A lesser known aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the crisis the war is causing in the Orthodox Christian world. Most people know that Russia is primarily an Orthodox country, but few may have noticed how close Moscow Patriarch Kirill has been to Putin over the years and how supportive the Patriarch has been. Putin’s invasion. He even repeated the lies that Putin spreads to justify his massacre of innocent Ukrainians.
Ukraine also has many Orthodox Christians in addition to many Catholics as well as other religious groups. Thus, in many cases, Russian Orthodox soldiers bomb Ukrainian Orthodox churches and kill Ukrainian Orthodox civilians. What a disgrace.
The worldwide Orthodox Christian community, including the Russian Church, is “guided” or overseen by Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul). The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, does not have the power that the pope has in Catholicism to discipline the patriarchs under him. That didn’t stop Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from speaking out forcefully in favor of Ukraine and against Putin’s illegal and yes, culpable invasion of a neighboring country. Included in this condemnation is Bartholomew’s criticism of Kirill.
There is a warning here for all religious people. History is replete with examples of religion being co-opted by nationalism and supporting, even inciting, inquisitions and pogroms. When religious leaders “sleep” with political leaders, religion’s ability to play its assigned role of upholding the sanctity of human beings is lost. In recent history almost all German Christians supported Hitler and Nazism. Churches displayed the swastika prominently near pulpits, and pastors gave communion to men and women who went from worship on Sunday to work in the death camps later in the day.
It is easy, however, to point fingers at Russian Orthodox Christians who are much more “Russian” than “Christian”, or German Christians who were much more “German” than “Christian”. And us American Christians? Here’s a shameful example: what are we to say about white American Christians who endorse restrictive voting rules that will disenfranchise African Americans (many of whom are other Christians)? Aren’t these white Americans less Christian than conservative Republicans?
While there are clearly similar compromises with nationalism among many Israeli Jews and many Muslims – think of Iran or Saudi Arabia – I can only speak, as a Christian, to other Christians. As such, I believe expressions such as “Holy Mother Russia” or “Christian America” are not just wrong, but idolatrous. Can someone of my generation not remember the phrase “Kill a coco for Christ” heard during the Vietnam War? The truest presence of the divine in the world is not found in the land or the borders on a map, but in human beings – every human being.
Anyone who reads my columns knows that I believe that religion has an important role to play in politics. This role, however, is not to bless or anoint political parties, but to uphold values that transcend nationalism and oppose sins such as racism and bigotry.
Religion is supposed to be the salt that savors or preserves the best in societies, but, as Jesus said, what good is salt if it has lost its flavor?