The Ukraine Crisis and the Arc of the Moral Universe

Will there be war, or is it all a bluff? Will true justice prevail?

David Clay / 2.8.22

Will there be war, or is it all a bluff? Will true justice prevail? Vladimir Putin has been massing Russian troops and equipment at various points on the Ukrainian border since late last year. With over 100,000 military personnel now in place, Putin could pick up the phone at any moment and touch off the biggest shooting war Europe has seen since 1945. In reality, Russia has already been heavily involved in the on-again, off-again civil war smoldering in the eastern part of Ukraine since 2014. Putin is determined to keep Ukraine firmly within Russia’s political and economic orbit, and especially out of the American-led NATO alliance. While his objective is clear, however, only he knows whether the military build-up is high-powered bullying or serious preparation for war (or both). The official line from the Kremlin is that Russian troops are merely conducting military exercises, that Russia has no interest in war, and that the West (and especially the United States) is being characteristically hysterical and belligerent. 

The West, for its part, is struggling to find a coordinated response (Germany in particular is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas, a rather awkward arrangement that has dampened its enthusiasm for confronting Kremlin). At the time of this writing, President Emmanuel Macron of France is in Moscow to reason with Putin. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is publicly downplaying the threat of invasion even as Ukrainian grandmas train with wooden rifles to fight against it.

Ukrainian reservists train near Kyiv. Credit: AFP.

There is clearly a large demand for news about the crisis among American readers, with media outlets in this country producing a daily stream of reportage and commentary on the events unfolding in eastern Europe since the beginning of the year. I know it’s a daily stream, because I’ve been reading it. Of course, the average American reader, such as myself, has exactly no influence on what does or does not happen in Ukraine. Nor does it directly affect us Americans very much (other than the more expensive energy prices that are likely if war does happen). President Biden has publicly stated that American troops will not fight the Russians in Ukraine — and, in a rare occurrence, Republicans seem onboard with his decision. 

And yet I check for developments in this story every day. I’ve had a long-standing interest in military strategy and policy, but my interest in the Ukrainian crisis runs deeper than that. Very simply put: on the global stage, I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. I know that it’s usually naïve to even speak of “good guys” and “bad guys” in the context of real-world human conflicts (although not, I think, in this particular case). Even so, I really want history to make sense in a readily identifiable way: for the rule of law to prevail over the caprices of violent strongmen; for democracy to steadily supplant autocracy; for free and independent peoples to remain free and independent even in the face of military aggression.

To put it in theological terms: I’d certainly like to be a postmillennialist.

The 19th century advocates of postmillennialism believed that the gospel would eventually conquer all, uniting the world in faith in Christ while solving long-standing social problems. Essentially, the world was to get better and better until Jesus finally came back. As a movement, however, postmillennialism largely died in a trench somewhere during the incredibly violent 20th century. A world with nuclear weapons meant that even the brightest prognosticators of humanity’s future had to dampen down their optimism. 

But then the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended without the much-prophesied destruction of the human race. With the Soviet Union gone, the United States emerged as the sole global superpower. Around that time, in 1992, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously spoke of the “end of history,” in the sense that liberal, capitalist democracies had decisively crushed communism and fascism, and that all nations would eventually remodel their societies on the pattern provided by the US and Western Europe. But hardly anyone believes this anymore, either. Autocracy is on the rise in various places throughout the world, with China in particular demonstrating that a totalitarian government (complete with concentration camps and forced sterilizations of ethnic minorities) is compatible with a capitalist economy. 

In short, history has not ended. We are right smack in the middle of it, with precious little knowledge of where it will go. The final victor of our ongoing ideological, economic and cultural struggles has not been crowned, nor will it be anytime soon. And while humanity is undeniably making progress in a number of important categories, a bright future is simply not assured. 

*****

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I can see I am sure it bends towards justice.” 

So declared Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, in an 1853 sermon. More famously, Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. echoed these words in 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. Answering his own question of how long it would take for African Americans to receive justice, Dr. King paradoxically replied, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

But does it? Like Parker pointed out in the original quote, the visible evidence is generally ambiguous if not discouraging. But King did not believe in a deterministic universe that will turn out alright in the end because of some impersonal, historical process. Indeed, just prior to quoting Parker, King had referenced a poem by another abolitionist, James Russell: “Truth forever on the scaffold / Wrong forever on the throne.” Dr. King knew full well that the bad guys win, a lot. Very often they’ve got more tanks and money. 

And yet: “behind the dim unknown / Standeth God within the shadow / Keeping watch upon his own.” No one was more passionate about fighting injustice than Dr. King, but he knew that our only real and lasting hope for a good future is with God, not in our own efforts and certainly not in the “universe” correcting itself somehow.  

In 2017, The Daily Beast interviewed Michael Wear, who was director of faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. Wear took issue with how the “arc of the moral universe” quote is often used by politicians, as if passing tax reform bills can bring about the New Jerusalem. Instead, Wear told his interviewer: ““It’s very clear that, apart from Jesus Christ, the idea of a moral arc of the universe was inconceivable to King … it only made sense within the context of a declarative faith statement.”

There are various reasons why I believe God is real: there are good philosophical arguments that he is; there is a good case that Jesus of Nazareth is alive; Christianity is the most serious answer to the problem of evil; the heavens declare his glory; and mostly because I need the help. I don’t really believe in God because I can readily trace his guiding hand in human history. Most of the time, to be honest, I can’t.

But because I believe in God for other reasons, I do not have to place my hope in the “universe” or in human beings making better choices (thank God). This does not mean that the world (and my country, and my own personal life) will not pass through any more dark times. Almost assuredly it will. Real people will really suffer if Putin gives the order to invade. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe everything will turn out alright in Eastern Europe. And then maybe things will heat up between India and Pakistan, or in Northern Ireland, or… In any case, God has not promised that tomorrow will go well. But he has promised a good future for us in Jesus Christ; however long the arc of history is, God will bend it towards that in the end. 

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One response to “The Ukraine Crisis and the Arc of the Moral Universe”

  1. […] ding on the smartphone and the laughter of your child down the hall. The moral universe feels less like an arc and more like the stock market. Lost is the anticipation that goodness will unambiguously win in […]

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