In my research and writing at the moment I am looking at the troubling alliance between the church and what might be termed the ‘spirit of empire’, that is, the felt need to dominate and control others. While the church may convince herself that this is purely for altruistic purposes—to save the lost or ameliorate society and so forth—the basic problem is that ‘empire’ is fundamentally contrary to the way of the self-denying Christ. Christ did not manipulate, coerce, or dominate: he loved others and sacrificed his life on their behalf just as, as I write, many Ukrainians are preparing to do for the sake of their children and grandchildren. As I argue in my forthcoming book, if ‘sin’ is essentially self-centredness then empire is self-centredness amplified.
Like you, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and, in light of the above premise, some thoughts come to mind that, I hope, may help you to process your own thoughts.
The issue of idolatry
There are many prohibitions in the Bible concerning idolatry implying that it is a major problem. Immediately, images of carved figures come to mind followed by the thought that here in the twenty-first century we have moved past such naivety. We no longer worship idols. But what does the word ‘worship’ mean? To worship something is to bow down to it, to serve and adore it. The word comes from a Saxon root meaning ‘to give worth to something’ reflected, for example, in the custom of addressing mayors here in England as ‘your worship’ or referring to ancient trade guilds as ‘the worshipful company of drapers’ or whatever, ‘worshipful’ meaning ‘esteemed’.
On this basis it is clear that worship is very much part of our culture; indeed, since antiquity is has been recognised as an integral and innate part of human nature. The Roman poet Ovid remarked, for example: ‘God gave man an upright countenance to survey the heavens and to look upward to the stars.’ Somehow worship is woven into our DNA. The curious thing about our society today is that while transcendent worship is generally disparaged, we still love to worship; despite our prideful sense of self-sufficiency, there seems to be an innate longing to find meaning in things greater than ourselves. Marketing executives exploit this by, for example, persuading us to buy certain branded clothes so as to be part of an exclusive, similarly-attired club; a false transcendence. Using the above terminology, sin (idolatry) involves devotion to things other than God (including oneself) and the word ‘devotion’, note, comes from a Latin root meaning to ‘dedicate by a vow, to sacrifice oneself’.
The issue, then, is not whether one worships but what or whom one worships. Since it involves ‘giving worth to something’—that is, investing in something considered more important than oneself—bank statements and diary entries are pretty reliable indicators of what one worships. Here in the ‘enlightened’ twenty-first century we clearly worship celebrities (people) and things (material wealth and status) and so forth, but there is a more insidious, damaging, and less obvious object of worship—the ideal: ‘the perfect family’, ‘the ideal home’, ‘a relaxing annual holiday on the beach’. People will scrimp and save to sacrifice to the latter and are destined for disappointment when it comes to the former. Idolatry, in other words, is far from dead. We are seeing evidence of this is the Ukrainian war.
Idols and ideals
Now if one were to look inside Vladimir Putin’s head (perish the thought) one would find an ideal named ‘Mother Russia’. As Russian history amply demonstrates, she is an idol that is particularly fond of the blood of her children. Now I am conscious as I write that the Apostle Paul warned us that ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual powers in the heavenly places’. Some suggest this refers to cosmic existential demons. Whether such beings exist I hesitate to say, but it is clear that ideas that mutate into ideals founded on such beings, real or otherwise, have extraordinary power. It is why the Apostle John warned with such compassion in his eyes: ‘little children, keep yourselves from idols’. For all idols—ideals—however benign, demand sacrifices but are never appeased—their appetites are never satisfied. Some are clearly more bloodthirsty than others.
In today’s context, it is helpful (though worrying) to consider two key issues regarding the Russian mindset.
First, against the backdrop of Stalin’s Russia of 1946, an American diplomat based in Moscow, George Kennan, was trying to help America make decisions about how to deal with the growing threat of Bolshevik communism. Some of his observations seem disturbingly prescient of today and are expressed in a document known as the ‘Long Telegram’. He underlines how Russia has no concept of working in partnership with others for mutual good but is bent on undermining and ultimately destroying capitalist systems worldwide:
Russian rulers, he observes, ‘have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for [the] total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromise with it.’
Mother Russia, in other words, represents a mindset that has no concept of mutuality, only domination. She sees surrounding nations as either vassals (Belarus) or enemies (Ukraine): there are no grey areas in between. Illustrating the extremity of this world view, Putin has stated that if Russia did not exist as a world power, the world might as well not exist—somewhat worrying in light of his command yesterday to put nuclear weapons on standby. Mother Russia, then, is exemplary of an idol that wants, above all else, to control others—including her own children. I emphasise this latter point because having travelled to Russia and visited places as diverse as Saint Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk and Omsk in Siberia, I found the Russian people to be generally warm and hospitable yet at the same time conscious of being watched by the authorities. As demonstrated by the arrest of some 6,000 anti-war protestors in Russia over the last few days, clearly this war is not supported by many ordinary Russians. Writing in 1946, George Kennan summarised thus:
[The Russian people] are, by and large, friendly to outside world, eager for experience of it, eager to measure against it talents they are conscious of possessing, eager above all to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Party line only represents thesis which official propaganda machine puts forward with great skill and persistence to a public often remarkably resilient in the stronghold of its innermost thoughts.
And noting how Marxism had found fertile soil in Russian insecurity about the world beyond its borders, Kennan observed:
In this dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, [Russian leaders] found justification for their instinct fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand.
So while Vladimir Putin appears to identify more with Peter the Great than Stalin, the first issue to face is that in the last 75 years or so, the idealism driving Mother Russia has changed little.
The delusion of certainty
The second issue concerns delusion: that Putin and his immediate entourage are living in a fantasy world of their own making, which they nevertheless believe is a true picture of reality.
Above the ordinary Russian people is what might be termed the institutional ruling class that holds the reigns of immediate power and controls the police, a sham judicial system, and so forth. However, the Kremlin is yet one more remove from the real world, isolated and insulated from reality. Worse still, the man himself appears to be utterly convinced that he has no need of advisors; he is (in his own eyes) the ultimate, omniscient dictator. Here, psychologist Iain McGilchrist’s observation is chillingly demonstrated:
‘The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong.’
So, in summary, we face a situation of idol-worship (‘idealism-worship’ if you prefer) by a man walled off from the real world, surrounded by yes-men, with access to a huge army and nuclear weapons, and motivated to sacrifice everything to satisfy his god even if it means spilling the blood of thousands.
So how do we respond? What lessons can we learn?
We need each other
First, we need to be alert to the fact that we all live—to a greater or lesser extent—in a fantasy world. As I have blogged in the past, this is of particular concern in relation to those from the charismatic world who claim to be prophets and have a hotline to God or, in the more conservative evangelical world, those who claim to have the only true interpretation of a biblical passage: ‘The Bible says’ and ‘God told me’ are equally damaging. The biblical antidote to this is the continued refrain that we belong to one another, that we possess gifts that may be used to bless each other, that we are members of a mutual ‘body’, that ‘you (plural) have the mind of Christ’, and so forth. We need each other. Humans flourish when they work together. I take heart from the fact that Putin’s plan for evil seems to have backfired in that the rest of the world has begun to wake up to this fact.
We need an honest ‘situation audit’
Second, it is yet another reminder of the need for honest, straightforward, common-sense dialogue about how things are. Half the battle of solving any problem is doing an honest appraisal, a ‘situation audit’. Sadly, politicians are known for their ‘doublespeak’ yet in this current crisis I note that honest words are becoming more common. This is a sign of hope. As believers in Christ, let us also speak honestly about the situation we are in and ask for God’s forgiveness and intervention.
We must reject the spirit of empire
Third, it is a salutary reminder that the church should emphatically reject the spirit of empire since this is ‘sin amplified’. I note, for example, that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues appear to have been mute in their criticism of this war. Could it be because Putin has made generous donations to the church, a church which he sees as one of Mother Russia’s institutions? —an institution that validates her imperial identity? And should we not question the Patriarch’s choice to wear a Breguet watch worth £19,000 in a city where, according to one estimate, some 100,000 children are living on the streets? (I myself have walked down streets in Saint Petersburg while desperate children tried to pick my pockets.)
Light always overcomes darkness
The current situation is a timely reminder about the dangers of idolatry but at the same time it is evident that the light does shine in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it; that there is goodness in the world and that many people recognising the ethical and moral bankruptcy of the Russian mindset evidenced by Putin and are responding accordingly. Like you, I have been inspired by the bravery of the Ukrainian people as they confront evil.
It is a reminder that the ancient commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods but me’ was not proclaimed by a jealous God needing his ego massaged. Tone of voice is important here; these words are also spoken with compassionate eyes. Rather, it is a warning against worshiping idols, those things that, ultimately, are never satisfied, enslave us, and lead to death. It represents an invitation to return to the fire of love at the heart of the universe where true life is found. It concerns not only our need to worship God but, as Jesus insisted, that we should also love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves.