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I saw a meme on Facebook the other day in reference to the invasion of Ukraine that said, “This is what you get when you trade George Patton for Gomer Pyle.” To translate, this meme is implying Vladimir Putin would have been stopped by Donald Trump but is free to run rampant over Joe Biden.
So much for coming together in unity in the face of an international crisis. The implication that Putin would have been restrained by Trump, whom Putin treated as a lapdog, is laughable. Or maybe not. Putin wants Trump in power, so maybe one of his twisted reasons for his aggression is an attempt to control American politics.
Without question, though, the idea of Trump as Patton is as fantastical as those Trump as Rambo flags. Someone who successfully evaded military service and who called American soldiers who died in combat “suckers” and “losers” is hardly George Patton, even if he speaks violently, hugs flags, and is obsessed with power.
As for Joe Biden as Gomer Pyle, employing restraint in a crisis does not make one a buffoon. Biden has rallied the international community in ways that Putin didn’t anticipate and Trump never thought important.
Just to take the meme two steps further than it was ever intended to go, I can’t help but point out that George Patton hardly possessed the temperament or diplomatic skills to be President of the United States. There are reasons why Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Allied Commander. On the other hand, you know who always did bumble himself into a happy ending? Shazam! It was Gomer. (Not to mention his fine singing voice.)
Our simplistic, predictable social media insults during the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine are lamentable. They bring to mind the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel about only seeing what we know instead of knowing what we see. There is much in the Russian invasion of Ukraine for those with eyes to see.
My interest in what we learn about the world and ourselves from the invasion of Ukraine is more religious than partisan. There are lessons for us about the ill-effects of Christian Nationalism in Russia.
Vladimir Putin has repeatedly used religious language to justify his forays into other countries. He took Crimea because it was “sacred. In the days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin alleged that Kyiv was preparing to destroy the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The history of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and Russia is long and complicated. Putin simplified it into “us vs. them,” with “us” being righteous. By his logic, the invasion was actually an act of self-defense. Putin does not see himself as an aggressor; he’s a victim.
Since the fall of Communism, the rise of Putin’s authoritarian, righteous, nationalistic version of Orthodoxy parallels American Christian Nationalism, who also sees itself as righteous and persecuted. Hence the interest in George Patton or Rambo or some other strongman to deliver us.
The righteous strongman myth runs deep in the American psyche, from Shane to Rambo and, of course, as Kristin Kobes DuMez has pointed out, John Wayne. I get the appeal of these stories, I like watching them too. The end of every one of these movies has an apocalyptic showdown when the righteous loner is pushed too far and finally kills the bad guys in an apocalyptic blood bath. It can be psychologically satisfying to watch the bad guys finally get what they deserve. But please, never allow yourself to mistake this for the Christian story.
The Christian story is about victory through sacrifice.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”
Whom do the autocrats of the world serve?
About them, Jesus asked, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?”
Things are never as simplistic as George Patton or Gomer Pyle.
One of the many sad developments of recent years has been the equation of Christianity in the United States with militant Christian Nationalism. We are seeing the rotten fruit of Christian Nationalism in Russia. Will we stand up to it here?