Over the last weekend, I heard from a parishioner who had just attended a Sabbath service at a St. Louis-area synagogue. This first Sabbath of November was also the first Sabbath since the killing of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. There was, in fact, an emphasis on interfaith Sabbath participation in many synagogues. My parishioner had never previously been present for a Jewish worship service, and she found it uplifting, for a couple of reasons: an awareness that our Christianity sprang from Judaism, and the encouragement coming from people of many religions at a time of grief.
Nov. 11, being the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, it is necessary that we ask about the inhumanity of human beings. If we turn to such histories as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and to such films as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, we find ourselves reeling at people in power who regarded the forging of alliances and the baiting of neighbors to be elements of a “great game” of geopolitical brinkmanship.
One thing I find particularly galling is the fact that the nations butting heads in 1914 could be described as “Christian” nations. One has to question whether, after 19 centuries, Christianity had really taken hold. It is said that the onset of war hastened the death of St. Pius X. We remember that Father Angelo Roncalli, who as Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), was drafted into the Royal Italian Army as a sergeant and served, in addition to being a chaplain, as a stretcher-bearer. His diplomatic service during World War II led him to yet another close-up view of a grievous war. It is believed that his war experience inspired him to call the Council, as if he were finding himself saying: “Why have Christians failed to revere the image of God in people?”
The “peace” following the bloodbath of World War I was a severe peace, and the vanquished nursed a sense of victimhood which allowed for the rise of “leaders” who attained power by appealing to the basest of human sentiments. The notion that the “Great War” of 1914-18 was “the war to end wars” turned out to be wildly inaccurate. It was the war which set up the war retained in the memories of the oldest among us. They remember the horror of millions, dead and alive, in concentration camps, and the unleashing of atomic power as the newest means of maintaining a balance of terror. One who developed the atomic bomb found himself quoting a Hindu text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
If we are to have peace in the world, that peace must first exist within human hearts. Our faith calls us to recognize God’s love for us — a love demonstrated to the fullest degree by the Son of God, who took on human flesh and suffered with and for us. Secure in this love, we can carefully examine our tendencies to distrust particular persons and groups of persons, and then ask ourselves whether we cannot learn to live, aware of our tendencies toward demonizing others, at the same time stepping forward to discover that God’s love within us will allow us to be instruments of God’s peace, shalom.