When I decided to reread Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” at the beginning of this year, I didn’t anticipate that it would coincide with the mountain of kindling being thrown onto the embers of war in Ukraine’s humble Donbas region.
Armies now inhabit a portion of the same cities and streets I once walked as a missionary some 18 years ago.
Our aims were ministerial. I fear that the aims of those walking those same streets today are decidedly militant.
Since 2014, I’ve watched with perpetual sorrow as war has disfigured the land I came to adore.
I’m haunted by the words of Tolstoy’s most unforgettable characters: “I don’t understand, I decidedly do not understand, why men can’t live without war.”
“You would think that humanity has forgotten the laws of its divine Savior, who preached love and the forgiveness of transgressions, and that it finds its greatest merit in the art of mutual killing.”
Of course, war is complex and defies easy solutions. As Tolstoy put it, there is no “single will” in the circumstances of war but rather the “numberless collisions of various wills.” In other words, so much is beyond our control, and it’s easy to feel hopeless.
Living 6,000 miles away from Ukraine today, one of the only tools a person like me has to help my suffering friends is prayer.
But, sending one’s “thoughts and prayers” has become something of an internet meme — a sign of insincere “slacktivism” in the face of genuine human tragedy. And yet, for people of sincere faith, pleading with the God of the universe is a divine command.
“Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know,” scriptures tell us. We are admonished not to go “shaking angry fists at enemies but raising holy hands to God.” If ever a person would seem justified in shaking a fist at the enemy, surely it would be in wartime.
But some of my Ukrainian friends, followers of the same Jesus who pointed his disciples to peace, have sought a higher way.
Eight years ago, after the Maidan Square massacre in Kyiv led to violence in the Donbas, a woman I’ll call Elena (I’ve changed names to protect identities) left her city in the country’s east for the safety of a nearby nation, where her husband had found work.
At the time, Elena told me that Ukraine’s political situation had strained relationships. Ukraine’s eastern region has a heavier ethnic Russian population, as well as more sympathetic views toward Russia. The urgency of unity, she said, was real.
“We saw that regardless of which (political) position a person took, the other side then wouldn’t accept them as a friend,” Elena said.
Politics have divided people into tribes.
“We all need to search for enough humility to accept that your brother or sister can have a different political view, and our religious views should be above our politics,” Elena told me. “This situation has greatly humbled us.”
Another friend in eastern Ukraine, Natasha, spoke of the testing that her faith endured in 2014 as constant artillery fire was exchanged between opposing sides, dimming the light of peace that once graced this beautiful land. One day, as panic and despair plagued the faces and hearts of dozens of Ukrainians seeking refuge in the basement of Natasha’s nine-story apartment building, Natasha tried to put smiles on the faces of those around her.
She told uplifting stories and gave out encouraging hugs. Her cheerful nature and boundless optimism are more than enough to brighten any room she enters, but not on that day. The fear of shells, bullets and possible death had cast a depressing pall over the gathering.
She recalled the moment when an artillery shell hit a nearby structure. The resulting explosion was so powerful it bounced Natasha on her chair as she sat in her two-room apartment.
Even with that chaotic backdrop, Natasha said we must remember that “we are one family. We can’t forget this, not under any circumstances.”
War, the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko observes, is rooted in envy “that the brother / Has a barn and field / As well as happiness at home! / We’ll kill the brother! Burn his house! / They said it, and it happened.”
It’s better, Shevchenko continued, “to live in brotherhood.”
“Thoughts and prayers” are important not only for invoking the powers of heaven to intervene in the affairs of nations, but also for ridding ourselves of that envy and malice that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Maybe, in the long run, it’s prayer for one another that will finally rid the world of war.
Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah.