Would Jesus in civvies have copped a white feather?
The media have been blanket-bombing us for at least a week with programmes about the end of the First World War.
For me, the standout screening was of Peter Jackson’s They shall not grow old, a 95 minute restoration of all the Imperial War Museum archive footage, digitalised and with sensitive colouring added. No commentary. No voice over. No talking heads. Just the actual voices of British combatants taped by the BBC in 1964 when they were in their 70s.
And apart from the visual footage, both horrific and touching, the chilling comments of the soldiers about the armistice when the order to cease fire finally came. They were too exhausted to cheer. Some on the front line didn’t even know which side was supposed to have won and didn’t care much either. They were just trying to understand that they were coming out of hell.
They were the “lucky”ones. Do you know what those four years had cost in terms of slaughter? The deaths of ten million soldiers and seven million civilians.
How was this disaster ever allowed to happen? What on earth were the countries of Europe playing at? Well, professional historians will tell you those in power, through a combination of blindness and arrogance, sleep-walked into it.
But that’s just the international blundering chess-board moves of sovereigns and rulers. What about the poor blighters who got sucked into the actual fighting?
“Tommy Atkins” – slang for the common British soldier – was a decent bloke (as Peter Jackson’s film emphatically showed). So were the German and French lads. A Tommy or a Fritz or a “Poilu” (affectionate French slang for their private soldier, meaning “scruffy” or “unshaved”) wanted to do his bit but I imagine he never dreamt of the conditions he would be subjected to.
You know the language – “cannon-fodder”.
You’ve seen the images: mud-bath, vermin-infested trenches, barbed wire, bayonets, pitiless machine guns and blinding mustard gas.
And safely behind the lines, gung-ho Generals cheerfully throwing away thousands of lives in a bid to gain a few meaningless yards of terrain.
In the beginning, queues of boys, eager jingoistic volunteers spurred on by their sweethearts. In the end, row upon row of little white crosses across green French fields as far as the eye can see.
This crazy, appalling war was of nations against nations, not individuals against individuals. At the national level, a kind of institutional evil can get a grip, but the individual human spirit still shows a spark of decency, even holiness.
Think of that poignant Christmas day in 1914 when the opposing infantrymen emerged from their dugouts against orders and took faltering steps towards each other across no-man’s-land to exchange embraces and play a little game of football. Then picture this heartbreaking scenario from the classic movie
All quiet on the Western front based on an actual incident:
In the heat of battle on a field in France, a young German soldier is hurled by the force of an explosion into a shell crater in which a wounded Poilu is already lying. Out of brute conditioning, the German automatically sticks his bayonet into the Frenchman. But the Frenchman does not die straightaway. Instead he painfully reaches in his tattered uniform for a creased photograph of his wife and little daughters and shows it to the German before expiring. The German is trapped for several more hours in the crater next to the corpse of his victim and during that time he weeps inconsolably with remorse.
There you have it in a nutshell: the folly and the tragedy up close, too close. And then a little voice whispers in our ears: I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.
What does Christ’s teaching tell us about war?
Well, almost everything He is recorded as having said about life relates to personal, individual conduct and feelings.
So we can’t rely on the evidence of the gospels to identify Him as a card-carrying conscientious objector. Someone the ladies strolling along Piccadilly in 1914 would hand a white feather. A pacifist.
But you know what? I bet He is.
In the Sermon on the Mount, when He gives us His unpalatable advice about turning the other cheek, He is talking about you and me as individuals but is there any reason to suppose He would not have said the same thing to governments or nations?
The Roman poet Horace said it is a sweet and honourable thing to die for your country. 1st world war victim and poet Wilfred Owen famously called that the old lie.
Yes, Christ Himself said Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down is life for his friends but people forget He said friends, not country. Christ also said Blessed are the peacemakers. And that goes for anyone and everyone.
This whole area is a tricky subject, I know. We all and each need the courage to stand up for ourselves and for those we hold dear and for what we believe in when it becomes necessary to do so.
But I’m sure Our Lord’s deepest wish and hope is that, the more each one of us follows the great commandment to love one another, the more chance there is in the end of the lion lying down with the lamb (as Isaiah pictured it), of putting an end to war among nations.
It’s like the mustard seed or the leaven in the bread all over again if you like, only this time it’s love we’re talking about, not faith.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy about war is that it represents the worst imaginable failure of God’s plan for creation. Especially religious wars – I mean it beggars belief that anybody could be brainwashed into believing that God might want them to kill people in His name.
We were born to love. There is no other reason why we were brought into this world. And when we leave this world, that is the sole basis (make no mistake - read the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of Matthew) on which we will be judged. Did we give love?
And that test applies to every human being who has ever lived and died, including all the fallen service men and women whose memory, whose bravery and whose sacrifice we honour on this centenary.