Making sense of warring leaders both made in God’s image
I wrote this reflection on March 15, the “Ides of March.” The day is best known as the day that Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar for seeking dictatorship over their republic. March 15 is also a day before “Purim.” This is when Jews commemorate their deliverance from annihilation in ancient Persia, a story told in the Megillah (scroll) of Esther. These dates are significant, but not planned. At least not on my part, as I felt led to reflect theologically on the stark contrast between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine.*
Along with many people over recent weeks, I have been greatly inspired by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Even before becoming president, he had numerous fans as a highly successful and charming actor, comedian and — yes — winner of the Ukrainian version of “Dancing with the Stars”! (These clips will melt your heart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlJywp7E3Gw ). When he became president, however, expectations of his abilities in this new role were fairly low.
Ironically, he once acted in an eerily prescient sitcom called “Servant of the People.” In this he played a high school teacher who rails against corruption. And, after a student’s film of him goes viral, ends up elected president! Then he actually did become president! I don’t know if he’s still playing a role, acting “as if” he has the power of the Holy Spirit with him. I do know that he is bravely and self-sacrificially standing with his people and up to the Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin. He appears ready to lay down his life, if need be, for his friends (John 15:13).
For such a time as this
I see him as an “Esther” for our time. She became queen against all odds (unbeknownst, at first, to her king-husband). She risked her life when she learned that she was her people’s best hope against extermination. Her Uncle Mordecai sent her word of this impending massacre. He said, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place, but you and your family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) Zelenskyy, also a Jew, is now following Esther’s example.
Where does the courage of an Esther, of a Zelenskyy, come from? Unlike the superficial bravado of bullies and dictators, born not of fearlessness but of fear, this is bravery. Bravery born of love, of empathy, of wisdom, of a mature and grounded faith in That Which is with us even unto death (and beyond). So, in prayer, I posed a question to God.
In God’s image?
Me: Since we are all created in Your image (Gen 1:27), where can I find Your image in Putin?”
God: Like all my children, he is made in My image. But he isn’t in touch with that of Me within him. He is not in communion with Me.
At this, I wondered if Putin has ever known that he was made in God’s image. Or if he has known on some level but rejected it, or refused it, or denied it (Proverbs 1:20-33). Or has he twisted it around, making his god in his image? Is he thus worshiping not God but Satan, the idol of evil, the adversary, the opponent, the enemy of God?
Me: And You teach us to love our enemies …
Bearing God’s image requires us to love even the Russian dictator. What does this mean for our own response to this situation? What would God have them/us do in this moment? So, on that Ides of March and eve of Purim and every day, I pray for a free and democratic Ukraine. I pray for the life of Zelenskyy and all the good people there and in Russia. And I pray for Putin — for a total turnaround, a conversion of his heart and mind, that he would understand who God is in him and who he is in God. I pray that he would know the deep truth of being made in the image of God. And that he would live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars” (George Fox, 1650).
*Their first names, “Vladimir” and “Volodymyr,” are Russian and Ukrainian variants of the same Slavic root, meaning either “ruler of the world” or “ruler of peace.”