Russia, Churches, and the Lust for Domination

Jim Tonkowich | Institute for Religion & Democracy | Thursday, August 14, 2008

Russia, Churches, and the Lust for Domination

August 14, 2008

While the world’s eyes have been glued to the Olympics, that quadrennial ersatz bacchanal of goodwill and international cooperation, Russia invaded one of its neighbors, Georgia.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal commented:

The farther Russia’s tanks roll into Georgia, the more the world is beginning to see the reality of Vladimir Putin’s Napoleonic ambitions. Having consolidated his authoritarian transition as Prime Minister with a figurehead President, Mr. Putin is now pushing to reassert Russian dominance in Eurasia. Ukraine is in his sights, and even the Baltic states could be threatened if he’s allowed to get away with it.

Though a truce was declared by Moscow, Russian troops continued their advance and captured the Georgian city of Gori just down the road from the capitol, Tiblisi.  Putin has made it clear that he will not negotiate with democratically elected, pro-Western Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.  He demands a regime change first presumably to someone more malleable.

Saakashvili, for his part, has summed up the problem nicely in a Washington Post op-ed:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia strikes at the heart of Western values and our 21st-century system of security. If the international community allows Russia to crush our democratic, independent state, it will be giving carte blanche to authoritarian governments everywhere. Russia intends to destroy not just a country but an idea.

That idea is democracy, a system wherein the people are given the right to self-determination and the opportunity to exercise that right.  Putin, having rolled back democracy in Russia, seems determined to roll it back in the countries that once comprised the Soviet empire.

As Eugene Rumer, a senior fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies wrote in the Washington Post, “Russia is back: Its gross domestic product has increased from $200 billion in 1999 to $1.2 trillion in 2007.  Moscow has more money from oil and gas exports than it knows what to do with.”  Putin has cash on hand to renew Russia’s military and Russian oil gives him economic leverage over much of Europe.  He seems to believe that he can do as he pleases.  And he may be right.

This is a new instance of a very old problem.

In his magisterial work The City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) contrasts the City of God with the City of Man.  The Church is the City of God on pilgrimage through this age to the Eternal City.  It is the divine commonwealth ruled by God and governed by the law of love. 

By contrast, the City of Man is the secular order.  It is the earthly city ruled by humans for their own gain using their own rules.  Above all, says Augustine, it “is itself ruled by the lust of rule.”  “The lust of rule” is a translation of the Latin libido dominandi.  As Richard John Neuhaus puts it, libido dominandi is “the lust for power, advantage, and glory.”  It shouts, “My way because I said so!”

Jim Tonkowich is the President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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