The cool days of November are upon us. Since I was a lad, this time of the year always causes me to think of the echoing pronouncement, "It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month that the guns went silent." In the Commonwealth nations, this is often rendered Armistice or Remembrance Day. In America, it is commonly called Veterans Day. This is the day the guns went silent on the Western Front of what was then known as the "Great War."
Amazingly, it has been 89 years since our grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought on the plains of Europe. It wasn't supposed to be a great war. It simply wasn't supposed to last long. But the complicated quilt of alliances that reacted to the assassination of the archduke of Austria at Sarajevo would have it no other way.
Surely, the wise men could have stopped it. Or certainly the cousins who occupied the thrones of England, Germany and Russia could have handled this in a backroom family way.
But, well, the rest is history. Perhaps the various politicians and nations had to get the tensions that had been building for decades out of their system. And, as is so often the way with war, the troops were still fighting in the accustomed manner of the last century's conflicts and were not prepared for the latest technological advances. Charging horses were no match for newly devised automatic weaponry, and the big guns of war would do their job.
The dead deserved a reason for dying
As the "Great War" unfolded, many sought a great vision and hope around which humanity might rally. Certainly the dead deserved a reason for dying. Thus, this global eruption would be framed as "The War to End All Wars." Certainly a better world would emerge! It simply had to be. The societal evolution of man, so popularly envisioned at the time, demanded nothing less.
But reality fell far short of such lofty ideals. In less than 21 years, horses and tanks would meet again on the plains of Poland and the second round of world war would commence.
Could not the rhythm and rhyme of the magnificent poem "In Flanders Fields" still the most volatile heart with its pastoral illusions?
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
You may not be aware of the final verse that breaks from the pastoral setting to urge:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Oh yes, the drumbeat of war rhetorically sounded even from the grave! But why?
A selfish peace
At the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo made an astute observation regarding the nature of man, as he witnessed the dismantlement of the Roman Empire: "
It is with the desire for peace that wars are waged…Every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better" (Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 2, p. 1015).
Winston Churchill told a parable to illustrate the same lesson: "Once upon a time all the animals in the zoo decided they would disarm, and they arranged to hold a conference to decide the matter. The rhinoceros said that the use of teeth in war was barbarous and horrible, and ought strictly to be prohibited by general consent. Horns, which were mainly defensive weapons, would, of course, have to be tolerated. The buffalo, stag and porcupine said they would vote with the rhino; but the lion and the tiger took a different view. They defended teeth and even claws, as honorable weapons.
"Then the bear spoke. He proposed that both teeth and horns should be banned. It would be quite enough if animals would be allowed to give each other a good hug when they quarreled. No one could object to that. It was so fraternal, and would be a great step toward peace. However, all the other animals were offended with the bear, and they fell into a perfect panic."
God tells it like it is!
God spells out a clear diagnosis of the heart of the matter in Isaiah 59:8: "The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace."
Christ inspired the apostle James to comment further: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?" (James 4:1). The problem is that humans like to think of themselves as good, while God is telling us that left to ourselves, apart from Him, the human condition is downright ugly. We need help!
But why? The chronicled record of mankind shows that each generation repeats the mistakes of the previous one, like a never-ending circle. It takes profound humility and courage for men and women to step out of that circle and change the course of history.
When a person's fight starts within himself, instead of lashing out at the other guy, he then starts a truly worthy struggle for the first time. But the cycle of going around in circles must be broken. Yet often as persons and societies, we end up going around and around like a hamster on a wheel, instead of making decisions that will alter our lives for the better.
Stepping out of a world of circles
A Nez Percé chief named Joseph led his band of Native Americans for several months in the 1870s through Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. He had a genius for battlefield maneuvers and constantly frustrated the pursuing federal troops that greatly outnumbered him. He skillfully applied advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications. In doing so, he wove a web of circles, around and around, throughout the Northwest wilderness.
While going in circles enabled him to win many a battle, he ultimately realized he wasn't winning the larger war. Canada was only 40 miles away, and he made a decision. Enough was enough. It was time to exit a world of circles.
The words of his formal surrender were caught for posterity: "Tell General Howard…I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead.
"It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death.
"I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
War no more!
The time is soon coming when all humanity will echo those words! Ultimately, humankind will have to admit that it is facing total extinction. Christ forecast 2,000 years ago, "Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:22).
Christ could look ahead to the potential of nuclear warfare; He realized that humanity has rarely invented a weapon it does not use. Jesus clearly indicated that until that final crisis, humanity would continue its destructive cycle of circular existence. He warned that we "will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass" (Matthew 24:6).
Oh no, we need not be troubled, because we look forward to that ultimate day of armistice when Christ stands on the Mount of Olives and declares His unconditional peace terms on a global population that has been conquered by the hosts of heaven, sparing humans from self-annihilation (Zechariah 14:3-5; Revelation 19:11-16).
Read one of those terms: "Neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). Imagine. Yes, just dwell on that for a bit. Think of all the incredible dividends of peace when humanity is forced off the "hamster wheel of war" by the Prince of Peace. It is wonderful to imagine and consider.
God wants us to ponder how different His world will be from ours. Here's some homework for you. Make your own list of millennial peace dividends and let them fill your heart, for God wants us to see ourselves right in "the thick of peace." You might begin by reading Isaiah 11.
Christians should always anticipate that day and hour, much more than the historic meaning of "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month." Prophecy reminds us that while humans alone cannot silence the inclination of their hearts toward war, God can and will do so on that certain day in the future.
As responsible students of prophecy, we need to come to realize that we don't have a date to pin up on the walls of our heart like a Nov. 11, for no one knows the day or hour. But it is infinitely more certain than the false hope of fighting "a war to end all wars."
Until the day and hour of God's choosing, perhaps the best way of leaning forward is to live our lives as soldiers of peace in the service of Christ. We must be soldiers who do not take the circular path of human reasoning, but battle the inner conflicts of their lives, for as James said, wars come from within us!
Perhaps Chief Joseph sets our compass best in the direction of Isaiah 30:21, which prescribes, "This is the way, walk in it." It is a way that comes to a fork in life's road, at which you surrender your will to Jesus Christ, rather than to the way of war, because you have resolved, "…from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."