Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.—Mark 13:7–8
The news and images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are chilling. As I write, the fall of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, a city of 3 million people, appears imminent. There had been a build-up for weeks. The threat of war cast a pall over the Olympic Games held in Beijing. It should have been a festival of sports underscoring positive international relations and “friendly competition.” The invasion of Ukraine has triggered what will almost certainly be a major humanitarian crisis as people flee the area. It is estimated that 100,000 Ukrainians have fled thus far.
In announcing his attack, and attempting to justify his invasion, Russian President Vladmir Putin argued that Russia was forced to invade because “The leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” Putin said “No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” He reminded the world community that “Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.” It was a thinly veiled threat of possible nuclear war.
I’m a child of the ‘60s and remember well the famous poster created by Lorraine Schneider in 1966 in response to the Vietnam War—War is not healthy for children and other living things. Schneider was right of course. She still is. War is never good.
Yes, there have been those who have argued with St. Augustine over the centuries that some wars are “just.” However, with the advent of nuclear weapons in the 20th century and the possibility of nuclear annihilation today, it is difficult to uphold just war theory. It may be possible that a war can be prosecuted to achieve a good, but war itself is always evil, perhaps a lesser evil, but evil, nonetheless. War always unleashes chaos, violence and untold physical and psychological damage one everyone effected, often innocents. The 20th century witnessed 160 million casualties from war. The 21st century has already witnessed more than an estimated 19.5 million.
Certainly, no one can argue that Vladmir Putin’s war in Ukraine is just. Vladimir Putin, and the people of Russia, should look at their own past to see the folly of this enterprise. Not only did they experience a quagmire in Afghanistan, they have the testimony of sage voices from Russian history.
Although known to most people as author of the great novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy was also a fervent Christian pacifist who had a strong influence on both Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though he never received the award, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909. In a provocative and evocative 1896 essay titled “Patriotism and Christianity,” Tolstoy observed:
In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful. The government assures the people that they are in danger from the invasion of another nation, or from foes in their midst, and that the only way to escape this danger is by the slavish obedience of the people to their government. This fact is seen most prominently during revolutions and dictatorships, but it exists always and everywhere that the power of the government exists. Every government explains its existence, and justifies its deeds of violence, by the argument that if it did not exist the condition of things would be very much worse. After assuring the people of its danger the government subordinates it to control, and when in this condition compels it to attack some other nation. And thus the assurance of the government is corroborated in the eyes of the people, as to the danger of attack from other nations.
It is a profound insight that seems to capture the present travesty between Russia and the Ukrainian people. Sadly, this observation can also be applied to too many of the military adventures engaged in by the United States government in recent history.
I can’t help admiring the true courage of the hundreds of citizens of Russia who have been protesting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many of whom are under arrest. In a repressive, authoritarian context such as Putin’s Russia, this involves tremendous risk. Isn’t it sad and telling that we rarely lift up or honor witnesses for peace such as these persons?
As an undergraduate at Manhattan College in the 1970s, I had the privilege of taking a Peace course with Professor Joe Fahey who had pioneered a Peace Studies program and major at the college. In a 2005 book titled War and the Christian Conscience, Professor Fahey wrote:
War or “military science” has long been a field of research, while the study of peace, or “irenology” has littered the trash bin of…”disregarded history.” Because we do not study peace, we think it is either nonexistent or impossible. But the field of peace research (with the allied fields of peace studies and peace education) emerged in the second half of the twentieth century with the comparative good news that war is neither natural to human beings nor is it inevitable… Gandhi was correct when he told us that “nonviolence is as old as the hills.” For if war were the law of human nature, we would long ago have ceased to survive as a species. If at some point, people had not stopped taking “an eye for an eye” or if they had not replaced “blood-letting” with “blood-sharing,” the human race would disappeared long ago. Peace may not be inevitable, but it is possible, and that alone can help us to attempt the seemingly impossible.
We live in a world, and even a country, that accepts war, militarism, and violence as normative, spending billions of dollars on weapons for mass destruction. This should be unacceptable to us as followers of Jesus Christ. I admire those in the Ukraine who are trying to defend themselves. I cannot imagine the terror they are experiencing. I also admire those in Moscow who are demonstrating against the war. They, too, are showing true courage. Perhaps their witness are the pangs of new birth. Somewhere I’ve read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”  I can’t help believing this is true.
Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside,
Ain’t gonna study war no more.
Blessings and peace.
Faithfully yours in Christ.
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
 Tolstoy, Leo Patriotism and Christianity translated by Nathan Haskell Dole – originally published by Walter Scott Ltd., London in 1896 reprinted as an Amazon Best Illustrated Books Book 33 E-Book, 2013, Kindle location 695-707
 Fahey, Joseph J. War & the Christian Conscience – Where do you stand? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 4th Printing, 2008) 182-183.
 Matthew 5:9
 “Down by the Riverside” #210 – Lift Every Voice and Sing (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1993).