Dearest South Highlanders,
I’m writing you from Lahore, Pakistan. We are experiencing the amazing power of God at work through the small Presbyterian Christian communities, schools and churches we are visiting. I look forward to preaching the baccalaureate sermon this coming Sunday to graduates, their families and friends at Gujranwala Theological Seminary (Note: Dr. Hurley preached this service this past Sunday, and it can be viewed here.)
Meanwhile, we all pray for Ukraine and those who are suffering such terrible violence. My longtime friend, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Dr. John Burgess, who has been called upon by the US State department to help them understand the connection between church and state in Russia, writes this helpful article:
“We can understand the Russian invasion of Ukraine only if we appreciate the power of religious ideals and symbols. Eastern Orthodoxy plays a key role in how Russians and Ukrainians think of national identity. But the conflict also tragically demonstrates how civil religion so easily highjacks the gospel.
On Feb. 21, 2022, President Putin laid out his case to the Russian people. In an hour-long tirade on television, he ridiculed Ukraine, calling it a failed state that the Bolsheviks had artificially created. It should never have become independent of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin twice referred to religion. He argued that Russia and Ukraine share one culture and one Orthodox faith. Russian military action would correct the catastrophic historical mistakes that separated them. And he noted that Ukrainian nationalists had taken possession of several Orthodox parishes loyal to Moscow. Russia would now defend its churches in Ukraine.
In 988 AD in what is now Crimea, Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr, in Ukrainian) chose to be baptized into the religion of Christian Byzantium. When he returned to Kyiv, he had his warriors and their families baptized en masse in the Dnieper River. Both Ukrainians and Russians regard these events as birthing their respective nations. Vladimir’s Christianity unified disparate, rival tribes into a people. From that moment on, Orthodox Christianity would shape the art, architecture, music, literature, and thinking of the Eastern Slavs.
A social-political ideal also emerged: a Holy Rus’, where all creation and social relations would become transparent to divine beauty. Legend says that Prince Vladimir (who also had geopolitical ambitions) decided to accept Orthodoxy after his envoys to Byzantium told him of the liturgy in Hagia Sophia. “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they exclaimed. Orthodox worship engages the five physical senses—seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting—and directs them to God’s holy presence, as though we are with the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Historical developments would threaten yet renew the vision of a Holy Rus’. In the Middle Ages, Mongol hordes swept across these lands, laying waste to Kyiv. When the princes of Muscovy threw off the Mongol yoke, Moscow emerged as the new center of Slavic Orthodoxy. The Islamic conquest of Constantinople in 1453 further strengthened Muscovy’s conviction that it had inherited the mantle of defender of true Christianity. The mythology of Moscow as the Third Rome was born.
One of Russian Orthodoxy’s most beloved icons, the Mother of God of Vladimir (now in Moscow’s Tret’iakov Gallery), represents this journey of Orthodoxy into Russia. According to legend, the Apostle Luke painted the icon. In the fifth century, it came to Constantinople, in 1130 to Kyiv, in 1155 to Vladimir (northeast of Moscow), and in 1395 to Moscow.
The Kievan lands became borderlands under the domination of rival European powers: Hungary, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia. Ukrainian identity, and its Christianity, absorbed influences from each. However, the possibility of a distinct Ukrainian state and church emerged only at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. During the ensuing years of civil war, a so-called Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church briefly established itself, only to be forced underground when the communists took control. In the western areas of Ukraine, under Polish Catholic influence, the Greek Catholic Church was dominant. Created in 1596, it had been allowed to retain Orthodox forms of worship, in exchange for pledging allegiance to the Pope. When Stalin repressed resurgent Ukrainian nationalism after World War II, he liquidated this church. Some priests and parishes went underground; the majority were forced to become Russian Orthodox.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. The Autocephalous Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches recovered legal status. Fractures appeared in the Russian Orthodox Church. A pro-Ukrainian faction declared its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate but was not recognized by any of the world Orthodox churches. In 2014, the Maidan Revolution tilted Ukraine toward the West, and in 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a tomos of autocephaly to the pro-Ukrainian church, to which the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church united itself. Since then, two churches have claimed the title “Ukrainian Orthodox,” the new autocephalous one, and the one under the Moscow Patriarchate.
All these three churches—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Kyiv, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and the Greek Catholic Church—regard themselves as the legitimate heirs of Prince Vladimir and the vision of a Holy Rus’. The Greek Catholics played a prominent role on the Maidan and have drawn on Catholic social teaching to call for the rule of law and democratic political structures. The two Orthodox churches, dominant in central and eastern Ukraine, are more nationalistic. Their rivalry has been exacerbated by political tensions between Russia and Ukraine. In 2016, President Putin unveiled a 52-foot statue of Prince Vladimir in Moscow, to compete with the 1853 statue that rises over the banks of the Dnieper River in Kyiv.
The plot thickened further when Petro Poroshenko became Ukraine’s president after the Maidan Revolution. Though himself a member of a Moscow Patriarchate church, he was instrumental in the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Both he and the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) appealed to Bartholomew to issue the tomos. The United States State Department added support, a move that the Moscow Patriarchate sharply criticized. Poroshenko’s slogan became, “One Army, One Church, One People.” Ukrainian Orthodox churches of the Kievan Metropolitanate have displayed the Ukrainian flag and raised funds for the Ukrainian army. We now have civil religion, Ukrainian style.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) enjoys a measure of autonomy within the Russian Orthodox Church. It has retained control of the large, historic Orthodox monasteries in Ukraine and has a larger number of parishes than the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kievan Metropolitanate. While some Moscow Patriarchate priests in Ukraine’s two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk have blessed the Russian-backed separatists, Metropolitan Onufrii, the head hierarch (and loyal to Patriarch Kirill), has tried to position his Church as Ukrainian, not Russian, yet true to Holy Rus’.
After the issuance of the tomos, some observers expected a mass defection of Moscow Patriarchate churches to the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukrainian law allows parishes to choose, but because they keep no formal membership rolls, it is difficult to determine just who may participate in these decisions. Both churches have accused the other of stealing parishes. However, relatively few priests and parishes have changed affiliation, and only a couple of bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate have renounced their loyalty. Although, by some measures, the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church now has more members, many Ukrainians are oblivious to the distinction between the two churches. They remain loyal to their particular priest and parish, and cannot tell you to which jurisdiction it belongs.
Since the Maidan Revolution, Patriarch Kirill has been nearly silent. More than a third of Russian Orthodox parishes are in Ukraine. For Kirill publically to support Putin’s aggression against Ukraine would alienate many of his Ukrainian parishioners. Nor can Kirill publically defend his Ukrainian interests without risking Putin’s reprimand. When Putin summoned civic, business, and religious leaders to the Kremlin in 2014 to announce the annexation of “holy” Crimea, Kirill was notably absent.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate has issued vague calls for peace, while emphasizing its efforts to care for refugees from the two separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk. In contrast, Metropolitan Onufrii made a remarkable statement (which, however, was not posted on the Moscow Patriarchate website): “To our deepest regret, Russia has initiated armed force against Ukraine. . . . I call on you [members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)] to intensify penitential prayer for Ukraine and for our soldiers and people. . . . Insisting on the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to President Putin to immediately cease this fratricidal war.”
Active church participation in Ukraine, while much higher than in Russia, is nevertheless a small minority of the population (perhaps 10%). In both countries, Orthodoxy functions primarily as a cultural identifier to which people (and political and religious leaders) appeal in order to differentiate their societies from the West with its (presumably decadent) values of individualism and freedom of choice. Putin’s declared support for “traditional” religious values will resonate with many Ukrainians, as it does with many Russians. Nevertheless, most Ukrainians, even Russian-speakers, want to define their national and religious identity on their terms, not Putin’s or Kirill’s.
What can we expect? The Russian government will outlaw the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Kyiv. Kirill will not protest. Will Onufrii or other Moscow Patriarchate bishops?
Whom must we not forget? Ukraine has many other religious adherents, including Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. Since 1991, they have worked together productively with the Orthodox and Catholics. However, the two breakaway republics in Donetsk and Lugansk have denied Protestant groups legal status and have confiscated some of their buildings. Muslims in Crimea have faced similar difficulties. What will happen to minority religious communities in the new Ukraine?
What can we do? American Christians can try to understand Russian and Ukrainian views; some of what they say about the United States will be painful to us. We can offer quiet support to those Russians and Ukrainians who resist political manipulation of the vision of a Holy Rus’. We need Orthodoxy’s sensitivity to divine beauty in a broken, fallen world. All sides have reason to repent. The forty days of Lent are upon us. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Every blessing as you gather for worship this Sunday as we continue to look at these seven miracles signs in John’s Gospel throughout Lent.