Musket Fire? Youth battalions? What's with all the military metaphors at church?
I’m a peaceful sort of guy. Not really into guns at all. Never watch boxing, and really have no desire to fight anyone. I do enjoy football, but that’s about as rough as I get. I’m not saying I would never fight, or get angry, but I just tend to prefer things to be calm and peaceful. I’m into art, reading, music, and running.
And I confess to some uneasiness whenever we sing one of those battle-themed hymns at church. There seems to be a lot of them, at least in our Latter-day Saint hymnbook.. “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We are all Enlisted”, “Behold! a Royal Army”, and the like.
Recently our prophet, President Nelson, employed a military metaphor when he challenged all the youth of the church to enlist in the “youth battalion” to help gather Israel. And Elder Holland is currently catching a lot of flack for employing the metaphor of “musket fire” as he challenged faculty and administrators at BYU to put a little more effort towards defending the doctrines of the church and supporting church leaders rather than criticizing them. Actually he was repeating the metaphor from earlier leaders.
Why do we feel the need to employ military metaphors? Shouldn’t the gospel be about peace, love and kindness? Is there some kind of war going on that I missed hearing about? And when did we join the army? Well yes, there is a war going on actually. But sometimes, when we get distracted by life, we can tend to forget about the war.
Which war? THE war… and there is really only one. It has been going on from the very beginning. This war started so long ago and it’s been going on for so long that perhaps it’s easy to forget it’s even happening. It is the water we swim in, a constant in the world around us.
It’s like that line from Star Wars The Force Awakens, when Maz Kanata explains to Finn and Rey that there’s only one fight:
"Through the ages…I've seen evil take many forms. The Sith. The Empire. Today, it is the First Order. Their shadow is spreading across the galaxy. We must face them. Fight them. All of us.”
Obviously (well, maybe not so obvious to some) Star Wars is fiction. But all great stories, whether it’s Shakespeare or Harry Potter, connect at their core back into the universal battle between good and evil. If your story isn’t about love, mercy, justice, or good vs. evil, then have you really got a story? So there’s some kernel of universal truth here. There is something here that is a part of all of us.
As Latter-day Saints we believe this war began before God ever placed people on the earth. It began in heaven, and we believe it continues here. Our scriptures teach us that Satan and his demons inhabit the earth, and are fighting in an everlasting battle for our souls. I know in the modern secular age that must sound ridiculous to many, but I happen to believe it for numerous reasons I won’t go into at the moment. If you believe in God, Jesus, and angels, is it such a stretch to also believe there are devils about? And if you don't believe in them, then what exactly was Jesus doing casting all those demons out in the gospels?
This war isn’t always fought with guns and swords (although I suppose sometimes it is). But most often it’s fought with ideas, temptations, words, images, and thoughts. A recent article in our church magazine, the Liahona, describes well the nature of the battle and reminds us that it’s important to understand how Satan fights against us in this very real war. The article is entitled “Knowing the Tactics of our Enemy” (by Joseph Richardson).
A couple of weeks ago, I sat at a youth devotional where about 1700 young people were gathered to hear an apostle speak. The opening hymn of the devotional was “Hope of Israel”. As we began singing, that same familiar uneasiness set in.
“Great”, I thought, “here we go, a battle hymn”.
But then something happened. I began to really focus on the words of the hymn, and to think about the deeper meaning of this song. These are the words:
Hope of Israel, Zion’s army,
Children of the promised day,
See, the Chieftain signals onward,
And the battle’s in array!
[Chorus] Hope of Israel, rise in might
With the sword of truth and right;
Sound the war-cry, “Watch and pray!”
Vanquish every foe today.
See the foe in countless numbers,
Marshaled in the ranks of sin.
Hope of Israel, on to battle;
Now the victory we must win!
Strike for Zion, down with error;
Flash the sword above the foe!
Every stroke disarms a foeman;
Every step we conquering go.
Soon the battle will be over;
Every foe of truth be down.
Onward, onward, youth of Zion;
Thy reward the victor’s crown.
The mental imagery is striking, but what is this really talking about? Who is the Hope of Israel? At first glance I thought, well it must be Christ. But no, “Zion’s army, the children of the promised day” are the hope of Israel (at least in this context). The hymn is meant to be a rallying cry to us. It is to encourage us on to spiritual battle in this great war against sin. Onward, onward, youth of Zion.. our youth are the hope of Israel. Incidentally, "Hope of Israel" was also what President Nelson titled his message to the youth when he called for the youth battalion.
Did you notice what the sword is? The sword is “truth and right”. Let’s not skip over that crucial point! We are to use truth and righteousness to fight. The apostle Paul used similar imagery when he described the armor of God, with the shield of faith, and the breastplate of righteousness.
The Savior himself taught:
“My word … is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow.”
This sword of truth will “divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil” (Helaman 3:29).
So, maybe the images can get a little intense.. but let us not be confused. It is a metaphor — the physical is used in likeness of the spiritual.
And this spiritual war is very real.
Evil exists and good exists. We can run from the battle, or we can stand and fight.
Yes, the gospel is about kindness, love and goodness. But it is also about resisting evil in all its forms. If we are not going to resist evil, but rather move to embrace it — even in the name of love and acceptance — then we have lost the battle.
Some people have criticized Elder Holland’s recent sharp message (the sword of truth?) by saying that he intended to hurt members of the LGBTQ community. They predictably called his speech homophobic. I certainly didn’t see it that way. To me he seemed to be doing what our leaders have been doing for so long now - trying to walk that very tricky line between expressing love and support for those who are LGBTQ, while at the same time defending our core doctrinal belief in traditional marriage between men and women.
He wasn't trying to hurt anybody, (even metaphorically) with his comment about musket fire. His point was that many who should be defending the church and standing up for its doctrines, are instead firing "shots" so to speak, at those very doctrines and the leaders themselves. He called for a little more self-defense as we work on building our holy temple in the holy city, with the "trowel in one hand a musket in the other" (see Elder Holland's speech)
Those who are upset with Elder Holland are, in my opinion, overreacting just a little. They say we should eliminate the metaphors of weaponry and fighting, and look to fulfill Isaiah's great millennial prophecy by beating our swords into plowshares, and putting down our weapons (Isaiah 2:4). Such a promised day will surely come in the near future. But what they seem to be forgetting is this: the war is not yet over.