Comments

    Homepage



On a recent Sunday while attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (COJC), as Sacrament Meeting was coming to a close, I began to turn my thoughts to the discussion topic for the upcoming meeting of the Elder’s Quorum: how to better minister to those with whom we interact. My mind wandered through teachings and stories in the scriptures, and I considered my own personal experiences related to ministering. I pondered Jesus’s teachings and parables and the call to Christian discipleship found in the scriptures. I thought of ways in which I had been blessed by the kindness of others. I thought of Jesus’ Atonement, through which he suffers with me in my trials and aids me on my eternal journey of progress and growth. And then the closing song started: hymn number 259, “Hope of Israel.” I opened my hymn book and began to sing . . . and then I stopped dead in my tracks. I realized that not only does the language of this hymn seem to run counter to my call to minister, but it also does not align with the Jesus I am coming to know. In a striking movement of clarity, I realized that the “hope of Israel” is not in victory on the battlefield (spiritual or otherwise), but rather in healing and love.


The Use of War Imagery in Sacred Texts

War imagery has been a part of the Abrahamic tradition since the beginning. [1] For example, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1–18), perhaps one of the oldest sections of text in scripture, presents the Lord as a warrior. Psalms 18, 27, 35, and 144 (just to name a few) pick up on this theme and describe God as a fortress and destroyer of enemies (among other characterizations). Apocalyptic texts, such as the books of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation in the New Testament (the latter of which is a foundational text for COJC teaching about the war for spirits in the pre-existence [2]) present strident battles between the forces of evil and good, each with their own armies. In the Book of Mormon, we meet a God who authorizes war (see, for instance, the last half of the Alma) and a Christ who says he destroyed numerous cities which were party to spilling the blood of prophets and saints (3 Nephi 9:1–12). The Doctrine and Covenants has multiple variations on the idea that God will take “vengeance upon the wicked” (D&C 29:17). Sacred text is filled with this language, the question is: why? I believe that there are at least three general purposes for which war imagery is used.

First, war imagery is used to describe God when the God of Israel takes some action which demonstrates that God is powerful enough to deliver God’s people. The story of the exodus from Egypt is, perhaps, the best example of this. Moses contends with the priests of Pharaoh—a stand-in for the entirety of the Egyptian empire—and time-after-time demonstrates that the God of Israel is more powerful than they are. With the miraculous destruction by God of one of the most powerful armies of its age, this rag-tag group of exiles is liberated (Exodus 1–15). The message of this story, as Walter Brueggemann summarizes it, is clear: “Yahweh is more than a match for the powers of oppression, whether sociopolitical or cosmic.” [3] The exodus narrative subsequently serves as a paradigmatic framing for many other narratives throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Joshua’s (likely mythical) conquest of Canaan (see parallels in Joshua 3 and 4), to language about the return of Israel from Babylon (see Isaiah 51, for example). [4] Nephi, Lehi’s son, also sees the exodus narrative, and the image of a God that is powerful enough to deliver—even through the use of overwhelming force—as resonating with his own family’s experience in its journey out of Jerusalem and to the new world (1 Nephi 4:2, 17:12). In these instances, war imagery is used to tell of a God who actually acts in the actual history of an actual people for the purposes of liberation from oppression.

Second, and in connection with the point above, faith communities appeal to war imagery whenever a group of God’s believers is faced with an existential crisis. When faced with potential destruction at the hands of Syrians, Elisha sees God-sent war chariots made of fire ready to defend Israel (2 Kings 6:16). When laboring under persecution at the hands of the Persians and, later, the Seleucids, the Book of Daniel emerges, which first tells the stories of faithful Jews surviving Babylonian exile through God’s power (e.g., the story in Daniel 3 of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, better known by their Persian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) and then culminates with an apocalypse (chapters 7–12), [5] a narrative of God’s conquest over worldly powers, that communicates the message that God will “punish the wicked and redeem the faithful.” [6] And when John [7] saw the challenges that Christians faced while bearing the brunt of Roman rule, the early Christians receive the apocalyptic vision now called Revelation in the New Testament, through which God is envisioned conquering on the field of battle and bringing doom on the forces which oppose God’s work. [8] In these instances, this war imagery can be viewed simultaneously as both “prediction” and “proclamation.” [9] In these texts God—who is more powerful and mighty than opposing forces—is envisioned as bringing future respite to those who hold true to the faith and as levying consequences against those who oppose his will.

Finally, war imagery is often (and maybe predominantly) used metaphorically. Rather than describing liberation events that play out in the history of a people or describing God’s intention to preserve a faith community in crisis, because of its (unfortunate) prevalence in society, war is a ready reference to metaphorically describe the challenges of belief. Whether it be the exhortation to put on the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11–17), or a warning to watch out for the “fiery darts of the adversary” (1 Nephi 15:24), or the assertion that Lucifer is making “war with the saints of God” (D&C 76:29), [10] the use of war imagery serves as a literary shortcut that can, with little effort, invoke images of struggle, side-taking, urgency, and victory against all odds. Such imagery seems intended to stoke the fires of commitment and lends itself to a clear, even if oversimplified, articulation of a ‘good versus evil’/’God versus Satan’ framework against which life’s choices can be measured.

It is an inescapable fact that war imagery is indeed part of the faith tradition from which the COJC springs. And, as is evident above, it serves both theological and pedagogical purposes. War imagery can provide a way for the oppressed to express belief in a God that delivers and provides language to describe the God who is more powerful than even the most powerful military forces. War imagery also provides a way for those in the midst of socio-political struggles to express belief in a God that is “on our side” and which will, eventually, correct extant socio-political ills. And finally, war imagery provides reason for, and a framing of, the continued “universal” struggle of good and evil. Put simply, in all of these instances, war imagery is used, somewhat counterintuitively, as a way to provide hope in times of tumult.


The Hope of Israel in the COJC

Perhaps surprisingly, the term “hope of Israel” is used infrequently in the scriptures and in General Conference. In the King James Version of the Bible, the phrase only appears three times: Jeremiah 14:8, Jeremiah 17:13, and Acts 28:20 (none of which are referenced in the COJC hymn book as the scriptural foundation for the song “Hope of Israel”). That phrase appears in no other part of the COJC scriptural canon. Both times in Jeremiah, the prophet uses the phrase as a reference to God, who is Israel’s hope, but who has been absent because, “they loved to wander” (Jeremiah 14:10). In his prayer to God in this section, we get a sense of what Jeremiah’s prophetic understanding of hope looks like. He says: “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise” (Jeremiah 17:14). In Acts, Paul uses the phrase to describe the subject on which he wishes to teach while in prison. A few verses later, we learn what the hope of Israel means to Paul; to those who gathered, Paul, “expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus” (Acts 28:23). In the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the “hope of Israel” is a reference to the healing power of God and to Jesus’s atoning work.

In General Conference, the phrase is often used differently. It has been used directly in fifteen different talks dating back to 1860. [11] The majority of times, this phrase is used to refer to the youth of the church (which is also consistent with the approach of Hymn 259). Only Dieter F. Uchtdorf uses the phrase in a way that mirrors its use in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. [12] Pausing for a moment on this point, Uchtdorf expressly states that the Hope of Israel is the “light of the world” [13] and “the great hope of mankind . . . our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” [14] Lest there be any confusion about what that hope looks like to him, Uchtdorf explains: “And to all who suffer—to all who feel discouraged, worried, or lonely—I say with love and deep concern for you, never give in. Never surrender. Never allow despair to overcome your spirit. Embrace and rely upon the Hope of Israel, for the love of the Son of God pierces all darkness, softens all sorrow, and gladdens every heart.” [15]

Yet even in the instances, where the “hope” of Israel is a reference to the youth of the church, the discussions surrounding the role which the youth are to play—the thing that makes the youth “hope-worthy”—is generally consistent with the Bible’s usage. For instance, while calling them the Hope of Israel, and even expressly referencing the hymn, young men of the church are charged to “make it a better world through the preparations you make now and the noble service you render throughout your life as a token of the love you have for your Father in Heaven and his Son.” [16] In a similar vein, while also calling them the Hope of Israel, and also expressly referencing the hymn, the young women of the church are charged to “pray for each other and with each other . . . [and] to increase your spirituality . . . that others might follow” [17] and are lauded for finding ways “to encourage others and share our Savior’s light.” [18] In all these instances, the youth are encouraged to, or appreciated for, bringing light, life, and love to the world. In either instance—whether using the phrase “hope of Israel” to reference the divine or to refer to the youth of the church—the “hope” of Israel is framed in terms of healing and life, and not in the language of war.


Jesus and War Imagery

As an observant Jew, Jesus would have been familiar with the war imagery that permeated his Abrahamic tradition. Though New Testament Christian texts written after the death of Jesus use war imagery more liberally (a few examples of which are referenced above) during his personal ministry, Jesus very rarely used it to teach. Rather, the bulk of Jesus’s teaching, in both the old and new worlds, used imagery which offered a different kind of hope than that which war imagery offers—a hope built on acceptance, love, and service, and not the hope of a God who would destroy the enemy. In fact, as many commentators have noted, the Jews of Jesus’s time anticipated a messiah that would destroy its enemies and provide a military solution to Roman occupation. That Jesus did not fit this mold may have been a reason he was not accepted by some of his day as the promised messiah.

That said, it is worth spending a little time acknowledging examples of how Jesus uses war imagery to teach. [19] In the New Testament, there are at least two good illustrations. First, Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (closely related synoptic texts) contain what are sometimes called apocalyptic discourses. [20] Like the apocalyptic texts mentioned earlier, this is a genre often utilized in situations of crisis. It is a genre that would have been familiar to the Jews of the time and would have resonated with them given the fact of Roman occupation (hence its later use by John). A second emblematic instance where such imagery is used appears in this teaching: Jesus says, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three” (see Luke 12:51–53). Like the apocalyptic texts mentioned above, this verse espouses the highly dualistic framing — a theological and pedagogical approach used in the Hebrew Bible — as has already been discussed. In the specific instance of the Luke passage, as happens many times when Jesus uses such imagery, he is expressly quoting from, or making references to, language that is already present in the Hebrew Bible (CF Luke 12:53 and Micah 7:6). In the Book of Mormon, Jesus’s use of war imagery during his personal ministry in the Americas is similar to how it is used in the New Testament. It is also, in many instances, a direct quotation of Hebrew Bible texts. So, yes, Jesus does, at times, use war imagery in his teaching. And, when used, its usage aligns, generally, with the three theological and pedagogical uses discussed above.

But one should not let the fact that such language exists obscure the reality that Jesus’s use of such war imagery during his personal ministry is exceptionally limited when compared to the corpus of his teachings. In word and deed, Jesus stood for a different kind of hope than what war can bring. Jesus healed the sick and wounded, loved the outcast, and found those who felt lost. Make no mistake, Jesus called for radical change, but never called for “Christian soldiers.” To the contrary, in the Beatitudes, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and says that he does not reward the strong or the mighty with victory, but instead saves his choicest blessings and promises a crown for the weak things of the Earth (see Matthew 5). In the Garden of Gethsemane, he did not praise Peter’s use of force. Instead, he healed the ear of the Roman soldier—and he used that moment to illustrate his willingness to follow God by intentionally not calling down “twelve legions of angels,” even though he could have (Matthew 26:51–53). In overwhelming fashion, Jesus taught using imagery from the world around him: sheep, wheat, seeds, widows, children, sparrows, lilies—not using war imagery. Jesus sought to bring hope, but he brought a new kind of hope: one communicated through the language of peace (John 14:27).

Further, Christian teachings make clear that as a matter of praxis, we are called to bring healing and love to all we meet. Indeed, in one section of commentary, Mormon notes that it is sin such as “quarrelings,” “contentions,” “murderings,” “plunderings,” “idolatry,” “whoredoms,” and “abominations” that results in “wars and . . . destructions” (Alma 50:21). The Book of Moses similarly positions war among nations as a result of sin, as well as one way in which Satan seeks to gain “dominion” over humankind (Moses 6:15). Jesus asks us to act differently. When teaching about neighborliness, Jesus held up the Good Samaritan—the one who took care of a victim of a brutal act of violence—as the example we all should follow (Luke 10:25–37). When the discipleship exhortation was given to those who were about to be baptized in the waters of Mormon, these soon-to-be-Christians were not called to avenge those who were mourning, but instead were called to mourn with them (Mosiah 18:8–10). King Benjamin made clear that the way in which we interact with each other is indicative of our interactions with God. In interaction with both man and God, we are to offer service (Mosiah 2:17). And in discussing our responsibility to those who are oppressed—the hungry, the orphan, the widow—we are to liberate them through feeding, clothing, and caring for them—not through warfare (Matthew 25:35–40). Indeed, we are called to lay down our life for our friends (John 15:13) and taught that the two great commandments are based on love (Matthew 22:37–40).


Conclusion

While acknowledging that war imagery is engrained in the COJC faith tradition, as I have gotten older—and perhaps because of the privilege into which I have been born—I have become increasingly less comfortable with the use of military/war imagery in my worship. As a younger man, I found hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” rousing. The beat, the call to arms, the sense of mission. I admit that for a long time I felt a rush of adrenaline when I sang that song (and others like them); I had a visceral sense of excitement. It is no surprise that, when calling the youth to increased action in 2018, President Russell M. Nelson used war imagery when he invited, “every young woman and every young man between the ages of 12 and 18 in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to enlist in the youth battalion of the Lord (emphasis original).” [21] With the language like “enlist” and "battalion,” President Nelson was calling the youth to war and implying that Jesus was the general leading this force. But are such images still resonant with the situation faced by, and the mission of, the COJC the 21st century? Returning to the hymn “Hope of Israel,” does the war imagery of that hymn and others like it portray the “hope” to which many of us desperately cling and the “hope” which the COJC offers to the world? I think not. In my estimation, it is time for the COJC to move beyond war imagery in our hymns and rhetoric. (Theologians such as James Cone have noted that the privilege required to hold this view may blind one to the actions required for those in need of liberation. Fully aware of this conundrum, but unable to completely escape my own experience, I nonetheless remain uncomfortable with war imagery and hope for a time that liberation can be separated from violence.)

Yes, we as a people are in need of hope. Yes, our society (and Church!) is in desperate need of liberation from all manner of oppression. And, the COJC has a message of hope and liberation, but it is not a hope that is best communicated through military imagery. [22] Rather, the COJC’s restoration message, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a message of healing for all of creation that is grounded in God’s love. [23] Put bluntly, war imagery detracts from what we are actually called to do as Christians generally and as the “true and living church” specifically (D&C 1:27). In fact, with a few more years under my belt, I find war imagery heartbreaking. For my part, I am not sure I can keep singing anthems about “Christian soldiers” or condone language (as we see in hymn 259) that paints “the other” as a “foe.” And I do not want my children to hear—implicitly or explicitly—that they are at war and that they are surrounded by enemies. Rather, I want to leave such imagery behind and, instead, relish in the peace that Christ promises and see the face of God in everyone that I meet. I want my children to hear—implicitly and explicitly—that they have the opportunity to bring comfort and healing to those who are in need and in pain. To be clear, I want to be fully engaged in the struggle for liberation—but not as a soldier. If I must be anything, I want to be a nurse in the Lord’s free health clinic. What if hymn 259 when something like this:

Hope of Israel, Zion’s healers.
Balm of Gilead is yours to bear.
Christ will guide you ever onward
As his peace you freely share!
Humankind in countless numbers
Is weary, worn, and broken down.
Mourn with those that you find morning,
Free th’oppresed and loose the bound.
Heal the wounded, down with sorrow.
Lift the weak above the fray.
Comfort those in need of comfort.
Feed and clothe the poor today.
Soon the sadness will be over,
Every sign of weeping gone.
“Charity!,” that is the watch cry,
You help bring the light of dawn!
[Chorus]
Hope of Israel, clad in love,
In the service of God above.
Find the anguished, dry their tears,
Free the world from pain and fear.



NOTES:

[1] Many scholars have noted the similarities in the Hebrew Bible’s description of the God of Israel and in the descriptions of non-Abrahamic contemporaneous gods. For instance, Michael Coogan traces the ways in which language about God in the Hebrew Bible is strikingly reminiscent of language about Baal, a storm-god which triumphs over the forces of chaos. See Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2014), 111-112. [Back to manuscript].


[2] “War in Heaven.” Gospel Topic Essays. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/war-in-heaven?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis MN: 1997), 174. [Back to manuscript].


[4] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2014), 111-112.
[Back to manuscript].


[5] Speaking of the “genre of apocalypses” generally, apocalypses emerge “in situations of crisis or perceived crisis, and the texts tend to describe the situation in highly dualistic terms.” It is not surprising, then, that apocalypses employ the language of battle and conflict which is similarly crisis-driven and highly dualistic. In Warren Carter and Amy-Jill Levine, The New Testament: Methods and Meanings, Abingdon Press (Nashville:2013), 351. [Back to manuscript].


[6] Amy-Jill Livine, “Daniel,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, Michael D. Coogan ed., Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2010), 1233. [Back to manuscript].


[7] For the purpose of this discussion, and for simplicity’s sake, I will simply take as a given that John, one of Jesus’s original twelve apostles, authored Revelation.
[Back to manuscript].


[8] Warren Carter and Amy-Jill Levine, The New Testament: Methods and Meanings, Abingdon Press (Nashville:2013), 345-350. [Back to manuscript].


[9] Ibid. 342, 345. [Back to manuscript].


[10] I categorize this reference as metaphorical owing to the fact that other COJC scripture which seeks to describe the actions Lucifer takes (2 Nephi 28:19-23, for instance), describes actions that are decidedly non-military. Lucifer is said to use persuasion and enticement not violence. Hence, metaphorically these actions might be described as a “war with the saints” but in actual practice Lucifer’s actions bear little resemblance to how war actually manifests. [Back to manuscript].


[11] Search for “Hope of Israel” on LDS General Conference Corpus, https://www.lds-general-conference.org/ --- [Back to manuscript].


[12] See “You Are My Hands,” April 2010 General Conference, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/04/you-are-my-hands?lang=eng; and “The Infinite Power of Hope,” October 2008 General Conference, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2008/10/the-infinite-power-of-hope?lang=eng. --- [Back to manuscript].


[13] “You Are My Hands,” April 2010 General Conference, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/04/you-are-my-hands?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[14] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2008/10/the-infinite-power-of-hope?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[15] “The Infinite Power of Hope,” October 2008 General Conference, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2008/10/the-infinite-power-of-hope?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[16] Robert L. Backman, “To the Young Men of the Church,” October 1980 General Conference, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1980/10/to-the-young-men-of-the-church?lang=eng
--- [Back to manuscript].


[17] Ardeth G. Kap “’Crickets’ Can Be Destroyed Through Spirituality,” October 1990 General Conference. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1990/10/crickets-can-be-destroyed-through-spirituality?lang=eng
--- [Back to manuscript].


[18] Russell M. Nelson, “Embrace the Future with Faith,” October 2020 General Conference. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/37nelson?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[19] For the purposes of this paper, I am eluding the centuries-old debate about whether war itself is authorized. However, for a helpful summary of available ideas on this topic, going all the way back to the earliest Christian influences, see Arthur F Holmes, Ed., War and Christian Ethics, 2nd Edition, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005). [Back to manuscript].


[20] See FN, Matthew 24:1–51, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, Michael D. Coogan ed., Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2010), 1781. [Back to manuscript].


[21] Russell M. Nelson, “Hope of Israel,” Worldwide Youth Devotional, June 3, 2018. Conference Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Available at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/broadcasts/worldwide-devotional-for-young-adults/2018/06/hope-of-israel?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[22] It is also worth noting that COJC is not on the brink of crisis or facing existential challenges. By many measures, including financial, the COJC is as well-resourced as it has ever been. [Back to manuscript].


[23] M. David Huston, “A Restoration of All Things?” Public Square Magazine. https://publicsquaremag.org/faith/a-restoration-of-all-things/
--- [Back to manuscript].



Full Citation for this Article: Huston, Michael D. (2021) "Hope of Israel, Zion’s Healers: Down with War Imagery," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Summer 2021), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHustonZionsHealers.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome.

COMMENTS: