Schansberg: ‘Winning’ a War

June 27, 2019

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

The year is 1943. America has entered World War II in full force and Germany is on the defensive. In the minds of many, the war was all but won. But what would we do with the victory? “In The Year of our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis,” Alan Jacobs describes the work of five prominent Christian thinkers: Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden — on this question.

Why were we fighting? The question was simple if we focused on what we were fighting against: the Germans and the Japanese. But what were we fighting for? What way of life were we trying to preserve? Protecting consumerism, American Civil Religion, libertine immorality, virulent racism and so on — all prominent features of American culture. Were these worth the sacrifice? The Western democracies would win the war, but might also “lose the peace.”

Initially immersed in relativism, Auden asked how we could demand or even expect a humanistic response. “Even granted the evil of Hitler . . . How righteous is our cause? And if it is righteous, what makes it so?” He couldn’t answer the question well without a reference to Christian faith. His conclusion: “Only an appeal to something eternal, absolute, and good . . . would permit one to answer the Nazis.”

But religion had played a big part in getting Europe to this point. Churches had often been complicit in the rise of nasty forms of nationalism — by compromising with secularism and patriotism. These Christian thinkers were convinced that Europe’s troubles stemmed from a gradual erosion of focus and unity in religion. As such, they saw the primary solution as reversing these causes.

At the end of his book, Jacobs uses Jacques Ellul’s work and two key German phrases: Nachkriegzeit (“the night after the war”) and Stunde Null (“zero hour”) to revisit the relevant questions. “What does faithful presence look like at the moment the clocks are all reset?”

Some Christians would choose an insular approach to building up the church. Some turned to politics — reaching for powerful mechanisms of social gospel and political change. For Ellul, neither approach was valid. “There is certainly nothing wrong with the United Nations, and prefabricated housing can be useful indeed. But the world does not need Christians to say so . . . the first and most vital task of Christians in time of war was prayer.”

In contrast to Jacobs’ five thinkers, Reinhold Neibuhr advocated a more political approach. He was worried about the temptations and other costs within political activity. And he didn’t imagine politics in utopian terms. But ultimately, he saw a low priority on politics as unrealistic and impractical.

This debate occurred in a time when faith in government activism was high. Neibuhr’s optimism is more understandable in the post-war era. Now, such a position is far more difficult to hold on pragmatic grounds.

Of course, these are not simply questions for the West after World War II. In our time, with cultural Christianity fading, changing social norms, and less access to power in political realms, what is the best way for the Church to move forward? Should we double down on old strategies or put a renewed emphasis on discipleship with Jesus and loving one’s neighbor?

In his review of Jacobs’ book in Harpers, Christopher Beha asks today’s Democrats — or really, those who define themselves largely as opponents of Trump or the GOP — what they will do if they “win the war”? The answer for them — and for most in the GOP in their opposition to Democrats — is not particularly clear. Politicians and partisans seem more interested in winning “the war” than doing anything with “the peace” that they strive to win.

What do you do when you gain power and win the war? Beha and Jacobs come to similar conclusions about the most effective engagement with the culture. It’s not through politics, media, and the battles at the intersection. Rather, it’s in purposeful lives and robust community that impact people one life at a time.

Eric Schansberg is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast and an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review.


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