Growing up as a certifiable baby boomer in the ’50’s and ’60’s, I learned early on that my father was a “strong, silent type.” Strong because he had fought in World War II in the infantry in Europe. Silent because the experience had traumatized him. My hunch is that he was not so very different from a lot of other men who had survived combat in what became known as “the good war.” The image of VFW halls filled with WWII veterans recounting with swagger and gusto stories of glorious battles was not the case in our small town. There was a certain silence surrounding the war, during and after. Language could not adequately contain the complexity and the horrors of the Second World War, lending much of it literally unspeakable.
It is this silence which Ken Burns and Lynn Novick address in their epic seven-part series that begins airing this September, THE WAR. Veterans of both the war front and the home front give voice to the silenced struggles of their generation. They speak eloquently at times, haltingly at others, about the very human dimensions of that war. Behind the headlines and newsreels, the patriotic symbolism and triumphalist rhetoric, was human experience marked by fear, confusion, moral conflict, and death. That is not to say that courage, clarity, faith, and even joy were absent during the war. But the public construction of the Allies’ victory was rendered in such glowing terms that there was not space, or language, to process the struggles that took people to the edges of their humanity. The honesty and vulnerability of those who speak in the series chip away at the cultural prison created by rosy stereotypes of “the good war” and “the greatest generation.” The war in its fighting seldom seemed good and those in this generation that sacrificed so much did not always feel great.
One of the gifts of religions, and specifically of the church, is that we have a liturgical voice shaped by sacred and ancient texts, and we have theological reflection that enables us to speak of things unseen. The language of faith provides metaphor for mystery and the capacity to communicate about human experience in terms of meaning. Further, we have a community—the church—in which to engage in difficult conversations during troubled times to help believers navigate their way through them. The Christian community, in its very DNA, is about addressing the silence. But do we? Did we?
Although the church’s role in public issues has been dissected in just about every other context, one of the least studied is its role during the Second World War. For good reason: major Christian traditions were bogged down in internal debates about entering into the war, torn between the pacifism that had been in vogue in theological circles after the first World War and the sense of national duty after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. Reinhold Niebuhr, a leading theologian at the time, argued strenuously on political and theological grounds for joining in what he saw as a struggle for the survival of Western civilization itself. “We are witnessing the first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine.”1 However, he and denominational leaders were also cautious about joining in a “war hysteria.” The boundary between church and state loyalties seemed to melt as the Church was caught in an ambivalence, the most positive construction being a “cautious patriotism.”2 The Disciples of Christ denomination articulated the conundrum: “The church of Jesus Christ cannot bless war, but the church in wartime should have something more significant to contribute than a negative attitude. The church has positive and constructive duties to perform to the nation and to the world.”3 Not wanting to appear unpatriotic, most church groups followed suit, quelling their prophetic voice which had led in other times to public critique.
The problem is, this theological ambivalence did not give those in battle much to hang on to during their dark nights of the soul. Many of the questions haunting those in fox holes, in cockpits, or at home holding telegrams were profoundly theological. For some, the very nature of God was at issue. One Marine who found himself shaking with fear in the costly and misguided Battle of Peleliu reported, “I concluded I couldn’t be killed because God loved me, but then I thought about how God loves us all and many would be killed anyway…” Without resolution but with a simple faith, he continued to repeat the 23rd Psalm.
What did the universality of God’s love mean anyway? Soldiers who were Jewish, African American, or Asian American brought a different experience and passion to the war, even as they exposed the irony of discrimination at home. Anti-Semitism had taken root in the American psyche. Despite theological pronouncements against it by church bodies, there was not widespread moral outrage in churches when stories of the extermination of the Jews in Europe were covered in religious publications. God’s love was carefully nuanced and constructed. Theology, for the most part, failed to make sense of it all or to mobilize the faithful to prophetic action.
The meaning and expanse of God’s love came up not just in human relations or the possibility of being killed, but in doing the killing as well. These teens and young adults who had been raised on the Christian teachings not to kill now found themselves shooting at other human beings. In many cases the baptized were killing the baptized. Some described a moment of transformation when, in the words of journalist Ernie Pyle, killing was no longer a sin, but a craft. For some this transformation brought clarity and resolution. Others never felt comfortable with “doing their job,” even to the point of revulsion and alienation from themselves. Despite President Roosevelt’s prayerful language after D-Day about the “righteousness of our cause” to defend nation and religion, many still struggled with their consciences, no doubt throughout their lives. In the daily grind of warfare many were never sure if they were agents of God’s will fighting evil, or pawns in the hands of political and military leaders. Confronting the possibility of evil within or the horrifying realization that “we are expendable,” many of the veterans interviewed for THE WAR groped for the language, if not the answers, from their Christian faith.
Many of these veterans are still in our congregations, their stories unheard. Viewing the documentary for them, particularly the interviews, will undoubtedly trigger a flood of memories. Perhaps it will provide permission and the congregation a safe space for telling those stories. This will not only help us to know our fathers and mothers but ourselves as well. We are again at war, and again we’re not very good at talking about it, particularly in our congregations. Our war is different, of course. The radio, newsreels, and telegrams have been replaced by the Internet, cell phones, and satellite photographs. The terrain is different, the cultures and stakes differ as well. But many of the larger questions of meaning remain the same and our faith tradition gives us a language for framing them: What does the universality of God’s love mean? How do we understand our loyalty to both God and nation? Are followers of Christ called to kill for a national cause? How can we recognize sin within ourselves and our government as well as in the enemy? What is the relevance of forgiveness in the context of war?
These are not easy questions which lend themselves to answers packaged for a children’s sermon. But they can take us more deeply into understanding ourselves and our community. The veterans of WWII, thrown into battle too early in their lives, are now the elders of the community. Their stories and their struggles are a gift as we try to sort through the call to be faithful and effective in a rapidly changing world which sometimes doesn’t seem to change at all
Katie Day is the Charles A. Schieren Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and the author of Difficult Conversations: Taking Risks, Acting with Integrity. THE WAR premiers on September 23. For more information, go to pbs.org/thewar.
1 Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Crisis,” in Christianity and Crisis vol. 1 (Feb 10, 1941) pp. 1-2.
2 Gerald L. Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press): 1997.
3 Ibid, p.35.
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