I considered myself a pacifist. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and I had some questions.
On the morning of Feb. 24, when Russia finally did what we all knew deep down it was going to do and invaded Ukraine, the overriding emotion I had was paralyzed confusion.
Before the invasion, I considered myself a pacifist, motivated by the Gospel’s calls for peace and fraternity among humanity; my position was greatly inspired by Pope Francis’ opposition to military conflict. Even now, I cannot bring myself to believe that “war” is anything other than a synonym for violence, injustice, death. And my conscience makes me hesitant to subscribe to just war theory.
But I have learned over the past week that being against war is the paradigmatic example of “easier said than done.” On its face, the credo of “no more war” seems like an easy shortcut to navigate the ethical miasma of international relations: A country conducting war is bad, and a country not conducting war is good, right? But the world is not so straightforward: War is not always waged with bullets, for example, and moral ambiguity can exist on both sides of a battle line.
I am still deeply committed to peace—and who knows, maybe I am still a pacifist. But Vladimir Putin’s order for Russian troops to invade Ukraine crystallized the unresolved doubts and tensions about the ethics of pacifism that have lingered in my mind. Nate Pyle, a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, managed to put my dilemma into words in a Twitter post: “I want to be a pacifist, but the world makes it difficult. I want to believe in the need for violence in the face of evil, but Jesus makes it difficult.”
On its face, the credo of “no more war” seems like an easy shortcut to navigate the ethical miasma of international relations. But the world is not so straightforward.
Over the past week, I reached out to Catholic anti-violence advocates, who provided clarity for what people who are against war should do when confronted with a military crisis. Although I do not necessarily agree with all of their views, their thoughts have helped me to think more deeply about this complex issue. Amid the fog of war, I, a nonexpert, cannot possibly give solid answers to these intractable questions. However, my hope is to help others to reflect on ways forward by putting into words some of the quandaries that the war in Ukraine poses.
Is war inevitable? Is pacifism just a naïve denial of reality?
“No,” said Martha Hennessy, a peace activist and the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. “And I’m really tired of being fed that line.”
Admittedly, she said, humans throughout history have shown a tendency toward fighting, but Catholics cannot settle for despair. “God gave us free will to love: to love God and to love one another, as Jesus tried to teach us,” Ms. Hennessy said. “The human central nervous system is wired for love and attachment and cooperation.”
In other words, we need to resist the temptation of thinking of pacifism—both abstaining from violence and encouraging others to do the same—as a Sisyphean task. It is not a principled excuse for cowardice, as detractors might portray it. Instead, it is a hope for a future that with God’s grace is truly possible.
In the days after the invasion began, the sight of thousands of Russians protesting against the war, even under the threat of imprisonment, has signaled just how powerful peaceful demonstrations can be—if not in changing the mind of a dictator, then at least in expressing solidarity with people of another country.
Martha Hennessy: “The human central nervous system is wired for love and attachment and cooperation.”
In fact, Johnny Zokovitch, the executive director of Pax Christi USA, said that nonviolence has been more effective than war in creating lasting change in the past 200 years. He cited scholarly books like Why Civil Resistance Works, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. But he also provided examples of peaceful activism that have become so familiar that we have forgotten how transformative they were: Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March in India, the American civil rights movement, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
(Mr. Zokovitch noted that Pax Christi USA promotes a larger goal of nonviolence, welcoming pacifist points of view as well as non-pacifist ideas for achieving this.)
Even as it appears increasingly likely that the fierce military resistance by the Ukrainian people will not be enough to stop Russian forces from capturing major cities, including Kyiv, there is heartening news that nonviolent actions by citizens will make occupation of the country difficult: Citizens have removed street signs to disorient Russian convoys and piled sandbags in the streets to prevent tanks from moving forward.
Almost everyone in the West and beyond agrees that what President Putin is doing is wrong. But just because the United States and the countries of Western Europe oppose him, are they automatically “right”?
For those living in the West, the temptation is to support NATO in this crisis. Such a position is understandable: We humans like moral clarity, rooting for the good guy and condemning the bad guy. But we should ask: Is placing our trust in a military alliance equivalent to approving war, or at least being complicit with it?
Ms. Hennessy raised an even more pointed question: “What does NATO bring to the world besides increasing weapons sales?”
My first impulse was to dismiss Ms. Hennessy’s assessment as overly simplistic, failing to take into account any number of geopolitical factors. But after that initial surge of emotion, this insight does require one to ask: At its core, can a military alliance—whose raison d’être is, after all, war—be compatible with peace? For those of a pacifist bent, to see a military response as the only viable solution to conflict is to look at the situation with the despairing eyes of the world, not with the eyes of God.
Halting the expansion of NATO or demanding that military exercises stop being conducted near Russia’s border are legitimate national security concerns, at least from a realpolitik point of view.
In addition, the negotiations that the West conducted in the lead-up to the invasion were not done in good faith, said Mr. Zokovitch.
His point reminded me that while Mr. Putin did bring many stipulations to the negotiating table that denigrated Ukraine’s sovereignty, there were also Russian requests that, at least for me, did not seem all that unreasonable. In my view, halting the expansion of NATO or demanding that military exercises stop being conducted near Russia’s border are legitimate national security concerns, at least from a realpolitik point of view. However, these were automatically labeled as “non-negotiables” by the Biden administration.
Are the Ukrainian people justified in using violence against Russian forces?
Eric Martin, a peace activist who teaches classes on the Bible, anti-fascism and liberation theology at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautioned that those who are against war should not project those views onto those who are in the life-and-death reality of conflict. “We sort of have the luxury of thinking about it when our lives are not being put in danger,” he said, “but we’re not under attack by Russian troops right now.”
Mr. Zokovitch echoed this sentiment. “I’m not going to make or pass judgments about what it is that individual Ukrainians on the ground do during this time of conflict,” he said.
This is one of the most loaded questions of the current crisis, and perhaps the one that touches most directly on our interpretation of the Gospel: In times of war, what does it mean to “love your enemy”? Does “turning the other cheek” apply even in the face of national invasion, especially when acceding to the enemy could encourage further violence?
Without war, is our only recourse the United Nations?
One thing that I feared about a pacifist stance was that it would require me to place my hopes in the United Nations or the vague concept of “international law.” For several years I have been skeptical about the body’s efficacy, and I only grew more suspicious of its high ideals in the last few weeks, as its resolutions and censures and warnings have apparently done nothing to dissuade Russia’s belligerence.
Eric Martin: “I don’t think it’s a part of our scriptural tradition to place our faith in the U.N.”
“No, I don't think it’s rational, I don’t think it’s historically intelligent, and I don’t think it’s a part of our scriptural tradition to place our faith in the U.N.,” said Mr. Martin. On the other hand, “there are signs of hope for the U.N.,” he said, to the extent that the broader organization fosters genuine community—as opposed to the procedural courtesy visible in the recent Security Council meetings, which was only a veneer for angry condemnation.
Does being a pacifist mean that I have to remain neutral?
Pacifism requires us to avoid “picking a state and throwing our weight behind the American government, the Russian government, the Ukrainian government,” said Mr. Martin. Instead of focusing on countries, he said, “I think our allegiance has to be with people, especially vulnerable people.”
This allegiance ought not be limited to the people of Ukraine, either. The sanctions that the United States and its allies have imposed on Russia are not bloodless: They have already caused the value of the ruble to plummet, and their impact will likely lead to misery, hunger and social disruption for everyday Russian people who did not have a say in declaring war.
And as Pope Francis reminded the church in his Angelus address on Feb. 27, looking at the situation in terms of nation-states rather than people makes it easy to forget those in other parts of the world—Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia—who have been suffering in their own deadly conflicts.
Underlying all of these questions is one: What should a pacifist do, and what should he or she advocate for?
Thinking so much about the matters of the world can easily lead us to forget that we believe in a transcendent God. Accordingly, “the first thing we can do is pray,” said Ms. Hennessy. “It’s not simply praying for someone else to be less aggressive,” she said, but rather to ask God to remove the combativeness in our own hearts, to facilitate “the revolution of the heart that is needed for our own self-transformation.”
In addition to prayer, a concrete way to take action is performing “local, daily, immediate acts of kindness and works of mercy,” she said.
As Mr. Martin explained to me, even though helping the homeless in a U.S. city might not alleviate the suffering of Ukrainians, it is a small building block for establishing peace where we can. In my view, this need not be limited to our local communities, important as they are. In a globalized world, we can develop bonds of fraternity by donating food, time or resources to help the Ukrainian people.
This talk of doing the works of mercy may sound utopian, but Mr. Martin said something which made it seem very practical: If you truly develop friendships with your neighbors, even across national boundaries, would you really be willing to kill them, just because your country’s leader ordered you to?
Of course, none of these actions can change the past. Mr. Martin stressed that in the present, people can support larger political efforts to support those who are in danger, such as by donating to relocation programs that provide funds for refugees looking to escape Ukraine and urging lawmakers to remove barriers preventing Ukrainians from seeking refugee status in the United States.
Finally, Mr. Martin suggested learning about Ukrainian and Russian culture. “Learn the language, learn the culture, learn about the histories of the people who are involved here,” he said.
Maybe we will not be so willing to kill people when we understand the intricacies of their countries, their families and their own dreams.