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Ashes of war

“No one ever wins a fight.” That’s what the theologian Howard Thurman’s grandmother told him when he was a boy after he had a fight with another child from his school. Those words are true not only for schoolyard battles but also when nation rises up against nation.

Russia has invaded Ukraine but there will be no winner at the end of the day, only losers because love is lost in the vicious cycles of violence. More money may be gained. More power solidified. Land taken. But there will be no real winner because there will be too much human collateral damage, too much human death, a flood of ashes.

History shows that post-war territories endure so much brokenness—structurally, economically, relationally, mentally, physically and much more—that they may limp along forever. Whether we see it or not, there are always remnants of ruins, internally and externally. Many places and people never recover from the effects of war. We know that even in the United States when we consider the many challenges our veterans face. They have seen the ashes of war, the devastation of it all, including the blood of other human beings spilled over the dust of the earth.

So often, as many grieving families touched by war know, there only remains the ashes of loved ones, sometimes never to be recovered.

This timing of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is poignant. This Wednesday, March 2, is Ash Wednesday in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is the beginning of the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, ministers will place literal ashes on the forehead of individuals as a reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. That mark tells us that we, as human beings, are ashes—vulnerable, frail, and mortal. 

The mark on foreheads on Ash Wednesday reveals our common humanity and shows that we are more alike than different. Maya Angelou put it this way in her poem, “Human Family”:

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Ashes on the forehead are also a sign of mourning, which is a proper response to insane war. At our core, we are fragile human beings, so why seek to war against others when we already know that we are delicate ashes? We don’t need to make more ashes through the violence of weaponry. Ashes versus ashes makes no sense when we are of the same human family. 

Because we are all ashes, alike, we should all be better stewards of ashes, treating each other with great care, gentleness, tenderness, kindness and love. Hate may destroy the hated, but it will also execute the hater. No one ever wins a fight or a war. 

As a boy, Howard Thurman learned that lesson from his grandmother and went on to become the man whose writing about Jesus’ love ethic and God’s solidarity with the disinherited of the world inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders to choose love in the face of hate. He came to see that we are all humans, humus, from the same earth with the same basic genetic makeup in the family of dust. So this Wednesday when I mark people’s foreheads with ashes and say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I will be saying it as a ritual reminder of our mortality—and also as a statement against a senseless war. 

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays. 

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