THE WAR OF AGGRESSION against Ukraine, waged by Russian forces under President Vladimir Putin, has been condemned across the world.
Many faith leaders have joined in – but not Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who instead sought to justify the violence, despite pleas. Some people were shocked. Yet, given the distorted version of Christianity he has long promoted, this is sadly unsurprising.
On 25 March, it was announced that he had met his church’s synod (among whom were various senior clergy), which agreed that “it is important to bring the Russian Orthodox Church’s stance on the current crisis in Ukraine to the notice of the heads of non-Orthodox Churches and inter-Christian organisations.” The claim was also made that large-scale humanitarian assistance is being provided. But against the backdrop of the suffering inflicted with top leaders’ support, it is unlikely that many observers will be convinced of their benevolence.
Meanwhile many Russian Christians, some Orthodox, have taken a courageous stance opposing the invasion. And an important statement by theologians from various Orthodox traditions, among others, has shed light on what went so wrong in this instance and may help in identifying and resisting misuse of religion elsewhere.
Trying to justify the unjustifiable
When the Russian armed forces’ assault on Ukraine began in late February 2022, with violence unleashed against civilians as well as armed defenders, there was widespread dismay. However Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, while speaking of the importance of peace, appeared to attack the notion of a truly independent Ukraine: “God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand… May the Lord preserve the Russian land…, the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples.”
As divisions deepened within the church, as in Russia, nearly 300 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons bravely signed a letter calling for the “cessation of the fratricidal war” and one was fined after an anti-war sermon. Other Christians too spoke out, including the head of the Russian Evangelical Alliance.
In a powerful letter to the Times on 8 March, Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote of the“shocking – not to say blasphemous – absurdity” of Orthodox Christians, during the holy season of Lent, killing the innocent and attacking nuclear facilities. It was not too late for church leaders to call for a ceasefire, he wrote. “Those of us who owe a lasting debt to the thought and witness of Christian Russia through the centuries find it hard to believe that all the moral norms of warfare painstakingly explored by Christians in both East and West” had been forgotten.
Meanwhile, in a sermon, Kirill had sought to excuse bombing children and frail older people, in the context of an ongoing conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists in part of Ukraine. These supposedly deserved support in resisting “the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.” He claimed that “Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom.’ Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible – it is the Gay Pride parade.” He warned that “If humanity starts believing that sin is not a violation of God’s law, if humanity agrees that sin is one of the options for human behaviour, then human civilisation will end there.”
Many Christians would take the view (in my view correctly) that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, in a same-sex committed partnership or supportive of diversity is not sinful. But even if it were, the notion of God giving humans free will is surely a common theological concept: and the idea of civilisation relying on not allowing any vices (such as selfishness, avarice or snobbery) is fanciful. Being obsessed with a supposed ‘sin’ which the Gospels do not even mention, while promoting murder and robbery, seems odd indeed.
The World Council of Churches acting General Secretary, Ioan Sauca pleaded with Kirill to oppose the war but was rebuffed. Pope Francis and Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke to him. He remained committed to Putin’s invasion, though this should not come as a surprise.
True holiness or reverence for power
Russian Orthodox tradition does indeed include great spiritual riches. Yet for many years, beneath a veneer of holiness, the Patriarch and his associates have pursued a path which is far removed from the basic tenets of Christian faith. From the late twentieth century, when he was the chief ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill (originally Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyaev) was closely aligned to the state and its security services. And when he became head of his church in 2009, he joined in efforts to justify anti-democratic, expansionist political ideals tied to racial and gender inequality. Slick diplomacy and pious language were combined with thuggery on the streets and in the home.
“Worshipping in Moscow, in a number of Russian dioceses, as well as in Ukraine, Byelorussia and Azerbaijan, I experienced the joy of prayerful communion with our pious Orthodox people… a powerful spiritual experience for me and a visible testimony to the unity of Holy Russia,” Kirill wrote in a Christmas message. His commitment to Russian empire-building and own thirst for power would go on to fracture the Orthodox world.
Meanwhile Williams and others listened respectfully in Lambeth Palace as Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the chairman of the Department of the External Church Relations, lectured them on how “liberalism” in the Anglican Communion put Orthodox-Anglican dialogue at risk. He lamented that some churches had been ordaining women, “giving a public blessing to same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals as priests and bishops.” He said: “Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture” (though moves towards greater inclusion were largely driven by what people regarded as biblical values). Christians should “proclaim Christian morality and teach it openly not only in our churches, but also in public spaces.”
it became clear that this ‘morality’ meant abandoning love of neighbour, deepening injustice and allowing powerful men to usurp the role of God. The faction in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church developed links with far-right ‘family values’ campaigners in the USA and elsewhere This was bad news for many families which did not fit a narrow mould. When Putin – whose rise to power Kirill regarded as a “miracle of God” – became president again in 2012, he became an admired figure among many American right-wing extremists and lent his backing to politicians such as Donald Trump.
“I find very dangerous this phenomenon, which is called feminism”, Kirill was quoted as saying in 2013. “Man turns his sight outward, he should work, make money. While a woman is always focused inwards towards her children, her home. If this exceptionally important role of a woman is destroyed, everything will be destroyed as a consequence – family and, if you wish, the homeland.” By casting women’s refusal to be subordinate and lack of compliance with rigid gender roles as a threat to the nation, a climate was created in which coercion and violence might seem justified.
In 2014, viewers internationally were shocked as a documentary showed vigilantes, egged on by Orthodox leaders, viciously attacking gays. They had been tricked through social media, under the pretence of friendship, into going to places where they were set upon. Others were urged by to take their own lives. “Hunting season is open”, said a victim who lost an eye, “and we are the hunted.”
With Russian Orthodox leaders’ support, domestic violence was largely decriminalised in 2017, despite its terrible toll of trauma, injury and death. Church leaders also found time to whip up antisemitism, in the country where the term ‘pogrom’ originated, airing the possibility that the Bolsheviks’ 1918 murders of the tsar and his family was a ‘ritual murder’.
.In 2018, amidst growing tensions between nations, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.became independent of Kirill’s church, which broke off relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, though some Orthodox worshippers stayed in the Russian-led church. Overseas as well as in Russia, the Patriarch and his associates were sowing divisions and alienating people of goodwill. When the invasion happened, Metropolitan Onufriy of the Moscow Patriarchate Church in Ukraine appealed to Putin to stop the war and called for humane treatment of civilians.
While many genuinely devout believers remained in the Russian Orthodox Church, top leaders had embraced a ‘Christianity’ reflecting not the Cross but rather the powerful crucifying others. Support for the onslaught on Ukrainians in 2022 should, then have come as no surprise to international observers. In March 2022, the University of Freiburg in Germany finally got round to suspending Hilarion from teaching. It might have been helpful if, in ecumenical and civic circles, there had been more willingness earlier to abandon illusions about Kirill and his associates.
Resisting misuse of religion to justify large-scale violence
In the 1980s, the Kairos document in South Africa had a considerable impact there and more widely against a background on anti-racist resistance, in making the case for a prophetic church which should side with the oppressed rather than seeking to sanctify oppression. The context of A Declaration on the ‘Russian World (Russkii Mir) Teaching’ is very different, yet it is important in both the immediate situation and broader context of misuse of religion as a cover for violent power-seeking. Overt imperialism, fundamentalist politics and fascism too, can manipulate the texts, symbols and rituals of faith. It is important to be alert to warning signs.
The declaration examines the ‘Russian world’ concept and exposes the flimsiness of its claims. While cruelty and injustice can be opposed from many angles, sometimes opposition from within a faith tradition or, at least, religious literacy can undermine attempts to sanctify wrongdoing. Here, this ideology is classed as heresy. The statement takes issue with attempts to replace the kingdom of God with one of this world, theocracy which interferes with the church’s freedom to stand prophetically against injustice, assertion of superiority of one ethnic or social group over others, encouragement of hatred and refusal to act for peace or tell the truth about war.
Ultimate obedience to “any leader vested with ruling powers and claiming to be God’s anointed” is rejected, as well as “teaching that attributes divine establishment or authority, special sacredness or purity to any single local, national, or ethnic identity” or “that encourages division, mistrust, hatred, and violence among peoples, religions” or “demonises or encourages the demonisation of those that the state or society deems ‘other’, including foreigners, political and religious dissenters and other stigmatised social minorities.”
Instead, according to the declaration, “Christ calls us to exercise personal and communal charity to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the refugees, the migrants, the sick and suffering, and seeking justice for the persecuted, the afflicted, and the needy.” To refuse a neighbour’s call and instead beat, rob and leave that neighbour to die by the wayside (Luke 10.25-37) is to be an enemy of Christ. This is relevant to the unholy complicity of some churches historically in empire-building by the UK and USA and Nazism in Germany, the twisting of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism by the ruthlessly ambitious and many other situations.
In challenging such misuse of religion, humility, having a sense of proportion and being compassionate are advisable. It does little good to further alienate those on the fringes of far-right movements who are open to being called to a better path. Nor is it helpful to conflate religious or social conservatism, damaging though these may be, with hatred and attempts to destroy minorities; or, I believe, to describe hurt to feelings (serious as this might be) with violence, which indeed may play into the hands of those seeking to ‘retaliate’ against supposed harms to race, faith or nation.
Yet boldness may be needed too in questioning the claims of religious leaders closely aligned to destructive states or armed groups seeking dominance through force, alongside care for those affected. What has happened in Ukraine and Russia is a stark reminder of the need to look beneath the surface of faith and belief.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.