Making Molotovs with the Small Group
Igniting your moral imagination
The pictures of activity in Ukraine are visceral: children pouring molotovs, filling them with the Styrofoam necessary for a long burn; villages knitting camouflage nets for covering troops and armor; ballerinas toting guns, ready for war they did not want but will not flee.
Would your small group gather to pour molotovs if evil shelled your city? Would you be ready with weapons of war to meet the unrighteous rage of the autocrat next door?
I spend too much time daydreaming of what I would do, of how I would respond. I don’t know about you, but I envision myself under attack, preparing for battle, saying goodbye to my children. I count the cost of an imaginary war which I, as an American, am almost certain never to see. It is silly, perhaps born of a childhood watching Rambo fight Soviets in Afghanistan, but I am a defender of the people when I close my eyes.
Some take this to the next level, of course. I am convinced the sheer volume of long rifles sold in America has less to do with personal defense or hunting and more to do with preparing for some sort of civil war or defense of one’s family/way of life against broader forces which would harm them. Note the uptick of gun sales in recent years during political turmoil. Note the increase of preppers and the sale of MREs at Costco. These are the actions of people with an imagination like mine, I assume, but who see war as more of an inevitability than I do.
But here’s the thing: they are probably righter than I am about the inevitability of conflict. The more I ponder Ukraine, the more I realize the fragile thread of peace that binds America or any other nation, and just how quickly that thread can be severed. I stand on soil where my kinfolk bled, where brother killed brother in the name of North or South. My state, North Carolina, gave more lives to the Civil War than any other, and it was itself a state torn apart by anti- and pro-war sentiments. Violence is not far in our past, and possibly not far in our future.
War, after all, is a human constant. So is evil. How do we react?
Let us listen to Jesus our Lord and Master, creator God. To his own disciples he said,
Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Jesus walked in a time and space that knew war more intimately than any non-Soldier non-Refugee American will ever know. Certainly, more than I will know. Jesus would have walked by civilians and soldiers crucified as he would be, for treason or crimes against the state. He would have seen public executions of various forms and in various places. His nation was colonized by an invading force, and he promised the consummation of that invasion would involve the desecration of the holiest site in Israel, in the Holy of Holies.
Jesus, the Jewish man, would’ve known from Scriptures of war after war which marked the existence of his people, from the beginnings in enslavement to Egypt to the incomplete conquering of the Promised Land to the subsequent constant wars by major powers around Israel. His was a people and a land covered in the graves of soldiers and civilians killed in the centuries of conflict since Joshua first stepped foot on the sacred ground.
Jesus, God made flesh, of course knew of all wars, screams, cries, bloodshed, terrors, massacres, and violence, both that had been and was to come. How much of that he kept in his head when he emptied himself on earth is not known, but now seated on the throne he knows all that was and is and is to come. And the violence he himself will wreck upon the unjust is an order of magnitude greater than anything we have ever seen.
“But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
The sovereignty of God is paramount in these moments of impossible violence. This week I watched a church in my tradition, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, gather to sing 10,000 Reasons to bless the Lord, even in a city that has been bombed. In my own congregation we sang A Might Fortress on the day we closed for COVID and again on the day we re-opened. Christians especially cling fast to the reign of God amid terror because we see in that reign the possibility of hope where hope might otherwise seem impossible. We have a moral imagination built on something more substantial than the buildings crumbling around us or the frailty of our own flesh. We see what is not yet there, be it peace, hope, love, joy, and a new world.
I am convinced that this moral imagination urges on the work of the free people in Ukraine who are bonded together to fight back in the face of incredible hardship. Once you’ve tasted freedom — be it democratic governance or, greater still, the freedom we have in Christ — you don’t want to lose it. You’d give anything, I think, to keep it. And it ought to be no surprise that autocrats must destroy the moral imagination in order to control the souls of their people. Putin attacked religion long before he attacked anyone at his borders. He has now shut down the media and the internet. I guarantee you he will clamp down on non-state churches more than he has so far. The same has held true for China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, etc. Even Hitler knew in his rise to power than he had to control the church to control the people.
Moral imagination is a perpetual threat to dictators worldwide. It is the only antidote to the tide of evil waiting to wash over us, that constant threat of despair, the voice crying “give up… let go…”
But what happens when we let our moral imaginations without a dictator there to kill it? Infinite piranhas nibble at our imaginations as we enter the stream of regular life. Burdened by child rearing, debt, entertainment, yards to mow, cars to maintain, Joneses to keep up with, vacations, church committees, and you name it. A million nicks and cuts on your time, energy, and thoughts. Often our moral imagination is mauled to death by the every day before any dictator takes it away from us. We are, as Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death. Or, I would say, busying ourselves to death.
Seeing civilians craft weapons of war to defend their heartland stirs in me a desire to reclaim my imagination that I might let it serve the King rather than die the death of a thousand cuts. Imagine what it would be if a small group of people was so dedicated to a cause that they would do something as drastic as gathering to make molotovs, but without the needful outside pressure of an invading force or the intent of making weapons of war. What spiritual, mental, physical oppressors now require a response of fervor and imagination, of resilience and constant watchfulness?
What if our church small groups gathered with the urgent fervor for the Kingdom of Heaven as these people now gather to defend their homeland? What would that look like? What would be the outcome?
What if, instead of externalizing societies problems to “those people” or externalizing our solutions to “I just need to vote for the right person,” we came up with real things we could do as individuals and as groups to move Christward in our every day lives? What would that look like?
Consider a recent, serious example. Consider the war going on right now in Ukraine. You may well consider a million ways this awful reality could improve — the war ends, Putin resigns or dies, USA cuts of oil imports, etc. But none of those are things you control. What do you control that you can actually do? Where could a vibrant moral imagination go that might require something sacrificial but could really impact others? We resort to “pray and give” in church circles, but is there more? Have you really sat and considered anything else?
When you do, amazing things happen. A woman named Joeth Strickland has had such a moral imagination for decades now. In a nondescript warehouse in Angier you can find the constant influx of medical goods that have been billed out to insurance and thus cannot be used in the USA. You also find pallets and pallets of unused goods from Bob Barker Co and many other area nonprofits and organizations. Joeth’s mission is simple: get what God gives, and give it to the world for free. https://www.crossingallbordersministry.com/ I found this warehouse via my mother, who volunteered there, and then visited as I considered how to help a man who wants to ship wheelchairs to paraplegics in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Flash forward a month, as war begins, and I texted Joeth, “any connection to Ukraine?”
Joeth said no.
So I prayed, and imagined, and started asking. Most doors were closed. Until a former neighbor (Ukrainian) introduced me to a friend of hers who is planning a shipment to Ukraine via personal and nonprofit civilian networks. She went to the warehouse and working toward three containers full. Now churches across the region are talking up how they can raise funds and pack the containers.
The collective moral imagination of a disparate network of people who hardly know each other opened a door to tons — and I do mean tons — of needed materials going to a place badly in need of them. I can’t pack molotovs, but I can pack surgical gear, food, baby supplies, and more to meet whatever needs we can. I can make connections. I can talk, even when it seems foolish, and dream of moral realities only God can accomplish. There are now dozens of pallets completed, ready to ship, with at least two fully sponsored.
What kills your moral imagination? Let me present a few threats to imagination I’ve confronted in my life:
1. Embarrassment over silly ideas or a feeling your idea will fail
I get this one! I tell people I have a thousand ideas a day, only two of them good. We must be willing to speak even the bad ideas to help sharpen our own imaginations while awakening the imaginations of others. A bad idea spoken out loud that is proven ineffective or shot down by others is still almost always better than no ideas at all. A quiet moral imagination does nothing for the good of others. Or, as the saying goes: the only way to guarantee failure is never to try.
2. Previous failure or seeing others fail
We all fail. This is life. Our moral imagination is predicating on the triumphant sovereignty of God, that he has a part for us to play in his story. The success or failure, Thomas Merton taught me, is dependent on him, not me.
3. A feeling of insufficiency
How small we feel in the face of unimaginably vast forces! Like a child fighting an ocean wave, powerless, likely to hurt ourselves. But it is precisely this that we are called to do. In our weakness, God’s strength is revealed.
4. Distraction / busyness
A robust moral imagination takes intentional time away. We must be still and know God is God so that he can mold our minds as he wants them. We fill our eyes and ears with noise and cannot hear him or see the world he wants to make in us and through us.
5. Resignation to politics
We are too swift to yield our imaginations to the narratives of political parties. God is bigger than your affiliation, his imagination is greater than the talking heads on TV, and his plans are far larger than any politician could ever achieve.
6. Overall laziness
There is weakness born of being small humans in a giant universe, but there is a pernicious weakness born of being lazy and letting our lives fall apart. We cannot be effectual if we have already rendered ourselves useless. Oftentimes the moral imagination is most at work as we are already working to do what God has called us to do: to love, to serve, to provide, to protect. We will never have a moral imagination flopped on the couch soaking in entertainment.
7. Spiritual blindness
Above all, a life lived only in the material — in the here and now, without any spiritual hope — is limited by what we think can happen based on what we know, not based on something bigger or truer than the things in front of our face. Without the big Story, his story, hope is senseless, merely another form of illusory faith without reason, useless and vain.
But I take hope, for Jesus has overcome the world.
What moral imaginations might you take up, as you shed the enemies of imagination and consider where the Lord’s Story leads in your life?
A few steps to get you started:
- Find quiet. Turn off all the distractions.
- Let the mind wander while considering the needs in your community, city, county, state, country, and world.
- Pray over these needs.
- Consider a way you can personally engage in meeting even one of these needs.
- Research who is already out there doing what you might be hoping to do. Ask at church, in the community. Look online. Find who is doing it.
- Clear your calendar of the unnecessary or the entertainment that feels like busyness but accomplishes nothing.
- Free yourself to commit to the one thing, if even only one, that satisfies your reawakened moral imagination.
Whatever you do, do not externalize your concerns and causes. Don’t call your pastor and say “the church needs to do THIS.” Don’t let political partisanship blind your imagination. Don’t let the TV people tell you what should or should not happen with your time. Consciously fight the despair and weakness that would encourage you to sit idly while the world burns around you.
Let me give you just one more example, this time with the issue of abortion. With so many resigned to let the issue play out politically, I am prayerful that more Christians will creatively approach the matter beyond the realm of national or state politics.
Just this week I spoke with a woman who had an abortion when younger in life who now leads a ministry specifically for those women who have had abortions and are seeking spiritual healing. Tori told me she goes to the nearby clinic in the afternoons, when the women leave after abortions, to share the gospel of hope with them. She holds Bible studies with ladies from across the globe who have had abortions and now regret them. Hers is a creative ministry, one born out of tragedy. https://theyarenotforgotten.com/
Where might your imagination lead, if you let it? Where might it go when you think of Ukraine? You can’t make molotovs with your small group, but you might still be a part of history in your personal efforts at relief. What aboiut with other hot issues — abortion, gender issues, homelessness, parenting, etc. etc. What wild dream has the Lord set in your heart that you might just need to chase for a while? It might something with greater impact than you think possible.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us sinners. Let us yield our minds and imaginations to you. Forgive us for letting them languish or lazily serve at the hands of those who would corrupt even our best intentions. We give your our minds and our imaginations, that you would fulfill your glorious story in us. Let us be your hands and feet, your voice, and your peace, as you work in us by your Spirit to do more than we could ever ask or imagine. Yours is the glory. Amen.