An alphabet of hope?

Anthony Towey

St John Paul II is generally thought of as a traditionalist, but he was not averse to breaking moulds when it suited him. His first move was to plonk a great big ‘M’ for Mary on his coat of arms, which the then nuncio in London, Bruno Heim, regarded as a heraldic aberration. John Paul II added five more decades to the Rosary (I like them), and pretty soon after his election evened up our concept of Europe by making the more Eastern-facing Cyril and Methodius co-patrons alongside St Benedict. Apart from great sanctity, they are most famous for the Glagolitic alphabet which often bears Cyril’s name and gives a linguistic commonality to a number of Slavonic nations.

I’m reminded of this because two of these Slavonic families, Russia and Ukraine, are under the shadow of war. Ukraine, as sovereign territory, is in theory free to do what it wants, but Moscow is not at all keen on the West in general and NATO in particular influencing affairs on its southern border. Plus ça change – given that the conflict is linked to tensions in the Crimea and access to the Black Sea, it feels like the 1850s with different actors all over again.

There is no shortage of diplomatic activity, but efforts are hampered by the glaucoma of nationalism. Part of the problem is we ‘don’t see the plank in our own eye’ (Mt 7.3–5) and assume aggression is the sole preserve of our enemies. I remember listening to a delegation from the Russian embassy explaining their decision to invade Afghanistan, some ten years before Glasnost led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Accused of warmongering, they pointed out that in the Second World War, they suffered around 20 million casualties – we were more like 500,000 – ‘why would we want to fight unless we felt we had to?’ Yet the Anglo-Saxon outrage that Russia should invade sovereign territory took a very different line when two decades later, we helped convene an invading alliance and essentially occupied exactly the same country until last year. The former USSR did at least border with Afghanistan.

We don’t seem to learn, do we? Commandments, Christianity, Czarism, Communism and Capitalism don’t seem up to the task of bringing peace. Our innate belligerence seems to get the better of us even if a shared heritage would imply otherwise. It is sometimes joked that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language, but at more serious levels, as Civil Wars attest, even the same accent offers no guarantees of fraternity.

The Bible does not shirk this reality and indeed confronts it at the first possible opportunity in the story of Cain and Abel. Out of jealousy, Cain kills the innocent Abel despite being warned by God that sin was crouching, ready to master him (Gen. 4.7). Far from being a primitive contretemps, the lesson is perennial. Notice that the rivalry is reputational, to do with perceived esteem rather than material actualities. It is no surprise that nations stumble into ‘defensive wars’ when our own need for security can fuel personal aggression. The words of James seem startlingly current and applicable:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want so you quarrel and fight (Jam. 4.1–2a).

The Christian mindset must rise above not just our covetous propensities but also our deeply felt nationalisms and embrace the promise of Pentecost. There, ethnicity and language are left behind when the chorus is a celebration of God’s mighty deeds rather than our own. Babel is no longer necessary – there is no need to build towers to heaven when we realise God is within us through the Spirit. Peace on earth demands the shared language of fraternity, irenic attitudes rather than shared syllables. May leaders even of different tongues find an alphabet of hope and the modest punctuation necessary for peace. People have just come through a pandemic – the last thing needed is war. Patrons of Europe, pray for us.