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Will on a global stage

Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Time Magazine, Wikipedia, CBC, The Boston Globe

by Elizabeth Cunningham

From My Life as a Prayer, a memoir-in-progress by Elizabeth Cunningham. The below is an excerpt from Chapter Thirteen “My Will, Thy Will.”

Will on a global stage

As I write, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in its 22nd day. I have hesitated to address current events because everything changes so quickly. I wrote a draft of this section yesterday between President Zelenskyy’s address to the US Congress and President Biden’s response. President Zelenskyy spoke directly to President Biden as the leader, not only of the United States, but the leader of the world, who must, as such, be the leader of peace.

Has the United States ever been that leader? I feel troubled when we proclaim ourselves defenders of democracy and freedom, the Good guys fighting against the Evil when we still have not acknowledged the evils of our past that persist into the present. Did we not (more than once) invade a country on a false pretext? What was shock and awe? We are responsible for the deaths of civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries. We have long considered regime change a legitimate goal to protect our national interests. We continue to turn away and deport refugees from violence and poverty, war and famine. Nor have we intervened in Russia’s other recent military incursions.

There is a markedly different European and American response to the plight of Ukraine, due in part to race and culture. Yet it is also true that because the nations to the West and the East of Ukraine are nuclear powers the stakes are very high; what happens in this war does affect the whole world.

Whatever the questionable moral record of those countries who oppose his will, Vladimir Putin has chosen to wage a war (a “special military operation”) he insists is defensive. He also previously claimed that Russia wasn’t going to invade Ukraine, and then that the army isn’t targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure. He has broken every agreement to cease fire for evacuation of civilians or transport of humanitarian aid. He purports to be liberating Ukraine from the Nazis and drug dealers who run it. And some people, even in this country, believe him, despite massive evidence that he is lying. (One of Satan’s titles is Father of Lies). Does Putin believe himself? Who knows. What is evident is that one man’s will has harnessed collective forces. His will, whatever he claims are his intentions, is to take over and/or destroy Ukraine. He appears to have left no room for himself or anyone else to negotiate.

So what does it mean for the president of the United States to be (or become) the leader of peace?

For President Zelenskyy, who chose to stay in his besieged country and fight back against a devastating invasion, being the leader of peace means joining the fight, which, he argues, is a fight not only Ukraine but for the world.

For President Biden it means, for now, stopping short of engaging in direct combat with Russia—although we are clearly engaged in economic warfare as well as supplying whatever military aid we think will keep us this side of a nuclear confrontation. (Everything but. Like doing every sexual act but penetration. It’s still sex.)

As a onetime Quaker, a former facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence project, and someone who is still haunted by her inability to make peace on a small local scale at High Valley,* I find myself torn. Part of me agrees with Biden’s official policy. Do not escalate. Do not engage in direct military combat with Russia. Do not start a (possibly nuclear) world war. Another part says, fight! Do not stand back while Ukraine is leveled, hospitals bombed, people trapped in cities without food, water, heat, medicine. Do not stand back while mass graves are filled with bodies that will never be identified….

This response is new for me. I have opposed the all the major wars my country has waged in my lifetime. But have I kept track of all the conflicts, all the covert actions, all the damaging policies, all the suffering my country has been party to? Have I been aware of all Putin’s previous wars and depredations? No, I haven’t. So I am as guilty as anyone of giving up my will, letting it be caught up in various maelstroms beyond my ken.

How do we, as individuals, inexorably part of all that is, respond to this war? All I know to do right now is pay attention, not look away, give what I can give, and for what it is or isn’t worth, pray.

Pray to whatever god is, within us, between us, around us. Pray to the angels, (if you need to be asked in order to help, I’m asking. Help! help!) I pray for Vladimir Putin to be delivered from whatever evil has taken over his will or is his will. I pray for all of us to be delivered from evil, our own and everyone’s. Just take the take away the “d” from devil, my father said, and you have evil. Still not comforting. Evil is more terrible when it is, or could be, our own conscious or unconscious will.

What I believe today 

That I don’t need to believe, not consistently,
god can move in and out of me like breath,
inside or beyond, I don’t have to choose,
and it is all right to blame god even if such
a blameworthy being does not exist if it means
an end to hatred of myself and my own kind.

I feel sorry for us all sometimes, the wicked,
the brilliant, the blind, the kind. Who gave us
such tricky minds and thumbs, such a need
to say no or yes? We murder and make beauty
helplessly, deliberately. Someone please love us,
hold us at the end of time and tell us it’s all right.

–from my poem collection So Ecstasy Can Find You


*High Valley is land we inherited from my late mother-in-law where we ran a community center for eighteen years.


Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She lives in the valley of the Mahicantuck, the river that flows both ways, home to the Esopus of the Lenape nation. She is a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.