August 4 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what came to be known as the Great War. Over the course of four years it took the lives of 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. In addition there were 20 million wounded, making it one of the greatest wastes of human life in history.
In her 700-page book The War That Ended Peace historian Margaret MacMillan has carefully documented the trends and events that led up to that war, beginning with Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Rather like a slow-moving train wreck, for more than a decade people knew that a major conflict was brewing. Some would have said it was inevitable.
After the seemingly inexorable catena of events that led up to that fateful day, her final words are devastating: “If we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe to war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”
As we look at the world around us today, we see brutal conflicts raging in Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine and numerous other hot spots. On any number of issues we are seeing a growing polarization and entrenchment. The same dark clouds that brooded over Europe a century ago appear to be gathering again in other places, with the threat of drawing much of the world into open conflict. Only this time the stakes are infinitely higher.
Another book on World War I that has appeared in recent months is The Great and Holy War, by Philip Jenkins. The author is probably best known for his eye-opening book of a dozen years ago, The Next Christendom. Over the course of more than 400 pages Jenkins documents the role played by the churches in that conflict. The picture is not a pretty one. With few exceptions, church leaders allowed themselves to be swayed by government policy and public opinion and blithely took up the cause of war, in some cases with blood-curdling enthusiasm. Biblical teachings and theological principles were jettisoned in the process.
As we look around at our increasingly polarized world and our increasingly polarized society, there is also increasing pressure on us to take sides. Often that pressure is urged upon us on the basis not of rational argument or (better still) biblical principle, but of emotion. Vehicles such as the social media, with their short clips and lack of direct personal encounter, often serve to reduce the possibility of discussion, much less genuine dialog.
As we read through Romans this summer, I am reminded of what Paul says in the opening verses of chapter 12. I quote from J.B. Phillips’ translation. “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers and sisters, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”
I am not saying that there will not be times when as Christians we must take a stand, but let us do it on the basis of God’s mercy and with our minds renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit.