Ukraine and the Challenge of Christian Peacemaking
Can we imagine alternatives to prolonged war?
“Negotiating Peace in Ukraine Isn’t Surrender,” began a magazine headline last month. “It’s Christian.”
So argued Adam Russell Taylor, president of Sojourners, the progressive Christian publication originally founded by Jim Wallis in 1971. “I admire the Ukrainian people’s courageous resistance and support their right to defend their sovereignty from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperialistic aggression,” wrote Taylor. “Yet, I’m alarmed that the prospect of peace seems increasingly elusive.” He fretted that ongoing Western aid to Ukraine might not end Russia’s invasion, just “further entrench and incentivize war.”
So what options remained? Most controversially, Taylor insisted on the potential for a negotiated peace. Although he acknowledged the difficulties inherent in having Putin as a negotiating partner, Taylor held out hope for a diplomatic settlement that would “resolve Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to long-term security, the controversial issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership, and the future of both Crimea and the Donbas region” — and be acceptable to Russia.
Rather remarkably, readers of a magazine that was born of Christian opposition to the war in Vietnam and campaigned against nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq pushed back against Taylor’s call for diplomacy. Take these three letters to the editor:
Is it a moral failure to defend your country against conquest by a ruthless tyranny? Is Ukraine another “small country far away about which we know little”? If this country, and its people and their leaders, wish to retain their land intact and whole again, how is that a moral failure on their part? Would it not be a failure on our part if we lectured them on their rights and aims and on their own willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of those aims?
Ordinarily I'm VERY sympathetic to this line of reasoning… At the same time, I'm concerned that we run the risk of resurrecting Neville Chamberlain if this is the course we plan on following in the face of the crime of unjust and destructive aggression against Ukraine and its people perpetrated by the Russian criminals.
While peace is certainly the end we should seek as Christians, we must begin with a clear diagnosis of the barriers to peace. In Ukraine, the barrier to peace is Russian occupation and atrocities against Ukrainian civilians on Ukrainian soil every day.”
In response, Taylor again agreed that “Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is both a blatant violation of international law and a form of tyranny. According to just war theory, Ukraine is fighting a just war.” But he refused to back down from his call for diplomacy:
I recognize that a mediated peace will be extremely challenging and will likely take tireless effort and significant time. Yet the current political discourse around the war in Ukraine presumes that the only path to reach peace is through an escalation of the current conflict… This mindset essentially precludes any possibility of a mediated or negotiated peace and forces us to accept the inevitability of prolonged death and destruction.
I can understand both Taylor’s intent and the reservations of his readers.
The latter first. I’m afraid that what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote after the start of World War II is still true today: that an “ethic of pure non-resistance can have no immediate relevance to any political situation; for in every political situation it is necessary to achieve justice by resisting pride and force.” Just as Sojourners readers recoiled from compelling Ukraine to negotiate with Russian aggression, Niebuhr warned that Christian pacifists in 1940 had “to condone such tyranny as that of Germany in the nations which it has conquered and now cruelly oppresses… Pacifism either tempts us to make no judgments at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny in comparison with the momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.”
So I find it almost impossible to imagine how a genuinely just settlement — which would include war crimes trials — can be reached so long as Vladimir Putin is firmly entrenched in power… but it is also possible that my imagination is simply limited.
To my mind, that’s the truly important argument from Taylor. “War can often feel inevitable and self-perpetuating, clouding our imagination to see other possibilities,” he warned. “In the face of the powerful forces fueling war, we must tap into our moral imagination to envision a path forward that doesn’t require an escalation of hostilities and deaths.” In fact, he calls this sort of imaginative act “a core Christian responsibility,” rooted in Jesus’ blessing of the peacemakers (Matt 5:9).
So what can Christians do to see through the fog of war and glimpse possibilities for peace?
• “Imagination” can sound like “fantasy” and “make-believe.” But any Christian imagination of the world-that-could-be needs to start with understanding the world-that-is. Or that-was: at the very least, it’s important for Christians to study the history of conflicts if they hope to play any role in resolving them in the present or future. To that end, I highly recommend historian Timothy Snyder’s fall 2022 class on The Making of Modern Ukraine, which is available on YouTube via the free YaleCourses channel.
• At the same time, I do think we need to keep that sort of study from convincing us that the only possible stories of war and peace are those that have already been written. But the best defense against cynical resignation is not necessarily to imagine an unknowable future. Instead, I’d have us look harder for grace and beauty in the present. Ultimately, what’s most persuasive about Taylor’s article is not the speculation about peace with Putin but the call “to shine a brighter spotlight on the courageous peacebuilding work that is happening just beneath the headlines.” He shares several examples of humanitarian aid, refugee resettlement, and non-violent non-cooperation with Russian occupation.
• Finally, prayer. I know that practice can seem like an empty piety, words that cost us nothing as we mouth them from the safety of a world far removed from war-torn places like Bakhmut. But let me quote again Paul Rees, the Evangelical Covenant pastor and World Vision leader, who wrote that “one of the values of prayer — if it is to be more than a verbal anesthetic — is that it gives the Spirit of God a chance to enliven our imagination, sharpen our perception, and deepen our emotion.”
Even if we can’t see the potential for a war to end, to pray for peace is to open ourselves to its possibility. If only for a moment, we ask God to make real what he has already promised — and perhaps see ourselves as we too rarely do: as instruments of God’s peace.
The Pietist Schoolman is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.