11:58:20



It isn't hard to concoct a scenario in which Russian's invasion of Ukraine spirals out of control and becomes a global conflict of almost unimaginable suffering. And that's not just me talking. The Doomsday Clock, presently at 100 seconds to midnight, issues a similar dire warning, and as its own website ominously declares, "The doorstep of doom is no place to loiter."


The Clock was conjured up by a group of nuclear scientists after WWII as a warning to humanity about how close we were to annihilating ourselves. This year, the Clock marked its seventy-fifth year. But this is not 1947, which belongs not only to an earlier century and an earlier millennium, but to a different world altogether. Back then, the specter of nuclear war was a distant, although real, reality. The world had been given a gruesome reminder of what atomic/nuclear power could do to cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- no one wanted to see that again -- and there were the newsreels of the Holocaust and what a mass ethnic extinction might look like -- and no one wanted to go there again, either.


And yet, as of early this morning, we are once again at that precipice, staring into the abyss, and you can almost hear the Clock's second-hands ticking away. It's enough to keep you up at night.


Perhaps the most menacing development in recent days isn't the invasion itself -- though the untold suffering presently unfolding in Ukraine is horrific by the recent accounts coming out of the country -- but the mindset and "soulset" of Vladimir Putin, a man who fears no God, believes in nothing but the principles of pragmatism and national (and personal) pride, and seems hellbent on usurping all principles of modern diplomacy, not to mention human decency. And this is the man with a finger on the trigger of the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, an increasingly isolated man who is increasingly unrecognizable to many of his closest associates in the Kremlin. They thought Putin was bluffing with the military buildup on the borders of Ukraine. They were, of course, mistaken.


Atheism is the ultimate power grab. It is a vote for deregulation at an existential level. It is the philosophy of choice for all autocrats because it makes no claims to ultimate authority beyond itself. You can dress it up all you want with claims to individual freedom and unfettered expression. You can even demonize the church by pointing to past atrocities committed in the name of God, but you miss the irony in doing so: that it is precisely when the church strayed furthest from Christ and the central tenets of scripture -- and thus when it most closely reflected atheism -- that it committed such crimes. And individual freedom is not a virtue when it comes at the expense of the collective good. Freedom for one must never come at the expense of freedom for the many. That's not how freedom works. Indeed, there is no such thing as individual freedom to begin with, and the term, when it is used, is usually just a cover up for what it actually means: complete and total autonomy. But "No man is an island, entire of itself," John Donne reminds us in Meditation XVII.


When there are no checks on political ambition and human tyranny, when there is no ultimate benevolent deity to establish the parameters of justice or dole out rewards and punishments for the actions of men; when, in a word, there are no checks on human sin, we all become individual autocrats who, on a whim or by some twisted calculus, will do what we damn well feel to gain an advantage. It's said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and when you look into the eyes of Putin, either the shutters have been pulled down or there was nothing to look at in the first place. I do not subscribe to the idea that a person can lose all traces of the image of God inside them, but the flicker that is all but gone in Putin's eyes tells us the story of a man who appears to have not only lost his sense but his soul, as well. He will go down in the annals of world history as the first 21st century butcher (and not its last), and the blood of many innocents will be on his hands.


Accentuating the positive may be cute lyrics for a pop song, but we are way beyond anemic cliches at this point. Hoping for the best and wishing upon some distant star just won't do at this point. Sanctions may take some steam out of his ambitions, but they won't change the man. We may, indeed, have to fight against the evil that has been thrust upon the world stage by Putin, but to do so against a man with nothing to lose but the last shreds of dignity he might still have, along with some distorted notion of a restored Soviet empire, is a dangerous option that may spell doom for us all. No, at a time like this, there is nothing left to do but pray. Pray for Ukraine. Pray for Europe. Pray for the world. Pray, even, for Vladimir Putin. Prayer is the final defense against the excesses of this world and the wild fantasies that animate our sin-sick souls.


I would begin my introductory theology courses with this short poem from Walt Whitman, a poem that finds particular resonance in a time such as this:


There are who teach only the sweet lessons of peace and safety;

But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,

That they readily meet invasions when they come.


The invasion has come. The question now is, what are you going to do about it?


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