We wrestle not against flesh and blood,
but against principalities, against powers…
Therefore put on the whole armour of God.
Today we observe, in the Church of England, Remembrance Sunday, when we remember especially those who have died in the great wars that have afflicted the world in the last century.
We remember and give thanks for the courage of so many who went daily into battle to fight against evil worldly powers that had achieved a stranglehold over particular nations and led to aggression on a grand scale.
So many lives lost and so many wounded in the fighting: WW I – 15-19 million deaths / 23 million wounded (1% of the world’s population died); WW II – 70-85 million deaths (3% of the world’s population died).
In WW I it was certain ideologies in combination that are said to have led to the circumstances of war: a toxic mix of Militarism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Colonialism. In WW II it was Nazism – the exalting of one race over others, an ideology that at its core was undermining of Christianity, by striking at its roots in Judaism, rewriting the beatitudes, appealing to brute power and despising and destroying the weak.
2 Principalities and Powers
These ideologies that in combination led to war between nations are the principalities and powers that St Paul talks about in today’s Epistle.
It is easy for us to see the horrors of Nazism. But there have been other movements immensely destructive of human life: Communism led to the deaths of well over 100 million people in the Soviet Union, China, and the killing fields in Cambodia and has a stranglehold today on the people in North Korea. Or we can think of the tribalism promoted in Rwanda that led to the genocide of a million people. Or the ideology of ISIS, a death cult, with the aim of building some nightmare caliphate. Each of these began with a spiritual battle, it began with a battle of ideas, principalities… powers… the rulers of the darkness of this world… spiritual wickedness in high places – ideas that darkened peoples’ minds and came to possess their hearts and actions. These ideas were enforced by terror, the promoters increasingly and viciously silenced opponents.
3 Responding – fighting principalities and powers
How do we respond? St Paul says we have all the necessary armour in this fight, and we must use it: take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
To fight a battle against ideologies and those possessed by them requires clarity of thinking and not being afraid to speak out – St Paul says, pray that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Here’s an example of one Church, the Roman Catholic church, that spoke out boldly. Historians argue about whether it spoke out loudly enough and soon enough, and there is a lamentable silence in speaking out specifically about the horrors being unleashed on the Jewish people. But in 1937, Pope Pius XI released an encyclical called Mit brenneder Sorge – “With burning concern”. The encyclical was printed secretly and delivered by courier rather than by mail to be read in every parish church in Germany on Palm Sunday 1937. Here are some of the articles of that encyclical – this is an example of speaking boldly:
Speaking clearly against ideas of a “master race”:
8. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community … above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
11. None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are “as a drop in a bucket”.
Speaking against attacks on the Old Testament (Hitler, in attacking the roots of Christianity, had called the Old Testament the Devil’s Bible):
15. .The sacred books of the Old Testament are exclusively the word of God, and constitute a substantial part of his revelation; they are penetrated by a subdued light, harmonizing with the slow development of revelation, the dawn of the bright day of the redemption. As should be expected in historical and didactic books, they reflect in many particulars the imperfection, the weakness and sinfulness of man…Nothing but ignorance and pride could blind one to the treasures hoarded in the Old Testament.
16. Whoever wishes to see banished from church and school the Biblical history and the wise doctrines of the Old Testament, blasphemes the name of God, blasphemes the Almighty’s plan of salvation.
Speaking out against Hitler himself:
17. … Should any man dare, in sacrilegious disregard of the essential differences between God and His creature, between the God-man and the children of man, to place a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called a prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them” (Psalms ii. 3).
Speaking out against a rewriting of the Beatitudes by the Nazis and a contempt for the humble and meek:
27. Humility in the spirit of the Gospel and prayer for the assistance of grace are perfectly compatible with self-confidence and heroism. The Church of Christ, which throughout the ages and to the present day numbers more confessors and voluntary martyrs than any other moral collectivity, needs lessons from no one in heroism of feeling and action. The odious pride of reformers [referring to the Nazis] only covers itself with ridicule when it rails at Christian humility as though it were but a cowardly pose of self-degradation.
Speaking out against a new morality which promoted individuals doing immoral things for the greater good of the society:
29. … To hand over the moral law to man’s subjective opinion, which changes with the times, instead of anchoring it in the holy will of the eternal God and His commandments, is to open wide every door to the forces of destruction. The resulting dereliction of the eternal principles of an objective morality, which educates conscience and ennobles every department and organization of life, is a sin against the destiny of a nation, a sin whose bitter fruit will poison future generations.
The Roman Catholic Church leaders knew it would result in the persecution of its members and it did. Hitler was infuriated: copies of the encyclical were confiscated, Catholic presses were shut down, the State began false immorality trials of priests and monks, false news stories, and more priests and religious were sent to concentration camps.
4 Our day – some of the issues.
In our own day, and in our own society here in the Netherlands, although there is no outward war, there are many ideological battles – principalities and powers that have settled on society and are seeking to settle themselves on us – ideas that have some truth in them but are mixed with lies – often the ideas are framed as being compassionate. Will we be complicit in our generation through silence, through fear of speaking out, or through a kind of sloth, a tolerance that wouldn’t be bothered engaging in the big questions, or a complicity that would rather simply “be nice”, not “make waves” by saying nothing. Would we sacrifice truth for unity? Would we cry peace, peace, when there is no peace?
Here are some of the issues in our own generation that I would argue are destructive of life: (To mention these things will likely immediately evoke disagreement…)
- Euthanasia – doctors actively taking lives they were trained to protect…
- Abortion – a topic which immediately divides us – but I think we can agree there should be some limits – in Canada there are no limits and every political leader in our recent election promised not to change one thing.
- A sexual libertarianism that tries to reconcile the flesh with the spirit, but only damages hearts. Michel Foucault argued for this very thing – the undermining of “bourgeois sexual morality”, by which he meant Christian morality, by practicing what he called “sexual perversion”.
- Attacks on the institution of marriage – many ways of watering down what it means, and a lack of support for the institution as central to social wellbeing by legislators.
- Attacks on the created order – the denying of sexual difference by trans-gender activists. The lie that our gender is unrelated to our biology is being taught in our schools to children in the Netherlands today – surely this is a kind of state sponsored child abuse.
- There is the threat of false news – the great good of the exchange of news by the internet is being used to spread false ideas to destabilize countries and influence elections… we’ve only seen the beginning of this – there are programs now that can make people say whatever you want them to say – release the footage and the damage is done.
- There are the destructive elements of post-modernism which suggest there is no objective truth or objective morality (a natural law).
- Destructive elements of post-modernism combined with marxism transforms class struggle into struggles between groups based on race or gender – identity politics – undermining our common humanity, and creating divisions in society and promoting the lie that there is more difference between groups than there is between the individuals within each group.
- And greed that destroys souls and threatens the wellbeing of the planet itself.
Some of these issues are so contentious that we don’t even know how to speak of them together. At an Away Day for our chaplaincy a few years ago – we asked members to give their thoughts about how we can as a church discuss contentious issues. At the end of the day we discovered that rather than answering that question, people had only given their opinions on contentious issues. I think it is worth revisiting how we might discuss contentious issues in our Church – should we have seminars or evenings devoted to particular issues to give opportunity for a more full discussion?
There is very much a battle here and now for the hearts and minds of God’s people. The days are evil, as they were in the time of St Paul, as they were in the last century, and we as Christians need to arm ourselves. We are being tested – this is our furnace of affliction and we will be judged by how we respond today.
5 Our response
St Paul calls each of us to… take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
Paul uses the imagery of armour to speak about the importance of: speaking the truth (the belt); of following a moral life (the breastplate of righteousness); of sharing the Gospel of peace (shod our feet); of recalling continually our salvation in Christ (the helmet); of using the Word of God to cut through the lies (the sword); and of prayer to strengthen us in the whirlwinds that are blowing over us.
In the midst of this battle, that inner person, made in the image and likeness of God, is being unveiled within us, and must be guarded and protected and strengthened. God so loves and cherishes who we are at our core! And if we are engaged in that battle daily, it is not surprising if we find ourselves sometimes exhausted, at the point of a kind of death inwardly spiritually. Our prayer at that point to Jesus is exactly like that of the official who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel [St John 4:46-54 ] who pleaded – “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
This morning Jesus promises to come down in a most powerful way – in and through his Body and Blood given for us to restore us inwardly. Here we know strengthening in the midst of the battle, here we know of a certainty that God is with us: that there are many more that fight for us than that are against us [2 Kings 6:15-17]; that regardless of the strength of the battle without, we can find a place of calm, entering into the rest within that God promises.
Let us prepare ourselves now to be strengthened with might in the inward person, and to stand.