Probe My Heart

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This is Remembrance Sunday, a time when we usually remember soldiers who fought in wars long ago. But this year, war does not seem far off at all. Since February, the war in Ukraine has dominated headlines, and affected us all. There are Ukrainian refugees in our city; the price of goods in our stores and gas stations have been directly affected by the war. As Russia talks of nuclear weapons, we all feel the chill of war, knowing that this could end badly for everyone. This year, war is not a distant memory, it is all too current.  

The news presents this war as the work of one deranged leader, but it also provides reports of terrible atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. Women have been raped by Russian soldiers so consistently that it seems like a tactic of the war, not an aberration. Civilians are targets. Many are shot dead on the street or found in mass graves with hands tied behind their backs. War crimes abound. This is not just a war but a sustained fugue of murder and atrocity. Not one leader, but many soldiers have done this. We are horrified. We can’t help but wonder, how can people do this to one another?  

Remembrance Day was inspired by World War One, another war defined by horror and atrocity. It was the first-time machine guns had been used on both sides of a war, and the first-time lethal gas has been unleashed on soldiers.[1] During the war, newspapers carried stories of these horrors. This prompted Sigmund Freud to address the question:  How could civilized people be so cruel to each other? In 1915, he wrote that the horrors of the front were not an aberration, but human nature itself.  

Freud   “The war naturally prompted these individual citizens to withdraw for a while the constant pressure of civilization and to grant a temporary satisfaction to the instincts they had been holding in check.”   

Freud argued that once the restrictions of polite society are stripped away, all human beings are revealed as they really are – full of aggressive instincts and the capacity for terrible cruelty. The war has pulled off the mask, Freud argued, and now we see humanity for what it really is.[2]   This pessimistic view of human nature was not new. Any Christian attending church during World War One would have been told that human beings are inclined towards war because each of us is born sinful. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike subscribed to the idea of original sin. Each child who is born was tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve, and this gives us a moral weakness. We are easily convinced to sin, including hurting others.  

The idea originated with St Augustine in the 5th century. He argued that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, they were infected by sin. Their capacity for reason was corrupted.  They could no longer easily choose goodness but were inclined towards evil actions. Augustine argued that this moral failing was passed on biologically through sex to each generation. In our terms, he saw sin as a genetic disease, one all of us are born with. Augustine truly believed that every baby was born sinful, and only those who were baptized had any chance of avoiding hell. This idea was adopted by Roman Catholics, and later, Protestants like Calvin. To this day, many Christians are raised to believe that they are born morally damaged, and only God and the church can save them.  

Augustine’s view of the inherent depravity of humanity also had an influence on his view of war. If every human is born with an inclination towards sin, then we should expect humans to use violence against each other. Adam and Eve’s eldest son Cain appeared to prove this, as the first murderer. Augustine, like Freud after him, argued that states were critical for keeping a lid on the human impulse to harm each other. It was Augustine who came up with the Just War principle. We are bad to the bone, and only God’s grace can save us.  

Augustine’s pessimistic view of humanity might never have taken hold in Christianity had it not been for the influence of war. Augustine wrote his theory of human nature at the same time as the Roman Empire was collapsing.  Rome had ruled for 1000 years, and it was unthinkable that this sprawling empire, the pinnacle of human civilization could fall. But it did.    

Rome was conquered and overrun in the year 410.  The kind of war crimes and atrocities that shock us in Ukraine were played out on a huge scale in Italy as Rome fell.   

The first Roman Catholic Council to adopt Augustine’s theory of human nature was just 8 years later. To them, it appeared that civilization was falling apart in a paroxysm of barbaric violence. It was all too plausible that humans were born sinful, bad to the bone.  

This Christian idea of human nature has been used to justify wars ever since, yet we need to remember that Augustine’s idea was new. The psalm we heard today was written at least one thousand years before Augustine. In it, we hear the psalm writer inviting God to probe his or her heart.  

Psalm 17 Though you probe my heart, though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil; my mouth has not transgressed.    

These are not the words of a person who was born soaked in sin. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures show no sign of Augustine’s view of original sin. If you use a search engine to search the Old Testament, there is no mention of Adam at all after the first few chapters, except in genealogies. Adam and Eve’s fall doesn’t infect the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. It doesn’t appear to have been known to Jesus, either. You may recall that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares

““Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)  

 Jesus considers children the ideal kind of person, defined by innocence and wonder. He does not consider them stained by sinful inclinations.  

So, are we born good or are we born sinful? Are the atrocities of war just expressions of our human nature, or are they an aberration? The answer to that question matters. It defines whether war is a calamity or just a normal part of how humans behave. It defines whether we should expect wars to keep returning, as they have this year, or whether our species can make war rare, and possibly banish.  

I would like to be able to claim that if we just look at the Bible, we will find our answer. But the fact is that both sides of this question have drawn examples from scripture. The pessimists quote Genesis and Paul. The optimists quote Jesus. Quoting Bible verses at each other is unlikely to settle this debate. So, this morning, let’s try something different. Let’s look at the data on what soldiers do on the battlefield. Their job is to kill the enemy. Do they do this easily, because we are born sinful, or is it difficult, because we born good?  

During World War Two, social scientists began to study what happens to soldiers on the battlefield. One famous study found that even in the heat of battle, most soldiers either did not shoot their guns at all, or they shot into the air. When questioned, most said they had no intention of killing anyone.[3]This is odd, of course, because millions of soldiers were killed during the Second World War.[4] However, how people die in war matters to answer this question.   

 Here’s a tally of the causes of death for British soldiers during the Second World War:   Causes of death 2   Other – 1% Chemical – 2% Blast, crush – 2% Landmine, booby trap – 10% Bullet, anti-tank mine – 10%   Causes of Death 3: Mortar, grenade, aerial bomb, shell – 75%.[5]   Less than ten percent were killed by bullets.   On me The vast majority were killed by weapons launched from a distance. It is very hard to get a soldier to kill someone they can see. During the Second World War General Montgomery, known as Monty, wrote home stating “The trouble with our British boys is that they are not killers by nature.” [6]During World War One, it is estimated that only one percent of deaths were caused by the use of bayonets. The movies show soldiers stabbing each other, but in reality, almost no one used them.   Shooting directly at people is very hard to do. It should come as no surprise that modern warfare has evolved to involve a reliance on artillery and even drones which are operated by soldiers on a different continent. If you want soldiers to kill each other, it is easier if they can’t see each other.  

Modern armies know all of this, so they have adjusted how they train the soldiers who carry weapons. Many of them have automatic weapons so that if they are threatened, with the slight push to a button they can kill people, even through walls. The kill ratios have risen since World War Two. But so has the psychological damage. In studies of veterans from Iraq it is clear people who kill others are much more likely to develop mental health problems. Killing someone else is the best predictor of contracting post traumatic stress disorder. Killing someone else also increases the chances of suffering from relationship problems, alcoholism and thinking about suicide.[7] These risks are all increased when the soldier has killed a civilian.[8] The heavy psychological suffering born by soldiers who kill is also seen among civilians who have killed someone else, on purpose or by mistake. [9]  

The evidence is conclusive – even trained soldiers are not suited to killing. It causes significant mental anguish which can last for years. Those who can avoid killing others do so. Those who must kill often suffer mental health problems due to remorse and a sense of having perpetrated what psychologists call “a moral injury.”  Human beings can and do kill each other, but for the majority, it feels like a crime against their nature, even when it is done to save others and their nation. Freud and Augustine were wrong. We are not born killers, only held back by civilization. Instead, when the usual laws of civilization are withdrawn and we are given a license to kill, the violence we render unto others violates our sense of self and decency.  

That inner desire to do good can be seen even in times of violence. The only time in recent history that North America has been attacked was on 9/11. On that morning, civilians in Manhattan were directly targeted in what looked like an act of war. In the movies, this kind of attack inspires panic, fear, and civil disorder. People selfishly saving themselves, thieves looting as the police are distracted.  

But in reality, 9/11 showed the most admirable aspects of human nature. In The World Trade Center Towers, civilians walked down 70 floors of stairs to escape, but by all accounts, it was done calmly. Some carried stretchers for the disabled, some carried others on their backs, and people simply moved aside so they could pass. One million New Yorkers were told to go home, and with the subway shut down, the only way out was on foot. There was little looting. People opened their homes and businesses to each other. Off duty firefighters and police rushed to the scene from all over the city.    

To get people off the island, hundreds of civilian boats converged at the piers, a sort of Dunkirk-like evacuation, but achieved in a matter of hours. Some even broke into yachts to ferry 100 people at time across the harbour.  

 At the piers, civilians created spontaneous distribution centers for water bottles, food, and snacks for anyone in need. These centers lasted for weeks, growing to include massage therapists and donated hardware for the people working at Ground Zero. All of this was spontaneous, created by civilians who simply wanted to help. [10]  

These acts of generosity at a time of war extended far beyond Manhattan. Canadians in Gander Newfoundland opened their homes to the thousands of passengers whose planes were grounded.[11] This outpouring of spontaneous hospitality has been immortalized in the Broadway musical Come from Away. In America, all over the country, donations to blood banks exploded, so much so that much of the blood was eventually thrown away.[12] Far from fleeing in terror, this threat to America’s security highlighted our inherent desire to help, which is far stronger than our desire to hurt or even save ourselves.  

On this Remembrance Day, we are called to remember those who have risked their lives to protect others. We are called to remember their sacrifices, the risks, and terrors that they faced on our behalf. And let us remember that they did this out of a desire to help. Their good nature, given to them by God, meant that when they were called to hurt others, even for causes seen as just, they risked harming themselves. Not just physically, but mentally. Many came home from wars unwilling to talk about what they saw at the front. Children eager for exciting war stories were often disappointed. A veteran’s reluctance to talk about the war, to remember it for others, is often a measure of how much war asks us to deviate from our better natures. The best way we can honour their memory is to work for a world where no men or women need to go to war. Instead, let us insure that here and abroad, all peoples can draw on the loving impulse placed in us by God. May we build a world where war may be something remembered, but not planned for.  



[1] [2] Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915): The Disillusionment of the War,” in Civilization, society, and religion, (Penguin: Markham: 1987), p.72-3. [3] Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A hopeful History, (New York, 2019),80. [4] [5] Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A hopeful History, (New York, 2019), 218. [6] Quoted in Humankind, 82. [7] Shira Maguen Et al., “The Impact of Reported Direct and Indirect Killing on Mental Health Symptoms in Iraq War Veterans,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 23, No. 1, February 2010, pp. 86–90 [8] [9] Mathilde M. Husky, “Mental disorders and medical conditions associated with causing injury or death: A population-based study,” [10] Hell, 207. [11] [12]