Thursday, February 12, 2015

What Does the Bible Have to Say About War Play?

I work in childcare, and recently the teachers in my department have been discussing “war play” and what we ought to do about it. My department head asked for my perspective as a minister, and I thought it would be a good idea to share it here as part of the Forum. What does the Bible have to say about war play?

Dangers of War Play

War play is the awkward name for the common childhood practice of pretending to fight. Toy guns, superheroes, cowboys and Indians, all fall under this concept. It is clearly worrisome because it is the expression of violence. On occasion, it results in injuries. More seriously, however, there are concerns that it glorifies violence and teaches children that it is the most useful method for solving problems. If this is the case, war play is detrimental to society, a potential early childhood source for the mindset that leads to domestic abuse, assault, murder, and war itself. Learning to pretend is seen as one step removed from learning to act, and many want to see the practice abandoned altogether. That is why stories are heard every so often of a young child being suspended for bringing a toy gun to school, or even for making a gun with his fingers. They want to put a stop to it before it starts.

Commendations of War Play

This position is clearly well-meaning. The desire to put an end to violence is a pure one, there can be no doubt. But it seems to miss some crucial points. Human history is one of the greatest of these. From the Egyptian hieroglyphs to the Norse sagas, and even the scriptures of the Hindus, there has been a tendency to glorify warriors. They have always been recognized as those who most literally protect the way of life of their people. Modern media display violence vividly and visually, but stories of battle have always been told and children have always been raised on them. Children playing out such scenarios has also always been an aspect of the human experience.

Beyond history, it can also be seen that such play is natural. Children desire to do it without being told. And in the animal kingdom, the young of many species fight with one another in order to learn how to hunt or how to defend themselves from predators. We human beings are part of this world, so it stands to reason that we would follow some of its natural patterns just as we do in other matters.

In spite of all of this, however, it could still be argued that war play is a negative to be eradicated. Many people believe that the antiquity of a practice is no defense for it, and the glorification of the warrior is something we ought to do away with at long last. They would also contend that one of the keys of human distinctiveness is our ability to master nature. Just because something occurs in the animal kingdom does not mean that we must emulate it. There is some truth in both these points, which I readily recognize. Some ancient cultures sacrificed their children to the gods, and many animal species are not monogamous. I would not argue for us to follow either of those patterns. The crux is that history and nature ought to at least inform us, and we need to give all the evidence a fair hearing. Beyond this, there is still another point in favor of war play.

Psychological and sociological studies have shown that war play can be beneficial to childhood development. A useful summary can be found here. War play has a great deal to teach children. They see violence in the world whether we would like them to or not, and this play allows them to work through it. It also teaches them how to work in teams, how to create and follow rules, how to recognize danger and confront fear, how to limit harm, and how to conceptualize the distinction between good and evil. These are all necessary skills, so if war play offers them, and has the imprimatur of history and nature, it should not be lightly thrown to the wayside.

War Play in the Bible

This all brings us to the question where we began. What does the Bible have to say about war play? Not very much. From what I could find, it actually says nothing about it directly. But it does have at least one story related to this idea, and it is instructive to the point of the usefulness of war play. 1 Samuel 17 records the story of David and Goliath. David went out to face the giant with a sling and a stone, but he also took something else with Him: experience. In speaking with King Saul to ask his permission to confront Goliath, David said, “‘Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.’ Moreover David said, ‘The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.’” David went out with faith that the Lord would give him victory, and that faith was encouraged by the victories he had achieved in previous battles with wild animals. David had learned how to fight as a child, and that gave him the skills necessary to triumph over the champion of the Philistines. This coincides with the true purpose of war play. It recognizes the potential need to fight, and prepares the young beforehand.

War in the Bible

The Bible may not say much about war play, but it does say a great deal about war. Although many warriors like David are heroes in the Bible, it would not be strictly accurate to say that the Scriptures glorify warfare in and of itself. It would be better to say that they recognize it as a necessity in this fallen world. Evil exists. That was not God’s purpose in creation, but He created mankind free to choose, and we have chosen selfishness. Selfishness leads to jealousy, and jealousy leads to violence. Violence, whether personal or national, requires a response. Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, and Josiah are not heroes because they fought, but because of that for which they fought. They fought to combat the evils that confronted their people, and to execute the judgments of God.

Some might point out that all those warriors are from the Old Testament, and that the calls for peace of the New Testament are preferable. This position is not quite true to the New Testament, however. Christianity is not pacifistic. War is not ignored, and there is no call to object to it categorically. Augustine, in his Against Faustus (Book 22, §74ff), points out that warfare was recognized as a necessity in the New Testament. In Luke 4:13, when soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to be righteous, he told them to not be intimidating or accusatory, and to be content with their wages. He did not tell them to leave the service. Nor did Jesus in Matthew 8 when He healed the centurion’s servant. He praised the soldier’s great faith, but said nothing to condemn his vocation. And if this were not enough, the New Testament gives us the greatest exemplar of the heroic warrior in Jesus Christ Himself. Revelation 19 describes the day when He will come as a fierce and invincible conqueror who will defeat the forces of evil and establish a rule of justice and peace.

That is the final meaning of the Bible’s teaching on war, and therefore on war play. It may not teach pacifism, but it does result in peace. This is the message of both Testaments, Old and New. “He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). On the Day of the Lord, all fighting shall cease and the world will become what it was meant to be. Until then, we live with what we have, and should prepare ourselves to face evil when confronted by it.

Practical Approach to War Play

So much for theory. What about practice? The article I linked to above offers a very helpful point. War play should not be banned altogether. If it is, children will still engage in it, but they will figure out how to do so behind the backs of their caregivers or will lie about it when caught. I can attest to this personally, as can any parent or teacher. On the other hand, we should not take a hands-off approach to war play, either. When children are left to their own devices, two things tend to happen. One is that they get out of hand. The other is that they tend to imitate the violence they see in media. Neither of these things is good for them. Imitation follows a set form, rather than allowing them to work out the needs driving their desire to play. And there is an undeniable risk of injury (though that is also true of less martial pursuits). My opinion is that we should not only allow children to engage in war play, but that we should join them. We do not need to set all the rules, but we can set enough of them to keep them safe. And by playing along, we can model the correct way to work out the urge to learn how to fight. We can show them how fighting should only be used in advancement of the good, and that it has limits established by justice. In doing this, we will once again be following the advice of the Bible. As Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” As with everything else, our goal must be to give them a stable base in the present so they will be able to face the challenges of the future. Sometimes, we have to fight. Better to teach them when they are young and safe rather than leaving them to work it out alone and endangered.

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