“You’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…”
This is what Dylann Roof is reported to have said to a person who survived his terrorist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. His goal? He wanted to start a race war.
And this is the week we get to meditate on Ephesians 6, the armor of God, and contemplate the nature of spiritual warfare.
I am not a “demon under every rock” kind of Christian, much of the evil we humans do to one another we are quite capable of doing on our own. At times like these, however, I am reminded that there are malevolent spiritual forces out there which do not want human-beings to live in peace, or to seek righteousness, or be brought under the beauty of God’s grace. There are malevolent spiritual forces, which are crafty and devious and pose as angels of light. Forces which long to convince Jesus’ followers that the weapons of this world are precisely the weapons needed to destroy evil. This can be paraphrased by a popular line which comes from the NRA, “The only thing which stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
It is a lie. One which emerged with cackling histrionics from the very pit of hell. It is the same lie, in fact, which Dylann Roof seems to have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. He believed that all black people were the enemy, that they were the “bad guys,” and he had a gun and he was going to stop them from “taking over the country.” He believed that the way to eradicate evil was with the weapons of this world. And once he believed that it seems to have been all too easy for the devil to convince him he was the one wearing the white hat – and the innocents he murdered were the real villains.
The political debates in the wake of the terrorist attack have already begun. I’ve heard the rumblings of a renewed gun control skirmish. People, correctly I might add, pointed out that it’s remarkable that the sole suspect of a terrorist attack was even given the opportunity to “come quietly,” when just last week police in Texas felt the need to escalate the level of violence toward a 13 year bikini-clad black teenager. The Confederate Battle flag, a symbol of white hatred and power for the very community which suffered this assault, continues to fly at full staff – and Facebook is abuzz with both condemnations and defenses of this reality. Listen, these are conversations which need to happen, which must happen if this country is ever to deal with the home-grown terrorism it’s produced (and continues to produce). But if we think the battle is merely a culture war skirmish, in which impassioned soldiers climb over the trench walls to make a few meters gain for their side, we are sadly mistaken. In fact, I think the devil cackles as loudly at our post-event culture war posturing as he does at Dylann Roof’s act of terrorism itself. Why? Because it’s confirmation we’ve missed the point.
Gathered here under the banner of the Savior, Jesus, we must remember the real battle is not against flesh and blood. Those people who have different political opinions than each of us hold are not the enemy. People who grew up in a different religion from us are not the enemy. People who speak a different language, or have different color skin than us, are not the enemy. The real enemy are those spiritual forces arrayed against the reign of God’s shalom, and the only way we stand fast against those forces is through God’s power, not ours. And the only objectives in this battle are God’s, not ours.
What’s this mean? It means that, once we identify the real enemy, we then enter into the very same entrenched conversations which have lead to our culture war paralysis and say, “Enough of hating the people in the opposite trenches, we must work out a way to live in a just peace or evil wins.”
And then the question comes, “Great, but what if they don’t agree to enter into the conversation? We have to defend ourselves!” Look, really look at the armor of God. The image is of a soldier, yes, but it’s a soldier who accepts God’s provision and trusts God really is capable of keeping the promises made in Jesus Christ. Truth, righteousness, a willingness to evangelize, faith, and assurance of salvation all tie us to the image and likeness of our savior – who lived these things out perfectly. The only offensive weapon listed is “the word of God,” but here’s the thing – the word of God exposes us, as much as it does anyone else – it constantly calls us back to repentance and new creation.
And in God’s strength and in God’s armor we rise between the culture war trenches, between the oppressed and oppressors, between groups which hate one another passionately – and we stand fast. And there is only one battle stance Paul lays out for us to take. It’s prayer. Not a prayer meeting, special event, or even devotional time. Prayer at all times. Prayer for ourselves and other believers, that we will continually be aligned with the heart of God and the image of the Messiah, Jesus. Prayer that we’d stand in God’s strength and in God’s armor and call all people to stop seeing the enemy in “the other,” and start seeing in humanity what we really are. The image of God. Amen.