On Ukraine with Charles Scriven and Ron Osborn—Adventist Voices

This week on the Adventist Voices podcast, I talk with Charles Scriven and Ronald Osborn. Troubled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they discuss violence, moral deflation, and the responsibility to protect.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11679

As I’m watching the throngs of refugees desperate to leave the impending devastation, I see innocent faces, wide eyed and totally unaware of the confusion and the fear, as they’re carried through the maelstrom in their mothers’ arms. “That was me”, I say to myself. There were no trains to take us to safety, so we used a leaky fishing boat that was launched from dry dock. It needed time to soak in the Baltic to be seaworthy, but there wasn’t any time. We had to go now if we’re going to make it out. And we did make it to safer shores, and were welcomed, not in Poland as the Ukrainians are, but on small Swedish island in the Baltic. It was 1944 Estonia, and same bad guys were doing the same bad things. For all those years evil has been percolating within the Soviet psyche. Putin wasn’t even alive then, but the evil caught up with him and now it has penetrated the facade he’s been using to hide behind. I don’t think the story is over for Estonia. I keep looking, every day, at the live web cam of. the town square in Parnu, where I was born. It commemorates Estonian independence. I keep checking “if the flag is still there”.

I don’t think Vladimir Putin is acting on behalf of the Russian people, or even his legacy. Even before comments about the change in his demeanour started flying around, I thought he looked like he’s ill. If that is the case, there are no possible deterrents. He has nothing to loose.

So how am I supposed to feel about all this… What has my Christian experience given me to deal with this all my life… The Adventist answer is to turn the other cheek even if I have to grit my teeth to do it. I remember thinking about just this, sitting in Dr. Stafford’s The Bible as Literature class. We were discussing the Sermon on the Mount. The conclusion in that class was that this sermon is mostly misunderstood. Jesus lays out all those that are blessed, but then he gives us examples how that’s supposed to work - turn the other cheek - go the extra mile - give the thief more than what he demands. The conclusion was, nobody is able to do that, in all honesty. These were not marching orders to be obeyed, but a picture of what true goodness would look like - a huge expansion of the commandments. We have to admit we can’t naturally replicate that attitude because we’re broken and we can’t control the feelings that automatically pop up as pure evil is devastating lives in real time - on the screen before us. Remembering, Jesus equates anger with murder.

I took notes during the conversation and I’d like to deal with a couple of the issues that were raised. Something was said about “other realities take over when the church doesn’t live up to promoting peace”; and that the church community needs to promote more love. The community (church) can’t manufacture love in its members as reaching some sort of goal - love creates the community.

There is a lot of behaviour modification promoted by the church (not just SDA). Christian behaviour is held up as a goal, and even as a requirement for membership. This makes us unable to be honest with ourselves and hypercritical. We feel ashamed at being angry. I picked up on those feelings during the conversation. You guys seem to be saying, wishing Putin dead is not what we should be saying but, in this case, maybe we should be absolved because he is really bad. The world is full of bad people, and we hate what they do. Can we say that without equivocation… Are we allowed to hate evil - how do you separate evil from those who so blatantly commit it? Are we allowed to combat evil?

For me, the answer is within the “Sermon on the Mount” - the bar is higher than we thought. The bar is higher than we’re told by the church. All the church wants is to see a congregation that is perceptively “representative” of its ideals. That makes us superficial. It sets the bar low enough so that we think we can actually live up to it - that would make the Gospel unnecessary. There is a fine line to walk. Paul warns us not to increase sin just because it’s forgiven. But it also makes us dishonest about who we really are.

The other issue that’s related to all this - should we take up arms to combat evil? Well, if you pick up the sword, be prepared to die by one;( but, it appears Peter did carry one.) I think we’re witnessing that kind of love (of country) that dares to confront pure evil.

Then there’s David and his slingshot… This story has even been made into a Primary SS song.

By the way - the Balkans and the Baltics are two different areas.

Thank you for hosting this discussion. Scriven and Osborn are two of the more brilliant thinkers in the Church today. We are already down the path toward what ultimately could end in a war with an enemy we have jousted with for decades. This is about so much more than Ukraine. As people of faith, we are called to point the way to that “higher loyalty” and hope to God reasonable minds prevail.

For what its worth, most types of pacifism strike me as theoretically undernourished.

I am especially uncomfortable with the way all the partners in this conversation often presume that “coercive power” and “violence” are the same thing.

This makes the pacifist needlessly vulnerable to questions such as “What would you do if some man was raping your daughter?” Of course, the pacifist would use as much coercive power as necessary to stop and detain for the police the wrongdoer, even if shooting him dead was the only way to do so.

But that would not be “violence” because “violence” is the “wrong use of coercive power” and not the “use of coercive power” as such.

Has there ever been a perfectly just war? Not that I know of. But some wars are more just than others. “Just War Theory,” or what I prefer to call “Coercive Power Criteria,” helps us to pinpoint the places where things have gone wrong in hopes of making that moral mistake less frequently.

Here is an example: Intentionally harming or killing innocent noncombatants by shooting, shelling or bombing them is wrong. But so is using those sanctions which intentionally harm or kill innocent noncombatants.

Using sanctions this way is unbelievably stupid as well.

At the moment, some Russians support the Invasion and some oppose it. The easiest and swiftest way to cause them all to support Invasion is for “The West” slowly to starve them to death.

Sanctions are one form of coercive power and are not inherently evil but using them as indiscriminate weapons is.

“Just War” theory is almost demanded by nation-states who decide that they have been unjustly attacked by an “other” nation state or abused, perhaps defrauded by said state. However, careful readings of history make it difficult, if not impossible, to find a truly “innocent” victim. On the other hand, perhaps like “now,” there are utterly guilty aggressors whose ideology allows brutality and violence on a shocking scale to almost every person on earth. WWII is an outgrowth of many factors, not the least of which was a punishing and humiliating Treaty of WWI which, over time, infuriated the German people to the point that any promise of a brighter future was an opioid for their anguish. So, after we demanded unconditional surrender by both enemies in WWII, after turning their cities in many cases to rubble, having learned our lesson we promised to rebuild them and turn them into allies. My point is that, as Sirje pointed out, the Sermon on the Mount was Jesus invitation to his followers to be sources of forgiveness, love, and peace at the personal and communal level. He knew full well that the Roman Empire was not going to change its “spots” and cease to be a brutal master of all it controlled. A believer willing to risk pain or death in her witness for peace does change her immediate world by not retaliating, but being compassionate to those enveloped by fear or hate. Even in war, the Ukrainian soldiers who captured their Russian foes, we are told in some instances, had them call their mothers in Russia and tell them what has been happening. Teary-eyed, their mothers in some cases, told them to find a way to stop. One pundit mused that if enough Russian mothers hear the truth and believe it, the war will collapse. Who knows what individual peacemaking can accomplish even as maniacs try to vaporize and people?

For Christian communities that take discipleship seriously–ideally, every Christian community–a crucial distinction should guide all thought concerning violence and retaliation.

It is good, I argue, to love one’s country and to be be a helpful, enthusiastic citizen. But as serious reflection on citizenship agrees (see, e.g., Steven B. Smith, of Yale, and Simone Weil, the French philosopher who died during the WWII), unquestioning devotion to country is mistaken, even depraved.

Christians, I argue with an eye on the New Testament, have a special vocation that, at least in constitutional democracies, requires patriotism, yet puts distance between us and sheer nationalism. For one thing, this special vocation puts non-violence and determination to achieve reconciliation at the heart of civic responsibility. Wooden legalism is not the point, nor is “non-resistance,” an unfortunate term, but distinctive moral witness is.


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