Jesus to Putin and the Patriarch

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Dear President Putin and Patriarch Kirill:

I write with great respect for your offices as President of the Russian Federation and as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. My words to the two of you are confidential. Few people dare to speak candidly with you.

We haven’t met, but that’s not unusual; lots of people I’ve never met say I’m their closest friend. Many of them have made me up. They delete what they don’t like about me or my story, or do end-runs around my words. Take, for instance, my cry from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is real, but it’s not cheap. It’s not an excuse to sin.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

Clean Monday was only three weeks ago. On Clean Monday you and Eastern Orthodox Christians on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border marked the beginning of “The Great Lent” with a service that features something a bit odd and humbling. Every worshiper bows down before another worshipper to ask for forgiveness with the intent of walking through the six weeks of the Great Lent with clean hearts and a clear conscience. I like that. I’ll return to the subject of bowing later.

Do you remember the parable of the Last Judgment? My parable isn’t about an End Time when the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. It’s not about Then; it’s about the Now, the ever-recurring Now of daily life. The parable is about how to live your life now as a neighbor.

I told that parable not to scare people; I told it so the listeners would pause, reflect, and turn around when they are living like goats pleading innocence because they never see the suffering. The parable is the Beatitudes in story form. You may remember those: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, and those who yearn for righteousness. The Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and the goats are meant to turn the popular winner-loser perception on its head. The sheep feed the hungry; the goats don’t see them. The sheep “see” the naked and clothe them; the goats don’t notice. It’s the same with the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. The goats would have “seen” if only they had known there was a reward at the end. The sheep have no knowledge of reward and punishment. It is the sheep that break the popular myth of reward and punishment.

The parable goes to the heart of my reason for writing. You have great authority and power. One of you is the latest “king” of the Russian Federation; the other is the latest “king” of Russia’s spiritual affairs, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. You are said to have a good relationship. But I tell you, if the sheep and goats were separated in real time at this moment, the two of you would be bleating billygoats leading the line of those who plead innocence.

It is not by accident that the parable is not about individuals. The sheep and goats gathered for judgment are not individuals. They are the nations, all of them. Russia is no exception. Ukraine is no exception. Poland is no exception. The United States is no exception. There is no exception.

Every nation is capable of great compassion and of astonishing cruelty. A nation can be peace-loving or war-mongering, merciful or cruel, loving or hateful, seeing or not seeing. Whenever a nation sees itself as exceptional or superior among the global community of neighbors, things always turn out badly, as is happening now in Ukraine. The sun shines and the rains fall without respect for borders.

As president of the Russian Federation you hold the power and authority of Russia’s head of state and commander-in-chief. You have exceeded all boundaries of moral restraint. The weight of the cruelty, suffering, devastation, and death unleashed on Ukrainian rests on your shoulders. Yet you do not see. You take no responsibility for the suffering imposed on Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill, you also bear responsibility. The day after Clean Monday, your Ukrainian and Polish peers met in Kyiv. Aware of public criticism of your relationship with Mr. Putin, they appealed to you to meet with Putin to stop the war, and asked you to break your public silence about the war as the cause of suffering. Clean Monday was not clean this year. There can be no pleas of ignorance.

Finally, I leave you with another parable. This one was told by those who thought they saw divinity in my humanity. It was told of me, not by me. Whoever created the parable packed every challenge I faced during my life, which you also face now. Like the parable of the Last Judgment, It’s a work of imagination that puts everything in a nutshell, but its meaning is pretty simple really. It’s about bowing.

Then the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and [the devil] said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

The question of faith is about Now. The question is pointed. It draws no line between the political and the spiritual. It’s simple:

“To whom are you bowing now?”

— Jesus of Nazareth

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Brooklyn Park, MN, March 18,2022.

Every day is the last judgment

There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.