The Ukrainian Challenge to All of Us

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Clearly the focus of Ukrainian anger and resistance is Russia. They are the invading power. They are the enemy. And the U.S. has taken the side of Ukraine both through military and humanitarian aid, and the sanctions regime. We are sharing the cost of this war.

But there’s a way in which the do-or-die Ukrainians and their “I need ammunition, not a ride” President are a challenge to the U.S. and other modern western nations. They are engaged in as clear a good versus evil struggle as we have witnessed in a long time. They are putting their lives on the line in a cause they believe is just. In doing so, they remind us of the observation of Martin Luther King Jr. “If there’s nothing worth dying for, then there’s nothing worth living for either.”

We have become used to living on slippery ground, morally speaking. Good and evil, right and wrong seem just a little old school, from an earlier era. Many have suggested, of late, that Putin seems a creature of some other era or time, possibly the time of Imperial Czarist Russia or maybe 19th century Europe, when land grabs and invasions of one nation by another were the order of the day.

But are the Ukrainians also a throwback? Not to a time of conquest. But to a time of duty, honor, and good versus evil? Think of those who having gotten their families to safety, then voluntarily returned to fight. Or of those who never left at all because, “This is my country, my people . . . I must defend it.”

In America, and particularly among its elites, we’ve been living for some time in what philosophers term post-modernity. One of the hallmarks of post-modern thought is the idea that there isn’t really anything that can be called truth, there is only power. Truth claims are considered, by post-moderns, as so much window-dressing for power grabs or veils for hidden interests. Great literature, for example, is not studied these days for the truth it might teach us about ourselves and what it means to be human. It is analyzed from a point of view that asks, “Whose interests are being served?”

It is the so-called “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Suspect any and all claims to truth or goodness. Subject them to power analysis, reveal the hidden agendas, who is being served.

There is some truth in this, of course. But when it becomes the overriding assumption — there is no truth only power — then the framing of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a conflict of evil versus good, and of truth worth dying for, seems just a little (or perhaps a lot) over-wrought, sort of strange, like “really?”

We’re about economic growth . . . moral growth — who knows what that might mean? More honestly, we’re about enjoying a comfortable life, not living and possibly dying for, what is right or true.

Post-moderns are suspicious of all truth claims. You can see this reflected, as well, in U.S. politics. It is all about getting, wielding, holding onto power for our side, our team, our tribe. I recall Pilate’s question to Jesus — “What is truth?” — with its weary implication that there is none.

So as much as we cast ourselves on the side of the beleaguered Ukrainians, they also are challenging us, too. They are challenging a constant, low-level hum of post-modern cynicism. The idea that we are accountable to nothing more than self (or maybe family) interest. That the good life is the affluent, materially abundant, life.

The great preacher William Sloane Coffin once observed that “It’s only a hop, skip and a jump from ‘cool and laid back’ to ‘dead and buried.’” The brave Ukrainians are challenging us to remember what we have been too happy to forget — that life is a battlefield, a struggle of good and evil, of truth and lies.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t see that. No one I know has found it challenging at all. We’re all finding out what the Ukrainians are made of, and it’s impressive and a little reassuring to see it.

    So what? It doesn’t pose any dilemma, because that “post modern” story is baloney. We’re no different than we ever were. Usually primarily concerned with our own welfare, sometimes taken in by stories we though were true but turned out to be lies, sometimes learning from this to be more skeptical. The fabric of this has changed a lot as communications have changed in ways that have been discussed endlessly, there’s a substantially greater awareness of the complexities, and the potential for global nuclear destruction has added a new wrinkle, but there wasn’t any “good old days” when we had a moral society that is now extinct.

    That said, as a semantic matter, “good and evil” is fine for its descriptive value, but not very useful beyond that. If for example you’d propose that Putin is evil, I’m sure we’d all go along with that – as long as we’re not using that to try to decide for example how to approach dealing with him. If you want to know something useful about him, “evil” isn’t one of those useful things, because it’s really about us – that’s our judgement, that it’s evil. That judgement is arguably valid, but to try to project this as a phenomenon – that Evil is out there doing things – is to live in a fantasy world. I’m sure some people do that, maybe there were more in the past.

    • For example – when the US went off to World War II, we sent our sons off to lose their lives in combat – and we fire bombed cities like Dresden and Tokyo. We arguably waited overlong to take up arms (my grandmother wrote an anti-war letter to the newspaper), but once we were in it, we were out to win, having no real choice. Not driven to it by a superior grasp of duty, honor and good versus evil, not after lengthy soul searching about “just war”, but by compelling circumstances that were significantly different than the following wars in Korea and Vietnam.

      The Greeks, who also had their ideas about “just war”, thought war was cool. That may be an idea that has finally expired in our lifetimes – war as a the ultimate test that brings us to heights that we otherwise would never see. Or maybe it hasn’t expired.

  2. Simply an excellent reflection on history and culture.
    Recently a friend commented that the last time that he experienced moral clarity was engagement in civil rights in the south in the 1960’s.
    Ukraine has a similar unambiguous moral clarity, and Ukranian citizens are the noble example of what we are all called to be in response. It seems that the words of Martin Luther King will never be irrelevant.

  3. The only Americans living in the moral abyss are the Trump-supporting Christians who worship the false god known as Trump.

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