Wednesday, September 17, 2014

War and Peace

Looking for a letter about WW II by my grandmother, I happened onto this pencil drawing I made during the Vietnam War of a news photo of an American soldier mourning the bombing death of his Vietnamese wife.

“Christianity and war are incompatible, and nothing worth having can be achieved by ‘casting out Satan by Satan,’” English mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote in a 1941 letter a month before her death.

But I’ve wondered if she would have felt the same way if she had lived to see how WW II turned out. The destruction of fighters by fighters could be said to illustrate her point, even that of citizens of warring nations caught in the crossfire. But what of the millions murdered in death camps? Shouldn’t they have had someone fighting for them?

To her credit, Underhill wore her pacifism modestly, never claiming it to be a universal path and taking issue with pacifists who themselves became “warlike” in impressing that standard on all. In the same letter quoted above, she wrote of the choice between the war and the cross:  “And only a very small number are ready for the Cross, in the full sense of loving and unresisting abandonment to the worst that may come.” Earlier she had realized that her own spiritual progress required “learning more about the Cross,” and claimed “We must accept the world’s worst if we are to give it of our best.”

During the Vietnam era, I sorely wanted to be a pacifist, but I believed there were justifiable wars like WW II. I was absolutely supportive of friends who willingly or unwillingly served in Vietnam, corresponding with them, including one who wrote that he saw his buddy “blown to bits.” Though I could imagine dying for my country, I couldn’t imagine killing for it. Thankfully, my number in the first draft lottery was too high to be drafted.

Nonetheless, I had my desired pacifism challenged in an independent study of Christian ethics by Dr. Thomas Love, the founding chair of the Religious Studies Department at California State University, Northridge. “You’re an excellent marksman with a rifle,” he hypothesized, “And you’re at one end of a hallway. At the opposite end, a madman is slitting the throats of children one by one. He is about to kill another child. What would you do?”

“I’d shoot him,” I replied without hesitation, realizing that I was not really a pacifist. My college friend, Gary Hall, now (thankfully) dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., told me at the time that the hypothetical was unfairly manipulative. But the point remains that I would kill to defend an innocent. And I understand why so many war veterans talk of doing what they did to protect their buddies.

It’s pretty obvious I am writing this in light of recent “wars and rumors of war” regarding Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Syria, ISIS, and President Obama’s recent speech. I had another post written, but couldn’t resist speaking up.

In high school I saw the then newly-released 6-hour-plus Russian film epic of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1967). The only scene I remember clearly is of a miles-wide battle in which two armies engage in a bloody fight. At first you see the soldiers distinctly, but as the camera pulls back to a distant height, all one can see is a whirlpool of tiny figures on horseback drawn into a swirling vortex, illustrating war’s futility.

I can’t claim an easy answer about war for myself or anyone. The cross scares the hell out of me. But so does using the sword.

Related post: A Pre-emptive Peace

For other posts on peace, enter “peace” in the search blank in the upper left corner of the blog

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Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


  1. I would recommend ethicist Rebecca Gordon's discussion of "The Ticking Time Bomb" argument in her new book Mainstreaming Torture. That argument is very similar to the above. She teaches at the University of San Francisco and is a member of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church here: