Throughout history, religion has often been a strong bulwark against societal change. Organizations—representing every major faith group—are built on traditions that resonate deeply with believers. Such stasis impacts both the teachings and practices of religious hierarchies, forging alliances with those in power at the expense of the powerless.
However, there have also always been a small minority within the religious establishment (and among faith-affirming individuals, this writer included) who advocate for peace with justice and who seek to speak truth to power on behalf of the poor and marginalized among us. These voices do not command the power of government officials or the reach of social media influencers, but can cut through the clutter and make an impact. They are voices to be reckoned with.
The “official” religious narrative in the current carnage underway in Ukraine is articulated by Moscow Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, the dominant religious force in both Russia and Ukraine. Kirill has long been known as a supporter of Vladimir Putin, and at the start of the invasion, he offered only tepid remarks about the war: “It is with deep and heartfelt pain that I perceive the suffering of people caused by the events taking place. As the Patriarch of All Russia and the Primate of the Church, whose flock is in Russia, Ukraine and other countries, I deeply empathize with everyone who has been touched by misfortune. I call on all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.”
Writing in Religion Unplugged, April L. French and Mark R. Elliott report that dissent was immediate (thanks, Barrie, for pointing me to this article): “Orthodox priests connected with the Moscow Patriarchate and calling themselves “Russian Priests for Peace” decried the Patriarch’s tepid remarks, and called for reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire. Mourning ‘the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to,’ they said Ukraine’s people should determine their future ‘independently, not at gunpoint, without pressure from the West or the East.”’
Later, Patriarch Kirill even justified the violence in Ukraine—admitting only that conflict was taking place in the Donbas region—blaming it on ‘gay parades,’ which are supposedly ‘the loyalty test … suggested by those who aspire to world domination.’ In a case of extreme irony given the devastation caused by targeted Russian bombing of innocent children, the Patriarch trumpeted the Russian Orthodox Church as the world’s leader of traditional values, standing particularly against ‘homosexualism’ and its perceived influence over Westerners, considered to be decadent and largely beyond saving. According to Kirill, the ‘Russian world’ embodies traditional moral values and is ‘a special civilization that must be defended.’”
The Moscow Patriarch’s claims of a united Russian/Ukrainian family also bely history. Writing for the US Institute of Peace, Aidan Houston and Peter Mandaville provide helpful background: “Ukraine’s religious landscape is far more diverse than is generally appreciated. While nearly 80 percent of Ukrainians profess affiliation with an Orthodox denomination, some 10 percent of the population — particularly in western Ukraine — belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Muslims, mostly of Crimean Tatar heritage, comprise about one percent of Ukraine’s population — along with a historically significant Jewish community numbering around 200,000 and small groups of Protestant Christians.
“When Constantinople fell to Ottoman invaders in the 15th century, the Orthodox Church in Moscow asserted itself as the heir apparent for the only remaining “true” Christian church in the world, bringing Orthodox parishes in Ukraine under its complete jurisdiction.
“But in the centuries since, Ukraine has become a battleground for Orthodox power struggles that stem from this original claim of Russian authority. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence in Ukraine, some voices began to advocate for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. At the time, those cries went unheard.”
In defiance of the Patriarch’s stance, a group of international Orthodox priests and scholars signed a declaration rejecting Patriarch Kirill’s ‘Russian world heresy’ and the devastation it is bringing to Ukraine. As a result, Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, and whole congregations, are leaving the Moscow Patriarchate and joining the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
In addition, nine evangelical educators and pastors drafted an anti-war “Appeal to Compatriots,” strongly opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement reads, in part: “Our army is … launching bombs and missiles on the cities of our neighboring Ukraine. As believers, we assess what is happening as the grave sin of fratricide — the sin of Cain, who raised his hand against his brother Abel. No political interests or aims can justify the death of innocent people.”
Such actions may seem mild from a US context, but in an autocracy, with staunchly hierarchical (male) patterns of behavior, such dissent is courageous and often provides the seeds for transformational change. Minority religious voices—often seriously outnumbered by those who argue for continuing the status quo—should not be underestimated.
Looking to the future, words from Houston and Mandaville are instructive: “Current events bring into question the future of the Orthodox religion in Ukraine. If Ukraine is ultimately successful at repelling the Russian forces, the future of a Russian patriarchate seems murky. However, if Ukraine falls to Russian occupiers, the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is likely to face similar uncertainty. The role of religious actors in maintaining solidarity across ecumenical lines is therefore crucial to preserving the social fabric of a unified Ukraine — and will be a key factor in peacebuilding if and when the guns have fallen silent.”