Updated: Mar 7, 2022
I find myself torn this week: do I talk about Lent, or do I talk about the war in Ukraine? Both are important, yet in both cases I suspect I have little to say that will add anything to what you already know. To be honest, writing about either seems a bit of a waste of time. That is not to say that we should ignore them: a proper keeping of Lent is crucial for our celebrations in Holy Week and Easter, and the war in Ukraine is of deep concern, both for Ukrainians and for the wider implications. It’s just that I don’t have anything extra to say that hasn’t already been said. Many people have responded with deep emotion to the recent events in Ukraine, and it must be extraordinarily painful for those involved. I do feel pain on seeing what is happening in Ukraine, but it also hurt when I first heard of the Downing Street work event/garden party in May 2020. The same month as I attended a funeral that lacked any personal contact and which most people attended online - necessarily due to lockdown rules. But I will never forget the sheer physical shock I felt when I read about that event, and realised that it happened the same month as the funeral.
The pain of the Ukrainian invasion is not just the sheer horror that Russia might decide to attack a sovereign nation, but the implications of that for the future. It would be easy to turn all that pain into anger; to create an enemy of Boris Johnson, an enemy of Russia. To shore up my own identity, to make life seem safer, just to funnel the pain elsewhere. To demand that someone pays for what has happened. To know that I am on the right side, for Russia is the ‘bad guy’ (or possibly just Putin). It takes away the feeling of sheer impotence. Despite all those negotiations, no one could stop the invasion of Ukraine, and possibly it was always going to happen. Yes, we can impose sanctions, but will they really work? There is nothing I can do, nothing possibly the west can do to stop what is happening, given that we are not going to send troops in. What is happening in Ukraine is wrong; it should never have happened, whatever the justifications for it in Putin’s mind. Yet I can’t help feeling that to create out of Russia, or Putin, an enemy will only play at his own game. To create an enemy, to make someone else the ‘bad guy’ takes us away from a true vision of ourselves, for we become the ‘good guy’. I’m not an expert on international politics, but I can’t help feeling it’s not that simple.
Yet we continue to do it. Not just politically, but among our own selves, we create enemies, people we can’t stand, the ‘bad guys’. That’s not to say some of them are not doing bad things. Some actions, like invading another country, are wrong: stealing, murder, lying, abuse … But I’m always doubtful when we class someone who has done those actions as evil. County lines comes to mind: inveigling vulnerable children and teenagers into drug running can only be described as evil. But does that make the people who do them wholly evil themselves? and where does that leave us, if we believe in a God of love and redemption?
Or maybe I’m just naïve, or have spent too much time in a Convent. Mind you, it’s easy to make enemies in a convent as well. Living in close contact with other people is never easy, even if they are your Sisters (or, possibly, especially if they are your Sisters). We are none of us perfect, and some of us can be very irritating. But it is still easy to take those difficult feelings and turn them into enmity of someone else. To make ourselves feel safer, happier, stronger because we are on the right side. Not because we necessarily are, but because our lives feel easier that way.
I find myself back at Lent after all. It hinges on what we do with that pain and impotence, if we can’t use the energy to create enemies out of. Maybe, this Lent, we could look at who, and how, we create as enemies; to see them as individuals loved by God, however evil their actions seem to be; to see them as in need of redemption, as we are ourselves; to take that pain and sit with it before God. For I am increasingly convinced that intercessory prayer isn’t so much about asking God for something, and thinking the prayer has failed if it doesn’t happen. I am sure many people were – and are –praying for Ukraine. Does that mean the prayer hasn’t worked, given what is currently happening there? (I am writing this on Saturday; it will inevitably have changed by the time you read this).
I am increasingly wondering whether what is actually needed is just to sit and offer the world’s pain before God. Not necessarily in a general unfocused way, but to offer the pain of various specific situations before God, and allow the Spirit in to work, both in situations close to us, and those of more national and international significance. To lay the pain of our sinful world before our God, who loves and made it, without creating any one side ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – even when it seems obvious to us that one side is wrong. For God sees deeper and more truly than we do, or can. To pray for Ukraine may be more than just praying that the war will stop, that Russia will move out, however laudable those aims, however much I hope it will happen. To sit before God with the pain of Russia and Ukraine there in that holy space may allow God into the heart of the pain, the trauma of what is happening there. Whether that makes any difference? I don’t know. I just know that I have to continue to pray, whatever the tangible result.