Her name is Marina Ovsyannikova. She held up a “no war” sign on the news set of the state-controlled Channel 1 in Moscow. Her visual and verbal condemnation on live TV of the war in Ukraine has proven to be quite costly for the brave journalist, resulting in a 14-hour police interrogation, a hefty fine, and threats of further criminal investigations and charges.
Ovsyannikova’s most public protest transpired in just a few seconds during Russia’s most popular news broadcast, and I’ll share here the English translation of the words on Marina’s placard: “No war. Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” She also distributed a video message challenging the recent actions of the Kremlin in its attack on the Ukrainian people. We ought not to let this moment pass us by, friends, and I’m interpreting it – for us – as God’s call to humble and desperate prayer.
It’s my opinion that freedoms of the press and religion fit together like a hand and a glove. Under Putin, both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in Russia have fallen on hard times. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recategorized Russia from its “special watch list” to its “countries of particular concern” list. In 2020 the organization had noted Russia’s “deteriorating religious freedom conditions.” I think it’s safe to assume that, when a government does not allow its citizens or its media to question the actions of its military, liberty is under fire. Such has been the situation in Russia for some time, to the extent that the media are forbidden to refer to actions in Ukraine as an “invasion” of any kind. This is no laughing matter, as the possible criminal penalty for any such violation is a 15-year prison sentence. And Putin is cracking down on Facebook, and Internet access in general, in his most recent assaults on personal freedom. Russia ranks 150th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.
And I simply can’t refrain from reminding you why religious liberty is so important, not just here but around the world. Religious liberty protects our workplaces. Anytime people lose their right to express their faith convictions in the place where they spend most of their day, we can know that the government is wielding power of dangerous proportions. Religious liberty protects our families. All social, civic, and legal systems rest upon some core of belief. When that core of belief values religious expression, the family unit – which is God’s design for order in the home and culture – is naturally strengthened. Religious liberty promotes human flourishing in general. Because religious liberty highlights the inherent dignity of every person, religious freedom breeds economic and political freedoms. And I must add my conviction that religious liberty supports and enhances every other civil liberty. No liberty finds itself in a vacuum, but it flows instead from a foundation of morality and goodness. John Witherspoon framed it like this: “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”
Quite fascinatingly, Putin has declared himself a “protector of the faith,” causing some American evangelicals to take him at his word, perhaps because of his opposition to Islam or his wariness over LGBTQ rights. I share this with you to underscore how important it is that you and I exercise proper and Biblical discernment when it comes to evaluating the claims of high-profile leaders today. We live in an age of widespread spiritual confusion, so how much more do we need the Spirit of truth to guide us!
Much closer to home, you and I get really anxious – and rightfully so – when our personal liberties are challenged or threatened. Some of you have mentioned to me this week that you feel like some of that intimidation is happening here. So what are we to do? I’ll tell you what we’re to do, in every season: we’re to keep serving Christ by loving others – loving even those who threaten us. I’ll share with you one of my favorite quotes from John Stott: “True love places constraints on the lover, for love is essentially self-giving. And this brings us to a startling Christian paradox. True freedom is freedom to be my true self, as God made me and meant me to be. And God made me for loving. But loving is giving, self-giving. Therefore, in order to be myself, I have to deny myself and give myself. In order to be free, I have to serve. In order to live, I have to die to my own self-centeredness. In order to find myself, I have to lose myself in loving … It is only sacrificial service, the giving of the self in love to God and others, which is perfect freedom.”
Wow! I needed that today.
You see, friends, sometimes political conflict and particularly war cloud our larger vision of Christ’s kingdom. As Christ-followers, you and I must always remember that – because of the reach and the power of the gospel – we have brothers and sisters in Ukraine. We have brothers and sisters in Russia. So we must be praying for both countries. We’re praying for the glory of God even in the face of such concerning international developments. We have a certain hope (Habakkuk 2:12-14): “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
When it comes to our vast oceans, the last time I checked their water coverage, the numbers came in at 100%. 100%. When it comes to God’s glory filling the earth, I’m counting on nothing short of that.
Come, Lord Jesus!