An opinion piece on Christian Post captioned “Let’s pray for Ukraine AND Russia” elicited one commenter to ask whether people have they “prayed the right prayers”. “It may not be the will of God to stop this conflict,” was the summation.
Wrong prayers come from those which cherish iniquity. Prayers offered wrongly – centered on one’s selfish desires – are like praying to idols. Like the misplaced devotion to empire: making America great again, infatuated with Trump as temporal redeemer. Or, for that matter, by Russians who flock to their Cathedral of the Armed Forces, to light candles before a mosaic depicting the “little green men” who invaded the Crimea. Our allegiance to the Kingdom of God cannot be subservient to obedience to whatever empire in which we as “resident aliens” find ourselves.
And God hates those of the facetious “hearts and prayers” genre. The conscience-soothing file-and-forget prayers that have accompanied so many school shootings. Those offered from the lips, bereft of the inmost soul, fall on deaf divine ears.
How, then, should Christians respond?
But the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Such a man was Peter Deyneka, a Russian émigré who devoted his life to sharing the Gospel with those behind the Iron Curtain. “Much prayer, much power” was that godly man’s watchword. I worked with his Slavic Gospel Mission for a time, and saw the truth that God truly does respond to prayer. Sending Cyrillic New Testaments reduced to 3 pages of tissue paper into the Soviet Union may seem like the mouse that roared. But prayer without ceasing reaped a plentiful harvest for God. Once again, Christians are being repressed in Russia and the territories it occupies. We need heartfelt prayer for them, and fellow believers in Ukraine.
Second, before we can pray that God reconcile the warring parties in Ukraine, we must recognize the ways we have distanced ourselves from the voice of God, whether by witness-less complacence, or by braying at the feet of false idols. Making peace ourselves first with God by repentance is the spiritual purging needed to enter his holy presence. This applies to nations as well, as Walter Wink explains: “The pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard… than the machinations of their foes.”
Third, we know God is actively present in Ukraine – and in Russia. We might not know the will of God, but we are the ones praying for it to be done on earth. And we know God’s character through the very image of his substance: Jesus, who called the peacemakers blessed. We need to acquire the Spirit of peace. One such peacemaker was William Jennings Bryan.
Today, William Jennings Bryan is remembered primarily for being humiliated in the Scopes evolution trial. Yet in the headlong rush towards World War I, he was an indefatigable worker for world peace. (Yes, he was a fundamentalist – but before it went full Fundamentalism, and a champion of “applied Christianity” – before it was derided as the social gospel). “The Gospel of the Prince of Peace,” he wrote, “gives us the only hope that the world has – and it is an increasing hope – of the substitution of reason for the arbitrament of force in the settlement of international disputes.”
Bryan goes on, bringing us to the last point: “And our nation ought not to wait for other nations – it ought to take the lead and prove its faith in the omnipotence of truth.” There comes a time when prayer must be validated in action. As William Stringfellow phrased it, “there comes a moment when words must either become incarnated or the words, even if literally true, are rendered false.” We are told to repay evil with good: incarnated prayers means putting Christ’s healing influence to bear. The means of accomplishing this are as diverse as those who are the Body of Christ.
As for myself, I plan to seek out Ukrainian refugees as they will undoubtedly filter into our city. I’m in no position to broker peace in Ukraine. But I can offer them the peace of God, peace with themselves, and peace with others. No one has to look very far for ways to offer comfort and in the midst of suffering caused by war and strife.
One concrete way for us all to further God’s reign in Ukraine has been proffered by Pope Francis, who invites “everyone to make March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for peace. I encourage believers in a special way to devote themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day.” I will be one with him spiritually in that.