World War I and World War II, for me at least, have often presented themselves as a series of names: Woodrow Wilson, Alvin York, Corrie ten Boom, Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We all know heroic stories; some of us remember the sagas of specific battles.
Even more than 70 years after the end of World War II, these wars still form us. Many of our print readers are from the United States, and many online readers hail from other nations that fought in these conflicts. As world wars, they transformed the face of the globe politically and socially.
They also formed us as Christians. World War I erupted amid the tensions of what some have called the “long nineteenth century”—a time of technological and economic progress and of optimism about humanity’s future, but also a time of questioning, revolt, and doubt. The issues it raised remained so unresolved that only two decades after the end of the “war to end all wars,” another one followed. As a whole the wars can be seen as part of a decades-long crisis in the twentieth century that was not just political, but spiritual.
questions and answers
In both wars, Christians had to wrestle with daunting questions. Can Christians kill? What happens when they kill each other? How far do we collaborate with governments we see as unjust, and how much do we defy them? Is deception—such as hiding Jews in the basement from the Nazis—acceptable in a greater cause? If we are ultimately citizens of another, heavenly country, how does that shape how we act in wartime in our earthly homes?
Many heroic, fascinating, and even troubling stories arise from both wars. Some come from those who fought bravely, and some come from those who resisted fighting at all. Some people escaped unimaginable suffering to spend the rest of their lives testifying about it. Others went to their deaths bravely and are now counted martyrs. Some even transformed wartime experiences into great art (we’ve got a surprise visit from a couple of Inklings in this issue).
Some soldiers found God on the battlefield, and some lost faith in him there. Some on the home front supported the wars, and some opposed them. When faced with the choice between country and God, some made their choice, while others were confused as to which choice was really which.
All these stories are in this issue, and they serve as guidance to us as we face the political and social issues of our own day. The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the eve of World War II have been repeated many times, but they are no less valuable to keep before us today: “Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him.” CH
This article is from Christian History magazine #121 Faith in the Foxholes. Read it in context here!
By Jennifer Woodruff Tait
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #121 in 2017]Managing editor, Christian History
The Crisis of the West
World Wars I and II proved to be more than a political crisis: they were a spiritual oneJeffrey B. Webb
Franz Joseph (1830–1916)
Tragedy dogged Emperor Franz JosephJennifer Woodruff Tait
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
Wilson took the United States into a European warJennifer Woodruff Tait
Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
Churchill's speeches encouraged Britain and the allies during World War IIJennifer Woodruff Tait
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