300: Teamwork in Battle
300 is one of my guilty-pleasure movies mainly because of so many epic quotes. It also may seem like an odd choice for a Theology At The Movies feature. There’s clearly a lot in the movie and in Spartan culture that I don’t think Jesus’ teachings and example would line up with. Sparta is a primarily militaristic culture from the early training of children through to battle being the only acceptable way to die; Jesus fought the evil one through nonviolent means. Sparta discarded any children that weren’t perfect; Jesus spent most of his time with the outcasts of society. The Spartans were very proud of their superiority; Jesus gave up his superiority and became one of the least to save others. But…
There’s one particular point that stood out to me in my latest watching and maybe it is why I’m a fan of the movie in general. The Spartans were not the greatest army the world has ever known because of individual strength (although they had a good dose of that) or technology or sheer number. They were the greatest because of how they worked together. If you’ve studied ancient history you may know that their fighting strategy was actually quite revolutionary, fighting in a formation called a phalanx. This is briefly explained in the movie: soldiers do not fight individually but instead “fight in an impenetrable unit.” Each soldier’s shield is only partially protecting himself and is instead largely protecting the next soldier over. Even when they do break formation in the movie, they are typically still as close together as possible to minimize vulnerable areas. Since the historical account of the Battle of Thermopylae has a somewhat legendary tone to it, it is hard to say exactly how many Persians the 300 Spartans killed but from my understanding it is safe to say well into the thousands.
Let’s be clear before I get into what we can learn from that. As Christians:
we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:2 NLT)
We should not be fighting physical wars together. We should not be fighting physical wars against other men and women at all. However we explain the Holy Wars of the Old Testament, it is pretty clear in the New Testament that we are no longer supposed to be taking part in such evils. Even those who seem to be our physical enemies on earth really aren’t; the real enemies are the powers and principalities of the unseen world (a.k.a. demons).
So then, I wonder what the Western church could learn from this phalanx strategy. Here’s what I do hear a lot, especially in men’s ministry: we’ll hold each other accountable when we stumble – promoting evil instead of good – and maybe try to pick each other up afterward. In other words, we do occasionally – yes, occasionally, not normally – embrace reactive measures of working together after the mess is made. Rarely do I hear any Christians talk about actually fighting beside each other, though, in order to prevent our brothers and sisters taking a hit in the first place.
There’s a pretty big difference. In the former, we fight as individuals but occasionally step in after the fact to help each other pick up the pieces so we can go off and fight again on our own. In the latter – the Spartan way and I would argue the New Testament way – we fight as one from the start. My strength covers the weakness of my brother or sister. Another brother or sister’s strength covers my weakness. And so on, forming a powerful community. Unlike Sparta’s physical requirements, we all have strengths for this fight so we can’t afford to exclude anyone or to have anyone sit on the sidelines watching. We also all have weaknesses even if we don’t want to talk about them until it is too late. When we choose to fight together, armed with the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18), we can become an impenetrable unit against which the gates of Hell cannot overcome (Matthew 18:16).