Thursday, July 6, 2023

Escalation in the Ukraine War: Can We Find “Paths of Peace”?

Some sectors of opinion have expressed frustration at Pope Francis because he doesn’t seem to be more “Pro-Ukraine” in the ongoing war. However, not only would such temporal partisanship serve no practical purpose. It would also hinder the Pope from carrying out his essential role for Christian peoples and for the whole world.

Francis has recognized that the Ukrainian people have a right to defend themselves. He has expressed his awareness of and solidarity with them in the immense suffering that has been inflicted upon them. He is not speaking here (see below) as a diplomat trying to broker some sort of inadequate compromise that ignores the requirements of “a just and stable peace.” As a Pastor, he must encourage peace because he knows that God will give the gift of peace to those who convert to Him and seek ways to love one another. The inherently reckless trajectory and desperation of intractable wars—especially modern technologically destructive wars—wreak havoc on a huge scale, radically destabilize the international order, tend to spiral out of control more and more, and sow the seeds of vengeance and resentment between peoples that lead to further wars. The Pope is therefore emphasizing that every morally possible means that might contribute to building peace must be given attention and consideration, in order to move toward bringing about a just and equitable conclusion to this conflict with its increasingly wanton and large-scale destruction. The explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam, for example, has not only put homes and lands throughout the region underwater—see top picture—but it is also an environmental catastrophe much larger than many of us in the West appreciate. The time and cost (even the possibility!) of recovering the land for habitation and restoring its prior terrestrial vitality are incalculable. The fact that this was almost certainly the fault of Putin’s Russian forces cannot be forgotten (nor can anyone afford to ignore the danger that the massive Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant might be deliberately damaged—sending toxic radiation on west winds over Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and other parts of Europe in a disaster that would make 1986 Chernobyl look small by comparison). .

International law points to the duty to impose punishments, insofar as it is possible, on the perpetrators of these war crimes according to justice in the service of peace (not, however, as a tool for revenge by the victors). But wars often brings their own “rough justice” (or vengeance) against those who commit crimes within them. At present, it seems that Putin no longer has stable control over his own armies, especially the large “contract forces” of the Wagner group. Their recent march toward Moscow was not “defeated” but rather “called off” by Wagner’s own leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner troops remain in their camps. If Putin is ultimately overthrown, he is likely to be replaced by someone more reckless and dangerous.

Meanwhile, wars are fought between human persons. Even the Russian leaders are persons. The Ukrainians are (and will be) challenged immensely by the need to look upon their enemies as persons—with the dignity they ineradicably possess as persons—even as the Ukrainians use military force in their efforts to liberate their country and rescue their own people. Only the grace of Christ can empower them to face this challenge and sustain this “inner non-violence” that is the radical foundation of true peace. And then there are Ukraine’s Western (undeclared) “allies,” some of whom want to avoid risking their own super-comfortable materialist-saturated lifestyles and choose instead to give Ukrainians weapons and money according to their own agendas; there are undoubtedly many agendas at work here—not in a conspiratorial way, but haphazardly—fraught with inner tensions and known only to those who are driven by them. Such is the dynamic of chaos, power, internal divisions, and alienation that results from “the idolatry of money.” As for our respecting the dignity of persons in this conflict and everywhere else in the world, we in the West need to resolve our own unprecedented level of confusion about human realities, our reductionist identity politics, our callow disregard for vulnerable and powerless people from whom we have nothing to gain for ourselves, and our bewildering hyper-excessive, thoughtless, heartless lifestyles, so that we can renew and cultivate our understanding of what it means to be a human person.

Human persons are suffering because of this war. Channels of dialogue between human persons must be sought out and opened up, however small they may be. So many circumstances in war are uncontrollable, and even those who strive to use force with justice and restraint to defend themselves need also to talk to persons who represent the other side. They must remember the humanity of the actual persons they fight—often helpless young conscripts—who are being used (even coerced) to do the dirty work of brutal and incompetent leaders. This is a heroic posture to maintain; it is a spirit of “inner non-violence” that must be held firmly even (especially!) when it becomes necessary to use external force. Modern warfare so easily loses the sense of restraint and honesty in the use of “proportionate means,” and pushes forward technological weapons that are designed to prioritize “efficiency” over respect for the human dignity of the adversary. That dignity must not be violated, even when the enemy doesn’t seem to deserve such respect. It remains a matter of honor for those who truly wish to serve their homeland by defending and rescuing their compatriots. When there is failure here, it should be followed by sorrow, humility, repentance, and a renewed dedication to the difficult task of loving one’s enemies even in the fight—to keep one’s honor and to be ready always to seek ways toward peace. 

The channels of dialogue must therefore remain open to the humanity of the others, with readiness to allow space for change, for repentance, for new perspectives, for a willingness to engage in honest conversation. They also must be ready for the possibility that suddenly “the other side” might be led by different persons with different aims. Their aims may remain violent, but their rationales, their grudges, their grievances, their personal and social wounds may be very different. Firm, frank, open-hearted dialogue is the only way to learn who these person are, on “the other side,” how they may be changing, and what new possibilities may open up. 

The point of dialogue is above all not negotiating compromise but building (however slowly and painfully) mutual understanding. It is a small, seemingly powerless “instrument” through which people can actively “love their enemies” and sow seeds for interpersonal relationships. This is not achieved by naïveté but by hard work that only God can make possible. Societies and cultures, as well as particular people, must not “return evil for evil,” but trust in God and work relentlessly to “overcome evil with good” (see Romans 12:17-21). Seeking true dialogue engages people in the works of mercy, and mercy is what is needed to bring fully human healing to war-torn places.
We all need to remember these things, even if there aren’t any easy answers for how to bring about a just peace. Vladimir Putin and his government unleashed this war, but all of us must seek peace, pray for peace, be converted for peace, make sacrifices for peace, and look beyond our own selfish interests for the sake of a peace that has any chance of being real.

Pope Francis says these words quoted below because they are true. And he is speaking not only to Russia, nor only to Russia and Ukraine, but to all of us in a world where we can no longer afford not to work together, where we must recognize one another as neighbors—brothers and sisters—even if we’d rather not. The possible dangers are too great for us to just wave banners and look upon this conflict like it’s a game (and be proud of ourselves for backing the “winner”).

Here are the Pope’s recent words: 

All wars are in fact disasters, utter disasters: for peoples and families, for children and the elderly, for people forced to leave their country, for cities and villages, and for creation, as we have recently seen following the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam… The tragic reality of this apparently interminable war requires a common creative effort on the part of all to envision and create paths of peace, in view of a just and stable peace.

What stands in the way of peace is ultimately the bitter root that we carry within us: greed, the selfish desire to pursue our own interests at the personal, community, national and even religious levels.

The remedy is the conversion of hearts, renewing them with the love of the Father,”
the Pope emphasized. The achievement of true peace requires a gracious and universal love that is not confined to our own group.