How to Prevent War Crimes, Evangelical Focus

Last fall, the Russian Ministry of Defense invited the Russian Evangelical Alliance to provide Evangelical chaplains for its army. Unfortunately, the REA was unprepared and unable to respond. He had never received such a request before. To begin to equip Christians for this role, a faculty of military chaplaincy was established at the Moscow Evangelical Seminary.

Six months later, in March 2022, unable to subdue the Ukrainian city of Kyiv, the frustrated Russian soldiers retreated to the suburb of Bucha. They left behind maybe the most horrible atrocity Europe has seen streets lined with the corpses of innocent civilians since World War II.

Could a group of properly trained chaplains have prevented this tragedy from happening? We have no way of knowing. After all, these soldiers don’t seem to be the only war criminals. The Russian military seems indifferent as to whether its bombs hit a fuel depot, a hospital or a school.

But we know a lot about the dynamic that leads people to do horrible things in times of war. And there’s no better time than now to think about what we can do to prevent what happened in Bucha from happening again.

In a 2007 article, British Royal Air Force Wing Commander Sara Mackmin described four factors that tend to drive soldiers to commit wartime atrocities: personal disposition to violence, emotional stress, lack of command discipline, and being trapped in new situations. Members of the military are trained in “combat motivation”, which involves overcoming any inhibitions that would make them reluctant to kill enemies.

Personally, I am a pacifist. I believe that any use of violence against other people is morally unjustified. But I recognize that any solution to the horrors of war crimes must appeal to those who accept the possibility of just wars and the need for countries to maintain strong military strength.

I believe we can all agree on the following actions:

1. Soldiers must be freed from any violent disposition. Combat training should be accompanied by peacemaking and reconciliation training. Men and women with violent tendencies, whether because of their own nature, upbringing, or painful experiences in their past, should receive counselling. Many armies, including the Ukrainian Army, employ chaplains and counselors for this purpose.

2. Soldiers must learn methods of resolving conflict and defusing stress outside of wartime situations that they can also apply in wartime. With these tools, they can maintain the necessary combat motivation without hatred.

An appropriate attitude towards defense sees killing enemies as a last resort, not something to glorify. If soldiers value non-violent conflict resolution, they are less likely to use their weapons dishonourably, even when stressed.

3. Soldiers must learn the principles of proper submission to authority and responsible, independent decision-making outside the military before entering the military. This is of course a long-term job. It’s about raising a whole generation of people who know the limits of obedience and who won’t cross moral red lines.

Some churches offer special training for young people considering a career in the military or police. This has never been done in Russia; I know of only a few churches all over Europe with such programs. Perhaps the current war will spur more churches and other organizations to make training young people in ethical decision-making a priority.

Christians should play a leading role in these efforts. They know that under normal circumstances they must obey their government, as the apostle Paul made very clear in Romans 13. But they also know that their highest allegiance is to the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and that if they must choose, they must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:39). These beliefs should give them the moral backbone to resist participation in inhumanity.

The World Evangelical Fellowship Network for Peace and Reconciliation offers a program called “The Church as a center of reconciliation in the community”, designed to train people to make peace and resolve conflicts at all levels of society. Perhaps the horrors of Bucha will inspire more churches to get involved in such programs.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the evangelical chaplaincy project in Moscow has been in trouble. Like many others, the main sponsor of the project withdrew its money from Russia. I understand the decision. But we need to find a way to cultivate peacemakerseven in societies run by autocrats.

Our missionary work as Christians and civic leaders must include mission to the military. Where this need is neglected, war crimes will continue.

Johannes Reimer, Professor of Mission Studies and Cross-Cultural Theology and Global Director of the Public Engagement Department of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEA). He is the author of numerous publications in the field of mission.

Barry F. Howard