The Commonwealth of Mankind.
A Sermon Preached in S. Paul's Cathedral, April 20, 1917, at a Solemn Service to Almighty God on the Occasion of the Entry of the United States of America into the Great War for Freedom Attended by Their Majesties the King and Queen and the American Ambassador.
By Charles Henry Brent.
London: A.R. Mowbray, 1917.
“Having gone apart with the elders, he resolved that . . . they should go forth and try the matter in fight by the help of God. And committing the decision to the Lord of the world, and exhorting them that were with him to contend nobly, even unto death, for laws, temple, city, country, commonwealth, he pitched his camp . . . having given out to his men the watchword, ‘Victory is God’s.’”—2 Maccabees, 13:13-15.
WE are here to consecrate human life to a vision in order that we may perform a task and achieve a victory. We, comrades in a common cause, have come together, like sturdy Judas and his fellow patriots of ancient story, to commit our decisions to the Lord, and to place ourselves in His hands before we pitch our camp and go forth to battle.
It were a poor cause an an unworthy cause which we could not commit to God with complete confidence. Indeed, as Christians it would be wicked to ally ourselves with any purpose that we could not take to God's house and ask for His blessing thereon. To-day we have this great confidence, not that our cause is God's in the sense of our winning Him to our position, but in the sense that God has won us to His position.
This, I venture to say, is not merely the beginning of a new era, but of a new epoch. It is marvellous what is happening at this moment. A great nation well-skilled in self-sacrifice is standing by with deep sympathy and bidding God-speed to another great nation that is making its act of self-dedication to God. The altar upon which we Americans are laying to-day our lives and our fortunes is already occupied. For nearly three years neither day nor night has passed in which new contributions of the most sacred things in the world have not been laid upon that altar. We know to-day, in a way that we were not fully conscious of a while since, that the group of nations known as the Allies have been fighting a battle not merely for their own laws, their own religion, their own homes, their own social order, but also for the great commonwealth of mankind; they have been championing the right. And to-day it is indeed an inspiration to look past and through the local and see beyond it that universal cause that sweeps along with its mighty torrent and catches in its tide all true-hearted men and all true-hearted women. The recognition of a fact does not alter the fact, but it adds to its potency; so that to-day, when the United States of America avow their intention to give themselves wholly and heartily to this great cause, the battle for the right assumes new proportions and new power, and victory, aye, the victory that is God's, is in sight.
We Americans have never been oblivious to the fact that the people of this country have been standing for the same principles which we love and for which we live. England, thank God! is the mother of democracy, and England's children come back to-day and pour all their experience, the experience of a century and a half of independent life, with gratitude at the feet of their mother. The aid which we give her began in sympathy ad works of compassion; but we have graduated from that; our sympathy for the sufferers has risen into a participation in their sufferings, and now we stand side by side with our fellows as common soldiers in a common fight. We have had to quarrel with a great nation of the world. Sometimes quarrels are euphemistically styled misunderstandings. But our quarrel with German is not a misunderstanding: it is an understanding. We know the principle which that nation has espoused as its guiding star, and that principle is one which contradicts the principle by which men live. Just as it is an understanding which made us break with Germany, so it is an understanding that makes us take our place by the side of the Allies. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to do otherwise, being what we are. A moment comes when the failure to give all that we have, even though generosity is great, is such a moral failure that it endangers the soul of a nation. And this act of America has enabled her to find her soul. She finds that she has a coherence of which she was not quite certain. She was afraid of a disloyal hyphen, but instead of a disloyal hyphen she has discovered a loyal hyphen.
Our immediate purpose is to seal here our pledge to sacrifice our lives, our fortunes, and all that we possess to the cause of God and humanity. America is not espousing a new cause. As our President has said in noble language:
“At last the day has come when America can give her blood for the principles which gave her birth and for the prosperity and peace she has enjoyed. God helping her, she can do no other.”
Yes, America which stands for democracy, that is, the cause of the plain people, must fight, must champion this cause at all costs—the cause of the plain people. Supposing to-day you were to ask the plain people of every country what they most yearn for, the gift that they most desire. What would be their answer? Would it not be peace? That is what America, with the Allies, is fighting for. She thinks so much of peace that she is ready to pay the cost of war. Democracy stands for peace. Democracy places ballots before bullets. Lincoln once said: “When ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successfully appeal back to bullets.” Militarism puts bullets before ballots. Democracy—mark my words: I am speaking of the ideal democracy—has no use for bullets unless they are the momentary instrument of ballots; and then—again mark my words—they are invincible.
Our war to-day is that we may destroy war. There was a time when man called war a rough game, a game to be played by set rules; but our adversaries have proven to us that this was a delusion. War is not a game; war is a wild beast that cannot be tamed by conferences and conventions. The one thing to do with war is to hunt it to its death; and, please God, in this war we shall achieve our purpose.
That is, I say, the duty of democracy that puts ballots before bullets. Deep down, democracy is an experiment in the exercise of free will. It is not a magic wand which we can wave over any nation and reduce it to order thereby. Do not let us make a charm of democracy. Indeed, the democracy that is, is so far from the ideal that unless it arises in new might, in the days to come, God may displace it from among the nations.
Democracy calls upon all the greatest powers of human life; democracy is a strain upon human nature. It has as its symbols the franchise and taxation. The franchise means that democracy has adopted the most divine principle in human life as the basis of citizenship—I mean the principle of free choice. Democracy says that men are masters of their destiny and not its toys. He franchise stands for the great privileges of the human race. Taxation, on the other hand, stands for its discipline. It means, does taxation, that democracy claims universal service from its citizens with no commutation and no exemption possible. It does not mean, however, that all citizens must apply themselves to precisely the same tasks. As our President has said, universal service is selective—selective, mark you—and not elective. But, while men are at different tasks, they are all working for the same great cause, whether they be the men of battle who are standing by the guns where death moans and sings in the air, whether they be munition workers at their trying tasks, whether they be statesmen, or whether they be pastors feeding the flock. Universal service is compulsory only as all the laws of organic life are compulsory; and to a true citizen a law is first of all an invitation, then it is an inspiration. But if men are small, if they put too high a value on their lives and are afraid to give themselves to the state, then the state comes with all its sternness and demands of its citizens that they give that which it has been their privilege to give freely, but which they have refused to give. Richard Watson Gilder, the poet, was very doubtful about the necessity either of the war of ’61 or of the war of ’98, either of the Civil War, or the Spanish-American War. But see how he writes, true patriot that he was, in 1898. He says: “Taking it as the people intended, it is a righteous war, and should advance civilization, and now, if we can be quick in finishing it, so much the better. . . . I wrote to my eldest boy to-day that never was there a time when every man should bestir himself with more assiduity in the task of purifying public opinion and the machine of government. I was too young for the other war, but just managed to get into it, and am too old for this, but may be in it yet if they will only keep it up long enough. . . . . It is not the killing but the sacrifice of war that makes it enticing after all.”
I say this because there are those within the reach of my voice who in a general way have dedicated their lives to the service of God and humanity, but who in a moment may be called upon to take up arms and to face the bullets. Let them do it with the same courage and in the same self-dedication as these lines breathe. Even Shakespeare's wretched recruit Feeble says, "A man can die but once. We owe God a death. I'll never bear a base mind.
Just one word in connection with the relation of the democracy of a given country to the democracy of the world. We are to-day, I say, entering upon a new epoch. Democracy hitherto has been working out its problems, certainly its political problems, in isolation. That never can be so again. The great democracies of the world are now interlocked: interlocked in the sense that they can never be separated when the days of reconstruction come. But democracy in a given country never must lose sight of the fact that the supreme unit of the human race is mankind, and that patriotism, however splendid it may be, has never any cause and never any right to depreciate another nation in order to exalt its own self.
Once more and finally: the soul of democracy is—I will not say religion—but organized religion. The day is passed for individualistic attempts to redeem mankind by visions that are not tuned to the infinite, the eternal and the universal. Only this morning I received a letter from a layman in America, a man who has done more for the unity of the Church of Christ than any other man of his generation, and this is what he says: "It is, I think, becoming increasingly clear that the question of world peace and of Christian reunion go together, for only the visible unity of the Church of Christ will be competent to remove the obstacles in the way of the establishment of His Kingdom of peace and righteousness and love." It is true. The world is craving the unity that comes from God, and that is maintained by the operation of the Spirit of God. That unity is going to come just as fast as we will let God bring it to us; the only obstacle is our stubbornness, our obstinacy. There is—and here is the root of the matter—a Prussianism in the Churches to-day. The supreme unit of the Churches is the Church. The watchword of the Churches must be unity. Either Churches must justify their claim to be the favored or exclusive residence of God by exhibiting in their works a holiness or a superiority nowhere now apparent, or else they must admit the favor of God towards other Churches of lesser pretensions. A large part of the public has already served notice on the Churches that, unless we observe the elementary principles of peaceableness and fairness and fellowship, they will get on without us. God defend us from the day when the sheep of Christ's flock turn upon the shepherds because of the shepherds' littleness and inability to be true leaders. But I see a vision, I see a great movement, a movement not of men but of God, coming sweeping through this world of ours and gathering into its embrace all right-minded, all true-hearted men. I see a united Church, a Church worthy of the residence of Jesus Christ among men, the shrine and instrument of His Spirit, a Church which will bring holiness and power to all the people of God.
That is the end of the vision, and that is the supreme thing to which we must commit ourselves to-day. As Christian men we shall not allow life to pas without having done something to make to cease the agony of the Heart of Christ that desires to help men, but because they have rent His mystic garment He the All-powerful is made, if not impotent, at least less powerful to do His task of redemption. So shall the Great War usher in the Great Peace.
"Lord, let war's tempest cease,
Fold the whole world in peace
Under Thy wings.
Make all Thy nations one,
All hearts beneath the sun,
Till Thou shalt reign alone
Great King of Kings."
[From a poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes on the occasion of the Prince of Wales' visit to Boston, 1860.]