War is a Red Horse

The absence from blogging is due to my intense efforts to conclude the semester while also finishing some articles and my book on Revelation. Most posts in the immediate future will likely be related to those projects, especially the book.

One of my very favorite interpreters of Revelation is Eugene Peterson in his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. If you have not read it, do so immediately. Commenting on the second horse in Revelation 6, the red horse, Peterson writes (p. 77):

For a time, writ large in the headlines, war is perceived as an evil, and there are prayers for peace. But not for long, for it is quickly glamorized as patriotic or rationalized as just. But war is a red horse, bloody and cruel, making life miserable and horrid…. The perennial ruse is to glorify war so that we accept it as a proper means of achieving goals. But it is evil. It is opposed by Christ. Christ does not sit on the red horse, ever.

21 Responses to “War is a Red Horse”

  1. Josh Rowley says:

    Thanks for sharing this quote, Michael. I had not known that Eugene Peterson holds such strong views against war.

    I’m wondering whether you have any advice for those of us leading in parish settings who have church members with differing attitudes toward war. Recently (and to my surprise), the idea of the church offering “military support” has come up in my congregation. I am still processing, but the phrase in question definitely makes me itchy. Do you have any thoughts as to what (if anything) would be appropriate “military support” by a church?

  2. dan says:


    Perhaps a church could go on a hunger strike until the troops are brought home? I know some Canadians that are discussing this option if our government changes its mind (again) about bringing our young men and women back from Afghanistan.

    (I reckon the best support we can offer our military is to see that its members are situated in places where they won’t be killed… or where they won’t be able to kill, rape, steal, terrorize, etc.)

  3. Josh Rowley says:


    I share your distaste for the current wars (which perhaps wasn’t clear from my previous post). In fact, I believe Christians should reject war (and other forms of lethal violence) in general. Even the phrase “our military” makes me itchy–the church does not have a military. It’s in part for this reason that the idea of my church offering something called “military support” makes me uneasy.

    My question is this: Is there any kind of “support” that the church can offer the “military” that does not compromise the gospel of peace? Prayer is an obvious answer. But what would the contents of such prayer be?

    And are there other possibilities? A “hunger strike until the troops are brought home” would support soldiers by getting them out of the line of fire and returning them safely to their loved ones. I understand this logic. However, a hunger strike is not likely to be effective, nor is it likely the kind of support that someone asking a church to offer “military support” has in mind.

  4. MJG says:

    Josh and Dan,

    This is, in my opinion, the most difficult issue a pastor has to face (or should face, but is probably avoiding), because most of the church has been hoodwinked into thinking that the unthinkable—combining the worship of God and the Lamb with the love of military, political, and economic power—is normal, and is divinely approved, even mandated. (You can tell I have Revelation on my mind.)

    The only solution, in my view, is a (patient?) ministry of re-conversion, beginning at the top, with church leaders (bishops, pastors, seminary profs, lay leaders, etc.), and then filtering down. Every seminarian should be required to take a course on the history of civil religion from Rome to the U.S.

    In the local church I think one begins with a subtle comment here and there, and then more direct comments. and then some direct action—perhaps after gaining some converts. By direct action I mean, for example, removing the flag from the worship space (at least), removing patriotic and nationalistic music from worship services on or near national holidays, having a study group on Revelation using Nelson Kraybill’s new book (or mine when it comes out :-) ), etc.

    I once had a conversation with a pastor who was sensitive to this topic and agreed with me, for the most part, in principle. But around one of those holidays, the pressure was too great, I guess, or old thoughts and practices kicked in. The result? the militarization of the worship of God. It was nasty.

    Dr. King said racism was the original American sin. Horizontally speaking, probably so. Vertically speaking, it’s the worship of power.

    Josh, I have posted previously about the fact that “we” (the church) don’t have soldiers, and I have written (at least for my own church, and I think here) about what we should pray. But I think it’s important for the church not to go down the “support the (usually “our”) military” path.

    Here’s why and maybe how to express it: We are not a civic organization, or an American organization. We are part of an international body, the body of Christ, made up of people from every tribe and nation. Civic and national organizations are by definition American. We are not. As the Epistle to Diognetus put it in the second century, Christians are citizens of all nations and of none.

    Civic and national organizations have missions that correspond to their character. So does the church. Our mission is very different from that of such organizations. Whether or not you or I agree with a particular war, or feel as Americans that we should “support the troops,” that is not the mission of the church. As an international body, we cannot take sides, or as Christians support war as a solution to problems.

    All of our time and energy needs to be spent on mission activity that is appropriate to who we are. Those who feel the desire to support the troops can do so through other avenues.

    Someone might say, “What’s wrong with the church supporting the troops by sending DVDs or toothbrushes?” Normally, such activity by the church directed, for instance, to needy people, would not be problematic. But if the church chooses to support soldiers because they are Americans fighting a war in the name of America, it has forgotten its international character and its distinctive mission. Let the Jaycees or some other civic group do their mission, and we will do ours. Every effort and dollar put into the soldiers is an effort and dollar not put into the least, the last, and the lost.

    I have no illusion about the difficulty of articulating or practicing anything like this. Of course it gets especially difficult when there are military families in the church, or relatives, etc., as there usually are. How can the church be pastoral with these families? This is a question that needs serious discussion among pastors. I am not a pastor. It is certainly right to pray for and help families when their loved ones are away with the military. That is simply Christian love, no different from helping a family whose relative is gone for any other reasons.

  5. [...] 5, 2010 · Leave a Comment I have a tough time on the issue of war, going to war, etc. This post by Michael Gorman is about as good as I have found in thoughtful consideration of the church’s stance and then [...]

  6. Ric Booth says:

    I read Leap Over a Wall years ago and remember thoroughly enjoying Peterson’s style and take on David. Thanks for the Reversed Thunder quote. I’m adding it to my reading list.

  7. MJG,

    Peterson talks about the idea of reconversion you’re suggesting in his book “Subversive Spirituality.” This is an issue I’ve wrestled with at varying levels in different places I’ve served. I know a close friend who almost lost his job for preaching on idolatry in Exodus 32 and bringing up militarism and nationalism. The sermon was, I thought, a fantastic expose on how we make God in our image then slap “Yahweh” on it and call it worship. Revelation speaks to these issues in a profound way. I’d love to see a book on pastoral care written from the text of Revelation. How do we follow in John’s footsteps as pastors “revelating”?

    For pastoral leadership I cannot recommend Peterson’s book “Working the Angles” highly enough. This book is a wonderful call for pastors to be pastors.


    Good stuff on the creative ways to be about the things of Jesus.

  8. MJG says:


    Yes, Peterson is great. Used to be a Presbyterian pastor (29 years) in Bel Air, MD. That quote is only the tip of the iceberg of good stuff in Reversed Thunder.


    Reversed Thunder comes close to being the book you want. I need to look more closely at Subversive Spirituality. As for your friend, he is (unfortunately) not alone. I inadvertently prompted a deacon to preach similarly, and he almost got run out of town.

  9. Good to know I’m not alone! Great thread, btw. I had read the quote before but there were no comments yet. Michael, I’m curious if you could offer a few reading suggestions in regards to your proposed class for all seminarians – if you were teaching a course on the history of civil religion from Rome to America, what would be on the reading list?

    Another similar pastoral situation I’m encountering more and more is young men deciding they want to join some branch of the military, often having no real clue what they’re getting into.

  10. MJG says:

    Michael/Tyler’s friend,

    For the Roman era and the NT, I would use one or two of the following:
    Warren Carter, Roman Empire and the NT
    Richard Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire
    Dieter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul

    For Europe
    S. Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom

    For the US, any of the following would be useful:
    Robert Jewett, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (great book)
    Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal
    Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation
    Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz, America’s Battle for God: A European Christian Looks at Civil Religion

    There are others, but I’ve found all of these useful for my own work and have used some as course texts.

    Thoughts on the pastoral situation to come.

  11. Frank says:

    There’s a new one out by Richard Hughes called “Christian America and the Kingdom of God.”

  12. MJG says:

    Thanks, Frank.

    Hughes also has “Myths America Lives By” and “The Myth of Christian America”; I’ve not read either of these in full, or read at all the one you mentioned, but they get good reviews.

  13. Josh Rowley says:

    Michael, thanks for your generous and helpful reply to my above query. I appreciate your awareness that tackling these issues gets us pastors into trouble at the level of the local church.

  14. Michael (TF) says:

    Thanks Michael,

    I’ll add to my list those I haven’t read.

    On Hughes, Myths America Lives By is waaaaay better than his more recent Christian America and the Kingdom of God. In the latter he oversimplifies the American system and too uncritically adopts Crossan’s historical Jesus work. Still some good stuff, but not in the same league as Myths (IMO!).

  15. dan says:

    A few further books worth looking at regarding civil religion in the Roman Empire during the NT era:

    Galatians and the Imperial Cult by Justin K. Hardin.
    The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire by Neil Elliott.
    Paul and the Roman Imperial Order edited by Richard Horsley.
    Jesus and Empire by Richard Horsley also does a fine job of looking at civil religion in both the NT era and in ours (as does his short book Religion and Empire). Another book that unites these two horizons is Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther.

    A few further books that, while not focused entirely on civil religion, still add a lot to the discussion (in terms of explaining how challenging civil religion literally threatened the lives of the Pauline communities) are:

    Paul, Poverty and Survival by Justin Meggitt.
    Phillippians: From People to Letter by Peter Oakes (I’ve heard that his recent book, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level is also a great contribution to this discussion, but I have yet to read it).

    I would also contest Josh’s remark that a hunger strike is not likely going to be effective. Perhaps that is true in the current American context, perhaps not, but I think it is not true in the current Canadian context. Hunger strikes can be effective but they must be employed seriously (the sort of “strike until death” Gandhi practiced, not to mention Bobby Sands and other members of the IRA [a situation portrayed exceptionally well in the 2008 movie, Hunger]). Hunger strikes of the one week variety are ineffective. But I digress…

  16. Michael (TF) says:

    Thanks Dan. I’ve followed your monthly reading updates for a couple years now and have very much appreciated (and looked forward to) your thoughts on this growing body of literature. I look forward to some of your own contributions toward it as well.

  17. MJG says:

    Michael, Thanks for the advice on Hughes.

    Dan, Thanks for supplementing the first-century imperial stuff. There’s lots in this area now, and some pushback is occurring. I do think some of Elliott’s work and Horsley’s goes a bit too far, and we need some interpretive guidelines, both historical and hermeneutical.

    On Revelation, Unveiling Empire is very helpful.

  18. dan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    I agree about Horsley and Elliott. In my reading of them, they appear to have become quite a bit more refined and exact over the years but, yes, I still think they go too far at some points (sometimes I think they just aren’t exactly sure what to do with the material at hand; cf. the various and somewhat conflicting pieces Elliott has written on Ro 13 over the years).

  19. Brian LePort says:

    Peterson’s book is one of my favorite on Revelation as well. I found it refreshing.

  20. MJG says:


    Yes—in lots of ways.

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