My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Wars are never static. Domestic and battlefield conditions constantly evolve due to both anticipated and unexpected exigencies of conflict. In fact, wars can lead to changed conditions to such a degree that what seemed to be clear at one time now seems, at best, murky.
And that fluidity makes it hard for Christians to think rightly about a conflict – in this case my focus is the war in Ukraine, but my point basically applies to any conflicts dragging on over a year.
One of the key roles of Christians in wartime is to engage governments to ensure that the state does not misuse its powers. More specifically, Christians can only support the state’s use of the sword if it is used for justice (casus belli – just cause) and used justly (jus ad bellum – just means). Yet despite what some may think, discerning what is just is rarely an easy or straight-forward task. Political discernment, battlefield assessment, and moral judgments are shaped by unique pressures at various stages of war, and decisions are often tentative at best.
Yet, despite that complexity, discernment must still be sought and ethical judgements – however tentative – must still be made.
The war initiated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 is now in its second year, and what follows are some factors that need to be considered by those seeking to think Christianly about the conflict. Of course there is much more to consider when it comes to the conflict (see some of my previous blogs), but the following three factors are specifically related to when a war drags on into a second year. And Christians must keep their eyes wide open on such matters.
While there is always a risk of dehumanizing one’s enemies in the opening shots of the war, after many months of bloody conflict there is an almost inevitable rise in the dehumanizing of the enemy. Reports of suffering, deaths, casualties, and war crimes can easily (and sometimes intentionally) inflame hatreds that lead to portrayals of the enemy as Untermensch (sub-humans) – such as language referring to enemy soldiers as “orcs” or “monsters.” And, in some cases, such dehumanizing leads to calls for vicious tit-for-tat retribution, continuing a cycle of dehumanization and barbarism.
The “video-game” aspect of evolving drone warfare adds a further dehumanizing element to the war, for people are increasingly entertained watching the videos of tanks exploding and soldiers dying.
The increasing usage of religious language and spiritualizing the war complicates matters even further, for in a “Holy War” enemy soldiers become some sort of minion of the devil. That is a dangerous development, for, as Blaise Pascal quipped, “men never do so much harm as happily as when they do it through religious conviction.”
Despite outrage, anger, and grief, the key for Christians as the war churns on is to resist the urge to dehumanize the enemy. The enemy may remain the enemy, but that same enemy also remains a person created in God’s image. And as such the enemy must be spoken of and treated as a human being, despite how much one is outraged.
It is beyond any debate that in wartime virtually everything is propaganda. As Winston Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
That being the case, what is noteworthy is that in the opening months of the war there may be room for some various interpretations of events. Yet as the months roll by and the stakes seem to grow larger the tendency is for the suppression of new or dissenting views on the war. In fact, what happens over time is that the storyline becomes hardened and alternative views are shamed by the public, suppressed by the media, or even criminalized by the state.
The impact of such a hardening of the storyline makes discernment a challenging task, for discernment requires access to all information, not just the approved narrative.
A fair compromise is sometimes the best way forward for a lasting peace. However, while political compromise before a war began may be most promising, and political compromise in the opening weeks of a war may still be possible, political compromise after a year of carnage seems virtually impossible.
Too much has happened for compromise to be seen as an acceptable option. The appalling loss of human lives makes compromise seem unthinkable. Economic sacrifices and physical destruction make compromise unappealing. And political reputations at stake makes compromise unattractive. And the passing of every month makes unconditional surrender of the enemy seem to be the only option.
Of course, compromise of any sort may not be the right course of action.
But it might be.
However, the longer the war goes on the harder it will be to consider it.
In conclusion, the ability of Christians to engage the state in a meaningful and even prophetic manner during wartime becomes more difficult as a conflict such as that in Ukraine enters its second year. And pressures build exponentially every month to complexify ethical decision making. Yet despite all that, Christians are still called to remind the state that no matter what pressures are upon it, the role for the state is to use the sword for justice and to use it justly.
 Gordon L. Heath, Christians, the State, and War: An Ancient Tradition for the Modern World (Fortress, 2022),
 Just because a Christian is thinking does not mean that the Christian is thinking Christianly.