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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Orthodox Mennonite Ambivalence

De hejchste onn de ellste Foda

Patriarch Kirill I
Part I:  Patriarch Kirill I’s recent statements in support of Protests – Hopeful Leadership or Mere Politics?
    Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill I, has made headlines in the last few weeks simply by speaking up about the relationship between the Russian people and the Russian government and endorsing recent protests against perceived electoral and voting fraud in the latest elections as “’a lawful negative reaction’ to corruption,” (Kishkovsky, see below). 
    In an article titled “Disputed Voting Turns Church, a Kremlin Ally, Into Its Critic,” reporter Sophia Kishkovsky indicates that recent evidence of voting fraud, and clear evidence that the Putin government and his United Russia Party have lost the moral high ground with large segments of the voting public, is bringing the church and its patriarch out of the cold and into the public arena as a moral authority.
    Kishkovsky mentions fellow journalist and “avowed atheist” Dmitri Gubin whom she states had felt that “the silence of the church hierarchy [regarding recent allegations of electoral fraud] was leading him to regard the Russian Orthodox Church as a branch of the state,” (ibid) and that he was “dumbfounded” when Patriarch Kirill spoke out in favour of the protestors.  According to Kishkovsky, Gubin wrote in a recent magazine article that, “for the first time in Russia, I got a clear religious view on a secular problem,” (ibid, quoted from Ogonyok Magazine).
    Without access to English or German translations of his most recent sermons, especially those of Dec 17 and 18 to which most commentators refer, it is difficult to accurately gauge the true impact of Kirill’s admonitions to both the Putin government and anti-Putin government protesters.  At the same time, much of the excitement might simply be over the fact that the church has taken the first tenuous steps out of its seemingly increasingly formal role as a ceremonial object and is seeking to provide ethical and public spiritual leadership to those amongst the public who are becoming disaffected with Russia’s current governing officials – while continuing to maintain its historically strong ties to and support of Putin’s governing URP party.
    Writing for, an official Orthodox website, Andrei Zolotov, Jr. wrote 21 Dec, “We are witnessing a situation, when the Moscow Patriarchate, long accused of being in cahoots with the Kremlin, is making careful moves to distance itself from the most odious positions in regard to the post-election situation in Russia.  Yet he [Kirill] by no means sides with the opposition.  In the long tested practice of the church’s leaders, he makes his statements cautious enough so that people of varying convictions can interpret them as supporting their position,” (Zolotov, see below).
    As persons of Russländer descent, one notes that non-Slavic Russians (including Protestant Russländer, Russian Mennonites, Jews, Muslims and others) have long experienced an ambivalent relationship with Russia’s dominant Russian Orthodox faith.  Historically, boundaries between the Russian Orthodox Religion, the Russian State (or Empire) and the Russian people have been fuzzy and blurred to say the least.  For the most part, relations have not been overtly negative, yet, they have often not been the most positive either.
    Perhaps the same might be said for Westerners in general.  For most in the United States, the relationship or attitudes toward the Russian Orthodox faith are shaped by an almost complete ignorance of Russian Orthodoxy being coloured positively as the faith of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn or discoloured by previous associations of the Russian Orthodox Church as having been coöpted by the former Soviet government.  For my part, I am most positively influenced by the Russian Orthodox as suppliers of verenika and golubtsi (cabbage rolls) whenever I stray too far from Wolf Point or Winkler (somewhat counter-culturally, we as Russländer, refer to golubtsi as Pigs-in-a-Blanket rather than the North American food of the same name which feature hot dogs wrapped in biscuit dough).
    Regardless, noting the Russian Orthodox Church’s history of cooperation with the Soviets and of generally encouraging strongly nationalist, seemingly often anti-immigrant, anti-“Western” policies in general throughout history, a Russländer might not know what to make of this new public involvement.  Kirill’s new public visibility is perhaps bringing the Russian church to a crossroads.  You see, as non-Muslims and Westerners are now learning in Egypt, mixing politics and religion seldom turns out for the better, and is often quite detrimental to the rights of minorities – especially under national or overly dominant or exclusive religious regimes.
    A recently as 2004, the Russian Orthodox Church is suspected of using its influence to bar certain foreign missions from operating in Russia.  While historic Russländer might welcome the church’s stance against groups commonly perceived of as cults, it would behoove them to recall that since the days of Tsar Alexis I (Peter the Great’s father) and Patriarch Joachim, the same concerns were raised by the church against all non-Orthodox religious groups including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Jews and Mennonites.  Some three hundred years after Joachim, a 1997 law still requires all non-indigenous Russian churches to register with the state and voluntarily restrict their activities.  Despite questionable or even somewhat arbitrary historicism, the same law restricts definitions of indigenous to Orthodox Christian, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. 
    Non-Orthodox churches in Russia might be their own worst enemy.  A 22 June 2004 report in the Christian Science Monitor, Moscow Ruling vexes religious minorities” by Fred Weir, reports, “Some applaud the [1997] move.  "We do not consider the Jehovah's Witnesses real Christians; it’s high time they were prohibited," says Dimitri Lotov, a chaplain with the Lutheran Church in Moscow.”
    Lotov’s dismissal of this breach of religious freedom should come as a special concern to American and Russian Mennonites and Evangelicals. 
    Historically, Lutherans have questioned the legitimacy of the Mennonites or Schwärmerei.  Luther’s Formula of Concord, which remains the bedrock of modern Lutheran Orthodoxy, describes the following, “Namely… the erroneous, heretical doctrines of the Anabaptists, which are to be tolerated and allowed neither in the Church, nor in the commonwealth, nor in domestic life…”    Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession states “…And since the Gospel is taught among us purely and diligently, by God's favor we receive also from it this fruit, that in our Churches no Anabaptists have arisen …, because the people have been fortified by God's Word against the wicked and seditious faction of these robbers. And as we condemn quite a number of other errors of the Anabaptists, we condemn this also, that they dispute that the baptism of little children is profitable…” (Augsburg Confession).
    While the European Lutheran bodies have been quite proactive in recent decades to mend and build relations with historically denounced and often persecuted groups such as the Anabaptists and Jewish congregations, groups in the United States have been seemingly more reticent to split with Luther’s opinions. 
    It would be extremely interesting to know more about Lotov’s attitudes towards Anabaptist Mennonites and Evangelicals in Russia – whether or not they are to be classified together with the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult or exempted as “real” Christians – what about Catholics?  What about Baptists?  Is such thinking encouraged or discouraged by Russian Orthodox philosophy and political example?
    So it is essential to understand whether Patriarch Kirill is speaking to Russian society in its entirety or merely to a special group of “true” Russians and “true” believers.  Similarly, one would examine whether or not the Russian Orthodox Church is willing to lead by example while thereby calling smaller established churches, such as Lotov’s Lutherans, to exemplorate similar tolerance.  One would expect that Kirill’s calls for diversity, respect and freedom in the public realm will resonate rather flatly if similar values are not cultivated within the Russia’s religious culture as well.
    At the same time, there are indicators that Kirill is actually responding to similar non-religious pressures for reform as is the Russian state – namely the empowerment of an increasingly self-confident Russian middle class. 
Wide-eyed Ecclesia
    Zolotov writes, “One would say it is only natural for a Christian church to speak for justice and demand accountability from the government.  Yet, for the Russian Orthodox Church, what has been happening in the past few weeks is a new development and its outcome is hard to predict.  My explanation is purely sociological.  The new middle class, which is unhappy with the election results and the manner in which the elections were carried out, is also present in the ranks of the Orthodox Church.  But for them, this issue is colored in the terms of religious morality, in the terms of truth, the Truth and lies, …” (Zolotov ibid).
    Other criticism similarly seems to question whether Kirill is leading out of conviction or attempting to prevent public dissatisfaction with Putin from spreading to the Orthodox faithful as well. 
Blind Justice
    The Vatican Insider, an unofficial Catholic news blog owned by Italy’s LaStampa, seems to take an opposing interpretation of the Patriarch’s recent statements – feeling that the “influential and normally interventionist leader” … is now fence-sitting in a new era of polarized politics (see below).  In other words, for reasons of health and political survival, Kirill himself is perhaps being careful to maintain close relations with the Kremlin while giving his blessing to the activities of certain activist priests who have chosen rather to side publicly with the concerns of the protesters, i.e. to work the other side (Vatican Insider).
    Interestingly, the greater Russian society might be asking the Russian Orthodox to exchange their own “dominance” of religious debates within Russia for a more modern role in cultural and religious leadership and as a moral watchdog or moderator for other segments of society – more in line with recent developments within the Church of England in relation to the Occupy Movement.  Instead of a maintaining Orthodoxy and tradition, the new public Russian voice might be asking for “moral leadership” and a mediator able to encourage discussion and resolution of concerns such as those regarding the last election through accountability and dialogue, rather than appearing to rubber stamp the government’s actions.  In Modern Western tradition, it is Justice who is called to be blind and impartial, not Ecclesia.
    Most hopefully, Patriarch Kirill’s statements could open the door to both a more open and accountable stance vis-à-vis Russia’s political and ethical societies and perhaps even more open cooperation between Russia’s historic religious communities – Zolotov is optimistic enough to note signs of potential attempts by Islamic Russians to obtain Sharia court pronouncements against the same signs of electoral fraud in the Caucasus’ Republic of Ingushetia. 
     If Kirill’s motivation is to open dialogue, to challenge immorality and to preserve the fabric of the Russian society, and if he is yet realistically concerned with exposure, resources and personal strength, it should be seen as useful to accept the ability of others to help shoulder their fair share of the public burden as a more inter-cooperative, more mutually supporting, more unified and more historically representative religious front.


1 comment:

  1. So, always reserving the right to expand one's knowledge and to counter old inaccuracies, I have done quite a lot of reading on the actual history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th Century. It seems much more complicated that often comes through -- and I am not in a position to try to explain it.
    The story of the Orthodox Church in Russia is extremely complicated, and I was actually surprised to discover the strong formal resistance by much of the church to the Soviet government, and to the WWII occupiers in Ukraine -- and I am generally fairly well informed.
    One of the problems in dealing with Eastern European history is that it is so often difficult to separate "religion", "politics", "ethnicity", "nationality" and almost any type of social identifier you might wish to add.
    One area of research that would be great to recommend would be additional work on the historic attitudes towards and cooperation with minority ethnic and religious groups by the Russian and Ukrainian Church.
    There is a lot we do not know or understand about each other.


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