Seventy-five years ago Monday, the German army was preparing for its major “Western front” counter-offensive during World War II, which some named the “Battle of the Bulge” due to the sharp arc it created in the Allied territory of northern Luxembourg and southeastern Belgium.
The German attack began on Dec. 16, 1944, beginning from the location where the Allies were paying decreased attention because of the rough terrain of the eastern mountains of the Ardennes Forest. By Jan. 25, 1945, the German offensive was thwarted, and the Allied overland march toward Germany resumed.
Whether U.S. armed forces have faced combat in Europe, the Pacific, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, etc., it is accurate to say, for both civilians residing in the area and for military folk deployed, “war is hell.” Approaching Christmas 2019, I think of the Allied and German troops 75 years ago.
War in Biblical time periods is sometimes that of offense and sometimes of defense. Nowhere in the Bible, however, is democracy at stake. There are more benevolent rulers, monarchs, and leaders; and there are more cruel, aggressive and maniacal ones. Territory and resources are often at stake. Ruling authorities exercise serious and often violent counter-measures when political dissent and armed rebellion develop.
In the 1770s, the British Colonies in North America fought a war for independence, necessary when the forces of Britain’s King George III were dispatched to quell the independence declared by the Americans’ Second Continental Congress. Successful in their effort to be free from British monarchial rule, the citizens of the American states took a handful of years to agree, by 1790, on a constitutional republican form of democracy.
If “war is hell,” democratic government is often conflicted and confusing. Unlike monarchial or authoritarian forms of government, in which the whims of the ruler dictate policy and enforcement, a constitutional democratic republic is based on the rule of law established through the consent of the governed.
This is why and how, in his 1863 Gettysburg Address during the bloodshed of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln referred to the nation’s government as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people” — a slight modification from the radical English theological reformer John Wycliffe, who in 1384 (almost five centuries before Lincoln) wrote in the prologue to his translation of the Bible (from Latin to English), “The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People and for the People.” Wycliffe’s argument was for Biblical interpretation and political governance to be free of authoritarian rule, whether secular or religious.
When he was 21 years old, my dad served with the 117th Regiment of the U.S. 30th Infantry, defending the northern points of the German forward assault at the Battle of the Bulge. Over the years, he and others have taught me (1) that “war is hell,” (2) that authoritarian practices are antithetical to democracy, (3) that all people have equal standing under the law, (4) that people of good conscience disagree, and (5) that we debate, vote and dissent so that the closest approximation of “truth” and “the rule of law” may govern us.
During this Christmas season, let us give thanks for those who have defended and who yet serve to further this imperfect democracy, both within our boundaries and abroad, both in military conflict and in halls of government.
Every day, with all citizens, we still have sacred work to do if the present and the future are to yield a productive constitutional democratic republic where each citizen is considered equal to all others under the law.
Ted V. Foote Jr. has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bryan since 2007.