In part 1 of this series, I attempted to respond to a student who asked, “Where is God in Ukraine?” My answer, in part, was to appeal to the oft-neglected doctrine of common grace where God saturates our rebellious world with good gifts in the form of medical discoveries, technology, morality, science, the arts, and so forth. I now apply common grace specifically to war.
“The dawn of history,” noted historians Ernst and Tervor Dupuy, “and the beginning of organized warfare went hand in hand.”1 As soon as stones were used for digging they were converted into crude weapons. In his haunting documentary, War, Gwynne Dyer observed that a primary function of early societies was a constant preparation to either protect themselves or attack others. He concluded: “We must consider an unwelcome possibility: that war is the inevitable accompaniment of any human civilization.”2
Imagine how heartbreaking it must be for God to see humans use our creativity to produce more and more effective killing tools and strategies. A creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply inextricably linked to war making. Every time we open our computers or phones and check out our favorite news source, we are met with disturbing stories of life in war-torn Ukraine. A world watches in horror as a theatre in Mariupol converted into a sanctuary with the word “children” painted on both sides, and a train station in eastern Ukraine filled with hopeful refugees, are destroyed by Russian missiles.
No doubt this will surface questions from our students—and, if we are honest faculty as well—who want to hold to faith in God’s goodness and power but are troubled by these shocking images. “Where is God in Ukraine?” was the question by a distraught student that started my previous blog. I suggested that common grace is one sliver of God’s response to war. But, what good does common grace do in the face of such suffering? My hope is the concept of common grace can offer some clues how God is faithfully responding to the plight of Ukraine.
While often taken for granted, we can see God’s common grace in the willingness of countries to take in refugees, medical discoveries that help keep victims of war alive, technology that allows reporters to share images of an unjust war that in turn fuel global moral outrage, a woman known as Ukraine’s “cellar violinist” who played classical music for people huddled in a bunker as bombs fall, and relief organizations to name a few. Though often not attributed to God, each is a good gift given to help alleviate pain and save lives (Jm. 1:17). With the limited space I have, let me mention two avenues of common grace that may not be so obvious.
Unleash the Dogs of War
This phrase, uttered by Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, has come to serve as a warning: once war is unleashed, you may not be able to reel it back. As one scholar writes, “War is not like a sport that can be quickly stopped at the blow of a whistle and its repercussions last for generations.” A key gift God has given us is hypothetical thinking where we not only focus on what is, but what could be under certain situations. When it comes to war-making, this gift of common grace is crucial to helping us realize how easily things can slip away from a world rigged for war. Could the next world war be triggered by something as innocent as colorful balloons?
Seven years before the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1991, musician Carlo Karges attended a Rolling Stone concert in West Berlin. He noticed red balloons being released by concertgoers and watched them float over the wall into communist-controlled East Berlin. How would these innocent balloons be perceived on radar and could they be seen as a threat? If so, how would the east German military respond? Karges took this hypothetical situation and wrote a powerful anti-war song entitled 99 Red Balloons. In the song, lazily floating balloons are interpreted by generals as a threat that not only promotes panic but causes the “war machine” to “spring to life.” Quickly, 99 war ministers gather and order 99 fighter jets to attack a neighboring enemy resulting in an all-out nuclear war. The song concludes with a lone human survivor standing in the rumble of a city and releasing one red balloon as a memorial that the human world once existed.
Could war really spiral out of control and threaten our very existence? Through novels (This is the Way the World Ends, James Morrow), films (War Games starring Matthew Broadrick), and poetry (A Song on the End of the World, Czeslaw Milosz) we can envision how war—if left unchecked—might lead to our extinction. It is God’s desire that such apocalyptic visions and thought exercises will cause us to pull back the dogs of war.
While the horrors are unbearable to watch, Putin’s war has been contained despite a desire to punish countries helping Ukrainian resistance. One country particularly drawing his ire is Poland which serves as a conduit through which hundreds of Stinger missiles, Javelin anti-tank weapons, and ammunition are pouring into Ukraine. Why doesn’t Putin directly put an end to it? Having risen to power during an era of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Putin understands that if he attacks Poland (a NATO member since 1999) he’ll evoke a response from an American President who has flatly stated he’ll “defend every inch of NATO territory.” Due to the gift of hypothetical thinking, even Putin isn’t certain he could pull back the dogs of war once unleashed.
Envisioning a More Humane War
The war against Ukraine has produced a torrent of moral outrage from the global community. Even countries like Germany that have long held a stance of never sending weapons into conflict zones reversed its policy and called the invasion an epochal moment that demanded a response. While countries invading others is sadly nothing new, why the outrage over this specific invasion?
While God desires we use our free will to end war altogether, common grace moves individuals to envision war in a way that shields as many people as possible from its devastating impact. Perhaps no one has shaped our thinking of war more than a fifth century Chinese military strategist named Sun Tzu (translated as Master Sun). Not only has Sun Tzu been quoted by military experts, but New England Patriot’s Bill Belichick, rapper Tupac Shakur, and even the fictional mob boss Tony Soprano of The Sopranos. Make no mistake about it, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is an unflinching treatise about how to defeat the enemy. However, it’s also a book about the surprising role compassion plays in waging war.
A common theme throughout The Art of War is the type of character a general should assume as he leads a nation into war. Appealing to a higher moral law, Sun Tzu states that virtuous generals need to exhibit sincerity, benevolence, courage, and compassion. If exhibited, then soldiers will follow regardless of the danger. However, this benevolence is not merely exhibited to his own army. Sun Tzu argues that even when your enemy is surrounded, leave a “golden bridge” so that rather than fighting to the death, they may choose to retreat and consider possible surrender. If they choose to surrender, they should be treated respectfully and with kindness, so they could perhaps be converted from enemies to friends. Sun Tzu equally asserts that the land of an enemy should be treated with dignity as well. He’s opposed to a scorched earth approach to an enemy’s cities or crops. “The best thing of all,” asserts Sun Tzu, “is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy is not so good.” What is most interesting about The Art of War is how much it advocates not going to war. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Negotiation, not war, was the best way to gain victory.
The idea of linking compassion and war is not limited to Sun Tzu. Just War Theory is almost as old as war itself and has been articulated by noted thinkers such as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. It seeks to determine if there is just cause for waging war (jus ad bellum) and if pursued, is war humane (jus in bello). Specifically, the principles of jus ad bellum are: just cause, being the last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing the right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used. Jus in bello asks: Who are legitimate targets in war? How much force is morally appropriate? A third principle has been added suggesting that a just war will also entail taking responsibility for the devastation and long-term effect of war. Thus, nations considering war must equally consider if they have just cause, who is off-limits if they proceed with military action, and will they accept the moral, financial, and humanitarian implications of war?
With this vision of humane war in place, Russia’s pummeling of entire cities, rejecting human corridors to help citizens escape indiscriminate shelling, and countless stories of rape and savagery run counter to the compassion of Sun Tzu and the doctrine of Just War Theory. The result has not just produced global opposition, but moral outrage even shared by many Russians who have risked their lives and futures by staging heroic protests. Without God supplying us with a humane conception of war, would the protests be so passionate, or would we merely adopt a ‘might makes right’ position?
I readily confess that common grace is only a partial—and at times unsatisfactory—answer to the horrors we see daily from Ukraine. But, it does show that God is both attentive and active in ways we often overlook.
In his euphoric vision, John imagined a world where crying, mourning, and pain are gone and people live in harmony as co-inhabitants of a glorious city (Rev. 21:4). In this vision, the hopes of religion are realized as God himself dwells with us and we rest under his shalom (Rev. 21:3). God takes his rightful place among us and with it a cessation of all violence. Until that day, we take comfort that his common grace partially offsets the effects of a rebellious world by giving continuous good gifts. The Psalmist proclaims to a war-torn world that the “Lord is good to all” and he has “compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145:9).