WE ARE WHO WE ARE… IS VLADIMIR PUTIN EVIL?

Chapter 2 of our series Unfold: A Year of Discovering Story, is titled “We Are Who We Are.” In Chapter 1 we focused on the character and nature of God. The title “I Am Who I Am” comes from God’s self identification to Moses in Exodus 3. “We Are Who We Are,” turns from a focus on God to a look at who we are as God’s creation, and specifically as human beings.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?
WHAT IS THE HUMAN CONDITION? 
WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK OF “HUMAN NATURE,” TO WHAT ARE THEY REFERRING?

The theological, or academic, term for this is theological anthropology. During seminary, specifically during my Systematic Theology course, this became the crux of my studies. I found this to be one of if not the most important loci in terms of crafting my own systematic theology. To me this was the most important because our theological anthropology directly affects how we treat each other.

In the same way that our theological understanding of God influences how we operate in the world, so, too, our theological anthropology influences how we relate to one another. For example, if you believe God is out to get you if you break God’s commandments or do anything wrong, then fear is your motivation so as to not upset God and thus not be punished by God. Alternatively, if you believe God is loving and not out to get you, but rather desires the best for you and invites you into a life of flourishing and co-creation with God, then your motivation is love and a desire to join in the work of God. (I recognize this is a bit reductionist, and there are greater theological nuances that accompany these beliefs, but stick with me.)

“How can I look at the actions of Vladimir Putin and not claim that he is evil?”

I believe the same is true regarding our view of humanity. If we believe all human beings are tainted by sin, or even totally depraved as five-point Calvinism claims, then we may view humanity as inherently bad and ultimately live in fear of our fellow humans. Rather than believe people are good or even give people the benefit of the doubt, we may assume they, too, are out to get us. It may seem easy to assume this about humanity. The last couple weeks have given us plenty of reasons to think ill of human beings, be they politicians who continue to pick on the LGBTQ community, or Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are plenty of examples in the news each and every day that seem to support a view of total depravity.

But I’m not buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the pain and suffering in this world. I see it and I know it is real. I believe that there is indeed evil in this world; what I don’t believe is that there are evil people. (This became a big part of our conversation during Tiny Desk Theology when we had Dr. Donna Bowman as a guest. If you missed it, you can view it here.) “How can I look at the actions of Vladimir Putin and not claim that he is evil?” This is actually a question I have received a few times this week, typically followed by, “do you also believe Hitler wasn’t evil?” To which I say, “I do not.” Here’s why…

First and foremost it’s because I believe the truth of Genesis 1 when it says that human beings are created in the image of God – the imago Dei. And, as Genesis 1 tells us, after creating human beings in the divine image, God sees all that has been created and declares it “very good.” Thus, if we claim Vladimir Putin, or Hitler, or anybody else is evil, then we are claiming that within this divine image there is evil. That, or the divine image of God within us can be overcome, conquered, by evil. In no way am I willing to make that claim. 
Secondly, I do not believe people are defined by their actions. People should be held accountable for their actions, but not defined by them. To me, this is Grace 101. Before you ever did anything to deserve it, God loved you. And no matter what you do, it will not change God’s love for you. God sees Vladimir Putin as God’s child, just as God sees me, or the Pope for that matter, as God’s child. Vladimir Putin’s identity is that of a child of God, a beloved creature created in the image of God. That, in my belief, is what it means to be human. That is the very essence of our nature. Belovedness.
I believe there is a danger in believing and claiming people are evil. 

It is important to reiterate our identity and belovedness first before we talk about sin and evil actions. If we begin defining people by their actions, then we make our identity contingent upon those actions. We are no longer identified by God’s love, but rather by our own good or bad deeds.

I very much believe the actions of Vladimir Putin are evil, but that does not define him. To truly say he is evil means that 100% of the time he is actively choosing to live in opposition to how God created him and who God created him to be. And I can never believe that. I can’t even fathom somebody being purely evil. Theologically I can’t stand by it, and logically I can’t believe it is possible. And, to be totally honest, I believe there is a danger in believing and claiming people are evil.

Much of the propaganda Putin has used involves claiming the Ukrainian people are evil. He may never use those exact words, but to claim this invasion as a “denazification” of Ukraine is an attempt to de-humanize “those” people. When we no longer see “the other” as a human being, but rather as the embodiment of evil, what are we left to do other than destroy that evil? Prime example, Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Twitter, “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take [Putin] out.” The myth of redemptive violence is a blog for another day, but practically speaking, theological anthropology is being revealed right in front of us in real time.

SO IS VLADIMIR PUTIN EVIL?
I don’t believe so. I don’t believe anybody is evil. We are human beings, created in the image of God. Creatures created with the capacity to do incredible good and devastating bad. Creatures given the ability to choose. Creatures who are influenced and affected by love and by evil. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” Now I don’t know who hurt Vladimir Putin, or how, but clearly there is deep hurt there. Same is true for Hitler. If we begin seeing our fellow humans as those who have both the capacity for good and bad, fellow humans who have been wounded, fellow humans who are beloved children of God, then we no longer need to obliterate that evil person, but instead seek healing for the individual and the systems that continue to cause such harm.
 
I very much hope the international community will hold Vladimir Putin responsible for his war crimes. He must be held accountable for the harm and devastation he has caused. But if our answer to people who do bad, or evil acts, is to kill them… well that’s only going to lead to a continual cycle of violence. Evil action upon evil action. Because, though I can easily claim his actions are evil, he is still a father, a brother, a beloved child of God. Under all those evil acts there is still the image of God, still the capacity for good. I pray that the divine image will break through the barriers he has established within himself. That love will conquer his fear. Evil will not have the final word; this I truly believe.
MAY IT BE SO!

P.S. One additional note. I do believe this to be one of, if not the most, important loci in systematic theology. However, there is a time and a place to discuss theological ideologies such as this. Now is not the time to discuss with Ukrainians whether or not Vladimir Putin is evil. As Dr. Bowman pointed out in our Tiny Desk Theology, there will be a time and a place for the international community to both hold him accountable and have such theological conversations. In the meantime, the pastoral response to people who are suffering is to end this unnecessary and unproved invasion. We are partnering with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to assist those in Ukraine. We hope you will join us in praying for them and give to help relieve their suffering. You can give here. Oh, and join us in praying for Vladimir Putin. May love prevail!
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