Back after 911, there was a particularly intense period when anyone of Asian or middle eastern appearance was at risk from backlash. Not only did people conflate the attack by Islamist extremists with an attack from all Muslims but also people who were not even Muslims but rather Sikhs and Hindus were conflated with the enemy.
We risk the same danger right now with Russia. Whilst NATO countries are not involved in direct military conflict or wat with Russia, it is clear that we are in a form of conflict through economic and diplomatic means as well as through supplying arms to Ukraine. But some people have gone further with demands for all Russians to be expelled from Britain and an end to all cultural and economic links. This weekend for example, there have been calls to boycott MacDonalds and Coca Cola because these two companies are continuing to trade in Russia. Now, there are perhaps good reasons (at least health wise) for reducing your Coca Cola and Big Mac consumption but I’m not convinced that this is one.
I’ve argued previously that cutting off all cultural and economic ties with the Russian people is likely to be extremely counter-productive. It enables Vladimir Putin to present the West as the aggressor, it creates a siege mentality as a people unite together in hardship with their patriotic leaders and it makes it less, not more likely for ordinary Russians to hear communications via international media. Why should we assume that they will see the BBC as any different to Russia Today?
Furthermore, when people argue that we should maximise hardship and suffering on ordinary Russian civilians in the hope that their suffering will either cause their leaders to relent or even provoke them into an uprising, we forget that this is the very same logic that leads to the indiscriminate bombing of cities leading to the deaths of civilians. When that happens then we recognise it as ethically wrong and potentially a war crime. So, this should cause us to pause before we seek the same outcome of civilian suffering through other means.
The point is this. The Russian people are not the enemy in this war. It is Vladimir Putin and his regime that has sent young Russian soldiers into Ukraine, to cause horrific suffering there and potentially to their own deaths. Putin even suppresses his own people and has no concern about them going without whilst his Oligarch friends grow richer and richer. Any Western response to the invasion of Ukraine should be focused on Putin and his allies.
In the Christian life too, we can forget who the real enemy is and make enemies of others. The other day I wrote about how we respond to conflict in church. When there is falling out and division it is easy for us to see others in the church as the enemy. When Christians face opposition to sharing the Gospel, we can begin to see those who are causing trouble for us as our enemies.
Paul in Ephesians 6:12 writes:
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This is to remind us that other people, even when they cause us trouble, make life difficult for us and even hurt and harm us are not the enemy. We have a true enemy, Satan. This means that for believers, the battle we need to focus on is a spiritual one.
Incidentally, I think it’s important for us to recognise the spiritual dimension to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I recently shared this quote from Wikipedia on facebook.
Protestants in Ukraine number about 600,000 to 700,000 (2007 …. Nearly all traditional Protestant denominations are represented in the country. According to Christianity Today magazine, Ukraine has become not just the “Bible Belt” of Eastern Europe, but a “hub of evangelical church life, education, and missions”. At present, the country is a key supplier of missionaries and a center of evangelical training and press printing for all the countries of the former Soviet Union, where the legal environment is not so favourable.”Protestantism in Ukraine – Wikipedia
There is an enemy who would like to see the silencing of the church and the Gospel in Ukraine and Russia alike. That enemy would love to see Christians scattered, leaders killed, silenced, imprisoned, church buildings bombed into closure through a bloody conflict. I’m sure that he also enjoys those comment articles which describe Putin as motivated by a form of Christian faith. If he can get people to see this conflict as caused by religion then that’s a major bonus.
When we recognise the spiritual enemy and his strategy here, then it helps inform our prayer life. It’s in our prayers that those spiritual battles are won.
11 Put on the whole armour of God …praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”Ephesians 6:11 &18
We specifically pray that what was intended for harm will work for good and for God’s glory. We pray that even in the face of intense suffering that Ukrainian and Russian believers alike will stand firm in their faith so that by example they are able to show their trust in God and that their hearts are guarded from fear and bitterness. We pray that even as Christians are scattered and displaced from their homes that wherever they go, they will bring the Gospel with them. We remember how the devil hoped to wipe out the young church in Jerusalem through persecution and suffering but this only served to help spread the Gospel around the Roman Empire.
So too as we think about the challenges, opposition, division and conflict we experience in our churches and communities. Of course when another church member is in sin, they will want to challenge and correct them. Where sin is persistent and public then there will be a need for church discipline. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves and each other who the real enemy is and what his strategy is.
This will push us to prayer. We will pray for those who are causing us trouble that they would be convicted by the Gospel and brought to a place of repentance and to salvation or restoration. We will pray that God will guard our hearts and minds against bitterness and resentment. WE will pray that God will give us opportunities to show love and kindness to those who seem to seek our harm, we will want to repay evil with good. We will pray that the enemies plans will be thwarted.
The good news is that even as the spiritual battle rages, we remember that the enemy has already been defeated at The Cross.