War is Evil
So why does religion inspire it?
I’m not going to show that image. The one of the pregnant woman on a stretcher — was she in labor? — being rescued from a bombed maternity hospital in Ukraine. And I’m not posting the video clip of the older woman lamenting the lack of food and water as she walks through the rubble of her neighborhood. Or bodies being lowered into mass graves. You’ve most likely seen them all. And your heart is breaking. You are angry.
A picture of a devastated building, an incinerated tree, a twisted car, speaks strongly enough to the horror of this moment.
What is happening in Ukraine is a sin. It is evil.
And it will most likely get worse.
This week, these words appeared in the Washington Post:
The dilemma of how to help Ukraine without triggering a global conflict will only get more painful as Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps doubling down on his losing bet in Ukraine. The latest warning of Putin’s recklessness came from a senior British official, who warned Post journalists on Wednesday that “we’ve got good reason to be concerned about possible use of nonconventional weapons” by Russia down the road.
Putin keeps climbing the ladder of escalation. Blocked from the easy victory he expected in Ukraine, he is gradually turning that country’s cities into rubble.
. . . The Russians are bombing maternity wards, schools, churches. Our hearts tell us to intervene, whatever the danger — just as they would if we were watching a child being strangled before our eyes.
But our heads should counsel caution. The Ukraine crisis carries a genuine risk of direct military conflict between the United States and Russia. And that, in turn, could escalate into a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. The West needs cool heads, not hot ones, to successfully navigate what could become the most dangerous nuclear standoff in history — riskier even than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, because it is taking place against the backdrop of a hot shooting war.
People are worried. Really worried. I’m worried.
* * * * *
War is a sin. War is evil. And yet it continues. War is one of the rare things in human history that doesn’t vary. It is what humans do. Since before recorded time. Through the centuries. Now. You might say that our inhumanity to others is a sobering characteristic of being human.
That’s really depressing. And it is painfully true.
Those of us who are shaped by faith traditions and commitments know that something else is also painfully true. We’d like to believe that religion makes this inhumanity better — we preach good sermons about this, theologize endlessly on love of neighbor and peace — yet we know differently. While our atheist friends shout it accusingly from rooftops and across the internet, we whisper reality among ourselves: Religion is complicit in this endless cycle of evil, this continual escalation of ever-more immoral and vile forms of war and destruction.
Make no mistake: the war in Ukraine can rightly be seen as a religious war, a specifically Christian — even Orthodox Christian — one. Eastern Europe is an outlier in what was once Christendom. For in the east, Christianity is not in decline but is growing with both Russia and Ukraine showing sharp increases of those who embrace Orthodox Christianity. Unlike in western Europe, religion is flourishing and the church matters greatly in these countries.
As Russian troops descended on Ukraine, I wrote about the religious dimensions of the conflict, and other scholars and journalists are making similar historical and political arguments (here, here, here, and here). Of particular note is the work of Katherine Kelaidis at Religion Dispatches (I recommend all of her recent articles). While levels of practices as church attendance remain low (historically, Orthodox Christians don’t emphasize weekly attendance in quite the same way as Catholics and Protestants) in both Ukraine and Russia, adherents experience Orthodoxy as central to their national and political identities.
Indeed, in Eastern Europe, you can’t really separate “church” and “state” or “faith” and “nation” in the same way western Europeans and North Americans do. The further east in Europe one travels, the more one experiences church and state as part of the same mystical cloth of meaning, a single cloak of community and destiny. This is how it has been for more than a thousand years — and no one should expect it to change any time soon.
Christians may say, “Well, that’s not Christianity. Putin isn’t really a Christian. He’s using Christianity for nationalism.” But being personally religious isn’t the point in Orthodoxy — the point is being part of a people bound through a tradition blessed by divine favor. One’s feelings or depth of faith or piety has nothing to do with it. Indeed, history is replete with examples of emperors, strongmen, and rulers who prayed (perhaps less than authentically) at an altar as the vicar of their people, and then rose from their knees to unleash all the demons of Hell on the earth. It is an old story, one that dates back to the Emperor Constantine himself. Perhaps is isn’t “really” Christianity, but church history says differently. Christians are practiced at it.
But here’s the odd bit: both the Russians and the Ukrainians understand Orthodoxy to be entwined with nationalism. Yet, the Russians see this as a kind of divine manifest destiny to rule over the Ukrainians, and clearly the Ukrainians don’t. What’s going on?
* * * * *
I’d like to suggest that there exist kinds of Christian nationalism — some of which lean toward authoritarianism, and some of which hold other possibilities. And further, this distinction is important to make not only for the future of Christianity, but for a peaceable world.
In recent years, Christian thinkers and writers (myself included) have been exploring the deeper structures of faith. What forms of religion operate visibly and invisibly among us? Through what lenses do we see and interpret the world? Which patterns of faith and life lead to violence, which to flourishing?
When faced with questions of “structure,” Christianity has mostly been concerned with polity (how religions organize community). Does a church have bishops, who celebrates the sacraments, what constitutes faithful membership, and how are decisions made? Typically, these questions are internal to denominations and remain relatively obscure, but occasionally they create bigger rifts (like the arguments over women’s ordination and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people) that cause schisms and attract the attention of people outside of church.
In certain ways, the quarrel in Orthodoxy is an internal polity argument: Which Orthodox churches should have authority over other Orthodox churches? Is the Patriarch of Moscow the spiritual leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox church in Kyiv? Or does the Kyiv church stand as an ordered community without Moscow? Is the Patriarch of Moscow more important than other Orthodox patriarchs? Which Orthodox Patriarch has authority over growing churches in Africa? There is much tension in global Orthodoxy right now about who is in charge of what, and who holds authority over whom.
But this war reveals something other than ancient polity arguments and theological rivalries. The religious aspects of this war seem to reveal that there are two differing impulses of religious nationalism — the Russian one, which is fundamentally a hierarchical structure of domination (there’s not much question about this — the Moscow Patriarch said so); and the Ukrainian one, which (although it retains a hierarchical priesthood) appears to be moving toward a more open, potentially more inclusive one, a church that is national but (at least in theory), tolerant and more democratic.
The Russian vision of church and state is that of a spiritual and political pyramid, with the Patriarch of Moscow and Vladimir Putin, spiritual hierarch and neo-Tsar, at the top. Like all pyramid structures, power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few, and the goal is domination of both those in the lower ranks of the structure (dissent doesn’t matter) and any potential competitors (rivals must be eliminated). “Domination is an asymmetrical, or nonreciprocal, relation of determination of being,” wrote theologian Beatrice Bruteau, “of the fact that a being is, or of what it is, or how it can act, or of how it is to be valued. . . Domination determines being.”
Although I’m no expert in Ukrainian Orthodox theological developments, it is apparent to the world that their vision of nationalism and Orthodoxy is not that of Moscow for one completely obvious reason: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. In the more secular West, this might not seem a terribly big deal. But in an Orthodox country where the communal sense of identity springs from a historic Christian nationalism with a growing contemporary church, it is a very big deal.
In addition to electing a Jewish president, Ukraine’s constitution protects religious freedom. Those protections generally worked in areas controlled by the Ukrainians. But, in the eastern regions of the Donbas, pro-Moscow authorities forced non-Russian Orthodox churches to register and have waged a persecution campaign against Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even other Orthodox who do not recognize the authority of the Moscow church. Those clerics and political authorities were reasserting Moscow’s hierarchical dominance over church and state.
Yet, in areas of the country not in submission to the Moscow church, support is strong for religious diversity and full freedom and toleration for non-Orthodox and non-Christian groups. The Ukrainian church has also cooperated with the World Council of Churches who, in 2015, noted the commitment of that church for peace, unity and reconciliation. Ukraine is not a secular county by western definitions, it understands itself as ethnically and historically Christian — and yet nationally Christian with a Jewish president and religious freedom.
Ukraine was demonstrating that a different kind of political Christianity is possible. Theirs is more democratic, less hierarchical, and not a pyramid of dominance (if it were, they’d have to have a Christian in charge). Instead, they have attempted to move toward a national identity that is geographically communal, broadly Christian, and not boundaried by baptism or by doctrine. It isn’t Russian. They have been experimenting with a new, less exclusive, form of cooperative Orthodoxy with an eye toward pluralism and an openness to emerging questions of equality and global responsibility — an incomplete and sometimes tentative project to be certain, but a promising one nonetheless.
Their theological vision was, perhaps, reordered by the horrible episodes of WWII (where they did cooperate with the Nazis against Ukrainian Jews), Stalin’s famine and genocide, and Chernobyl. However they’ve arrived at this moment, they have been struggling to replace the pyramid with something different in both church and state. Ukraine sees a new future, one that does, indeed, involve its historic faith, but is open, tolerant, and creative, not merely as a vassal state of neo-imperial Russia.
Writing in 2004, Bruteau suggested that dominion structures could be contrasted with a “communion paradigm,” or the “covenant community,” which she described as:
. . . a symmetrical, reciprocal relation of enhancement of being: that beings may be, may become all that they can be, may act in maximum freedom and be valued for their incomparable preciousness. . . The drive to create comes forward as more fundamental and yields a deeper satisfaction than the desire for gain or protection.
The domination structure focuses on control and submission; the communion structure on liberation and friendship. Bruteau convincingly argues that the communion structure is the one taught and modeled by Jesus; the domination structure of what became Christendom was a betrayal of Jesus himself.
War is evil. War is a sin. And domination systems — even religious ones — always result in war. Always.
Yet Christianity — the religion of the Prince of Peace — wasn’t a slam dunk for domination. Its history is a long argument between these two structures. While domination became the major theme of Christianity, communion remained its minor (and agitating) chord. But the dream of a community of friends continues to inspire resistance against the pyramid. A religious war? Yes. It is a fight between Patriarchs for national authority and autonomy. Even more, however, it is a struggle between structures of religion — a vision of Christian domination or one of faithful human communion?
That struggle isn’t just in Ukraine. And it isn’t exclusively Christian. These skirmishes are taking place in every single major religion (and more than a few minor ones, too) on the planet right now. In some places, the struggle has provoked violence and war. In other places, it is mostly a cold war. Occasionally, it seems a mere family squabble. Domination or communion? That is the structural crisis that animates most everything most everywhere in religion right now — and it is the only global frame that makes sense of it all.
If Russia is proving anything, it is showing the world that we can ill-afford any kind of religion that seeks domination — and the future of the entire globe depends on deconstructing religious pyramids in favor of setting new tables of faith. Our very existence is at stake.
We must keep building more tables where all can sit to eat in peace. Humanity can’t let one man create mayhem.
— Chef Jose Andres
Creating something new was not a process of building or forcibly making, but of gestation. While the world was dominated by masculine notions of construction, my work was a silent, mysterious drawing together. I knit you together in your mother's womb, someone once said. The words echoed through history until someone else penned them on parchment in the poetry of the Psalms. The verse speaks of a God who weaves something new as cells split and divide and multiply in the dark and cavernous space inside us. Artists and writers know this place — a secret, soft cave of impulse and intuition.
— Emily Scott, from For All Who Hunger
There is no table long enough
to keep us from our own unspoken darkness
but, thanks be to God, and every power
beyond us, there is no table long enough
to hold the riches of darkness transformed,
to hold the wine raised and the bread
consumed, to hold every item of our shared bounty,
brought from every field of our endeavour,
in a promised future, that despite ourselves,
will always be destined to forgiveness.
— David Whyte, from “There Is No Table Long Enough”
The Cottage is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
We pray for the people of Ukraine,
for all those suffering or afraid,
that you will be close to them and protect them.
We pray for world leaders,
for compassion, strength and wisdom to guide their choices.
We pray for the world
that in this moment of crisis,
we may reach out in solidarity
to our brothers and sisters in need.
May we walk in your ways
so that peace and justice
become a reality for the people of Ukraine
and for all the world. Amen.
(from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development)