Today’s readings seem, possibly, to be about authority: Moses’ authority to lead the Israelites on their journey from Egypt-and to tell them when they can enter the promised land, Paul chiding the Jews for veiling their hearts and understanding when listening to the readings about Moses, and Jesus’ astonishing transfiguration right before the eyes of Peter, James and John. All examples of authority. Who can speak to the will of God?
The last few weeks have been disturbing as we have watched the setup for and the invasion of Ukraine. It is certainly an example of someone deciding to exert authority over others. There can be all kinds of reasons-and most of us can think of at least a few. The reassertion of the USSR. Russia’s millennia long concern to protect her border from invaders. But what if-what if, it’s about religion and who controls a large branch of the Christian Church?
I read a particularly disturbing opinion from Diana Butler Bass this week and I will try my best to be accurate. And, this is what she is thinking: The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom. The theory is to create a partnership between American evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in western countries, and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies — decadent secularism, a rising China, and Islam — for a glorious rebirth of moral purity and Christian culture.
Or, Christian internationalism. Something akin to the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine.
Diana asserts that evangelicals are willing to sign on to this due to their desire to keep the classic “racial and gender hierarchies”. The desire to keep blacks and women in their place.
It has been difficult to get the Roman Catholic Church to join this effort-especially since the election of Pope Francis. Keeping an eye on how the traditional or conservative Catholics move forward would be a good thing.
And, Vladimir Putin has gained the support of American evangelicals with praise from Mike Pompeo and Steve Bannon and others seen as the voice of this group. I recently had someone tell me they were considering a move to Russia because life would be so much better there! And, this person isn’t particularly religious. I was able to tell them a bit about Karelia and how hard life is there-he was sure Karelia was a promised land. I believe there is a reason that our Natalia has chosen to live and work in Germany instead of living there. This person was also a bit surprised that I even knew where Karelia is!
Here is the rub for Putin: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church isn’t having his ideas about asserting power over Europe through the orthodox church. For the Russian Orthodox Church Kyiv is Jerusalem.
Another quote from Diana’s article:
More than a thousand years ago, in the 980s, the pagan Prince Vladimir of Kyiv consolidated the Rus people of modern-day Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine into a single realm. When his emissaries reported back to him on the glories of Christian Constantinople, Vladimir converted to their religion, brought his people into the Byzantine church through a mass baptism, and married a Christian imperial princess. Under his rule, Kyiv became a prosperous and peaceful city at the heart of a new Christian empire, complete with churches, courts, monasteries, and schools, as well as civic programs to care for the poor. Known as Vladimir the Great, he was eventually canonized as St. Vladimir and his memory is celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans.
In the 1200s, however, Kyiv suffered a number of assaults from rival Rus princes and Mongol invaders. Many Rus people moved north and east to the newer cities of Vladimir and Moscow where, under the Czars, the Russian church eventually grew to be one of the richest, most powerful churches in the Orthodox world. With the shift, an Orthodox tradition founded under the auspices of Constantinople became a church under the authority of a patriarch in Moscow.
This is the strain between Ukraine and Russia. By the time of the fall of the USSR, there were several orthodox sects in Ukraine and only one was still connected to the patriarch in Moscow.
In 2018, two of those Ukrainian churches and some of the Moscow-leaning Orthodox parishes joined in a union and created a newly unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a fully independent national ecclesial body under no control from Moscow, with its head in the ancient seat of Orthodoxy in Kyiv.
Putin and the Moscow Russian Orthodox church authorities protested. They’ve been claiming the 1,000 years of Kyiv Christianity as its own — basically appropriating Ukraine’s church history — to the point of erecting a gigantic (and controversial) statue of St. Vladimir outside of the Kremlin. Putin wants the weight of tradition on his side, and St. Vladimir validates both his religious and political aspirations. There should be no doubt that Putin sees himself as a kind of Vladimir the Great II, a candidate for sainthood who is restoring the soul of Holy Mother Russian. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, would like to remind the Russians that they were the birthplace of both Orthodoxy and political unity in Eastern Europe.
This unified Ukrainian church has been recognized as an independent body by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This seat has been shifting its views and now speaks of human rights, religious freedom, and trust in science. At the same time, the Patriarch of Moscow has been acting as a support and symbol of religious conservatives around the world.
So, what kind of authority is Putin working toward by invading Ukraine? Does he consider himself the new St. Vladimir? Does he want to have control of Kyiv so he can control the seat of Eastern Orthodoxy? Of conservative Christianity?
Is he hoping to celebrate orthodox Easter in Kyiv-this year or next?
So, today’s readings gave me something new to think about. Who do we look to as authority when it comes to our religious practice and beliefs? Do we look for the strong man who can wield power? Or do we look to the man with the shining face who talks directly to God? Or the man who can heal people, who calls us out when we ignore the needs of the sick, the poor and the marginalized?
Power can sweep away the poor from the parking lot-but they are still somewhere in our community. Power can sweep away those who stand against it, but more will rise in their place-if they are listening to Jesus.