The Heresy of Religious Imperialism

The Heresy of Religious Imperialism

by Nicholas Sooy

The Heresy of Religious Imperialism

A year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the arrival of Putin’s “little green men” in the Donbass, I made a trip to Mt. Athos, one of the most revered locations in Orthodox Christianity. It was a profound and eye-opening experience: a mixture of edifying transcendence and shocking disappointment – at the same time sacred and profane. I hope to write about the many sacred encounters at some point, but for now it is important to focus on the profane. The most frequent topic of discussion I heard was not Christ, nor the sacraments, nor the saints; rather, it was war.

Everywhere I went, I heard pilgrims, monks, and priests discuss the possibility of world war, often with a glint of hope. Of course, many balked at this, but others cheered it on. “When is the war coming? What do the prophecies say?” one pilgrim asked. One monk said, with a dismissive wave of the hand and a disgusted look, that it was no good to discuss such terrible rumors or to wish for such things. Another said hopefully “Only God knows.” “Soon I hope,” was another answer.

There’s a book by Demetra Gerontakis titled Prophecy, Armageddon, and the End Times Prophesied by the Orthodox Fathers. Its description reads

Plagues, pestilences, famines, climatological disasters, wars, rumors of wars. Orthodox fathers prophesied about these as well as how people will not trust politicians, lose their faith and live in fear and uncertainty. They prophesied about America, the E.U., about an upcoming war between Greece and Turkey that will take place after the predicted Syrian war and which will finally end because of World War III. Elder Paisios the Athonite, St. Cosmas of Aetolia, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, St. Matrona of Russia and others prophesied what we are surprisingly seeing today in great detail.

These rumors circulated on Athos while I was there, with great interest, hope, and expectation. The story I was told was that Turkey and Greece would fight one another, and Russia would intervene on the side of Greece. NATO would respond (ignoring that Turkey and Greece are both NATO members) on the side of Turkey, and both America and the E.U. would be destroyed (ignoring that Greece is an E.U. member). Then Greece and Russia would join together to form a new Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Christian emperors would again rule the world for millennia. An alternative story I heard was that Russia would be destroyed too in the nuclear war, and only Greece would remain, with Byzantine-Hellenistic civilization rising from the ashes. Several monks had a flag of gold, emblazoned with the Byzantine double eagle. Athos itself is a relic of the Byzantine Empire, and it seems Byzantine imperialism never quite died out.

I found this militaristic-imperialism baffling. What is Christian about wishing the deaths of billions in a nuclear holocaust? Such people forget the horrors of war. What is Christian about longing for the supremacy of Hellenistic civilization? There I was, an American Christian, reassured by several monks that being American was irrelevant and that anyone could be Christian, while at the same time being told that many were wishing for the annihilation of my country for the sake of some Greek empire, and that this was Christian.

St. John Chrysostom once wrote,

If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours ... Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there!

While the Christian Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, dating from about 130, reads

Christians ae indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life... Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country... They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all people.

Our home is in heaven and we are emissaries of the Kingdom of God upon this Earth. Christ is our King, but his kingdom is not of this world. Thus, we are all things to all people, and among Christians there is neither Greek nor Jew. This sounds like the Gospel to me. The Gospel of the Peaceable Kingdom, not the Gospel of Nuclear Hellenism.

Greeks were not the only ones speaking of war during my time on Athos. I had several encounters with Russians while there, and they wanted to make sure that I knew about it. At one point, a man came up to me and said, rather awkwardly and with a downcast look, clearly embarrassed by what he was about to say. He reported that a group of Russians had heard that I was an American and since they did not speak English asked him to deliver a message. “They say they are ready for the war.”

What war, I could not say. I looked over at them and they stared back with a scowl. Asking around about this it seems they were not referring to the “prophecies” of the return of the Byzantine Empire. Rather they seemed to think that WWIII would come soon in the form of a NATO- Russia war that would end with Russia ruling the world.

Another group of Russians came up to me at one point, again having heard that I was an American. They asked me what I thought of Putin and what I thought of Obama. I do not recall what I said, though I hope I would have responded that Christ is the only leader I really care about. I do remember they told me that Putin was strong and Obama was weak. They said they all liked Putin, except for one member of their group who liked Obama and not Putin. They said they liked to make fun of him.

The next year, Putin himself would visit Mt. Athos to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Russian monks coming to the mountain. At the

Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Putin stood in a bishop’s stall, which was mis-reported in the Russian press as follows

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos on mount Athos sat in a chair, which previously could only be occupied by Byzantine emperors.

Elsewhere in Russia this visit was interpreted as follows,

The [Russian] state now holds back the tide of godless Western liberalism, which increases the pressure on Russia in all directions and unambiguously hreatens to start a direct military conflict [while] the Church wages a spiritual war...

This worldview has been termed Russkii Mir, which can be translated as “The Russian World” or “Pax Russica”. The view is not that of Nuclear Hellenism or Byzantine revivalism, but in spirit they are the same, with Hellenic civilization struck out and replaced with Russian civilization. There is some debate in academic circles whether the term Russkii Mir is the right term for this worldview, given that the phrase has been used with less frequency in recent years, and given that this sort of religious imperialism is common to many branches of Orthodox Christianity.

Whether Russkii Mir is the right term or not, there is a worldview that has gained prominence in Russia, especially among the Church, which celebrates Russian culture, language, and civilization in the same way that Hellenism celebrates Greek. It depicts modern day Russia as the successor to the Russian Empire, the “Third Rome”, and the lastbastion of Christian civilization standing against the godless West. Essential to this concept is the view that Belarus and Ukraine are not separate entities, but are part of this same Russian civilization. Ukraine in particular is part of the Russian World, for it was in Kyiv that St. Vladimir was baptized, and it is this moment to which Russians trace their nationalist pedigree (though of course one could easily trace the national story back more recently or more distantly and the baptism of Vladimir is just as arbitrary as any other moment). For this reason, the existence of Ukraine as a state, and the desire of its people to westernize are an affront to Putin, who last year published an article arguing that Ukraine has no legitimate claim to statehood. In part the popularity of this worldview is due to the work of Patriarch Kirill, one of its most ardent promoters. In the post-Soviet period, many Russians were deeply disillusioned with communism. Though Putin was able to secure power, he needed some ideological legitimacy. The Church offered that in the form of religious imperialism. There is some question as to how much Putin himself believes in this worldview, and how much is opportunism, exploiting the Church and its triumphalism. In either case, it is shameful that the Church expresses such imperialism.

Fresco of the Mother of God at the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.

Though very few Russians actually attend Church services, the majority consider themselves Orthodox Christians, and for many this identity is an expression of their adherence to the worldview that has been termed Russkii Mir. To be Russian is to be Orthodox, a frightening proposition for Russia’s religious minorities. In 2007, the year he established the Russkii Mir Institute, Putin stated that nuclear weapons and Orthodox Christianity are the two pillars of the Russian state. This “Nuclear Orthodoxy” as it is termed, involves the saturation of the nuclear triad with priests and with religious imagery. There is the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, built in 2020, whose walls are covered with soldiers and saints both, and which originally was meant to include a mosaic of Putin. There are priest-chaplains who bless weapons and for many years nuclear weapons. There is St. Fyodor Ushakov, canonized at the beginning of the millennium. Ushakov was a Russian naval commander and national military hero who never lost a battle. He is the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear armed bombers. St. Seraphim of Sarov is the patron saint of the whole nuclear arsenal.

Fresco of the Mother of God. Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.
Fresco of the Mother of God. Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.

Without a doubt, religious imperialism in the Church has contributed to the ideological basis for the invasion of Ukraine, which has killed or maimed thousands and displaced millions. At the same time, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons against NATO if they respond. Was this “the war” those Russians told me they were ready for? If so, I still cannot find a single thing Christian about it. How could a Christian wish for such horrors?

I’m not alone in thinking that this nuclear-imperialist celebration of the supremacy of one’s culture is un-Christian. More than 1,000 of the world’s leading Orthodox scholars have signed a statement condemning Russkii Mir as a heresy. Its signatories include Russians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Americans, and many other nationalities. In the Russian press, however, this statement was dismissed as a Ukrainian and Greek screed, representing the evils of the West. The credibility of this dismissal is hurt by the fact that the same article insists that there is no war in Ukraine, merely a limited military operation that does not harm civilians.

As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, I myself signed this statement. I did so not because I prefer the Hellenists over the Slavophiles. I signed not because I prefer Obama to Putin. I signed not because I wish for NATO to obliterate Russia in “the war.” I signed not because I prefer Ukrainian nationalism to Russian nationalism. I signed because I am a Christian.

As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, I myself signed this statement. I did so not because I prefer the Hellenists over the Slavophiles. I signed not because I prefer Obama to Putin. I signed not because I wish for NATO to obliterate Russia in “the war.” I signed not because I prefer Ukrainian nationalism to Russian nationalism. I signed because I am a Christian.

The statement speaks in very general terms, citing scripture in a plain and accessible way, drawing straightforward and well-established conclusions about what those scriptures imply. In one sense there is nothing new in this statement. In another sense, this statement marks a new period in Orthodox

thought. I hope that this statement is not the last word on this subject, but the first. Christ taught that we cannot serve two masters. For too long, Orthodox Christians have preferred their nation, their language, and their culture to their faith. One can see this in Greece, in Russia, in Syria, in Serbia, in Georgia, and even in America.

As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, I myself signed this statement. I did so not because I prefer the Hellenists over the Slavophiles. I signed not because I prefer Obama to Putin. I signed not because I wish for NATO to obliterate Russia in the war.” I signed not because I prefer Ukrainian nationalism to Russian nationalism. I signed because I am a Christian.

This war is a moment of clarity. We see the consequence of wishing for war, for believing that the ultimate messianic moment will come with the ascendancy of our Orthodox empire in some apocalyptic ascent. There is no messiah but Christ, and it was Christ who rejected ruling the nations of this world as a temptation of Satan. Let us now not give in to this temptation. To view one’s nation in such messianic terms is simple idolatry.

We must now undertake the task of rooting out all worldly allegiances, be they Hellenist or Russian, or anything else, which have masqueraded as Orthodox theology. While nations and empires may do what they wish, it is not the place of Christians to bless military expansionism, nuclear annihilationism, or world cultural domination as holy. I signed this statement because as I look on the images of bombed out apartment complexes and burnt, bloody dead bodies in Ukraine I cannot help but think back to my time on Athos and the eagerness for war I found there.

All statements are flawed, but there is something true and important here. So I ask my readers this: take a look at the declaration. You may be skeptical, and I will not tell you that you should not be, or that the critics of this statement are wrong. If you are skeptical, then perhaps skip straight to the passages from scripture. They are bolded. Read them. Look at photos of the victims of the aggression of the “Russian Peace” in Ukraine and in Syria. Read the scripture verses again and meditate on these things. If you find yourself moved then perhaps give the rest of the statement a read as well.

Christ commanded us to the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. War does not do these things. To pursue war is to pursue the works of cruelty: hungering the full, naking the clothed, sickening the well, imprisoning the free. To oppose these works of cruelty we as Christians must take the log of religious imperialism from our eye and denounce all our impulses towards such idolatry. This is work that will take more than a statement, but by the grace of God I pray we complete it before we Orthodox Christians start the next war.