Living by the Sword: Putin and the Perils of Messianic Politics

Vladimir Putin and the icon of the Savior “not made by hands,” (Attibution: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)

“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]

Vladimir Putin observers an Orthodox Epiphany ritual imitating the baptismal immersion of Christ.(Attribution: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo)

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.

Empty strollers in Lviv represent the children killed in the war’s first 3 weeks.

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]

MAGA Jesus at the January 6 insurrection.

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

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/

[iv] Ibid.

[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.

Can this be happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

image

If I had a bell,
I’d ring out danger,
I’d ring out a warning …
all over this land.

– Peter Seeger & Lee Hays

I want to write about something other than politics or violence—theology, art, music, film, nature—but it is impossible to ignore the unsettling spectacle of hate and fear in Cleveland this week. Thankfully, it has already set off a multitude of alarms in the mainstream media, which has for too long been complicit in the normalization of the Trump phenomenon as just another option.

The editorial board of the Washington Post has taken the unprecedented step of declaring, at the very outset of the general election season, that Donald Trump is not only “uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament,” he poses “a threat to the Constitution … a unique and present danger.” His presidency “would be dangerous for the nation and the world.”

Has a major American newspaper ever issued such stark condemnation of a presidential candidate?

Many others are joining in the chorus. The Bloomberg editorial board says that Trump’s dystopian rhetoric in Cleveland was “the most disturbing, demagogic and deluded acceptance speech by any major party nominee in the modern era.” Ezra Klein, declares that “Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.” The headline for Klein’s indictment reads: “Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.”

We are familiar with the customary partisan hyperbole of an election year, but the current cries of alarm seem radically different. We have seen American leaders exploit the politics of resentment before. But such calculated manipulation of fear and xenophobia by an unprincipled practitioner of arbitrary will seems more suggestive of Germany in the 1930’s than anything in our own history.

Although Trump’s acceptance speech attempted to paint a patently false picture of a America in extreme chaos and distress, the United States in 2016 is not the Weimar Republic. And Trump is not Hitler. But there are some parallels worth thinking about. Let me offer a few citations from Richard J. Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich.

Describing the growing electoral success of Hitler’s roughneck party in the 1930 election, “the Nazi gains reflected deep-seated anxieties in many parts of the electorate … more and more people who had not previously voted began to flock to the polls. Roughly a quarter of those who voted for the Nazis in 1930 had not voted before.”[i]

The cult of the strong man who would fix everything quickly and easily made other leaders seem ineffective and weak by comparison. A desperate and aggrieved population was swept away by a vague and undefined promise of a better future.

“Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic… The vagueness of the Nazi program, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing.”[ii]

The German political and economic establishment had significant reservations about Hitler and his movement, but they believed that he could be controlled and guided once he was in power. Eric D. Weitz, in his excellent piece, “Weimar Germany and Donald Trump,” sees the same cynical capitulation going on today: “Today’s Republicans and similarly-minded figures in Europe are like the conservatives who put Adolf Hitler in power: delusional about their influence, playing dangerously with the structures of our democracy.”

In exchange for returning right-wing ideology to the White House, more traditional conservatives are willing to endow Trump with an aura of legitimacy. He’s not so bad. It’s all an act. He can be controlled. But as Hitler said in 1930, “once we possess the constitutional power, we will mould the state into the shape we hold to be suitable.”[iii] Or as Trump would put it: “It will be tremendous. Believe me.”

One final thought. As a person of faith, I found the frequent linkage of God, guns and hate in Cleveland to be sickening and blasphemous. It’s not the Christianity I know, and as Holden Caulfield would say, “Jesus would puke” if he had been forced to watch (I imagine he just went fishing this week). But it troubles me to consider how easily piety can be seduced into something demonic.

As Richard Steigman-Gall has pointed out in his study of Nazi conceptions of Christianity, it became a postwar trope to dismiss Nazism as anti-Christian. We venerate the costly resistance of Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, and the Confessing Church. But there were also many German churchgoers who knelt willingly at the altar of power, hate and fear. ”Whereas millions of Catholics and Protestants in Germany did not think Nazism represented their interests or aims, there were many others who regarded Nazism as the correct Christian response to what they saw as harsh new realities.”[iv]

Lord have mercy.

 

 

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[i] The Coming of the Third Reich (London/New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 261

[ii] ibid., 265

[iii] ibid., 455

[iv] The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 262