The National War God and the Episcopal God

by Joseph W.H. Lough

There is a passage in Susan Collins’ Hunger Games where the lead character decides that she will no longer feed the National War God. In her act of defiance she places herself in grave personal danger. But it is the act of defiance itself that is significant. The National War God would have her mourn the loss only of her own people’s war dead, comfort the bereaved of them alone, and pray only for the souls of those lost in battle for their homeland. Katniss, the hero, turns all this on its head. Not only does Katniss mourn the death of an enemy combatant. She places flowers on her enemy’s body, thus consecrating the death of her enemy. Her act of defiance is the turning point in the novel and the movie.

I was reminded of this passage from Hunger Games this morning when three parishioners in rapid succession invoked the blessing and care of our own National War God exclusively upon our American war dead and upon their families.

In his “Zwischenbetrachtung” (Occasional Report), the German sociologist Max Weber describes the mass social-psychological experience we find in Collins’ Hunger Games, and then explicitly invites us to reflect upon this experience in light of our experience of God.

The mutual strangeness of religion and politics, when they are both completely rationalized, is all the more the case because, in contrast to economics, politics may come into direct competition with religious ethics at decisive points. As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need (M Weber, “Religious rejections of the world and their directions” in From Max Weber 1958:335).

Weber’s text, written in 1915, composed smack in the middle (zwischen) of some of the bloodiest fighting during World War I, is astonishing because in it the sociologist Weber bears witness to the very same two gods—the National War God and Katniss’s God—that we find in Collins’ best-seller. Like Katniss, Weber recognizes the qualitative difference between the National War God and the God of ethical religions. But he also recognizes how and why these two Gods can be brought into direct competition since both, it so happens, require our complete devotion.

So, what is it in our experience of war and our experience of the war dead that brings us to so easily switch our allegiance from the true God to our National War God?

War does something to the warrior which, in its concrete meaning, is unique: it makes him experience a consecrated meaning of death which is characteristic only of death in war. The community of the army standing in the field today feels itself—as in the times of the war lords “following”—to be a community unto death [eine Gemeinshaft bis zum Tode], and the greatest of its kind. . . . The very extraordinary quality of brotherliness of war, and of death in war, is shared with sacred charisma and the experience of the communion with God, and this fact raises the competition between the brotherliness of religion and of the warrior community to its extreme height (336).

Whenever we invoke this National War God in religious service—and almost all of our religious communities do so at one time or another—we pass decisively from the “brotherliness of religion” into the “warrior community” and so just as decisively we abandon divine liturgy and exchange it for the liturgy of the National War God. And at such moments, I find myself stuck in the middle of a pagan temple, invoking a foreign god, and I stop worshipping.

Now, to be sure, if Paul invites us to bear with those among us who are not yet Trinitarian—which he does in First Corinthians 8 when he admits that not all the brothers and sisters in Corinth have this knowledge (v. 7)—then an argument can be made that, when this foreign god of war is invoked, we who have knowledge must bear patiently with those who do not.

And, yet, whereas  non-Trinitarian Christianity was tolerated well into the fourth century and even survived in pockets of western Europe up until the fifteenth century, we must remember that it was in part owing to their refusal to worship Rome’s war god that Christians were condemned to martyrdom, suggesting that worshipping the Roman war god was viewed far less liberally than was the emerging doctrine of the Trinity. When we worship the war god, we actually switch our allegiance. When we question the Trinity, we merely display our lack of theological sophistication.

So, what are we to do?

Might I suggest that we follow the example of Katniss who, rather than restricting her mourning and her prayers to dead combatants within her own community, instead broadened her mourning and her prayers to include all of the war dead and their families. This proved the turning point for all of the Districts in Hunger Games. Perhaps it can prove the turning point in our communities as well.