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Learning from Putin

July 21, 2014

If you have been even slightly aware of international events over the past several days then you have probably been horrified by the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 in eastern Ukraine that we can say with near-certainty was done by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists.  All credible sources make it clear that they shot down this airliner; probably in the mistaken belief that it was a Ukrainian government transport. 

The vast majority of the world community is calling for Russian Premier Vladimir Putin to get these rebels, which he has favored and protected, under control.  This morning, on three different news programs, I heard commentators lay the blame at Putin’s feet and call for him to lead the charge to respond to this horror.  The ideas put forward as to how to respond if he doesn’t vary widely however. 

I have no clear idea what will happen, or even what should happen, but to me one thing is clear; we evangelicals can learn from what we see in Putin.  There are repeated claims that Putin is on the hot seat; that he will be forced to act because of world outrage.  They see it as the seminal moment in Putin’s leadership and that he will now need to accept that what he has started in Ukraine must stop.

They are wrong.

In Russia, Putin sits in control of a carefully constructed fantasy world.  All Russian media, including the English-language Russia Today in what is only a slightly calmer voice, is telling a different story.  In this fairy tale Ukraine is to blame, the U.S. and other sources that have intelligence data cannot be trusted, and only Russia, led by the calm and rational Vladimir Putin, is a voice of reason.  The Russian public gets an unending barrage of information that is so contrary to what the rest of the world hears that it comes across to us as delusional.  The net effect is that Russian popular opinion is solidly on Putin’s side.

The lesson is clear.  If you only listen to people who already agree with you; if you only hear the voices of those who disagree as they are filtered through and edited by your own trusted sources; if you assume that all who differ with you are liars pushing an evil agenda who not only can be ignored but must be ignored, then you are ripe to accept fantasy as truth.

It scares me that many evangelicals approach the complex and ever-changing issues of our culture in the same way.  We accept information only from select trusted sources that tell us what to believe and not how to discern.  We build ridiculous straw-men that are caricatures of what those who differ actually think and believe.  We assume the motives and aims of “the other side” are manipulative.  We interpret all events through our own filters and see evil schemes everywhere.

The evangelical version of Putin’s closed information bubble is convinced that there is an ever-increasing anti-Christian bias in the public today.  Article after article is written to “prove” this.  But the historic popularity of Billy Graham which still exists today even as he has left the world stage and the amazing popularity of Pope Francis tell us that this perceived bias is not real; that the public is prepared to accept, like or even admire Christians.  Then why don’t they? 

The answer to this question can only lead to one horrible conclusion.  In the words of Jonathan Merritt, “Most people dislike Christian jerks because they are jerks, not because they are Christians.”  I agree, and I think Vladimir Putin is giving us a text-book example of this as we watch.

Let’s burst the bubble and confront the world on its own terms.  Let’s be servants who advocate for the down-trodden, speak with humility, and admit our own weaknesses.  Let’s stop covering our ears to other messages.  Let’s stop trying to grasp power but let the power of the Spirit flow through us.  Let’s not be Vladimir Putin.

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