As US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet in Helsinki, all eyes are on what generally are regarded as the “usual” political issues that divide the world’s two foremost military powers: Ukraine, Syria, sanctions, claims of election interference, and so forth. This reflects the near-universal but erroneous view that this current, second Cold War is not ideological, as opposed to the first Cold War that pitted atheistic Soviet communism against America’s “in God we trust” capitalism. (Leave aside whether “capitalism,” an anarcho–socialist term popularized by Marxists, is the proper description of contemporary neoliberal corporatism.)
No, we are told, the current Washington-Moscow standoff is a turf war, nothing more. Unlike the 1945-1991 rivalry it “lacks an ideological dimension” beyond the authoritarian determination to elevate “the Russian state, ruled by him and his clan.”
Such a view totally dismisses the fact that following the demise of communism as a global power bloc there has been an eerie spiritual role reversal between East and West. While it’s true that during original Cold War the nonreligious ruling cliques in Washington and Moscow held basically compatible progressive values, ordinary Christian Americans (mainly Protestants, with a large number of Roman Catholics) perceived communism as a murderous, godless machine of oppression (think of the Knights of Columbus’ campaign to insert “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance). Conversely, today it is western elites who rely upon an ideological imperative of “democracy” and “human rights” promotion to justify a materialist global empire and endless wars, much like the old Soviet nomenklatura depended on Marxism-Leninism both as a working methodology and as a justification for their prerogatives and privileges. In that regard, promotion of nihilist, post-Christian morality – especially in sexual matters – has become a major item in the West’s toolkit.
This has a special importance with regard to Russia, where under Putin the Orthodox Church has largely resumed its pre-1917 role as the moral anchor of society. This elicits not only political opposition but a genuine and heartfelt hatred from the postmodern elites of an increasingly post-Christian West, not only for Putin personally and Russia generally but against the Russian Orthodox Church – and by extension against Orthodox Christianity itself.
This antipathy has many facets, too many to be detailed at one time in this short space. But for now it is sufficient to note two current attacks, both of them arising from within Orthodoxy itself, though no doubt with outside encouragement. One such attack relates to ecclesiastical structures and is overtly political. The other is in the moral sphere and seeks to inject into Orthodoxy the moral decay that has undermined so much of western Christianity.
The first, overtly political attack aims to split Ukraine from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church under the authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. The post-Maidan authorities in Kiev, namely Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), have asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Istanbul) to issue a Tomos of autocephaly to the self-styled “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate” led by former Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko). In such case, the Ukrainian authorities declare that the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is an autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church under the authority of Metropolitan Onufry, would be forbidden to call itself “Ukrainian” would regarded as a representative of an “aggressor” power. Issuance of a Tomos would also set the stage for the government’s forcible seizure of churches and monasteries from Metropolitan Onufry’s canonical Church and handing them over to the state-approved schismatic body, with the world-renowned Kiev Pechersk (Caves) Lavra and the Holy Dormition Pochayiv Lavra in west Ukraine the most prominent likely targets.
For their part, Ukrainian officials state their chances of getting the Tomos are virtually certain, but so far public signals from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew have been mixed. Recently, it was announced by pro-Moscow observers that the Ecumenical Patriarch had turned down Poroshenko’s request after a visit of bishops from the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Church. Other reports, however, indicate that Constantinople considers it an open question whether the areas now constituting Ukraine were ever permanently transferred to Moscow’s jurisdiction in the first place – which one voice, “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” (to which we shall return below), cheered as “taking Moscow down a peg”.
Viewed from western countries, where ecclesiastical matters have long ceased to have life-and-death political consequences, the Ukrainian church situation may seem archaic, even bizarre, especially taking place in a part of the world that not too long ago was under the domination of militant secularists. Be that as it may, the current Ukraine crisis fits into a dismal pattern of powers hostile to Orthodoxy attempting to create new church bodies to serve their political purposes. The most notorious of these were the purported creation of a “Croatian Orthodox Church” in 1942 under the genocidal regime of Ustaša dictator Ante Pavelić as a cover for the genocide of Orthodox Serbs in the so-called “Independent State of Croatia,” and the so-called “Renovationist Church” formed in early Soviet Russia during the most murderous period of communist anti-religious persecution.
At stake today is not only the peace of Ukraine – where violence over state-imposed church transfers is a real concern – but peace within the Orthodox world as a whole. While the honor accorded the Ecumenical Patriarch in Orthodoxy doesn’t remotely approximate that of the Pope of Rome within his confession, as the bishop of the former imperial capital and once-foremost city in Christendom he speaks with great honor and authority. On the other hand, the flock of the Church of Russia under the Patriarchate of Moscow as currently structured (including Ukraine) constitutes an absolute majority of the world’s Orthodox Christians. An incautious move could trigger a major rupture, not just in Ukraine but worldwide, with the constituent national churches forced to take sides. For his part, Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church has spoken strongly against the Kiev authorities and their aspiring autonomous church: “Anyone who helps the Ukrainian schismatics is an enemy not only of the Russian Church and the Russian world, but also of all Orthodox Slavic nations and the entire Orthodox world.”
Shifting now from the structural to the moral sphere, recently there appeared on the excellent websites Fort-Russ and Pravmir a commentary, “ORTHODOXY, CAPITALISM, AND “THE WEST”: IS ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY STUCK IN THE PAST?” by Nathaniel Wood, identified as a scholar of Orthodox theology and political theology and associate director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University. The piece opens with an unobjectionable observation mainly relating to economic issues:
‘Orthodox political theology has often been strongly communitarian, skeptical of rationalist legal order, and reliant on the benevolence of autocratic rule. In… Russia, for instance, the influential Slavophile movement of the 19th century praised the Russian peasant commune as the highest expression of Orthodox social principles and even made it a basis for their model of the Church (the notion of sobornost’). The Slavophiles’ ideal Orthodox society was not only explicitly anti-capitalist, going as far as to ground all property ownership in social obligation, but was critical of the “rationalist” culture of legal relations standing behind the Western capitalist order, even to the point of investing all political authority in the autocrat out of fear that a society based on legal rights was antithetical to Orthodoxy.’
In addressing Mr. Wood’s comment on economics, Professor Jonathan Chaves of George Washington University, observes as an Orthodox Christian:
‘It is perfectly possible and respectable to be a Christian conservative and unhappy with “Plutocracy.” Plutocracy is the conglomeration or aggregation of small businesses into vast multinational corporations. In the 1920’s G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both devout Roman Catholics, founded a tint party, the Distributist Party. Distributism said, “No” to Socialism, recognizing that private property is a foundation-stone of Liberty; and “No” to Plutocracy, realizing that it led to vast entities aggregating power to themselves. They said “Yes” to private, small business. And so must we all. If this discussion takes place only within the Orthodox Church, it will remain a tempest in a teapot. Let us link arms with those in agreement on the specific issues we can agree on.’
So far so good. It’s one thing to question whether Orthodox Christians should uncritically accept the neoliberal global order and its corporatist economic and financial system (“capitalism”). Neither Scripture, nor the Canons of the Ecumenical and Regional Synods, nor the Church Fathers had much specific to say about this system simply because it didn’t exist in their day. Neither did socialism, for that matter.
But it’s quite another thing to redefine, under the guise of scholarship, moral principles that far precede the modern era and are central to Christian anthropology. Today, as noted above, those principles are under threat in increasingly godless Western Europe and North America. Moreover, in a manner reminiscent of the 20th century Bolshevik assault on Christianity (including the so-called “Renovationist” church), the West has made moral aggression against the socially conservative countries of formerly communist Europe a key element of its foreign policy. (See my “The West’s Quest to ‘Save the World Through Degeneracy’.”)
It is clear that such a redefinition of Christian morality, not economics, is the real deliverable in Mr. Wood’s essay and of the Fordham program he represents. Moreover, Russia is the particular target. The following is from website of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University (emphasis added):
‘Fellow co-director Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D., professor of theology and the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, said the Russian Orthodox Church has been trying to redefine human rights language in such a way that allows them to uphold “traditional values” for the last decade. This understanding of human rights doesn’t protect a band like Pussy Riot from protesting in a Church, or art that’s deemed blasphemous, and it’s consistent with laws that ban gay marriage and homosexual “propaganda.”
‘“Normally people would say, that’s a violation of human rights, and some Orthodox Christians want to say ‘No it’s not. We have our own particular interpretation of human rights, and we are justified in doing that because the West’s concept of human rights is biased and anti-Christian,” he said. “Our project hopes to offer a more nuanced understanding of Orthodox Christianity’s relation to human rights language than the diametrical opposition proposed by certain Orthodox Christians, especially in the post-communist context.”
‘Papanikolaou further noted that the Russian government also uses the language of human rights and the defense of religious freedom to justify its ongoing military intervention in Syria.’
So, “a more nuanced understanding of Orthodox Christianity’s relation to human rights language” doesn’thave a problem with blasphemous antics in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral (lovingly rebuilt after being blown up by the Bolsheviks)? With sacrilegious “art” (which in the west is often subsidized with believers’ tax money)? With indoctrinating innocent young children in alternative sexual morality (for example, in several US cities “Drag Queen Story Hour”)? With marriage not restricted to one man and one woman? With western-supported head-choppers seeking to kill, enslave, or uproot the Christians of Syria, and have been prevented from doing so mainly through Russia’s heroic intervention in that country?
Also, as an Orthodox Christian of Greek origin myself, I can’t help but notice more than a whiff of Hellenic intellectual and academic arrogance in the way mainly Greek principals of the Fordham project formulate their criticisms of the Russian Church’s positions. (Similarly, it is important to bear in mind that if the Ukrainian schism spreads further, the fault lines will partly though far from entirely split between Russians and Greeks, with disastrous results.) Rather than a case of the Russian Church’s seeking to ‘redefine human rights language in such a way that allows them to uphold “traditional values”’ it is quite clear that it is the Fordham academics who are themselves seeking to redefine authentic Orthodox Christian traditional values (without the quotation marks) as stated forthrightly, clearly, and faithfully in the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (which link, to give Mr. Wood credit, he did include in his posting).
Sadly, the Fordham program is not alone in cutting-edge Orthodox academia. Another effort, “Orthodoxy in Dialogue,” cited above with respect to the Ukrainian crisis, displays the same agenda, including demanding that Orthodox clergy advocate open borders in the US on a par with opposing abortion, being Orthodox and “genderqueer,” explaining the finer points of “intersex” vs. “transgender” (and faulting the esteemed Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou for ignoring the priceless “contributions that empirical sciences have made to our understanding of sexual and gender variance in human nature”), trashing respected American Orthodox Christian voices like Fr. John Whiteford and Rod Dreher, and – well you get the idea.
What is perhaps most tragic is that while ever-growing numbers of western Christians, lapsed Christians, and non-Christians are attracted to the Holy Orthodox Church precisely because they perceive Her, correctly, to be the Ark of Salvation that – with the powerful global support of the Russian state – does not change course with the gales and storms of a tempestuous and darkening world, revisionist Orthodox scholars would have us trim our sails to match the course of some western confessions that are increasingly rendered Christian in name only, if that. It is counsel we dare not heed.