17 February 2022

Ukraine, Russia, and what about us?

Screenshot from source.  

"Who are you Americans to claim the moral high ground?"

When discussing the Ukrainian/Russian/NATO tensions, I sometimes encounter some variation on this theme of the USA's many imperfections.

These imperfections may be general (we're captive to capitalism; we have genocidal and racist blood on our hands; in the USA, civil liberties are for the privileged), or they may be more specific (we promised no NATO expansion; we can't understand Russia's geographic vulnerability; NATO's "Pax Americana" is a form of colonialism).

Life is complicated. All of these points deserve due attention, but we cannot compensate for the USA's flaws by excusing the gaslighting and manipulations of Vladimir Putin's teams. 

A few years ago, I published a link on this blog to an openDemocracy article by Philip Evans, "Why Russia watchers should listen to Glenn Greenwald." (As you read the article, you'll see that Greenwald is a convenient reference but not central to the author's main points.) For the most part, I agree with almost everything in the article, noting that Evans doesn't gloss over the authoritarianism we see in Russia's political life, and doesn't argue for perfect equivalence between countries.

However, at the heart of the article is this assertion:

If you are going to criticise a foreign government, then you are morally obliged to be just as scrupulous with your own.

I agree in principle, but also want to say, it's not that simple. A lot depends on who "you" is.

Screenshot; source.  
For the community of Christian pacifists (none of whom are, of course, authorized to speak for all of us), I would agree that our common witness should direct the same intelligent and compassionate skepticism at all social and political structures, not favoring the system we happen to live in. We are citizens of another commonwealth entirely, and the Prince of Peace is our guide.

Furthermore, we have (or ought to have) some kind of mutual accountability, which we generally exercise within our congregational and denominational structures, with elders to help us, and so on. Given this mutual accountability, I'm not required to be equally critical of the USA and Russia at all times.

If I'm writing about the vanishing public space for freedom of conscience in Russia, I'm not personally required to balance each detail with an equivalent sin in the USA, even though in our  cash-dominated, Trump- and Bannon-warped body politic, that job needs to be done. Of course, there are propagandists on Russian government payrolls that do an excellent job at whataboutism, but just as I might focus at this moment on Russian leaders' corrupt dealings with Ukraine, someone else in our faithful and mutually accountable division of labor will be focusing the same quality of examination on the USA's variable faithfulness to its own founding ideals. The community of people who care about civil society and freedom of conscience everywhere should help each other preserve the unblinking and independent moral vision that Philip Evans advocates.

When we take the full scope of national histories into account, things become even more complicated. The Soviet Union practiced cruelty and genocide on an industrial scale within living memory. There are some people still alive today who remember the horrors of 1937 and the wartime removals of whole nations within the USSR. 

Screenshot; source.  
Those were not the "good old days" in the USA either, with Jim Crow's team (to take just one example) preventing even simple anti-lynching laws from passing Congress! But, despite sin in both camps, there is no equivalence between the USSR and the USA at that time. The American colonies, and the country that succeeded them, had their own earlier era of mass cruelty to aboriginal populations and enslaved people, with consequences that flay our nation right up to this moment.

Now, just as some Russians want to prohibit honest discussions of aspects of Soviet history in the 20th century, the forces of white nationalism seek to preserve our children from learning from our own experiences from 1619 on. Whether we are speaking literally or metaphorically, wherever and whenever evil flourishes, its demonic strongholds remain embedded in our systems until we demand their removal in the name of Jesus.

The Bible is very clear, repeatedly clear, on humans' tendencies to lord it over each other, covet each other's territory, and lie and kill in order to accomplish sinful goals. (Some examples here.) We can grieve and protest when we see it happening, but let's not be surprised. Instead, let's do our best to raise bloody hell when we see deception and cruelty in motion, wherever it happens, always remembering the perennial and systemic nature of sin. And let's guide, admonish, and support each other in our diverse approaches to telling these truths.

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post on "neutrality" in conflict situations. At that time, the context was (and of course it could still be) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I proposed eight points, which I'd like to present again here. Tell me what you think.... 

(I still recommend the original post because of the helpful comments and criticisms there. The dialogue continued two weeks later.)

  • First: there is a difference between conscientious neutrality, confirmed by a searching process of prayer and study, and the neutrality that is adopted from indifference or fear. If the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship (which I mentioned here) taught me anything, it is that Friends may at times be as likely as other groups to find reasons for avoiding the costly implications of our Christian faith. How often, for example, Friends put off desegregating their schools because it would upset too many parents or donors. Does ignorance, fear or apathy play a role in Friends' decisions concerning advocacy for Israel or Palestine?
  • There is an important discipline of modesty in a neutral position: we may not actually know as much about the situation as we might assume. We might not be as important in the overall picture as we're tempted to believe. Perhaps we believe we are giving a voice to the voiceless, but are underestimating the capacity of the "voiceless" to speak for themselves. Perhaps we are people-pleasers, addicted to the approval of those we're tempted to champion. Our more important task may be to understand how our own affluence or indifference feeds the conflict.
  • Conflict tends to distort truth and flatten nuances, and by joining a conflict (however nonviolently) we may compromise our commitment to truth. We are well aware that every conflict is very complex, and no side is perfectly evil or perfectly innocent, but such nuances vanish in practice. How do we respond assertively to oppression without demonizing the human beings on the oppressors' side, and without associating ourselves with the extreme rhetoric of the victims' defenders? The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a great example: I've heard incredibly blatant oversimplifications coming from both sides. To be fair, I've also heard both Israelis and Palestinians who are capable of balanced analyses.
  • In the past, our reputation for neutrality has enabled us to host private negotiations between conflicting parties. In weighing the decision to give up neutrality, we should take into account the cost to all sides of losing that credibility. The other great benefit of maintaining neutrality becomes particularly important when conflict leads to suffering and violence -- when the raw demands of serving the hungry and injured may require us to work on all sides simultaneously, regardless of our sympathies for one side or another. In addition, without neutrality, how will we support the nonviolent dissidents on all sides -- at just the time they are least likely to find support among "their own"?
  • However, those peacemaking and relief functions are not served by a lazy sort of neutrality -- we must be well-informed and accessible to all sides. The Quaker U.N. offices in New York and Geneva have sometimes functioned this way. Are we continuing to support these offices and preparing Friends to serve in this ministry? There is also a danger of ordinary Friends and their congregations assuming that "they" (the paid professionals) will do it -- but "they" need our prayers, they need to be held accountable -- and they need us to continue our own traveling ministries, to continue to be willing even to live in conflict zones as students, businesspeople, caregivers, even just conscientious tourists -- in other words, continue to be the body of Christ worldwide, whether we are "at home" or in a cross-cultural situation, or both.
  • We all have our own spiritual gifts, which may often help us discern what our role is in ministering to conflict. Even when we must support one side, or (for example) boycott the other side economically, we may have Friends who are especially gifted to pray for the side we perceive to be in the wrong, and even to continue to communicate with the people we disagree with. The prophets among us who might be leading our public advocacy will still need to be held accountable by others in the meeting.
  • Inevitably, sometimes individuals experience strong leadings toward advocacy that their meeting cannot confirm. This is not the end of the world -- even if the congregation must make it publicly clear that the individual involved does not speak for them. A generation later, maybe the meeting will come to understand that the individual was right. But maybe he or she was wrong -- or was simply being used by God in a completely different way, while the meeting needed to continue to offer a credible neutrality.
  • When we turn to God for guidance rather than relying on conventional analyses, we may find that God opens our eyes to a completely different sort of conflict. Rather than one side being right, and the other wrong, we may find that both sides are trapped in roles and myths by a larger system of powers and principalities. Our most important role may be to unmask and confront that larger system, through prayer and public witness and a ministry of interpretation. For example: in many cases, people and groups press competing claims to the same land, forgetting that all claims to specific pieces of land are strictly temporary. The land is God's, not ours -- and what is dry land today may be underwater in future generations, or swallowed by earthquakes, or rendered uninhabitable by ecological sin. Flat assertions of eternal ownership by either side won't solve the problem, no matter how wonderful their claims might be from inside their own worldview.

These days, when people react to Biden's and Blinken's warnings about imminent invasions, I like quoting veteran journalist Shaun Walker's tweet from a few days ago:

Diane Francis on Putin's gameplan: Occupying Europe without troops.

United Nations bulletin on the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. "...[U]nder international humanitarian law, forcible transfers of protected persons by the occupying power are forbidden regardless of their motive."

Roger E. Olson on the now-old "young evangelicals."

Two interesting articles from Bill Yoder: On Moscow's largest Protestant congregation, and an interview with longtime Nizhny Novgorod resident (now in the USA), Harley Wagler.

St. Vladimir's Seminary considers a difficult (and possibly controversial) decision. (This story brought back memories of the Church of the Brethren's Bethany Theological Seminary and its decision to move from Chicagoland in 1994 and share a campus with Earlham School of Religion.)

Meanwhile, what to do when it's raining in Oslo.

Friends World Committee for Consultation invites you to the Section of the Americas annual meeting.

But first, another FWCC event: Russian-speaking Quakers and Friends of Friends have an online conference, February 26 and 27, 1-4 p.m. Moscow time on both days. (2-5 a.m. for me, but I plan to attend.)

For Hal and Nancy Thomas, choosing a new home seemed like interplanetary travel.

One night in Moscow.... Enjoy!


kfsaylor said...

"And let's guide, admonish, and support each other in our diverse approaches to telling these truths."

The immanent presence of the spirit of Christ is discovered to me a different way of human relations that is outside the reflective nature and the agencies and agents of the reflective process. Through the immanent, immediate, and living presence of the image of Christ, I am drawn into a different faculty established in the awareness of the Spirit's increase, decrease, and stasis as sole rule (and sufficient in itself) in and during human relationships and interactions. This different way is non-conceptual so that the reflective nature (and the agents and agencies of the reflective nature) does not guide or inform human relations.

Johan Maurer said...

Keith, you've responded to my posts several times with a similar comment, labeling my analyses and commentaries as "reflective process." Do you believe that there is no validity to my observations? I sometimes talk in the language of spiritual warfare -- is this at all related to the "awareness of the Spirit's increase, decrease, and stasis..."? You then say, if I follow your grammar correctly, that "the reflective nature (and the agents and agencies of the reflective nature) does not guide or inform human relations."

I think I intuitively grasp at least a bit of what you're saying, but I still need help. Can you name another person (contemporary or historical) who tries to communicate with people without using the reflective nature? Or is this kind of awareness unique to you? Or am I missing an essential aspect of what you're trying to teach?

Thank you for your patience in continuing to read my posts, as compromised as they may be by my inadequate attention to the Holy Spirit. (Although I realize that what I just said may be another example of the reflective nature.)

kfsaylor said...


The intent behind my responses to you is not to question the validity of your specific observations or reflections, but to give testimony to the witness of being come out of the faculty of reflective process to guide and inform relationships and interactions through the establishment of the power and presence of the spirit of Christ in my conscience and consciousness; which is discovered to me a different faculty to rule and govern human relations that is established in immanent impulse of the spirit itself in itself. This different faculty is manifested in the immediate awareness of the Spirit's increase or diminshment in given interactions. With this said, I carry no expectation that you, or any other, should share the same conscience. For me to reflect such an expectation results in the awareness of the diminshment of the Spirit's inshining presence in my conscience and a usurpation of the prerogative of Christ in the conscience of others.

I have published a document on my website which addresses your questions directly. It is in draft form and is incomplete but with extensive cross-reference to source documentation I have keyboarded and published. You may view the document here should you wish:


In appreciation of your pleasant conversation in the spirit of Christ,