In 1914, one hundred years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his expedition became trapped in the Antarctic ice floes. When they lost contact with the outside world, the First World War had just erupted. Shackleton, like virtually all others, expected World War I to end quickly and decisively. Upon finally arriving at South Georgia Island a year and a half later, he asked, “Tell me, when was the war over?”
The man to whom Shackleton spoke looked at him in amazement and said, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”
It came to be called “the Great War,” but great is no compliment. Rather, it means utter, comprehensive, total. Writer G.J. Meyer says of combatant nations in the First World War, “They threw everything they had—their people, their production capabilities, all the wealth accumulated over generations of industrial development—into the effort to destroy one another.”
When the war began, men still charged into battle with sabers on horseback. By the time it ended, legions of fighter airplanes filled the sky. Chemical weapons had been invented and used with lethal success. Armored tanks had made trenches obsolete.
The Second World War killed more people and had greater individual villains, but it was the First World War which redefined everything modern people understood about life. Politics, literature, art, and, of course, religion shifted seismically. In each of these fields, some version of the question was asked, “What does it say about humanity, and what does it say about God, when the world’s energy can so casually be directed toward its own annihilation?”
In various ways, we’ve been posing that question for a century now. It influences our philosophical musings to be sure, but it also affects us in the most concrete and tangible ways. For instance, the present turmoil in the Middle East finds its roots not primarily in the re-creation of Israel after World War II, but rather in the colonial partitioning of the entire region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. We live with the aftermath of World War I every day of our lives, even when we scarcely realize it.
The crucifixion window at the south end of Christ Church Cathedral commemorates those who fought in World War I. Standing at the foot of the cross are a doughboy soldier, a sailor, a Red Cross nurse, and a USO volunteer. At times when I walk past the window, I pause and ponder the events of a century ago, when British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey looked out his office window onto the dusky London street and said through his tears, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
The century mark is a good time to ask: Have we re-lit the lamps of hope and grace in our world? How brightly do they shine?