Stilling the Senseless Cyclone

The Gas Cloud at Ypres 1915

The morning of April 22, 1915, French and Canadian soldiers were immovably entrenched to the north of Ypres, a Belgian city in the Flemish province of West Flanders.  They saw a strange, green-yellow cloud form above the opposing German trenches. It then billowed across no man’s land into their ranks. As the cloud engulfed them, they experienced a burning sensation in their throats and intolerable choking. Within seconds, men were writhing in their death agonies, vomiting blood and mucus; a few ran away from this foe, one they could not comprehend.

It was the first, large scale use of chlorine gas in battle, and it marked the beginning of modern warfare, which fails to separate soldier from civilian. In her new A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War One That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare (2015) Diane Preston retrieves the flawed moral reasoning, eventually used on both sides, to justify tactics such as the air bombing of cities, the use of poisonous gasses, and the sinking of civilian ships: yes, it was cruel, but cruelty shortens war.

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Our tradition speaks of evil as the absence of good, reasoning that, if evil existed in its own right, it would need to possess something of the good since all being comes from God, who is goodness itself. Hence evil can only be the absence of good, as cold is the loss of heat, or darkness the absence of light.

Philosophically good enough, though it leaves unexplained the human choice of evil. Why is it, how is it, that we can, and that we do, choose something less than the good? It’s sin that is utterly senseless. It defies comprehension. Sin tears and twists the good, until the senseless seems sensible and evil appears to exist in itself.

Preston retrieves the century-old scene through the memoire of Captain Jean Mordacq, a French brigade commander, who

mounted his horse, and made for the Yser Canal, which he could no longer see because of drifts of yellow smoke. Approaching the village of Boesinghe on the canal’s west bank, his nose and throat began to tingle violently, his ears buzzed, and his breathing was becoming labored. An “unbearable stench of chlorine” hung over everything. With his horse refusing to go one, Mordacq dismounted and walked into Boesinghe to a sight “worse than lamentable, it was tragic. Men who had fled their positions were everywhere: territorials, ‘Joyeux,’ zouaves, artillerymen without their guns, haggard, greatcoats thrown away or hanging open…running hither and thither like madmen, crying loudly for water, spitting blood, some even rolling on the ground in a desperate struggle to breath.” One “Joyeux” called out to Mordacq, “Those [bastards] have poisoned us.” Meanwhile, “a mass of crazed unfortunates crowded the canal banks hoping water would relive “their horrible sufferings.” Mordacq—one of several to liken the sights of that day to scenes from Dante’s Inferno—decided there was no point trying to prevent those who could still walk from fleeing since they were “no longer soldiers…but poor beings who had suddenly turned mad” (102).
 
We cannot evolve away from sin. We cannot educate ourselves free of it. It is the darkness that shadows the good, the cold kept at bay by the warmth. Evil, like our own origin, lies beyond humanity. We can no more rid ourselves of it than we can summon ourselves into existence.
 
The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses” (Acts 3: 15). To call Christ savior is to say that in him, God, the good itself, goes so far out of self as to embrace and enclose even evil, its own absence. Christ enters sin.  He stills the senseless cyclone and emerges.
 
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet (Lk 24: 39-40).

 

Will evil always exist? No. Theologically, history can be defined as Christ’s long quieting of evil. Humanity’s story begins with a choice for something less than the goodness of God. It will end when God’s goodness overwhelms its own absence. “He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2).

Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19  1 John 2: 1-5a  Luke 24: 35-48

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