God of War
[[Never fear, faithful CotM readers, I’m still here and though there hasn’t been a post in a while, I’m diligently at work on the next part of the Redemption series. It’s just proving to be a challenge. So look for that soon. Until then, ponder this]]
One of the classes I’m taking in London is called Men and Women in War and Peace (taught by the superb Carol Ann Vaughn-Cross), which focuses on British society in the 20th century, particularly as defined by the global conflicts of the First and Second World Wars. On Thursday, we visited London’s Imperial War Museum for a trip into the trenches and a first-hand look at the years 1914-1918. As we chatted afterward over tea and Cokes in glass bottles, I jotted down this reflection.
I was expecting guns, bullets, knives, and gas masks. What I was not prepared for was the cross. I encountered it in so many places. Propaganda posters. Princess Mary boxes. Medals. Carved rosaries. Battlefield sketches. Personal medallions. The cross was everywhere. And it wasn’t just the cross. There were Christmas cards that bore the good news of the birth of Christ. I saw communion cards confiscated from German prisoners. Many bibles were pierced with bullets or shrapnel. German belt buckles bore the inscription “Gott mit uns,” God with us. But by far the most surprising artefact in the collection was the beautifully carved portable altar and the chaplain’s stole draped over it.
It was strange to see military bars on the chaplain’s stole, so strange to think of a man of God following the orders of a military commander. It is even more strange to think of the attitude of the Church of England and many other churches during the First World War, an attitude that glorified the war and called on Englishmen not just to defend Britain’s interests, but to fight for larger concepts like faith and goodness. Almost unequivocally (British peace movements were very small at this time, with maybe 100 active pacifist ministers), the Church endorsed the First World War, and they then proceeded to swell the ranks of the army with more than 2000 chaplains to confirm for the average soldier that he was an instrument of God’s justice against the Hun that threatened to cast all of Europe into darkness.
And yet I am struck by the shared humanity of German and Briton. Captured on the front lines, many German soldiers spent their time carving crosses and even covers for gospel books. As I already mentioned, their belt buckles bore (and would bear, even in the Second World War) the message that God was with them. The communion card I mentioned was particularly striking, showing that even in captivity, German soldiers attempted to worship the God they believed was on their side.
I don’t think God was on any side. I cannot believe that God takes sides when his children commence to killing each other. Indeed, he cannot take sides. He is not Jupiter or Apollo, giving victory to his favourites, and he is not Thor or Odin, whipping up the battle-lust among the troops and gathering up the dead to participate in eternal war. No, if God was anywhere in the First World War, he was in the trenches and the no-man’s land, weeping with the terrified boys and grieving at the senseless loss of life. God was among the wounded – was wounded himself – and shared in the madness of those who survived the conflict. God was where he always is, suffering beside his children and whispering to them that there is a better way: the way of the cross. Given the amount that the soldiers carried into battle with them, it’s amazing that they failed to understand.
Perhaps God was even with the war poets, men like Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, as they documented the horrors and tragedies of war. Perhaps it was even God himself who inspired the final lines of Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori”
Praise God that I do not serve a God of War but the Prince of Peace.