Was the Great War a Holy War?

tags: religion, World War I



Philip Jenkins, the author of "The Lost History of Christianity," "Jesus Wars," and "The Next Christendom," is the Distinguished Professor of History and member of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His newest title is "The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade."

... The Europe of 1914 was very far removed from modern day secularism. A sizable majority of the combatants were from peasant or small town backgrounds, and even in the cities, churchgoing persisted at rates that today seem astonishing. Even when people rejected faith, they still came from a society that intuitively knew the Christian thought-world of sanctified sacrifice, of cosmic confrontations between good and evil. Holy War was still credible, in a way that it certainly is not for later generations of Christians. Yet this was also a modern world, where cutting-edge techniques of media and propaganda — including the cinema — allowed those ancient images a global distribution.

Jesus blessed German soldiers going into battle; Jesus comforted the dying victims of German atrocities; Jesus personally led a reluctant Kaiser to confront the consequences of his evil policies.

For a modern audience, those Holy War themes offer an unsettling sense of déjà vu. Today, radical Muslim clergy and activists often cite religious justifications for violence, to the extent that many Jews and Christians even doubt that Islam is a religion, rather than a militaristic doomsday cult. Yet Christian leaders in 1914 or 1917 likewise gave an absolute religious underpinning to warfare conducted by states that were seen as executing the will of God.

They also used well-known religious terms to contextualize acts of violence. Modern Shiites recall the bloody sacrifice of the Battle of Karbala; Christians spoke of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Christians then, like Islamists today, portrayed their soldiers as warriors from a romanticized past, with a special taste for the Middle Ages. Both shared a common symbolism of sword and shield. Both saw heroic death as a form of martyrdom, in which the shedding of blood washed away the sins of life and offered immediate entry to paradise. In their attitudes to war and peace — as so much else — Christians and Muslims have far more in common than they care to admit.

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.




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