Our real struggle

October 4, 2009
Ephesians 6:10-17

This week MCC staff in the region gathered just outside Amman for a three-day retreat. Our time together included singing, worship, and sharing program updates and plans. We also enjoyed relaxed meals, a talent show and a trip to the King Hussein Car Museum and The Children’s Museum Jordan.

MCC staff from Jordan, Iraq and Palestine (Sept. 2009)

These annual times of retreat help us keep perspective on the purpose of our presence and work in the region. Below is a devotional reflection that Daryl shared with the group on Sunday morning.

Devotional reflection

Eph. 6:10-17
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I have been working on Middle East issues for more than 15 years. Honestly, with a few exceptions, things seem to be getting worse rather than better.
• It is hard to imagine how things could become any more desperate in the Gaza Strip. A U.N. agency reports that the number of Gazans living in abject poverty has tripled this year. In the West Bank, Israeli settlements keep growing larger. The separation Wall keeps growing longer. The Israeli matrix of control keeps squeezing tighter. The divisions among Palestinian leaders only add to the problem.
• In Iraq, the violence seems to be increasing again. Even if the violence stopped today, it would take years to recover from three decades of wars and sanctions. Much of Iraq’s infrastructure is in shambles, many of its people are traumatized and the trust between ethnic and religious groups has been badly damaged.
• In Iran, the government is trying its best to quash the youthful reform movement. Meanwhile every time that the U.S. and Iran take a step forward in restoring diplomatic relations, something happens that makes both sides take two steps backward. All this to say nothing of the possibility that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

But the intention of this devotional reflection is not to depress us but to offer hope and focus for our work. I’d like to reflect for a few minutes on three things related to our work: 1) our real struggle; 2) our proper role; and 3) our appropriate weapons. Paul’s military analogy is not a favorite for MCC workers committed to nonviolence, but let’s work with it!

Our real struggle
There is a high risk in our work that we will spend too much time fighting the wrong battles. The first rule of warfare is to know one’s enemy.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).

The Bible talks about two sources of evil – one internal and one external. Both are real. Jesus spoke about the things that spring from the human heart – theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, envy, slander, pride and folly (Mark 7:21-22). And James says that conflicts and disputes come from the cravings that are at war inside us (James 4:1). Some Christians tend to focus only on this internal or personal source of evil.

But the Bible also speaks about an external or structural source of evil, which is Paul’s focus in his letter to the church at Ephesus. In biblical times, people understood the forces of evil to be like cosmic puppeteers who controlled the actions of people and caused evil and strife on the earth. These invisible forces were opposed to God and to God’s purposes for the world. They were not on par with God, but they were powerful nevertheless. Sometimes they were personified as Lucifer and his angels.

Today, of course, we are more sophisticated. We rarely talk about invisible heavenly powers or spirits. Instead, we talk about gigantic structures and systems that cause the world’s evil – large economic and political systems, things like multi-national corporations, bad governments and extremist ideologies. These larger-than-life forces are behind the domination, oppression, killing, greed and injustice that we see in the world today.

Indeed, one doesn’t have to live in the Middle East very long to become convinced that we are dealing with forces that are larger than life. It is not just a matter of a few bad people doing bad things. If it were that simple, we could just replace bad leaders with good and the outcome would be different. But occupation and settlement growth in the West Bank hasn’t changed regardless of whether Likud or Labor or Kadima leaders are in power.

Some very good people get chewed up working in bad systems. With all the wonderful vision and dreams that Barack Obama brought to his role, we are now beginning to see the political forces take a toll on his considerable leadership gifts. I remember often visiting public officials in Washington, D.C. and thinking, “Wow, these are really nice people who are trying to do a good job.” And yet, they were part of a huge system – the U.S. government – that was bombing Iraq, providing cover for the actions of Israel and engaging in all sorts of other mischief around the world.

Our struggle is not against other human beings, but against the forces that cause human beings to succumb to evil. Our struggle is not against the settler in Hebron, or the soldier at a checkpoint, or even against leaders whose style or policies we find hard to stomach.

Our struggle is not against the visible and obvious but against the invisible powers that hide behind the visible expressions of evil. To use a medical analogy, our struggle is not against symptoms but against the virus itself.

Our proper role
Given these larger-than-life forces that we struggle against, Paul offers some extremely helpful advice. First of all, our role is not to defeat these forces. That is God’s role. So take a deep breath! Our role is to simply stand firm against these forces so that we ourselves do not become sucked into their grasp. Four times, Paul says that our job is to stand against, or withstand, or stand firm or simply to stand.

Our job is not to defeat the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces in the heavenly places. Christ has already done that. The Bible says that – through his life, death and resurrection — Christ has disarmed them and made a public example of them (Colossians 2:15). He will complete that task with his second coming when his kingdom is fully established.

Our job is to stand firm and to not give in to what remains of their power. Our job is to not join the powers; to not cooperate with the powers; to not collaborate with the powers; to not ourselves start using their tactics. Our job is to resist them, to stand firm.

Several years ago PBS television ran a series called “A Force More Powerful,” which tracked the major nonviolent social change movements of the 20th century – including Gandhi’s India, South Africa, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In each case, the key to change was the decision of the masses not to cooperate with the oppressive power that was trying to control them. Evil forces can no more succeed without willing participants than yeast can grow without warm water.

About 45 years ago, Mennonites helped to build a church for Choctaw Indians near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Ku Klux Klan firebombed the church. Mennonites from around the country came to rebuild the church. Again, the Klan bombed the church. Again Mennonites came and rebuilt it. A third time, the Klan bombed the church. This time Mennonites did not need to come from afar to rebuild the church because local Mississippians were so upset with the actions of the Klan that they rebuilt the church – which stands today.

We see a similar situation in the West Bank today with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and other groups who continue to rebuild homes that Israel demolishes. These groups simply refuse to accept illegal demolitions.

Stand firm. Don’t give in. Keep rebuilding until even the dullest and most dim-witted of the principalities and powers can see the futility of their destructive behaviors.

Our appropriate weapons
How do we resist the powers? Paul points to two things. First, we are to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power (v.10). This is not a struggle to engage on our own power and wits. Second, we are to put on the whole armor of God.

What does this armor of God look like? Many countries hold arms bazaars each year to proudly display their latest weapons — the newest fighter jets, the most sophisticated armaments and the latest technology. Our weapons are completely different.

• While the principalities and powers use falsehood and deception, we are to fasten the belt of truth around our waist. The first casualty of war is the truth. Any time the principalities and powers prepare for war, their first step is to demonize the enemy – to make the enemy less than human. The logic is this: If the enemy is less than human, then it is o.k. to kill him. Our job is to tell the truth about enemies. The truth is our enemies are pretty much just like us. They are annoying, obnoxious and selfish human beings, but also tender and capable of doing things that are good and just. Rather than demonizing our enemies, Jesus calls us to humanize them – to pray for them and to feed and clothe them.
• While the principalities and powers seek to dominate, control and take advantage of those who are weak, we are to put on the breastplate of righteousness, which means that we are to practice justice. Instead of taking advantage of the weak, we are to show special concern for those who are the most vulnerable.
• While the principalities and powers rely on military might, we are to make every effort to proclaim the good news of peace.
• While the principalities and powers use fear to control people, we are to take up the shield of faith. Fear has become the tool of choice for many politicians. If you can keep the people afraid, you have more power over them. After Sept. 11, many politicians used fear to justify baseless wars, wire-tapping and other infringements on civil liberties. Instead of using fear to control, we are called to see the world through eyes of faith. True, there are many frightening things in the world. We don’t deny that. But as people of faith, we remember and remind others that God is in control.
• While the principalities and powers promise security through strength, we are to humbly find our security by trusting God for our protection.
• While the principalities and powers depend on weapons of war, we are to rely on the power of God’s word.

The Bible says that we overcome evil with good, not by joining evil on its own terms. We are to be light in a dark world. Salt that seasons and preserves.

With God’s power, we witness to the principalities and powers by living in ways that are completely opposite of their tactics. We resist the principalities and powers by actively aligning our lives with God’s kingdom. This very act of resistance by communities of faith is a threat to the powers because it exposes their falsehood and weakness. This is why they killed Jesus – he demonstrated a completely new way of life based on service, humility and love for the other.

The occupation of Palestine will likely not end today or tomorrow. The Palestine team likely will encounter soldiers at checkpoints when they return on Tuesday. But the occupation will end, for Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers. Their time is short. The violence in Iraq will likely not stop today or tomorrow. When Ann returns to Iraq in a few days she will hear about more suicide bombings and find people who are still suspicious of each other. But the violence will someday stop, for Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers. While it may not appear to be so, they are in fact gasping their last breaths.

We live in a holy and sometimes hell-bent land. If you are like me, you spend far too much of your energy thinking about how to get back at those people who annoy and threaten you. If you want to fight enemies of flesh and blood then buy a gun, join the military, and learn how to inflict body blows and to demonize your enemies. God bless you.

But if you want to make a real difference in the world, then:

• Keep focused on the real struggle. Know the real enemy. Our fight is not against enemies of flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers.
• Keep focused on your real job so that you do not become overwhelmed by something that is not in your power to do. We are not called to defeat the principalities and powers, but simply to resist them and to not collaborate with them.
• Keep using your distinctive weapons. These are not weapons cast from metal and filled with explosives. Our weapons are telling the truth, practicing justice, building peace, and exercising faith. Only such weapons are strong enough to overcome the principalities and powers.

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