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Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is a media professional with 40 years of experience in writing and reporting, editing and publishing, TV and broadcast radio production in Asia and Australia. For 10 years he led Asia’s leading Church media organization - UCA News. Currently, he is the English language publisher of the respected Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica.
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly

Asia

What Russia's invasion of Ukraine means for national churches

Matters have reached a critical juncture for Christians in Russia, Ukraine and the 14 churches in the Orthodox world

Published: March 16, 2022 10:29 AM GMT

Updated: March 16, 2022 10:30 AM GMT

What Russia's invasion of Ukraine means for national churches

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow celebrates a Christmas service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on Jan. 6. (Photo: AFP)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is oddly predictable for conflicting reasons.

One set of arguments supporting the actions of the Russians against the Ukrainians is expressed in religious terms — by the Moscow Patriarch, for example — as if it is part of Russia’s Christian destiny to absorb Ukraine.

An alternative view shared broadly in the West is that the invasion is an act of unmatched villainy and the expression of the evil enveloping contemporary Russia.

But one of the cleansing agents working to stem the warlike propensities of humans in their tribal conflicts is the religion whose founder is the Prince of Peace. But this time Christians have done little to stem the venom in a conflict that could be astonishingly violent in its consequences if the nuclear weapons the Russians have threatened to use are unleashed.

Lurking behind the contest is something it is very politically incorrect to mention: the pervasive spread of national churches of varying “orthodox” complexions.

The creation of national churches as exist in many countries where an Orthodox church claims majority allegiance among Christian citizens is always ambiguous. Today, such is the case in many parts of Eastern Europe and most obviously so in Russia. The Christian identity and mission newly discovered in the last three decades appears to be superficial and the default position for Russian Orthodox Church leaders is an endorsement of the Tsarist ambitions of Vladimir Putin.

Church leaders were appointed with Soviet Communist Party approval and were believed to be members of the state security organization and of its secret police unit — the KGB

Just how “Christian” the Russian leadership — both civil and religious — really is has become a critical question to answer if we are to begin to find a way out of the mess the world seems to be sinking into further and further. Every day, more and more extreme claims are made, especially by the Russian leadership, about just how dire a situation is. But the courage and commitment to their freedom shown by the Ukrainians are far from a spent force.

In Soviet times (pre-1989), the Russian Orthodox Church was considered a department of the state. Church leaders were appointed with Soviet Communist Party approval and were believed to be members of the state security organization and of its secret police unit — the KGB.

It left Christians and church leaders free to claim “God is on our side” — meaning the Russian state’s side — without too much inspection of the reality of the situation. It allowed an entirely self-referential account of events and the exclusion of any externally or objectively established frame of reference to evaluate just how Christian such claims are.

The Orthodox Church leadership saw itself as more accountable to the leadership of the Communist Party than the claims of Christ and the Gospel.

But now matters have reached a critical turning point for Christians in Russia, Ukraine and indeed the 14 churches in the Orthodox world. Can the rest of the world tolerate the continuation of the culturally self-referential religion of Russian Orthodoxy and its satellites across Eastern Europe to carry the Christian flag in this conflict?

Crucially, have the world and the Church outgrown their “Orthodox” phase? That phase has had its unquestionable and still enduring benefits. Christianity had its biggest impact on Eastern Europe through the efforts of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two missionary brothers from Thessaloniki. Such was their influence that they are now known as the Apostles to the Slavs. Their lasting impact is through the Cyrillic script used across Eastern Europe and in Russia.

And the Christian identity and institutional matrix contributing to that identity are part of a much bigger issue — the identity of Russia itself. As repeated commentators point out, driving Putin’s destruction is an image of Mother Russia in its full reach that has its full expression in Tsarist ambitions underwritten by Russian Orthodox Christianity and its specification of Russia’s destiny.

In other words, the Gospel is a universal call to a pattern of life and service. It calls Christians in every context. It provides criteria for judgement reaching well beyond the specific and local

There is, of course, something commendable about this impulse. The expression we use today to describe such developments and events is “inculturation,” which is about finding ways to allow the Gospel to receive expression in ways that are readily recognized in local languages and cultural forms.

To have Christians provide the language with which all the citizens of a country communicate is perhaps the highest act of inculturation allowing all the people of a particular country and culture — whether Christian or not — to communicate with each other and for those outside the country to be able to overcome the language barrier.

But unless the Gospel and the lives of Christians transform the culture, it can become yet another trap restricting a people and a nation, preventing the embrace of a new and liberating sense of identity and mission reaching well beyond the confines of language, locality and custom.

In other words, the Gospel is a universal call to a pattern of life and service. It calls Christians in every context. It provides criteria for judgement reaching well beyond the specific and local. The Gospel stands in judgment over, above and beyond and local formulation of a response to its call.

That is what is barking at the door of the Orthodox communities like the Russians and their allies at this challenging moment.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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