I am a late-blooming pacifist.
100 years ago the “war to end war” came to an end in the eleventh month, on the eleventh day, at the eleventh hour in 1918. World War I was a horrific war: 9 million casualties; 10 million civilian casualties; 21 million wounded. Those numbers are beyond imagining.
The statement “war to end war” was coined by HG Wells. Christmas of 1918 must have heard sermon a plenty on the hope that this aphorism was true.
“Please Lord, may it be so.”
Today, of course, this phrase has lost all of its hopeful idealism and is mocked or dismissed. Generally Christians in America believe that the forces of evil are too strong and must be met with the military force of “good” nations. A national version of “the only thing that stops a bad nation with guns is a good nation with guns.”
Idealism is typically the misery of the young, as you get older the reality of the world kicks the shit out of it and we all become pragmatists and realists. My journey is the opposite. The older I get, the more idealistic I become, asking the question: why not? Why can’t the ideal be achieved?
Leadership is essentially idealism made practical. When JFK put words to the ideal of traveling to the moon, it became a reality. Who would have thought this was possible, even at the end of WW1? Many of the things we have today and take for granted were seen at some point in the past as unachievable, and yet here we have them.
I have come to find the universal posture of Christians as non-pacifists to be a problem. The angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus is a vision statement and a foundational statement for the gospel and of the whole Christian worldview: “Peace on earth, goodwill to humanity.”1
When we take a different posture, start at a different place, the message of the gospel tilts the wrong way. Is the gospel primarily a battle against evil or is it primarily an imposition of the good? I favor the latter. When it is the former our celebrations of veterans becomes a focus on the justification of war and the need for it to continue (regrettably, of course). Evil is seen as an ever present and insurmountable presence in our world and experience. This course of action and base attitude unwittingly elongates the wait for peace, and undermines the gospel of peace.
When we become ambassadors of Peace (is there another synonym for Christ that you could put in here to justify war?), we celebrate the end of war – the sitting down at the table and agreeing to live together in harmony. Every soldier that has ever gone into battle should never wish for another war – he has seen enough. Every soldier who died on the battlefield is an icon of peace for us – no one should ever have to die again on the battlefield.
On December 25, 1914 the story goes, British and German soldiers laid down their weapons and played soccer. It is known as the Christmas Truce. It started with the Germans singing Silent Night in the trenches and the English responding with the First Noel. Then a call from the German side: ‘Come out English soldier, come out!” Obviously there was no small trepidation in deciding to respond. Is it a trap? The good outcome is that not a single shot was fired. A game was played, whether it was 11 v. 11 is in dispute and the 2-1 German victory in the game may be mythical – but sing and play they did. Enemies on the battlefield were made brothers again at Christmas.2
The tragedy of the Christmas Truce is that leadership took steps to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“We can’t have goodness reign on the battlefield.”
And here we are back to leadership again. Nations don’t go to war against nations, German citizens don’t rise up in battle against the English – Leaders of nations make decisions that take nations and citizens into war. And we support those good/bad decisions. 3 And then our sons and daughters are slaughtered for the “cause” which in many ways is not fully clarified or disclosed (think “weapons of mass destruction” as the foundation for the first Iraq invasion).
The real contradiction highlighted in the Christmas Truce story is that fellow Christians find themselves tangled in the strangest web of warfare that has them killing each other. Church on Sunday, dead on Monday. What a distortion of “they will know you are Christians by your love”! We cannot make that equation factor out. If we move out of the Christian killing Christians scenario, what gospel justification is there for killing people who have not yet heard the gospel? I submit there is none.
Related to the violence of war is the violence of mass killings in the USA. Most recently and down the street from me is the killing of 12 in a nightclub in Thousand Oaks, CA. The perpetrator was an ex-marine. The discussion around gun violence has included the issue of mental illness, and certainly this individual was mentally ill – no one kills 12 people without that being a consideration. Maybe his mental break came as a result of his stint in the military, maybe it precedes it. Certainly war affects the mental health of the soldier. But we would be remiss not to include a discussion on the mental illness of a public that clings to the necessity of war. It certainly is not the mind of Christ.
Our required requiem on Veterans day is:
- To Live a peaceful, non-violent life
- To remember the sacrifice for peace
- To do everything possible to avoid war
- To kindle the hope of lasting, ongoing peace
- To kindle a mindset free from the commitment to war
- To Love your enemy; love your neighbor
What better way to honor the veterans of past wars than to revive the hopeful idealism of “war to end war”? I choose to side with Jesus and the angels on this one:
“Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven…peace on earth and goodwill to humankind.”
I am not alone. Books on Pacifism:
- John Howard Yoder: Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, Revolution; The War of the Lamb; The Politics of Jesus
- Stanley Hauerwas: War and the American Difference; The Peaceable Kingdom; Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness
- Brian Zahnd: A Farewell to Mars;
- Preston Sprinkle: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence
- My Favorite Books on Pacifism by Michael Fazio
Cover photo: Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash
- Please don’t misquote Jesus’ famous: “I came not to bring peace but a sword” as an argument here. As if what Jesus meant was what we experience in modern warfare, as if he thought that his mission was to undergird war as a means of conquering evil.
- To read more about the Christmas Truce visit: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-of-the-wwi-christmas-truce-11972213/