The Lutheran Wisconsin Synod theologian J.P. Koehler (see a brief sketch here) was a critic of Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy and an opponent of U.S. involvement in World War I. Nevertheless, he did not believe that this opposition somehow absolved him or Christians in general from guilt for the war, which he believed to be a judgment from God for selfishness, greed, materialism, empty formalist traditionalism, and so on. These views are clear in his essay “Our Guilt for the World War,” first published in German as “Unsere Schuld am Weltkrieg.”1
A couple of quotations: first, on the connection between current events and the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917. Rather than boasting of Luther as an “originator of democracy” and drawing connections between the bells of Wittenberg and the Liberty Bell, American Christians should have been on their knees in repentance.
The need of the hour was that this jubilee take the form of a sober observance in which we cast ourselves upon our knees before the Lord and acknowledge our responsibility for the terrible misery now sweeping over the world—and us, for whom the worst is yet to come. Only then might we in hope and confidence lay hold of the grace which God has granted us in His gospel, which Luther retrieved from the scrap heap.
The tone of repentance was almost completely missing. This does not come at our command. But when God is speaking to us in judgment, as He does through this war, and the only words befitting the situation are left unsaid in representative Lutheran gatherings, then the verdict can alone be that this people understands not the signs of the time.
He strikes a similar note elsewhere in the essay:
Moreover, the judgment of God in its spiritual significance is not meant primarily for the world, but it begins at the house of God. We are the ones that have sinned. And much depends especially on this, that we recognize that the very same principles of selfishness and spiritual impotence, that I have attempted to sketch out in world civilization, are at work in the manner in which we carry on our peculiar church affairs, so that it becomes clear that we are responsible for the war, not only indirectly as citizens, but also directly, by being the kind of Lutherans we actually are in our daily lives.
We should have come to such an understanding of our misdeeds through the judgment now coming upon us in the war, and through an understanding of the Reformation which we have been celebrating. The first thoughts expressed in Luther’s Theses revolve about repentance. Only let us see to it that these thoughts make a clear impression on our mind, and may we let ourselves be uprooted from the lethargy of traditionalism and rerooted into a vigorous new life by these two great historical happenings through which God lays His law and Gospel on our heart. Then, after we have washed away our guilt in the atonement of Christ, we can meet the new challenges with new and telling effect.
For more on Koehler and this essay, we can look forward to Michael Albrecht’s essay in the forthcoming volume of proceedings from last year’s Lutheranism and the Classics conference.