War at Lent: How Ukraine could reshape how we think about Christian unity

(RNS) — In his 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama provocatively and hopefully suggested that authoritarian and collectivist political regimes were on their way out.

The end of history did not mean that events would cease, of course, but rather that we had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

While not an overtly religious argument, some critics, including the philosopher Jacques Derrida, viewed Fukuyama’s thesis as a kind of Christian eschatology, more prosaically known as the End Times.


As Lent begins on Wednesday (March 2) for Christians in Western traditions, we watch with horror as tanks roll across national borders and one European state invades a neighboring country unprovoked. In the living memory of most of the world’s people, it’s an almost unknown occurrence: In a First World where technocratic jockeying has all but supplanted armed conflict, there is suddenly the gravity of sin, human finitude, tragedy.

These are the themes of Lent itself, on a scale that reminds us why humans can get it into our heads that maybe only God can redeem us — if we can be redeemed at all.

The post-Cold War’s end of history had brought a measure of liberty to post-Soviet Christians, especially in Ukraine, where many Orthodox split in 2019 from the Moscow Patriarchate, a move recognized by the broader Orthodox communion but rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Just as Eastern Europeans have gravitated toward Western norms of market economies and liberal democracies, they have been introduced to global Christianity and norms of ecumenical cooperation and toleration for religious minorities. If it is still an evangelical Christianity, or even a territorial one, it is not a faith bound by history.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s erratic imperialist military moves seem only to deepen the contrast with his narrative about Russian empire and Russian civilization that the Russian church may support but most others see will not exist again in a post-Soviet world order.

Ukrainian Orthodox have already shown themselves eager to assert more independence from Russian Orthodoxy, as when in January the Orthodox Church of Ukraine considered moving its celebration of Christmas to Dec. 25 instead of the traditional Orthodox Christmas of Jan. 7.

Across the Orthodox world, Great Lent begins with the observance of Clean Monday (March 7), the Eastern church’s Ash Wednesday parallel. Ukrainian Orthodox leaders roundly condemned the invasion, and it is clear to all that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has abdicated his moral authority and spiritual independence in order to justify Putin’s war. Surely Kyivans  defending against a Russian siege will not be moved to unity with the Moscow patriarchate if St. Sophia Cathedral, built in the 11th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies destroyed.Rather, Orthodox Ukrainians and religious minorities, including Byzantine Catholics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, are seeing the world rallying to the Ukrainian cause and opposing Russian aggression to a degree unimaginable to many (perhaps none more than Putin himself).

Photo by Iurie Ciala on Unsplash of St. Andrew’s church in Kiev, Ukraine.

As these Christians are reshaped by history, just as we head into the mystic penitential rites of Lent, we might be reminded of the comparative literature scholar Joseph Campbell’s magisterial 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” which contains much wisdom about how stories, myths and religions can unite people across great spans of history, distance and time.

“Once we have broken free of the prejudices of our own provincially limited ecclesiastical, tribal, or national rendition of the world archetypes,” Campbell argues, we can receive “the good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, that God is love … and that all without exception are his children.”

This sentiment only encourages Christians to identify strongly with others, despite seeming differences and despite distances. Campbell cautions further:

Such comparatively trivial matters as the remaining details of the credo, the techniques of worship, and devices of episcopal organization (which have so absorbed the interest of Occidental theologians that they are today seriously discussed as the principal questions of religion), are merely pedantic snares, unless they are kept ancillary to the major teaching.

Campbell observes that religions always tend to debate which of his children the Father favors most. The Moscow-Ukraine schism is surely about much more, but Campbell’s reminder is still pertinent: “The teaching is much less flattering: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ The World Savior’s cross, in spite of the behavior of its professed priests, is a vastly more democratic symbol than the local flag.”

In Christianity, the end of history is not the apparent triumph of some system of political organization. Faithful Ukrainians will observe Great Lent this year under the direst conditions and will no doubt be more than conscious of their Christian beliefs about the nature and destiny of man.

The message of Lent, in spite of differences in how it is celebrated, remains the same: Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

By Jacob Lupfer, Religion News Service