John 3:16 and Holy War

That great and much publicized biblical text, John 3:16, came up in the church’s lectionary this Lent, as many worshippers may recall. Here it is, in part: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son….”

Even if you’re not a church-goer, you may have heard that text now and again in recent years, since it’s become a kind of a spiritual club for some. And I mean club not in the being-a-member sense, but in the bashing sense. Why else can I have this disturbing image in my mind: I see a gaggle of protesting pro-life Christians yelling at a gaggle of protesting pro-choicers, among them numerous Christians: “John 3:16!  John 3:16!!  John 3:16!!!” That could easily happen.

I have a dog in this race, if I may say so. Turns out that John 3:16 ff. was my confirmation memory verse!  True, that wasn’t a very venturesome choice on my part way back then, since, by spiritual osmosis, I knew that text by heart well before the time arrived when I was to become a confirmand. On the other hand, I was never taught to yell “John 3:16!!!” either in church or in public. Sure, later I did chose it as the dedicatory text for one of my books. And that might be considered to be a Lutheran kind of yelling. You know, speak softly, but carry a big text.

Be that as it may: lifting up “John 3:16” publicly has surely become a sign of our times, almost everywhere in the good old USA. Brace yourself, therefore, to hear me say: let’s go with this popular flow!  Let’s keep John 3:16 front and center in our public discourse, especially the first clause, cited above.

A vignette. As a young theological student, I took a course on the Book of Deuteronomy, taught by a then prominent biblical scholar, G. Ernest Wright. The great discovery in Deuteronomy-studies back then was the ancient practice of what Wright called “Holy War.” This was the idea.

As they fought to capture what would come to be thought of as the Holy Land, the armies of the ancient People of God would vanquish their enemies to the point of burning all those enemies’ worldly goods, this in addition to all the human mayhem of warfare. That was how Wright came to sharpen his understanding of the otherwise somewhat benign-sounding term that was regularly used by scholars to describe the People of God moving into the Promised Land: “the Conquest.” No, for Wright, it was much more dramatic – Holy War!

It was a long way, then, from that ancient conquest of Canaan to Calvary’s Cross in the first century CE. But the ancient Deuteronomic motif of Holy War did not disappear. Indeed, “the classic view” of the Cross for many Christians throughout the centuries, according to studies by one of the tradition’s most respected interpreters, Gustav Aulen, was identified by the confession “Christus Victor.” The event of the Cross was envisioned by more than a few of the faithful, then, to be a kind of universal Holy War, with Jesus Christ triumphing in the end.

And more. Eventually, that very Christus Victor motif was taken up and then celebrated by those in power, up to and throughout the Christian Middle Ages. Under the Christus Victor banner, indeed, rulers like Constantine or Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain regularly sought to conquer as much of their world’s wealth as they could, by the power of the sword. I once saw a huge historic tapestry, indeed, that depicted Emperor Charles the Fifth of Spain, clad in resplendent armor, riding a likewise armored horse: he holding up a gleaming silver monstrance that was being used to carry the sacramental Body of Christ inside, as he led the Spanish army into battle in order to slay the heretics who had risen up against the Emperor. This was Holy War all over again.

Where does this leave us with our reading of John 3:16? Not, I maintain, with Constantine or with Ferdinand and Isabella or with Emperor Charles, in all their worldly glory, but with this option: to follow, or to keep on following, an obscure, first-century rabbinic poet and teacher from Gallilee, a pacifist, who died on a Roman cross for the sake of the poor and the oppressed and who then came to be praised by his followers as the risen Prince of Peace for the whole world.

Biblically speaking, then, it turns out that John 3:16 is by no means a text that works to identify a chosen few humans, who have claimed the love of God just for themselves and who have dedicated themselves to what they think of as a Holy War of their own against the evil powers of this world. Biblically speaking, it turns out that in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead, God so loved the world that God disavowed the practice of Holy War, once and for all.