You could almost hear the sighs of relief between the lines of handwringing op-eds in the buildup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For all the noise about the new threat and about the undoing of the world order, there was a palpable sense of things returning to familiar grounds: a historic enemy behaving like a summer blockbuster villain, state actors vying for global power (instead of terrorist cells upstaging superpowers), and NATO getting the chance to flex its muscles. Above all: a return to something worth fighting for, a genuine, universally recognizable justification for military strength and the military-industrial complex.
Last May, I argued that John Wesley ought to have been a pacificist and that we, his descendants, have an opportunity “to complete what is lacking” in our forebear’s theological ethics. In The Doctrine of Original Sin, Wesley identifies war as a “horrid reproach to the Christian name.” But what happens when there is a clear case of a powerful aggressor perpetrating war against a country that poses no military threat? Doesn’t such a situation show the need for a country to defend itself using the means it has, as Ukraine has done? And does it not also show that other countries must be prepared to supply a country like Ukraine with military provisions? In other words, doesn’t Christian pacifism fall to pieces precisely in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Events have unfolded so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what stage this conflict will be in by the time you read this, but it is undoubtedly true that early Ukrainian resistance to the Russian force has been inspiring, even if also heartrending. A pacifist response to Russia’s unjustifiable invasion does not need to deny the bravery or heroism of Ukrainians.
Rather, a true response begins by questioning the narrative implicit in using Ukraine as a justification for militarization. The implicit narrative is that NATO’s ability to supply Ukraine with weapons prevents “something worse” than what is already happening. There are good geopolitical reasons to doubt this narrative; even the hawkish New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote that “America and NATO aren’t innocent bystanders” to this conflict.
More importantly, there are Christian reasons to reject such “preventing something worse” narratives whole cloth. First, the worst thing imaginable has already happened: the crucifixion of the Son of God. To believe that “something worse” could take place is to neglect the significance of the crucifixion for our identity as forgiven, reconciled members of the body of Christ.
Second, sin and evil of a supposedly lesser degree, as in the violence of self-defense, do not mitigate sin and evil of a supposedly greater degree. Sin and evil compound sin and evil, no matter the degree. As Paul reminds us in Romans 6, there is no justification for sin: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:1–3, 15 NRSV). Sin does not contribute positively even to our attaining the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps, however unlikely, the violence of self-defense is not actually a sin. This possibility, though, points to a third Christian pacificist response: Far from “preventing something worse,” militarization establishes the very conditions that make war (not violence, per se, but specifically the violence of war) possible in the first place. Ukrainians are not just taking up plowshares and beating them into swords to defend themselves; they are receiving missiles and machine guns manufactured for warfare. The “tools” for their self-defense are the same “tools” that make a Russian offensive possible. And the militarization that feeds the creation of such “tools” (while warping human intelligence, time, and creativity for destructive ends) has a vested interest in people imagining and fearing “something worse” instead of working for the sake of something better.
Christian pacificism does not merely invite us to imagine a world where this or that war is prevented through peaceful means. Christian pacificism urges us to upend the conditions that make war possible for the sake of a better alternative. That alternative is the kingdom of God, which is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 NRSV). There is nothing better than working for the sake of God’s kingdom, which is why the church must bear a radical witness to peace even—especially—in the face of a war like the one we see today.