The War in Ukraine – Nonviolence or Nonexistence?

by Brayton Shanley

                It has been over three months since the Russians invasion of Ukraine. Frustrated, feeling trapped as if in a living nightmare, many of us are simply horrified by the unbearable media reports of the daily death toll. Do we American bystanders need to look within ourselves and our nation’s support of this war to get real answers?

              And what is the status of this war, this graphically filmed human carnage? Ten demolished cities and several more towns are on their way to ash and ruin. Since Ukrainian troops in Kyiv thwarted a hasty Russian takeover, Russian troops have now successfully relocated to the Eastern Donbas Region, and continue levelling cities, towns, and killing their civilian populations.  Russian forces may begin to achieve their victory in a war of annihilation.  They continue to kill and wound tens of thousands of Ukrainian military and civilians and progressively devastate much of this country of 44 million people in the size of Texas.

            Over 8 million civilians have fled the country, 95% are women and children while their husbands stay back to fight: 7 million, the elderly, infirm, women and their children cannot afford to flee, 10 million are displaced. The present Russian stance on the invasion is: “We will increase our aggression rather than fail to meet our goals.” Therefore, let’s expect a protracted war and further atrocities even while the Ukrainian army talks of persevering to victory.   If Ukraine prevails and barters a livable truce, the military will be honored as war heroes of historic proportions. Zelensky will achieve a contemporary Churchill status and David once again defeats Goliath against all conceivable odds.

As we bystanders watch reports of this living hell, it is impossible not to weep daily for Ukraine’s unbearable death and trauma. And the Russian conscripts? 15,000 dead and counting.  While both sides continue the battle, what is the true cost to Ukraine?  Even without a clear victory Russia continues this aggression as deep hair-trigger hatreds inevitably intensify between the two countries.

                                An elderly woman from Mariupol, recently interviewed at the scene of the brutal killing of her family members, cries out in anguish, “I know I should love enemies, but I cannot. I hate the Russians. I wish I could kill them, all of them.”  In our compassion, we who are not in harm’s way can deeply sympathize with her bitterness.  But the consequences of her suffering will arc over future generations and sow inevitable seeds of retaliatory wars.

                This is what the brutality of war does to its survivors.   It is the same story throughout history; the cruelty of war always begets a more brutal war. If the Ukrainian army appears to prevail, fighting to the last man or woman, war will be made to look good, necessary, heroic. The smaller outmanned army beats the unjust, cruel, subhuman invader, the stuff of which warrior myths are made.

                 Will the months of fighting with such massive human cost be worth it in any way?   Thousands are dead and injured, women, children, elderly. A generation of children, traumatized by the madness of the adult war around them that leaves their sanity and wellbeing without any protection. We need to remember that modern war is the most lethal child abuse.

               Ukraine’s historic buildings and beautiful landscape, a culture is being levelled, reduced to rubble, while war spews massive carbon and toxifies soil and air. Millions of people displaced crowding into small inadequate spaces creates more carbon and drastically pollutes the soil.  What are the Ukraine refugees, the elderly, the infirm and the displaced going to return to? Where will they live? Will it take twenty years to rebuild?  All living beings, plant, and animal, lose “when humans let slip the dogs of war.” (Shakespeare)

Demonizing Our Enemies

Stanford University Russian scholar Stephen Kotkin, shared in a recent interview, “Russia has a several century history of authoritarian regimes, of Czars and military dictators, reaching its nadir with Josef Stalin. At the same time, Russia has also been a highly cultured people, world renown for great art, literature, music, including the storied history of Orthodox Christianity. But always second fiddle to the West, Russia is always in its shadow, always feeling demeaned, inferior. Putin inherited this subordinate place in history, intensified by the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a painfully traumatic event which compelled him to return Russia to Soviet Union status as a world player.” 

Since he became president in 2000, Putin has been consistently demonized in the Western press, especially maligned by the US, isolating him, building up our superior military to keep him in our control.  When Russia began threatening Ukraine with invasion, NATO countries amassed armaments in their own defense, and the U.S. has supported them with billions in weaponry.

Putin immediately responded with his own threats at Ukraine, condemning the alliance with NATO. The pattern is typical among the men who lead their countries into war.  Hardwired to counter the power threats of adversary nations, these leaders reciprocate with escalating language of threats of military force that too often cascades into armed warfare. So, it seems clear that there are many men and woman in positions of political power who are directly complicit in bringing on this unthinkably savage war: Biden, Putin at the top and the 30 NATO countries, some of which are sending arms to Ukraine to aid in the fight against Russia.

               When the Russians invaded Ukraine, NATO countries and the U.S. began to send billions of dollars of weapons to help Ukraine fight a superior Russian army that has a more deadly, unstoppable missile weapon systems. As we write, the US is about to counter their advantage by sending Ukraine long range missiles to slow the Russian military advance in the Donbas with the threat of a Russian naval Destroyers landing from the Black Sea. The West bears its fangs once again making it more likely that the Russian army will kill Ukrainians civilians more barbarically, continuing to target large apartment complexes of the elderly, women, and children, and those in hospitals and shelters.  Have Western countries simply threatened a sickened and paranoid man with deadly force and driven him into a homicidal panic? Kill or be killed? Kill them all?

                Sending weapons to Ukraine to defeat the Russians will not resolve the deep hatreds between Russians and Ukraine, or the Russians with the West, especially the U.S.  But this response has successfully empowered Ukrainian leadership and their forces to stay in the fight. Battling with formidable force on both sides will increase the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed, now at 200 per day and tens of thousands of civilians to date, in a protracted military nightmare that will only stop with a clear “winner.”

Military strategists are predicting the war could drag on for additional months even years.  The juggernauts in the Russian and Ukrainian war are now caught in a death trap that “kills both the body and the soul in Gehenna” (Matt 10:28).  This will only serve to fuel fear and hatred for the “other” on all sides, increasing Putin’s likelihood of using nuclear weapons in a war of annihilation.

Remember the US is second to Russia in nuclear weapons capacity. Remember too, that total nuclear war ends most of life on earth in an hour.  This is modern war, the most life-threatening evil that humans have brought into being.   Violating the truth and worse, war mocks the bloody truth of Jesus warning to Peter; “Those that live by the sword die by the sword.” (Matt: 26:52). War and violence destroy both the killer and the victim, with no “winners” only PTSD traumatized survivors trapped in their crippled bodies. 

Truth Is Always the First Casualty in War

           War can never be of God. It betrays the One, Loving and Nonviolent God. War is the truest antichrist and killing is our most self-destructive sin, and if left unabated could end all human life. Jesus’ command to “love enemies, do not take revenge on those who wrong you” (Matt:5:43-48) has evolved from an idealized Truth to absolute necessity. “Today the choice is not between violence and nonviolence but nonviolence and nonexistence”. Yes, today Martin Luther King’s words ring perilously true at this very moment in history.

          We humans are all imperiled.  In our own quicksand of violence, the complicity with war widens well beyond those who order and fight it. Even “we nonviolent Christians” have not convinced our own Church to embrace Jesus’ command of nonviolent love. And how many Christians are killing other Christians in this evil massacre in Ukraine. Too often we “peace people” have failed to live and teach the ways of nonviolence with our families, children, and their schools. As a race of humans, we simply have failed to make a more peaceful and safer world for our children and the children of our enemies.

                As we witness to the unbearable pain of this massive killing, maiming, and traumatizing of children, can we see their loss as Biblical; they are true lambs to the slaughter. Beings radiating with innocence, they suffer and die in the grip of adult violence. The children’s suffering and death is unmerited, undeserved, innocent and, as such, has a power to redeem suffering and death, and reclaim life. The power of their meekness can buy back the hearts of fear driven adults who perpetuate warlike ways. Jesus taught in The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). The God-molded harmless ones do not need to conquer the earth as warriors do. The earth is given to all of us as gift.  Is it spiritually possible, that the horrific crucifixion and slaughter of these innocents can reclaim the humanity of those who continue to rely on war and like Jesus innocent death, redeem the whole of humanity?

                The tragic deaths of these children must awaken us to the evil nightmare of all war, and help us to see, like the killing of George Floyd, that these deaths must not be in vain.  

Has there been enough needless suffering for love to radiate out over these killing fields emanating as a source of awakening and healing? May the unconquered power of mercy now, be released over the land and the people and awaken us from this nightmare of our hatreds to make certain this war will be our last.