Orthodox Christians are killing one another. There is silence from the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. They owe Putin. Kirill or Cyril became Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus' and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church on 1 February 2009. In 2012 he described the ex-KGB officer’s rule as a “miracle of God.”
Kirill has re-stated the historical justification for the invasion offered by Vladimir Putin. This is the same version of history Kirill has used before to argue against the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and in favour of keeping Ukrainian Orthodox Christians under the yoke of Moscow. Others have not been silent. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople called the invasion an unprovoked attack and a violation of human rights. Patriarch Daniel of Romania called the violence, “a war launched by Russia against a sovereign and independent state.” Metropolitan Onufry, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that’s still tied to the Moscow Patriarchate—literally, Kirill’s Man in Kyiv—compared the Russian invasion to Cain killing his brother Abel and addressed Putin directly. Sergei Chapnin, editor-in-chief of 'The Gifts' has written ‘Patriarch Kirill is not ready to defend his flock—neither the people of Ukraine nor the people of Russia—against Putin’s aggressive regime. Human suffering is not one of his priorities’. Patriarch Kirill is an accomplice to Vladimir Putin and has made the Russian Orthodox Church (once again) an agent of state power'.
Why is this so? The historical context must be taken into account. About 200,000 Orthodox clergy, many crucified, scalped and otherwise tortured, were killed during the approximately 60 years of communist rule in the former Soviet Union. This was reported by a Russian Commission in 1995. Some estimates state that 20 million Orthodox Christians were killed in Stalin’s purges. Before the Communist Revolution Church and State in Russia were held together, unified in the Tsar. Vladimir Putin restored that broken relationship and oversaw the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the reconstruction of some 23,000 churches that had been destroyed or fallen into disuse. To the delight of the Church leadership, Putin's policies have also taken a sharply conservative turn since his return to the Kremlin last year for a third term as President. Once viewed as a liberal, Mr. Putin has in the past 12 months embraced the church's positions on such sensitive issues as abortion and gay rights. "There are no conflicts between the church and the state," says Father Alexey Kulberg, an outspoken priest in Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.4 million near the Ural Mountains that separate Russia into its European and Asian halves. "The President's ideology for developing Russia coincides with the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church."
The Orthodox Church is subservient to Vladimir Putin’s political will. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church supports Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant defensive war and struggle for freedom. The Ukrainian President says that more than 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. The war cry is ‘Slava Ukarin’ – ‘Glory to Ukraine’ much repeated by western politicians and crowds marching in capital cities in the democratic world. All this is far from Jesus’ words to Peter ‘Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?’ (Matthew 26 : 52 – 54) It is the opposite of Jesus’ words to Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place’. (John 18 : 36).
How did we get from Jesus to what we are seeing in Ukraine? Via the Christian doctrine of ‘The Just War’. St Augustine (354 – 430 AD) codified Just War doctrine. In the face of armed hostility and advancement towards the city of Rome by tribes from northern and eastern Europe, Augustine considered the defence of others by violence to be morally justified. ‘They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”’. Christian Just War doctrine evolved. It came to be held that ‘Taking human life is seriously wrong but states have a duty to defend their citizens, and defend justice, protecting innocent human life and defending important moral values sometimes requires willingness to use force’. Five principles were laid down; ‘having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used’. A defensive war against an invading national army is legitimised by just war doctrine. Thus Ukraine’s war may be held to be just while Russia’s may not. But that is not how Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill see it. Most of the democratic countries of the world however support Ukraine’s claim to Just War. The United Nations vote of 193 on the matter on 2nd March 2022 resulted in 141 condemning Russia, 5 supporting and 35 abstaining. The 5 were Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria.
Just War doctrine belonged to the pre-industrial armaments and pre-nuclear era of human social evolution. It has been replaced by Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear weapons held by Britain are justified as a deterrent, that is, as defensive weapons not to be used first. People in the West do not think that nuclear weapons being held by China and Russia are defensive weapons and they fear a first strike against them. America did use atomic bombs against Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and this has always been justified in terms of shortening the length of the war and reducing deaths and causalities, especially among American soldiers. In other words, there are no moral absolutes; there are only shades of grey. For decades pacifist groups have protested on behalf of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Those tasked with the securities of nations advocate multilateral disarmament or retention for national safety.
What would have happened if all the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians had not taken up arms against Russia and meekly stood aside, turning their other cheeks, loving their enemies as Jesus taught, feeding them and offering them shelter? Russia would not have reciprocated. Ukraine would be part of Russia by now. What would have happened if Britain had done likewise in the face of Hitler? We would all be speaking German. There is a place for Christian non-violence. Christians became stretcher bearers during the First World War. Pacifists found useful employment during the Second World War. Chaplains and Padres ministered but did not carry weapons. Their Christianity allowed them non-violent support of their country but not the taking of another human being’s life.
The Book of Revelation is full of apocalyptic violence, prophesied for the end of time. Revelation’s message is very much about the overthrow of the powers that be in the world, specifically in John’s case, the Roman Empire. It is a book about God’s full sovereignty, permitting of evil in the world under licence for a time, and the ultimate triumphant destruction by Jesus Christ of His enemies and the salvation of those who name Him as Lord. But who or what changed Jesus of Nazareth into an eschatological warrior? Human imagination?
Jesus’ teaching and example constitute the highest possible aspiration for human beings. They also work as a restraint on human behaviour. They offer somewhere to go for respite and reconciliation. They can prevent the worst atrocities of which we are capable towards one another. They give the context for peace. Ukraine versus Russia is a Christian War. But at its depth it is a war of human power and violence, hatred and killing. This is a denial of Jesus Christ by people who have made idols of nation states and sacrificed the teaching and example of Jesus Himself for lesser things.
It is also a David V Goliath battle. Where are the legions of angels that Jesus talked about? Are they on Ukraine's side? Ministering? Saving? Miraculously helping, shielding, guiding? If Ukraine is not consumed may Ukrainians not consider that God was on their side?