Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Wrestling with God

It is commonly accepted that the one of the casualties of the First World War was belief in God.  By the second year of the war, the British public was growing to resent Church of England clergy who supported the war and encouraged others to enlist while they remained safe in their pulpits.
The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, was one of the most enthusiastic war promoters, and his hatred of Germany was so vociferous that even Prime Minister Asquith described the bishop’s rhetoric as “jingoism of the shallowest kind.”

However, approximately 3,000 of the 25,000 Church of England clergy did enlist and accompany troops to the front as military chaplains; they were likely as diverse as the men they served.  Some were scorned, others were loved.  Robert Graves, in his memoir Goodbye to All That, accused Anglican chaplains of being cowardly and out-of-touch, while other soldiers wrote admiringly of regimental chaplains who not only lived with their men, but risked everything to go “over the top” with their units and assist with the wounded.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was one of the beloved chaplains of the war, known to the troops as Woodbine Willy for his habit of offering cigarettes to the men in his care. Serving in France from December of 1915 until 1919, Studdert Kennedy was also a war poet.  His writings frequently grapple with doubts and questions as he attempts to distinguish between clichés of faith and an authentic spirituality.

As the war dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to see the presence of a loving God in the relentless suffering and death. But unlike other war poets who criticized and dismissed the Christian faith as an empty sham, Studdert Kennedy, like Jacob, wrestled with his God for answers that could stand up under harsh scrutiny.

His poem “Solomon in All His Glory” alludes to the brevity of human life, while affirming the dignity and beauty of each individual’s sacrifice that breaks the heart of God.

Solomon in All His Glory

Still I see them coming, coming,
In their ragged broken line,
Walking wounded in the sunlight,
Wounded at the Somme, 1916
Clothed in majesty divine.

For the fairest of the lilies,
That God's summer ever sees,
Ne'er was clothed in royal beauty
Such as decks the least of these.

Tattered, torn, and bloody khaki,
Gleams of white flesh in the sun,
Raiment worthy of their beauty,
And the great things they have done.

Purple robes and snowy linen
Have for earthly kings sufficed,
But these bloody sweaty tatters
Were the robes of Jesus Christ.
--GA Studdert Kennedy

The poem gazes unflinchingly at the suffering of the men at the front: “Still I see them coming, coming.” It bleakly catalogues the bloody wounds, the torn uniforms, and the immensity of misery as evidenced by the ragged line of walking wounded that stretches out of sight.  And yet the poem also dares to speak of beauty and glory.

Sacrifice Charles Sims © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5581)
The war itself is neither beautiful nor glorious; however, the poem honours the men who have been caught up in it, its sacrificial victims. Their endurance in the face of unimaginable horrors transforms their suffering into something to be reverenced. The ugliness they have witnessed makes even the least of them “fairer than summer lilies.” As well, the poem subversively contrasts the wounded soldiers with the men of power and privilege who have ordered and organized the war.  The muddy brown khaki of the foot soldiers’ ragged uniforms is not transformed into snowy linen; their bloodstained and filthy garments put to shame the distant authorities who deck themselves in royal robes and snowy linen.

In his 1918 book The Hardest Part, Studdert Kennedy wrote, “Beside the wounded tattered soldier who totters down to this dressing station with one arm hanging loose, an earthly king in all his glory looks paltry and absurd.” In their agony, the injured men become Christ-like. They, too, are suffering servants, willing to lay down their lives for others, and in this act, they surpass in both beauty and virtue the kings and bishops who live in a sanitized world distant from the agonies of trench warfare.  The poem whispers that each soldier’s sacrifice is as precious in the sight of God as the death of his only son.

Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, states, “The sacrificial theme, in which each soldier becomes a type of the crucified Christ, is at the heart of countless Great War poems” (119). Many modern readers have dismissed such comparisons between soldiers and Christ as a religious cliché that was used both as an emotional crutch and as a propaganda tool. However, Dr. Michael Snape, Professor of Anglican Studies at Durham University cautions,

"We have a tendency to be condescending about our forebears. We're tempted to think we are cleverer than they were. Their religious beliefs seem to be part of their fateful and fatal naivety. But we shouldn't be so willing 100 years after the event to muscle in with our own interpretations of the war, to impose our standards and reactions on them."

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was forever changed by his experience at the front.  The war converted the military chaplain to pacifism, and in his 1923 book The Wicket Gate,  he wrote,

“for God, under any provocation whatsoever, hatred is impossible. He simply cannot hate. Nothing justifies it, not even this Crucifixion. This is the Goodness that would bring us back to realities. Nine-tenths of our wars and battles are fought in the land of dreams, with unreal people and unreal nations, which our hatred and our fear create. Germany hates and fears a monster called Britain, which does not exist; and Britain retaliates by hating and fearing an equally unreal Germany.”

Nearly one-hundred years later, his words are more relevant than ever; he cautions us against the temptation to demonize our enemies as we shape their identities out of our own hatred and fear. Studdert Kennedy’s poem “Solomon in All His Glory” continues to remind us of the sobering cost of war etched in the faces of wounded men as still we “see them coming, coming/ In their ragged broken line.”

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy


  1. 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend' (Wilfred Owen)

  2. Perfect Owen quotation in response - thanks for sharing.