An Orthodox revival

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For years, the two leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church whom Pope Francis met by videoconference on March 16 – Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and Metropolitan Hilarion, the Church’s chief ecumenical official – worked to support Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reconstitute a mock Soviet Union on behalf of a Russkiy mir (“Russian World”). Kirill and Hilarion’s efforts range from falsifying the history of East Slavic Christianity to virtually beatifying President Putin as a figure providentially ordained to save the world from Western decadence and “liberalism.” More recently, Kirill blasphemously blessed a war of aggression with holy icons.

This shameful enterprise has now been outright rejected by some 500 Orthodox scholars across the Eastern Christian world, in a Statement on Teaching the “Russian World”.

the Declaration unambiguously deplores the ideology of the “Russian world” as “a form of religious fundamentalism” with a “totalitarian character”. Orthodox believers who espouse this ideology cease to be members of “the Church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers”. In a word, the “Russian world” is a “heresy”, and from this “vile and indefensible” heresy arose “the shameful actions of the Russian government in unleashing the war in Ukraine with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church”.

the Declaration goes on to “condemn…and reject” six pseudo-theological facets of the “Russian world” ideology:

First, the signatories deplore “any teaching which seeks to replace the Kingdom of God, proclaimed and inaugurated by Christ… by a kingdom of this world, whether it be Holy Rus’, Holy Byzantium, or any other earthly kingdom . “

Second, the signatories “strongly reject all forms of government which deify the state (theocracy) and absorb the Church, depriving the Church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice.” They also “rebuke all who affirm Caesaropapism”, which makes obedience to Christ conditional on obedience to a “head invested with ruling powers and claiming to be the anointed of God, let him be known by the title of ‘ Caesar’, ‘Emperor’, ‘Tsar’, ‘or ‘President.’

Third, the signatories deplore as unbiblical and heretical “any teaching which attributes divine establishment or authority, sacredness, or special purity to a single local, national, or ethnic identity”, or which deifies “a particular culture”.

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Fourth, the signatories reject the demonization of those who are “other” and categorically condemn “any Manichaean and Gnostic division that would elevate a holy Eastern Orthodox culture and its Orthodox people above a debased and immoral ‘West’.”

Fifthly, the Declaration calls on Orthodox believers to exercise genuine Christian responsibility in public life while denouncing the hypocrisy of Russian clerics: “We rebuke those who pray for peace while failing to actively make peace, whether out of fear or lack of of faith.

And finally, the Declaration demands that Russian Orthodox leaders speak the truth according to the mind of Christ. Those who refuse to “tell the truth or [suppress] the truth about [the] the evils that are being perpetrated against the Gospel of Christ in Ukraine” condemn themselves as cowards, liars, or both. The signatories also “condemn any talk of ‘fratricidal warfare'” or the “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his brother out of envy” if such use of biblical imagery does not “explicitly acknowledge the murderous intent and guilt of one party rather than another” — in other words, Russia’s unwarranted assault on Ukraine.

Putin’s savage war changed so much on the world political scene that its effects on Eastern Christianity can be overlooked. The radical change that could be underway there is, however, of great importance for two reasons.

For more than a decade, Russian imperial intimidation has paralleled the intimidation of other Orthodox communions by the Moscow Patriarchate as it seeks hegemony in the Orthodox world. But because of his cowardly actions since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Patriarch Cyril’s moral authority is now at basement level. While Putin’s missiles shattered Mariupol’, Kirill’s acquiescence to barbarism shattered Russian Orthodoxy’s campaign to be first among Orthodox equals.

the Statement on Teaching the “Russian World” also opens up important ecumenical possibilities, especially by fostering a dialogue on social doctrine between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Through the Putin/Kirill dyad, the ancient Byzantine notion of a “symphony” between Church and State has once again led to the corruption of the Church, with Russian Orthodoxy playing the role of chaplain of the tsar. The signatories of the Declaration understand that. The door is therefore open for a creative ecumenical conversation about church, state, society, culture and economy in the future.

It is hoped that the Vatican will finally understand this.

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