Interpreting the Signs of the Times
It will not have escaped your notice that Russia is causing problems for Europe at the present time. It is unwelcome and it seems that Vladimir Putin is sure that the European countries are too weak to defend themselves against his centrally controlled army. So he is flexing his muscles and more than that he has grabbed two pieces of land from his neighbour Ukraine. But making him the baddie is not as straightforward as it may seem.
The Christian community that became the Russian Orthodox Church is traditionally said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, who is thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to one of the legends, Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by St. Andrew's Cathedral.
By the mid-10th century, there was already a Christian community among Kiev's nobility, although paganism remained the dominant religion. Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kiev to convert to Christianity, either in 945 or 957 AD. Her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Kiev a Christian state. In 988, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted Christianity as the state religion of 'Kievan Rus'. This date is often considered the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1988, the Church celebrated its millennial anniversary.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.” In his state of the nation address in mid-December, Mr. Putin also portrayed Russia as a staunch defender of “traditional values” against what he depicted as the morally bankrupt West. Social and religious conservatism, the former KGB officer insisted, is the only way to prevent the world from slipping into “chaotic darkness.” As part of this defence of “Christian values,” Russia has adopted a law banning “homosexual propaganda” and another that makes it a criminal offence to “insult” the religious sensibilities of believers.
Mr. Putin’s views of the West were echoed this month by Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church, who accused Western countries of engaging in the “spiritual disarmament” of their people. In particular, Patriarch Kirill criticised laws in several European countries that prevent believers from displaying religious symbols, including crosses on necklaces, at work. “The general political direction of the Western political elite bears, without doubt, an anti-Christian and anti-religious character,” the patriarch said in comments aired on state-controlled television. “We have been through an epoch of atheism, and we know what it is to live without God,” Patriarch Kirill said. “We want to shout to the whole world, ‘Stop!’”
Other figures within the Orthodox Church have gone further in criticising the West. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a church spokesman, suggested that the modern-day West is no better for a Christian believer than the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937, according to a 1995 presidential committee report. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums of atheism. “The separation of the secular and the religious is a fatal mistake by the West,” the Rev. Chaplin said. “It is a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally.”
A few days ago we learned that President Obama has enraged American Christians by urging them not to "get on a high horse" over atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, with the Dalai Lama in attendance, Obama said people should consider the history of "terrible deeds" committed in the name of Christ before describing violent extremism as a problem exclusive to Islam. Of religion's ability to inspire both compassion and murder, the President said: "Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. "And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. "In our home country, slavery and racial segregation all too often was justified in the name of Christ."
This comparison has drawn blistering criticism from politicians and pundits who claim the President should focus on defeating Isis instead of criticising Christianity. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore said: "The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime. "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”
Back to Vladimir Putin. It may not seem like it, but Vladimir Putin is a Christian and a worshipping member of the Russian Orthodox church. He has overseen the rebuilding of many churches closed and demolished by the communists and out of respect for the Russian orthodox Church refused to allow homosexual ideology to be taught in Russian's schools. Politically, he wants to re-establish Russia's lost world influence. Crucially, he thinks he has Christianity behind him. The American published Christian Post wrote, “Putin has long been a supporter of Christianity and Christian values within Russia. He has called for the Church to play a larger role in citizens’ social lives, better religion classes in schools, and television programs emphasizing religious values”.
ISIS has Islam behind it. So Godless Europe is now faced with two implacable enemies both of whom have faith based inspiration and justification for their global ambitions. Europe, Britain, Scotland have turned away from God and from Christianity. The combination of decades of moral degeneracy and now the new militant atheism have left Europe's peoples defenceless against enemies who might be growing strong enough to form outright attacks within our lifetimes. Islam is not the equal of Christianity and ISIS has an appalling ideology. Imagine the carnage if ISIS gained control of more countries and made inroads to Europe in any organised way. Russia has always been a centrally controlled state with a history of dictatorship, absolute monarchy and communist totalitarian government. If Russia took over some European countries, life would not be as good as it is at present, to put it mildly. Our freedoms would disappear as surely as would anyone who spoke out against the Russian occupation or took action against it. We have a lot to lose.
But there are clear aspects of our way of life in western Europe which invite judgement upon us. The free market economy is the engine of prosperity but as we saw in 2008 it has its own capacity for self destruction. Societies with such distinct differences between fabulously rich people and desperately poor people always hold within them the possibility of revolution. The Greek people voted for a new way of life and living in their recent election – an end to austerity with its paying back of debts, its unemployment and impoverishing. In Spain, street protests are seeking the same thing. We in Scotland narrowly avoided our own version of this political movement as expressed by the many new voters who took part in the 'Yes' campaign during the referendum. Both Russia and ISIS would destroy free market capitalism as we have known it.
Another aspect of western life which makes us vulnerable is our lax and free personal morality. Since the sixties the decent fabric of our society has been undermined. It was ever perfect of course and we do not claim that. But there was a coherent set of values to guide people through life. These have gone. Now we read in our papers of a so called celebrity woman telling us that her brother is the father of the unborn child of her pregnant wife. Did you get that? Is this so good? Does it not invite reaction? All empires have fallen due to internal corruption.
And the overarching issue which we must face as we look towards our enemies this century is that we as nations and societies in Europe have turned away from God. This began as a trickle and has turned into a river in speight. We no longer have the overarching defence of faith in God, belief in God's loving purposes, God's interest in us and protection over us. Largely - not completely gone. Purposefully and stridently the new atheists, the militant atheists have taken the initiative in schools and in circles of government. Did you see that this week in Scotland, the headmaster of Robert Douglas Memorial School in Perthshire banned The Scripture Union. The Scripture Union – what a day for Scotland – banning the most reasonable, helpful, devout, committed and successful Christian education organisation which has been present in schools for more than 150 years and works in 130 countries today. Does that not make you angry? Or at least concerned?
Interpreting the signs of the times. There are people who think that the Second Coming of Jesus might not be far away. There are people who think that the end of the world may not be far away. I do not share these views. Neither do I think that we can go on living the way we are without some reaction and retribution coming our way. We have two large scale implacable enemies at our gates. They want to devour us. One commentator on the radio this week said simply. “We have a choice – we can fight Putin now when he is not as strong or we can fight Putin later when he is stronger”. He was advocating war with Russia now. If NATO was true to its ideals, war would already have been declared over Ukraine. As a Christian I cannot advocate war though the Christian doctrine of the Just War may be brought into play as Europe seeks to defend itself.
The words of the Bible may come true but instead of referring to the end of the world, they may be fulfilled in another catastrophic episode of human self-destruction. This may not even be God's judgement on us but an expression of our worst unredeemed and godless life and living. Is there hope? Yes. Of course there is hope. Wise counsel and restrain may win the day. Even Putin's Christianity may help. Nothing will restrain ISIS except defeat and destruction. But we in this country are nowhere near returning to the Living God and until we do, the future for our children and theirs is uncertain.
As true Christians we have here no abiding city. This world is not our home. But a strong fortress our God is still. His city remains. Within us. Intact. Inviolate. Our faith can never be shaken and can never be lost. Praise the Lord.