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To commemorate World War 1, reverend helps believers respond to war through prayer

Published: Monday, July 28 2014 5:35 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 30 2014 7:34 a.m. MDT

The funeral of an American Red Cross chaplain during World War 1.

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The Rev. Gina Gilland Campbell remembers how, for many months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the strangest things made her cry. She turned to a friend for guidance, who responded with what Campbell called "the most redemptive thing said to me in that entire period of time."

"Someone needs to cry God's tears," the friend had said, helping Campbell understand her ongoing sadness. The church should also cry God's tears, she concluded, but it can't stop there.

Now serving as canon precentor at Washington National Cathedral, Campbell has incorporated that counsel in composing liturgical resources to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, which was declared a century ago on Monday.

She said her work was guided by her ongoing sense of the church's duty to express God's sorrow with an eye toward future peace. The church is called not just to cry, "but to believe that the tears move (the world) towards redemption, towards a hopeful place and towards new possibilities"

Washington National Cathedral has published her suggested Bible readings, sermon topics and call-and-response prayers with the hope that they will serve churches of all faith traditions. The collection is the result of the cathedral's partnership with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, an organization charged by Congress to build public interest around the war's 100th anniversary.

Through collaboration with military personnel and spiritual mentors, Campbell has created a prayerful response to war that goes beyond remembrance of WWI to encompass the conflicts of the contemporary world.

"Even as we commemorate past events, we speak to the state of our world," the cathedral's website states. "We recognize that all political and military action changes the fabric of global community, for good and ill."

WWI and religion

Although it is difficult to pinpoint one date as the start of WWI, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

By the time the war ended in 1918, more than 65 million troops had been mobilized and more than 16 million soldiers had been killed or found missing, according to a summary shared by PBS.

"It was an ill-advised war, an ill-conceived war. It didn't seem to make much sense, and the outcomes were disastrous. (The war) set up troubles that lasted for years to come," Campbell said.

In consultation with the WWI Centennial Commission, Campbell determined that the resources should be guided by a penitential mood. The suggested sermon topics include a supplication for discerning wisdom, a discussion of shame and the gospel message of hope.

Emphasizing repentance and asking for forgiveness are important because of the role religion often plays in society's understanding of war. Many scholars conclude that WWI was particularly steeped in religious symbolism.

Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, describes in his recently published "The Great and Holy War: How World War I became a Religious Crusade" how religious beliefs pervaded all aspects of the war, from the justifications offered by political leaders to the inspiration for soldiers in the trenches.

"What's striking is that you have a number of traditions — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — sharing a lot of the same ideas," Jenkins said. His book explains how the language of holy war and crusade pervaded religious culture during the war years.

As Campbell learned in her research, "If you call something holy that lets some of us wash our hands of it and excuses what some people have to do."

During WWI, religion was part of the rhetoric of combat. Jenkins noted that people with different faith backgrounds and from different levels of society were all speaking in terms of apocalyptic expectations, angels and Armageddon. In the United States, for instance, pastors would often describe the war as a crusade and the shedding of blood as a kind of holy sacrifice.

Although Jenkins concluded that the war did not lead to an immediate loss in standing for religion in Europe, he highlighted how Christian theologians began to question the way faith had supported such incredible violence.

"World War I does mark a theological revolution," said Jenkins.

Young scholars were horrified that the world's leading theologians from Germany had supported their country's imperial campaign. The next wave of Christian theology, starting with the work of Karl Barth during the war and including many writers who were soldiers themselves, focused on highlighting the Bible's peaceful message of grace and hope.

Willing peace

Campbell can relate to that process of return and revision because the drafts of her WWI commemorative worship resources evolved over time.

Her early efforts focused on the hearts of faithful people. She called for God to move believers' hearts away from desiring war.

But then one of her mentors, acclaimed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, insisted that she focus not on the heart, but on the human will.

"You need to pray for the will politically, morally and ethically that we will not do these things to one another," Campbell said, quoting Brueggemann. "You need to pray that our politics, our practice of faith, will will peacefulness and will do the things it takes to get there. It's bigger than having the heart for it. You need to have the steel for it and the courage for it and the determination for it."

And even beyond strength, courage and determination, praying for the will to resist violence requires acknowledging the complex relationship between religion and war according to a religion scholar who studies the intersection of theology and war.

"It's never a straightforward case of religion being used to ratchet up the war machine or … used to oppose war. The story's a lot more complicated than that," said Jeremy Sabella, who lectures at Yale Divinity School.

Sabella said that for every time religion is appropriated during war times to justify harmful actions there is an example of it serving as a lifeline for people who suffer. "People use religion's language and symbols to … (survive) something that threatened them with the abyss of meaninglessness."

Campbell's task was to honor that tension, while calling for peace. "I hope that (the prayers) offer people who have been disturbed by every war a new opportunity to visit in prayer the possibilities of healing, of seeing things new, of committing themselves newly to acts of justice and peace," she said.

And although the WWI anniversary was her inspiration, Campbell had the world's current conflicts in mind as she wrote. "To me, there are a lot of similarities between contemporary warfare and WWI," she said. "In WWI, the technology exceeded the morality."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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