Does it Matter What Bishops Say?
Yes, here’s why.
Since Russia began its campaign of aggression against Ukraine, a number of prominent Orthodox Bishops have issued statements about the conflict. Some were very good, and some quite bad. But does it ultimately matter what Bishops say? At times it can feel like it would not, that no matter how the Church responds or what the episcopacy says, nothing will change. After all, despite the many statements that have been released (including our own) the invasion continues.
Nonetheless, there are things that the Church can do. In the short term, the Church can act pastorally and prophetically, offering comfort and aid to those in need and speaking truth to those responsible. In the long term, the Church can actually help to prevent wars like this from ever occurring again.
What Bishops are Saying
Members of the episcopacy have issued a variety of statements on the Russian-instigated attack on Ukraine. Some statements were counterproductive in nature, and silence would have been preferable (and indeed some Patriarchates, like the Patriarch of Antioch appear to have remained silent). ROCOR’s Metropolitan Hilarion of New York implored his flock to “refrain from excessively watching television, following newspapers and the internet” while the bishops of ROCOR in Europe stated just before the invasion that Western media warning of the invasion was very “one-sided” and that Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus are equally responsible for the situation. Furthermore, they spoke of the “Ukrainian lands” rather than Ukraine itself, a common phrase among those who think such land rightfully belongs to Russia.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has been equally disappointing in his statements. The day before the invasion was a national holiday in Russia celebrating the armed forces. Celebrating this occasion, between the time that Russia declared Luhansk and Donetsk independent and the invasion itself, Patriarch Kirill blessed the Russian armed forces, glorifying the forces that would soon breach Ukrainian borders, saying :
“We live in peacetime, but we know that there are threats in peacetime. Unfortunately, there are threats at the moment – everyone is familiar with what is happening on the borders of our Fatherland. Therefore, I think that our military personnel, there is no doubt that they have chosen a very right path in their lives… The strength of the Armed Forces, the might of the Russian army is already a weapon that protects our people… Our people have no doubt that this is how the Russian army was brought up, that you came to replace your heroic fathers and grandfathers, the heroic generations of defenders of the Fatherland.”
After the invasion occurred, Patriarch Kirill did not condemn it, even though Mr. Putin’s actions violate the principles of warfare laid out in the recently adopted Russian Orthodox Catechism. Patriarch Kirill issued a statement where he did not condemn the hostilities, or note that Russia was the aggressor. Instead of condemning the war (he has not called the conflict a war or invasion), he simply asked “all parties” to try to “avoid civilian casualties.” This statement gives the impression that Patriarch Kirill may approve of the aggression, an impression which is strengthened by the rest of the statement where he repeats Mr. Putin’s talking points that Russia and Ukraine share a common history. He repeated these points even more strongly on February 27 during a prayer for Ukraine, referring to the country as “Russian land” and praying for peace in the “vastness of historical Russia.” At one point during the prayer he did refer to Ukraine as a country, but immediately after gave a rather strange prayer,
Who are the deluded in Kirill’s mind? Is it Putin and those in Russia who consider an invasion worthwhile to restore “Russian lands”, or is it the people of Ukraine, whom the Patriarch is praying for in that same sentence? If the latter then what are the people of Ukraine deluded about, specifically? Does he think that Ukrainian people are deluded into thinking their sovereign land belongs to them and not to Russia? This interpretation is suggested by even more forceful comments he made that same day, making subtle remarks that the “unity of our Church” is threatened by “evil forces” which do not see Ukrainian territory as under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate (likely a reference to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, declared autocephalous by the Ecumenical Patriarch). Patriarch Kirill ended these comments by stating,
In contrast to these disappointing statements from the Russian hierarchy, many other bishops issued more admirable statements. A number, including the statements of the Patriarchs of Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Jerusalem did not condemn or name Russian aggression, but asserted that war and violence are unequivocally evil and that the Church can never endorse such violence.
Other bishops more forcefully condemned the invasion. Patriarch Daniel of Romania condemned “a war launched by Russia against a sovereign and independent state.” Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church of America named Putin explicitly, stating “I ask that the hostilities be ceased immediately and that President Putin put an end to the military operations. As Orthodox Christians, we condemn violence and aggression.” The Church of Finland condemned “the military actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.” Meanwhile, the Georgian Church reminded the world in their statement that Mr. Putin had previously violated the territorial integrity of Georgia. The Patriarch of Greece did not address Mr. Putin but stated his “shock” and tears at the event in the most personal of the statements issued, aiming more at pastoral comfort than prophetic denouncement. The Ecumenical Patriarch was the most explicit about the political situation, stating.
Finally, the bishops of Ukraine themselves spoke out. Metropolitan Onuphry, leader of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine has forcefully spoken against the conflict, breaking with Patriarch Kirill’s seeming endorsement of the conflict. Metropolitan Onuphry stated,
Metropolitan Filaret of the Moscow Patriarchate in Lviv was even more forceful, endorsing Ukrainian armed resistance against Russia, “Russia has attacked our state. The Church together with her people blesses the defense of our native land. I call all believers to pray.” Metropolitan Filaret contextualized these remarks, citing the “Law of Moses” that “Thou shalt not kill” and the command of Christ to abandon the sword, concluding that “war is a grave sin before God.” Metropolitan Filaret interpreted these statements in the context of the just war theory, stating that
“war can be declared only when all peaceful means of negotiating with the opposing party have been exhausted, and only if there is a definite hope of achieving the set goals…While acknowledging the war as evil, the Church, however, does not forbid its children to take part in hostilities when it comes to protecting their neighbors and restoring violated justice. Then war is considered undesirable, but a necessary means.”
It is worth noting that in stating this, Metropolitan Filaret is repeating the official line of the Moscow Patriarchate, which endorsed just war theory in its catechism.
Metropolitan Epiphanius, leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, also condemned the invasion, declared war evil, and supported the armed defense of Ukraine by its people.
To summarize, various bishops of the Church have responded by ignoring the conflict, endorsing it, ambiguously condemning conflict in general, forcefully condemning Putin, and calling for the armed defense of Ukraine. The Church has not spoken with a unified voice on this conflict. But if it were to speak with one voice, what should it say?
Pastor and Prophet
The Church has a duty to act as pastor and prophet in the world. In the short term, while such pastoral or prophetic statements likely would have no effect on the conflict, these are the two modes of engagement in which Christ himself engaged.
Pastorally, the Church should call for prayer, offer comfort to those suffering, offer safe haven to those displaced and call on all people to do the same, provide a vector for relief and aid to those injured and in deprivation, and offer solidarity to those who feel isolated and alone. Many statements of the bishops of the Church do offer precisely these things, and in many respects, the Church has been effectively fulfilling its pastoral role during this time.
Prophetically, the Church should in one of the favorite phrases of Jim Forest, “tell the truth; don’t be afraid.” A statement of St. Felix comes to mind here, “Not to oppose error is to approve it; and not to defend truth is to suppress it, and, indeed, to neglect to confound evil men—when we can do it—is no less a sin than to encourage them.” Already, some clergy and faithful in Russia have begun to speak out against the war. Thousands of Russian citizens have protested the war and have been arrested, while a number of clergy have authored a petition to Patriarch Kirill, asking him to petition Mr. Putin to withdraw.
What else could the Church do prophetically to stand against this conflict? One story that comes to mind is an apocryphal event in which St. Basil, Fool for Christ, gave Tsar Ivan IV a piece of meat during Lent to eat. The Tsar refused, observing the fasting rules. St. Basil responded telling him there was no point in observing the fasting rules when he was violating God’s law by killing. Why avoid spilling the blood of animals when he is spilling the blood of Christians? Imagine if Patriarch Kirill were to give a homily tomorrow in which he repeated this story and attempted to act it out, directed at Mr. Putin. It is unlikely the Patriarch would sway Putin, but Russian society would take notice, and Kirill may in the process secure his own sainthood. Alternatively, Patriarch Kirill could appeal directly to the Russian military to cease their assault. St. John the Soldier of Constantinople famously worked as a spy under Julian the Apostate, refusing to kill Christians. He provided intelligence to save his fellow Christians and released prisoners that the army had captured. The saints of the Theban Legion likewise chose conscientious objection when given orders to kill fellow Christians, refusing these orders even under threat of execution. With reports that an Orthodox priest has been shot by the Russian army, Patriarch Kirill could entreat his flock to similarly subvert killing.
Most importantly, public prayer for peace is itself a subtle prophetic witness against war, and offers pastoral comfort to those who participate, so I encourage all bishops to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in praying the Moleben for Peace and instructing their flock to do so.
Nonetheless, it is a painful fact that words only go so far and in the short term, the bishops of the Church cannot end this conflict no matter what they say. Despite this, it is possible for the Church to help to prevent war in the long term, and statements play an important part in that.
To contextualize what bishops should be doing in the long term, we must take a detour into “peace science,” the social science literature that studies what promotes cooperation and limits conflict.
It used to be thought that all societies engage in warfare, but recent anthropological and sociological work has found that this is not the case. There are some perpetually non-warring societies. More importantly, social scientists have discovered that sometimes a group of non-warring societies form integrated units which are termed “peace systems.” These peace systems can range from a collection of tribal groups all the way to collections of nations that all cooperate peacefully and do not make war with one another. Most global security efforts focus on deterrent and defensive mechanisms, but the most sustainable way to guarantee global peace is to create global peace systems. This is, of course, a challenge as these systems take a very long time to develop, and thus such peace development is not a short-term solution to violence. Nonetheless, the development of peace systems is a deeply underrated aspect of global security architecture.
Social scientists have studied and documented the qualities of peace systems. Understanding the characteristics of these systems can help us understand what cultural and political shifts are necessary to create sustainable global peace. There are a number of distinctive qualities of peace system societies compared to other societies. In particular, such societies are characterized by “overarching common identity; positive social interconnectedness; interdependence; non-warring values and norms; non-warring myths, rituals, and symbols; and peace leadership.” Of these, analysis suggests that the most important for creating peace systems are non-warring norms, rituals, and values. This analysis looked at thirteen different factors, including economic integration, conflict management, common identity, peace leadership, and superordinate institutions. None of these factors were as important to creating peace systems as non-warring norms, rituals, and values, in that order.
What this looks like in practice is quite simple. Some societies glorify violence in their media, elevate heroes who exemplify strength in battle, celebrate public rituals glorifying military strength, exhibit military pageantry, and form cultural identities around military strength and courage. Other societies do not glorify their military, view warfare as something regrettable and evil, celebrate nonviolent heroes or the heroism of cultural, scientific, or artistic achievement, and have public rituals and pageantry that are non-militaristic in nature, or explicitly pacifistic in nature. Societies that elevate non-warring, anti-war, pacifist, or peacemaking values, rituals, and norms are the most likely to form sustainable peace systems with their neighbors. As such, one primary goal of global security should be to help societies develop non-warring cultures and abandon their glorification of war-focused norms, rituals, and values. This does not mean that such societies are pacifist or not be militarily capable. Rather, such societies believe war is normatively bad and create public rituals and a social culture devoted to non-warring values.
The upshot of all this is that while conventional security measures are important to preventing war, especially in the short term, and other non-military security measures such as economic interdependence, common identity, cultural integration, and shared institution-building are important as well, the most important thing is to develop societies with strong peace cultures.
The Church and Peace Culture
Finally, we are in a position to examine what the bishops of our Church can do to create sustainable peace. The Church should abandon the glorification of warring norms, rituals, and values, and instead should promote non-warring norms, rituals, and values. Religion is one of the strongest vectors of cultural and religious transmission, and thus the Church has the ability more than most institutions to succeed in this area. While Russia and Ukraine are both religiously pluralistic societies, the Orthodox Church has significant cultural clout in both nations. Were the Church to begin a unified campaign of eliminating all warring norms, rituals, and values within its own theology, preaching, and liturgy, while promoting peace theology, rituals, and culture, then the Church could over the long term help to cultivate a peace system in this region of the world. Such values would do more than economic integration, common identity, peace leadership, superordinate institutions, or conventional security at preventing war in the region.
The Church would not have to betray its own theology in order to do this. While the Church undoubtedly does have both a tradition of peace culture and warring culture, the peace culture is the older tradition. In the period before Constantine, there were no warring norms, rituals, or values, and many saints were martyred for their refusal to participate in military culture. This witness continued on in the patristic period. There is without a doubt, a strong warring culture in the Russian Church (there is also a peace tradition in Russia as well), perhaps best epitomized by the popular-in-Russia saying of St. Philaret, “Loathe the enemies of God, conquer the enemies of the fatherland, and love your enemies,” the blessing of weapons and soldiers, and the canonization of Fyodor Ushakov, a naval commander who never lost a battle, as the patron saint of Russian nuclear-armed bombers; however, this tradition only developed relatively recently in the post-medieval period. In contrast, the tradition of the Byzantines was mostly pacific. Even when the Byzantines did engage in warfare, they often did so with lamentation. Emperor Justin II, for example, after returning victoriously from a military campaign, did not glorify his victory, but instead spoke to his people saying, “Do not delight in deeds of blood, have no part in murders, do not repay evil with evil, and do not imitate me in my enmity.” There are many prayers, rituals, values, and norms in the history of the Orthodox Church directed at peace and against war. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has extensively documented this tradition in our textbook on the subject, For the Peace from Above, of which the full PDF is available on our website. When Jim Forest asked me to become editor of In Communion, he emphasized to me that our number one purpose is to remind the Church of its own peace tradition, for precisely these reasons.
The evidence is clear that establishing a peace culture is the most effective thing a group of societies can do to prevent violence, and the Church is well equipped both theologically and culturally to carry out this task, especially in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Statements in this direction will not end the war, but over the centuries-long timeline that the Church acts on, it can prevent future animosity. We should begin this work immediately.
Editor, In Communion