I have been posting a lot recently on the topic of holy war and crusade in the context of the First World War. In that context, I read a piece by Donald R. McClarey posted at the American Catholic. It includes a quote that demands a “discuss!” following it.
The piece is called “Benedict XV, Rudyard Kipling, John Bunyan and G. K. Chesterton.” It begins with a quote from Chesterton, an author I admire immensely and on whom I have written quite a lot through the years. Chesterton said some things that were utterly brilliant and others that – well, some were totally wrong-headed, and others very controversial indeed.
Which brings me to the First World War. In October 1915, Britain was experiencing the horrors of mass modern warfare, with casualties on an utterly unexpected scale, and no hope of an end in sight. At just that time, Chesterton wrote this:
The cheapest and most childish of all the taunts of the Pacifists is, I think, the sneer at belligerents for appealing to the God of Battles. It is ludicrously illogical, for we obviously have no right to kill for victory save when we have a right to pray for it. If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy one — a massacre.
One obvious response is that Chesterton is drawing a false dichotomy, between peace and holy war. The contrast, surely, should be between peace and a Just War, a concept he must have known and understood. Most Christians through the ages have accepted the idea of Just War, but Holy War is quite a different thing.
Is Holy War ever an acceptable Christian concept, in any circumstances? Even if the enemy is the worst and most outright evil ever imagined? Even in the cause of immediate self-defense?
Even if it is not a Holy War, is it right to pray that a particular side in a war will achieve victory? If that is acceptable, does that not ascribe a holy quality to the cause in question?
Michael W. Perry has collected Chesterton’s comments on these themes in his Chesterton on War and Peace (Inkling Books 2008).
On a semi-related theme, I am also a great fan of the English author Saki, who was killed in the First World War. Although he was a brilliant humorist, in his story “Filboid Studge” he made the following sobering observation:
“Whenever a massacre of Armenians is reported from Asia Minor, every one assumes that it has been carried out ‘under orders’ from somewhere or another; no one seems to think that there are people who might like to kill their neighbours now and then.”
The history of the twentieth century certainly bears out his opinion.