Yesterday I stumbled upon a song titled “Mighty Man of War” by Nigerian singer Jimmy D Psalmist. The delightful silliness of the official music video where he hops around as a crusader betrays the Christian singer’s popularity and how seriously his fans take his messages. According to the singer,
“Mighty Man of War” is not just a song, but a weapon of warfare. It is like a two-edged sword, while you are releasing heavy worship to the Almighty on one hand, you are at the same time releasing judgment on the wicked on the other hand.
Jimmy stresses the warfare aspect with promotion material in which he looks determined to release a “Warfare Worship Project.” The fact that a Nigerian song has made its way through the ether to my iPhone in Japan proves how easily eccentric religious messages can spread to believers globally, and are sometimes adapted without much questioning.
One of the Christian memes that has gotten a firm foothold is the concept of “Spiritual Warfare.” Every time someone mentions it I falter for a moment. How did that idea get planted into that person’s mind, I wonder?
The ‘Spiritual Warfare’ Meme
Spiritual Warfare describes the world as being in the midst of a supernatural battle between God’s forces of good and the devil’s realm of evil. Connected with this is the belief that there are “wars in heaven” and that powerful angels and demons are wrestling for dominion over the cosmos and human souls. Earthly events are an extension of this Miltonian conflict, and we have to equip ourselves with the “armor of God” to prevail against evil spirits. I had a friend who would send email newsletters around under the name “Prayor Warrior,” often describing his mental instabilities and other obstacles in life as assaults from the devil.
You don’t have to go to Nigeria to find Christians believing that musical worship and praying are seen as weapons in this war. A Google search for “Worship Warfare” brings up 13 million results from all over the world. I’m always astounded at with what ease folks who’d never held a gun in their lives swirl this kind of rhetoric. It scares me because if you think this Spiritual Warfare theology to its end it places us in a perpetual state of war, and from there it’s not far to have gullible believers agree on the necessity of unwinnable, never-ending global wars on terror or drugs.
To be sure, the majority of Christians would probably agree that Spiritual Warfare is about prayer and morals, not about taking up sushi knives to stab Satanists, or worse. But I really wonder why not more Christians question this militant lingo, especially when a lot of the hard-core believers are quite critical of aggressive vocabulary in other religions, especially Islam.
War and Worship
Here, it might be interesting to mention nasheeds. These are Islamic acapella songs. In the wake of the so-called Islamic State’s advance in Syria, modern nasheeds that glorify armed jihād have found not only popularity among the fighters, they play a crucial part in the propaganda efforts of the Islamic State. Some of the IS fighters are so obsessed with these chants which mingle worship, war, and politics that they are even played during combat, according to The Guardian.
Surely, the Islamic State jihādists shed real blood with real arms against what they perceive as evil, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the nasheeds express a theological equivalent to the cosmic battle that Christian spiritual warriors see themselves entrenched in.
I remember my shock when I heard the famous 19th-century English hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” for the first time. It was in a small ecumenical congregation and one elderly brother requested singing it prior to giving his message that morning. The lyrics left many of the members bewildered.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Jesus, the warlord! To be honest, in my whole life as church-goer, I’ve never seen this hymn another time. But as a YouTube search proves, it’s still sung up and down in the Protestant world. How different are the militaristic images of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” from the popular nasheed “My Ummah, Dawn has appeared,” the de facto hymn of the Islamic State?
Verily we have marched in masses for the hills: the time-honored glory,
That we may return the light, faith and glorious might,
By men who have forsaken the material world and attained immortality.
And have revived the Ummah [=nation of believers] of glory …
The Seduction of Power Language
Regardless whether you believe that there is a spiritual war going on or not, the point here is through what vocab we Christians frame our faith.
The feeling that I get when I hear Christians using a militant language of power is that they want to feel strong and in control. The language of power with its invoking of conquering evil and eternal glory is seductive because Christians are supposed to be peaceful. It just feels so good to present oneself as a participant in an epic battle of good and evil. It lures them into exalting their humble prayers into spiritual cruise missiles. Suppressed aggression can be poured into metaphors, a field for self-aggrandizing phantasies of blood and victory. Under this light, the talk about Spiritual Warfare looks more like an invention by the devil to put us under a spell.
With that kind of desensitization, mighty men of earthly wars have it easy to gain support for their next bombing campaigns. It’s not for nothing that the War on Terror was accompanied by George W. Bush’s “crusade” and “Axis of Evil” statements. Donald Trump follows in line with threatening “fire and fury” against the “hell” of North Korea. Blending religious and political jargon, they can skim off a militant Christian segment ready to fight for good causes, the holy wars of democracy and freedom.
I’m not calling Christians to self-censor their speak. It’s hard to avoid these kind of words when language is culturally ingrained with conflict and competition — “winning.” After all, the Bible itself is steaming with the aggressive language of power. But shouldn’t we at least be critical when our smartphones present us with the next religious buzzword? What terminology is used and why? In the end, what words will increase the love of Christ? Words of subjugation — or of encouragement and healing?