A few weeks ago, I wrote about the danger of presuming the righteousness of one’s cause. History is filled with instances of nations and political parties claiming God’s endorsement of their side. We could point to the “Christian” empires on opposite sides in WW I and the rhetoric (and hymnody!) generated by both North and South in the American Civil War.
Another reason for caution comes from the Scriptural background to a text typically called to mind during election seasons—times of increased intensity in the culture wars that dominate our national life.
I’ve heard Ephesians 6:10-18, and its reference to spiritual warfare, cited quite often in order to draw for this or that political effort. Not only is such rhetoric completely out of place, those who employ it neglect the subversive Scripture on which it draws.
Israel had failed to be a holy nation. They exploited the poor and neglected the orphans and the widows. They became a nation of injustice rather than justice.
Because of this, Isaiah announced that the God of Israel was going to do something extremely unexpected. Rather than fighting on behalf of Israel against its enemies, Yahweh was going to take up arms against Israel as his enemy:
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. According to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render requital. So those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those in the east, his glory; for he will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the Lord drives on (Isa. 59:15-19).
Isaiah’s use of the divine warrior tradition turns expectations on their heads and reverses all assumptions about how the God of Israel acts. Israel had grown complacent and presumptuous. They figured that because they were God’s special possession, they could rely on their “insider” status with God to avoid any consequences for their failure to love one another and serve the nations on God’s behalf.
Yahweh took up arms, therefore, against his own people because they had proved disloyal to him and his cause of restoring the nations.
Those who assume the righteousness of their cause and rally people to their efforts using biblical military imagery ought to keep in mind God’s impartiality and commitment to judge injustice wherever he finds it.
And they ought to keep in mind that history is also filled with political figures who posture provocatively in the public square using biblical militant language only later to be exposed as morally compromised.
The use of such language to speak of God’s warfare against his own people, however, ought to serve as a warning to Christian people against the careless presumption of the righteousness of a chosen cause.