Give Us This Day Our Daily Portion of Nationalism… Reflections on the Issue of the Autocephaly of the Church in Ukraine

by Davor Džalto

I tried to stay away from publicly expressing my thoughts on the current church/autocephaly crisis in Ukraine, for many reasons. First of all, there are much more competent people who know the situation better than I do. Second, the issue of autocephaly of the church in Ukraine has, by now, escalated so dramatically that one feels compelled to side either with the “pro-Russian” block or with the “pro-Ukrainian/pro-Constantinople” one. The “camps” seem to be so fortified, and the discussion so heated, that it seems difficult to formulate and express one’s opinion without taking a clear-cut “pro” or “contra” position.

In the end, however, I decided to write a short piece about the issue because I received about a dozen requests from various people to comment on the situation, and to give my view on the issues at stake.

Let me say at the beginning that I do not share the mainstream views when it comes to the issue of autocephaly in Ukraine. I will try to explain why.

That there is “Russian imperialism” and that the church of Russia has demonstrated more than once its loyalty to the state/imperial concerns, aspirations and policies (which is what most of the “local” churches “normally” do) is all-too-well-known. There is also Russian nationalism, which has been only fueled by recent (and by “recent” I mean post-1989) international political (and, especially, military) developments in the regions that are of special importance to Russia.

This way, Russian nationalism has become, in the eyes of many, a bad thing (and understandably so) something to be rejected and condemned, a specter to be exorcised.

(To make sure that the non-partisan observers are not mistaken about the [real] issues at stake in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of State expressed its support for autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, in a statement, which [not unexpectedly] does not reflect the heights of intellectual sophistication, if one may say so.)

Because of this “bad” nationalism, all other nationalisms, that counter-fight this one, seem to be “good” nationalisms. We find ourselves now in a situation in which the Ukrainian nationalism is a “good” nationalism, because it stands up to the “bad” one.

The issue of autocephaly of the (uncanonical) church in Ukraine becomes therefore intrinsically linked to this “bad nationalism” vs. “good nationalism” dichotomy. Giving autocephaly to one of the ecclesiastical structures in Ukraine would, of course, strengthen its independence (from Moscow, to be sure, although not necessarily from other interested parties) and solidify its national identity (which is what the political leadership of Ukraine has been very clear about), which is all perceived (especially in the West) as proper and just.

This is where my troubles with the current disputes surrounding the autocephaly issue begin.

Nationalism can, although rarely, play an emancipatory role in concrete social and political contexts (but even then, only up to a point and for a short period of time). Because of its emancipatory potential it can, sometimes, be justified on pragmatic/political grounds (e.g. in the times of the formation of nation states against, for instance, imperial/monarchic rule), and certain forms of “patriotism” can sometimes even be affirmed (e.g. in the case of “ecological patriotism,” or when local political communities stand up to the neoliberal capitalist [neo]colonization). However, even then one has to be extremely cautious, as even “positive” patriotisms, can easily turn into a monster, which becomes then difficult to contain.

However—and this is the problem here—there can be no “good” nationalisms from the Christian and Church perspective. From this perspective, all nationalisms are bad, something that contradicts the very nature of the (Orthodox) Church.

The Orthodox Church finds itself nowadays in the trap it allowed itself to fall into long time ago. The trap consists in allowing for the concept of church autocephaly to be (in practice and often also in theory) identified with particular nations/states and/or national/ethnic communities. This is, from an ecclesiological perspective, an unfortunate situation, the situation of sickness, something that can be understood as a result of many historical factors, but it is also something that should never be accepted as normality, something that should be healed, not something that should be taken as a principle.

There are, of course, many theologians nowadays who perform the role that theologians and intellectuals in general have historically performed; intellectuals often freely submit themselves to political authorities/power structures, making sure that they create useful rationalizations that the power structures, in a given place and time, can utilize for their political goals. They, of course, normally get something in return, some (no matter how insignificant) piece of power, public exposure, funds, and alike. That is a standard story. What makes it especially troubling is when theologians start playing the same game, giving up the “concerns of God” for “merely human” concerns (cf. Mt 16:23).

On this particular occasion, I am not interested in Russian and/or Ukrainian national identities and nationalisms per se. I consider national identities (no matter whose) nothing more but a (socially constructed) misperception (although a very persistent one) of what the social/political space looks like. I am, however, interested in Orthodoxy. What worries me are the future consequences for the Orthodox world that might occur as a result of ill-conceived and irresponsible actions that are taking place or that might take place in the near future. I am worried that short-sighed, hotheaded decisions (especially when they are motivated by political fight and other concerns that are of “this world”) may result in long-term suffering of the entire body of the Church (as it has been the case many times in the history of Christianity).

Feeding nationalism, especially in the ecclesial context, never ends well. Christians should oppose nationalism as an ideology based on certain anthropological premises that are in a direct contradiction with Christianity and/as the Church. There can be no “good” nationalism or “good” patriotism for Christians. Their “patria” is the Kingdom of God, and only that orientation, toward the coming Kingdom (in which there is “neither Jew nor Gentile” cf. Gal 3:28), makes them the loyal “citizens” (of Christ’s Kingdom). Using church as a means of creating or strengthening national identities (although commonly practiced) is nothing less but a heresy. Imperial aspirations within the church, whether they come from Moscow, Constantinople, or somewhere else, also do not do any service to Christ’s body.

It’s all basics, and yet we very often need to be reminded of the basic stuff.


Davor Džalto is Associate Professor and Program Director for Art History and Religious Studies at The American University of Rome President of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.