The whole armor of God. Such a strange idea and image for Anabaptists who are proud to claim we are people of peace. It all sounds way too militaristic for our delicate, pacifist ears, doesn’t it.
Other than wrestling my younger brothers to the ground and fighting until there were tears all around, I had a pretty peaceful, pacifist childhood. There is one place I remember there being some small relevance to this passage about the armor of God. When we visited my grandparents there would sometimes be sword drills. In this Ephesians passage it instructs, “Carry the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” The Sunday School Superintendent would tell people to prepare. The faithful would hold their bibles just so and then:
(slowly) Isaiah 49:2 – He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
(slowly) Isaiah 59:17 – He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head;
So the writer of Ephesians was not just making this stuff up about the armor of God. This is straight out of the Hebrew bible, the prophet Isaiah. And while this imagery may seem really weird to us, it probably makes a lot of sense to the first readers of Ephesians. Every day they see Roman soldiers walking down the street, proudly displaying their armor. The people receiving this letter understand armor, right down to resisting the fiery darts, or arrows. Fiery arrows are not just a metaphor. Roman soldiers carried leather shields which they put water on when they went into battle. The fiery arrows aimed at them by the enemy were extinguished upon hitting the wet leather shield.
These images from Isaiah – the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness – are not just nice poetry. These are particularly powerful images coming from the writer of Ephesians, who claims to be Paul. The writer knows that Paul has his own history of violence, pursuing the enemy – disciples of Jesus. Later, as a follower of the Christ, Paul spends time in Roman jails, presumably observing Roman armor all too closely. This “whole armor” is not theoretical, it is real. In a time when unjust violence can come at you for no other reason than your religion or ethnicity or the language you speak, putting on the whole armor of God is not just theoretical. It is truly a recommended, best practice.
The armor of God is in direct contrast to the armor of the Romans. Ephesians 6 does not give instructions for readers to create more violence in the world. The armor of God is defensive, for protection against sovereignties and powers, the rulers of the world of darkness and the evil spirits of the heavenly realms.
I don’t know what you all believe about the powers of darkness and evil spirits and heavenly realms but my eyes glaze over and it sounds very strange to my ears. We don’t talk that way around here. And I hear the previous phrase where the writer reminds – Our battle ultimately is not against humans but against the sovereignties and powers, the rulers of the world of darkness…
Now that sounds familiar. It sounds like the instructions given during non-violence trainings. “We are not protesting against the individual who happens to be in front of us. We are protesting the system and institutions that perpetuate injustice. And though we may be in a dangerous situation, we want to ‘live to fight another day’ so don’t take crazy risks.” In non-violent direct action we are not protected by the shields and helmets and swords that are used by those on the other side of the barricade. We are protected by the “whole armor of God.” Because in the end, how can a shield, whether leather, wooden or plexiglass or a sword or a gun protect against the “powers of darkness and evil spirits”? An “enemy” like that is only defended against with truth and righteousness.
On Friday evening, I sat in the hallway of Hyattsville City Hall, waiting to go on a research ride-along with the police. Waiting in that hallway made me think of the day I spent waiting in the hallway at the Baltimore ICE office on July 9. Marta -a mother from Honduras who had lived here in Prince George’s County for ten years, had her own business, was a faithful and respected leader in her church – had just been detained by ICE. Five of Marta’s children, a grandchild and four supporters waited in the hall; we were upset, distraught and worried. We were waiting, for five hours, because ICE told us that Marta’s family would get to see her again before she was moved to the detention center. Why did we wait so cooperatively, without incident? Why didn’t we create a scene right there in the office?
One reason we didn’t create a scene was because ICE employees said if we didn’t stop making a scene the family would not be allowed to see Marta. The thing is, there was no scene. There was only the presence of people holding the truth in love. Just being there dressed in our breastplates of justice, wearing the boots of peace, was somehow fearsome to the system that hides employees behind dark glass and closed doors.
The descriptions in Isaiah and Ephesians sound like tools straight out of the toolkits of contemporary non-violent activists: truth, righteousness, peace. I can’t help but go back to my experience last year in Charlottesville when the line of clergy put themselves between the white supremacists, police and militia, all of them heavily armed with guns, knives, shields, helmets. The clergy had the shield of faith – believing in something greater than that situation so infused with hate and violence. We wore stoles of righteousness. And we stood in shoes of peace, companions with each other in the struggle.
We needed, and had, courageous, committed and experienced leadership in Charlottesville. And we were clearly outnumbered by every group there. Our training together as a clergy line was an hour of role playing and two worship services. We held the line for an hour or so but given the impromptu nature of our group, there were limits to what our non-violent action could achieve. And still I go back again and again to that experience: we stood strong in the face of weapons of war and spirits fed by fear and anger. There is amazing and mysterious power in standing firm together in a group committed to peace and truth and justice. It may even be our salvation.
The reason I was waiting for the police in the hallway on Friday evening was because I wanted to see, again, what it is like to spend time with someone whose first weapon is not the sword of the Spirit but a sidearm.
I got into a brand new police car with Officer U. and rode with her as she answered dispatch calls. We talked about being a woman in a male dominated workforce. I asked her if she gets nervous approaching a home unannounced. I got my answer as she went to the door of a home seeking information about a crime. She approached the house with caution and confidence. A child came to the door, followed by a woman who must have wondered why a police officer was standing on her front porch. Officer U. spoke in Spanish and spoke with kindness. She did not display defensiveness.
At the shift change I got in the car with Officer C. for several hours. It was a relatively uneventful Friday night. He seemed unfazed by the body camera and the firepower he carries at all times. He apologized as he pulled to the side of the road to take a text about his dog that recently had surgery, a dog he rescued several weeks earlier while on duty.
Every time I have done a ride-along there has been a shoplifting at the Target. Friday evening was no exception. The atmosphere in the very small security office at Target was like the other times: the person arrested was distraught, crying, remorseful, embarrassed. Officer C. was calm, spoke in a gentle but firm voice, and tried to bring some order to the situation. He assured the person that they would be released and would not be in jail overnight. His presence was such that even the family member who was there to pick up the person arrested, and was quite angry with their child, even that family member remarked on the “persona” that the officer brought to the situation.
I know police violence is real in many places across this country, in small towns and big cities and suburbs like ours. People of color and immigrants too often have very different experiences with the police than I have. I am not trying to be an apologist for all police.
What I am learning again and again, after almost two years of this experiment of relating to the local police close up, is the part in Ephesians about who the enemy is: Our battle ultimately is not against humans but against the sovereignties and powers…
I was raised with a deep suspicion of police and for good reason. Law enforcement in this country, from the beginning, has been biased. There are abuses of power and entrenched racism, real and deadly systemic injustices. And yet in that system are humans, people that surprise me every time with their goodness and kindness and even humor. I have seen that many of the Hyattsville police officers understand that being human first is what makes a difference, what can prevent violence and keep people safe. How humbling to read in the bible about the importance of the humanity of individuals and to learn it anew from someone who carries a gun.
You must put on the armor of God if you are to resist on the evil day and having done everything you can, to hold your ground. It may be too easy to hear this as if it is for some other time, maybe not even our life time. The evil day sounds as if it is out there, somewhere in the future.
But friends, the evil day is now. The evil day is today for someone, somewhere in the world, somewhere in this city, maybe in this room. Think of #metoo, Black Lives Matter, Families Belong Together, the list is endless.
Because the evil day is today, we can’t wait for some other time to practice putting on the whole armor of God. We have to practice now: putting on the vest of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the belt of truth. If we don’t practice wearing this armor, which might feel really heavy, we will not be ready when we ourselves truly need it against the sovereignties and powers of darkness. It takes practice to know how to lift the shield of faith, tighten the belt of truth, slip on those boots of peace, fasten the helmet of salvation and still have enough strength to carry the sword of the Spirit.
I am not trying to scare you or manipulate you. There is a long and awful tradition of that kind of preaching. What I do hope is that we see in this ancient text the strange tools, the useful ideas, that still work.
We are walking with each other in a time of uncertainty, a time when injustice is ever present and “truth is not truth” and peace is ever elusive. Learning to put on the whole armor of God can help us remember the humanity of others even while we fight against the systems that deal death.
May we be given grace and strength to put on the whole armor of God, walking with each other in the boots of peace, in the way of peace.