Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, After War, Is Faith Possible?: The Life and Message of Geoffrey “Woodbine Willie” Studdert Kennedy (ed. Kerry Walters; Eugene: Cascade, 2008). xii + 225 pages. ISBN: 978-1-55635-379-6. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.
One the real delights of my research into the thought of PT Forsyth has been revisiting, and in some cases discovering for the first time, others who were writing around the same time, and often of the same events. To re-read James Denney, or James Baldwin Brown, or FD Maurice, is one of the best ways one could spend a month … or two. Another giant personality to add to that list would have to be Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, better known as ‘Woodbine Willie’. (I posted on ) My copies of Studdert Kennedy’s work, which are all over 90 years old, form a truly valuable part of my library and one to which I return not infrequently. Collected Poetry (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927), The Hardest Part (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918), I Believe: Sermons on the Apostles Creed (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), Rough Rhymes of a Padre (Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918) and The Wicket Gate, or Plain Bread (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923) all constitute exceptional reading.
And so I was absolutely delighted to discover that Wipf & Stock decided to republish some Woodbine Willie excerpts, all well chosen and just enough to plant an appetite in those who will no doubt want to hear more from ‘the bloody parson!’ (p. 12). The collection was edited by Kerry Walters, who also contributed a very fine introduction on Studdert Kennedy’s life and message, and a helpful bibliography of the primary and secondary literature.
This WWI padre was, of course, one of the best-known and most-loved Christian pacifists of the early twentieth century. Unlike those theological yuppies who defend pacifism on purely ideological grounds and over a café latte in Lygon Street – informed by the Gospel or otherwise – Woodbine Willie’s commitment to pacifism was birthed in the trenches alongside frightened men and their dead mates. In all that he wrote, a number of questions incessantly occupied his thought: ‘Given the insanity and brutality of war (‘the universal disaster’; p. 14), what must the God who allows it be like? (p. 13); How is evil to be gotten rid of? (p. 3); What sort of universe ought an honest person believe in? (p. 15). His answer to these questions eventually led to the conviction that God is not sadistic, or indifferent to the world’s evil. Neither is God ‘Almighty’ enough to prevent such evils: ‘I see no evidence anywhere in nature of the Almighty Potentate Who guides and governs all things with His rod, and knows no failure and thwarting of His Will’ (p. 81). What God does do, Woodbine Willie insists (in Moltmannesque manner), is to suffer with and alongside humanity. This is love’s character – not raw despotic power but entering into the sorrows of the beloved. War then, which is evil in its most acute form, is ‘the test case for determining if Christianity can cope with evil’ (p. 21).
Against those who would ‘blather’ about the ‘glory of war’, or who would hold out hope for war being a converting ordinance, Woodbine Willie says that ‘war is pure undiluted, filthy sin. I don’t believe that it has ever redeemed a single soul – or ever will’ (p. 62):
War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that all there is in it. It’s about the silliest, filthiest, most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened. It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle. One feels that all talk of order and meaning in life is insane sentimentality. (p. 41)
There are no words foul and filthy enough to describe war. Yet I would remind you that this indescribably filthy thing is the commonest thing in History, and that if we believe in a God of Love at all we must believe in the face of war and all it means. The supreme strength of the Christian faith is that it faces the foulest and filthiest of life’s facts in the crude brutality of the Cross, and through them sees the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (p. 49)
Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God –
War! (p. 50)
I cannot say that war, disease, pestilence, famine, and all the other characteristics of the process are good. If this word “Almighty” means that the Father could have made this world, and obtained the results He desires, in a thousand other ways, but that He deliberately chose this, that makes my gorge rise. Why in thunder choose this one? It is disreputable if He could have done it otherwise, without this cruelty and wrong. It is not commonly respectable. He must be an evil-minded blackguard, with a nasty disposition like a boy that likes pulling the wings off flies. I cannot get up any reverence for such a being. Why, bless my life, He tortures children, voluntarily tortures them to death, and has done so for thousands of years. I can’t stand that at all – it’s dirty; and when I am told that I must believe it, and that every detail of the process was planned out precisely as He wished, I begin to turn sick. Snakes, sharks, and blood-sucking vermin – what sort of a God is this? He chose this way because He gloried in it! That beats the band. It turns me clean up against the process. I cannot see its beauty for its brutality. I cannot hear the lark sing for the squealing of a rabbit tortured by a stoat, I cannot see the flowers for the face of a consumptive child with rotten teeth, the song of the saints is drowned by the groans of murdered men. (p. 75)
A soldier in time of war is not a person but a puppet, who moves when you pull strings. (p. 78)
… our armaments are symbols, not of our power, but of our weakness … Our military power is an exact index of our spiritual and moral impotence. (p. 79)
Life is one, from the single cell to the Savior in the flesh. I cannot separate swine from Shakespeare or Jellyfish from Jesus of Nazareth; they all are products of the process. So behind the process there must be a Spirit which is like the Spirit of man. (p. 81)
I am not a pacifist (I’ve been too persuaded by Forsyth and Jüngel here), but reading Woodbine Willie continuously challenges me to ask myself whether I should be, whether our Lord’s command to ‘Love your enemies’ (Matt 5:44) really does, in Barth’s words, abolish ‘the whole exercise of force’. Either way, Barth is most certainly correct when he challenges: ‘In conformity with the New Testament, one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice (praktisch Pazifist). But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist!’ (Church Dogmatics IV/2, 549-50).
Faith does not mean that we cease from asking questions; it means that we ask and keep on asking until the answer comes; that we seek and keep on seeking until the truth is found; that we knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened and we enter into the palace of God’s truth. (p. 63)
Woodbine Willie dares us to keep on prayerfully asking the questions …
If the Church is to be a Church indeed, and not a mere farce – and a peculiarly pernicious farce, a game of sentimental make-believe – she must be filled to overflowing with the fire of the ancient prophets for social righteousness, with the wrath and love of the Christ. (p. 196)
The Church is not, and never can be, an end in itself; it is a means to an end; a means to the salvation of the world and the building of the Kingdom of God. It is not the Ark of Salvation for themselves, it is the Agent of Salvation for mankind. It is not a refuge of peace, but an army preparing for war. They seek in it, not security, but sacrifice. This is the infallible mark of the Church, the hallmark of the Cross. And if the sin of our modern slums, and the degradation that they cause; if the sin of our over-crowded, rotten houses, and the ugliness and vice they bring; if the sin of unemployment, with the damnation of body and soul that it means to men and women, boys and girls; if the sin of the heartless, thoughtless luxury at one end, standing out against the squalid and degrading poverty at the other; if the sin of commercial trickery and dishonesty, and wholesale defrauding of the poor; if the sin of prostitution, and the murder of women and children by venereal disease; if the sin of war, the very sin of sins, which is but the bursting into a festering sore of all the filth that the others have bred in years of miscalled peace; if all that is not laid upon the Church as a burden, and Christ’s members do not feel it as their own, then the Church is not a Church at all; and no amount of organization, propaganda, and evangelization can make it live. It has missed its vocation. (p. 167)