The best of Christian compassion, the worst of religious power

(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.)

As you watch the horror unfolding in Ukraine, you watch two hugely important and competing religious events unfold in real time. First, the invasion of Russia is mixed with religious elements. In many ways, it’s a religious war, representing religion at its worst. Second, as we watch the Ukrainian and international church run to the aid of Ukraine, we see Christianity at its best.

In an instant, we see the extremes of what Christians can do, for bad and for good. Let’s start by describing the evil.

There are times when you read an essay so illuminating and informative that you think about it for years. It happened to me in December 2014, several months after the Russian invasion of Crimea. The essay was written by former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler and was titled “Putin’s Orthodox Jihad.” An Orthodox Christian himself, Schindler provided an analysis of Putin’s Russia that I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

The essay is long and complex, but at the risk of oversimplifying the argument, Schindler described an ideological “merger” between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the FSB, the Russian intelligence service. This merger led to “the consecration in 2002 of an Orthodox church in Lubyanka, notorious headquarters of the FSB and the former KGB in Moscow”.

This ideological fusion, according to Schindler, was central to Putin’s emerging ideology. Essentially, Putin sought Russian greatness not just out of a sense of secular national chauvinism, but out of a religious mission, and that mission was rooted in the ROC.

Moreover, the church provided the core of the Russian moral argument against the West. Again, here is Schindler:

Kremlin-endorsed ROC agitprop depicts a West that is declining to death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused disbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Church leader Patriarch Kirill recently explained that the ‘main threat’ to Russia is Western-style ‘loss of faith’, while ROC spokespersons consistently denounce feminism and the movement LGBT as satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family and nation.

Indeed, Russia has even adopted a term called “spiritual security”, which “gives the ROC a mission to defend Russia against negative Western spiritual influences, in partnership with Moscow’s intelligence agencies”.

Since Schindler’s article, little noticed at the time, the evidence for Putin’s religious motives has become overwhelming. As Giles Fraser argued on the UK website Detachment“Putin sees his spiritual destiny as rebuilding Christianity, based in Moscow.”

But what does this have to do with Ukraine? It turns out that Kiev is of central importance in Russian Orthodoxy. It is the cradle of the ROC, the “Jerusalem” of the church according to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril:

Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kyiv “the mother of all Russian cities”. For us, Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so we cannot abandon this historical and spiritual relationship in any way. The whole unity of our local Church rests on these spiritual bonds.

Now let’s add one last ingredient. In 2019, a large number of Ukrainian parishes separated from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which previously fell under the ROC, to join a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. In a February report outlining the religious dimensions of the war, Schindler noted that “the schism made Moscow incandescent with rage. The ROC saw this as a direct attack on its “canonical territory” and on world Orthodoxy itself.

To make this as simple as possible, Putin has merged Russian identity with the ROC, sees his nation and his church as a bulwark against Western decadence, and is no longer just trying to take over “Jerusalem” from his church. , but potentially to forcibly reunite his church after a schism he rejects. There are nationalistic, historical and strategic reasons for Putin’s decision against Ukraine, but the religious elements are real and important.

The religious dimension of this conflict is another reason why Cold War analogies are incorrect. As I said before, Putin is not trying to recreate the Soviet Union. The best analogy is with the deeply religious Russian Empire that existed before the Russian Civil War.

This is the church at its worst, when it marries the power of the state and wields the sword to advance the kingdom of God on earth. We are watching the deep darkness of malevolent Christianity, a religious movement that will slaughter innocent people to fight “decay” and bomb hospitals to fight “sin”. When you see Putin’s armies advancing, you may think, this is why our nation rejects the established religion.

But when a great evil arises, a great good responds. And in this case, the great good is also in the church. Yes, it is represented by Ukrainian Christian soldiers who sacrifice their lives to defend their nation and their homes, but it is also represented by a very different type of institutional Christian response.

I am thinking, for example, of report that the Middle Alliance Baptist World Church in Ukraine “feeds and shelters 100 people”. I am thinking of Samaritan’s Purse which set up an emergency field hospital outside Lviv, Ukraine. I am thinking of churches like the First Baptist Church in Robertsdale, Alabama, which sends a team to Moldova to help Ukrainian refugees.

I also think of the moving story of my colleague Harvest Prude on the ties between Christians in the United States and Christians in Ukraine:

“It’s personal to us in the Southern Baptist world,” Brent Leatherwood, acting chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told The Dispatch. “Most people don’t realize it, but Ukraine has the second largest population of Baptists in Europe.” In churches across America, Leatherwood said, pastors are using prayer guides and partnering with Send Relief and other organizations helping on the ground.

I have friends who spent time in Ukraine. Our churches are praying for Ukraine. They are sending people and goods to Ukraine, flooding Eastern Europe with tangible support for a people who are suffering terrible suffering.

In these circumstances, national borders and national identities matter far less than Christian fellowship with Ukrainian churches and the shared humanity of Ukrainian refugees.

This is Christianity at its best. It’s not pacifist. Its members resist tyranny by force of arms. But his goal is not conquest, but rather compassion. A religious war is met with a religious response, and this religious response represents the true face of the faith that Putin claims to defend.

One more thing…

This week, Curtis and I had the honor of sharing the Sincerity microphone with Jonathan Tjarks, famed NBA beat writer and podcaster for The ring. Jonathan’s recent piece “Does My Son Know You?” was a deeply moving discussion of the consequences of his cancer diagnosis. If you want to learn more about Christianity at its best, including how small groups of close friends can sustain families through the worst crises, then listen to this podcast.

And yet another thing…

I was frankly surprised by the number of people who asked me why we were not intervening directly to save Ukraine. In an extended room for Atlantic, I have tried to explain in detail why direct intervention would be extraordinarily perilous. Vladimir Putin may well be trying to fight – and win – a limited nuclear war:

Since the dawn of modern warfare, the most powerful countries in the world have inflicted terrible destruction on the nations they have conquered. But nuclear weapons raise the stakes even further. It is vitally important that Americans understand the true nature of Putin’s forces and the doctrines that might dictate their use.

It’s one thing to face a potential nuclear conflict when both sides know they’re going to lose. Mutual Assured Destruction kept the peace even during the darkest days of the Cold War. It is quite another to face a potential nuclear conflict when one side believes it can win. This is the most dangerous confrontation of all, and we may be close to it now

Read it all here.

One last thing …

As I write this newsletter, I am monitoring reports of a probable Iranian missile strike on a US consulate in Iraq. It’s a dangerous time, and in dangerous times I often think of this song:


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