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.
This is a slightly edited version of the public address Archbishop Elpidophoros delivered on Monday, April 4th, at Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Port Washington, NY, at the beginning of an event entitled “Understanding the Role of the Moscow Patriarchate in the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” The event was sponsored by the Order of St. Andrew.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a sorrowful and, indeed, painful subject for us all. This unjust, fratricidal war must not be laid at the feet of our Russian Sisters and Brothers, who are being deceived and victimized by their leaders—both civil and religious. Even the poor Russian soldiers being sent as cannon fodder into Ukraine deserve our sympathy and our prayers. But for those committing atrocities, there will be justice—in this life or the next.
The images coming out of Bucha fill our hearts with much pain and righteous outrage. As we contemplate the loss of innocent life—especially of children—I ask this one thing: please join me in a moment of silent prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of all those who are suffering.
Thank you, and thank you for standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Thank you for extending mercy and compassion to all victims of this barbarity, especially for those who are suffering most directly in Ukraine as they defend their homeland. They have seen their fellow citizens—innocent, non-combatants—brutally and mercilessly slaughtered by invaders.
For centuries, the Orthodox Church has taken the side of its state leadership in times of war, and the further it departed from the pacifism of the first centuries of Christianity, the more militant the rhetoric of the Church became. But the tragic events of the twentieth century posed questions for the Church to answer. The first question concerned the reaction to the end of the First World War and the Bolshevik coup in Russia. It was in the 1920s that the first timid pronouncements about the unacceptability of war and the traitorous position of the Church hierarchy, priesthood, and laity who supported this massacre appeared.
A second challenge came with the church policy of Nazi Germany, which for over a decade determined the fate of German Protestantism. Of the more than 18,000 pastors, only 3,000 formed a Confessing Church, 700 of whom were arrested. Among those who did not accept the dictatorship for religious reasons was the new martyr Alexander Schmorel, canonized by ROCOR in 2007.
Since then, Europe has hardly been shaken by major military conflicts. But that all changed on 24 February 2022, when the large-scale invasion of Ukraine began. The result was an anti-war movement both inside and outside Russia. In the first few days of the conflict most of the laity and clergy expected the position of Patriarch Kirill to be critical of the invasion. Instead, he delivered a political sermon in which he spoke about the imposition of “Western values” on the inhabitants of south-eastern Ukraine and stressed that there is no forgiveness without justice: “But forgiveness without justice is surrender and weakness. Therefore, forgiveness must be accompanied by the indispensable right to stand on the side of light, on the side of God’s truth.”
One night terror I experienced during my childhood included bombers flying over the roof of our fifteenth-floor apartment in Moscow. No wonder, as every evening the news reported heavily on the enemy’s military build-up. At the time I could not quite understand why such a nice girl’s name as Nata (short for Natalia) was used for the organization that was terrorizing our people. All we knew was that we did not want war; we were always for peace; it was always them attacking and threatening, never us.
A patriotic education did not deter some of my generation from taking a radical stance against the violence of war, which extended to all institutions and ideologies that supported it. Perhaps it was a belated wave of the Western youth rebellion of the 1960s that found its footing in the late Soviet counterculture, or some revival of interest in the nonviolent teachings of Tolstoy and Gandhi in the 1990s. Some of my friends burned their military service books, resulting in compulsory months in a mental hospital. In my country, conscientious objection was seen as either mental illness or a criminal act, publicly regarded as a lack of patriotism and masculinity. What I did not know at the time was that the roots of this radical, moral stance toward violence and war could be found in Christianity.