Peter Stood and Warmed Himself

THE high explosive shell, fashioned, filled, and fired by the Reverend Joseph H. Odell, in the February Atlantic, has filled the land with reverberations. It is a courageous, manly, and sincere explosion of the pent-up feelings of an indignant patriot. The shock of it tumbled me into my dug-out and left me speechless, my brain reeling with the vivid images of his graphic pen, with the piercing denunciations of his prophetic voice. All honor to him for his utterance.

After a time the shock passed, and I put on my gas-mask and ventured forth to look upon the ruins. Ruins were abundant. Neutrality and pacifism were withered to dust and ashes. Complacency was powdered to atoms. Denominationalism was flattened into a pulp. German theology was hurled into a leper colony, and, like Judas, went to its own place. The tribal god of the high places of Potsdam, disguised as the Lord God of Christianity, was shorn of its mask, and the label ‘ Made in Germany ’ revealed the Moloch, made in the image of the Kaiser, reveling in human sacrifices.

Upon looking further, I found that some of the targets at which the shell was aimed were still standing — somewhat powder-marked and splinter-incrusted, but decidedly undemolished. We can discern their outlines, and it becomes a duty to pierce the smoke of the explosion and discover what has not been destroyed.

Actual shells are no respecters of persons or things. The glory of Rheims has become the spiritual heritage of memory, because in destroying the military asset of its high towers, the German shells ruined its age-long splendor. But explosions of human wrath may be more discriminating, and it is but justice to Dr. Odell to affirm that he undoubtedly had no intention of uprooting the whole structure, the faults of which he assails. To use his words, his ‘volcanic eruption’ has poured molten lava upon certain institutions and has left no vestige; but in the process he has buried other institutions in cold ashes. We may dig them out.

Peter, the symbol of the ministry? Sitting by a fire and hugging the comfortable delusion of security? Trapped by a casual feminine inquiry which would have ended his career? Not so Peter! Peter stood. St. John says so. Involved in the stupendous tragedy of God incarnate, who had brought the dead to life, being hurried to a trial, of which even St. Peter could not know the outcome; confused by the calamities and obscurities and perplexities of the passing hour, Peter, the rock man, stood, awaiting the message, the direction, the mission, that was to be his. The maid who asked the question of him was but the unsubstantial shadow of an unreal world, compared with the question, — ‘And thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth?’—a question asked by conscience, not of the reality of his physical companionship, but of the verity of his special discipleship.

Peter, resistant, as poor human nature often is, thrust aside for a moment the outer and less important implication of the situation, made it a matter of inner struggle and sacrifice, then surrendered to the light and leading of it all, and went out and wept bitterly. They were tears of consecration, and the man who stood, during the struggle, weighing its issues, not acquiescent and yet not sure of the trend of it, that man, so human and more to be trusted because of his period of uncertainty, went forth to his martyrdom. If St. Peter, as he stood there, had shown a foreknowledge of the events, if he had seemed an object of divine assurance which would have made his struggle less keen, we should not have respected his experience. The clergy at this time, having stood, with Peter, are now exemplifying his boldness.

The clergy to-day have a serious task. This is a day of false alarms. Street-corner orators vent their spleen upon every institution of mankind, hurling invectives at the educational, commercial, and religious granaries in which is stored the wealth of the labor of ages; reviling the granaries which these orators themselves did not by constructive effort help to fill, while having no further foundation for their vituperation than the soap-boxes which they did not help to empty. Political parties and newspapers raise clouds of dust by their cunning manoeuvres, both in the hope that the public vision will be clouded thereby, and also in the hope that their crocodile tears of lamentation will turn the dust to mud with which to besmirch those whom they would destroy. Amid the public turmoil stand the clergy, representing a higher order of things. Realizing the moral weight of their collective judgment, every partisan would invoke them, as Balak invoked Balaam of old, to curse his enemies. But the clergy are not to be convinced by clamor.

Who are these men, the clergy? Are they all fiery-tongued orators, saturated with the wisdom of the ages, commanding and swaying vast assemblages of people? Are they luxurious and isolated devotees of idle reflection, reveling in the psychological and spiritual joys of meditation in a garden sheltered by high walls from the turmoil without? They are neither. The clergy to-day are hard-working, underpaid, long-suffering plodders, living lives of sacrifice in every corner of the land, and sharing the lesser fragments of the crusts that fall from the wealth of our prosperity. With every conceivable obstacle in their paths, in the midst of a movie-crazed public, and a golfdistracted and motor-mad society, they do their duty humbly and quietly. They have no sufficient organ for concentrating public attention, for the people will not come to their churches, and the newspapers, while giving two columns to a prize-fight, would dismiss Isaiah himself in ten lines, unless he was ‘good stuff’ and would get a column as an eccentricity.

In spite of this fact, the clergy are a vast influence. For generations they have kept alight the beacons that point the path to human progress and happiness and duty. While you, half parent, were foozling that drive on the golf course, of a Sunday, or washing your car, or devouring the Sunday paper, in utter oblivion of the fact that you are a rank slacker and a parasite feeding upon the construction work of other men, and belittling their work so that you might take a minute’s comfort to your own beggarly soul, the clergy are taking the other half of your parental duty and are trying to teach your children a few principles which may later make you take a false pride in the kind of boy or girl you assume that you have brought up.

It has not been the example of the worldlings which has inspired the flower of this nation to offer themselves for service overseas, but it has been the churches and the clergy, with the remnant of devoted laity who are an honor to themselves and our race, who have built the foundations of justice, patriotism, righteousness, and truth into the fabric of rising manhood. The church boys went to war, at the call. It was not our Christian young manhood that was lashed into the war with the draft. Better than a thousand invectives has been the steady untiring teaching of the clergy.

And do we say that the moral leadership of the church and its healing leadership have been turned over to lay organizations, the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Cross? Bless my soul! Is a layman a pagan? an unconverted heathen? a mercenary? Are laymen so much raw material, whose Christian excellence is crowned only when they are ordained? Are we committed to some monarchical theory of the Church, which is represented only when its entitled officers conduct affairs? Is not every Christian layman, in the Y.M.C.A. or the Red Cross, demonstrating the spiritual supremacy of the leadership of the Church?

The Church does not consist of the clergy alone. Clergy and people are the spiritual entity called the Church. I know that we are afflicted with the plague of 168 denominations. Were it not so, however, and were we one great body, and were the whole religious and healing functions of war created by our fiat, could we more effectively conduct our responsibility than by creating these agencies of the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Cross, in which every willing worker could express his Christian manhood and satisfy his desire for service of God and man, whether or not he was part of our hypothetical one Church?

Has not the Church done its part? Countless men high in the Church have rushed to service. The service flags in our churches proclaim the militant quality of our Christian manhood. I have seen a bishop in the uniform of the Red Cross, and he has been in France, too. But who really represents the Church to-day in France? The elderly lady in the next pew will say that it is being represented by the spiritual service of the Y.M.C.A., and the zealous roller of bandages will think of the Red Cross as expressive of the compassion of the Church. But, thank God, the Church has another representative in France to-day. The complete representative of the American Church in France is the United States Army overseas. Yes, an army, with its cannon and rifles and machine-guns and its instruments of destruction. The Church militant, sent, morally equipped, strengthened and encouraged, approved and blessed, by the Church at home. The army today is the Church in action, transforming the will of the Church into deeds, expressing the moral judgment of the Church in smashing blows. Its worship has its vigil in the trenches, and its fasts and feasts; its prayers are in acts, and its choir is the crash of cannon and the thrilling ripple of machine-guns, swelling into a tornado of persuasive appeal to a nation to remember the truth, ‘The soul (or nation) that sinneth, it shall die.’ Our army is preaching the sermon of the American Church to Germany.

A priest or parson may think himself better equipped to serve in the noble ranks of our Y.M.C.A. or Red Cross, but the priest or parson who goes across to-day is fortified by his ordination and its vows, by all the moral sanctions of his calling, in his possible choice of going into the trenches with his rifle in his hand. If the army of the Stars and Stripes is not the army of the Church of God; if the army bent upon destroying the fiendish rule of criminal conspiracy against mankind is not the army of the Church whose teachings and labors for years have formed the judgments and character of those who fight, then indeed the world is chaos and God is dead.

Has the Church spoken in words as well as deeds? Do you think, Mr. Odell, that if the Church as a whole had opposed war, or had sat by the fire warming itself, the nation could have put an army overseas without draft riots? No. From the beginning the Church has been patriotic and loyal. It would not embarrass the government, if it could have done so, by saying that this is a holy war, and we will take charge of it. Merely to state the case is to show how futile is such an attitude. Before even the government, with its vast responsibility for the consequences of its acts, and with the burden of ‘carrying on’ when its decision was taken — before even the government could see its path plain, the Church prepared the national mind for the inevitable decision of the government. While neutral in act, the Church was not neutral in thought and judgment. Neutrality in thought was immoral. No power on earth could have silenced the thousands of voices that arose from Christian pulpits. Peter shook himself from his reflections and made the halls ring with his words.

It would have been more melodramatic to have had one commanding figure, like another Peter of the Crusades, command the national attention and point the moral issues involved in the lid blowing off Hell through the line of least resistance at Berlin, but it was more effective to have a hundred thousand spokesmen prepare the nation for the task. It would have been spectacular for John D. Rockefeller to have floated the first Liberty Loan single-handed, and it would have made him more popular, but it would not have helped to raise the second loan.

And the clergy and the Church of our nation spoke, and spoke with power. Hot, flaying, excoriating, scarifying words of righteous indignation and anger have been poured forth from our pulpits. Rousing and enkindling appeals have started the people from their stunned complacency. I have heard many of them. Even before the United States declared war the words were uttered. Like a widely distributed rainfall they did not make a local flood but they fed wide areas and brought forth enormous crops. The Red Cross and the Y.M.C.A. were the immediate result, but the Church in France, in the trenches, was their ultimate aim.

The clergy spoke and spoke plainly. I wish it were possible for Mr. Odell to have every war sermon preached by the clergy, with the date of its delivery. There was a deluge. No one man, no matter how eloquent, could have produced the smallest fraction of the result that the thousands of clergy produced in interpreting the deeper issues of the war. Even the government declined the services of the most militant figure in America, in favor of a widespread military effort that would embrace the rising tide of the modern crusading spirit.

Have conventions spoken! Here is a resolution of one ecclesiastical gathering, which passed with a shout: —

Resolved, That this Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Ohio declares its conviction that the United States has entered into the War under the compulsion of every motive of patriotism and humanity. On the one side were the forces that seek to impose upon the whole world the will of a false, cruel, detestable autocracy; on the other side were the forces of democracy, fighting for our own liberty not less than theirs. It is our conviction that, had we remained neutral, we should have been contemptible even in our own eyes, as a people too selfish and cowardly to bear our part with the democratic peoples of Europe who have fought so long, and so gloriously, and at such vast cost, for everything that is dear to us as a free nation.

The Church has many problems. It is honeycombed with individualism and imperiled by divisions. It must work out its own salvation. But when it comes to issues of right and wrong, the Church takes its place with right. The Church in our land stands, — as Peter stood of old, — first, to let conscience speak and to struggle against the instincts of peaceful habits, and then it goes, sword in hand, committed to a struggle, to war — a war of no compromise or artful evasion of a decision, but a war to victory.

To-day the duty of the Church is slowly getting a different emphasis. Standing as Peter stood, debating with conscience the value of peace, the Church must and will set its face against the moral iniquity, the utterly unpardonable desertion of its cause, of concluding a peace based on any other consideration than the complete mastery and dissipation of every evil organization or movement of government which has shown itself to be the cruel and heartless foe of humanity. Better that every man in America should go to the plains and farms to wrest again his living from the soil, as our forefathers did, better that every woman should turn again to spinning-wheel and churn, better that every vestige of our material civilization should be swept away, than that we should compromise this issue between righteousness and evil. Now is the time for the Church to awaken to its new peril of bankruptcy and demolition, unless it begins at once to speak, as it has spoken for war, for the complete and final and overwhelming victory for righteousness, which alone will save mankind from a moral decay more fatal than death.