A child understands fear, and the hurt and hate it brings – Nadine Gordimer
The bombing of a maternity hospital. The shelling of a theater where hundreds of terrified citizens, including infants and children, took shelter. A city and country under siege. The news is horrible. Everything is horrible. War is hell, especially when it is one-sided. No one knows that better than the most innocent among us: children.
Even if Argentines should not cry for Evita, cannot the world weep for the innocent dead of Mariupol and greater Ukraine? Yes. Yes, we can. Yes, we should.
An innocent word
In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” The word “innocent” is a knotty word that can mean different things depending on the context. In most circumstances, it means “free from legal guilt or fault.” Yet it has religious implications, too: “free from guilt or sin especially through lack of knowledge of evil.” At the risk of finding nits merely to pick them, it is important to distinguish between the two definitions of innocent before applying it to the vulnerable in Ukraine.
In the biblical sense, the condition of innocence no longer exists. While it was mankind’s original state, it was lost forever with the consumption of the forbidden fruit. That act of sin (disobeying God’s command), which R.C. Sproul described as “cosmic treason,” changed everything. So much so that we cannot even imagine life without the presence of sin. Why? We are guilty of the sin of the garden and we live our lives under its influence and curse. The blessed Apostle Paul wrote “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Describing what is now known as imputed sin, Paul destroyed the idea that children are born into a state of innocence. When Adam sinned, every person who has lived, is living, or will ever live, sinned with him, because we are his descendants. To argue otherwise is to ignore both biblical teaching and visible evidence. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
Yet in the war for Ukraine there are hundreds of thousands of innocents. Perhaps even millions. Who are they? They are the ones who feel the weight of war’s fog. They pay the greatest cost. They did not start the fight, they are unable to participate in the battles, but they will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. Or, most appallingly of all, they will lay down their lives on the altar of man’s pride. They are the elderly, the infirm, the developmentally delayed, the newborns, and the children. They are the innocents. And they are being massacred at the whim of a man who seeks to establish his legacy as one of Russia’s greatest leaders, a modern-day tsar restoring the glories and reach of Imperial Russia.
Weeping with Rachel
In following this conflict through the media, my mind has repeatedly turned to the Gospel account of Herod the Great’s killing of baby boys aged two and under in Bethlehem. This event, prophesied by Jeremiah some 500 years before the incarnation of Christ, occurred shortly after the Magi’s visit to the young Jesus. Saint Matthew wrote: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).
This account, which was not recorded in the other three Gospels, Josephus, or by other historians, has stimulated discussion since its original circulation. It has inspired artwork from the Medieval to Renaissance periods and an oratorio. It is also a theological parallel to Pharaoh’s edict at the time of Moses’ birth in Exodus 1:22.
Assuming the veracity of the passage, one is left speechless at the pain and suffering the event induced. The Septuagint translation of Jeremiah 31:15, used in Matthew 2, employs language that speaks of inconsolable weeping, bitter grief, utter hopelessness brought on by uncontainable emotional pain, and loud mourning accompanied by physical demonstrations of grief. Every death is tragic – it is a curse, after all – but not all deaths are as tragic as others. For the 70-/80-/90-year-old man or woman facing eternity after a long life, surrounded by family, the loss is to be grieved but it is not completely unexpected. But when an orphanage that houses children and disabled adults is targeted, or a theater that is sheltering refugees and labeled “Children” (дети) in letters on pavement that are visible from orbit is destroyed, the sense of tragedy is increased by several orders of magnitude to the point of becoming unfathomable.
Or, an event that should be a cause of joy: bringing forth new life via the birth of a child. Even in today’s world with the advancements in medicine and hygiene, giving birth is a risky endeavor for both mother and child. How much more so when the birth is terminated by an intentional air strike that hits the maternity hospital within which the mother-to-be sought shelter and protection while bringing new life into this broken world. Now a husband is left a widower and a family’s other children are left with only questions and pain. The words of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” speak into this loss:
Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again
No, I would not give you false hope (no)
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away
I know from personal experience the unimaginable heartache of losing a child. My wife and I held our second born as she slipped into eternity at the all-too-young age of 4. Due to the actions of an intoxicated driver, she was born prematurely and never faced a day that wasn’t filled with struggle; yet even in her broken body, hindered by traumatic brain injury – an innocuous way of saying massive brain death due to oxygen deprivation – her personality shone through and she had a life of value. Her death, while providing a modicum of relief that she no longer suffered, brought loss and pain that is still present 18 years later. How much worse is the death of the innocents during a war, especially one launched on false premises (“de-nazify Ukraine!”) and under unjust practices as mentioned above.
Fear and trembling in Ukraine
The presence of the innocents implies the reality of the culpable. In this battle, the earthly source can be found in the heart of one man: Vladimir Putin.
Franz Kafka never wrote, “Someone must have slandered Ukraine, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, it was invaded,” but he could have. After all, that is what Putin has done. He slandered Ukraine to the Russian people, calling for the country to be “denazified” and demilitarized. He coopted the language of just war theory and, like Humpty Dumpty, twisted it to mean what he wanted it to mean. He told Russia that he would liberate Ukraine, but his sole desire is to enslave it. He has stated for years that Ukraine should not exist outside its connection to Russia, a connection he blames both the Bolsheviks and the collapse of the USSR for severing. While masquerading as a liberator, in practice is just another man who wants to be a king.
Putin stands in a long line of murderous tyrants and despots who trample the weak and powerless because they can. Rather than rule through benevolence, he and his ilk ruthlessly suppress all opposition and take for themselves whatever they can. This is the way of power, the way of the world. As Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince,”: “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”
What better place to begin to crush one’s enemy than by devastating those least able to retaliate? Their destruction will almost certainly have a demoralizing psychological effect on those who would otherwise not be considered weak or vulnerable. This is what some call the Russian war doctrine. This is what Putin is counting on. Whether it accomplishes his overall goals or not remains to be seen. However, what is plainly seen and thus understood is that those most innocent in this war are already paying the highest price.
According to the entry “War” on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “in ordinary thinking about the morality of war, the two properties most commonly cited to explain the distinctive wrongfulness of harming civilians, after their innocence, are their vulnerability and their defencelessness … the duties to protect the vulnerable and not to harm the defenceless are almost as basic as the duty not to harm the innocent.” Yet the innocent in Ukraine are not only being harmed, they are being actively targeted, even massacred.
This raises the question, what can be done about it? While in one sense American Christians are limited in their ability to get involved, in another sense we are not limited at all. First and foremost, as with all things, we can and should pray (Philippians 4:6). For what do we pray? We thank God for His control, we petition Him to restrain the evil actor(s), we plead for the protection and safety of the innocent, we ask Him to bring about a just resolution to the conflict, we pray for the wisdom of world leaders, and above all, we ask that God allow the message of the gospel to continue to advance with authority and power. Wars and rumors of wars are reminders that, for now, Christians live and operate under two kingdoms.
Along with prayer, we can actively seek ways to advocate for and provide help to the innocent victims. We can petition our elected leaders to hold Putin accountable for his evil actions. Some of us can give to charities and organizations that are able to go and provide tangible assistance to the victims. Should it become necessary, some of us can take in refugees to provide shelter and peace, as so many in Europe are currently doing. Outside prayer, we might not all be able to do the same things, but almost all of us can do something.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Ultimately, that is the hope to which we cling. Right now, the weak and powerless, both at home and abroad, are subject to the whims and caprices of the corrupt and powerful. But not always. The day is coming on which all will give an account and true justice will be meted out. Thanks be to God, the ultimate guilt – that of sin – of which all are guilty has been atoned for through the cross of Christ and that His pardon is available to all who ask.
Soli Deo Gloria.