The Ukraine War as a Challenge for the Development of Christian Peace Ethics
The peace-ethical consequences of being a Christian in a fragile world
The consequences of being a Christian in a fragile world need to be explored anew, focusing on peace ethics.1 The distressing reality of evil is currently being experienced once again in the Ukraine war, and this calls for nuanced responses. It is necessary to examine very carefully the ways in which wishful thinking about finally overcoming the institution of war and achieving reconciliation between peoples may have contributed to an underestimation of the long-looming danger of a new escalation of military conflicts. This article attempts to make a sober assessment of current experiences and challenges.
At the same time, Christian peace ethics – because it refuses to think primarily in terms of violence and counterviolence – is an important counterbalance especially in times of military confrontation and armament, which Europe is expected to face even after the end of hostilities in Ukraine. The accusation that it is naïve in the face of a world of aggression, conflict and violence is by no means new. But this unjustly equates its positions with those of a pacifism based on an “ethics of conviction”. Such an approach would actually not be in line with biblical realism, which unsparingly describes the reality of violence but nevertheless trusts the human being again and again with the ability to reason, repent and reconcile. Seen against the hopelessness of spiraling violence, the radical readiness for peace in the Bible acquires its own kind of realism. Of course, this also includes the virtue of bravery – which sometimes requires the willingness to overcome hostile stereotypes, to leave behind habitual patterns of thought and notions of security, to approach the enemy always anew, and to put one’s life on the line for the belief in freedom and justice.
Overcoming the institution of war through law and dialog?
The encyclical Fratelli tutti (FT) by Pope Francis was published in October 2020.2 Quite unfairly, it has received little recognition as the third encyclical on peace (after Pacem, Dei munus pulcherrimum, 1920, and Pacem in terris, 1963). It urgently warns that world peace is acutely endangered. It sees a policy of self-preservation that excludes others and deliberately fabricates enemies as being the starting point for a gradual slipping into a “third world war fought piecemeal” (FT 25 and 259). Owing to the immense destructive power of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, war today is “a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil” (FT 261) and can never be justified. Even possessing nuclear weapons, but especially threatening to use them, is judged by the pope to be morally reprehensible.
In my view, the lack of a systematic distinction between attack and defense is problematic. This fails to address the necessity of defensively opposing excesses of armed violence, and not allowing oneself to be blackmailed arbitrarily by the threat of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). A categorical rejection of all warfare is not in conformity with the mainstream of Christian peace ethics. For example, the right to self-defense is explicitly recognized in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes (no. 79).
The key element in peace ethics with a Christian profile is not the ideal of unconditional nonviolence, but that of overcoming violence through law and dialog.3 According to Kant, the very idea of law includes the power to coerce, and thus a state monopoly on the use of force, which is inconceivable without police or military power. The guiding idea of the peace encyclical Pacem in terris (1963) is to transfer the state’s monopoly on the use of force, established at the national level, to the international level under the authority of the United Nations (UN). Unfortunately, the UN Security Council has been and continues to be abused by the veto powers to serve their own interests, and has therefore lost its credibility.
Notwithstanding possible differences concerning the scope of pacifist ideals, however, the encyclical Fratelli tutti contains a whole series of considerations that can point the way forward – especially now, in the arduous search for ways to escape the spiraling violence. First, there is a sober analysis of the situation: “War is not a ghost from the past but a constant threat” (FT 256). In the estimation of Pope Francis, the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War was not used sufficiently to create lasting peace and advance the architecture of a new world order – among other things through reforms at the UN. The guiding standard for the pope – as it was for John Paul II – is the principle of the human family, which entails an obligation of cross-border fraternity, relativizes the category of the nation, and is to be safeguarded by a defense of universal human rights (FT 26, 100, 127, 141, 205). A culture of dialog and genuine social encounter is referred to as the “art of peace” (FT 228235).
In categorizing the encyclical Fratelli tutti, it seems important to me not to overlook its differentiating aspects, despite what I consider to be necessary criticism of its general rejection of war (FT 261 et seq.). Even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Francis highlighted peacekeeping as the central ethical challenge of the current era. In this context, he emphasized the danger of thinking that we have to protect ourselves from one another, stating that processes of cultural alienation resulting from closed and self-referential structures were the starting point for a destructive regression (cf. FT 10-12). This points to a way forward. His warning that the supposed responsibility to protect can easily be misused in war rhetoric to legitimize wars of aggression was also justified. Moreover, his statements on violence are not entirely unambiguous. For example, he explicitly considers the individual defense of family and community to be permissible, as long as it is not driven by hatred and vengeance (FT 241-243). In addition, the pope refers to the Charter of the United Nations, which guarantees the right to self-defense and assistance (FT 257). Key aspects of what Francis says about dialog, encounter and reconciliation as the “art of peace” and politically about the “architecture of peace” (FT 228-254) can be categorized as an important papal development of the paradigm of just peace.
Expanding horizons through the paradigm of “just peace”
For a long time, discussions in Christian peace ethics revolved around the “just war” concept coined by Saint Augustine. But for more than twenty years now, the term “just peace” has been established as a guiding concept.4 This is not simply a pacifist countermodel, but rather an expansion of horizons with regard to multifarious prerequisites for peace, and the need to strive for it on all levels. “Just peace” considers the diversity and interconnectedness of military, diplomatic and civil society arenas in the struggle for peace, freedom and security. The conflict in Afghanistan is a good example of how the Western powers may be well equipped with weapons, yet show a considerable lack of professionalism when it comes to the conflict management in civil society that would be needed to ensure lasting peace. With weapons alone you can win a war, but never the peace.
Just peace relies on the vigilant and early recognition of violence and human rights violations. It implies education to resist ideologies, repressive forms of politics, and exclusion.5 An acute challenge for just peace is the manipulation of public opinion in digital media, in the shadows of which aggressive nationalist thought patterns are able to spread. The actors of just peace oppose generalizing hostile stereotypes, and constantly seek anew the power of reconciliation across national borders and boundaries of culture, religion and social strata. They see reconciliation between peoples as a challenge that today increasingly includes development policy, climate policy and migration policy. In all of this, peace is defined not as the absence of violence, but rather as a primary category, as a spiritual power working towards the humanization of conditions, which according to Eugen Biser can be understood as an “inversion” of the question as well as of the hierarchy of terms.6
The ideological vacuum of cynical nihilism as a war factor
In many respects, the brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, long in the making and personally pursued by the Russian president, seems irrational. The justification that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified”, that the oppressed Russian minority in eastern Ukraine is crying out for liberation, and that Russia’s security interests are threatened by NATO’s eastward expansion, is contrived. The Nazi accusation in particular is an absurd, infamous and malicious lie. Ultimately, this is an ideological conflict dominated by a peculiar mixture of nationalist and pseudo-religious motives: the driving factor is the idea that the “Russian World” (Russkiy mir) – the ties of identity and unity between the states of the former Soviet Union – needs to be protected against decadent Western influence.
It is hard to tell whether the excessively religious and moral national identity construct purported by the Russian president is a driving motive or a pretextual façade. Early on, he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.7 Consistently and step by step, he has tried to restore the past, using not communism but the fiction of a Greater Russian identity – to which the other Eastern European states are subordinated, without rights of their own – as the guiding idea.
A critical appraisal of the repressions of the Soviet era has taken place only to a marginal extent in Russia, with the result that the turning point of 1989 is regarded by the majority not as a liberation, but as a fall. As compensation for the supposedly great past and unity of the Eastern European region, the idea of the Russian World emerged in the 1990s. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) also participated in its development and adoption. Not least, the current Patriarch Kirill has made this world of ideas his own, essentially deriving his self-image and his supposed mission from it, as well as his legitimization of the war: in his view, it is a “metaphysical struggle” for the defense of Orthodox values against the morally decadent West.8 One can presume a deep mutual affinity between Putin and Kirill, who have known each other since way back during their KGB days.
Already for many years, and in concentrated form in his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (July 12, 2021), the Russian president has denied Ukraine’s right to exist independently and declared a claim to Russian hegemony.9 As we can see in hindsight, it was blind not to view the multitude of Russian aggressions in their context closely linked to Putin’s political rise and presidency, which has increasingly turned into a dictatorship: the Chechen wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2009, the Georgia war in 2008, war in Syria in 2015, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, hybrid war in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
“In fact, the war in Ukraine has only become possible because the Russian leadership has consistently lied for years and because the people in Russia allow themselves to be lied to.”10 They have no inner defense against the lie, because Putin’s pathos-infused and at the same time seductively simple world view is more comfortable for them than the reality, which is fraught with annoying contradictions. Because the situation is so desolate for the majority of Russians socially and economically, many cling to the supposed comfort of a one-sidedly transfigured history. They are trying to fill the ideological vacuum of Putin’s system, built on lies and propaganda, with the illusion of the Russian World. In the future, peace ethics must engage much earlier on, more vigilantly, and in a more nuanced way with such developments of Christian-charged war rhetoric. It must give more serious consideration than before to the destructive forces of evil, the seductiveness of hostile stereotypes for the masses, and the abuse of power.
Rationalization of the ethical discourse surrounding modernity as a service to peace
On the initiative of Patriarch Kirill, an independent Russian Orthodox social doctrine has emerged, which finds expression in two extensive documents. These writings, from 2000 and 2008, are essentially a massively disparaging critique of the guiding modern Western European and American values.11 Criticism of human rights as the quintessence of a secular and liberal model of society, because they supposedly do not do justice to the primacy of cultural and religious values, plays a central role, especially in the 2008 document. Kirill is by no means alone in his aggressive rejection of the supposedly secular, areligious West, characterized by the decay of values; he represents a broad mainstream of opinion, fueled by years of propaganda in Russian state-controlled media.
Ultimately, Kirill and the Russian president have attached themselves to a religious and mythical illusion of identity as a supposed justification for the war. A religious enlightenment is needed. It would strike a liberating blow of inestimable effect if as many Orthodox believers as possible were to emancipate themselves from this illusion and acknowledge the primacy of peace as a central Christian duty. Many bishops of the ROC in Ukraine have now removed Kirill’s name from their prayers during the Divine Liturgy, which in the Orthodox understanding is tantamount to a breaking of communion. Among theologians, too, there is increasing opposition to the Russian World ideology and its imperialist exploitation for the legitimization of war. A group of now more than 1,400 scholars, among them a large number of Orthodox theologians, has called this doctrine unorthodox, unchristian, and heretical.12 Among the silent majority, however, Kirill still seems to have strong support. From the point of view of Christian peace ethics, it is extremely depressing to see what a central role religion plays in this war. At core, this is about the unresolved relationship between religion and modernity.
If ecumenical dialog could rationalize this discourse, it would be an invaluable service to peace. But this should not simply be an apologetic defense of the values of “the” West and modernity on the one hand, and the values of “the” East and Orthodoxy on the other. The point is rather to overcome such generalizations and stereotypical typological oppositions. The pan-Orthodox social doctrine For the Life of the Word,13 published in 2020 under the direction of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, which differs considerably from the social doctrine of the ROC, offers many constructive starting points for such a discourse.
From the pro-European side, it has to be conceded that modernity is of course associated with many ambivalences,14 and that the question of the significance of specifically theological approaches to ethics, given the dominance of a secular humanism and a secular, individualistic understanding of human rights, is by no means easy to answer.15 However, it is important that this discourse should not lose sight of the fundamental peacemaking function of human rights and humanism, as well as of democracy and the separation of powers. Especially in view of the massive repressions of the “Putin system”, the humanist ethics of human rights gains renewed appeal. In essence, this is not an opposition between Western and Eastern values, but rather the rejection of a system of power built on lies, division and repression. The question of human rights is centrally important for Christian peace ethics. According to Pacem in terris, it is here that the secret of peace resides. At the same time, the accusation that human rights are an instrument of “the West” for imposing its values on other cultures must be critically examined.16
Conflicts of recognition in the struggle for a new world order
Seen in this light, it appears that the Ukrainians are defending not only their own freedom, but also the value system of Europe and the United Nations. This impression has given rise to a wave of global solidarity unprecedented in history, underpinned by political, economic and cultural sanctions. Russia is inflicting enormous harm on itself by attacking Ukraine, and is being punished with international isolation. Even though Germany hesitated for a long time on the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine, and these are considered by the Pax Christi organization, for example, as a betrayal of the principles of Christian peace ethics, in my view and that of the German Commission for Justice and Peace,17 they are ethically necessary: there is a right to self-defense. It would be a failure to provide assistance if arms deliveries were not provided to Ukraine, which is resisting Russia’s superior strength with the courage of despair. In this situation, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” can also be interpreted as a responsibility to protect: “Thou shalt not allow to be killed.”
In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the Ukrainians voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons in return for promises of protection from the European side, which must be kept. If such promises count for nothing, this will encourage a new nuclear arms race. The example of the current war teaches us the painful lesson that democratic values must be defended proactively and as a matter of existential importance, as authoritarian regimes and parties have been growing stronger worldwide for at least the last ten years. The belief in freedom and truth as well as the rule of law and the separation of powers must be defended – also against media manipulations by populist politicians and authoritarian regimes who show their contempt for the truth through post-factual forms of communication. Today it is plainer than ever: we need a democracy that is able to defend itself internally and externally. Under the protective umbrella of security guaranteed by the United States, German Christian peace ethics has neglected all of this, unduly, for decades.
We are living in a time of multiple crises and accelerated change in a multipolar world, which is increasingly marked by a highly complex “evolution of violence”.18 Familiar patterns of order in politics, economics and society are fading, without the future order being discernible yet. As a reaction to the resulting uncertainty, the quest for security and resilience by individuals and societies becomes a central ethical and political goal. At the same time, the global community cannot remain indifferent to the changes in the international order. Today more than ever, tolerance must be actively defended against repressive models of society, and understood as an integral part of Christian peace ethics.19
The Ukraine conflict is part of a multi-layered struggle for a new world order. It cannot be resolved in the long term without creating a peace and security order that takes account of today’s challenges and lines of conflict. Of primary importance in this regard is reform of the UN Security Council, which no longer adequately reflects the balance of power in the world. The partial retreat of the United States as a global power has created a vacuum that must be compensated for by a consolidation of various supranational relationships.20 This could include a European security council to enhance the EU’s ability to act. The different institutions involved in security policy (including the UN, NATO, OSCE, EU) should be coordinated in a complementary manner. Such a consolidation and interlinking of security policy institutions, also including emerging countries and states of the former Eastern Bloc, is today an indispensable part of the “architecture of peace” outlined by Pope Francis in Fratelli tutti.
For an enlightened religion
Lasting peace requires forgiveness and reconciliation, also with one’s own history and ambivalences. The historical dimension of the war in Ukraine is reflected not least in the fact that narratives which distort history are used to construct a justification for the war. These narratives reveal that the Russian president and a seemingly not insignificant part of the Russian population and of the Russian Orthodox Church have failed to come to terms with the fall of the Soviet Union. A sense of hurt due to the perceived insult of being excluded or ignored as a global power seems to be the driving force behind the current aggression.
Given the disastrous consequences of the Ukraine war for everyone, including Russia, this sense of hurt is intensified for now. Overcoming it will certainly take a long time. This is where the churches and religious communities have a unique task to perform, since reconciliation always has a religious dimension.21 The search for peace and readiness for reconciliation are at the heart of the Bible’s teachings. They are a necessary consequence of the relationship with God. Overcoming hostile stereotypes – which in the case of the Ukraine war have become deeply engrained in the collective consciousness – requires education and genuine interpersonal encounter. Reconciliation and post-conflict rehabilitation are an integral part of just peace, and should be regarded as an important expansion of the horizons of future security policy.22
The reconciliation between Germany and France – which was long considered impossible and which today is a motor of European integration – should encourage us to believe that it is not inconceivable between Russia and Ukraine as well, given an appropriate amount of time. This is not a matter of resolving an ethnic conflict, but rather of recognizing truth and freedom as the basis of peace. Christian peace ethics is opposed to hostile stereotypes – including those against the Russian people.
In all of this, we must soberly keep in mind that the role of religions is ambivalent with regard to overcoming violence: time and again, the churches have been a contributory factor in violent conflicts because of their rigid claims to truth and rigid exclusions, as well as through their denial of liberties. Even today, religion is often an escalating factor for violence in many identity conflicts on the global scale. This by no means applies only to Russia. In this context, new forms of religious enlightenment are needed: a religion that is open to dialog and capable of tolerance is needed. In the shadow of the war in Ukraine and other genocidal war crimes, however, Christian peace ethics must also be clear that it cannot simply stand by and watch. There are situations in which Christians must take sides with the victims and support the struggle for justice and freedom alongside them, while at the same time working for reconciliation, both to prevent war and in the wake of war, in the spirit of just peace.
1 Cf. Vogt, Markus (2022): Christsein in einer fragilen Welt – Revisionen der Friedenethik angesichts des Ukrainekrieges. https://www.zebis.eu/veroeffentlichungen/positionen/christsein-in-einer-fragilen-welt-revisionen-der-friedensethik-angesichts-des-ukrainekrieges-von-markus-vogt/ (accessed October 4, 2022).
2 Francis (2021): Fratelli tutti. Enzyklika über Geschwisterlichkeit und soziale Freundschaft, edited by Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz. Bonn. On the interpretation of Fratelli tutti as a peace encyclical with its strengths and weaknesses cf. Vogt, Markus (2021): Die Botschaft von Fratelli tutti im Kontext der Katholischen Soziallehre. In: MThZ 72, pp. 108-123.
3 Justenhoven, Heinz-Gerhard (2015): Frieden durch Recht. Zur ethischen Forderung nach einer umfassenden und obligatorischen Gerichtsbarkeit, in: Bock, Veronika et al. (eds.): Christliche Friedensethik vor den Herausforderungen des 21. Jahrhunderts. Baden-Baden, pp. 113-129.
4 Die deutschen Bischöfe (2000): Gerechter Friede, edited by Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz. Bonn.
5 Cf. Schellhammer, Barbara and Goerdeler, Berthold (2020): Bildung zum Widerstand. Darmstadt.
6 He says it is necessary to reverse the direction of thought: just as darkness is not an independent ontological category, but merely the absence of light, war is not the father of all things, but merely the absence of peace. Cf. Biser, Eugen (2003): Wege des Friedens. Augsburg, p. 41.
7 Winkler, Heinrich August (2015): Geschichte des Westens. Die Zeit der Gegenwart. Munich, p. 303. For this reference as well as numerous suggestions, I thank my Ukrainian PhD student Michael Fetko.
8 Kirill (2022): Sermon in the cathedral in Moscow on March 6, 2022; cf.
https://www.kath.ch/newsd/moskauer-patriarch-kyrill-krieg-soll-glaeubige-vor-gay-parade-schuetzen/ (accessed October 4, 2022).
9 Cf. Luchterhandt, Otto (2022): Russlands Geisel: Die militärische Einkreisung der Ukraine und das Völkerrecht. https://zeitschrift-osteuropa.de/blog/russlands-geisel (accessed October 4, 2022).
10 Schor-Tschudnowskaja, Anna (2022): Russlands tiefe Leere – Wladimir Putin hat einen Autoritarismus erschaffen, der mit zynischem Nihilismus und nicht mit der Aussicht auf eine bessere Zukunft wuchert. https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/russland-tiefe-leere-putins-autoritarismus-ist-ein-nihilismus-ld.1676539?reduced=true (accessed October 4, 2022; translated from German).
 The anti-Western thrust is further amplified by interpretations of Kirill, cf. Wissenschaftliche Enquete der Stiftung PRO ORIENTE (2003): Die Sozialkonzeption der Russischen Orthodoxen Kirche. Ein Dokument der sozialen Verantwortung. Vienna, particularly pp. 25-33.
12 Cf. Public Orthodoxy (2022): A Declaration on the “Russian World” (Russkii mir) Teaching. https://publicorthodoxy.org/2022/03/13/a-declaration-on-the-russian-world-russkii-mir-teaching/ (accessed October 4, 2022).
13 On the document “For the Life of the Word” cf. Orthodox Times (2020): For the Life of the Word: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. orthodoxtimes.com/for-the-life-of-the-word-toward-a-social-ethos-of-the-orthodox-church-is-now-available-online/ (accessed October 8, 2022).
14 Cf. Vogt, Markus and Gigl, Maximilian (2022): Christentum und moderne Lebenswelten. Ein Spannungsfeld voller Ambivalenzen. Paderborn.
15 Vogt, Markus (2013): Theologie der Sozialethik. Freiburg.
16 The cosmopolitan ethics of human rights has fallen on the defensive for many reasons. In Arnd Pollmann’s view, its revolutionary content always has to be explored anew in the face of concrete experiences of injustice. In a certain sense, it always remains precarious. Its concrete practical meaning has to be found anew by contemporary society in each case, especially by the countries of the East and Global South, in the context of their specific experiences of the violation of dignity; cf. Pollmann, Arnd (2022): Menschenrechte und Menschenwürde. Zur philosophischen Bedeutung eines revolutionären Projekts. Berlin.
17 Cf. Deutsche Kommission Justitia et Pax (2022): Erklärung zum Krieg in der Ukraine, no. 3. https://www.justitia-et-pax.de/jp/aktuelles/20220328_Krieg-gegen-die-Ukraine.php (accessed December 5, 2022).
18 Cf. Münkler, Herfried (2017): Kriegssplitter. Die Evolution der Gewalt im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert. Reinbek.
19 Vogt, Markus and Husmann, Rolf (2019): Proaktive Toleranz als ein Weg zum Frieden. Bestimmung und Operationalisierung des Toleranzbegriffs. Mönchengladbach.
20 Cf. Schockenhoff, Eberhard (2018): Kein Ende der Gewalt? Friedensethik für eine globalisierte Welt. Freiburg, pp. 639-665.
21 Cf. Vogt, Markus (2021): Christian Peace Ethics and Its Relevance for Tolerance and Reconciliation in Ukraine. In: Vogt, Markus and Küppers, Arnd (eds.): Proactive Tolerance. The Key to Peace. Baden-Baden, pp. 117-137; on the category of reconciliation as the key to Christian peace ethics, cf. also Benedict XV. (1920): Pacem, Dei Munus pulcherrimum. Rundschreiben über den Völkerfrieden. In: AAS XII, 209-218.
22 Cf. Die deutschen Bischöfe (2000), see endnote 4, nos. 108 f.
Prof. Dr. Markus Vogt (born 1962) is the chair for Christian Social Ethics in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at LMU Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität). He studied Catholic theology and philosophy at Munich, Jerusalem, and Lucerne (Switzerland). He took over the chair for Christian Social Ethics at LMU Munich in 2007. Markus Vogt is a member of the academic advisory board of the Institute for Theology and Peace (ithf) in Hamburg, and of the Center for Ethical Education in the Armed Forces (zebis). He became a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2019.