One way to read Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is as a religiously inspired war of conquest attempting to bring Ukraine back under its influence, not just for political or security reasons, but also because of a spiritual vision shared by Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) of a unified Russian civilization they refer to as the “Russian World.”
Professor Jaroslav Skira of Regis College at the University of Toronto says about the “Russian World” myth,
The “Russian world” civilizational mythology holds that there exists a grand Russian civilization based on a “spiritual unity” between Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russians, all holding the same Orthodox faith and language (i.e., the Russian). That “Russian world” is a society of “traditional values” and is cast in opposition to a perceived decadent West. It is a romanticized ideology of historical grievances and collective scapegoating. It is also an ideology based on historical revisionism since the complex and distinct histories of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are glossed over in order to construct a mythical historical narrative of the rise of the “Russian world” from ancient Kyivan Rus’ through the “holy city” of Kyiv, all bequeathed today to the Russian Orthodox Church and the “Russian” peoples.
David French explained well last month that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should rightly be seen as a religious war. After stating how Putin has ideologically and spiritually wed himself to Russian Orthodoxy in his quest to rebuild the Russian Empire, French quoted Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill regarding the transcendent significance of bringing Kyiv and Ukraine back under the dominance of Russia in spiritual terms. Kirill said,
Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.
French goes on to summarize:
To make this as simple as possible, Putin has fused Russian identity with the ROC, sees his nation and his church as a bulwark against western decadence, and is now not just attempting to seize his church’s “Jerusalem” but potentially forcibly reuniting his church after a schism it rejects. There are nationalist, historical, and strategic reasons for Putin’s move against Ukraine, but the religious elements are real, and important.
The religious dimension of this conflict is yet another reason why the Cold War analogies are incorrect. As I’ve said before, Putin isn’t trying to recreate the Soviet Union. The better analogy is to the deeply religious Russian Empire that existed before the Russian Civil War.
Paul Coyer, in Forbes way back in 2015, explained well how the alliance between Putin’s goals and the Russian Orthodox Church worked:
The Church, for its part, acts as the Russian state’s soft power arm, exerting its authority in ways that assist the Kremlin in spreading Russian influence both in Russia’s immediate neighborhood as well as around the globe. The Kremlin assists the Church, as well, working to increase its reach.
Putin’s alignment with Patriarch Kirill and Russian Orthodoxy has conjured up the worst example of church-state union we’ve seen in modern times. The result has been invasion, war, destruction, bloodshed, and genocide, with millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing for their lives.
In a 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington famously declared that we were entering into a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West and that Islam had “bloody borders” as it set out on ideological wars of conquest and expansion. Huntington focused on Islam, but we should more deeply consider what it is that causes conflict, war, and “bloody borders” anywhere they arise, including among nations that claim affinity with Christianity or any other philosophy or ideology.
Huntington died in 2008 before Putin’s political merger with the Russian Orthodox Church was widely seen as a driving spiritual factor in his ambition to restore the Russian Empire to its former glory. Yet there are similarities. The Islamic states Huntington worried about saw themselves as pious believers arrayed against a decadent, infidel West.
And that thumbnail summary applies just as well to Putin and the Russian Orthodox view: They, too, see themselves as engaged in a civilizational clash between support of traditional faith and values against a decadent West facing cultural collapse. By the by, this is not far from how some American evangelicals also see themselves, which is why some on the American right also found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being pro-, or at least anti-anti-, Putin.
Despite many sordid periods in its ecclesial history, Christianity is not actually a religion of power, coercion, or force in a worldly way—at least not according to the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Christianity came with a built in separation between faith and the state—“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”—and for most of its history, Christianity’s faults have come when it has aligned itself with state power to promote and enforce its values and earthly goals. What has often resulted in such cases is a perversion of the faith leading to sanctioned violence in service to nationalist or cultural aims that simultaneously weakens the spiritual witness of the church.
In contrast, Jesus promoted the way of the Cross, sacrificial love, and transformation.
My former professor Thom Wolf argues that Christianity, in its truest form, spreads through communication and conversion, not conflict and conquest. He told me recently in a phone conversation as we discussed Putin’s alignment with Russian Orthodoxy, that when Christianity moves from communication to conquest, it becomes, as French philosopher, theologian, and political scientist Jacques Ellul described, a subversion, rather than a celebration, of Christianity.
While the Bible does not forbid the use of physical force by nations in the wielding of the sword against wrongdoers and to enforce order (see Romans 13:1-5), we also don’t see Jesus promoting war and use of the sword as a proper means of advancing religious faith and adherence. The false combination of the Christian faith with imperial aims and unjust wars of conquest are to be rejected. When Jesus had the chance to call for armed resistance to protect him and his followers and advance his cause (see Matthew 26:47-56), he chose another way. When one of Jesus’s disciples drew a sword to fight against the armed guards who came to arrest Jesus and drag him off on the last night before his crucifixion, he responded by saying,
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54).
Rather than bloody borders to advance Christianity through armed force and coercion, Jesus went to a bloody cross to lay down his life for salvation and the forgiveness of sins of all who believe. His sacrificial death demonstrated a way of faith, hope, love, and humility that leads to the voluntary conversion of human hearts.
His way contrasts with the bombast, fear peddling, and grasping for power to promote and protect our “way of life” in this world that is so often appealed to by those who want power for themselves.
Fortunately, global Christianity has united in response to Russia’s bloody borders and has opposed this invasion by affirming the sacrificial life and message of Jesus. Pope Francis declared the war “repugnant” and a “cruel and sacrilegious inhumanity.” In March, Orthodox scholars articulated the differences between the message of the Cross of Christ and the Russian World teaching promoted by the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church in its alignment with Putin’s aims of conquest.
In another statement, hundreds of Russian Orthodox priests and scholars split with church leadership to oppose the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam has split with the church in Moscow. Christian leaders in the United States have written Patriarch Kirill asking him to use his relationship with Putin to ask him to stop this war. The head of the Russian Evangelical Alliance wrote a letter in March lamenting the Russian invasion, saying he did all he could to oppose it before it happened, and apologized for the loss of life. These are just a few of the many statements that have been issued by Christian bodies around the world.
While we celebrate the Easter season and contemplate the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, let us also commit to not aligning the spiritual identity and influence of the church with the temporal power claims of worldly leaders.
Nations will rage and wars will continue creating bloody borders, but the witness of the church should point to another kingdom inaugurated by a crucified savior on a bloody cross dying to save all who, like the thief that hung next to Jesus, cry out, “remember me when you enter into your kingdom.”