Upsetting the (Russian) Patriarchy
“The Last Judgment awaits every person.”
That’s the admonishment hundreds of Russian Orthodox clergy offered to the Russian government last week. The clergy added that those “who give murderous orders” face “eternal torment.”
Such language is striking not only in its content but also because of its source. In blessing Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic regime, the Russian Orthodox Church is functionally an agent of the Russian state. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, has used his pulpit to support the invasion of Ukraine. For Russian Orthodox clerics to condemn the Russian government for the war is to also offer criticism of their own Patriarch.
That letter is not the only sign of internal dissension. Clergy of a Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam announced “it is no longer possible” for them “to function within the Moscow patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for our faithful.” Their requested remedy is to leave the Russian Orthodox communion and instead be overseen by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Given the acrimonious split between those two bodies, this is the religious equivalent of switching one’s allegiances from the Red Sox to the Yankees.
A priest outside of Moscow, who signed the statement critiquing the government, was arrested by the Russian authorities for preaching a sermon critical of the war. He also used his church’s website to display anti-war images. His arrest comes as numerous protesters and journalists have been detained for speaking the truth about the war, and it follows years of persecution of Christians and other religious minorities who aren’t part of the powerful state-aligned Church.
Taken individually, each of these actions appear insignificant. Put together, there appears to be growing alarm within the ranks of Eastern Orthodoxy that the unflinching embrace of Russia’s state ideology and military aggression compromises the Church’s witness. Rather than clinging to what is good, the Church finds itself aiding and abetting what is evil.
“Some Churches are so angry with Kirill over his position on war that we are facing an upheaval in world Orthodoxy,” Tamara Grdzelidze, professor of Religious Studies at Ilia State University in the nation of Georgia and a former Georgian ambassador to the Vatican, told Reuters.
Kirill’s detractors agree with him that war in Ukraine has “a metaphysical significance” as “something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation.” They just believe he’s on the wrong side of God.
In this edition of A Public Witness, we listen to the chorus of Christian voices seeking more faithful leadership from Kirill. We then hear the rhymes of history before adding our voice to working out the tension between desiring Christian unity and demanding justice when parts of the Church are unrepentant about their participation in a moral calamity.
While public opposition to Kirill’s support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is simmering within the Russian Orthodox Church, others are growing more vocal. Jim Wallis, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Faith & Justice, and Wes Granberg-Michaelson, a prominent ecumenical leader, organized an open letter to the Patriarch signed by scores of American Christian leaders.
“With broken hearts, we are making an earnest plea that you use your voice and profound influence to call for an end to the hostilities and war in Ukraine and intervene with authorities in your nation to do so,” the letter says.
With a reminder that authentic Christian faith must resist nationalistic temptations, the signers asked Kiril “to prayerfully reconsider the support you have given to this war because of the horrendous human suffering it has unleashed.”
Orthodox theologians outside the Russian Orthodox Church are also pushing back against Kirill’s redefining of their tradition in service to the aims of the Russian government. A group of them issued a declaration condemning and rejecting “any teaching which would subordinate the Kingdom of God, manifested in the One Holy Church of God, to any kingdom of this world seeking other churchly or secular lords who can justify and redeem us. We firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state (theocracy) and absorb the Church, depriving the Church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice.”
Noticeable dissent also arose from within the World Council of Churches, a global organization that exists to promote Christian unity (in which the Russian Orthodox Church is a member). Such ecumenical bodies are often the epitome of lengthy processes, bureaucratic compromises, and ambiguous language. Think of the WCC as akin to the United Nations with a religious flavor: a body wanting to tackle substantive issues but driven (and hampered) by the need to maintain consensus among members.
Those norms made the words of Rev. Dr. Ioan Sauca, the WCC’s acting general secretary, all the more notable. Having previously labeled the conflict “a fratricidal war,” Sauca wrote Kirill on March 2: “The whole world is looking with concern and expects to see a sign of hope for a peaceful solution.” After noting how Lent is a season of repentance for Christians around the globe, he implored Kirill “to intervene and mediate with the authorities to stop this war, the bloodshed, and the suffering, and to make efforts to bring peace through dialogue and negotiations.”
The Patriarch did not let this challenge silently go by. Rather, he seized the moment as an opportunity for advancing Russia’s propagandistic narrative. In Kirill’s telling, the real problem is the attack from western nations on Russia.
By imposing economic sanctions, “[western leaders] make their intentions blatantly obvious — to bring sufferings not only to the Russian political or military leaders, but specifically to the Russian people,” Kirill wrote back to the WCC. “Russophobia is spreading across the Western world at an unprecedented pace.”
Rather than substantively respond to the pleas of his ecumenical colleagues, Kirill cited a 1950 statement by the body to “refrain from such actions as are incompatible with brotherly relationship.” And he closed the letter by “express[ing] my hope that even in these trying times, as has been the case throughout its history, the World Council of Churches will be able to remain a platform for unbiased dialogue, free from political preferences and one-sided approach.”
For Kirill, the WCC shouldn’t criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and especially shouldn’t criticize Kirill’s support for the war — in the name of Christian unity. Kirill demands neutrality by the WCC even in the face of moral outrage. He demands the WCC respect a “brotherly relationship” with him even as he rejects such an attitude by promoting a war that the WCC’s Sauca rightly compared to “Cain’s murder of Abel.” When called to account by Sauca, Kirill essentially echoed the words passed down through generations: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
This exchange highlights an important question. Must Christian unity — even for an organization like the WCC where that is the primary reason for existence — really trump any other concern?
The German Question
When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, it impacted planning for the 1934 World Congress of the Baptist World Alliance scheduled for Berlin. Concerns grew within the global body of Baptists about the treatment of Jews and the safety of international visitors. But global leaders also didn’t want to upset German Baptists who spent years planning to host the gathering.
“For the first time, the leaders of the Baptist World Alliance were confronted with the competing of core convictions — religious and political liberty (applied to anti-Semitism) versus preserving the unity of the international Baptist fellowship,” wrote Rev. Dr. Lee Spitzer in his 2017 book Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust. “The latter won out, in deference to German Baptist needs and sensitivities.”
Spitzer, who served as the general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA when he wrote the volume, now spends his retirement as the historian for the BWA. For his book, he examined how various groups of Baptists — including Southern, American (then known as Northern), and National — responded to the Holocaust in real time. (His comprehensive study includes some citations to Word&Way as he poured through our archives from the 1930s and 1940s.)
About 10,000 Baptists from around the world showed up in Berlin for the 1934 Congress (including Martin Luther King Sr., though that wasn’t his name yet). With Nazi flags hanging, some German Baptists and other German Christian leaders who spoke offered their praises of Hitler. For instance, one German Baptist at the gathering declared that “God the Lord has given us, in Adolf Hitler, a man who recognizes the needs of the time and its perils.” Spitzer called those words “chilling in retrospect” by showing that “the seduction of the German Baptist leaders was well under way by August 1934.”
As a counter, the BWA adopted a resolution during the Berlin gathering to condemn “all racial animosity and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.” Spitzer told Word&Way the resolution is “a historical statement worthy of reflection and affirmation.” In fact, he points out that it went far beyond the celebrated Barmen Declaration by Karl Barth that criticized the Nazi regime but ignored the issue of Jewish persecution.
“Karl Barth’s ‘nein’ might be legendary and famous,” Spitzer wrote in his book, “but the Baptist ‘no’ to anti-Semitism, declared in the German capital with the Nazi government watching, was more comprehensive.”
Spitzer, however, criticized the BWA and U.S. Baptist leaders for doing little after the Congress. They seemed more concerned, he wrote, with “the health and welfare of the European Baptist movement, and in particular the German Baptists.” As a result, BWA leaders were “willing to ignore German Baptist support for Hitler and his Nazi policies and thus did not press them to apply the resolution regarding the Jewish people to their own setting.”
Spitzer noted the focus on unity continued during the 1939 BWA Congress in Atlanta, Georgia, and the 1947 Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“The value the Baptist World Alliance placed on the unity of the global Baptist movement motivated delegates to welcome the Axis Baptists back into fellowship, but in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, the grace offered was cheap,” Spitzer wrote. “German and Italian Baptist leaders were not required to ask for forgiveness or express any remorse for the role they played (or as passive bystanders, did not play) during the Nazi era. No accountability was demanded, and this paved the way for Nazi-era Baptist leaders to continue in their positions in the postwar period.”
Spitzer ended his analysis of the BWA by asking what difference it could have made “if the BWA had clearly and forcefully stated to the German Baptists in 1934 that support for the Nazi regime was unacceptable, and if continued, might cost them fellowship with the rest of the international Baptist movement?”
We can’t answer that haunting question about an alternative past. But we can learn from the example today.
“History is not really about just the past; it’s a reflection of the present and warning about the future,” Spitzer told Word&Way.
The BWA isn’t facing this dilemma today. The president of the Russian Baptists, who are among those persecuted by Putin’s regime, joined the BWA and other Baptist leaders in urging Putin to end the war. But the lessons of the past could help inform the path for the World Council of Churches today.
The Tie that Unbinds
In 1982, one global Christian body took action against members for support of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (a global union of more than 150 bodies in 75 nations) declared apartheid a heresy and suspended two all-White South African denominations from its membership. The ostracized groups had previously left the WCC because of its stance against racism and financial support of groups in South Africa working to undermine the systemic segregation.
The outlined path of restoration by the Reformed Alliance required no longer excluding Blacks from communion, formally rejecting apartheid, and providing “concrete support, in word and deed” for “those who suffer under the system of apartheid.” Further signaling their commitments, that year the Alliance also elected as president Rev. Allan Boesak, a Black anti-apartheid theologian and activist in South Africa.
Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a scholar of the ecumenical movement, referenced this episode after we asked him this week about the tension in ecumenical circles between promoting unity and demanding just action.
“A careful study of this experience reveals at least three lessons,” Kinnamon explained. “First, exclusion of churches from ecumenical fellowship, while a necessary option, is a last resort. The focus is not on excluding churches but on opposing error, not on drawing boundaries but on proclaiming truth. Second, such lines can only be drawn in a spirit of general repentance. When it comes to combating racism or promoting economic justice or opposing war, which churches are in a position to cast the first stone? And third, such decisions can only be made together.”
“This third point brings us to the great ecumenical problem,” he added. “Churches profess commitment to one another in councils of churches, but such commitments, in my experience, are superficial. Councils may have ‘marks of commitment’ — common affirmations ‘hammered out in assemblies’ — but these are generally ignored by the council’s members.”
Thus, Kinnamon reaches the same conclusion as Spitzer. While both firmly believe in Christian unity and have spent years serving organizations devoted to that cause, they also refuse to reduce the totality of Christian witness to that single goal.
“A council of churches, at least in theory, is both a forum where often-conflicting perspectives meet in dialogue and a body that, through common affirmations, prophetically challenges the churches to live out the imperatives of the gospel,” Kinnamon told us. “Does this mean there may come a time when a church is excluded from the fellowship of a council because its teachings and actions constitute an egregious violation of authentic Christian witness? The answer, through gritted teeth, must be yes.”
As we grit out teeth while watching the ongoing and escalating scenes of violence, terror, and massacres in Ukraine because of the Russian attack, we recognize such an egregious violation of Christian witness exists today. Christian leaders are rightly condemning the Russian invasion and calling on Patriarch Kirill to do likewise. But since Kirill refuses to repent, as demonstrated by his sermons and response to the WCC, additional action is needed.
Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, has already demanded that Kirill “be expelled from the World Council of Churches” because “he’s attached his unholy crusade to subjugate Ukrainian believers to Putin’s imperial military campaign.” Citing 1 Corinthians 5:13, Schenck quoted Paul’s exhortation to “expel the wicked person from among you.”
As the WCC explains on its website, “WCC membership implies that the churches should recognize their solidarity with each other, render assistance to each other in case of need, and refrain from such actions as are incompatible with brotherly relationships.” If the Russian Orthodox Church supporting the massacring of Ukrainians doesn’t count as incompatible, then nothing does.
The WCC should suspend the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Such a move would serve as a rebuke of Kirill for aiding and abetting Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine. And the Russian church shouldn’t be allowed back into full communion until after offering explicit public repentance and significant aid to the Ukrainian people. That is the Christian path to restoration.
This move is particularly important since the 11th WCC Assembly, a meeting of all the member denominational bodies that only occurs every eight years, is set for later this year in Germany. To gather all the communions together as if nothing is wrong would create a false unity akin to Jeremiah denouncing those who say “peace, peace” when there is no peace. If the WCC doesn’t act, Kirill’s holy war on Ukraine could also kill the ecumenical movement.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood
A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way. To receive new posts and support our journalism ministry, subscribe today.