On July 28th we will commemorate the centennial of the launch of World War I. In Leuven/Louvain, Belgium, in August, we will commemorate “the flames of Louvain” when homes and businesses were torched. When men, women, and children were pulled from their homes and quickly executed, to teach “Louvain citizens” respect for German soldiers. Those soldiers also burned our university library, destroying a couple hundred thousand books, 750 irreplaceable medieval manuscripts, and more than 1,000 incunabula (books printed before 1501).
I have been reading a lot of books about the Great War. (My son has helped write one of them.) Today I would like to recommend one in particular: The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins. This book, to my knowledge, offers the first comprehensive look at how religion created and prolonged the First World War and made a lasting impact on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
The world’s leading nations in 1914 presented the The Great War’s conflict as a holy war. Patriotic and military rhetoric spoke of a holy crusade, of the apocalypse, and Armageddon. Throughout the war there was a widespread belief in angels on the battlefields and heavenly apparitions supporting both sides in the conflict.
The English poet, Rupert Brooke, welcomed the war: “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour….Nobleness walks in our ways again.”
The Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, wrote in a newspaper article in 1915 that it was the Anglican Church’s explicit duty “to mobilize the nation for a holy war.” Later in a sermon, much quoted by historians of twentieth century religion, he urged British soldiers: “Kill the Germans — do 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 those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends….As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.”
In France at the same time, French Catholics (who felt France had become strongly anti-Catholic) were now whole-heartedly supporting their president Raymond Poincaré, who would lead the people of France into a “sacred union” to defeat their German nemesis and restore the glories of Catholic France.
Meanwhile aggressor Germany’s leading theologians issued a manifesto supporting the war and asking the world’s people of learning and culture to appreciate Germany’s position. Karl Barth, then a young pastor in neutral Switzerland, reacted with shock and alarm: “I discovered (among those supporting the manifesto, JD) almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated….I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, nineteenth century theology no longer held any future.”
The First World War raised serious questions about a Christian religion that denigrated or simply ignored the Christian Faith. One hundred years later the questions continue. This time of course the loyalties to Christian religion have become the terrain of Christian fundamentalists; and “mainstream” churchgoers continue their exodus from organized religion.
The Christian Faith is neither gone nor dead. It needs however more courageous believers anchored in a contemporary Christian faith experience, alert to the signs of the times, and willing to speak out and stand on church limbs.