I had not planned on reading a book on violence in the Bible this year. Then came the crisis in the Ukraine.
Those who know Russian history and Vladimir Putin will tell you that Putin’s reasoning behind the “special military operation” in Ukraine is an effort to revive that ancient vision of a Holy Orthodox Russia, Ukrainians and Russians together as one people, with Moscow at its ecclessial and political center. Many devout Eastern Orthodox Christians are divided on this perspective, some being on one side and some on the other. But apparently Vladimir Putin accepts this narrative wholeheartedly, and he is willing to commit military boots on the ground to fulfill this vision.
Within a few weeks after the start of the war in the Ukraine, which began in February, 2022, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill gave a sermon that a number of analysts have interpreted as sanctioning Putin’s efforts to take over Ukraine. Kirill cited what he understood to be “a test of loyalty to [a] new world order… the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom’.” In particularly, Kirill singled out the Gay Pride parade, which has become a large annual event in the Ukraine, as that litmus test of loyalty. The annual June event was relocated from Kyiv to Poland this year, due to the war. In Patriarch Kirill’s words, “If humanity starts believing that sin is not a violation of God’s law, if humanity agrees that sin is one of the options for human behavior, then human civilization will end there.”
Reconciling conflicted branches of Christianity, as between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches, is something that every Christian should pray and strive for. Furthermore, many Christians like myself, including many Eastern Orthodox ones, will agree with the Russian Patriarch that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s purposes, as set forward in the Bible. Division with the Christian church and the secularizing trend of the West is continuing to marginalize historically Christian views of morality, and Ukraine has been no exception. Christians will differ as to how we as believers should respond to the changing moral compass in the world of Western democracies, and how to respond politically. But does any of this serve as a justification for the violence we have been witnessing in the Ukraine for these many months?
Obviously, there are many other reasons why the Ukraine and Russia are at war with one another, that have nothing directly to do with the overtly theological justifications that I am addressing here. There are concerns about NATO expansion, corruption on both sides, etc. that complicate matters. I do not pretend to be a political analyst. But I am most concerned with how the Bible is used, or more properly speaking, misused as a pretense for justifying this war.
In an attempt to justify the war against the Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted from Jesus in John 15:13 for support: “…this is where the words from the Scriptures come to my mind: ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’ ” To make an appeal to Jesus, as an excuse for an ever expanding list of documented potential war crimes, particularly when many victims of Putin’s war are God-fearing Ukrainian Christians, is a perversion of the worst kind. Furthermore, the threat of a nuclear disaster looms large when Ukrainian power plants have been under the control of Russian forces, where Ukranian workers are under incredible stress and safety concerns are paramount.
When the “culture war” is transformed into a war with tanks and missiles, I can not think of a more dreadful misuse of the Bible than this. Instead of drawing nonbelievers to the Gospel, this type of thinking only repels people from Christianity. Thankfully, there are many, many Christians who are not convinced by President Putin’s application of Jesus’ teachings, and instead insist that the justification for war against Ukraine is a denial of the very Gospel itself.
Most American Protestant Evangelicals probably completely missed the schism in Eastern Orthodoxy back in 2018, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from Russian Orthodoxy after being together for more than 300 years. But I never would have imagined that this theological crisis within Christianity would have precipitated Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine just four years later. It just goes to remind me that ideas really matter, especially theological ones.