How to know and testify to the Truth in times of war: challenges for theology

29.09.2023, 12:35
Speakers from left to right: Andriy Tretyak, Fr. Thomas Nemet, Taras Dyatlyk, moderator Orysia Bila - фото 1
Speakers from left to right: Andriy Tretyak, Fr. Thomas Nemet, Taras Dyatlyk, moderator Orysia Bila
In times of the daily threats to life, cynicism, cunning, and cruelty of the enemy, and doubts about justice in this world, the need to find or remind us of the meaning that gives us hope becomes more acute. And here the role and importance of theology is greatly enhanced, because the demand for Truth and justice is growing significantly.


The practical dimension of the functioning of religious communities in times of war is also based on how the nature and mission of the Church is interpreted. Interreligious relations, ecumenical dialogue, and all the activities of churches in general are based primarily on fundamental doctrinal beliefs that form ecclesial identity. Therefore, theological rethinking of the topic of war and peace forces us to address the role of values, worldview, and ultimately truth in this challenging moment.

What does war mean and what are the theological grounds for peace? Why has the focus shifted from the idea of a just war to a just peace in recent decades and how do these concepts interact today? How do theological education and the practice of serving one's neighbor relate, and what does a true sustainable peace mean for Ukraine from the point of view of believers? These and related questions were on the agenda for discussion in the session "Theological Rethinking of the Problem of War and Peace" at the international conference "Church Diplomacy and the Religious Dimension of the Russian-Ukrainian War" organized by the Ukrainian Catholic University and the University of Notre Dame (USA). One of the positive aspects was that the discussion was attended both by Ukrainian scholars along with representatives of religious communities who, having witnessed the war, are trying to share their own experiences and understand them, and by foreign researchers and experts who expressed a desire and courage to come to Lviv.

From the very beginning of the session, a number of key questions were raised that allowed us immediately to plunge into the depths of the issue. Andreas Trampota, a researcher at the Institute for Theology and Peace (Hamburg), focused on whether "just war" should be opposed to "just peace" or whether these concepts are mutually exclusive or complementary. The basis for finding the answer was Christian social ethics and Catholic social teaching. Despite the fact that the traditional theory of just war has Christian origins, in recent times it has been considered more correct to speak of a just peace. It was important to clarify that for the researcher himself, the "just war theory" correlates with the "theory of legitimate use of force," which in the political sphere has practical significance and justifies certain forms of use of weapons (for example, in self-defense).

Professor Trampota first recalled the relationship between the concepts of war and peace in ancient Greek philosophy, referring to the ethics of Plato and Aristotle, and explained the original meaning of the famous expression "If you want peace, prepare for war" (Si vis pacem, para bellum). The Christian vision of peace appears in a much broader perspective, as it encompasses all dimensions of human existence, such as peace within oneself, with others, in the community, with other creatures, and ultimately with God. Once again, the idea of peace, which already in the ancient tradition included justice, is supplemented in Christianity by a new religious context. Christian theologians add such dimensions as justice in human relations with God and the expectation of God's just peace.

The scholar, taking into account the established fundamental principles of the ethics of war and peace, analyzed how these principles work in modern security policy and came to an interesting conclusion: "This seems to indicate that we are indeed dealing with a fundamental shift in the ethics of war and peace which leads us away from the principle ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’ to the principle ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace’ (Si vis pacem, para pacem). It’s a development away from the reactive doctrine of just war to a preventive conception of just peace: the doctrine of just war is a contribution to overcoming conflict, whereas the doctrine of just peace is a contribution to preventing conflict."

At the end of his speech, Andreas Trampota highlighted several key issues of theological reassessment of the ethics of war and peace in the light of Russian aggression against Ukraine, which included two important generalizations. First, evil in its worst manifestations is still a part of human history, to which we may have turned a blind eye because we wanted to have structures of international law that would forever guarantee the end of wars and sustain peace. Secondly, there exists real disappointment with the extent to which it is possible to ensure peace and mediate acute political crises through the structures of international law created by the United Nations. Therefore, only an international security system that is capable of enforcing the law can bring us to a new level of political resolution. But even with such a legal order, there will still be legitimate forms of use of force. These are strong arguments for the conclusion drawn by the German theologian: "For the foreseeable future, the ethics of just peace will include an ethics of just war."

Fr. Thomas Nemeth, a theologian and lawyer from the University of Vienna, continued the topic of theology in times of war, but from a different perspective. He paid attention to both important theoretical aspects, such as the importance of theology in times of war and the prospects for its further development, and presented some practical dimensions of the problem.

Having thoroughly analyzed the reaction of Pope Francis to the situation of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the peculiarities of contemporary ecumenical relations, he identified several critical points that are currently challenging for theology. According to the speaker, the analysis of the Vatican's policy towards Ukraine once again reveals the bitter truth that non-violence cannot protect the weak and that pacifist approaches to aggressors often do not help. Therefore, there is a need for a critical assessment of the relationship between peace and justice. Prof. Nemeth noted that "In any case, an option for truth and justice must not ignore the victim's perspective. Here, the churches of Ukraine can provide valuable assistance also addressing unpopular topics like reconciliation." Regarding the ecumenical aspects of this issue, the Austrian researcher concluded that in the German-speaking professional environment, the Russian Orthodox Church is still treated as an institution of civil society (although the existence of this level of society in Russia is questionable). Instead, its propagandist role (even in the Russian-Ukrainian war) somehow falls out of the spotlight, even though such a merger of military theology and imperial ideology is very dangerous and can be fatal for the Church itself.

Thomas Nemeth also presented his perspective on the development of theology in response to the challenges of war. Theology, in close connection with other scientific disciplines, can make an important contribution to a deeper understanding of the social role of religion, supported by the lived experience of pastoral ministry in extraordinary circumstances. Churches "can help to expose ideologically caused deficits and to support coming to terms with the past or healing from trauma." As a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the speaker also offered his reflections on the state of theological thought in this church. He noted that theology here often acts (and is perceived) in a defensive or apologetic posture, while its critical role could be developed. In general, theological scholarship in the Eastern Catholic Churches, with its focus on Catholic doctrine and connection to the Orthodox tradition, is quite open to internal pluralism and distances itself from narrow confessional extremes.

The war greatly increases the need for critical theology and emphasizes the responsibility of theologians and clergy. "In the face of ideological traps and temptations of power, they otherwise run the risk of failing in the task of showing people the way to God." However, the scholar also wondered what the role of theology and the churches themselves will be after the war. In his opinion, "the churches will be more than challenged with peace work and healing of memory. This also applies to perspectives for building a humane civilization in Russia. With all the challenges described, churches need a reflective approach and exchange with society to promote justice and respect for human dignity."

Andriy Tretiak, a graduate student of the Institute of Church History at UCU, elaborated in his presentation on the way the theme of war and peace is treated in the messages, speeches, and addresses of the head of the UGCC, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk.

The very idea of peace, as Prof. Trampota emphasized at the beginning, has rich and diverse meanings in the Christian tradition. The speaker presented in detail and in a meaningful way, using specific examples and texts, what true peace means for a Christian and why it necessarily involves God's justice, human dignity, and freedom. Instead, in the geopolitical sphere the idea of peace can take on distorted forms, and modern Russia provides a striking example of what this can become. Therefore, it is important for the Church to articulate and disseminate the fundamental authentic principles of peacemaking: "real peace begins with mutual respect, mutual understanding, and mutual healing of wounds." According to Patriarch Sviatoslav Ukrainian society needs the kind of peace that is not just an idea or an ideal without real content and fulfillment. It should not just be sought and expected, however, but be built. That is, every person of good will should be involved in its acquisition and establishment, while realizing that peace is not only the work of human hands, but one of God's greatest gifts, the result of God's blessing.


Continuing to expound the theological foundations of peace according to the presentation of the head of the Church, the graduate student emphasized that "[t]herefore, the absence of peace on earth is a sign that the unity between God and humanity is broken. The whole history of mankind is characterized by violence, divisions, and bloodshed as great wounds of human separation from divine peace, the separation of man from God, who is the true source of peace." Thus, peace does not appear as a particular social or political reality, but first and foremost as a certain way of communicating with God, with another person, and with the world itself. That is, peace is based on the way we build relationships and whether they are marked by perfection. Therefore, the important conclusion is drawn that peace is not just the absence of war, but something much more, the fullness of life, which implies human obedience to God's plan.

Through the prism of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the head of the UGCC explains what victory and a real lasting peace will mean for Ukraine: morally higher standards and better living conditions for people on its territory, the victory of human dignity over all forms of contempt that modern humanity has invented to humiliate this dignity – in other words, "creating a space of dignity for the person on the Ukrainian, God-given land."

As the young scholar summarized, Patriarch Sviatoslav's views on the problem of war and peace are in line with the concept of a just peace. This is evidenced, for example, by his emphasis on grassroots activities, the need to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population, and the need to ensure the lasting and sustainable development of society. His ideas, however, go beyond traditional thinking about just peace, by emphasizing the need for Truth, which allows us to achieve true and authentic peace.

The next speaker, Taras Dyatlyk, vice rector of the Eastern European Institute of Theology in Lviv, presented the issues of the session from a different angle, namely as a theological response of Ukrainian evangelical seminaries to Russian aggression against Ukraine. He offered a personal reflection and shared the vision of the evangelical communities regarding what the challenge of war means for theology and theological education.

The speaker described how the theological reassessment of the priorities of educational activities took place after the full-scale Russian attack. In his opinion, theology should have a practical dimension, and if theological education does not work in life, it is dead. The war is precisely the situation in which theology should manifest its inner nature and its true essence: imitating Christ, serving those in need. In times of hardship this practical aspect has become even more important, because it is no longer just about acquiring a body of knowledge and competencies, but first and foremost about the duty and experience of service. Evangelical seminaries became not only places of learning but also centers of care and concern, where compassion and love for one's neighbor is manifested. On the one hand, educational programs continued to operate; and students and teachers tried not to interrupt the educational process. Yet on the other hand, they all volunteered and experienced Christian virtues and values in their daily service. The seminaries opened shelters for refugees, where they were provided with everything they needed for short and long-term stays; humanitarian aid was delivered to regions affected by hostilities; and people were evacuated from dangerous places. These are examples of how theological education is implemented in life. After all, helping those in need is an imperative requirement of the Gospel, the basis of Christian morality and spirituality, and not a manifestation of some special heroism of individual believers or religious communities. It is to experience faith through practical actions, to integrate theological learning into daily life: that means to imitate Christ in giving hope.

The conference clearly demonstrated how wide the range of issues related to theological rethinking of war and peace can be. These issues cannot be limited only to theoretical concepts or new interpretations and meanings, but can also offer very practical, effective guidelines that help to witness to the Truth and fill life with faith – even when one is face to face with death, pain, and suffering.