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.
“…For there must be also heresies/divisions among you, that they which are approved/tested-and-proved-reliable may be made manifest among you.” (1 Cor 11: 19)
In this “Time of Troubles” of the Orthodox Church, many Orthodox Christians, particularly those in the Moscow Patriarchate, are contemplating either changing “jurisdictions” or taking a time out from the whole church thing. I find the above-quoted passage helpful in this context, because it reminds me that our dire state of church affairs is nothing new, nor even unusual. It is inherent to the historical reality that is “Church” or “ekklesia” (from the Greek verb ekkaleo, which means “to call out,” so as Church we are those “called out” by God and are responding to that call, according to our various vocations). Today we are “called out” or challenged in a special way, to re-discover what “Church” truly is, and who we truly are, as Church. Now is an “apocalyptic” time for our Church, in the literal sense of the word “apocalyptic,” which means “revelatory.” What is being revealed to us, first of all, is what “Church” is, and what it is not. Secondly, “we” are being revealed or “made manifest,” as the holy Apostle says, as to how reliable we are, as Church, or members thereof.
In these paschal days when we sing and greet each other with “Christ is risen,” the people of Ukraine suffer hunger, cold, injury, and death. While individually we help through IOCC and other charities, at the level of the global Church we are too often passing them by on the other side of the road. Like the priest and Levite in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we may tell ourselves we can’t do anything meaningful or that more important duties call us—loyalty to Church hierarchs perhaps, some who have blessed the invasion and others who remain silent about it. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, meanwhile, remain bleeding by the wayside.
On Pascha, a small pan-Orthodox group of Christians in Iowa City decided to change this by launching GOLD: the Global Orthodox Laypeople’s Demonstration Against the War in Ukraine. We call our Orthodox family worldwide to join together on Sunday,May 8, 2022 to pray and witness for the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15) against the war in Ukraine and hierarchs who have sanctioned it. Act now and plan a demonstration: contact a friend or two (Matthew 18:20), involve your children, designate one hour to meet together in front of your church, and spread the word on email and social media. Carry icons, signs, flowers, and flags, speak your conscience, and pray for peace in Ukraine. Post pictures and video to social media and to our Facebook group. Let our brothers and sisters around the world, from hierarchs to laypeople, in Russia and Ukraine and elsewhere, hear our testimony: Orthodox Christianity cannot be used to endorse this war. If the war continues, we will plan a second demonstration for Pentecost.