In March 1938, with the winds of war already blowing, Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered a striking speech at a conference of Quaker leaders in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. His speech was expanded and published in 1943 as an essay entitled “The Meaning of this Hour.”*
Heschel articulated the devastation in the following terms:
There has never been so much guilt and distress, agony, and terror. At no time has the earth been so soaked with blood. Fellow humans turned out to be evil ghosts, monstrous and weird.
These words ring so true today as we continue to witness, in total dismay, the carnage and destruction that Putin’s Russia has unleashed upon Ukraine. The war has entered its sixth week and there are already thousands of innocent people murdered, entire cities devastated, millions of refugees. We feel impotent in the face of such brutality and we are terrified by what might unfold.
Ashamed and dismayed, we ask: Who is responsible? History is a pyramid of efforts and errors, yet at times it is the Holy Mountain upon which God holds judgment over the nations. Few are privileged to discern God’s judgment in history. But all may be guided by the words of the Baal Shem: If a person has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.
We can be proud of our country’s role. I believe that history will judge our government favorably. The United States has acted as a unifying force in opposition to the invasion and the war as well as in the imposition of sanctions, it has given firm support to the government of President Zelensky and it has supplied significant military equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces. It has also committed to welcoming 100,000 Ukrainian refugees—though, given that European countries are taking 3 million refugees, I believe we should do much more.
In fact, I fully agree with President Biden’s expression of moral outrage when he said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The president is right: People like Putin should not be ruling countries, terrorizing neighboring nations and the entire world.
Yes, we can be proud of our country. Yet, it would serve us well to start reflecting on the Baal Shem Tov’s profound teaching referenced by Heschel:
If a person has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.
A war like this war would not have started without a criminal dictator like Putin.
It behooves us to remember the many ruthless dictators and autocrats we not only tolerated but enabled and partnered with when it served our purpose.
To remember the democratically elected governments all around the world that were overthrown with CIA support.
To remember the invasions and unjustified wars with all the corresponding atrocities.
To remember the colonial exploitations we have benefited from. The occupations we have supported and those we continue to turn a blind eye to.
To remember the refugees we have turned back and those we have refused entry to, including, most recently, those from Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Who is responsible?,” asked Heschel. We are privileged to live in a free society and the price of our freedom is our moral responsibility for everything that is done in our name.
Heschel’s warning in “The Meaning of this Hour” will always ring true:
Let modern dictatorship not serve as an alibi for our conscience. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness, as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; thus we offer sacrifices on the altar of war.
We continue to fervently pray that the present war comes to an end soon with Ukraine’s victory, that Putin and his enablers suffer the consequences of their infamy and that the world be rid of their threat. We continue to pray for Ukraine, for its government and citizens, and for the refugees’ safe and prompt return.
And when peace finally arrives, I pray that our nation’s moral conscience and honesty will have expanded so as to remain on the side of democracy, goodness, justice, and the sanctity of life.
* “The Meaning of this Hour” has been reprinted in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Quest for God” (New York 1954) and in “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”(New York, 1996).