“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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 … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)
My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.
Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”
And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.
In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.
And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began …
“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”
It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.
One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.
The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?
Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!
And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics.
More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.
Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:
This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.
The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?
So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.
I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)
When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.
Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.
Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.
And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)
Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.
One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.
One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.
One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.
One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.
Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.