Putin, Identity Entrepreneurs, and Your Own Spiritual War

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated headlines for the past couple weeks as the first invasion of a sovereign state in Europe since World War II. Articles upon articles and podcast episodes upon podcast episodes have released on the invasion and the relevant history—many from which I have learned. Many articles or other media give predictions about the future of the conflict. Many provide a helpful historical framework, which I almost always find insightful. Many seem to lean one way or another: the Russian invasion is potentially a WWIII risk, or it is probably less significant than we are making it out to be.

This moment in history provides a time for Christians to step out of our usual spheres of thought and learn. If we’re from Gen Z, what is significant Cold War history that we might overlook as people who didn’t grow up during it? Why is communism dangerous? What is the history of Russia, and how does Putin’s own experience in the KGB influence his geopolitical worldview? Additionally, thoughtful reflection on the invasion pushes us to consider more deeply our own convictions concerning faithful political engagement, the theological justifications for war (e.g., just war theory), and the relationship between the believer being at the same time a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20) and a citizen in an earthly state under the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7).

Americans have heard lots from both sides about “fake news” and “misinformation” for the last several years now. Some of it’s true; some of it isn’t. There is certainly false information that has been spread about vaccines, legislation, and more. However, the level of “misinformation” is seemingly at a whole different level when we look abroad and consider the control of information in places like Russia, China, and North Korea. Widespread misinformation and propaganda matter because true information is central to proper identity formation.

David Brooks wrote Thursday for the Times that during the invasion of Ukraine he hasn’t found international relations experts to be particularly insightful. By contrast, he has learned a lot from experts in social psychology. Now, in American conservatism, Brooks is considerably controversial. On the Right, often people think of him as the way forward for the conservative movement or as someone who isn’t a real conservative at all. Either way, putting that aside, his psychological analysis of what is going on with Putin’s leadership is something from which all Christians can learn and grow.

Brooks writes that social psychology has been “enormously helpful” because Putin is not a “conventional great power politician” but rather is “fundamentally an identity entrepreneur.” Brooks explains: “His singular achievement has been to help Russians to recover from a psychic trauma — the aftermath of the Soviet Union — and to give them a collective identity so they can feel that they matter, that their lives have dignity.” Through this lens, the war in Ukraine is about Putin recovering a sense of Russian greatness.

Going on, Brooks suggests that “[m]aybe we should see this invasion as a rabid form of identity politics.” Is this not true? If you haven’t read or listened to Putin’s language during the last few weeks, it is of utmost importance to see how Putin frames the Russian attack:

“They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today.”

“For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”

This sort of language tactic is all too frequent in American politics and culture, too. As tribalism increases, the temptation for the Christian is to think that if your “side” does not win something, all is lost. And what is just a temptation for the Christian—a sinful mentality that pulls away from our knowledge of and certain hope in Christ’s victory and reign—is the actual lens and worldview of those who don’t know the King whose already-won victory will be realized one day when the trumpet sounds.

The use of identity politics in forming tribes and coalitions isn’t new; in early 2008, as Clinton and former President Obama fought for the Democratic nomination, David Brooks wrote about that, too (“Clinton and Obama have eagerly donned the mantle of identity politics. A Clinton victory wouldn’t just be a victory for one woman, it would be a victory for little girls everywhere. An Obama victory would be about completing the dream, keeping the dream alive, and so on.”). But today, now, as Brooks helps us see, Putin provides the reminder that language matters when it comes to identity formation. Apocalyptic language surrounds each legislative vote and each election as though it is all or nothing. But with the true Apocalypse in mind—the Revelation given to John that unveils God’s sovereign guidance over the world that culminates in glorious victory—the worldview that comes with partisan tribalism is one that is at direct war with biblical Christian identity.

From advertisements to campaigns, Christians encounter all the time people trying to be “identity entrepreneurs,” to use Brooks’ language. Political history communicated today that diminishes the dangers and widespread death that came with communism in the 20th century cannot cultivate the awareness and pushback to that political system that we must sustain. Similarly, for the Christian, true information will be central to biblical identity formation. That information begins with the gospel, but it also begins with the recognition that we are at war.

The New Testament holds in tension the ideas that Jesus of Nazareth already emerged victorious in his death and resurrection and that we in Christ today are in a war against what “belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). In the same letter, Paul adopts the wartime language and tells us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).

Revelation 12 is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. In grand and symbolic imagery, we see that the victory has already been won: Michael the archangel throws Satan (the dragon) down from heaven to earth. But the war is still there, too: the dragon—the serpent—chases after the woman, who symbolizes the church, looking to “make war” on “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).

In what domain or earthly fight do we feel that if we lose, all is lost? Where are we listening more to the identity entrepreneurs and less to the only One who offers us transcendent, certain identity? How much do we spend time gathering true information (from “God’s true word,” as Kids Village at my church calls the Bible) versus spend time absorbing tribal identity language? How often do we truly feel like we hate our own sin and want to swing a baseball bat at it? Are you at war or losing a war you don’t even know is going on?

It’s easy to feel like Putin is far away or that we can’t be duped by his propaganda schemes. I agree, in one sense. But we can all agree that even as Christians we too often look to worldly things that—as identity entrepreneurs—do to us what Brooks says that Putin aims to do with Russians: “to give them a collective identity so they can feel that they matter, that their lives have dignity.”

Christians have a collective identity and dignity. But we are often repulsed by it, in our flesh, because this identity and dignity goes through a cross. Living a life that matters often means pursuing obscurity. Finding a collective identity often means loneliness and struggle first. And dignity doesn’t look like boisterous triumph (yet) but death—death on a cross, daily. One might call this our strategy for war. We can support Ukraine with urgency, engage faithfully in politics in our own country, and also live in light of the truth that more deeply forms our new-birth identity.

Elections matter. Wars matter. Votes matter. But when the world is your king, and all that matters is what happens before death, you end up with Putin’s language: your side winning is “a matter of life and death,” and you’ll do whatever it takes. But when Jesus is your King, and you fight the daily war that makes that reality lived out, your cynicism is replaced with hope. Your quarrelsomeness (2 Tim. 2:24) becomes kindness (Gal. 5:22). There is a better way. I return and close with what I said earlier: for the Christian, true information will be central to biblical identity formation. That information begins with the gospel, but it also begins with the recognition that we are at war. Go to battle.

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