In the 1920s and 30s, after the Russian revolution and the subsequent exodus of Russian refugees to Europe, the then Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Exarchate in Western Europe, Metropolitan Evlogy, decided to pray for the “persecuted Christians” in Soviet Russia. As a result of this, he was removed from his bishopric by the Patriarch of Moscow, who followed the Kremlin policy of not recognizing the persecution of Christians under the Stalinist regime. Unsafe in their homeland, hundreds of Russian-Orthodox Christians fled to Europe, where they, removed from everything familiar, were forced to rethink their own faith. With both their feet on European grounds, the refugees were forced to choose between their faith and their national identity: were they, essentially, Russian-Orthodox, or were they, first and foremost, Orthodox Christians?
This same question is still relevant today. With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Church is faced with the question of whether she, essentially, is the Church of Christ or the Church of a nationalistic regime. Phrased in this way, the question may seem simple, but in reality the question is much more subtle.
In the past 20-30 years the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Russian political leadership have adopted a rhetoric of “us” vs. “them”; of “holy (Orthodox) Russia” vs. the “secular West”. With this rhetoric, the Church has accepted a classification of the world as “Christian” and “non-Christian”, with the first, in this case, meaning “Orthodox”. In other words, the Church in Russia has, subtly and gradually, stopped to recognize anything outside of the Russian Orthodox Church as “Christian”.
Perhaps one of the most inspiring parts of the legacy of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, now quoted by the statement of the clergy of the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, is that we are “human before all else. Then Christian, then Orthodox Christian and finally Russian, Dutch, Serbian etc.”. It seems that, at this moment, the Church in Russia has reversed this hierarchy of identities, thereby no longer recognizing their brothers and sisters in Ukraine as “human”. But whether or not we recognize the falsity of this reversal, the tendency to reverse this hierarchy of identity is applicable to all of us.
Ever since the split with the Roman Catholic Church in the second millennium, the Orthodox Church has engaged in a rhetoric of “us” vs. “them”; “East” vs. “West”. It has structurally defined itself in opposition to Western Christendom, according to “what it is not”. While this “apophatic” tendency might be seen as essential to the Orthodox theological tradition, it is problematic that it has defined itself in opposition to the “other”, creating an intrinsic “us” vs. “them” rhetoric, which now also underlies the rhetoric of the war. It is very easy to be proud of the Orthodox Church: the beauty of the liturgy, its faithfulness to the early church, and its immense theological depth and wisdom. But with our “Mother Church,” so deeply esteemed and cherished, also comes a Gospel of humility and love; a love which, ultimately, leads to Christ’s death on the Cross. If we let our love for the Orthodox Church blind us toward our fellow human beings, for whom Christ gave his life, then we are no longer following the spirit of the Gospel, the Fathers, or even Christ himself.
Thus, the war in Ukraine challenges us to rethink Orthodoxy. Is the Orthodox Church essentially a Church “of the East,” a nationalistic Church, culturally confined? Or is it more universal; the truth of Christ, the continuation of apostolic tradition, radiant in all the languages of the world? Metropolitan Evlogy made his decision some 100 years ago. Now it is our time to choose.
Thirza Buijkx, a master's student of Theology in The Netherlands.