Mark Twain’s "The War Prayer" & #JeSuisParis

#prayfortheworld, Leemarej, ink on paper, 2015

Scrolling through my Facebook feed a couple of days after the events in Paris, I came across a post that referenced Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.”  Twain’s story, published posthumously in 1923, takes place in an unnamed country preparing for war. Community members, filled with patriotism, gathered at the local church before the soldiers (volunteers) departed for the front. The volunteers stood ready to encounter the enemy and return home “bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory!” Alongside the volunteers, the townspeople sat in fevered excitement for those from the community that will go and serve. Those who did not have children to send even envied those who had sons to send forth into battle. 

After a reading on war from the Old Testament, a prayer, and a song, the “long” prayer grasped the congregation. The supplicant prayed “that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.” The prayer grabs a hold of the congregation, and the patriotism reaches a fevered pitch. 

Following the “patriotic” exhortation, a stranger, claiming to be a messenger from God, walks and stands beside the preacher. At the conclusion of the prayer, the stranger addressed the crowd, telling them the unconscious aspects of their “patriotic” prayer to God. He tells them that instead of seeking benevolence, they actually seek pain and destruction for their unnamed enemies. He says, 

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it–for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!    

The messenger informs those gathered to pray for victory that what they ask, when pleading for a win, entails much more than having their men return home. In war, someone has to lose, and that loss can be devastating. The messenger’s words make it abundantly clear that victory comes at cost of lives, homes, grief, pain, suffering, and travail. When I read this, I could not help but think about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Fanatics (1901), a novel that tells the story of fanaticism and “patriotism” at the outset of the Civil War. It focuses on two white families, one southern and one northern. The war separates these one time friends from another based on regional differences. The relationship they gained before the war gets torn asunder, and both families suffer.   

Along with this novel, I thought about the Puritans, a group of people who fled religious persecution and made their way to America. This group came here to become, as Jonathan Winthrop stated, “A City on a Hill,” one that would show England and Europe how a Christian society should exists. However, during their interactions with the Native Americans, and others, their “Christian” values started to mirror those of the town in Twain’s story. One such instance stands out from this period: King Philip’s War. During the war, the colonists prayed for Philip’s demise. When they caught him, they drug the “doleful, great, naked, dirty beast” from the “mire” and had him drawn and quartered (Church). The colonists became concerned about the divine providence of God’s hand on their venture that some, like Increase Mather, even saw the war with Philip as a showdown between good and evil (light and dark). 

I bring all of this up to show that people’s thoughts in regards to what has happened are nothing new. However, we should strongly consider whether or not we should continue to hold these same ideas when it comes to topics like refugees and our myopic focus on western tragedies instead of widening the lenses to see the entirety of humanity as the image above suggests. Of course, much of this has to do with religious belief and rhetoric as well. With that in mind, I want you to think about a song that has always caught my attention, Glassjaw’s “Radio Cambodia” (video below). Glassjaw’s song sums up, as succinctly as Twain does, the hidden messages when we pray for success on the fields of battle.       

I want to conclude this entry with an extended quote from the post I mention earlier. The poster passionately sums up the discussion above and expresses some of my own feelings on the events that have occurred over the past two weeks. She writes,   

I see nothing wrong with the hash tag ‪#‎PrayForParis‬ – as long as we’re willing to acknowledge the multitude of ways individual prayer may manifest – or any other show of solidarity. At moments of feeling wholly impotent, any gesture grand or small that reminds us of our connected humanity should be welcomed. But I’m dubious of our cause when the victims of the evil we are so vocal in condemning seek refuge and so many of our own are equally vocal in turning them away. When those who put forth prayers for peace and safety treat the victims of spoken and silent prayers, those who quite literally suffered a long pilgrimage with heavy steps and tears and blood, as a scourge. How can we shake our fist and call for a necessary end to Sharia law, then mask our own xenophobia and intolerance in religiosity? How can we proudly tout American exceptionalism across the globe, and then prove to be so decidedly unexceptional at offering sanctuary? How do we engrave “The New Colossus” on one of our most iconic immigrant landmarks, inviting in “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and then simply dismiss those who are indeed part of the huddled masses?

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.  

Note: The person who posted the piece on Facebook has give me permission to share excerpts from it here. 



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