The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (Gundaev), has justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the pulpit. He went so far as to give the “Our Lady of Augustow” icon to the head of the Russian National Guard on the first Sunday of Lent, to lead Russia to victory over the Ukrainian “nazis.” He defended Russia’s invasion as a necessary response to the alleged atrocities committed by Ukraine against the people of Donbas, parroting a popular accusation without a shred of evidence. Kirill’s public actions have consistently justified the war and shifted blame to Ukraine and the West.
To be sure, many important Christian voices have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Church of England, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the World Council of Churches have implicated Russia. Hundreds of individual members of the clergy and theologians have denounced the Russkii Mir ideology. The United Kingdom placed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill.
Parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate expressed their displeasure by ceasing commemoration of Kirill during the divine services. Appeals from Churches that call Kirill to account have been sparse.
A Crisis of Indifference
In my estimation, as a lifelong, baptized and anointed member of the Orthodox Church, and as a deacon with nearly twenty years of service, the greatest scandal is the refusal of the sister Orthodox Churches to hold Patriarch Kirill accountable for his contribution to the violence. Only a handful of Orthodox Church leaders have condemned Kirill for his complicity, especially the Churches of the Greek tradition. Too many Churches have either remained silent or have treaded carefully by expressing concern about the war without mentioning the patriarch.
The sad irony is that Patriarch Kirill’s justification of Russia’s violent war on Ukraine has exposed Orthodoxy’s kryptonite. Orthodoxy’s pathetic response to the war reveals a crisis.
The crisis is one of indifference.
A religious ideology that has come off the rails and contributed to the transition from the exercise of soft to hard power is immune to humanitarian aid. Church leaders need to speak prophetically, and one component of using the voice God has given is to come together to call Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his complicity in the violence Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine.
Burying the Gift of Prophecy
The loss resulting from burying the gift of prophecy is much worse than all of the other consequences combined. It is akin to denying the call coming from the Lord himself, to deny ourselves, carry our crosses, and follow him. Those called to protect the needy are abandoning the vulnerable. Those called to be shepherds are taking cover and allowing the wolves to tear apart the flock.
The Orthodox Churches can recover the gift of prophecy so many of them have decided to bury, by the grace of God. The Church – the whole Church, all of Christ’s body, including the laity – has a lot of work to do to create mechanisms that limit the power borne by leaders and hold those who abuse their power to account.
This essay is an abbreviation of a longer piece forthcoming in Worship.