Perhaps the most famous words of history written in the past fifty years are the first fourteen pages of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Tuchman opens her brilliant tome with a description of the funeral procession of King Edward VII of England in 1910. In the parade are emperors and kings, dressed in pomp and circumstance. The roadside is lined with legions of people who pay their respects to the king. Tuchman’s description is exquisite, but for the reader it is also fatalistic. Each sentence drips with sad irony, because while all those gathered, from monarchs to paupers, believe they are mourning the death of an individual, they are actually, without realizing it, mourning the death of their world. Unknowingly, they all stood at the very end of what historians would later call the “Century of Peace.”[i] Four short years after that funeral procession, the First World War would erupt, the globe would descend into a morass of violence, and all that had been known would go down to the grave.
Within the past two weeks, we have similarly witnessed the beginning of the end of the world we have known for three generations. A global power has, for the first time in almost a century, become an aggressor in Europe. An eighty-year peace has been broken. It was a conflicted peace, an uneasy peace, a fragile peace, then by those with short memories a neglected peace, and now it is a shattered peace.
What is happening in Ukraine is an existential threat not only to the Ukrainian people—and it is surely that—but to all people. Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces on ready alert, announcing, that “anyone who tries to interfere with us…must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”[ii]
Professor Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University starkly explains, “Mr. Putin’s unusually explicit rhetoric has sent a clear message to the West: Stay out of my attack on a third party or risk nuclear conflict.”[iii] For anyone my age or older, there is trauma in the memory of nuclear drills, huddling under desks with the spoken assurance—never truly believed even by my school-age self—that a thin layer of plywood would provide protection against nuclear holocaust. The generation before me remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis. My own generation vividly recalls the television movie “The Day After.”
The violence of the aggressor, whenever and wherever it occurs, is always an affront to the Incarnate God of goodness and grace. This very day, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”[iv] Jerusalem stands in for the whole world that cannot seem to help itself choosing war over peace and trampling underfoot those who would speak words of justice and reconciliation.
Today, in the midst of all such violence, it is the universal existential threat coupled with the localized brutality of Vladimir Putin’s actions these past weeks that has us on our heels. What Putin and his military brass (not, we should take care to note, the Russian people as a whole) are inflicting on the Ukrainian people with increasing abandon is scarcely believable. The World Health Organization reported that, as of Thursday, the Russian military had attacked twenty-four health facilities[v], including a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Mariupol’s deputy mayor announced that Russian airstrikes are also deliberately targeting civilian food and water lines, and that small children are dying of dehydration.[vi]
Like you, I struggle to make sense of the psyche of a man who would brutalize another nation and threaten the whole world. Long-time Houston community leader and former Baker-Ripley CEO Angela Blanchard posted this past week, “I will never live long enough to fathom a drive to dominate so strong [that] you destroy what you wish to own. All the beauty we create. All the children we birth. The fields we cultivate. The art we make. All fodder for [this] furious…man with his weapons and perverted ambition, screaming ‘mine!’ And those that do what he commands, cranking up the machinery of war, pursuing his goals, though it costs them everything. The sheer and utter gruesome waste of it.”
So, what should we do? Cower in fear? Wring our hands in resignation? Strap on the saber and go to war ourselves?
We are disciples of Jesus. We are those who have died to the ways of the world and been reborn in baptism. That is the essence of our identity, and thus the questions for us must be, “As Christians, what can we do? What does it look like to respond in faith to such violent aggression?”
Almost a century ago, two theologically-titanic brothers, H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, debated the Christian response to violent aggression in public and in print when in 1932 another violently-aggressive world power, Imperial Japan, invaded Chinese Manchuria and perpetrated brutal and indiscriminate violence on the Chinese.[vii] Each brother wrote with raw honesty and an empathy for the beleaguered Chinese that jumps from the page. Richard wrote first, publishing an essay in The Christian Century entitled, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” Richard Niebuhr passionately argued that the appropriate Christian response to aggression was prayerful inaction, a mournful witness that includes Christians everywhere repenting of our own complicity with sin and violence and trusting that God is at work redeeming history, even when we cannot readily detect God’s action. Richard called for a resigned patience, but of a “patience that is full of hope based on faith.”[viii]
Richard Niebuhr’s was a robust pacifism, founded in his deep faith, but his brother Reinhold could not abide it. In the very next issue of The Christian Century, Reinhold published a rebuttal entitled, “Must We Do Nothing?” Reinhold argued that our faith actually compels our action, even while recognizing that any act we take is never pure, that there are always self-interested and mixed motives lurking in our attempts to act in faith, including in our actions to counter aggression and restore peace. Even so, Reinhold says we must act, even while acknowledging at every step our own need for redemption, in order to side with the weak against the strong and restore peace on the far side of conflict.
Thank God for both Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, because only by wedding their thoughts together do we fully grasp a Christian way forward in today’s broken world.
With Richard, we acknowledge in hope that the God who set the stars in motion is still a God who acts in history, a God at work behind the scenes in ways that we cannot detect or understand. It is this God to whom we pray, for our own redemption and for the redemption of those who are on the receiving end of an unhinged man’s violence. I believe in that God, of power and justice, and our prayer to that God is not idle play.
With Reinhold, we acknowledge that sometimes we are the tangible instruments of God’s grace, Christ’s hands and feet in the world. When the vulnerable are mercilessly attacked by the strong, Christians must respond, moving readily and decisively in the world, even and admittedly with feet of clay, so that goodness and peace have a chance against evil and violence.
As individual Christians, we can respond in both these ways, trusting that God is bigger than we are and praying daily that God’s redeeming will be done and acting in support of the Ukrainian people both monetarily and by engaging our own leaders and encouraging them to thread the needle by robustly supporting Ukraine in its self-defense with materiel and intelligence, while also constantly working all channels of diplomacy with Russia to forestall a much larger and more universally-damaging conflict, both now and in the future.
As the gathered Body of Christ, today we also respond in both ways. We adorn the altar of God, we pray, we sing, and we offer through our collection today our tangible, humanitarian gifts for peace. We do all of this in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those on the receiving end of aggression. We fervently trust, with St. Paul, that God’s power, working in us—working in our Ukrainian sisters and brothers—can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.[ix] And we hope for that day to end all days, not with the push of a button, but upon the return of the Lord, when small and petty men are no more, when threat washes away like the tide, and when the love of God reigns. Come, Lord Jesus, come![x]
[iv] Luke 13:34
[ix] Ephesians 3:20; BCP pg. 102
[x] Revelation 22:20