Collateral Damage in Spiritual Warfare: A Christmas Story

America is a nation at war. In any military conflict, there is always potential for collateral damage. Modern technology has done much to minimize the extent of this ever present battle companion. But side losses cannot be entirely avoided. Our military has developed standardized processes for measuring the effectiveness of military operations. One of them is the Battle Damage Assessment, or BDA in military shorthand.

Doctrine from the Joint Chiefs of Staff
BDA is required during war or military operations other than war to determine if strategic, operational, and tactical objectives have been met. Strategically, BDA provides...intelligence on the status of efforts to fulfill...national strategy and national military objectives and guidance. Operationally, BDA determines the functional status of adversary facilities, and target systems, as well as the combat effectiveness of adversary forces. Tactically, BDA identifies the effects of individual attacks against adversary facilities and forces.1

A time will come in the history of the world when nations shall no longer study the art of war. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.2 Then the song of the heavenly host will be a reality, there will be peace on earth and good will toward men.3 But such was not the case when the angelic choir surrounded the shepherds of Bethlehem. And such is not the case today. We are not only a nation at war; we live in an age of warfare. And in time of war, even those who are unaware that they are living in a conflict zone may suffer loss as opposing powers clash in their bid for dominance.

 

A highly trained Special Forces unit drops through the night sky—quiet, committed, deadly. With only precious seconds left to spare, rip cords are pulled and the HALO (high-altitude/low-opening) jump is successfully completed. Chutes are hidden and the team moves out toward their objective, weapons at the ready. Their target is the third hut inside the small village. A light drizzle begins as they start down the hill and pass the first hut. Lightning flashes, bringing a micro-second of daylight at the worst possible instant. A woman sees the team and screams, startled by the sudden appearance of the phantoms of the night. The veneer of peace is shattered as the flash and crack of small weapons fire blossoms from the third hut and spreads through the tiny quadrant of the village. The team is undeterred. They make their way to their objective and rescue the captive inside. They blaze their way to safety and the loading zone. Mission accomplished.

 

BDA: Captive rescued, 13 enemy combatants killed, communications gear and weapons cache destroyed. Collateral damage: 3 huts destroyed, 4 damaged; 5 or more civilians wounded or dead.

From USAF Intelligence Gathering Guide
Broadly defined, collateral damage is unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces…When a commander is planning strikes near his own forces, there is always some element of risk…Risk levels are: negligible, moderate, or high (emergency). At an emergency risk distance, some injuries and fatalities may occur. An emergency risk should be accepted only when absolutely necessary and be exceeded only in extremely rare situations.4

Even when the plan is a secret insertion and a surgical strike, bystanders can get killed. What if the woman in our story hadn’t screamed? What if she had seen the men and quietly helped them to their objective? What would be her fate in the morning when the village woke up to find their prime captive gone? Collateral damage isn’t limited to the original action. It can also result as a consequence of the action when the opposing force seeks retribution. Should a captive be set free at the risk of the jailers’ lives? What if they were just following orders?

 

Matthew 2:16
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. KJV

 

In His effort to save mankind, the Supreme Commander commissioned the ultimate Man of War5, the Prince of Peace, to insert Himself into the conflict zone through the most miraculous HALO jump ever: the Incarnation under the wings of the Holy Spirit. But the consequence of His insertion was the slaughter of innocents. He who came to save the world was the cause of the massacre of Bethlehem. Was this fair of God? After all, Jesus came to die for mankind. Shouldn’t He have allowed Herod to kill Him and spared sleeping babes and long suffering mothers? Wouldn’t that have been the “Christian” thing to do?

 

But God didn’t do that. He knew Herod. He knew the man’s rage and insanity. He knew that Herod was a murdering thug. Nevertheless, He arranged the cosmos to declare the birth of the King. He intervened in history to make sure there were those who could receive the message of His star and declare His birth. And when the evil king gave his deadly order, He sent His angel to warn Joseph to flee and thus consigned the infants of Bethlehem to their doom.

 

Redemption involves risk, particularly when your claim to fame is calling the end from the beginning. Surprise has always been a weapon of warfare (it only came into use for birthdays much later). But God displays His awesomeness in broadcasting His plans to the enemy and still achieving His objective. The risk assessment of the Incarnation was beyond high: the eternal Son was to be placed in the womb of a woman as a helpless babe deep in enemy territory. Once the Advent was a fait accompli, retributive action was sure to follow. But He did it anyway. And the innocents of Bethlehem became collateral damage in the war for mankind.

 

It is an uncomfortable thought that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God Who is love, sacrificed the children of Bethlehem that His Son would live to see the cross. But we need to face this truth, like it or not. In spiritual warfare, as in all warfare, there is collateral damage. Jesus Himself warned that following Him meant the loss of everybody else—including ourselves6. If we flinch from our assignment on the front line because others might get hurt, we do Him a disservice and place ourselves in unnecessary jeopardy.

 

The missionary looked old, but it was the mileage not the age. He lay on his side on the hard dirt floor, recovering from another coughing fit. The door to his cell banged open and an urgent voice implored him to get up and out. He managed to sit up and after a couple of blinks, his rescuer came into focus. “Let’s go, Preacher. We don’t have much time.” The young man in his cell was his complete antithesis. The missionary was a man of peace. Before him crouched a man of war, his assault rifle ready for action. The missionary’s clothes were mere rags. The soldier was fully covered in his BDUs (battle dress uniform). The missionary’s body was sick and broken. The young man’s posture and physique screamed readiness and physical fitness. A man sworn to bring life was being rescued by a highly trained instrument of death. The irony of it almost made him smile. “I can’t go,” the missionary said. “Leave me. If you take me from here, the Warlord will kill my guards and their families for letting me get away. I know I have eternal life. If they kill me, so be it. But if they die now, they’ll go to hell. I won’t risk that. I can’t risk that.”

 

The missionary’s sentiment is noble, but is it right? Does God call us to unequivocally lay our lives down for the heathen? Would it surprise you to find out that He is willing to sacrifice the heathen for our sake? God is not a respecter of persons, you might say. And you would be right. But God is a respecter of covenant.

 

Isaiah 43:1-2
1 But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
2 When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. KJV

 

These are familiar verses. But what do they have to do with the subject at hand? Read on.

 

Isaiah 43:3-4
3 For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee.
4 Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life. KJV

 

God was willing to give up Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba for Israel’s rescue. This should give us pause. In making a risk assessment of salvation, God is willing to sacrifice whole people groups to get what He wants. These verses in The Message give the flavor of the sentiment being expressed in a way that the King James English doesn’t quite get across.

 

Isaiah 43:3-4
3 Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! 4 That's how much you mean to me! That's how much I love you! I'd sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.7

 

Deeper in his revelation, the prophet becomes more graphic regarding exactly what this means.

 

Isaiah 49:24-26
24 Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered?
25 But thus saith the Lord, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
26 And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, as with sweet wine: and all flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob. KJV

 

If we are bound, God desires to see us free. If this should require the death of the captor, He is willing to pay the price. He sacrificed His only begotten Son for us. What price do you think He would be unwilling to pay to see you set free?

 

Acts 12:5-8
5 Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.
6 And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.
7 And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.
8 And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. KJV

 

Though I admit that being rescued from a jungle prison by a Special Forces unit has its merits, this is breaking out of prison in style. As a matter of fact, I’ve always sensed “attitude” in this angel. This was not a gently whispered, “Peter, get up. Come on, let’s go.” No, he turns on the bright light, hits him on the side (personally, I think he kicked him!), picks him up and says, “Get up, get dressed, get going!” What was the consequence of Peter’s celestial, clandestine rescue? Collateral damage.

 

Acts 12:18-19
18 Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.
19 And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode. KJV

 

Verse 4 informs us that Herod commissioned 16 men to guard Peter. These were the “keepers” he ordered to be executed. Should Peter have argued with the angel as the missionary in our story argued with his rescuer? His reasoning sounded pious, but it was really religious. And we shouldn’t reason religiously. We should reason righteously, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Did God not love Peter’s guards? Yes, He did. But Peter was His and they had no right to keep him. It was not in Peter’s purview to determine the fate of his guards.8 True faith demands that we trust our Lord and His wisdom. And if in His wisdom He has decided to dispatch His angel—or a Special Forces unit, for that matter—to execute a rescue, who are we to say no?

 

When men go to war, mistakes happen. Collateral damage is at best unintentional, at worst incidental. But when God goes to war, we must know that any collateral damage is unavoidable. Needless suffering isn’t something He dispenses. He has the benefit of complete and accurate intelligence (theologically expressed as omniscience). When people die as a result of His military activity it is either intentional (and thus not really collateral damage) or unavoidable. Furthermore, He is just and fair. If innocents must pay the price now, they will be rewarded later.

 

Matthew 2:16-18
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. KJV

 

Living in a modern and literate society, we have the benefit of a multiplicity of books and referencing systems. In Luke 4, we read of Jesus being handed the scroll of Isaiah and finding the place where it was written “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”9 He didn’t say to the synagogue, “Take you Bibles and turn with me to Isaiah chapter 61 verse 1.” He didn’t say that because hardly anyone there would have a private copy of the Isaiah scroll. And if they did, it wouldn’t have been divided by chapter and verse. Because we have both—Bibles and verse references—we are prone to one-to-one comparisons: Luke 4:18 = Isaiah 61:1. Though this is helpful in getting us all on the same page, it limits us in scope and perspective.

 

The people of Jesus’ day didn’t learn the Scriptures in that fashion. They found their place in the text because they were very familiar with the context. Thus, when a rabbi taught, it was sufficient for him to mention a phrase, leaving it up to the students to reflect on the context on that phrase. In this way, much information could be imparted in a concise way. Jesus and Matthew grew up in the same culture. Matthew was taught by the Master. So, when he cites what to us is a verse of prophecy, it behooves us to examine its context to get the full weight of the lesson.

 

Jeremiah 31:15-17
15 Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.
16 Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.
17 And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border. KJV

 

The benefit of knowing the end from the beginning is that nothing takes you by surprise. If you happen to be Omnipotent on top of being Omniscient, even seemingly disastrous levels of collateral damage (what we would call a real PR nightmare) can be redeemed. Sometime between 626BC and 586BC, God spoke through Jeremiah to the grieving mothers of Bethlehem who were crying in the dawning days of the first century Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Chrisi. In short, He told them that their children had not died in vain. Their sacrifice would be rewarded. They would be resurrected and returned to their land in the age when the Prince of Peace ruled with an iron rod in Jerusalem and caused all to beat their swords into plowshares.

 

Redemption involves risk. No one has risked more than our God. And no One wages war more effectively, judges more righteously, or rewards more generously than He. He sent His Son to save the world.10 Are you willing to risk it all for Him?

 

 

 

 

 

1From Joint Publication 2-01.1 “Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Intelligence Support to Targeting” 9 January 2003, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp2_01_1.pdf accessed December 20, 2008.

2Micah 4:3

3Luke 2:14

4From USAF Intelligence Gathering Guide - Air Force Pamphlet 14- 210 Intelligence 1 FEBRUARY 1998, http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/usaf/afpam14-210/part20.htm accessed December 20, 2008. Emphasis (bold and italics) added.

5Exodus 15:3

6Matthew 10:34-39

7from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.

8Acts 16:25-34 shows that not all Providential prison breaks result in death to the captors.

9Luke 4:18

10John 3:16