PASTORING: Religion Must Rethink Military Metaphors


This article originally appeared in Issue# 39

A good phrase deserves, if not demands, a turn or two. So it was at a recent civic gathering that the official "prayer" of the day, a priest, took the theme of the Army's current advertising campaign, and filled its potential with the rich meaning of cooperation, peace, personal development and spiritual growth. He invited us to "be all we can be." It was a simple thing to do, requiring no more than basic human sensitivity and enough creativity to move some words around and make others into plurals, but its impact was such that the audience had the opportunity to engage a societal catch-phrase in a new way.

The experience caused me to consider all the illustrative, anecdotal material I use in a year of preaching and public speaking. The message from my pulpit often centers on the concept of peace but I'm becoming aware that my witness for peace must be more than just conceptual. It needs to take flesh In words and phrases, metaphors and stories that push beyond the easy cliché or the tired analogy.

The issue of military language is another example. We no longer accept racist references in speech, much less in worship. And most of us are working. slowly, on sexist ones as well. But many Western — and some Eastern — religions still describe our relationship to God in military terms. We talk of "battling" the devil, and "conquering" sin. We loudly sing 'Onward, Christian Soldiers" or 'Lord, God of Hosts, Mighty in Battle."

Despite the controversy that changing this language might provoke, all people of faith need to reexamine whether the "peace that passes all understanding" can be effectively communicated — in today's nuclear age — by traditional metaphors of war.

In looking for alternatives, I've found an excellent resource in Seeds of Peace, a handy book of more than 1700 quotations on war and peace, nonviolence and the need for justice. Designed for easy reference with pages tabbed by 29 subject areas, it's an invaluable aid for speech-makers and sermon writers in all denominations.

With new awareness and a bit of creativity, we can begin to overcome the habits of centuries, perhaps to turn another phrase: What you say is what you get.

Author Bio: 

Peter M. Paulsen is director of communications at First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA. A minister in the Reformed Church in America, he served as communication specialist in congregational, denomenational, and institutional settings. He taught communications theory and practice at the college and seminary levels, led ecumenical broadcast agencies, and writes for Christian and secular publications.