Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Regular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Since relations between Russia and the West plummeted after the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, such scenes have become common here. Priests have sanctified S-400 surface-to-air missiles, nuclear submarines, tanks and fighter jets. Several years ago, a priest in Russia’s far east explained that weapons, including nuclear missiles, were “perceived as a means of protection and salvation.”

But the practice could soon be a thing of the past. Last month, a Russian Orthodox Church committee on ecclesiastical law recommended that clergy concentrate on blessing soldiers, rather than weapons.

OK, I have a few comments at this point.

First of all, there is nothing new about religious leaders blessing — to one degree or another — military forces. Like it or not, this has been going on for centuries.

Second, these blessings tend to be viewed differently in religious traditions that have visual symbols of blessing, such as holy water. It’s one thing for a Protestant minister to say a prayer blessing that are forces based at, oh, a strategic air command base. It’s something else, for critics, for a priest to splash holy water on a missile.

My questions: Did these rite truly vanish in Russia for years or decades preceding the actions in Crimea? Who said that? Who was interviewed?

Let’s keep reading, because the next quote, and source, is crucial. I would like to know if this quote is from an interview or public remarks, of some kind.

“One can talk about the blessing of a warrior on military duty in defense of the fatherland,” said Savva Tutunov, a bishop of the Moscow Patriarchate. “At the end of the corresponding ritual, the personal weapon is also blessed — precisely because it is connected to the individual person who is receiving the blessing. By the same reasoning, weapons of mass destruction should not be sanctified.”

Not everyone agrees with the committee’s proposal, which still has to be approved by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

From this point on, the RNS article is largely based on snippets of printed documents, usually online.

Sadly, Bishop Savva’a voice vanishes and readers never hear from another mainstream, authoritative voice in Russian Orthodoxy. Hold that thought, since we’ll come back to it at the end.

Here is another important passage. Readers should look for information about the sourcing:

Patriarch Kirill has described the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria as a “holy war,” while uniformed clerics embedded with the armed forces are being trained to drive combat vehicles and operate communication equipment.

Some critics have likened the role of priests in the modern Russian military to that played by Soviet-era political officers, whose task was to root out dissenting views. Russia is also constructing a vast Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces near Moscow, whose steps will be made from melted-down tanks seized from the Nazis.

Yes, Russia has a long history of political and economic ties to Syria.

However, it would have been good for readers to know that Damascus is also the home of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church, one of the largest Christian bodies remaining intact, to some degree, in the Middle East. If the Islamic State had taken Damascus, that ancient sister church of Moscow would have been crushed. That’s the kind of link that American readers — and journalists — may not take into account.

The rest of this feature offers some interesting views from public statements and writings from Putin, some activists in the church and an academic writer, whose views on the Russian church are critical (but his point of view is not labeled).

The most disturbing words come from a hyper-nationalist, writing online:

Ideas such as these have been melded into a radical ideology described as “Atomic Orthodoxy” by Yegor Kholmogorov, a nationalist writer.

“To remain Orthodox, Russia must be a strong nuclear power, and to remain a strong nuclear power, Russia must be Orthodox,” Kholmogorov wrote.

Kholmogorov’s ideology was never officially approved by Patriarch Kirill, but it has gained a degree of popularity in recent years among radical Orthodox groups.

It would be logical to assume that the current effort to end the blessing of these weapons is linked to some Orthodox leaders being worried about this kind of nationalistic fervor being expressed in sacramental forms. It appears that there are other factions inside the church that may oppose this change.

Note that, between the lines, the RNS article demonstrates that the Russian Orthodox Church contains people — leaders even — with different points of view on this sacramental and national issue. These competing voices are real, and important. This is the kind of thing that Russians talk about all the time and the discussions may even make it into print online.

Again, there is more to Russia than Putin.

Also, there is more to Russia than politics. And there is certainly more to Russian Orthodoxy than one group of bishops who constantly or consistently do whatever the government wants them to do.

I’ll conclude with a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote in 2000, looking back at my experiences in Russia (before I was Orthodox) at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. What I heard then remains relevant today.

As always, history matters. Events in the modern Russian Orthodox Church are still:

… only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia's churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

The KGB records also contain the stories of clerics who yielded. Russian Orthodoxy was a complex mosaic of sin and sacrifice, during the era of the martyrs. …

Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It's impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

"We have all four kinds," this priest said. "That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church."

That process continues and reporters need to seek — in interviews and in online research — the points of view found in multiple generations of Orthodox leaders.

Here’s a research tip: Find some sources who are Orthodox and speak both Russian and English. Ask them who they are reading online and where they find voices that show the different layers of thought inside the Russian church.

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