I recently attended a church function in which speakers made several references to the “church militant.” A term used rarely these days, it made me think of Django and Djesus. Django Unchained is a critically acclaimed blockbuster movie of the past decade. The brutal and violent story is about an 1850s slave who becomes a bounty hunter seeking his wife who is similarly enslaved and abused by a wealthy, evil owner. When on the verge of freeing her, Django gets captured, tortured, chained, and readied for castration, when it is determined that he will, instead, be “worked to death.” He escapes and, armed with dynamite, guns, swords, and an arsenal of other weapons, inflicts bloody revenge in explosive fashion upon his many persecutors. It didn’t take long for Saturday Night Live to make an irreverent spoof called “Djesus Uncrossed,” in which a risen lord busts out of his tomb to open a can of whoop-ass—takin’ names and kickin’ butt—on Roman soldiers, temple guards, high priests, procurators, and earthly sovereigns that did him wrong.
Though shameful to some, hilarious to others, and simultaneously both to many viewers, the spoof exposes a bizarre religio-militant attitude that exists among some citizens in our society and a few members of our church. In the early centuries of Christianity, when followers of Jesus suffered persecution throughout the Roman Empire, God’s people envisioned three stages to our existence: earth, purgatory, and heaven; they corresponded to the church militant, church penitent, and church triumphant. The church militant referred to spiritual warfare in our earthly existence (even while some suffered penitential purgatory here) that sought a victory of love through lives dedicated to peace. It is important to note that, in sacred scripture, “peace” does not refer merely to the absence of conflict or war but to the presence of God and love.
Unfortunately, today, some people turn the notion of “church militant” into cultural and political warfare that enacts hatred and vengeance. There is even a church militant website that marshals offensive attacks on what it views as evil—kind of like the Waterboy’s mama who identified everything she didn’t like as “the devil.” Those who justify hostile acts or attitudes in socio-religious or religio-political circles do not lend dignity to our Christian nature. Despite the Crusades of medieval times when deadly fighting was undertaken to convert infidels and despite numerous sword-wielding orders of Christian knights within church structures, the idea of being a Soldier in Christ’s Army is rooted in battling spiritual enemies: evil within that tempts us to follow things contrary to Jesus’ ways and exterior paths that are contrary to God’s love.
About thirty years ago when publishing The Catholic Catechism, Pope John Paul II replaced the term “church militant” with “pilgrims on earth,” offering an identity better suited to our current existence (since most of us are not being persecuted like the first Christians). In ensuing decades, some religious lay orders that traditionally wore capes and carried swords have replaced them, too—though the capes are still donned at special events and swords still brought forth in ceremonial blessings where references are made less to wars and more to virtues like those presented in Proverbs 22: “…using steel to sharpen steel much as one friend can sharpen another in strength and faith.” Though we should be militant in the sense of standing strong against evil forces, within and without, it’s not about messin’ somebody up who disrespects us or our mission. It’s about being earthly pilgrims who seek peace, not just as the absence of war but the presence of God’s love in our lives, whose acts prepare us to one day partake of the church triumphant in heaven.