Ukrainian armed forces self-propelled howitzers fire at positions near Makariv, Ukraine, March 6, 2022, during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. CNS photo/Maksim Levin, Reuters

Editorial: War and the Cross

  • March 10, 2022

Fifty-two years ago this June, Mr. Edwin Starr immortally caught millions of ears around the world with a song that asked a short, sharp rhetorical question.

“War — hunh — what is it good for?” Starr’s voice demanded from radios, record players and other audio apparatuses of the day as the Vietnam war raged, quasi-civil war erupted in Northern Ireland, and the Middle East bubbled hot between the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

It did not take consultation with pointy-headed academics who couldn’t ride their bicycles straight across campus to predict Starr’s answer. “Absooooolllllutttely nuthin’,” he spat, urging us to, “say it again y’all!”

Say it again we all did — despite eruption of 15 new wars before the end of the 1970s alone. Say it again we still do today as the 20-year American occupation of Afghanistan segues into the current barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine. Starr’s moment of starshine might been seen, then, as part of pop culture’s contribution to the historical turn whereby war became globally anathema even as billions of barrels of blood continue being spilled in battle.

A smarty pants space alien floating high above the fray(s) might weigh in that the glaring contradiction makes Mr. Starr’s sentiment so much moon shine. To wit: war can’t be good for “absolutely nuthin’” if human beings can’t do without it. It’s the kind of observation that keeps smarty pants aliens from being invited to the best terrestrial parties.

It’s also a conclusion we intuit as wrong, regardless of its cosmic logic, because of the non-rhetorical question it raises in turn. We know humanity now detests war as an abomination. We reject the lunatic propaganda of 20th century social Darwinists who pushed us into catastrophic world wars by claiming they offered evolutionary purification. That said, as a species we have tried beating swords into ploughshares since beating ploughshares was a thing. We still can’t beat nuclear weapons into silos of grain for the hungry. So, what is wrong with us as human beings that we can’t stop the abomination from becoming a culmination?

Academics wobbling by on bicycles will have manifold responses. But from a Catholic perspective, the true answer is in the simple rhetorical question asked by American Black slaves in the middle of the 19th century.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the slaves sang. Their response was far from absolutely nothing: “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

Oh, we know we were there when we crucified Our Lord, all right. And we know why it causes us to tremble. We tremble because we are a mass of peace-seeking, sin-stained contradictions. But much more, we tremble because we march through Lent to Easter where the rhetorical question of what war is good for is obliterated by the light of the Cross where we have hung the Son of God, whose very figure promises us, poor sinners, everlasting life.

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