In Russia, there is a widely spread superstition that August brings national-scale catastrophes. The mass protests in Belarus against Alyaksandr Lukashenka are seen as such a catastrophe for the regime of Vladimir Putin. Even though Mr. Lukashenka struggled to preserve some independence for his country from Russia, Belarus under his rule represented the model of a Neo-Soviet colony that Russia has tried to impose on its neighbors since Putin’s presidency began. Belarus under Mr. Lukashenka preserved many symbols and most of the ethos of the Soviet era.
The key feature of the Soviet ethos is paternalism, which means that the regime offers its subjects basic social welfare in exchange for complete obedience. The Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (also known as the Maidan), for example, was a revolt against this sort of paternalism. What is going on now in Belarus looks more like a revolution that started within the paternalistic framework. There are good signs, however, that eventually the Belarusian revolution will turn against paternalism as such.
Orthodox pride themselves on belonging to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” founded by Jesus Christ—and with good reason. Orthodox point to the loftiness of Orthodox theology, the beauty and solemnity of its liturgy, its mystical spirituality, the holiness of its saints, and the transcendentalism of its icons, liturgical music, and religious architecture. For many Orthodox, the Orthodox Church is the sole Church of Christ, and other Christian ecclesial bodies are decidedly “lesser,” perhaps not truly Christian, or at best “incomplete.”
But Orthodoxy on the ground, the actual beliefs and practices of Orthodox faithful, Orthodoxy as “lived religion,” yields a different picture. Lived religion focuses the beliefs, practices and everyday experiences of religious persons. Most lived religion studies of Orthodoxy concentrate on measurable practices such as attendance at church services, personal prayer, and fasting, with little attention to religious beliefs. There are a few exceptions. The Pew Research Center report on Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe (2017) examines contemporary Orthodoxy in major countries of Eastern Orthodox tradition. Results of this report were incorporated into the broader study Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century (also 2017), which focuses mainly on geographic and demographic aspects of Orthodoxy, with attention to religious practices and to opinions concerning the church’s positions on issues such as divorce, married priests, women priests, and same-sex marriage. Questions concerning religious beliefs cover basic beliefs in God, heaven, hell, miracles, the soul, and the Bible. But an astonishingly high percent of Orthodox hold non-Christian beliefs such as fate (70%), the evil eye (53%), magic, sorcery or witchcraft (40%), and reincarnation (25%). More Orthodox Christians than Catholics in the region believe in the evil eye and magic and sorcery, and differences between Catholics and Orthodox concerning reincarnation are minimal. And considerably more people (59% to 75%) in countries of Orthodox tradition believe in fate than in the secularized Czech Republic (32%).
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orthodox Church has found itself in an existential crisis. The situation has challenged our traditions and even the way that we receive Holy Communion. One of the points of disagreement that has arisen concerns the manner in which Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful from the common cup by means of a common spoon.
The experience of the church tells us that Holy Communion by the common spoon never became a vector to transmit disease. Many priests have consumed a Consecrated Lamb that had molded due to natural conditions. In addition, every priest, after distributing communion with the spoon to the people, has consumed the remaining Gifts with that same spoon at the conclusion of the Liturgy; yet priests who have served in hospitals specialized in infectious diseases can tell you that no one ever got sick- from tuberculosis, AIDS, herpes, influenza, and even Ebola (as we hear from our brothers who serve in Africa).
Nevertheless, many of the faithful have always been fearful or disgusted by the common spoon. We can spend countless hours explaining sociologically the reasons behind it, but that is not our purpose today. We just need to accept this reality. So, the question is how do we continue to minister to people who struggle with this fear? Do we throw them out of the Church, admonishing them for their lack of faith? Or, do we follow the path of the Lord and embrace them? Are we not called to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one which is lost and who tells us “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13) and that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)”?
As I sit holding and examining the print of the famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee & Jackson” by E.B.D. Julio, I reflect on my own racism and prejudices that I grew up with as a Southerner. I feel as Wendell Berry wrote about, The Hidden Wound, inside me and the South, the hidden wound of racism. In this piece I would like to make my confession of how being raised in the South influenced me and other Southerners.
Being raised in the South, I became entrenched in the racist heritage of the South and beholden to the religion of the Lost Cause. I did not know or think of myself as a racist, for I had African American friends and colleagues. But deep inside me was the hidden wound that goes unnoticed by many Americans.