Fighting war with peace

March 11, 2022 in News

I used to work with university students in Kharkiv. In the summer I would visit with Irish students and we would enjoy the culture shock together. In the winter, I would visit on my own and marvel at how people could cope with such cold. I remember the subway system that has been catapulted into our consciousness by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine well. The Kyivska station was particularly stunning, with vaulted ceilings composed of stacked hemispheres, chandeliers hanging above the busy commuters.
Seeing those same train stations repurposed as bomb shelters over recent weeks has been deeply distressing. One of my colleagues from back then was still in Kharkiv as the tanks approached. (She has since gotten out with her children, but the region where she has taken refuge may well be next in line for assault.) Many of the students I worked with in Ukraine were from Kenya and Uganda. I knew about the racism they faced with impeccable grace in ordinary times. I dreaded what I feared would happen – and did happen – when this generation of African students tried to escape the Russian onslaught. I have nightmares about Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling. But I am mostly consumed by thoughts about my friends and haunted by what I would do if I was in Ukraine.

I am a pacifist. I hate the word, because it is so irredeemably pacific, but “I am committed to Christological non-violence” is too much of a mouthful and even after all my years of theological study, I am not sure it actually says much. My position on lethal violence is a religious conviction for me. I am convinced that Tertullian had it right 1,800 years ago when he said that “in disarming Peter, Jesus unbelted every soldier”. Following the Prince of Peace means you never stand still long enough to fight in the wars of men. Tertullian again, put it best when he said “in our religion, it is counted better to be slain than to slay”.

This is not a popular position at the best of times. But when a tyrant is rolling close to 200,000 soldiers into the towns and cities I know, along with tanks and jets and artillery and associated ingenious devices of slaughter, it seems positively perverse. I worry sometimes that pacifism offers camouflage for cowardice. And I know even re-stating this position will anger some of my friends still trapped in Ukraine. Is it not morally disgusting to sit in my untroubled peace and judge those forced to fight?
That would be morally disgusting. But the thing I mean to allude to – imprecisely – when I call myself a pacifist is not the kind of thing that leads me to judge the men and women who have bravely and selflessly gone to the front to fight the Russian invaders. Christian non-violence does not – is it more accurate to say ‘should not’? – imagine war as a sort of mathematical puzzle and pacifism as the correct result of our ethical calculus, the answer without remainder that is right and settled and different from all other answers because they are wrong.

Christian non-violence has this in common with Christian Just War thinking – it is a form of lamenting penitence, a desperate, failing attempt to live faithfully in a world so fallen that men who are barely out of boyhood fire metal faster than the speed of sound into the human flesh of their neighbours who believe in the same God and speak the same language and cheer for the same soccer stars and relish the same meals, and call that heroism. The long and rich tradition of Just War thinking concluded that sometimes a soldier could be found to be engaged in a justified military operation, but they still were held accountable for those they killed. The best Just War thinking is informed by the reality that in a violent world, we have to express our love for our neighbour – especially our weaker neighbour – in action. It concludes that sometimes the violence of others pierces an event horizon such that answering their brutality with measured and proportionate violence, always directed towards peace, is the right course of action ». Too often, pacifist thinking is of the worst kind where it is just deployed as a superior moral theory without any real regard for the actual reality facing the residents of Kharkiv. I imagine “My theory reads the New Testament texts better than your theory” sounds considerably less impressive as your elderly neighbour struggles for breath under the weight of the ceiling that has collapsed in on her.

If I was in Ukraine, faced with that pressing reality, my theory might be discarded. I do not wish to kill. I sincerely believe it is better to be killed than to kill. But is it better to stand passively by, content in your intellectual rigor, while others get killed?

I was asked to write this piece two weeks ago and have been paralysed since then because of the risk of absurdity as I naively parade my abstract reasoning about lethal violence from my context of utter tranquillity. But the voices which are found in newspaper op-eds, radio discussions, and (especially) social media sites, loudly declaring the need to join NATO, overhaul our military, and answer Putin in a language he understands, are surely engaged in an equally abstract conversation. Even if they could dictate our nation’s policy, they are usually not of fighting age. Asking others to go to war is what they accuse the pacifist of doing.

The “let’s be realistic and prepare to go to war” crowd are all the more dubious when we remember the kind of cul-de-sac logic that has brought this war about. Putin has some quasi-mystical account of Russian historical destiny running in his brain that includes Ukraine within his zone of influence. Recognising that, Ukraine investigates NATO membership as a means of protection. To stop them from joining NATO, Putin threatens and then pursues invasion.

“I’m going to invade you so you don’t think about joining NATO to stop me invading” is the reality we are facing and it is curved in on itself as hellish ideas are, internally incoherent, ridiculous on the face of it. But it is as if the anti-logic of war is contagious. The theoretical warriors watch this unfold and do not think, “We must more seriously pursue peacebuilding as our daily goal in politics” but insist “We must stock up on weapons to keep this insane cycle going”. This is how we ended up in our present nuclear lunacy. The only thing more morally dubious than being a delusional peacenik in a time of war is being an armchair warmonger when peace is there for the winning.

And that brings me around to the reason I stubbornly hold to non-violence even as I fervently pray the imprecatory Psalms ». Christian non-violence is not, as so many people assume, a dead-on-arrival strategy to rid the world of war. It is, as my teacher Stanley Hauerwas continuously reminds us, “the way Christians must live in a world of violence”. Non-violence is the refusal to trust the nihilistic logic of escalating violence. Instead it commits to live as if the God who faced down imperial might while healing the ears of imperial soldiers is real. And active. He has not abandoned us. It is tentative and improvised and stuttering because the non-violent Christ did not give us principles to follow or a programme to enact but gave us his body.

“Following that body” might be my shortest viable definition of what Christianity entails. Embodied in that definition is an assumption that there are things worth dying for and an implacable suspicion that there is practically nothing worth killing for. But I hope it is also clear how that definition embeds non-violence into the everyday life of the Christian. Although I only tend to get pressed hard about my position in times of conflict, it is something that shapes and informs all of my discipleship.

One of the most destructive truncations of our imagination that occurs when we let the logic of militarism reign is that we reduce our deliberations down to “what do we do in response to ‘x’?” where the ‘x’ is in fact one link in a long historical chain of factors and considerations. We cannot ask how we should defend those trapped in the towers of Kharkiv without also asking why the tanks surround them in the first place. And we cannot understand that without understanding 2014. And we cannot understand that without understanding the Orange Revolution. And we cannot understand that… This is not an invitation to paralysis by analysis but a recognition that if we are to oppose war we must start to build the ground for peace.

I learned in recent years from the work of the theologian Theodora Hawksley » that what is required in the times when war is not waged is peacebuilding, the concerted attempt to create deeper peace by “reducing direct violence, increasing justice, and healing the wounds of conflict over the long term”. Pacifism is a crappy word because it isn’t passive. The babushkas who gathered to pray in the squares of Kharkiv were non-violent and non-passive ». The villagers who simply wouldn’t let tanks through were non-violent and non-passive ». The civil servants who are replacing road signs with encouragements to leave are non-violent and non-passive ». Even the soldiers who fed Russian prisoners of war and treated them with dignity and let them ring their mothers back home are engaged in something non-violent », there is a gesture towards a fraternity that the tinpot tyrants like Putin obscure with their incendiary rhetoric and incendiary devices.

Killing Russians might stop the war in Ukraine. It can’t make the peace. The value of non-violent resistance is not that it is effective – though historically it often is » – but that it is true. Those small gestures of active non-violence are enacting the reality while the generals play at make-believe. In ordinary time, people are untroubled by Christian pacifism, but we all assume that “ordinary time” is time of peace. In times of war, when that peace is interrupted, our logic is too. We think that killing Russians becomes the way to make the world safe. It might win the war, but it will not win the peace.