditional or contemporary, about peacemaking. So maybe some of us will stop singing warrior songs and others of us will keep singing them, but I hope that all of us, even your home church, can write and sing more songs about peacemaking and reconciliation.

 

That’s the spirit in which I offered the “Onward Christian Peacemakers” lyrics. I welcome people to use the lyrics in their congregations anywhere and everywhere.

 

You accuse me of a “crude literalism” in finding danger in the “Onward” lyrics, but I don’t actually think literalism is the problem.

 

I think the real problem is imagination. The combined imagery of the songs we sing creates a kind of inner construct or lens through which we see the world. If the background music and imagery of our lives is predominantly hostile, fearful, aggressive, or dominating, if it sends us into the world primarily as warriors, then we will find ourselves encountering the world, including other people, in a certain way.

 

If, in contrast, the background and imagery of our lives is generous, confident, loving, gracious, healing, service-oriented, and forgiving, we will enter the world in a very different way – as peacemakers, hungering and thirsting for justice, seeking peace through peaceful means.

 

Perhaps if American Christians today were more firmly and deeply involved in peacemaking (as the early Christians were), we might be inoculated against the potentially destructive effects of warrior imagery.

 

But we American Christians, especially white Christians, generally lack that inoculation … with our history of genocide, land theft, enslavement, segregation, homophobia, nativism, Islamophobia, and the like. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, after we became victims of the horrific violence of others, we seemed to enter into a kind of warrior trance of our own, mirroring violence with violence, and too many of us have been living in a revenge narrative ever since.

 

In a nation with a damaged soul like ours, for our churches to fund our imagination with more warrior imagery adds fuel to a fire that already is in danger of raging out of control.

 

I think you can feel this danger more acutely if you imagine a Muslim leader in, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia, promoting the singing of songs or prayers that contain violent imagery. Then imagine another Muslim voice rising and saying that they should transform or exchange that violent imagery into something less hostile, beating rhetorical swords into plowshares. It’s that latter role I and others would like to take in our faith community, and I wish you would rethink this and join us.

 

Context matters. When the “Onward” hymn was written in Great Britain in the mid-19th Century, the British were building their global empire. When I imagine British Christians in that cultural and historical context singing a hymn about “marching as to war” behind the banner of the cross, I can’t help but see resonance with Constantine waging war under the sign of the cross. I can’t help but hear echoes of the militant Christian imperialism that periodically resurged from the 4th to the 20th centuries. However unintentionally, a hymn like “Onward” in the 1850’s could only serve to reinforce the values of the empire … not through a crude literalism, but through a deep funding of the personal and corporate imagination.

 

Very real people in India, Africa, and elsewhere suffered and died (literally) by the millions because the imaginations of European colonizing Christians had been funded more by the imperial tradition of the Caesar’s Roman Empire than the reconciling tradition of Jesus’ kingdom of God. Sadly, the reality of this heritage is still too little acknowledged.

 

I believe that America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has too much in common with Great Britain in the 19th. That’s why in our context, I think it is pastorally wise to fund our imaginations not with taking up swords and spears (or whatever) and “marching as to war, ” but with beating them into plowshares and pruning hooks, and going into the world not swinging swords or dropping bombs, but sowing seeds of reconciliation, respect, and service.

 

The choice isn’t between following the Bible or not: the choice is between which parts of the Bible we who are pastors and worship leaders bring to the fore and apply to the moment. The choice isn’t between using Biblical imagery or not; it’s the choice of which Biblical imagery is most suited and needed in a particular context.

 

You and I both understand this because of our shared heritage. Although I wasn’t raised Southern Baptist, I was raised in the larger conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist community. We both know that leaders of that shared religious heritage defended slavery, segregation, and the white Christian privilege that supported them – and not that long ago. We both know that for a long time and for a lot of people, Bible verses (like Genesis 9:25) provided a Biblical “justification” for racism. (Anti-Semitism was similarly “justified” based on Scripture, as you know.)

 

It was inconceivable a few years ago to imagine a politician proposing that people be barred from legal entry to our nation based on religion, but now, such a politician is the likely candidate for the political party supported by most Evangelicals. Similarly, it is hard right now to imagine politicians and religious leaders at some point in the future using Bible verses like Psalm 137:9 or Psalm 5:5 or Revelation 19:11-16 to authoritatively justify, say, launching a nuclear war (although such a proposal was made by another Republican candidate back in 2007). We need to realize the dangerous moment we are in.

 

Even though you currently think I’m wrong about the danger of warrior imagery in a context like ours, I know you are concerned about the tone and direction of Mr. Trump and others like him, and you have clearly and consistently named racism as a sin. I admire you for challenging your tradition in this way; I think my concern about warrior imagery in Christian hymns is simply another step in that process of growth.

 

You said, “I realize that some from McLaren’s theological tribe cast doubt on the authority of the Old Testament narrative, but if one starts cutting away the warfare imagery from the Bible one will end up with a tiny set of scraps.”

 

I used to say this sort of thing about those I deemed “liberal” too, but Dr. Moore, people like me are not advocating “cutting away the warfare imagery from the Bible.” Rather, we’re advocating a faithful and reverent way of interpreting the Bible that precludes it from being used to justify atrocities in the future. Even if you don’t share my concern about warrior imagery, I hope you will at least affirm this deeper concern.

 

I don’t know if you’ve read any of my books, but if you’re interested in my thinking in this regard, I’d encourage you to read Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? It’s a book about the problem of religious hostility in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions as well. If you simply read the book looking for things to disagree with, you will miss the opportunity to engage with a disturbing trend in our own country – and especially in our shared Evangelical heritage. Chapters 19-21 are especially relevant to this discussion; Chapter 21 engages with a problematic verse of another beloved hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Maybe you would be willing to find common cause with me in seeking to counter the rising tide of religious hostility in our world with a rising tide of love.

 

You also might be interested in my upcoming book, The Great Spiritual Migration, which will come out in October and will deal more directly with the issue of religious hostility and the Bible’s role in either supporting or subverting it.

 

Where we currently disagree appears to be more a matter of pastoral wisdom than ultimate aim. Is it wise for people with our largely unacknowledged history, in the context of well-funded demagogues who want to gin up fear and hostility for political gain, to keep singing songs that fund our individual and corporate imagination with images of warfare and violence?

 

Or is it time to fund and energize the imaginations of our people with a different kind of imagery? That’s what I’m trying to do,  along with many wonderful colleagues. Even if you disagree with putting songs like “Onward” on the museum shelf, I hope you’ll agree with our desire to help Christians “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly” in the “song, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we sing, especially Christ’s paramount teaching of love. That is what we are fighting (nonviolently!) for.

 

About The Author

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Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and networker among innovative Christian leaders. His dozen-plus books include A New Kind of Christianity, A Generous Orthodoxy, Naked Spirituality, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, We Make the Road by Walking, and The Great Spiritual Migration. He is a senior fellow with Auburn Seminary, and a board member and leader in Convergence Network, Center for Progressive Renewal, and Wild Goose Festival. He and his wife, Grace, live in Florida and have four adult children and five grandchildren.

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