Blessed Aren’t the Warmakers

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, needs to remind Vladimir Putin of Christ’s call to be peacemakers.

A body covered with a blanket lies among damages in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv on March 18, 2022, as Russian troops try to encircle the Ukrainian capital as part of their slow-moving offensive. -Authorities in Kyiv said one person was killed early today when a downed Russian rocket struck a residential building in the capital's northern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit.
A body covered with a blanket lies among damages in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv on March 18, 2022, as Russian troops try to encircle the Ukrainian capital as part of their slow-moving offensive. -Authorities in Kyiv said one person was killed early today when a downed Russian rocket struck a residential building in the capital's northern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit. (photo: Aris Messinis / AFP/Getty)

Wars, and the contexts that generate them, are seldom entirely black-and-white matters in terms of who bears responsibility. Even in the case of Russia’s savage and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, this remains the case, albeit only to a limited extent.

Make no mistake: Russia is the party that bears primary responsibility for initiating this fratricidal conflict. It’s Russia who is acting like Cain, through its unprovoked attack against its fellow Slavs, and Ukraine who is being victimized like Abel by this murderous military aggression, as has been noted by many Christian leaders outside of Russia.

So it’s incorrect to claim that this conflict was substantially generated by the failure of Western countries to respect Russia’s geopolitical “sphere of influence” with respect to Ukraine, as some observers have asserted. Even less defensible are the arguments of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who claims that Russia is actually stepping forward as Christendom’s defender by unleashing its military to ransack Ukraine’s countryside and bombard its cities, killing and maiming an ever-increasing number of noncombatants in the process.

Still, it needs to be acknowledged that some Russian grievances have a measure of legitimacy. From the historical and geopolitical perspective, it’s true that Ukraine is a territory that for much of modern history has fallen entirely within the borders of the Eurasian superpower. It’s also true that many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, further underlining the closeness of the two countries. And both nations draw on their mutual political and spiritual history as contemporary heirs of the Kievan Rus, the ancient Slavic kingdom that converted to Christianity more than 1,000 years ago. Ever since, the political and religious destinies of Russia and Ukraine have been intertwined. 

It’s also true that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western nations sometimes have been reticent to acknowledge that Russia’s security and sphere-of-influence concerns aren’t completely illusory. Particularly sensitive in this regard is Ukraine’s frequently expressed desire to join NATO. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed these realities in a 2014 commentary in which he advised that in order to secure a lasting peace, the West should acknowledge the uniqueness of the Ukraine-Russia relationship and make it clear that NATO membership for Ukraine isn’t on the table. 

Neither issue, however, justifies even remotely Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine is a completely illegitimate nation, much less his effort to eradicate its sovereign existence. Ukraine’s independence isn’t a result of “Western meddling.” It’s the positive outcome of the fierce determination of the Ukrainian people, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet communist empire, to strive to build a free and democratic society — a political system that is anathema to Putin’s authoritarianism. And this national determination to maintain a separate and free identity is being evidenced hourly via Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russia’s military aggression.

And what about the position of Patriarch Kirill? By virtue of his service as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, he should be proclaiming an authentically Christian perspective on the conflict. Sadly, that’s not the case. Echoing Putin’s line that the invasion is a “special military operation,” not an unprovoked war, he has represented Russia’s actions as being a “defensive” response against Ukraine’s supposed military provocations in the disputed Russian-speaking Donbas region of Ukraine. 

To provide a religious fig leaf for this endorsement of the exercise of brute force, Kirill cites the common interests of the Orthodox Slavs in Ukraine and Russia who jointly fall under his patriarchy’s jurisdiction, alleging that the future of all of these Christians is imperiled by Western meddling in Ukraine. He further justifies the invasion as a measure undertaken by morally upright Russia to realign Ukraine away from morally decadent cultural trends that are pervasive in Western nations, citing in particular the advancement of “LGBT” agendas. 

A central problem with this claim is that, while Western societies do have some grave deficiencies, Russia is itself deeply riven with moral problems, as witnessed by its epidemic societal rates of abortion and divorce and by Putin’s corrupt, oligarch-dominated system of government — a reality Kirill understands as well as anyone, even though he has ignored it in his pre- and post-invasion rhetoric. 

Moreover, holding up Russia as a moral exemplar as it rains down explosives on innocent civilians in Ukraine is beyond comprehension for anyone who’s not blinded by the Russian Orthodox Church’s long-standing conflation of Christian imperatives with Russian geopolitical expansionism. Indeed, what is most strikingly missing from Kirill’s response is the fundamental Christian prism that should be employed when engaging with any war: Jesus’ instruction, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” 

This is a textbook case of an unjust war. Russia’s massive invasion and the ensuing loss of life, physical destruction, economic harm and dislocation of millions of refugees can’t possibly be defended as proportionate to any threats confronting Russia when Putin unleashed his war machine. Given that this should be transparently obvious to Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch should be advocating publicly for Putin to call back his armies. 

Additionally, Kirill should utilize his long-standing relationship with the Russian leader to serve as a conduit for the mediation efforts Pope Francis is seeking to initiate, in order to halt the bloodshed. The Holy Father conveyed this request directly to the Russian Orthodox patriarch during a March 16 video conference call. 

“We are shepherds of the same Holy People who believe in God, in the Holy Trinity, in the Holy Mother of God: that is why we must unite in the effort to help peace, to help those who suffer, to seek ways of peace, to stop the shooting,” Francis told Kirill.

The Holy Father is providing additional spiritual leadership, courtesy of his global mobilization of Catholic prayers for peace. Most notably this includes the March 25 consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Another spiritual resource the Pope has provided in the service of peace is the eloquent prayer for peace he recited during his March 16 general audience. At its conclusion, the prayer, written by Archbishop Domenico Battaglia of Naples, Italy, delivers a heartfelt appeal that Kirill would do well to ponder in the silence of his own heart.

“Forgive us, Lord, if we continue to kill our brother, if we continue like Cain to remove the stones from our field to kill Abel. Forgive us if we continue to justify cruelty with our toil, if with our pain we legitimize the cruelty of our actions.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, we implore you: Stop the hand of Cain! Enlighten our consciences; let not our will be done; do not abandon us to our own actions. Stop us, Lord, stop us. And when you have stopped the hand of Cain, take care of him, too. He is our brother. 

“O Lord, stop the violence. Stop us, Lord.”