29 June 2014

Learning War No More

Isaiah 2: 1-5 & Matthew 7: 15-20

29th June 2014/ Third Sunday after Pentecost/ Sacrament of Baptism

One hundred years ago yesterday Archduke Franz Ferdinand (b.1863), heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie (b.1868), Duchess of Hohenberg, were both assassinated by Gavrilo Princip (1884-1918) in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914. It was also their wedding anniversary.  In just over a month, Europe was thrown into the cataclysm that was the Great War, otherwise known as the First World War. 

The centenary won’t be marked in the United States the way it is throughout Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom.  (The United States didn’t enter the war until 1917.)  WWI is often in the shadow of the Second World War, in terms of scale and significance, as least for Americans.  (There’s still no national memorial on the National Mall to honor the Americans who served and died in WWI.) And, yet, as historians look back from the present vantage point it becomes clear that WWII was in many respects an extension of WWI.  Indeed, for the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, much of the twentieth century and now the twenty-first century has been spent addressing the residual geo-political and ideological conflicts left unresolved or caused by the Great War.  It is striking that Iraq, whose borders were created by the League of Nations in 1920, is daily disintegrating into three provinces (Shia, Sunni, Kurd), to basically what the region looked like prior to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.[1]

Thousands of volumes have been written on the origins of the Great War. Military and political historians are still trying to figure out how one gunshot in Sarajevo hurled Europe into the abyss—leading to 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilian deaths—devastating lands, peoples, cultures, destroying the youth of an entire generation. In 1920 there were 525,000 war widows in Germany, 200,000 in Italy, 600,000 in France, 240,000 in Britain, and millions of orphans.[2]  It’s inconceivable that so-called “civilized” nations could allow themselves to engage in this gross, collective act of self-annihilation.

What makes this war even more scandalous is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people in the nations/empires at war—Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia (and later, the United States)—were Christian.  Japan and the Ottoman Empire and India were, of course, non-Christian states. Nevertheless, they were all, together, deeply influenced by centuries of Christian thought and practice, Christians now ripping themselves to shreds.  This is an aspect of the war often overlooked by historians.[3]

Remembering the faith dimension is critical as we begin to commemorate the First World War and hear more about the war, especially for Christians. In many ways, World War I was, and remains, a scathing indictment of Christianity.  Or, better said, an indictment of large portions of the Church, on both sides of the conflict, with both clergy and laity who thought they were being faithful Christians, fighting to save “Christian civilization,” slaughtering millions to do so, all in the name of God.

How did “Christian” Europe allow this to happen? Was there something within Christianity at the time that helped fan the flames of destruction and war?  Is it still within Christianity, latent, in shadow?  Probably.

The critical question is how exactly do adherents who claim to follow Jesus—the Prince of Peace, the one who said before he was arrested and eventually executed, “Peter, put away your sword” (Matthew 26:52)—become the Church militant?

For God, Country and King. This was the banner cry heard in the High Streets of Britain and in trenches of the Somme. One can read these same words today on countless war memorials all over the United Kingdom, in churches and in village squares in the most remote corners of the British Isles.  Belief in God and patriotism were inseparable. Every nation made a similar claim: God is with us. Dieu est de notre côté. Gott ist mit uns.[4] Churches—on all sides—supported the war. 

 It’s telling that on the eve of war, 1 August, as a vast crowd gathered on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, people started to spontaneously sing, not Deutschland über alles (Germany over all), as one would expect, but the Lutheran chorale Gott, tief im Herzen (God, deep in my heart).  On Sunday, 2 August, the court chaplain conducted an open-air service in Koningplatz to celebrate the declaration of war with France. Then on 4 August, Kaiser Wilhelm II made a famous speech in Berlin, which was really more like a sermon. “German faith and German piety,” he said, “are ultimately bound up with German civilization.”  The sermon/speech was written by the prominent Lutheran theologian and church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), a towering figure in the history of Christian thought, who left his imprint on generations of pastors and theologians in Germany, Britain, and the United States.

Across the English Channel, the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram (1858-1946), preached in 1915 that Britons “are banded in a great crusade” and are therefore called, “…to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old…to kill them lest the civilization of the world be killed.”  While this is an extreme example, similarly passionate appeals were heard from many pulpits in Europe and the United States throughout the war. Not all, certainly, but many.  Which God/god was being served in these statements/sermons/actions?

The difficult truth is that after the war Christendom was in ruins (which was probably a good thing).  WWI spawned a religious and cultural revolution within Christianity that continues to do this day.[5]

Religion, per se, is not the problem (although it, too, is not always innocent). There’s a place for nationalism and patriotism. Still, Christians have to be suspicious of these two seductive –isms. The real threat occurs when nationalism and patriotism—deities that have an enormous sway over our emotions, thoughts, and actions—harness the benevolent power of faith to serve its own ends, often with ghastly results.  Religions of compassion become grotesque. Consider the aims of the radical Islamist group ISIS/ISIL now devastating Iraq. 

If the ghosts of Verdun and the Marne, Gallipoli and Ypres could have their say today they might warn us: Beware the bizarre alchemy of Christianity and patriotism.  The macabre marriage of nationalism and religion often yields a deadly poison. Its toxin permeated most of the 20th century and it’s still with us today.  It never ends well.

All of this is in sharp contrast to God’s vision for humanity found in the Bible.  Sure, there are depictions of wars and invasions and the slaughter of innocents in the Bible. This cannot be denied.  But the broad, over-arching vision found in the Bible points us to a “still more excellent way” (1 Cor: 12:31).  We have these stirring words of Isaiah:  “They shall beat the swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is. 2:4).  The instruments of war and destruction, mutual annihilation, need to be transformed into agricultural tools, tools used for farming, for cultivating and yielding life, producing food that will feed people, food that allows people to live together in peace.  This is God’s vision for the world. This is what we’re called to strive for.  But if we can’t do it, if we can’t get there, if we can’t or won’t work for peace then we should step aside and not get in the way of what God intends for the people.  For, consider how many times the Church and so-called “Christian nations” have obstructed that God’s vision.  Consider how much damage has been done in the name of the Lord.

John Keegan (1934-2012), the highly regarded war historian, defined war as “deliberate cruelty.”[6]  “Deliberate cruelty is one of the three characteristics that compose what…Keegan calls the ‘inhuman face of war.’”[7] Not accidental. It requires will. Volition. Human choice. We don’t go to war by accident.

How do we square all of this with Jesus’ own teachings? “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Jesus’ followers will be known “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). Jesus is pretty clear here. “By our fruits we will be known, making impossible any attempt to separate the content of…Christian belief from how we must live.”[8] Action must flow from belief; belief must inform action. The nineteenth century certainly produced a lot of bad fruit; perhaps the entire tree was bad. Christianity couldn’t stop the tragic wars of the twentieth century. There’s a real disconnect here between faith and practice.  Can you feel the tension here?

War has been described “as a failure of imagination.”  Psychologist James Hillman (1926-2011) suggests that our failure to understand war may be “because our imaginations are impaired and our modes of comprehension need a paradigm shift.”[9] Perhaps it’s not war that we fail to understand, but the human heart. The great American philosopher and psychologist Williams James (1842-1910) called for the “moral equivalent of war.” In other words, what if we use all the "creative" energy that goes into planning for war and executing war and apply it to God’s Kingdom effort? What if our imaginations could be fired by love and we had schools that trained us in the art of peace? Consider what could be accomplished with sanctified imaginations!

What are you yielding? What’s the tree of your faith producing? Are we sowing seeds of destruction or the things that make for peace? (Luke 19:10).

Now, this might seem like an odd sermon to hear on a morning when we will celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  But it’s directly related. This sacrament affirms that we are first—above all else—children of God, followers of Christ.  Baptism reminds us that we must not take lightly our identity in Christ.  Baptism means that we are engrafted into the life of Christ, joined to his body, participating in his way of love and justice and peace. Baptism means more than belonging to the Church; it means, foremost, that we belong to him.  It means that we are bathed in God’s grace.  And when we know this, really know this—or remember it again and again, because we all have terrible memories—the more our lives will reflect his love and justice and peace. We owe it Christ to know who we are, to remember whose we are. We owe this to Christ—and we owe it to everyone baptized, we owe it to the wider world. We owe it to Serena Capri who will be baptized this morning and we owe it to all the children of the world. For what kind of world will Serena receive from us?  What will be our yield? What kind of world are we giving to our children?  What kind of lives are we giving to the world? Are they lives of peace and justice, rooted and grounded in God’s love?

[1]Significantly, on 29th June 2014, Isis declared itself a caliphate, a new Islamic state with a territory that transgresses the Syria-Iraq border.
[2]Cited in Stéphane Audoi-Rouseau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 210-211.
[3]Two recent works—Jonathan H. Ebel’s Faith in theFaith: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton University Press, 2010) & Philip Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014)—are significant exceptions.
[4]Audoi-Rouzeau and Becker, 115.
[5] See Jenkins, 217ff.
[6] John Keegan, The Second World War (Penguin, 2004).
[7] Cited in James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (Penguin, 2005), 51.
[8] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 91.
[9] Hillman, 5.

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