Kirill’s Sermon May Be Bad Preaching and Even Worse Theology — But it’s a Top-Notch Rejection of Liberal Democracy

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia. Image: Jussi Toivanen/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave a sermon on forgiveness this past Sunday at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. It was a doozy, to use the vernacular.

Many will rightly zero in on Kirill’s suggestion that the conflict in Ukraine was sparked by gay pride parades, as though he were a younger, bearded version of Pat Robertson. But the patriarch’s message was actually worse than that, deeply embedded with corruption, cowardice, and an enthusiastic embrace of Russia’s Orthodox integralism. It deserves a close reading to understand just how bad it really was.

Kirill pinned his message on Ukraine with the thinnest of threads, saying that “forgiveness”—the ostensible topic of the day—gave testimony to the entire Christian faith, “which affirms the need to follow Divine laws, in order to live, in order not to perish either in this world or in the world to come,” in his words. Then he veered abruptly into the sinful disobedience of Ukraine:

For eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in the Donbass [sic]. And in the Donbass there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power. Today there is such a test for the loyalty of this government, a kind of pass to that “happy” world, the world of excess consumption, the world of visible “freedom”. Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible – this is a gay parade. The demands on many to hold a gay parade are a test of loyalty to that very powerful world; and we know that if people or countries reject these demands, then they do not enter into that world, they become strangers to it.

In short, Donbas has been under assault since 2014 not because of the pro-Russian separatists that wrestled 1/3 of its territory away from Ukraine and into an independence only recognized by Russia, but because it has bravely resisted the decadence and moral relativism shown in places like Kyiv, where 7,000 people gathered for a pride parade last September.

It’s not an accident that Kirill echoes Putin’s championing of “traditional values,” of course. This is the corrupt part of the homily, where he happily gives moral cover to Russian aggression. In case anyone misses the point, Kirill drives it home: “But we know what this sin is, which is promoted through the so-called marches of dignity.” 

Again not coincidentally, what westerners often refer to as the “Maidan Revolution” was called the “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine. Connecting the desire of pride marchers for human dignity to the Ukrainian national desire to be treated with dignity by their neighbors allows Kirill to work in a little snub and diminish Maidan: see, he says, we all know what kind of dignity the Ukrainians really wanted.

From there, Kirill expands on the sinful nature of homosexuality and argues that God hates only the sin, and simply wants sinners to repent and turn back to the law. He rejects the idea of sexual diversity completely, arguing that a hegemonic global culture requires nations like Ukraine to allow pride parades in order to “join the club.”

“Therefore,” Kirill says, “what is happening today in the sphere of international relations has not only political significance.” Indeed, he says, it is of “metaphysical significance.” And here is where the cowardice comes in. First, Kirill reiterates and defends the Russian justification:

Who is attacking Ukraine today, where the suppression and extermination of people in the Donbass has been going on for eight years; eight years of suffering and the whole world is silent – what does that mean? But we know that our brothers and sisters are really suffering; moreover, they may suffer for their loyalty to the Church.

This is a battle for morality, according to Kirill, and to defend the Russians of Donbas from Ukrainian oppression. And yet, he says, Christians must offer forgiveness to all:

And so today, on Forgiveness Sunday, on the one hand, as your shepherd, I call on everyone to forgive sins and insults, including where it is very difficult to do this, where people are at war with each other. But forgiveness without justice is capitulation and weakness. Therefore, forgiveness must be accompanied by the indispensable preservation of the right to stand on the side of the world, on the side of God’s truth, on the side of the Divine commandments.

None of this is offered in good faith, if you will excuse the phrase. Kirill blames the Ukrainians for Russia’s war of choice, then demands that they admit their offense against the Russians if they want to be offered Russian forgiveness. 

Apologize for making me hit you, says the bully, and then I can forgive you!

To top it all off, he couches his message in such a way that he can later claim to have been calling for the Christian values of peace and forgiveness all along, rather than green-lighting aggression. He concludes his message with a prayer that “the truth of God reigns and dominates and leads the human race.”

To be fair, Kirill may intend this as a generic supplication. But since he leads into it with the wish that God help humans “contribute to the multiplication of goodness in our sinful and often terribly erroneous world,” it certainly seems more like a prayer for strength and courage in the prosecution of war. And none of this explicates, applies, or even references the text of the day. It’s bad preaching and even worse theology.

But it is good integralism, a rejection of liberal democracy’s separation of church and state in favor of making the state the guarantor of true faith and public morality. It’s certainly troubling, if not surprising, from a western perspective that Kirill apparently has no concept of and even less use for pluralism. What’s more shocking is Kirill’s apparent willingness to put his integralist beliefs in service of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist misadventure. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, given that, as has been exhaustively documented, Kirill has spent the better part of the last 30 years giving moral legitimacy to Putin’s authoritarian regime.

The West is not without its own problems on this front, either. As Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli noted on Twitter, Kirill didn’t say anything that hasn’t been heard in the Vatican before. 

And there are plenty of conservative thinkers — like the Orthodox convert Rod Dreher — who’ve been happy to champion Putin as a defender of traditional morality, or the like-minded Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban

At the same time, whenever news of someone with views like Kirill’s pops up, there’s a natural tendency on the part of more pluralistic types to rush to condemn the illiberalism as “bad Christianity.” It’s happened with Pat Robertson, of course — but also many times with Jerry Falwell Jr. (and Sr.), Franklin Graham, and others. And, on Twitter at least, there’s a tendency to connect Putin’s aggression with Donald Trump’s lawlessness and the regressive character of modern conservatives, making Ukraine a proxy war between democracy and authoritarianism at home and abroad.

There is some danger, in other words, of getting sucked into a total war mindset, in which the enemy represents a stark threat to national values, and military force is seen as necessary to guarantee the freedom to live by those values. We’re a long way from a mirror-image Kirill, to be clear, but it has happened before, and some of the big examples involve fighting on the very same land currently being contested. 

Kirill’s subtlest offense in this homily may have been to introduce a moral element to what is in reality a squalid, garden variety attempt by a reckless dictator to prop up his own position with aggression against a weaker nation. There are no greater values at stake for Russia than Vladimir Putin’s checking account. A braver religious leader, one not beholden to the leader of the state, might have pointed that out.

Kirill’s sermon came at the end of the wonderfully-named Cheesefare Week, roughly equivalent to Carnival or Mardi Gras in the West, where believers get their last feasting in before the start of Lent. It’s traditional in the Orthodox church to begin saying the Prayer of St. Ephrem. The Greek form is a little different than what they recite in Russian churches, but it is relevant nonetheless:

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk.

But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to condemn my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

We can all learn from that, but perhaps none better than religious leaders who happily excuse the deaths of thousands of civilians and military conscripts on the orders of their political ally because someone, somewhere, had the nerve to ask not to be hated for their sexual orientation.