The Revised Common Lectionary of August 18, 2019, has several lessons on the nature of war.
The Lectionary is the fruit of collaboration between the North American Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) and the International English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) to provide common bible readings in worship. It reflects the work of the US and Canadian Conferences of Catholic Bishops, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and also some Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. It also reflects interaction with the Orthodox churches, and thus represents an attempt at common liturgy between a very wide range of Christians.
Over a three-year cycle, the Lectionary provides common readings to be read at worship drawn from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament in general, and the Gospels (including in Roman Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican Churches those books sometimes referred to as the Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books). This combination of readings is the fruit of long reflection and seeks to tie together common themes. Sometimes the commonality of the threads can be hard to discern, at others it shows itself only after careful re-reading.
On August 18, there was a clear thread that addressed and commended conflict.
In the first reading, Jeremiah 23:23-29, Jeremiah condemns false prophets in fulsome terms, and concludes “What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”
The Gospel is likewise ferocious. In Luke 12:49-56, Jesus proclaims “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
But perhaps even more striking was the reading from the letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 11 and 12, texts most often central to properly highlighting the persecution of the church, for the first time I also noticed that it commends warriors as exemplars of faith.
Hebrews 11:29—12:2 reads (with my omissions and ellipses) “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice…, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….”
The heroes of faith and our exemplars, and those who witness to us of God’s faithfulness, explicitly include those who “conquered kingdoms…, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight….”
In the midst of the New Testament epistles, we have a direct commendation of those “mighty in war” who “put foreign armies to flight.”
This contradicts claims of New Testament pacifism, and should provide much encouragement to our warriors who are faithful.
Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Religious Freedom Institute, and a contributing editor of Providence.