War patriarchs

Balderdash, I was thinking, while trapped in a little war, or rather “a discussion,” with an old not-really-Slavic friend about the “military operation in Ukraine” — as Vladimir Putin likes to call it. My friend seemed to think that the West had provoked it, with efforts to assimilate Ukraine into the American sphere of influence, through foolish Ukrainian not-really-statesmen, and I granted this was worth one point in ten.

At a deeper level, he said the habitual Orthodox mindset had come in conflict with the habitual “Western” (Catholic) one, splitting Ukraine between expressions of the same faith. The Rus’ are more faithful and religious, he said; more powerfully committed to divine truth. As a good Christian, one should be on their side, or at least sympathetically neutral.

But none of this is true, I say; and now I am writing this squib, so there!

That deeper notion, of religious differences East and West, has been with us for a while. In fact it precedes Dostoyevsky. It goes deeper than the Church split of 1054, and can be traced even to pre-Christian cultural tensions between Romans and Hellenes.

It was not for nothing that the West chose Latin as its primary liturgical, and also philosophical language; and I might argue that the withering of the cosmopolitan Latin literary tradition was in itself a threat to the Catholic Church. (“Dante, herald of the Reformation,” I shall lecture.) For the language in which one has the custom to think is not a minor part of the soul’s understanding of the world, and the most brilliant and intentionally precise men will speak at cross-purposes, through translation.

This we admit, but falling short of a casus belli, for war, other than defensive, cannot be justified in any of the languages in which reason once prospered. Indeed, the only justification for war — recognized even by the religious — is defensive in some sense. Creaturehood must defend itself, within nature — although this principle leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

War is not entirely, nor usually even mostly, good; killing and destruction are not admirable ends in themselves. Surely, most people know this, or at least suspect; even while they are preparing for war.

The idea that there is anything in the Gospel — in Christ’s teaching, whether it is received in Moscow or in Washington, D.C. — that would recommend the occasional missile strike, is obtuse. Wars begin from sordid motives, and advance as the sordid is increasingly shared about. They are unChristian, yet they cannot be Buddhist, or Animist, either. A religion that advances conquest through a war-cry of Jihad would be a murderous religion, and utterly invalid; and so Mr Putin’s Jihad may be unimaginatively condemned.

Patriarch Kirill, primate of All Rus’, has won for himself the reputation of being Mr Putin’s sleazy and pathetic shill, by blessing the weaponry. As spokesman and enthusiast for a worldly power, he could not possibly speak for Christ. I was willing to ignore his background as an archimandrite, as apologist for Soviet Communism to the World Council of Churches, and so forth — I can overlook much when a character knows how to dress — but suddenly I remember:

That there is no such thing as a religious war. It is an extension of politics.