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Christian Point of View.





Read at the Church Congress in Providence, R. I.
November 15, 1900.


January, 1901.


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

“If there is in the affairs of mortal men any one thing which it is proper uniformly to explode, and incumbent on every man by every lawful means to avoid, to deprecate, to oppose that one thing is doubtless war. There is nothing more unnaturally wicked, more productive of misery, more extensively destructive, more obstinate in mischief, more unworthy of man as formed by nature, much more of man professing Christianity.”—Erasmus.

War from the Christian Point of View.

"That it may please Thee to give to all nations unity, peace and concord"—so we pray. From our earliest childhood we have been led to think of peace as the greatest blessing; our highest ideals have been associated with peace. We have believed that the best sense of mankind has always been for peace. The Hebrew prophet sang, in words which we love to repeat: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tiding, that publisheth peace"; and the angels greeted the Prince of Peace with the Christmas anthem, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men." Even heathen poets sang the glories of peace and the horrors of war. Virgil describes the Fury thrusting the torch into Turnus' bosom, and suddenly

"Saevit amor ferri et scelerata insania belli."

But a new doctrine is abroad, and we are startled and amazed to be told that too much peace is bad and war is good. Not alone the Christian, but the man within us is challenged. What shall we say to the challenge? Shall we, the proud heirs of eighteen centuries of Christian nurture—shall we now say that the dream of humanity was an ignoble dream? that the ideal which through all these ages has filled the hearts and minds of the best has been an unworthy ideal? Shall we say that we have been mistaken, and henceforth we will choose, not peace but war, as our means of progress; not loving persuasion, but imperious dictation shall be our rule? Sober men may well stop and reflect whether they are [3/4] ready to depart so far from the ancient moorings, and to revise the Saviour's blessing, and say, "Blessed are the war-makers, for they are extending the kingdom of heaven."

The new teaching comes to us in two different forms. We hear the voice of the scholarly student, who, tracing the majestic march of progress, the story so fascinating to the philosophic mind, finds that progress has often been achieved through the clash of arms, through war and bloodshed; and who therefore champions brute force as a means of civilization for the future. Again, another voice tells us that we are degenerating, becoming unmanly, and to make us men again we must fight.

We shall discriminate between these two high priests of the new religion, and we shall begin by examining the claims of the former. The sword, they say, has been the means to a higher civilization in the past; by the sword we shall fight our way upwards in the future: let us cling to the sword.

The premise is true: history affords abundant proof that war has been the means by which civilization is lifted to higher levels. The power of Egypt and Assyria was the scourge by which Israel was chastened, and the means of leading it to a higher religion. So Isaiah tells us: "The Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria." The sword of Greek Alexander and Roman Scipio were factors in the cause of civilization, as well as the bloody victory on the Catalaunian fields nearly seven hundred years later, which put a stop to the victorious progress of the Huns, and the battle of Chalons in the eighth century, where Charles Martel turned back the rising tide of Islam.

Caesar, carrying the Roman eagles into Gaul and [4/5] Britain, was an unconscious instrument in the hands of God, no less than the hordes of Teutons and Goths who soon after Caesar began to swarm over the mountain barrier, who with their young and vigorous blood infused for a time new life into corrupt and worn out Rome, and who after many struggles transferred the scene of aspiring civilization from the Mediterranean to the shores of the northern seas.

God has doubtless used war as one of the means for raising man to higher levels of life. So far we agree with the apostles of the new religion. But here we part. From this premise they conclude that man should use war as a means of progress. This is their reasoning: God has led man through slaughter and destruction to a higher civilization; therefore, O man, thou shalt slaughter and destroy: an absolute and utter non sequitur; a complete and irredeemable breakdown of logic.

We have established a premise; it is this: that God has brought good out of evil, has used man's angry passions for his own advancement. What may we conclude from this premise? We shall reason rightly if we conclude that as God has done in the past He will do in the future; that He will continue to bring good out of bad, and in His mysterious providence to make the angry passions of men serve His own eternal purposes. But, surely, if we have any regard for the rules of logic, we shall not conclude that man should himself decide when to allow his angry passions to get the better of him, that possibly good may come. This would be clearly to arrogate for man the divine prerogative of judgment, to set the creature in the place of the Creator, and to claim for him powers of foresight which belong to God alone.

[6] Many centuries ago there were those who misread the mysterious ways of Providence just as some of us are misreading them, and mistook God's permission of evil for a command to do evil; for what says Isaiah? "I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom." Assyria's king had boasted of the execution he had done upon Israel. But, "Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood."

With this warning of the Hebrew prophet, we of a later and more enlightened generation ought surely not to fall into the same fault. If the tiger in us must fight, then in heaven's name let us fight; but it is not well to try to justify ourselves by crooked reasoning and bad logic.

The contention of the new religion, if it is bungling logic and bad reasoning, is something else: It is a new religion; it is in direct contradiction to the spirit of Christianity, it is anti-Christian. The doctrine that war is ever anything else than a thing to be utterly abhorred and to be avoided until it becomes an imperative necessity, is irreconcilably opposed to the spirit of Christianity. Its natural home is either among the heathen mythologies as a fit corollary to the belief in thievish, homicidal and adulterous deities, or amid the materialism, the agnosticism and religious indifference of our own age, with their loose and accommodating systems of morality. That there should be wars and rumors of wars, that nation should rise against nation, this Christ recognized; so much so that he even declared that he [6/7] had come not to bring peace, but a sword. But that men should deliberately choose war as a means of advancing a civilization based on the Christian religion, this is the negation of the gospel.

As long ago as the fourteenth century, Raymond Lully, scholar and missionary, saw through the hollowness of that sort of religion, which had sent so many thousands of Europe's bravest to fight the battle of faith with carnal weapons in the Holy Land; and he wrote a book in which he discusses the question whether the heathen should be converted by force or whether men should labor for the spread of the gospel by persuasion, according to Christ's example. He declares for the latter method as the only Christian mode of procedure; and in his treatise on the Contemplation of God, where he makes all Christendom pass in review before his mind's eye, he says, concerning the knights: "I see many knights going to the Holy Land, in the expectation of conquering it by force of arms; but instead of accomplishing their object, they are in the end all swept off themselves; therefore [he says, addressing Christ] it is my belief that the conquest of the Holy Land should be attempted in no other way than as Thou and Thy apostles undertook to accomplish it—by love, by prayer, by tears, and the offering up of their own lives. As it seems that the possession of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Holy Land can be better secured by the force of preaching than the force of arms, therefore, let the monks march forth, as holy knights, glittering with the sign of the cross, replenished with the grace of the holy Spirit, and proclaim to the infidels the truth of Thy passion; let them from love to Thee exhaust the whole fountain of their eyes, and pour out all the blood of their bodies, as Thou hast done from love to them."

[8] The contention that we should fight in order to civilize is illogical and unchristian. Nevertheless, it has a fascination for certain minds: they are dazzled by the great achievements of past times, the high deeds of mighty conquerors. An Alfred, a Charlemagne, an Alexander, a Caesar--the names come thronging to the mind of those who by the sword have cut a way upward for their people and for mankind, and who, though warriors, have left the memory of benefactors. These men seem to many the greatest leaders of civilization, the landmarks of human progress.

Perhaps no higher type could be found of the civilizing conqueror than the one I have last named —the great Caesar. But what a contrast does not the name of Caesar present! He was almost contemporary with another, a Carpenter from Nazareth. You may read in the great scholar's history of Rome the story of Caesar's wonderful achievements: how he conquered to civilize; how his mighty mind compassed the greatest problems of humanity. Not a vulgar conqueror he: he ever had high ends in view, and his ceaseless wars were only the means to the realization of those ends. How magnificent, how worthy of admiration the conception, by the sweep of his triumphal progress to bring the barbarous nations within the sphere of Rome's civilizing influence! by "benevolent assimilation" to the great republic to make known to the savages of Gaul, Germany and Britain the majesty of Roman law and Roman order! In Caesar we behold truly the finished type of those who would now scatter Christian blessings with the rifle.

If that same Caesar had sat on the judgment seat a few years later in Jerusalem, instead of Pontius Pilate, we can picture to our minds the contemptuous pity with [8/9] which he would have looked down upon the Jewish prisoner. And yet, after nineteen centuries, see the result! What remains of the work of Caesar? Something, doubtless, abides, to the lasting benefit of humanity; we will depreciate no man's work. But can we for a moment set side by side the effect of Caesar's wars with the influence that went out from the Hebrew Carpenter and the apostles, his followers, who used no other weapon than the Word, who knew no argument but gentle persuasion?

The great Roman, as he is extolled by our modern historian, suggests another lesson. We must accept it as Mommsen's deliberate judgment—for it is three times repeated in his Roman history—that Caesar was a perfect man. Of Jesus, if I remember rightly, he says nothing, while his depreciating remarks here and there leave no room to doubt his slight estimate of the Christian religion. Mommsen's is that kind of mind, which the old world has produced too plentifully, and with which we unfortunately are now becoming familiar, the mind that is dazzled by the outward, the strong, the intellectual, and is incapable of measuring the force and effective power of the purely religious and spiritual. And the infatuation of power, whether embodied in a Caesar or a modern army or navy, will, as it did in the German historian of Rome, always lead to a depreciation of Christ, a contempt for the gentleness of Him who did not strive nor cry, who broke not the bruised reed nor quenched the smoking flax.

I now turn to the other aspect of our subject, the claim that we need war as a correction to the progressive degeneracy of the race. The motive of this claim is not far to seek: the luxury and materialism of our time has [9/10] brought about a weakening of our moral fibre, and strong and purposeful men shrink in disgust from much that they see of the effeminacy and indifference of our private and social life and the profligacy of our public life. We need a toning up, a moral reinvigoration; and the conclusion which some have drawn is that the rough school of war is wanted to discipline us out of effeminacy into manliness.

It is to be noticed that this claim is commonly made by those who are prone to confuse manliness with bumptiousness. You will therefore rarely hear it put forward by the professional fighter; for the American officer, who has so often proved himself terrible in battle, is of all men the least bumptious, the most gentle and unassuming. When Grant first became known to the nation by his brilliant victories in the West, pictures were circulated in the East representing him as a fire-eating swashbuckler, and great was the surprise of the people of these parts when they learned to know the real Grant as the gentle, retiring, modest man that he was.

The apostles of war—however muddy their ideas of manliness—tell us that prolonged peace causes a loss of physical courage, and that a nation whose physical courage is impaired is incapacitated for self-defense and will go to the wall.

History does not bear out this contention. Napoleon despised the English for a nation of shopkeepers, who did not care for "glory" such as the French loved; but Napoleon lived to learn that shopkeepers could teach him a lesson in fighting. France has been eminently a warlike nation, just such as should serve as an ideal to our modern apostles of war. Germany is a peace-loving nation, and yet Germany administered to France the [10/11] severest drubbing perhaps that any nation has received in modern times. It has been hitherto the pride of this country that to us it has been given to develop our resources and our institutions in peace, far from the turmoil of Old-World jealousies; but I have yet to learn that Gettysburg or Shiloh proved that the love of peace had made cowards of our soldiers.

On the other hand, we may safely challenge proof from history that war has ever served to reinvigorate a nation weakened by luxury. On the contrary, illustrations abound which show that war goes hand in hand with increased luxury and degeneration. The luxury of imperial Rome exceeded even the luxury of the nineteenth century, and ceaseless wars could not arrest its decadence; the decline of the Roman empire, so graphically pictured by the English historian, went ruthlessly on, and torrents of blood were unable to heal the moral canker. Surely, if it were true that war brings strength and civic virtue, Rome would not have fallen as she did.

In the course of that development which is leading man to higher and higher levels, we see various qualities brought into play at different times. In the earliest ages it was physical courage by which one tribe gained ascendency over another. Then intellectual qualities came to the front, and the race was more and more not so much to the strong as to the intelligent. Then still higher qualities drew into view, until there was fully developed that virtue to which, more than to any other, nations owe to-day their strength and stability—civic virtue. And now, when we fear that materialism and corroding luxury are threatening to eat away that civic virtue, shall we turn back the course of development? Shall we once more become savages and forfeit the [11/12] achievements of thousands of years of laborious, slow, painful progress? To the eye that has the larger view of human progress, such retrogression would be folly indeed.

But why should we theorize? Have we not our own experience to teach us a lesson? The great War of the Rebellion, if the champions of war are right, ought surely to have produced the strenuous life they tell us so much about. Did it? It seems to the present writer that the after effects of that war are found chiefly in the strenuous scramble for pensions. I am not aware that the participants in that war have prominently identified themselves with any great truth which should be an uplifting power to the nation, except the truth of the cash value of patriotism. I fail to see in what way the War of the Rebellion has exerted an influence towards the solution of the problems that since then have faced us. I find no trace of any great accession of civic virtue which that struggle brought in its train. The fact is, the ingredients of civic virtue do not come out of the alembic of war; the qualities which we sorely need to solve our hardest problems are independent of the qualities which war breeds.

The public life of a democracy depends upon nothing so much as upon the existence of the sense of responsibility and of moral courage, and it cannot be insisted upon enough that these virtues have no relation to physical courage. Policemen are undoubtedly brave men; and, if the claim in behalf of physical courage be true, policemen ought to be the ideals of civic virtue. It may be so in Providence, but we who live in New York have our doubts.

Failure to distinguish properly between moral and physical courage lies at the basis of the illusion about [12/13] war. We Americans are in no danger of becoming physical cowards, but I am not so sure about that finer quality which forms the essential ingredient in civic virtue. Indeed, the signs of its absence are often painfully conspicuous.

Let me point to two illustrations. We are reasonably proud of our system of education; and yet, as one hears louder and louder demands for endowments and a more and more strenuous insistence upon what is called "the material foundations," with a decided tendency to forget the higher principles where a rich gift is in view, one longs for the educator who will dare to say that, come what will, he will set the power of the truth and the beauty of character above brick and mortar, gold and silver. I should wrong one of the noblest professions if I failed to express my belief that there are many men who believe this; but they are not much in evidence. The drift is all against them; and not many will stand up against the drift of general prejudice and opinion.

From the sphere of education turn to politics, and you are in the very paradise of moral cowards. What need I describe to you that field of activity which is so familiar; where the time-serving and compromising and trimming and adjusting convictions and painful watching of the weathercock of public opinion;—where all the devices fairly run riot by which the politician strives to avoid, as the witch avoids holy water, the one thing he dreads—standing by his own convictions. I know there are exceptions, splendid exceptions, all the more splendid for their isolation. Nevertheless, the besetting sin of our political life, is moral cowardice.

We need a more strenuous life; but the strenuousness we need is the strenuousness of high thinking, of strong [13/14] convictions, of honest dealing, and, above all, we need the strenuousness of backbone in the politician; but these things war will not bring. Every man admires and loves the brave deed, and it is very easy to be dazzled by the splendor of warlike achievement; nevertheless, it is a fact, written on every page of history, that physical courage is a very common virtue, while the higher courage which goes to make strong and noble characters is perhaps the rarest quality of all.

Americans are proud of the exploits of their army and navy; but I can speak for one to whom no deed of courage in our late war brought such a thrill of pride as the following statement about our troops in China (in the New York Times of September 1): "Only the American troops refrain from looting in Pekin, and the other allies ridicule them for keeping their hands off the property of the Chinese."

I have tried to show that war does not effect that which is claimed for it: it does not banish luxury; it does not make good citizens. It remains to point out what the real consequences of war are. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus thus describes the Huns: "They delight in wars and dangers. He who falls in battle is reckoned happy. They who die of old age or of disease are deemed infamous. They boast with the utmost exaltation of the number of enemies they have slain, and, as the most glorious of all ornaments, they fasten the scalps of those who have fallen by their hands to the trappings of their horses." This is a picture of the ideal of character as it shall prevail when the nation is converted to the new religion; and if the recent horrible barbarities exhibited in the lynching of negroes are—as I believe they are—a result of the recrudescence of the [14/15] war spirit, then we have taken the first step to a realization of that ideal.

War appeals strongly to a certain instinct of our nature; a halo rests upon the daring deed, the bold achievement, the sudden triumph. Carlyle has made himself the mouthpiece of those who worship the strong; but his hero-worship is undiscriminating, and leads to the idolizing of brute force. Let us beware how we corrupt the ideals of our generous youth. I hold it to be the part of the Christian and the patriot to set before ambition what genuine manliness has always regarded as the truest nobility in life—uncompromising loyalty to high principle, persistent and patient pursuit of high and noble purposes. Such ambition does not look for the reward of having its name in all the papers, its picture in all the magazines; but its lasting satisfaction comes from a consciousness of a task well done.

But, as this is the noblest, so it is the hardest. It is a common weakness to wish for the supreme test and not to know that it is every day at hand. The lust of notoriety is the temptation of ambition, and there is no trial so severe to the aspiring soul as the trial of the commonplace and the obscure. We long to do the great deed, to strike the mighty blow, in the sight of the world; and we are apt to fail when life makes its severest demands upon us, and calls us to do our work patiently and well, however humble it may be. Arthur Hugh Clough has well put it:

"We ask action,
And dream of arms and conflict:
And string up
All self-devotion's muscles,
And are set
To fold up papers."

[16] But it is the folding up of papers that most of us have got to do in life; and the real test of life is, not whether we fight battles and slay enemies, but whether we fold up our papers well.

I have often assisted at a ceremony which seems to me in pathos to surpass almost any that I know. It is when the children of our public schools "salute the flag." To them it is but a perfunctory performance; but I see the parents of those children, and I know what that flag means to them. Many come to our shores from foreign lands, and they love the Stars and Stripes because it means to them freedom from the oppressions and burdens of nations whose traditions are all of war; it means to them the equal opportunities which come to all in the land which loves peace and whose genius is for peaceful development. I believe to-day the Church is called to speak in no uncertain tones, in answer to the question, What is war from the Christian point of view? that our flag may continue to wave over a land that loves peace, over a people that knows how to be brave and gentle.

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