Carrying the Cross and Giving an Onion

From a talk given at the “Faith at Work” event for students at Bucknell University, sponsored by the Bucknell Faculty Staff Christian Association together with the Bucknell Orthodox Christian Fellowship among others, on Nov. 13 7531 (Nov. 26 2022 on the civil calendar).

My life in academia has been bound up with my life as an Orthodox Christian.

It started when I alternated between reading The Lord of the Rings and the Bible under the covers as a junior-high nerd while praying in secret as my sister suffered from an ultimately fatal illness. I had grown up in a basically agnostic household, nominally Unitarian and unfamiliar with the Bible, and in high-school would convert to the Christian Science of my mother’s family, where the model of The Christian Science Monitor led me into journalism after studying history at Brown. As urban affairs writer at the Chicago Sun-Times I became focused on writing about regional landscape and spirituality. When I returned to graduate school it was to study early Celtic literary landscape and Christianity. My master’s thesis in Wales was on the early Christian traditions of the landscape of Glastonbury in the West Country.

By the time I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation on early Christian literary landscapes, I had been baptized into the Orthodox Church, convicted by the beauty of a faith in which, as Dostoevsky put it, beauty will save the world, ultimately the otherworldly mysterious beauty of Christ. Of six books I have authored or co-edited to date, the first was entitled Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages and my contribution was an essay on “Tolkien’s Cosmic-Christian Ecology.” My next was a book called Strange Beauty, which dealt with the overlay landscapes of early medieval Britain and Ireland in relation to the Christian doctrine of theosis. I edited a book collection called Re-Imagining Nature, for which I wrote two essays relating Orthodox Christian theology and cosmology to the developing field of ecosemiotics, looking at Creation as living mysterious symbolism of God. Subsequently I co-edited a book on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, related to my Russian-American family’s faith. I also have co-edited two books for Orthodox seminary presses in America on the poetics of Christian marriage and gender expression. Such poetics are little understood in our culture. Christ is considered the Bridegroom and the Church representing humanity is considered the Bride. The husband is considered the head of the family but charged with laying down his life for his family like Christ. This is a cosmological iconography of self-emptying rather than self-assertion.

Just as Marxist professors study Marxism, feminist professors study feminism, and Critical Race Theorists study Critical Race Theory, I am a Christian unworthily who studies and teaches Christian literature in light of the theology and philosophy and cosmology of formative thinkers of Christianity dating back to the first millennium. I also am ordained in the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an autonomous Church formed by refugees from the Red Terror in Russia. I help lead worship weekly at St. John’s Orthodox Church in downtown Lewisburg and on campus. My courses have titles such as the Bible as Literature, offered next semester; there are still seats available! My current research involves writing the history of the novel as a Christian art form.

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is an outstanding example of the Christian tradition of the novel as a teaching machine for personal transformation in Christ. In it the character Gruschenka, a woman of bad reputation but a loving heart, tells the fable of the onion. A miserly spiteful old woman died, and her angel tries to find a reason why she can be saved and not be in hell. She once gave an onion to a poor person. In the fable, the onion is handed to her in hell to see if it will be enough to pull her out. Others see the angel pulling her out of hell on that onion. They grab onto her feet. She kicks them away telling them it is her onion. The onion breaks and she falls into hell. All my life, says Grushenka repentantly for her sins, I have just given one little onion. That was when she reached out with heartfelt feeling to the protagonist Alyosha who was grieving over the death of his monastic elder, and the pure-hearted Alyosha responded to her with love, surprised to find the care emerge from behind her hardened persona. She in turn responded with heartfelt tears. Later Alyosha has a dream-vision of his dead monastic elder celebrating at the biblical wedding at Cana. I am here, the elder says, because I gave a little onion. You did too, he tells Alyosha, when you reached out to that spiritually hungry woman. Now, he says, start on your work.

So we work. Maybe we will give an onion, we hope, and I pray unworthily. But it’s not always easy even just to give an onion for myself the sinner as a Christian academic in the humanities today. I probably would not be hired and receive tenure today as a literature professor because of my faith. Atheistic models predominate, the poetics of Christianity are cancelled. The irony is that Christian traditions in the US now are much more reflective of global multicultural backgrounds than when Bucknell was a Baptist school. But today perhaps only 5 percent of Bucknell students and faculty are practicing traditional Christians of any kind, in terms of daily prayer and Scripture reading, regular worship, and a worldview that is primarily Christian rather than consumerist or careerist. There is little recognition of Christian backgrounds here as adding to diversity at a time in the world when Christians are the largest number of victims of physical violence in religious persecution worldwide.

My own religious tradition saw millions killed in the past century by bigoted secularists. Not long ago a friend who is an elderly Russian Orthodox priest in the US received a brain injury in a hate attack. Not long ago three full professors at Bucknell supported the malicious public labeling of me as Lewisburg’s Rasputin, a stereotyped villain associated with Russian Orthodox Christianity, deserving to be killed. One previously had said that practicing Christians on campus should not be employed at our campus but should be ostracized personally and professionally. His remains a leading faculty voice, helping recently to engineer a propaganda attack on a Catholic staffer who had written an article outlining traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality in a campus newsletter for Catholic students. This effort to silence her occurred at the same time that the U.S. Congress moved toward repealing the Defense of Marriage Act while rejecting a measure to protect religious freedoms.

As Christians we must look to the Cross each day in our work. We know unworthily that we must suffer and forgive our enemies, even as we sometimes need to call them out to prevent vulnerable people from being harmed by hate, because that too is loving our neighbors. I have witnessed an African Bucknell student withdraw because he felt his Ethiopian Orthodox faith not welcome here, as did a conservative Catholic American student. The problem cuts across cultures. On a global scale, 100 million dead around the world is the toll in the past century of rule by radical atheists. Yet in solidarity we as Orthodox Christians still can say, “Glory to God for all things.” Carrying the Cross every day is our daily work, along with giving an onion whenever we can.


Greenways to humility

The Bucknell Greenway as a Living and Learning Laboratory in the Susquehanna Greenway

(presentation at the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell today)

JRR Tolkien wrote

The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say….
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with wear feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Tolkien’s verse evokes for me the spirit of the greenway as a movement and a term of art in the twenty-first century. A greenway is a corridor of ecological, historical, recreational, and educational renewal. It highlights the relation of the many ways of the earth beyond our ken, our limits, and human community as in the lighted inn in Tolkien’s poetry. It is embedded as poetry in a grim fantasy history of a struggle with evil whose symbol is often interpreted as a nexus of technological power and oppression of nature and human beings appropriate for his era in the mid-20th century, and even more perhaps today. A medieval English poet referred to the greenway to Paradise,  and it reminds us that like Abraham and Sarah we are pilgrims or sojourners on the earth, and as Native cultures teach us as such we should be humble and light in our footprints.

That a greenway should foster renewal in ecology, history, recreation, and education, rather than only or mainly using the term restoration, involves careful diction. Renewal or rebirth is distinct from what we call restoration, which can be a fundamentally reactionary term. There was a restoration in England of the Monarchy in the 1600s, but we can never restore mechanically the original ecosystems and cultures of a region. That was understood as party of the tragedy of human life rather than the sense of unlimited progress that science instituted as central to the global West and what author Paul Kingsnorth calls the age of the Machine. However, we can seek to renew our ecology and cultural life. The philosopher of mind Evan Thompson has noted the etymological relation of the term ecopoiesis both to engineering an ecological restoration and writing poetry or a novel. Ecopoiesis literally from Greek rootes means shaping the hope. That is done through ecopoetics and also through ecopoiesis as an engineering term for moving and shaping the earth in a restorative or renewing way, as in the ecological restoration work nearby at the Montandon marsh. Ecological restoration in this sense is renewal.

I’m here to talk about a new project that has been years in the making, the Bucknell Greenway, which is envisioned to connect with the Susquehanna Greenway, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail, and thus with a network of greenways throughout the country and globally. But a greenway potentially is also a fractal of larger Creation, in the sense of being personal as well as connective.

Experience of that fractal nature of greenways started for me growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chicago, near a place called Indian Boundary Park, and near the place where my grandfather had grown up on a farm in what became the city. My grandfather’s farm was along the edge of Rosehill Cemetery and by a parkway designed as a road across a marsh to the cemetery gates with little sculpted markers. That road, Rosehill Drive, was the scene of Memorial Day parades when I was a child, in which I imagined ancient veterans marching along to bands as Civil War veterans, although that would have been impossible; looking back I think they were a handful of Spanish-American War veterans, which seems enough of a time-travel dimension along Rosehill Drive.

But I knew from my grandfather that that road to the cemetery and the marshland where his farm was nearby also had been a dwelling place of Indians, and later learned more about this from my first Indian mentor Jerry Lewis, a Citizens Potawatomi elder and community college educator, and from Helen Tanner, director of the Darcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The road to Rosehill, and the travel down to the neighborhood of my grandfather’s old farm, had become a kind of greenway to me through history and into the natural world still found in old oak groves in the cemetery amid what was then the second largest city in the U.S. This lit my way to becoming first an American history major at Brown, where I had the at-the-time unrecognized privilege of studying unworthily with authors of two of the volumes in the Oxford History of America, Gordon Wood and James Patterson, as well as with the Southern regionalist author Flannery O’Connor’s writer friend John Hawkes, and then on to being a journalist. As urban affairs writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, I spent much time writing about the emerging greenway movement in the Chicago area, and its interrelation to the burgeoning ecological restoration movement in prairie savannah in the region. I continued that interest on in graduate school to working as a writer for Openlands, a conservation group in Chicago, and the Illinois Nature Conservancy, and became involved as a writer with the nation’s first heritage corridor, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. When I came to Bucknell I was involved with colleagues and students in the designation by the National Park Service of the portion of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River adjoining our campus as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail. This was done especially through the leadership of Sid Jamieson, a new friend and mentor, an elder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Involved in that project were the origins of the Environmental Humanities Working Group and Initiative at Bucknell, the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, and what is now the Place Studies Program of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment (formerly the Environmental Humanities Initiative).

Partly emerging from such past collaborative efforts involving many colleagues and students, Bucknell has designated through the President’s Sustainability Council a four-mile loop of pathway for bicyclists, hikers, walkers, strollers, runners, and those seeking solace in the outdoors and natural world. This is also envisioned to include micro-restoration of bio-habitats, native tree and shrub plantings, public art, public storytelling and historical work, some of which hopefully will be featured online through QR codes and apps. We are in discussions with biologists, historians, public storytellers, psychologists, and most importantly students for this work. We hope that students will help link the greenway to the river and to the downtown and county rail trail, and thus to the regional and national greenways already mentioned. We have students already working on public monuments for the greenway, such as a Native American sculpture, led by the Sid Jamieson Research Fellow Quintina Smith, a student, together with a Bucknell working group of Native Americans, and also the Bucknell in the Civil War and Underground Railroad student working group working, which will help develop an artwork showing the links of Bucknell to the Underground Railroad and the Battle of Gettsyburg. The Susquehanna River is also an historical greenway of the Civil War linking us and Gettysburg, from the Lewisburg Cemetery where the young Bucknell graduate Andrew Tucker is buried (after being fatally wounded fighting for the Union at that battle) and the campus where Charles Bell lived, an escaped slave who traversed the Underground Railroad, down to Gettysburg and beyond. The campus Greenway also passes along the Miller Run watershed and hopefully will help open up the university’s riverfront in the long term.

In Chicago, visionaries such as Jens Jensen, Jane Addams, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and early ecological scientists helped encourage development of a belt of greenways that became the Chicago parkland lakefront, the boulevard system, the Indiana Dunes parkland, and the ring of forest preserves in Chicago’s suburbs, where much ecological restoration has occurred. In the new era of greenways those early 20th-century developments are reborn.

At Bucknell we have a significant legacy of visionary landscape in our campus’ green settings as well as its environs, including the
Lewisburg Cemetery that emerged from the American Arcadian landscape movement of the 19th century, and the boulevard-like drive from the Civil War monument at St. George down past the President’s house and around past the Grove into the heart of campus today. We hope this new greenway project will renew on ecological, historical, educational, and recreational levels that legacy of our beautiful campus. We also hope that it will help renew the liberal arts in our era, by enriching the definition of residential learning at a liberal arts university. The old meaning of the liberal arts back into Byzantine times involved what has been called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis, a synthesis of reason and spirituality. The trivium and quadrivium involved connecting man with the cosmos through signs and symbols, and hopefully the Greenway can help renew that project in an era when the liberal arts seem increasingly in need of renewal, sadly.

The Bucknell Greenway is a community effort that in our divided country and society, whose divisions even enter into our area and campus, hopefully can bring people together. The renewal or rebirth inherent in a greenway project helps overcome binaries, including that of nature and the human mind, and also renews mental and ecological health. I encourage you to come join us in this project of the Ecological Conservation and Restoration Working Group of the President’s Sustainability Council. Please contact me at with your ideas and for ideas on how you can be involved.


The Fourth Day


Genesis and Job in Orthodox Tradition: A Bible Study

Please join us for our community Bible Study in the 2022-2023 school year on “Genesis and Job in Orthodox Christian Church Tradition,” on 2:30 each Sunday at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe, 4th and Market Streets in downtown Lewisburg, PA. All are welcome! A video archive of summaries of our discussions follows below. Our motto is from St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century: “This is the cause of all evils: the ignorance of the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe?” Our prayer is to live in our lives what we learn from Holy Scripture under the guidance of the Church Fathers. May the Lord give us unworthily good strength and wisdom in this effort! Glory to God!

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) is the classic English version but Orthodox Christians rely for their study primarily on the Apostolic version of the Old Textament, the Greek Septuagint.

Videos of the series below are posted in sequence, starting with an introduction to the study of Genesis in Orthodox tradition and chronography, and then our first conversation on Genesis 1 and beyond. Your video guide, drawing on conversations with the ensemble of our in-person Bible Study participants, Deacon Paul Siewers, Ph.D., unworthily strives to use for his own guide Orthodox Church Tradition including commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. He teaches the Bible as Literature course at Bucknell University, where he is on the Literary Studies faculty with a specialty in early literature and patristic connections. An ordained Deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, he holds a Diploma in Pastoral Theology from St. John of Kronstadt Orthodox Pastoral School, as well as an M.A. in Early British Studies (history, language, and literature) from the University of Wales, a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from the University of Illinois, an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and a BA in History from Brown. But Church Tradition and biblical commentary by those holy people experienced in the noetic life of the Church, not educational certification, are the gold standard for Bible study, which should be approached with prayer and struggle to practice the unfolding of God-given truth there. Prayers for beginning the study of Scripture can be found here.

Bible Study Series Intro
Bible Study Genesis 1
Bible Study Genesis 2
Genesis 3-4
Genesis 5
Genesis 6-8
Genesis 9-11
Genesis 11-15
Genesis 16-18
Genesis 19-22

Genesis 23-26

A note on Translations: Genesis 26:32 in the Septuagint Greek text of the Orthodox Church notes that Isaac’s servants did “not” find water in digging the Well of the Oath (Beersheba). The Hebrew Masoretic text states that they “did” find water. However, the Orthodox Study Bible follows the Hebrew without noting the difference. St. Ambrose of Milan, an early Church writer, cited the Septuagint version in commentary indicating the spiritual meaning of the account of the wells in Genesis 26, referencing their names of Injustice, Enmity, Room Enough, and Oath. It perhaps could be taken as prophetic that the well marking the reconciliation of Abimelech of the Phllistines with Isaac would be dry, in light of future relations in the Old Testament between Isaac’s descendants and the Phillistines. The reference to oath for a dry well also could symbolize the ultimate inadequacy of human oaths and alliances, and the need for faith in God. The Fathers indicated also the relation of the role of wells in this section of Genesis symbolically to baptism, including the well at which God arranged the meeting between Abraham’s eldest servant with Rebekah to arrange the marriage of her with Isaac with her consent. The wells helped mark historically and symbolically the pilgrimage and sojourning of Abraham’s family and of his seed as leading to the establishment of the land in which our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ would be born, in the Incarnation of God as man.

Genesis 27-30

Genesis 31-34.

Translation note: In the Septuagint Greek Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church, God tells Laban in a dream vision not to speak evil to the Righteous Patriarch Jacob, whereas in the Masoretic Hebrew text used by most English translations the message is not to speak good or evil. The Septuagint text provides clarity for the account.
Genesis 35-39

Feast of the Transfiguration with St. John the Wonderworker

In Genesis, we are told man was made according to the image of God, and that means in Jesus Christ, through Whom we realize our true personhood as human beings. The Feast of Transfiguration reminds us of this, and at this time when traditionally the first fruits of harvest are blessed, we remember also the fruits we are capable of bearing through Christ. Today I’d like to share a homily from our mission’s patron saint, the modern American saint St. John of Shanhai and San Francisco, who speaks to this feast.


When He created the world, God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). God’s image manifests in man’s mental capabilities, in his authority over nature, his power, and his ability to create. God’s likeness in man consists in his moral perfection, his spiritual strivings, and in his possibility of attaining sanctity. God’s image and likeness, in which our fore-parents were created, was fully reflected in them before the fall. Sin disrupted both the former and the latter, although it did not entirely deprive man of them. Man retained his mind and the other qualities that gave him God’s image, but he needs to apply greater effort to develop them, yet he achieves only a small measure of what his fore-parents had received in full.

The yearning to be the likeness of God has remained in man to a certain degree, although it sometimes wanes beyond all recognition. In order to return to man his original closeness to God, the Son of God descended to earth and became incarnate. He put on human nature and became like man in every aspect except for that of sin. He came to recreate our first created beauty in the image of God. But if in the beginning, God created man in His image and likeness, then in order to recreate the first image, man’s own participation is also needed. Man must strive for perfection in order to attain it through the grace and help of God. The Lord showed the way to perfection through His teachings and by His own example. This is the path of moral perfection, self denial, and readiness to free oneself of everything sinful.

Sin entered deeply into human nature, mingling with it, as it were. Every person is born with the seed of sin, and the struggle to be free of it is a struggle with his own self. That is why this struggle is so agonizing, but it is necessary in order to come closer to God. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mt. 16:24). The cross that we must take up is that very struggle with our own weaknesses, vices, and sin. Gradually freeing ourselves from them, the man comes closer to God, in Whose image he was created. Man himself does not have sufficient strength to accomplish this, but he is aided by God’s grace, which He gave through the Church created by His incarnate Son. For this, He became incarnate—to raise once again His fallen image.

On Mt. Tabor, Christ manifested the beauty and glory of His Divinity, so that the apostles might know of it and through them, the whole world, the likeness of Whom is man, and to show what man can attain when he spiritually upraises himself. To the degree that man purifies himself of sin and comes closer to God, the glory of God is ever more clearly reflected in him. That is why saints are called in Russian prepodobny, meaning “like unto”. The glory of God is reflected in their souls as in a mirror, filling them with its radiance. When his earthly struggles are over, the degree of likeness that he has achieved is finally and permanently sealed. When the eternal Kingdom comes and all people are resurrected, their souls are united with their bodies, and Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt. 12:43), as Christ Himself said.


Those are St. John’s words. Today, as we worship here in the university chapel, it reminds us of early days in the mission when we worshiped in various spaces from picnic groves to hotels. Our Bishops have asked us to keep in prayer for our building project. Services like this help. For where “two or more are gathered in My name,” our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, “there am I also in the midst of thee.”

Glory to God!


The Z factor: “Necessary” vs. “Just” War

It has been noted that “z” is sometimes a mathematical symbol for the unknown.

The Russian “special military operation” or invasion of Ukraine is symbolized on the Russian side by the letter Z for ambiguous reasons.

But the eruption of war in Ukraine earlier this year was an eruption of the unknown for the West — a disruption of globalization, of what President George Bush Sr. once called the “new world order” of the post-Soviet world a generation ago, with potential realignment of geopolitical tectonic plates globally.

Philosopher Ivan Ilyin, 1921 portrait by Mikhail Nesterov

The current conflict (in tandem with heightened stress over Taiwan) has aligned Russia and China more closely, and emphasized the potential of the so-called BRICS axis (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) to compete in some sense with the “global West” of EU, NATO, Japan, and ANZUS. Many countries (including the governments of an estimated 80% of the world’s population) hover in various degrees apart from or in opposition to the global West’s new “coalition of the willing” against Russia over the Ukraine war.

That most of the world stands apart from the NATO-based coalition on the Ukraine war not only reflects likely resentment and push-back against perceived Western hubris and neocolonialism, but also highlights a deep if obscure fault line between two civilizational zones that cut across Ukraine.

That fault line becomes visible in seemingly esoteric but deep differences between the now-secular “just war” tradition of the West (originally derived from the Latin Christianity of Augustine and Aquinas) and the “necessary war” tradition of still-overtly Christian polities of the East. The latter has roots in the Byzantine civilizational zone to which Russia is self-identified heir. In fact, the modern Russian exile-philosopher Ivan Ilyin, the prime twentieth-century articulator of the “necessary war” tradition, is sometimes claimed to be Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher, although some of Ilyin’s supporters say his application to current issues is more complex than any simple identification with Russian nationalism. Putin nonetheless has distributed copies of Ilyin’s books to officials across the Russian Federation. A renowned Hegelian scholar and pioneer of Russian philosophy of law from before the Revolution, categorizable in political philosophy as a “conservative liberal Orthodox Christian” but also an essayist on creativity and culture, Ilyin in the 1920s became unofficial philosopher of General Wrangel’s White Army movement against Communist totalitarianism and genocide. While unfairly labeled fascist recently by some “Antifa” historians, despite his clear disavowal of Nazism and being targeted in exile by the Gestapo, Ilyin has been cleared of such charges in less polemical scholarship on his work.

Even so, the doctrine of the “necessary war” goes back further than Ilyin’s White Army affinities, all the way back to Byzantine times in Orthodox Christian social teaching. It involved a denial of any war being just.

St. Basil the Great, for example, wrote that it was best for a soldier who killed an enemy, even if legally in a right cause defending Christendom, to be excommunicated for three years. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena wrote in amazement of Latin-Norman ecclesiastical leaders arriving in the Near East armed as Crusaders when Byzantine bishops and clergy were forbidden from wielding arms.

Indeed, the Crusader war culture of the West left deeply negative memories in Orthodox Christian historiography. Crusaders from the West were seen as having pillaged Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, dealing a long-term fatal blow to the Christian Empire. Northern Crusades wreaked havoc on Slavic Christian realms. Such efforts were seen as righteous and good for the souls of the warriors involved in Latin Christendom.

University of Ottawa Prof. Paul Robinson, in a 2003 study of Ilyin’s “necessary war” doctrine, has contrasted key aspects of “necessary war,” as found in Ilyin’s 1925 book On the Resistance to Evil by Force (a book endorsed at the time by Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of blessed memory, first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), with the “just war” doctrine of the West. Ilyin wrote of several conditions for necessity in arguing against Tolstoyan pacifism, which he said among pre-revolutionary Russian elites helped pave the way for the Communist takeover with its ensuing mass murders and cultural genocides. For a war to be “necessary,” according to Ilyin,

  1. There must be “real evil,” not only suffering, but evil human will expressed in external deeds.
  2. Such externalized evil human will must be recognized on a deep level as a prerequisite for fighting it.
  3. Those fighting it need a “genuine love of good” and a repentant attitude in realizing the sinfulness of war on all sides.
  4. They also need a “strong will” that is not indifferent to evil.
  5. Force becomes necessary only when other practical measures such as psychological coercion fail. (The latter point doesn’t mean that force is a last resort, as in Western “just war” doctrine, only that it becomes needed after any alternative deemed practical is exhausted.)

Russian “necessary war” doctrine parallels Dostoevsky’s philosophy (seen in the courtroom aspects of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) of a common guilt for sin, which needs to be claimed through repentance, and which can not be resolved simply through abstract legal views and process. In that sense, for example, there is larger complicity of characters in the situation leading to the parricide of Fyodor Karamazov than just the actual murderer, in The Brothers Karamazov. To Ilyin, likewise, the spiritual causes of evil must be recognized within human souls and are deeper than formal causes. Fighting the external manifestations of evil while leaving the roots intact will not lead to success in spiritual warfare, in his view, and at the same time there are unintended consequences and collateral damage in addressing merely formal aspects of justice. In any case, God and faith are integral factors in calculating a necessary war, according to Ilyin, as well as in considering repentance for it.

All of this paradoxically makes for an approach to war that is perhaps both more extremely skeptical and more likely in select cases, than the secularized just war doctrine of the West. In any case, necessary-war doctrine literally leaves no justification for the Ukraine war on the basis of justice, even if deemed necessary. To Russian leaders, necessity in the Ukraine seemed driven by urgency to prevent or defuse the embedding of anti-Russian ideology militarily and culturally in what they see historically as a heartland of Russian cultural community, ancient Kievan-Rus. But that sense of necessity, even if not accepted, is in large part totally illegible to Western elites, because it involves literally no justification in Western intellectual terms, and because the West’s secular perspective today is fundamentally different from what Ilyin saw as the essential element of faith in addressing necessary war. That an encroaching culture of secular Western pan-sexualism, for example, would be seen as a national security threat, in effect, due to its perceived impact on family structure and faith, is inconceivable to Western leaders, for whom its promotion literally has become a national security goal in NATO documents, which also is inconceivable to Russian leadership today.

The allegedly anti-Christian bias of the European Union and NATO in their “woke-ism”; perceived interference in ecclesiastical structures of Orthodox churches in Ukraine by the West; NATO pressing into the Russian sphere of influence after its support for the overturning of the Ukrainian government in 2014; a melding of secularized state and business interests in globalization that Russian leaders perceive (very oddly for the West) as akin to neopagan corporate statism of Nazism, linked to allegedly occult elements in some Ukrainian fascist militia ideologies publicized in Russia — these all describe a claimed necessity to intervene militarily for Kremlin leaders. With this collection of concerns, which Western observers tend to see as propagandistic and inauthentic, comes also a factor of deepening distrust by Russian leaders and Western leaders generally of United States leadership. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson sought to describe the situation recently when, while citing his own opposition to the Russian invasion, he pointed out that there is no basis for psychological trust between Russia and the West today because of what he terms a “civil war” culturally fragmenting the West and making it optically an impossible partner in resolving crisis through negotiation.

How, Peterson asked, could someone in another culture more traditional in view of gender and “ethno-nationalism” (such as Russia and China) feel they could trust U.S. leadership when it is not clear that there is currently any coherent national identity, or any normative cultural ethics, in their view? Peterson gave as an example the spectacle this spring of widely publicized U.S. Congressional hearings in which the fractious question “What is a woman?” was unanswerable to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee, to the applause of many American elites. Given American elite cultural denial today of founding fathers, ideals, documents and also family life and faith, in a normative subversion of a deeply divided country, what is the ethical North Star guiding American policy and trustworthiness abroad, apart from assertion of a will to power in the name of a culturally revolutionary ideology that critics see as a state of perpetual uproar? Many suggest that if Donald Trump had been president, the Ukraine invasion would not have occurred, not because he is a paragon of virtue, but because the power drive for expansion of the West in Ukraine would have been lessened in his realpolitik, and the nature of American leadership more legible to Putin.

In all this, cancel culture in American elite institutions ironically has not served the U.S. well abroad. Recent analogy by China between U.S. policy on Taiwan and the strangling of George Floyd marked Beijing’s weaponizing of American ideological rhetoric to the world against itself. In line with how Chinese and Russian leaders (and many average people around the world) view American culture as collapsing in weakness, signified by the derogatory Chinese term baizuo for “crazy Left white people,” China’s use of George Floyd was tactical at best, given Beijing’s atrocious record of dealing with minorities, let alone its lack of purging of Mao given that he was arguably the uber-mass murderer of the last century.

Meanwhile the concept of “just war” in a postmodern West must navigate deconstruction of terms amid the loss of religious underpinning. Robinson notes that, by contrast with the Russian view of “necessary war,” the Western “just war” theory requires:

  1. A just cause.
  2. A just cause fought by legal authority.
  3. A just cause having a reasonable sense of success.
  4. Fighting should be a last resort after all alternatives (however impractical) are exhausted).
  5. Violence must be proportional to the goals, and civilians should not be targeted.

Does the seemingly arbitrary Western tendency toward labeling some wars as just-crusades enable both self-righteousness and a more impersonal and abstract sense of war (“fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian” through technological and financial aid)? Does it lead to hubris in intervening in Russia’s home neighborhood and risking huge casualties for others and nuclear confrontation?

Going back to the historical roots of theological difference between the West and East in old Christendom, the West tends to blame alleged “Caesaro-Papism” in the East for Russian brutal bellicosity. But the West has had its own problems with weaponizing a meld of ideology and culture historically. The way the West obliviously pushed out the boundaries of NATO physically, and of its global consumer “Metaverse” culturally and economically, can easily hide righteous disdain for other civilizational zones at the West’s own peril. As Henry Kissinger suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal interview (paraphrased by the reporter), Americans “tend to view negotiations…in missionary rather than psychological terms, seeking to convert or condemn their interlocutors rather than to penetrate their thinking.” Educational psychologist Jean Piaget wrote that appreciating the different views of others is basic to healthy cognitive development. But Western elites at large today seem to do better in rhetoric of diversity than in engagement with actual diverse perspectives, as seen at elite universities intolerant of non-conformist views.

From older Orthodox Christian theological and anthropological perspectives, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed in the Latin West reflected and inspired a long-term cultural emphasis on self-assertion and individualism, through a melding of the Father and the Son, and perceived down-playing of the Holy Spirit in the formulation of the Trinity. This could feed a “crusader” mentality, too. Catholicism evidenced a kind of “Papo-Caesarism” in the Papal States and in the role of the papacy in a West left without a unifying empire, reflected in the “discovery doctrine” applied to conquest of the New World and mirrored in the Puritan ideal of Protestant theocracy under Oliver Cromwell, and perhaps echoed in historical American civil religion. Protestant states during the Reformation placed their churches under the control of state leaders as a precursor to the heyday of European imperialism. The melding of secular transcendent and corporate ideologies in modern globalization is viewed as neocolonialism in many countries still.

Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms in early modern Russia included using Protestant models for Church-state relations, which placed the Russian Orthodox Church’s organization administratively under the monarch. But the Orthodox ideal remained a Byzantine symphonia or balance of Church and State, a harmony and check-and-balance but not a merger of the two, in which an influential monastic presence played a key balancing influence, as in nineteenth-century Russia and earlier in Constantinople. This was symbolized by the double-headed eagle of Byzantium rather than the single-headed eagle of the American state. Ironically, given the Western critique of the Ukraine war, the “necessary war” doctrine seemed formed to deflect the kind of self-righteous crusades that bedeviled Western colonial and neocolonial powers. If no war is just, then all wars demand discernment and repentance.

All of this is not in any way to justify the war in Ukraine. In fact, as noted, “necessary war” doctrine on its own terms literally doesn’t seek to justify war in any sense of justice, given the sinful cost to even one innocent human being of any war, let along the many being killed in Ukraine. But from the Russian perspective of necessity, however much that can be disputed, this war seems to be perceived as just that — a “Hail Mary” pass against a neocolonial West messing with an historical heartland, militarily and culturally, and seemingly inexorably. The West sees its contravening intervention as a just war, as if in today’s secular terms an extension of the role of social justice warriors globally, in a longer cultural war against the perceived repressive remnants of different civilizational zones abroad, in Russia’s case against the only major power today (despite its serious flaws) that unlike Western nations claims itself to be an overtly traditionally Christian culture. America’s leading Mormon neoconservative politician, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), famously has declared Russia (despite China) to be America’s greatest geopolitical enemy. Unlike Chinese and Islamic civilizations, Russia seems too familiar and too close to ignore. Unfortunately, that apparent familiarity breeds misunderstanding of civilizational difference. And the big practical glitch to a just-war approach in its case, as Kissinger points out, remains: This “other” is locked and loaded with nuclear weapons. Lord have mercy!