Posted by: gcarkner | November 9, 2014

Learning from The Great War

War? What is it Good For?…

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This year 2014 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the start of World War I, the conflict that introduced industrial-scale carnage to the world. Never before had science and technology—the mortars, machine guns, tanks, barbed wire and poison gas—conspired so effectively to destroy humans and nature, and effectively to disillusion a whole generation. Ten million soldiers died; twice as many more were wounded or disfigured. Civilians also suffered terribly. The so-called Great War called into question popular beliefs about human progress, morality and religion. It brought in its trail mass disillusionment. Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the war deepened their moral and spiritual convictions. Both fought in the trenches on the Western Front and used their experiences to shape their Christian imagination. The pair met in 1926 as young scholars at Oxford University and went on to produce epic stories of heroism. Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Lewis earned fame for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of children’s books now considered classics. Their tales are fundamentally about a cosmic struggle between good and evil—a theme radically out of step with the cynical and fatalistic spirit of their age. The authors’ use of fantasy is not an escape but a steely realism that captures the human predicament. The stories, combining both tragedy and hope, have fired the imagination of a whole generation. It is a truly courageous and inspiring narrative.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, pp.112-13:

The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found peace, for he is their peace. But now they are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ, nothing is to be gained by such methods. His kingdom is one of peace, and the mutual greeting in his flock is one of peace. His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce all self-assertion, and quietly suffer in the face of hatred and wrong. In doing so they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.

 Mother Teresa writes: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Many of the 400 postwar memoirs and novels from the 1920s and 1930s are profoundly pessimistic, focusing on the cruelty and senselessness of World War I. Erich Remarque, in his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” spoke for many: “Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless and without hope.”

Tolkien and Lewis, however, believed war could be fought for noble purposes. In “The Lord of the Rings,” a band of hobbits, a king born as Aragorn and the Wizard Gandalf embark on a quest to destroy the evil Ring of Power. In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the Pevensie children are magically transported from London to Narnia and given a great task by Aslan the Lion: to rescue Narnia from despotism and restore the throne to its rightful line of kings.

Near the narrative heart of Tolkien’s trilogy is this sobering fact: Not even the central hero, Frodo Baggins, can resist the lure and power of the Ring. When Frodo finally has the chance to destroy the Ring at Mount Doom, he struggles. “I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine,” he exclaims. Just so: Every combatant nation in World War I abandoned moral qualms and used any weapon at hand to obliterate the enemy.

The war also dealt a blow to the notion of free will. The utter helplessness of the soldier on the Western Front—mutilated, bombed and bayoneted without mercy—was a recurring postwar theme. Yet the fate of Middle-earth and Narnia depends upon the choices of individuals. In Narnia, Aslan commands the young Jill to seek the lost prince until she has found him “or else died in the attempt.” Likewise, Lady Galadriel, the fairest of the elves of Middle-earth, warns the hobbits: “Your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.”

Perhaps most controversially, Tolkien and Lewis did not regard war as an unmitigated evil. The experience of the fellowship of combat taught them the great gift of friendship—especially when it was forged for a high and humane purpose.

Where did Tolkien get his idea for the hobbits? Like Lewis, he acquired a profound respect for the ordinary British soldier, having witnessed his remarkable determination under fire. In a letter written after his trilogy was published, Tolkien acknowledged that Sam Gamgee, one of the story’s central figures, “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” These creators of myths remind us that real life—torn by sorrow and suffering—has a mythic and heroic quality.

What Tolkien and Lewis saw on the battlefield made it easy for them to imagine worlds ravaged by evil. Nevertheless, fortified by their Christian faith—Tolkien a Catholic, Lewis an Anglican—they believed that God and goodness were the deepest truths about the human story. In Middle-earth and Narnia, the ruin or redemption of every person depends on what side he or she has chosen in the conflict.

Is this so unlike our own world? Think of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram; the civilians caught in the genocidal storm of the Syrian regime; the courageous Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban for wanting Pakistani girls to go to school.

The heroic figure is the one who resists evil, who is willing to lay down his life for his friends. Perhaps the character of Faramir in “The Lord of the Rings” expresses it best: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” That may be the vision of humanity that our present world needs most.

 ~ Dr. Joseph Loconte

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Dr. Loconte holds a Ph.D. in History from King’s College London, his BS Journalism from the University of Illinois. He now teaches Western Civilization, American Foreign Policy, and International Human Rights at The King’s College, New York City. He previously served as a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he was named a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Loconte has testified before Congress on international human rights and served as a human rights expert on the 2005 Congressional Task Force on the United Nations, contributing to its final report, “American Interests and U.N. Reform.” His commentary on religion and democracy, international human rights and religious freedom has appeared in leading media outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London. Dr. Loconte has been a frequent contributor to broadcast media, especially National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His publications include: God, Locke and Liberty: the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. (Lexington Press, 2014); The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); and now the anticipated “A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18” (HarperCollins, 2015).  Talk by Joseph Loconte at C.S. Lewis Institute Summer of 2014 Children’s War Art


The Take Home Message of Remembrance Day

In Canada, this is the week of remembrance of people who have made the ultimate sacrifice “for God and country”, for “freedom”, for “honour” in the great wars of the 20th century. Our veterans deserve their due respect. It gives us pause to think about the sacrifice, the costs. The trumpet plays its forlorn tune at the cenotaff. The wreaths are laid ever so gently, slowly, so as to slow time itself. It is a moment for reflection on where we are and what we have learned from history.

However, we must avoid at all costs a glorification of war. Is there ever a just war when so much mayhem occurs, people’s lives are destroyed, property stolen, families ripped up the middle, refugees are driven across wastelands or into jungles as we are seeing now in the Iraq or Syria. War brings us ‘hell on earth’. War is a false gospel, a bad culture, a deadly discourse, a dis-ease, a way of life steeped in blood and immense suffering. War is full of arrogance, bravado, machismo,psychopathy, imperialism, deception and pride. It is a false god! It reveals itself as the art of being overcome by evil. War is a failure in good diplomacy, a failure of our ethics and politics. It is nothing to be proud of. War is for moral children who cannot discern the conversation of negotiated needs, of politicians who cannot think deep enough, without the patience to study the consequences and the debts to be paid.

 I was reading Romans 12 this week and Paul is reflecting on a different gospel, a different culture, a discourse of peace, love and constructive living together, using our gifts to bless one another, negotiating our conflicts, loving our enemies, working together for the common good, creation care. Jesus is announced as the Prince of Peace who claimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” This is a high honour. Romans 12 is a discourse of realistic evaluation of faith and giftedness to pursue a calling which honours God and builds into communion. It is a heroic paradigm shift from war.What is the New Culture, New Agreement, New Way of Being in the World, this Love Intelligence, this Trajectory of Peace that  Jesus offers?

  • love is the major or dominant theme in the Bible; it is God language; God is love at the deepest depths
  • we are encouraged to be rooted and grounded in the infinite resource of God’s trinitarian communion of love
  • Jesus is love incarnate, representing this gospel of peace, the herald of love embodied, communicated from heaven to earth
  • we were created out of love, for love; our ethics at their best are grounded in love and divine goodness
  • we are redeemed by and baptized into a persistent, enduring love
  • we were given a mandate, a destiny of love, a heritage of love
  • we are given a new identity in Christ, in agape love
  • love is given to us as a cultural driver, to set a new course for society and for institutions, other than raw power, ego and territoriality
  • we are called to drill down into this amazing resource, to explore this vast oceanic love with unlimited potential
  • love is a fulcrum to move the world

We are encouraged not to trust or invest in resentment, unforgiveness, hate or war. Invest in love; step into the river of love; be baptized and bathed in it; let it transform your inner self and inspire you; let it engage you and grip you imagination, fire your passion.

Jesus asks us to:

  • practice and become fluent in the languages of love, to become an articulate spokesperson for love
  • lead with your heart; let compassion drive you
  • work out the ethics and politics of love, to see how it transforms the negotiation, stops the feud
  • let love penetrate all your relationships in your family, your lab, your study group, your research
  • invest in the currency of love, and watch God expand your giftedness beyond your imagination
  • pray for love to reign in your home country, your family, your campus; bring heaven to UBC, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, the Sorbonne and the world
  • recognize that human rights and justice are grounded in love for God and the Other
  • let love shape your identity, empower you, inspire you, fill you up with hope and joy and vision for a better world
  • let love be your compass, your guide, your starting point and your life goal, your very foundation
  • let love give you new eyes to see, new ears to hear, new dreams to dream, heroic journeys to travel
  •  build communities of love; be a spark for love; lead in love

Therefore I urge you sisters and brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice of love, holy and pleasing to God. Be transformed by the renewal of his infinite love; allow the paradigm shift to occur in you. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Embrace his love as your very modus operandi in life.

These boys, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, cry out to us from the graves all over the world, “Please Remember to Invest in Love not War”.

 ~Gord Carkner

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