The Eastern Orthodox Church is at a turning point in its history. The Russian state’s deployment of Orthodox Christian religiosity to justify its genocidal aggression against Ukraine has thrown the church into crisis. The invasion is the catastrophic culmination to an old debate within Orthodoxy: what kind of society should the church support? Should the church support autocracy, as it has in the past? Or can it support modern democracy and individual liberty? Eastern Orthodoxy is a global community of mutually-recognizing but self-governing churches, and key church leaders are now in open and vehement disagreement on this question. The voices that emerge victorious in this conflict will decide the future of the church.
The struggle over the legacy of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv epitomizes this rift within global Orthodoxy. Under Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, the ancient Rus’ were baptized into Orthodoxy in 988, and the large majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox today. Orthodox hierarchs in contemporary Ukraine have supported democratization and renounced claims to exclusive dominance of the public sphere in favor of free, national solidarity across diverse faiths and worldviews. In Ukraine, the legacy of ancient Kyiv grounds the sovereignty of the state and the dignity of its citizens.
In the words of Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv, the primate of the independent (“autocephalous”) Orthodox Church of Ukraine (the OCU), Ukrainian national unity “provides an opportunity to preserve personal freedom and identity, protecting us from the shackles of totalitarianism.” In the same address he declared: “Christians, Muslims, Jews, faithful of different Churches, and those who do not belong to a certain religious community, but believe in good and truth – we are all children of one Ukraine.”
Democratization and human rights have also long been supported by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whose ancient patriarchate is the first among equals in the global community of Eastern Orthodox churches. It was Bartholomew who in 2019 granted a “tomos of autocephaly” that created the newly independent Orthodox jurisdiction now led by Metropolitan Epifaniy, after centuries of all Ukrainian Orthodox being under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has recently affirmed that Orthodox Christians should “work for the preservation and extension of democratic institutions and customs” and should see social and political pluralism as a “blessing” and a cause for “rejoicing.”
By contrast, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the current primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, views the legacy of ancient Kyiv as the sacred legitimacy for Putin’s autocracy. Like Ukraine, Russia is a majority-Orthodox country, and its church is the largest in all of Eastern Orthodoxy. In Kirill’s conception, the ancient Orthodox Kyivan state was an idealized golden age of “Holy Rus’,” and contemporary Russia is called by God to fulfill a holy mission as the global defender of Christian conservatism against secular liberalism. Kirill supports the Russian state’s violent subdual of any identity perceived to be threatening to its social vision.
Soon after the invasion began, Patriarch Kirill delivered a now-infamous sermon where he argued that the war on Ukraine is part of a global spiritual battle against evil. In his view, Western nations’ defense of the social visibility and human rights of LGBT persons epitomizes the kind of moral evil that Russia is called to fight- especially in Ukraine, whose ancestral holiness has been corrupted by such influences. For Kirill, the war is part of Russia’s sacred duty to defend its civilization from Western corruption, and his statements since have only reinforced this view. This Orthodox political ideology is widely known as the ideology of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir), and Kirill himself was one of its principal architects.
The global Orthodox reaction against this ideology was led by the historic witness of the “Russian world declaration.”Metropolitan Epifaniy himself has cited the Russian world ideology as a key reason for the invasion and its atrocities. The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, representing diverse religious communities, has also specifically condemned the Russian world ideology. Even members of the Orthodox church in Ukraine that remained under the jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow after 2019 (the UOC-MP) have condemned the Russian world ideology.
In the final analysis, the Russian world ideology is a variant of the most common form of modern Orthodox autocracy: radical nationalism. Only a few decades ago, Serbian Orthodox radical nationalism led to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims. That ideology appealed to notions of “Greater Serbia” and “Heavenly Serbia,” ideas that are strongly reminiscent of the “Russian world” and “Holy Rus’.” Every radical Orthodox nationalism is founded on the same heretical error: the blasphemous identification of the holiness of the Church as the Body of Christ with the purity of the modern nation. Until this error is defeated, modern Orthodoxy will remain adrift in a moral chaos of its own making.
(This reflection is a summary of a lecture delivered at Duke University Divinity School, which can be viewed here).