with Rev. Clay Nelson
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Clay Nelson © 6 March 2022
I find myself in a conundrum. One of the chief reasons amongst many that drew me to live in Aotearoa New Zealand was its long history of nonviolence, beginning with the Moriori of the Chatham Islands. They once were warriors but chose to become warriors for peace. They paid a high price when more violent and aggressive Māori invaded the islands. Gandhi considered them greater geniuses than Isaac Newton.
Then there is the moving story of Parihaka. Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi preached a gospel of non-violent resistance to European settlement on confiscated Māori land, and more than 2,000 followers came to live at their community at Parihaka. They passively resisted the surveying of their land for European settlement by ploughing it. On 5 November 1881, about 1600 volunteers and Constabulary Field Force troops marched on Parihaka. Several thousand Māori sat quietly on the marae as singing children greeted the force with songs.
Conscientious Objectors to war or military training have a proud history. They have endured ridicule, imprisonment, loss of civil rights and, in the case of Archibald Baxter, torture. One of our former associate ministers, James Chapple, and congregant Norman Murray Bell were both imprisoned. Our congregation’s historian, Wayne Facer, has just published a book about Bell, Prophets at the Gate.
However, it was the nuclear-free movement and the blockade of US warships that first made me aware of Aotearoa’s anti-war stance and commitment to passive nonviolent resistance. Legislation in 1987 made New Zealand officially anti-nuclear, the only such country in the developed world.
As someone who applied for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam war, it was clear to me that my values and New Zealand’s are aligned.
So why am I faced with a conundrum? Whatever my carefully constructed rational arguments for passive non-violent resistance may be, my gut wants to tell my head to shut up and level the Kremlin, while NATO invades the Ukraine to push the Russians out by any means necessary short of violating the Geneva Convention by using nukes. Putin has triggered all my disgust at bullies, anti-Semites, power hungry megalomaniacs, and corrupt politicians who exploit the vulnerable. His unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine has ignited anger around the globe and frustration at feeling powerless to protect Ukrainians short of going to war. Then there is the fear that if he defeats Ukraine that is just the beginning. Even if we resist going to war now he seems determined to force us into the trenches later as he dreams longingly of reclaiming former Soviet bloc countries.
In my desire to tell my gut to chill a little, I want to understand better what precipitated the present horror. An in-depth look would take considerably more time than I have this morning. But here is a brief synopsis.
That Ukraine is at the centre of this storm should not be surprising at all. Over the past quarter century, nearly all major efforts at establishing a durable post-Cold War order on the Eurasian continent have foundered on the shoals of Ukraine. For it is in Ukraine that the disconnect between triumphalist end-of-history delusions and the ongoing realities of great-power competition can be seen in their starkest form.https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2019-11-22/shoals-ukraine
For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterised by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years.
History records fleeting moments of remarkable Russian ascendancy. However, Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power. It lost the Crimean War of 1853–56. It lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. It lost World War I, a defeat that caused the collapse of the imperial regime. And it lost the Cold War, a defeat that helped cause the collapse of the imperial regime’s Soviet successor.
Over the past decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the expansionist trend of relying on the State to close the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow lost some two million square miles of sovereign territory — more than the equivalent of the entire European Union.
Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission (most countries do). The sense of having a special mission has contributed to Russia’s paucity of formal alliances and its reluctance to join international bodies except as an exceptional or dominant member. It furnishes Russia’s people and leaders with pride, but it also fuels resentment towards the West for supposedly underappreciating Russia’s uniqueness and importance.
To most western policymakers, Ukraine has represented a brave young country — one that, despite the burden of history, successfully launched itself on a path of democratic development as part of a new world order after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To the Kremlin, meanwhile, it has remained an indispensable part of a long-standing sphere of Russian influence, one that operates largely according to old rules of power. The West can verbally chastise Russian aggression all it likes, but Putin and his ilk simply don’t care. The need to maintain a strong State and fulfil its mission trumps liberal democratic values.
If Russia is going to change, it must be driven internally — although the West seeks an end to Putinism, this will occur only when the Russian people decide the time has come. This will not happen anytime soon, if ever.
For obvious reasons the West does not want to go to war. War is bad enough; its unintended consequences are worse. For violence begets violence. No one wins. As an alternative they have embarked on a strategy of containment through economic sanctions. It worked to bring down the Berlin Wall. It only took forty years to do so. In the meantime one million Ukrainian refugees have poured into Poland, untold numbers of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian resistance fighters have already died, as well as non-combatants, Putin is in control of the world’s largest nuclear plant, and cities have been reduced to rubble.
Are the Ukrainian people expected to wait forty years for protection? Might war become the worst best alternative for their sakes? Could it become the only realistic means of containing Putin’s dreams of expansion? If so, can it be a just war? Ever since St Augustine raised the question in his City on a hill, theologians and philosophers have argued the question of what just is a just war? They eventually came to the conclusion that a just war is possible if six requirements are met. I might explore them in the future when I have more time. For now, let’s note that scholars have yet to find an example of a just war.
Clearly there is no easy answer to how to respond to the Ukrainian tragedy. Certainly there is no timely response available.
This is usually the case, which explains why — unlike the Society of Friends, Brethren, Mennonites and Seventh Day Adventists — Unitarian Universalists have never been a “peace church”. True, some Unitarian Universalists take personal and principled stands against all use of military force, even in response to aggression and terror. There is a long tradition of such witness among us. The Rev Adin Ballou, a 19th-century Universalist minister who served the Unitarian congregation in Hopedale, Massachusetts, wrote a notable treatise, Christian Non-Resistance, that influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
It is also true that many Unitarian Universalists, while deeply committed to peace and justice, have been willing to take up arms, though reluctantly, on behalf of justice and in defence of principle.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker kept a pistol on his desk to protect the escaped slaves using his church as a stop on the underground railroad. He supported the radical abolitionist John Brown, who was anything but a pacifist.
I find it particularly ironic that over three decades three consecutive US Secretaries of Defence were staunch Unitarians.
UUs have sometimes been called pragmatic pacifists. John Buehrens, former president of the UUA, once described us this way: “We are not a peace church. We are not a war church. We are religious community of both pacifists and pragmatists, taking different spiritual paths toward a common goal: a world of greater justice and peace.” To be such a healing presence is, for me, not a conundrum after all. It is my purpose and my dream.
Meditation / Conversation starter:
Chalice lighting: “A Spark of Hope” By Melanie Davis
Reading: “The real meaning of Peace“
Closing Words: “The World is Too Beautiful” By Eric Williams