In 1918 the United States entered the most violent war in history up to that time.
Two famous Christians had two diametrically inverted responses.
First, William Jennings Bryan. Few know him today. A century ago “The Great Commoner” was a household name across America. Vocal Christian, Populist crusader, presidential contender, perceived goat of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. He is (or was) well known for all these things. Bryan’s most remarkable feat, however, is something else entirely. In 1913 he was chosen as Woodrow WIlson’s Secretary of State. In 1915 he became the only member of a presidential cabinet ever to resign in protest of a war. Bryan’s commitment the teachings of Christ and evangelical faith led him to pacifism. Therefore, as the US became increasingly committed to World War One, integrity demanded he not serve an administration about to send young men to kill.
Second, Billy Sunday. Sunday was a former major league baseball player who struck the big time as an evangelist in the early 20th century. He was for a long time popular beyond measure; preaching to the masses and counting the country’s most prominent citizens among his friends. Sunday however had quite a different reaction to the US declaration of war. Instead of revulsion, he welcomed the challenge reportedly jumping on pulpits wrapped in the American flag, leading recruitment drives, and quoted as referring to the conflict with Germany as “heaven vs. hell.”
Which of these two men made Jesus look greater? Maybe that’s not exactly a fair question. But I think it’s an important one. Billy Sunday accomplished many great feats in his life. He did much good socially and spiritually. My purpose is not to disrespect his legacy. But surely there is more a Gospel minister can communicate to the world than directions to the recruitment office.
Though these events are almost a century pasted and the men long dead, there opposite reactions to the outbreak of war are ever pertinent. With an unrelenting and largely unaccountable war raging around the globe and an ever larger number of Christians calling for disengagement from the political process, is there a way forward? What do we as believers have to say to our military and foreign policy leaders?
This is not a post about pacifism. The point is not whether this or that war was just. The point is to decide what we as Christians want to be known for. Whether you agree or disagree with Bryan’s convictions, can there be any question he pointed the nation to something bigger? For a moment, in the eyes of the society, Jesus meant peace.
But most Christians are not pacifists. It’s only a realistic option if one holds to a philosophy of withdrawal from all society. In other words, if you pay taxes, own property, serve in any government function whatsoever at any level, interact with the court system in any way, or even buy postage you are intertwined with the military and war. We are all beholden to the rule of force. Even a stop by the local coffee shop helps forward America’s military goals. Starbucks is the recipient of huge military contracts. So anyone who claims pacifism yet takes part in mainstream society is a hypocrite. So while I appreciate and respect those witnessing through withdrawing (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, some New Monastic types), we as Christians must develop a vision for the health and prosperity of all people. A vision for only those who might join our communities isn’t enough. We cannot leave statecraft to the unredeemed.
On the other hand, Christians must be known for peace. We must be people of peace. We must work for peace. We must be reconcilers, healers, bridge builders, problem solvers.
I don’t think anyone disagrees with this assessment.
Our issue isn’t that we don’t know what we want or who we are. It’s how we get there. It’s how we are to communicate the hope of the Gospel while also living on this side of the kingdom’s consummation with sinful tyrants running amok (in our own hearts no less than in the outside world).
The question then is, how can we make a statement to our world like William Jennings Bryan did while still holding out a way forward for our governments?
This dilemma causes many sincere, loving believers to throw up their hands thinking American style democracy and capitalism are the best we can hope in the right now. Thus wars to preserve, promote, and eradicate threats to capitalism while not favorable, are the only realistic option in this age of sin.
Therefore we put out the flags, cheer on the troops, and hope for the best. But is there another way? Is that all our Christianity means for peace in politics? Are we just national cheerleaders? Is another way possible?
Next time, I hope to show that…well it might be.
Thanks for reading.