A reflection on the prosecution of Vladimir Putin and the saving work of Jesus Christ

As I write these words this morning there are 1,168, 883 signatures (including those of two former British Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and Sir John Major) on an international petition calling for the prosecution of Vladimir Putin for his part in causing the war in Ukraine. As the petition’s website explains, those who have drawn it up believe that Mr Putin and his associates need to be held accountable for their actions in relation to Ukraine and their prosecution at a special international tribunal would be the way to achieve this. In the words of the website:

‘As citizens from across the world, we urgently call on you to hold Putin and his accomplices personally accountable for their illegal invasion of Ukraine by creating a new Special Tribunal for the punishment of the crime of aggression.’ [1]

What the creation of this petition reflects is the universal human instinct that there should be justice in the world so that those who have done wrong don’t simply ‘get away with it,’ but are instead judged and suitably punished for their wrongdoing.

However, as well as acknowledging this universal human instinct that there should be justice through the punishment of wrongdoing, we also have to acknowledge that the world we live one is in which such justice is frequently not achieved. It may well be the case that Mr Putin will get away unpunished for what he has done in Ukraine in the same way that those responsible for the Holodomor, the great man-made Ukrainian famine in 1932-1933 that killed between 4 and 7 million people, were never punished.[2]

What the Christian faith tells us, though, is that we need to widen our perspective. It tells us that even those who get away with wrongdoing in this world will eventually be called to account because one day there will be a universal and inescapable tribunal in which every single human being who has ever lived will have to face the judgement of God for what they have done. As Paul puts it in Romans 14:10 ‘we shall all stand before the judgement seat of God’ and in 2 Corinthians 5:10 ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good and evil, according to what he has done in the body.’

Because of our human instinct for justice, we may at first think that the fact that there will be a universal and inescapable judgement by God is good news if it means that those who escape justice on earth will at length receive their just desserts. However, what we also have to realise is that while the existence of the last judgement is indeed good news for this reason it may well be very bad news indeed for us personally. This is because the ‘bad guys’ who deserve judgement and punishment from God are not just people like Mr Putin and his associates, or those responsible for the Holodomor, but all human beings, ourselves included.

We know perfectly well, if we are honest with ourselves, that we do not live as we should. We know, to quote the words of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, that ‘We have left undone those things we ought to have done, and we have done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’  As C S Lewis observes in his book Mere Christianity this means that God, because he is absolutely good, ‘must hate most of what we do’[3] and this in turn means that  we can only face the prospect of the final judgement with extreme dread. As Lewis goes on to write:

‘This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better to-morrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger – according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.’[4]

At this point it might seem that all we can do is despair. The thing that we want to happen, universal justice, is simultaneously the thing that can only result in our condemnation and punishment. We cannot not want there to be justice, but we cannot want the consequences of divine justice upon ourselves.

However, the good news that the Christian faith proclaims is that despair in unnecessary. This is because as Paul puts it in Romans 5:10 ‘while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.’

Unpacking Paul’s words, we can say that the reason we have been reconciled to God is because in his Son Jesus Christ God took our human nature upon himself, identified himself with our sinfulness, and endured the punishment for sin which we deserve. In the words of Martin Luther:

‘Christ being made a curse for us (that is, a sinner subject to the wrath of God), did put upon him our person, and laid our sins upon his own shoulders, saying: I have committed the sins which all men have committed. Therefore he was made a curse indeed according to the law, not for himself, but (as Paul saith) for us. For unless he had taken upon himself my sins and thine, and the sins of the whole world, the law had no right over him, which condemneth none but sinners only, and holdeth them under the curse. Wherefore he could neither have been made a curse or die, since the only cause of the curse and death is sin, from the which he was free. But because he had taken upon himself our sins, not by constraint, but of his own good will, it behoved him to bear the punishment and wrath of God: not for his own person (which was just and invincible, and therefore could be found in no wise guilty), but for our person.

So making a happy exchange with us, he took upon him our sinful person, and gave unto us his innocent and victorious person: wherewith we being now clothed, are freed from the curse of the law. For Christ was willingly made a curse for us, saying: As touching my own person, both as human and divine, I am blessed and need nothing; but I will empty myself and will put upon me your person, that is to say, your human nature, and I will walk in the same among you, and will suffer death to deliver you from death. Now he thus bearing the sin of the whole world in our person, was taken, suffered, was crucified and put to death, and became a curse for us. But because he was a person divine and everlasting, it was impossible that death should hold him. Wherefore there is neither sin nor death in him anymore, but mere righteousness, life and everlasting blessedness.’ [5]

If we accept in faith what God has done for us in Jesus Christ we thus have no need to despair, but can look forward to the final judgement with hope knowing that we shall receive blessing and not condemnation, not because we are righteous in ourselves, but because we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Because it is only through the mercy of God that we can stand before him and receive blessing and not condemnation it follows that we must not look at our fellow human beings and feel any sense of smug moral superiority to them. This means that although it is right for us to think that what Mr Putin has done in waging war on Ukraine is unspeakably appalling, what we cannot do is disassociate ourselves from him by pretending that he is a sinner and that we are not. Even though we are righteous in Christ, in ourselves we are still sinners who need to cry out like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13).

Furthermore, even if we may hope that Mr Putin is held accountable in this world for his actions in Ukraine and receives appropriate punishment for them, we must also hope that that will not be the end of the story. Jesus Christ died for Mr Putin just as he did for us and for every other human being and Christian charity requires that as well as disapproving of what Mr Putin has done and praying for those who are suffering as a result, we must also pray for Mr Putin himself that he may seek and find the mercy that God offers to all who put their faith in his Son.

Praying for Mr Putin in this way goes against the grain. Hearing the news from Ukraine our instinctive reaction may well be to say ‘I hope he rots in hell for what he has done.’  However, if it is good for us to receive God’s undeserved mercy so that we do not rot in hell it follows that it must also be good for Mr Putin to receive it as well and we must  therefore pray for this to happen.

[1] Put Putin on Trial at https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/prosecute_putin_loc/

[2] For the Holodomor see Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (London: Penguin, 2018).

[3] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984), p. 37.

[4] Lewis, p.37.

[5] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1978), p.274.