By Bill Leonard
“On July 28, 1914, World War I began when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.”
That’s how the “Today in History” column in the Winston-Salem Journal referenced the centennial of World War I. The “Great War” lasted from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, and cost the lives of 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians.
Apparently, not a single World War I veteran remains. Florence Green, a British veteran, the last official survivor, died in 2012 at age 110. The final Allied combatant died in 2011 at 110 and the sole surviving Central Powers participant died in 2008 at 107.
All three lived almost a century beyond Rupert Brooke, the British soldier-poet, who died in 1915. When war began, Brooke wrote with kingdom of God earnestness:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping.
Unlike medieval crusades, or the Thirty Years War, World War I was not primarily a religious conflict. But, as with most wars, it was quickly invested with religious rhetoric and consequence. In Preachers Present Arms, Ray Abrams wrote that “the immensity of the cause, the outlet in strenuous denunciation of the foe, the revival of the idea of hell fire and brimstone (in this case the Germans being the sinners) gave the pulpit new life and vigor.”
Preachers across the theological spectrum described the war as a clear encounter between good and evil. Evangelist Billy Sunday got specific: “If you turn hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.”
Liberals, too, engaged the rhetoric. Joseph Fort Newton, American pastor of the City Temple in London, declared that “at bottom, the war is religious. If our enemies are right, our religion is wrong, our faith a fiction, our philosophy false … justice a dream, and righteousness a delusion.” In The Challenge of the Present Crisis (1917), Harry Emerson Fosdick, later pastor of Riverside Church in New York, warned that, “for our own sakes and for the world’s sake, though we fight we must not hate,” then added: “There is no hope for the world with an autocratic, military Germany triumphant. We must win the war.” Years later Fosdick confessed that it was the only book he regretted writing and that its “main objective, the defense of war, I now repudiate.”
The “war to end all wars” didn’t. In fact, its centennial occurred amid seemingly ceaseless regional wars with increasingly global implications. In the weeks surrounding July 28 the Ukraine-Separatist-Russia war put rockets into Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that rained the bodies of 298 innocent people onto sunflower fields. (For an eerie historical parallel, just google “Lusitania.”) At almost the same moment, the “rocket’s red glare” erupted in the “Holy Land” (Might Jews, Christians and Muslims declare a moratorium on that term for the foreseeable future?) as Hamas and Israel fired them at each other’s “fighters” while terrifying and/or killing each other’s non-combatants. Wars are beyond rumor in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Congo, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and Myanmar. Don’t forget the Central American “drug wars” that sent thousands of children to the U.S. border.
With war comes bad religion, masquerading as authentic faith. On July 26, Taliban insurgents killed 14 bus passengers identified as Hazara Shiite Muslims. Reuters reported, “The Taliban, made up mainly of ethnic Pashtuns,” often attack Shiites, “whom they see as infidels” (a crusader word). In actions reminiscent of their “Catholic majesties” Ferdinand and Isabella’s expelling Jews from 15th-century Spain, Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) drove the remaining Christians from Mosul, ripping the cross from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, symbol of some 1,700 years of Christian presence. On departing, a Christian leader declared: “When they removed the cross, this is death to us.”
In actions smacking of Martin Luther’s 16th-century anti-Jewish diatribe, and Nazi Kristallnacht in the 1930s, Jewish shops and synagogues in France and Germany were recently vandalized, anti-Semitic symbols and slogans scrawled on their walls. In the U.S., Christians divide over Palestinian/Israeli war/peace possibilities, while at least one congressional candidate insists Islam isn’t a real religion and so is not entitled to First Amendment protection.
There are alternatives, however. The day before the World War I centennial, I participated in a memorial service for our friend Ben Gerardy, exemplary minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. Pastor-teacher-ecumenist, Ben died from cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange while he served as chaplain in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s. His death remains a poignant reminder of both the persistent reality of war and the courage of those who offer wartime care of souls, endangering their own lives.
Three wars after “the war to end all wars,” Ben’s hope-filled legacy sounds again in the words of Rupert Brooke:
We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,
And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.
We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.
War knows no power.