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Romans and Russia: A Commentary

Hey friends - today I felt it was important to comment on the current Russia - Ukraine conflict. Not as a politician, but as a pastor. Never in a million years did I actually think Russia would invade - I figured this was a giant bluff. Waking up to this news and hearing the reports of the explosions is chilling and rends my heart. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

I was talking to Jackie this morning about the irony of us studying Romans while this is happening. I say irony because Romans is a letter that Paul wrote from prison because an occupying force (Rome) felt threatened by the growing Christian community and began to persecute them. Paul's letter was delivered to scared people meeting in the basements of homes for church under the watchful eye of the Roman government. Paul wrote encouragement in the face of persecution saying "not even death can separate us from the love of God." My heart hurts to think that prayer will be on the lips of Ukrainians tonight as they go off to fight against an occupying force. the Bible might be an ancient text telling stories of ancient culture but it's lessons (and documented transgressions) certainly echo throughout history. We're seeing that again this week. What follows is my commentary on what the Christian response needs to be in this time because if we remain complicit and/or silent here than we dismiss the power of Jesus' resurrection and coming kingdom.

A final note: I'm not an expert on this by any means. I'm just a dude with access to the same news sources and podcasts that you do. I'm just taking what I'm hearing (and more importantly - perceiving) from those sources and putting them in context with my Biblical training. If I get something wrong or fail to account for something important please correct me in the comments. I won't be offended - I'll be fortunate to learn.

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia threatens the existence of a free Ukraine, it would be easy for American Christians to conclude that this is one more distant foreign policy question.

However, Putinism is much more than a geopolitical threat; it’s also a religious threat. And the question for Christians is whether the way of Vladimir Putin will become the way of the American church.

The threat to Ukraine hangs over far more than just the Ukrainian people. NATO worries about the stability of the European order. The US State Department worries about any remaining Americans, fearing a repeat of the Afghanistan debacle. Germans wonder whether their dependence on Russian natural gas will lead to an energy crisis. And the whole world worries about whether the move will embolden China to invade Taiwan.

For American Christians, there are real questions too—not only about how we will respond to Putin’s use of religion for political purposes, but about whether we will emulate it.

The situation is even worse when one looks at Putin’s response to the gospel itself. He has carefully cultivated the Russian Orthodox Church—even to the point of approving mosaics of himself, Stalin, and the Crimean invasion to be installed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the military. Moreover, the Russian regime has relentlessly pursued snuffing out the freedoms of minority religions—especially those of the relatively tiny band of Christian house churches and missionaries from abroad. Like ringing ears from a Ukrainian village recently bombed - this feels like the gong of Paul's Letters to the Romans was wrung right next to me telling me wake up and pay attention.

Why would Putin—a former KGB official who said that the end of the Soviet Union was an awful disaster—want to partner with a church? Perhaps it is because he believes, along with Karl Marx, that religion can be a useful tool for maintaining political power.

And, indeed, religions are useful when they focus on protecting nationalism and national honor. Religions can turn already-passionate feelings of tribalism and resentment of outsiders into transcendent and unquestionable sentiments.

If this were just a skirmish between those of us who believe in liberal democracy and those who find it expendable, that would be one thing. But the other, larger problem with this authoritarian temptation is the gospel itself. If the church is simply a cultural vehicle for national stability and pride, then one can hardly expect dictators to do anything other than manipulate it. But if the church is made up, as the Bible says, of “living stones” brought in by regenerated hearts through personal faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5), then external conformity to a set of values for civilization falls woefully short of Christianity.

That would be true even in a place that promoted more-or-less Christian values. Yet it’s all the more true when the church is blessing an authoritarian leader, like Putin, who is known by his own people for poisoning his enemies.

In the latter case, the witness of the church itself is at stake—because a religion that dismisses bloodthirsty behavior doesn’t even believe its own teachings on objective morality, much less in a coming judgment seat of Christ. Why would anyone listen to such a religion on how to find peace with God and gain entrance into the life to come?

Evangelical Christians should watch the way of Vladimir Putin—and we should recognize it whenever we are told that we need a Pharaoh or a Barabbas or a Caesar to protect us from our real or perceived enemies.

Whenever that happens, we should remember how to say, in any language; “Nyet.”


Praying with Hymns

I've had this hymn playing in the background all morning at work as I process this whole situation. I hope together our voices joined together can help to move the hearts of our world leaders towards peace in the beginning of this conflict.

This is my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

But other hearts in other lands are beating With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. My country's skies are bluer than the ocean, And sunlight beams on clover- leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover, And skies are everywhere as blue as mine. Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for their land and for mine.

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