NOTE: The following reflection is not an official text of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The voice of the church is expressed through votes of official statements. The reflections expressed in this article are meant to be descriptive and mobilizing for peace to prevail in a region which is known a tumultuous history and experienced much suffering.1 Orthodox Christians have borne the toll of incalculable predicament: intimidation, harassment, confiscations of properties, persecution, and martyrdom. When the church resurrected from that era, one can understand the expectation of solidarity Orthodox Christians expected from other Christians. Instead of signs of solidarity, Orthodox Christians felt betrayed again, disappointment towards Western churches who through proselytism seem to have opportunistically taken advantage of their vulnerability and fragility after years of being stifled by atheistic ideologies.
The current situation in Ukraine is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional crisis. The complexity of the various interwoven issues is expressed in the very etymology of the word Ukraine, the bumpy history of the principality of Kievan Rus, the legitimacy of its aspiration of being an autonomous nation, and as importantly, the perception of its identity.
On the higher end, it is estimated that there are between 260 to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The data on demographics regarding the Orthodox world in Eastern Europe is significant. “A recent Pew Forum survey found that 71% of Russians identified as Orthodox, along with 78% of Ukrainians, 73% of Belarusians and 92% of Moldovans. A newly confident Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) viewed itself as a repository of Russian national identity, and Moscow as the 'third Rome' with primacy over the Orthodox Churches in those countries and beyond.” 2
“Ukraine as the root kraj of its name indicates, is a border zone which has taken on the dimension of a country at the point of split between the two Europes. The pendulum movement is recurrent for centuries. The adoption of Christianity from Constantinople, the Tatar invasion, the creation of a Cossack entity, the Ottoman incursion, the annexation by Russia makes Kyiv as part of the Orient. Polish and Lithuanian occupations, the rallying of a part of the clergy to Rome, the revolutionary romanticism, and the vitality of minorities such as, formerly, the Jewish community animated by the ideals of emancipation before being annihilated, make it part of the West. The repeated dream of independence, constantly undermined internally by fragmented feudalisms or popular revolts, threatened externally by predatory neighbors, thus crystallizes a nationalism exacerbated by the consciousness of an accordion-territory and a composite identity, if not contradictory."3
The core contest is inseparable from the very nature of this “border zone” between East and West. The geopolitical rivalry between East and West finds a ground in this territory which has a rich but tumultuous history.
The geopolitical question has brought to the fore several interrelated issues, aspirations and demands. The argument for the neutrality of such “a border zone” between East and West, the issue of demilitarization of this so-called “buffer state” by advocates of the security of Russia basing their concerns on the repeated historical Western incursions,4--these are all part of the difficulties in achieving peace in this region of the world.
Though aware of the thesis that the conflict in this part of the world is primarily secular rather than religious,5 the religious component plays an important role. Solutions to the current crisis could thus benefit from the reconciliation of religious entities.
Rivalries are not the monopoly of the geopolitical world. Regrettably, the religious world at large and the Christian faiths have woven in their last two thousand years of common history deep divisions, conflicts and wars which have considerably discredited the faith in the one who has been identified as the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. This article will highlight the religious aspect which seems to undergird the current tragedy in Ukraine.
Divisions and multiplications of factions have characterized the faith named for the One who prayed for the unity of His disciples. Jesus calls for unity as a means of credibility to the justification of belief in him.6
I have written the following reflection to encourage Christian traditions and denominations to reconsider the damage done to the credibility of Jesus Christ as the world witnesses Christian mutual hostilities and infightings. Foreseeing the turbulent history of those who claim to follow Him, Jesus addressed this same issue of the need for unity in His priestly prayer recorded in John 17.
When it comes to the situation in Ukraine, one must remember first that every faith tradition must learn the difficult lesson of embracing religious freedom for all.
The Roman Catholic Church offers an example. After the compromise of the faith through the Holy Roman empire, the intolerance, the inquisitions, the persecution of those deemed heretics, the oppression and burning at the stake of other Christians, a significant departure from medieval violence emerged with the second Vatican Council. In 1965, the adoption of the text Dignitatis humanae constituted a landmark in the shift from coercion, inquisition, and domination of the secular space to presence and nonviolent witness. Will this welcome development continue? Only history will tell.
Today the challenge is within the Christian Orthodox Church’s internal schism. A tragic situation is unfolding. In other words, unlike the 1054 schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, this one is within the Orthodox tradition itself.
The situation is complex and irreducible to generalizations because there are geopolitical, cultural, military, ideological and religious issues interwoven into a tapestry of intolerance. The root cause of the current crisis, however, has an incontrovertible religious component. Freedom of conscience and right to self-determination are parts of what lies at the heart of the Russia/Ukraine conflict and crisis.
Distinctives of the Orthodox traditions
Every Christian denomination professes unique claims determinative to their self-perception and identity. The Orthodox Church claims to have preserved the original apostolic faith.
The distinctive claim of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the following: “The Orthodox Church views itself as the divinely appointed witness to the unbroken ‘tradition’ of primitive apostolic Christianity. Through its divine liturgy, it unites the faithful in mystical communion with the holy fellowship of saints and martyrs extending backwards through the centuries of Christian history and forwards into the heavenly company of the redeemed. The church is the visible embodiment of heaven in earth.”7
The Orthodox faith is grounded on the dogmatic decrees of the seven ecumenical councils, the Scriptures, and the teaching of the Church Fathers.
The First Seven Councilsinclude the following:
The ecumenical councils were refuting several beliefs considered heresies. Key among those were heresies related to the nature of God, of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The ecumenical councils rejected the following:
Examples of Core differences between Orthodox and Catholics.
For the Orthodox believers, there is:
The Orthodox Church believes the Holy Spirit "proceeds from God the Father," while for Catholics and Protestants, the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." (This issue has historically been known as the “Filioque”).
There are obviously other differences. such as the differences of calendar and festivals, for example. The Orthodox Church observes the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics and Protestants use the more recent Gregorian calendar. This explains the different dates for religious festivals. Christmas is celebrated by Catholics and Protestants on December 25, whereas Orthodox Christians celebrate it around January 7.
The contributions of the Orthodox faith to Christian thought have been profound throughout the centuries. Suffice it to underline the depth of various aspects of the notion of the glory of God in its connections to Christian life, beliefs, and practice as experienced in Orthodox liturgy. Insights into the concept of human dignity have been remarkable.8 Orthodox spirituality with its focus on the Holy Spirit deserves deeper explorations.
Root Cause of the Current Crisis
The current crisis is connected to a schism within the Orthodox faith tradition. This schism is part of a rivalry regarding the legitimate authority in the Orthodox world. The issue is that of primacy of leadership, connected to a primacy of origin, and ultimately, the legitimacy of leadership over the whole Orthodox world.
Though there are about 15 autocephalous (“self-headed” or self-governing) entities in the Orthodox family, the two major rival sites of authority have been the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople and the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox church.
An expression of the root cause of the current conflict has been expressed as follows: “A theory grew up that there had been one Rome, in Italy, which had fallen to the barbarians and to the Roman Catholic heresy. There had been a second Rome: Constantinople. And when that fell to the Turks, there was a third Rome, Moscow. The emperor took his title from the first Rome – czar is the same word and Caesar–just as he had taken his religion from the second. In the year 1512 a monk wrote to the czar: ‘Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be. Thou art the only Christian sovereign in the world, the lord of all faithful Christians.’” 9
The rivalry was exacerbated by the decision to grant the status of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox church. In 2019, the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, granted autocephalous status to the Ukraine Orthodox Church, basically severing it from the Moscow Patriarchate and the patriarch Kirill.
There are several issues at play when it comes to the relation between the Ukrainian Orthodox church and the patriarchate of Moscow,.
A claim of a common root and origin.
The current schism questions the common root of the Russian and the Ukrainian Orthodox, dating back to 980 when Prince Volodymyr the Great or the Saint, converted to the Christian Orthodox Church.
“Around 950, Queen Olga, who ruled the principality of Kiev, was converted, and baptized by Germanic missionaries. But it was under her grandson Vladimir (980-1015) that Christianity began making significant progress. For reasons that are not altogether clear, Vladimir sent missionaries, not from the West, but rather from the Byzantine Empire. He and many of his subjects were baptized in 988, and this date is usually given as the beginning of both the Ukrainian and the Russian church—for the princes of Kiev would eventually rule in Moscow, which at the time of Vladimir’s conversion was just a small village.”10
A view of timeline and recent developments in the conflict within the Orthodox tradition can be insightful in understanding how the current conflict is inseparable from considerations of national identity and the common religious roots of Ukraine and Russia. This timeline also has important implications for religious liberty in such a context.
On 5 January 2019, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed the tomos that officially recognized and established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it autocephaly (self-governorship). The timeline of the events leading to the grant of autocephaly shows the following:
There are deeper issues connected to deeply held beliefs and philosophical dispositions.
During the pristine era of the Christian faith its internal resources were characterized by the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, by canonical writers’ articulations of the New Covenant reality, and by imperative exhortations. The following questions may be helpful to rally people of good will who are committed to the freedom Jesus brought.
Today, contemporary movement for peace is urgently needed, inviting all Christians, including our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox traditions, to wholeheartedly embrace the peace of Jesus we claim.
Going back to the roots of the Christian faith could be a good place to start to find inspiration, motivation, and a model of peacemaking in the person of Jesus Christ.
The New Covenant Jesus brought is indeed radical. It is distinguished by the concept of direct access to God and the abolition of in-betweens between God and human beings. The right to religious claims can never justify ways of violence. The Prince of Peace claimed by all Christians came to give life in abundance. God is the new center or rallying point. Jesus came to re-center everything on God to whom the whole earth belongs.
Christians of all traditions, while endowed with the right to personal beliefs, conscience, and claims, are all called to embrace the witness to Christ, the nonviolent Savior, who refused to call twelve legions of angels to fight for Him. He rather preferred to absorb the violent consequences of the evil of and in this world—to deliver us from evil, and death.
As followers of the prince of life, whatever our traditional allegiances may be, we are all called to human solidarity in the form of saving lives, healing, and promotion of health: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social. Wars in all their forms are negations and antitheses of these virtues.
May peace prevail. The prince of life endorsed peace as is revealed by His own words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” He said. (Matt 5:9).
May all, therefore, who pray “Our Father in Heaven,” give heed to the words of Jesus. We owe it to the One who gave His life for the life of all of us.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D. is director of Public Affairs & Religious Liberty at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
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