The Western world said “Never again” after the gas chambers of the Third Reich—and yet here we are.
Russian troops deployed by war criminal Vladimir Putin are committing atrocities across Ukraine, murdering innocent civilians in cold blood as they move from invasion to occupation to attempted genocide. One of the reasons it’s difficult to see the images of these slaughtered innocents is because most people wonder, “What can we do to stop it?”
While the Ukrainians have shown grit and valor beyond what anyone could have predicted, by all accounts there is still a long slog ahead. The war crimes will continue.
Perhaps, somehow, this invasion will be stopped quickly and the Russian war criminals will be brought to justice in a Nuremberg-style trial, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for.
But if not, these murders and crimes may not be called to an account for a long time—maybe even a lifetime. In fact, that’s what the war criminals are counting on.
The world should watch what these criminals are doing—to call it what it is and hold them to account whenever the time comes. But Christians in particular should watch and recognize something we often want to ignore: how the human heart can justify great evil.
Human beings are capable of horrific depravity. This we know. Humans, however, are not like wild animals or constructed machines. We have consciences that alert us to what sort of people we are becoming. To carry out criminality of this degree, a Russian soldier must somehow learn to silence that conscience—or at least muffle it.
While few, if any, of those reading this are guilty of war crimes, every one of us has grappled with our conscience—and in many cases, we have followed the same path, even when the sins are not as heinous and the stakes not as high.
So how does this happen?
One of the first steps is to emphasize power over morality. An easy way to do this is to characterize the situation as an emergency, requiring a dispensing of the ordinary norms of behavior. Every criminal regime has done this—usually by identifying scapegoats, blaming them for the people’s ills, and framing the situation as an existential threat.
Acting within the bounds of conscience is painted as a luxury, for times that are not as dire as these. This can happen even with situations that appear morally unproblematic. We may rationalize that the mission is too important for us to hold the leader accountable for his or her treatment of people.
In church, such reasoning might say, “How could we waste time on these niceties when people are going to hell without the gospel?” In politics, it might take the form of “These theories about character in office or constitutional norms are nice and all. But get in the real world; we’re about to lose our country.” In wartime, it can be framed as “We can hear about your ethical qualms with torture later; if we don’t act now, terrorists will destroy us.” And so on.
Those carrying out injustices of any kind must lie to evade accountability. But the most dangerous form of lying is not the propaganda people give to others but the lies they tell themselves—to quiet their consciences.
Again, this can happen in matters that fall far short of war crimes. People can wall off certain categories of sin and refuse to view them as such—placing the blame for the sin not on themselves but on those who would label it sin.
For instance, one can define sin merely in social terms: “As long as I don’t seem to be hurting anyone else in any kind of public way, then why is it anyone’s business what I do in my private life?” Or one can do the opposite and define sin as merely personal, acting as though questions of social injustice are of no moral consequence.
This is how some American preachers at the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Berlin just prior to World War II were able to excuse Nazi Germany’s authoritarianism and demonization of Jews. Those were just “social” issues, they reasoned.
On the moral questions these preachers really cared about—the “personal” ones—some of them said the Reich could teach decadent America a thing or two: Adolf Hitler didn’t drink or smoke. Women were dressed modestly, not like back home.
To read the accounts in light of what was to come is chilling. And yet we hear of the same sort of machinations all the time—at times even within our own hearts.
Sometimes an evil is too great to ignore altogether. The conscience must reckon with it, but it does so by projecting that evil onto some other person or group. Rather than grappling with the indictment of one’s own sense of right and wrong, one can short-circuit the blame by locating it elsewhere.
This is how, for instance, Russian war criminals—while carrying out the very same tactics as Nazi storm troopers—can claim that they are fighting to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
Again, this doesn’t have to happen on the huge moral scale of geopolitical atrocity. You can see this in your own work breakroom or church foyer. For example, you would be surprised at how many of the most strident culture warriors—identifying “compromise” in fellow Christians in the fight against “sexual anarchy”—are addicted to porn.
Our consciences work by pointing our psyches to ultimate accountability. The apostle Paul wrote that the conscience bears witness to the day “when God judges people’s secrets through Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16). One cannot bear the weight of that. Either we convince ourselves that such a reckoning will never come, or we find some authority—maybe even a spiritual one—to reassure us that we will never be found out.
The “Butcher of Bucha,” a Russian commanding officer of a unit that massacred civilians in Ukraine was reportedly blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest—just before the grisly mission in which his troops left the bodies of innocent civilians lying in mass graves or in the streets.
The “butcher” allegedly spoke of his mission as a kind of spiritual warfare in which he was fighting on the side of God. And, of course, this is just one example of how the Russian Orthodox Church is not just complicit but celebratory of the crimes of Putin’s regime.
Again, this is also not unusual. Every evil king in the Bible searched out prophets who would tell him that his actions were sanctioned by God. And even in the smallest of transgressions, the first thing we often want to do when carrying out evil is to find some moral authority that will tell us what we are doing is right.
Perhaps the most dangerous step of all, however, is when the conscience gives up altogether and begins to say that this is just the way the world is. It shifts to saying depravity is realistic, while morality is not. We can see this in the smirk behind Putin’s words and in the throat-clearing whataboutism of his Western defenders. This is all rooted in the idea that accountability will never arrive.
And yet it will.
We were born into this century, this moment in history, and we have a responsibility to do everything that we can to stand against the murder and genocide of innocent people. We have a responsibility to call evil what it is.
We also have a responsibility to take warning—to recognize the ways in which we excuse or reassure ourselves in the same way, while not to the same degree, as the most vicious war criminal.
Because for us, as for them, Judgment Day is coming.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.