An American Christian Chapter XII — Violence & Militarism
It’s hard to look at the history of Christianity without seeing the manifestation of war and violence that it’s brought to the world. While the phrase “More wars have been started because of religion” simply isn’t accurate, it’s believable because of its proximity to the truth. I don’t intend to go into the full history of religion and its destructive effects on the world, but if that is something you’re interested in, I suggest you read Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong.
When I was a wee lad, still learning how to pronounce ‘banana’ the right way, I was fully immersed in Sunday School. I was taught all those wonderful Bible stories like Jonah and the Whale and Adam and Eve. Stories about King David and all the adventures he went on while running from the evil King Saul. Noah’s ark was a favorite because it involved all the animals, and who can forget the story of Abraham?
Yes, at five years old, I was already exposed to more stories of obscene violence than from any slasher-film binge I’ve been on as an adult.
Jonah was supposed to go to Ninevah to warn them of God’s murderous wrath, and when he tried to escape, God sent a storm that threatened to drown the whole crew of a ship to get Jonah’s attention. When the crew threw him overboard, God totally chilled and had a giant fish swallow him instead. He stayed alive in its belly, burning in stomach acid until he was ralphed up on the beach to do what he was told.
Adam and Eve, well, they were just shitty people because they realized that they were naked after listening to a talking snake. King David was a misogynist, a pig, and a rapist, as well as a serial murderer, but hey, he asked for forgiveness from God, so it’s cool. Noah’s ark is just the story of planetary genocide, and Abraham abandoned his son because he was a bastard child. Not to mention just about killing his other son to prove how loyal he was to God.
The Bible, especially the old testament, is chock-full of horrifying stories of extreme violence and obscenities. Sodom and Gomorrah were the cities God annihilated with fire and brimstone because of their impenitent sin. This is something modern-day preachers try to use as an example of homosexuality despite being contradicted several times in both the old and new testaments.
Once in Ezekiel, which describes that the cities were selfish:
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:
She and her daughters were arrogant,
overfed and unconcerned;
they did not help the poor and needy.
They were haughty and did detestable things before me.
Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Another mention came straight from Jesus as he described their unwillingness to help people:
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
Matthew 10:15–6; see also Luke 10:11–2
The story mentions the men of Sodom asking Lot to “know” the two men he brought in. Ministers again describe this as a form of sex, often citing that the men of Sodom wanted to rape the male visitors. This story is further exasperated when Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. When Lot and his family flee the city as God destroys it, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt for the sin of missing her home. Later on, Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him so they can bear children.
While the Bible is indeed full of stories like this, it’s also full of unmitigated violence and war. God is often pissed off at other people groups and asks his chosen people to wipe them off the face of the earth. He often required his people not only to murder an entire race of human beings but to slaughter all their livestock as well, just for the hell of it.
I know there’s more context than this, but let’s look at this objectively: The God of the old testament is one mean cuss.
Throughout the entire Bible, there is war after war, God’s continual wrath, unnecessary pain, and suffering because of some archaic practice, and incomprehensible violence committed on behalf of God’s will. From genocide to murder and slavery, to rape and incest, to the constant subjugation of women.
If you look at the Bible as a collection of stories and myths no different than The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Beowulf, or Dante’s Inferno, then a lot of the stories make sense. A vengeful and bloodthirsty God fits within the context of human pain and suffering.
The new testament tones down a lot of violent rhetoric because it focuses on Christ’s life and His followers. Jesus was the promised savior of humankind; the Son of God brought to earth to die as a final sacrifice for all sins. The Prince of Peace. The Lamb of God. Humble Savior to all of Humanity.
It was always strange to me hearing Pastor Ben Jones preach sermons based on the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ while talking about how we were in a war against the unbelievers. He would often tell us that Jesus was misrepresented as a pacifist and was really a mighty warrior, striking down the enemies of God and fighting the forces of evil. Those forces just happened to be the ACLU, the LGBTQIA+ community, liberal politicians, Catholics, Muslims, Communists, occasionally the Jews but never Israel, Pro-Choice activists, Hollywood, Lord of the Rings and/or Harry Potter, Rock Music, definitely Rap Music, Agnostics, Spiritualists and Atheists. The full list is just too long to write out.
It wasn’t just because Ben was a dick. He didn’t come up with this on his own. This bile and hatred of the other are not only pervasive in evangelical circles but the norm. It wasn’t always like that, though. Most sects of Christianity, outside of Southern Baptists and Calvinists, pretty well got along with the rest of the population, at least in the US until after WWII. This, of course, is not taking into account the dreadful battles between medieval Catholicism and Protestantism. Aggressive factions that still kill each other based on different perceptions of the same dogma.
The Crusades aren’t just a stain upon Christendom’s history; it was an act of attempted genocide based on forced conversion. The Knights Templar invaded Jerusalem in an attempt to free the Holy Land from Islamic control. Not long after, the Templars continued to slaughter Muslims who did not convert to Christianity. Under the Bull Omne Datum Optimum issued by Pope Innocent II (the irony is palpable), the Knights were promised all assets stolen and otherwise acquired from Muslim armies. This gave them unprecedented power, and because they’re human, they, of course, exploited it.
When you jump ahead to the founding of the New World, Christopher Columbus — intrepid explorer, slaver, and all-around douche-canoe — used forced conversion on the natives of the modern-day Dominican Republic (where he originally landed), as well as the native Americans he encountered soon after. While his dumbass was responsible for a lot of heinous shit, he wasn’t alone. King Ferdinand of Spain and Pope Leo XIII were ecstatic that Columbus was “bringing the truth” to the native populations.
Fast forward again to the Pilgrims establishing colonies and the Puritans once again using forced conversion upon the native population. Later on, the Mormons did this, perhaps to align themselves more with the proselytization required by Christian faiths. It’s almost as if there were a pattern.
All this started with the Roman Emperor Constantine and his conversion to Christianity. In what now seems like only a fortnight, the Roman Empire went from persecuting Christians to persecuting everyone else on behalf of Christians. It, of course, trickled down from there.
In the 1950s, jingoism started to break out in the Evangelical community mostly due to Billy Graham’s ceaseless alignment of Christianity with American values, then pitting American values against Communism. This seemed to reach a fever pitch when prominent televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson created The Moral Majority and the Christian Collation to force the Republican Party to begin instituting Evangelical principals into politics. The more Republican politicians cozied up to these groups to appease their base, the more the Evangelical church congealed into the Republican party. This was barely a hard sell to the Southern Democrats, who at the time was almost separate from the majority of the Democratic party. What with their unbiased acceptance of racism within the confines of southern politics.
As the Evangelical church moved through the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and early ’90s, focusing their energy on Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal, they began warring against the unseen spiritual forces of darkness that they blamed for the decline of morality in the country. These battles were “…not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” as Ephesians 6:12 tells us.
There always had to be a war. Since the Bible is so littered with tales of battles and bloodshed, it was as if the church had grown apathetic if it weren’t caught up in a fight between good and evil. Instead of focusing on the good that Jesus taught, the Evangelical church started to pick fights while claiming persecution.
The war on traditional family values and marriage was an excuse to fight with the LGBTQIA+ community. The war on Christmas was an excuse to fight with agnostic viewpoints on the holiday and other religions that celebrated something during the same time. This “war” is still going on, despite Donald Trump claiming that “you can say Merry Christmas again.” You were never not allowed to, but that chowderhead is as mendacious as they come.
Everything changed after 9/11.
Suddenly, the Evangelicals had a new enemy, and it was tangible. The Bush administration, which was already heavily involved with Evangelical politics, proclaimed that we were under attack because of Islamist extremists who hated our freedom and values.
While Jerry Falwell immediately blamed the gay community for the attack on the twin towers — for which he later apologized after being dragged for it — The larger Evangelical community not only supported the wars en masse, they found a new sense of jingoistic bellicosity. Now we had a holy war.
While I mentioned in Chapter I that 9/11 occurred my senior year, the rhetoric surrounding it in my church only really began after I had joined Master’s Commission. It was there that I learned how to “war in the spirit,” learning how to use prayer as a weapon. The biblical story of Jericho became the image we held in our head as we jumped and punched the air while screaming angrily in tongues, fully believing we were channeling the wrath of God through our lungs.
Our prayer meetings were loud and violent, often led by Devon Jones shouting into an unnecessary and spittle-caked microphone while Ben stood in the back of the sanctuary, arms crossed and eyes closed, rocking back on his heels. This was active warfare, and we were all called to serve. We were the spiritual Marines, prayer warriors, and intercessors fighting on behalf of all of Christianity for the world’s soul. If God was for us, then who could be against us? We screamed our guts out at nothing, and we were proud of it.
Those of us who weren’t active in the collective vocal assault were pulled aside and chastised for being silent — scolded for cowering in our spiritual foxholes. This was war, soldier, whether you signed up for it or not. You were in the Lord’s Army now, and spiritual boot camp was over.
This practice was often used whenever any of us seemed to be in a funk. We had to go into battle until something was “released,” after which, one of the leaders, usually Devon, would sit down and explain to us what he saw in the spiritual realm. Modern metaphors poured from his lips after he would cite verses and stories of the Israelites’ battles or from the hallucinatory writing of the book of Revelations.
Whether you believe in a spiritual realm or not, the concept of a militaristic viewpoint is nothing but dangerous for the mind. Since we were always fighting, we were always under attack. We couldn’t see the enemy, but every bad event, everything that was “off” was because of a spiritual force attacking us. If you weren’t under attack, you were doing something wrong. You must be aligned with the enemy.
During my third year, a student wrecked her car and was convinced that she had done so because there was a 50 Cent album in her car’s CD player.
“[a church member] suggested that the corner that I wrecked on “had an assignment.” This phrasing was peculiar to me. She always over spiritualized damn near everything, but would often refer to the demonic, and that she was sure that someone had cursed my path, or she questioned what could be going on in my walk that would cause such an obstruction.
Leadership also insisted that I be there for devotions at 7 am despite being at the ER until midnight. No one asked if I was ok, but treated the situation with skepticism and aloofness.”
This way of thinking had been marinating in our brains for years. For some of us, it was our whole lives. My panic disorder grew from this concept.
When I moved to Oklahoma, I found that the church there wasn’t much different than my home church in Washington. The Islamophobic rhetoric was more amped up and pronounced, but my brain was already a witch’s brew of anxiety and fear. It wasn’t long after being let go from working at the church that my panic attacks had utterly taken over my life. I was afraid of everything, and I clung to the only thing I thought would work: Screaming at the top of my voice in tongues.
When this didn’t help, my panic exploded, and fear completely overwhelmed me. I begged God to release me, to bring me calm. I laid in bed at night, wide awake, sweating, and shaking uncontrollably. My panic would become so overwhelming I would vomit. When this calmed me down a little, I soon found myself sticking a spoon down my throat during a panic attack to force some form of relief. When the attacks increased, I drove to the emergency room, finding solace in the wash of bright fluorescent light and comfort in the relaxed nurses and doctors.
I reached out to Devon during this time and found out he was dealing with something similar. I spoke with his Mother, Beth Jones, often sobbing on the phone because I was so overwhelmed. They both prayed with me to no avail. Devon then told me that a guy we grew up with in Washington, now a homeopathic doctor, had immensely helped him out. I reached out to this person — who I’ll refer to as Mike Anderson* — and asked for his help. Because I wasn’t a paying client, Dr. Mike sent a curt reply offering nothing. Devon eventually forwarded me an email Dr. Mike had sent him detailing how his panic could be controlled with diet and breathing exercises. He then prescribed him Ashwagandha and a few other off the shelf herbal supplements.
Mike now pushes anti-mask conspiracy theories on Parler when he isn’t pushing pro-trump doctrine. Mike is still a doctor with his own practice in our hometown.
My panic only grew from there until I looked into mental health and found a psychiatrist. Diet and exercise can only go so far, and with the extremes of anxiety that I experienced, herbal supplements were little more than a placebo.
My brain was broken, and eight years of intense therapy later, it’s finally beginning to heal truly. This kind of evangelicalism almost killed me.
Unforntualty, I’m not alone. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse or this kind of intensity in a church environment generally deal with mental health problems later on in life. Primarily with panic and anxiety. The fight or flight response built into our evolution is triggered when we see or do something we were taught to fight or flee from. This affects everything in a person’s life, including intimacy because of purity culture, and even therapy if the establishment someone was apart of taught against that.
There are people, who even decades later, still have a distrust of medical professionals or feel shame for going to a doctor because of their religious upbringing demonizing healing that didn’t come from God.
When I think back to those barbaric prayer sessions, I don’t feel anxious about it. I think of it as something normal to me at the time. In my mind, it doesn’t feel any different from something I grew out of as a kid. The triggers aren’t always obvious, but after I started to identify them, it became clear where it came from.
Why would a sex scene in a movie make me panic? Was it titillating? Did it spark a sexual urge in my mind? The purity culture I grew up in condemned all of that. I would go to hell if I went down that path. Hence, my brain flipping out.
One too many drinks? Panic. Lack of proper lighting because of so much prayer in the dark? Panic. Someone praying vocally for me? Panic.
As for the warmongering prayer circles I endured for years, I’ve been able to separate enough from that. But even as I wrote this chapter, letting my mind fester on those memories and past incidents, I found my anxiety increasing. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD specifically because of that.
That’s not a weak will. That’s not a matter of mindfulness or being unable to control my thoughts. That’s a chemical reaction to trauma that I endured because of the militant church I went to. I may not have been deployed to Afganistan or Iraq after 9/11, but I still enlisted in an army, and I still fought an endless and pointless war.
I sang the following song in Sunday School. Its intent and practice led me to live a life of anxiety and wrongheadedness, which was only exasperated as I grew older. This song, which still gets stuck in my head thirty years later, was the basis for this chapter.
“I may never march in the infantry,
Ride in the cavalry, Shoot the artillery,
I may never fly over the enemy,
But, I’m in the Lord's Army!
I’m in the Lord's Army!
I’m in the Lord's Army!