God is with us ... but does He take sides in skirmishes and wars?

Slava Ukraini in the Knox Church Garden. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Slava Ukraini in the Knox Church Garden. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Graham Redding explores the question of whether God takes sides in military conflicts.

Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine) is the title of a newly installed Lawrie Forbes sculpture in the Knox Church Garden, just along the road from the Archibald Baxter Peace Garden.

The sculpture depicts a large anti-tank barrier in Ukrainian colours.

A phrase etched into a steel crossbeam declares that liberty cannot be sold for all the gold in the world.

It is a visually compelling expression of solidarity with a war-torn nation, of defiance against a tyrannical neighbouring regime and of hope for the expulsion of an invading army.

But having such a visibly partisan symbol of military resistance in a church garden poses some interesting questions.

It is one thing to stand in prayerful solidarity with a besieged nation in their time of trial. But does God take sides militarily?

Does God’s preferential option for the poor and the dispossessed of our world extend as far as blessing and supporting the military ambitions of those who seek to cast off their yoke of oppression and fight for freedom?

Is there such a thing as righteous, God-ordained violence?

The story of the Exodus in the Bible is a dramatic story about God hearing the cries of an oppressed people, liberating them, and defeating enemy armies. As Moses triumphantly declares when his people miraculously pass through the Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army are drowned, "The Lord is a warrior. The Lord is his name" (Exodus 15:3).

The God-as-Warrior theme becomes a central narrative thread in the story of Israel taking possession of its promised land and then defending it against aggressive superpower neighbours. The proof of divine favour is evident in successful military conquest.

Within this narrative framework, defeat cannot be contemplated. Until it happens.

The Bible tells a story of the northern kingdom of Israel falling to the Assyrians, followed by the southern kingdom of Judah falling to the Babylonians.

How did these experiences of crushing defeat, national humiliation, and exile impact the God-as-Warrior theme?

One of the most significant developments in the prophetic writings in the First Testament of the Bible, especially in the prophet Isaiah, is the emergence of a counter-narrative.

Hope is invested in the promise of a messianic figure who is a Suffering Servant, not a Warrior Lord. Isaiah prophesies that this Suffering Servant will be wounded for the transgressions of his people, bruised for their iniquities, and will bear the sins of those who abuse and reject him.

The Suffering Servant will not take up arms, turn to military solutions or allow violence to beget violence.

He will represent a new order, a new way of being in which swords will be beaten into ploughshares and plantations of shalom (peace) will be established.

The Suffering Servant texts feature prominently in the annual lead-in to Easter as churches around the world express their belief that this ancient messianic prophecy has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, in whom, they declare, God’s reign has been established.

This reign is marked by a commitment to non-violence and reconciliation that follows the example of Jesus, who pronounced God’s blessing upon peacemakers, refused to take up arms against his own oppressors, exhorted his followers to forgive their enemies, willingly gave himself up to his persecutors, and died with a prayer of forgiveness on his lips as he was publicly executed by crucifixion.

In the story of Jesus, the counter-narrative of non-violence becomes the central narrative.

All of this presents a major challenge to the Church.

Not only does it expose the Church’s own institutional failures, complicity in the ways of violence and war, and compromised witness.

It also challenges the Church to think carefully about how it responds to new outbreaks of war and conflict.

Many people appeal to a just war theory to establish ethical criteria for determining when and under what circumstances war may be necessary and right, and how war ought to be conducted.

The theory is deeply problematic, especially in an age of weapons of mass destruction, as the recent Oppenheimer movie vividly portrayed.

How does one deploy a nuclear bomb ethically and in good conscience?

As much as we might try to justify the use of violence in certain circumstances without abandoning the ideal of non-violence, the truth is it cannot be done. The logic of a "just" war is impossible to reconcile with the logic of the Cross represented in the Suffering Servant motif.

For people of faith who uphold the nation of Ukraine in prayer, it is incumbent upon them to let their prayers be shaped by the God-as-Suffering-Servant theme, not the God-as-Warrior theme.

It also important to draw inspiration from history.

Tyrannical regimes do topple. Popular movements committed to principles of non-violence do bring about significant political and social change.

To that end, I wonder whether Ukraine’s long-term future will owe less to the success of its military than to the influence of ordinary Russian citizens.

At a certain point, a critical mass for change will be reached. An oppressive regime will topple. We must pray for that day.

As one of the greatest advocates for non-violent resistance, Martin Luther King Jun, famously pronounced, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Dr Graham Redding is a lecturer in chaplaincy studies at the University of Otago.