Today is Clean Monday, the first day of the Orthodox Christian Lent. Yesterday was Forgiveness Sunday, a day traditionally dedicated to reflecting upon one’s own sins and preparing for and anticipating the long period of fasting and repentance encouraged by the Church for centuries. The homilies preached on Forgiveness Sunday have a long and important history within Orthodox Christianity, and many stand as turning points in the history of Orthodox nations and people. To wit, it was on Forgiveness Sunday 1861 that Patriarch Philaret of Moscow (now canonized as a saint) announced that the brutal, centuries-long practice of serfdom had been abolished.
So one can be forgiven for having some expectations of Patriarch Kirill, the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even if he has proven a disappointment the past nearly two weeks as Russia has waged a war of aggression in Ukraine in which people who are (by his own assertion) all members of his flock have killed one another and threatened some of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred sites.
Instead, Patriarch Kirill took the occasion of Forgiveness Sunday 2022 to play Reactionary MadLibs, as Sarah Riccardi-Swartz has also written about here on RD. In a bizarre rant at the iconic Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Kirill asserted that the fighting in Ukraine was a result of the rejection of “fundamental values” by those who “claim world power.” These nefarious powers, the Patriarch goes on to explain, “demand that you hold gay pride parades as a test of loyalty.” Countries that fail to take this Rainbow Oath are apparently denied access to Visa, Mastercard, and Netflix.
The war in Ukraine, according to the spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is one of “metaphysical significance.” It’s a battle between good and evil, in which Russia is the last powerful guardian of the good, seeking to maintain God’s Holy Laws while the decadent rest are just trying to hold a gay pride parade in Kyiv.
While Patriarch Kirill’s sermon was shocking, it wasn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the Russian Orthodox Church. This sermon is the natural outcome of rhetoric coming out of the Patriarchate of Moscow, not only over the past decade, but over the past five centuries as well. In recent times, Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin have worked diligently to position the Russian Orthodox Church, and by extension Russia, as leader of the Global Christian Right.
And thanks largely to American evangelicals, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is a hallmark of this worldwide ideological movement. Certainly, anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia and the horrific persecution of gay men in Chechnya (a Russian client state), to which Putin and Kirill turned a blind-eye, prove this is horrifyingly more than rhetoric. But Kirill’s remarks go beyond a decade of horrific anti-LGBTQ repression and the Russian-American Evangelical Lovefest.
For centuries, arguably since the Crusaders’ Sack of Constantinople, Orthodox Christianity has shaped its self-conception around the image of the Suffering Servant. Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Christian nations, this logic goes, are the last bastion of true Christianity and pious Christian life. As such, they’re bound to suffer at the hands of those who’ve abandoned the True Faith and who have, like the Prodigal Son, sought after debauched living in “foreign lands.”
It is from this myth, that so much of Orthodox Christian hostility to Western modernity was born. And it’s this story that animates the reactionary faction within Orthodoxy’s current intra-religious conflict, a faction to which Patriarch Kirill undoubtedly serves as leader.
What’s incredibly important to remember is that in this paradigm Russia isn’t the enemy of the West; Moscow is the Third Rome. Vladimir Putin as neo-quasi emperor is the rightful inheritor of the Roman Empire and of Christendom. In many ways, Patriarch Kirill isn’t saying that Russia must fight and destroy the West, he’s arguing that Russia is the rightful leader of the West.
This is a worldview that obviously can seem shocking to those in Western Europe and North America who’ve been taught a very different version of history, one that sees the center of Western power and culture moving from Rome to Madrid to Paris to London to Washington. It is, however, a view of history, not shared by everyone. As we painfully found out in the early part of this century, different civilizations have different narratives of the past. Failure to understand the Islamic view of history was a grave fault of the Western powers. Today the same could be said of the Orthodox view of history. For example, if you’ve never heard of the Crusaders’ Sack of Constantinople in 1204 mentioned above, now is the time to learn.
Yesterday, Patriarch Kirill was talking to the home crowd, both in Russia and beyond. And while it was truly bizarre to blame the Russian invasion of Ukraine on gay pride parades (no amount of expertise or familiarity will make it less so), it does make sense given the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s time we all learn more about that history.