It was some twenty years ago that I first realized how terrible the First World War had been. In far away Australia I visited the War Memorial—a museum that pays a lot of attention to the Australian contribution to the Allied cause in the Great War (as WW I is referred to in many countries). During that visit I understood better than ever before that nations from all over the world were involved in this world-wide dispute. A few years ago I was, quite unexpectedly, also confronted with this same fact, as I was travelling with a group in Turkey. Our guide told us that near the Dardanelles more than one million soldiers lost their lives in Word War I.
There are, however, few places that are so moving, as far as the Great War is concerned, as Ieper in Belgium. In a part of southwestern Belgium and the North-West of France one finds dozens of war cemeteries, where hundreds of thousands of men and women from dozens of different nations have found their last resting place. The remains of the trenches in which the opposing armies were involved in an inhuman process of cruelty and senseless violence, still tell their macabre story. But it is, in particular, the Flanders Field Museum in Ieper that is unforgettable in its sadness. It is truly a fitting monument for the millions who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. And, why and for what, in fact, did they die? Its subject matter would make the visitor even more downhearted, were it not for the magnificent medieval building, the famous Lakenhal, in which this museum is housed.
I have always loathed everything that has to do with war. As a boy I never liked books about war and I did not go to war movies. I was fortunate enough that I could escape the obligatory military service, since I studied theology—which at the time in the Netherlands provided a possibility to stay out of the army. But, had I been conscripted, I would have refused to bear arms. It always made me proud to belong to a church that was opposed to war and that advocated a non-combatant position.
To my deep regret, in many countries this Adventist tradition of non-violence has been watered down, or even changed into the opposite. This is especially true for Adventists in the United States, where so-called patriotic feelings have ‘inspired’ ever more men and women to serve their country by opting for a career in the military. A visit to Flanders Fields should be required for all fellow-believers who consider joining the army!
Yes, I know there are weighty arguments against radical pacifism. I must admit that I am happy that people are currently fighting the IS, and I would not want to live in a place where there is no police. But there are at least as solid arguments for resurrecting the Adventist tradition of non-violence. After all, in our world there are plenty of men and women who are prepared to take up arms. But there are always too few people who want to do everything to promote and model peace. Remember: Blessed are the peace makers. Real happiness is for those who pursue reconciliation and peace. They will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9). My visit to the Flanders Field Museum reinforced in me that long-held conviction.