Today is Ash Wednesday. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Those who would abandon and betray him. He shared bread and wine with them, and he began the bloody journey to crucifixion. God suffering with us and among us is crucial and relevant in these days. How do we even begin to be able to answer the cry of so many hearts, “Where is God in all this evil and conflict in Ukraine? Why doesn’t God do something if he’s so real and so loving?”
I’ve struggled with those questions at many points in my life where I’ve encountered situations that have been cruel and unjust. Conflicts around the world where thousands of innocent lives have been lost. How the manic depravity of relatively few men utilize barbaric and ruthless methods to wreak havoc and death over millions of innocent people. They seem so much more real and effective than prayers and vigils that accomplish nothing – or so it appears.
“Why doesn’t NATO and the West do more to stop Putin? Bring in troops to halt the convoys and clear the airspace above the Ukraine?” The answer from all is the same. Fear of triggering a nuclear war. Better to sacrifice thousands than release violence that would annihilate millions. Hence the caution, the high wire challenge of support without aggression, the tip-toeing around what looks like appeasement or cowardice, but may be wisdom and excruciating self-control. Delaying the gratification, a knee-jerk response, would give for a better long-term solution.
Therein we might discern a clue to our cry for God to reveal himself. Sometimes we see the world in black and white, good verses evil, lies and truth. In the big scheme of things we’re like children in kindergarten trying to make sense of what is going on without the perspective, the capacity, or the vocabulary to do so. Freedom, love, grace, mercy, justice, truth: those are complex multi-layered ingredients God has sown into the very essence and heart of the world.
This conflict between good and evil, and democracy and freedom, has been raging throughout the ages. Putin’s actions are not isolated, unfortunately. In our lifetimes we have witnessed too many atrocities: Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, ISIS, apartheid, Ruanda genocide, Vietnam and … There are countless more autocrats, oligarchs, executives, and dictators hidden in the folds of countries and subversive activities – around the world. It’s a human condition, this propensity for violence, disregard for the weak, exploitation of the poor, and cruelty to meet a corrupt end. It is manifest at the micro level in individuals struggling with addiction and self-harm, abuse to children, violence against women, drugs, sex-trafficking, money laundering, prejudice…. WE have a problem.
And those who follow Jesus seldom have the moral high ground. We are all a work in progress. The disciples grappled to make sense of God’s ways in their violent and unjust context. They expected him to be leading a revolution against the Romans – probably right up to the crucifixion. James and John wanted Jesus to use violence and bring down fire on the Samaritans. Peter took up a sword to defend Jesus. Judas preferred politics and blackmail. Many kowtowed to Herod or created alliances of self interest with Pilate. Jesus said he could have called down legions of angels to attack and defend his mission. But God stayed his hand for a larger more loving and gracious agenda; even though it made no sense to the disciples and still hardly makes sense to us.
Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness would acknowledge that they contain within themselves the potential for great good – as well as, and this we whisper, some thoughts/actions/desires that we may even be ashamed to admit lurk in the shadows. It’s not easy being ‘us’ in the full glare of truth and light. Two thousand years ago the apostle Paul gave voice to our shared dilemma: So this is the principle I have discovered: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law. But I see another law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me (Romans 7)
Paul was one of the greatest intellectuals and yet he acknowledged that all his thinking and insight were insufficient to release power within himself to change. His conclusion? I need someone greater than myself to help. That person is God, revealed in Jesus, who graciously met me when I was blind, drunk on power, behaving like Putin. How we pray for revelation to come in our day to people who wield power – and in fact to all of us. Evil is like cancer. It has to be treated at the individual cell level to be eradicated from the body. But there are probably many who will read something like what I have described above and be frustrated and press delete. Don’t get all religious and spiritual, just stop people like Putin! That’s like killing everyone who has cancer but never diagnosing and dealing with why they have the cursed disease. Wouldn’t it be better to discover how to destroy the cancer while saving the person?
God hates evil but loves people, including those who are held in the grip of evil. That’s why the world and his solutions are so simple yet complex, so layered, and frequently invisible to us. His agenda is that all will eventually have a revelation of the Father’s love, and experience a change of heart. But he will not force his will and act like the autocratic dictator we so despise. His will and love comes with grace and without threat. A stark contrast to evil that crosses the threshold of individual freedom with boots on the ground, intimidation, violence, and a flagrant disregard for human life.
When the battle comes into our backyard and we can no longer avoid it – that’s where we find ourselves today, once again. People flee for the borders and some reluctantly even cross the border from life to death. If we who are not at all perfect know how to pour out resources to those who are in the middle of war and suffering, how much more will God be present with grace, compassion, and probably more than we will ever be aware of – to comfort, support, and heal. The fact that he still cares or bothers at all is to my mind the greatest miracle and mystery.
Let’s continue to pray for Ukraine, for Russia, and for the world, for those in positions of influence and diplomacy to have extraordinary wisdom and grace at a time such as this. The only antidote to the cancer infecting Putin is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; manifest not in a standing ovation but in lives empowered and inspired with his life and love. The sad truth is that such a declaration causes many of us to trip and pull back. I’m not suggesting it is accepted on face value, but it maybe worth exploring, because where else do we find grounds for hope, truth, and lives laid down for the sake of others? Even those of us with ‘religious’ beliefs or Christian faith would do well to humbly dig deeper. There’s so much more. Always.
Sometimes, particularly in these times, and on this day, a song of lament is appropriate. God allows for grief and anguish as part of a living faith. A Ukrainian lament, Mary grieving over her crucified son, Jesus.