The Salvation Army's military imagery is a vital part of our organisational identity. I've written extensively before about the meaning of 'Salvation' in our movement's name and the need for this not to be construed too narrowly. It's now time to turn to the 'Army' part because I'm becoming increasingly convinced that overly literal interpretations of this military signifier also threaten to undermine our Christian identity.
It's only fair to begin with the recognition that being a Christian 'army' in the 19th century probably didn't have the cringe factor that it gained for many people in the 20th century. If that wasn't challenged by two world wars, it certainly became an issue by the 1960s and for the generations that followed who chanted "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing".
The inherent discomfort in the juxtaposition of Christian faith and military imagery finds its root in Jesus' call to non-violence (Matt 5:38-40;26:52). However, as long as you can imagine an army of non-violent love, then the problem goes away. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of paradoxical idea that most Westerners struggle with. The closest we come to embracing paradox is usually irony - and it's not really the same thing.
Despite these challenges, I think there is real opportunity here. The context just means that we have to be even more explicit about our non-violent approach. We can affirm our identity as an army and every time we do so, we need to reiterate what this means. It means that we take the inclusive love that Jesus proclaimed very seriously indeed. It is something that we're prepared to fight for but in this case, fighting means laying down our swords in the same way that Jesus lay down his life. Whilst other armies have to learn to hate their enemies, we embrace love of enemy. Our real enemies are never people but the oppressive systems and circumstances that drain people of life and of love.
If we can begin to embrace the centrality of this paradox in our organisational identity, then all sorts of additional possibilities also open up. How can we affirm the idea of a uniform without imposing uniformity? How do we embody servant leadership in the midst of an evident hierarchy of power? How can we demonstrate the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom in a world which is always asking us to take sides?