England plans a national blackout on Monday. A century ago on this date, Britain entered World War I (1914-1918), formerly called the “Great War,” against Germany.
British citizens will dim house lights at 11 p.m. Monday, commemorating the time a hundred years ago when England went to war. Turning off lights recalls Britain’s foreign secretary Sir Edwin Grey’s ominous comment at the war’s declaration: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”
Christianity’s role in World War I produced muddled thinking that dominated national attitudes. Christians from opposing nations in the Great War conscripted God to fight in their ranks. They assumed divine sanction for their cause.
Military leaders assured troops that God’s blessing promised certain victory. Whoever won would preserve a lasting peace. Consequently, this conflict was advertised as “the war to end all wars.” Not surprising, then, to hear it called the “Great War,” with its mammoth claim to bring lasting peace.
Baylor University’s scholar Philip Jenkins, in his recent book “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade,” contends that “the first World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”
“Religion,” Jenkins emphasizes, “is essential to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.” Since God never loses, the war had to go on and on until history vindicated his choice. This hubris of co-opting God for a national cause certainly agitated for war on both sides, even if it didn’t serve as the prime cause of the conflict.
Becoming aware of how Christians whipped up war frenzy gives perspective on why religion sponsors holy wars. German soldiers stuck in filthy trenches went over the top into no-man’s land with “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) inscribed on their belt buckles. Allies’ machine guns mowed them down, despite the inscription’s assumption of divine protection. A chaplain led American Doughboys to sing hymns of faith such as “Fight the good fight with all thy might. Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right. Lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally.” Opposing sides claimed the same blessings for conquest from the same Christian God.
This bad habit of recruiting God in time of war goes back to the Bible where he’s often portrayed as a warrior. Ancient Hebrews worshipped him, singing “The Lord strong and mighty; the Lord, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). This biblical God is often described as “the Lord of hosts.” The word picture isn’t of cherubs fluttering around God’s throne. Rather, “the Lord of hosts” points to a divine warrior who commands his armies (hosts) to fight the good fight and win.
Scripture records how Hebrews on their journey to the promised land believed God gave thumbs-up for them to destroy indigenous tribes along the way. Hadn’t God promised his people “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey?” (Exodus 3:8). If enemies living in their ancestral lands didn’t take kindly to God’s eviction notice, the Hebrews waged genocidal war against them.
Bernhard W. Anderson, former Old Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes of how inheritors of the divinely promised land decimated native peoples, such as Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. “From a sociological point of view, holy war — the kind of war waged before the Davidic monarchy — was an ideology in the sense that it justified the cause of the people (ancient Hebrews) and legitimated their occupation of the land,” writes Anderson (“Contours of Old Testament Theology”). Co-opting God justified war’s brutality.
Leading up to the United States’ entrance into the Great War in 1917, adversaries recruited God to fight on their side. Russians hated Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, calling him “the antichrist.” German authors returned fire, depicting Britain as the great whore of Babylon mentioned in Revelation. English bishops played their “god card,” which guaranteed them a winning hand in war. Church leaders anointed themselves as God’s “predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe.” On propaganda posters, Germans were portrayed as savage Huns, not of God’s choosing.
President Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian minister’s son, vacillated for a few years before going to war. Using moralistic language with biblical overtones, the president asked Congress to declare war on Germany in 1917. America’s fight, Wilson announced, would form “a universal domination of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world free at last.” The Great War would make war extinct.
Evangelist Billy Sunday rallied patriots, calling for a holy war. “Germany against America, hell against heaven,” declared bombastic, plain-speaking Sunday.
Sifting through Christian arguments for engaging in the Great War, we learn to exercise caution. It’s dangerous to cavalierly align God on our side. Such bombast builds jingoistic national pride. It may lead to defending slaughter as God’s holy will.
The Great War didn’t deliver on its promise to end armed hostility. And God is still used to justify wanton destruction in today’s holy wars.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.