“The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the mistrust peering from all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. Who knows if we shall see each other in another year? What are we waiting for? Peace must be dared. Peace is the great venture.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (August 1934)
At a pro-war rally in Moscow last month, Vladimir Putin praised his troops for their embodiment of Christian love. “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to mind,” he said. “‘There is no greater love than if someone gives up his soul for his friends.’ The heart of the message is that this is a universal value for all the people and all the confessions of Russia …. Shoulder to shoulder they are helping and supporting each other and when it’s necessary they cover as if it was their own brother, they cover each other from the bullets. We haven’t had such unity in a long time.”[i]
The crowd loved the speech. “Forward Russia!” they chanted. Jesus! Love! Unity! Was this a political rally, or a religious revival? Some of each, I would think. For a thousand years of Russian history, politics and religion have been closely entwined. In 988, after the Christian conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus’—the original Russian state—his subjects waded into the Dnieper River to be baptized en masse.
The fact that this birth narrative of Slavic Orthodoxy took place in Kyiv helps explain the lingering Russian attachment to the Ukrainian capital. It’s their Jerusalem. Even though the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted independence from its Russian counterpart in 2018, one third of the Orthodox churches still loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate are situated in the Ukraine, and Putin has argued that his army is coming to their defense.
The mythology of Holy Rus’, a divinely ordered “kingdom” of Slavic believers—a “Third Rome” inheriting the world-transforming mission of its failed predecessors in Europe and Constantinople—became a staple of Russian identity. In contrast to the perceived decadence, individualism, and secularism of the West, Holy Rus’ was thought to preserve communal spiritual values for the sake of all humankind. In a famous speech given in 1880, Dostoevsky said:
“[T]o be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to show the end of European yearning in our Russian soul, omni-human and all-uniting, to include within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren, and at last, it may be, to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!”[ii]
When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, such Third Rome mythology seemed alive and well when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the protests of the “godless West, hostile to the Russians because we [remain] Christian traditionalists.”[iii] Many observers think the invasion of Ukraine is fueled by the same mythology. If so, Putin’s nostalgia for the old Russian Empire would be more than the product of personal and political ambition. It would amount, in that case, to a crusade to recover the lost lands of Holy Rus’ and restore the Third Rome to its proper glory. To let Ukraine drift away into western decadence would betray the myth.
Historian Anna Geifman dismisses any speculation about Putin’s mental stability:
“He’s not crazy — he’s messianic,” she says. “What Putin says is logical, and consistent with his entire policy since 2008 … To sustain his legitimacy, the regime chose to delineate a more national-patriotic and anti-Western direction, grounding its appeal on a strong conservative, Orthodox [Christian] foundation … He may not use that term [the Third Rome], but he talks about the corruption of the West, with its ‘everything goes’ lifestyle that no longer differentiates between good and evil … Disregarding historical evidence to the contrary, Putin views Ukraine as part of the Russian family. Their independence is a slap in the face to his ideology.”[iv]
Putin is coy about his personal beliefs, though he wears a cross around his neck and makes a public display of his Orthodox rituals. Is his employment of Holy Rus’ rhetoric just a cynical ploy to move the masses, or is he a religious crusader at heart? And which would be worse? Either way, the resulting atrocities have been horrifically evil. The Russian messiah is a war criminal.
The unholy matrimony of religion and violence is always toxic, poisoning both church and world. We have seen too much of that right here in the United States. Many of the violent seditionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, thought they were enacting God’s will. They blew shofars to make “the walls of corruption crumble.” They waved Jesus banners and Bibles, dragged large crosses into the fray, erected a gallows for their enemies. Their madness was driven by a core belief: “God, guns, and guts made America.”[v]
It wasn’t just the confused angers of the mob at work. The madness was deployed by the highest levels of government. As Capitol police were being beaten and killed and politicians were running for their lives, the President’s Chief of Staff sent an email from the White House to the sedition-enabling wife of a Supreme Court justice:
“This is a fight of good and evil … Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues …”[vi]
For the seditionists, and a majority of white Evangelicals overall, Trump was a messianic figure, seeming to offer deliverance and rebirth to a desperate and despised people. “Donald Trump is in the Bible,” a rioter told a journalist. “Get yourself ready.”[vii]
The moral and theological collapse of right-wing Christianity in America echoes the capitulation of the Protestant German Church to the Third Reich. In the 1930s, most German clergy and theologians joined the Nazi party. Some were just playing it safe, but others were swept up in the nationalistic fervor. It became customary to conclude the baptismal rite by praying “that this child may grow up to be like Adolf Hitler.” And the head of the government Ministry of Church Affairs declared in 1935 that the Führer was “the bearer of a new revelation … Germany’s Jesus Christ.”[viii]
In the face of such absurd and blasphemous perversions of Christianity as we have seen in Russia, Germany, and the United States, what are God’s friends to do? Some would have us abandon religion altogether. Recent American studies have shown that many of the “nones” cite bad politics as their primary reason for rejecting Christianity, while many churches are themselves retreating from public life to avoid the contaminating risks of political action.[ix]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who came of age during the rise of the Nazis. During a fellowship year at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he absorbed Professor Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. If you avoid history’s messy struggles to preserve your purity, Niebuhr warned, the vacuum you leave will be filled by the demonic.
Attending an activist black church in Harlem also had an enormous impact on young Bonhoeffer. As his superb biographer Charles Marsh has written, “No longer would he speak of grace as a transcendent idea but as a divine verdict requiring obedience and action. The American social theology … had remade him into a theologian of the concrete.”[x] When, a decade later, he joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, “he would abandon any hope of innocence, incurring the guilt of responsible action. Of the two evils, it was the one he could abide.”[xi] The failed plot would cost him his life. He died in a concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated by the Allies. His body was never found.
Bonhoeffer had assented to a selective use of violence in order to interrupt mass murder. The unspeakable suffering of the many outweighed his own need for innocence. But he did not do it lightly, and the political captivity of the German Church made him keenly aware of how religion’s engagement with culture can easily go off the rails. He thought deeply about the ambiguities involved in repairing a broken world, but he knew that we cannot just think our way out of the human condition. We need something more, something divine. And words he wrote during the dark days of World War II still point the way:
“Who stands firm amidst the tumult and cataclysms? … The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion … The failure of ‘the reasonable ones’—those who think, with the best of intentions and in their naïve misreading of reality, that with a bit of reason they can patch up a structure that has come out of joint—is apparent. With their ability to see impaired, they want to do justice on every side, only to be crushed by the colliding forces without having accomplished anything at all. Disappointed that the world is so unreasonable, they see themselves condemned to unproductiveness; they withdraw in resignation or helplessly fall victim to the stronger … Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not their reason, their principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and relationship to God alone, they are called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.”[xii]
[i] https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/2022/03/18/putin-rallies-stadium-crowds-and-lauds-troops-fighting-in-ukraine/ The quotation is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, just after he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Putin used the Russian word for soul (душу (dushu) instead of the biblical “life.”
[ii] Dostoevsky’s speech, given in honor of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20050207093332/http://www.dwightwebber.com/pushkinspeech.html
[iii] Quoted in Binyamin Rose, “Russia’s Deep-Seated Messianic Complex,” Mishpacha: Jewish Family Weekly (Mar. 15, 2022) https://mishpacha.com/russias-deep-seated-messianic-complex/
[v] Emma Green, “A Christian Insurrection” (The Atlantic, Jan. 8, 2021).
[vi] David French, “The Worst Ginni Thomas Text Wasn’t from Ginni Thomas (The Atlantic, March 25, 2022).
[vii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Mass Delusion in America” (The Atlantic, Jan. 6, 2021).
[viii] Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 283, 271.
[ix] Ruth Braunstein, “The Backlash against rightwing evangelicals is reshaping American politics and faith” (The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2022).
[x] Marsh, 135.
[xi] Ibid., 346.
[xii] Ibid., 341.