Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Can the Russian Orthodox Church Be Accused of Nationalism?

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

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Reaction to the paper by Archbishop Makarios of Kenya and Irinoupolis 'Ethnic Identity, National Identity and the Search for Unity', delivered in his absence at the meting of the Plenary Commission on 'Faith and Order', Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), 2 August 2004

My comments relate to the following statements made by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios of Kenya and Irinoupolis in his paper:

Unfortunately the Church itself is often guilty of promoting nationalism at the expense of its 'catholicism'. We therefore speak, for example, of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Russian Orthodox Church etc. Often the Church has involved itself in national wars, in the blessing of weapons before battle, and what is even worse encouraging war and nationalism in the Name of Jesus Christ.

I am disappointed that Archbishop Makarios in his otherwise well-informed paper cites the Russian Orthodox Church alongside with the Church of England and the Church of Scotland as examples of churches that 'promote nationalism', apparently implying that it is these churches that are involved in national wars, in the blessing of weapons before battle etc. I regret that Archbishop Makarios is not present here to clarify what was his intention in naming these specific churches and what particularly he had in mind when referring to the Russian Orthodox Church.

When the Nazi army invaded Russia in June 1941, the whole nation - men and women, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians, Russians and non-Russians, soldiers and civilians - stood in defence. More than twenty million people, mostly men, were lost during the war, and the demographic consequences of this loss are noticeable even today.

The Russian Orthodox Church by the beginning of the war had been devastated by the severest persecutions of the 1920s and 1930s, when ninety-five per cent of its clergy and monastics had been executed, imprisoned or exiled, all monasteries and theological schools closed, and thousands of churches blown up or transformed into secular buildings.

In spite of being almost completely annihilated, the Russian Orthodox Church - or rather what remained of it - from the very first day of the war joined the nation in its struggle for liberation. Indeed, priests blessed the troops and weapons before battles, gave absolution to the dying soldiers, and were involved - alongside with thousands of ordinary believers - in the patriotic activity in many other ways.

But can one responsibly claim that these actions were sinful? When a nation defends itself against foreign invasion, should the Church stay aside and let its children die without absolution? Or should the soldiers be deprived of the Church's blessing before the battle?

In the year 2000 the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a lengthy document entitled 'The Basic Social Concept', where separate chapters are dedicated to war and peace, nationalism and patriotism. The document, in particular, condemns nationalism, when stating:

...National sentiments can cause such sinful phenomena as aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, national exclusiveness and inter-ethnic enmity. At their extremes, these phenomena often lead to the restriction of the rights of individuals and nations, wars and other manifestations of violence. It is contrary to Orthodox ethics to divide nations into the best and the worst and to belittle any ethnic or civic nation. Even more contrary to Orthodoxy are those teachings which put the nation in the place of God or reduce faith to one of the aspects of national self-awareness (II.4).

While strongly condemning aggressive nationalism, the document mentions various ways in which a true Christian patriotism could be displayed:

The patriotism of the Orthodox Christian should be active. It is manifested when he defends his motherland against an enemy, works for the good of the motherland, cares for the good order of people's lives through, among other things, participation in the affairs of government. The Christian is called to preserve and develop national culture and people's self-awareness (II.3).

In examining the problem of war and peace, the Russian Orthodox Church states in its 'Basic Social Concept' that any war is a result of human sin. However, it makes an important distinction between defensive and aggressive war. The Church does not call its faithful to refuse military service and participation in a military action of defensive character. In other words, it does not proclaim pacifism as a fundamental principle:

While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not forbid its members from participating in military action if they are aimed at defending one's neighbors or restoring justice that has been violated. In such cases war, though undesirable, is considered a forced means of action (VIII.2).

It is to be hoped that Archbishop Makarios becomes more acquainted with the tragic experience of the Russian Orthodox Church in the past and with its contemporary official statements on nationalism and patriotism in order perhaps to be more sensitive and less judgmental in his interpretation of history.

Read this article on the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions website.

Posted: 9/2/04

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