If You’re Feeling Sick about Ukraine

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“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

I think we should feel sick about Ukraine. That means we’re paying attention.

I’m thinking about our responses to suffering and evil. I’m thinking about the horror they’re experiencing right now.

I’m not going to try to give a real summary of what’s happening as Russia attacks the sovereign nation of Ukraine because it would be outdated before I hit “publish.” I will offer resources to read. I hope you’re paying attention and trying to learn and understand. I hope doing so causes some strong emotional response in you.

Not that I wish suffering upon you, but we live in this world and I believe being faithful means choosing to see and know. Choosing to weep with those who weep as well as rejoice with those who rejoice.

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” we read three verses later, in Romans 12:15. I find I get to respond to this verse three hundred times a day. I often fail, but still I seek to live peaceably. But “so far as it depends on you” circumscribes this passage tightly.

Much of the time, it does not depend solely on us. Often, living peaceably depends on others, as well, and we have neither power nor even much direct influence over them. We face huge questions of what lines we should draw to keep peace, when we should break peace, and when we accept “it is not possible.”

Right now, we’re watching a war of aggression carried out far from here and none of us get to decide. We can still “live peaceably with all” in our own spheres, but that won’t bring peace to Ukraine. That won’t protect their children. It won’t prevent the wave of mothers, Ukrainian and Russian, keening over their dead. Nor the flood of new orphans.

To make it worse, the sanctions imposed against Russia and aimed at the Russian oligarchs by the U.S. and E.U., while probably (and hopefully) effective, will also cause horrible suffering for the Russian people, many of whom, as we are learning day by day, oppose this violence and aggression. The ruble has collapsed versus the dollar (about 100 rubles to the US dollar as I type this) and Russia increased their key interest rate from 9.5% to 20%. Imagine that here.

Violence, especially violence against innocent people, should sicken us. I’m going to speak bluntly: we should not come up with reasons why it’s okay; we should pray not to become numb to the suffering of others. When we allow ourselves to become indifferent or calloused to other people’s misery, it can only dehumanize us.

Personally, I’m encouraged by the international response to this invasion. It gives me a little more hope in humanity, which has been flagging recently.

Here, then, are my thoughts:

  • Take in as much as you can, pay attention, learn, and keep your balance. Do not let it capsize you.

I’ve been trying to fill in my gaps concerning Ukrainian history. Our funky community is pooling resources for legit and reliable news resources.

If you are on Twitter, I offer @IAPonomarenko @KyivIndependent and @terrelljstarr as firsthand sources. Terrell Starr is a U.S. journalist living in Kyiv. Justin King, who goes by “Beau of the Fifth Column,” has military experience and insight and his conversational videos make difficult subjects accessible. Here are a couple introductions to the current situation. For an explanation of the sanctions against Putin, as well as a personal insight into Putin’s character, watch this interview on PBS with Bill Browder. If you have other recommendations, do share them.

Now, the other half of keeping balance: I realize it may feel pathetic to say “I know their homes are getting bombed, but I can only bear reading so much about their misery.” We learned in Nicaragua that even when living in the direct presence of continuous suffering, one had to breathe, take breaks, and find ways to sustain. We had to learn to care and not drown. If people can’t find this balance, they either leave or implode. Or both.

If you’re prone to depression, reading news about Ukrainians dying until 4AM will not save any Ukrainian children, but it may cause harm to you and your loved ones. Yes, I know this is the height of privilege to be able to look away when we need to. And yes, I’m aware some people hate this word “privilege,” but it’s the precise word here, and I’m too much of a (stubborn) writer not to use it. Of the privileges we likely take for granted, one is that our nation is not currently being bombed and invaded. I just walked to our mailbox with no fear that a rocket or sniper would kill me. We are privileged when others suffer and we have the freedom to see it or ignore it.

My point is, when we’ve learned our limitations for our health, ignoring them or feeling bad about ourselves for having them merely makes it worse for us, not better for anyone else. If you’re someone who tends to ignore bad things, you may need to choose to look. If you’re someone more likely to get capsized, you may need to read, watch, and witness in more limited quantities. Keep doing your healthy stuff! Be grateful for that privilege and don’t neglect it.

True, that’s awfully practical and pragmatic, coming from me. But I’m sticking with it.

  • PRAY.

No, really. I mean pray like you think it will change things.

I’m not getting into a debate about the efficacy of prayer here. I believe God loves us and therefore our prayers make a difference. That’s all I’ve got.

But unlike when “thoughts and prayers” is used as an excuse and a refusal to act when action might make a real difference, beseeching God when we can do nothing else is,* in my view, a hopeful act.

If you have any belief in a love that holds the universe, any hope that the “moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice,” now would be the time to cry out. A friend just described the type of prayer of which I’m thinking, and instead of trying to improve on that description, I’ll just steal it:

This is the kind of prayer that begs God to intervene and then perhaps moves us to act in an embodied way that puts to work the mental faculties that God gave us, in the form of educating ourselves about these kinds of geopolitical conflicts, why they happen, and how our voting habits here in the states might be contributing to instability for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. To say that this is all complex, is quite an understatement, and we all have different capacities for how much time we can give to understanding global issues. But I think it’s incumbent upon us as members of a country where we DO get a say in policies and power-brokers with our vote. 

Kristi Ahrens, “Truth Vs. Lies: Don’t Look Away”

My view is that Jesus is both loving and humble and doesn’t need us to “get prayer right.” But praying will change us. If you have courage, pray for more capacity to see the suffering in the world and sit with it. Ask for ways you can help Ukrainians more directly. For that matter, if you have suggestions of good ways to offer direct help, share them! Prayer can work that way, too.

  • Please hear this next point out before you shut me down, if at all possible.

No one knows how long this armed conflict will last. We hope and pray for a peaceful resolution, but even trying to imagine how that might come about with Putin in charge is difficult. He doesn’t have the personality to back down. Sanctions and other non-violent interventions may impact the Russian economy–again, creating scarcity and suffering for many lower-income Russian citizens–but it may be impossible for Russia to withdraw from this violent aggression unless/until Putin is removed from power. To remind you, I’m not an expert and you should read and investigate for yourself.

I point all this out because this armed conflict may go on longer than we are prepared to care.

We grow weary with compassion fatigue. We also have short attention spans. The United States, especially, is known for our massive, generous, and compassionate responses to crises–and the brevity with which we can sustain interest in issues not directly impacting us. We’ve been going through a pandemic–which, bizarrely, turned into a political chasm rather than “only” a public health crisis, because, well, we’re special**–and thus we are already, as a people, spent by the two-pronged crisis.

A friend, Kristi, wrote a tremendous blog post I quoted above on our response to this current crisis. Among other things, she challenged us not to turn the Russian-Ukraine military conflict into merely a chance to blame “the other side,” i.e the other political party. Yes, I know, there is much to be said here. Please hear me: if we turn this solely into a blame game, we lose sight of the Ukrainian people, suffering and fearful, right now. Yes, we need to continue to seek the best leadership for our country. Yes, U.S. politics has, sadly, played into the current situation. But I’m talking about how we seek to be people of compassion and peace.

Trust me, I also feel like screaming at the “other” side, but I know that’s not going to help, certainly not help the Ukrainians for whom our hearts are moved, nor even help anyone here, as it would only serve to deepen our divide and be the opposite of “live peaceably with all.” The changes we need to pursue here involve building relationships, organizing, and voting, not screaming and posting memes to “own them.”

I have to remember that, often, my anger is actually an escape for me from having to sit with others in their suffering. Feeling sick about Ukraine is the approriate response. Making that feeling stop should not be my priority. Jesus calls us to open ourselves to sharing in others’ suffering–which is exactly what Jesus does with us. Even from this distance, we can pray and have solidarity with those who weep, grieve, and like us, pray for peace.

To end, I’m brought to tears by this video of Ukrainians feeding a captured Russian soldier and calling his mother for him so she can see him alive. Watch this to the end. See him and his captors crying. See him give his mother a kiss.

See the Kingdom of God and the world that we, too, are called to create.

*If any of you just got defensive, I’m not saying that we pray only “when we can do nothing else.” Again, I wrestle so much with prayer–and with God in prayer–that I have no interest in the posturing or virtue signaling about how much greater one person’s faith is than another’s as measured by how strongly they can phrase that prayer is more than everything else. I don’t want to play.

**Yes, of course I have more thoughts on why this schism occurred. I’m being what they call “diplomatic” here.

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