Lent continues alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and both don’t seem to be going according to plan—at least not Putin’s plan! I find myself reflecting on the shortcomings of leaders who think they are doing the right thing—but are way off base. Last week, I shared my thoughts on God’s invitation to pray for Putin as part of my Lenten discipline. This week, an article I read has me pondering the long-standing and complex connections between political and religious power.
The article was published online earlier this month and asks whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has religious roots. The answer, like so much of Christianity, is complex. I’ve written previously about how Christianity has been coopted by the powerful, going all the way back to Constantine in 313. Now, it seems that Putin is doing something similar.
You see, over a thousand years ago, a Slavic prince converted to Christianity, along with all his household and army. This led to both Ukraine and Russia becoming Christian, and eventually uniting as a single Christian nation. Putin is using that ancient and now-venerable history to claim that Ukraine was tragically separated from Russia a hundred years ago and now needs to be reunited under their one Orthodox Christian tradition.
Of course, the situation is more complex. There are multiple strains of Orthodox Christianity today, just as there are multiple Catholic and Protestant denominations in the West. Some areas of Ukraine are more influenced by Moscow’s Patriarchate than others (you can read further details in that article). The point I wish to make here is that we’re once again seeing the recurring theme of politicians claiming religious power to justify their actions. Our prior president (whom God also wishes me to pray for this Lent!) waved the banner of conservative Christianity here in America just as Putin is waving the Orthodox banner now, and just as Constantine claimed religious power after using it to win a war almost two thousand years ago.
So, what can and should we do with all this? I reflected on one response in my blog post linked above, noting Richard Rohr’s exhortation that “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” I’ve also stated that there are times when we need to move beyond words. Ultimately, we need to realize that religious power is an oxymoron—it isn’t really valid unless God is the one directing it. When political leaders claim religious power behind their actions, they’ve already lost their way.
Which gives me another pathway into praying for Putin as my Lenten discipline. May God show him the way home to a true faith that is based in the unconditional and peaceful love of Jesus, not a misguided history of imperial Christianity. I invite you to join me in that prayer.