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The War to End all Wars

World War 1, the end of which we commemorate today, was dubbed the war to end all wars, a title as soaked in irony as it is in blood. The death toll was about 14 million in WW1 and 69 million in WW2. Since WW2, there have been over 30 million deaths in subsequent conflicts world wide.

I was born in the 1960s, a couple of decades after the end of the second world war, when it was still fresh in the collective consciousness. It was my parents’ generation who experienced that great conflict, and my grandparents’ who experienced the one before, the Great War, World War 1, the war to end all wars -- or so it was hoped. As I write this, it’s about a minute to 11 am on Armistice Day, the 11th day of the 11th month and exactly a century since the end of that horrendous conflict. That war, like so many before, was fought in the name of empires and nations, it was about power, and it saw the collapse of elite dynasties and changed the geopolitical landscape. Its distinction was not that the battle was any more or less righteous or necessary or passionate, but that the technology of warfare had arrived at a point where fighting with old methods and new weapons increased the scope for slaughter exponentially. What did we learn? We learnt of the futility and desecration of trench warfare and saw the enormous potential of chemical weapons, an airborne force and submarine attack that would come into their own when an extended array of combatants underwent it all again a mere two decades later. Since then, material and scientific progress has been set against a background of almost continuous conflict; Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen... In 1989 Billy Joel released his song We Didn’t Start the Fire, a catalogue of over a hundred significant world events since his birth in 1949, punctuated by the chorus

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it...

Why is humankind so apparently helpless to restrain its own innate hostility, to fight the fire? Why has the motto of the United Nations, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” been so demonstrably ineffective? Why does this fire of warfare continually burn, what fuels it and why are our best intentions and efforts useless at extinguishing it? The Bible paints a realistic and uncompromising view of humanity. It is not a rose-coloured perspective that sees human beings as generally peace-loving and intrinsically good, with conflict merely the result of political circumstances, inequality and other social evils. To be sure, those factors fuel the fire and start further spot-fires even as other sources of conflict are stamped out. War and conflict arise from the same source as poverty, inequality, power-politics and all forms of oppression. The source of all these evils is the sinful human heart; that’s what started the fire and keeps it burning.

Ever since humans first threw off divine restraint in a defiant grasping for our own moral autonomy, the results have been disastrous. Adam and Eve sought to be like God, determining their own moral framework, deciding for themselves what was good and what was evil. That rebellion is what the Bible calls sin, and it brought death to the human race. Within the very next generation we have the first murder, a fratricide, and a few generations later we see God’s verdict on humanity: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The rest, as they say, is history, including the unspeakable atrocities committed, with disgusting irony, in the name of "religion."

Writing shortly after the time of Jesus, his brother James wrote, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1–2). James was speaking to his fellow Christians, who were, to their shame, behaving no differently from any other human being's default program. This is the source of all conflict, from small scale quarrels within communities to international wars. Greed, coveting the resources of others, the lust for power over peoples and territories and possessions.

What is the solution? The United Nations, diplomacy, sanctions, arms limitations, the international balance of power, aid agencies, social justice movements, humanitarianism? All these things have some value, but can never address the root cause of conflict, the ignition source itself; human sin: because these very institutions are themselves administered by sinful, fallible human beings. The solution is that peace must come from someone or something external to humanity, and the great Peacemaker is God himself. God our Creator could have destroyed humanity because of our evil, but he did not. Despite our rebellion against him and the evil we do to each other, he has determined to provide a solution and to save us, literally, from ourselves. It is a two part solution, and its genius is that it tackles the root cause of war and enmity and will ultimately undo its effects as well. God’s solution is the true War to end all wars, the battle against sin, and it was won decisively two thousand years ago. God himself entered into humanity’s predicament in the person of Jesus Christ, taking the sins of the world upon himself in an ignominious and humiliating death on a cross. The Bible describes this as a battle against sin and the powers of evil in the world, under the leadership of an enigmatic figure termed the devil. The Son of God came as a flesh and blood human like us, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). This victory has already been achieved, although in this interim time between the two great battles of this War, we see it only in the assurance of those who accept the gracious gift of forgiveness in Christ. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?... But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55–57). Those who are Christ’s have been forgiven, have a fresh start and the certain promise of life with God for eternity. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Part two of God’s plan is the return of Jesus Christ, this time not as the suffering Saviour, but as the judge of all the earth, the bringer of justice and the one who will put an end to all conflict and suffering. This will be a swift and decisive victory, culminating in a reversal of the separation between humanity and God. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24–26). By defeating sin and death, Jesus Christ has won the War to end all wars, the very source of enmity, strife and bloodshed, first in the hearts of all who turn to him and ultimately in the restoration of all things. This is, and could only ever be, a work of God himself. The United Nations motto actually comes from the Bible, and the original passage makes clear that it is God, not humanity, who will accomplish peace.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:1–4).

This passage describes the final act in God’s solution to the enmity between people, which in turn stems from our fractured relationship with God. The answer lies not in the efforts of people, however well-meaning and however helpful in the short term at mitigating the effects of evil. Only by addressing the root cause of conflict can true and lasting peace be obtained, and that has to be a divine act. We’re simply incapable of doing it for ourselves. That doesn’t sit well with human pride, of course. Every one of us would prefer to call the shots, be masters of our own destiny, set the agenda according to our own faulty moral compasses. But that will only ever be a battle of competing interests, where the strong dominate and subdue the weak, where some people appear to matter more than others, and conflict only escalates. Only a return to God’s design for humanity will bring true and lasting peace, because only this way has the root cause of all corruption, inequality and conflict been addressed. The War to end all wars must be fought in the human heart, first of all and this is what God in Christ has done. Jesus Christ brought us peace with God, which will ultimately usher in “peace on earth.” “(Luke 2:14; John 16:33; Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20). This is the hope of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ that seems so foolish, so countercultural. But how much more foolish is it to think that weak, sinful human beings can bring an end to hostility by our own efforts. Our track record is hardly inspiring. You can despair, you can retreat into cynicism or pretend to ignore the many problems of the world, or you can join the winning side in the War to end all wars, allow God to conquer your heart and rejoice in the prospect of the final Armistice (Revelation 21:3–5).

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And him (Jesus) who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”

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