David Carlson: Religion, nationalism an unsavory mix



A lesser-known aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the crisis the war is causing in the Orthodox Christian world.

Most people know that Russia is predominantly an Orthodox country, but few may have noticed how close the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, has been to Putin over the years and how supportive the patriarch has been of Putin’s invasion. He has even repeated the lies that Putin is spreading to justify his slaughter of innocent Ukrainian people.

Ukraine also has many Orthodox Christians in addition to numerous Catholics as well as other religious groups. So, in many cases, Russian Orthodox soldiers are bombing Ukrainian Orthodox churches and killing Ukrainian Orthodox civilians. What a disgrace.

The worldwide Orthodox Christian community, including the Russian Church, is “guided by” or overseen by Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul). The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, doesn’t have the power that the Pope has in Catholicism to discipline the patriarchs under him. That hasn’t stopped Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from speaking out forcefully in support of Ukraine and against Putin’s unlawful and yes, sinful, invasion of a neighboring country. Included in that condemnation is Bartholomew’s criticism of Kirill.

There is a warning here for all religious people. History is replete with examples of religion being coopted by nationalism and supporting, even instigating, inquisitions and pogroms. When religious leaders “sleep with” political leaders, the capacity of religion to play its intended role of standing for the sacredness of human beings is forfeited. In recent history, almost all German Christians supported Hitler and Nazism. Churches displayed the swastika prominently near the pulpits, and pastors gave communion to men and women who went from worship on Sunday to work in the death camps later that day.

It is easy, however, to point a finger at Russian Orthodox Christians who are far more “Russian” than they are “Christian,” or at German Christians who were far more “German” than they were “Christian.”

What about us American Christians? Here is one shameful example: What are we to say about white American Christians who are endorsing restrictive voting rules that will deny the right to vote of African-Americans (many of them fellow Christians)? Aren’t these white Americans less Christian than they are conservative Republican?

While there are clearly similar compromises with nationalism among many Israeli Jews and many Muslims — think of Iran or Saudi Arabia — I can speak, as a Christian, only to other Christians. As such, I believe phrases such as “Holy Mother Russia” or “Christian America” are not just wrong, but idolatrous.

Can anyone of my generation fail to remember the phrase “Kill a Commie for Christ” heard during the Vietnam War? The truest presence of the divine in the world isn’t found in land or borders on a map, but in human beings—every human being.

Anyone who reads my columns knows that I believe religion has an important role to play in politics. That role, however, is not to bless or anoint political parties, but to stand for values that transcend nationalism and oppose sins such as racism and bigotry.

Religion is meant to be the salt that savors or preserves the best in societies, but, as Jesus said, what good is salt if it has lost its savor?


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