John Couretas’s link today to the recent Christianity Today article on how Russian evangelicals “thank God for Putin,” reminded me of this excellent post last month from Joseph Pearce on the complexities of religious tribalism in the Ukraine crisis. As ought to be expected, despite the Cold War posturing of both Western and Eastern media, the situation is not as simple as East vs. West or, for that matter, good vs. evil:
Regardless of the relative merits of each side’s claims in the Ukraine, it struck me as unfair to blame the Catholic Church for the actions of western Ukrainian forces. It is true, of course, that the people of western Ukraine are mainly Catholic whereas those in the east are mainly Orthodox. In this sense, it can be conceded that the war is “ethnic,” in the sense that two different cultures are struggling for dominance or for separation. It is, however, not fair to categorize the war as “religious.” It would be much more accurate to describe it as political in the sense that it is a clash of nationalities: ethnic Ukrainians in the west and ethnic Russians in the east. The western Ukrainians blame their eastern neighbors for their suffering under the Soviet system; the eastern Ukrainians blame their western neighbors for their collaboration with the Nazis and the hated SS during the second world war. There are communist “conservatives” in eastern Ukraine who long for the patriotic “glories” of Soviet imperialism, and there are many neo-Nazis in positions of power in the western Ukrainian government.
It is, however, not fair or accurate to describe the struggle between the two warring parties as religious, except in the decidedly irreligious sense of its being a sectarian struggle in which religious affiliation is little more than a badge worn in the service of tribalism.
I happen to be particularly sensitive to this crucial distinction between that which is genuinely religious and that which is merely tribal. Many years ago, back in the 1970s and 1980s, I was heavily involved in the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the so-called Catholics and the so-called Protestants. In those days, long before my conversion to Catholicism, I was on the side of the Protestants, even though I had no religion. I was technically, I suppose, an agnostic. I was not an atheist because God was not important enough to me. Frankly I did not care whether He existed or not. I was a Protestant, not because I cared about the way that Luther or Calvin differed from the Catholic Church but because I hated the IRA.