Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Russian religious nationalism is fueling the Ukraine war

Photo credit: Silar via Wikimedia

It is easy to think of Russia’s war in Ukraine as the result of one man—Putin—but the reality is that he acts with the support of much of the Russian people, and its religious leadership. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill claims Ukraine as the “canonical territory” of the Moscow Patriarchate, and has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine split from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and the two Slavic Orthodox Churches remain deeply antagonistic toward each other. Yet according to according to Ukraine’s crisis center, over 60 Ukrainian churches and religious buildings have been destroyed by Russian forces since the invasion began.

Image by Wendelin Jacober from Pixabay

Patriarch Kirill also supported Russia’s military intervention in Syria’s civil war, invasion of Georgia in 2008, and 2014 takeover of Crimea. The religious justification of bringing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the fold of the ROC Moscow Patriarchate ties in to the political justification of launching a war to conquer Ukraine as part of Russia.

As Steven Erlanger wrote in the New York Times, “The idea of Russia as a separate civilization from the West with which it competes goes back centuries, to the roots of Orthodox Christianity and the notion of Moscow as a ‘third Rome,’ following Rome itself and Constantinople.” Erlanger notes that Putin has been taken by an “ultranationalist view of Russia’s destiny as a conservative empire in perpetual conflict with the liberal Western world.”

Orthodox Church. Photo credit: JamesHills / 23 images via Pixabay

The combination of nationalist expansion, militarism, and religion is a dangerous mix. Mariano Delgado, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Frieburg, said nationalism “in many cases has become a new political religion.”

When viewed from the lens of Russian history, Putin’s expansionist war in Ukraine is not exceptional. Russia became the largest country in the world by taking over other people’s land. What is hopefully different now is a view held by billions of people that taking over another’s territory is not acceptable. As The Guardian editorial board put it, “Kirill’s militant fusion of ethno-nationalism, authoritarianism and religious identity is beyond the pale.”

The ROC has significant influence in Russia, as 71 percent of Russians affiliate as Orthodox. It is by far the largest religious denomination in Russia, and has grown significantly since the breakup of the Soviet Union, based in part on the relationship of its senior clergy with Putin.

How would the world be more peaceful if all faith adherents held peace as a differ the rooted belief? While the Bible recounts ancient wars of expansionism, the consensus of religious leaders in the 21st century is that religion should be about seeking peace and coexisting with one’s neighbors. Religious values call on us to see the image of the Divine in the other, to act with humility, and to live peacefully.

As humanity risks nuclear war or accidents in this conflict, religious leaders have a chance to inspire humans to their better angels, and to remind them of the sacred nature of life. Every one of us whose eyes are called to the heavens and whose soul yearns for a better world has a part of play in manifesting a religious vision for peace on earth.

To be sure, religious leaders have been supporting religious conquest for thousands of years—the spread of Islam in the 7th century and the spread of Catholicism in the 16th century are two cases in point. The link between religious nationalism and war is not unique to Russia. It is widespread, in most religions and many countries, and represents a challenge for religious adherents around the world.

Yet religious wisdom has the potential to see a bigger picture and promote peace and de-escalation. We need wise women and men of faith everywhere to step forward at this challenging moment in human history. Over 150 prominent world religious leaders and clergy have signed a letter to Patriarch Kirill, calling on him to speak with President Putin about taking immediate steps to de-escalate and seek peace.

The interfaith letter was co-organized by The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, The Elijah Interfaith Institute, and the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem. In addition, dozens of religious leaders and clergy gathered recently to publicly call for peace in Ukraine, and to encourage Patriarch Kirill to use his position as head of the Russian Orthodox Church for peacemaking.

In the Bible, the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, were not able to coexist and Cain killed Abel out of jealousy. Humanity is called on to rectify that original act of violence between brothers by working towards peace.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “The ultimate goal is not a narrow nationalism but rather to unify the entire world to call out in the name of God. The narrow-mindedness that leads one to see whatever is outside the bounds of one’s own people… as ugly and defiled is a terrible darkness that causes general destruction to the entire building of spiritual good, the light of which every refined soul hopes for.”

When religious leaders call for military expansion onto land where other people live, it gives faith adherents the impression that God is behind their war. Yet as Pope Francis said following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Those who make war forget humanity,” adding that warfare “relies on the diabolical and perverse logic of weapons, which is the farthest thing from God’s will.” The tragedy of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine is that Slavic Orthodox Christians in Russia and Ukraine have so much in common, yet they are now pitted against each other with deadly consequences for Ukraine’s citizens.

There is holiness in religious people appreciating the land on which they live, and being grateful to God for the abundance that comes from the land. But when that becomes about seeking other people’s land, then religious nationalism crosses a critical line. Power, control, and expansion are the ugly outer husks of religion. And for religion to be a source of good in the world and not the opposite, it needs to shed these outer husks.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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