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By John Bauerschmidt

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has already borne out the insight that the course of history is marked by surprising events. Surprising, of course, to many in the West; though in this case the attack was hardly prepared in secret. What was certainly unexpected was the extent of Vladimir Putin’s ruthlessness, though there were many warning signs (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria). His ruthlessness has been matched by Ukrainian resistance that, in its courage and resourcefulness, was again unexpected.

If the unfolding events catch us by surprise, it is partly a matter of perspective, of what we know and don’t know at the time. No one ever sees the entire playing field. But the capacity of events to catch us off guard really lies in their own contingent nature. The possibility of a war in Europe may have seemed improbable or been widely discounted by the public, given the history of the last thirty years, but a war is now precisely what we have.

This is not the first time that notions of historical progress have disappeared in the marches of Eastern Europe. Stalin and Hitler, between them, killed millions in what is now Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, as well as Poland and Lithuania: those places that historian Timothy Snyder called “the bloodlands.” Here, the sheer contingency of historical phenomena yields to the nature of sin itself, original and endemic to the human race.

If events have frustrated the idea that history is set upon a firm and determined progressive course, we are still left with the field of moral action, and ourselves as actors. Doubly so in time of war, when the stakes are so high. Christians may be tempted, in the face of the chaos and destruction of war, to consign it to a category where moral reflection is beside the point. For some, war is either unthinkable in itself, or so morally troubling that the means of waging it are not worth considering at all. The temptation to not reflect on it should be resisted.

Oliver O’Donovan has written about war as a form of judgment, that takes place “within the theatre of unbelief and disobedience” (The Just War Revisited, 6). War occurs at the intersection between different polities, in the interstices between nations. Though it is waged in a conceptual space where the law of no single polity prevails, it is morally analogous to other actions of government as judgment, and subject to the same constraints. For Christians, all actions of government take place in the saeculum given by God, where faith is exercised.

These actions of judgment undertaken by government include the extraordinary actions of war. “[A]rmed conflict can and must be reconceived as an extraordinary extension of ordinary acts of judgment; it can and must be subject to the limits and disciplines of ordinary acts of judgment.” O’Donovan continues, “In the face of criminal warmaking, judgment may take effect through armed conflict, but only as armed conflict is conformed to the law-governed and law-generating shape of judgment” (6). “Judgment in armed conflict is extraordinary, an adventure beyond the ordinary reach of law and order, hazarded upon God’s providential provision” (19).

In rendering these extraordinary judgments, Christians should not forget what is true about our ordinary judgments: we are not God, and our judgments are not perfect. Whatever judgment we render is not final judgment, which is reserved for God. We trust in divine providence, approaching judgment in humility and with prayer. “In enacting judgment we are not invited to assume the all-seeing view of God. … We have a specific civic human duty laid upon us, which is to distinguish innocence and guilt as far as is given us in the conduct of human affairs. … To lose the will to discriminate is to lose the will to do justice” (47).

Christian thinking about war, in what has come to be called “the just war tradition,” is properly considered under the heading of the love of neighbor. O’Donovan points out that even in a defensive war, where a nation has been attacked, Christians look less to a claim of absolute right to defend themselves, and more to the call to love the neighbor. This commitment also involves the neighbor who is the enemy. “In the context of war we find in its sharpest and most paradoxical form the thought that love can sometimes smite, and even slay” (9).

The war in Ukraine invites moral reflection by Christians under at least two headings: discrimination and proportion. Both are involved in thinking about war as an extraordinary act of judgment; both are part of the limits and disciplines that we should accept as moral actors in time of war. The two considerations impinge on our moral conscience in different ways in the conflict in Ukraine.

Discrimination between the innocent and the guilty is at the heart of the act of judgment itself, as O’Donovan says. “We shall define a discriminate act of conflict as one that intends to make a distinction between guilt and innocence” (35). There are cases where it is hard to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, but the soldier in the tank is clearly one thing, while the family in the bomb shelter is another. “The innocence in question is simply that of not being materially co-operative with wrongful hostilities” (39).

Destroying a society may be the road to victory, but it is indiscriminate in not intending to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, which is always judgment’s task.

[Quote]If we were to deny our enemy the power to produce food, if we were to terrorise his market-places or flatten his residential suburbs, we might quite probably hamper his ability to pursue his wicked purposes against us; but such a route to victory is one we should deny ourselves, since it denies a right of peaceful social existence, a right in which we and our enemy both share. (40)[/End]

The Russian attacks on civilian shelters, hospitals, and other non-military targets in Ukraine look to be indiscriminate attacks that do not intend to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent; forms of demoralizing assault on the fabric of society itself that attempt to terrorize one’s opponents into submission.

The question of proportion also figures here. It would be disproportionate to destroy the civil infrastructure of a society, leading to mass starvation and disease, and the genocide of the innocent, even if the enemy infrastructure were being used for military purposes and therefore a legitimate target. The destruction caused would be incommensurate with the end gained; the means themselves would undercut the aim, the restoration of peace and the establishment of justice.

Again, Russian means look disproportionate to the desired end. O’Donovan reminds us that “an act of judgment must be proportioned to a political end” (59). Even given Putin’s historical narrative, which denies the reality of Ukrainian identity and sovereignty, the goal is peace. From Putin’s bogus perspective, this peace is represented by the unification of an artificially divided country. Yet the act of judgment “must achieve peace, understanding that term properly to include all that is comprised in a stable and settled political order, including the justice and law-governed character of relations established within it” (59). This goal looks to be an unlikely result of this invasion. The best that Russian forces seem to be able to achieve is a destructive assault on Ukraine. Putin can perhaps produce the peace of a graveyard, but not peace in any meaningful political sense.

Considerations of proportion figure also in the moral discernment of the nations of the West, who instinctively recognize in Ukraine’s struggle their own hopes for independence and peaceful self-determination. In many cases, the response to the Russian invasion has not been the action of governments but has stemmed directly from the public. The moment has been a clarifying one for the liberal political order of the West, galvanizing it in a way not seen for decades. How do those nations respond to the challenge posed by Putin’s attack? What are they called upon to venture in judgment against criminal war-making?

Christian reflection on this conflict brings us back to the love of neighbor. If your neighbor is attacked, coming to his defense is an act of love. For St. Augustine, responding to violence directed against others may be the only act of defense that Christian ought to engage in (Letter 47.5). We might willingly endure blows ourselves, from which we would have a moral imperative to defend others. Through this lens, to pass by the wounded Samaritan of Ukraine without venturing aid seems like an act of moral abdication, and a failure of charity.

But if peace is the aim, then the response of Western governments to aggression must be proportionate to that political goal. Here we are mindful of the complexity of political decision-making in the midst of conflict. None of us sees the entire playing field. Decisions about establishing a “no-fly zone,” about sanctions, about weaponry and aid supplied to Ukraine, must be proportionate to the threat posed, and proportionate to the peace we seek to establish.

These are times when we should pray for ourselves, who will be called upon to discern, judge, and act, and especially for our leaders, who will bear the greatest responsibility. We should pray for safety for those in danger, on both sides. If we define victory as the preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, the integrity of its borders and the safety of its citizens, then we should pray for that victory as well. Finally, in God’s providence, we should pray for the peace that we all seek, and that only God can give.


    • You are most welcome. Events have unfolded very quickly, and the breaking revelations that suggest war crimes perpetuated in Ukraine are now an additional factor to be taken into account.


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