(RNS) — While the secular media tries to guess Vladimir Putin’s motives in Ukraine, one important aspect of the current situation is largely ignored: religion.
I am not an expert in Eastern European history, but my background in Church history provides perspective on events in Ukraine. Indeed, the world is witnessing a new twist on an old tale – the quest to recreate an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval “Holy Roman Empire” – uniting political, economic and spiritual power into one entity to control the world. earthly. and the celestial destiny of the European peoples.
The dream gripping parts of the West is of a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a sort of supranational neo-Christianity. The theory is to create a partnership between American Evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in Western countries and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies – decadent secularism, a rising China and Islam. – for a glorious rebirth of morality. purity and Christian culture.
In the United States, the Trumpist religion is most often presented as “Christian nationalism”. It is, in fact, that. But it’s also more — it’s the American partner in this larger quest for Christian internationalism. No one has expressed this more clearly than steve bannonwho, despite his legal troubles, remains a significant force as a kind of philosophical apostle in right-wing Christian circles for a new christianity.
However, there have been a few bumps in the way of this Humpty Dumpty hope of reassembling a Christian Roman Empire. Interestingly (and I’ll leave that to future historians to settle) American evangelicals embraced this neo-medieval project by and large, having been primed for far-right nationalism by their penchant for racial and gender hierarchies. kind. The most democratic form of Protestantism will obviously sell its soul to keep blacks and women in their “place”.
The most difficult partner for neo-Christianity to recruit has been the Catholic Church. The election of Pope Francis in 2013 proved a major stumbling block for the emergence of a right-wing global political order. The new pope avoided all these projects in favor of opening the Church to the poor, the excluded and the marginalized with a social vision that questions capitalism and the destruction of the Earth. Neo-medieval Catholics – often referred to as “trad Caths” – did not take this well and mounted a decade of resistance to Francis that may well culminate in something like the Avignon Schism in the 14th century. So far, however, Pope Francis remains in charge.
Until recently, it appeared Vladimir Putin had successfully co-opted Orthodoxy in this globalist triumvirate, creating a surprising love party between American evangelicals and the Russian strongman. Again this week, the former Secretary of State and faithful evangelical Mike Pompeo praised Putin. Outside observers might think that Putin was firmly in control of the future of Orthodoxy vis-à-vis neo-Christianity.
Except he wasn’t. The Ukrainian Orthodox had other ideas.
And that’s a real problem. Because as far as Russian Orthodoxy goes, Kiev is essentially Jerusalem.
Over a thousand years ago, in the 980s, the pagan Prince Vladimir of Kiev consolidated the Rus people of present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine into one kingdom. When his emissaries reported to him of the glories of Christian Constantinople, Vladimir converted to their religion, brought his people into the Byzantine church through mass baptism, and married a Christian imperial princess. Under his rule, Kiev became a prosperous and peaceful city at the heart of a new Christian empire, with churches, courts, monasteries and schools, as well as civic programs to care for the poor. Known as Vladimir the Great, he was eventually canonized as Saint Vladimir and his memory is celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Anglicans and some Lutherans.
In the 1200s, however, Kiev suffered a number of assaults from rival Rus princes and Mongol invaders. Many Rus moved north and east to the new cities of Vladimir and Moscow where, under the tsars, the Russian church eventually became one of the richest and most powerful churches in the Orthodox world. . With the change, an Orthodox tradition founded under the auspices of Constantinople became a church under the authority of a patriarch in Moscow.
This created tensions between Ukraine and Russia for centuries, which in some ways came to a head during the Soviet period, with rival forms of orthodoxy choosing to either resist communism or cooperate with Moscow. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had several different Orthodox churches, only one of which had a close relationship with Moscow.
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In 2018, two of these Ukrainian churches and some Muscovite-leaning Orthodox parishes united and created a newly unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a fully independent national church body, free from Moscow’s control, headquartered in the former seat of Orthodoxy in Kyiv.
Putin and the authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow protested. They claim Kiev’s 1,000 years of Christianity as their own – essentially appropriating the history of the Ukrainian Church – to the point of erecting a gigantic (and controversial) statue of Saint Vladimir outside the Kremlin. Putin wants the weight of tradition on his side and Saint Vladimir validates his religious and political aspirations. There should be no doubt that Putin sees himself as a sort of Vladimir the Great II, a candidate for sainthood who restores the soul of Holy Mother Russia. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, would like to remind the Russians that they were the cradle of orthodoxy and political unity in Eastern Europe.
Putin is even more exasperated by the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as an independent body. While this fight between Moscow and Kyiv is historically significant for Russians and Ukrainians, it also has bigger global ramifications for the future. Katherine Kelaidis at Religious dispatches Explain :
On one side of the conflict is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the culturally and linguistically Greek cleric who has historically claimed the leadership of Orthodoxy. For a good part of a century, the Patriarch of Constantinople moved towards the West and undoubtedly many of its values. The current holder of the Apostolic Throne of St. Andrew speaks the language of human rights, religious freedom and trust in science. This position stems in large part from the precarious role of the Patriarchate as the representative of the minority religion in Turkey.
At the same time, the Patriarch of Moscow, having recovered much of the former political influence of his post in post-Soviet Russia, set about leading not only the traditionalist Orthodox cause, but acting as a support and symbol for religious conservatives around the world.
The conflict in Ukraine is about religion and what type of Orthodoxy will shape Eastern Europe and other Orthodox communities around the world (especially in Africa). Religion. This is a crusade, retaking the Holy Land of Russian Orthodoxy and defeating the Westernized (and decadent) heretics who do not bend the knee to the spiritual authority of Moscow.
If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand. Who will control the geographical home, “Jerusalem”, of the Russian church? Moscow? Or Constantinople? And what does it mean to claim this territory for Orthodoxy in the world? Will global Orthodoxy lean towards a more pluralistic and open future, or will it become part of the authoritarian neo-Christian triumvirate?
We don’t know how it will turn out. But – here’s the key point – economic sanctions probably won’t work if you think your side is divinely sanctioned. That’s what Putin thinks he has: God’s approval.
You just know that he wants to celebrate Easter – this one or the next – in Kiev.
For more on Bannon’s connection to Putin, listen yesterday’s episode of “Ruining Dinner», my podcast with Tripp Fuller. Fuller is a researcher in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh and host of the “Homebrewed Christianity” podcast.
(Diana Butler Bass is an award-winning author of 11 books, including her most recent, “Liberating Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Saviour, Lord, Way and Presence.” This article originally appeared on its substack “The cottage.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)