For Baby Boomers such as myself (born in 1954), World War II was in the background during our formative years. It was the most destructive event, by far, in all of human history. However, we still don’t really understand that war and its impact. We would do well to try to come to terms with what happened then, and its ongoing presence in our lives. As I reflect on World War II as a Christian, I find myself struggling to find hope. This struggle, perhaps paradoxically, leads me to the book of Revelation. Let me explain why.
I have several reasons for trying better to understand World War II.
I always encounter the long shadow of World War II in discussions with students. For many, the ideas of pacifism are new and foreign. Every semester I face the question, What about World War II? Doesn’t it prove that war at times is necessary—and that pacifism is unrealistic?
No wonder students raise these questions. They have grown up with images of the “Good War.” They hear our leaders, including President Obama, evoke the war against Hitler to show that the only way to pursue the right in extreme circumstances is by violent force.
My father fought in the Pacific war. He lost his best friend there, a man named Ted. My parents met when my father was stationed in Oregon. My mother also served in the military as a recruiter. They did not glorify the war. But they clearly valued their experience, proud of having done their part. I find myself constantly conversing with them in my mind as I study the war.
The more I learn of World War II and its moral legacy in the United States, the more discouraged I feel (actually, “discouraged” may be way too mild a term; horrified, outraged, depressed or despairing might be better terms).
Problems with World War II
Joseph Stalin famously said that while a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. That says a great deal about World War II. It’s so big that we can’t wrap our heads around the numbers; so they just become statistics. But imagine that a meteorite hit one of our small Mennonite cities (say, Harrisonburg, Va., or Goshen, Ind.) and killed 40,000 people. This would be huge news. But then imagine that something like this happened every single day for five years. This is what World War II was: 40,000 people killed every day for five years straight.
And consider who it was that died due to this war. Four out of five of the deaths came to noncombatants—“innocent bystanders,” if you will. Many lived in countries that weren’t directly fighting the war. Three main belligerents (the United States, Britain and Japan), combined, had fewer deaths than Indonesia. Six times as many Indians died as Britons.
Maybe Americans could imagine this as a “good war” because, of the 60 million or so noncombatants who died, only 1,700 were Americans. Rather than having our nation physically devastated by the war, the U.S. countryside ended the war unscathed.
What about just war criteria?
Though I am a pacifist, I find just war thought helpful in thinking about this war. World War II exerted such a tremendous cost; we must ask, was it worth it? Was it fought for just causes? Was it truly necessary? Then, if we are to think morally about all this, we must also ask, Was it fought justly? Were the means just?
These are big questions. The answers are complicated, existing in shades of gray, not obvious black and white. Still, none of the three reasons commonly given for why this war was “necessary” for the United States survives scrutiny: that we needed to go to war to protect our national autonomy against the threat of invasion, that we needed to go to war to protect democracy against tyranny or that we needed go to war to save the Jews.
About “just means”: Historians still debate with vigor the military necessity and moral justifiability of our nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. But I don’t think anyone could deny that their use utterly violated the moral criterion of noncombatant immunity.
So this war was terribly destructive. The given reasons for the necessity of American involvement are, when scrutinized, shaky. The means used in the war likely were crimes against humanity. And then there’s this: I’m especially interested in how the war impacted the United States in the generation to follow.
The impact on America after the War
In the late 1930s, the American military was small, about the same as Turkey’s. There was no Pentagon, no Defense Department, no independent Air Force, no Central Intelligence Agency and no nuclear weapons program. The United States was not a militaristic society and did not have the structures in place to become one. Due to World War II, these structures were created—and the past 70 years testify to their “effectiveness.”
If we look objectively at World War II and its consequences, we may well decide that the enemies that mattered most in that war were violence and militarism—not the Germans or Japanese. The “spiritual forces” of coercive power emerged from the war victorious even as Germany and Japan went down in defeat. The “beast” in World War II may be seen, then, as the war system itself more than any particular nation-state.
Revelation 13’s Beast and the American empire
Here I turn to the Book of Revelation for help. Revelation 13 gives us a vivid image of the spiritual power behind World War II and its violent legacy: “A beast rising out of the sea” with heads and horns and crowns: the epitome of militarist violence. “Who is like the beast, and who can stand against it?” Indeed, as we look at the last 70 years of American foreign policy from the perspective of peace, we can’t help but ask this question. “All the inhabitants of the earth will worship it.” The power of the sword reigns supreme.
The visions of Revelation 13 convey just how powerful the beast’s story would be for John’s first-century audience. There’s a triple threat—the dragon, the beast and the false prophet—that shapes every element of reality. What matters is the power of the sword. John pictures the beast as blasphemous, oppressive and evil.
However, that’s not how the Romans would have seen him. John’s “beast” was their emperor. The Romans would have seen their great leader as the one who through “good” wars subdued their enemies and made their great prosperity and global prominence possible.
John’s point here is to set up his punch line that comes in chapter 14. Yes, the beast and his minions seem overwhelming. Their portrayal of reality seems unassailable. War makes the world go around. Is it even possible to conceive of a counter-portrayal?
Maybe we could understand the challenge for John’s audience like this. You know from Jesus the truthfulness of the way of peace, of love and compassion. But does that way have any real meaning in this world? Can it stand against the beast’s way? It sure doesn’t seem so.
But then we get to 14:1: “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion!” Yes, there is a counter-story that does speak to the world that seems so in thrall to the beast. A key to this vision is the next image: “With him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”
Who are these 144,000? Our answer will determine how relevant this counter vision to the beast’s domination will be for us. The key to this number is found in Revelation 5 and 7. In both places, we have a single vision with two parts.
In chapter 5, John hears the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” the one who can open the scroll. Then he sees a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered. These are the same thing. The lion and lamb are one, a vision of complementary attributes.
Then, in chapter 7, John hears the number of those sealed by God, 144,000. But then he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Again, the same thing. The 144,000 and the great multitude are one, a vision of complementary attributes. These are all followers of the Lamb, throughout the world, throughout history.
Now in chapter 14, we see the 144,000 again. These are not a tiny remnant but a reminder of just how global the Lamb’s followers actually are. John says, throughout the book that the way of the Lamb stands, victoriously, in resistance to the beast. They “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4)—in resistance to the violence of the beast.
Revelation’s vision for peace and our thinking about World War II
This vision inspires me not to accept that the story of World War II and its aftermath in the United States is all there is. In fact, there is another story, a story that exists alongside the story of the militarization of America.
During World War II, about 16 million Americans took up arms, and a precious few said no. Twelve thousand legal conscientious objectors performed alternative service; 6,000 went to prison as draft resisters.
This tiny remnant kept alive a spark. Out of this spark, great things came in the years to follow. Social change movements for civil rights and nuclear disarmament gained inspiration, leadership and people power from those who opposed World War II.
Service efforts by the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker emerged from the war energized to expand their work. They did so in ways that have had profound impacts in the years since. These streams emerging from the World War II experience of pacifists reflect the truthfulness of John’s vision in Revelation 14. It is possible to stand against the beast.
You do so not by trying to match the beast’s firepower with your own but by “following the Lamb.” Those who said no to the “good war,” small as their number may have been, witnessed to the Lamb’s power. We see this power arise even in the face of the seemingly all-powerful story of redemptive violence that is generally taken to be World War II’s moral legacy. This other moral legacy, one of genuine peace, can become history’s final verdict on those terrible events that marked the 20th century.