The conflict in Ukraine has been rapidly escalating, drawing Western nations deeper into war with Russia– with increasing and grave risks of a nuclear confrontation. Followers of Jesus are inclined to take the side of the victim (Ukrainians), opposing powerful perpetrators (Putin and his oligarchs), which means agreeing with NATO’s efforts to support Ukraine in its campaign to expel Russian invaders from its territory using the means of modern warfare. Russian Orthodox Christian supporters of Putin are led to believe Russia is the victim of NATO aggression, a perspective which is used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Jesus-followers thus become directly identified with killing, destroying, deceiving, hating, shaming and all available means to defeat the enemy– representing a complete break with Jesus and his way of suffering, victorious love.
Now is the time to look to Jesus as he faced unjust perpetrators, and take seriously his call to his disciples. If we believe he is the Messiah, the Christ who is Savior of the world, how should we respond to superpower aggressions?
Jesus-followers in the Ukraine, Russia, the USA, UK and other NATO countries, and throughout the world, must consider how to effectively bear witness to Jesus and his kingdom “not of this world,” and renounce the logic of violence and war.
The United States and its NATO allies are currently supplying Ukraine with billions of dollars of weaponry, intelligence, and guarantees of support “as long as it takes.” These weapons are being used to kill Russian soldiers (25,000 estimated), blow up bridges, and destroy infrastructure, while economic sanctions are aimed to make this invasion even more costly for Russians.
While Russian aggression is rightly denounced, and Ukrainians (and Russian soldiers) understandably seek to defend themselves, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Western leaders, military experts and the media seem to go out of their way to shame and provoke Russia.
Every day, I read accounts where Russia’s military ineptitude are exposed in detail. In contrast, every advance of the Ukrainian underdogs is lauded. Zelenskyy, Biden, and European leaders tell Russia to withdraw and accept defeat. This brings shame on Russia, effectively pressuring Putin and his supporters to up their game and succeed, escalating the war. Shaming and hating on Putin is risky behavior in the light of his threats of using nuclear weapons. Yet public disdain seems to be only increasing.
When an explosion caused the Kerch Bridge linking Russia to Crimea to collapse on October 8, the day after Putin’s 70th birthday, many Ukrainian officials and social media posts, mockingly presented this act of sabotage as his birthday gift. The next day, Russia fired a barrage of missiles in retaliation, and Western media showed that the majority were intercepted before they hit their targets. While stopping killer missiles is certainly good news, publically celebrating these successes and highlighting how outdated and ineffective they are, further shames Russia, and is used to justify drawing NATO further into the conflict as they send more Western air defense systems to Ukraine.
It doesn’t take 28 years of serving as a chaplain to inmates in jails and prisons to know that shaming a tough-guy bully only escalates conflict.
The current approach is propelling us towards a nuclear Armageddon, and Jesus-followers seem largely silent, sometimes even cheering for the underdog team like this is a sports event.
Ukrainian leaders decry Putin as a “terrorist,” and war criminal, and Biden went as far as accusing him of genocide. Human rights abuses and infractions against international law must certainly be investigated. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating Russia’s possible war crimes in Ukraine. However, American and UK leaders responsible for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 are themselves vulnerable, showing the difficulty in prosecuting the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations.
Jesus-followers should be praying for world leaders (including Putin), and seeking nonviolent approaches to resolving conflict. World leaders should be encouraged to do everything possible to push for negotiations and offer Putin face-saving offramps, which currently aren’t even on the horizon. Zelenskyy recently said he will not negotiate with Russia as long as Putin is President.
Jesus’ actions and words in the Garden of Gethsemane on the day of his arrest point the way forward for his followers as we contemplate how we resist injustice.
In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, Jesus calls his followers to join him in watching and praying to avoid temptation. What could they have been tempted by? I imagine disciples being tempted to fight to defend Jesus, or to abandon his way of saving the world out of fear, unbelief, pride, or outright embarrassment. Temptations to choose violence or submission to the violent status quo are certainly present now, drawing people away from Jesus’ call to watch and pray.
On a recent visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, I was struck by an “X” through the firearm symbol on a sign at the garden’s entrance – a reminder of the need to resist the temptation to justify or engage in violence of any kind.
Jesus knew temptation first hand. After his baptism in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to use his supernatural powers for his own security, fame, and power. He most certainly could have been tempted to violently overthrow the Jewish religious leaders who opposed him or to rid his homeland of the Roman occupiers.
Now is the time to resist the seductive sleep that took out Jesus’ disciples the night before his crucifixion – the very sleep that threatens us now, removing us from the essential work of watching and praying. Temptations to hate, to agree with justifications of violence and war, to engage in partisan political divisions, to escape into distractions, or to abandon faith completely can only be effectively resisted through staying close to Jesus.
Thankfully, he loves us despite our weakness and never gives up on us, even when we betray him, defend him using violence, deny him, or flee. He can teach us to be peacemakers, resisting the evils of this age with the weapons of the Spirit and the wisdom of tried-and-tested approaches to nonviolent direct action. May we commit ourselves afresh to fight like Jesus.