Journalists have described the role religious nationalism has played in justifying Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to believe that he is carrying out the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church by destroying a Westernized, apostate Ukraine.
Down through the centuries religion has fueled many wars. Or is it just that Might makes Right, and religion is irrelevant, powerless?
Has religion ever prevented or stopped a war? Have those guided by religion ever guided us to peace? Gandhi may have guided India to a peaceful independence from Britain, but he could not save India from violence between Hindus and Muslims. Motivated by their Catholic faith, the Berrigan brothers protested against the Vietnam War. Protests may have led us to question the war, but not before millions died.
So we may despair. We light candles and pray for Ukraine and for Russian war protestors, but so what? The Pope pleads, but so what?
What can faith communities do to help those suffering because of the war and to move themselves beyond despair?
Jesus’ parable of a Samaritan who helps a wounded stranger and puts him up in an inn (Luke 10:30-35) provides a framework for action. Jesus tells this parable to a lawyer who asks “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus turns the table and shows us how to be a neighbor.
Here’s the gist of the story: A fellow traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, stripped, beaten, left for dead. Two others going down the road pass him by, not wanting to get involved and maybe put themselves in danger (I and many others would probably do the same). Then one of those no-good Samaritans, historically and culturally our enemy, comes near, has compassion, anoints and binds up his wounds, and brings him to an inn where he cares for him. When the Samaritan leaves, he gives money to the innkeeper to continue the care and promises to repay whatever else the innkeeper spends when he returns.
Maybe a first takeaway is that we live in the midst of violence: The road is dangerous; the wounded, like the poor, will be with us always. We always thus have the opportunity and the call to be a neighbor. A second takeaway is that those who have the courage and compassion to stop and help may surprise us. Liberals may need the help of conservatives, and vice versa.
A traditional Christian allegorical interpretation of the parable sees the inn as the church, whose mission it is to care for the wounded until the return of the Samaritan, aka the Christ. Such allegorical interpretations are out of favor now, but this one is worth considering.
Faith communities can and should offer inns of refuge, hospitality, and care, especially for those fleeing violence. What better use could there be for all our often empty churches? What better use of our resources to create and support inns of refuge, local and worldwide?
As the parable makes clear, care for those in need takes long-term action and financial support. Fortunately there are specific ways we can help.
Spokane is home to thousands of folks from Ukraine. Though they have their faith and political differences, they have joined forces to create “Spokane Loves Ukraine.” Their website offers opportunities for donating directly to Ukraine and also for hosting and supporting Ukrainian refugees.
Mark Finney, pastor of Emmaus Spokane, notes that another important way to support refugees is to lobby our political representatives to pass laws that enable more refugees to come and receive a long-term welcome. (Remind our representatives that this is good for our economy as well as being the right thing to do.)
Globally, there are many faith-based and other nonprofits working in Ukraine and in the neighboring countries now receiving many refugees. These include Doctors without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency.
So rather than descending into helplessness and despair, we can be motivated by our faith to be the neighbors our world needs whether in war or peace.
Walter Hesford was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group, and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow.