Peace then - Bible Society

Peace then

'Everyone suddenly burst out singing.'

It's the first line of a poem by Siegfried Sassoon on the end of the First World War, writes the Revd Mark Woods, editor of Christian Today.

And it must have been a bit like that. It had been the bloodiest conflict in human history, a deadly, agonising, bewildering struggle that looked as though it would never end: and now it was over. There would be no more killing.

But aside from that overwhelming feeling of relief, what were people thinking? There was a huge satisfaction at the victory that had been won against a great evil. There was a sense of vindication – the sacrifices they'd made had been worth it. And there was hope – Lloyd George, the prime minister, said just a fortnight after the Armistice, on November 24, 1918, that he wanted to make Britain 'a fit country for heroes to live in'. There would be homes, jobs and healthcare for all.

It didn't work out quite like that. Hard on the heels of the Armistice came the deadly Spanish Influenza outbreak that killed a quarter of a million people in Britain, and worldwide as many as 100 million. Political obstructionism and the Great Depression put paid to Lloyd George's heroic reforms. And just 20 years later, a new war – more terrible even than the first – was to plunge the world into fire and bloodshed again.

But for now, there was peace: a great trial passed, and a sense of hope for the future.

It's sometimes imagined that the First World War dealt a mighty blow to the nation's faith in God, as the bereavements and the traumas caused millions to question their faith. That's not what the evidence says: in his book on the impact of the war on religion, Faith in Conflict – based on his PhD thesis – Stuart Bell finds it was very limited. Churchgoing actually rose after the war. People continued to read their Bibles. They still believed, and the Scriptures continued to speak to them.

One way in which this reliance on the Bible shows itself is in how it was used at the saddest moments of all, the memorial services for the dead. In his book, Bell includes one of these orders, for Lieut. Hugh Valentine Gamble, a Scoutmaster and Boys' Brigade leader who died at Arras on May 3, 1917. It's soaked in Scripture. Psalm 130 was read, which begins 'Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord' and ends with an expression of faith, speaking of the Lord's 'unfailing love'. Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my shepherd' followed, which speaks of God being present in 'the valley of the shadow of death'. Later in the service there is John 14, in which Jesus says there are many rooms in his father's house and promises his followers will be with him there. Readings from Revelation speak of the martyrdom of faithful believers and of the glorious future to come.

The war was a tragedy, made up not just of the millions of personal sorrows, but of the breaking of a continent and the failure of a civilization. But what's surprising – and deeply moving – is not how much was lost, but how much was preserved. Many people had the spiritual strength to resolve to make a new, better world. They looked forward to God's future. There was a great desire for social change, with that divine future brought into the human present. Many of those who'd served, at home or on the battlefield, found the lessons of comradeship and self-sacrifice they'd learned stayed  with them and shaped the rest of their lives.

Revelation 21:4 says,

'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'

At the end of the war there was just a glimpse of what that felt like, before the shadows closed in again.

Siegfried Sassoon's poem ends:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

One day, Christians believe, this will be true.

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