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The Russian Orthodox patriarch betrays the gospel

Vladimir Putin’s court prophet and his false promises

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press

The Russian Orthodox patriarch betrays the gospel

Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, offered a Sunday sermon just days ago, supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine. In his sermon, Kirill promised that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty cleanses away all sins.”

The sermon echoes Pope Urban II’s infamous sermon 1,000 years ago summoning the Franks to crusade against the “infidels” in the Holy Land, promising: “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”

Christians, of course, believe that our sin is atoned by divine grace through Christ’s blood, not through human works—much less aggressive war, or the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Kirill’s sermon, in contrast, not only offers salvation by works, but by particularly wicked works in service to Putin’s dictatorship and a profoundly unjust war. The Russian church’s senior bishop is part of an ancient tradition in which the Russian church is traditionally subservient to and politically exploited by the state. This tradition included centuries of czars, the Soviet Union, and now Putin.

The tradition in Western Christianity, especially in parts influenced by Protestantism, of resistance to unjust civil order is mostly alien to the Russian Orthodox tradition. An early myth supporting this tradition recalls the 11th century princes Boris and Gleb, who knew their jealous older brother wanted the crown and would murder them after their faither’s death. Rather than flee or resist, they passively acceded to their martyrdom. They became saints for the Russian church and are called “Strastoterptsy” (Passion-Bearers). You will not find such a tradition among Protestants.

The Russian church often sees its subordination to the state as a duty and witness to Christ. Ostensibly it frees the church from distracting political entanglements and allows it to focus on the church’s true spiritual calling. From a Western Christian perspective, the Russian church has an underdeveloped political theology that inhibits Christians from addressing unjust authority.

Russian Orthodoxy’s traditional political submission is compounded by its sacralization of Russia as “holy” and the protector of true Christians. This presumption informed Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, justified partly by defending Syria’s Christian minorities against Islamists rebelling against Bashir Assad’s dictatorship. The Russian church’s idealization of Holy Russia also asserts that all Slavic peoples are kindred, and that Ukraine is not really a separate nation. Conveniently for President Putin, Kirill holds that Ukraine is integral to Russia.

The church, not the state, is holy. Nor is the mission of the church, which is universal, to be conflated with national priorities.

Of course, Patriarch Kirill’s sermon cited the Ukrainians as “brothers,” but not in a way they would welcome. “The Church is praying that this battle will end as soon as possible, that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war,” he preached. “And at the same time, the Church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to honor his oath, stays loyal to his vocation and dies while carrying out his military duty, then he is, without any doubt, doing a deed that is equal to sacrifice,” Kirill said. “He is sacrificing himself for others. And, therefore, we believe that this sacrifice cleanses away all of that person’s sins.”

Presumably only Russian invaders gain remission of their sins in their “martyrdom,” and not the Ukrainian “brothers” who die defending their country from Russian invaders. In Kirill’s view, submission to Holy Russia is a divine command to unify “the two parts of a single Rus.” Putin’s war on Ukraine is not just a military invasion but a “spiritual mobilization.” According to Kirill:

And this spiritual mobilization to which I exhort you will help mobilize all the powers of our Fatherland; and at the same time, it will undoubtedly help the ultimate complete reconciliation of Russia and Ukraine, which represent a single space of the Russian Orthodox church.

Russian church subservience to the state is supposed to serve the nation. But Kirill’s sermon shows that such obedience betrays both the nation and the church by facilitating evils deeply injurious to both. To love a nation is to speak truth and to correct its errors. Christians work to spare their nations from calamity and divine judgement.

Kirill’s other lesson for American Christians is not to confuse nation with faith. God loves nations, but He does not intend their sacralization. The church, not the state, is holy. Nor is the mission of the church, which is universal, to be conflated with national priorities. Some wars, unlike Russia’s attack on Ukraine, are just and even morally imperative. But the church shouldn’t anoint wars as holy crusades. They are at best necessary horrors to prevent greater evils.

Like Pope Urban II launching the Crusades, Kirill corrupts the gospel by weaponizing it for evil and temporal purposes. A wise, good and brave bishop, unlike Russia’s Patriarch, would implore Putin to stop his war, but Patriarch Kirill is really Vladimir Putin’s court prophet.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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