Yesterday, Sept. 17, was the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history with nearly 26,000 casualties in the countryside near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Tragically, the Union forces did not take advantage of the battle and allowed the CSA army to withdraw. The war dragged on nearly three more years; what difference would a decisive Union blow, on a hypothetical second or third day of Antietam fighting, have made on the war’s length?
Yesterday afternoon, I was engaged in other battles in a safe place: the coffee shop. I was planning lessons for my seminary class on American history, specifically the series of European wars of which the American Revolution was but one (prone though we Americans are to look at it in isolation, or perhaps only in conjunction with the French and Indian Wars). Although the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) ended religious wars on the continent (and gave us the principle of Westphalian sovereignty), warfare obviously did not end, and kingdoms tended to expand future warfare overseas. Subsequent wars--King William’s War/War of the Grand Alliance (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s War/War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), King George’s War/War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and the French and Indian War/Seven Years War (1754-1763) shifted balances of power and also involved some fighting in North America. That last war gave British control in trans-Appalachian America and left Indians without France as their ally. But the large British war debt resulted in heavy Parliament-authorized taxes on British colonists. Those taxes, among other factors, led to yet another war, the American War of Independence (1775-1783), in which France, defeated in 1763, joined the Americans and helped gain victory over the British.
But, of course, the story does not end there, for the American experience influenced the French Revolution (1789-1797) which in turn led to the Napoleonic empire (1797-1815). Amid Napoleon's wars, British ships attacked those of non-combatant countries, leading to our own second war against Britain (1812-1815). The Napoleonic Wars also led the tide of European revolutions, nation-building, and liberal governments during the nineteenth century. Our Civil War (1861-1865) fits well within that overall worldwide phenomenon of nation-building.
Wars, rumors of wars, records of wars … We honor and love our country, which has been created, like many nations, amid a history of endless human violence.
The New Testament, unlike the Qur’an, does not give much advice on proper and improper warfare. Governments are instituted of God, as Paul reminds us, and governments have often made that tragic choice to wage war. We have New Testament stories of soldiers coming to faith, without any warnings that they should lay down their arms in order to follow Christ. And yet the example of Jesus himself--he did not resist the violence done to him--is such that some Christians have found pacifism to be the best choice. How can we follow Christ if we do not follow his example of nonviolence? How can we ever stop violence worldwide unless we stop it through our personal example and sacrifice?
I go back and forth on this issue, agreeing with the pacifists sometimes, but honoring the sacrifice of soldiers who, after all, give up very much--even their lives--for others. “No greater love,” as Jesus says. In fact, in our own time, not many of us Americans will have to die for our faith, but some of us will die while defending our country and our freedoms. The safety and security we enjoy in a country such as ours seems to require a suitable military and the potential choice of war.
And yet … When we look at the history of warfare, we realize: one war will lead to another war down the years, and yet another, and another, with no ultimate resolution, and innocent people will suffer. And yet ... reluctance to pursue decisive victory can lead to more warfare, which was Lincoln's heartache following Antietam (and Gettysburg, too).
The Vietnam War concluded just as I became draft-age, so I’ve the luxury of thinking about this subject as one who knows war only through books and my father’s stories.
(After I wrote this, I found a section from Robert Barron, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path, Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 153-154: "Stanley Hauerwas ... has on his office door a sign that reads: 'A modest proposal for peace, Christians stop killing other Christians.' ... Between 1914 and 1945, millions of British, American French, Russian, German, and Italian Christians went at one another murderously. One presumes that the overwhelming majority of these warriors had heard Christ's command to love even your enemies and that they had been formed according to the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ. Yet, when the moment of truth arrived, they chose to place national loyalty above spiritual conviction, attacking other members of the body of Christ for political ends." But, of course, millions of those soldiers, like my Christian cousin who died in World War I in July 1917, must've considered some of those "political ends" as commensurate with the Gospel and, indeed, sacrificed their own well-being in order to protect the freedom and well-being of others. A difficult issue!)