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“We Need Ceasefires Everywhere”: Bishop William Barber’s Message of Peace for Ukraine & the World

StoryJanuary 06, 2023
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has unilaterally declared a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to mark Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected Putin’s overture, however, saying that Russia wants to use Christmas as a pretext to stop Ukrainian advances in the Russian-occupied Donbas region. Putin’s declaration comes after about 1,000 U.S. faith leaders called in an open letter last month for a ceasefire during the holidays, inspired by the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I, arguing that a pause in the fighting could create room for negotiations to peacefully end the conflict. We air a recent sermon by Bishop William Barber, one of the signatories, in which he discussed the need for a Christmas truce. “We need a ceasefire to interrupt this warring madness,” Barber said. “A ceasefire doesn’t mean both sides are equally culpable for starting the war, but it can have the impact of stopping the massive, massive killing on both sides.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unilaterally declared a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to mark Russian Orthodox Christmas, which will be celebrated Saturday. In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected Putin’s truce, saying Russia wants to use Christmas as a pretext to stop Ukrainian advances in the Russian-occupied Donbas region.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] They now want to use Christmas as a cover, albeit briefly, to stop the advances of our boys in Donbas and bring equipment, munitions and mobilized troops closer to our positions. What will that give them? Only yet another increase in their total losses.

AMY GOODMAN: On the streets of Kyiv, Ukrainians also expressed skepticism over Putin’s ceasefire.

UKRAINIAN 1: [translated] I think this is utter hypocrisy. On the 31st of December, there was no peace. We were under such bombing for New Year’s Eve. Just hypocrisy on Putin’s side.

UKRAINIAN 2: [translated] This is some unfunny joke. In the history our country, there were so many times that we trusted the Russians, and this never led to anything good. We can’t trust them, and we have to be cautious.

UKRAINIAN 3: [translated] I don’t believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will go through with the ceasefire. We celebrated New Year’s under bombs and missiles. I couldn’t go anywhere with my daughter. There was peace for an hour or two, and that’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: Vladimir Putin’s announcement about a 36-hour ceasefire comes as calls grow for an end to the devastating war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine February 24th. On Thursday, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke to both Putin and Zelensky by phone. Turkey has offered to mediate between the two countries.

Here in the U.S., over a thousand faith leaders recently called for a Christmas truce in Ukraine. The signatories included, yes, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bishop William Barber.

We turn now to hear Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign in his own words. During an event organized by Repairers of the Breach, Barber gave a sermon Christmas Eve titled “No War: A Moral Call for a Christmas Truce.” After reflecting on the Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I, Barber said now is the time for a ceasefire in Ukraine.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: We desperately need a ceasefire and negotiations to end the brutal Russian war in Ukraine today. Like Rachel in the Bible and Pope Francis, who just the other day wept in public over this war, we must mourn publicly over the war. And something is terribly wrong in our churches and houses of worship if we try to have Christmas without doing that.

Listen to the pope’s prayer: “Immaculate Virgin, today I would have wanted to bring you the thanks of the Ukrainian people (for peace).” This is what he said before he was overwhelmed by emotion. And then he said, “Instead, once again, I have to bring you the pleas of children, the pleas of the elderly, the pleas of the fathers and the mothers, the pleas of the young people of that martyred land, which is suffering so much.”

The report President Zelensky brought to Congress this week sounded like a modern-day description of the context in which Isaiah prophesied: “Russia,” he said, “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people. Russian troops have fired 1,000 missiles at Ukraine. And they use drones to kill us with precision.”

We need a ceasefire to interrupt this warring madness.

A ceasefire doesn’t mean both sides are equally culpable for starting the war. But it can have the impact of stopping the massive, massive killing on both sides. Accurate numbers are difficult to find, but it is clear that at least thousands of Ukrainian civilians and many tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian military forces have been killed already. A ceasefire could stop the killing.

A ceasefire is not the same as an end to war, but it can set the stage for the more long-term diplomatic action that can lead to a long-term peace. A ceasefire, for as long as it holds, means that no one is being killed by war. And that means maybe, just maybe, the difficult work of beginning serious negotiations can go forward.

We do need a ceasefire in Ukraine. In fact, the question might be: When do we need a ceasefire in Ukraine? And we might answer: We have needed a ceasefire since February 24th, exactly 11 months ago today, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Now, yes, some say that the U.S. government provoked Moscow by expanding NATO to the east and stationing nuclear weapons in Europe. But even if that is true, it is also true that none of these provocations justify Russia’s invasion. Russia’s war is illegal, immoral, deadly and dangerous.

The day Russia began seizing Ukrainian territory and killing Ukrainian civilians, we needed a ceasefire. When Ukrainian troops began turning the tables and started reclaiming some of the lost territory, we needed a ceasefire to prevent more death and destruction. We needed a ceasefire then, and we need a ceasefire today.

Why? First, because the human cost, especially for the Ukrainian civilians, is too high. This is not a contest of wills on a battlefield. It is a struggle for control that takes place every day in the places where people live and work and worship and go to school. The war is in the streets and in the homes. Too many elders, too many children, too many babies and men and women are dying as consequences of this war.

But Ukrainians are not the only people being hurt by this war. The economic impact is dire, especially on the poorest people in the Global South, the people who are facing more hunger and more cold as a result of this war. Truth is, our whole planet is at risk, as the war leads to an increase in fossil fuels being mined and shipped around the globe. And whenever countries spend more on war, there’s always less money available for things that actually keep us safer.

We need a ceasefire in every war being fought around the world. The fragile ceasefire in Yemen is barely holding. We need ceasefires in Sudan and South Sudan, in Somalia, in Mali, in Myanmar and Iraq and beyond. Many wars are being waged in the name of fighting against terrorism or against drug cartels or against domestic opponents. And in many of these wars, we can see the impact in complicated ways, where U.S. arms are being used by both sides, however they got them. And despite our own government’s humanitarian work, great in many ways, we cannot ignore the historians, political scientists, the media reports, and even some military officials, who have shown how some of our actions in history and some of our actions in the present have imposed economic and security policies around the world that have resulted in desperate poverty, environmental catastrophe, refugee crises, authoritarian rulers and more. We have a moral obligation to stop supporting wars and call for, work for ceasefires.

Way back in our own Civil War on these lands, a general by the name of William Sherman said to those anxious to engage in war, “I have been where you are now, and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and a desire that someday you can use the skills you have acquired here. But suppress it!” he said to these young troops. “You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars, and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is hell!”

And it was America’s General-President Dwight Eisenhower who said, when he was leaving office, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment [and] a large arms industry is new in the American experience. … Yet we must not fail to comprehend its [grave] implications. … In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” And at first he said the “congressional-military-industrial complex.” “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

And the other night, even in the midst of his request for more weapons, President Zelensky did slip in a prophetic word — or, may I say, the Spirit slipped in a prophetic word — if we were paying attention. He said, “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. This must be deeply wrestled with in this complex and contrary world.”

We need ceasefires everywhere.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute, nearly a million people have died in the post-9/11 wars. Thirty-eight million people have been displaced by war, forced to flee their homes and communities to try to make a life somewhere else. The Poor People’s Campaign found that the U.S. alone has spent $21 trillion on war, militarized borders and incarceration over the past two decades — money we haven’t invested in affordable housing, green infrastructure, healthcare, education, labor rights and living wages. The cost of war is too high. We need ceasefires everywhere.

Militarism is central to all of the interconnected injustices that we fight against. Military spending diverts funds away from desperately needed social programs, from healthcare to child care, from jobs to sustainable energy, from elder care to education and more.

Even now, we are passing a spending package that does not include living wages for the more than 55 million poor and low-wage workers in this country. It does not include healthcare for the more than 87 million people without healthcare or underinsured. And we now know that over 300,000 people have died so far from COVID because of the lack of healthcare, not because of the germ or the virus. And thousands more have died because of how poor and unprotected they were, not because of the power of the virus.

And we are passing a budget that includes more money for the war economy than ever in history. We’re doing it without passing protections for voting rights, without restoring the Voting Rights Act, that Lyndon Baines Johnson said, when it was won, was the greatest victory in this country, even of all of our military victories. And because we’re doing this, it leaves us with an impoverished democracy.

We need a ceasefire.

This year’s military budget will top $858 billion — a sum greater than the entire national budgets of 174 countries around the world, including such wealthy nations as Turkey, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. Just a small percentage of that money could provide living wages for every American, could provide healthcare for every American, could provide child care. And in a country so rich that we waste hundreds of billions of dollars, we still have tens of millions of children living in poverty, going to sleep hungry. It’s a moral crime. And Christmas, the prophecy and the prophetic truths of Christmas demand that we interrupt this madness, call for ceasefires, say, “This does not have to be.”

So we need a ceasefire for the people of Ukraine. We need a ceasefire for the poor and hurting people around the world, wherever there is war and violence. Whether that war and violence is because of greed, or lust for power, or racism or antisemitism or Islamophobia or homophobia, we need a ceasefire.

And, finally, we need a ceasefire in Ukraine right now, because we are facing the most serious threat of nuclear escalation in 60 years. Russia and the United States together hold 90% of all the nuclear weapons in the world. Each side has enough nuclear weapons and nuclear firepower to destroy the whole world several times over. And that’s incredibly dangerous for flawed human beings, prone to leave the god we say we love, to have that kind of power, not only because of Russia’s reckless nuclear threats, and not only because of Washington’s trillion-dollar investment in strengthening and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. We need a ceasefire, because I don’t believe either Washington or Moscow is planning a deliberate nuclear attack, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Unlike other war zones where the U.S. and Russian forces have faced each other, there is no U.S.-Russian military-to-military hotline to avoid accidental escalation. They’ve had that in Syria, but they don’t have it in Ukraine. An accidental move on either side could escalate to a nuclear exchange. It’s not likely, but when we’re talking about potential nuclear war, any threat that isn’t zero is simply too large.

More than half a century ago, even before his speech in 1967, Dr. King said that the trajectory of modern war persuaded him that war could no longer be imagined as a negative good — a necessary evil to prevent some greater harm. “The potential,” he said, “destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good.” He said, “If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction,” because “We stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” But our own sinfulness and actions could keep us from getting there.

We need a ceasefire in order to make an honest assessment of where we are. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And maybe we can see it if we could pause for a moment, count the cost. If we could just stop closing our eyes and turning our eyes away, and look at the bodies and the blood and the brokenness, and assess the destruction, then maybe, for our sake and our children’s sake, a ceasefire could help us realize that the world needs an antiwar coalition, if we’re going to be the world that’s possible. …

If we can put our weapons down for just one night, then maybe we could put them down for one tomorrow. And if we could put them down for one tomorrow, maybe we could put them down for one week. And if we could put them down for one week, maybe we could put them down for one month. And if we could put them down for one month, maybe we could put them down for one year and study war no more! And maybe “studying war no more” doesn’t just have to be in the after and eternal life. We have power to stop the madness. We can stop it today. We can stop it tomorrow.

And so, if we want to welcome the Prince of Peace, we can’t give up hope. We’ve got to dare to commemorate, remember and praise God, even in the midst of all of the warring madness. Now is the time for a Christmas truce. Now is the time to try. Let the word go out. It happened 108 years ago. They are no more human and no stronger than we are. All it requires is listening to the Spirit and just stop. Just stop. Stop. Cease firing. Let the night go silent. And hear the voice of God until the night becomes holy without the sound of war and we study war no more.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach, giving a sermon on Christmas Eve. Bishop Barber recently joined with over a thousand faith leaders in the United States calling for a Christmas truce in Ukraine. Other signatories include the Reverend Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH; professor Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary; Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Jewish Renewal movement; Reverend Jim Wallis of the Georgetown Center on Faith and Justice; Reverend Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center for Religion; Thay Phap An, the Plum Village Buddhist community. Bishop William Barber spoke at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he’s been pastor for 30 years. He just announced he’s retiring as the church’s pastor to become the founding director of the new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.

That does it for our show. To see the whole speech, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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