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Spiritual and Earthly War
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 7, 2010
Deuteronomy 20:10-18 Matthew 10:34-42 Psalm 46
This week we will celebrate Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day brings to mind the subject of war. I have selected today’s Bible readings with war in mind. I have selected Bible passages that show the diversity of Biblical testimony about war. In our Deuteronomy passage, we find God telling the people of Israel about how to wage war. For the nations that surround the Promised Land, the Israelites are to first offer peace. If the nations accept their offer of peace, then they become enslaved. Neither choice is a good one. But for the land that Israel would take over and live in, holy war was commanded. In this, all the residents were to be put to the sword and all their idols were to be destroyed. It is passages like this that make the Old Testament a hard book for some to come to terms with.
But the command of holy war is not the only voice in the Old Testament. Nor does it reflect the only way God was seen. In Psalm 46, which we read responsively today, God is the bringer of peace. The Psalm reads:
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
So in the Old testament, to see God as the orchestrator of war only, is a mistake. The Old testament also sees God as the bringer of peace.
These differing testimonies about war and peace reflect the times in which the Bible was written. In the culture of the first millennium BC, war was a way of life. If you didn’t attack neighboring city-states, they would attack you. There is a line in 2 Samuel 11 that makes this way of life clear. It is the beginning of a story about King David. The story begins with the following words: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war . . . ” Spring is here–time to wage war. This simple statement shows us that war was a way of life in Biblical times. So the writers of the Bible saw God as a warrior God.
But there was also the idea of God as the bringer of Shalom. Shalom means peace, but it also means more than just peace. When a country is in a state of Shalom there is rest from war, justice in the courts, order in the kingdom, and fertility in the land. Shalom reflects a state in which God fills the hearts of the people and the land with His blessings. This is what is reflected in the Psalm, where we find God making wars to cease even to the ends of the earth. His shalom covers the entire created world.
In our New Testament passage, I chose an unusual saying of Jesus. Here, Jesus says, “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). This is the same Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek, to forgive 70 times 70 times, and to love our enemies. In the same group of sayings from this morning’s reading, Jesus says,
A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. . . . Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me . . . Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will find it (Matthew 10:36, 37, 39).
Due to the general tone of Jesus’ message to us, we are compelled to take these words spiritually and symbolically. I think they are best understood in the light of the last line–”whoever loses his life will find it.” We see that these sayings are directed to spiritual rebirth and putting aside our old self to find a new life in God. This new life only comes with struggle and work, and the image of the sword symbolizes fighting for a new spirituality as we grow out of our inherited disposition.
So our Bible readings today talk about two aspects of war–earthly war and spiritual war. The theme of earthly war is in our Deuteronomy passage, and the theme of spiritual war is in our New testament passage.
The first thing to be said about war is that it is not God’s will that there be war. Swedenborg writes,
It is not because of divine providence that wars happen, because wars are inseparable from murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other appalling evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian caring (DP 251).
God does not will the murder and cruelty associated with war. But there are two aspects to the way God works with the human race. There is God’s will and then there is what God will allow. God allows evils to occur in order to preserve human freedom and to lead us into salvation. According to Swedenborg, “saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation” (DP 234).
There is a reason why wars are permitted. In war, we see the evils that humans are capable of. In order for us to be reformed, we need to be aware of the evils that are in us. This is what Jesus was talking about when he says that we need to lose ourself in order to find ourself. We need to see and acknowledge the evils into which we were born and which we have accepted into our lives in order for us to decide to consciously let go of them.
There is also the fact that if it were not for this permission, the Lord could not lead us out of our evil, so we could not be reformed and saved. That is, unless evils were allowed to surface, we would not see them and therefore would not admit to them; so we could not be induced to resist them. That is why evils cannot be suppressed by some exercise of divine providence. If they were, they would spread and devour everything that is alive like the diseases called cancer and gangrene (DP 251).
In this context I think about World War II. This war was essential as the totalitarian regime of Hitler had to be stopped. We saw in that war how terrible racism could be in the horrors of the concentration camps. Anti-Semitism was a sickness that could be found all through Europe and North America. The concentration camps were perhaps the most terrible manifestation of Anti-Semitism, but in lesser forms, all of the Western world was guilty. It was not God’s will that innocent Jews were tortured. But what did come of this horror was the statement now posted on the concentration camps–”Never Again!” We see in this a very clear statement of Swedenborg’s claim that wars bring hidden evils out into the open so that we can put them away.
This week we honor the memory of those who gave their lives to safeguard liberty. We owe the peace we know in our country to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and to those who fought to save us from oppression. It’s easy to take our civil liberties for granted. We don’t live in a country where we need to present identification papers to authorities on a whim. We can express ourselves freely in speech and in the press. We have the freedom to live in safety and in love with one another. We owe all this to those who fought and who died in wars. They deserve to be remembered and honored in this week and on November 11.
Warfare is also spiritual. We all have a war to wage within our souls. We have been looking at how we change over time, as God flows into our hearts and shapes our behaviors and emotions. This process does not come without struggle. We begin life oriented to ourselves and oriented to the world’s goods. This is what is meant by Jesus words, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Clearly, we are not being told to withhold love from our parents. The ten commandments tell us to honor our father and mother. Rather, what Jesus means is that we need to love heavenly things above our innate impulse to love ourselves above all. Father and mother symbolize what Swedenborg calls proprium. Our proprium is the self we are born with. It is composed of the things that favor only what we want. It is composed of ego driven cravings. For many, it is also maladaptive ways of living. We need to see where we need to change. And when we identify maladaptive modes of living, we need to ask God for help and let go of them. So God allows evil to happen. He cannot suppress evil in us by His own power. To do that would be to violate our free will, which God will never do. So God permits evil to surface. Only then can we see it and consciously and deliberately drive it from our lives.
The Lord cannot rescue any of us from hell unless we see that we are in it and want to be rescued. This cannot happen unless there are instances of permission that are caused by laws of divine providence (251).
Earthly war and spiritual war are interrelated. Earthly war serves the same function that spiritual war does. It allows evil to be seen and when evil is seen it can be driven from society and from individual souls. Let us be clear, God does not will for there to be war. But He allows war for the sake of our salvation. In war and in peace, God’s providence is working in every minute detail to bring us all to Himself. There is no aspect of human life in which God’s providence is not working. And God’s will is a heaven from the human race. When we are victorious in spiritual war, we come into the Shalom of God’s peace and joy. And this, finally, is God’s will.
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