For the Life of the World / Yale Center for Faith & Culture

Miroslav Volf / War in Ukraine: Theological and Moral Reflections

Episode Summary

Miroslav Volf offers his personal reflections about the war on Ukraine. His theological and ethical commentary speaks to various facets of the situation, including: the global cultural clash between authoritarian nationalism and pluralistic democracy; the primacy and priority of God's universal and unconditional love for all humanity, including evildoers; the call to actively resist evil and guard our humanity; the importance of truth in an age of disinformation and suppression of real facts; the need for Christians to remain "unreliable allies" with governments or parties while remaining faithful to the humanity in the friend, neighbor, stranger, and enemy; but ultimately his message is one to soberly—and dare I suggest joyfully, with unabashed hope—lift up our hearts (and the hearts of those suffering through war, dislocation, death, and destruction) to the Lord.

Episode Notes

Miroslav Volf offers his personal reflections about the war on Ukraine. His theological and ethical commentary speaks to various facets of the situation, including: the global cultural clash between authoritarian nationalism and pluralistic democracy; the primacy and priority of God's universal and unconditional love for all humanity, including evildoers; the call to actively resist evil and guard our humanity; the importance of truth in an age of disinformation and suppression of real facts; the need for Christians to remain "unreliable allies" with governments or parties while remaining faithful to the humanity in the friend, neighbor, stranger, and enemy; but ultimately his message is one to soberly—and dare I suggest joyfully, with unabashed hope—lift up our hearts (and the hearts of those suffering through war, dislocation, death, and destruction) to the Lord.

Episode Art Provided by Fyodor Raychynets. "ні війні!" = "NO WAR!"

Show Notes 

Production Notes

Episode Transcription

Evan Narration: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit us online at

This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa, with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. As many of you know, since January, we've been taking a break from producing new episodes, offering best of highlights and past interviews and conversations while we're busy prepping new shows to release in May, but Russia's war on Ukraine has weighed heavily.

And so this week we've prepared a few new pieces to offer some perspective on this horrifying war that's being waged. Earlier this week on Tuesday, we released a conversation between Miroslav Volf and his former student Fyodor Raychynets, a theologian and pastor in Kyiv. Now, if you missed that, I urge you to listen, perhaps even follow along with Fyodor's Facebook posts. Each of which includes his prayer for not just Ukraine to be preserved, but our very humanity to be preserved. But also this week, I sat down with Miroslav to record some of his personal reflections about the war on Ukraine. 

So in today's episode, he offers theological and moral commentary that speaks to various facets of this situation, a global cultural clash between authoritarian nationalism and pluralistic democracy, the primacy and priority of God's universal and unconditional love for all humanity, including evil doers, the call to actively resist evil and guard our humanity. The importance of truth in an age of disinformation and suppression of real facts. The need for Christians to remain "unreliable allies" with governments or parties while remaining faithful to the humanity and the friend, the neighbor, a stranger and the enemy, but ultimately his message is one soberly and, dare I suggest, joyfully with unabashed hope, lift up our hearts and the hearts of those suffering through war, dislocation, death, and destruction. We lift those up to the Lord. Thanks for listening. Here's Miroslav.

Miroslav Volf: So this semester I'm teaching, of course, basically an introduction to systematic theology. And we engage a series of five thinkers about how they approach theological tasks in their own situation. And one important strand that we are engaging is liberation theology. And right at the point, when we were starting with liberation theology Gustavo Gutiérrez is who we are reading. And we are reading his book on Job as well as his book, The God of Life. The war in Ukraine broke out and I decided to interrupt the series of lectures and then take this occasion of innocent suffering in Ukraine as a case in point, and to reflect in terms of how theologically partly from the perspective of Gustavo Gutiérrez, but also from the perspective of my own experiences with similar kinds of situations in former Yugoslavia, because there are strong analogs to what was happening in Yugoslavia in the early 90s of the last century. And 'what is happening today in Ukraine?

So basically what I did is I introduced the situation describe the situation from theological standpoint. Obviously the war in Ukraine can be discussed, analyzed from many different standpoints. We did it in the class from theological standpoint, which is to say, describe the situation and asking what bearing and what role does religion, Christian faith, play in the conflict. And then the second element was what might be some temptations and possible salutary responses to the situation in Ukraine. Also some of the puzzlement that are very difficult to know exactly about to do. 

So this is what I proposed to do then in this brief podcast, Just to give you a rough summary of what I gave to the class. So as far as situation is concerned, the war in Ukraine is related to the global situation, but also it has kind of a less violent analogs in the west. And that's both in Europe, especially the role of the far right in Europe and also in United States. So here are few points then: the first concerns nationalism.

The war in Ukraine is part of resurgence of nationalism as a global phenomenon. And there it's very important to distinguish between two types of nationalisms. One is exclusive nationalism and the other one might be described more as inclusive nationalism or patriotism. And in Russia today, nationalism is exclusive, which is to say it's based on the sense of superiority of an ethnic and religious group in this particular case.

It's Russian Orthodoxy and Russia nation, and it's operating on principle and that's really important of international exceptionalism. It is analogous to the racial nationalism of the mid-20th century Germany, or even maybe to a white Judeo-Christian America. First, nationalism in United States. So that's one side of things that the second point is political concerns for authoritarianism. The resurgent, exclusive nationalism is tied to political authoritarianism, which stands in stark position to pluralistic democratic liberalism and religious justification for authoritarians are found in discomfort of many religious people with the pluralism of values in the public square.

So that raises the question of what is actually the role of religion in public sphere and to what extent do religious actors. Christians in particular have stakes in advocating simply for particular position or whether they're good Christian reasons to think in terms of pluralism of a public space, even if the truth is claim from the Christian vision.

The third point concerns Russian Orthodoxy. Crucial in the war in Ukraine are close ties between Russian Orthodoxy and its historical birth in Kyiv with a conversion of Vladimir the Great and the Imperial politics of Putin's presidency. In this view, the creator of faith and of nation by definition belongs under national sovereignty and has to be claimed and become part of a sovereign territory as in many other places in the world. Such close ties between religion and religious sacred spaces in particular have made religion complicit in the violence of the state. And in the case of Putin's Russia, the violence of what is not just internal to the state, but is an Imperial project. 

The next point I want to make is that what we see in the war in Ukraine is a global cultural clash. And plus, as a footnote, it is lined up with the kind of clash that Samuel Huntington analyzed a few decades ago in terms of a clash of civilizations. The war in Ukraine is a part of clash between Christian East and Christian West, both the church and political leadership portrayed as a face off between Christian moral values and Western defense.

And so that's then styled as clash between good and evil. Now that's aligned with Huntington's analysis, but if you look at carefully at the conflict, then you will see that it is not just Latin Christian West and Christian East of Orthodoxy. It's rather also that we have here inner Orthodox clash. That seems to push again, the Huntington's thesis: the war is not fought along the denominational alliance, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on the one side, and then orthodoxy on the other. Instead, Orthodoxy itself is divided into the Muscovite Patriarchate versus the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. That Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine is distinct from Ukrainian Orthodox church, which is itself aligned with the Muscovite Patriarchate.

Now the division between Orthodox Church of Ukraine and Muscovite Patriarchate is then reflected in the divisions in global Orthodoxy. Serbian, Bulgaria, Orthodox churches are keeping much closer to the Russian Orthodox church. The Greek Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Patriarchate from Constantinople are supporting the Church of Ukraine.

And so this is a kind of division. That predates this war. It's part of the struggle within Orthodoxy for primacy Moscow, seeking to replace constantly noble in its role, as primarily among the Autocephalous Orthodox. 

The second part of the lecture concerns more of a normative suggestion of a stance that Christians might take in a situation like the war in Ukraine. Obviously. I'm speaking in my own voice here. And there are plenty of folks who would disagree with my position and that's the position to which I roughly came during the war in former Yugoslavia, which I am now seeking to apply and tweak to the situation in Ukraine. The basic conviction that undergirds my stance to not only this war but also toward other situations that are similar is shaped by the conviction that God is love. That is to say, God does not simply love and therefore can love or not love, but that God actually is love always and without exception. And therefore that the love of enemy is a central tenant of the Christian faith. It's tied with a very basic convictions of the Christian faith.

Now this obviously for closest one important option for those who share my position in relating to the situation of war in Ukraine and other places. That is, realism in international relations is excluded. That is to say, the situation is read from the perspective of moral demand and even strong moral demand of universal love.

This is my first point. The entirety of humanity singly in individual, every single oppressed and suffering person and every single wrongdoer, no matter how heinous the crimes they've committed. Every single individual is an object of God's unconditional love. And so when we read the gospels and we see, for instance, in the gospel of John, when it says that God carried away the sin of the world, that Christ pour the sin of the world, that sin was the sin of all evil doers, president Putin included.

And since God loves every human being, God seeks to free us from the group of evil in our lives, as well as from the suffering that evil doing causes. Now I've expressed this in theological Christian terms, but you can put that also in secular terms, we ought to respect the humanity of each person, even the worst among us, and that we ought to care for them.

And to work for their flourishing in community of others, both those who perpetrate crimes and those who obviously suffer them. The stress now I've made on this universality of God's love. I think we also have to say, and some people may perceive this as a contradiction, but I don't think it is. We also have to say that there is something like a preferential option for the poor. That has been a very important feature of the work of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez among them.

That God's love is unconditional and universal is also particularly responsive to those who are weak and assaulted. And if you put it in terms of Gutiérrez's theology, preferential option for the poor is the consequence of the gratuity of God's love. Love, not just for the poor, but also for the wrongdoer and for the enemy.

Now the preferential option for the poor has then an immediate consequence in this particular case, the idea of resisting the evil. We can discuss the question of how that fits with Jesus teaching of non-resistance, of what the difference in resistance might be. And my argument would be that resistance to evil is appropriate and demanded.

Certain forms of resistance are not, but resistance against the aggressor can be and I think ought to be an expression of love, both for the victims of aggression and for the aggressor. That's really important. So we resist not just for the sake of the victims of aggression. We resist also for the sake of the aggressor.

We have a moral obligation to help victims of war in their need. And defenders in their resistance store, but we have to also an obligation to struggle against the aggressor for the sake of transforming and stopping them in evil that they're doing and transforming them. There are different ways in which that obligation can be made good on.

Obviously one of them is the Just War Theory. I myself do not subscribe to Just War Theory. I think that any engagement with the enemy has to be led by the command of love. But there are ways in which to think of Just War Theory, just in those terms also, I'm thinking in particular about Oliver O'Donovan who had placed this command to love the enemy at the heart of his concern, developing a particular form of Just War Theory.

In other words, whether you take more stance or you take a Just War stance, the interest of the Christian faith is also interest and the good of the aggressor. And we cannot exempt the aggressor from the universality of the love of God. Now, especially when one resists evil one may be tempted to be sucked into the very dynamism of evil that's being portrayed.

So I think it's really important that in situations of this sort, whether we observe the situation from outside or especially if we are immersed in the situation, it's crucial to keep careful watch over the state of our humanity. Evil is infectious, especially for those who struggle against it and keeping watch.

Over our humanity means both not letting evil conform us, morph us into its own image, but also not letting timidity or sloth in the face of evil lull into inactivity, into passivism. Both sides I think of this responsibility for our humanity are important. It's important to think about the question of potential collective guilt, very often people who find themselves, especially if they belong to the group of perpetrators, they often find themselves in such situation of people projecting on the guilt of the perpetrators, even though they themselves may want nothing to do with those actions. There are many examples, and I think Russian people are often subject to precisely these kinds of imputation of collective guilt. I think we should resist projection of that collective guilt upon people and many people, even those who support putting may do so from ignorance, themselves being a victim of propaganda. That raises also the question of moral injury. They themselves become victims of the harm that has been imposed upon them to commit harm on others.

And I think that sensitivity to that is part and parcel of taking each individual seriously and taking them seriously is the one who is the object of God's loved. It has been said that truth is often the first victim of war. And you can see that very easily in situations of conflict. We all have tendency to skew the situation and truth about the situation.

So in some sense to be in favor of the position that we are taking, but I think that we have moral obligation to keep speaking the truth about what's going on, about who did what to whom and why, and that we have that obligation also when truth is against the party to which we are prone to give allegiance.

Neither individual Christians nor Christian communities should let their identification with either party undermine their commitment to truth and justice. I sometimes put it very simply this way, even if truth is against you, you should be for the truth because ultimately speaking the truth is enacting your responsibility before God and your responsibility to your own humanity. The pretension and the wars of this type make conversation across the divides of conflict of war difficult, often impossible.

And I think it's very important for us to keep as much as possible that conversation going and to keep alive capacities, to have arguments across lines of deep and abiding differences. Sometimes even if these capacities can be exercised only in one's own imagination so that I can have sympathetic conversation with somebody else across that deep divide that separates; to recognize that there's something that's common between us; to identify that which is common and to think in terms of the possibility of building bridges between sites that are deeply at odds with one another. This brings also another very important question and that is the place of emotions, in particular emotion of anger and of mourning, in the context of war, obviously, outrage, anger, and often combined with bitter lament are understandable responses for utter distraction that is going on. There are completely appropriate. 

Job's case is very interesting in this regard in struggling with God after the visit of his friends and those are nasty friends, right? If you look at it in the book, Joe was dealing with the suffering. It was tough and difficult. But he was dealing with it and then they come and they put the blame of his suffering upon him. And then Job goes off and arguments are fueled by anger, by hurt and so forth. But what's really interesting is that Job dares to speak to God. He brings his anger, his lament, his disappointment, all of this displaced before God.

That's a really very important lesson, rather than speaking about God behind God's back, go to God and speak to God directly. This direct speech and engagement is fundamental because we are then engaging. What is in fact ultimate moral measure for us and our anger is placed in the context where the light of justice and truth can shine on it and anger itself can be transformed. 

I remember how important it was in the war in former Yugoslavia to name that anger. And in fact, one sermon that I preached and I think I've never preached as powerful of a sermon in my entire life. And it's not because I'm particularly eloquent, but because I was preaching it in a church that was maybe 50% of refugee who have just lost almost everything in the war.

And I was preaching on Psalm 137. We set by the reverse of Babylon. And then there's a line there. "Blessed is the one who dashes your little ones against the rock." Right? This is one of the most brutal lines in the entire Bible. And one tends to rebel against any kind of notion that this could be appropriate to be even thought rather than expressed.

And yet it's there in the Psalm. And yet it's there. It was expressed in the context of the liturgy and prayer. And I think it's there because it's there in our souls. That's what we feel. And that's what needs to be expressed, but it needs to be expressed in the presence of God. Once I expressed it to them spoke about it, it was really powerful and in a very significant way, cathartic.

And I think that's where our anger belongs. Now, when we speak about engagement as Christians in the broader political context, but especially in the context of war, I'm always reminded of a line that Karl Barth expressed. I think he expressed immediately either during or immediately after World War II.

Christians are Karl Barth said always "unreliable allies" to any government or any party. And the reason for that is their ultimate allegiance isn't the program of the party or the wishes of the government in power. Their ultimate allegiance is to God. God is the one who's independent of the interests of particular parties and makes claim upon our lives.

I love this line that Ron Williams is never tired of saying I've heard him many times say it. And that's the line that God has no particular interest of God's own. Now people react strangely. Of course, God has interest, but think of it this way, God has no particular needs, right? The only interest that God has with regard to humanity is interest of humanity and interest of all human beings. And I think allegiance to that kind of a God will also then make us that kind of a people where our interest would of course include us, include our community, but it would be larger than our community. 

One thing that the war in Ukraine underscores given that the main agent of war is autocratic ruler, and that it has been waged against democratically elected government. It reminds us how important it is to strengthen pluralistic democracies. People may disagree with me on, on, on this, but for all those who believe that there are good substantive Christian arguments for pluralistic democracies should seek to bring those arguments for developing those arguments to make sure also that pluralistic democracies function better. One of the reasons for the rise of authoritarianism is a certain dysfunctionality of pluralistic democracies. That's what democracies are being told you are not nibble enough, given how quickly the situation changes in our high paced, social and technological world. 

I think we have to make sure that we can show that this is not the case because pluralistic democracies aren't just a matter of compromises. They are matters of substantive moral commitments. A substantive moral commitment is that every single person ought to have a voice in how they live their lives. 

Early on I have mentioned that most of the nationalisms today are exclusive nationalisms, but there is such a thing also as inclusive form of nationalism. And that's the kind of nationalism that is firmly rooted in universal moral commitments and that kind of nationalism represents one way of living our particular loyalties within the larger human and global community and carefully drawing lines between boundaries that needs to be kept, so the nation can exist and exclusivity of these boundaries, which take one outside of the sphere of moral responsibility for the entire globe is really essential thing, especially in the world of resurgence authoritarian, exclusive nationalism. 

Finally, I want something about reconciliation and. Obviously we are in a situation of war negotiations are going on the time for strictly reconciliation has not yet come. But when time for reconciliation comes, it's important how we think of reconciliation. I think there are two false ways to think of reconciliation. One would be to think of reconciliation as a simply pacification of the situation. that is to say, suppression of war, enforcing peace by deploying superior power. The other mistaken way to think of reconciliation is a kind of simply a brokering of compromise as if in situations of war.

What's at stake is simply difference in interests that we can kind of adjust. And then we can go on. Reconciliation, I think, is a moral practice. It presupposes moral judgements about right and wrong. It's appropriate and needed in situations where parties have been injured, where wrong has been committed and that's not a situation simply of specification. That's not a situation of brokering kind of compromise of interest. That's the situation of naming the wrong that has been committed and finding also ways to go beyond that, to live together in peace. 

My friends who live in very difficult times, especially our friends in Ukraine live in awful times and not only there in many other places where wars are being fought and conflicts are being endured. A big challenge before us is how to sustain hope in the midst of such overwhelming powers of evil. Christian hope promises that God is making a new thing in the world. I want to leave you with that promise and maybe with the line that I have become fond of during the pandemic. That's the quote from ancient Christian liturgy as well as for many liturgies that are in use today. And in Latin, it is "sursum corda." In English, it is "lift up your hearts" or more literally "hearts up!" And the proper response is we have them with the Lord. That's what I wish for all of us to lift our hearts and for them to be safe with the Lord so that they can be released into the world in order to do God's will with humility.

Evan Narration: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity school. This episode featured theologian, Miroslav Volf. Production and editorial assistance by Martin Chan. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edit and produce the show. For more information, visit us online at

New episodes drop every Saturday. Sometimes midweek. If you're new to the show, welcome friend. Hit subscribe on your favorite podcast listening app, and we love your feedback, ratings and reviews and apple podcasts are particularly helpful, but we're just as happy to hear from you by email at

We read each comment and do our best to respond and improve the show, bringing you the people and topics that you want to hear. And if you're a regular listener, it's a huge honor that you stick with us from week to week. So I'll you to step up and join us, help us share the show behind those three dots in your podcast app.

There's an option to share this episode by text or email or social media. If you took a brief moment to send your favorite episode to a friend or share with the world, not only would you be supporting the show, you'd be sparking up a great conversation around stuff that matters with people that matter.

Thanks for listening to day friends, we'll be back with more this coming week.