A couple of nights ago, I found myself at a soirée in Nashville in the company of several Russian academics. If my memory serves me correctly, one taught Russian literature, another political science, and the third microbiology. I found all three of them thoroughly pleasant and embracing company. Naturally enough, much of our conversation centred on the life and legacy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, enabling me to share my own cherished memories of meeting the great Russian writer at his home in Moscow. Later, from yet another Russian at the same soirée, I learned that one of my three interlocutors had expressed anger at the Catholic Church because of the alleged targeting of Russian Orthodox churches by western Ukrainian forces in that country’s very unpleasant and uncivil war.

Regardless of the relative merits of each side’s claims in the Ukraine, it struck me as unfair to blame the Catholic Church for the actions of western Ukrainian forces. It is true, of course, that the people of western Ukraine are mainly Catholic whereas those in the east are mainly Orthodox. In this sense, it can be conceded that the war is “ethnic,” in the sense that two different cultures are struggling for dominance or for separation. It is, however, not fair to categorize the war as “religious.” It would be much more accurate to describe it as political in the sense that it is a clash of nationalities: ethnic Ukrainians in the west and ethnic Russians in the east. The western Ukrainians blame their eastern neighbors for their suffering under the Soviet system; the eastern Ukrainians blame their western neighbors for their collaboration with the Nazis and the hated SS during the second world war. There are communist “conservatives” in eastern Ukraine who long for the patriotic “glories” of Soviet imperialism, and there are many neo-Nazis in positions of power in the western Ukrainian government.

It is, however, not fair or accurate to describe the struggle between the two warring parties as religious, except in the decidedly irreligious sense of its being a sectarian struggle in which religious affiliation is little more than a badge worn in the service of tribalism.

I happen to be particularly sensitive to this crucial distinction between that which is genuinely religious and that which is merely tribal. Many years ago, back in the 1970s and 1980s, I was heavily involved in the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the so-called Catholics and the so-called Protestants. In those days, long before my conversion to Catholicism, I was on the side of the Protestants, even though I had no religion. I was technically, I suppose, an agnostic. I was not an atheist because God was not important enough to me. Frankly I did not care whether He existed or not. I was a Protestant, not because I cared about the way that Luther or Calvin differed from the Catholic Church but because I hated the IRA.

The Irish Republican Army was planting bombs in English pubs and I hated anyone who supported its terrorism. My response was to join the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society, and to become involved with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Protestant terrorist organizations in Northern Ireland. I had a knee-jerk eye-for-an-eye mentality. If the “Catholics” of the IRA were planting bombs in my country, I would self-identify with the “Protestants” of the UDA and UVF. Needless to say, or at least it should be needless to say, none of this had anything to do with religion in any meaningful sense. It had nothing to do with the Prince of Peace, whose birth we will be celebrating soon, except that my hatred and the hatred of the warring parties was nailing Him to the Cross.

This distinction between genuine religion and religious tribalism is best expressed in the telling of a parable masquerading as a joke: Many years ago, at the height of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, an American visitor to Belfast got lost and found himself in a run-down ghetto. Knowing of the terrorism in the city, he was fearful for his life. Then, as a group of menacing youths emerged from the shadows, his worst fears seemed to be coming true. This group of thugs approached him and asked him whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic. Realizing that this was a very dangerous question, the answer to which was a matter of life and death, he answered that he was actually an atheist. As the group of thugs looked at each other in bemusement, confused by his answer, he prided himself smugly for the quickness of his wit. Then, scratching his head and still looking a little puzzled, the leader of the thugs asked him whether he was a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist!

Grim and gallows humour aside, there is a great deal of truth in this scenario. I was a Protestant agnostic and some of my “comrades” were indeed Protestant atheists. Our hatred had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with our prideful and bigoted hatred of the other tribe.

The applicability of this scenario to the situation in Ukraine is clear enough. True religion, i.e. Christianity, which spurns the notion of an eye-for-an-eye, is always the bringer of peace. The absence of such peace is usually the absence of true religion. One can hope and pray that the presence of true Christianity in the minds and hearts of Catholic and Orthodox believers in  Ukraine will serve the cause of peace and reconciliation in that tragically divided land.

As we approach the joy of Christmas, we should remember the Christmas Truce of a century ago in which British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches, meeting in no-man’s-land to exchange food and gifts. Such a love for one’s enemy is not an option for the Christian but a Christ-given Commandment. It is nothing less than the peace that passeth and surpasseth all hatred and which is present every year in the manger at Bethlehem.

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