When I worked in a large hostel in East London, one of my colleagues intervened when he saw one of the residents threatening someone else. The aggressor turned on my colleague, punching him hard enough to break his jaw, and then left the hostel.
I was on shift the next day when the attacker returned. We immediately called the police and they arrived shortly afterwards to make an arrest.
However, when he saw the police officers arrive in the hostel’s reception area he made further abusive threats to them as well. He was warned but continued to be aggressive, so the officers drew their retractable batons (known as asps) and hit the man’s legs to subdue and handcuff him.
I watched all this happening right in front of me. What sticks in my mind most vividly was the man’s shrieks of pain from the blows of the batons. It contrasted sharply with the swaggering aggression he had displayed up till that point.
It was a horrible incident. But if I am honest I felt a deep sense of relief that his aggressive behaviour was contained and dealt with.
So why am I sharing this story? Its because it illustrates why I am not a pacifist.
In this situation, I believed the police officers were justified in their use of force because it was defensive, restrained and proportional to the threat they were dealing with. It served the cause of justice and protected other innocent people.
I felt similarly about the police who shot dead the attacker who injured multiple people in my South London community in 2020.
Most of the arguments about the justification of war in the last 30 years have involved debates about modern forms of Western imperialism. I was one of millions who marched against the Iraq War back in 2002.
But in the Ukraine, we are seeing the blatant re-emergence of Russian imperialism, seeking to re-assert domination over a now democratically-run country. In response, we have seen Ukrainian civilians being issued with machine guns and large groups of women mass produce home-made Molotov cocktails.
Yesterday, I went to the protest outside the Russian Embassy in London. I spoke with a Ukrainian woman (pictured above) who told me about her mother and wider family currently sheltering in their basements. She said they were terrified but also that they will fight to the very end.
A key reason for the strength of their resolve, she said, is because so many remember the era of Soviet imperialism. They will not give up their hard-won democratic freedoms for the oppression of totalitarian rule.
Just one example was Holodomor, the horrific 1932/33 famine in which it is estimated that 6-8 million people died. In a poll in 2021, 85% of Ukrainians believed this was a deliberate act of genocide by the Soviet leadership.
In that era, George Orwell criticised the English left-wing who failed to grasp the dangers of totalitarianism and were naively positive about Russia:
‘For all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. If you have grown up in that sort of atmosphere it is not at all easy to imagine what a despotic regime is like…such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial etc etc are too remote to be terrifying…so much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know fire is hot.’
Quite rightly, the non-violent example of leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King are inspiring. But neither were battling totalitarian dictators.
Again to quote Orwell, who wrote this in his essay Reflections on Gandhi (1948)
‘He believed in ‘arousing the world’, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never seen again.’
He then adds:
‘Is there a Gandhi in Russia at the moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practice civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference.’
Everyone wants peace, but the misuse of power must be confronted. Bullies, whether they are aggressive individuals who punch people, or tyrannical dictators who invade other countries, must be stood up to.
The fortitude and bravery of the people of Ukraine is setting an example to the world. Let’s pray for them and support them in any way we can.
- Donate to support Ukrainian refugees: UNICEF, Red Cross or this Christian mission in Poland
- Consider joining many other fasting and praying for Ukraine on Ash Wednesday
- Read Giles Fraser on the spiritual and historical roots of Russia’s imperialism