Taking Off the Armor of God - Word&Way

Taking Off the Armor of God

As more than 3,000 people gathered under a revival tent at a church in Batavia, New York, multiple speakers identified a clear enemy: New York Attorney General Letitia James. The rhetoric came during the latest installment of the ReAwaken America Tour (or RAT for short), a series of events full of Christian Nationalism, anti-vax falsehoods, and election conspiracies headlined by Michael FlynnRoger Stone, Eric Trump, pillow-hugger Mike Lindell, and numerous preachers and political activists.

James’s sin was sending a letter to event organizers warning about potential legal action if “extremist” rhetoric sparked violence. For the RAT speakers, this meant she jumped to the top of the list of people to demonize, along with regular targets like President Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee. Organizer Clay Clark referenced James in the event’s opening seconds, leading to the first round of boos.

Paul Doyle, pastor of the church hosting the event, also attacked James and framed the movement in militaristic terms. Invoking the Civil War, he announced “we’re in a new battle” that is “a battle of good and evil.”

“Jesus bloodied himself for me, and I am ready to bloody myself for him,” Doyle added.

Mark Burns, a Pentecostal preacher in South Carolina who campaigned for Trump and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress, went even further in a speech attacking the “gestapo FBI,” criticizing mask mandates for a “manmade” virus, declaring Biden isn’t legitimately president, cheering for Donald Trump to return to office “now,” and calling for Biden to be tried for treason.

“I am here to declare war on every demonic spirit that is here in the great state of New York,” he declared. “The cavalry has arrived here, New York. … We’re taking over!”

“They hate you because they hate Jesus,” he added. “We got to get [AG James] saved.”

Burns even “prayed” for James, asking God to help her repent and get saved. For the record, James is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, but he ended his “prayer” with a request for divine punishment if she doesn’t convert to RAT’s cause.

“But, Father, if she does not repent, woe to her now in the name of Jesus. That, Father, if she does not repent and turn back to you, show the world what happens to those that comes [sic] against your servants,” Burns declared as a keyboard gently played. “For the Bible declares that vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. The battle is not ours but is his. So, we love you, Letitia James, we pray and we cover you now by the blood of the lamb.”

Other speakers also used violent rhetoric, like Tennessee preacher Greg Locke, a regular at RAT events who rose to fame by fighting COVID health measures and from his presence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

“We so believe in our First Amendment right that if you show up on our campus and you try to shut us down with our First Amendment right, I said the boys will meet you at the door with our Second Amendment right because we are not playing your Democrat games,” he declared to applause. “It’s time we stand, having done all to stand because the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. We better suit up, we better boot up, we better put on the whole armor of God because this ain’t a circus, this is a war that we’re in. This is a war that we’re in.”

Screengrab as Greg Locke preaches at the ReAwaken America Tour event on Aug. 12, 2022, in Batavia, New York.

Eric Trump came on stage shortly after Locke and endorsed the message and encouraged more pastors to be like Locke. Trump added, “I like any pastor that’s pro-Second Amendment. … And I sure as hell like any pastor who’s pro-Trump, and you are certainly pro-Trump. So, Pastor Locke is my guy.”

Locke wasn’t the only RAT speaker over the weekend to cite Ephesians 6:10-19 passage about the “armor of God” (which he mixed with 2 Corinthians 10:4). Pastor David Scarlett and “prophet” Amanda Grace open each RAT with the blowing of shofars to bring the Holy Spirit in (and despite all the times they’ve done this, they still haven’t figured out how to make it a joyful noise).

Later in the recent event, they read through and offered a verse-by-verse exposition of the Ephesians passage about the armor because, as Scarlett put it, “we’re under warfare” and “it’s offense time.” Grace (not living up to her name) added that if they go on offense then “you are going to see major change in this country and you are going to see the wicked fall.”

But it’s not just at RAT events where speakers invoke the “armor of God” to frame our current partisan disputes. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we look at politicians citing Ephesians 6 in ways that don’t fit with the meaning of the passage. Then we consider how this rhetoric adds to a political environment already filled with violence.

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Onward Christian Soldiers

At RAT events, people arrested for their roles in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection are applauded and cheered. As a report by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Freedom From Religion Foundation documented, some insurrectionists wore an “Armor of God” patch with a large cross on their camouflage fatigues. Another insurrectionist wore a t-shirt in his mugshot that said “Armor of God” on top of a shield and two swords (which is one more sword than is actually in the passage).

Meanwhile, Jake Angeli — better known as the “QAnon Shaman” who was arrested for his role in the insurrection (which included leading a prayer in the U.S. Senate after breaking in) — invoked the passage on a conservative podcast late last year as he talked about his jail sentence. Sans his furry hat and face paint, Angeli compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus.

“I’m doing all I can to be strong and courageous and wear the full armor of God,” he added from federal detention. “That’s part of the role of the shaman — to be the one that fights the spiritual war for the people, to be the one that shows the people the flaws within its system, within its culture, and helps them to repair those flaws.”

Mark Finchem is a member of the far-right militia the Oath Keepers and was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. Now he’s the Republican nominee for Arizona Secretary of State, which means he would oversee the state’s elections if he wins in November. During a hearing in late 2020 as he pushed false election claims as a state lawmaker to overturn Biden’s win in the Grand Canyon State, Finchem invoked the Ephesians passage.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a skirmish,” he declared. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because when Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing. So, be on your guard, put on the full armor of God, and be prepared to fight.”

Other candidates running in this year’s midterms are also invoking the biblical passage to frame their candidacies. This is particularly coming from politicians who supported efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which climaxed in the deadly insurrection. For instance, Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for governor of Illinois, features the biblical citation to the Ephesians passage on the door of his campaign bus.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is running for reelection this year but seems focused on the Republican presidential primary for 2024. As the GOP frontrunner if Trump isn’t in the race, DeSantis is framing his political efforts as a battle for God.

“Get ready for battle. Put on the full armor of God,” he declared last month at an event by Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA. “Take a stand against the left’s schemes. Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist. You will face flaming arrows, but the shield of faith will protect you. And so, in 2022 I think this November is going to be the time when America fought back.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis throws out hats after being introduced during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit on July 22, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)

DeSantis apparently likes this framing of political disagreements between Republicans and Democrats as a spiritual battle between good and evil. He also used it earlier this year at a Conservative Political Action Conference event and last year at a conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition led by religious-political activist Ralph Reed. In another speech, the man who signed a bill limiting what public school teachers can say about sexuality declared, “Gird your loins for battle. We are going to fight. You put on the full armor of God. You take a stand against the left’s schemes.”

Other politicians also like to quote the passage. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is planning a gubernatorial run in 2024, claimed in June that Christians are “called to be led by men,” so men must “put on the whole armor of God” and “take the head of your enemy in God’s name.”

Similarly, Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado last year answered a question about how she handled criticism from Democrats. She responded, “I have the armor of God, and that is all forward-facing to help me in the battle. I have the helmet of salvation, and the shield of faith, and the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, and the sword of the spirit, the shoes of peace. That’s all forward-facing for the battle. So, I am well armed to go into this battle.”

Candidates pushing Christian Nationalism and seeking to undermine the 2020 election results keep citing Ephesians 6 to explain their efforts. But that’s not what the passage actually teaches.

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Biblical Background

Addressed to early Christians in the ancient city of Ephesus, the overarching focus of Ephesians is the Church’s witness to the supremacy of God. The letter speaks to the triumph of God’s reign known through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, while urging Christians to act accordingly as individuals and as a community of believers.

Rather than supporting a political quest for power, one of the book’s common threads is the need for Christians to stand fast in the face of imperial persecution. Their minority status within the empire put them at odds with the government, and sometimes even their own families.

“[Ephesians] was written for people for whom their allegiance to Christ set them at conspicuous odds with the allegiances of others in their families and cities,” Lutheran scholar Sarah Henrich explained. “The beleaguered minority dares to trust that they are enrolled with the Lord and the hosts of heaven and protected finally — if not penultimately — by God’s strength and might.”

Ephesians 6 is not a call for beleaguered Christians to take up arms and seize control of the empire. Instead, it demands that the followers of Jesus trust that God will provide for their defense amid the battles fought between spiritual forces.

“In the armed struggle with evil, the saints of God are on the defensive, not the offensive,” New Testament scholar Richard Carlson wrote. “This text is not an ‘onward Christian soldiers’ type of battle cry in which the church militant will usher in God’s kingdom by attacking and rooting out all the forces which stand in opposition to God. Rather, the call is for the saints to stand firm and withstand the attacks of evil.”

Looking out over the ruins of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey from the amphitheater mentioned in Acts 19. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The concern of Ephesians 6 is not the politics of any one nation; it is focused on the purity of the Church’s testimony to the eternal victory of God. The passage promises God will act in defense of those who stand faithful and equip them with the armor necessary to endure evil’s onslaught. It asks for trust in God’s protection; it does not justify human aggression.

While conservative evangelicals built their identity around a professed fidelity to scripture, many of the politicians they follow today regularly rewrite key passages of the Bible to serve their own partisan ends. The way RAT speakers, Jan. 6 participants, and politicians like DeSantis and Robinson employ Ephesians 6 is no exception.

Like those early believers in Ephesus, sincere Christians today face the challenge of remaining steadfast in their convictions despite these attempts by powerful leaders to undermine the claims of their faith.

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Sacralizing Political Violence

While politicians incorrectly deploying the “armor of God” in a political joust is notable on its own, this rhetoric does not occur in a vacuum. As they say in both biblical studies and the rest of life, “context matters.” And prominent references to metaphorical violence and instances of actual violence mark our current social and political situation.

Last week, the FBI searched one of Trump’s homes and removed a variety of sensitive and classified documents that he improperly possessed. The law enforcement agency received sign-off from the highest reaches of the U.S. Department of Justice and a search warrant (indicating probable cause of a crime) from a judge. They performed the search quietly and with sensitivity, until Trump shouted it to the heavens in a mischaracterizing way. Allusions to — and even demands for — violence poured in.

“The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies, “ Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted, while also stating that new legislation resourcing the IRS to enforce compliance with tax laws among wealthy Americans meant that “they’re coming for YOU too.”

DeSantis and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy joined other GOP officials in echoing the interpretation of the FBI search as a “weaponization” of law enforcement. Not to be outdone, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz told Steve Bannon that Republicans “are ready for this battle” in response to the FBI search.

“My assessment is the antidote has to be not one more damn penny for this administrative state that has been weaponized against our people in a very fascist way,” Gaetz added. “Let us put on the armor of God and go fight.”

Threats of violence, including towards the judge who signed off on the warrant, echoed on right-wing social media. The judge’s synagogue canceled its worship service because of the antisemitic threats. One Trump supporter posted on Truth Social (the social media platform founded by the former president) to “Kill the F.B.I. on sight.”

Trying to follow his own advice, that man, Ricky Shiffer (who was investigated for his involvement at the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6), armed himself and attempted to attack a FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio. After failing to breach the building, he engaged in a standoff that ended with law enforcement fatally shooting him.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower on Aug. 9, 2022, in New York City after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago the previous day. (Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press)

These recent events and societal trends over the last several years leave many sounding an alarm over how easily escalated language turns into political violence. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne and a historian at Calvin University, wrote about this on her Substack newsletter over the weekend.

“Words matter. Dehumanizing rhetoric precedes acts of political violence. Promoting false claims like the ‘stolen election’ has very real consequences,” she wrote. “Stoking fear to promote your own power, using language of us vs. them, talking in terms of an epic battle for truth and righteousness, claiming that God is on your side against the forces of darkness — all of this has consequences.”

Those in the public square citing Ephesians 6 about putting on the “armor of God” perceive themselves as in the middle of a fight or preparing for a war. They are not closely studying the biblical text to bolster their faith in a God who defends them against persecution by an empire. While sometimes misperceiving themselves as persecuted, they portray themselves as righteous warriors attacking political enemies allegedly in league with the devil. In doing so, they define righteousness by partisan politics and depict as evil enemies some fellow members of the Church.

Christians must recognize that politicians and preachers using scripture in a militant quest for power disfigure the biblical witness to the reign of God. Their words reveal a refusal to flip over just a couple chapters and “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). So, it’s time for a moratorium on invoking the “armor of God” in partisan warfare. On that, we’re willing to stand our ground.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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