“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7
As we watch the horrible reports of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my heart goes out to the Ukrainian people who are out-manned and out-gunned, but not disheartened. These scenes of violence and destruction bring to mind experiences of war and peace, and a reflection of a Christian understanding of peace with justice.
The scenes make me even more aware of my own privilege—not having served in the military, nor been directly exposed to war. My closest brush with war was serving as a young adult missionary the late 1980s in Nicaragua where I missed a Contra attack by one day in a northern mountain village. After the Contras and the Sandinistas signed the Central America Peace accords in Esquipulas in 1987, I served on a Peace Commission that traveled up to the mountains to convince the Contra soldiers to lay down their weapons in exchange for amnesty and a plot of land. I felt so vulnerable as our commission traveled unarmed into the war zone to meet with a group of Contras. It was difficult for soldiers to trust the government and begin the long-slow reconciliation process. We read Scripture and prayed with the soldiers, offered the terms for peace, and listened to their fears.
Similar to Ukraine and many of the wars fought in the late 20th century, Nicaragua was a proxy-war fought between two superpowers with the poor and vulnerable paying the highest price. Even in this war, most of the Russian soldiers are conscripts doing mandatory military service and the Ukrainians did not ask for this war. Again it is the poor and marginalized who are pawns in the hands of the powerful.
Fast forward to Wesley Theological Seminary where the Oxnam Chapel has a picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in the stain-glassed windows. It remains a symbol of the modern geo-political reality that was prevalent at the time of the chapel’s construction and persists today. This was pointed out to me in the fall of 2018 when the United Methodist Bishop of the Eurasian Episcopal Area, Rev. Edward Khegay, preached in the chapel about the history of the Cold War, his conversion to Christianity, and friendship between the U.S. and Russia. While the people of Russia and the U.S. want peace, there are tensions over Russian’s invasion of Ukraine and Western nations’ expansion in Eastern Europe. In the midst of these geo-political conflicts how are Christians to respond?
The architecture of the chapel offers a theological response to this question. The southern-facing windows of the chapel open to the world and specifically the political center of government in Washington DC. On the opposite northern wall the chapel has a brick wall that represents a cloister providing the seminary community a safe place to gather, worship, study and pray. Christians have one foot in the church and another foot in the world. Jesus Christ is God incarnate and has two natures as one who is fully divine and also a son born to Mary in Bethlehem in land occupied by the Roman Empire. Jesus was born among the humble and vulnerable. How did Jesus respond to political challenges and injustices of his day? How are Christians today to respond to unjust military attacks and occupations?
In his sermon on “Scriptural Christianity” John Wesley calls upon Christians filled with the Holy Spirit to practice human solidarity with those who suffer. He writes:
“Who cannot suffer one among them to lack anything, but continually give to every man as he hath need; who, one and all, have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbour as themselves.”
Lest one country boast that we are better than another or that we are just, Wesley goes on to warn that no country can call itself Christian: “With what propriety can we term any a Christian country, which does not answer this description? Why then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth.” Even as we witness the horrors of war in the Ukraine, we realize that we still must confront much violence and occupations in our country’s history.
In closing, let us respond to this war in Ukraine by not falling into an extreme. Let us not isolate ourselves inside a cloister without a social witness to a world that longs for the prophetic witness of the Church. At the same time, let us not go out into the world and forget the values and commitments that ground us in the Gospel. Christ invites us to follow him as the Prince of Peace and that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Let us follow Christ’s example, overcome our differences and work for peace on earth.
Dean Philip Wingeier-Rayo