Counterfeit Forms of Russian Orthodoxy as a Challenge to Religious Freedom
What is surprising is that even amid this dreadful war, many leaders of opinion in Europe and the United States remain in the shadow of the Kremlin and under the spell of Russian Orthodox mythology. It's not just Russian propaganda at work here; there's also a sense of disillusionment with Western Christianity, weariness from freedom and its complexities, and a certain naivety towards the mystery and profundity of chronicled Russian spirituality. All these factors contribute to the persistence of unfounded claims in Western media and academic publications that the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine is facing severe persecutions, that Ukraine is a battleground between traditional Orthodox spirituality and secularized Western Christianity, and that Russia is the last stronghold of traditional Christian values.
The myth of Russian spirituality, monopolized and protected by the Russian Orthodox Church, remains the main obstacle to a proper understanding of the situation regarding religious freedom in the region. The logic here is simple, unbending, and militaristic: if the tradition of Russian Orthodoxy is indeed authentic, it must be defended, even at the cost of suppressing all other traditions labelled by that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church as non-canonical, heretical, and influenced by the West.
Most Western sympathizers of Russian Orthodoxy are not willing to go that far and try to sit on two chairs at one time, in other words, to combine their naive fascination with Moscow's Orthodoxy with politically correct acknowledgments of religious freedom and tolerance. In practice, however, this has served as a justification for the war. In this naive perspective, the war appears holy, with true Orthodoxy defending its freedom from the corrupting influence of a decadent West which supposedly seeks to occupy new canonical territories and threatens the very existence of the holy faith and holy Russia. This myth of authentic Russian Orthodoxy becomes a source and justification for aggression against Ukraine and its religious freedom.
Accordingly, to expose this war as criminal and far from holy, we need to undertake an intellectual and spiritual investigation to demythologize Russian Orthodoxy, which turns out to be a fake, a forgery, and a counterfeit of true Christianity.
Alternatively, we can take a simpler path and say this: the "holy faith" that justifies war against a peaceful neighbor, already reveals its deceptive nature through an attempt to justify evil. We can analyze the theological documents of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the statements of its hierarchs to show how they are incompatible with the tradition of the early Church and the spirit of the Gospel. Or we can embark on the path of historical deconstruction in order to demonstrate the subordination of Russian Orthodoxy to the state and its political interests. Either way, debunking the myth of Russian Orthodoxy as true Christianity serves to expose this war as a crime against Ukraine, its religious freedom, and its diversity. Conversely, the fascination with Russian Orthodoxy turns Western theologians, philosophers, and politicians into advocates of the devil and naive accomplices in the war. Even during the war, numerous books continue to be published in the West about the miraculous revival of Russian Orthodoxy. Isn't it time to acknowledge that there has been no such revival of Russian Orthodoxy? What actually occurred was a revival of interest in Russian Orthodoxy, but not a revival of the essence of Orthodoxy itself. There was a resurgence of interest in the Church, but not a resurgence, in the sense of a revival, of the Church itself. There were changes in the Russian state, which set new, more ambitious tasks before the Orthodox Church. Now, it was not just protecting sacred spaces or a strictly defined niche in religious life. Instead, it had to sanctify, justify, and bless the aggressive expansion of the "Russian world" in exchange for certain privileges or perhaps leaving out the idea of any of rewards, merely for the sake of survival.
Thus, in order to understand the situation concerning religious freedom in Ukraine, one must start from the premise that the Russian Orthodox Church is not a victim but an accomplice to the criminal policies of the Russian state. Portraying Russian Orthodoxy as a persecuted entity whose freedom needs protection turns everything upside down and turns demands for religious freedom into a violation of religious freedom. The creation of the myth of Russian Orthodoxy as the only true and authentic version of Christianity denies all other traditions the right to exist and be free. On the part of Western authors, this can be attributed to naivety, but on the part of Russian propagandists, it is premeditated manipulation.
In one way or another, the naivety of Western society in regard to this counterfeit version of Orthodoxy harms the interests of religious freedom. A more general thesis can be proposed that inauthentic forms of religiosity (rather than traditionalists' favorite bogeymen: secularism, liberalism, socialism, postmodernism) pose the main threat to religion and religious freedom. However, I know that even freedom-loving American Protestant evangelicals may find this difficult to accept.
A few years ago, I unintentionally witnessed an Orthodox priest teaching students at an American Mennonite college that true spirituality can only be found in Russia, and that the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is the true leader of world Christianity. Remarkably, this happened during time designated for prayer and study of the Word of God (during Chapel). Instead of using the Bible, the speaker opened one of Patriarch Kirill's books and “enlightened” the students and faculty with extensive quotes from it. All my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies were captivated by what they heard. In response to superficial, yet vehement, criticism of the secular West and watered-down Christianity, they applauded thunderously.
And it is precisely this naive and feeble Western Christianity that raises questions: what is amiss with it? Where is the distinction between good and evil, the experience and wisdom of the ages, the spiritual strength? The demythologization of historical forms of religion cannot and should not be limited to just Russian Orthodoxy (or so-called "Russian Protestantism"); it also extends to other churches and international organizations, such as the World Council of Churches. Perhaps that is why the West prefers to simply express its concern and refrains from coming to any decisive conclusions. Acknowledging present day Russian Orthodoxy as a compromised form of religiosity leads us to question ourselves: how could we be deceived, why did we become such easy prey for propaganda, and where did we veer off onto the path of endless compromises?
Today is the time to acknowledge that Russian Orthodoxy is a product of myth-making. But in the mirror of this fake Orthodoxy, we see the flaws of naive, careless, and self-satisfied Western Christianity. Recognizing our mistakes in our perception of Russian Orthodoxy means accepting our share of responsibility for the war and, in turn, acknowledging our weakness and vulnerability to evil and falsehood. However, we have yet to see an example of such profound self-criticism.
The myth of Russian Orthodoxy as primordial, traditional, authentic, and infallible poses a challenge to religious freedom - not only to other churches and denominations but also to its own parishioners, who have become hostages of the political and militaristic project called the "Russian world." Moreover, this myth not only threatens the freedom of its followers and others, but it also undermines the very idea of religious freedom, distorting and ridiculing it to the point of absurdity. The Orthodox Church blesses the Russian army and its "liberation" of Ukraine from "Nazis," labeling the invaders as "liberators," thereby allowing them to indulge in all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable crimes. Simultaneously, it hypocritically accuses the Ukrainian authorities of persecuting canonical Orthodoxy. In its assault on freedom and mockery of liberty, the Russian Orthodox Church reveals its anti-Christian nature.
This raises several methodological, moral, and theological questions. In terms of methodology, it is necessary to determine how to deal with sham forms of religiosity: whether to categorize them as "destructive cults and sects," to classify them as "terrorist organizations" (or as "spiritual sponsors of terrorism"), to categorize them as political parties or civil organizations, or for now, to leave them in the list of religious organizations with a special annotation to closely monitor possible transformations. In moral terms, the issue concerns the situation of religious freedom within the Russian Orthodox Church: if its priests themselves are admitting that it is unbearably hard for them to stay there and that they cannot change anything, what does this say about the moral character of the church leadership and the entire ecclesiastical body; how can the church preach freedom to society if there is no freedom within it? In theological terms, it is necessary to answer the question of what the Russian Orthodox Church is in the context of evangelical teaching, the historical experience of the church, and ecclesiology as the science of the church. This is where an objective assessment of the ecclesiastical status of what is so proudly called "Orthodoxy" must be undertaken.
Being part of the spiritual tradition of Evangelical Christian Baptists, who valued, above all, a personal relationship with God, the authority of God's Word, and freedom of conscience, I have long ago concluded that Russian Orthodoxy does not value any of these things and therefore lacks the signs of an ecclesiastical organism. Despite the presence of individual vital priests and congregations, the overall impression of lifelessness and apostasy remains unchanged. While some may label such an assessment as a subjective opinion and choose to disregard it, the evident and persistent intolerance displayed by Russian Orthodoxy towards religious freedom speaks volumes on its own. The war in Ukraine is a continuation of the war on freedom that Russian Orthodoxy has been waging since the beginning of its history. And this willingness not only to preach against freedom but also to bless those who exterminate freedom and free people exposes the counterfeit nature of Russian Orthodoxy and implicates it in the perpetuation of the war against Ukraine.
Rev. Mykhailo Cherenkov, pastor, independent scholar, Vancouver (WA)