Our world has a long history of secular power attempting to co-op religion, religion seeking to become the central secular authority, and most permutations and combinations in between. It rarely goes well in the long run. But in the short run it can be a rallying cry for whatever cause needs such support. Such is the promotion of “Holy Rus.”
Our news coverage focuses on the secular events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The unfolding of events is more than enough for the 24/7 news cycle in terms of factual reporting, analysis, and speculation across geopolitical, military, and humanitarian lines. One of the events that continues to unfold is the deepening fractures in Orthodox unity caused by the Russian Orthodox support for the invasion of Ukraine. The senior hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has not (refused to?) acknowledge this invasion, issuing instead vague statements about the necessity for peace in light of “events” and “hostilities” in Ukraine, while emphasizing the fraternal nature of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples as part of “Holy Rus’,” blaming the hostilities on the evil “West”.
“Holy Rus” is being cast as the religious counterpart of Russkii mir or the Russian world. This is the ideology that there is a transnational Russian civilization, Holy Rus, which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world. It holds that this “Russian world” has a common political centre (Moscow), a common spiritual centre (Kyiv as the “mother of all Rus’’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in ‘symphony’ with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture. This principle of the ethnic organization of the Orthodox Church was condemned at the Orthodox Council of Constantinople in 1872
Against Holy Rus stands the corrupt West, led by the United States and Western European nations, which promotes globalization, liberalism, and secularism. – aided by the majority of Orthodox Churches which stand against the Moscow Patriarchate and Vladimir Putin, who form the bulwark as the true defenders of Orthodox teaching, which they view in terms of traditional morality, a rigorist and inflexible understanding of tradition, and veneration of Holy Russia.
“When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.” This quote could apply to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, but it was written about McLean Bible Church whose conservative, evangelical pastor and elders were accused of “wokeness”, liberalism, and promoting the secular agenda of social concerns by a group of far more conservative members.
Holy Rus is some evidence of the merger of secular and religious spheres, so too is the dynamic that is within American Christianity, including the Catholic Church. Alan Jacobs of Baylor University often writes about how “culture catechizes.” Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argues, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them. People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.
Churches who really are committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult faith formation classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?” This not a problem of “left” and “right” – it is a shared phenomena that affects and afflicts the Church. Jacob writes: “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”
But when people’s values are shaped by the media they consume, rather than by their religious leaders and communities, that has consequences. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs argued. “They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.”
Others invade Ukraine. Others attempt to overthrow leadership at McLean Bible Church. Others, exhausted by the experience leave organized religion. Others move to another church were their views become the measure by the pastor and community are judged.
The way our sensibilities are shaped determines who we are, including the order of our loves. For many Christians, their politics has become more of an identity marker than their faith. They might insist that they are interpreting their politics through the prism of scripture, with the former subordinate to the latter, but in fact scripture and biblical ethics are often distorted to fit their politics. I know people who have left their congregations or parishes because it didn’t match their politics, but I am not sure I know someone who changed their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching.
One of my seminary teachers commented that if the Bible doesn’t challenge your politics at least occasionally, you’re not really paying attention.
Thoughts on the Monday morning of Holy Week. Spirit of Wisdom help us to pay attention.