Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the highest Orthodox Christian authority in Russia, recently stunned many when he said that Russian soldiers who die for their nation would become martyrs that would have their sins erased.
Observers say it’s a ploy by Putin to increase momentum for his mobilization drives which aren’t going as he expected. And these are quite crucial considering the deteriorating position of Russia in Ukraine.
Of course there were some internal religious criticisms—that dying for a secular idea of nationhood cannot result in martyrdom or other purely religious statuses. But surely someone with the authority and knowledge that Patriarch Kirill has wouldn’t have missed all the intricate theological subtleties while framing his opinions.
The reality is that this notion does in fact have its roots in “autocephaly,” a particular concept within Orthodox Christianity.
Autocephaly is the idea that a local church (with its bishops) maintains some degree of autonomy. It doesn’t have a higher ecclesiastical jurisdiction geographically that’s far away which it needs to “report” to. Yet it remains in communion with the other Orthodox authorities.
Orthodox Christians would argue that it gives a “localist” flavor to their religious approach. Roman-Catholics would counter this, saying it dilutes the “universality” of Christianity.
But it becomes even worse with modernity, and particularly with the idea of nationalism. There’s the temptation to mutate a “local church” into a “national church” and then, through modernity’s secularization process, into a “nationalist church.”
Orthodox Christian authorities were themselves aware of the potential confusion this would cause. They thus called termed this heresy “phyletism” and condemned it at the end of the 19th century when European nationalism was starting to appeal to the ethnoreligious minorities within the Ottoman Empire.
But the damage has been done. Nowadays, even in the West all Orthodox churches have become more or less ethnocentric, catering to particular groups based on history, language, and culture. And all of this is not necessarily based on religious grounds but rather on nationalist grounds.
Contrast this with immigrant Muslim communities in the West, where the only real factor for someone to participate in the community life (worship, da’wah, etc.) is being Sunni, independent of their jurisprudential school and ethnic affiliation.
Anyway, this is also the reason why within the current nationalist Russia-Ukraine conflict, Orthodox churches adopt a nationalist approach as well.
Reuters reported a few months ago:
KYIV, May 28 (Reuters) – A branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that remained loyal to Moscow after a 2019 schism has said it will break with the Russian church over the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine was given permission by the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide to form a church independent of Moscow in 2019, largely ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.
“The council has approved the corresponding additions and changes to the Statute on the Management of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, indicating the full autonomy and independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” it said in a statement late on Friday.
The statement condemned Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and the support of Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia’s church, for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” to combat anti-Russian nationalists. Ukraine says the full-scale invasion was entirely unprovoked.
You’ll never see such a thing in the Islamic world. Even if two nations are self-styled custodians of Sunni-Islam, there’ll be no such dissension on a theological level because Islam is not tied to a nationalist approach.
When it comes to Russia however, as John Strickland writes in his Making of Holy Russia, this “nationalization” of Orthodox Christianity has deep roots. For example, during as far back as the 16th century, when Russia was molding its own “nationhood” following the Europeans, Ivan the Terrible basically asked Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow to “create” Russian “saints.” The reason for this was that out of almost 1000 Orthodox “saints,” less than ten were Russians. Ivan believed that, in order to transform Russia into the leading Orthodox nation, it would require more Russian “saints” to somehow appear credible.
You’ll never see worldly rulers trying to do the same with Islam (or Sunni-Islam at least). This is because of our religion’s innate resistance against these attempts towards subtle modernization via nationalism. Quite the opposite in fact; they’d actually have to contend with Islam in order to promote secular nationalism.
Of course Russians (or Ukrainians) are not alone in all of this. It’s pretty common with all Orthodox Christians as it is within the roots of their worldview. For example, when the Serbs slaughtered the Bosniaks, they too fused Orthodoxy with nationalism. This has been well-documented by Michael Sells in his The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia.
While we—from the perspective of Islam—have many criticisms against this “proto-nationalism” of Orthodox Christianity, others are in fact commending this potential deficiency; most notably the White nationalists.
For White nationalists, Roman-Catholicism is too “universal” and Protestantism is too “liberal.” For them, Orthodoxy is the middle-ground. This is in the sense that it remains local while also escaping potential liberalization (as if nationalism, even sanitized through “spirituality,” wasn’t itself a secular modernist ideology).
In conclusion, we can say that this once again proves that Islam is and remains the most balanced in its approach. And as demonstrated, this “nationalism” of Orthodox Christianity (as usual) has its roots planted firmly within the imbalanced tree of Christianity.