St. George’s Cross
Milligan Chapel – October 11, 2001
Simon J. Dahlman, Associate Professor of Communications
St. George’s Cross
It’s been a month to the day since we watched the towers of the World Trade Center evaporate and the Pentagon partially crumble under the force of hijacked jetliners. Some of us here know people who were directly affected, injured or killed on that day. A few of us, probably in recent travels, have begun to realize firsthand that life has changed and will continue to change, even in some of the most mundane ways. I drove a rental truck back from Florida last week, and got stopped at the state line for inspection. We’re a nation at war.
Americans, along with other citizens of the world, are trying to figure out exactly what happened and why. We know what we feel: sorrow, some fear, anger, and maybe hatred in our more honest moments. Now we’re trying to figure out what to think and what to do. People are going to churches and synagogues and mosques by the droves, to listen and to learn and to try find answers, but mostly to pray and to search for God through the smoke and the rubble.
As a group, maybe Christians feel most conflicted and confused of all. This isn’t a religious war, we say and our president says—we aren’t targeting Muslims as such. But some people are targeting us in the name of Islam and down deep, we’re nagged by the suspicion that maybe it is a religious war after all. If so, does that imply that we think of America as a Christian nation, after all?
Christians want to serve the prince of peace, but we also feel the need for justice. Almost 6,000 people were killed last month—most of them civilians, virtually all unarmed, most having nothing to do with the troubles in the Mideast. So if war were ever justified, it’s now. Right? On the other hand, how can we say we love our enemies—and then want nothing more than to reach out and touch someone with a cruise missile? Have you prayed for Osama bin Laden today? I haven’t.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this tension. Christians, after all, carry dual citizenship, and sometimes the loyalties conflict. “Our commonwealth is in heaven,” wrote the apostle Paul (Phil. 3.20). Likewise, Peter wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.9). Jesus himself said his kingdom was not of this world, and he said that to a suspicious political leader named Pilate (John 18.36). In the early days of the church, observers called Christians “a third race,” because they seemed to live as a separate people, above all the old boundaries. This world is not our home, but we live here just the same.
But while we shouldn’t be surprised at this tension, it’s still difficult and perplexing to know exactly how this should be lived out, especially now that the bombs are dropping, now that threats are escalating from both sides, now that we’re nervous because a man died of anthrax 700 miles from here. It’s one thing to talk theoretically about how the individual Christian and the church should relate to the society, particularly to the government. It’s another thing when a war has started and lives are at stake and people in this room might be caught up in it.
Our Great Dilemma
This is our great dilemma right now: How should a Christian live in the world? How should we respond to the recent events? Are we pacifists, or is there justification for the nation to take action, even violent action, to try to execute justice and restore some sense of security? Should Christians who are also citizens of an earthly nation take up arms or not?
In many ways, this morning’s Scripture from Romans 12 and 13 doesn’t help much, except to highlight the tension we feel. On the one hand, we read the familiar words of peace: “Bless those who persecute you . . . Live with harmony . . . Repay no one evil for evil . . . If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all . . . Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Great: we know what to do. Or do we? Because hard on the heels of these words come other words that don’t seem to fit, that speak of wrath and punishment and the sword: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God . . . The one in authority is God’s servant for your good . . . he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.”
It seems clear that we have two ways to interpret these words from Paul: Either he’s in some way contradicting himself, or he is talking about two different categories. And there’s the key.
God instituted, among other things, the civil authority and the church, but they have different roles. In a word, the civil authority—what Paul describes in Romans 13—is there to maintain order in an imperfect world. It’s an accommodation for our sin. Sometimes the authorities are made up of people who couldn’t care less about God, but there they are. That was the case when Paul wrote these words, during the reign of Nero in Rome. Other times, the people in charge are doing the best they can to follow God as they do their work. Either way, it will be sinners, imperfect people, who carry out the task. No matter: God has instituted, as a whole, civil government for our good.
But God also created the church, and I believe one task for us is to be the conscience for the society, not the cheerleader. Of course, it will be sinners, imperfect people like us, who carry out the task. Sometimes our role as a culture’s conscience is expressed through priestly action, serving as a bridge between human sin and suffering and God’s grace—as we saw with Mychal Judge, the priest who was killed by falling debris as he comforted and administered last rites to a fireman at the World Trade Center a month ago.
Sometimes the church serves as a conscience by being prophetic, by telling forth the word of God. Every now and then, the church’s message will happen to coincide with what the civil authorities want. Fine.
But other times—perhaps most times—the church will need to challenge the civil authorities, challenge the culture, challenge the conventional wisdom. The abolitionists and the civil-rights movement in the United States come to mind. The “quiet revolutions” against Communist regimes in Germany and Eastern Europe come to mind. South Africa comes to mind. Jesus comes to mind. St. George comes to mind.
A Great Example
We’ve heard the story of George and his martyrdom, which came about for one reason: He refused to shut up about Jesus Christ. He refused to go along to get along. He refused to blur the line between his loyalty to his country and his loyalty to his Lord. And he did this all as a soldier. And that’s a great example for us.
I think it’s safe to assume that George was patriotic and a loyal citizen—yes, even in times of battle, with all that implies. But I think it’s also safe to assume that he was a faithful, devout Christian during his life. A man usually doesn’t sacrifice his career, his social standing and his head on a whim. He was prepared by a life of faithfulness to lay down that life for Christ. When he was finally forced to choose between kingdoms, he chose the kingdom of God.
A Great Irony
The great irony is that through the centuries, George was adopted as a patron saint of nations and causes that wound up confusing those loyalties. One of the most famous examples is England.
Why am I talking about England? It’s not only because St. George and his cross are its patron symbols. It’s also because I’m an Anglophile: I love England and its people. I lived and worked there for more than five years. But that means I’ve also seen how that nation, as much as any, built an empire under the banner of St. George’s cross. In the name of Christ, that nation not only sent out missionaries, but also conquered other people and invaded other lands and sometimes committed terrible deeds. It was in the national interest, cloaked in a cross. Maybe England’s King Henry V expressed the prevailing attitude best at the great and terrible battle of Agincourt, when he shouted: “God for Harry, England and Saint George.” That pretty well summed it up.
But it’s not just England. The story of St. George should caution any of us—and any nation—that is tempted to co-opt the Lord for our own purposes, to seek his rubber-stamped approval on our plans and policies. The story of George and his cross reminds us that even when we start well, it’s easy to confuse God’s will and our will, our interests with God’s interests, our agenda with God’s agenda. Through Isaiah, God reminds us that his ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not our thoughts. But we keep forgetting that. We have trouble remembering that it’s only through following Christ that we can get it right: molding our will to God’s, not the other way around.
As part of the church, the body of Christ on earth, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Christ—prophet, priest and king. But the history of the church has proven that we’ve been all too eager to embrace that “king” stuff, and that’s what caused a lot of the confusion.
But if Jesus himself didn’t take a kingly role while on earth, why should we? It’s true that one day every knee will bow to him—but when he came to earth, he came as a priest, as we read in Hebrews, to mediate between God and people. He came as a prophet, as we read in Matthew, to challenge those around him with the truth of God. And he came as a sacrificial servant, as it says everywhere, to give his life as a ransom for many.
We’re not above our master and we can’t run ahead of Jesus; we can only follow in his steps. We are priests and prophets and servants. We don’t sit as kings, at least not yet.
Frankly, I don’t know exactly what this means for the current situation. Is the war which we have entered a just war, undertaken in the name of justice to try to make the world a safer place? Or should we, as a nation, have turned the other cheek in a radical attempt to de-fang our enemies? Either way would be full of risks. Romans 12 is addressed to Christian relationships, but does it apply to foreign policy and to terrorists? What is the proper role for Christians in a nation at war?
I have my own answers, but like many Christians, I still feel tentative about them. I still have questions, maybe more questions than answers. But I do know a few things.
I know that John the Baptist, Paul, Peter and Jesus himself encountered soldiers many times, and never once told them to resign their commissions. But I also know that people like George did just that when their ultimate loyalty was challenged.
I know there are many Christians who say they are willing to die—and perhaps kill—for their country. But then I wonder if they are just as willing to die for their Lord, even if it’s in the day-by-day taking up of a cross. If not, then really where is their ultimate loyalty?
I know, too, that Christians will disagree about what our nation should do. We will disagree about how Romans 13 applies these days.
But I know with even greater certainty that Christians must live by the words of Romans 12: “Bless those who persecute you . . . Live with harmony . . . Never be conceited . . . Repay no one evil for evil . . . If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
With that in mind, I encourage you to do three things.
First, remember the example of George, that loyal citizen and soldier of Rome who drew a line and gave his life because he was first a loyal citizen of God’s kingdom.
Second, remember how easy it is to confuse our will for God’s will and our nation’s interests with the interests of God. Resist the temptation. Like George, let’s keep the two things straight.
And finally, no matter what you think about what we should do and how Romans 13 applies, at least agree with Romans 12. We must, if we’re going to stay together as brothers and sisters in Christ. We must, if we want to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. And we must if we hope to have the strength and the courage to do something as powerful as pray for Osama bin Laden.