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Lest we forget – J. Barry Vaughn – 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (Veterans Day) – November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018

Lest we forget – J. Barry Vaughn – 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (Veterans Day) – November 11, 2018

On the 28th day of June in year 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian terrorist (or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view) shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria threatened to retaliate against the Serbs; Russia, which saw itself as the protector and defender of all Slavic peoples, said that they would defend the Serbs if Austria and Germany, their ally, attacked them; France, bound by treaty to Russia, said that they would stand by Russia in any war that might come; and in London, the government of his Majesty King George V said that they would honor their treaty obligations to France and would also protect the neutrality of tiny Belgium.

And so on 2 August 1914 Germany invaded France via Belgium and the Great War began. Within weeks both sides had dug hundreds of miles of trenches. They stretched from the North Sea to the border of neutral Switzerland, and for the next four years those trenches did not move more than ten miles in either direction.

For four years the First World War was a dreadful stalemate, and the status quo was maintained at the cost of millions of young lives. Almost daily on both sides young men were ordered up and out of the trenches and into the no man’s land between the two sides, where they faced almost certain death in the deadly hail of machine gun bullets. The casualty figures at the end of the war tell the dreadful story better than words can. The U.S. lost about 116,000 troops. Its allies and enemies suffered far greater casualties: Great Britain and its far-flung empire lost about one million soldiers; France had lost about 1.3 million; Italy about half a million; Russia 1.7 million; and Germany and Austria about three million.

They called it the “Great War”… the “war to make the world safe for democracy”… even the “war to end all wars.” We know it as World War 1. It is a war that has become a distant memory. Many of us have parents or grandparents who fought in World War II, but no one here today has heard stories about World War 1 from a parent. None of us have parents who have returned to Europe to visit sites associated with the Great War, places such as the Somme River, the site of the bloodiest battle of the war, a battle that went on for more than four months in which more than one million men were killed or injured. German writer Friedrich Steinbrecher said, “Somme . . . the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

Although the First World War has become a war we know only from the history books, its impact on the twentieth century was enormous. It led to the break-up of the Ottoman or Turkish empire. The territory that the Ottoman Turks ruled in the Middle East came under European control. So after the war the negotiators created several brand new countries, such as Iraq and Jordan. The pressure of conducting the war led the Russian czar, Nicholas II, to abdicate, and the vacuum created by his abdication was filled by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party. The territory taken from Germany and the war reparations imposed on Germany by the Versailles peace conference caused such ill-will that Germans eventually turned to a small ultra-right wing party for leadership. The party they turned to was the National Socialist or Nazi party, and their leader, of course, was Adolph Hitler.

So the legacy of World War 1 continues even a century later.

Another legacy of the Great War was the creation of Armistice Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that is 11 am on Nov. 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, bringing the war to a close.

Pres. Woodrow Wilson made Nov. 11 a holiday immediately after the war, but it wasn’t until 1954 that Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday honoring all those who have served in the armed forces of the United States.

However, is it appropriate to remember a war in a Christian church? We worship the Prince of peace who tells us in today’s gospel reading to love our enemies, and a few verses earlier Jesus told his followers, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

“Love your enemies . . . Do not resist an evil person.”

Not every early Christian leader was opposed to war, and even some that did oppose war were inconsistent. However, Justin Martyr, a Roman Christian around the middle of the 2nd century, wrote, “All of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith  . . .”

The Greek Christian leader, Athenagoras, said, “With us . . . you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who, though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. . . . When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbours as themselves . . . We . . . cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly.”

And the north African Christian theologian, Tertullian, said, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword?”

I find myself torn. I believe that we must do all that we can to follow the way of Jesus, to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies, and to practice nonresistance to evil. But I also know that we live in a complicated and dangerous war. Resisting a small evil can sometimes prevent a greater evil. I believe that if the western European powers had resisted Hitler when he marched into the Rhineland in 1936, it is possible that World War II could have been prevented.

I believe that for the most part the United States has been a great force of good in the world. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.” But I also know that our country has often exercised naked aggression without justification, such as in the overthrow of the government of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973.

War, like divorce, is never good, but sometimes it is inevitable. Christian theologians, especially Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century developed the theory of the ‘just war.” To be just a war must be defensive; it must be waged by a competent authority, such as a nation state; it must have a reasonable hope of success; it must avoid killing noncombatants if at all possible; and it must be proportional. To be proportional the parties waging the war must follow the principal of lex talionis, that is “an eye for an eye.”

Believe it or not, the principle of “an eye for an eye” was an improvement. The previous principle had been, “you put out my eye, and I will rip your heart out.” Or “you kill one of my relatives, and I will kill you and everyone you love.”

Today the principal of proportional war means that we do not respond to conventional weapons with nuclear weapons.

By and large, the wars waged by the United States have been just wars.  But just or not, our purpose today is not to remember World War 1; we are here to remember and honor those who served in America’s wars.

Whether Jesus was a pacifist or not, he did not stand in judgment on soldiers. The most important story of Jesus encountering a soldier is the story in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 where Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion. Not only does Jesus heal the man’s servant, he praises the centurion for his faith: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

We can and we must offer healing to those who serve in the military whether or not we approve of our country’s foreign policy. Service in the military, even in peacetime, can exact a terrible price from those who engage in such service.

  • About 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from depression or PTSD.
  • About 25 percent of such veterans suffer from compulsive behavior, such as drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Some studies show that up to 20 veterans a day commit suicide.
  • Veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 experience an unemployment rate of 29 percent.

So we do right today to remember and honor those who bear the burden of military service. It is noble to offer to stand between in the breach between innocence and aggression, to exercise the power of the sword with wisdom and compassion, to keep watch over our country when it passes through dark and dangerous periods.

Let us remember, however, that at the end of the day it is the power of God that keeps America safe, not the power of tanks and rifles and bombs. God is the ultimate guarantor of our safety and freedom. But those who serve in our nation’s military deserve our thanks and our prayers.

Let us pray:

Almighty and eternal God,
those who take refuge in you will be glad
and forever will shout for joy.
Protect these soldiers as they discharge their duties.
Protect them with the shield of your strength
and keep them safe from all evil and harm.
May the power of your love enable them to return home
in safety, that with all who love them,
they may ever praise you for your loving care.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.