Saturday, July 19, 2014

National Conscience, or National Enabler? Thoughts on the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine and the Role of Orthodox Christians

Russian Separatist fighter in Ukraine

Christianity is once again playing an all-too-familiar and unhappy role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  Russia, of course, denies any involvement or any responsibility for the events and violence occurring within the borders of its western neighbor, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 two days ago.  Despite the fact that so-called separatists have been trained and, dare we say, deployed from Russian territory, and despite the fact that these separatists have been armed with increasingly sophisticated Russian weaponry rolled across the Russian-Ukrainian frontier in brazen view of the world, and despite the fact that the Russian leadership and press has voiced full-throated support of the ‘rebels’ and inflammatory denunciations of the Ukrainian government – despite all of this, Mr. Putin, Russia’s president, has denied any involvement with and any responsibility for the chaos, bloodshed and destabilization caused by what, regardless of the denials, are his proxies in the west.  The same appears to be true in this most recent horrific incident.  Given the amount of disinformation, denial, and recrimination already dominating the media/propaganda wars swirling around this brazen mass murder, we may never be able to say with absolute certainty who did it and why.  So hardened are the perpetrators that they would prefer it this way.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill with Russian President Vladimir Putin

In the meantime, both Russia and Ukraine have huge Orthodox populations, and their hierarchs have varying degrees of influence within their respective states, be it formal or informal.  Sadly, the Church in Russia has given the impression to the rest of the world that it is little more than the lap dog of the Russian authorities.  If they have attempted to introduce a Christian perspective to the political dialogue at the Kremlin, it has not been evident to anyone outside its gates.  The Russian president and his people have, regardless of their morality, been very skillful at revving up Russian feelings of patriotism and pride, i.e. nationalism.  And while this is not a bad thing in and of itself, history tells of one bloody tale after another when leaders of nations or ethnic groups fanned the blaze of nationalism or racism to pursue their own policy or personal goals.  The wildfire too often gets out of control and people use nationalism to justify all manner of horrific actions against other human beings. 

The Orthodox Church has sometimes been complicit in such outbreaks of nationalism-inspired violence, if not by active promotion, then by not taking a vigorous stand against it in the name of Christ.  Any ideology that causes one person or one side to feel justified in taking action that harms another person is an anti-Christian, anti-Christ ideology.  The advance of one people over and against another does not serve the cause of Christ.  Instead it serves the strategy of the Devil.

By not speaking out against every act of inhumanity, even if it means speaking out against ‘our’ side, we become enablers of that inhumanity.  Our words and deeds will find us to be servants either of our nation or our Savior; it is impossible to serve the interests of both at the same time.  This, in my opinion, is the great test facing the Christians of Russia and Ukraine (we could talk about Christians in the US, but I have done that elsewhere).  The Church and its hierarchs should be holding the leadership of its nation to account, not winking and nodding and providing tacit approval as the government foments and inhuman foreign policy and misleads its own people through a deliberate campaign of spin, half-truths and outright lies.  The Church, its laity and its hierarchs give the impression that they are more afraid of what Mr. Putin might do to them than they are of Christ.  Perhaps the Church and its hierarchs have too much to lose by crossing the government (pun intended).

Ukrainian Orthodox Priests in front of Russian tank in Crimea

Christians on the Ukrainian side of this conflict have no less momentous choices to make.  The temptation to make the Church merely the instrument of the State is almost overpowering, especially when one’s people appear to be on the wrong side of neighbor-state-sponsored bullying.  But when Church and national identity become confused, history shows again and again that it’s the Church that gets used and abused by the State, and not visa versa.

I fully understand that it is incredibly difficult to stand against the crowd, especially when it has been whipped up in a fever of nationalistic fervor.  Bad things tend to happen to people who cannot demonstrate that they are on ‘our’ side.  A few recent examples make this point in spades: Rwanda twenty years ago, Southern Sudan this year, Yugoslavia twenty years ago, Northern Ireland thirty years ago, Israel and Palestine right now, Pakistan right now, etc, etc.  It is, however, no credit to Christianity or to its Lord to be leading the charge against our enemies.  Especially since Jesus repeatedly takes the side of the oppressed, the powerless, the needy and the poor.  It is precisely at times like this when our true loyalties are revealed.  And most of the time our true loyalty is neither to Church or State, but to ourselves as we wrap ourselves in whatever colors will save us from harm.

Russian Separatists in eastern Ukraine

Being a follower of Jesus will cause one to take a different posture, to choose a different road.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., said  in so many different ways not so many years ago when Christians were facing equally momentous choices in our own country, we the Church can support the government when it chooses to do what is right, but we must stand against it when it chooses to do wrong, especially when wrong means real suffering to men, women and children.  We the Church can support the government when it speaks the truth, and when its analysis of the situation rightly reflects reality on the ground; but we must stand against it when the government by its repeated us of misinformation demonstrates that what it declares simply cannot be trusted.  We the Church can support the government when the interests, policies and actions of the government advance the cause of Christ; but we must stand against it when those interests, policies and actions discourage and destroy the mission of the Church.

I have no doubt that taking a stand for truth and love against the policies of subterfuge and war will result in suffering for the Christians who choose to do so.  But this is a very old choice, and Christians who have made this choice have often paid with their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  But those Christians who have chosen to side with the government may win for a time rewards and positions and power in this world, it will not go well when one finds oneself explaining to Christ the Judge why one chose Mr. Putin’s interests over those of the Lord Jesus’.

The bottom line is simply this – it is past time for Russia’s Christians, and Ukraine’s Christians (and America’s Christians, for that matter!) to start behaving like the Christians they profess to be.  There will be a very different reality on the ground in Russia and Ukraine (and the US) when this begins to happen.

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