Confronting the Juxtaposition Between Self-Defense and Nonviolence

By Jason Carson Wilson

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thirst for power has brought death and destruction to his country and Ukraine’s innocent citizens alike. Russian sons head to war with neighbors, while civilians at home stand up to true tyranny–risking life and limb to gain independence from Russia.

Some argue that supporting a no-fly zone would help stop the bloodshed. It’s something that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly requested, including during a March 16 address to the U.S. Congress. 

But it is frankly naive to consider a no-fly zone a peaceful way out. A no-fly zone is, obviously, a geographic area that certain aircraft can’t enter to attack, transport resources, or conduct surveillance, and the zone is managed by external armed forces. Shooting down banned aircraft – an act of military aggression – is an accepted method of enforcing a no-fly zone. 

It would only create chaos leading to World War III. The danger of entertaining a no-fly zone is understandable. However, the argument that the United States – which has approved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of armaments and military aid to Ukraine, and is also selling billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Poland, arguably to replace what that nation has given Ukraine – isn’t actively participating in the conflict, leaves me confused.

Nevertheless, Putin’s concerns about Russia’s safety are lies that ring hollow as more shelling is the response to sanctions. Repossessing Ukraine – by any means necessary – is Putin’s aim.

“We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force,” he said when announcing the military action. Watching police carry Russian protesters off to an unknown fate tells a different story. Bombing a maternity hospital pushes another narrative. Hospitals are where lives begin and are saved.

Watching Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine unfold and our country’s reluctance to support a no-fly zone forces me to confront the juxtaposition between self-defense and nonviolence. Some people might see helping defend Ukraine as a rejection of nonviolent philosophy. Our own government has forced us to struggle with this dilemma.

This debate has been taken up in many of our social movements. At the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, Black civil rights activist Charles McDew argued, “You cannot make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society,” rejecting the nonviolent philosophy that was being proposed.

Making a moral argument to Putin, as he goes about the business of colonizing and killing innocents, is a fool’s errand. Hopes of finding common ground seem nearly impossible. Having faith that internal Russian resistance becomes his downfall is what appears to be the only option. 

This faith leader doesn’t want to co-sign military action and warfare. But if diplomacy fails, it is a struggle to consider the remaining options for effective solidarity with the besieged Ukrainian people. “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” sermon at New York City’s Riverside Church.

The dynamics of this conflict and Vietnam are totally different – but a similarity exists. Dr. King is clearly not stating or implying that violence is a proper defense. I lift up his words because a thirst for power and domination – with a side of ego – fueled the Vietnam War. 

Putin’s thirst for power and domination of Ukraine likewise fuels this unfolding tragedy. His ego pushes him to win by any means necessary. So, we’re at a crossroads. As in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America from decades past, we are now experiencing another moment when a targeted population is taking up arms to fight for self-determination and the prospect of lasting peace. The concept of “fighting for peace” may be an oxymoron to people who aren’t victims of White supremacy. But oppressed peoples have nearly always been required to fight for peace. 

There are countless ways that liberation is attained, and the process of fighting for peace features many nonviolent tactics and strategies, but occasionally it also includes taking up arms in self-defense. The subjects of occupation and oppression all-too-often are forced to make a desperate choice between their principles and their life. Survivors of war only get two rewards when wars end: Preservation and relative peace. 

Survivors of color barely get those consolation prizes. Black people exercising their rights–peacefully – still brought violence from White people. Marching through Selma and sitting at lunch counters sparked violence. Yet, they remain in a quasi-Cold War of their own against White supremacy.

Amoral people continually refuse to hear moral arguments. Let’s be clear. White supremacy isn’t strictly a United States export. Don’t forget that European colonizers imported it to create our nation.

Even amid Russian oppression, Ukraine has dehumanized and demoralized African people in its midst. Africans fleeing the war alongside other refugees have been removed from trains and continually sent to the back of lines. A viral video shows an African refugee seeking shelter from a White mob in a Ukraine police department. Police promptly released him to the mob. Whether these are common practices is unknown.

Everyone deserves peace and dignity – not just White “middle class” victims of war.

While this writer has spent a lifetime committed to practicing nonviolent social change and the politics of peaceful resistance, in this moment he struggles with the impression that confronting Putin seems to be the only way to give true peace a chance. 

Checking a German dictator was the only path to peace and stopping more bloodshed. In a 21st century in which strong man dictators have risen worldwide alongside extremist nationalist ideologies and hyper-partisan political forces, is power more valued than humanity? 

Ultimately, we must ponder the sobering reality that peace has a price. The relative peace for Black Americans, for which Dr. King fought, had an incalculable price. A grief-stricken Coretta Scott King on LIFE’s cover is only one of many receipts.

This faith leader prays fervently for a peaceful end to this unprovoked attack. And alongside our prayers, we must multitask: We must work for peace at home, in Ukraine, and throughout the world. Peace be with you.

Rev. Jason Carson Wilson is founding executive director of the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative. An ordained United Church of Christ minister, Wilson served as Justice & Policy Fellow at the UCC’s Justice & Witness Ministries office in Washington DC. He is a Fellowship of Reconciliation member and works with FOR-USA as a grassroots organizing support consultant, and also serves as the Bayard Rustin Fellow at the Community Renewal Society.

3 Responses

  1. This article is very welcome as it raises deeply troubling issues that I have been thinking about as well: I, who happen to be a “white” Jewish male, a practicing Buddhist, and the son of immigrants (my mother was born in what is now Ukraine and fled with her family in 1920 from pogroms waged by both Ukrainians and Russians). I recognize the hypocrisy, cruelty and racism inherent in the disparate treatment of people of color fleeing Ukraine. This is not unique: the treatment of Ukrainian refugees starkly contrasts with Europe and America’s positions with respect to Latin American, Syrian, North African and hosts of other refugees fleeing brutal conditions at home. I believe this is a universal, global problem, and it is not limited to white, European power (just look at the treatment of the Rohingya by both the military and civilian powers in Myanmar; the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs and the long history of oppression in Tibet), and as the article notes, the question of non-violent action vs. armed self-defense was one of urgent importance for Jews who were victims of Nazi genocide.

    Apart from the issues of race, etc., the article really hit home in its discussion of what I used to think, in younger days, was an absolute commitment to non-violence. I was recently asked to sign a petition urging Congress not to fund any form of military aid to Ukraine. Without too much thought, I did, but for many of the reasons expressed in the article, I wish I could revoke my signature. It is not an easy question, but I believe that even in many Buddhist traditions that are committed to nonviolence, the choice to stop unprovoked aggression directed at innocent people (not just civilians but the soldiers who must defend Ukraine), ravaging the land and the cultural institutions of other peoples, by taking up arms in self-defense is justifiable.

    Some nations have created a body of law defining “war crimes”. While that is in some ways a laudable effort to curb the most egregious excesses of human aggression and indifference, it also, to me, seems to ignore the fact that war itself is a crime.

  2. Rev. Wilson,

    I am a member of the Louisville, Kentucky FOR steering committee. Personally, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has not shaken my believe in nonviolence and its effectiveness as a method for stopping tyranny. First, as Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chen in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolence Conflict” explains “Countries in which there were nonviolent campaign were about 10 times likelier to transition to democracies with a five-year period compared to countries in which there were violent campaigns.” Second, journalist and historians like Peter Kuznick, Chris Hedges, and Antol Lieven view the Russian/Ukrainian conflict through a different lens. U.S. mainline news has not covered the complex history concerning the Soviet Union, NATO, the United States and Ukraine and how that history has led to the current crisis. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN only briefly stated Putin and Russian demands and those statement occurred before the Russian invasion. Mainline news no longer mentions any of the demands made by Putin. Hedges, Lieven, Kuznick and others believe that given the complex history that has led to this conflict, Putin’s demands were reasonable; pull back some of the U. S. military bases that has for decades surround Russia, disarm some of the U.S. nuclear missiles that surround Russia, agree not to admit Ukraine to NATO. No one I know believes Putin and the Russian invasion is justified. Putin and the Russian military is guilty of crimes against humanity. Because of its imperialistic and neoliberal expansion, the U.S. is not an innocent broker in this conflict. But, as a strong believer in peace, I believe that the first issue has to be stopping this war. Continuing to arm Ukraine with weapons of mass destruction will only prolong the war. Kuznick, Lieven, Hedges and I believe that the way to peace is through compromise. First, Ukrainian naturality with an agreement not to allow Ukraine to Join the NATO has to be established. An agreement to pull back and disarm Russian and U.S. missiles would make the world a safer place.
    It does surprise me that a Bayard Rustin fellow would consider a military response on the part Ukraine as a way to deal with this crisis .

    The Louisville FOR along with Sowers of Justice produces an event entitled “Third Thursday Lunch. ” The keynote speaker for our April 21st TTL will be the internationally a claimed Anatol Lieven. We produce this event via a Zoom platform. If you would like to attend our April TTL please send me your email address and I will send you the registration link. Thank for sharing your thoughts. Jim Johnson

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Fellowship of Reconciliation USA (FOR-USA) is the largest interfaith peace fellowship leading the charge on today’s most pressing human and civil rights issues through advocacy, activism, and educational programs.

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