Everyone knows how it all started. It was the end of June in 1914. Tensions had been building for decades among the rival European powers. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he and his wife were assassinated by a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Vienna’s annexation of that province six years earlier had nearly led to war then, but now the real thing was only one month away. When the dust had cleared and the war was over four years later, some sixteen million people had died, and the world was never the same again. Ancient empires fell, with kings and emperors toppled from their thrones and exiled. Entire populations were cruelly uprooted from their homes, simply because they happened to live on the wrong side of arbitrary boundaries set during and after hostilities had ended.
Nearly four decades ago, I visited Prague, the capital of what was still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and, before the First World War, part of Austria-Hungary. During my time there, I purchased in an antiquarian bookshop a Czech-language New Testament and Psalms published in 1845 for “Evangelical Christians of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions,” that is, for Lutheran and Reformed Christians. The print was in the old German black letter font, and even some of the spelling was obsolete.
It was not until seven years ago that I noticed something interesting about the Psalms in this volume. An early owner of the book, whose surname was Lány, read through the Psalms at the pace of approximately one psalm per day (except, of course, for Psalm 119), taking time to mark the date at the top of each. He started with Psalm 1 on “1./8.”, or the 1st day of August 1914, and continued until he read Psalm 150 on “18./I. 1915,” that is, the 18th of January 1915.
I am convinced that the timing of his praying through the Psalms was not accidental. War had broken out four days earlier, and the whole world would shortly be swept up in the developing conflict. Whether Lány had sons who might be subject to conscription or whether he feared for the safety of his home and community cannot be known for certain.
However, as the Battle of Tannenberg was raging to the north, Lány was praying a most fitting prayer from Psalm 27: “Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.” Not long thereafter, on the very day that Russia defeated Austria at the Battle of Rawa, Lány prayed the following from Psalm 42: “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”
The Psalms may have provided comfort to Lány, or they may have expressed his fears and anger in the opening weeks of the war. Of course, in praying through the Psalms he was doing nothing new; he was only following the examples of the early church, of St. Benedict’ s Rule, and even of his own church community, which I suspect may have been Lutheran.
A century later we can no longer easily access the emotions our forebears experienced in those dark early days of war. The last veterans are gone, and those with even dim memories of the conflict are over a hundred years old.
Yet history does not stand still. As I write, tensions are heating up between Russia and much of the rest of the world over Russia’s encouragement of separatism in Ukraine. And ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – may over the long term have extinguished a country whose very existence was dependent on Britain and France’s victory in 1918. Though these conflicts appear unlikely to unleash another Great War, they do illustrate that the passing of a century has not changed the human condition.
Nor has the passing of two or more millennia. In one of my Bibles, Psalm 82 has the following heading: “A Plea for Justice,” and closes with these words: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!” Indeed, all of our fallible human efforts to advance justice are dependent on the recognition of this simple biblical truth.
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