Glynn Cardy 13th March 2022
The progressive author Matthew Distefano recently penned a piece about Vladmir Putin’s Christianity. Putin’s of the Russian Orthodox faith, and while his sincerity has been questioned by some in his former inner circle[i], the leaders of that denomination don’t. They’ve even called him ‘a miracle of God’.
It is hard to equate the man who is currently authorizing the bombing of various cities across Ukraine, and killing many in the process, including of course non-combatants, with a follower of the one who said, ‘Love your enemies’, and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Mind you, looking back over history, Putin would not have been the first autocrat to proudly identify as Christian and murder innocents. There are Christian theologies that justify murder. Bad theologies.
In the past I have been publicly critical of Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, and see no reason now to change my opinion. He mistakes the ideology of Russian nationalism and expansionism to be God’s will. Allegiance to your homeland can distort your Christianity. As can cuddling up to autocrats and other rich and powerful persons in order to have their patronage.
A week ago, Kirill wrote to an archbishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church saying, “the termination of the commemoration of the Primate of the Church” (this language means they’ve ceased praying for Kirill – he’s the Primate); (and they’ve ceased) “not because of doctrinal or canonical errors, or delusions, but because of, discordance with certain political views and preferences, is a schism, for which anyone who commits it will answer before God, not only in the age to come, but also in the present.” The Patriarch sees the cessation of prayer for himself, their leader, as not only disloyalty but the sin of schism, for which there are allegedly eternal consequences.
The danger in cuddling up with the powerful is that you start to emulate them, with Kirill mistaking allegiance to the faith as allegiance to himself. Putin shares the same mistake, seeing criticism of himself as criticism of Russia. Disloyalty, treason, can be the charge. Time and again men in power fall into the error of seeing criticism of themselves as criticism of their organisation or country or church, and then seek to punish the critics. This is the theology of egotism.
I wonder as numbers of dead soldiers start arriving back in their Russian homeland whether the alignment of church and state will begin to falter. Unfortunately, with the ‘theology of egotism’ in the ascendancy, I doubt it.
But note there are many Russians opposed to the invasion of Ukraine, and many taking risks in speaking up, speaking out, getting out on the streets… and some are being arrested and worse. You have to be tough to be a protester in Russia.
There are priests are among them too. Like Fr Ioann Burdin. He was arrested for preaching in such a way that allegedly ‘discredited the country’s army’. Like 250 fellow priests who wrote an open letter critical of the invasion. When your fellow citizens in the military are murdering your neighbours, some your Orthodox Christian neighbours, can you as a Christian, a priest, remain silent? If they did the very stones would cry out.[ii]
Make no mistake the Church, Christianity, is on trial here. There is no neutral ground. You either align your faith with the hierarchy, like Kirill, who are trying to justify the invasion of a neighbouring country and the murder of many of its citizens, or you protest. You either align with the bad theology that kills your neighbour or the good theology that tries to protect your neighbour.
Kevin Garcia, an American spiritual director, has written a book titled “Bad Theology Kills”. He is referring to the toxic ideas within many churches, and actions arising from such toxicity, that has destroyed the lives of queer people, people of colour, women, and many who revolt against being (to quote Pink Floyd) ‘another brick in the wall’.
Bad theology kills. And it is killing right now in Ukraine as one group of Christians follow the orders of the Putin (the ‘hope for the world’ he was called by some American Christian leaders) to expand their homeland, and another group of Christians, of the same denomination, defend their homeland.
Theology that does not criticise the actions of the powerful when they seek for their own ends to hurt and destroy others is bad theology.
Theology that does not stand up to bullies is bad theology.
Theology that tells us to think about ourselves, our salvation, what is best for us, rather than encourages us to think about others, the salvation of all, what is best for all, is bad theology.
Theology that prioritizes the trinity of ‘me, myself, I’ is bad theology.
Theology that is afraid to tell us to make do with less, to not give in to the desire to acquire, to aggrandize, to own – as if this is what brings security – is bad theology.
Theology premised on possessing – land, loot, loyalty – is bad theology.
Bad theology makes bad neighbours. You can’t love your neighbour when you are seeking your own good, when you use bullying tactics, when you motivated by the desire to have more and your neighbour less.
How do we know bad theology is bad? Well, simply, it brings harm to people’s lives. It doesn’t bring love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (to quote St Paul). Instead, it brings hate, fear, strife, greed, jealousy, egotism, dominance, war, and death.
Bad theology is not necessarily the conservative doctrines that Christians have long debated. You know doctrines about the virgin birth, or the physical resurrection, or the ascension, or eternal judgement… There are a lot of good people who believe these doctrines which I’ve long discarded. ‘Bad theology’ doesn’t mean theology different from mine. Heaven forbid!
But giving such conservative doctrines a divinely infallible unchangeable status can lead to not just increasing irrelevancy in the modern scientific age but to a potential toxicity when taken and applied literally. If words about God (theology) are divorced from the social and political realities in which people live, such words/theology are at best irrelevant and at worst used as tools, as myths, as manipulative ideas to keep the subjugated submissive, to keep the lowly low, and to keep powerful in power.
In the end what I’m talking about is simply being a good neighbour. A good neighbour respects those over the fence. Respects their differences, engages with their ideas, supports them in their needs and vulnerabilities, and looks for opportunities to break bread and share joy together. A good neighbour cares about the whole neighbourhood, building an ethos of care and cooperation, looking after the trees, the birds, the land so that in years to come others will continue to benefit from this neighbourhood.
A good neighbour knows that the whole neighbourhood is important. As Abhijit Naskar said in our reading this morning, ‘stop this ‘mine and yours’ thinking’. Stop the tribalism that believes I’m better, that my god, my culture, my way is superior. Stop the tribalism that builds suspicion of the neighbour, that builds walls of distrust, and the toxicity of envy. Stop the tribalism that leads to quarrels, to strife, and to killing. Instead embrace the ‘our’ – our planet our neighbourhood our survival.
To love your neighbour as yourself, as both Judaism and Christianity exhort, you must find the great love in yourself that which is not threatened by the other, by difference, or by change. You must find that great love within yourself, knowing that you are worthy of such love not because of anything you own, have done, or have inherited. This is a love that doesn’t need egotism, it doesn’t need to beat others, or bolster itself with adoration. This is a love that wants to give, to be in mutual relation, to be a friend as well as a neighbour to those over the fence.
Good theology is being a good neighbour.
Bad theology kills those over the fence.
[i] Like Sergei Pugachev
[ii] This phrase, ‘the very stones would cry out’ (Luke 19:40), means that truth still stands on its own accord.