The purpose of this blog is to explore the thesis that God wants us to co-create the future in partnership with His Spirit. This is a fundamentally constructive and life-affirming mission. God’s very good future, according to the biblical vision of Shalom peace. Wars, invasions or ‘special military operations’ are not my intended brief. But since Vladimir Putin sent his massed soldiers and missiles across the border into Ukraine on February 23rd 2022, there can be no ignoring what is taking place. At the time of writing, nine days later, it must be the case that some tens of thousands are dead and injured within the borders of what we have come to recognise as the independent country of Ukraine, both natives and invaders, and the world is certainly no longer the same as it was ten days ago. It will not ever be the same again. ‘Events’ have transpired. ‘Stuff happens,’ in more trendy parlance. Tragic and horrific stuff. Are these appropriate words to use? Its hard to know- who is to say? At times like this its hard to find the right words. The Bible has some sort of a solution to the question of how to talk about some of the crazier things that humans get up to when our thinking gets out of control- its the Book of Ecclesiastes.
3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.[already been pursued.]
16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.[vapour, mere breath.] 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?
A million people have now left the Eastern borders of Ukraine to Poland and its other neighbours. Where even is Ukraine? Most of us have had to improve our eastern European geography in the last week, and so perhaps now recall that Belarus, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea form its other borders, in addition to Russia. Not to mention that Crimea was also Ukraine until 2014. As the map below makes clear to those of us who were not experts on the local political history, pre-Gorbachev Ukraine was not a landmass with a singular pedigree. How many countries are? My country, the UK, certainly is not. But while democracy may be a contested concept in some details, it is commonly conceded that the post Empires-Stalin-Hitler era in which the United Nations and Human Rights are now ‘things,’ launching salvoes of unguided rockets into civilian districts of multiple cities is not at all the right way to behave. Even if some people groups find themselves separated by current international boundaries, as seems to be the case in what was the Donbas region of SE Ukraine. Yes, we know the Ukraine military have been shooting there before the recent invasion- its complicated. Life usually is.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall, all I knew about Ukraine was that it was a place for demolition men to go about their business with oxyacetylene torches and big hammers. The USSR had nuclear-tipped ICBMs in underground silos which were finally removed and decommissioned, while other trappings of the communist war machine were sent for scrap, gobbled up by yellow diggers on caterpillar tracks armed with hydraulic cutters. The circle of life for such monstrous machines continues with the recycling of their base materials. The Ukrainians were told that their safety was ‘guaranteed’ by their big brothers next door in Russia, especially because they had agreed to give up their nuclear armaments, so they could now go about their peaceful business of farming and modern development without disturbance. Which is sort of what happened, though the country remained desperately poor in so many ways. Friends of mine began to visit a community just over the border into Ukraine from Romania in recent years, to assist with various sorts of children’s and church work, as even a little help turned out to be vital help. Today our friends there are running a free soup kitchen for the escaping women and children and lorry drivers.
Key on the list of ‘things’ we should be talking about in 2022 are the distribution of COVID vaccines to the rest of the developing world, and making up for loss and damage in many parts of the world where climate change is having such widespread and profound effects. But suddenly we aren’t doing either of those things. Putin’s ‘special military operation’ turns out to be a full scale invasion that he has been secretly plotting for months, at least, if not, quite possibly, even before 2014. There will be ‘wars and rumours of wars,’ which is to say, these things happen: not at all that God wants them to happen, or that God is promising us further doses of trouble, in our days or in whatever days are to come, as if there is some kind of divine purpose in it. ‘There is a time for war’, as Ecclesiastes has it, is rather similar to the phraseology of the gospel of Matthew.
What are the contours of a biblical, a Christian response, to these ‘things’? I offer these very few and brief considerations. Much more must and will be said, by wiser folk than me. Firstly, there is no place for super-spiritual whimsy. Other friends of mine are grasping for Christianised versions of the popular trend for ‘colouring in,’ with all things Ukrainian now tinted in yellow and blue. Nothing at all wrong with that gentle support for the proper national spirit of a sovereign country. But spotting shapes of angels in the clouds is not going to add weight to the burden for prayer and intercession- our proper business that God calls His people to in the heavenly realms. That comes from a secret source, though a secret we can all come to know. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It’s not clouds making shapes in the sky that will change the world- it is God’s people, ‘blown’ by the Spirit of Jesus, as He said to Nicodemus. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” As Jesus went on to say to the woman at the well in Samaria.
Make no mistake, Christian friend- while our eternal struggle is not against flesh and blood, the calamity in all the cities whose names begin with ‘K’ in Ukraine this week is most certainly about flesh and blood. The bombs and bullets fired, the missiles and mayhem worked by Russian forces, whether prosecuted by naïve boys or committed military officers, are the very evil and physical acts of human people on other human people, most tragically, their actual close blood relations. We can see clearly enough that Putin’s dream of a lightning victory over a supposed ineffectual military defence has given way to embarrassment, anger, and now the utterly shameless blitzing of houses, hospitals, schools and railway stations, shopping centres and civilian administrations. As well as fuel depots, water supplies, energy links and, incredibly, even radioactive waste sites. It is no surprise that hard and credible evidence is already emerging of Russian soldiers refusing to advance, retreating, demobbing, openly breaking down in tears. Of surrendered young boys calling home to their mothers to tell how they were deceived by their commanders, told to shoot at civilians, or led deliberately into an anticipated hail of opposing gun fire. As fast as Putin’s regime now hurriedly attempts to cut off the supply of uncensored news to all the Russian people, such accounts are reaching them by various means, and we can pray for a just response that emerges from their collective and sound conscience. Thousands of protesters have already gone out onto their streets and given themselves up for arrest, grandmothers and children amongst them. There will and must be many more. Our steadfast prayers may encourage them significantly .
This is not at all what the people of Russia wanted after That War ended. The one we British people simply won’t stop going on about. You can’t eat bullets, but Russia and Ukraine and all the rest could be the source of huge amounts of food- enough grain for themselves and plenty to sell for honest profit, if you will. Soviet era tanks were turned into tractors, and the metal from swords of all kinds turned to ploughshares, just as Isaiah suggested. The Ukrainian born Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Viktorovich Vuchetich, born in Dnipro, Ukraine, designed and cast ‘Let us beat swords into plowshares’ in 1959, which was celebrated in a Soviet era stamp in 1970, before the sculpture itself was donated to the United Nations garden in New York, where it stands today. What a profound symbolic contribution to the greater peace and Shalom of the world! How tragic that the metal that was repurposed for tools yesterday may all too easily become tank tracks again tomorrow. Or the motivation of a man’s heart may change, and claims of preparation for defence are finally revealed as plans for attack.
Jesus’ disciples were no strangers to arms. At the end of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, (the sandal-wearing leader of ex-Zealots and fishermen who’d gutted plenty of fish in their time), Peter was still able to find a sword to carry along to the prayer meeting on the Mount of Olives, as he was expecting the kind of trouble that might well warrant that sort of equipment (John 18). When a crowd of the very human and flesh-and-blood opposition turned up to arrest his master, he wasted no time in setting about the High Priest’s servant with what he had to hand.
A whole mob of military guys have been sent to do the authorities’ dirty work, as John tells us in his gospel account, but our artist narrows our focus to one particular confrontation. While Malchus is depicted by Grégoire Guérard in a splendid set of articulated armour and chainmail, rounded off with a fetching set of knee protectors, he is evidently not at all expecting the sudden ferocity of Saint Peter’s attack with a very large and pointy sword. Perhaps it was the blinding halo that Guérard is careful to include in his painting that makes Malchus loose both his cool and his night light and then fall to the ground, giving himself a nasty concussion on his own shield. ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job‘, you can just hear the older soldiers saying. Peter is evidently not looking for angelic assistance, being suddenly fully motivated by his sense of justice in his cause. My beloved leader isn’t going to be arrested by anyone on my watch. Especially not this skateboard boy! But our attention is then wrenched away by all the rest of the activity in this busy scene of scenes.
It’s not just about the confrontation- the cause for violence in this particular moment. What is at stake? What are the deeper values, the meaning of things that are in frame here? The Ecclesiastes passage asks a big question- is the life of a child in Kyiv really no different to the life of a dog running outside in the street, both driven to panic by the irregular scream of falling Iskander missiles? If they are different, on what basis do we come to such a conclusion? You’re not going to be surprised by my opinion on that subject, and could only be influenced to change your own view on the basis of some thing wielding considerably more influence… authority… power… than little old me. Such a One is shown kneeling top left of our picture, His arms aloft. In the dark heavens above, the curtain is drawn back and we are shown a secret view into the other bright realm, where a mighty angel holds up the invitation to self-sacrifice. The Way on for Life is the cross, through surrender to the crucifixion. It is for this reason that Jesus turns to Peter and tells him to put away his sword- because it is the wrong weapon for this particular fight. The fight that Christ embraces for us all: and so he regally and supremely submits to ropes and tying and all the rest of the worst that man can do to Him. The lamp that Malchus carried is dashed and its light gone out, as all the mortal hopes of man must surely do sooner or later, but the symbol of True hope is clear- through the holy divinity of Christ, the power of an incorruptible life, the Truth that He alone has authority to lay down His life and to take it up again. This is what the aura around the head of Christ is pointing to- if we learn to interpret the symbol correctly. It is not a mere trick of light in the clouds.
The Bible does not offer simple formulae for the pursuit of peace in the face of violence. So called Just War theory, and situational ethics are post-biblical constructs which may inform our modern thinking. As a result of the unexpected delays in Putin’s cruel plans, the leaders of Europe and the wider world have discovered that they have had too much time to pretend there was nothing they could do, and as a result, are now coordinating an extraordinary effort to supply both weapons and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians. Those who, like Judas, suddenly find they are the centre of attention because their hands are filled with more money than they know what to do with are considering the sale of football clubs, super yachts and the other trappings of their kleptomania- if their assets have not already been frozen in unexpected retribution. The soldiers who were dispatched to carry out their masters’ bidding are also examining their own consciences, as they discover the One they were told was their enemy is, in fact, their Truest Friend. Most immediately, Malchus, who has looked Jesus in the face as the Saviour of All reaches out His hand of instant and powerful healing. His heart was surely changed, and thus we know his name.
There is perhaps a time for pacifism, and an affirmation that the past enthusiasm for conscientious objection was rational and morally sound. The way in which a few privileged leaders sent millions to die pointlessly in trench warfare in Europe in 1915 was itself unjust, and demanded refutation. But today, it is time to arm the Ukrainians, supplying them with whatever swords we can muster on their behalf, and some cunning may be called for to deliver such weaponry. Yet the risk of nuclear confrontation may well be too great to allow further large scale intervention. Perhaps that judgement will change if the conflict is not soon resolved. In any case, as well as supporting the war on the ground, those of us who confess the great name of Christ and look for heaven’s answer must be quick to support the struggle for justice a long thousand miles away with our prayers. It is a time for us to raise our arms as well.
(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson
PS Nine days after this post was published, I found this from Jeremy Bowen (BBC)
PPS I note this article in Premier Christianity, also sounding a note of caution about claims of miracles. https://www.premierchristianity.com/news-analysis/miracles-in-ukraine/12696.article?utm_source=Premier%20Christian%20Media&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=13083177_Voice%20of%20hope%2023.3.2022&dm_i=16DQ,7SF1L,PX7C4A,VRSH8,1
- https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1456491 Matherland Statue, Kyiv, Ukraine
- https://nara.getarchive.net/media/ukraine-wmd-dismantlement-project-june-2000-bomber-dismantlement-unidentified-89cc03 Ukraine – WMD – Dismantlement Project, June 2000 – Bomber dismantlement, unidentified staff photos
- https://nara.getarchive.net/media/ukraine-icbm-silo-dismantlement-project-wgi-march-2002-bldg-516_2-pkhz-7c5314 Ukraine – ICBM SILO – Dismantlement Project, WGI, March 2002 – Bldg. 516_2 PKhZ
- Twitter and Facebook
- All footage from https://twitter.com/WW3updated.
- UN Headquarters’ Iconic Statue at Sunset. The statue “Let us Beat Swords into Ploughshares” by Soviet sculptor Evgeny Vuchetich, donated to the United Nations in 1959, against a sunset backdrop at UN Headquarters.Photo ID 469279. 22/09/2010. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Mark Garten. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
- https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/The_capture_of_Christ_mg_1677.jpg CC BY-SA 2.0
- Scott Akerman They shall beat their swords into plowshares – NCSU Belltower Door. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”-Isaiah 2:4 Embossed on the door of the NCSU bell tower. (CC BY 2.0)