We Must Not Celebrate Martial Spectacle

We Must Not Celebrate Martial Spectacle
Brian Zahnd

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
But we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
–Psalm 20:7

Twenty-some years ago Peri and I attended a military airshow at Rosecrans Airport here in St. Joseph, Missouri. There were military aircraft from yesteryear evoking nostalgia; the Blue Angels put on a flight demonstration that was nothing short of spectacular; and the grand finale was the flyover of a B-2 stealth bomber that was absolutely awe-inspiring. (At a cost of about two billion dollars per bomber it should inspire awe!) The power of the military aircraft and the precision flying of the pilots engendered a patriotism that was exhilarating.

At the end of the airshow the crowd was allowed to wander among the bombers and fighter jets, take pictures, and meet the pilots. While standing under the wings of one of the immense bombers, an unanticipated thought rose in my mind: “These are flying death machines, and their sole purpose is to rain down death from heaven.” That objective acknowledgment was followed with this troubling question: “As a Christian should I celebrate these machines?” This was years before I concluded that waging war is incompatible with following Jesus, but a seed had been sown, and I would have to wrestle with the question of whether or not a Christian should venerate the tools of total war.

Yet this wasn’t the first time such thoughts had come to me. As a boy I would often visit the courthouse where my father practiced law and later served as judge. In the lobby of the courthouse there was a Civil War era Gatling gun. I would stare at it with dark fascination. Had it been used in battle? What would it be like to fire this machine gun? What would it be like to have such a gun fired at me? Then I would imagine the Gatling gun standing grimly over a corpse-strewn battlefield after its deadly work. It was like seeing a horror movie monster in real life. It had a macabre allure.

We humans have always been fascinated by the capacity to kill. This was the demon lurking at the door that Cain failed to master…and the rest is history…the long bloody history of a world mutilated by war. In the American experience the demon lurks in the cowboy myth of every evil vanquished by John Wayne’s righteous use of his trusty six-shooter. (But as T Bone Burnett said, “they don’t make imposters like John Wayne anymore.”)

Often the demon dons a clever disguise in the malleable word “freedom” — an enormously freighted word in the American lexicon. Ostensibly, freedom connotes liberty from tyranny, but its use in American political speech indicates there is something exceptional about American freedom. If all we mean by freedom is freedom of movement, thought, speech, etc., then surely there are many nations that are just as “free” as America. When I’m in Switzerland, New Zealand, Portugal or dozens of other such nations, I don’t feel any less free than when I’m in the Untied States. And yet the American patriot is deeply convinced that American freedom is of a kind that is not shared by, say, Switzerland. And they are correct, because in the American context “freedom” is often used as a euphemism for “power” — and more to the point, power to kill. Switzerland may be just as “free” as the United States, but it certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity to kill that is present in the American military-industrial complex. When Americans speak of “our freedom,” they often mean “our power.” And thus our “freedom” is truly exceptional and unrivaled. Indeed, if our “freedom” must be projected by M-1 Abrams tanks, B-2 stealth bombers, and vast nuclear arsenals, it becomes quite clear that what we call “freedom” is actually our preferred euphemism for our capacity to wield lethal power.

But this is not what Jesus calls freedom. In fact, in John 8:31–59, where the topic of debate is collective killing, Jesus specifically calls this kind of “freedom” slavery — slavery to sin and Satan. So the next time you hear someone connect the freedom Jesus Christ brings with the freedom military power brings, read John 8 and remind yourself that someone has been listening to the Father of Lies, whom Jesus says was a murderer from the beginning.

As Christians we must not celebrate martial spectacle. The baptized have pledged their allegiance to the Prince of Peace. Baptism means we have already transferred our citizenship to the kingdom of heaven. Thus during the first three centuries of the church, Christians universally believed that Isaiah’s prophecy of a king whose reign would result in swords and spears turned into plowshares and pruning hooks had come to pass with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So while the majority of citizens celebrated the martial glory of the Roman Empire, Christians conspicuously exempted themselves from such things, because they understood that their true citizenship was in another kingdom — a kingdom where war had been abolished.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to become king he didn’t ride on a tank, he rode on a tractor. It was Pontius Pilate who rode into town on a tank (warhorse), while Jesus road into town on a tractor (donkey). For those who confess by their baptism that Jesus is Lord, now is the time to turn tanks into tractors and missile silos into grain silos. And to object by claiming, “that only applies to when Jesus comes back,” is tantamount to saying, “holiness only applies to when Jesus returns, until then we can do whatever we want.” But the New Testament will not let us get away with such eschatological shenanigans. The Apostle Paul writes,

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in this present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” –Titus 2:11–13

Part of being trained in holiness is to renounce the impiety and worldly passion of martial spectacle. I understand the thrill of a military parade and the awe of a military airshow — they are spectacles that arouse deep emotion. But in the end they appeal to what is worst in us. Military spectacle conjures our inner Cain. And military parades also do what Cain did — they hide the bodies of the slain Abels. We show off the gleaming missiles as they are paraded through town, but we hide the mangled bodies that are their gruesome work.

And so we must remember that the Apostle Paul taught us that our war is not with people, even people we call enemies; and our weapons are not the kind seen in the spectacle of military parades and airshows. Our Commander-in-chief rides a white horse in the heavens and the sword is not in his hand, but in his mouth. Our Lord doesn’t wage war with tanks and fighter jets, he wages war with the co-suffering love of his cross and the transforming power of his word. We who boast in the glory of the cross must not celebrate the martial spectacle of the sword.