With outrage, horror, and deep sadness, we have watched images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is outrageous that without legitimate reason or provocation, a large military nation would attack a much smaller one, and that Putin would so abuse his power for his own self-aggrandizement. Always the images of war are horrifying - death that is too gruesome to be shown, treasured homes and communities bombed, and destruction everywhere. Even greater are feelings of sadness at seeing hundreds of thousands flee while leaving everything behind, of civilians taking up arms to fight, and of our entering into a time of renewed nuclear threat.
If there is such a thing as a just war of self-defense against unprovoked aggressors, surely it would seem that Ukraine's military resistance would be it. The fierce and determined defense of their motherland has garnered much admiration, and President Zelensky's courageous stand of defiance has made him a hero. Weaponry and munitions are being sent from many nations in response to his appeal. It seems to be one way, at least, that assistance can be given.
But as one committed to following Jesus' way of nonviolence, I feel deep uneasiness and many questions. Violent resistance often evokes further violence and fuels justification for more brutal and destructive forms of warfare. All men 18-60 years of age are being prevented from leaving Ukraine as they have been conscripted to fight, with the dark prospect that many may be killed. What happens then to the Ukrainian people? How likely is it that Ukraine can win a war against Russia? The predictions are quite dire. And then already, Putin has moved toward the unthinkable in readying nuclear weapons. To choose violence in self-defense is entirely understandable and a natural response, but this has the potential to dramatically escalate with horrific consequences.
There are other nonviolent ways of resisting that the Ukrainian people have used in the past, and some are doing so in the current situation. They are changing the road signs to mix up the invaders, flashing billboard signs telling them to go home, showing their human faces of disapproval and anger, standing courageously in front of tanks, placing barriers of cement blocks and sandbags in the roads, and walking up to tanks with outstretched arms, appealing to their humanity.
I'm sure there are hardened brutal men in the Russian army, but there are also many young soldiers who didn't understand what they were being sent to do and were told that Ukrainians would welcome them and their peacekeeping mission. Among the wreckage of a destroyed Russian convoy and the bodies of Russian soldiers, a reporter picked up a small singed stuffed bear. I wonder, was it a young father's little reminder of his young children, perhaps even given by one of them as he had to leave home? Text messages of another dead soldier to his mother expressed his shock at being at war, his horror at having to kill everyone, and his desire to die. These Russian soldiers are human too, deceived and under orders. One platoon of Russian soldiers reportedly surrendered, unwilling to kill civilians. In seeing the humanity of the invaders and presenting themselves so that their own humanity can be seen, courageous Ukrainians are also fighting this war, but in ways that are nonviolent. If Russia is successful in dominating Ukraine with its military might, the Ukrainian people will still have the means of nonviolent civil resistance to make themselves ungovernable by a foreign power.
As Belarus prepares itself to enter the war in aid of Russia and votes to allow nuclear weapons on its soil, we are seeing how volatile the situation is and how it can spiral out to involve other nations. As the nation that created and has used nuclear weapons, setting off the global nuclear arms race, we Americans are seeing again the folly of having forged down that path. Hopefully, when this threat is over we will be reenergized to pursue denuclearization for a safer world.
Nevertheless, it has been heartening to see how quickly and dramatically almost all nations of the world have condemned this Russian invasion, and how the United States and Europe have worked together to try avert invasion through diplomacy and then utilize sanctions to force withdrawal, rather than sending military troops. It has been inspiring to see thousands of Russian citizens flood the streets of St. Petersburg and over 50 other cities, protesting the invasion of Ukraine by their country's military. We applaud their courage and determination to express their moral convictions, despite knowing that arrest and crackdowns will follow. We too cannot be passive when great evil is occurring. As people of faith, we are to resist evil, but nonviolently. We are to trust that God can work through those efforts to bring about good. We are to pray fervently that peace will soon come to our sisters and brothers in Ukraine.
March 2, 2022
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Dianne C. Shumaker Chair for Peace and Justice Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology