Counter-Currents/Christianity and War

Christianity and War


THERE are two disheartening features in the attitude of Americans toward the ruthless war which has been waged in Europe for the past two years. One is the materialism of pacifists who ignore, and have steadily ignored, the crucial question of right and wrong, justice and injustice. The other is the materialism of pious Christians who lament the failure of Christianity to reconcile the irreconcilable, to preserve the long-threatened security of nations.

When, at the request of President Wilson, the first Sunday of October, 1914, was set aside as a day of prayer for peace,—a day of many sermons and of many speeches,—prayers and sermons and speeches all alluded to the war as though it were the cholera or the plague, something simple of issue, the abatement of which would mean people getting better, the cure of which would mean people getting well. The possibility of a peace shameful to justice and disastrous to civilization was carefully ignored. The truth that death is better than a surrender of all that makes life morally worth the living, was never spoken. This may be what neutrality implies. We addressed the Almighty in guarded language lest He should misunderstand our position. We listened respectfully when Secretary Bryan told us that our first duty was to use what influence we might have to hasten the return of peace, without asking him to be more explicit, to say what on earth he would have had us do, and how—without moving hand or foot—he would have had us do it.

Since then, men of little faith have kept dinning in our ears that religion is eclipsed, that Gospel law lacks the substance of a dream, that Christian principles are bankrupt in the hour of need, that the only God now worshipped in Europe is the tribal God who fights for his own people, and that the structure of love and duty, reared by centuries of Christianity, has toppled into ruin. To quote Professor Cramb's classic phrase, "Corsica has conquered Galilee." Some of these sad-minded prophets had fathers and grandfathers who fought in the Civil War, and they seem in no wise troubled by this distressful fact. Some of them had great-great-grandfathers who fought in the Revolutionary War, and they join high-sounding societies out of illogical pride. Yet the colonists who defended their freedom and their new-born national life were not more justified in shedding blood, than were the French and Belgians and Serbians who heroically defended their invaded countries and their shattered homes.

When Mr. Carnegie thanked God (through the medium of the newspapers) that he lived in a brotherhood of nations,—"forty-eight nations in one Union,"—he forgot that these forty-eight nations, or at least thirty-eight of them, were not always a brotherhood. Nor was the family tie preserved by moral suasion. What we of the North did was to beat our brothers over the head until they consented to be brotherly. And some three hundred thousand of them died of grievous wounds and fevers rather than love us as they should.

This was termed preserving the Union. The abiding gain is visible to all men, and it is not our habit to question the methods employed for its preservation. No one called or calls the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" a cry to a tribal God, although it very plainly tells the Lord that his place is with the Federal, and not with the Confederate lines. And when the unhappy Belgians crowded the Cathedral of St. Gudule, asking Heaven's help for defenceless Brussels, imploring the intercession of our Lady of Deliverance (pitiful words that wring the heart!), was this a cry to a tribal God, or the natural appeal of humanity to a power higher and more merciful than man? Americans returning from war-stricken Europe in the autumn of 1914 spoke unctuously of their country as "God's own land," by which they meant a land where their luggage was unmolested. But it is possible that nations fighting with their backs to the wall for all they hold sacred and dear are as justified in the sight of God as a nation smugly content with its own safety, living its round of pleasures, giving freely of its superfluity, and growing rich with the vast increase of its industries and trade.

What influence has been at work since the close of the Franco-Prussian War, shutting our eyes to the certainty of that war's final issue, and debauching our minds with sentiment which had no truth to rest on? We knew that the taxes of Europe were spent on armaments, and we talked about International Arbitration. We knew that science was devotedly creating ruthless instruments of destruction, and we turned our pleased attention to the beautiful ceremonies with which the Peace Palace at The Hague was dedicated. We knew, or we might have known, that the strategic railway built by Germany to carry troops to the Belgian frontier was begun in 1904, and that the memorandum of General Schlieffen was sanctioned by the Emperor (there was no pretence of secrecy) in 1909. Yet we thought—in common with the rest of the world—that a "scrap of paper" and a plighted word would constitute protection. We knew that Germany's answer to England's proposals for a mutual reduction of navies was an increase of estimates, and a double number of dreadnoughts. Did we suppose these dreadnoughts were playthings for the Imperial nurseries?

"A pretty toy," quoth she, "the Thunderer's bolt!
My urchins play with it."

When in 1911 President Taft's "message" was hailed as a prophecy of peace, Germany's reply was spoken by Bethmann-Hollweg: "The vital strength of a nation is the only measure of a nation's armaments."

And now the good people who for years have been saying that war is archaic, are reproaching Christianity for not making it impossible. Did not the "American Association for International Conciliation" issue comforting pamphlets, entitled "The Irrationality of War," and "War Practically Preventable"? That ought to have settled the matter forever. Did we not appoint a "Peace Day" for our schools, and a "Peace Sunday" for churches and Sunday schools? Did not Mr. Carnegie pay ten millions down for international peace,—and get a very poor article for his money? There were some beautiful papers read to the Peace Congress at The Hague, just twelve months before Europe was in flames; and there is the report of a commission of inquiry which the "World Peace Foundation," formerly the "International School of Peace," informed us three years ago was "a great advance toward assured peaceful relations between nations."

With this sea of sentiment billowing about us, and with Nobel prizes dropping like gentle rain from Heaven upon thirsty peace-lovers, how should we read the signs of war, written in the language of artillery? It is true that President Nicholas Murray Butler, speaking in behalf of the Carnegie Peace Foundation, observed musingly in November, 1913, that there was no visible interest displayed by any foreign government, or by any responsible foreign statesman, in the preparations for the Third Hague Conference, scheduled for 1915; but this was not a matter for concern. It was more interesting to read about the photographs of "educated and humane men and women," which the "World Conference for Promoting Concord between all Divisions of Mankind" (a title that leaves nothing, save grammar, to be desired) proposed collecting in a vast and honoured album for the edification of the peaceful earth.

And all this time England—England, with her life at stake—shared our serene composure. Lord Salisbury, indeed, and Lord Roberts cherished no illusions concerning Germany's growing power and ultimate intentions. But then Lord Roberts was a soldier; and Lord Salisbury, though outwitted in the matter of Heligoland, had that quality of mistrust which is always so painful in a statesman. The English press preferred, on the whole, to reflect the opinions of Lord Haldane. They were amiable and soothing. Lord Haldane knew the Kaiser, and deemed him a friendly man. Had he not cried harder than anybody else at Queen Victoria's funeral? Lord Haldane had translated Schopenhauer, and could afford to ignore Treitschke. None of the German professors with whom he was on familiar terms were of the Treitschke mind. They were all friendly men. It is true that Germany, far from talking platitudes about peace, has for years past defined with amazing lucidity and candour her doctrine that might is right. She is strong, brave, covetous, she has what is called in urbane language "the instinct for empire," and she follows implicitly

"The good old rule, . . . the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can."

It was forlornly amusing to see, three months after the declaration of war, our book-shops filled with cheap copies of General von Bernhardi's bellicose volume; to open our newspapers, and find column after column of quotation from it; to pick up our magazines, and discover that all the critics were busy discussing it. That book was published in 1911, and the world (outside of Germany which took its text to heart) remained "more than usual calm." Its forcible and closely knit argument is defined and condensed in one pregnant sentence: "The notion that a weak nation has the same right to live as a powerful nation is a presumptuous encroachment on the natural law of development."

This is something different from the suavities of peace-day orators. It is also vastly different from the sentiments so gently expressed by General von Bernhardi in his more recent volume, dictated by German diplomacy, and designed as a tract for the United States and other neutral nations. Soothing syrup is not sweeter than this second book; but its laboured explanations, its amiable denials, even the pretty compliment paid us by a quotation from "A Psalm of Life" (why ignore "Mary had a little lamb"?), have failed to obliterate the sharp, clear outlines of his pitiless policy. Being now on the safe side of prophecy, we wag our heads over the amazing exactitude with which Bernhardi forecast Germany's impending war. But there was at least one English student and observer, Professor J. A. Cramb of Queen's College, London, who gave plain and unheeded warning of the fast-deepening peril, and of the life-or-death struggle which England would be compelled to face. Step by step he traced the expansion of German nationalism, which since 1870 has never swerved from its stern military ideals. A reading people, the Germans. Yes, and in a single year they published seven hundred books dealing with war as a science,—not one of them written for a prize! If the weakness of Germany lies in her assumption that there is no such thing as honour or integrity in international relations, her strength lies in her reliance on her own carefully measured efficiency. Her contempt for other nations has kept pace with the distrust she inspires.

The graceful remark of a Prussian official to Matthew Arnold, "It is not so much that we dislike England, as that we think little of her," was the expression of a genuine Teutonic sentiment. So, too, was General von Bernhardi's characteristic sneer at the "childlike" confidence reposed by Mr. Elihu Root and his friends in the Hague High Court of International Justice, with public opinion at its back. Of what worth, he asked, is law that cannot be converted by force into government? What is the weight of opinion, unsupported by the glint of arms? Professor Cramb, seeing in Bernhardi, and in his great master, Treitschke, the inspiration of their country's high ambition, told England in the plainest words he could command that just as the old German Imperialism began with the destruction of Rome, so would the new German Imperialism begin with the destruction of England; and that if Englishmen dreamed of security from attack, they were destined to a terrible and bloody awakening. Happily for himself,—since he was a man too old and ill to fight,—he died nine months before the fulfilment of his prophecy.

Now that the inevitable has come to pass, now that the armaments have been put to the use for which they were always intended, and the tale of battle is too terrible to be told, press and pulpit are calling Christianity to account for its failure to preserve peace. Ethical societies are reminding us, with something which sounds like elation, that they have long pointed out "the relaxed hold of doctrine on the minds of the educated classes." How they love that phrase, "educated classes," and what, one wonders, do they mean by it? A Jewish rabbi, speaking in Carnegie hall, laments, or rejoices—it is hard to tell which—that Christian Churches are not taken, and do not take themselves, seriously. Able editors comment in military language upon the inability of religious forces to "mobilize" rapidly and effectively in the interests of peace, and turn out neat phrases like "anti-Christian Christendom," which are very effective in editorials. Popular preachers, too broad-minded to submit to clerical authority, deliver "syndicated sermons," denouncing the "creeds of the Dark Ages," which still, in these electricity-lighted days, pander to war. Worse than all, troubled men, seeing the world suddenly bereft of justice and of mercy, lose courage, and whisper in the silence of their own sad hearts, "There is no God."

Meanwhile, the assaulted churches take, as is natural, somewhat conflicting views of the situation. Roman Catholics have been disposed to think that the persecutions of the Church in France are bearing bitter fruit; and at least one American Cardinal has spoken of the war as God's punishment for this offence. But if the Almighty appointed Belgium to be the whipping boy for the sins of France, we shall have to revise our notions of divine justice and beneficence. Belgium is the most Catholic country in Europe. Hundreds of the priests and nuns expelled from France found shelter within its frontiers. But if it were as stoutly Lutheran or Calvinistic, it would be none the less innocent of France's misdemeanours. Moreover, it is worthy of note that French priests, far from moralizing over the situation, have rallied to their country's call. The bugbear, "clerical peril," has dropped out of sight. In its place are confidence on the one side, and unstinted devotion on the other. Exiled monks have returned to fight in the French army. Students of theological seminaries have been no less keen than other students to take up arms for France. Abbés have served as sergeants and ensigns, dying as cheerfully as other men in the monotonous carnage on the Aisne. Wounded priests have shrived their wounded comrades on the battlefield. Everywhere the clergy are playing manly and patriotic parts, forgetting what wrong was done them, remembering what name they bear.

England, with more precision, outlined her views in the manifesto issued September 29, 1914, and designed as a reply to those German theologians who had asked English "Evangelical Christians" to hold back their hands from bloodshed. The manifesto was signed by Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England, and by leading Nonconformists, all of whom found themselves for once in heartfelt amity. It is a plain-spoken document, declaring that truth and honour (it might have added safety) are better things than peace; and that Christian England endorses without reservation the rightness of the war. One of the signers, the Bishop of London, is chaplain to the London Rifle Brigade. No doubt about his sentiments. The words of another, the Archbishop of York, are simple, sincere, and pleasantly free from patronage of the Almighty. "I dare to say that we can carry this cause without shame or misgiving into the presence of Him who is the Judge of the whole earth, and ask Him to bless it."

As for Germany, it may be, as some enthusiasts assert, that her "creative power in religion," keeping pace with her "genius for empire," will turn her out a brand-new faith, the "world-faith" foreseen by Treitschke, a religion of valour and of unceasing effort. Or it may be that the God of her fathers will content her, seeing that she leaves Him so little to do. Like Cromwell, who was a religious man (his thanksgiving for the massacre at Drogheda was as heartfelt as any offered by the Kaiser, or by the Kaiser's grandfather), Germany keeps her powder dry.

Christianity and war have walked together down the centuries. How could it be otherwise? We have to reckon with humanity, and humanity is not made over every hundred years. Science has multiplied instruments of destruction, but the heart of the soldier is the same. It is an anachronism, this human heart, just as war is an anachronism, but it still beats. Nothing sacred and dear could have survived upon the earth had men not fought for their women, their homes, their individual honour, and their national life. And while men stay men, they must give up their lives when the hour strikes. How shall they believe that, dying on the frontiers of their invaded countries, or at the gates of their besieged towns, they sin against the law of Christ?

Heroism is good for the soul, and it bears as much practical fruit as lawmaking. It goes further in moulding and developing the stuff of which a great nation is made. "There is a flower of honour, there is a flower of chivalry, there is a flower of religion." So Sainte-Beuve equips the spirit of man; and the soldier, no less than the civilian, cherishes this threefold bloom. Because he "lives dangerously," he feels the need of God. Because his life is forfeit, there is about him the dignity of sacrifice. Anna Robeson Burr, in her volume on "The Autobiography," quotes an illustrative passage from the Commentaries of that magnificent fighter and lucid writer, Blaise de Monluc, maréchal de France: "Que je me trouve, en voyant les ennemis, en telle peur que je sentois le cœur et les membres s'affoiblir et trembler. Puis, ayant dit mes petites prières latines, je sentois tout-à-coup venir un chaleur au cœur et aux membres."

"Petites prières latines!" A monkish patter. And this was a man belonging to the "educated classes," and a citizen of the world. Sully, in his memoirs, tells us that, at the siege of Montmélian, a cannon-shot struck the ground close to the spot where he and the king were standing, showering upon them earth and little flint stones; whereupon Henry swiftly and unconsciously made the sign of the cross. "Now I know," said the delighted Sully,—himself an unswerving Protestant,—"now I know that you are a good Catholic."

We must always reckon with humanity, unless, indeed, we are orators, living in a world of words, and marshalling unconquerable theories against unconquered facts. The French priest at Soissons who distributed to the Turcos little medals of the Blessed Virgin may not have been an advanced thinker, but he displayed a pleasant acquaintance with mankind. There was no time to explain to these unbelievers the peculiar efficacy of the medals; for that he trusted to Our Lady; but their presentation was a link between the Catholic soldier and the Moslem, who were fighting side by side for France. Perhaps this priest remembered that close at hand, in the hamlet of Saint-Médard, lie the relics of Saint Sebastian, Christian gentleman and martyr, who was an officer in the imperial bodyguard of Diocletian, rendering to Cæsar the service that was Cæsar's, until the hour came for him to render to God the life that was always God's.

The wave of religious emotion which sweeps over a nation warring for its life is not the mere expression of that nation's sharpened needs; it is not only a cry for help where help is sorely needed. It is part of man's responsiveness to the call of duty, his sense of self-sacrifice in giving his body to death in order that his country may live. "Religion," says Mr. Stephen Graham, "is never shaken down by war. The intellectual dominance is shaken and falls; the spiritual powers are allowed to take possession of men's beings." That a truth so simple and so often illustrated should fail to be understood, proves the torpor of materialism. A sad-minded American writer, commenting on the destruction of the Cathedral of Rheims, made the amazing discovery that the sorrow and indignation evoked by this national crime showed an utter collapse of Christianity. Every one, he said, bewailed the loss to the world. No one bewailed the loss to religion. Therefore faith lay dead.

That religion can lose nothing by the destruction of her monuments is the solace of Christian souls. Her churches lie in crumbling ruins. Ypres, Pervyse, Soissons, Revigny, Souain, Maurupt, Étavigny. Everywhere stand the shattered walls of what was once a church, with here and there an altar burned or hacked, and a mutilated crucifix. But the faith that built these churches is as unassailable as the souls of the men who died for them. There are things beyond the reach of "high explosives," and it is not for them we grieve.

It is a common saying that the New Testament affords no vindication of war, which is natural enough, not being penned as a manual for nations. But Catholic theology, having been called on very early to pronounce judgment upon this recurrent incident of life, has defined with absolute exactitude what, in the eyes of the Church, justifies, and what necessitates war. From a mass of minute detail,—laws laid down by Saint Thomas Aquinas and other doctors of the Church,—I venture to quote two salient points, the first dealing with the nature of a right, the second with the nature of a title.

"Every perfect right, that is, every right involving in others an obligation in justice of deference thereto, if it is to be an efficacious, and not an illusory power, carries with it as a last appeal the subsidiary right of coercion. A perfect right, then, implies the right of physical force to defend itself against infringement, to recover the subject-matter of right unjustly withheld, or to exact its equivalent, and to inflict damage in the exercise of this coercion, wherever coercion cannot be exercised without such damage."

"The primary title of a state to go to war is, first, the fact that the state's rights are menaced by foreign aggression not otherwise to be prevented than by war; second, the fact of actual violation of right not otherwise reparable; third, the need of punishing the threatening or invading power, for the security of the future. From the nature of the proved right, those three facts are necessarily just titles, and the state whose rights are in jeopardy is itself the judge thereof."

I am aware that theology is not popular, save with theologians; but after reading Treitschke and Bernhardi on the one hand, and the addresses delivered at "peace demonstrations" on the other, it is inexpressibly refreshing to follow straight thought instead of crooked thought, or words that hold no thought at all. I am also aware that Catholic wars have not always been waged along the lines laid down by Catholic theology; but this is beside the point. The Mosaic law was not the less binding upon the Jews because they were always breaking it. Nor are we prepared to say that they would have been as sound morally without a law so constantly infringed. It is well to know that, even in the spirit, there is such a thing as justice and admitted right.

To prate about the wickedness of war without drawing a clear line of demarcation between aggressive and defensive warfare, between violating a treaty and upholding it, is to lose our mental balance, to substitute sentiment for truth. The very wrongness of the one implies logically the rightness of the other. And whatever is morally right is in accord with Christianity. To speak loosely of war as unchristian is to ignore not only the Christian right, but the Christian duty, which rests with every nation and with every man to protect that of which nation and man are lawful protectors. Even aggressive warfare is not necessarily a denial of the Christianity it affronts. Crooked thinking comes naturally to men, and the power of self-deception is without bounds. God is not deceived; but the instinctive desire of the creature to hoodwink the Creator, to induce Him—for a consideration—to compound a felony, is revealed in every page of history, and under every aspect of civilization. The necessity which man has always felt of being on speaking terms with his own conscience, built churches and abbeys in the days of faith, and endows educational institutions in this day of enlightenment; but it very imperfectly controlled, or controls, the actions of men or of nations. If our confidence in the future were not based upon ignorance of the past, we should better understand, and more courageously face, the harsh realities of life.

Two lessons taught by the war are easily learned. There is no safety in talk, and there is no assurance that the world's heritage of beauty, its triumphs of art and of architecture, will descend to our children and our grandchildren. We never reckoned on this loss of our common inheritance. We never thought that the gracious gifts made by the far past to the dim future could be so speedily destroyed, and that a single day would suffice to impoverish all coming generations. What can the pedantry, the "culture," of the twentieth century give to compensate us for the loss of Rheims Cathedral? The deficit is too heavy to be counted. Not France alone, but the civilized world, has been robbed beyond measure and beyond retrievement. Life is less good to all of us, and will be less good to those who come after us, because this great sacrilege has been committed. As for culture,—the careful destruction of the University of Louvain proves once and forever that scholarship is no more sacred than art or than religion, when the tide of invasion breaks upon a doomed and helpless land.

This affords food for thought. Italy, for example, is the treasure-house of the world. She is the guardian of the beauty she created, and to her shrine goes all mankind in pilgrimage. How long would her cathedrals, her palaces, her galleries, survive assault? What would be left of Venice after a week's bombardment? What of Florence, or of Rome? There is no such thing as safety in war. There is no such thing as safety in neutrality. Italy has more to lose than all the other nations of Europe, and is there one of us who would not be a partner in her loss?

And the United States? "God's own land"? Are we forever secure? True we have little to fear in the destruction of our public monuments, which are rather like the public monuments of Prussia, the ornate edifices and ramping statues of Hamburg and Berlin. It might be a pious duty to let them go. But we have homes which are as precious to us as were once the devastated homes of Belgium to happy men and women; and we confide their safety to treaties, to scraps of paper, like the one which made Belgium inviolate. If we are in search of life's ironies, let us note that a Roman Catholic Peace Conference was to have been convened in Liège, the very month that Germany struck her blow. A fortnight's delay, and delegates might have been making speeches on the concord of nations, while the streets of Aerschot ran blood, and Wespelaer was looted and burned.

Yet so deep-rooted is sentiment in our souls, so averse are we to facing facts, that to-day a "peace meeting" will pack a convention hall in any town of any state in the Union. We are as pleased to hear that "the brotherhood of man is the only basis for enduring peace among the nations" as if this shadowy brotherhood had taken form and substance. We listen with undiminished trustfulness to Mr. Bryan's oft-repeated plans for ending the war by remonstrating soberly with the warriors. We see hope in conferences, in speeches, in telegrams to Washington, in appeals "from the mothers of the nation." How many months have passed since Mr. La Follette evoked our enthusiastic response to these well-timed, well-balanced words? "The accumulated and increasing horrors of the European wars are creating a great tidal wave of public opinion that sweeps aside all specious reasoning, and admits of but one simple, common-sense, humane conclusion,—a demand for peace and disarmament among civilized nations."

To this we all cried Amen! But as there was nobody to bell the cat, the war went bloodily on. The question who was to "demand" peace, and of whom it was to be demanded, was one which Mr. La Follette could not, or at least did not, answer. "Public opinion" has a weighty sound. All our lives we have pinned our faith to this bodiless thing, and it has failed us in our need. Why, if it can work miracles in the future, should it have been so helpless in these two sad years? The Hague Conference of 1907 laid down definite rules of warfare,—rules to which the nations of Europe subscribed with cheerful unanimity. They forbade pillage, the levying of indemnities, the seizure of funds belonging to local authorities, collective penalties for individual acts, the conveying of troops or munitions across the territory of a neutral power, and all terrorization of a country by harshness to its civilian population. The object of these rules, every one of which has been broken in Belgium, was to keep war within the limits set by what Mr. Henry James calls the "high decency" of Christian civilization. Public opinion has been as powerless to enforce the least of these rules as it has been powerless to prevent the sinking of unarmed merchant ships, the drowning of men, women and children belonging to neutral nations. How can we hope that a force so feeble today will control the world to-morrow?

If the Allies emerge triumphantly from the war, and England demands the reduction of armaments, then this good result will have been gained by desperate fighting, not by noble sentiments. We, whose sentiments have been of the noblest, shall have had no real share in the work. If Germany conquers, and stands unassailable, a great military world-power, fired with a sense of her exalted destiny, rich with the spoils of Europe, and holding in her mailed hands the power to enforce her will, is it at all likely that our excellent arguments will prevail upon her to reverse her policy, and enfeeble herself for our safety? A successful aggressive warfare does not pave the way to a lasting and honourable peace. This is one of the truths we may learn, if we will, from history.

For years we have chosen to believe that arbitration would ensure for the world a maximum of comfort at a minimum of cost, and that the religion of humanity would achieve what the religion of Christ has never achieved,—the mythical brotherhood of man. From this dream we have been rudely awakened; but, being awake, let us at least recognize and respect that simple and great quality which makes every man the defender of his home, the guardian of his rights, the avenger of his shameful wrongs.

We, too, have fought bravely in our day. We, too, have known what it is to do all that man can do, and to bear all that man must bear; and it was not in the hour of our trial that we talked about bankrupt Christianity. When Serbia made her choice between death and the uttermost dishonour, she vindicated the sacred right of humanity. When Belgium with incredible courage defended her own good name and the safety of France, she stood erect before God and man, and laid down her life for her friend.