Of all the noble feelings which fill the human heart in the exciting tumult of battle, none, we must admit, are so powerful and constant as the soul’s thirst for honor and renown.

Carl von Clausewitz

In addition to the trade war and the culture wars and the war on drugs, you may have heard about the war on plastic, the war on science, the war on journalists, and the war on paywalls, not to mention pizza wars, cyber wars, and Storage Wars. Social justice “warriors” are “mobilizing” online, and lately, to the average person, facts may be most useful when weaponized for argumentative domination. The above quote, by a 19th-century military theorist, was mined from William Davies’ new book Nervous States, about the rise of emotion in a world that, at least in theory, extols objectivity and reason. Citing Clausewitz at length, Davies describes a swell of war-like rhetoric in daily life: “the public and economic sphere is becoming increasingly organized around principles of conflict, attack, and defense.”

The denominator here is glory — “the soul’s thirst of honor and renown.” As deadly as war can be, it is also exciting and invigorating, especially if, as with most of the cases mentioned above, it is not actual war but the negotiations of everyday life re-cast as epic battles. Turn around Clausewitz’s statement and you get another interesting theory: that in the soul’s thirst for honor it seeks battle, craves some tumult by which to earn recognition. Davies says that “civilian mobilization grants a purpose to life and a potential meaning for each death. The demographer” — representing, in this case, the nonmilitarized perspective — “records your death as a statistic; the military commander [by contrast] will engrave your name on a monument.”

Importantly war-like rhetoric goes beyond secular lines. Look closely and you’ll notice words like “subversive” and “radical” in otherwise ordinary Christian discourse. Recall the armor of God, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:10-17) as well as the semi-controversial hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” (inspired by 2 Tim 2:3). In charismatic communities, spiritual warfare remains a daily engagement, and church bulletins employ mobilizing phraseology like “Rise Up!”, perhaps a riff on United Pursuit’s “Break Every Chain,” a song that insists repeatedly, “There’s an army rising up.” None of this is ill-intended. There’s just no better way to inspire believers than to let them take up a battle cry. (“For Narnia! And…for Aslan!”)

There’s biblical precedent for most of this, too, namely the Kingdom of God, which Jesus regularly insisted was “at hand.” A mantra of “advancing the Kingdom” might come off slightly medieval but also captures militancy, certainly territorialism. Biblically, the Kingdom of God is at odds with, and imminently triumphing over, the dominion of “the world.” Like in a game of chess, these two kingdoms spar, and according to Romans 8, in Christ, “we are more than conquerors.”

This is likely what the Roman Emperor Constantine had in mind as he charged into battle, cross held aloft: “Before the victory over Maxentius (312), Constantine saw a sign of the cross in the sky and the words ‘in this sign thou shalt conquer’ and used it as a talisman in battle.” This talisman, displaying the Greek insignia XP — the “Chi-Rho” — is still used in churchly processions today. You could almost interpret the clergy advancing down the aisle as a battle strike. I wonder if it is.

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis makes a compelling case for religion in the modern age. I read it in college. For me the most inspiring part, and the part I have not forgotten, was this:

Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

How exciting and even, to a large extent, credible! Paul wrote similarly, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” His ancient words remain the resounding chorus of every battle cry both sacred and secular — and not just because they appear in Harry Potter. All of us are perishable beings, few at peace with nonexistence. Even areligious techno-optimists seek to put death in its grave via innovation and a digital merging of consciousness.

But beyond the persistent threat of bodily decay, the rhetoric alone is captivating. Offered a key role in the most important mission ever, who would resist taking up a banner?

Language carries the clout to both buoy and burden. As Davies explains, “Language becomes a tool of domination; for the same reason, it can really wreak emotional harm.” With war-like rhetoric we draw dividing lines between us and them. We become Allied forces holding out against the Axis, for example, good guys sabotaging the bad when so often the opposite is true, at least in our own micro-spheres where we can’t help but step on toes. The rallying cries of the church — “rise up,” “onward soldiers,” “the Lord is my banner” — signal more than mere enthusiasm. They signal an elevated sense of what churchgoers are capable of, what our role is in life. Normal people, often young, are ready to wield a banner of war. The “truth” is a tool for control rather than the wellspring of life and freedom that Jesus promised it would be.

In an essay titled “A War of Religion?” French mystic Simone Weil wrote about a condition that she perceived had taken hold of the 20th century. Its source was, to her, widespread denial of the spiritual realities of good and evil; a relativism that “imposes no constraints” but results in a maddening boredom. “In prosperity,” she writes, “with abundant resources, we try to evade this boredom by playing…not the games of children, who believe in their games, but the games of grown men in captivity.”

Naturally I think of the culture-war dramas, where everything is war because none of it is war. In boredom we heighten the stakes because, some part of us suspects, they do not really exist. Sin, death, and evil — the world’s greatest enemies — have become distant mythologies, not powers in need of striking down. Weil died before the true horrors of the Holocaust were revealed but her assertion here remains true, I think:

We must not forget that Europe has not been subjugated by hordes that came from another continent or from the planet Mars, whom it would be sufficient to drive away. Europe is suffering from an internal illness. It is in need of a cure.

War-like rhetoric captures something true about life when circumstances look bleak, when life gets you down — onward, good Christians! But this phraseology is, alone, insufficient. Scripture offers other rhetorical models that capture a fuller experience. For example, the imagery of sickness (“It is not the healthy who need a physician”) or the language of sin (“our iniquities, like the wind, take us away”). Not as uplifting, perhaps, but more realistic; these point toward the location of battle, which unfolds within castle walls, not without. “Germany is a mirror,” Weil wrote. “What we find there so hideous are our own features, merely exaggerated.”

In Luther’s commentary on Galatians he argues, “In justification God hath stirred up in your bodies a strife and a battle; the flesh and the spirit are at war with the other.” Usually we are not liberating troops so much as subjugated civilians. There is, Paul wrote, “another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin… Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Beleaguered, surrender becomes the most sensible tactic. Paul found a path in forgiveness, in atonement, in a champion who came from without: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Tap out, he is saying; your fight belongs to another. Raise the white flag, and watch with wide eyes the real-time operations of a God whose property is always to have mercy.