There was a day last week when I looked at the front page of the paper and thought that the world had lost its mind. So much public suffering was on display there: the plane crash in the Ukraine, the Central American refugee children at the border, the crisis in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, the 200 Nigerian girls still missing after their abduction by Boko Haram. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summed up all our feelings when he said, “Too many innocent people are dying” (Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2014).
On Tuesday, July 29, we will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. I’m sure to many observers at the time, the world must have seemed to have lost its mind then as well. Because an Austro-Hungarian prince had been killed by a Serbian, a series of interlocking alliances triggered the start of what we have come to call “The Great War.” Russia came to the aid of Serbia. France came to the aid of Russia. Austria-Hungary called on Germany for help. England jumped in on the side of France. The result was a war that lasted 4 years and cost more than 20 million wounded and 16 million killed.
It should not be lost on us that the war in 1914 started as a conflict among empires. England, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans called themselves empires. Germany was an empire in the making. The western world got drawn into a cataclysm because of conflicting imperial ambitions. Everyone at the time wanted to rule the sea, colonize the developing world, and control both raw materials and the means of production. The European continent was not big enough to accommodate all these expansive visions. Hence the Great War.
To us in the twenty-first century much of what happened at the dawn of the twentieth seems tragically inexplicable. But a twenty-second-century person might be excused for looking at a front page of last week’s newspaper and thinking the same about us. The passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 found themselves caught in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Children are showing up on our border fleeing violence caused not only by narco-terrorists but also by the policies of Central American governments. And Israel, a nation I long admired, has increasingly come to behave like a turn-of-the-last century colonialist power. Today as then, thoughtful people are perplexed by the problem of empires that aggrandize themselves with no regard to the human consequences.
On Sundays this summer in the church we are reading our way serially through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Contemporary Bible scholars have found much in this letter to suggest that Paul was concerned with the problem of empire. Christianity came to being amid the dangers and pretensions of imperial Rome. Jesus was put to death by a Roman imperial state that found his teaching subversive and so politically dangerous. Paul’s first generation of Christian converts was martyred because they acknowledged Jesus, not Caesar, as their king.
As our summer reading of Romans has proceeded, we’ve seen Paul’s critique of empire reach its full force. Just last week, Paul compared the situation of Roman Christians to that of Israel in Egypt. As the Jews fled Pharaoh, so Jesus’ followers can be free of Caesar. As Christians, we prepare for the coming of Jesus, the true ruler of whom Caesar is only a parody. We are on a new Exodus, moving from slavery to freedom. Paul’s Gospel of liberation finds its ultimate statement in these ringing words that end the passage we heard this morning:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39)
This is a passage often read at funerals, so we tend to think of Paul’s subject here as personal victory over death. Certainly we are right to hear that: because so many Christians were dying at the hands of Roman executioners, we must hear reassurance about a life beyond death as part of Paul’s message. But I believe that he is even more emphatically proclaiming the Jesus community’s coming final victory over Caesar. “We are more than conquerors.” Neither rulers nor powers will be able to defeat us.
What does Paul have to tell us on this centennial of the onslaught of the Great War? What does he have to tell us about the front page of our daily paper?
In many ways, World War I changed the way we think not only about war but also about abstract ideas like heroism, glory, and honor on the battlefield. Warfare in this war was brutal and mechanized. Its engagements could hardly be called “battles.” The poets of previous wars celebrated the mighty deeds of warriors in song. The poets of the Great War—Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others—told the truth about what they saw and experienced in the trenches. Both combatants and non-combatants suffered and died in unprecedented numbers. The after-effects of what was then called “shell shock” and we now call post-traumatic stress prolonged the suffering and death even after hostilities had long ceased.
So the Great War was a new event in human history, and both poets and theologians tried to respond to its newness as best they could. Just as the confident poetry of war died away, so did the confident liberal Protestantism of the nineteenth century seem inadequate to the present moment. All notions of human progress now seemed to be false. We weren’t getting better as a species at all. The Great War had revealed a new, mechanized ferocity in us. Christian thinkers like the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the American Reinhold Niebuhr turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans precisely to try to understand how a Christian might find meaning in the wake of such tragedy.
And what those theologians found when they turned to Romans was Paul’s message to an earlier generation of Christians who had also struggled to make sense of human suffering at the hands of a cynical and uncaring imperial state. The range of forces set against us can seem at times overwhelming, but Paul never gives up hope:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39)
As deep and painful as the effects of the Great War were, they threw Christians back to the fundamental affirmations of our faith. After the experience of trenches, of poison gas, of shell shock, we could no longer naïvely place our faith either in nation states or in a doctrine of human progress. We were driven back to first things, to the life and witness, the suffering and death, to the resurrection of Jesus. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Only a faith grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus is adequate to the sufferings of the Great War. And only a faith so grounded can help us endure and understand subsequent tragedies: the concentration camps, Hiroshima, Vietnam, genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, the new advent of terrorism and oppression. If we want to understand what happened in the trenches, if we want to understand what is happening in Gaza, at our own border today, we need to look to the imperial Roman cross on which Jesus died and at the empty tomb from which he rose. The God we know in Jesus knows what it is to suffer as we do. The God we know in Jesus also knows what it is to live a new and risen life on the other side of that suffering. God is with us because God has been there. We are not alone. We are loved and known and held by one who continues to go through all of life’s struggles with us.
What Paul says to the Romans and to the survivors of the Great War, Paul also says to you and me both individually and in community. People will always be expendable to empires. We will always be capable of treating each other cruelly. But even in the midst of experiencing that disregard and that cruelty we can find seeds of hope and grace and compassion. Put not your faith in empires. Put your faith in the one who triumphed over all that empire could bring to bear. We are not alone: not in the trenches, not in the camps, not on the border; not in our prisons, our sickbeds, or in the loneliness of our own rooms.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.