Nation Shall not Lift up Sword Against Nation
The invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy. It is a deep wound for all humanity, in that war causes enormous personal pain and disrupts the fragile sense of security that makes it possible for human beings to function. For the first time in a generation, we are again faced with the possibility of nuclear war and the destruction of civilization. The environmental cost of this war will be heavy; Chernobyl is left in chaos and already one nuclear waste storage center has been hit. That is only the beginning. The aggression is a profound setback for democracy and those who believe in liberty and human rights.
In addition, the Russian attack on Ukraine is of particular concern to LGBTQ people. Hostility toward queer people is an integral part of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian agenda. Russia formally banned same-sex marriage in 2021 — even though it hadn’t been allowed there anyway. In 2013 Russia passed the infamous gay propaganda law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” which made it illegal to equate same-sex and heterosexual relationships or to promote gay rights.
Ukraine was moving in the other direction, toward full equality. The queer communities of Kyiv and Odessa have been putting on Pride marches for years. According to a number of sources, the Russian government has already compiled a list of Ukrainians to be imprisoned if captured, and the list includes a number of gay rights leaders. But LGBTQ people in Ukraine are joined in the struggle for freedom. Edward Reese, of Kyiv Pride, said that the LGBTQ community in Ukraine is organized to support the army to fight against the Russian threat. The group recently offered a first-aid course and blood drive for its members to be able to help medical battalions.
Christians and Jews in Ukraine also face specific challenges in the conflict. Most Ukrainians, including gay citizens, are members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. For the past century, independent-minded Ukrainian Orthodox have formed separate churches that lacked formal recognition until 2019, when current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as independent of the Moscow patriarch — who fiercely protested the move as illegitimate. Putin has declared that one of the reasons he is invading Ukraine is to “protect the sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
There are between 150,000 and 300,000 Jews in Ukraine, making it the fifth largest Jewish population in the world. The Jewish history of Ukraine is both traumatic and resilient. The vicious 17th century Cossack massacres of Jews, replete with atrocities such as mass public rape and burying children alive, were part of the centuries of anti-Jewish hate that led to mass collaboration of Ukrainians in the Holocaust. However, in spite of this, Ukraine was a major center of Jewish cultural life and the home of Hasidic Judaism, which focuses on spiritual renewal and joy, and is influential in all Jewish denominations.
The current heroic president of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelensky, a gay-friendly Jewish performer, well known for his dance routines in pink frills or black leather and high heels. How reminiscent of David to Putin’s Goliath! Zelensky’s grandfather was one of four brothers and was the only one of them to survive the Holocaust. Like Ukraine’s LGBTQ and Ukrainian Orthodox communities, the Jewish community of Ukraine has also been experiencing a revival since the fall of the Soviet Union, culminating in the landslide election of Zelensky and all that he represents.
We religious queer people of all faiths have a stake in peace for Ukraine, and for the entire world.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (Ukraine), perhaps the greatest of Hasidic theologians and liturgists, composed the following prayer:
May it be Your will,
Holy One, our God, our ancestors’ God,
that you erase war and bloodshed from the world
and in its place draw down a great and glorious peace
so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more.
Rather, may all the inhabitants of the earth
recognize and deeply know this great truth:
that we have not come into this world for strife and division
nor for hatred and rage, nor provocation and bloodshed.
We have come here only to encounter You,
eternally blessed One.
And so, we ask your compassion upon us;
raise up, through us, what is written:
I shall place peace upon the earth
and you shall lie down safe and undisturbed
and I shall banish evil beasts from the earth
and the sword shall not pass through your land.
but let justice come in waves like water
and righteousness flow like a river,
for the earth shall be full
of the knowledge of the Holy One
as the waters cover the sea.
Amen and amen.