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Christian realism and the war in Ukraine

An understanding of the spiritual aspects of the conflict could lead to a solution

A woman prays at the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sunday. Associated Press/Photo by Bernat Armangue

Christian realism and the war in Ukraine
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Lots of people are rushing to extremes on the Ukraine crisis. One group wants to stay out of it completely, while another seems ready for full-scale war. Smart people know the answer lies somewhere in between, even if it doesn’t fit well in a tweet.

This in-between position is best reflected in the school of thought known as Christian realism, a Biblical approach to foreign affairs that seeks to balance values and interests in the context of a fallen world. Christian realism isn’t a universal principle. Indeed, it rejects the reduction of all questions of global morality into a simplistic policy. Instead, Christian realism is a way of looking at reality that allows one to make wise decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The Bible tells us that history is the story of God’s encounter with man in an ongoing interchange between heaven and earth, and that human beings and societies, which straddle the two realms, behave in ways that reflect the complexity of moral decisions in a sinful world.

A realist analysis of the current war leads to some simple conclusions: Russia was wrong to invade, Ukraine is right to resist, the United States and its allies are right to stand with Ukraine as it beats back the Russian onslaught, but the United States must be careful to prevent needless escalation and seek to bring the conflict to a close as soon as possible.

But Christian realism yields even deeper insights. Man, it turns out, does not live by bread alone, but war is often as much about material resources as it is about meaning. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine not just because of greed, but because of what he believes to be true about the world. Taking Kyiv is not just a matter of power, wealth, or ego for him. It’s also a matter of Russian identity, especially as it relates to the West.

Could Christianity’s oldest Aramaic prayer—Maranatha, “Our Lord, come!”—force men like Putin to bend the knee?

The war in Ukraine is a witness to how conflict inside the Christian world can endanger the whole globe. The historic rivalry of the European–American “West” and the Russian “East” ultimately stems from the Great Schism of 1054 and the partitioning of Christian Rome into Latin Catholicism and Greco-Slavic Orthodoxy. Empires and kingdoms have come and gone on both sides, but the underlying rivalry remains. Meanwhile, an intra-Orthodox feud between the Orthodox leaders of Moscow and Kyiv culminated in 2019 when Kyiv gained its autonomy from Moscow, sending new ripple effects throughout the region that shaped the current crisis.

Understanding the spiritual backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine yields important insights as to how it might be resolved. Every major country involved has a Christian-majority population, which raises the obvious question: Could a shared affirmation of Jesus Christ and His coming kingdom help drive a political solution to the conflict? What if a large number of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Church of the East leaders convened—even virtually—to genuinely, ardently, fervently pray for peace? Could Christianity’s oldest Aramaic prayer—Maranatha, “Our Lord, come!”—force men like Putin to bend the knee?

Such a prayer needn’t imply a final agreement on matters of dogma or church structure. The sole objective would be to implore God to bring an end to the bloodshed for His own sake, to show the world a true Christian witness, and to remove the religious motivations that helped spark the war in the first place. Putting aside the heavenly power of such a plea, world leaders would be hard-pressed to ignore the collective voice of global Christianity.

But, of course, none of this should be done to the exclusion of power, and herein lies a key insight of Christian realism: Even as the church does its job, so too must the state perform its responsibilities. Christian pacifists err in seeing power as evil; indeed, power can be used for good or evil. God in His wisdom set power against power, sword against sword, balancing the nations against each other in divine symphony whose final note is justice. Russia has deployed irresponsible power in violating its neighbor’s border, demanding submission, and threatening to push the world toward war. The United States and its partners should deploy responsible power to protect that neighbor and the world, though prudently and in due measure.

Whatever outcome we achieve will be imperfect, unsatisfactory, and more temporary than we would like. Russia may walk away with more than it deserves, Ukraine with less. But the goal of any peace process is not to solve man’s problems once and for all. It’s merely to regain the balance of power that allows for the most human flourishing for the most people so that individuals and societies can pursue truth and the church can proclaim its message.

That, after all, is the point Christians should see, even if the warring world will not.

Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.

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