The Book of the Homeless/We Who Sit Afar Off
WE WHO SIT AFAR OFF
I, SKEPTIC though I am, am, like every Englishman, a mystic. I see in this war almost literally a fight between God and the Devil.… With all my soul I believe that the ideal of pity is the noblest thing we have, and that its denial which waves on every German flag is the denial of all that the greatest men have striven for for centuries. … I feel that the two enormous spirits that move this world are showing their weapons almost visibly, and that never was the garment of the living world so thin over the gods that it conceals.
"I am not much elated by the thought. I have little opinion of Providence as an ally, and I am surprised at the weakness the Kaiser shows for his pocket deity. What we have to do, in my opinion, we do ourselves, and our task is none the lighter that we defend the right. But I am hardened and set by the thing I believe. We feel that we are fighting for the life of England—yes, for the safety of France—yes, for the sanctity of treaties—yes, but behind these secondary and comparatively material issues, for something far deeper, far greater, for something so great and deep that if our efforts fail I pray God I may die before I see it."
These are words from a letter of an English physician with the British expeditionary force to an American physician who had sent him Dr. Eliot's war-book. He, in the war, disclosing how he feels about it, has described also how it seems to thousands of us who are looking on. We too are mystics in our feelings about this war. We too have, and have had almost from the first, this profound sense of a fundamental conflict between the powers of good and evil, the soul of the world at grips with its body.
And while we feel so profoundly that the Allies are on the Lord's side, a good many of us at least prefer the English doctor's small reliance on Providence as an ally to the Kaiser's proprietary confidence in the Almighty's backing. It is not safe to count on Providence to win for us. He knows us much better than we know ourselves, and may have views for our improvement and the world's which our minds do not fathom and which do not match our plans. Nevertheless, in a vast crisis to feel one's self on the Lord's side, there to fight, win or lose, there to stay, alive or dead, is an enormous stay to the spirit. "I am hardened and set," says the English doctor, "by the thing I believe." Then truly is Providence his ally.
To work is to pray; to fight is to pray; to tend the wounded in hospitals and avert disease is to pray. The people in action are quickened and sustained in their faith by their exertions, but what of us who sit afar off in safety and look on at Armageddon?
Our case is pretty trying. When the war first came it was hard for the thousands of us who cared, to sleep in our beds. We felt it was our war, too, and it was, for we too are Europeans, and have besides as great a stake in civilization as any one has. We have kept up our habit of sleeping in our beds because that was more convenient and there was no advantage to any one in our doing otherwise. And we have gone on without much outward change in our work and our habits of life. And we have grown a little callous, and doubtless a little torpid, and lost some of the ardor that came with the first shock. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Americans have had one continuing, underlying thought for a year and a quarter—the war, the great conflict between good and evil, and what to do about it.
There never has been a moment's doubt about which side would be ours if we went in. But how get in? Where lies duty? By what course may we best help? Is it our war? When and how will the mandate come to us, too, to resist the crushing of civilization under the Prussian jack-boot? There are millions of Americans who want to get into the war, but there are more millions who want to keep out. Our English doctor appreciates the predicament of neutral countries, and this is what he says about it:
"War being what it is, it is hopeless to expect that any nation will engage in it who does not fear great loss or hope great gain. Nations will always be swayed by the influences which are now swaying Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania. No desire of justice would lead those countries to join us. I doubt if it would justify their rulers in declaring war."
Perhaps that is another way of saying that no country will get into the war that dares to stay out. Nations, especially democratic nations, are not much like men. They may not say, "I will fight for you; I will spend my strength and treasure for you; I will die for you and your cause." Individuals may feel, say, do all that, but individuals are not nations. A nation says: "The laws of my being must determine my conduct. I must go my own gait according to those rules. But if war stretches across my path I need not turn out for it."
How far this war has still to go, no one knows. It may still, any day, stretch across the path of the United States, so that the natural drive of our procedure will carry us into it.