Op-Ed: Easter, Ukraine and the persistence of evil

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Photo collage with flowers and crucifix laid atop a woman on blue and yellow papers with a bullet on a wire at her feet
(Susan Tibbles / For The Times)

In the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, no passage is more poignant than Mary Magdalene’s breathless declaration to the apostles Peter and John: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” We can well imagine that far too many families in Ukraine in this moment of darkness are saying much the same thing as they search for loved ones amid the carnage of war: “We do not know where they have laid him.”

Mass graves are being unearthed. Executed civilians, hands tied behind their backs, have been left by the side of the road. Entire cities have been essentially wiped off the map. Rescuers seek the living and the dead, sheltered or homeless or buried beneath the rubble.

The story that Christians call the Passion narrative reminds us of the presence of evil in the world — as if we needed such a reminder.

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You don’t have to share the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God to acknowledge that he was a decent and gentle man, someone who heralded the meek and told his followers to turn the other cheek, someone who lauded peacemakers and insisted that anyone who aspired to follow him must visit prisoners, welcome the foreigner, care for orphans and widows and take notice of those he called “the least of these.”

Yet, despite his gentleness and compassion, despite his renunciation of temporal power, Jesus died the slow, excruciating death of an insurrectionist at the hands of Roman authorities. Yes, there is evil in the world.

The people of Ukraine understand that too well. Without provocation, a neighboring autocrat has decided to feed his insatiable ego by invading a sovereign nation, exacting a fearsome toll of casualties and destruction. This madman, who professes to be a follower of Jesus, has prosecuted his war against Ukraine with no regard to “just war” theory.

What is worse, Vladimir Putin has perpetrated this evil with the apparent blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. A new Orthodox cathedral, dedicated to the armed forces and located on the outskirts of Moscow, featured a massive mosaic depicting Putin and his advisors triumphantly celebrating the Russian conquest of Crimea in 2014. High above the scene, the Blessed Virgin Mary cast her protective veil, suggesting that the annexation was divinely sanctioned.

The backlash was swift, and the image was removed before the cathedral’s consecration. When apprised of the matter, Putin reportedly remarked, “Someday our grateful descendants will appreciate our accomplishments. But for now, it is still too early for that.”

Far too often, evil and ego walk hand in hand. And far too often those who purport to be followers of Jesus have perpetrated such evil.

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From the Crusades and the Wars of Religion to Manifest Destiny, from the Inquisition and the scourge of slavery to “enhanced interrogation” at Abu Ghraib and children separated from parents at the border, those who claim to be Christians have been complicit in violence and evil. Putin’s gratuitous invasion of Ukraine is merely the most recent example.

What do we make of the persistence of evil more than 2,000 years after Mary Magdalene frantically searched for the body of Jesus? Phalanxes of theologians through the centuries have tried to explain it, blaming everything from social circumstances to human nature itself.

But the fact remains that we have not eradicated evil from the world, and the deterrents we have devised — shaming, incarceration, sanctions, war crimes tribunals — may have stanched some of the violence, but they certainly haven’t eliminated the incidence of evil.

Where does this leave us, especially those who identify as followers of Jesus, during this season of Easter? It’s unrealistic to expect that we can undo the evil of decades and centuries past, although we bear responsibility for reconciliation and reparations.

Our best strategy is to address the evil at hand, before it metastasizes into a greater peril. In the case of Ukraine, many nations have united in opposition to Putin, and for now at least, their calculation is that violence should not be met with violence.

In the face of such titanic forces, it may seem that there’s little individuals can do to eliminate or redress the war’s overwhelming evil. But we can act in small ways — with contributions to humanitarian organizations, with forthright condemnations of Russian Orthodox complicity and yes, prayer. As the Bible says, we weep with those who weep. And no, Putin does not deserve to be heroized in an Orthodox cathedral for his monstrous invasion of neighboring nations.

The resurrection narrative in the New Testament attests to the presence of evil. But Easter is also a story of hope. Mary Magdalene did find Jesus, and the Christian gloss on that discovery is that evil and death do not have the final word.

Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College and an Episcopal priest, is the author of “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.”

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