David Loyn is an author and member of St James’s PCC. He spent many years as a foreign correspondent.
About a month into the Ukraine war I saw an interview with a priest carrying unusual items with him to celebrate communion—body armour and a helmet. After taking Sunday service in his own church he loads up his car with a portable altar and heads for the front line, where he walks trench to trench, at some personal risk, sharing Bible readings and giving communion.
He has a good reception. Church-going is strong in Ukraine. On the other side of the front line they are orthodox Christians too. Religion is central to modern Russia and to its projection of military power. One of the country’s most precious relics, a piece of wood believed to be from the true cross, was kept in pride of place on board the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. It is now at the bottom of the sea after the ship was sunk in May. The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has blessed Putin’s attempt to take Ukraine, calling this a holy war.
So where is God in all this? Whose side is God on?
To complicate the question, the largest church in Ukraine is under the Moscow Patriarchate, and looks to Patriarch Kirill as its leader. Or at least that was the case until the war. It has now declared itself separate.
There is no doubt that war has increased demand for the services of the priest in the flak jacket, taking communion trench to trench. It is an old saying that there are no atheists in fox- holes. Life is simplified, stripped down to its essentials. In the presence of death eternal questions come closer.
In the Afghan war many American soldiers had a message scrawled with felt tip onto gaffer tape on the back of their helmets, saying simply ‘Psalm 95.’ That’s the one about our knowledge of the refuge and strength of God, finding shelter under his wings. The lines most quoted by the soldiers tell of protection from ‘the arrow that flies by day…A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.’
The young men they were fighting against in the Taliban bore a religious message too, in their case in large black letters on their white banners—the Shahada, that beautiful Muslim profession of faith: Ashadu an la ilaha illa illa-ilah, wa ashadu anna muhammadan rasul ullah (There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet).
There has a profound difference though in how these two sides were bringing religion into war. The Americans were displaying Psalm 91 in order to come out alive, to escape unscathed. The Taliban in contrast sought death on the battlefield. Their preachers revered martyrdom as a rightful wish in a holy war against the infidel invader.
The similarity is that both were using faith as a way of encountering death, expressing how they approached it. Death is close in war, and religious rituals fulfil a fundamental need to need to express our relationship to it.
The question ‘Where is God in war’ is asked once in the Bible. Oceans of ink have been expended on the somewhat ambiguous answer given to Joshua when he poses the question as to whether God is with the army of Israel or with its enemies. A figure appears in front of him, sword drawn, who says ‘Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ This is usually interpreted to mean that Joshua is asking the wrong question, that he should be asking instead if he is on God’s side, doing God’s work. I am not sure this is a useful answer.
The God of the Old Testament is clearly on Israel’s side in its victory over its enemies towards its ultimate destiny. This after all is Joshua, who is so sure of God’s help that when he ‘fit the battle of Jericho,’ he knew the walls would come tumbling down just with a trumpet call.
The God of the New Testament, Jesus, is never asked the question. Instead He appears to operate in different human space from that of victory or defeat for armies, not on any side in the war, but alongside those who work to restore peace, and to bring relief to those who suffer, consoling the wounded and bereaved—‘comfort’ in the valley of death, in the words of Psalm 23.
And that means comfort for the shivering Russian conscript as much as the Ukrainian facing him across the front line, and for those who have lost their homes, livelihoods and dignity, mourning the dead as the war grinds on.