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The Russian War against Ukraine: The Moral Accountability of Patriarch Kirill and President Putin

Interview with Martin M. Lintner by Martin Lecher, Newspaper Dolomiten (South Tyrol)

The Spanish newspaper “El mundo” commented on Sunday, June 5, 2022: “If there is a God, Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, will go to hell”. A seat would also be reserved for Putin. As a theologian, what do you say about this?

I understand and I personally feel the moral outrage at the atrocities of this absolutely unjust, unjustified and extremely brutal war by Russia against Ukraine, especially at the fact that for Patriarch Kirill, who should know that he is committed to the gospel of Christ and the commitment to peace, this war is ideologically good. The war crimes and crimes against humanity that have already been documented umpteen times arouse anger, indignation and at the same time powerlessness, because apparently nobody in the world is capable of stopping this war. And, yes, I can understand this reaction of sending those responsible to hell. Given the immeasurable suffering that this war has brought and continues to bring to so many people in Ukraine, the question naturally arises as to how those responsible can be held accountable. And for people who believe, the question arises as to how an alleged Christian and person with the highest responsibility in a Christian church can answer for everything before God if he is a serious believer. At the same time, the question of God arises: How can God – if he exists – allow Patriarch Kirill to be so ideologically blinded? In any case, what I believe is that Kirill will have to give an account of this: before God and before the victims of this unfortunate war. I am convinced that the Russian Orthodox Church will have to undergo a difficult and very painful process of coming to terms with its unfortunate role in this war.

The Church also proclaims a God who forgives again and again: Acquittal even for the greatest criminals of mankind? Or will God’s patience eventually run out?

Forgiveness and reconciliation presuppose that someone recognizes, confesses and repents of the wrongs one has done. Even the forgiveness that God gives is not easy to understand like a magic formula, as if he would snap his fingers and everything will be fine again. In the Bible we encounter the idea of ​​a God who has great patience with sinners, but at the same time very quickly loses patience with those who wrong others, oppress, exploit or even kill the defenseless and weak. Of course, these are human ways of thinking and talking about God, but what becomes clear is that we believe in a God who stands with the victims and makes himself their advocate, in a God who wants reconciliation, but not at the price of simply letting injustice be good. That would be deeply cynical and unfair to the victims of injustice and violence. We believe in a God who does not reconcile injustice and who therefore will not allow victims to remain victims forever. He will give them justice. And he will confront the perpetrators with their wrongdoings, with their crimes, and give them the opportunity to ask their victims for forgiveness. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter Spe salvi on Christian hope (cf. no. 41–48) explained very impressively that the idea of ​​a Last Judgment is ultimately a setting for learning and practicing hope: it is mercy and justice at the same time. Without mercy, the prospect of a final judgment would probably have to be a nightmare scenario for everyone. Without justice, however, it would simply be an unbearable thought that ultimately everything remains indifferent. For centuries with fear and terror people believed in a severe and implacable judge God, then the pendulum swung the other way: God is only and nothing but the merciful Father, who accepts all equally, understands all without distinction, and forgives all unconditionally. Both concepts of God are of little use on their own, but both are needed: mercy and justice. And believing in God’s forgiveness also requires human readiness for reconciliation and to be forgiven. These include discernment, confession, remorse, a willingness to ask for forgiveness, and to make amends when possible. If we fail in our earthly life, we hope that when we come before God we will have a last chance to do it. What is happening between God and a human being at this moment of dying is beyond our knowledge.

At beatification and canonization it is solemnly declared that someone is in heaven: are there also sure candidates for hell?

There have always been those that others would like to see burn in hell: it starts with Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, and goes all the way to Hitler. But the Church has never dared to make such a judgment. There is an impressive depiction on a capital in the Romanesque abbey church of St. Marie Madeleine in Vézelay in Burgundy, France: Christ the good shepherd carries on his shoulders like a lamb the lifeless body of Judas, who had previously hanged himself. Christ’s face is contorted with pain while the artist put a smile on the lips of dead Judas. This is a performance full of tragedy and full of hope at the same time.

Many imagine hell as a kind of eternal torture chamber: And you?

I don’t want to picture that too clearly. Earthly death is a limit and we have no idea what is beyond this threshold. Even Jesus only spoke of this in pictures: of darkness, loneliness and gnashing of teeth on the one hand and of feasts, celebrations and preparing a dwelling place on the other. Ultimately, these are images that revolve around the theme of “fellowship with God”. If we take human freedom seriously, then we can’t help but at least think about the radical possibility that someone is turning their backs on God forever and ever. But stronger is the hope that the reality of God will be so overwhelming that no man will deny Him when they come before Him in the moment of dying. In any case, it is more important than picturing hell that we try to grow deeper and deeper into friendship and relationship with God, who is the origin, goal and perfection of all life. In the light of God we will only really become aware of our guilt in its deepest scope. This awareness will be all the more painful. Hopefully it is all the more gratifying that in God we will be granted both justice and mercy. No one will be a villain forever, no one will be a victim forever. Perhaps here lies one of the original reasons for religion, that we cannot accept that there would be no final justice. But in earthly life there often is no final justice, and so we hope for an ultimate justice beyond earthly life. Religion should function as a cry against injustice and as a source of hope for justice.