Joseph Stalin famously dismissed the Vatican’s influence by sneering, “The Pope? How divisions has be got?” In fact, the church over the centuries has been able to call upon much more than moral force to fight its battles. Every year Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Exhalation of the Holy Cross to commemorate the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky, along with the Greek words, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine took this as a message from God that his legions should display the cross on their shields as they prepared to do battle with his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome. Constantine was victorious, and he converted to Christianity, which became the established religion of the Roman Empire. Popes during the Middle Ages initiated a series of crusades to reclaim Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Turks. Initially successful, these military campaigns eventually ended in defeat, but not before a precedent had been set for later forays against the Moors in Spain, pagan people in the Baltics, Mongols and various heretical Christian sects. The Reformation opened the door to prolonged religious strife between Protestants and Catholics, notably the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century.
When I was a child attending services at a 1950s suburban Episcopal parish, some of the hymns we sang still reflected a sense that religion was warfare by other means. Halfway through the morning prayer service each Sunday, the children trooped off to Sunday school as the congregation sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”:
Onward Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before…
The hymn fit right in with the temper of the Cold War, when our nation was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with godless communism. Then came the Cuban missile crisis, which happened when I was in high school. There would be no marching as to war if you were incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. And a disturbing number of my contemporaries who marched off the war in Vietnam came back in body bags. When the Episcopal hymnal was revised in 1982, “Onward Christian Soldiers” -- arguably the best-known anthem of the church militant -- was omitted.
Defenders of Christian fight songs contend that such hymns do not glorify war; indeed, they are not really about taking sides in human conflicts. They are about spiritual warfare. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Granted, these hymns may add to the drumbeat in support of earthly conflicts. But it is not always easy to distinguish between mere flesh-and-blood wars and those involving the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adapted from the American Civil War fight song, “John Brown’s Body” and was explicitly intended to drum up support for the Union cause. Whatever the human failings that led to this upheaval, there is no denying that it was fought over the great moral evil of slavery. However, Abraham Lincoln, who reportedly cried when he first heard the song, did not share Howe’s moral certainty that the Union was the instrument of God’s judgment on the slave-holding South. In his Second Inaugural, delivered when America’s bloodiest war was reaching its end, he told his countrymen that God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came."
Having lived through a number of conflicts of dubious origin in my lifetime, I tend to be skeptical of any rationale for war, much less of divine sanction for war. We can’t rule out the possibility that dark forces are indeed at work, but we must first determine whether they are operating on our side – or on both sides. Hitler saw it as his mission to eradicate evil from Germany, not realizing that he was already possessed by it. To be possessed by evil is to see it everywhere except within oneself. St. Paul seemed to be speaking in cosmic terms when he talked those spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places, but he knew that evil was never far from home. He wrote, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Indeed.