I remember once having a rare conversation with my father about religion. I was seventeen at the time and had started to attend a local Pentecostal church whose services I much enjoyed. My father hardly spoke about religion, but on this occasion he warned me to have nothing to do with it because of all the wars it has caused. I am glad to say that I did not take my father’s misguided advice and that my father became a Christian within hours of his death. I look forward to seeing him once more in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21).
What my father was articulating was the frequent accusation among critics of religion that religion is disproportionately the cause of violent conflict. This view seems plausible. As an example, the Crusades against Middle Eastern Muslims readily come to mind. Perhaps we might think of Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants, which killed twenty per cent of the German population. A tragic example from my own country has been the violence between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants. Now we have commentators such as Giles Fraser reliably informing us that Vladimir Putin’s pitiless invasion of Ukraine is motivated by his version of Russian Orthodox Christianity1. It does indeed seem to be true that religious rivalries turn to violence with horrifying consequences and that a religious war has once more erupted in Europe. How can we Christians respond to these profoundly disquieting facts?
It is important not to deny that religion, including Christianity, has been the cause of conflict. However, there are three lines of argument that we can run in reply. First, Christian theology has sought to limit the frequency and extent of wars. Second, war is more a problem for secularists than for Christians since historical data reveal that wars are caused more frequently by secular causes than religious ones. Finally, Putin’s ‘Christian’ crusade in Ukraine is a denial of fundamental teachings on which all Christian belief is founded.
Thomas Aquinas’ Just War Theory
Perhaps the most well-known element of Christian restraint on war was first associated with Augustine and it has come to be known as the Just War Theory. However, its first systematic and extended exposition is found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century theologian.
Aquinas’s analysis is very detailed, but for the sake of brevity, it can be expressed according to four broad principles. In essence, a war is justified if it meets all the following conditions:
- It has been called by a sovereign authority.
- Is motivated by a just cause.
- Those who fight the war have morally correct aims.
- The war meets qualifying conditions such as its proportionality (the good intended outweighs the evil) and the sparing of non-combatants.2
If these Christian principles had been consistently adhered to in global history, the number of wars would have been dramatically decreased.
Concerning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that civilian massacres in cities such as Bucha and Borodyanka render his war as unjust in terms of its conduct (jus in bello). In terms of its cause (jus ad bellum), Putin’s war is unjustified as it is an assault on a sovereign nation. Putin’s justification that he is liberating Ukraine from Nazism, which could arguably be regarded as a just cause of war, is laughable when we consider that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Ukrainian Jew, some of whose ancestors perished in the Nazi Holocaust!
Secular Causes of War
In his comprehensive examination of the causes of war throughout world history, Meic Pearce has come to the conclusion that most wars are not the consequence of religious causes, but are the result of other factors such as the desire for resources, martial glory and the expansion of the state.3 The four most costly wars in human history in terms of casualties had no religious cause: World War Two (50-60 million lives), the Tai-Ping rebellion in China (around 20 million lives),4efn_note] World War One (around 15 million lives), and the Russian Civil War that followed on from the Bolshevik Revolution (around nine million lives). Of course, if the religiously-minded soldiers of the Thirty Years War had had access to machine guns and bombers, they too would have used them. Yet, on the basis of this data, it is impossible for secularists and critics of religion to take the moral high ground with religious believers. Non-religious causes are more commonly the cause of war than religious causes and religious causes are not necessary for extreme bloodshed to occur.
Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is motivated by reasons other than the religious. Infamous for regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the twentieth century, Putin is pursuing his irredentist dream of welding together the territories of Communist Russia but without the Communism. Since 1999, Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been forcibly retained within or absorbed by the Russian state. In 2014, the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia. Ukraine, the homeland of one time Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, is now firmly within Putin’s sights. When we think of Putin, it is best to think of him not so much as Lenin but more as Peter the Great, the empire-builder, whose statue takes pride of place in Putin’s office.
Ukraine is not only Russia’s target because it was once part of the Soviet empire. The nationalist vision of a ‘Greater Russia’ has also energised the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Greater Russia means bringing all Russians outside of Russia within the Russian state. Putin therefore lays claim to the Baltic states and North Kazakhstan with their Russian majority populations. He lays claim also to the whole of Ukraine as he regards Ukrainians as Russian. If the Ukrainians think otherwise, it is, according to Putin, because they have been tricked by the West and the Ukrainian government whom he describes as Nazis. Hence, Putin’s claim that one of the reasons for the invasion is to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine.
Strategic considerations are also a significant part of Putin’s foreign policy. The security of Russia’s western flank is essential to Putin as it has been to all Russian leaders since the end of the Second World War. For those not living adjacent to or within the proximity of hostile nations, it is hard to grasp the profound importance of this issue for Russian leaders. Historically, the greatest threats to Russia have come from the West. The Swedes in 1708, the French in 1812 and again in 1853 alongside their British, Turkish, and Italian allies, the Germans and the Austrians in 1914 and the Germans again in 1941, and an Allied coalition seeking to suppress Communism in 1918, have launched devastating offensives on Russia. The Warsaw Pact, constructed soon after the Second World War between Soviet Russia and its East European allies, provided the Soviets with a series of buffer states between them and the newly formed western alliance called NATO. From Putin’s perspective today, NATO poses a more potent threat as former Warsaw Pact members are now part of NATO and many directly border Russia. By securing Ukrainian loyalty once more, Putin will have an ally to protect his south western border.
Clearly Putin has sufficient reasons to invade Ukraine without the motivation of religion. But to understand comprehensively his policy towards Ukraine, the religious component cannot be ignored. However, Putin’s so-called Christian beliefs on this matter are a blasphemy.
Putin and the Dream of Holy Rus
Putin’s mingling of politics, strategy, and religion is something that the secular West does not comprehend. When Tony Blair’s public relations manager Alistair Campbell was asked about Blair’s devotion to Catholicism, he famously replied, “We don’t do God.” In other words, whatever the prime minister’s religious beliefs, they played no part in determining policy, or that is what Blair and Campbell wanted the British electorate to think. The American Republic is founded on the separation of church and state. The state guarantees the protection of freedom of religion, but is in turn not determined by religion. Religious beliefs are regarded as things to be kept private, whereas political beliefs are by their nature public things.
Not so with Putin for whom Russian Orthodox Christianity is an integral part of Russian identity. Where did Russian Orthodoxy begin? In Ukraine and in Kiev to be specific. When the Byzantine Emperor Basil II was faced in AD 988 with a rebellion from his generals, to secure an ally who would help him suppress the revolt, he negotiated a marriage treaty between his beautiful sister and Vladimir, King of Rus. Vladimir was flattered to be the future spouse of an imperial princess. However, there was another condition in the treaty: the pagan Vladimir had to convert to Christianity, the religion of his soon-to-be bride. This he duly did and additionally ordered the people of Kiev to the River Dnieper to be baptised also. From here Christianity spread across Russia and combined with the love of mother Russia, made for a heady brew of religious devotion and nationalist pride. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks with their storming of Constantinople in 1453, leadership of Eastern Christianity passed to Moscow which in the eyes of the Russians became the Third Rome.
Putin wishes to reunite the ancient lands of Russian Orthodoxy once more under the control of Moscow. Belarus, one of the homelands of Russian Christianity, is a firm ally, but Ukraine and its desire to be part of the EU, its embrace of Western culture and its increasingly successful democratic system, is spinning out of the Russian orbit. The recent decision by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to separate from the Russian Orthodox Church demonstrated to Putin’s alarm that the Ukrainians do not see their spiritual destiny as tied to that of Russia’s. Therefore, in Putin’s mind, the time had come to act before it was too late. Ukraine and its people are sacred to Russian Orthodoxy and they could not be allowed to fall into the embrace of the West whose Christian foundations are collapsing. Hence, his tanks rolled over the border on 24 February.
To understand Putin’s behaviour is not to justify it. Not everyone who claims to act on behalf of Christianity is in fact doing so. As Christians we need to emphasise to our critics that the spread and maintenance of Christianity of any kind is not by force of arms. The method by which Christianity grows is through the preaching of the Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) and the conviction of the Holy Spirit of sin and the need for repentance (John 16:7-9), not by violence.
Moreover, Christianity is not identified with any particular territory. It is a world religion preached to all and which draws its disciples from all nations, ethnicities and cultures (Revelation 7:9). Jesus made it very clear to Pontius Pilate, a representative of another empire-that of the Romans-that that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). The notion of a religious empire centred on Moscow therefore is not God’s dream. God will build his church (Matthew 16:17-18) and does not need the help of an autocrat whose military bombs children’s hospitals. When God establishes his kingdom on earth, it will be when Jesus returns and it will be his doing and no other’s (Luke 17:22-37; 2 Peter 1:10, 11).
We need also to make clear that Russian Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox theology in general are opposed to Putin’s crusader instincts. From the many aspects of Orthodoxy that we might choose as examples of this opposition, perhaps the most pertinent for present purposes is the way that the Orthodox do not regard themselves as separate and superior to Western Christianity, but they are committed to the truths of the historic Christian Councils and the creeds that they formulated which are binding on all Christians.5 Furthermore, like Western Christianity, Eastern Christianity regards Christianity as inherent to no specific territorial space, but sees in terms of global reach. Thus we see Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world in such places as Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Russian Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Church in Russia, but it is not a chauvinist theology; rather, it is part of a worldwide brother and sisterhood that regards humans sacredly made in God’s image.6 It is no surprise, therefore, that over 275 Russian Orthodox priests around the world have denounced Putin’s fratricidal war in an open letter.7
We Christians ought therefore to be confident with regards to the criticisms we receive that our faith is warmongering and that Putin is the latest example of it. Our theology of just war places significant restraint on the impulse for conflict. Historical data demonstrates that war is started far more frequently for non-religious than for religious causes. Putin’s desire to create a Russian Orthodox empire is a blasphemy for he claims to be doing it in the name of God and yet it is clearly in opposition to God’s will that the Gospel advances peacefully. Finally, we have the example of Jesus himself. A man who is also God who never did violence to anyone, but who suffered violence for the sake of humanity’s salvation. It is to him that we ought to turn now in prayer for the sake of peace in Ukraine.
- Giles Fraser, “Putin’s spiritual destiny: The religious president wants to rebuild Christendom”, UnHerd, 24 February 2022, https://unherd.com/2022/02/putins-spiritual-destiny/ (accessed 8 April 2022, 08:11). See also Tim Costello, “Vladimir Putin: a miracle defender of Christianity or the most evil man?”, The Guardian, 6 March 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/06/vladimir-putin-a-miracle-defender-of-christianity-or-the-most-evil-man (accessed 8 April 2022, 08:45).
- “Thomas Aquinas – Just War Theory from Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 40”, https://aquinasonline.com/just-war/ (accessed 8 April 2022, 11:00).
- Meic Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (Downers Grove and Nottingham: IVP, 2007), 53.
- Ibid., 28.
- Martin Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, (London: SPCK, 2013), xix.
- Ibid., 82.
- Jack Jenkins, “Eastern Orthodox priests in Russia denounce invasion of Ukraine at their own peril”, The Washington Post, 9 March 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/03/09/eastern-orthoodox-priests-russia-denounce-invasion-ukraine-their-own-peril/ (accessed 8 April 2022, 16:36).