Dear Disciples of Christ,
I’m a fan of the PBS series Downton Abbey, set on an English country estate following the lives of masters and servants. The series opened with the sinking of the Titanic, and the first two seasons have taken us through World War I and the Spanish Flu. One scene has especially stayed with me. The war had just ended, and the head of Downton Abbey, Lord Crawley, is talking to one of his servants. Recounting the cost in dead and injured just from their own county and estate, he simply asks, “Do you ever wonder what it was all for?”
When Jesus spoke of himself as the Vine and us the Branches, there is a troubling verse about branches being disconnected from the vine, withering, and being thrown onto the fire. That verse is not about burning in hell, but rather showing that we become ‘combustible’ people when cut-off from God’s love. We simmer in resentment and become tinder for leaders who we then follow into war. The people of 1930’s Germany following Hitler are a tragic example.
But World War I was different, and still mystifies some historians. The decades leading up to WWI were among the most positive in European history. Suddenly, for seemingly no reason, conflict broke out and confidence in civilization completely eroded over four years of horrific war. Twenty million people lay dead, and all of Europe was asking, “Do you ever wonder what it was all for?”
The Christian revelation can provide a deeper answer. The Bible understands that there is a sin that goes back more than one hundred thousand years to our origins (“original sin”). It is deeply ingrained in our social DNA and keeps popping up to bite us, even at the best of times. That sin is sacrificial logic, which insists on keeping peace by using violence to stop violence in keeping peace, and so our staying together in cultures always depends on being over against someone else.
As tribes and nations began to interact, their cultural ritual blood sacrifice on altars became mingled with war, eventually giving way completely to war. Hosea said, “The LORD wants compassionate justice not sacrifice.” He and other prophets expressed the epitome of hope as beating swords into plowshares. Jesus upped the ante by teaching us to love our enemies.
2000 years ago Jesus came to put an end to sacrificial logic and show us another way. But human beings have still not let go. So understanding our anthropology becomes the only real answer to something like WWI. “What was it all for?” It was because the sacrificial way of maintaining peace is so ingrained that even when on the surface there are no reasons for war, we still find ourselves using it. The reasons lay far below the surface of eons of human evolution.
Why talk about this at church? Because as followers of Christ, we have been given the ‘glasses’ through which to see both the eventual end of the old sacrificial way and the alternative new Way of Jesus Christ. We know we are forgiven — Jesus took our worst on the cross and was raised to forgive us, not to avenge us. And even more spectacularly, Jesus came with an alternative to the old way of sacrifice — the way of compassionate justice, the way of God’s kingdom. The world desperately needs us to answer our calling to live that way of New Creation in the here and now — in all our capacities as human beings: as family members, neighbors, co-workers, stewards of Creation, and global citizens. We have Good News! Jesus is Lord! Let us follow in faith!