Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is existentially shattering, for so many reasons. For the Christian pacifist, one of the shattered pieces of existence is pacifism itself. For pacifist Christians with Ukrainian heritage—like many Mennonites—the existential disintegration carries an additional layer of heritage, legacy, migration, and identity. My own great-grandparents (Orthodox and Jewish) immigrated from Ukraine to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and I write these words with the acknowledgement that I am only writing them—cozy in my peaceful home—because of some blood-stranger’s urge for survival.
So how does a pacifist cope? Is pacifism a valid moral stance in this war? What should we advocate for right now? What do we do about the complex emotion that surges through us when we cheer for the Ukrainian people’s resistance? How much of our existential disruption is rooted in our own unacknowledged racist notions of European exceptionalism and white nations’ post-World War II transcendence of violence?
This is existential disintegration with a side of moral crisis. A moral crisis is when something happens which is so profoundly earth-shaking that you question your most deeply held beliefs about what is right, even as you struggle just to survive day-to-day in this new crisis reality.
The pacifist in search of easy answers might gravitate to the claim that interpersonal pacifism is different from geopolitical pacifism. Perhaps we can simply say that pacifism is a policy of individual relationship navigation—“I do not initiate or support violence”—that doesn’t scale up. Geopolitical systems are too complex, the result of actions too unpredictable, the number of actors too high, to create any coherent global pacifist stance. I find this a deeply unsatisfying moral resolution. I do believe, however, that in any war there is a point of no turning back, before which there were multiple opportunities for redirection and prevention of violence, after which is acute moral crisis, survival, collateral damage, and entangled endings. From this lens, there is important work to do in acknowledging the points at which we could’ve prevented violence and didn’t. Political scientists and historians are doing this right now.
Secondly, pacifism, like any moral stance done correctly, is a check on the stories we tell ourselves. Our moral stances are designed to help us navigate moral gray areas, but often, we take shelter in them as if they will protect us from moral ambiguity. There is no protection from moral ambiguity. It is important to name Putin as the aggressor, but the West must also acknowledge their complicity in creating the conditions of violence.
A deeply held belief—like pacifism—should be a filter for decision-making, and what Russia’s aggression exposed is that preventing violence was not the deeply-held belief that guided Western actions. Instead, the West operated within a framework that allowed them to believe violence was impossible, given post-World War II reality and the narrative of post-Soviet Russia as a weakened state. The West followed the deeply held beliefs that protecting fossil fuel supplies is of upmost importance and the largest threat to global peace is China and our economic and military strength is an insurmountable deterrent. These beliefs were so deeply held that we did not question them, not in the decades-long dance between NATO and Ukraine, not when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, not even as the U.S. announced Russia’s military plans to invade Ukraine to the world. If we are guided by an ethic of peace, we should recalibrate in the face of evidence that threatens it. Yes, global politics are complicated and consequences aren’t always evident. Yet we, especially in the United States in its waning-but-still-present status of superpower, should have recalculated our foreign policy (even pre-Trump) with an eye toward what will preserve global peace. Instead, we focused on what will preserve our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.
Now, the suffering is immediate and daily. In the midst of this suffering, there is another critical reality: violence and creative nonviolence share a fluid border. Pacifists are tempted to frame their belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, but during periods of war, there is no hard line between violent action and creative nonviolent action. Creative nonviolence remains a tool, especially for civilians caught in violence. As the Russian invasion began, Ukrainians removed road signs to complicate the Russian military’s ability to navigate. This is a nonviolent tactic that bought time for civilians to find more secure situations and disrupted the narrative that military might equates to power. Pacifism is an extreme stance, but one that continues to lives in the nuance. It is a mistake to think that “the presence of some violence means the absence of all nonviolent action.”
At the end of the day, however, war is a threat to pacifist conviction. Pacifism might dissolve. That is sometimes the result of moral crisis. Pacifism functions best as a guiding ethical framework and, if it is a pedestal on which self-righteousness preens—as it has at times been for Mennonites—then some dissolution probably needs to happen. The great temptation of Mennonites has always been to use pacifism as a ticket out of hard conversations. Theologian Walter Brueggeman describes the Bible as a cycle of orientation (a state of homeostasis), disorientation (a state of crisis), and reorientation (a state of resilient response to crisis experience).
We are now in a state of disorientation. As Brueggeman reminds us, God is present in disorientation. Our task now is not to rush to reconcile our belief system or deny the deep, base level of dread that accompanies every day, but to calibrate to God in disorientation. To stay focused on who God calls us to be, to hold the honest chaos of our emotional state, to do what we can in the ways that we can and to remember that even curling up in a ball and collapsing is a way of doing that. Disorientation is a valid state of being.
I went to church on Sunday hoping that my church would help me make sense of what it means to be a pacifist Anabaptist during a twenty-first century land war in Europe. It didn’t, not because of the failure of pacifism, but because of the failure of sense.
Pacifists don’t need to be people with answers. Nobody has answers right now. We can acknowledge in these times that pacifism is an inadequate worldview, because at this point, all our worldviews are inadequate. Pacifism, like so many moral views, was never meant to be pinned down and displayed on a wall. It was meant to be a tool, taken out and used and repaired or set aside when broken. Right now, we are broken, and we can be God’s broken people, together.