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Fighting the forces of evil

25 July 2014

The First World War demonstrates that evil exists, argues J. John. It serves as a warning against dehumanisation, and the propensity for evil to hijack religion

An 1888 mission leaflet - from The Redemptorists in Ireland 1851-2011 by Brendan McConvery CSsR (The Columba Press, £19.99 (£18); 978-1-85607-759-0)

An 1888 mission leaflet - from The Redemptorists in Ireland 1851-2011 by Brendan McConvery CSsR (The Columba Press, £19.99 (£18); 978-1-85607-759-0)

HERE is something terribly compelling about the First World War. Like some ghastly pile-up on the motorway, you cannot help but stare at the horror. There is the overwhelming scale of the destruction - ten million people were killed.

There is also the sheer density of the war: most of the slaughter occurred along a battleline that moved barely miles in four, long years. It was the ugliest of wars; a desperate, drawn-out, slog of a struggle, unredeemed by cinema-worthy actions such as Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, or D-Day.

It was also without any ultimate triumph. The war ended with all sides in blood-drained exhaustion. This was a conflict without glory and honour; a terrible slaughter across a ruined landscape. Wegaze appalled at the horror of the First World War, and then, aswith the motorway pile-up, we drive on.

This centenary year sees many evaluations and reinterpretations of the political, military, and social aspects of those terrible events. While these evaluations are fascinating, I find myself wondering whether they really address the deep issues that the First World War highlights so shockingly - namely, the nature of evil and how we deal with it, issues that have relevance for us all.

The First World War demonstrates - and this is fundamentally important - that there is such a thing as evil. As someone whose life centres on communicating Christian truth, I know that evil does not simply occur in the context of war, it is a real and terrible spiritual reality in our world.

In thinking about evil, our culture - so intelligent and sophisticated in many areas - is frankly out of its depth. We are technologically literate, but morally naïve. Previous generationsmight have gone overboard with classifying different kinds of wickedness, but we have tendedto avoid thinking seriously aboutit at all.

HE First World War is a striking lesson in how destructive and hateful evil actually is. We should pause for a moment and contemplate the fatality figure of ten million, and what that really means.

The next time you look at a war memorial, focus on just one of those names. Then, imagine what that loss represents on a mass scale, through the years of 1914-18: the parents, the sweethearts or wives, husbands, children, and friends.

Think of all that they might have done, the things that they might have created, the joys that they could have experienced, and what they might have contributed towards the future. And then remind yourself that all that life and potential was cut short. 

Now, multiply that loss by ten million, and add to it the 20 million injured, the ruined landscapes and destroyed towns, not to mention the political and economic legacy that was to shape the world for generations to come. And let us not forget that war is fertile ground for almost every vice, breeding brutality and corruption. That is the scale of evil.

Another thing that the First World War illustrates all too clearly is how evil can acquire a momentum of its own. No one intended it to be a four-year-long bloodbath; yet, from the first gunshot in Sarajevo, the fighting descended into the most appalling slaughter.

The conflict acquired an im-petus of its own, becoming increasingly intense, brutal, and widespread. As the war progressed, the scale and range of the weaponry multiplied, growing more sophisticated and ever more inhuman. There were artillery barrages, machine guns, and gas. Limits on the use of weapons were gradually withdrawn; so that, eventually, through Zeppelins and submarine blockades, there were deliberate attacks against civilians, miles away from the front line.


IN THE first day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties alone were nearly 58,000, almost 20,000 of whom were killed. The First World War was a juggernaut created by the interaction of policies, men, and technology. Once started, the war rolled unstoppably forwards, crushing all beneath it.

One reason why war develops a life of its own is because evil is contagious. Ordinary, decent people - such as you and me - became part of the war. Some of them were involved in terrible things, and many of them justified these ac-tions as being for the sake of the "cause".

One of the most distressing aspects of evil is the way in which it can hijack religion. Despite Christ's clear teaching that God and Caesar had different spheres of authority, all sides in the First World War were ready to blur that distinction. For example, German soldiers had "Gott mit uns" ("God with us") inscribed on their helmets. And, on the Allied side, there was much talk of "for God and King", as if this was a mutually agreed venture between equal parties.

During the American Civil War, a pious cleric expressed to Abraham Lincoln the hope that "God was on our side". The President wisely rebuked him, pointing out that the more pressing issue was whether they were on God's side. Religious faith is the strongest of all forces, and we must be wary lest it be diverted to evil ends.

Evil is a reality, and the First World War demonstrated that. Yet we must do more than simply recognise evil as such - we must resist it. It is here we face a problem. Evil is so subtle that our attempts to defeat it are all too often counterproductive. The very actions that we take to tackle it turn out to be evil themselves. To defend our own innocents, we all too easily end up killing their innocents. In the First World War, no side emerged with unbloodied hands.

So how do we combat evil? Here, I must say, with regret, that I do not feel pacifism to be the right answer. There are times when, as a last resort, evil must be resisted by force. But, in doing so, we must constantly be aware of the deadly peril that, in resisting evil, we ourselves are in danger of doing it.


HOW evil can be contained in the fury of war has occupied great and good minds for centuries. Two factors contributed to the horror of the First World War.

The first was a widespread arrogance about human progress and technology in the years lead-ing up to 1914. That pride persisted into the war, which was marked throughout by over-confident battle plans, and impetuous strategies that collapsed into bloody chaos on the battlefield.

Sadly, wartime leaders are rarely gifted with humility. "Blessed are the meek," Jesus said, "for they will inherit the earth." True, and the meek and humble are much less likely to blunder into bloodbaths.

A second feature that added to the devastation of the First World War was the way in which people were dehumanised. There had been wars before in which men were able to kill others without ever seeing them. With the introduction of the machine gun, the artillery barrage, and the bomber, however, the separation between the killers and the killed reached new levels. One of the defining creations of the First World War was the tank - rumbling over everything and everyone.


IT IS important to restate the foundational biblical truth: men and women are made in the image of God, and are of immeasurable value. Consequently, the danger of dehumanising individuals in the heat of battle has not gone away. In our modern, digitised world, military decisions and operations are often made by men and women seated at screens - completely disconnected from the humanity on which they are about to inflict devastation. It is alarming to think that human interaction can be almost eliminated from modern military operations.

The First World War speaks tous about how evil needs to be both recognised and resisted. Yet it would be extraordinary folly to think that the lessons it teaches us about evil are solely applicable at the level of international conflict.

All of us live, or work, in situations where there is tension. We all live in potential conflict zones, and we can all make decisions, and take actions in such settings that will make things either better or worse. A key response to conflict and grievance is to seek to absorb evil, rather than allow it to multiply. The supreme example is seen in Jesus on the cross - conquering evil by absorbing it.

"Blessed are the peacemakers,"he said, "for they will be called children of God." It is a high calling. A hundred years ago, a generation of leaders failed miserably. May God grant that we, in our day, do better.As Jesus taught us, let us pray: "Our Father in heaven . . . deliver us from evil."


J. John is a Christian speaker working with the Philo Trust. More details: www.philotrust.com and@Canonjjohn.

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