Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Of Little Green Men and Long Black Robes: The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Conflict in Ukraine
Of Little Green Men and Long Black Robes: The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Conflict in Ukraine

Of Little Green Men and Long Black Robes: The Role of the Orthodox Church in the Conflict in Ukraine

This essay is adapted from the 21th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs delivered on November 7, 2017, at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It is an honor to have been invited to present the twenty-first Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It is humbling to be part of a series that has included scholars whose work has so strongly affected my own thinking on politics and religion, and it is a blessing to be able to participate in Mr. Templeton’s ministry of spiritual growth through broadly ecumenical understanding.

I hope to bring my experience as a political scientist, intelligence analyst, and Ukrainian Orthodox priest to bear as I share my reflections on the role of Orthodox Christianity in the conflict in Ukraine. It’s a great topic, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

It is wonderful to speak with an audience that appreciates that religion’s effect on anything is complicated. As you know, this isn’t the case with every audience. After September 11, 2001, when I was working as a strategic military intelligence analyst, I was dismayed at the two extremes some analysts fell into when it came to understanding the effect of Islam on the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At one extreme were those who assumed that religion was just a veneer for what was “really going on” and at the other were those who thought that the insurgents had been brainwashed (the old “hypodermic effect”) by the Koran and their religious teachers to behave in certain ways. The truth is more nuanced. Even though there are agitators who use religious language, symbols, and stories to manipulate people in opportunistic ways, the fact that people can be manipulated by these things has to be taken into account. And as a full-time teacher and preacher of religion, I can tell you that it takes a lot more than a holy book and a bunch of lectures and sermons to reach people’s hearts and change their behavior! Adam Garfinkle did a great job explaining this last year in his Templeton Lecture on religious violence. Now, I encourage you to reflect back on that talk and accept that the specific case of the effect of Orthodoxy in the Ukrainian conflict is similarly important and complicated.


The Crimea has been taken over. It was taken over illegally, but the annexation was planned and executed so well that it this part of Ukraine is now defacto a part of Russia.  The Donbas is a war zone. There is a cease-fire, but it is routinely ignored. On one side, there are about 40,000 Ukrainian separatists, 3,000 Russian volunteers, and upwards of 10,000 Russian forces. On the other, there are about 60,000 Ukrainian troops. There have been over 10,000 fatalities and more than twice that many wounded. One and a half million Ukrianians are internally displaced, and about a million are expatriated refugees. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the war has put the lives of five million people at risk. Moreover, the usual war-time processes of self-justification and demonization—the processes that kill mens’ souls—have been put into hyper drive due to the information war. It is at least ironic, if not blasphemous, that some of the weapons in that information war were designed, built, and even disseminated by the Orthodox Church.

Here is a quote from one of the main Orthodox leaders of Ukraine and shepherds of her people, Metropolitan Onuphry, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP):

There is an unprecedented infowar going on. Propaganda is destroying brotherly relations between peoples and is even destroying relations between relatives. Where can we look for salvation? How can we overcome the problems and division, when the seeds of hostility and feud have been sown between the brothers in faith in abundance and they are already bearing their bloody fruit? . . . Everything possible needs to be done to end the war and establish long-waited-for peace in Ukraine. Any calls for military aggression and hostility are unacceptable for the clergy. We do not have the right to justify war by religious slogans in any case. I am calling on Orthodox people who are now on the different sides of this military conflict to see brothers in each other and begin to reconcile. There are no right-wing or left-wing people in graves. Children of our Church are now lying in graves in the eastern, central and western parts of Ukraine. If we don’t stop the war in our hearts, it will only aggravate from the outside.

My main approach tonight will be to share some of the religious stories and ideas from Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox history that are in play in this information war and how they get used to legitimize one side or the other. These will include looking at Orthodoxy itself to see why it is so available for political agitation; the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ to look at the importance of place and authority; the fragmentation of the Kyivan Church to understand the weight of labels like “heretic,” “schismatic,” and “Uniate;” the Third Rome and the Russian World to understand Russian Orthodoxy’s sense of entitlement and obligation; and the West to look at how we are understood by each side. Lord willing, I’ll then conclude by describing some potential ways these “weaponized” ideas can be beat back into plowshares (or chalices, as the case may be).

A Brief Aside on the Dominant Motivational Frames: Fascism and Imperialism

Before we get to that, though, I want to put things into perspective. When we look at the information war, religious symbols are strong, but they are nowhere near as strong as the dominant ones used in the Ukrainian conflict: these are Fascism and Russian Imperialism. Why do these resonate so strongly? You know this history well: the Russians live in places and have families that were decimated by World War II. The Great Patriotic War remains one of the few unambiguous high points in recent Russian history, and its symbols are embedded deep within the Russian soul. While only a small minority of Ukrainian nationalists are fascist, the imagery is strong enough and used often enough to make the threat of Ukrainian fascists a visceral and immediate concern to both Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, especially when the Ukrainian government does things—like passing discriminatory language laws (as they so unwisely did after gaining power after the Maidan, (aka the “Revolution of Dignity” or “Fascist Putsch”, depending on one’s attitude towards it)—that fit so easily into that narrative.

You are also no doubt aware that Ukraine was long under the control of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Ukrainian nationalism does not just celebrate the glories of Ukraine’s past—stories like the golden age of Kyiv and the time of the Cossack hosts; it also recounts all the things Ukraine’s northern neighbor has done to oppress, Russify, and even destroy Ukrainians and Ukrainian identity. Recent events like former President Viktor Yanukovich’s capitulation on the EU accords in favor of closer ties with Moscow, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s proxy war in Donbas are seen as yet more items on a long list of grievances that includes the Soviet purges against nationalist leaders and the Holodomor. Of course, there are also plenty of Ukrainians who see Russia as a generally positive force in the history of Ukraine. Many of them speak Russian and are themselves wary of Ukrainian nationalist extremists. Unfortunately, no one has been able to develop a Ukrainian Idea that can cut across this cleavage; instead, election cycles, the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas have deepened the divisions. This deepening has been exacerbated by the ideological trenches in the information war; I am not exaggerating when I say that Russian and Ukrainian nationalists live in completely separate worlds.

Religious motivators are strong, but they do not have the same impact as the anti-Fascist and anti-Imperialist motivations. However, it is still worth looking at the role of religion. After all, there is a reason that Russian propaganda against Ukraine begins with the labels “Fascist” and “Nazi,” but then continues with the more religious “schismatic,” “Uniate,” and “Heretic.”

We in America were not as affected by WWII and Communism as Russia and Ukraine, but our stories include fascist, Soviet, and Russian villains, so we still have a good sense of why those labels are effective. However, few of us here in America feel religion the way Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox do, so these terms do not really resonate with us. They are just intellectually and theological categories. But they do resonate with Ukrainians and Russians.

Unfortunately, the faith that has as one of its prime directives the reconciliation of the nations has been used to further polarize them.

Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox Christianity is a large and comprehensive system of beliefs and rituals designed to accomplish God’s will among mankind and in this world. When it is embraced by people and nations, it develops the full spectrum of moral instincts (or moral tastebuds, to use Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor).[2] The real purpose of this is so that these instincts can work with similarly well-trained minds and God-directed spirits so that they can love God and serve their neighbor. But, if there is no discernment, if there is no humility, and if there is no love, then once all these moral muscles have been developed, they can be used to lift or—stepping out of the metaphor—justify, demonize or destroy pretty much anything. This is especially relevant for our current study when it comes to how Orthodoxy encourages 1) automatic deference to authority, 2) sanctity of place, and 3) loyalty. Underscoring my earlier point about danger of mirror-imaging our Western understanding of religion onto Ukraine and Russia, these are the three conservative moral foundations that are largely atrophied among Western liberals.[3]

Everyone knows that Orthodoxy has a rigid hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, but it also has rituals that reinforce that authority and imbue it with the legitimacy to train believers towards automatic deference. These include hand kissing, the structure of the liturgy (e.g. the call and response; homily), the architecture (e.g. the altar is raised, all face the priest), and the daily submission of the believer’s life to the Church’s schedule of personal prayer, corporate worship, and fasting. The entire system reinforces the Orthodox Christian’s instinctive deference to authority.

Orthodoxy also has a sacramental theology that believes that matter is changed by grace. This is most obvious in the changing of the bread and wine, but it is also why the Orthodox venerate the relics of saints, why we build churches in special places, and why we bless things with holy water; it really is fundamental to the Orthodox worldview. A corollary of this is that some places are sacred. Some rituals that support this are how we divide our worship spaces, the way we protect and venerate holy things, the way our movements change depending on where we are in relation to sacred things and places, and participation in mass pilgrimages to special places. Again, the entire system is designed to support an instinct of reverence towards holy things and an instinctive desire to venerate and protect them.

Thanks to all the research that followed WWII, we are very familiar with the way rituals can be used to strengthen in-group loyalty. Orthodox rituals that do this include the denial of Communion to the non-Orthodox (and those who have acted against the standards of Orthodoxy) and the close association of Orthodoxy with its particular nation.

None of these rituals are prescribed so that Orthodoxy can be politicized or even weaponized, but without proper training—that is, once again, without discernment, humility, love—they can be used for both.

How this can and has been used to manipulate people will become evident as we look through a few examples. Let’s start with the Baptism of Kyivan-Rus’.

The Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ (not Russia…or Ukraine)

The basic facts regarding the Baptism of Rus’ by St. Volodymyr in 988 are accepted by all sides in the conflict. So is the appreciation for the Golden Age it ushered in for both the central part of the realm around Kyiv in what is now Ukraine and for the outer parts further North in what is now Russia. But what does it mean? We’ll look at the ideological battle over the “Russian World” shortly, but right now, let’s look at how it was used to justify Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory in the Crimea and Donbas.

Listen to how President Vladimir Putin used the Russian sense of sacred space and Russia’s veneration of St. Volodymyr as the baptizer of “Russia” to justify his takeover of Crimea. This is what he said to parliament in December 2014:

It was here, in Crimea, in the ancient Chersonese, or, as it is called in Russian chronicles, Korsun, Prince Vladimir received baptism, and then he baptized all of Rus. And it was here on this sacred ground our ancestors for the first time and for always recognized themselves as a single people. . . . So just what the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is for those who profess Islam or Judaism is precisely how we also are going to treat this place from now on and forever. (Religiia v Ukraine, December 11, 2014)

I am sure that you see the problem with the logic, but I want you to understand that most Russian Orthodox would not. Putin’s non-sequitur resonates with the Russian Orthodox because they are human, and because they are human, they are subject to the finding from moral psychology that in moral decision making instincts come first, with reasoning coming next to justify what one already feels or knows to be correct. As we discussed earlier, the Orthodox have a strong sense of the sacred, know that certain places are sacred, and have a strong instinctive desire to venerate and protect sacred things and places. They have also been trained to defer to authority and grant it moral value and its actions moral legitimacy and truth. When the authorities connect Crimea to the Baptism of Rus’ through Saint Volodymyr and then say that it is holy and should be under the control of true-believing Russia, Russian believers tend to accept it as Gospel, so to speak. This is especially the case because they have high levels of trust for President Putin and listen to him uncritically.

Note that this logic leads to a different outcome for the Ukrainian Orthodox, even those under Moscow (again, showing the need for nuance). They recognize the places associated with St. Volodymyr and the Baptism of Rus’ as sacred, but they do not connect the dots in the same way. Let me share a quote from the UOC-MP Press Secretary Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko:

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow patriarchate views Crimea as Ukrainian territory and has spoken out for the return of the peninsula to the control of Kiev. At the same time he characterized the conflict in east Ukraine as inter-governmental and not interconfessional.

It is obvious here that the Russian government, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, is using Orthodoxy to legitimize an illegal action. This only works because of the way Orthodoxy builds up moral muscles of believers. It has been the same in Donbas, although there is no direct tie-in with St. Volodymyr and the baptism of Rus’. This is not just because all the land of Rus’ is considered sacred (a weak justification), because there are plenty other tenets available to political or “weaponized” Orthodoxy.

Another set of moral categories that Russia manipulates for political use are those signaling disbelief and disobedience (i.e. disloyalty). These give motivating power to the terms “schismatic,” “Uniate,” and “heretic.” No true believer can stand the thought of someone that is unclean being in, much less controlling, sacred space. When it comes to Crimea, it reinforces the idea that Russia should be in control of it by making the alternative—having it under the control of schismatics and heretics—unthinkable. While the sense of the sacred is not as strong, this is also part of the moral outrage behind the war for Donbas.

In order to understand why these terms matter and resonate, we need to look at what happened to Kyivan Rus’ after its baptism.

The Fragmentation of Ukrainian Orthodoxy

Who are the legitimate heirs of Rus’? Who is really Orthodox? What we have in Ukraine is the fragmentation of one faith and one Church into at least five groups (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate, or UOC-KP; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate or UOC-MP; the Ukrainian Catholic Church or UCC; the Ukrainian Autocephalist Orthodox Church or UAOC; and of course the Russian Orthodox Church or ROC) who worship the same, believe the same, and tell very similar stories about themselves.[4] All see and celebrate Kyivan Rus’ as their genesis and consider themselves the true heirs of the Church of Kyivan Rus’, but the Russians have had the power to make their narrative the dominant one both in Russia and, at least until recently, the main one taught in Ukraine and in Western schools and universities. It is the one most of us who studied this during the Cold War accepted uncritically (because there were no alternatives offered).

Fragmentation is not just a political reality, it is a sacramental reality. The other party is not just wrong, he is heretical. He is not just under a different hierarchy, he is schismatic or Uniate. He is not just an enemy (we might have to love an enemy), he is Anathema—devoid of grace. We are familiar with how this line of thinking has been used to delegitimize and dehumanize other religious groups, like the Jews, but it provides the same capabilities and temptations any time there are such differences. This is especially the case when there is a war going on, and more so when religious institutions are willing to act as arms of the government that is pursuing that war.

This is why there are Western and Ukrainian commentators who compare factions in the Russian Orthodox Church to fundamentalist Islamist groups like the Taliban and why Russian and pro-Russian commentators do the same to the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholics. Alas, the comparisons do have some merit, albeit only at the extremes.

Russian Messianism: The Third Rome and the Russian World

Patriarch Kirill has made the common spiritual heritage of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus part of his platform from the beginning of his reign, referring this group of nations (others are sometimes added, but these are the core) the “Russian World.” The genius of this term is that, at a certain level, no one can disagree with it: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus do indeed trace their heritage back to Saint Volodymyr. The problem is that it gets used, both intentionally and unintentionally, to reinforce Russian imperialism and the Russification of Belarus and Ukraine. This is especially the case when, for example, a common language is listed as part of that inheritance, or when the people of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are said to be part of the same nation or people. The “Russian World” is interpreted through the lens of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (and a Fourth there will never be).

In addition, there is a specifically Orthodox dimension of the Russian World that is seldom addressed. The Orthodox have a theological concept called “symphonia” that describes the way Church and State can work together; each has its role, but the real hallmark of it is the cooperation between the two. The United States is such a secular nation that I am not sure we understand all the implications of a society that has close cooperation between Church and State as its model. One of the nuances is that the moral legitimacy of the Church ends up being shared with the State and the political goals of the State become sacralized by the Church. A historical example of this is when the Russian Orthodox Church anathematized the Ukrainian Cossack Hetman Mazepa for his rebellion against the Russian State in 1708, but it is also why President Putin can “legitimately” call the Crimea Russia’s Temple Mount.

I want to look at this some depth because it plays a big role in the information war.

Here is a quote from a demarche Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in August 2014:

We cannot help but note the fact that the conflict in Ukraine has an unequivocal religious subtext. Uniates and schismatics who have joined them are trying to defeat canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church continues with patience and courage in these difficult conditions to nurture its suffering, faithful children. Priests carrying out their ministry in places that have become the arena of military actions in their overwhelming majority have remained with their flock, sharing with it all the horrors of civil war.

Nor is this a one-off; it is the consistent message from the Russian Orthodox Church. Here is what Metropolitan Hilarion, the Director of External Affairs, said at an Orthodox-Catholic Conference in June of 2014:

Unlike the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been able during these difficult months to unite people of various political persuasions, including those who have found themselves on both sides of the barricades, the Uniates have ostentatiously associated themselves with only one of the belligerent forces. The aggressive words of the Uniates, actions directed at undermining the canonical Orthodox Church, active contacts with schismatics and the striving to divide a single multinational Russian Orthodox Church have caused great damage not only to the Ukraine and her citizens, but also to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. All of this has put us back a great distance, reminding us of the times when the Orthodox and Catholics viewed each other not as friends but as rivals. . . . Today once again it has been all the more obvious what the Orthodox knew – that the Unia was and, unfortunately, remains a special project of the Catholic Church aimed at undermining canonical Orthodoxy.

Not coincidentally, this religious imagery and the presentation of the conflict as a holy way perfectly matches the Kremlin’s take on things. Here is a typical example from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, given at a conference on religious persecution:

Christians are being persecuted . . . in Ukraine, where an anti-constitutional coup was followed by a fratricidal war and where the national radical forces have opted for a course of inciting religious divisions.

Here is the official response of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (the so called “Uniates”) to Patriarch Kirill’s demarche to the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

Attempts to maintain that during the conduct of the Anti-Terrorist Operation only Orthodox believers of the Moscow patriarchate have suffered are a dangerous plan to stand all of Ukrainian society against one confession. The sly attempt to move the exercise of the natural right of the Ukrainian people of liberty and the independence of their country into the interconfessional space is unacceptable and it provokes new tensions and new turmoil in Ukrainian society, this time in the sphere of interconfessional relations. Today Ukraine expects from churchmen not the provocation of violence but the building of peace.

The response of the UOC-KP was similar. This is from a letter Patriarch Filaret sent to Patriarch Bartholomew:

For the first time since the rule of the nazi fuehrer Hitler we are facing massive propaganda against Ukraine that is extraordinary in its level of cynicism and falsehood. With the help of practically all means of mass information, Russia is trying to persuade the world of the justice of its actions. . . . It is as part and parcel of this propaganda that it is necessary also to view the letter from the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill to you, in which he describes events in Donbas as a civil war and a religious conflict. . . . Actually, the events in Donbas are the consequence of the armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Leaders of the so-called people’s republics, mercenaries, weapons, financing, and intelligence support have all come from Russia through a portion of the border that was seized. In no other place in Ukraine besides those places where Russian mercenaries are operating have there been armed conflict or other forms of conflict typical for civil and religious wars.

The letter went on to note that the armed forces that defend Ukrainian sovereignty included troops from all regions and confessions, thus proving invalid the claim that the “schismatics” and “uniates” were fighting against the Russian Orthodox in Donbas.

Not surprisingly, I could not find an official response from the UOC-MP on the demarche (their Patriarch sent it), but I do have a quote from Mp. Onuphry on these issues during that same time frame. He claimed that there are no priests in the church who would support the separatists, saying:

There are such priests who speak out against Ukrainian sovereignty, but I do not know of such priests in our church. Perhaps a priest puts on an Orthodox cassock and walks around, but he is not ours. I know that in Donbass there are such vagrants, but I do not know whether they are priests or not. They wear clerical vestments and speak in the name of our church, but they are not our people.

He also emphasized that the UOC-MP has definite independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. “We will construct relations with the Russian Orthodox Church on those canonical rules that exist in our church and according to which we live today. We have independence in administration and performing our ministry, taking account only of our internal realities,” he declared.[5]

The UOC-MP is losing members and credibility because of its association with Moscow, and it is clearly in a difficult position; often trying to play on both sides of the field. For example, its representatives refused to stand during official prayers on behalf of the “Heavenly Hundred” and there are too many reports of priests, parishes, and even bishops supporting the activities of the separatists to ignore. But it is also true that the UOC-MP seems to allow pastoral discretion to priests and bishops on whom they support, only disciplining those who go too far (and it has disciplined some). You may be surprised to hear that the Bishop Filaret, the Bishop of Lviv and Halych in Western Ukraine, wrote a public letter to President Putin in 2014 asking him to pull Russian troops out of Ukraine—and yet he still remains the Bishop of Liviv and Halych.

The West

Another way that Russia, using Russian Orthodoxy demonizes the “other” is in its treatment of the West. Russian politicians, agitators, and clergy continually present the West as decadent and anti-Orthodox. They did and do their best to present the choice between being part of the “Russian World” and being a part of the West as the choice between a moral future of strong traditional marriages and respect for Christianity and one where Christian belief will be attacked and traditional marriage will be destroyed and replaced by gay marriages. In this Russian Bizarro World, two of our most prized moral goals and achievements, human rights and democracy, are used pejoratively so often that they have become evidence of our corruption. You might think that our alliance during the Great Patriotic War would undermine these attacks. However, formerly fascist Germany is our ally in the West, a connection that is made even more explicit when the Russian media claims that we supported neo-Nazi groups during the Maidan and after. Moreover, according to the Russian propaganda machine, the evil we have supported in Ukraine is just part of our worldwide effort to undermine traditional Christianity throughout the world. For example they demonized both gay marriage and the West’s acceptance of it and used it as a warning of what would come to Ukraine if they chose to align itself with the West rather than (holy and traditional) Russia.

The Ukrainian nationalists tend to see the West in more practical terms, based on what becoming part of the Western world will accomplish for Ukraine. This statement from Patriarch Filaret, the leader of the UOC-KP, given during the Maidan, is representative:

All countries that join the EU are independent. If Ukraine will be in EU, it will preserve its statehood and sovereignty. If it joins the customs union and the Eurasian space, it will lose them. . . . Russia has imperialistic ambitions, because it wants to unite to itself Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, creating an empire. In 2014 the greatest danger for Ukraine becomes entering into the customs union [with Russia]. How will this be avoided? As people are today on the Maidan, so they must stay to the end. It will win. If society does not want something, you cannot maintain it by force for long.

Conclusion: Turning these Swords into Plowshares

Some think that the best way to solve this problem is to unite these Ukrainian Orthodox Churches into one Church, either under Moscow (by having the UOC-KP and UAOC join the UOC-MP) or under the Ecumenical Patriarch (by having the Ecumenical Patriarch put the UOC-KP and/or UAOC under its authority). The idea is that the newly united Ukrainian Orthodox Church would then be granted autocephaly (i.e. full and canonical independence) from both Russia and Constantinople. While a healthy autocephalist Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be good for Ukraine and Ukraine certainly deserves its own canonical autocephalist Orthodox Church, all of those paths would be subject to Russian sabotage. We have already seen how the opportunism of senior Orthodox clergy can be used by Moscow to disrupt progress in this (here I refer to Russian meddling in the attempted unification of the UOC-KP and the UAOC in 2015); please know that it would get much worse if the Russian Orthodox Church was threatened with the loss of half its parishes and believers. It would rather risk the slow demise of the UOC-MP than risk that. Here, I am speaking not as a priest, but as a student of Soviet and Russian intelligence; we should have no doubt that Moscow has dossiers containing either real or fabricated compromising materials on all the major players in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, nor should we doubt that it would use it to protect its interests and of the Church it finds so useful.

So what is the answer? How can we turn the weapons of Orthodoxy back into plowshares and chalices?

Thanks to recent news about how the troll farms and hackers have worked to disrupt our own culture and politics, I don’t have to do much more than point out the fact that Russia is closer to Ukraine and has far fewer defenses. We know what we need to do in order to minimize the damage; we also know the types of actions that are likely to make things worse. All I can say is that the things we need to do to protect our culture and institutions are the same sorts of things Ukraine should do.

It is tempting to think of our openness as a weakness, and there is no doubt that it does make us vulnerable. But it is our commitment to freedom—not just of religion, but of expression, mobilization, and entrepreneurship (not to mention our commitment to human rights and democracy)—that make us strong and resilient. We have given into the temptation of the easy fix of authoritarianism in the past, and the temptation remains for us now. I think this is always counter-productive in the medium to long term; not just for us, but Ukraine.

Speaking more specifically to the weaponization of Orthodoxy, as a pastor, I can say that the way forward is clear. Just as the answer for America is to double down on freedom, for the Orthodox, it has to be to double down on the Gospel. Loving our enemy begins with humility; we cannot love him unless we know him, and we cannot know him until we stop shouting and justifying ourselves and listen. This will bring an end to demonization and allow for real dialogue. There is no magic wand; there are serious differences between the parties. Love doesn’t create more land or bring back the dead (not today anyways), but it will make finding a compromise possible and, at the very least, force politicians to develop their own weapons. The quote from Metropolitan Onuphry I shared at the beginning of my talk is right on the money: clergy have no business using Orthodoxy to divide God’s children from one another.

Let me leave you with this final reminder: we cannot fall into the trap of making invincible giants of President Putin, Russia, or the Russian Orthodox Church; they are subject to pretty much the same limitations and pressures that we and our institutions are subject to. Even during the days of the Old Media, Moscow could not keep its efforts in Afghanistan from undermining its legitimacy at home; we have already seen similar mechanisms at work because of what it is doing in Ukraine and the new media makes keeping secrets all but impossible. Moreover, generations of governmental lies have created a culture where, as Peter Pomerantsev put it, “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” As rule, Russians are very patient, but they are not stupid. They know that the government and its media machine cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Unfortunately, to the extent the Church allows itself to be used as part of that media machine, it will not be trusted, either.

[1] “Uniate” is a pejorative term for Christians (in this case, Ukrainians) whose theology and worship is Eastern Orthodox, but who are in “Union” with Rome rather than the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Ukrainian Catholic Church (UCC) left canonical Orthodoxy to go under the Pope of Rome at the end of the 16th century for political reasons. Despite the fact that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has been in existence for more than 400 years, the Russian Orthodox Church still treats it as if it was an act of ongoing betrayal against it.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (New York: Pantheon Books) 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The differences between the groups are exaggerated for polemical reasons. There are reasons that these groups are not in communion with one another, but with very few exceptions (such as the UCC’s acceptance of more recent Roman theological developments and Papal rule), they are practically indistinguishable and would look more similar to one another than, for instance, the Greek Orthodox.