Veteran's Day - World War I Helps Us Know How We Got Here
At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Western European time, in the year 1918, the armistice that ended World War I went into effect, ending what the people of the day called the Great War or, more hopefully, ‘the war to end all wars.’ Of course, it wasn’t. That was a hundred years ago today, and many of you like me are old enough to remember when November 11 was still called ‘Armistice Day’, not ‘Veterans Day.’
By this time a hundred years ago, the main combatants were totally exhausted. One crop after another of eighteen-year-olds had left school to be slaughtered. Overall, some 20 million lives were lost. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of American doughboys strengthened the beleaguered, depleted British and French armies and brought the Germans to the bargaining table.
In its wake the war left, as no one at the time could imagine, even greater horrors – what we saw in the rest of the 20th Century. The German, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian empires collapsed. Only the British Empire survived, battered and indebted. Russia succumbed to the nightmare of communism. Social chaos, inflation, and depression followed, and in their wake in Germany Nazism.
The war that ended a hundred years ago sowed the seeds of worse to come.
And it destroyed Europe’s faith in itself, a toxin that threatens us on this side of the Atlantic as well. The still relatively sturdy practice of the Christian faith had failed to restrain the Christian empires of Europe from stumbling into disaster. Too quickly everybody marched to the slaughter assuming that God was on their side. While German militarism is generally regarded as the principal factor in the origins of the war, the fathers of this failure were many and multi-national. Legitimate national pride in these highly developed, highly cultured, wealthy nations blinded them to the purposelessness of the war they bumbled into. And their faith in God and in themselves took a beating that, as I said, continues to afflict Europe. Those who saw themselves as the most civilized and advanced peoples ever were the ones who conducted this massive self-slaughter.
The death all seemed so meaningless. British poets and Erich Maria Remarque’s great German novel All Quiet on the Western Front brought that to expression, as did many other writers and artists. A mood of nihilism descended upon many of the survivors. The disappointment and shock of it all led to some renewals in Christian theology, but on the whole Europe slipped into what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has called ‘metaphysical exhaustion,’ an inability to look with hope to anything beyond the physical, material, and economic. It’s what we often call secularization. It’s what Pope Benedict just before his election called ‘the dictatorship of relativism,’ and it lies at the root of what Pope St. John Paul II called ‘the culture of death.’
The disaster of World War I can thus be seen at the root of so many of our cultural and societal, philosophical and religious problems. It’s not that there are no other causes, but as we look at the world we inhabit and its multiple difficult challenges for the Church, faith, family and human dignity, the disastrous war that ended on this day 100 years ago looms large.
And when faith in God is lost, so is faith in any truth outside ourselves in in humanity. If our lives have no purpose beyond what we give them, then why not . . .
-- have ourselves euthanized when they are no longer pleasant?
-- judge that life in the womb has no meaning unless the mother decides it does?
-- pretend that male and female are not fixed realities but fluid notions, so that we can make up any gender we want and demand recognition or else?
-- eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we’ll die or get euthanized?
-- invent a sexual revolution that makes sex a matter of adult amusement and self-expression and separates the gift of sexuality from children, marriage and family with catastrophic and stubbornly ignored results?
-- seek salvation in politics and go berserk when things don’t go your way?
Obviously, all these forms of sin and human folly and self-destruction existed before World War I. Large portions of Roman history exhibited similar symptoms. The devil has never closed shop. But on this solemn anniversary, I want you also to recognize how events of a hundred years ago contributed to and speeded up the mess that we are in. And as I once heard a wise Lutheran bishop say, what we have is not a problem but a mess. A problem can be addressed with a sound solution. If you have a flat tire, you get it fixed. A mess must be lived with, worked with, and labored through. What is true of our culture and society seems sadly to be far to true of the Church in our day. (It was to the Lutheran Church that that bishop was referring.)
Working through the mess, then, would seem to be our calling as Christians in the early 21st century, and it is why on this day I have departed from the typical, sound practice of preaching on the readings. This world so shaped by World War I is the only one we get. This nation with all that is right and wrong about it is the only context in which we get to live out our Christian faith and commitment. And this Church with its multiplicity of sins and failings, errant leadership and widespread lay indifference and spiritual sloth is the only one we get.
We can complain about the mess, but it is the mess into which God has placed us and in which he asks for our faithfulness, courage, sacrifice and service. He has not abandoned us; he has given us life and gifts in this place and this time, for this place and this time.
First of all, then, let us see with clarity. Let us try to understand our world and the nature of its crises and problems. That’s the reason for my little discourse about World War I. It helps to know how we got here. We must not tune out or turn totally inward, for then we cannot respond and serve and bear witness to the truth and love of God which the world so badly needs.
Then also, the traditional emphasis of November on the last things – heaven, hell, death and judgment – can actually help us keep our footing. Thinking about the last things not only keeps us honest, alert and ready for our last hour, it also helps us understand the reality and gravity of sin and the enormity of God’s mercy. He looks at the mess we have made and invites us nonetheless to eternal communion with him in heaven. When we remember that, we hold on to hope and do not slip into metaphysical exhaustion. The only sense that can be made of the slaughter, atheism, and cruelty of the last 100 years is the cross of Jesus Christ, where God’s love for the world is seen its highest relief and clarity.
And there is one other thing about November 11 that is too seldom connected to the observance of this day. It is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, the fourth-century Roman soldier who laid aside his arms and became eventually a revered Catholic bishop (and a patron of France). The Church of course through its history has respected the vocation of soldier and seen the necessity for it. His leaving the Roman army is not my point. It is just God’s wonderful irony. The war ended on the feast of the man who might well be the most venerated veteran among the canonized saints. More veneration of St. Martin and less of human glory might have prevented the whole catastrophe. There is yet more irony where St. Martin is concerned – his soldier father named him after Mars, the Roman god of war.
St. Martin reminds us where we need to go in the face of our present catastrophe. It is the saints and art, the beauty of holiness, said Pope Benedict, that are the Church’s greatest witness, and for all the woes of the past century, God has continued to raise up great saints, saints who often captured the imagination of those otherwise far from Christ (like Mother Theresa) and a vast array of martyrs whose blood will yet be again the seed of the Church.
Part of the pain of the present moment is that the world needs visible holiness at a time when the Church is providing too much of the opposite. But none of what is wrong with the Church or the world prevents you from bearing witness to Christ, to the love of God and to the beauty of a holy and generous life. We know what folly looks like; the horrors of the past 100 years are only too plain. So then, let us live the truth.