“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.
That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time: for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey. The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity. And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.
As of 4 July 2020, the amendment to the Russian Constitution—first proposed by President Vladimir Putin in January, smoothly approved by the State Duma and Constitutional Court in March, and confirmed in a nationwide referendum with 78,56 per cent of votes—has taken effect. As widely reported, the main purpose of the amendment was to secure Putin the possibility of two more terms in office. But what significance does the constitutional amendment of 2020 have for the Russian Orthodox Church?
There are four places in the amended constitution which are the result of successful lobbying by the Moscow Patriarchate.
In the midst of pandemic and protests over racial injustice, it is important to remember that the connection between disease and racism in North America is not a new one: Europeans extended their domination over the land and the indigenous populations that lived on it in large part through their decimation caused by diseases brought by the Europeans. St. Tikhon of Moscow, who was bishop in North America at the turn of the last century, observed this dynamic and condemned racism in no uncertain terms.
The concept of race that categorizes people according to skin color and physical differences is a modern one, inextricably connected to European colonial domination. Because it is a modern concept that developed largely outside the Orthodox world, to this day there have been few statements on race and racism made by universally recognized authoritative Orthodox voices. The challenge in the Orthodox world since the nineteenth century has been the growing connection between religious and national identity and therefore the problem of nationalism in the Church. It is especially important to pay attention to an explicit condemnation of racism by one of the greatest modern Orthodox saints.
Like churches in other parts of the world, the Orthodox Church in Russia has struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question became particularly intense at the end of the Great Fast. Even though Church and state authorities had called on people to remain home, many devout believers, even some who recognized the dangers of the virus, openly or quietly resisted. Tragically, Passion Week led to the widespread infection of priests and monastics. The Church now faces a theological crisis. How is it to respond to traditional notions, sometimes promoted by hierarchs themselves, that holy things and places protect and even heal believers from disease?
When we lived in Russia several years ago, my wife called Orthodox worship a “contact sport.” She meant not only that Orthodox fully engage their bodies as they venerate holy things and receive the eucharist, but also that parishes in large cities can be so crowded on a Sunday or feast day that one literally has to push one’s way inside. Often she or I had no room to cross ourselves or bow without hitting the person in front of us. But inevitably a determined babushka would elbow her way between us to reach an icon and light a candle to the one and only saint who could reliably answer her prayers.