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The Miseries of War

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”—ST MATTHEW 5:9.

When we listen to this Beatitude, and think upon the horrors, the scourge, the miseries of war; indeed, whenever we study Christ’s teaching as to the relation of Christians one to another, their intimate union in Him with one another; when we consider this as the test of their discipleship, “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples if ye have love one to another”—we must wonder how it is that a thing, so absolutely inconsistent with Christ’s teaching as war is, should not only have been tolerated by Christianity, but that the thesis should have been defended by a large section of Christendom, that war was, if an evil, a necessary evil.

Nothing seems to show the absolute departure of the spirit of the Church from the spirit of Christ in so glaring a light as the history of Christianity in reference to wars. When one takes war to bits and thinks what it is and what it involves—the fierce and brutal passions that it stimulates, the hatreds which it inspires, the deadly ingenuity about the means of killing and maiming which it promotes, the helpless crowd of men it sweeps off in the prime of their lives, the odious ambitions of which it is too often the expression—when one takes it all to bits and looks at each piece without the false glamour which success so often casts over the general idea; when one strips off the fine phrases about dying for one’s country, and honestly looks the facts in the face that so often men have been butchered like sheep—their homes made desolate for some tyrant’s whim or some noble’s envy, it is hard to see how the whole history of the Christian attitude on the subject of war has been anything better than a great evasion.

It is well to consider this benediction in its widest application. Blessed are those who have striven for peace between nations, e.g., who have endeavoured to substitute arbitration for war, who have striven to promote in communities the peace-loving disposition. Has, then, Christianity always been a peacemaker? Has the Christian Church by its attitude towards war earned the blessing?

I. Let us begin by saying that war is not the worst evil, that there are cases in which it is the lesser of two evils, that it is better to fight for the general welfare than meanly to betray it, that the instinct which prompts us to cherish the memory of those who really gave their lives for their country is one of the noblest of our nature, that war may be the truest and only preparation for lasting peace. Allowing all that, let us look at war as it is; what a ghastly remedy at best it seems, what a confession of human weakness and human sin! War, as it is described so vividly in Le Debâcle, what a terrible tragedy it is! And then remember the part the Christian Church has sometimes taken in it. Remember the motives that have been held to justify it. We need not go back far into the past. Within our own memory the cynical utterance was approved and defended by at least half of our countrymen, that ‘we went to war in search of a scientific frontier,’ and yet, from the New Testament point of view, no utterance could have been more immoral. Let us willingly and gladly own that it is more Christian, more in accordance with Christ’s spirit to fight for the right, for home, and hearth, and liberty, than to allow the invader to spread fire and ruin over a helpless country. Let us always say that the sacrifice of life for these ends is noble and virtuous. Let us own that the doctrine of passive non-resistance to injury cannot be applied to nations, that there may come a time to any nation when self-defence becomes the most sacred duty. Let us cheerfully pay our taxes to keep up our navy. But let us not shrink from owning that, in this matter of war, both the Christian Church and we ourselves as a Christian nation have much to repent of, that only very partially and intermittently has the Church endeavoured to earn the blessing of the peacemakers in the past, that if here and there a mediæval Pope intervened in the interests of peace, his action was balanced by at least a tenfold, aye, and a fifty-fold, invitation to war. We sometimes have glowing pictures drawn for us by those whose dream it is to see Christendom again united under one earthly head, of the Pope sitting as a universal arbitrator and preventing wars, as the judges in our courts settle disputes. But a man must have read history to little purpose to indulge in such a highly-coloured and imaginative romance. With the same hopefulness it was predicted in the early days of the Christian Church that, when the empire was converted, there would ensue a reign of perpetual peace. But if we look back now with honest eyes we cannot help saying that, so far was this from being the case, that the ecclesiastical influence has tended to increase rather than to diminish the number of wars. I know of no period since the time of Constantine on which one can put one’s finger and say that in that age the clergy as a body exerted themselves to prevent or abridge any great war. Certainly there have been times in the history of Europe and of our own country when the ecclesiastical influence was very strongly at work in promoting great wars, in stimulating the fanaticism of the crusader, or in stirring up the hideous massacre, under De Montfort, of the Albigenses, or again, in embittering the religious contests that followed the Reformation. No doubt there were instances on a smaller scale of the opposite tendency; there was the institution called the Truce of God, which for a time was of great value as a witness to the religious principle; there was often the suppression of private wars by the mediatorial offices of individual bishops; and of course, too, it must always be remembered that the strength of the military spirit in mediæval Europe was such that resistance to it was a matter of considerable difficulty. But when Christian writers have held up Mahommedanism to reprobation as marching through blood to power, they have strangely neglected to notice that it has only surpassed the religious forces of Christendom in the path of their own choosing; and that the means which were used by the Church to promote military fanaticism, the indulgences granted by Popes, the exhortations of the pulpit, the hatred of misbelievers, have been unequalled in their intensity, and have caused the shedding of oceans of blood. In the earlier wars religious fanaticism was a main cause, and it maintained its influence in the later ones. Before Constantine, the Beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” was recognized as an actual ideal. Since the time of Constantine scarcely any writer, except Erasmus, has treated the question seriously, from the New Testament point of view. The Quakers and the Anti-baptists have in later days raised a protest, but its strength and significance was largely diminished by exaggeration.

II. Do we at last see the dawning of a brighter day? Unquestionably now there seems to be a growing feeling in Favour of arbitration; the perfection of man-slaying machines has proved too much for the Christian conscience, and it is improbable that Europe would tolerate another Franco-German war. Doubtless the influence of certain great minds, deeply imbued with Christian ethical conceptions, has effected so much. But that the average ecclesiastical opinion would be half as much agitated by the declaration of some great territory-seeking war, if such were made to-morrow, as it is now about the question whether the Calvinists of South Wales shall still be forced to pay tithes for the support of a Church in which they do not believe, is, I fear, a very doubtful matter. The ecclesiastical spirit has generally a great lack of the sense of proportion, and its failure to influence thinking men just arises from that. Hence it comes to pass that theological influence has apparently done far less to diminish actual war than have industrial influences. Nor is this anything abnormal. As far as we can see, God effects all His great changes in the world through means that seem not directly designed for those ends. And so we find that, through economic means and through industrial interests, mankind tends to grow together, and wars seem to become more impossible. Then at last the moral sense wakes up at the call of self-interest, and the highest teaching of great minds, who have not been listened to in their own generation, finds its late echo in the assent of the multitude.

Moral principles, in fact, especially when they come into collision with human passions exerted on a large scale, rarely act powerfully, except by way of example or ideal. Idealize them in some commanding personality, and the imagination comes in and gives its approval, for it is always even now easier to move the masses through their imagination than by appeals to their reason. The moral tendencies of an age are often largely governed by economical conditions. The prophets speak with bated breath and are not listened to at the time; but when, from other causes the current sets in strongly enough in any direction, their day of influence comes, and they moralize and spiritualize the prevailing tendency, so that the ethical power can reassert itself. So it has been as regards war; the tendencies of our day are in the direction of peace; the very perfection of the man-slaying machine promotes a reaction against war, while the industrial interests of the community make in the direction of peace. Civilization, too, has produced perhaps an undue sensitiveness to suffering; hedonism has been preached as a creed, and is convincing too many that pain is the one and only evil. A variety of causes—some good, some bad—make for peace, and so the time has come for the Christian moralist to get a hearing, to set forth the beauties of the peace-loving disposition. He has stood on the bank for generations shouting to the struggling, cutting, carving, slaying, shooting multitude; now at last he has his opportunity, and if he really seizes it, the prevailing tendency will acquire its full intensity.

There are strong grounds, in relation to this and other matters, for thinking that this was the real intention of the Founder of the Christian Church, that the principles He laid down were meant to act as a leaven, and only gradually to work themselves out. The similes which He uses, seem to suggest this. The cultivation of the peace-loving temper in individuals is a distinct thing. Wherever men have felt His influence as a reality they have striven after it themselves, and endeavored to impress it upon others. But that it has not always been cultivated by the whole Church we are bound to confess; that the ecclesiastical influence has not been always, or even often, exerted in this fashion is one of those sad confessions of failure to realize His teaching to which the Church has to own. It is one of the failures of Christian morality that it has not been alive to the blessing of peacemakers. But it is quite another thing to say that Christianity, even if its members had cultivated the peace-loving disposition, could have directly controlled the necessities of society. That it was meant to bring wars to an end by its influence, that it will do so in the long run, that, if its spirit prevails, it must do so, seems to me unquestionable. On the other hand, it seems clear that other forces have appeared to effect more than directly religious influences, nor is that so surprising as at first sight it looks. “For Christianity (it has been well said) does not fight with what man conceives to be the necessary conditions of society (as war and property alike have been), it only lays down principles, especially the great principle of love, and leaves them to effect their silent revolution. In her own world, war would be impossible, for in each combatant is the presence of God—the seal of the Spirit—and the wild stamp of nature’s discord would be an insult to it.”

I have left myself but a moment to speak of the cultivation of the peace-loving spirit as the only contribution we can make towards the determination of this subject. I would content myself with saying that our moral and spiritual influence is a matter beyond our present ken, our words and actions flow we know not where—the least self-conscious tell most powerfully. At least we can do something, if we follow after “the things that make for peace,” to make war more impossible, and discord more difficult. To watch one’s own heart, to restrain oneself, is the surest way of doing good in this way to one’s neighbor, and of leaving the world a better place than we found it.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Peacemakers (I). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 155–164). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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