Monday, March 28, 2022

Putin and yesterday's Gospel reading

Putin is scarcely the "waiting father" in the (most popularly) titled Parable of the Prodigal Son (yesterday's Gospel, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), eager for Ukraine to return to the Russian fold. Nor is he the "dissolute son", despite his appalling profligacy in Ukraine - the dissolute son hurt his father emotionally and wasted his inheritance foolishly, but he never murdered anyone. Yet the parable speaks to Putin, and to you and me.

My cue for saying that is a lovely insight (which contributed to my sermon yesterday) in one of my favourite books of biblical scholarship, by F. Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five years of research (1950-2005), 2nd edition, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006.

Writing about Luke and salvation, pp. 277-78, Bovon writes,

For Luke, the life of Jesus accomplishes this salvation: "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). His ministry, summarized in this way, is marked by the coordination of action and word. The importance of the proclamation of salvation, and so of the Word (in the form of the predication of the kingdom), permits Luke to remove anything that might be automatic from the notion of salvation. The response humans give to the offer of salvation is necessary. In Luke, it is called pistis and metanoia. Luke cannot conceive of a miracle in which the faith of the human is absent (the "your faith has saved you" is more frequent in Luke than in the other Synoptics, cf. Luke 7:50; 8:48, etc). We also know that Luke emphasizes conversion. The illustration he gives in the parable of the Prodigal Son (luke 15:11-32) is proof. (My bold; I have transliterated the Greek words).

Yesterday I said that the parable's main point is not that God loves the worst of sinners (though God does) but that God yearns for our conversion. Whether that conversion involves a change of life as well as a change of heart (the younger son) or a change of heart (the older son, whose lifestyle, or obedience and service to his father is approved).

I further said that there remain in each of us areas and aspects of life which yet need conversion.

So to Putin: horrible and terrifying though his actions over the years and most awfully in recent weeks have been, we do not need to judge that he is not a Christian, but might we reasonably say that there is a work of conversion yet needed in his life, towards the compassionate heart of the waiting Father God?

Of course we can only have such thoughts, in the light of what Jesus says about splinters and logs, if we ask ourselves what work of conversion is needed in our own lives.


Father Ron said...

My biggest concern about the unrighteousness of Putin's invasion of the Ukraine is that he presumes to base his justification on the 'unrighteousness' of the people and government of The Ukrainian people (Gay Parades, etc.).

A further disturbing factor, for other Christians, is that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill uses the same justification for these appalling tactics leading to the death of many innocent people and the displacement of many more - causing instability and hardship to other countries nearby. This dastardly behaviour is also a threat to the peace of the world.

As Christians, should we just stand by and let this happen without doing anything about it?

Mark Murphy said...

Baptized but not metanoia-ed? I can relate.

Meanwhile: Alexander Vostrodymov, an orthodox priest from a village near Moscow (and who rather bravely signed an open letter with other Orthodox priests calling for an end to the war - Caesar isn't Lord):

“All wars, even those lasting a century, always end in one thing – negotiations and peace. Is it worth all these orphans, widows, cripples and mountains of the dead, only to sit down and agree later? Why don’t we skip this uncivilised part altogether? Every mother gives birth to a son in the hope of having grandchildren in old age. And for her, her Vanya or Magomed – it doesn’t matter – he is the best. There’s no need to interrupt this natural life with bullets or shrapnel.”

Unknown said...

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

-- David Lowenthal

And other countries are foreign because they live among the ghosts of pasts that are strange to us.


Anonymous said...

These past two weeks, + Peter's exegetical reflections have intrigued me most.

On one hand, St Luke's notion of Word-driven conversion is at least proto-Lutheran. So his post brings to mind everything that I like (and several things that are slippery) in Luther's theology of preaching as a converting ordinance. That some believe the preaching without being converted became a puzzle to the Reformed in England and a crisis to those in colonial New England. That reality undermined, in this country fatally, the European notion of the state as a *corpus christianum* and led to the secular liberalism of the US Constitution. Here up yonder, we tend to celebrate that as unleashing an individualist energy, one that probes deeper into faith, dismantles structures of oppression, fosters creativity, and mirrors God's own.

On the other hand, my university teachers on St Luke's gospel assumed that a story that began with a decree from Caesar Augustus and ended with St Paul preaching in Rome had some imperial implication. Indeed many fathers, and the East to this day, have seen the Spirit-given culmination of just that Lucan story in the conversions of two rulers-- Constantine the Great and later Vladimir the Great-- from pagan emperors to believing ones who were *isapostolos* (Gr equal to the apostles) in their realms.

So + Peter's further allusions to Vladimir Putin and ++ Kirill nudge these two Lucan themes of conversion and imperium toward each other.

From the West, those leaders seem to have misled Russia away from the emancipated, open society of the '90s. A minority of their countrymen-- many now fleeing into exile-- agree with us. They protest a state that cannot sustain itself without undercutting the dignity of citizens. In such a society, God's creative Word summons individuals to mirror him as persons in a household of faith, and such a zone of spiritual freedom inspires civil society.

Meanwhile, from the East, as Father Ron notes, the autocrat and the patriarch read our lives and times as corrupted by our secular liberalism. Minorities that agree with them have taken power in several Western countries. These aggrieved uprisings against elites have swarmed around some odd leaders and causes, but nobody would argue that individual alienation is low or social solidarity high. In societies like ours, Lucan preaching that converts should and rarely does bind souls to one another in some commonwealth reminiscent of Acts ii.

How do St Luke's converting Word to souls and his messianic imperialism coexist in the same story? Does that coexistence correct or reframe today's opposition between liberal and authoritarian states?


Anonymous said...


In the thoughts above, I've used *West* to label, not a direction or a region, but a political texture. Russia is European, but not Western. Turkey is European and Western. Japan is not European, but it is Western.

I've also used *liberal*, not theologically, but strictly in the classical political sense: individuals have rights, states are limited to protecting those rights, and just cultures, societies, and economies emerge spontaneously from associations and contracts of unhindered individuals. Both Patrick Deneen (pessimistically) and David Brooks (optimistically) describe the perennial appeal and fragility of this ideal--

Patrick Deneen (13:30) and David Brooks (30:30).

For example, the two major political forces in the US could have been described before 2016 as *liberal* parties engaged in a long dispute about the nature and scope of social insurance and economic regulation. Celebrated intellectuals from those two sides recognise and explore their Enlightenment common ground here--

George Will and Steven Pinker.

However, that good earth quaked in several *Western* elections early in this century-- 2010 (Orbán), 2014 (Erdoğan), 2015 (Modi), 2016 (Brexit, Trump), 2018 (Bolsonaro). Across the board, these voters sought to defend their several traditional cultures from what they saw as threats from secularising states. A conservative admired by Barack Obama explains this wave with a long historical view here--

Patrick Deneen. The Collapse of Liberalism.

Patrick Deneen with Steve Paikin.

Although Deneen is discussing secular politics, his argument nearly coincides with Oliver O'Donovan's account of how Liberals in the Church of England went from mediating between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals as a neutral party to opposing the latter as an ideological foe. For both Deneen and O'Donovan, arguments for personal choice and tolerance that had once conserved and balanced rival traditions began to be deployed in new ways that risk eroding them.


Anonymous said...

Salvation is Unity with Humanity in Christ

Those energized at any extreme of a spectrum of opinion pay lots of attention to those at the opposite extreme. They cannot distinguish the several points of view that are between the two. They do not hear, or will not listen to, voices that are off the spectrum altogether. The possibility that the spectrum itself is just an artifact is incomprehensible to them.

There is a malign attraction to being at such an extreme and enjoying the cognitive distortions that come with it. Hereabouts, I have called those in this tragic condition *happy warriors*.

Their cognition promotes the disintegration of the humanity that our crucified Lord is reconciling. Since his peace is a mark of the present and coming kingdom, it seems obvious that happy warriors are not in it.

Of course, what is obvious is not always true. But a rebuttal of that particular presumption faces formidable obstacles in the apostolic documents. It cannot be done simply.

In particular, *justification by grace*, although true, is not a remedy for a desire to be, in effect, Cain killing Abel over and over and over again. That is a defect of sanctification and vocation downstream of justification. Less technically, God forgives so that souls will step on toward conversion among others and responsibility in the creation. Those not moving on to discipleship after forgiveness appear to be losing it all. In real life, happy warriors that I have nudged about this seem to be blind to the gospel at two points.

On one hand, they have so moralised combat that they experience a failure to be punching at opponents somewhere as directionless and empty. They are more or less numb to everything in the New Testament that warns against militarism and antagonism, and take references to God’s own justice as validations of their own belligerence.

On the other hand, they have the crude sense of what sin, repentance, and conversion are that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called *cheap grace* and Dallas Willard *sin management*. Put another way, they have not cultivated the Holy Spirit’s gift of *purity of heart*, and they are sincerely incredulous that he would expect them to do so. At bottom, this often sounds to me like clinging to a rules ethic and then wallowing in its paradoxes where mature disciples have moved on to a *new creation* ethos of callings, virtues, and gifts.

Like everyone in an aeon of conflict, Jesus had opinions and opponents. So do his disciples. However, he gave his life as much for his enemies as for his friends. And true disciples have the Holy Spirit’s assistance in recognising the humanity of opponents and just so understanding what they desire and how they stray. With this compassion, error is all the more clear.

Lately, dissent in our own societies and a hot war against our values have been polarising. Our opinions are well-founded, but their truthfulness is not a defense against the temptation to be a happy warrior. To overcome that, we must work to understand how persons like ourselves could have come to our opponents’ conclusions.

Anonymous said...


At the link, Jane Burbank explains the Eurasian ideology that makes a sovereign Ukraine threatening to Vladimir Putin and ++ Kirill. Bluntly, where we have cared more about the right polity for established nation-states, these post-Soviets have been seeking a rationale for Russia itself and boundaries that fit that rationale. Burbank does not do this, but one could compare them to Mustafa “Ataturk” Kemal setting borders for a post-Ottoman Turkey that tragically included the homelands of Armenians and Kurds.

At the next link, Russell Moore observes, among several other things, that the secularisation of institutions has allowed non-disciples to appropriate Christian symbols as tribal badges to resist change. For example, European atheists point to Christendom to object to the resettlement of Muslim refugees although the God of that past was a friend of the stranger and the widow. Here up yonder, he sees trumpy populists using Christian, especially evangelical, symbols as badges of cultural identity (eg when invading the US Capitol) but not participating in the life of the Body in the way the symbols require. In the pattern described above, such happy warriors thus confuse their happy warrior opponents, convincing jihadists that neo-Crusaders hate and threaten them, and likewise prompting secular progressives to fear that most heartland Christians seek to overthrow the constitution.


Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter, regarding 'splinters and logs' which you mention in your article; It was interesting to read today's report from 'Living Church' about the reasons given by the ABC for 3 of the GAFCON Provinces shunning the recent Primates conference in the U.K.:

"The leaders of three large provinces, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda, chose not to attend the meeting, as in recent years. “Our reflections, deliberations and fellowship are diminished by their absence. We miss them and their prayerful wisdom, and we long for the time when we will all meet together,” the communique said.

Welby said the missing primates had not given him specific reasons for their absence, but added, “They don’t want to be in the room with those who have changed their teaching on marriage and the nature of human identity.”

Makes you think, doesn't it? - especially in the light of real life-threatening emergencies which are taking the lives of people at present around the world! This is a demonstration of obdurate refusal to learn about the realities of the human condition - a condition which our Lord Jesus shared before his execution for mixing with 'prostitutes and sinners'.

Unknown said...

My Episcopalian heart would not be saddened if all the primates stayed home and saved their money for the next Lambeth Conference. TEC has no archbishops, and it was a better church when the "presiding bishop" was simply the most senior one present.

Two Instruments of Communion were created by the Holy Spirit for the undivided church. The formalities may rattle on for a thousand years, but nobody really cares about any others.

Personally, I am open to an argument that national primates have some special role in a global koinonia, But I have never heard a good one.

Rome does not recognise such a role at all. Constantinople has met a few emergencies-- there was one in the C17-- by exchanging letters with all the other patriarchs. But that was when the last great council had dispersed in 787. Today, Orthodox churches are in nearly constant communication.


Perhaps there is an underlying principle at work. If a thought is not from God, disciples do not care much about it. If it is from God, then the Holy Spirit himself has created the consensus that allows it to be articulated.

So much persuasion and discernment takes time. Short meetings can do other useful work, but they are improbable oracles.

There is nothing intrinsically wicked about meetings convened on some representative principle. But neither is there any magic in the mere fact that they satisfy a formula of apportionment.

Ancient or modern, meetings only acquire credibility by being something more than the sum of their representative parts. That takes more time for deliberation and prayer than modern meetings were usually allowed.

Lambeth Conferences have stood out from the rest in part because they have had enough time. A reasonable person could believe that, in the course of one, minds and hearts might have been moved.


Jean said...

In respect to Putin and the conflict in the Ukraine;
While it is not a place we hod to judge others standing with God I believe there is some biblical precedence for holding the behaviour of those who are Christian accountable to following the teachings of Christ. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why Patriarch Krill may perceive western society as lacking in Christian virtue and taking the stance against any such potential influence. It is when this stance is taken at the cost of overlooking two commandments at the core of our Faith, Thou Shall Not Kill and Love Your Neighbour as Yourself that one has a duty to question such a position.
I find it interesting (scary) that both the Orthodox Church in Russia (and many members of churches in the USA in respect to Trump) were prepared/are prepared to forfeit righteousness in order to support leaders who offer political approval to moral beliefs common to the Christian. If such approval has more sway in a Church than holding the one from whom the approval is granted to the very same biblical standards is it not but smoke and mirrors? Are we to value approval for the Gospel and the teachings of Christ above preaching and living them?

Unknown said...

Hi Jean

Two sensible questions; my brief replies.

I do not have evidence that criticism of Russians as Christians would be helpful to them. In the Lord, however, we must be candid with them about the faults of the Eurasian ideology (see above) that has guided their church and state by default. We do not have a replacement political theology to give them, but we can support their own search for something better grounded in the gospel and less disastrous in practice.

Those Americans who as evangelicals voted for Trump did so out of fear of the other party. This fear was not reasonable. And Christians should have recalled that God protected Hezekiah and his people from much worse.


Jean said...

Apologies Bowman, one of my delayed replies again.

The Eurasian ideology as you explained makes some sense and to be candid as you suggest about its failings. I definitely wouldn’t be on a crusade to personally criticise/correct all Russian Christians as it is too hard to know how much they are actually aware of all that is going on alongside the strict/punitive laws now in place in Russia if you speak against the conflict. I just wonder about Patriarch Krill and Putin who adhere’s to being a christian, albeit the Eurasian ideology goes some way to explaining in particular +Krill’s position I did think that the Russian Church and Christians really suffered during the communist years in the USSR albeit they were ‘infiltrated’ so to speak by people who were pro-government/communist party supporters. So while being in a place now where the church is endorsed by the state and is endorsing the states actions the church is Russia have a history of it being otherwise even if one of coerced compliance; assuming due to his position Patriarch Krill is more aware of what is taking place in Ukraine than others and for sure Putin must be, would not a challenge from the Christian body globally in a ‘truth in love’ way be in order? I know through +Peter than both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have contacted Patriarch Krill in person.

Interesting re Americans and fear being a driving force for voting for Trump. Do you surmise this was/is a fear of what is happening in society in general, morally speaking?

All the best...

Anonymous said...

No need to rush, Jean, the crisis in Ukraine continues as it has. This could last years.


++ Kirill has long been building a relationship with +++ Francis outside the usual Orthodox-Catholic channels. If I were him, I would somewhere convene all the Slavic bishops, Orthodox and Catholic, just as Charles Thomas Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference. My aim, beyond commemoration of the glories of Slavic spirituality, would be to induce the bishops to foster a healthy international civil society on Slavic solidarity in the postmodern world. The more that came to pass, the more subsidiarity could take hold, and the less political boundaries would matter. These lands would become a decentralised commonwealth resistant to empire.


"Do you surmise this was/is a fear of what is happening in society in general, morally speaking?"


On one hand, "national conservatives" have no power in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or Hollywood, but they believe they can occasionally take power in Washington and use that to counter changes in the culture, including moral ones.

On the other hand, when cultural change (especially bio-politics) results in a new Federal right for individuals, this is quickly enforced throughout government and business all the way down to local communities. Trumpsters cannot absorb even change they like in less than a generation, and in the meantime they fear being prosecuted for non-compliance and fired from their jobs for saying the wrong things.

The result is negative partisanship. So long as Trumpsters are afraid that Democrats are protecting pedophiles-- they aren't-- they just don't care how little else their own Republican politicians accomplish as long as they stop Democrats. And so long as Democrats are afraid that Republicans have become fascists who encourage race and sex discrimination, they vote as much to stop Republicans as to achieve their own goals. This is a weak basis for bipartisan government.