English, overig Plough.com (Feb, 20, 2023)

Following Jesus in Wartime

We’re told the only options in Ukraine are military escalation or appeasing a dictator. Where does that leave followers of the Prince of Peace?

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When we were first confronted with the coronavirus, it was hard not to be obsessed with the daily figures, the news reports, the pictures of death. We were called to join a great battle against a collective enemy that would require all available resources and unequivocal cooperation, regardless of the costs. There was no alternative.

In the same week that Covid restrictions ended here in the Netherlands, war broke out in Ukraine. It was as if we exchanged one obsession for the next. In no time, we were all glued to the news again, grasping for updates, fascinated by images of violence, bombings, and destruction. I soaked up the opinions of experts and analysts and let myself be carried away by roaring words about the misery of the Ukrainians and the fight against the new evil – Vladimir Putin – who does not listen to wimps but only to weapons bigger than his.

A collective enemy, be it Covid or Putin, brings us all together. We, the free, right-thinking world, we are one, one with the suffering masses in Ukraine, one with all the democratic peoples of the world. Let’s give the Ukrainians everything they need. Let’s arm them to the teeth. In fact, why don’t our armies go fight with them?

In a matter of days, defense budgets were inflated. Even Germany was shedding its antimilitarist feathers. And as in all wars, politicians left and right – even good Christian ones – were inviting arms producers over for coffee. After all, there was no alternative.

Wreckage after combat in Bucha, Ukraine

Wreckage after combat in Bucha, Ukraine. Photo courtesy Office of President of Ukraine.

The “There Is No Alternative” argument should always be a warning sign. Of course, doing nothing is always an option. Western nations regularly do nothing, as they have in the face of war in Ethiopia or the Chinese genocide of the Uyghur people. Apparently doing nothing is an option not because we think the enemy is good but because we realize we are too weak to impose our will or we fear the Pandora’s box that will be opened if we start down the road of war.

To be sure, there are dissenters who question the wisdom of shipping ever more weapons to Ukraine. Some of these war critics do have a point. The so-called free world bears some blame. We’ve known for years that our addiction to gas and oil provides dictators with an perpetual supply of money to buy weapons. We also know that other countries view our Western governments as a danger since we do break promises (not to expand NATO eastwards, for example) and overthrow regimes (Afghanistan, Iraq).

Yet criticism of international support for Ukraine’s military, while in many cases principled, at times seems motivated by more dubious sympathies. Some critics of the war claim that Putin’s brutal invasion is somehow justified – or that, even if he is somewhat culpable, Western governments are somehow more guilty. Such arguments often spring from the populist suspicion that elites are deceiving us into war. They amount to appeasing, or even supporting, a violent dictator with the blood of tens of thousands on his hands.

If we accept that something is such an ultimate evil that there is no alternative to military response and weapons sales, we have chosen a path without end and will face heavy consequences later. We can’t control war. For example, we didn’t know whether supplying Western weapons would speedily end the war in Ukraine, or contribute to it evolving into a protracted trench war or even into a nuclear conflict. Building and supplying and using weapons, even to retaliate against an agressor, generates a dynamic beyond our control. It’s a dynamic that is inevitably going to dominate us – and eventually make us resemble what we’re fighting against.

That’s why Jesus spoke about violence in spiritual terms. Violence is a spiritual power that we can’t defeat by using it ourselves. Throwing oil on the fire of violence is no solution. The means we choose are the seeds of the future. In the words of Jesus, whoever takes up the sword will perish by the sword. War will eat us in the end.

It’s true: pacifism may not a viable option for governments that don’t want to be defeated. Countries not willing to take up arms might be invaded. But Jesus wasn’t giving strategic political advice to the Roman emperor or to the armed resistance. He was telling individuals who would follow him, in no uncertain terms, that they should shun violence themselves, and never put any hope in violence to bring about peace.

Christians should, therefore, be careful not to get caught up by the passions and political struggles of the world. But does that mean the Christian should be passive in the face of evil? If we reject the belief that arming ourselves to the teeth can bring peace, does that mean we have no choice but to ignore, or deny, or excuse evil? Not at all.

The nonviolent way of Jesus is a difficult path, and we can only try to walk it ourselves. We can’t ask the Ukrainians to follow this path, and we can’t ask people who don’t trust in Jesus. This path is only for people who dare to believe Jesus’ teaching that violence breeds violence, and that the way to overcome enemies is to love them. It’s a path without easy answers. I don’t have a script for what constitutes good foreign policy for parliaments and presidents in this case, but I know we should focus on our personal foreign policy first. I’m going to try to formulate a few possible building blocks of such a personal foreign policy here, inspired by what I have learned from other people.

First: sadness. It may sound useless, sadness, but I notice that since the war started people’s sadness has affected me more than analysis. In the beginning we heard many voices of Ukrainians, but also Russians, who did not come up with solutions but above all were very sad. Why would this be helpful? This sadness, strangely enough, gave me hope; in the beginning of the war it often led to questioning in the media, before those voices were drowned out by politicians talking about expanding the war effort. These people simply grieving the situation gave me hope, hope that there are people who don’t think in black and white. Do I give space to grief for the people who have lost their homes, their loved ones, or their country? Or do I quickly jump to analysis and action?

Second: repentance. We can face our own involvement, our own share in the violence of the world – for example, by our addiction to fossil fuels which props up dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. Are we prepared to face our complicity in the fate of the oppressed people in China? Or our share in the violent border system that makes our peaceful lives possible because it keeps the desperate poor out. In what ways am I contributing to injustice and violence in the world? Am I willing to accept a world where we simply can’t afford our Western standards anymore?

Third: solidarity. Choosing the side of the poor is inextricably linked to this. When Jesus walked the earth, his people were brutally oppressed by Roman rulers. Jesus did not come up with a plan to throw them out, but he sided with the little people: the poor, the illiterate, the sick, the women. Let’s take their side too. Among those are refugees from the Ukraine. Do we remember them not only in the beginning, when emotions are still high, but also afterward, when the cameras turn away and the media again throw themselves into covering the high energy bills? Are we prepared to receive people, not just in government-funded asylum seekers’ centers but in our own homes? Are we also ready to receive Eritreans in our homes, refugees from an even more violent war?

Fourth: courage. This way is not an easy pacifism, one which would keep us far away from those who suffer. It’s a longing for peace that brings us closer to those who suffer, and may bring suffering into our lives. When this happens, we might be in need of a virtue we see in many Ukrainians, and that is courage. From the very start, Ukrainians from President Volodymyr Zelensky on down were willing to give their lives to defend their country. We will also need courage as violence approaches, not to shoot back but to stand up for our values and convictions even if we are threatened.

Fifth: prayer. According to Paul, we cannot resist the powers and principalities of our time without praying. Prayer is just not an isolated activity; all the above elements should be rooted in prayer, keeping us humble, hopeful, believing, and loving.

A few years ago I met with a Russian Orthodox priest, who served both Russians and Ukrainians in his parish. I had visited him because I wanted to know why the Orthodox Church seemed to be so closely associated with those in power. The priest admitted that the church had historically tread carefully around the state to avoid persecution. When I asked him point-blank what he really thought of Putin, he was a bit annoyed. “Why do you keep talking about Putin? Putin is just a tiny little man. History revolves only around Christ. We don’t want to focus on little men. We want to focus on Christ.” At the time, this seemed like dodging the question. But it turns out this was not a way for him to stay friends with the government. Last year he broke his ties with the Russian Orthodox Church because his allegiance is to Christ and not to Putin.

Only focus on Christ. I try to practice this advice in my own context. The priest’s recommendation doesn’t give me clear political answers. It is not a solution we could ever vote for. It’s highly personal, and only a first step on a very difficult road. But if we let it guide us, we will not be consumed by party politics, nor awed by big men with their armies, nor misled by the hope that building bombs is the way to wipe out evil.

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