When I was 22 years old, I got a tattoo of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky on my arm. I would go on to credit his book The Brothers Karamazov as reigniting my love of Christianity after years of growing up in suburban evangelicalism. The dedication to love and mystery that seemed to inhabit the Eastern Orthodoxy presented in the novel both fascinated and inspired me. Years later I would even attend a book study on that same novel at a local Russian Orthodox church. I, a wandering protestant, was warmly received there and became an admirer of both Eastern Orthodoxy theology and style.
When the war in Ukraine broke out within the last month in bloody and ruthless fashion at the hands of Vladimir Putin and the Russian state, I immediately searched to find what the response from the Russian Orthodox church would be. My admiration for the church led me to believe that I would find a strong rebuke of Putin’s actions from church leadership. Instead, I was dismayed to see Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox church, express support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an invasion characterized by the brutal killing of Ukrainian civilians, with the chilling assertion that the invasion was justified due to Ukraine’s embrace of Western values and support of gay rights.
My reaction was partly due to the fact that I was not up to speed with the history of Kirill and Putin. I learned recently in an interview with Cyril Hovorun, Orthodox Archimandrite and professor at the Stockholm School of Theology, on The Unbelievable Podcast that the Kremlin and the Orthodox church had entered into a collusion of power shortly after Putin’s election as President.
Hovorun describes how when Putin came to power, “there was an offer from the Russian church, an offer of a sort of ideology to substitute the Communist ideology. … And it was exactly this idea of the ‘Holy Rus’ … And the Russian church managed to offer, I would say to sell, this ideology to the Kremlin, to Putin, and the Kremlin adopted it… And when I listened to Putin just a week ago before he launched his attacks against Ukraine, I heard the voice of the church.”
What strikes me most about Hovorun’s description is the idea of the church reaching out to the political power of the state with an offer to collude with it on Nationalistic terms. The concept of Holy Russia concerns the idea that Russia and several of the surrounding countries, such as Ukraine and Belarus, are part of a holy land established over the last thousand years, and that it is a holy duty carried out by both the church and state to protect this Holy Land from the influences of the West.
Such an agreement between church leaders and authoritarian political leaders should seem chillingly familiar to us in America. It was in January 2016, in a campaign speech at a Christian college, that Donald Trump promised that if he was elected president of the United States, that “Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that” (qtd. in Dias).
In the election later that year, 81 percent of white evangelicals seemed to accept that deal when they helped to vote him into office. At that moment, like the agreement made between the Russian church and Putin, the church threw its hat in with the strong arm of the state. Trump had already tipped his authoritarian hand in with a preview of his penchant for lawlessness as it was in this same speech that he infamously stated, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”
We have seen the repercussions of that agreement between this large swath of the American church and Trump in the frothing forms of Christian Nationalism that have emerged in the U.S. One needs to look no farther than the crosses and Jesus signs held high by those storming the capitol building in Washington DC, to use what power they still shared with Donald Trump to disrupt the functioning of democracy in murderous fashion.
The idea of something like a “Holy Russia” as a Holy Land made special by God should not be unfamiliar to Americans either. Many of the original European settlers brought this view with them to the new world, the Puritans most of all, as seen in ideas like John Winthrop’s Puritan colony as a “city upon a hill.” Puritan descendant and theological leader of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, once planted the eschatological seed in American theology that concerning God’s ultimate renewal of all mankind, “this great work of God must be near. And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.”
Edwards believed it was specifically America’s chosen destiny to fulfill God’s ultimate will. When we consider the similarities that America shares historically with Russia when it comes to deep-seated beliefs that our countries represent some holy reiteration of God’s chosen people, and then combine that with these beliefs being used to infuse dictatorial, and cruel, strongmen with great power, we see the terrible danger that is being posed.
This current crisis causes us to ask, what if they had succeeded in their goals to upset democracy and handed power to a burgeoning autocrat? What would have happened if the representatives of the American Church that yearned for political power aligned themselves with a dictator and helped to hand him control of the country? What would the fruit of such a union be? Perhaps this moment of Vladimir Putin, authoritarian dictator, marching in-step with the leader of the Russian Orthodox church, has shown us the true consequences of Christian Nationalism: slaughter in the name of Christ.
Jesus warned us about the combination of religion and earthly human power, when he denied a similar offer made by Satan himself. In the book of Matthew, while Jesus is fasting in the desert, it is written that “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Matthew 4: 8-10). It often seems that the temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness are ones which humanity must also confront time and time again. So, we must take this moment to learn from Christ that our allegiance is to God, and we “serve him only,” for when the allegiance of the church is tied to the aspirations of the state, we have lost any moral authority, and we have departed from the way of Jesus.
As we watch the current tragedy unfold in Ukraine, our hearts and prayers must be with the suffering, and we must pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will change the heart of Patriarch Kirill and the leaders of the Russian church, but at this flashpoint of outrage that has so uniquely unified the people of America, we must let the horror we feel in our hearts as we gaze upon the violent fruit of the oxymorons of Christian Nationalism and Holy War cause us to remember how close America has come to handing the reins of our religious conscious to authoritarian power, and how seriously that threat still looms on our horizon.