Today is the hundredth anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War, the Great War, the “war to end all wars”, as it was thought to be at the time.
The causes of any armed conflict are always a mixture of economics, geo-political realities, territorial disputes, sometimes moral principles, bilateral misunderstandings, missed opportunities for reconciliation (sometimes opportunities deliberately rebuffed), defense of honor, fear of shame or retribution, honoring of alliances, defense of the realm or nation, even simple greed and pride – all in varied proportions. And World War I had all of these.
But it also had youth, confidence, optimism, and a certain cultural naiveté. The first declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Serbia, after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists, came at the end of July 1914. In a little over two weeks all the dominos began to fall: Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. They all declared war in support of their allies – as well as their own purposes. The first fighting began in August, and it was widely assumed – at least in England – that the war would all be over by Christmas; a brief dust-up, putting those upstarts in their place, a chance for adventure and glory, doing “one’s bit for one’s country.”
But the forces that had been unleashed were far greater and more powerful than anyone had really reckoned; the genii of war, once out of the bottle, could not be easily restrained. Turkey and Italy joined the war; Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian troops fought alongside the British; Belgium, Ukraine, and Polish lands were battlefields; the Balkan lands, Gallipoli, North Africa, parts of China and south Asia were all touched by war; in 1917 America came in to support the British. And by the time it was all over, not only had much of the map of the world been re-drawn, but “one in three” young men in Western Europe had been killed; a generation, and an optimism in the human ability to make progress, to be civilized, had died. Individual soldiers, military units, armies and navies served with courage and honor in the face of horrific and unspeakable conditions, and they deserve our gratitude and prayers.
But the façade of turn-of-the century confidence in merely human institutions and society had been exposed, leaving the world with a clearer picture of the sin, fallibility, and hubris of human nature. Yet in the moral, physical, and spiritual exhaustion at the end of the war our reach for true and lasting peace, and the conditions that support peace, did not go deep or far enough, and so many of those embers went underground and smoldered, until they erupted again twenty-odd years later, this time in metasticized form.
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever, says the prophet Isaiah. The war showed us that there is no human achievement, no culture or civilization alone, that can withstand the promise and pull of unbridled power and glory. We all stand under the judgement of God, our Creator. We are all accountable to God, and to one another - the brothers and sisters in the human family our God has given us.
But just as we know in Christian faith that death is not the end, so we also need to remember that war is not the true nature of human society and the human heart. Countless times in Scripture God tells a different narrative, paints an alternative picture to what we would make, left to our own devices. In God’s vision, the goal of human society and the whole created order is to be living in God’s shalom – peace, wholeness, health, well-being, celebration. The holy city, the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation is the promise and the invitation God holds before us.
It is there for us to accept, to embrace, as God’s gift, but it requires our cooperation. Peace is not made merely by the cessation of hostilities and armed conflict. Peace is made as we go through each day, encountering the people we live and work with as neighbor, looking for the best in each other – even as we are not surprised when we see the worst. It’s what St. Paul said in Firsh Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7). This is not some fresh naiveté, but the spiritual truth of God’s purposes in and for the world, and it operates on the level of individuals, families, communities, and cultures.
We cannot wait for someone else to start first; it begins with us each and every day, even when love is inconvenient, even when it would feel good to lash out and insult or hurt another, even when we are tempted in our defense to go beyond merely meeting strength with strength.
The shalom of God’s Kingdom is a reality we are invited to join and help build “on earth as it is in heaven” through our actions and our prayers. Let us work and pray so that the hope for peace and a better world for which those men and women of the Great War and all wars gave their lives can come to fruition – with God’s help and in God’s way.
Let us pray.
Father of all mercies, teach us to be merciful, as thou art merciful.
Father of all forgiveness, help us to forgive others, as thou hast forgiven us;
knowing that, with what measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again;
for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen. ~ Eric Milner-White*
** Eric Milner-White (1884 –1963) was a British Anglican priest, academic, and decorated military chaplain. He was a founder of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, an Anglican dispersed community, and served as its Superior between 1923 and 1938. From 1941 to 1963, he was the Dean of York in the Church of England.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Service of Peace and Remembrance:
the Centenary of the End of World War I
November 11, 2018