When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University (Bloomington), Religious Studies was my “outside minor.” And during my senior year in 1970 (in the midst of anti-war protests sparked by the misadventure in Viet Nam), one of the assigned readings in a religious studies class was Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.” I thought about that long prose poem this past week as I was continually sickened by the news coming out of the Ukraine and Gaza. I highly recommend the poem to you in its entirety. When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University (Bloomington), Religious Studies was my “outside minor.” And during my senior year in 1970 (in the midst of anti-war protests sparked by the misadventure in Viet Nam), one of the assigned readings in a religious studies class was Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.” I thought about that long prose poem this past week as I was continually sickened by the news coming out of the Ukraine and Gaza. I highly recommend the poem to you in its entirety.
My South African friend and theologian, John de Gruchy, wrote a meditation recently about war and making peace in the struggle for justice. In noting that we have to “resist tyrants in the pursuit of justice and peace” – attempting to put an end to cyclical violence — John wrote, “As the prophets remind us … we live in a moral universe and God is a God of justice. So if nations and peoples oppress others, they act contrary to God’s will and therefore are liable to suffer the consequences, punished, as it were, by God. But that does not justify war in the name of God. War is the result of the lust for land and power, it is the consequence of greed and the abuse of resources. We may have to resist tyrants, but only in the pursuit of justice and peace, and therefore in ways that end the cycle of violence not perpetuate it.”
If I may quote myself in a note back to John, I wrote: “Since I’m living with brain neuroscience these days in the writing of my current book, I wrote in the margin of your meditation ‘peace only until next time.'” And, I asked, “Is there a way to overcome our genes?” That is, each of us I think is frequently “at war” within, between our frontal neocortex (our rational mind) and the midbrain emotional centers, particularly the amygdala. Our rational mind tries to control our excesses, our rages, our exuberances, our grief and sadness – but the battle is a life-long one, and frequently the emotions are the ones that win out – despite our reasoning and reflection. So in the “social synapses” this “war” gets played out between tribes and nations. The struggle goes on between the rational and the irrational/emotional and the latter often wins (again, see Gaza, etc.). I ended my note, “God help us.”
Which brings me back to Twain. The setting for the poem is a Christian church service. The pastor leads the good flock in prayers for their soldiers — that God would bless their effort and lead their side to victory over their evil foes. “Help them (O God) crush the foe, grant to (our soldiers) and to their flag and country imperishable … glory.” And the people cried, “Amen!”
Suddenly an aged stranger entered and moved slow and noiseless steps up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister … “his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders … his seamy face unnaturally pale.” He made his way silently and stood by the minister’s side. When the minister finished his own prayer, he stepped aside and the ghostly figure – his eyes burning with “uncanny light” — spoke to a hushed congregation: “I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God.” Then the ghostly visitor pointed out that the minister has just prayed not one, but two prayers — both reaching God’s ear. He said, “In praying for victory, you also prayed – unknowingly, unthinkingly I hope – the following: ‘O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells … help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain … help us wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief … for our sakes who adore thee, Lord, blast their hopes … We ask this in the spirit of Love, of Him who is the Source of Love …'”
Twain ends his poem thus: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”
Well, you get Twain’s point. There are no real, unambiguous winners in war – not in Ukraine, not in Gaza. As I said in my note to John, “God help us” … and save us from ourselves.