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Why I Support the Ukrainian War Effort: The Workings of Whisper Ethics

 

The current war in Ukraine presents a dilemma for Christians. Support for innocent victims resulting from the Russian invasion is a no-brainer. They are our neighbors. But what about the Ukrainian military effort? To support that effort only feeds the violence.

The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament are quite clear. He strongly opposed the use of violence in first-century Palestine. This tradition of Christian pacifism has seen considerable support over the 2,000 years of Christian history. Stanley Hauerwas argues that the church is separate from the state. The duty of a Christian is not to solve the problems of the world, but to live the teachings of Jesus. The use of violence opposes God’s love even when good things can come from it.

Christian realism takes a different position. It looks at the world and asks how can we use our power to achieve peace and justice. It argues that pacifism ignores the evil in the world, an evil from which neighbors often need protection.

The arguments from both camps make sense to me, but I don’t join in the debate. Instead, I listen to the voice inside my head urging me to act in ways that support love and justice. In March of 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, the first thought that came into my head was “so many innocent people will die. We can’t do this again.” In February of 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, my first thought was “Putin is evil. We must do all we can to defeat him.”

As I have pointed out in the past, whisper ethics comes from process theology, the work of Alfred North Whitehead and several prominent Christian theologians. To summarize briefly, humans make decisions based upon different messages that float through their awareness. There are messages from the past—memories, emotions, goals, wishes, hopes. There are messages from our reptilian brain centered around survival. These messages pertain to fear, greed, and lust among other things. There are also messages from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, love, justice, harmony, and creativity. To be a follower of Jesus is to act on these messages from God.

With regard to whisper ethics, context plays a major role. God does not make universal commands, although many conservative Christians believe that is exactly what God does. They want a moral system that is unambiguous. Their favorite source of commands from God is the Ten Commandments. They use the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” (Exodus 20: 13) to justify their pro-life position in the abortion debate.

What these Christians ignore is Chapter 34 in Exodus. As you will recall, Moses is away for a long time on the mountain where he receives the Ten Commandments. During that period, the people of Israel construct a golden calf as an aid to worship. When Moses returns and sees the calf, an idol forbidden by the second commandment, he explodes with anger, throwing the tablets which contain the Ten Commandments at the calf which destroys both the calf and the tablets. God is angry too and wants to end his relationship with the people of Israel. (Exodus 32: 1-24)

Over time both God and Moses calm down, and God invites Moses back to the mountain to receive new tablets. In Chapter 34 of Exodus, God promises to inscribe the exact same ten laws onto new tablets, and then for some reason changes his mind. God ends up giving Moses ten different laws as his Ten Commandments. I can just imagine conservative Christians dismissing these news laws as unimportant when compared to the original ten, but that is not the case. The new laws are about how God is to be worshipped, a very important consideration for ancient Jews. Most Old Testament scholars argue that both sets of commandments are human creations, not divine commands.

By contrast, whisper ethics is about listening within for the most loving response to a specific situation, but it can be misleading and needs to be approached with humility. Competing voices within the individual’s awareness can drown out the messages from God. These messages also come to limited human beings who may not interpret them correctly. Finally, these messages come in a whisper because God seems to want to protect human freedom to make independent decisions. As a result, the sense of goodness and love comes without content. This sense filters through an individual’s awareness made up of their unique experiences and perspectives. Humans then add their own content to the messages.

The idea of different experiences and perspectives is an important one. Each person is made up of a unique base outlook. This outlook comes from parental instruction, genetic inheritance, core adult experiences, and a host of other psychological factors. As a result, the sensations of goodness and love from God can be translated differently for each individual on the receiving end of the message. Every time I hear of a new Russian atrocity I see Ukrainians as neighbors who are in need of military assistance in order to defend themselves. Other Christians may be deeply saddened by all the violence and think a better approach would be for the Ukrainians to surrender to the Russians and to resist nonviolently by refusing to cooperate with the puppet government the Russians install.

Because of these limitations, one must be careful never to proclaim God is commanding such and such a response. The human condition prevents such clarity. One must always act with a sense of humility and respect for the views of others which may be different. Our hope is that, over time, in the words of Martin Luther King “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If Dr. King is correct, the sensations of love and goodness from God will win out in the long run.

 

Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of six published novels and two works of nonfiction. His three latest books are: A Christian Foreign PolicyA Man Called JesusJeff’s Journey and A Second Chance. His musical play, Lighthouse Point, was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Herrick is currently retired, living in Bluffton, SC. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren. You can find him at https://rickherrickauthor.com.

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