Looking for Mrs. Miniver
Rod Dreher on Clerical Pacifism
I have been deeply concerned with how Christians in America will handle the war against terror. We do not withstand jihad with the songs “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Gift of Finest Wheat.” I recall being in Holland on Christmas Eve one year, days before the Gulf War began. Though not Catholic at the time, or even seriously religious, I went to Midnight Mass with my friends (that was the only time they went to Mass all year). I don’t speak Dutch, but they sang two English hymns, if that’s the right word. One was John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas (War Is Over).” The other was a pacifist ditty from the World War II era, which contained the line, “Please Mr. Churchill, don’t send us off to war. . . .”
After Mass, my friends asked me what I thought. I struggled for something to say. All I could manage was, “Well, I don’t think those hymns are what got you all through the Nazi occupation.”
When the war in Afghanistan started in October 2001, my wife was deathly afraid of what would happen to us here in New York (we weren’t even a full month past the traumatic events of September 11). A friend recommended that she rent Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 film in which Greer Garson played an upper-class Englishwoman keeping a stiff upper lip on the homefront during the Second World War. Churchill famously said that that inspirational film was more important to Britain’s war effort than a fleet of destroyers. It rallied my wife’s spirits on our Brooklyn homefront, too, that fall—in particular, the vicar’s climactic sermon, delivered in a half-destroyed village church.
“This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform,” the vicar preached.
The congregation responded by singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
An Ancient Enemy
Can you imagine a sermon like that being given in an American church today? Can you imagine singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”? On the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I found myself in Trinity Church, Wall Street, listening to a sermon given by George Carey, then the archbishop of Canterbury. The distance between his pulpit and the site of mass murder committed by Islamic fanatics could have been measured in yards.
Dr. Carey began with some moving and heartfelt remarks about the suffering New York City had undergone, but then moved into delicate oratory urging the American people to resist the urge to seek “revenge” upon their enemies. This was a thinly veiled reference to the coming war with Iraq, which has been much criticized by Catholic and Anglican bishops on both sides of the Atlantic, and even by the Vatican.
He stopped short of telling the congregation that the United States ought not fight this war; he only asked for prayers for our leaders as they deliberate on this matter. Still, his remarks were disheartening. The West—which used to be called Christendom—is facing its ancient enemy in a new and unfamiliar guise, and perhaps armed with chemical, biological, and, God forbid, nuclear weapons.
The people of my city watched as these Muslim fanatics destroyed two towers and 3,000 lives in one morning. We smelled the sickly-sweet aroma of burning human flesh for days and heard the mournful sound of bagpipes at firemen’s funerals for months. Even today, we live with the knowledge that our city will always be a top target for Islamic terrorists, that they would cut our children’s throats in their beds in a heartbeat if they had the chance, and the acute realization, born of experience, that everything could be taken from us in a single morning.
And all the leader of the Anglican Communion had to say about this horrible state of affairs when he came to speak to us was “Be nice about it.” I oversimplify, but that’s how his sermon struck me, and it left me in a sour mood. Of course, a Christian must be careful not to seek vengeance, but what of justice? What of self-defense? Worse, I know that if almost any bishop of my own church, even the bishop of Rome, had been present, he would have said more or less the same thing.
I wrote an essay for National Review Online the next day, bemoaning pacifism in the pulpit. Christians from coast to coast quickly filled my e-mail box with complaints about their pastors preaching pacifism, defeatism, and even blame-America-first-ism from the pulpit during the September 11 commemorative services.
We have come very far from Mrs. Miniver’s vicar—but perhaps not so very far from Mrs. Miniver. Happily, two readers living in separate parts of the country reported that their own congregations responded to these repulsive homilies by singing impromptu versions of, respectively, “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA.” In the face of such clerical decadence, Vox populi, vox Dei doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
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