Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 13:6-12
Good morning. It’s good to be with you all on this beautiful, bright summer morning to offer another one of these monthly messages on in this sermon series, in which we approach another question of justice – in this case, the war in Ukraine — and explore how we might craft some appropriate Mennonite responses. My training is in history, not theology, biblical studies, philosophy, or ethics. For the past three and a half decades or so, most of my best energies have been devoted to teaching a broad range of US history courses to undergraduates, mostly at the college down the street. So I hope it’s permissible that my reflections here build largely from that experience.
As I think about what’s happening now in Ukraine, I still find myself caught on between two seemingly opposite sets of commitments. I am an Anabaptist Christian and, following the teachings of my church, I categorically reject participation in violence. I am a Peace Christian; war is not the answer. At the same time, I believe deeply in justice, and I know some history. Sometimes broken people attack others, and the victims have a right to defend themselves. Ukraine has a right to self-determination and peace. There’s the dilemma. How does a Peace Christian respond to the brutal war of conquest that Vladimir Putin is levelling onto the people of Ukraine?
Like many of you who have been raised in the peace church tradition, I’ve been wrestling with one or another variant of this question for most of my adult life, though it was usually put in a different and parallel historical context. He oppressor in question has not been Putin, but Hitler. You’ve heard it too. OK, you pacifists, comes the question. You think you have it all worked out? Then tell me: what do you do about a Hitler? This is a question I’ve certainly had to answer as a Mennonite college professor, and here’s a short version of what I’ve come up with.
I always tell my students that my perspective on matters of war and peace is deeply informed by my commitments as an Anabaptist Christian (even though decreasing numbers of my students have even a faint clue what that means). But they do get the point – because I state it emphatically — that few of us in the peace movement (except for the Berrigans, maybe, and those with CPT) ever sacrifice for our beliefs to the degree that people in the military routinely do. It’s important for students to hear this from me, since many of them have parents, siblings, best friends who have been or are in the military and I want to connote my respect for them.
I admit forthrightly that the question of about Hitler is a hard one for me. I’ve taken students, I tell them, to places like Auschwitz and Majdanek and I know what happened there. I don’t have a pacifist blueprint for how to respond to that. But the moral wrestling about World War II isn’t confined to pacifists. We don’t need to talk pacifism here, I tell students. Instead, Let’s just come at this through something called Just War Theory. That is another phrase that, at least before they arrived at Bluffton few of them have ever heard of, but I lay it out. If you are Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian or a member of most other US religious denominations, I tell them, some version of this is your official church teaching. It says that you are allowed to participate in a war, but for you to do so with the sanction of your church, the war must be just both in its causes and its practice. You can’t engage in war if it is aimed at noncombatants, for instance. You can’t make war on kids. And I follow that up with a lecture on the firebombing of Japan. Most of the students receive this lecture in shocked silence. They had never heard a word about that. Hollywood doesn’t make blockbuster movies about things like that. World War II, I tell them, doesn’t give anyone an easy moral out. If the question for us pacifists is: how do you respond to Hitler? the question for you non-pacifists is, how do you respond to the firebombing of Japan?
I follow this up with some of the other standard critiques of modern war. It has a way of taking over, of inducing well-intentioned people to ultimately engage in conduct they never imagined. When the Nazis attacked Poland and started World War II, for example, they did something absolutely horrifying that shocked the world: they actually dropped bombs from airplanes on civilian areas of Warsaw. Franklin Roosevelt issued a shocked declaration addressed to the governments of the world, calling on all nations to agree they would never drop bombs from airplanes on unfortified cities or civilian areas. That was 1939. Four years later he authorized the firebombing of Germany and Japan.
Or there’s the pacifist rejection of the legitimacy of the question itself. To ask pacifists what to do about a Hitler with the world aflame in hatred and war is not a fair question. It’s like putting a person in a canoe about to go over Niagara Falls and say, give me a blueprint for how you get out of this? That’s not a fair question, we pacifists say in response. Put me in the canoe twenty miles upstream and I’ll tell you how to avoid it. In other words, give pacifists the opportunity to send history down a different channel than the one that landed us in this situation of seemingly intractable bloodshed. Let’s rethink the treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, for instance, and its levelling of brutal war reparations onto Germany that undermined the fledgling German democracy, the Weimar Republic, created vast cultural reservoirs of German resentment and made possible the subsequent rise of a madman like Hitler. It’s for this reason that pacifists refuse to distinguish between means and ends. You can’t expect just ends, we have insisted, from unjust means. In the words of the great old peace leader A.J. Muste, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
So those have been the answers I’ve given students these past three decades. They had certain small elements that troubled me. It’s occurred to me that what I offer students is more of a critique of war than a proactive case for peace, but generally the arguments have worked on a removed academic level. And then came the events of these past two years in Ukraine. All of the sudden all those events burst out of their neat little historical boxes and began happening for me now in real time. (I’ve now come to the new few paragraphs in this sermon in which parents of young children might want to try to distract them?)
You know, I think, the basic trajectory of events: how, in the winter of 2022, President Putin of Russian encircled Ukraine with half a million soldiers and suddenly attacked. Russians forces advanced south and reached the northern suburbs of Kyiv. They penetrated to the gates of the old industrial city of Zaporizhzhia, on the Dnipro River, and occupied the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, which now seems to be in increasing danger of radioactive meltdown. They advanced west along the Black Sea coast almost to Ukraine’s great port of Odessa, aiming to cut off Ukraine from world trade. In the process they have endangered global food supplies, sending the renewed prospect of widespread famine across the Horn of Africa. Late in the spring of 2022, the Russian advance stopped, thrown back by intensive Ukrainian military resistance, and aided by a gushing pipeline of military aid to the Ukrainian military by NATO countries. Since then, Putin has redirected his efforts to securing the Donbas region in southeast Ukraine. This is where the fighting is raging now. Putin is waging this brutal war on behalf of bizarre historical fantasies, like Ukraine never existed as an independent state, is really run by Nazis — really? a country with a Jewish president? — and is committing “genocide,” he says, against Russians. He says this, of course, when it’s his forces that are pulverizing Ukraine, his forces that are shelling Ukrainian residential neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals, his forces that are committing what seem to objective observers to be widespread war crimes.
Part of the distressing nature of these events for my family and I is the fact that eleven years ago, we lived in for five months Ukraine. We were in Zaporizhzhia, adjacent to the old Mennonite mother colony of Khortytsya. I was teaching at the national university there under the auspices of the Fulbright program. Back then, Zaporizhzhia was a decaying old industrial city far from any meaningful world events. Today it is on the front lines of this war. We made Ukrainian friends there about whom we are still concerned. Ten years ago, for instance, our old translator was in her late teens. Today she’s a woman in her early thirties living near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Don’t worry, she assures us. If that thing melts down, we have the car all packed, and we know the back roads, and we’ll be driving west immediately. (Yes, I think to myself, along with 800,000 other people). Or some of you might remember a Ukrainian high school English teacher named Natalya. In 2012 she lived with us in Bluffton that fall semester and attended worship here with us here at First Mennonite every week. Back then her son Dima was in late teens. More recently he was a medic with the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. Six months ago, the ambulance he was driving hit a land mine. His fellow medic was killed, and Dima spent months in a Kyiv hospital with shrapnel up his spine.
Those are some of the people I think about when I struggle with how to respond as a peace Christian to this war. On an intellectual level, I expect that some of my old answers still work. War still induces well-intentioned people to engage in behavior they once thought morally reprehensible. Just this month, for instance, I read in the media that President Biden has agreed to furnish cluster bombs to the Ukrainian military even though their use has been condemned by most of the governments of the world. We’ve seen cluster bombs used before. A half century ago, during the Vietnam war, we saturated the landscape of Laos with them, seeding a horror that is still being visited on Laotian civilians. You can imagine what still happens when a Laotian child bends down to pick up what he thinks is a shiny plastic toy embedded in the dirt. That nightmare is going to be visited on Ukrainian civilians now for decades.
I expect people of peace could also argue, again, that the question of what do you do about Putin is not a fair question. It’s like putting the guy back in the canoe about to go over Niagara Falls. Certain historical currents have placed that canoe there. Critics on both the US left and right have argued that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not an exercise of irrational paranoia. It was triggered by the US decision in the 1990s to expand NATO eastward to include former Soviet satellites like Poland and Hungary. Take away that decision, and its subsequent magnification of Russian territorial insecurities, do you think Putin would be pouring out the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russian young men in his quest to conquer Ukraine?
That argument is troubling for me because, first, it forfeits to Ukraine the right to self-determination. If Ukraine is independent, then it should enjoy the right of other sovereign states to decide with whom it does and does not want to ally. More than that: maybe I shouldn’t admit this as a historian, but sometimes those kinds of historical coulda, shoulda arguments don’t appear entirely relevant to the person in the canoe at the top of the falls. What if it’s not 1919? What if it’s 1941 and Hitler is launching the final solution? What if it’s not 1996 but it’s 2022 and Putin is pummeling Ukraine with drone strikes on civilian neighborhoods? What do we people of peace say to that?
There have been some Mennonite answers, or answers for Mennonites, that I reject. I categorically reject the neat little way out that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered Mennonites in the later 1930s. Niebuhr called most forms of Christian pacifism “heresy,” but he liked Mennonites because he said, we were happy to walk away from any pretensions to social responsibility. “It is a good thing, therefore,” he wrote, “that there should be a group in the church which seeks to symbolize the absolute ideal of love.” Such groups keep the ideals of love alive in dark times when everyone else throws it away. “But let such a group disavow its illusion that it has another and better way of establishing social justice…Let it admit, as Mennonite pacifists of other ages have admitted, that the mystery of social evil is too great to be solved by human moral action…Let such pacifism realize that it is a form of asceticism and that as such it is a parasite on the sins of the rest of us, who maintain government and relative social peace.” You Mennonites are fine. Niebuhr said. Go off into your CO camps, take care of the mentally ill and preserve the ideal of absolute love while the rest of us cast it aside. Just accept you have nothing to say to the problem of injustice. And stay out of the way of the rest of us who have to get our hands dirty maintaining order in the wicked world. Not only do I reject that kind of patronizing dismissal, but so have most of the members, then and now, of today’s Mennonite Church USA, in a historical trajectory I have outlined in, among other settings, several adult Sunday school classes here.
Closer to home for me was an answer I uncovered in 1942 and which seems to have reverberated in some form in Mennonite dialogue since. Some years ago, I spent a good deal of time with C. Henry Smith, one of my predecessors in the Bluffton history department and one of the leading voices for peace and justice in the Mennonite church of his day. I wrote a biography of Smith and came to know him about as well I guess as one could know anybody who has been dead for seventy-five years. I came to like him and will caution that this anecdote is not representative of the careful nuances of his thought. Even so, in 1942 Smith gave an address at Bethel College in which he said that Hitler was “not the pacifists’ problem.” Pacifism, he said, “was not a remedy to end war but end the war system and prevent war.” That’s fine, Dr. Smith, I’d like to ask him, but you’ve got to help me here now. What do I have to say as a Peace Christian to the victims now upon whom the troops are advancing and the bombs are falling?
Back in Smith’s day and in his little corner of the world, there were young people wrestling with that question, and I have found an answer from one of them supremely helpful. These were members of a little group called the Mennonite Peace Society. They were bright young Bluffton College students like Richard Weaver, Margaret Shelly, Bertran Smucker, Margaret Berky and her brother Richard. They were led by an older couple named Carl and Martha Graber Landes (who were, by the way, Elfrieda Ramseyer’s parents). A half century later, I asked one of these people, Bill Keeney, why he had chosen to register as a conscientious objector rather than enter the military in World War II. Many of you recall Bill fondly. He was a member here for decades and one of the great peace leaders of the postwar Mennonite church. I remember his response clearly. He said that the decision for him wasn’t whether he would be a conscientious objector or join the military. The decision for him back then simply whether or not he was a Christian. The Jesus he encountered in the Bible, Bill said, was so clearly devoted to the ways of peace that if he decided to follow Jesus, he couldn’t pick up the gun. Bill’s answer crystallized for me something of my response too. I am a Christian. I cannot pick up, or advocate, the gun.
Not that this clarity makes things easier. When the war in Ukraine broke out, Elysia and I were getting emails from Ukrainian friends, pointing us to websites to which, if we gave $75.00, it would purchase a set of night vision goggles for a Ukrainian soldier. We could not do that. Instead, we sent money to MCC for distributing relief supplies south from Zaporizhzhia. I am guessing that our Ukrainian friends would have judged that a good deal less than the kind of support they needed.
Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has sparked a profound reevaluation of Christian responses from a wide variety of people across the church. Phyllis Bixler has sent me a stream of articles calling my attention to the active debate that the war in Ukraine has sparked in the US Catholic church over the appropriateness of pacifism. The arguments have ranged from a pacifist writer in the Jesuit journal Commonweal, who advocates cutting off all military aid to Ukraine. This would save lives but also, he acknowledged, lead to the probable elimination of Ukraine as a state and encourage Russian expansion across Europe. The other side of the Catholic spectrum seems represented by a writer named Michael Sean Winters, who argued that “telling the people of Ukraine that their faith prevents them from defending their homes and their homeland would be morally obscene. What is more, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, to be pacifist in this moment is to be objectively pro-fascist.”
More helpful to me have been voices from our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. I’ve read some analyses by a German Mennonite pastor named Benjamin Isaak-Krauss, who graduated four years ago from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and serves in leadership with Community Peacemaker Teams. Isaak-Krauss has done some useful work exploring the different possibilities of nonviolent resistance that could be applicable to Ukraine while admitting to their practical difficulties in lessening bloodshed in the here and now. “There are also many people calling themselves pacifists,” he writes, “who show almost no empathy to the Ukrainian struggle for independence and call for a surrender out of their own (understandable) fear of a further military escalation and the prospect of nuclear war. I think it is important to make clear that we affirm the right to self-defense, if not as Christians, then morally. The church has no business to tell people how to struggle, but to support the struggle for freedom and peace, and wherever possible support those who struggle nonviolently.”
Brothers and sisters, the reason I cannot produce any easy answers to the question of what to do about Putin is because there are no easy answers. Here we are, followers of the Lord of Love, confronted with another situation of mass international horror and injustice, and any course that anyone can advocate just leads to more suffering. Maybe our most appropriate, immediate response is a simple one of lament.
For me there is –again — just this core recognition of moral clarity about who I am as a Christian, surrounded by layer after layer of moral ambiguity. Perhaps this is what Paul recognizes in that lovely passage in First Corinthians 13. We all know that passage, about the beauties of love, how it’s patient and kind and does not keep a record of wrongs. We hear it read all the time at weddings. But then Paul goes on. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,” he promises, “what is in part disappears.” Here and now, in this world, we can only grasp part of the truth. Here and now, as the King James Version phrases it, we see only “through a glass darkly.”
The young people with the Mennonite Peace Society back in the early 1940s were not wrestling with some abstract academic question. What to do about Hitler was a question that directly impacted their lives. Some of them, like Bill Keeney, answered it by working with patients in mental hospitals, including some of the conscientious objector women, who labored alongside the men as what they themselves called “CO Girls.” But others of those young people, just as conscientious, answered that question differently. Some took up roles as medics or other noncombatant positions in the military. That was the choice, for instance, that Howard Krehbiel made. Others took up straight military service. Most of us today would refrain from condemning any of those young people for the decisions they made long ago, even though only the first of those options was – then and now – considered acceptable by the Mennonite Church. We know we enjoy a comfortable historical distance from the dilemmas facing those young people back in 1941. And we’re aware that all of us, then and now, face a moral ambiguity that inhabits all our decisions. Our safe removal from injustice today is made possible by a huge military apparatus which, regardless of our unease, most of us support with our tax dollars. Our protection from wrongdoers rests on a police force which, when push comes to shove in a moment of crisis, most of us would not hesitate to summon with a phone call.
This side of the final reign of God, we see only through a glass darkly. May God help us find a way to Christian faithfulness despite the moral ambiguities that surround us. And may Christ have mercy on us all.
Sisters and brothers: as we leave this place, and head back into our daily lives with all their moral complexities, let’s always remember who we belong to. Let’s make sure we always keep in mind who our God is. Go in peace.