In This Issue
Notes: Christ Was Murdered in Ukraine · New Words: The Taming of the Mississippi · In Other Words: Micarah Tewers Makes a Dress from a Couch · News: Putting Down the Dog & Soaking Seeds · Postscript: Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet
So, Christ Was Murdered in Ukraine. And What Am I Supposed to Do with That?
Do I stand around holding signs in protest, kick Putin in the gut, or what?
Ten years ago next month my wife and I traveled to Ukraine to adopt our son Alex from an orphanage in Znam’yanka, a medium-sized industrial town a few hours down the Dnipro River from Kyiv. The month we spent there left a lasting impression, and we have stayed in touch with many of the people we met during that period of our lives, including the director of the orphanage and our in-country adoption facilitators.
One of those facilitators, a Ukrainian-American named Serge Zevlar, was killed by Russian snipers in the first days of the war. Serge, a big man with a big smile and a bigger heart, had devoted his life to helping thousands of children with disabilities find their “forever homes.” Like others in the U.S. adoption community, we were stunned by the news of his death; he was larger than life, seemingly indestructible. In killing Serge, the Russians not only intentionally killed an innocent man; they also robbed countless children of his work on their behalf.
War is always evil, but the evils of this war have been breathtaking in their extravagance. How do I respond to an evil so animalistic, so unhuman?
If you run in certain circles in my town, the first thing you do is gather for a vigil; and sure enough, on the second weekend after the war started several dozen of us gathered in Windom Park with signs and Ukrainian flags for a “vigil for Ukraine” that was part protest, part public processing. The usual people who attend these vigils and protests turned out despite the bad weather, a few dozen hardy souls plus our family, including our Ukrainian-born son. “New war, same signs,” one friend told me with a wry smile. He and his wife always show up to protest violence and injustice in all its flavors.
On Saturday I attended another rally, this one better advertised and organized. The fire department brought three trucks and extended the ladders on two of them for the purpose of flying the American and Ukrainian flags. Our most prominent local politicians spoke, saying the sorts of things you would expect. A young Ukrainian woman bravely fought her way through a short speech about the plight of her family and friends, and the 120 or so people in attendance gave her a standing ovation.
I understand why more people don’t turn out for these events; for one thing, people prefer not to take on the world’s problems on top of all their own, especially when those problems don’t directly affect them. And then there’s the question of effectiveness: Will standing around in the cold for an hour on a Saturday morning do anything to help the Ukrainian cause? Is that any more effective than protesting the unfair amount of snow we’ve been getting this April? I’m not unsympathetic to this position. The practical impact of these public gatherings is probably minimal, although who knows? Maybe if it gets out on social media, it will give hope to Ukrainian refugees to know that even in such a far-removed place, people stand in solidarity with them. Or maybe it will give some politicians the courage to do whatever brave things need to happen to end the war.
But I suspect these gatherings are most “effective” as a form of prayer, which on some level I think they are, despite their outwardly secular character. I’ve always believed that the best way to live out the commandment to love our neighbors is to show up in person, if possible, in imitation of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was unambiguous that we ought to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the poor, liberate captives, forgive our enemies, show mercy to sinners, and so on. And he showed us that sometimes love isn’t more complicated than sharing a meal. The gift of our presence—just listening over a cup of coffee or a game of cards, or over a sink, washing dishes; this is how we are supposed to love our neighbor. But when these personal, face-to-face ways of loving are impossible, we still have prayer. In prayer, we make an act of love for our distant neighbor—a Ukrainian, a Russian—and we hand that love off to God, who finds some way for that love to be expressed in the lives of the people we’re praying for. We may not be in Ukraine, but God is in Ukraine, and God is here, with us, and he bridges the gap for us. This sort of prayer is an especially pure form of love, because we don’t get the immediate payoff of seeing the effect it has, nor do we normally get any thanks from the person or people we want to help. It is mostly a gratuitous act.
“But God is in Ukraine.” Really? The destroyer is in Ukraine, that’s for sure. The destroyer flaunts his presence, leaving the landscape burnt, broken, and ruined, bodies in the streets, children wearing backpacks face-down in the dirt, dead, a car with the word “children” written on the side left gutted. The destroyer is flamboyant.
But where is God?
“When we talk about Bucha [the Kyiv suburb where civilians were tortured and executed], we must say that Christ was raped, Christ was killed, Christ was deprived of his home, his hands were tied, and he was shot,” Fr. Petro Balog, OP, director of the Institute of St. Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv, told The Pillar. “All this was done to those with whom Christ identifies himself. It must be said that God is being crucified again, tortured again. Christ does not say that this applies only to those who believe in Him. He is talking about defenseless people.”
Those are true words. I never saw The Passion of the Christ, in part because its understanding of the cross felt too small. In Jesus, God takes on more than the suffering of one man who was abandoned by his friends and tortured to death for sixteen hours; rather, in Jesus, God takes on the suffering of all his people, and all creation, too. If you believe this, then you don’t need much imagination to appreciate Christ’s Passion; you only need to be half-awake to the variety and depth of human suffering in the world.
Not that this by itself is much comfort, I think. For one thing, God’s participation in a person’s suffering doesn’t magically erase the experience. For another, doesn’t it only expand the extent of the suffering if God-in-Jesus takes on our suffering in some way? Doesn’t it further empower the destroyer?
What, in short, does God’s compassionate suffering do for the people of Ukraine, hunted by the destroyer? Over the years I’ve found the God-backed partisan violence of the Old Testament problematic, but these days, not so much. If the Israelites’ foes were anything as cruel as the Russians have been, then I find myself sympathizing with their desire to see their enemies wiped off the face of the Earth. How about a cleansing flood? How about a few chariots (or tanks) tossed into the sea?
When I was in the fourth grade, there was a boy who liked to bully me; my parents sent me to karate school, and one day when that boy put up his fists and challenged me to a fight, I kicked him the stomach, and after that, he didn’t bother me again. It’s because of such experiences that the case for righteous, corrective violence has prevailed so universally throughout human history. Even most Christians accept it as “common sense.” The story of Holy Week teaches us otherwise, of course; but this is a note, not a book, so I’ll finish my thoughts next time—after Easter, appropriately enough.
The Taming of the Mississippi
I feel lucky to be living so near the Mississippi River; years ago, we used to go paddling canoes through the backwaters on the Wisconsin side, drifting quietly through the blue heron rookery, the herons rising into the air from the crowns of the trees. They don’t let people go back there anymore—bad for the birds, which makes sense. But here is the start of a poem about the wild Mississippi that I have been working on for a while:
We who live near the river remember how, once upon a time,
she dragon’d down from the north:
jaw & claws of ice & stone
roaring & ripping, stripping the land—tooth on bone.
Now, the river is still a beast:
a mile wide as she slips by,
some two thousand, tip to tail,
and voracious enough to swallow
half a continent, grain by grain;
no wonder we keep her chained.
And it goes on from there. I’m still working on it, but I’ll share it when it’s “done.” (Is a piece of writing ever done? I’m a perpetual reviser, even after the thing’s printed.)
IN OTHER WORDS
Micarah Tewers Makes a Dress from an Old Couch
I was going to post something here about the new Ken Burns documentary about Benjamin Franklin, one of the most interesting of the founding fathers, but while the documentary is as good as you would expect, I kept thinking, sheesh, this newsletter has gotten so dark and heavy, I really should do something to lighten things up a bit, which is why I’m suggesting instead that you check out the classic Micarah Tewers video, TURNING A COUCH INTO FASHION!
Who is Micarah Tewers, you ask? Good question. She’s a twenty-something Millennial YouTuber who has developed a following of 2 million viewers making amusing videos about homemade sewing and fashion hacks.
Why are you watching a DYI sewing YouTuber, you ask? Well, one of the hazards of raising teenage girls in the 21st century is that you’re unwittingly kept abreast of all the latest developments in pop culture. Back when they were little, I could tell you all the characters in the Strawberry Shortcake franchise; now, I can tell you all about YouTubers who demonstrate strange sewing projects while documenting their strange lives (a pet rat? Really?), and how you really should watch them because she’s Christian, too, and espouses good values, but not in a preachy way. Yes, I was forced to watch this video, and yes, to my surprise, I thought it was just as great as my daughters said it was. Yes, it’s slightly wacky. But it’s also refreshingly sweet and curiously intriguing—“There’s no way she’s going to turn that reclaimed couch she found on the side of the road into a dress,” you think, and then, she does. It’s some kind of weird Millennial magic, but it works.
Putting Down the Dog; Soaking Morning Glory Seeds
As I write this, my wife and daughter are taking our dog, Jack, to the vet. After six good years, it’s clearly time to put him down. That doesn’t make it easier, of course. Maybe I’ll write more about Jack in another newsletter.
On a less grim note, I spent Sunday harvesting morning glory seeds from last year’s spent vines—a strangely addictive project, because you take the dried flower heads between your fingers and rub them back and forth until the hard, black seeds spill out, and then you soak them overnight to soften them up. Later today, I’ll plant them to give them an early start, and in another three to four months, our yard will be filled with beautiful blue vases every morning.
Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet
Years ago, I read a huge biography of Benjamin Franklin for a book club I was in, and did you know that he once invented a phonetic alphabet that reformed the English language to make it easier to read and spell? True story. It didn’t catch on, even when he proposed it as a patriotic project, but he did convince the young woman he was romancing to correspond with him in it. The letters, quoted in the biography but not available anywhere online that I can see, have got to be one of the funniest things from post-colonial America I’ve ever seen. This article from Smithsonian magazine documents the alphabet—but not the letters, which is a grave oversight that someone really ought to correct.
Stay warm, stay well…
Photo credit: Photo of Ukraine protest by Jerry Windley-Daoust