As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, Ukrainian citizens are hurting and exhausted. Meanwhile, Russia is mounting a new counter-offensive and Ukraine is restocking weapons from its allies, including the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded, both Ukrainian and Russian, yet the war grinds on without an end in sight.
The ability to imagine and advocate for alternatives to war is a core Christian responsibility. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” says Jesus in Matthew 5:9. It’s one of my favorite beatitudes, but it’s part of Jesus’ teaching that’s often ignored. Amid an increasingly devastating and intractable war in Ukraine, it’s time to reclaim it.
I admire the Ukrainian people’s courageous resistance and support their right to defend their sovereignty from Russian President Vladmir Putin’s imperialistic aggression. Yet, I’m alarmed that the prospect of peace seems increasingly elusive. As economist Jeffrey Sachs puts it: “Neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve a decisive military victory in their ongoing war: both sides have considerable room for deadly escalation. Ukraine and its Western allies have little chance of ousting Russia from Crimea and the Donbas region, while Russia has little chance of forcing Ukraine to surrender. As Joe Biden noted in October, the spiral of escalation marks the first direct threat of ‘nuclear Armageddon’ since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.”
The deafening silence in the media around the imperative to wage peace and the lack of political will from the U.S., Ukraine, and NATO to at least attempt to pursue peace through mediation, diplomacy, or negotiation is alarming. The U.S. and NATO allies seem more bent on helping Ukraine win a war than working toward finding a peaceful resolution. Ukraine shouldn’t be used as a proxy to achieve the goal of weakening or defeating Russia in a bigger geopolitical struggle.
In the early stages of the war, I saw little alternative to the U.S. supporting Ukraine with military aid; however, it’s become increasingly clear that the ongoing massive weapons dump by the U.S. and NATO into Ukraine is not leading to the end of war but may instead be prolonging it. Last year, the U.S. approved roughly $50 billion in aid to Ukraine, half of which was military spending; last month the U.S. announced it would send another $3 billion worth of armored vehicles and advanced weapons systems. While these additional arms can help tilt the scales of the war in Ukraine’s favor, they can also further entrench and incentivize war.
War can often feel inevitable and self-perpetuating, clouding our imagination to see other possibilities. 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.
As Sojourners senior editor and long-time peace activist Rose Marie Berger puts it, there are three essential scriptural principles at work in the Christian commitment to peacemaking. First, while Christians will always have “enemies,” Jesus teaches us to “love your enemies” and not be motivated by hate for them (Matthew 5:43-48). Second, scripture teaches us that “you shall not stand idly by when the blood of your neighbor is at stake,” (Leviticus 19:16), which means we have a moral responsibility to stand up to violence and fight against evil. Third, we may not use weapons of war in that fight. Jesus tells us to “put away our swords” (Matthew 26:52). Within the triangle of these moral and spiritual parameters, we as Christians must address the complexities of war and are challenged to embody and put into practice the necessary and effective countervailing ethic of Christian nonviolence.
Pursuing a mediated or negotiated peace is complicated by Putin, who has committed grave war crimes and has become increasingly paranoid, untrustworthy, and bellicose. However, the massive number of Russian casualties and cost of the war to the Russian state are increasingly unsustainable, which could make Putin more amenable to engage in mediation or behind-the-scenes negotiations, particularly if they enable to him to save face and declare some kind of victory, even if a symbolic one. Ultimately negotiations will need to 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.
We must also debunk the myth that negotiation is somehow a form of surrender to Putin. Instead, pursuing a negotiated peace takes seriously the devastating and even apocalyptic consequences of war with the heightened risk of nuclear weapons. There are plenty of voices beyond those of us in the faith community saying that peace talks are worth pursuing and would save lives, including foreign policy experts and military leaders. General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest-ranking U.S. military officer — conceded in November that the war would be unlikely to end in complete military victory for either side, and that this winter presented both Ukraine and Russia with “a window of opportunity for negotiation.”
We also need to shine a brighter spotlight on the courageous peacebuilding work that is happening just beneath the headlines. In Ukraine, Russia, and the neighboring regions, there are courageous unarmed leaders working nonviolently to aid civilians facing the immediate crisis of violence, address the ongoing social trauma of war, and lay the groundwork for a stable post-war society.
Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international organization that specializes in nonviolent civilian protection, notes that local communities were preparing to help each other weather the conflict long before the outbreak of war. As soon as the war broke out, humanitarian aid centers popped up in affected communities, “led, run, and mobilised by the communities themselves.” Local and international organizations are also partnering to help internally displaced civilians evacuate conflict regions and access legal aid to replace identification documents they had to leave behind — including accompanying people to get them safely through military checkpoints without the papers they’d normally need.
Other nonviolent tactics that people are employing in Ukraine include various methods of non-cooperation in Russian occupied areas, organizing clandestine information networks, even manipulating road signs to confuse advancing troops. Inside Russia, groups like the Feminist Anti-War Resistance are working with expatriates who have left the country to help men escape the draft, circulate underground newspapers, and put up anti-war graffiti. When we amplify this work, it makes a stronger case for the U.S. government to support non-lethal material aid and other nonviolent efforts that can create momentum for peace.
War is always a moral failure. War is always an unjust tragedy brought down on those most vulnerable. War kills futures for people, for families, and for countries. It’s incumbent upon those of us who are followers of the Prince of Peace to galvanize spiritual and political will to end the war and expand the effective witness of nonviolence — even while “nations so furiously rage together” (Psalm 2:1).
Editor's note: Many readers had opinions about this article; you can read a selection of those responses and a reply from the author here.
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