The New Testament pictures life in this world, for Christians, as a spiritual war, and it also tells us how followers of Jesus should participate in that war.
When Paul writes about ‘the armour of God’ in Ephesians he says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6).
Some part of this spiritual war is played out in the realm of worldly politics. When John writes Revelation he pictures the beastly Roman empire, in league with Satan, going to war with the church on Satan’s behalf. Culture wars, like other wars, can be expressions of this spiritual warfare. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation and Michael Heiser’s work on the Unseen Realm and thinking about the overlap of politics and the ‘powers and principalities’ in the heavenly realms, and how nations outside of Israel might have been given to these other members of the divine court.
In The Unseen Realm, Heiser unpacks Deuteronomy 4 and 32 (and a disputed translation in 32, where english versions choose either ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of Israel’), to suggest:
“As odd as it sounds, the rest of the nations were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council. The other nations were assigned to lesser elohim as a judgment from the Most High, Yahweh.”
Heiser’s work here is fascinating; and, I think, lines up with something Paul says about the church; and the coming together of Jew and gentile in Christ, and what that means not just in earth, but also in the heavenly realm, where he says:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Ephesians 3:10-11
The ‘spiritual war’ playing out in the Bible is a war for our fidelity, as humans, a war for our worship; being fought out by cosmic beings — God, the creator, other ‘gods’ who are given people other than God’s own people to rule, and the sinister figure of Satan pulling the strings behind human empires set up in opposition to God — he’s there in the background in Ephesians, and in Revelation, and is the figure who is the opponent in the spiritual war the Bible describes from Genesis to Revelation; he is the enemy who holds us in sin, death, and destruction — as Paul puts it:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” — Ephesians 2:1-2
It would be naive to suggest Christianity does not involve a war; and that this war doesn’t impact politics. The Bible explicitly links worldly regimes like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome to spiritual forces aligned against the kingdom of God (and has Israel jump on board with each of these regimes at various times, and in various ways).
It would be naive, even, to suggest that the war the Bible describes, being predominantly played out around objects of worship, and the cultures created by these empires to make different gods alluring, or desirable, is not a ‘culture war.’ The ‘cultures’ — or ‘cultic groups’ at war in the Bible are the culture of lesser gods and their glory, and the culture of God’s kingdom; the culture of the nations surrounding Israel — especially what Walter Wink called “domination systems” — cultures driven by the proud, the sword wielding, and the idolatrous seeking their own glory and the culture of a kingdom whose God “opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble,” or “and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.” The Kingdom of God has a ‘culture’ built on the character of God as revealed in the king of God’s kingdom — the crucified Jesus. And, so, the ‘culture war’ we fight is not fought with worldly weapons; or by playing ‘power games’ in a domination system; seeking dominance for our own interests. The ‘culture war’ we fight is with the armour of God; or in weakness and ‘cruciformity’ (living lives shaped by the ethic of the cross). Or, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, after saying his approach to proclaiming God’s kingdom involves ‘renouncing underhanded’ and worldly ways:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-12
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
We do not wage culture wars as the world does either. We do not fight culture wars with the weapons of this world. Paul goes on to describe his approach, again, as involving weakness; his scars and floggings and broken body are an embodiment of his message; the message of the cross; where God won his victory over sin, and death, and Satan, or, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
The real ‘culture war’ is a ‘worship war’ — it’s a battle for the love, loyalty, and eternal security of people — a fight to join God’s kingdom and its mission to win people from the clutches of Satan, and the depths of darkness, into the kingdom of light, the presence of God, and union with Jesus via the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life so that they are raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realms as not just his inheritance, but as God’s heirs.
Christian culture warriors who want you to join a political battle and “fight furiously” using domination system games, or the tools of worldly empire, even if they see the spiritual reality behind the culture wars, are signing you up for a mugs game, and potentially to pay a game that leads straight into the enemy’s camp; not as prisoners of war, or infiltrators, but as people who think they’re on the side of the angels but who are actually participating in a kingdom other than the kingdom of God.
Christian culture warriors who see weakness as failure, and not as God’s strength, or wisdom, are not wise. They are worldly. The cross is the wisdom and power of God; not political campaigns, numbers games, lobbying, aggressive arguments, or hit pieces published on propaganda websites.
Christian culture warriors who want to dominate and go to war with ‘the other’ — be they ‘Christian social justice warriors’ or soldiers on the ‘Christian right’ — or the ‘political left’ or the ‘political right’ — are adopting the weapons of this world and so picking an armour or weapon, that does not come from God, or serve God. This is true even if one grants that the empires built by the left, or the right are demonic, idolatrous, domination systems harnessing a variety of dark spiritual forces. The catch is, when we take up worldly weapons and fight in worldly ways — when we play ‘culture warrior’ rather than ‘peace maker,’ we are actively joining the spiritual battle on the wrong side.
And life when the church — or the ‘city of God’ is at work as God’s ‘faithful presence’ in the world, and shaping ‘cities of man’; on both the right and the left; this is complex and variegated. What isn’t complex is the decision about how Christians should participate in the culture war, or the Spiritual battle we find ourselves in that plays out in our politics.
Because Jesus, not the Caldron Pool, gives us our marching orders. And he doesn’t tell us to fight. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He tells us, ultimately, to take up our cross and follow him.
He does not say ‘blessed are the culture warriors, who dominate the other, for they will bring the kingdom of God.’ He doesn’t even say ‘blessed are those who use the Gospel as a worldly power play and try to build a Christian state.’ He doesn’t say “blessed are you when the government makes it easy for you to be a citizen of two kingdoms, so fight for that right,” or even “evangelise for that purpose.” He doesn’t say the government will use ‘the sword’ to protect us, or what’s good — in fact, he seems to expect the government will use a sword to arrest him, and a cross to crucify him, and we are called to take up our cross and follow (by Jesus), and to “submit” to the same crucifying empire by Paul.
Jesus does say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:9-11), and then he goes to make peace between God, and us — though we were enemies in a culture war — by laying down his life on a cross (a symbol of the Roman domination system).
When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” — he didn’t just mean for his disciples to remember this when the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, see Jesus as their enemy in a ‘culture war,’ or when Roman soldiers come to arrest him with swords drawn to crucify him, or later when the same regimes conspire to arrest them and crucify them upside down (Peter), or the same Jewish leaders turn on them, and try to put them to death (like Paul in Acts). He didn’t just mean ‘the church shouldn’t go to war against other religious or culture groups’ with swords to secure ‘holy territory’ like in the Crusades, or Christendom… He meant ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ in our culture war, because this is how the spiritual war is fought and won. He meant that love, and giving up our rights, and blessing in response to persecution were the hallmarks of the Kingdom, and the ‘weapons’ God uses to bring an end to enmity between people and himself as they embody the message of the cross.
When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ he was talking about how we, the people of his kingdom, take part in the Culture WarTM — or rather, how we refuse to… When your enemy declares a culture war on you, “do not resist an evil person,” (Jesus, in Matthew 5:39), or as Paul puts it “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” (Romans 12:17-18). When your ‘enemy’ — some ‘other’ — “slaps you on the right cheek,” or tweets about you, “turn to them the other cheek also,” or if they take want to trap you in some legal situation where you have to insist on your rights to fight some good fight, if they sue you for your shirt, “hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:40). He said ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:43-45). When your enemy declares themselves an enemy; love them, “treat others as you would have them treat you.”
He didn’t say ‘use the court system, or political power, to eradicate anybody who does not hold your opinion, or to make laws that destroy worldly kingdoms in opposition to your own. He didn’t say ‘vote for rulers who promise you a seat at the table and political power’ or ‘ask rulers to do things for you in exchange for votes (or give up your birthright for a bowl of soup). He did say “what good is it to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit your soul” right after he says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-26). Paul does say we demolish those strongholds with the Gospel, and that we should proclaim the Gospel by ‘carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies’ as ambassadors for Christ.