Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Warrior Priests and Armies of God

Organized religion has a lot in common with the military. They both have a hierarchy of power, snazzy outfits, and ostensibly, a founding interest in protecting others from danger, whether it be physical or spiritual. Sometimes religious folk will make the connection explicit, as with the Jesuit sect within the Catholic Church, which was founded by a military man and whose members are called “Soldiers of God”. Nevertheless, in most cases religion and military forces have very different images and priorities.

Fiction sometimes tends to conflate religion with the military to the extent that they are the same thing. Although many religious leaders have spoken out against the idea that violence is ever necessary, it’s not uncommon to open a book, watch a movie, or read a manga that involves priests or religious folk fighting—for any number of reasons, but in a decidedly physical fashion.

gunslingerAnd I find that unsettling. St. Thomas Aquinas and other “just war” theorists may have argued that war can be justified for certain reasons, but it’s difficult to look at a regiment of crusaders or even just one nun with a gun and really believe that their intent is to bring peace to a troubled land or to protect innocents.

Yeah that whole cross is a gun.

There are dozens of examples of singular ‘fighting priest’ characters in fiction, but they tend to be loners with heroic morals who take up weapons with a “God helps those who help themselves” mentality. Trigun’s Nicholas Wolfwood, for example, armed himself to protect the children in the orphanage he ran. Fullmetal Alchemist’s Scar is a warrior priest of the oppressed Ishvallan civilization who uses his powers to attack the State Alchemists who once ravaged his home (he was shown as a villain at first, but he comes around). The main character of the movie Priest was an ordained man who attacks vampires. Hell, the tradition goes all the way back to Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories.

However, to quote the cinematic masterpiece Men In Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” Although I have my reservations about the idea of even one religious person taking up arms, in fiction such characters are often heroic figures you can’t help but root for. Military forces that act with religious purpose, on the other hand—both in the real world and in fiction—tend to have a bad track record. They are the hammer of God, and will often convert nonbelievers by force or simply kill them for being infidels.

The fundamentalist Children of the Light in the Wheel of Time series are one example of this. Their ostensible purpose is to ensure that the Dark One doesn’t infiltrate society, but they often use their military might to bully everyone from peasants to royalty and they treat anyone who doesn’t bow and scrape before their members as agents of evil. They’re the worst, most upsetting type of lawful good—people whose philosophies are so black and white that anyone who disagrees with them must be in league with the devil.

The worst sort of example of this, though, is probably the Iscariot Division in Hellsing. Led by the murderous and fanatical Father Anderson, the Iscariot Division is tasked with disposing of those who act in opposition to the Catholic Church. They take a wide definition of that manifesto, going after anyone who they feel is a threat, whether that means a million Nazi vampires invading London or the vampire-hunting lady badass Integra Hellsing (whose great crime is being Protestant).

Section_XIII_IscariotWhile the former trope seems far more justifiable than the latter, neither of them are great representations of religion. The first, the warrior monk trope, tends to be the realm of men who have lost hope in the idea that a higher power will help them, and the latter, the church militant, tends to be filled with people who have lost the plot of what religion is supposed to be. The Iscariot Division in particular is the antithesis of the modern Catholic Church, as recent popes have rejected the concept of just war and argued that there is no excuse for reverting to violence to make any point.

I know that battle-happy religious folk are great material for fictional conflict. Whether one person or a legion, examining their characters and motivations makes for interesting storylines. However, either way, it tends to gloss over the good that religious men and women can do through peaceful actions, whether that means charity work or nonviolent opposition. I think it would be equally interesting to see how a character navigated a dangerous landscape while refusing to do any harm. Rather than getting that kind of character—which would entail a more true-to-life representation of pacifists like Mother Theresa or Ghandi—as the hero of the story, these characters most often show up in media as cannon fodder, killed off to show that their pacifist lifestyles are not feasible in a dangerous world.

What a boring person, amirite? She'd be so much more interesting if she were murdering zombies with an automatic weapon.

What a boring person, amirite? She’d be so much more interesting if she were murdering zombies with an automatic weapon.

8 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Warrior Priests and Armies of God

  1. Interesting observations. Doctor Who’s been showing religious militaries in the past few years too, with the Catholic church that’s “moved on” into basically a military with religious rank names, and the Church of the Papal Mainframe from last week’s special. I thought maybe they were doing it to be unsettling, but I’m sure everyone perceives that differently… Since I personally find religious armies to be unsettling from a historical perspective, it’s no surprise that I see them that way in fiction.

    • Thank you! I’m saving up all my Doctor Who stuff for a separate post, haha – after the Christmas special, there was too much to talk about and still do my point justice. I definitely agree that it’s an unsettlement tactic, though; I feel like the Church in DW is used more as another Moffaty gimmick of ‘look how different the future is!!’ than for any real thoughful purpose.

  2. I agree with most of what you point out here, and I do wish that there were more portrayals of characters who practice non-violence as part of their religion. Heck, I just wish there were more positive, balanced portrayal of religious practice at all.I think media tends to either vilify religion by emphasizing the kind of zealots and religious armies you mention or glamorize the warrior priest/monk character type. I actually have a few characters in my work who could be argued as religious warriors, though they aren’t “priests,” just strongly religious lay people, and none of them have given up hope that God will help them, the stories just deal with imperfect situations and tough choices, so I do think there’s room for characters who have choose to fight while also maintaining a strong faith. I also have a character in a pre-industrial fantasy world who is a Ranger and refuses to use violence because of her religious beliefs. I have a couple of short stories where she’s the protagonist and I’m hoping to do a longer work about her. I have to be honest though: it’s a challenge to keep her out of harm’s way without just having one of her sisters show up and hit people. I have a post coming up about this myself.

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  4. It’s really, really easy to write a violent action story. Even a good writer can slip up and turn a thoughtful story into a brainless shoot-em-up. Thus warrior monks are over-represented.

    It’s hard to write a Christian character who acts non-violent – “Saint Young Men” is one attempt to do something like that, but it’s a farcical comedy.

    It’s really hard to write a serious, nonviolent, interesting character.

    As warrior monks go, Father Andersen isn’t so bad. I enjoyed Hellsing somewhat, but in the end I felt its writing was very weak.

    Right now I can’t think of any well-written and notably Christian characters anywhere in fiction. Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories might have been Christian, but not so much that one notices. The hero of Eco’s The Name of the Rose was supposed to be Christian, but he is so over-powered and philosophical that one can barely notice him as Christian. Ransom from C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra was okay in the first two novels, but C. S. Lewis generally annoys me. The title character of Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday might have been Christian – certainly Chesterton used the character to illuminate Chesterton’s own Christianity.

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