Russia’s greedy invasion of Ukraine has the world in a tizzy, and for good reason. Land grabs are always ugly.

It’s unlikely that Russian czar-for-life Vladimir Putin will follow the same path in which his war machine took the Crimean Peninsula away from Ukraine and “annexed” it to Russia back in 2014, mainly to control important ports on the Black Sea, including Sevastopol.

That move broke any number of treaties and was widely condemned as against international law. Sanctions were levied, but nothing changed. Like a schoolyard bully taking away a smaller boy’s candy, Russia got what it wanted and pretended that it was what the people of Crimea wanted, too.

Reading about the nasty business introduced me to the word “irredentist,” which has nothing to do with getting X-rays of your teeth. A Wikipedia article about the annexation of Crimea noted that “as early as 2010, some analysts speculated that the Russian government had irredentist plans.”

Irredentism, it turns out, refers to a situation in which a political movement or people group occupies a territory that they consider – based on history or legend – to have originally been theirs, but had been lost and needed to be returned, or “redeemed” (the word is from the Italian irredento, meaning “unredeemed”).

Crimea had once been part of the Soviet empire in the days of the “United Soviet Socialist Republics,” and Putin wanted to have it back in the USSR (with apologies to the Beatles’ 1968 tune).

“Irredentism.” Keep that word in mind.

Ukraine is a lot bigger than Crimea, and Putin will probably seek to gain control of the country and replace its leadership with a puppet government willing to do his bidding, again pretending that he’s just doing what is best for the Ukrainians while everyone knows it’s all about expansionism and power.

That’s ugly business, made even more so when a man once elected president of the United States expresses admiration for Putin’s savvy – and when two Republican members of congress attend a white nationalist rally led by Nick Fuentes, who responded to the invasion of Ukraine by saying “I am totally rooting for Russia,” while also referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “my Czar.”

Fortunately, most Americans are less prone to cheer for Putin. On principle, we recognize that occupying someone else’s land – just because you can – is not kosher.

Or is it? Many people who are quick to condemn Putin are unmoved by the State of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, where groups of settlers – often financed by Americans – move into Palestinian territory and start building houses, which grow into towns and cities.

The Israeli government then builds roads and army camps to protect the settlers, disrupting travel and daily life for Palestinians. When the land adjoins Israeli territory, as in East Jerusalem, the government “annexes” the land.

Israeli settlements and annexations break just as many international laws and treaties as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s blatantly wrong, but few people get up in arms. Why?


Israeli activists claim all the land belongs to them because God promised it to Abraham, and because the kingdoms of Israel and Judah controlled the land for a few hundred years – more than 2,500 years ago.

That argument is as bogus as Russia’s claim to Ukraine, but most American Christians give the Israelis a pass, assuming that they must be biblically justified in taking the land.

In sermons and devotions, many still cheer the exploits of Israelites who invaded and occupied Canaan, believing they had a divine mandate to do so. It was a bloody business, the way the stories are told, conquering and burning cities, killing and enslaving people who were minding their own business.

Why does that not bother us? Why can we get all riled up about Russia invading Ukraine while still celebrating the Israelites’ conquests in Canaan, or turning a blind eye to Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

Uncritical irredentism.

The Hebrew Bible contains many stories about the Israelites and their enemies. Most readers are unaware that most of these stories were written long after the fact and designed to justify the Israelites’ claim to the land. The stories need to be read with a critical eye, not just a devotional one.

Did God really endorse the takeover of Canaan? The biblical stories were written by human people who had their own agendas. They testify to the people’s beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they accurately reflect a divine point of view.

Would Jesus endorse the kind of bloody warfare or vengeful actions described in the conquest narratives or the imprecatory psalms? Did any aspect of Jesus’ teaching even touch on restoring land to Israel?

No. While many had longed for a military messiah who would return Israel to the world stage as an independent power, Jesus proclaimed a vision of human kinship and service, a kingdom of God, characterized by love.

If we want to be irredentist, let’s try recovering that metaphorical land.

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