Onward Christian Metaphors

By Jeff Gill

[The second of three parts in which Jeff Gill offers a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.]

 

Perhaps “the moral equivalent of war” is a good way to go about mobilizing a culture.

William James thought so around 1900, and some sixty years later LBJ declared one against poverty.

At the same time, he was pulled into ramping up a . . . war-war, if you will. Not a moral-equivalent-of, but an actual Vietnam War. Did the use of the one metaphor cause some pushback because of the other?

I wonder about this. I’m not, as I’ve said before, a pacifist, but I don’t say that proudly. It’s pretty clear Jesus was one, and yet neither he nor his forerunner (and cousin) John the baptizer nor his leading follower, Simon Peter, condemn those who practiced the arts of war. I missed the era of the draft by a few years, but grew up in its shadow, yet I signed up for as complex a set of reasons as anyone who has enlisted. I’m proud to claim the title of United States Marine, even if I’m a bit bemused that I actually have an honorable discharge. My service was short, quiet, and stateside. Anyhow.

Obviously, I went on into ministry, and in looking at this history of that trade, I’ve seen a noticeable knot between warfare and worshipful arts back around 1914.

That’s right, a centennial this year: The War to End All War. The Great War, they called it during its terrible course in England. Or as we later, more reasonably called it, World War One. Or some might say “The First Phase of the Century Long European-Focused Conflict.”

It began a hundred years ago this summer. In late June Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, and by late July the armies were mobilized and the mortars began their steady thump, a pounding rhythm that would relentlessly beat away at lives and property until four and half years later on November 11th, still Armistice Day to many.

That conflict began without American involvement, and ended with our entry in 1917 decisively swinging the balance to the Western Allies. There’s much to say about how “The Sleepwalkers” let the war begin, and much still to debate about how it all should have ended, but the League of Nations and the Versailles treaty certainly didn’t work out the way people had hoped.

For churches, specifically American churches, there was arguably an element of their own involvement in the move to a “war footing” that didn’t work out as they’d expected, either.

A startling book entitled “Preachers Present Arms” came out in 1969, researched and written by a pastor & historian named Ray Abrams. He pulls together the myriad stands of how Christian denominations, congregations, and individual parsons all ended up marching largely in lockstep to encourage entry and celebrate taking an active role in what had been, up to that point in the US, “the European Conflict.”

It’s a hard book to read. It doesn’t matter how martially minded you are, or are feeling in that moment: the announcements and proclamations and sermons cited in this book trace a spasm of cheerleading for war and fervor for “slaughtering the Hun” as the German enemy was termed that can’t not leave you breathless.

The bloodlust was bad enough in and of itself, but the aftermath is one of a stuttering, staggering, flailing Christian community across the nation looking back and asking “what in Heaven’s name were we thinking?” The rationale for supporting the Allies entirely aside, the sheer zest for battle and blood specifically on the part of clergy safe in their US pulpits: it was appalling. And in many ways, the church bodies and institutions of ministry said “never again.” The country may go to war, but the church doesn’t have to lead the charge with fixed bayonets.

And whether you see that as a reasonable reaction or a failure of nerve, it was in my reading pretty clear that this war hysteria actually did a great deal to undermine the moral authority Christianity had in American culture. Everyday folk who may have had little heartfelt commitment to a particular church body came away from 1917-1918 with the thought “those folks are easily co-opted, and don’t mind getting us into pointless bloodbaths.”

I would argue the great loss of cultural authority on the part of Christendom that we usually associate with the 1960s actually has its basis in the reaction that began to set in after 1918.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he will have a bit more to say about war and faith next week, but tell him what you think at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.