“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.”

―Psalm 127:1

The Centennial of the Great War (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918) affords one the possibility of theological reflection and, maybe, even an attempt at a fusion of foreign policy and religion. I am not the first observer of “the War to end all wars” to try such a mixture.[1]  H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) was a futurist as well as a novelist.[2] He was a better novelist than a futurist. He was a better socialist than he was a novelist. However, in 1918, the infamous atheist (or, perhaps, better put, a divinity unto himself) became a literary alchemist who mixed foreign policy with Utopianism:[3]

“This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!”[4]

In fact, having just read his book, I can’t help but return to Wells’ chapter seven, “The Opportunity of Liberalism.”[5] If H.G. Wells was right and WWI was an “opportunity,” liberalism missed it. Alternatively, Wells might have been right. Liberalism, of the Enlightenment brand (which is what he had undoubtedly had in mind), triumphed spectacularly by its notoriety. It merely failed by its irredeemable nature.

But so much for Herbert George Wells, WWI, and Liberalism’s Utopian opportunity.

On Armistice Day 2018, the Centennial of the cessation of hostilities of the Great War, we are still faced with a question: “How do we lay the foundation for a lasting peace?”

I am not H.G. Wells, nor am I a futurist (in the usual sense), or even a foreign policy expert (I may not even qualify to be foreign policy hobbyist). However, I have an answer. My answer is not really “my” answer. It is God’s. Sorry, Mr. Wells. I, too, am a “believer,” but a “believer” that Jesus of Nazareth is God. Having said that, I desire to be most respectful of those with differing faith. Nevertheless, I posit my response to the question of how to lay a foundation of enduring peace by the authority of the Holy Bible. In fact, I prefer to let the Scripture do the speaking and trust the power therein. The Psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1). I believe this is the answer to world peace.

With all due respect for those poor girls in beauty pageants who have to answer the question about love and world peace, I do believe this is right. When I read the Psalmist in light of the rest of the Bible, then, I must be clear: I believe the “house” of God is, in fact, God’s great Plan being undertaken at this very moment to redeem a lost world. Any other “house” to be built will not, rather, cannot endure (if endure means eternal sustainability). Only God is capable of such a project. Additionally, the “house” that is being established is a magnificent tabernacle; albeit a tabernacle of flesh. In that flesh, implanted miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit in the human nursery of the Virgin Mary, lives the Prince of Peace. And in that male child of Mary-without-the-aid-of-a-man, we may (only by His Spirit’s gracious epiphany) locate the hopes and dreams of humanity. Utopia? No. Eden restored? Yes. So, I say, on this Armistice Day, this Veterans Day, this Centennial of WWI, we have a glorious open door before us. We must turn to Jesus Christ in order to know the “peace that endureth.” But how is that done in a world like today? Or in a world like 11/11/1918?

World War One, “the Great War,” haunted my early years. Though I was born under Eisenhower, my uncle’s name was Woodrow Wilson Milton. My uncle had fought in WWI. WWI was etched in the fleshly lines of faces throughout my childhood. Men with missing limbs, one old farmer living across a pasture with a permanent indentation in his forehead from a German bullet, visages of valor and voices of wisdom created a living history that I can never forget.

I was reared by a woman who lived through 11/11/11 at 11 AM. I called her Aunt Eva. We didn’t have an automobile. Aunt Eva couldn’t drive. And I was too little. Plus, where would we ever get money for a car? Aunt Eva had married Uncle John, a man almost the age of my grandfather. Uncle John never got past a buckboard and mules. So, no, there was no car. But we caught a ride to church every Sunday, mostly the Baptist church, sometimes the Methodist church. The houses of worship both hosted the same greeting committee: different names, but the same characters. And I would walk past them each Lord’s Day: a row of WWI Veterans. There they sat in their uniform of the day: a starched white, short-sleeve shirt, suspenders, a necktie (usually worn way too high) or bow tie, and khaki pants. There were usually nonconformists among them, no more than three of the ten or so gathered, who refused to take off their daily overalls with a calico-denim shirt. But even they compromised by wearing spit-shined, black dress shoes under the pant-leg of the overalls. These Veterans were all farmers or mechanics, spitting Red Man, smoking Camels, and sitting on shade-covered, weathered wooden benches outside of the church, waiting for Sunday School to begin. A few didn’t go in. They registered their attendance by just showing up to sit on the bench on a Sunday. So, I knew those doughboys from World War I. As I say, some of those fellows were my kin. All of them were my neighbors. Most of them were called, “Uncle.” That is what you called older men. It had nothing to do with whether he was your father’s brother. It was the right name you gave them. It was a familiar honor that was expected and given without too much thought.

I remember my Aunt Eva telling me that it was a day she could never forget. On Monday, the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, my Aunt Eva was 21 years of age. My father, her little brother, Jesse Ellis Milton, was ten years old. Aunt Eva and was the wife of Uncle John Turner. John Turner was a North Carolinian who escaped a brutal postbellum Reconstruction in the Old North State to seek work in the lumber mills in Louisiana.[6] The Reconstruction period was as bad or worse there.[7] He was again unemployed. But he stayed. Those were the 1880s. Uncle John was closer to my grandfather’s age than Aunt Eva’s age. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, Aunt Eva and Uncle John were running a general store on Main Street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was working to accumulate the cash needed to purchase land and become a farmer in Livingston Parish (near the place where my family had established a town, now, Walker, Louisiana), which he did. My own family had been large landowners before the Civil War. Reconstruction devastated our family.

My Aunt Eva told me that it was an ordinary Monday when all of a sudden, she heard such commotion going on outside. People were whooping and hollering. Aunt Eva told me, “Men and women were dancing in the middle of the street, church bells rang, and it was the biggest commotion I had ever seen!”[8] Of course, there was no television. But telegraph machines were the mainstay of newspapers around the country.[9] On 11/11/11 subscribers to the Associated Press got the same message:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, (Monday)—The world war will end this morning at 6 o’clock, Washington time, 11 o’clock Paris time. The armistice was signed by the German representatives at midnight. This announcement was made by the State Department at 2:50 o’clock this morning.[10]

“The war is over!” 53,402 Americans had been killed in action or remain missing in action.[11] For Great Britain, it was worse: 744,000. Few of us can even imagine such carnage. Therefore, who among us can truly absorb the euphoric sense of jubilation when word came that war that was incomprehensible to most Americans was no more.

Her brother, my Uncle Albert, was in Western Europe and was one of those doughboys fighting in the trenches. My grandfather, George Michael Milton (the sixth Michael since we landed at Jamestown; I am the seventh, my son is the eighth; and that didn’t come from Ancestry.com, but from Aunt Eva and from Tullie Milton, the family oral historian) was too old to fight in “the Great War” since he had been born when my great-grandfather, Joseph Austin Milton, a private in the “Fighting Tigers” (Company G, 9th Louisiana Infantry) limped back from the killing fields of Gettysburg. My ten-year-old father would take it all in. He and his brother, Woodrow (Woodrow Wilson Milton), would grow to fight in the next war that was not supposed to be. And that last phrase, “that was not supposed to be,” is my thought today. The failure of post-war Europe’s plan for a new world order was doomed from the start. That is not to diminish the courage of those who fought or the sacred memory of those who died fighting. Rather, I am submitting that their honorable legacy could have been—should have been—enshrined with a better plan for sustainable peace.

The Treaty of Versailles has been universally hailed as one of history’s worst blunders.[12] That it brought an end to the ghastly human carnage is its legacy of righteousness.That it did so with a hegemonic iron-fist disregarding ancient clannish borders paved a road for the inevitable next war. The defeated powers—Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria—found only a Carthaginian Peace from the Allied leaders: David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. President), and French Premier George Clemenceau. The brutal subjugation of Germany, as insisted by France and Belgium, was encapsulated in Article 231 of the Treatise, the War Guilt Clause:

“The Allied and Associated Governments affirm, and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

To the victors go the spoils. However, just as there are standards in Judeo-Christianity for just war, there are principles of post-war justice or Jus Post Bellum.[13] There can be no comparison between the savage brutality of German and Austro-Hungarian tactics that included poisonous gas and genocide and the arguably harsh War Guilt Clause. However, there are lessons to be learned.

First, we must recall that belligerence in attitude conceives belligerence in actual conflict. There are those who are guilty. There are those who are innocent. And then there are those who are likely both. Going the retribution route ignores the fact that citizens must end up paying in numerous ways for the action of statesmen. In the case of Germany, her people were subjugated to enormous penalties following the Treaty of Versailles. Would it have been wiser to cultivate goodwill with the people of Germany? One need only look at the Marshall plan of World War II to find the answer to that question.

Second, the foundation of an enduring peaceful relationship is not built on mere dialogue. In fact, it is become commonplace to hear that “we need a national conversation about…” National conversations really do not exist. Conversations happen between people within those nations. They happen between family members, church members, members of a community at the smallest level. The United Nations was, perhaps, a noble experiment. The premise was faulty. Dialogue does not guarantee a pathway to cooperation. The history of the United Nations has shown this. There must be something more.

Third, the “something more” must be a moral, ethical, and spiritual common ground on which to stand. If we can learn to reduce international policy to how we must treat our next-door neighbor, we would come closer to realizing the peace that we each desire. How do we treat our neighbor? Perhaps, the better question would be “when we are at our best, when we are following God’s revealed word, how do we treat our neighbor?” It is readily admitted that not all nations will have a historical appreciation for Judeo Christianity and the morals and laws of Moses and Jesus of Nazareth. However, we might follow the studied guidance of Miroslav Volf of Yale. Volf suggests that in a secular, post-Christian world, believers come to the table with the wisdom of our faith.[14] We offer the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible, the traditions of the church, and our faith in the power of prayer as a gift of common grace to others. Such a “cooperation without compromise” approach, brings honor and glory to God and reaches across the religious chasms to take hold of the hands of others. I would suggest that this approach which involves an active involvement of the church, the synagogue, and clergy, as well as faithful believers in the marketplace of ideas, more nearly approaches the dream of a jus post bellum.[15]

On this Armistice Day Centenary, thinking about the “War to end all wars” reminds us of not only the failure of an ill-conceived ideal but the promise of peace in the life and grace of One who is the Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is no act of religious intrusion and insensitivity to offer the Bible’s answers to the great questions of war and peace. Rather, it is an act of theological malpractice to withhold it.

“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1). No supposed Utopia or man-centered Enlightenment spirit (which was Wells’ true religion) can do what only God can do. Now, here is the last thing: In fact, He did it. He brought peace to millions of souls since WWI and WWII and in spite of every tried-and-failed plan for peace by unbelieving men. He brought peace to my soul. War is but the overflow of sin in the human soul, magnified and multiplied to the largest possible community, a nation. Peace is the quenching of the sin, and the implanting of a new power to control the human will. That power is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: God doing what we cannot do for ourselves.

In this sense, the House is being built. The road is being paved. Hope is not just on the way. Hope is a present reality, and an unquestionable promise fulfilled. It only remains for you to surrender on this day, this Armistice Day, to the terms of the Victor. His terms are no Versailles. His terms are unconditional surrender of all. Die to yourself. Live to Christ Jesus by receiving Him as your living Lord and Savior. You will receive His life in yours. Your sin is laid upon Him at Calvary. There will be skirmishes in your life, as your “old man” continues to negotiate the old terms with the New Covenant. But thank God His love is greater than your will. He will win. And that means you will win.

Such a day is a day to ring the church bells. It is a day to dance the jig of joy. It is a day when the guns go silent, and we only hear the reverberation of His terms, “Come unto Me, all Ye who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boemeke, Manfred F. n.d. “Woodrow Wilson’s Image of Germany, the War-Guilt Question, and the Treaty of Versailles.” In The Treaty of Versailles, 603–14.

Cuthbertson, Guy. 2018. Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

Foner, Eric. 2011. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Harper Collins.

Fortier, James Joseph Alcee. 2012. Carpetbag Misrule in Louisiana: The Tragedy of the Reconstruction Era Following the War Between the States.

Graebner, Norman A., and Edward M. Bennett. n.d. “Versailles: A Study in Arrogance.” In The Versailles Treaty and Its Legacy, 38–66.

Halberstam, David, and Associated Press. 2007. Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else. Princeton Architectural Press.

Hogue, James K. 2011. Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction. LSU Press.

Orend, Brian. 2008. “Jus Post Bellum: A Just War Theory Perspective.” In Jus Post Bellum, 31–52.

“Treaty of Versailles | Definition, Summary, Terms, & Facts.” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 11, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Versailles-1919.

US Government Printing Office. 2013. Officers and Enlisted Men of the United States Navy Who Lost Their Lives During the World War, from April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918. Heritage Books.

Warmoth, Henry Clay. 2006. War, Politics, and Reconstruction: Stormy Days in Louisiana. University of South Carolina Press.

[1] As the reader will discover, the phrase is an adaptation of an H.G. Wells’ book title.

[2] See, e.g., W. Warren Wagar, “H. G. Wells and the Genesis of Future Studies,” World Future Society Bulletin 17, no. 1 (1983): 25–29.

[3] One may discover more about the god of Well’s own creation in his book, God the Invisible King (1928). Wells wrote in the preface, “This is a religious book written by a believer, but so far as their beliefs and religion go it may seem to them more skeptical and more antagonistic than blank atheism” (“Preface,” 9). No other writing could be a greater warning to those who use words like “believer” or “religion” without a proper confessional anchor. The books is

[4] H. G. (Herbert George) Wells, The War That Will End War (London, F. & C. Palmer, 1914), accessed November 11, 2018, 9,  http://archive.org/details/warthatwillendwa00welluoft.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] See, e.g., J. K. Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (LSU Press, 2011), https://books.google.com/books?id=iaaIiDaqQmgC; Brian Orend, “Jus Post Bellum,” Journal of Social Philosophy 31, no. 1 (December 19, 2002): 117–137, accessed November 11, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1111/0047-2786.00034.

[7] E. Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (HarperCollins, 2002), https://books.google.com/books?id=FhvA0S_op38C.

[8] British Prime Minister David Lloyd George demonstrated customary British restraint in saying, the people are “entitled to a bit of shouting.” See page 73, (Cuthbertson 2018)

[9] D. Halberstam and Associated Press, Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), https://books.google.com/books?id=jxMLBzrbnFwC.

[10] See, e.g., “The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]) 1902-1939, November 07, 1918, FINAL EDITION, Image 1,” The Washington Times (Washington, D.C., November 11, 1918), Front Page, accessed November 11, 2018, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-11-07/ed-1/seq-1/.

[11] US Government Printing Office 2013.

[12] Joseph V. Fuller, “Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, The Paris Peace Conference, 1919, Volume I – Office of the Historian,” United States Government Printing Office, accessed November 11, 2018, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1919Parisv01.

[13] “Jus Post Bellum – Orend – 2000 – Journal of Social Philosophy – Wiley Online Library,” accessed November 11, 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0047-2786.00034.

[14] See Miroslav. Volf, “Public Faith : How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.,” 102ff; last modified 2014, http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=3117131.

[15] See, e.g., Brian Orend, “Jus Post Bellum,” Journal of Social Philosophy 31, no. 1 (December 19, 2002): 117–137, accessed November 11, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1111/0047-2786.00034.