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.
6 thoughts on “Blood Covered Hands – But Not in Ukraine”
Rodriquez’s piece is challenging to believers in non violence. But it falls short in that he does not appear to be familiar with the work of Gene Sharp and Prof. Chenoweth pretty much proving that non-violence can work in many cases.
Further ArchBishop Romero who he does discuss clearly shows that self defense is not central to the Christian message. And the self sacrifices of soldiers and the behavior of people in a crisis to run into it without regard for their own safety further suggest that self defense may not as self evidently natural as many assert…
The question is whether nonviolence is a Christian absolute. I do not question whether it can work. As I stated, it is the preferred Christian option. But Christian thought has also made room for legitimate political violence, both liberative violence and violence in self-defense. What remains to be determined is how true to Christ’s teachings and actions is Christian just-war reasoning. Ethics is how we choose to act in a broken and sinful world. Christ’s commandments stand as our plumb line. In the end one has to live with the moral consequences of one’s choices, and like Miroslav Volf (whom I cited), I cannot allow violence to go unchallenged out of respect for the suffering of the millions who have suffered at the hands of the violent. Christian just-war reasoning is not the preferred path but a last recourse in the face of great tyranny after the collapse of political solutions. As to the matter of nonviolence in Ukraine, Chenoweth and Sharp have proven nothing, merely mapped a path of civil resistance as opposed to armed resistance. The calculus of Christian moral reasoning still stands: those who have responsibility for the common good must still weigh which path will lead to the least amount of human suffering while bringing violence to an end. Chenoweth’s concept of “nonviolent mass action,” or “strategic nonviolent conflict,” or “unarmed insurrection” (choose your favorite) describes nonviolent resistance (and is effective) during a time of civil unrest, not all out war, especially when the aggressor has no intention of negotiating and seriously overpowers the victim.
Thanks for thoughtful, challenging response. Difficult not to think of Munich in the Ukrainian circumstances.
That recognized, the just war doctrine includes the factor that war be the last resort. . Not sure it is despite the aggressive unjust disregard of the rights of innocent people by Russia.
I agree that political violence is the last resort after all else has failed in just-war reasoning, and even then there is no guarantee such action is just. However, when the more powerful aggressor is unwilling to negotiate, we are that much closer to meeting the criteria for a just war of self-defense.
Professor Rodriguez, you write, “little attention has been given to questions of justice.” This essay gives little attention to questions of history. Russia’s belligerence has roots that go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States and NATO made promises, and offered assurances, that NATO would not expand to the east. Since the early 1990s, NATO has expanded relentlessly to the east. One historical question unexplored is this: after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, why did NATO continue to exist? What are the unexplored imperial ambitions of the US and the European Union toward Russia? We know that in the 1990s Dick Cheney and Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke and wrote openly about breaking Russia up. Then there is US-supported 2014 Maidan counter-revolution that installed a US-friendly, right-wing regime in Kyiv. Perhaps two things need to be stated: Russia’s attack on Ukraine is wrong and NATO’s continued expansion toward the east is wrong. Your essay neglects important historical events that paved the way to the current conflict.
It is impossible to offer any kind of comprehensive analysis in 1500-words! I chose to focus on a topic I felt neglected in the public discourse to date. But if we want to take an expansive historical perspective to better understand the war in Ukraine, we can’t begin in the post-Soviet era. We need to look back to Czarist Russia and before. We also need to consider the religious dimension of this conflict and how it feeds into both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, provides a good introduction in the New Yorker. Finally, you are misrepresenting the recent history of NATO expansion. NATO is not actively pursuing new membership. European nations, many under the geographic and cultural umbrella of the former Soviet bloc, have been actively pursuing NATO membership precisely because they fear Russia’s imperialist aspirations. Through his actions in Crimea and Ukraine Putin has in fact accelerated NATO expansion to his very doorstep (Finland).
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