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Ukraine, and schisms in the Orthodox Christian churches
It is 2022. Russia has invaded Ukraine, again. Putin’s motivations are always something of a mystery, but the broad outlines seem clear. There is Realpolitik concern that Ukraine is trending toward union with the West. If Ukraine joined NATO, then Russia would be left with virtually no buffer zone or sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
There is also Putin’s more idealistic notion about Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” The scholarly consensus is that, around the year 1000 AD, Scandinavian people called the Rus came to rule over parts of what are now Ukraine and its surrounding countries. Modern Russians can trace some of their cultural and ethnic roots to the intermixing of Scandinavian and Slavic people, whose nexus was at Kiev.
Putin says that Kiev, therefore, is the origin city of Russia, and that the Ukrainians are the same people as the Russians. The true story, of course, is much more complex than that. A thousand years of history usually doesn’t lead to nice straight lines, with a single ethnicity controlling a single region of land. (It’s also worth noting that the Soviets, not wanting their origin story to be wrapped up with Scandinavians, tried to develop a theory of Russian origins that didn’t include Scandinavians or the Rus at all. For nationalists, history is a tool to be molded and crafted, rather than a source of independent truth.)
Aside from concerns about NATO, and Putin’s jingoistic claims about Ukrainian identity, there is also a curious third strand, a cultural strand, that claims that Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine is actually about saving the Ukrainian people from evil culture. And the specific “test” in this culture was is —you guessed it!— gay pride parades. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, said:
“In order to enter the club of those [Western] countries, it is necessary to hold a gay pride parade. Not to make a political statement, ‘we are with you,’ not to sign any agreements, but to hold a gay parade. And we know how people resist these demands and how this resistance is suppressed by force.”
This is not even close to being a single gaffe, it is a deeply-held belief. Kirill has also said: “We must not let dark and hostile external forces laugh at us, we must do everything to maintain peace between our peoples and at the same time protect our common historical fatherland from all outside actions that can destroy this unity.”
Even as Russia is being isolated on the world stage, politically and economically, the spiritual isolation of Russia from the other Orthodox churches has already taken place. In 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church broke its communion with the mother Orthodox church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (i.e., modern Istanbul). The Russian church no longer allows any of its members, either priests or lay people, to take part in communion, baptism, or marriage in Ecumenical Patriarchate churches. They do not recognize the Ecumenical Patriarch, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox family of churches, in their prayers. It is the 2018 Moscow–Constantinople schism.
It is 1054, the year of the Great Schism. The western half of the Roman Empire has been gone for over 500 years, since the Germanic barbarians had taken Rome and installed their own king there. But the Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire, still survives. There is still one united Christian church that spans the lands of the Byzantine Empire and the now-fallen Western Roman Empire.
To say there is “one church” is an oversimplification. There were substantial divisions among the Christians even in the early church. For example, in the Arian schism (325 AD), followers of Christian priest Arius asserted that Christ was indeed the Son of God the Father, but that Christ came into existence after the Father, and therefore Christ, although also “God,” was subordinate to God the Father. The church as a whole took a different position, that the Father and the Son were “of the same substance,” or, in Greek, the language of the church at that time, homoousios.
In church jargon, a “schism” means that two sets of Christians are no longer in “communion” with one another. People on one side of the schism do not pray for those on the other. They cannot be baptized, take holy communion, or get married in each other’s churches. (For comparison, excommunication means that an individual is fully separated from the church and cannot participate in any of these critical rituals. Schism is less severe than excommunication.)
Like the Arian schism, the Great Schism was also ostensibly about a matter of faith and doctrine. The Eastern Christians held that the Holy Spirit —the third “person” of God along with the Father and the Son— “proceeds from” the Father. The Western Christians said instead that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In Latin, the language of the Western Christians, “and from the Son” is filioque. To modern readers, debates about homoousios and filioque often seem very trivial and insufficient to justify major schisms. The argument I have read most often —aside from the fact that the Great Schism had a variety of other theological underpinnings— is that questions about the nature of God were of crucial important to people in the early and Medieval church. The idea is that average laypeople really did believe that adding homoousios or filioque to a statement of faith could be the deciding factor in whether you went to heaven or hell. As you’ll see, I think there are other ways to read those stories.
But schisms aren’t always about matters of faith. An important part of the Great Schism were beliefs about the primacy of the bishop of Rome. In simple terms, the Western church believed that the bishop of Rome —that is, the pope— had authority over all the other bishops in the church. He wasn’t a first among equals, he was just the first. The Eastern church, on the other hand, said that all the bishops in the church were essentially equal. The Great Schism split the Christian world into the Latin-speaking Western half, which became the Catholic Church, and the Greek-speaking Eastern half, which became the Orthodox Church. The Catholic and Orthodox churches excommunicated one another in 1054 and lifted that excommunication only in 1965.
In 2016, there was a curious prelude to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church, had made an open offer to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, one of the many independent churches in the Orthodox community. I’ll meet you anywhere, anytime, he said. A pope and a Russian patriarch had not met in person for decades, in part because of disagreement about what would happen to Christians in Ukraine. In 2016, Kirill accepted Francis’s offer, and the two met in the airport in Havana, Cuba under the auspices of President Raúl Castro. (Kirill had previously visited Raúl Castro, he is a fan of Fidel Castro. If you are surprised that a spiritual leader would be a fan of a brutal atheist dictator, then you are in for a few surprises yet.)
The result of this meeting was the release of a 30-point joint declaration, whose points were likely hammered out in years or decades of diplomacy leading up to the meeting. The first 14 points are mostly heart-warming, about the bright sides of Christianity’s long history, about cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox, and about calling for an end to violence, especially in the Syrian civil war.
The later points in the declaration require some close reading, but there is essentially a trade. The Russian Orthodox Church agrees that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is legitimate and will not be interfered with. (Greek Catholics are Catholics who consider the pope their leader but who use a different, “Greek” worship style than most Catholics.) In exchange, the Catholics encourage the Orthodox churches in Ukraine to avoid “taking part in the confrontation” (i.e, the conflict started in 2014 by Russian with the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas) or “supporting any further development of the conflict.” In other words, the Russians let the Catholics in Ukraine be, but at the cost of the Catholics OK’ing the idea that Ukrainian Orthodox shouldn’t take sides against the Russian invasion.
In 2018, this sad story nears its climax. The Ecumenical Patriarchate —that “first among equals” of the mostly decentralized Orthodox churches— voted to allow the Orthodox Ukrainians autocephaly, which basically means that they could have a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church. Autocephaly, which literally means something like “having your own head,” is an important part of Orthodox history. The Ecumenical Patriarchate became autocephalous in the 400s, the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1400s, the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1800s, and so on.
The decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church meant a change of previous policy, in which the Russian church had authority over Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox that had essentially declared independence from the Russian church, who were previously excommunicated by basically all the other Orthodox churches, were now welcomed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Soon after, the head of the Church of Greece wrote a letter to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, lifting excommunication and welcoming the newly-recognized church. They were later followed by some of the other churches in the Orthodox family. The Russian Orthodox Church retaliated by excommunicating those other churches. The Russian Orthodox Church, although the largest of the Orthodox churches, is now remarkably isolated, in a spiritual sense.
There are many ways to read this history. One way is in the language of the churches themselves, how they determine who has a right to do what, and who has fallen on the right side of orthodoxy. A second way is to see the 2018 schism as a latest development in the long rivalry between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church. Just as Constantinople and Rome sparred over leadership of the Christian world in the Great Schism, Constantinople and Moscow have sparred over leadership of the Orthodox world.
The third way, which I find both most depressing and most convincing, is that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is a close ally of Putin and is willing to use the church as one arm of Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.
“If we see [Ukraine] as a threat, we have the right to use force to ensure the threat is eradicated,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill recently preached to his church’s 90 million faithful followers. “We have entered into a conflict which has not only physical but also metaphysical significance. We are talking about human salvation, something much more important than politics.” (dailybeast.com)
Kirill says that this material war has metaphysical causes, but all I see are material motivations cloaked with metaphysical justifications.