The Cult of Warrior Jesus: Postmodern American Christian Jihadism
“I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”
– George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States
What you see in a terrorist — that’s called the invisible enemy. There has always been an invisible enemy. What you see in Iraq, basically, is a manifestation of what’s going on in this unseen world called the spirit world. … We need to think like Jesus thinks. We are in a time and a season of war, and we need to think like that. We need to develop that instinct. We need to develop as believers the instinct that we are at war, and that war is contending for your faith. … Jesus called us to die. You’re worried about getting hurt? He’s called us to die. Listen, you know we can’t even follow him unless you are willing to give up your life. … I believe that Jesus himself operated from that position of war mode. Everyone say “war mode.” Now you say, wait a minute Ed, he’s like the good shepherd, he’s loving all the time and he’s kind all the time. Oh yes he is — but I also believe that he had a part of his thoughts that knew that he was in a war.
– Ed Kalninis, senior pastor of Wasilla Assembly of God and Sarah Palin’s former pastor
“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”
“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”
– Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States
The above quotes are juxtaposed in an effort to begin articulating what promises to be a defining phenomenon in 21st century American Christianity. The distance between the Lincoln quotes and those by Bush and Kalninis is much larger than it may first appear. Lincoln seems aware of the possibility that he has failed, even if he succeeds by secular standards – the War Between the States was in full swing when these quotes were made, and it is clear that he is anxious that he do the right thing. He sees the catastrophic results of the war all around him, and even though he states elsewhere that he believes the war is God’s judgment on America for the sin of African slavery, he seems ambivalent as to whether the war is within the bounds of God’s will. “Am I doing the right thing?” he wonders.
Contrast with the certainty of the two men from our era. Both speak with no hesitation of the divine endorsement, nay, the divine mandate to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “terrorists” and “tyrants” are a stand-in for the unseen spiritual forces that plague the world, and as such, they are less than human. They are unadulterated evil, flat and one-dimensional, and sufficiently vexing to Almighty God to make Him re-enter the smiting business with American troops now functioning as the camouflage-clad lightning of His terrible swift sword. Moreover, Kalninis urges his hearers to be vigilant against the nameless foe that is waging war on their faith by thinking “like Jesus thinks.” The Christian is urged to confront the world in “war mode” in emulation of a martial, masculine, conflict-ready God whose most recognizable manifestation is popularly known as Warrior Jesus.
Warrior Jesus is a figure whose modus operandi is to conquer rather than convert, to pulverize rather than persuade. In the LaHaye/Jenkins novel, “Glorious Appearing”, the Son’s return and its bloody aftermath mark him more as Butcher than Savior:
“Men and women, soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. Even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.”
This vision of Jesus is in the tradition of the warlike God of Israel whose role as Lord of Hosts is to subdue the enemy and liberate the children of God through bloodshed (as in the destruction of Sennacherib’s army before the gates of Jerusalem) and on occasion to punish the wayward Chosen People (as in the deeply shocking account of Jerusalem and Samaria as the sisters Oholah/Oholibah, a graphic portrayal of God’s judgment as brutality and misogynistic sexual violence). However, aside from the incident where Jesus drives the moneychangers from the Temple courts – no one is hurt, merely embarassed – and the episode where he withers a barren fig tree on the way into Jerusalem, there is no trace of this martial Jesus in the Gospels. How does Warrior Jesus come to be, then, and what is his influence on his flock/army?
The image of Jesus seems to being undergoing a crisis of masculinity. Depictions of him as meek and mild are decried as unscriptural and sentimental, even maudlin; adherents of Warrior Jesus cite the incident with the moneychangers in the Temple courts (which is related both in the Synoptics and the Gospel of John) and other episodes in Revelation as evidence that while Jesus was relatively pacifist on his first visit to Earth, his return will be as Judge and Executioner, a Jury being unnecessary by most accounts.
During the earliest Christian era, world renunciation was at its strongest in the infant religion, with people expecting the imminent if not immediate return of the Lord and the beginning of his Kingdom. Celibacy and nonviolence were encouraged, and no one thought of himself as a combatant except in the most allegorical and symbolic of terms. As years slipped into decades and then centuries, however, it became disconcertingly apparent that the Lord would take his sweet time coming back and meanwhile, Christianity received official imperial sanction and eventually became the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, which would outlive its ill fated Western counterpart by some 1100 years. Bishops and church officials amassed wealth and political clout in the name of God, and increasingly his approval was assumed or explicitly invoked when battling a pagan enemy (Scythians, Huns, Magyars, Persians, Osmanli Turks, etc.). As the Church became more entangled in the machinery of government, God began to be remade in the image of a feudal sovereign, with the Christ as Crown Prince and Defender of the Realm, becoming conflated with the Archangel Michael, the angelic soldier who led the expulsion of Lucifer from heaven in the very first war. Bernard of Clairvaux ended the fiery sermon that sparked the First Crusade with the audacious peroration, “Deus lo volt!”
God wills it.
God wills it.
Even now those words have a spine-tingling authority, a seductive facility for falling from the lips that almost disguises the horrific uses to which they can be put. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion… atrocity after atrocity because God wills it. 17-year-old Dona Isabella of Seville tortured and burned at the stake while pregnant for attending a Protestant house church. She was a heretic. God willed it. Joan of Arc, burned as a witch after leading the charge in several bloody battles to seize the French throne for Charles VII. When questioned, Joan and her executioners would have provided an identical rationale for their actions – God wills it. Likewise the Christian abortion-clinic bomber, the Muslim mujahid, the Israeli soldier would all fervently respond, “God wills it!” when their motives for causing pain and death are questioned.
Herein lies the danger of Warrior Jesus. When the cry of “Destroy the evil one!” is louder than the voice that murmurs, “Love thy neighbor,” we are in trouble.
Postmodern American Christianity is undergoing a crisis – Warrior Jesus’ masculinity-as-might issues are merely a symptom of that deeper crisis. After all, he is only a symbol and no more represents the actual Jesus than the flaxen-haired, blue-eyed male models with flawless skin and dainty hands who adorn many a stained-glass window. The real Jesus – what we know of him from what sources we have, espouses a Gospel much more complex and disturbing in its approach to power and control. He seems to repeat over and over that service is true strength and that evil must not be repaid with evil. God alone decides when vengeance is appropriate and dispenses it himself. We must be careful not to christen ourselves the vessels of divine wrath simply because the thought of being an arrow in the quiver of the Lord of Hosts makes our pulse flitter. Adrenaline is not to be confused with the Holy Spirit. In fact, we are to bear every indignity as he bore it, and if you believe the Gospels are true, he was mocked, beaten, tortured and killed all without ever trying to escape or retaliate.
So why are we saying we need to go to war? Why are we stripping people of their personhood and declaring them mere manifestations of spiritual evil? This is happening in liberal and conservative Christian circles alike – people are declaring each other to be demonic forces and “strongholds” (what the hell does that even mean except, “Put another dollar in the offering because I used a word from the KJV?”). When did we decide we could make the call on who to love and who not?
Will our American drive to succeed and be acknowledged as the best triumph over our charge to serve and love? It looks that way right now, and if it does we will be more like the rich man than Lazarus. We’d better pray that one day, eons from now, we aren’t asking that Muslim/gay/Democrat/Republican/Methodist to wrench him/herself away from the loving embrace of Father Abraham and bring us just a drop of water to cool our tongues.