In Philippians 2:25-30, the Apostle Paul advises the violently besieged Christian community in Philippi to grant special “honours” to a “fellow-soldier” who has “risked his life” in service of Christ. The cadre of Jesus loyalists, suffering under pressure from Roman imperial authority, is invited by Paul to take up a unified but nonviolent defence in the face of those who would want Christ’s global “citizen community” destroyed (Philippians 1:27-30, 4:5). In effect, Paul asks the congregation to grant one of their own the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” in Commonwealth countries.
Other letters help us appreciate the varied ways that Paul applies military imagery not only to God’s “battle” to free humans from bondage to various levels of cosmic and human “powers,” but also to the “struggle”—a military term—that Christians find themselves in at the time.
But they are a very strange sort of soldier, taking up and putting on only the virtues (fidelity, love, hope, righteousness, goodness, purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, truth, prayer) as their defensive attire and offensive “weapons” (I Thessalonians 5:8; II Corinthians 6:6-7; Romans 6:13, 12:21, 13:14, 15:30; and Ephesians 6:15).
And they “wage war” of an unusual kind, seeing beyond what appears on the surface of human social and political reality (II Corinthians 10:1-18), ultimately engaged only in God’s warfare of love to restore the universe.
The use of military imagery by Paul and other New Testament writers needs to be carefully weighed, especially since it is intimately tied up with his peace theology. This usage certainly does not mean that Paul endorses Roman imperial militarism, or any other kind of earthly use of lethal force. It does not necessarily mean that Paul’s rhetoric permits or promotes crusader violence or legitimizes violence in God’s name. It does not mean that we should use military imagery uncritically in our modern context, without reflecting on its violent potentiality.
It does mean, though, that Paul lived and worked in a context steeped with military practice and imagery. It does mean that Paul understands peace not as passivity, but as a striving peacemaking towards a peace won through militant struggle. It does reflect Paul’s commitment to the God of liberating, transforming justice. It does mean that Paul envisioned God’s warfare of love as ultimately bringing an end to war and war machinery. In a very important way, Paul uses military language while attempting to subvert all military violence.
So, then, how do we as Christians honour our “war” heroes near and far?