There is a certain narrative popular among Christian ethicists and moral theologians that comes dangerously close to bolstering Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine. It goes something like this: despite efforts by Vladimir Putin to build relations with the West, the United States and NATO have actively worked to undermine Russian interests in Eastern Europe. Therefore, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 ought not be viewed as an act of unilateral aggression but as quid pro quo for what Pope Francis has called “NATO’s barking at Russia’s gate.”
On March of 2022, Pope Francis acknowledged, “I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked, but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.” This echoes the words of an address by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, on the day of the invasion justifying Russia’s actions by claiming to be fighting a war of liberation against fascism: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime.” Yet, a close reading of Putin’s address to the world reveals that the underlying reason for invading Ukraine was the need to respond to “the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia consistently, rudely and unceremoniously from year to year. I am referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border.” By vacillating on whether Ukraine’s war of self-defense meets the criteria of a just war from a Christian point of view, Pope Francis has inadvertently given credence to Putin’s rationalizations.
Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine continue to fight a lopsided war of self-defense against a much larger and better equipped aggressor while enduring pleas from Western academics and policy experts to: (1) cease violent resistance, (2) seek nonviolent alternatives, and (3) concede lands to Russia in order to bring an end to the war. To the surprise of many—Putin most of all—Ukraine refuses to concede land to Russia and continues bravely slowing down the Russian assault, even if at great loss.
Unfortunately, the pope’s vacillation on the moral status of Ukraine’s war of self-defense has led to bloated rhetoric by those who argue it is better for Ukraine to forgo any kind of armed resistance against Russia for fear of precipitating a nuclear war. Theologian Paul J. Griffiths, writing in Commonweal Magazine, has gone as far as to say that in supporting Ukraine’s war of self-defense the United States and NATO are exploiting “Ukrainian suffering, while either ignoring Russian suffering or relishing it; they use moral and ideological language to justify, and to veil…they are, to put it kindly, coy about American strategic and tactical interests in the region.” He also contends that because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine’s war of self-defense the hands of every American taxpayer now drip with blood. American hands might be covered in the blood of innocents from Afghanistan to Somalia to Yemen, but from the perspective of Christian just war reasoning there has been no transgression in Ukraine. In fact, it can be argued that the U.S. and Europe have not done enough.
As David DeCosse points out in the first essay of this symposium, the pope’s equivocation reflects “the increasing Catholic skepticism about the moral justification of war at all.” Therefore, while the Vatican eventually acknowledged Ukraine’s right to self-defense, most of the pope’s public statements about the war in Ukraine ought to be read as part of a larger criticism of militarism, the arms trade, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation, which is why in Fratelli Tutti (2020) he appears to reject the just war tradition when he states: “Never again war!” (§258).
Admittedly, Griffiths correctly draws attention to the spotty record the United States has of militaristic intervention and supporting regime change only when it benefits U.S. interests, but no more so than any other developed nation with global interests. It is both disingenuous and inaccurate for Griffiths to claim that “since the end of the Soviet Empire, we have invaded, laid waste to, and otherwise damaged more sovereign states than the Russian Federation, and with a complete disregard for international law and national sovereignty.” As unpopular as the drawn out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually became, we cannot equate U.S. efforts to build international coalitions (even while serving their own interests) to the unilateral and expansionist actions in Chechnya, Crimea, Syria and Ukraine, to say nothing of Russia’s covert campaigns of political assassination and state-sponsored cyber-terrorism. In a time of crisis, as John Gonzalez’s contribution to this symposium makes clear, we ought to avoid hyperbole: “Pope Francis may want to raise the gravity of this current conflict but for my part I do not want to add hysteria to the volatile situation we find ourselves in.” Accordingly, whatever disagreements we have with U.S. policy elsewhere in the world, it is imperative to consider the war in Ukraine on its own terms and not as a test case for past moral failings of U.S. foreign policy. Especially if we, as Pope Francis urges, wish to take seriously “the sufferings of women and men who are defending their land.”
Among those calling for an end to Ukrainian violence, a common argument is that the suffering and death caused by a prolonged war—a war that is unlikely to end with the expulsion of Russia from Ukraine—means there is inadequate rationale for declaring Ukraine’s war of self-defense a “just” war. However, as Ramón Luzárraga ably demonstrates, a protracted war does not necessarily cause greater harm than it is trying to stop: “If just war theory is to do justice to persons, it must recognize the historical reality that peoples and nations can and do fight over years, even centuries, to assert their identity and independence.” Then there is the stubborn fact that four months after the Russian invasion, Ukraine has managed to slow Russian advances, regain lost territories (though Russia already occupies 20% of Ukraine), and continues to blacken the eye of what many considered a vastly superior fighting force in terms of training, morale, and technology.
Amid all the talk over “legitimate” rationalizations for engaging in war (ius ad bellum), little attention has been given to questions of justice. When Pope Francis laments the fact that the war in Ukraine could turn into a third world war he is primarily concerned about the possibility of nuclear war: “I have said that the use and possession of nuclear weapons are immoral. Resolving conflicts through war is saying no to verbal reasoning, to being constructive.” Unfortunately, Francis is ignoring the fact that in this instance only Russia has nuclear weapons, Russia is the aggressor threatening to use nuclear weapons, and that Russia has to date refused to compromise in diplomatic negotiations. According to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, President Putin of Russia continues to stand firm on his propaganda, and aside from a compromise to evacuate civilians and soldiers trapped in a steel mill, refuses to back down from his strategic goals in invading Ukraine: “Other than that, I can’t see any progress in the talks.” Therefore, by framing the conversation in terms of preventing a third world war (and a potential nuclear attack), Pope Francis and other proponents of “just peacemaking” are simply capitulating to the playground bully. There is no justice when the stronger party—in this case an unprovoked aggressor—is given what he wants at the negotiating table out of fear of retaliation.
In recent history there has been no greater advocate of nonviolence than St. Óscar Romero, who proclaimed from the pulpit that, “When Christ allowed himself to be killed is the only legitimate violence: to let oneself be killed.” Yet even Romero, after three years of persistent, nonviolent resistance to the right-wing government of El Salvador that was running a covert assassination campaign against its political opponents, saw the need to accommodate Christian thought to allow for political violence in self-defense. Confronted with a volatile political reality, with Christians advocating violence on both sides of the issues, Archbishop Romero proposed justice, dialogue, increased democratization, and the redistribution of wealth as guiding virtues for a nonviolent national conversation that would result in pragmatic change. But given the prolonged tyranny of the Salvadoran situation, in his Third Pastoral Letter (August 6, 1978) Romero also approved the legitimate violence of self-defense “when a person or a group repels by force an unjust aggression that they have suffered.”
Nonviolence is the preferred Christian path, and Romero pleaded with both sides to resolve their differences through nonviolence: “We implore the forces that organize in honorable struggle, who employ legitimate means of resistance, not to put their trust in violence, not to allow their just claims to justice to become poisoned by ideologies of violence.” He appealed to the just-war tradition in his third and fourth pastoral letters without condoning political violence in order to create a public space in which both sides could engage in public dialogue without fear of retribution. St. Romero had little patience for tyrants and understood that prolonged repression by a tyrannical power “strongly influences many to act violently in response to the continual, systematic oppression exercised by the groups in power—or at least it gives them a pretext for doing so. And the purpose of dialogue is precisely to rid the country of this root cause.”
The Magnificat of Mary in the Gospel of Luke stands as a prophetic text in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets, in which the human condition is defined in terms of contrasting polarities—poor/rich, victim/victimizer, oppressed/oppressor—and God acts in human history to reverse the unjust status quo:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.(Luke 1:52–53, NRSV)
Christ on the cross, forgiving his torturers and executioners, offers a way forward that appears to break the cycle of violence, but the inherent danger in readily offering forgiveness to the tyrant is to risk making “a mockery of the millions who have suffered at the hands of the violent – battered women, exploited and dehumanized slaves, tortured dissidents, persecuted minorities” (103), as Miroslav Volf contends in Exclusion and Embrace (1996): “Suspend justice and truth, and you cannot redeem the world; you must leave it as it is” (294). The Christian understanding of the human condition acknowledges the reality of relationships of domination but refuses to accept this as the natural order, arguing instead that humans are responsible for creating relationships of domination (sin) and that divine action is needed to overcome such domination (grace). In the prophetic literature God acts in human history to overcome sin and evil. Capitulating to tyrants—even when they threaten nuclear war—negates our hope that God is the true author of history.
The challenge for contemporary Christian theology becomes affirming Christ’s call for human nonviolence while simultaneously proclaiming God’s judgment against tyranny and abuse. Ukraine is acting in self-defense against a more powerful aggressor (Russia) that has historically viewed Ukraine as part of its Empire, so it refuses to see its actions as immoral. Until Russia recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty and surrenders its claim to Ukrainian lands and resources peaceful negotiations are meaningless. Meanwhile, anything short of supporting Ukraine in its war of self-defense—by diplomatic means, the use of sanctions, and even military options—subverts the very meaning of justice.