Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 30 March. Here it is for you again:
Maria Stepanova is a Russian novelist and poet. She has for a long time been critical of Vladimir Putin, and she lives in the countryside near Moscow, hoping to avoid notice. She wrote an extremely interesting article in the Financial Times. If you would like to read it, it’s free on the internet.
The aspect I would like to focus on here is her discussion of the word evil. Most disputes, for instance the Palestine Israel conflict, have two sides to them, with complicated history making it hard to say that one is completely right and the other completely wrong. However, perhaps for the first time since the second world war, we are talking of a conflict in terms of good versus evil. Stepanova writes that Putin is a dictator whose aims are to remove the legitimately elected government, to disarm the army and to make an example of the country which won’t do as Putin demands. Putin wants the world to see who is master. It is very hard to make any argument that Putin has any right on his side.
For years absolute moral standards have gone out of fashion. We have argued that there are two sides to every story, that understanding, compromise and dialogue are the way forward. And in almost every case I agree with that. But Stepanova writes that we cannot have a conversation with “impenetrable darkness, which insists on its own outcome at any cost”. You cannot negotiate with evil.
When we talk about the battle of good versus evil, there are not too equal and opposing sides. God created the world and saw that it was good. All evil is a perversion of something that is good, and only goodness is ultimately real. We fight evil because we believe it can be defeated. We believe that the world can become a better place.
Putin would betray all Ukrainians as weak and greedy. But we know that that is the rhetoric of one man, and not every Russian supports him. We know that the soldiers in the Russian army are not all there of their own free will. Some are teenage conscripts who had no idea where they were being sent. The Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations read out a text exchange between a mother and her son “Are you really in training exercises?” He replied “Mum, I’m not in Crimea, I’m not training”. “Where are you then?” “Mum, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We are bombing all the cities together, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us and they are falling under our armoured vehicles, throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass. Mum, they call us fascists. This is so hard”. He was killed a few moments later. Many of the Russian soldiers cannot be blamed for their part in the war.
But in spite of all this it is problematic to say that Putin as an individual is evil, because he is still a human being. And although we cannot understand his mindset, how he can do the evil things he does, and how he can cause the tragic suffering of not just the Ukrainians, but also his own people, we must not call him a monster, and dehumanise him. Only God knows his heart, and it is to God he must answer. The Greek philosopher Socrates wrote “the worst thing your enemy can do to you is to make you hate him”. No one is beyond the reach of God’s love, and everyone has the chance to repent.
Today’s gospel has the words “All who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out – those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation”. We often avoid talking about the day of judgement, but in times like these we need to remind ourselves that God will call us all to account, so that we are relieved of the burden of judging or hating our fellow human beings, because he will give us justice one day.
We can view the current war as a struggle between good and evil, but that does not mean that all Russians are bad, and it does not even mean that Putin himself is beyond redemption. God will have the final word.