By Kees van der Knijff
We were sitting around the table with our small kids. As we are used to, at the end of dinner we were about to pray together. The kids had been exposed to rumors of war on this first day of the conflict in Ukraine. It was not difficult for them to come up with something to pray for: Ukraine. When I asked whether we should also pray for the Russians I received bewildered looks. They may have never heard of the two countries before, but that day a line had been drawn.
The next day I had a brief conversation with a colleague at ABTS. He shared how the pastors of his church had decided to call for prayer for Ukraine. He had suggested to pray for peace instead. His point was considered, but it was decided that in the current circumstances calling for prayer for Ukraine was the right thing to do. Again, a line had been drawn.
Since those first days, I have literally received hundreds of prayer requests for Ukraine in general and for specific groups or persons in Ukraine in particular. The stories they shared are often heartbreaking and without a doubt warrant urgent calls for prayer. Reading about seminaries similar to ABTS going through a severe crisis while trying to do whatever they can for suffering people around them is painful and heart-warming at the same time.
And yet even here, apparently a line has been drawn.
Amid all those prayer requests for Ukrainians, prayer requests for Russians were almost absent or thrown in as a bullet point deep down in the article. Apparently, we are supposed to pray for Ukraine and against Russia. In wartime we are prone to drawing firm and clear lines.
Now, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding in what follows, let me be crystal clear about one thing: the only possible reaction to the unwarranted violence and to the appalling atrocities the Russian army is committing in Ukraine is a firm rejection and support for Ukraine. I am not advocating for neutrality in any way. When I reflect on our wartime prayers, my point is this: the lines we draw in our prayers cannot be identical to the battle lines. Our prayers are to stop at no borders.
Fortunately, there are those aware of this spiritual disconnect and who firmly resist it by praying across conflict lines. In my opinion, in times like these we have to carefully consider how we pray and what we pray for. In times of crisis, our deeply hidden prejudices and blind spots shine through, and prayer is one of the first places they do so.
Over the past weeks I have been reflecting on how I should pray about the current situation in the world. Who am I inclined to pray for, and who do I tend to dismiss? With whom do I sympathize and who do I demonize? Where do I draw my lines? And do my lines reflect the heart of God?
By drawing our firm line between Ukraine and Russia and labeling one side good and the other side bad, I am afraid we are at risk of forgetting a number of things.
Most importantly, we forget about countless Russians suffering from a war they did not choose: Russian mothers losing their sons and daughters, Russian soldiers losing their futures, Russian children losing moments with fathers or mothers cruelly called away into a senseless call to duty. For what cause? At the moment of writing, there are literally thousands of Russians locked up in prison because they protested openly against the war. They listened to opposition leader Navalny when he called upon them: “If in order to stop the war we have to fill prisons and paddy wagons with ourselves, we will fill prisons and paddy wagons with ourselves.” Furthermore, there are innumerable Russians who want nothing to do with the war. They are ashamed of their country and fearful of what the future might bring under their capricious leader.
We hear about courageous evangelical Christian leaders in Russia publishing open letters Through their words, we hear the intense inner struggle waging: what are we called to do in the current circumstances? God forbid that we forget all of those people in our wartime prayers.
Beside the tendency to forget about all those suffering persons, I also felt that I do not really know what to pray for in terms of the war’s outcome. Praying for God’s protection of the Ukrainian people easily ends up in praying for severe Russian losses. Am I called to pray for a victory of one party over the other? History is full of examples of Christian soldiers at two sides of the same war front praying for victory: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” What do we make of such prayers? Or, if I pray for peace, do I really know what I am praying for? Of course, I pray for an end to the violence. But then what? Should both parties go back behind their former borders and try to pretend nothing happened? I believe peace is more than the absence of violence; peaceful living is more than non-violent coexistence. But in this situation, what could such peace look like? Fortunately, when I pray for peace in the comprehensive biblical sense of shalom, I do not need to fill in the details. The Spirit will complete what I do not know or understand (Rom. 8:26). And our God has more than proven himself able to work flourishing out of brokenness and beauty out of ashes.
During those days, amid all these reflections, I was reminded of a quote by Vaclav Havel that once made a deep impression upon me. Havel became the first president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and later of the Czech Republic until 2003. Before that, however, he suffered years in prison under the communist regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Havel refused to draw the line where everyone expected him to draw it. “The line [dividing good from evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but through each person.” The quote is powerful and it evokes similar remarks by the great Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who also suffered under an oppressive Soviet regime:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”
Examples like these sobering words by two courageous men teach me that praying in wartime requires deep humility. There is so much I do not understand. So much suffering I tend to overlook. So many walls that still need to be broken down. I am still not sure what and how to pray. But I can at least pray that this line right through my own heart may be continually shifting in the right direction. That is the best remedy I know for not drawing all those other lines in my prayers in the wrong places.
Kees shares in the struggle to find adequate words when praying in perplexing times. He is a theologian from the Netherlands and teaches at ABTS.