The United States, after watching from afar for two and a half years, joined World War I 100 years ago, in April 1917.
So, as might be expected, lots of commemorations of that are planned and, in some case, already under way around the world. You can find some upcoming events connected to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City by visiting its website.
Any war is in some sense a failure not only of diplomacy but also of theology. And the stunning carnage of World War I led theologians and poets to rethink things. Poet Ezra Pound, for instance, in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," pronounced this heart-sick conclusion about the war:
There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization. . .
And in 1920, Karl Barth, in his ground-shaking commentary on the New Testament book of Romans, threw away the conclusion of theologians who were known at the time as "liberals" that humankind was progressing toward perfection. The war proved otherwise, and what resulted from Barth's work was a movement called neo-orthodoxy.
So in light of all this, two pieces of writing about World War I have crossed my desk recently, and I want to introduce them to you.
The first is a book called The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin, edited by Jerry R. Tompkins.
McLaurin, a Presbyterian minister, served as an assistant chaplain in the war. His primary job was to bury dead American and German soldiers. Later he became a seminary professor.
His diary entries and his letters to the woman he would marry after the war are profoundly insightful in part because he rarely goes beyond being a reporter of facts. Often his accounts are emotionless, merely taking note of the bodies and pieces of bodies he was required to bury.
But when McLaurin does draw some larger conclusions they are quite moving, in part because they seem a little unexpected. An example of both kinds of writing is this single passage, written on Nov. 7, 1918, which, by coincidence, was my father's ninth birthday:
On the next hill is where the 1st Battalion jumped off on the afternoon of November 1. It was a veritable shambles, all those who were killed in this particular sector met death from a galling artillery fire. The mutilation and mangling was something terrible. As we left the Grand Carre farm we passed a piece of human flesh about twice as large as a man's hand. We searched and searched for any other portion of the unfortunate soldier, but nothing else could be found. We picked it up on a shovel, dropped it into a shell hole and covered it up. On the next hill we found one man (with) only the legs from the knees down. . .
And this is the glory and glamour of war; this is the price of victory; this is the sacrifice that is always demanded by the devotees of war. It is a thrilling and sublime sight to see men advancing coolly into the jaws of death, facing the screeching shells with unflinching nerve, and going forward over a bullet swept plain. But the thrill and the sublimity come as a result of war, and are not war itself. . .There is nothing glorious in war. It is beastly and brutish. What had these men done that they should be deprived of life in this violent manner, away from relatives and friends, and in a distant, alien land? They went to their death with a smile and a jest; but human life and human rights should be so sacred and inviolable as to be safe and secure to every individual in every land. On the other hand, what punishment can be sufficient and just for the men who cause war? A terrible price has to be paid in the lives of men on the battlefield, and all humanity is deprived of the potential benefits of their work. How can a fitting penalty commensurate with the crime be meted out to these men?
McLaurin's questions continue to be necessary and fitting. It would be good if every national leader had those questions framed and visible from his or her desk.
(I was intrigued that Kansas City got a nice shout-out from McLaurin in this book. In a letter written in June 1918, as he and other soldiers are making their way from training camp to leave for the front in France, their train passes through Kansas City, and he writes this: "At Kansas City, we hiked up town for exercise, and believe me, the people there made a noise. Handclapping and yelling were inspiring to us and we were prouder than ever of being soldiers.")
If, like me, you've read Harry S. Truman's letters to the woman he would marry, Bess Wallace, while he was serving in World War I, McLaurin's letters will remind you of them. They are detailed, sweet and sorrowful.
The next writing I want to call to your attention is the new issue of Christian History magazine, devoted to "Faith in the Foxholes: Seeking hope amidst war's despair."
It doesn't limit its scope to World War I, but one piece in the issue describes how both world wars proved to be not just political but also spiritual crises. An example from the time before the First World War:
The unification movements in Central Europe had another dark side: they energized ethnic and racial nationalism. Many respectable intellectuals argued that the white race possessed superior traits, while non-whites were biologically disadvantaged and doomed to be servants and slaves.
Where have we heard similar nonsense lately?
By the way, you can subscribe to the print issue of Christian History magazine for free, though contributions are welcomed. And over the years I've found the publication offers facts and insights rarely found elsewhere.
This issue is a good way to prepare for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I.
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THEN WHO ARE THE EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS?
The student newspaper at Wheaton College in Illinois has done this interesting interview with evangelical scholar Mark Noll, whose several books are all worth reading and who taught at Wheaton for many years. And in the interview Noll says that if people first think about political stances when they think about evangelical Christianity, "then the serious meaning of the word is gone." In its broadest sense in Christianity, to be an evangelist simply means to be one who tells the story of the good news of Jesus. But the word has been hijacked and twisted so that to many people today it is a reference to people who are narrow in their views, bigoted, judgmental and full of false certitude. For sure those issues are problems among some people who consider themselves conservative or evangelical, but such criticisms are far too broad to be universally applicable to evangelicals.