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The End of Christian Pacifism? A Reflection on the Church’s Ethics of Peace in Reference to the War in Ukraine

A New Situation

The nationalistic radicalization of Russian politics in recent years has led to a frightening war of aggression by the Russian Federation (RF) against Ukraine. An end of this war is not in sight at the time and an escalation to a World War has not yet been banned. The threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction throws a frightening, nearly apocalyptic shadow as do the war crimes reported from Ukraine. This raises first of all questions about the why and the worldview guiding the Russian president and his surroundings. After 1991 Russia underwent step by step an ideological reorientation, which set the long-term goals for its current politics. After the defeat of the Marxist Russian empire the worldview changed step by step to Russian nationalism. The Stalinist past, however, was never dealt with, and those responsible for its abominable crimes were never held accountable. Rather the opposite took place: the period war more and more idealized. A human rights activist of the recently dissolved Russian human rights organization Memorial, Irina Scherbakowa, warned decades ago that without coming to terms with the totalitarian past, war would be unavoidable. I thought this to be overdrawn at the time. But she was proved right.

After the collapse of communism, Putin’s generation thus constructed a post-secular world view to fill the vacuum the fall of Marxism-Leninism had left. Thereby the Soviet past was integrated into a new vision of history based on a so-to-speak Hegelian view, whereby the antithesis to communism was Christian Orthodoxy (a Russian intellectual explained it to me this way). Essential contents of this new ideology are thus the religious faith and with it “traditional values” which take the place of human rights denigrated as Western (this political line has been followed by the RF in the UN Human Rights Council since the 1990s). This ideological construct is to justify Russia’s claim to dominance in Ukraine and in the so-called Eurasian space.[1] It is therefore about more than a neo-imperialistic revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its bases is  a conviction of a Russian cultural mission in the world, Moscow being the Third Rome (after the Western Rome and Constantinople). A deep and unsettling insight into this idea of the Russian world (ruskij mir) can be found e.g. interviews with Russian intellectuals like Alexander G. Dugin as presented in Kristina Stöckl/Dimitry Uzlaner (ed.). “Postsecular Conflicts. Debating Tradition in Russia and the United States (Innsbruck 2020). They were part of a European research project, the results of which are made available on their homepage. In the West, post-secular Russian worldviews have received limited attention and have hardly been taken as serious as they would have deservedly. This has been due to an overemphasis on economic factors (“change through trade”) and a lack of political clarity. But also a post-modern approach, as can be found in Ivan Krastev/Stephen Holmes, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning (2019), contributed to this failure. It discards human rights and democracy as an ideas imitated from the West and not really helpful for other civilizations.  Such nationalistic world views are, of course, by no means limited to Russia. They combine a rejection of perceived Western decadence with nativist historical narratives legitimizing last but not least violence as basis of a politics of national expansion according to the famous word of Clausewitz: War is the continuation of politics with other means. They thereby echo the nationalist ideas of the 19th century, which does not bode well.

Such anti-Western attitudes could also be experienced in ecumenical meetings in recent decades, an in the Russian Orthodox Church attempting to influence right wing Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism. In a similar way Russian politics influenced (and financed) right-wing movements and parties in Europe. In this sense a leading anti-Soviet Ukrainian dissident Miroslav Marynovych warned at a Zoom conference with the Catholic University of Lvov on February 26th, two days after the invasion, against an expansive nationalism that might go well beyond Ukraine echoing Vladimir Putin’s and the RF’s alternative vision of history.

And Where Do Christian Peace Ethics Stand?

All these developments pose poignant new questions for Christian Peace Ethics and challenge it to give orientation in a new, and complex situation. For this its three main pillars are worth being shortly recapitulated: peace-mindedness, a concept of just peace and just war. Peace-mindedness is based on the commandment to love one’s enemies, that leads to peace-making and reconciliation. The notion, however, sounds different and nearly outrageous in the sight of military aggression and war crimes. Still, it cannot be discarded by Christians, since it runs like a red thread through New Testament ethics as summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. The emphasis on peace not only points to its factual fragility, but also to the difficulty humans have to keep peace, in private and in the political. As Gaudium et spes states “everyone should turn towards true peace in an inner renewal” (GS 77). This requires an inner attitude of peace the respect for the dignity also of enemies being an ethical pinnacle or high-wire act. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Mt 5:43-48) seems an even scandalous demand where outright brutality reigns. This personal attitude thus asks for an immense inner strength. Contrary to what Judith Butler elaborates in her recent book. it is not based on self-abandonment,[2] but constitutes a specific form of personal fortitudo, i. e. bravery, that is able to transcend the human inclination to violence. It stands in line with a word of St. Augustine, that we are to hate sin not the sinner. This requires not only to overcome fear but also to step out of those social and political polarizations that naturally form in conflict situations where everybody is imperatively called to take sides. This, by the way, seems to be the dilemma Pope Francis faces, whose attitude towards Russia has often been criticized as being too lax. The second pillar of Christian peace ethics is the creation of a framework of just peace. “Peace does not consist solely in the absence of war.” (GS 77). It includes human security in all its dimensions. Ukraine’s fight for its national independence and filiation to rule-of-law democracies is part of this struggle for a just peace. The pastoral letter of the German bishops from 2000 “Just peace” in the wake of the Yugoslav wars put the emphasis on war prevention and the activities needed to overcome its consequences.

It is in this context of just peace that Christian ethics asks the question of whether and when military force can be justified. Violence, especially military violence, is the greatest earthly evil of all, as we see these days. First ethical reflections on how to limit it stem from Cicero, whose bellum justum theory was developed further by St. Augustine, St. Thomas and – of particular importance for modern international law – the late Spanish scholastics. It has to be stressed that it aims at limiting violence and not at legitimizing it, even if in the 19th and 20th centuries the term has been abused, at times also by the churches. Its three essential criteria are worth remembering: Who may legitimately declare war (iusta auctoritas or potestas)? This excludes non-state actors, e. g. terrorists. Which reason(s) justify military action (iusta causa)? That limits war to self- defense. Gaudium et spes states: “as long as there is a danger of war and as long as there is no competent international authority … one cannot deny a government the right to morally permissible defense if all possibilities for a peaceful settlement have been exhausted.” (GS 79,4). This includes the right of third parties to support, e. g. with military equipment. Over and above these two criteria, also part of international law, just war theory contains as a third criterion asks the right intention, e. g. the struggle for a clear view what the way the war is conducted does to future peace prospects (iusta intentio). As the Catholic Catechism formulates: “there must be a serious prospect of success and the harm must not be greater than the evil to be removed” (n. 2309). To concretize this demand is obviously exceedingly difficult, as the present war situation in Ukraine shows. It requires assessment of probable military developments and a weighing of evils according to the minus-malum principle which will affect the life and death for thousands of people now and in the future. Despite this, however, it remains significant as an ethical criterion marker so as not to end up in a spiral of violence and in an arms race.

Find an Agenda for Action: Personal, Ecclesial und International

In this abhorrent situation caused by a nationalist ideology we are to look out for potentials of hope through a Christian commitment to peace individually as by civil society and ecclesial groups. During the past months, personal engagement for refugees from Ukraine in many of its neighbouring states has been impressive, e. g. in Moldavia, the poorest country in Europe, which in relation to its population took in the largest number of refugees.

Thereby it is not to be forgotten that non-violent resistance also exists, particularly in Russia. The picture of an old Russian carried away by heavily armed Russian security is on my mind ever since. His quiet and dignified look signaled: I have done what I could and felt obliged to do. The same holds true of many scientists and journalists, who voiced their protest against the invasion. In democratic states with freedom of the press, the future challenge will be to keep a balance and not tilting into a logic and rhetoric of war as much as resistance and support for Ukraine are needed and legitimate. Maintaining contacts with Ukrainians and Russians one knows as with civil society organizations and church groups can be a contribution to future peace.  Prayer is another potent means. One of the leading spiritual figures of the Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Boris Gudzak, at the Zoom conference mentioned just came from the shrine of St. Teresa in Lisieux, where he had prayed for Putin’s conversion. Such and other actions are based on the firm belief that good actions carry disproportionate effects (cf. Laudato si’ 212). They also constitute humus of diplomatic actions and negotiations. Thereby, what is needed most urgently are stronger international (and European) institutions, which have been weakened gravely in recent years. As Catholic social ethics stresses since Pacem in terris (1963) a globalized world requires a world authority worthy of the name. It would be devastating if a byproduct of the war would be to y discard this insight due to disappointment or resignation. Nationalisms cannot be tamed but through international efforts, the affirmation of human rights, including social rights, and the strengthening of better international institutions. Anything else plays into the hands of nationalist ideologies and warmongers. The Church should support such efforts through creative contributions, the excellent chapter on dialogue in Laudato si’ could be a guidance to world envisaged by the feast of Pentecost, where each and every one understands the others language.

[1] It is worth reading President Putin’s essay on this from August 2020, cf. (20/05/22)

[2] Judith Butler, The Force of Non-violence. The Ethical in the Political, Verso 2020.