Prayer for victory: over the devil or Ukraine?

08 December 2023 19:40
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What will be the future of UOC-ROC relations? Photo: UOJ What will be the future of UOC-ROC relations? Photo: UOJ

Fr. Alexy Uminsky said one should pray for peace, not victory, and it is unacceptable for a Christian to kill. In the ROC, he was criticised and branded an enemy. But who is right?

In mid-November, the YouTube channel “Zhyvoi Gvozd” ("Live Nail") published an interview between the Moscow archpriest of the ROC, Alexy Uminsky, and the "foreign agent" Alexei Venediktov, which provoked a very sharp reaction among the priesthood, the hierarchy and persons representing the official position of the Russian Church.

The conversation between Fr. Alexy and Venediktov lasted almost an hour, but everyone was "affected" by the theses related to the war or rather the attitude of the Russian Church toward it.

Whom does the Russian Orthodox Church call to defeat?

Discussing the problem of demographics in Russia and the eradication of abortions as its solution, Fr. Alexy Uminsky noted that abortion is a great sin and legalized murder. At the same time, he emphasized that humanity would definitely solve the demographic issue if it prohibited all wars in the world:

"For some reason, there is a commandment 'Do not kill,' and it applies to abortions, but the same commandment 'Do not kill' has no relevance to war. I just can't understand this. I can't understand how these two things can coexist in the minds of believing people, Christians - how some people can't be killed and others can be killed."

All the viewers understood that Uminsky was not talking about some abstract war. This fragment of the interview was posted on his Telegram channel by the priest and blogger Alvian Tkhelidze, who sarcastically asked his readers to explain to Fr Alexy when faced "what is the difference between an innocent baby and a Nazi from Azov".

But a much harsher reaction from his colleagues was provoked by Uminsky's words that support for war, the general militant spirit that is being cultivated in Russia today, is incompatible with the very essence of the Eucharist, which a Christian must approach in peace with himself and others. Uminsky advised listeners who do not agree with the need to pray for victory and support for the "SWO" to seek out priests who "pray more for peace than for victory".

Priest-blogger Sviatoslav Shevchenko called these words "Tolstovism in a modern wrapper":

"What did I see and hear? This is a sermon of the heresy of the "Liberal World", which, in its essence, is the doctrine of non-resistance to evil by violence in a new way," Shevchenko notes and emphasises that if the Holy Princes Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Suvorov, Ushakov "listened to such sermons, we would have lost the country long ago".

Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) of the ROC reacted much more harshly to the broadcast with Uminsky, who in an interview with "Spas" called the priest "one of the metastases of the terrible disease of liberalism, which has penetrated our Church and will ruin our Motherland".

In his opinion, today the Russian Orthodox Church prays not for peace but for victory because Russia "has no right to lose the war with Ukraine". Otherwise, the country will get "internal turmoil".

"Here (in Ukraine - Ed.), we are facing the enemies of the homeland, and our soldiers are fighting the enemies of the homeland. We have prayed for peace for 8 years, while there was war in Donbas, our prayer was for peace. But as soon as the "SMO" began, the situation changed – we began to pray for victory because there will be no peace until there is victory. If we stop praying for victory... we will lose the war and get internal turmoil in Russia. This is a war we must not lose. We were declared war not in 2022, and not even in 2014," says Bishop Pitirim.

Here it should be clarified that the bishop is referring to the "Prayer for Holy Rus", introduced in September 2022 by Patriarch Kirill into the Liturgy's order of service during the Great Ectenia for all churches of the Russian Orthodox Church, where, in particular, there are these words: "Arise, O God, in defence of your people and grant us victory through your strength." There is no doubt that Bishop Pitirim and Patriarch Kirill himself refer here to the military victory of the Russian Federation over Ukraine.

However, the most popular priest-blogger in Russia (excluding Tkachev), Pavel Ostrovsky, commenting on the broadcast with Uminsky, assured that this prayer should be understood not in a military but spiritual sense. Addressing the UOJ, the priest stated that it is incorrect to say that this prayer is "about the victory of Russian weapons". He believes that the prayer speaks of victory not over Ukraine but over the devil. "You just need to carefully read the text of the 'Prayer for Holy Rus' so as not to jump to conclusions," the priest advised.

And we have read it. For example, the following phrase: "Affirm the soldiers and all the defenders of our Homeland in Thy commandments, strengthen their spirit, save them from death, wounds, and captivity!"

Agree, it is difficult to assume that the devil is trying to capture Russian soldiers or inflict physical injuries on them. Moreover, in practically all prayers of the Orthodox Church, we ask the Lord for victory over the enemy of humankind. What was the need to write a new prayer for victory over the devil, and even more so, insert it into the Liturgy?

Today, virtually all the clergy of the ROC are talking about the military victory of the Russian Federation over Ukraine; no one in the Russian Church is hiding or shying away from this. We have already quoted Bishop Pitirim. And here, for example, is the address of the head of the Synodal Department for Relations with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Metropolitan Kirill, to the Russian soldiers: "May God grant you life, health, and, of course, victory!"

Perhaps, these and many other words of the hierarchy passed the attention of Fr. Pavel and he is simply unable to believe such a thing. Here is what he writes: "Father Alexy (Uminsky – Ed.) believes that the words about "victory" in this prayer mean that we are praying for the victory of Russian soldiers over Ukrainian soldiers. However, how can this then be correlated with the fact that the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church extends both to the territory of Russia and Ukraine?"

And this question is extremely important, profound and even tragic.

Dear Fr. Pavel, we, millions of UOC believers, cannot realise this – how can the ROC, considering Ukrainians its flock, bless them for war with them? Yes, the last words will make some people in the Russian Federation shiver, but how can we call it otherwise? After all, the army of the Russian Federation, whose actions are warmly approved by the ROC, is fighting on the territory of Ukraine with the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As a result of these actions, the AFU soldiers are killed and seriously injured.

And we cannot take seriously Fr. Alvian's assertion that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are all "Azov Nazis". In fact, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are hundreds of thousands of parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, children and relatives of priests, hierarchs, and simply someone's husbands, brothers, and fathers. Some of them voluntarily went to defend their country, and some of them were mobilised (and continue to be mobilised) without asking. Already in almost every UOC parish, there are parishioners whose relatives died at the front.

How can Moscow seriously expect Ukrainian churches to pray "for the victory" of those who killed their near and dear? After all, according to the logic of its hierarchy, the "Prayer for Holy Rus" is intended for the churches of the UOC too, since Moscow still calls the UOC its part. How is it possible to pray about "restoration in all countries of Holy Rus of peace and unanimity" and immediately ask God for the victory of one country of this Rus over another?

At reading all these words in the RF, there will surely appear angry "fair" counterarguments about "8 years", "Donbas children" and the RF's selfless opposition to the anti-Christian civilisation of the West.

But let us remember that the UOC, calling the conflict in the Donbas "fratricidal", has been calling for its cessation since 2014. We remember the incredible large-scale procession "for peace" from Pochaiv and Sviatohorsk Lavras when tens of thousands of believers marched across Ukraine to Kyiv despite the hysteria of the "patriots". We remember the scandalous "not standing up" in the Rada of the Primate and the hierarchs of the UOC at the time of honouring the fallen soldiers of the ATO, which caused a wave of harassment in Ukrainian society. We remember how Metropolitan Onuphry explained it: "We do not want the war to continue in our land. We do not want people to kill one another. We want peace, and we want God's blessing in our land."

But since 24 February 2022, already the whole of Ukraine has found itself in the role of the Donbas in the ATO. As a result of the invasion of the Russian Federation, the suburbs of Kyiv, settlements of Zhytomyr, Volyn, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and many other regions were destroyed. And the clergy of the UOC blessed the flock for the defence of their country.

Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church, calling the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops a "fratricidal war", did not dare to follow the example of the UOC and call for peace. The priesthood of the Russian Church completely took the side of the authorities. The Social Concept of the ROC states that "the clergy and canonical church structures cannot collaborate with the state" in waging "civil war or aggressive foreign war".

And the point here is not that the UOC is "good" and the ROC is "bad." The churches in Ukraine, Russia, Poland and all other countries are one Church of Christ, just located in different territories. The problem is that a tragedy is unfolding before our eyes when the hierarchs of one part of this Church assure the flock that it is allowed to kill the flock of its other part. That it is allowed to kill at all.

This is what the "liberal" Father Alexy Uminsky spoke about with pain in his heart. And after all, Christ gave us no exceptions in the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", not even for the defence of Himself. "Put your sword in its sheath, for all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," He said to Peter, who stood in His defence in Gethsemane.

For a better understanding of these words of Christ, we can take an example from the Ancient Paterik: "One of the fathers asked Abba Sisoes: When I am sitting in the desert and a barbarian comes to me, wanting to kill me, and I can resist him – should I kill him? The elder replied: no, but surrender him to God. For whatever temptation may come upon a man, he must say that it is because of his sins that it happened to him. But all good things are by the grace of God.”

Which is higher: the nation of Christ or the Third Rome?

Note that all the clergymen of the ROC, whom we mention here (except for Ostrovsky), speaking about the war, first of all, talk about the great importance of the interests of the state in which they live. For Shevchenko, the main thing is "not to lose the country"; Bishop Pitirim speaks of Ukrainians in Ukraine as "enemies of the fatherland" and fears "internal turmoil" in the Russian Federation most of all. Metropolitan Kirill says that Russian soldiers in Ukraine are fighting "for the Russian world, for the sovereignty of our country Mother Russia, holy Rus". Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), when discussing whether to "forgive" after the victory over Ukraine the clergy of the UOC who "betrayed" the Moscow Patriarchate, speaks at length about the greatness of Russian patriotism. And in the "Prayer for Holy Rus", it also goes about the "fatherland", on which those who "want a fight" took up arms.

But let's try for a moment to look at the situation from the outside. Christians are people who devote their lives to the imitation of God and the saints. Christians are scattered across different countries and continents, they live in different cultures, customs, wealth levels and so on, they love the land they were born in and work and serve their people. But at the same time, Christians are a separate nation of Christ, which, like a gold mine in a rock, does not dissolve in society but lives according to its own special, Christ's laws. If these laws come into conflict with the laws of society, and a follower of Christ chooses society, they cease to be a disciple of Christ; they become part of that society. However, if they choose the laws of Christ, they become a confessor.

The Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (§ IV.9) says: "When the fulfilment of a legal requirement threatens eternal salvation, implies an act of apostasy from the faith, or involves committing another undeniable sin against God and one's neighbour, a Christian is called to the feat of confession for the sake of God's truth and the salvation of their soul for eternal life."

Let's recall how the first Christian community lived in Jerusalem, where even possessions were held in common. Can we imagine that some apostles suddenly embraced the idea of serving the Roman Empire, while others remembered their Jewish heritage and, in the name of serving Judea, began to physically annihilate "Romans"? No, for us, this sounds absurd. But why do we see the same thing today?

The ROC fiercely criticises Ukrainian nationalism, rightly pointing out that the merger with the state of the OCU and the UGCC is contrary to the nature of the Church, but they themselves do exactly the same. The priesthood enthusiastically broadcasts patriotic slogans. The theological platforms are diligently used to justify the extermination of some Orthodox by others. Priests and hierarchs study the works of the saints to extract quotes meant to prove that a "righteous" war (even if it is obviously expansionist) not only does not contradict the Holy Scripture but is even explicitly encouraged by biblical texts.

But what is all this for? Let's remind ourselves of what the current war has already led to.

For what is this war?

  1. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine and Russia, considered by the ROC as its flock, have perished. Many more are left disabled for life. Hundreds of thousands of children are now orphans, women are widowed, and parents have lost their beloved children, whom no one will ever bring back.
  2. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the "liberation" of which is called the goal of this war after the unsuccessful attempt to advance on Kyiv, lie in ruins. The land is riddled with mines. The "authorities" already say that many populated areas (such as Popasna) will never be restored. Yet, these towns and villages were home to hundreds of thousands of people. They no longer have a homeland and homes. What kind of liberation is this?
  3. Many Ukrainians today harbour deep hatred towards Russians, especially those who have lost loved ones in the war. And this hatred will persist for generations.
  4. The UOC, due to the ROC's position in the war, is on the verge of liquidation; its parishes are being destroyed and seized as "Moscow-affiliated". On the contrary, the OCU has significantly strengthened its position thanks to the war.
  5. The authority of the ROC in the Orthodox world has plummeted catastrophically. Its structures in the Baltic states have practically separated from the Moscow Patriarchate, and Moldova is next in line.

There is another argument that will inevitably "echo" in the Russian Orthodox Church over time, and perhaps quite soon.

Fr. Alexy Uminsky mentioned the massive scale of mobilization in Russia, where many Russians have already died, and many more will perish. When the "patriotic" wave subsides, their loved ones will start asking uncomfortable questions – what did their dear ones die for? They will address these questions to the Church, which actively supported this "patriotism."

What will priests and hierarchs answer?

That they died for the annexed and mostly devastated territories of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions? For "Holy Rus", for the "Third Rome"? Will this console a mother who lost her son, a wife who lost her husband, or a parent who lost their child? And is this "Rus" and "Rome" a reality today? Is contemporary Russia truly a society based on Orthodox principles?

Does "Holy Rus" exist in reality?

According to a 2022 study by RLMS, only 1.4% of the Russian population attends religious services regularly (once a week), compared to 14% in 2013. The scandal with the new 100-ruble banknote, where the cross was removed from the Kazan Cathedral, exposed an unexpected but widespread issue – crosses are being systematically removed from Russian state symbols: the coat of arms of Russia, regional emblems, and various historical emblems. Orthodox churches are depicted without crosses in advertisements, murals, and posters. Bishop Savva, a vicar of the Patriarch, says that "someone is embarrassed by the crosses on churches and the coat of arms of Russia". Theologian Arkady Maler believes that the destruction of crosses in images in Russia is intentional.

While "liberating" Ukrainian territories, the new "authorities" restore monuments to Lenin and Chekists, persecutors of the Church, and rename streets in their honour.

In fact, Russian society is no longer Orthodox. Some clergymen of the ROC, such as Fr Sviatoslav Shevchenko, recognize this: "The problem is that we still behave as if we are the religious majority. According to statistics on practising Orthodox Christians, this is far from the truth. It's a dangerous illusion."

Both ordinary priests, hierarchs, and even Patriarch Kirill express concern about the danger of Islamic migrants, whose numbers in the country have sharply increased and continue to grow. At the recent World Russian People's Council, he publicly stated that "erroneous migration policy may lead to the direst consequences for the Russian world and Russia as its spiritual and cultural core."

Officially, there are already 4 million Muslims in Moscow alone. On Islamic holidays, streets adjacent to mosques in Moscow and Russian cities are filled with worshippers. Practising Muslims in Russia already outnumber practising Orthodox Christians.

This is just the beginning. Bishop Savva shares an article by the head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee of Russia, K. Kabanov, stating that the country is facing the "absorption shortly by multimillion masses of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus". Kabanov writes that there is a "hidden but well-prepared strategy to erode Russian national self-identification, probably for better integration of immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus".

In the higher echelons of power, Patriarch Kirill and others who criticize the country's migration policy have already received a response. Valentina Matviyenko, the Chairperson of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of Russia, demanded not to "fan the fire" around the migration issue. Those who "emphasize the rocking of the situation within the country in the sphere of interethnic and interfaith relations" were labelled "ill-wishers of Russia". The government's hint seems quite transparent.

If these trends persist (and there is currently no reason to think otherwise), terms like "Holy Rus" and the "Third Rome" may soon become anachronisms found only in certain historical books and marginal circles of monarchists. Russia is moving towards a situation where the Russian Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy will no longer be the dominant faith and will become "one of many".

***

By supporting the authorities in the "Ukrainian" war, the ROC tactically won, occupying a similar niche in its relationship with the state as the OCU and the UGCC in Ukraine. However, such a situation cannot last long. Currently, the authorities support the ROC because the Church is useful to them; it aids in mobilizing society for war. However, as societal sentiments and sympathies shift, as Muslims gain strength, the ROC will lose its "court" status and, with it, government support. The Church will be used and discarded. We do not know how this will unfold – whether Orthodox believers will be expelled from churches as in Ukraine, or if the Church will face similar societal persecution.

But we do know that when this happens, when putins, mayors, and governors turn away and when today's imperial pretence fades, the Church will become true.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has already been undergoing this process since the Euromaidan protests in 2014. The ROC is currently on the verge of such a path. It is living in 2013 right now.

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