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Beware Europe’s political messiahs

As European leaders increasingly co-opt Christianity, George Pitcher asks if they have come to serve or be served?

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

two politician site at a press conference desk and laugh, behind them is a backdrop of the political party's logo.
Jorge Buxadé, a leader of Spain's Vox party, and Giorgia Meloni, Italy's Prime Minister, at a Brothers of Italy press conference.
Vox.

I worry that European Christianity may face an identity crisis. Not in the usual sense of us beginning to forget what we are and, as a consequence, who we are. Rather that the continent’s formative creed may be misappropriated by a gathering global trend towards identity politics, which may seek to conflate and deliberately confuse a messiah with the Christ. 

It’s easily enough done. Indeed, the first disciples did so. The Jewish resistance movement against the Roman oppressors, of which we presume John the Baptist was a leading light, was expecting a new Elijah to lead them to liberation – their messiah. 

What it got was a Nazarene called Jesus. The scales finally fall from the eyes of rock-like fisherman Peter when the Nazarene asks him who the crowds say that he is. Maybe John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, maybe a risen prophet, replies Peter.   

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of him. In one of the most dramatic verbal responses of the gospel, Peter (I imagine) whispers his answer: “The Christ of God”, though other followers evidently remain confused. The crowds who welcome him triumphantly into Jerusalem hail the “Son of David” and lay palms in his path. And arguably Judas Iscariot anticipates a popular uprising, a Passover insurrection, by arranging his arrest. 

They confuse the Christ with a messiah. The distinction is important today in the conduct of our polity. Because the latter delivers temporal deliverance, the former eternal. A messiah is cultic, the Christ is universal. 

That’s important because populist European politicians can adopt a messianic pose. But they struggle to be Christ-like. Do they come to serve or be served? Let’s just say that our popular political parties are light on foot-washers.   

The messianic leader, the chosen one, anointed by nation rather than by God, is at the heart of Europe’s current identity crises. 

But being messianic remains more than enough for nationalistic leaders, just as it would have been for one whose sole brief was to lead the people of Israel from under the jackboot of Rome two thousand years ago. The messianic leader, the chosen one, anointed by nation rather than by God, is at the heart of Europe’s current identity crises.  

Behold Christian Nationalism. It is cultic of the personality and it has a specific self-interest in co-extending the messiah with the Christ. Jared Stacy wrote excellently here recently that Christian Nationalism “has political potency because it taps into primal identities, theologies, and moralities.” 

Stacy’s article is a tour de force on the subject, connecting Christian Nationalism’s social and historical reality to its current political potency, and I don’t intend to channel it. What I will attempt is to pick up where he leaves off.   

He writes that the movement’s main error seems to be “its move towards supremacy. Jesus’s rejection of political power in the wilderness and his resistance to political power through the Cross are lost in the rising tide of Christian Nationalism.” 

This seems to me to allude to precisely the distinction I wish to make between the servant ministry of the Christ and the political potency of a messiah. To elide the two is the intention of popular nationalists when they claim Christian heritage. And there lies the true danger in this identity crisis. 

What I find so alarming is that it points towards the Church’s role in an emerging rejection of some aspects of liberal democracy in favour of populist nationalism. 

A Financial Times article this month traced the populist Catholic counter-revolution in Europe, which corrals religiously conservative young voters in support of nationalism and conservative family values. And it shows us why messianic Christianity can be so frightening.  

Its central argument, based on a poll in the French religious newspaper La Croix, is that youthful conservative Catholicism is re-emergent “as a political, as well as religious, force” and nor “is the fusion of Catholic identity politics with nativist and ‘sovereigntist’ populism… particular to France.” It notes the electoral success of the Vox party in Spain, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice party.  

What I find so alarming is that it points towards the Church’s role in an emerging rejection of some aspects of liberal democracy in favour of populist nationalism. And, while I don’t want to be melodramatic about this, I believe that in turn directs us to the darkness of the Church’s role in 20th-century European history. 

We may or may not be familiar with photos of clerics giving the fascist salute, as in Spain in support of General Franco. But it’s been a matter of constant debate since the Second World War whether the Church was an active collaborator with the Nazi regime, an honest dupe or a double agent, appearing to co-operate so that it could subversively defend persecuted Jews. 

It’s dangerous to invoke Hitler at every apparent threat to the liberal democratic federalism of the post-war European experiment. But it’s also valid to note resonances when the Church allies itself with nationalism. And that’s what is frightening. 

The direction of travel of European popular politics, from France to Vox to Brothers of Italy, places Christian witness chillingly into question. And, of course, this isn’t just about Europe. 

Donald Trump attempted to annexe scriptural authority to himself as president by posing outside a church brandishing a copy of the Bible during the Washington DC riots in response to the death of George Floyd at police hands (and knee) in 2020. 

Returning to Stacy’s commentary, he writes:  

“Christians may need to distance themselves from the American Jesus, only then to discern the things they have picked up and called ‘Biblical’ which are merely ideological.” 

Amen to that. A simple start to that might be to quote Terry Jones in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and assert of Trump that “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”  

Rather more seriously, we need to recognise, not just from our history, but the warning that the United States offers us today of sub-messianic nationalist leadership. For those of us of faith in Europe, we’ve had more than enough examples of the dangers when the Christ is adopted as a personality cult. 

The most supranational authority to which Christians owe allegiance is not a worldly power. And we lose sight of that identity at our peril.  

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War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.