Laurence Vance is a prolific writer and author of many books on the subject of Christianity and war. Yesterday he published an interesting book review on Lewrockwell.com on Philip Jenkins new book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. In the article, Vance writes:
One would think that if there is any group of people that would be opposed to war it would be Christians. After all, they claim to worship the Prince of Peace. But such is not the case now, and such was not the case 100 years ago during the Great War that we now call World War I.
I have often pointed out how strange it is that Christians should be so accepting of war. War is the greatest suppressor of civil liberties. War is the greatest creator of widows and orphans. War is the greatest destroyer of religion, morality, and decency. War is the greatest creator of fertile ground for genocides and atrocities. War is the greatest destroyer of families and young lives. War is the greatest creator of famine, disease, and homelessness. War is the health of the state.
Just as it was easy for the state to enlist the support of Christians for the Cold and Vietnam Wars against “godless communism,” so it is easy now for the state to garner Christian support for the War on Terror against “Islamic extremists.” But World War I was a Christian slaughterhouse. It was Christian vs. Christian, Protestant vs. Protestant, Catholic vs. Catholic. And to a lesser extent, it was also Jew vs. Jew and Muslim vs. Muslim.
Although fought by nation states and empires, World War I was in a great sense a religious war. As Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explains in the introduction to his new book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade:
The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelming Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.
Soldiers commonly demonstrated a religious worldview and regularly referred to Christian beliefs and ideas. They resorted frequently to biblical language and to concepts of sacrifice and redemptive suffering.
The war ignited a global religious revolution. . . . The Great War drew the world’s religious map as we know it today..
Not just incidentally but repeatedly and centrally, official statements and propaganda declare that the war is being fought for god’s cause, or for his glory, and such claims pervade the media and organs of popular culture. Moreover, they identify the state and its armed forces as agents or implements of God. Advancing the nation’s cause and interests is indistinguishable from promoting and defending God’s cause or (in a Christian context) of bringing in his kingdom on earth.
We can confidently speak of a powerful and consistent strain of holy war ideology during the Great War years. All the main combatants deployed such language, particularly the monarchies with long traditions of state establishment—the Russians, Germans, British, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottoman Turks—but also those notionally secular republics: France, Italy, and the United States.
Christian leaders treated the war as a spiritual event, in which their nation was playing a messianic role in Europe and the world.
Without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand the First World War. More important, though, the world’s modern religious history makes no sense except in the context of that terrible conflict. The war created our reality.