UOC and politicians: Subtle takeaways from Great Cross Procession-2021

Religious choice is often superseded by political choice in the minds of people. Photo: UOJ

During the Great Cross Procession, one can see some politicians next to the Primate. How should we take it and how should the Church build Her relationship with them?

After the Great Cross Procession - 2021, which brought together over 350 thousand believers, experts and analysts wrote and expressed a number of correct and logical conclusions, the essence of which is that the Church showed the capacity to defend Her rights and that the implementation of the current anti-church policy would not be that easy for the authorities. However, more sober and thoughtful reasoning can also usher other conclusions, not as obvious as those indicated above.

Now that some time has passed and the initial enthusiasm for the Great Cross Procession has abated, we propose to speculate about where the threat to the Church can come from and why it can be more significant than anti-church laws and the seizure of churches. Let’s reiterate that these conclusions are not apparent.

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Great Cross Procession - 2021. Photo: UOJ

From year to year, an attentive observer can spot famous Ukrainian politicians walk from the Vladimir Hill to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra during the Great Cross Procession next to His Beatitude Primate of the UOC. We constantly see some of them in churches at divine services, others prefer to demonstrate their religiosity amid TV camera lenses and media attention.

What lies behind such "cross-walking" at the head of the procession next to the Primate? A sincere expression of Orthodox faith? A demonstration of one’s loyalty to the UOC? A religious duty? Or a PR move, outreach in the electoral field and an attempt to associate believers with specific political power?

Non-obvious conclusion #1: not only religiosity

Let us hazard all this is taken together, and there is also some PR. After all, if politicians had only a sincere intention to pray for Ukraine, to participate in a procession with other people, to become one of the 350 thousand cross-walkers, they would not look for a place next to His Beatitude Onuphry, but would simply walk in the ranks of ordinary people, where they are not heavily exposed to TV cameras and camera lenses. This is fully consistent with the commandment of Christ: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 5,6).

The patristic teaching on the struggle with passions says that even the most outwardly specious deeds can be fundamentally sinful.

Of course, a procession with the cross does not imply a literal fulfillment of these words, but nevertheless, any person, known or unknown, can choose to be seen by God alone or mainly by journalists and TV people during the event. Therefore, for politicians, marching next to the Primate of the UOC is not only an expression of religiosity, but also something more secular.

However, only God knows to what extent this is PR or sincere faith for each individual politician. Often, even a person himself can be mistaken in assessing his thoughts, feelings and intentions. The patristic teaching on the struggle with passions says that even the most outwardly specious deeds can be fundamentally sinful. The best deed can be imputed to a person as a sin, if he becomes proud and admires his imaginary virtue afterwards.

A popular proverb also says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Below we will discuss how this can happen.

Non-obvious conclusion #2: believers as a political resource

The first to "get busted" badly on this issue was the notorious MP Ilya Kiva. Before the end of the Great Cross Procession, he said, “Remember those who came to the procession with the cross today, and most importantly – their number! It is these people who will come to overthrow the criminal power of Zelensky this autumn! Take it as a rehearsal today!"

However, he was promptly rebuked by the spokesman of the UOC, Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich. “Believers of the UOC are not going to make a coup or a new Maidan in the country and topple President V. Zelensky either this autumn or next spring,” the UOC spokesman wrote on his Fb page.

If we consider these statements in essence, they look like this: Mr. Kiva, known for his criticism of Zelensky, termed hundreds of thousands of believers of the Church in a familiar manner as his “allies” and decided that the UOC would take part in the seizure of power in the country (presumably under Kiva’s leadership?).

It was easy to give I. Kiva the brush-off, because his declaration about the participation of the Church in a coup is absurd intrinsically. In addition, Kiva is a person who just a few years ago said the following: “Today, leaving the church, I felt like setting the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra free from the Moscow FSB ghouls in robes, who seized and raped it, and to return the shrine to the Ukrainian people. I am sure that the liberation and return of the Lavra will usher the revival and liberation of the Ukrainian land."

But will it be just as easy for the Church to rebuff much more decent and intelligent people who are believers of the UOC and ensure real support for Her?

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Great Religious Procession - 2019

After all, there are politicians who are associate professors of the Kyiv Theological Academy and the seminary of the UOC, who support Orthodox film festivals; who are actively involved in charity work, take care of orphanages, etc. They are presented with a lot of church awards and medals.

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Deacon Vadim Novinsky during a divine service at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Vadim Novinsky, with the blessing of Metropolitan Onuphry, in 2020 even took the rank of a clergyman.

There is nothing reprehensible for believing people to see which politicians support the true Church, and which support the schismatics so that they could vote at the elections, taking this point into account. It is quite logical, but this logic is earthly, human.

Of course, all these people are doing good things for the Church, fighting anti-church laws within the walls of the Verkhovna Rada, and so on. A lot of temples were built for their money, a lot of families were blessed, a lot of sick people were cured. They deserve honor and praise and many years of life! But at the same time, they are engaged in political activities, fight for power, participate in elections and other forms of political struggle. And they are tempted, willingly or unwillingly, to use their true or external churchliness, the trust of believers as a resource in their political struggle.

We repeat – if there were no such temptation, we would not see them next to His Beatitude Onuphry or other bishops at religious processions, solemn services or other church events, while their charitable activities would not be displayed on party websites.

All this is neither sinful nor reprehensible. It's just earthly and secular. Yes, all this is not used for showing off (we hope so), it is just the way people can be easily informed about this or that politician. But the Lord commands all this to be done a little differently: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Let’s reiterate that there is nothing reprehensible for believing people to see which politicians support the true Church, and which support the schismatics so that they could vote at the elections, taking this point into account. It is quite logical, but this logic is earthly, human and can push these politicians to earning benefits from this, at the same time being detrimental to the cause of Christ on earth. From hence...

Non-obvious conclusion #3: the association of the Church with certain political forces

P. Poroshenko, V. Zelensky, D. Shmyhal and many other politicians and top government officials, supporting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, demonstrate their solidarity with this particular religious organization. Therefore, whether they like it or not, they associate their political forces with the OCU. All this is skillfully promoted by the media, and as a result, a stereotype is formed in society, according to which the so-called patriots, adherents of the "European choice", supporters of certain political parties cannot be believers of the UOC, but can practice their religion only in the OCU, or in extreme cases – in Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s" (Matt 22:21), the Lord said, but a fundamentally different and wrong stereotype is molded in Ukrainian society: "patriots" go to the OCU, while "putzriots" go to the UOC.

Certainly, such activities of the above-mentioned politicians are destructive for the religious consciousness of society. Nevertheless, politicians who support the UOC are, in fact, pouring water on the same mill. Willingly or unwillingly, they contribute to the UOC being associated with their political forces and vice versa.

The Church has a place for everyone regardless of political preferences. Yet, the demonstrative support of certain religious organizations by certain political forces makes this truth vague in the eyes of many citizens.

So it turns out that the religious choice is often superseded in the minds of common people by the political choice. Divisions based on political sympathies are projected onto religion, and the Church appears involved in those political divisions in society, when She should be a priori beyond these divisions.

The Fundamentals of the Social Concept of the ROC says about this quite clearly: “The unity of the Church as the mysterious body of Christ, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:23), on whose intact existence depends the eternal salvation of man, is Her highest value. <…> In the face of political disagreements, contradictions and struggles, the Church preaches peace and cooperation between people of different political views. She also admits the presence of various political convictions among Her episcopate, clergy and laity, with the exception of those that clearly lead to actions that contradict the Orthodox doctrine and moral norms of Church Tradition."

In other words, the Church welcomes everyone: democrats, monarchists, socialists, whoever. Yet, the demonstrative support of certain religious organizations by certain political forces makes this truth vague in the eyes of many citizens.

Non-obvious conclusion #4: the association of the Church with power

Let's refer again to the Fundamentals of the Social Concept: “There are many cases of church-wide support for various political doctrines, views, organizations and leaders in the history of the Church. In a number of cases, such support was associated with the need to uphold the vital interests of the Church in the extreme conditions of anti-religious persecution, destructive and restrictive actions of heterodox authorities."

The most recent example is the situation in Montenegro, where the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose very existence was threatened, had to urge its supporters to vote in elections for opponents of those political forces that pursued anti-church policies. As a result, the opposition parties at that time came to power, which canceled the most odious clauses of the anti-church law, albeit not all.

In the short term, the Church won, but She lost conceptually. This loss consisted in the fact that in the eyes of many Montenegrin citizens, the Church began to be perceived not so much as a sacred entity, but as a kind of socio-political organization engaged in the political struggle and having dividends or losses from this struggle.

The Church leads people to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this is speculative and not as obvious as political victories here, before our eyes.

In Ukraine, there have already been hints that the UOC can follow the example of Montenegro. In February 2021, the spokesman of the UOC, Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich, in the program “Right to Faith” on the YouTube channel “First Cossack” said: “We were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of Orthodox Christians in Montenegro. Imagine: half of the population of Montenegro took to the streets of cities and villages. <...> We will also have a lot. Every Sunday the temples of our Church are visited by about 2 million people, there are even more than that on major holidays. I think that about the same number of people can take to the streets of cities, if necessary. Therefore, we approve and look with interest to the experience of the Serbian Church and Orthodox Montenegrins in defending their religious rights."

Indeed, the temptation is great: to use the powerful church resource at the next (or extraordinary) elections to support the political forces, whose leaders take part in processions with the cross walking next to His Beatitude Onuphry, to help them come to power, and then to put an end to pressure on the Church, anti-church laws, and enjoy other "goodies".

But, firstly, there is a risk that despite church support, these political forces will be defeated, and persecution will be exponentially enhanced instead. Secondly, in the event of a victory, the narrative will be firmly entrenched in the public consciousness: the Church leads to the earthly kingdom, to political victory. It is visible and tangible. Although the Church says that it leads people to the Kingdom of Heaven, this is speculative and not so obvious, while political victories are here, before our eyes.

The victory of the "church forces" (let's call it in that way) will also inevitably lead to the fact that people will be drawn to the Church as a means to land certain positions, or make useful business contacts, or get other everyday benefits. Strange as it may sound, it has always been so in church history to some extent, even in times of persecution. But against the background of external prosperity and benevolence on the part of the authorities, the number of such people increases simply in huge numbers, being more destructive for the Church than external pressure.

Conclusion #5, this time quite obvious: the Church is not of this world

Let us quote again the Fundamentals of the Social Concept: “The Church is not of this world, just as the Lord Jesus Christ is not of this world. <...> The Church is called to act in the world in the image of Christ, to testify about Him and His Kingdom." Accordingly, everything that contributes to this testimony should be accepted, while everything that interferes with it should be rejected. The involvement of the Church in politics in whatever way hinders the mission of the Church on earth, but history shows that it is often not possible to avoid this completely.

“The Church, being the body of the God-man Christ, is Incarnate. But if Christ is a perfect God-man, then the Church is not yet a perfect God-manhood, because on earth She is at war with sin, and Her humanity, although internally united with the Divine, does not express Him in everything and correspond to Him” (Fundamentals of the Social Concept).

The Church cannot prohibit anyone from walking alongside the hierarchy in processions with the cross, cannot prohibit the posting of information about charity events by politicians on the websites of political parties, nor can She dissociate Herself from Her believers on the grounds that they are engaged in politics or business. But at the same time, the Church can develop a certain code of conduct for its believers involved in politics, determine the acceptable degree of demonstration by politicians of their commitment, draw the red lines beyond which such politicians should not go.

At best, it should be done now, when the Church is out of favor with those in power, because when/if the political situation changes in a direction more favorable to the Church, it may be too late.

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