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Monday, November 08, 2004
 
In Hoc Signo Vinces

Hate your next-door neighbor, But
don't forget to say grace.



In the first few centuries of the existence of Christianity, one
of its chief rivals was a mystery-cult
religion
known as Mithraism.
Believed to be an import from the far eastern fringe of the Roman
Empire, the cult of the warrior sun-god Mithra (also known to the Romans as
Sol Invictus — the “Undefeatable Sun”)
eventually spread to
every corner
of the Imperial domain. Even Hadrian's
Wall
, quite literally the northernmost fringe of Roman influence,
was dotted with Mithraic temples (Mithraeums).


The widespread worship of Mithra/Sol Invictus in its time was
largely due to its popularity
within the ranks of Rome's legions
. Since the religion emphasized
its worshipers' roles as active participants in a protracted and
costly spiritual war between nearly-equivalent forces of Good and
Evil, its appeal to the mindset of a lifelong soldier is
understandable.


If all of this sounds creepily
familiar
, it's because much of what we regard as Christianity
today can be attributed to its early contact with Mithraism. From some of
the most basic vestments of our clergy (ever
wondered
why the Pope's
hat
is called a Mitre?),
to the date
of at least one major
religious holiday
, the influence of Mithra/Sol Invictus is at
least cosmetically evident in the way most of us worship to this day.


It also survives in little daily vignettes like
this one
:


With US forces massing outside
Fallujah, 35 marines swayed to Christian rock music and asked Jesus
Christ to protect them in what could be the biggest battle since
American troops invaded Iraq last year.


[...]


The marines then lined up and their
chaplain blessed them with holy oil to protect them.


God's people would be
annointed with oil,” the chaplain said, as he lightly dabbed
oil on the marines' foreheads.


The crowd then followed him outside
their small auditorium for a baptism of about a half-dozen marines
who had just found Christ.


I know this is supposed to be all heartwarming and joyful, what
with all the blah-de-blah about salvation and annointed protection
and the coming of souls into to bosom of Christ; but things like this
just leave me theologically chilled. Is it really all
about Jesus
, or just a feel-good messianic puppet-show? And who's
that demi-god in
the funny cap
pulling the strings up there above the box?


I mean, I hate to have to be the the one to ruin anyone's nice
warm bath with the icewater of theology here; but Jesus does not
protect the lives of soldiers in battle, at least not any more than
He watches over anyone else.


This is because Jesus is not your fairy godmother. Neither is He
Sol Invictus. He is Jesus.


Soldiers have to be prepared to kill. And volunteer soldiers,
especially, understand what they are getting into when they sign up
for that. All soldiers also implicitly understand that there
is the chance that they, too, might be killed at the hands of another
soldier. It's the calculus of war.


And as for whatever side a soldier's fighting on — good,
evil, indifferent ... whatever. It doesn't matter where the moral
slider sits that your army fights under.

It's not as if a soldier has that much choice in deciding what
sort of army he chooses to serve; it's far more a factor of basic
geography than morality. And war is never that morally clear-cut
anyway.


It's not like all those Iraqi soldiers we
buried alive in their trenches
during the First Gulf War were
there because they all woke up one day possessed with some satanic
notion to die for their evil
overlord's
failed global domination plan. Most of them were
conscripts;
and not a few were Christians,
to boot. A fairy godmother Jesus would have at least made some
attempt to dig a few of them out.


But it doesn't work that way. I am reminded of Matthew
4:5-7
, the story of Jesus and Satan in Jerusalem:


Then the devil taketh him up into
the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,


And saith unto him, If thou be the
Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his
angels charge concerning thee: and in [their] hands they shall bear
thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.


Jesus said unto him, It is written
again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.


A soldier going into battle is essentially stepping off into that
void. He knows that there is a much higher chance of violent harm
coming to him than if he were at home in bed, not yet even risen for
the day.


He may ask God and/or Jesus to guide him in the coming
difficult hours; but to ask Him for protection above all others —
to seek a special status in a kill-or-be-killed environment —
well, that's just tempting Him.


And that, to me, is not
Christian
.



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