Nick Spencer looks at how Vladimir Putin has used the Bible and why he might possibly be wrong. 23/03/2022
A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Political Samaritan. It was about how politicians from across the spectrum had seized on the tale of the Good Samaritan and used it for a bewildering variety of political ends; how, as the subtitle put it, power hijacked a parable.
When speaking about the book, the question I was invariably asked by audiences was ‘who got it right?’ Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and Jeremy Corbyn all deployed the story. But who deployed it well?
It is not an easy question to answer, and not only because you are worried the answer might reveal your own hopelessly vague political position. It is far easier to say who, politically speaking, gets the Bible wrong.
Indeed it is – much easier. Take this gem, for instance. “There is no greater love than if someone gave his soul for his friends.” Any guesses? Not a British premier but Vladimir Putin, at a public event last week. The context was, of course, his invasion of Ukraine; the occasion, his apparent need to persuade his audience that the cause was morally legitimate. “To save people from genocide is the main motive of the operation that we launched in Donbas and Ukraine,” he told the crowd, before adding, “the words from the holy Scripture come to my mind…”. Well, of course they do. Nothing says “greater love” quite like a bombed–out maternity hospital and children starving to death in collapsed cellars.
No–one – not even, I submit, the most hardened New Atheist (remember them?) – would suggest that Jesus’ words genuinely do serve as a legitimation of Putin’s criminal actions. However much he may be genuine in his Orthodox faith (on which see Ben Ryan’s essay here) and however much Patriarch Kirill has supported his actions and lent them theological support, no–one seriously thinks this brutal attack on a nation and its civilians is just according to the standards of Christian ethics, let alone the standards of Christ.
Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the get–out–of–jail free card we might hope. Sure, anyone can quote scripture, including it seems the devil. Bad people will always do bad things, even with good ingredients. But however much that may let scripture off the hook of moral culpability, it still leaves it on the hook of moral vacuity. If people like Putin can twist the Bible to fit their ghastly agenda, does it ultimately mean anything? And if not, how can you prove Putin and his like wrong?
It’s a serious question, which I explored at length in a book on the way the Bible shaped 1500 years of British politics. There are answers. The durability of interpretations, the intensity with which they are scrutinised, the profundity of their appeal among a broad range of audiences that span cultural, ethnic, socio–economic, and geographical spectra: all these are ways we can sift bad interpretations from good.
But perhaps the most important lies not in the realm of hermeneutics (as these do) but in the realm of life. Words are given their meaning by the lives in which they are embedded. Meaning, the philosopher Wittgenstein observed later in life, resides in usage. “The speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life”. Or, as he says a little later on, “the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer… Don’t think, but look!”
In other words, if you want to catch something of the true meaning of a word or a sentence – or a verse or a parable – you need to look at the user. This is why the ‘Jesus–was–just–a–good–teacher’ line is so thin. He undoubtedly was. Many people were, and still are. But the true form and weight of words resides in the life of the one who uses them.
Jesus’s words to his disciples, that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, assume their meaning from what he goes on to do. We understand the words by looking at the life.
As with Putin: it is the self–serving, duplicitous, violent, and merciless form of life that the Russian president has taken, especially in recent months, that betrays his use of the Bible. We know he is getting it wrong ultimately not by analysing what he says but what he does; by looking rather than thinking.
Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, “by their fruit you will recognize them.”
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