The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops on 24-02-2022 not only threatens world peace, but also raises many moral questions. Of these, the above question is perhaps the most important. The answer to this is inevitably ambiguous: yes, but largely no. After all, different parties are involved in a war and their motives cannot all be (equally) just. Usually the greatest moral fault lies with one of them and sometimes even with third parties, who themselves do not participate in the conflict, but derive certain benefits from it. A good example of this are the arms manufacturers, who need conflicts for their large-scale lucrative trade. In many cases, access to scarce or expensive resources is the obscured main objective of military strikes. Besides, there are also legitimate motives, such as self-defense or decisive security considerations.
Many wars were fought in the name of God or pagan gods, but by definition these were pretexts, for the one and true God wants peace between men and other gods are artificial inventions of priestly castes, shamans, etc. The answer in such cases is therefore always negative. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four strict moral conditions that apply within the framework of “lawful self-defense by the military force”:
– That the damage inflicted by the attacker is of a permanent nature, important and certain.
– That all other means of halting the damage have proved impracticable or ineffective.
– That there is a serious prospect of a good result.
– That the use of gun violence does not cause greater ills than the evil that one wants to eliminate. Particular attention should be paid to the destructive power of modern weapons.
The Catechism affirms that “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” These principles seem to be correct and well formulated, but it cannot be denied that, like all principles, they have a theoretical character and that their application can lead to very different conclusions and interpretations. Moreover, it is not only about the objectives and causes of conflicts, but also about the way in which they are fought. As said, not only the warring parties are involved, but often also third parties. This is very pertinently reflected in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
In our media, more specifically in the weekly magazine Knack, this essential complexity was recently discussed in two contradictory articles, written by two well-known Flemish intellectual thinkers. The first, from 04-03, came from Mark Van de Voorde (1), with the title “The peace movement should support arms deliveries to Ukraine”. On 09-03 the reply of Gerard Bodifee (2) came under the title “Whoever supplies weapons, is complicit”. M.V.d.V. has been a member of the Pax Christi peace movement, but is now experiencing an internal conflict between his principled nonviolence and his moral responsibility. His question is whether a people overrun by a criminal aggressor should not be helped by arms deliveries. He concludes that this is good, through a reasoning that I can only label as one-sided and short-sighted. A peace movement that does not come to the same conclusion as him is, according to this writer, without a doubt “complicit in culpable negligence”. If one continues this reasoning consistently, Pax Christi should always have an arsenal of weapons in stock, to distribute to attacked populations.
In his reasoning he is inspired by the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who came to the conclusion through the Sermon on the Mount of Christ that he had to participate in a plot against Hitler. How this can be reconciled with Christ’s words “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also”, “Love your enemy”, “Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting”, the reader must further decide for himself. In addition, two actions are compared here that are of a completely different nature and order of magnitude. Participation in a conspiracy is a direct intervention in which one risks one’s own life. One can consider it a heroic gamble. The supply of weapons to one of the parties is an indirect participation in a conflict in which one wants to remain aloof, but in which one can eventually be sucked in. This seems more innocent than the first intervention, but in practice it can lead to an incalculable expansion of violence. Moreover, it inevitably undermines the credibility of the pacifist ideal. But worst of all, it offers no certainty at all for a reduction in human suffering, on the contrary.
Gerard Bodifee comes to a similar conclusion, although he also admits that nonviolence can never be an absolute principle. Controlled and thoughtful violence can sometimes be necessary, insofar as it is proportionate, there is no other solution and there is a prospect of an improved situation. G.B. argues that a clear distinction must be made between direct violence between persons and conflicts between states. In the latter case, “civilians are victims of what dark power mechanisms carry out”. He quotes the French peace activist Jean Goss who, questioned about his experiences in World War II, admitted that “he will never be able to free himself from the shame and remorse of having killed opponents, because he realizes that he has not hit the guilty, but innocent pawns in the ruthless game played by others”.
“Every war, without exception, incites people to cruelty, revenge and arouses a killing instinct that excludes any moral and rational sense.” When asked what countries can do that are not directly involved in the horrors of war, his answer is clear: “throw water, not oil, on the fire”. Supplying weapons automatically leads to complicity, because “the war itself is the greatest evil, always a greater evil than the injustice that gave rise to the conflict”. The battle must be stopped by cutting off the supply of weapons. For our part, we would like to add the following remark: The arms industries of the East and West will certainly not agree with this statement by G.B., but it is not by making them even richer that we will achieve the ideal that is engraved in four languages in the peace monument at Diksmuide: “Never again war”.
G.B. states that Belgium, as an arms-producing country, has an enormous responsibility. In theory, our country takes the position that no weapons are supplied to countries at war, and that is commendable. But he finds it deeply discouraging that the public, government and commentators are getting carried away by the war rhetoric and the fighting spirit that is emerging throughout Western Europe. We agree with him and hope and pray that with calmness and thoughtfulness the only possible path will be taken in which wars can be ended once and for all: armistice, diplomatic consultations, and balanced agreements.
Let us refrain from bold but ill-conceived statements and actually promote peace by fulfilling our Christian duty of helping the victims of the injustice that is every war: the refugees, the starving, the hurt. And above all, let us use the most powerful weapon in the world, the common prayer, in this case with the words “Lord, give us peace”.
(1) Mark Van de Voorde is a Flemish journalist, who was spokesman for the diocese of Bruges, editor-in-chief of Kerk en Leven and advisor to CD&V politicians. He has published many socio-religious works and is still a columnist in various newspapers, magazines and on two sites: katholiek.nl and kerknet.be. It is not the first time that he has been tempted by ill-considered so-called progressive statements (a characteristic problem within many current intellectual circles).
(2) Gerard Bodifee is a Flemish astrophysicist who also profiled himself as a Christian-inspired philosopher, with an extensive philosophical and scientific biography. He is a columnist for De Standaard and VRT. He formally spoke out against abortion and euthanasia and advocated for children’s right to parents of both sexes. For the latter, he received the homophobia prize from the Gay Federation in 2006. For our part, we express our appreciation for the depth, independence and correctness of many of his insights.