I am pretty sure that the first time I heard of the difference between being an admirer of Jesus and a follower of Jesus was in a homily during a dorm Mass one Sunday evening. The priest told us that, “If you want to be a follower of Jesus, then you have to look good on wood.” I have been to hundreds of Masses in my life and few have been such that the theme, and a quote, has embedded itself in my head and in my heart.
My boss, Theology Department Chair Jim Brennan ’85, once made a similar comment to my wife, Ann, on a bus ride while on their way to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life. They were discussing the anger and the vitriol of those protesting against the march and how it can be a bit frightening. Jim’s assessment of the situation, more prescient now than ever, was that if you want to get close to the Cross you are bound to get some splinters.
Back in the late 20th Century moral theologian Michael Baxter, who is presently the Director of Catholic Studies at Regis University, the Jesuit school in Denver, created a course with the title “A Faith to Die For: The Moral Life in Catholic Belief and Practice.” One of my former colleagues, Mr. Dan Dixon, S.J., was a student in an early iteration of that class. I will be forever grateful to Dan for contacting Professor Baxter, who sent back his course description, syllabus and reading list – all of which Dan passed on to me.
Absent from the voluminous reading list, but a book that could certainly have been added, is Ernest Gordon’s memoir of his time in a POW camp during World War II. Originally titled Through the Valley of the Kwai, it was changed to To End All Wars after the release of the film of that name which was based on the book. It is this film, inherited by me from Jim Skerl ’74 that is the concluding lesson in the class “The Paschal Mystery.”
In this class we focus on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus as the pinnacle of human history – that series of events that is the theological midpoint between Original Sin and the Final Judgment, and on the Crucifixion as the greatest example of the moral life because it brings together – as elucidated in the title of Dr. Baxter’s class – Catholic belief and practice.
In the Passion Narrative in St. John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the laying down of one’s life for another. This greatest act of love, one that our Lord brings to perfection on Calvary, is an essential aspect of the film To End All Wars, but is also a necessary condition for being a follower of Jesus. Not all will be crucified, but some – like the great Jesuit St. Paul Miki – will.
For most, the crosses that are carried won’t be made from wood, but will still leave us with splinters. Countless are the crosses constructed from human weakness and vices battled throughout life – causing repeated falls under the heavy weight. Following in the steps of Jesus, we are called to get back up and continue, and very often with the help of a personal Simon of Cyrene.
In the film, Lt. Col. Stuart McLean is asked by one of his soldiers, “What about you sir? What will you do when the war is over?” The commander looks down at the pipe in his hands, sighs, and, with more than a hint of sadness and resignation, states, “Start preparing for the next one.” This line is so full of meaning that it would take volumes to unpack, yet in its simplicity it begs the question that is suggested by the title: What is it that will end all wars?
The answer is just as simple and yet holds in it even more mystery than McLean’s despondent comment. Only mercy will end wars.
Those who have even a cursory knowledge of the events of the last century know that “the war to end all wars” - World War I - was merely the catalyst for “the big one,” World War II, and that since around 2700 B.C., when the Sumerians fought the Elamites, recorded history has consisted in the recounting of a continuous string of war after war.
Human strife predates the written word, but we know for certain that nations have been fighting one another for almost 5,000 years. As sad as that is, it pales in comparison to the fact that for about 1,800 of those years wars have involved combatants who admire and claim to follow Jesus. And more often than not Christian has fought Christian – both believing that they were on the side whose willingness to kill was justified because they were trying to make the world a more just and peaceful place.
The film concludes by asking the questions, “At what price mercy? Who is my neighbor? How many times must I forgive my brother? What does it mean to love my enemy?” These questions have not and never will, in this sinful world, ever lose their relevance. We know how Jesus answered those questions, and we must never give up hope that there will come a time when His actions will not just be admired, but followed.