This past weekend, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, signed an ecclesiastical document called a Tomos granting canonical status and autocephaly (self-governance) to the newly unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine. To the average Christian not well versed with religious history, politics, dogma and bureaucracy, the significance being accorded to this event, and in particular the vociferous objections and reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church, may seem a little puzzling.
After all, most countries in Eastern Europe including Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Georgia and others, all have their own self-governing Orthodox churches. Why should Ukraine where some 28 million people profess to be of the Orthodox religion, be any different? The reason of course is the pernicious historical influence of Russia. For many centuries after Christianity was introduced to Ukraine in 988 AD when it was known as Kyivan Rus, Ukrainians did have their own independent church centered around the Patriarchate in Kyiv. That all ended of course when a predatory and expansionist Russia conquered Ukraine and unilaterally shifted the seat of the Orthodox church from Kyiv to Moscow. That illegal and unconscionable act has now been officially rescinded and Ukrainians are once more free to exercise and practice their religion without the corrosive oppression of the Moscow Patriarchate.
It should be emphasized that this is not just a religious or spiritual development, but an intensely political one as well. As has been evident for quite some time, the Moscow Patriarchate is not just a religious body but an active branch of the Russian state. The two work hand in hand to further Putin’s imperialistic strategy of creating a Russian dominated world. It has been ever thus since the time of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The Russian church and the Russian state have been inextricably tied in a common hegemonic cause, with Russia wanting to rule the world and the Russian church wanting to be the “Third Rome”.
In all fairness, this fusion of church and state is not something unique to Russia. It has only been in the past few centuries that the political systems of Europe and the so-called Western World have evolved away somewhat from this type of overt collusion between church and state. The history of the Catholic church is rife with similar unholy alliances, with the papacy in Rome exerting tremendous political control over the original Roman Empire and the later European Holy Roman Empire. Likewise, the Byzantine Church was inseparable from the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople for many centuries. The Spanish conquests and exploitation of the New World were blessed and encouraged by the Catholic church. The Reformation and the advent of Protestantism did little to alter this historical tendency, as evidenced by Henry VIII of England who adeptly demonstrated his skill at subverting the power of the church to his purposes.
The fact of the matter is that all social organizations since human civilization began have been based on the application of power. Power comes in two forms, hard and soft. Hard power is the threat of or direct use of physical force. This is done through an infrastructure of laws, a judicial system, various police forces and ultimately the military. Soft power revolves around persuasion and public opinion, centered on creating consensus on shared beliefs, moral, principles and human rights. The corresponding infrastructure used to achieve this encompasses religion, the educational system, the media and various cultural institutions.
We would all like to believe that in our modern democratic societies, our political and governmental systems are independent of religious interference. Current reality would tend to indicate otherwise. In most of the Arab world, the role of religion is both overt and obvious. Such is also the case with the state of Israel. In the U.S., despite the constitutional separation of church and state, few would deny the influence that fundamentalist Christianity has had in recent elections as well as in shaping the legislative programs of various political parties. In the game of politics, players form symbiotic relationships with anyone who has power or influence, be it hard or soft, in order to achieve their ambitions.
With the Tomos, Ukraine has won a political and nationalistic victory as much as a religious one. Therein also lies some risk and danger. When a religion becomes too enmeshed in secular and political affairs, it risks pushing its primary moral, spiritual and ethical purpose into the background. The new Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be careful not to let its spiritual mission be overshadowed or co-opted by political or ideological forces whose agendas do not necessarily include the spiritual domain.