Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[122] XIII

The Sword and the Cross

READING a daily paper, I found one article in which was expressed a hope that when we obtain victory we should refrain from thanking God for it. It is hard to conceive a view more calculated to do disservice to the cause of religion. Either we believe that our quarrel is just, or we do not. If we do not we have no right to go to war. (Only on German principles is war admitted on any ground except that of the assertion of rights.) If we do think we are right we not only may but ought to pray for victory; and, if it comes, to sing Te Deum Laudamus. Victory may be withheld like any other temporal blessing; and we can pray for it only with the reserve of "Thy Will be done." But unless we can pray to God for success, we have no right to be in this conflict. To suggest the contrary is to cast a slur upon the functions of our soldiers and all those brave Belgians. Personally, I believe that at this moment no man is more truly working for the cause of God in the world than the [122/123] soldier in the trenches; and I would I were serving Him half as well. This war is a conflict between all the forces that make for liberty (i.e., the spiritual being of man) for justice (i.e., the value of every man) as against the forces of tyranny, and the superman, which would enslave the world for a conquering race, the "splendid blonde beast" of Nietzsche.

Before we come to that, let us clear away some of the fog that obscures clear thinking on the relation between Christianity and war. For it is obscured. Much sentiment is now prevailing to the effect that all war as such is wrong. This is not Christianity, it is nothing but Tolstoyism. Tolstoyism with its over-emphasis on mere passivity has led by reaction to Nietzschean ethics, with their apotheosis of savagery. Yet many people seem to take it for granted (1) that war is the worst of human evils; (2) that all war is wrong, and that no Christian approves any given war except through hypocrisy. I do not believe either of these propositions, and I will say why.

The first of these, the notion that war is the supreme evil, rests on a view of the world which is ultimately materialism. Suffering and death are the worst of calamities only on a voluptuary theory of the universe. The vogue of Christian Science is another instance of a tendency now [123/124] widespread. If this life be all, doubtless the achievement of ends at the cost of death is more than foolish in the individual, and barely defensible in the State. War, doubtless, causes more obvious and acute physical pain than any other social institution. If, therefore, we are to avoid pain either for ourselves or others, and to avoid it at all costs, no nation would be justified in making war, unless by so doing it made it less probable for a long future. Such a doctrine is assumed too readily to be Christian. So far from being Christian, it is the very opposite of the religion of the Cross, which bids us save our life by losing it. It is also opposed to the doctrine of courage in its most ordinary and human tense; and this doctrine is after all only Christianity in embryo. The Cross of Christ explains and develops the presuppositions of all normal life in regard to the meaning of courage, the value of sacrifice, and the elemental value of pain both in moral education and in positive gladness. [1] [(1) Cf. a little book Pain and Gladness, by a Sister in an English Community.]

But it is said, while it is right for us to face pain ourselves we have no right to kill people; and to justify war is, therefore, un-Christian. I fail to see the argument. If it were valid, it leads us straight to anarchism, as it did lead Tolstoy. War does on a large scale, and as between groups, [124/125] what every organized political society does on a smaller scale, and as between individuals. If we are wrong to make war, an individual is wrong who goes to law. For the sanction of all law is the force of the community, which will, if necessary, execute the wrongdoer. Further, it seems to be supposed, that while it is Christian to endure pain, it is un-Christian to inflict it. This rests on the same error. Since we know that pain has been often good for ourselves, we cannot altogether wish it lacking to any over whom we have the charge. Discipline and group-cohesion is ultimately impossible without it. Those who deny its legitimacy would be logically driven to an absolute individualism, destructive alike of civilization and of religion.

The fact that war directly causes death, and other forms of discipline are primarily concerned with restraint or minor forms of suffering, has nothing to do with the matter. Death is the ultimate meaning of all employment of force; nor would it even in warfare be usual, if it were possible to reach the desired end any other way. That is the reason why (except by the Germans) the lives of non-combatants are to be preserved.

This brings me to the second point, the notion that all war is wrong. That notion rests on the presupposition best expressed by the great Quaker orator, "Force is no remedy." The [125/126] ground is different from that discussed above, and in some respects inconsistent with it. The former rests on materialistic arguments; this, on the contrary, is a perverted spiritualism. So far as I can understand it the claim that force is no remedy involves the notion that, since realities are spiritual, all attempts at achieving ends by material means are doomed to failure. This argument, then, rests on the idea of the godlessness of all the world of Nature; ultimately it is Manichean, seeking spirituality purely in abstraction, logically destructive of the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Body. The reverse of this is the truth that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; it is expressed most fully in the Sacramental idea, and is denied implicitly by those who would substitute the immortality of the soul for the resurrection of the body. [1] [(1) Cf. on this point Westcott, The Gospel of the Resurrection, closing pages.] Force in a State is never mere force; it always implies a state of mind. The idea which nerves the German army is spiritual, though it is pernicious; it is the world-hegemony of the German race. The force of any army is ultimately moral; it depends on a unity of wills. Even in private no man can raise his arm to strike another without exercising moral no less than physical energy. The notion that force [126/127] can be treated as a substance separate from all spiritual realities is not tenable. Such force is not encountered in human affairs. The State wields a force made up of the union of living wills.

The question, then, of whether or no force is a remedy resolves itself into the question of whether the coercion of men by their fellows is ever either justifiable or effective. If force may not be used in warfare we have no right to use it in civil matters, or even in education. What is really involved in this is the problem whether human life is essentially social or not. If it be, then the claim to exercise force (that is, for the spirit of the group to make itself effective as against recalcitrant individuals) is a just claim. This will be conceded within a State by most of those who would condemn war. But it cannot be conceded for internal affairs (i.e., against individuals) and at the same time denied in external affairs (i.e., against other groups). War is the means, and the only means, whereby the spirit of the national group can make itself effective against the spirit of some other group, which denies it clear rights or interferes with its liberty. What possible means was there for the Belgians to assert the reality of their own national group, save by resisting the Germans? Where would be the freedom and justice on which Englishmen most pride themselves; where would [127/128] be even our right to condemn war if we were not living in a sheltered arbour defended from international brigands by the sacrifices of past ages? War is the policeman which secures the safety of our homes; and every Englishman, when he sleeps and eats, owes as much to the soldiers and sailors (and indeed a great deal more) as he does to the courts of law and the civil administrators. This war, more than any we have had, will show men the true foundations of security; and the pacifist is like to learn that even the possibility of his vapourings needs an army and a fleet to maintain it. We cannot do without force in life. The purpose of Christianity is to consecrate force and use it rightly, not to do the impossible and leave the world to anarchy.

There is a final argument raised against the lawfulness of war. This is derived from the Sermon on the Mount. It is difficult to understand how the organized defence of rights by a nation (which is analogous to litigation by an individual) should be considered wrong merely because our Lord condemned the returning a blow in anger. It is easier, indeed, to defend war for a just cause than much litigation, for the latter is so purely personal. We have another fact to consider. National intercourse has not reached the same height as individual intercourse. [128/129] Since, however, international right may be violated (as in the case of Belgium), and since we have not a universal Empire, war is the only possible means of vindicating justice; and the fear of war is still one important means for restraining wrong-doing. This is only wrong if the two principles we dismissed are valid. Moreover, our Lord in regard to divorce taught the principle of institutional development. Divorce, He said, is wrong, but it may have been needful once. Moses gave it you "for the hardness of your hearts." So far as non-Christians and the secular State are concerned this condition still continues and divorce is a recognized legal method. Is it not the same with war? Unless we are disciples of Nietzsche, we do not believe warfare to be an ideal condition; but the world has not reached the state in which war as an ultima ratio is to be left out of the question. Besides, the modern State as such is not Christian, but composed of all, irrespective of religious belief. War is thus given us for the "hardness of our hearts"; and until sin be done away alike for the group and the individual, it may be a useful purgative and object-lesson of what is the true inwardness of the passions of greed and envy.

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