Over the past four years, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has become a catch-phrase for a certain kind of conservative Christian community in North America. Many Orthodox churches are striving to carve out a niche within this religious marketplace, promoting the stability of Orthodoxy in contrast to current Western Christian brands. Indeed, such stability is vital to the “BenOp” lifestyle, which envisions Christian village-style communities rooted in family life and communal worship as an antidote to a decadent modern society, unmoored from its traditional roots.
While Dreher does not promote Christian gated communities, encouraging Christians to seek allies in their cause across ideological, denominational, and religious lines, some Orthodox interpreters of his “Benedict Option” are seduced by the latent sectarianism of a BenOp-style “counter-culture” where most of the parishioners live around the corner from the Church, and where all the children attend the same parochial Orthodox school…
I would suggest that this inclination towards communities that distinguish themselves sharply from the rest of society are underwritten by a particular interpretation of the “Neopatristic Synthesis,” a school of theology that has predominated since the middle of the last century. Most often associated with the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, the movement sought to free Orthodoxy from the influence of (some would say “captivity to”) Western thought, restoring its identity in the patristic, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the East.
Human rights are contentious: do they exist? Where are they from? And how do we know which specific rights should count as human rights? Is there an Orthodox case to be made for human rights? Indeed, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic raises the specific question of a right to health and healthcare, as does the current American political debate on capping prices on insulin, a life-saving medication which has been exponentially increasing in price in the last decade.
Any discussion of human rights must begin with what we mean by ‘human,’ and for Christians, the God in whose image we are created. This Creator-given human dignity is the divine stamp of blessing and value upon which rights—existential entitlements—are grounded. As Orthodox theologian Paul Ladouceur has written, “a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity,” and is a “solid rampart” against all manner of violence against Creation. Even outside of the modern Orthodox world, protestants and Catholics have read the tradition similarly. Prominent Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff, for example, reads Basil the Great, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom and writes that:
I see no other way to interpret what John [Chrysostom] is doing with his powerful rhetoric, than that he is reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the natural rights of the poor…. The recognition of natural rights is unmistakably there: The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right…
(Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 62, cited in Susan R. Holman, “Orthodox Humanitarianisms: Patristic Foundations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14.1 [January 2, 2016])
In Mariupol, Russian rockets destroy a maternity ward, wounding dozens. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) blesses the Russian troops. In the same town of Mariupol, Russian bombs kill hundreds of children and elderly in the Drama Theater. Putin’s Patriarch has the gall to describe the war as a “metaphysical struggle” against Western values. A Russian missile destroys a building in Odessa, burying a mother with her three-month-old infant alive. Obedient to his master in the Kremlin, Gundiaev justifies the war as an act of self-defense.
Many western observers are puzzled. Aren’t the troops blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church presently slaughtering fellow-Orthodox civilians in Ukraine? Aren’t the Russian missiles destroying the Orthodox churches and monasteries, along with the schools, hospitals, and train stations, of the fellow-Orthodox in Ukraine? If all of this is true, how can Patriarch Kirill be sending the Russian troops into battle with his blessing? Isn’t this war precisely “fratricidal,” as Metropolitan Onufriy (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate) called it, in a moment of recently found clarity? It did not previously dawn on Metropolitan Onufriy that Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was also an act of fratricide. Meanwhile, several senior bishops within Onufriy’s jurisdiction continue to promote blind submission to Patriarch Kirill, who rationalizes and justifies the killing of the members of their flock in Ukraine—the bombings and the shelling, the slaughter of children and civilians, and the displacement of millions—as Russia’s act of self-preservation. Have Onufriy’s bishops lost their minds or consciences? Is this foolishness or treason? Whatever the answer, the outcome is the same: complicity in acts of violence on a scale unseen in Europe since WWII.
There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.
Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.