12 May 2022

Ukraine and the dilemmas of pacifism

"Peace to Ukraine," Eddie Lobanovskiy, source.

The urge to do something—anything—to stop the horrifying violence unfolding in Ukraine is deeply understandable. But this is the point where someone should be pausing to ask—is this deluge of arms [to be purchased with the money in the U.S. President's proposed emergency spending bill] going to result in the peace the Ukrainian people need and deserve?

It often feels like engaging militarily is the only way to end conflict. But if we have learned anything from the last 20 years of the war on terror, it’s that military gains are short-lived and exact a high human, financial, and moral cost.

The path we’re on brings us dangerously closer to nuclear war and global annihilation. We must do everything we can to help the parties agree to a ceasefire and lay the groundwork for enduring peace.

— "Investing in a Durable Peace in Ukraine," Jessie Palatucci, Friends Committee on National Legislation, April 29, 2022.

A Christian, as Friends have understood the word, is someone who elects now to live as though the world were Christian. He [sic] will remain a committed person though the heavens fall, because his inward condition demands it of him. He ardently hopes to end wara political changebut he would continue a pacifist though certain his efforts would never bear any fruit at all. The purely secular pacifist, if such a creature exist, starts by being concerned with consequences. He is a pacifist because he wants to end war. His motivation is pragmatic, teleological, and political.

What happens when an act of faith is turned into a political creed? Secular pacifist ideology, so far as it is secular, cannot demand that its adherents remain faithful regardless of whether it works. So the ideologues of pacifism are obliged to figure out a methodology which they can say will probably work, or at least work better in the long run than any other method of social change.

— R. W. Tucker, "Revolutionary Faithfulness," Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter 1967-68.

In any apparent war of aggression, a purely secular pacifist, "if such a creature exist," is confronted by an excruciating dilemma. In the present war in Ukraine, this observer should certainly be extremely uneasy about the lethal arms flooding into Ukraine to destroy Russian invasion forces and take back the territory that those forces now occupy, alongside an economic boycott that will certainly hurt the ordinary citizens of the aggressor nation more than its elites.

But the opposite response to the aggression is equally repellent: the spectacle of a country being abandoned by all its late friends and left to be diced and quartered, even to die on the field of battle, while the rest of the world continues to help fund the aggression through all the routine ties of trade that have enriched global elites on all sides of the conflict—while allowing, of course, politicians and church leaders to bemoan the aggression and call for ceasefires.

Depending on this observer's political orientation, he or she might be tempted to abandon pacifism, pointing out that there is absolutely no hope that placating Vladimir Putin, giving him concessions so that he might be nicer to Ukraine, will result in peace. It might be better to support the Ukrainians with weapons as a middle way that is less likely to result in global war than actually fighting alongside the Ukrainian military.

Or he or she might say that we Americans (for example) have invaded any number of countries ourselves, so what basis do we have to criticize Russia, which just wants to ensure safety from NATO's dubious agendas? So sad to see all those awful scenes from Ukraine, but maybe they're fake.

But let's say you and I have put all our eggs into the Jesus basket. Abandoning nonviolence is simply not an option. What can we say that is different from the calculations of our peace-loving friends and neighbors who are casting about for political solutions and compromises when evidence suggests that the aggressor is completely uninterested in what we think of him?

Here are a few thoughts. I hope that you will be able to add some of your own.

  • First, let's keep our capacity for clean and honest analysis. Am I right to assert that Vladimir Putin has voluntarily engaged in a war based on a theory of Ukraine's illegitimate existence as a Leninist invention? Do nations have the right to secure, peremptorily and violently, the civil rights of people in other countries who happen to speak the same language? Are Nazis a significant presence in Ukraine, or are they not?? Can I make these analyses without resorting to whataboutism concerning the sins of my own country, and deal honestly with those sins on a separate occasion? Live not by lies.
  • Second, let's reject the fantasy that our benign influence will make authoritarians nicer. On the other hand, it is not helpful to demonize them, as evil as their actions might be. They, and we, are all made in the image and likeness of God, but they (and we) are also caught up in worldly systems, some of whom include long-standing patterns of cruelty and bondage. Participation in the Lamb's War includes working together to discern those worldly systems and patterns, and confront them rather than objectifying those trapped in them.
  • Third, how can we use our spiritual gifts to "get in the Way" (referring to an early Christian Peacemaker Teams slogan) in our prayer lives, in nonviolent confrontations with authoritarian forces, in forming teams to be physically present in conflict zones (or paying and praying for those who do so), in not paying taxes for military purposes, in supporting politicians whose policies we like, or in running for office ourselves? The possible variations are as numerous as the numbers of spiritual gifts. 
  • Fourth, let's grow our capacity to love the community that organizes around these responses, and ask God to help us direct our love even to those whom we've so far been unable to reach. In every war, this expansion of our capacity to love may be the hardest work of all, and the most urgent. Of all the Quaker testimonies, the testimony of evangelism continues to be top priority: to evangelize the secular world that still puts blind faith in violence, by communicating the love and mercy of the Creator as we have experienced it.
  • Fifth, let's do all we can to encourage the prophets and peacemakers in the conflict areas, and to sabotage the forces and technologies that seek to isolate them. For me, this particularly means staying in touch with the many people we got to know in Russia during our years there. Some have left, but most are still there. I'm careful not to endanger them by sending content that might expose them to danger; I let them take the lead in what to say or not to say. Some, but not all, of my channels are Christian—some specifically Quaker, and some Russian Orthodox and Baptist—and they include people who have raised up the banner of peace in amazing ways despite all the hazards. The doors seem closed to travel there myself at the moment, but I'm watching and waiting.

I'm struck by how often we Western idealists have good ideas about how others should conduct themselves. Our politicians should or shouldn't send weapons to Ukraine, for example; our oil companies should stop opening new oil wells. We often neglect to ask what we are doing to create or support good choices or diminish the market for bad choices. This is not to minimize the importance of holding authorities accountable, but we ought to hold ourselves accountable, too, and to recognize when our complicity weakens our case.

I don't consider myself qualified to say what the Pentagon or NATO "should" do to end the bloodshed in Ukraine. All their apparent choices look awful. I think I know what the Kremlin should do ... but in any case I am not content with the choices that imperial power politicians offer. I want to learn what God wants me to do, and I'd love to know how you are feeling led. And ... I want to know what might happen when all our meetings and churches, together, ask what God wants us to say and do in the face of war.


Related posts: The fog of war, part two: face to face with the curse; The beautiful Russia of the future.

And here's an article on the Pope's reaction to Patriarch Kirill's defense of the Russian invasion. "I listened [to Kirill's list of points in defense of the invasion] and then told him: I don’t understand anything about this," Francis said. "Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. Because of this, we must seek avenues of peace, to put an end to the firing of weapons."

A dialogue in Friends Journal:

Bryan Garman, "The Peace Testimony and Ukraine."

David Hadley Finke, "The Spirit of Christ and our Historic Peace Testimony."

(PS: "... When war's on the horizon, are the Savior's words less true?")


Here's the Guardian article that provoked my comment on oil companies not opening new oil wells. Among other things, the article describes the "carbon bombs"—huge projects already underway or on the drawing board that would destroy our chances of staying under the 1.5 degrees C climate goal. It's an important article, but it focuses mostly on the greed of corporations and hypocrisy of governments. I would love equally dramatic coverage of citizens' lack of concern about where they get their energy. The energy companies would not have these dramatic expansion plans if they didn't think they could sell their product at a profitable price. What can we do to shift consumers' mentalities?—prepare to pay the true price of your (my) energy, and support rapid conversion to more sustainable energy sources.

Bill Yoder on evangelicals in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

An interview with Alexei Yurchak: "It's impossible for the system not to change." Yurchak is the author of the highly-recommended book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.

The latest update from Rights in Russia.

A sermon at Spokane Friends Meeting in Washington state, USA: John Kinney gives a superb, simple explanation of substitutionary atonement theology and its defects. (By the way, I usually speak at Spokane Meeting on fourth Sundays of the month.)

At the far end of a missionary's one-way ticket: Something new is being built.


Big Daddy Wilson at the Bluesmoose Cafe in the Netherlands. "I Heard the Angels Singing."

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog when I can Johan. My own feeling is an overwhelming urge to try to do something to try and help. The deluge of weaponry that is and has been sent I feel worsens the situation. I'm not sure about the 'whataboutism' term as I feel that the sending of weapons did not strike me as being mainly to help the Ukrainian people. I feel that the reasons for sending weapons may be numerous and diverse and not necessarily as having any relationship with a desire to achieve peace for the Ukrainian people. For politicians elsewhere to say 'fight to the last Ukrainian', was as equally horrifying as the decision to invade. Leninist ideas has long gone and Russia has lived with rampant capitalism a long time now. All nation states have blood on their hands and this Eden we inhabit as one of its species, keeps reminding us, that we are all interconnected beings. Wishing peace, healing and connectedness. In friendship, Wendy

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Wendy. I think the conventional ways of lining up good and bad, and assuming all solutions must fit this matrix, is dreadfully inadequate for just this reason: "we are all interconnected beings."

Furthermore, our interconnectedness is far more real than the concepts of nation-states and borders, which after all are only in our heads and depend on colonizing our brains to keep these systems' coercive power.

I understand, regretfully, that this coercive power squeezes most people's options into very narrow choices: for example, "arm Ukraine" or "abandon Ukraine." I also recognize that Ukrainians themselves, for the most part, hope we do not choose to abandon them. I am not so high-minded that I can ignore this. But after over fifty years of campaigning for nonviolence, I find very hard to break this monopoly that violence seems to have on most people's imagination. I now want to challenge that monopoly, somehow, on a spiritual level, rather than constantly relying on my own amateurish arguments about which of two awful choices is the less awful. Honestly, how do I know?

It does comfort me that I'm not in this alone. Our meetings and churches and home communities have lots of people with diverse gifts and talents. Some can speak the language of policy, while others are more gifted as prophets or evangelists. In love we can argue and debate and correct and support each other, and together we can show the world what it looks like to deny violence the legitimacy it counts on.

Marshall Massey said...

I find myself in total agreement with the views expressed in your quote from
R. W. Tucker. Yes, as you say, we may be tempted to abandon pacifism, and with good reason. But the key word there is “tempted”. The urge to accomplish worldly good in our own wills and according to our private understandings is a classic tool of the Tempter, and was contained in the temptations he offered to Jesus in the wilderness.

We must remember that we are called to be firstfruits of God’s program of redemption, and to bear testimony in our own lives to what Christ makes of human beings. (James 1:18; cf. I Corinthans 16:15) And how do we do that if we engage in facilitating further death and destruction? If we fall into the violence, we bear testimony only to the fact that we are fallen like everybody else. There will inevitably be plenty of further death and destruction in Ukraine, but we should not let ourselves become the cause. We should instead become a visible alternative — one that the world can strike against, but cannot extinguish.

And yet the path of reactive violence is a difficult temptation to resist, for all the reasons you enumerate. We want to make the horror show stop.

We cannot demand of others, such as the Ukrainians (or the Palestinians, or the Yemenis), that they walk the path of total pacifism, Christian nonresistance and self-sacrifice. If we look in the mirror, we might be forced to confess that we do not truly walk that path ourselves. But even if we do not have the clarity to confess it, the fact remains that if we did truly walk that path, we would understand that to walk it ourselves means walking it for others and n the place of others, and certainly not forcing others to do it. We have to go first, laying down our lives for our friends. That’s what being the firstfruits is all about.

Always the challenge comes back to ourselves, and the finger we point at others winds up pointing at ourselves. Ouch!

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Marshall.

Anonymous said...

Dear Johan!
Thanks for your most optimistic viewpoints on the terrible events taking in besieged Ukraine. I just as many other peace loving compatriots try to understand, difficult though it may be, what is REALLY GOING ON and how we can help it. As far as I remember there has used to be a special prayer in our Church in Morning Service asking the Lord to stop this Intestine Feuds (literally) and to bring peace to our Ukrainian Brothers!!! It used to have been read by our Priest at every Service just before the Real War broke.
And I also know that many priests don't approve of this war!
while others certainly do - and that makes me - church goer really sad!!!
(Anton)

kfsaylor said...


Awareness of the inshining presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ guides and informs my relationships and interactions. This awareness of the Spirit’s presence seated in my consciousness and conscience and the experience of its relative intensity through awareness of the increase or diminishment of the light of the spirit is, in itself, the faculty which anchors my consciousness and informs my conscience. In the power and presence of the spirit of Christ, the faculty of reason or reflective thought does not anchor my consciousness and inform my conscience in matters of human relations.

Being in Christ’s presence discovers to me that human relations guided and informed through the agency of the reflective nature is the cause of conflict and strife. To the extent that people relate to one another through the agency of the reflective nature and the political, religious, educational, and economic conceptual entities manifested through the reflective nature is the extent to which I cannot, in good conscience, affirm their behaviour toward one another. It is the direct and immediate experience of the awareness of the inshining presence of the spirit of Christ enthroned upon my consciousness and conscience and the renewal of my mind through the faculty of awareness of the spirit’s intensity in a given interaction that draws me out of the agency of the reflective nature and the cycle of conflict it nurtures.

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is guided and informed through the agency of the reflective nature and the use of its political, religious, educational, and economic conceptual entities. To the extent they embrace the reflective nature and its conceptual agents is the extent to which they will nurture conflict. There is a different way found in the agency of the spirit of Christ and the renewal of the mind through the faculty of awareness of the spirit’s relative intensity in given interactions. Turning to the Spirit’s presence in the conscious and conscience will draw human relations out of the reflective nature and being guided and informed by conceptual entities manifested through the reflective process.

In reality, the power of the reflective nature and the resulting influence of its elemental conceptual entities is strong and rules much of human relations. Human relations and interactions will not be drawn out of conflict and strife through the promotion of concepts like, passivism, peace, unity, etc. These concepts are also agents of the reflective nature. The use of concepts to guide human relations is under the power of the reflective nature and the conceptual entities manifested through the process of reflective thought.

The spirit of Christ is discovered to me that physical weapons of war are shadows of the conceptual entities which guide human technological weaponry development through the the agency of the reflective nature. The immanent presence of the spirit of Christ in my conscience has shifted my perspective and I see that concepts are living spiritual entities that influence people and which people use to guide their actions toward other people through the agency of the reflective nature. Concepts are not created in the brains of human beings. The world of these conceptual entities of the reflective nature is all around as we go about daily life in the physical world. It is a world along-side the physical world. There is a different way to guide and inform human relations through direct experience of the presence of Christ in the conscience and the different faculty of the awareness of the Spirit’s motion itself in given human interactions and relationships. In Christ, I am drawn out of the power of the reflective nature and its conceptual agents to guide and inform human relations.