On Thursday the world stood aghast as Russia attacked Ukraine. Over the past several weeks, as the rhetoric of war increased and Russian troop numbers grew along Ukraine’s borders, commentators speculated on what Putin’s motives might be for imposing the horror of war on the world yet again. Most have noted that Putin sees Ukraine’s alliance with NATO and the United States as a threat to Russia. Some have flagged Putin’s bizarre comments about cleansing Ukraine of Nazis. Almost no one, however, has mentioned that Putin is driven, at least in part, by a religious motive that he sees as a mandate from history.
In the late 10th century, more than a thousand years ago, the pagan Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv united the Kyiv Rus peoples of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine into a single nation. Believing that a single religion would help unite the people, in 987 he sent emissaries to observe all the major religions of the countries that bordered on his territory. His emissaries found Islam, as practiced by the Bulgar Muslims, distasteful and joyless. They also noted that Islam prohibited both alcohol and pork which made it a non-starter. As Vladimir, himself, said, “Drinking is the joy of all the Rus!” The envoys found Judaism interesting but Vladimir was troubled by the fact that the Jews had lost possession of their homeland. The emissaries returning from Germany reported that the Roman Catholic worship they had witnessed was boring, unintelligible, and uninspiring. But the emissaries returning from Constantinople had a different impression of Christianity altogether. They had witnessed the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia in all its splendor, and they reported to Vladimir that the worship they had experienced was so beautiful and impressive that they couldn’t tell if they were in heaven or on earth.
Based on their reports, Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity and was baptized in 988, after which he brought his people into the Byzantine church through a mass baptism. He then married a Christian imperial princess to help secure peaceful relations with other Orthodox countries. Under Vladimir’s leadership, Kyiv not only became a prosperous and peaceful city and trade center, it also became the heart of a new Christian empire. Working outward from Kyiv, Vladimir established churches, monasteries, courts, schools, and civic programs to care for the poor. In his lifetime he came to be known as Vladimir the Great. When he died he was canonized as Saint Vladimir, his memory celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Byzantine Rite Lutherans.
Kyiv grew and prospered until the mid-13th century when repeated attacks from Mongols and rival Rus princes began to splinter the entire region. Many of the Rus people of Ukraine fled north and east, taking their Orthodox faith with them, notably to Moscow, where they established a Russian Orthodox Church. Under the Czars, the Russian Orthodox church became enormously wealthy and powerful, so much so that the Patriarch of Constantinople authorized a Patriarch for Moscow. While the Ukrainian faithful of the Orthodox church were now under the religious authority of the Patriarch of Moscow, they never forgot that their Orthodox Church originated in Kyiv. Kyiv was, in a sense, their Jerusalem.
The establishment of a Patriarch in Moscow led to centuries of political and religious tension between Ukraine and Russia. That tension became acute during the Soviet era when Politburo restrictions on religious practices were not applied evenly from region to region. Rival Orthodox church bodies sprang up in Ukraine, some choosing to resist Communism while others chose to cooperate with Moscow. When the Soviet Union collapsed, several different Orthodox church bodies existed in Ukraine but only one of them was closely tied to Moscow.
In 2018, two of those Ukrainian churches and a few of the Moscow-leaning Orthodox parishes joined to create a newly unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a fully independent church body that is not under the authority of Moscow. Since then the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been firmly established in the ancient seat of Orthodoxy in Kyiv.
Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church hierarchy were not happy about this. They had appropriated a thousand years of Kyiv’s church history as their own, even going so far as to erect a gigantic statue of Vladimir the Great—Saint Vladimir—outside the Kremlin. They vigorously protested the re-establishment of the Ukraine Orthodox Church, but they became absolutely incensed when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an independent body.
Putin has closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodox church, painting himself as one of that church’s staunchest proponents. Under Putin’s leadership the religious and civil freedoms of non-Orthodox Christians and people of other faiths have been seriously restricted. On the flip side, the Russian Orthodox church has been unabashedly pro Putin, standing by him as he enhanced his power, stifled opposition, revised the constitution, and curtailed the freedoms and civil liberties of the Russian people. The Russian Orthodox Church, including close deputies of the Patriarch were involved in crafting the 2017 law that decriminalized domestic violence in Russia. The Church was also instrumental in the creation of the 2013 “gay propaganda” law that has been used to persecute LGBTQ persons in Russia.
Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have both indicated that they think the Patriarch of Constantinople has moved too much toward the West and many of its values. They have also accused the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of being too Western and “liberal” and have hinted that Russia will lead the Orthodox world in a “correction.”
Putin sees himself as not merely a political leader, but also a renewer of true Orthodoxy. By erecting the statue of Saint Vladimir outside the Kremlin, Putin was laying claim to the weight of Eastern Orthodox tradition and assuming validation for both his political and religious aspirations. As church historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass said, “There should be no doubt that Putin sees himself as a kind of Vladimir the Great II, a candidate for sainthood who is restoring the soul of Holy Mother Russia. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, would like to remind the Russians that they were the birthplace of both Orthodoxy and political unity in Eastern Europe.”
“The Conflict in Ukraine,” says Bass, “is all about religion and what kind of Orthodoxy will shape Eastern Europe and other Orthodox communities around the world (especially in Africa). Religion. This is a crusade, recapturing the Holy Land of Russian Orthodoxy, and defeating the westernized (and decadent) heretics who do not bend the knee to Moscow’s spiritual authority.” This is a conflict over who is going to control the geographical home, the “Jerusalem” of the Eastern Orthodox church—Moscow or Constantinople.
In Putin’s eyes, this is a Holy War—which is such an oxymoron. There has never in the history of the world been anything holy about any war. Ever.
This attack against Ukraine is just another bloody, stupid, heartbreaking, destructive example of humans dressing up their anger, bloodlust, greed and ambition in robes of piety and pretended righteousness.
This is just another example of humanity utterly failing to learn from our mistakes. This is just another example of people who call themselves Christian utterly failing to get the point of who Jesus is and what he is about.
When Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain with the shining glory of his divinity radiating from him as he stood between Moses and Elijah, God spoke directly to them from the cloud that surrounded them. Things might have looked foggy, standing there in the cloud of God, but the words God spoke were crystal clear. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Listen to him.
Three words. A clear and simple instruction.
Listen to him.
So much of the world’s history is a story of conflict, devastation and bloodshed because far too often ambitious people who have claimed to be Christian, who have claimed to be followers of Jesus, have failed in the one task that is central, that is most important for every Christian. They have failed to listen to Jesus.
We all fail to do that from time to time—all of us to one degree or another. We put our own agendas and ambitions, even our religious affiliation ahead of the words and calling of Christ. The most arrogant even go so far as to think we can make God’s reign come on earth as it is in heaven by using the tools of politics and violence when Jesus called us to always pursue the path of love, non-violence and peace.
And now war has come to the world once again.
War has come to the world because once again a man who claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, has refused to listen to Jesus.
And when we fail to listen to Jesus, we also tend to fail in respecting each other’s boundaries.
May God forgive us for our failure to listen. May God remind us that, as the book of James says, our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Most of all, may God teach us to listen to Jesus and find our way back to the path of peace, the place of shalom.
In Jesus’ name.