As readers of Sightings know, these columns often bring to light expressions of religion hidden in public life as it engages current events. But sometimes truths are concealed even in religion’s appearance.
Consider Syria: the use of chemical weapons on citizens; charge and counter charge between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels about who is responsible; violent abuses of Human Rights by both sides; the U.N. enquiry into these chemical weapons; millions of refugees and thousands of deaths; President Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to marshal national and international support for a punitive airstrike on Syria and Assad’s government; the wild turn of events when Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, announced the possibility of demands for Assad to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons under U.N. oversight; Putin’s and Assad’s attempts to play on global public opinion; and almost daily, a new turn of events.
Yet, for the readers of Sightings, a gripping religious development is found in the last sentence of an editorial Putin published—who knows if he wrote it?—on September 11, 2013, in the New York Times.
The editorial explains why, in Putin’s judgment, the U.S. should abide by U.N. Security Council procedures and, lacking U.N. approval, desist from military strikes on Syria. Putin also chides President Obama and American citizens for their American exceptionalism.
But what about the last line, you ask. The trappings of religion suddenly appear to sanction—and to conceal—political gain: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Preach it, Putin!
The editorial has garnered praise from around the world and opinion seems to paint President Putin as an elder statesman with equal moral standing and political clout as President Obama. Within the U.S., some have chided Obama for supposedly losing presidential control while others praise his responsiveness to a complex and changing international scene.
Still, political talking-heads also note the oddity of Putin requiring the U.S. to abide by Security Council decisions when Putin has already promised to veto any U.S. proposal for the strikes (not to mention that Russia itself has skirted the Council in the past). Others state that a call for equality is confusing from a President who imprisoned a female rock band, “Pussy Riot,” for political dissent (see Sightings, Sept. 20, 2012) while also putting in doubt the civil rights of Russia’s gay community (read more on this in next week’s, Sept. 26, 2013, Sightings).
Even more astonishing is the charge against American exceptionalism which fails to acknowledge that peoples around the world take pride, mistaken or not, in their own exceptionalism. Has Putin somehow never heard of “Mother Russia?”
And then there is the matter of Russia’s support of President Assad including with weapons. In light of Putin’s homiletic flourish at letter’s end, one can only say that, in all honesty, there is sin enough to go around. But still we should ask for God’s blessing.
Sighting’s readers should note something that critics and pundits have ignored. It is the bewildering word “God” in Putin’s editorial and the “altar call” that concludes the piece.
Of course, our readers have long spotted the strategy of American political leaders who drop the “G” word, and beseech God’s blessing on our land. God, they tell us, sanctions without question their vision of the country and the world. (Only honest Abe Lincoln was theologically subtle enough to avoid that blunder. He knew that God’s purposes were God’s alone to know.)
We also recognize the bewilderment of other cultures with the religiously saturated character of American political discourse and discord. And this is what makes Putin’s editorial all the more fascinating. The man who proclaims the blessings of the creator God and human equality was a KGB agent of an officially atheistic state, the former U.S.S.R.; his relations to the Russian Orthodox Church have been, well, up and down. Scientific Marxism, let alone Putin’s political program, hardly rests on a creator God.
It is equally doubtful that Putin’s claims about human rights depend on divine sanction. And one also notes that while he speaks of equality as a divine endowment for humanity, there is no mention in his letter of freedom. Nor is there mention of the God-given rights of the chemically slaughtered Syrians whose only equality is the grave.
One must conclude with a nod to a longstanding insight of Sightings: too often explicit religious discourse in the public arena betrays more about what is missing than what is present.
Putin, Vladimir. “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” New York Times, September 11, 2013. Accessed September 18, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html.
Reznik, Larisa. “We Are All Pussy Riot” But Who Are ‘We’?” Sightings, September 20, 2012. Accessed September 18, 2013.http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2012/0920.shtml.
Image: Creative Commons / Russavia