13 December 2006

the lord's army

My 4 year old daughter has found herself in several Sunday School contexts where she's been led in singing:
I may never march in the infantry / Ride in the cavalry / Shoot the artillery. / I may never fly o'er the enemy / But I'm in the Lord's army.
Sometimes this has been accompanied by marching and shouts of "Yes, sir!"

Let's set aside the song apparently being aimed more at little boys than the "sugar, spice, and everything nice" set. I've got a daughter who is awakened by nightmares in which she pummels the bad guy to death, knocking out all his teeth, and then skinning his corpse (I kid you not - and don't ask me where she gets that sort of thing from, since your guess would be as good as mine). So she's not averse to martial pursuits.

What I find somewhat off-putting about the song is, first, it seems to present being "in the Lord's army" as a kind of second best. Really, it would be better if we could all join the military forces of our respective nations but, ding dang it, since we're not all really qualified, I guess we'll have to settle for the next best by being in the Lord's army. That seems to me to send the wrong message to kids, subtlely prioritizing their national citizenship or nascent patriotism over loyalty to King Jesus and his reign.

Second, the song seems to trample over the convictions of Christian brothers and sisters among us who may be pacifists or who have a rigorous interpretation of the conditions under which war is justifiable. While the image of warfare is a perfectly biblical one, and one that even pacifists should be able to embrace, it's also the case that the Gospel redefines the nature of that warfare in terms of spiritual weapons: proclamation, prayer, deeds of love, moral fortitude, suffering service, and so on. I'm not sure the song helps communicate that redefined vision.

Finally, the assumed analogy of the song seems to suppose an "us - them" model of warfare, spiritual or otherwise, with the "enemy" defined as an external force to be objectified and fought with the appropriate artillery by land and air. But that seems problematic. The enemy without is never merely a "them" to be obliterated. Rather he or she is a person held captive by the powers of darkness and rebellion who is to be set free by Gospel warfare, won over from the enemy's power into the redemption of the people of God.

Moreover, the enemy is never simply outside, but also always remains within, both within our communities as followers of Jesus and, more importantly perhaps, within our own hearts and flesh. Spiritual warfare cuts to the very heart of our identity as the baptized people of God who have not only died once to sin, but must continue to put to death the works of the flesh, disciplining ourselves lest we should be disqualified.

I guess it's silly, in some respects, to get worked up over a child's Sunday School ditty. Yet, if we take Christian nurture of our children seriously, then the shape of the theology and piety embodied in our speech, our songs, and our practices is of vital importance to the Spirit's work in the lives of our children as they grow up more and more into conformity to Christ.

Update: There's some discussion of this post here.