Beating the Cross into a Sword: The Modern Reversal of the Gospel

A literal marker of the distance between the religion of the New Testament and the religious nationalism that passes for Christianity is to be found on war monuments bearing the words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13). This was a popular verse for WWI monuments, the bloodiest and most senseless war of the century, fought primarily between “Christian” nations. The implication is that the dead soldier fulfilled Jesus words, that they too sacrificed their life for their friends. In fact, all that Jesus did can now be attributed to the dead soldier: he took up a cross of sacrifice, laid down his life in love, so that we might have freedom. We remember and honor him, memorializing his death. In Japan, at Yasukuni Shrine, the war dead, along with war criminals, are literally venerated or worshiped. Though Americans might feel uncomfortable “worshipping” the war dead, in songs like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” every element of war is baptized, so that the whole movement of war is made holy.

The Lord’s wrath and truth march on through the power of the sword which bears his glory. The fires of an army encampment are an altar built to ensure his “fiery Gospel” will be “writ in burnished rows of steel” and this is equated with the work of Christ on the cross, “crushing the serpent with his heel.” This violence is equated with the glory of God and more or less worshiped in the refrain, “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” Throughout the marching of the troops is directly identified with “God marching on.” Christ “died to make men holy,” and this should spur on the troops, so “let us die to make men free.” Finally, the honor of killing in war is directly deified as “He (God) is honor to the brave.”

The soldier going out to kill, to lay down someone else’s life so he can return home, is equated with Jesus laying down his life. Freedom requiring the slaughter of the enemy is equated with freedom from sin, death, and violence. The memorializing or remembrance, as with the Lord’s Supper, is the equivalent of an act of worship, but now there is a reifying or memorializing of killing and death. Where Jesus’ death was aimed at defeating death, this remembrance makes death itself the means to freedom. In “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” war is equated with God. His truth, His Gospel, His wrath let loose on the enemy and his mercy shown to the victor, takes each element of war and Christianizes it. It is not just the slippage of a few words but the religion is rendered equivocal. The original meaning is lost as the cross is turned into a sword (literally, at the U. S. Air Force Academy Chapel) and violence is made redemptive. The question is, what happened to bring about this undoing and reversal of the faith?

The Constantinian shift, which I traced last week (here), is not explanation enough, as there is no period prior to the Reformation, other than the crusades, in which this direct equivalence between war and Christianity is so firmly drawn out. Even with the rise of Constantine and the development of just war theory, killing, even in war, called for penance, though the level of guilt was presumed to be something less than outright murder. Clergy were banned from killing or bearing the sword and those who had fought in a war, including the prince who might have declared it, were required, subsequent to the fighting, to do penance. Killing was considered evil, even in a just war, and in turn nonviolence was the standard equated with a committed Christian spirituality. While just war permitted the prince and his soldiers, usually mercenaries or professional soldiers to fight on a limited scale, this would still require penance and came with a fundamental guilt. Knights and mercenaries understood, through the sermons they heard and through the imagery on church portals depicting grinning devils dragging the violent into hell, that they were living in a perpetual state of sin. The increase in the monastic orders in the Middle Ages is attributed in large part  to knightly guilt.[1] The church remained normatively pacifist, though concessions were made for rulers and soldiers engaged in war, but it was recognized this was not the rule but the exception. Just as many or more (monastics, priests, penitents) were committed to a life of nonviolence.

It was only with the Reformation and its notion of works righteousness that nonviolence was no longer considered normative. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “The Reformation said that all the penitential stuff and all the monastic stuff had to go, because those constitute works righteousness. Such practices get in the way of salvation by faith.”[2] Special acts, which emphasized the normative nature of Christian nonviolence such as penance, confession, pilgrimage, or committing one’s entire life to being a monk or priest, were considered counterproductive to the Protestant message of justification by faith. In getting rid of these visible signs which indicated the fuller, peaceable way of the Gospel, Protestantism rid itself of any vestige of nonviolence.

It had once been universally understood that priests, monks, monasteries, churches, cemeteries, and even libraries were not to be pillaged. There were holy days, such as Good Friday, in which all fighting would cease. With the Reformation the primary focus was no longer on a real-world enactment of the way of Jesus, or even on a remnant of symbolism of an alternative peaceable order, as primacy was given to internal faith in God’s grace. One cannot do anything to be saved, and so the emphasis in Catholicism on holy times or holy places was traded for faith alone. All are priests and every profession is divinely ordained, a sphere unto itself, so that even the remaining small islands of nonviolence preserved in Catholicism vanished.[3]

Where the Medieval prince had once been nominally subject to the church, Luther presumed that the affairs of state were not to be interfered with by bishops and priests. The bishops should stick to the sacraments and the princes should run the country and there is no overlap of religious authority in civil accountability. Christians, as set forth in Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican creeds, may fight in just wars – which simultaneously give a religious imprimatur to a notion acknowledged in Catholicism but never formally endorsed or instantiated as part of the faith. Christians may now serve Christ as civil magistrates, as businessmen, or as soldiers engaged in war, as the economy, the civil government and the church, were declared autonomous realms, each accountable directly to God. The priesthood of all believers would come to mean that every profession constituted its own kind of holy office with its own set of values and goals. The businessman who earned a profit, or the statesman who rendered justice, or the soldier who served in a just war, were each given the due sign of God’s blessing in terms of their field of service.

According to the Augsburg Confession (penned by Melanchthon for Lutherans), “Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc. Condemned here are the Anabaptists who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian” (Augsburg Confession, article XVI, 1530). Note that to be Lutheran is to be against, according to the creedal formula, the peace of the Anabaptists. As the creed of the Church of England states it, “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commaundement of the Magistrate, to weare weapons, and serue in the warres” (Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, English Edition of 1571, article XXXVII.) Or, according to the Westminster Confession, “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; . . . they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasion” (Westminster Confession, article XXIII/ II, 1646).[4] Thus, one can “read a fiery gospel writ” not in humble self-sacrifice but with “burnish’d rows of steel.”

In the three major Protestant traditions, for the first time, just war and participating in violence takes on creedal status. To be Lutheran, Anglican, or of the British free church or Puritan and Presbyterian or Reformed tradition, means one is officially committed to just war and state violence. Prior to the Reformation, the church, popes, and bishops, and a broadly shared Christian sensibility had tended to curb war, which resulted in many instances of conflicts being arbitrated. The theory of just war functioning as a restraint, as it had done in the Middle Ages, has ceased as national leaders will be the final arbiters of the justice and necessity of war. Now the only real deterrent and mitigating factor in war will tend to be pragmatic possibility.

Nationalism and capitalism are both a product of the Reformation in that the nation and the economy, like the church, constitute their own realm of morality and internal accountability. A businessman may amend Gordon Gecko to say, “Greed for God is good.” As Yoder describes it, too much moral scrupulosity is a bad thing. “Christians can do whatever they need to do,” according to the realm in which they serve. Whether it is politics or business or engaging in killing in legitimate wars, one’s morality needs to be fit for the realm of service. “Don’t be picky about living morally; after all, we are all sinners! What really matters is the message of salvation by grace.” Sin is inevitable and the message of the new religion is to live by grace. To do so is to recognize one need not suffer guilt, though incapable of doing the good and avoiding the evil. “The whole idea of morality is not meant to exercise restraint. That is an un-Protestant idea. Morality is for positive guidance, to give us a good conscience and motivation.” [5]

The Christian religion, rather than prohibiting or curbing violence as it had done for its first 1500 years, can now assuage any possibility of guilt as the violence of war is now justified as service to Christ. The stage is set for the total wars of the 20th century, in which there is no overriding consideration to pope or church. This opens the possibility for obliteration of civilian populations and no end to the limits of destruction, both of which are accommodated by new weapons of mass destruction which can meet this new theological vision.[6]

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[1] The New Yorker Book review – “Holy Smoke: What were the Crusades really about?” December 6, 2004

[2] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Yoder, 120

[4] John H. Leith, ed. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 72– 73, 280, 220 respectively.  Quoted in Yoder, 23

[5] Yoder, 124-125.

[6] As I have described it elsewhere (here) in regard to the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Japan, there is a form of the faith in the West that seems to require that it enact violence. An all-Christian bomber crew from an all-Christian administration guilty of vaporizing, incinerating, annihilating tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a disproportionately large number of Japanese Christians, and choosing a/the Church for ground zero, shows up the meaninglessness of this form of religion. Of course, the Christian faith as it was practiced by these men seems not to have figured into the decision. Christianity did not cause Truman the Baptist, Byrnes the Catholic and one of Truman’s closest advisors, or Charles Sweeney (pilot of Bock’s Car) a devout Catholic, or any of the long list of Christian advisors and actors to pause or refuse. Truman reported sleeping soundly and never having a second thought. The faith simply served, it seems, to ease the consciences of its adherents. Though the image of Christian slaughtering Christian in genocidal proportions, as in Nagasaki, forever exposed the emptiness of the predominant form of the Western religion, it was precisely their faith that blinded many to this conclusion.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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