Canadian churches and World War I

Canadian war graves at Vimy, France
Canadian war graves at Vimy, France

Canada followed Great Britain into war with Germany and its allied powers 100 years ago this week. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, most of British descent, enlisted either voluntarily or due to prevailing social pressures. By 1917, however, others had to be conscripted by the wartime government. Canada had a population of five million at the time. By war’s end 420,000 Canadians had served in the military overseas and 60,000 of them died. Author and historian Gwynne Dyer says that loss of life would be comparable to Canada’s losing one million dead in the recent war in Afghanistan.

In a commemorative ceremony held at the War Museum in Ottawa, the Prime Minister has celebrated the sacrifice of those who went off to fight in the trenches in 1914. This is a quote from his speech: “Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity. For a century, these are the things for which our fellow citizens fought. And this is the ground on which we will always take our stand.”

Unfortunately, this is not true, at least not as applied to the First World War. It was not a war for justice, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a war about the competing empires of Europe and the arrogant stupidity of the monarchs and rulers of the day. Their bungling led to the death of 17 million people and the wounding of 20 million others. That is a number roughly equal to the entire population of Canada today.

War from the pulpit

I mentioned above the social pressure exerted upon young Canadian men to enlist in 1914 and the following years. That pressure came from every corner, including the pulpit at a time when churches were more powerful forces in society than they are today. One of those preachers – and among the most extreme — was Rev. Thomas Todhunter Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a fiery orator who championed all things British and had little tolerance for liberal Protestantism, Catholics or French Canadians. Early in 1915, as the war dragged on, Shields preached a series of sermons, using scripture to demonize the Germans and to exhort Canadians to enlist and fight.

What follows here are excerpts from his sermon of February 21, 1915. He called it, “The Kaiser and Beelzebub” – comparing the German Kaiser to a “mad dog” and to the devil.


I must tell you plainly that I am not now and never have been a pacifist. In respect to my British citizenship, the perpetual clanking of the Kaiser’s sword forbade the intellectual somnolence essential to sweet dream of peace; and in respect those deeper considerations which concern the prime source of all human envy, and jealousy, and strife, I never have been able, and am not now able, to see how war can be banished from the earth while anywhere in the universe “the strong man armed keepeth his palace.” The Kaiser and Beelzebub, and they are not unrelated, forbid my crossing out of my Bible this word of Him with Whom they both are at war. “And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”  . . .

Satan is more than a religious philosophical abstraction . . . the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . .

You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power.

Oh, we all have failed here. We have argued with the devil: we have made speeches to principalities and powers! Young men, you have parleyed with the wolves of hell, with the devil’s dogs of war. You have thought to match the devil with diplomacy! Your only safety is in fighting!

In this moral and spiritual warfare Paul was no pacifist. He did not recommend disarmament. He said, “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is no other way.

And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness . . . Take Christ and He will clothe you with Himself, His righteousness, and truth, and peace, and faith. The strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods are in peace only until a stronger than he cometh upon him. Satan has beaten everybody but Christ. He is our only hope in this war. “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Source: Revelations of the War: Eight Sermons, T.T. Shields. Toronto: the Standard Publishing Co.1915).

War as tragic folly

The First World War is best understood as tragic folly. It is easier to argue on behalf of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, when justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law were much more arguably at stake. Sadly, that same list of worthy attributes cannot be used to describe our participation in most other wars of the past century – the Boer War, the Korean War and that in Afghanistan.

One does not have to be a pacifist to be reluctant, very reluctant, to support wars foisted upon us by leaders who are vainglorious and corrupt.


Canada’s war in Afghanistan

Canadian soldiers firing artillery in Afghanistan, Courtesy Creative Commons
Canadian soldiers firing artillery in Afghanistan, Courtesy Creative Commons

The long war in Afghanistan has receded from our attention, but as we  prepare to pull our last troops out the media spin cycle has been renewed due to an article published in the Canadian Military Journal (CMJ) by Sean Maloney. He teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada and is an historical advisor to the Canadian Army for Afghanistan. He has been there numerous times. Maloney writes, rather bitterly, about being invited in 2012 to give a presentation at the University of Manitoba about Canadian operations in Afghanistan. He says that his audience was uninformed but convinced of a common idea or “meme,” which he says is  “a creation of the media and their fellow travelers, the pollsters.”  It goes as follows:  “Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan resulted in dead Canadians and the expenditure of lots of taxpayer money. There hasn’t been any real progress made. Canada withdrew in 2011. It wasn’t worth it.” Maloney is critical of the media (and the political opposition) for what he describes as their focus on the body count of Canadian soldiers “as a measurement of effectiveness.”

He believes in the war and says that the “crippling and discrediting of the al Qaeda movement was worth the effort alone.” He also writes, albeit briefly, about social development and the building of infrastructure in Afghanistan.

Acerbic Glavin

Writing in the National Post, the always acerbic Terry Glavin quickly took up Maloney’s case, talking about the “outright malpractice” of the Toronto media, as well as the “fop intellectuals” who he says have dominated the Afghan debate.  Glavin, in an earlier article he wrote, without specifically sourcing his material, said that in the past decade,  “Afghanistan has exhibited the fastest upward pace in the United Nations’ Development Index . . . ” Also, he referred to statistics that purportedly show that individual Afghans have a positive attitude toward the UN/NATO effort.

Sceptical Saunders

The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders , however, holds a contrary view. He agrees that “we did kick al Qaeda out” but doubts the claims of continued military and civic progress. For example, Saunders says that military leaders claim that life expectancy has improved markedly over the past decade, but he quotes the CIA’s own figures that appear to contradict those proclamations.  He also cites a poll that indicates that Afghans “overwhelmingly favour the Taliban over NATO forces and their own chosen government.”  Needless to say, the debate continues.

Counting the costs

Despite Mr. Maloney’s chiding, it is indeed well worth discussing the war’s human and economic costs. Our government would not release financial estimates, but former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page said in 2008 that the total cost would be between $14 and $18 billion by 2011. A more recent independent estimate has placed the cost at more than $22 billion.

In total, as many as 45,000 people have died as a result of the war in Afghanistan, according to 2011 estimates. Canada and its military allies record their own fatalities, but not — at least publicly — the deaths of Afghans, particularly civilians. The UN reports that between 2006 and 2012, alone, 16,000 Afghan civilians died. And about 3,400 allied soldiers perished in the country between 2001 and 2014 — of these, 158 were Canadians. In addition, seven Canadian civilians have died — the most recent being two accountants, who were killed in a bomb blast in a Kabul restaurant in February.

We should probably add to this the burgeoning number of suicides by Canadian Forces members who had served in Afghanistan, and the mental health services that may be needed for thousands of soldiers who cycled through tours of duty there. Finally, none of this accounts for the people injured but not killed, the damage to infrastructure and the countless explosive devices that will lurk in the earth for decades to come.

Your thoughts?

So was Canada’s war in Afghanistan really worth it? I would say no. What do you think?

This article was published in a slightly shorter format on the United Church Observer blog on February 13, 2014.

PeaceQuest on Canada’s wars

Mother Canada at the Vimy memorial in France
Mother Canada at the Vimy memorial in France

A government that recently spent millions of dollars memorializing the War of 1812 plans to spend much more, commemorating the centennial of the First World War and re-dedicating the National War Memorial.

But while those plans are being made to celebrate militarized patriotism, a group called PeaceQuest is busy offering a counter-narrative to war, talking about re-dedicating the Peace Tower — which rises above the Parliament building — and celebrating the yearning for peace that runs through Canada’s history and psyche.

Originating in Kingston, Ont. and with a chapter in Ottawa, PeaceQuest plans to spread to other cities and towns. One of those involved in Jamie Swift, who works in Kingston for a religious order, The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and is the co-author of a well-received book, called Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.

Says Swift: “The government will use anniversaries of the First World War and Vimy Ridge to extend its narrative about our nation being forged in fire and coming of age through those military events. We view them as a tragedy and not as a great stepping stone to Canadian nationhood.”

PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. “We are more attracted to the politics of proposition,” Swift says. “What we want to do is engage in more of a cultural project that looks at our country in broader terms than its military history. Polling consistently shows that Canadian have a deep attachment to peace and to our reputation as peace keepers and peacemakers.”

Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization to which other groups and individuals would belong: “We want to organize around themes that a variety of groups could support in their own ways. In Kingston, we are organized around several streams, including faith, education and culture. For example, we know that the peace theme is central to the Catholic mass and in the religious services of other Christian churches, mosques and synagogues.”

The cultural stream is also important.  “There is a lot going on in theatre and literature and music that deals with peace,” Swift adds. He mentions a book, called The Glorious Art of Peace, by author John Gittings and a film called Joyeux Noël, which explains how on Christmas Eve 1914, German and Allied soldiers spontaneously laid down their guns and embraced the men in trenches across the way – an unplanned moment of humanity in an otherwise brutal war.

Canadians and their media love celebrating anniversaries, and the government will use that interest to promote its warrior nation agenda. PeaceQuest, on the other hand, will use those same anniversaries to tap into something more profound.

“War is a tragedy,” says Swift, “but we also want people to consider how they can live in peace with each other in their families and communities, and finally among nations.”

This article was published on the United Church Observer blog on November 13, 2013.

Department of Peace moves forward

 A proposal that the Canadian government establish a Department of Peace has taken a step forward. Alex Atamanenko, the NDP Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior, tabled a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons on November 30 that could, if adopted, lead to the creation of such a department complete with its own minister at the cabinet table. The bill, which was co-seconded by Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, is a slightly amended version of one introduced into the last parliament by retired NDP MP, Bill Siksay. Continue reading Department of Peace moves forward

Murray Thomson book excerpt from Pulpit and Politics

Murray Thomson (Koozma Tarasoff photo)

A number of Canadian newspapers have carried an excerpt from my new book Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life. I was asked to choose the excerpt to be used and decided upon a piece that I had written about Murray Thomson, a Quaker and pacifist who was, in his youth, an air force pilot. He says that he became a pacifist on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I believe it is especially appropriate as we approach Remembrance Day.  Thomson, who is in his 80s, lives in Ottawa. He has not been well recently and I wish him all the best. You can read the excerpt by clicking HERE:

Oscar Arias decries militarism in Carleton University speech

By Dennis Gruending

Óscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, was recently awarded an honourary degree by Carleton University in Ottawa. Arias used his 30-minute acceptance speech to deliver an impassioned message about the urgency of shifting out-of-control military spending into investments for peace and human development. He made his appeal on behalf of the world’s children, many of whom have “lives defined by landmarks such as tanks and missiles, mass graves and refugee shelters.” While most children in wealthy countries do not experience the realities of war first hand, they, too, are affected, Arias said. “For even the children of wealthy nations are learning lessons of violence from their parents and grandparents. Even they are being taught, by their governments and newspapers and schools, that violent conflict is an inevitable part of their nations’ existence.”

Continue reading Oscar Arias decries militarism in Carleton University speech