In 1095, Pope Urban II told a large gathering of knights in Southern France that it was their responsibility to avenge the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land (he did not mention that the conquest had occurred nearly 500 years earlier). Urban’s sermon led to the First Crusade, and it forever changed the dynamics between Western Europe, Eastern Christianity, and the Islamic world.
From a Christian theological perspective, Urban introduced an entirely novel—some might say heretical—way of thinking about the relationship between Christian piety and violence. Near the end of his sermon, Urban declared, “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”
For nearly a millennium, Orthodox Christians have condemned Urban’s perversion of Christian teaching, just as they have condemned the historical events that flowed from it (especially the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Christian Byzantium). Given this backdrop, Patriarch Kirill’s most-recent effort to curry relevance in Putin’s Russia is nothing short of remarkable: Kirill declared in a recent sermon that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will have their sins forgiven.
The Christian world as a whole—and the Orthodox world, in particular—has been horrified by the invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia. It seems to be a distressingly indiscriminate campaign, in which thousands have been killed—young soldiers, men, women, and children—as well as hospitals, schools, homes, monasteries, churches destroyed, with millions of refugees fleeing from their homes and livelihoods. From the beginning, his Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, has spoken out in support of the military operation in Ukraine, using the same mealy-mouthed expression as President Putin to obscure the truth that a sovereign country has been invaded by its neighbor. This he seems to have done on his own initiative, for Putin shows no sign of interest in the support of the Church, but has rather sought to shackle the people of his own country by treating it as a criminal offence to call in question the actions of the Russian state. Nevertheless, insofar as any justification for the invasion of Ukraine has been offered, it has been in terms of the ideology of ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir), which owes its origins to the initiative of Kirill (Gundyaev) in the years before he became patriarch, when, as Metropolitan of Smolensk, he established the World Russian Peoples Council, with its conservative and anti-Western agenda. Through its patriarch (our patriarch, for I speak as an archpriest of the Moscow Patriarchate), the Church of Russia has been thoroughly implicated in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Any voices of dissent, or even criticism, have been silenced throughout the Russian state (though it is noticeable that in the ‘diaspora’ there have been voices of dissent, even from senior hierarchs). This war has been going on for six months now, and despite protests and petitions from various quarters, the war continues relentlessly and news relating to the war has gone silent—or perhaps it would be better to use another metaphor—has gone dead. Putin’s policy seems to be (to adapt a remark of Tacitus’) to create a wilderness and call it…Russia!
Several times Russian church and state leaders have been enraptured by the idea that the Russian people and its political expression have a special mission or “manifest destiny” to accomplish. Successive iterations of this “Russian idea” reflect a growing convergence of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism with state power into an explosive secular ideology bent on imposing its worldview within Russia, surrounding countries, the Orthodox Church, and worldwide.
The first iteration became prominent after the union Council of Ferrera between the Roman and the Orthodox Churches in 1439 and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. These two events precipitated the emergence of a sense of the role and responsibility of Muscovy as the spiritual and geo-political center of Orthodoxy, captured in the epithet the “Third Rome”: the first Rome had fallen into heresy and schism with the filioque and the papacy; Constantinople, the Second Rome, deviated from Orthodoxy by union with Latins and came under Turkish rule as a divine punishment, thereby losing its claim to pre-eminence in Orthodoxy. Muscovy, having rejected the union with Rome and freed itself from the Mongols, thus became the Third Rome of Christendom. The self-proclamation of the autocephaly of the Russian Church in 1448 and the election of the first patriarch of Moscow in 1589 reinforced the Third Rome theory.
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.