Christianity, Violence, and World War I

Our friends at Religion News Service have an excellent profile of two of the best books ever written on World War I and religion, Jonathan Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: The American Soldier and the Great War, and my colleague and fellow Anxious Bencher Philip Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. RNS’s Kimberly Winston:

Several countries — especially Russia and Germany — saw the war as a fulfillment of their unique destinies as the kingdom of God. But Europe did not have room for so many countries with the same aspiration.

“You can toss a coin as to which country to blame, but their two clashing visions made war inevitable,” Jenkins said. “If you do not understand the messianic and apocalyptic imagery used by all sides, and how wide-ranging those images were among all classes, all groups, all nations, you cannot hope to understand the war.”

Jenkins gathers numerous examples of biblical images of angels, demons, apocalypse and righteousness and shows how both sides in the war used them to justify the fight and rally support at home. It is no wonder, he writes, that the war was frequently referred to as “apocalyptic,” or even as Armageddon, the final battle the New Testament says will restore a heavenly kingdom.

“I could almost rewrite my book in terms of angels,” he said, citing one of the most frequently used — and believed in — images of the war. The most famous example are the so-called “Angel of Mons” — ghost soldiers from the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt led by St. George who supposedly appeared on the the British lines in France.

There has been major historical interest in the past fifteen years – especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War – about the connection between religion and violence. Christians are often quick to point to Islam as the main culprit here, and there’s no denying that in modern times, Islam has a uniquely problematic relationship between jihadism and violence. But of course, Christianity also has a long history of violence that stands alongside its traditions of restraint, “just war,” and pacifism.

I have been struggling with the connection between Christianity and violence in Colonial America, too, as I am writing my narrative account of Early American history for Yale University Press. Spain, France, and Britain all saw their expansion into the New World in religious terms, as well as their wars with those other European powers and with Native American groups.

There are several explanations for the strong connection between religion and violence in Christian history. One is that whether people are entirely sincere or cynical about them, spiritual justifications for war offer more compelling, transcendent reasons than worldly justifications related to power.

Another factor is that the counsel of Scripture on war is sufficiently mixed for people to justify religious war. Yes, the teachings of Christ and images of God’s millennial reign would recommend peace, but the history of Old Testament Israel, and scenes in Revelation, highlight themes of war.

Finally, the relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition and war speaks to the depth of that spiritual heritage of the west. If Christianity, including its Jewish roots, were not so pervasively influential in European and American culture, then applying its themes to war would make no sense.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The war hawks acting under the guise of Christianity, as a whole, know their hypocrisy. How many of them have directly referenced the words of Christ as justification for holy violence? Only the most extreme have the audacity to make an outrageous defense. The Messiah made no allowance for man, especially His followers, to shed blood.

  • Jon Moles

    This post instantly brought to my mind this quote attributed to Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

  • John C. Gardner

    The issue of just war and the connections between Christianity and war are complex. I believe that I could have fought in two American wars: the Civil War and Second World War. The first would have been aligned with my opposition to chattel slavery(and probably the Protestant ethos at that time). The Second World War was necessary to defeat the evils of the Nazis. However, I believe that war is a sin and that killing is a sin. But, sometimes the lesser of two evils must be chosen even while someone seeks forgiveness for participating in collective violence. I appreciate your wonderful post.
    John G.