Invasion of Ukraine: The church and ideological seduction

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I pray that the church in Russia will rediscover and fearlessly proclaim its calling to be a witness of God’s love and justice, writes Nelis Janse van Rensburg.

The ideology of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) underpins the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the death toll in that conflict continues to rise.

This ideology, sadly nurtured and kept alive over centuries, was perpetually endorsed by leaders from both the political and religious spheres in Russia.

Being trapped in an ideological framework of categorical conclusions about peoples and nations, will always transform good leaders into drivers of hegemony and terror.

In South Africa we know the consequences of ideological suffocation. It was only in retrospect that we in the Dutch Reformed Church became aware of the damage it has done to the credibility of the gospel and the lives and dignity of people.

Russian boldness

Since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and initiated a proxy war in the Donbas area of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill (patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow) both used Russian world ideology as principal justification for the annexation.

It is used as the prime argument why Russia could cross the borders of the independent and sovereign state of Ukraine with power and force and annex territories which belong to Ukraine. The deception of a transnational Russian sphere was the inspiration for their boldness. It became apparent that their theory of the Russian world weighs heavier than the lives and freedom of the Ukrainian nation.

It holds that this “Russian world” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kiev as the “mother of all Rus’’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow).

These shared entities create a ‘symphony’ which become the coordinates of life in the Russian world. They also share a common national leader and spiritual leader with the latter responsible for the spiritual direction in the Russian world.

Putin’s ‘holy war’

It is significant to note that Patriarch Kirill became Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church on 1 February 2009. In 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine Patriarch Kirill declared Putin’s war a “holy war” and thus betrayed the Christian faith across the world.

There may be no uncertainty or mixed ideas about this misconception. It is blasphemous and a travesty to the gospel. Subsequently about 500 Eastern Orthodox scholars signed the Declaration on the Russian World Teaching on 13 March 2022. The declaration calls the teaching an “ideology”, “a heresy” and “a form of religious fundamentalism” that is “totalitarian in character”.

We pray that the patriarch of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church and the followers of the fundamentalism of the Russian world teaching in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church will repent of this ideological seduction.

History of ideology

The Russian federation was initially formed by Scandinavian traders in the 9th century. The “Russian world” idea has grown over centuries to a true and total ideology consisting of a social theory, religious convictions providing a foundation for the theory, and a drive to power and dominion.

One of the earliest uses of the term is attributed to the Great Prince Iziaslav I of Kiev in the 11th century in his praise of Pope Clement II: “with gratitude to that faithful slave who increased the talent of his master – not only in Rome, but everywhere: both in Kherson and in the Russian world.”

A major event which solidified the cultural awareness of the “Russian World” occurred during the 10th Century when the Russian prince Vladimir I (958-1015), was converted by missionaries from Byzantium and adopted Christianity as the official religion for Russia. He introduced Christianity with his own baptism and, by decree, extended it to all inhabitants of Kiev and beyond. Kievan Rus’ reached its greatest extent under Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054). It stretched from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the headwaters of the Vistula in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east.

‘Eternal tsardom of God’

An integral part of the notion of the Russian World is the belief in the Holy Rus’ or Holy Russia, the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal tsardom of God in the Heaven and on the Earth. The notion of the Russian World cannot be understood completely without the idea of Holy Rus’.

Members of the Russian Orthodox Church consider themselves to be citizens of Holy Russia. It is a way of life which emanated from the great saints of the Russian Land and was passed on over many centuries. Together with the saints from the past, the modern martyrs add to the current pursuit of cultural dominion.

To call oneself Russian one must first become Orthodox and live a life in the Church, as did the forebears, the founders of Holy Russia. And to be a member of the Church you are expected to approve of the notion of the Holy Rus’.

For nearly a thousand years after the conversion of Vladimir 1, the Russian Orthodox church was the country’s dominant religious institution and the setting in which Russian culture was perpetually conceived.

It is therefore significant to observe the commitment of Vladimir Putin to the Russian Orthodox Church. It fits perfectly if you understand the Russian world ideology and the central role of the state religion in it.

Ethnic identity

This conflation of culture and religion will in many religious circles be considered an ideological conspiracy. When the Great Pan-Orthodox Synod met in Constantinople in 1872 they coined the term phyletism (from the Greek: φυλή). The meeting was prompted by the creation of a separate bishop’s office for parishes only open to Bulgarians in Constantinople. A separate diocese was thus established based on ethnic identity rather than the principles of Orthodoxy.

The principle of the ethnic organisation of the Church was condemned in the strongest way by synod as the false teaching of ethno-phyletism was reckoned to be the basis for “Russian world” ideology. The Synod proclaimed: “If we hold such false principles as valid, then the Orthodox Church ceases to be the Church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church. Unity becomes intrinsically impossible.” The connivance of nationalism, culture, religion and political dominion was condemned in the strongest possible language.

Confession of Belhar

In South African context, we’ve learnt that we have to confess with those who have been wronged in the words of the Confession of Belhar: “that the church must stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against, and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;

  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others. Therefore, we reject any ideology
  • which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

I pray that the church in Russia will rediscover and fearlessly proclaim its inalienable calling to be a witness of God’s love and justice.

It is only the conviction and proclamation that Christ alone is the Lord and that only the coming of His kingdom is the concern of the church that the church will find it’s prophetic voice and distance themselves from the ideology that persuaded their political leaders to invade Ukraine at the cost of the lives and dignity of so many people.

May God help them.

  • Rev Nelis Janse van Rensburg is chair of the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church.
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