Unexpected theology from Patriarch Kirill
In one of his sermons, Patriarch Kirill stated the thesis of the remission of sins, which has been a step-change in the theology of the Church.
On September 25, 2022, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patriarch Kirill delivered a sermon at the Liturgy, where he expressed some theses that were unusual for Orthodox theology. And since they, directly or indirectly, affect the church life of every believer, we propose to analyze them in detail.
The sacrifice of the Savior and the sacrifice of the Russian soldier in Ukraine
The Patriarch's sermon begins with a very profound reflection on the Savior's Sacrifice of the Cross:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (John 3:16). Gave to what? To death! The only begotten Son, the Divine Son! And why was this terrible Divine Sacrifice required, the extent and significance of which cannot be grasped by the human mind? Almighty God gave Himself for execution, which was used to execute criminals, outcasts of human society, who had indeed committed terrible, egregious crimes.
When one considers this unspeakable Divine Sacrifice, it is difficult for the human mind to grasp the whole Divine purpose. However, it is very clear that the Lord does not give Himself, suffers and dies in a human way for something that would be completely incomprehensible to us and inherent only in Him, who has immense knowledge of Himself. He enables us to understand that if God in His Son gives His human life for the sake of others, for the sake of the human race, then sacrifice is the highest manifestation of man's love for his neighbors."
The Patriarch's words about Christ's sacrifice are a model of sublime and heartfelt preaching.
These words can be inserted into a homiletics textbook as a model of sublime and heartfelt preaching. Indeed, Christ's sacrifice cannot be understood with the mind, felt with the heart, grasped by our weak human consciousness. Indeed, we must follow Christ and do what He taught us both in word and in life. The apostle John the Theologian says: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:16). Indeed, sacrifice is the highest manifestation of love for one's neighbor, as the Lord himself said: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13).
All these words of Patriarch Kirill are indisputable, but there is a small flaw in them. The Primate for some reason did not continue the quote from John's Gospel "For God so loved the world...", but cut it off in half a word. The full text of the verse is, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). These words reveal the meaning of Christ's Sacrifice of the Cross, the aim for which it was offered. Let us not speculate whether Patriarch Kirill omitted these words on purpose or by accident, but they certainly would not have allowed the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to say what he said next in his sermon.
And then he began to compare Christ's sacrifice with... the actions of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In literal terms, the Patriarch said the following: "The Church is aware that if someone, moved by a sense of duty, by the need to fulfill his oath, remains faithful to his calling and dies in the performance of his military duty, he certainly commits an act tantamount to sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others."
But how valid are such comparisons?
After all, Christ was crucified so that people might inherit eternal life, so that they might enter the kingdom of God, shut up by sin. But what are Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine for? What and whom are they protecting?
After all, it was not Ukrainian troops that invaded Russian territory on February 24. It is not Ukrainian missiles that are destroying peaceful Russian cities. If that were the case, then Russian soldiers would indeed be defenders of their homeland, their faith, their families. However, the truth is that Russia and its inhabitants are not threatened by anything. It is the suburbs of Kyiv, not Moscow, that stand in ruins; it is in Ukraine that houses collapse, burying innocent people under their rubble; it is in Ukraine that parents weep over the bodies of their murdered children.
The Savior voluntarily gave Himself to be crucified on the Cross, He is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). He did not kill anyone, He did not steal anything from anyone, He did not harm anyone, He did not make anyone homeless, and He did not make anyone flee from Himself to escape death. What are Russian soldiers doing in Ukraine? The same as anybody else in wars of aggression – killing and destroying.
But what is the "sacrificial feat" of the Russian military? What do they give their lives for? After all, each of them has wives, children, parents and relatives. Each killed is a tragedy for so many people. Do they agree with such a sacrifice? And what is this sacrifice?
Patriarch Kirill tried to answer this question back at the beginning of the war. "We have entered into a struggle that has not physical but metaphysical significance," he said so in his homily on Forgiveness Sunday, March 6, 2022. That is, according to the Patriarch, Russia metaphysically stands on the side of good and fights a metaphysical evil in the form of Ukraine. Some time later, at a meeting in a hospital with wounded soldiers, he developed this idea: "There is such a phenomenon in the world as the struggle between good and evil, and it runs along state borders and along many other borders that divide human society.”
In other words, it turns out that the soldiers of Russia in the war against the "metaphysical evil" defend the "metaphysical good". And by losing their lives, they sacrifice themselves to this good. It looks beautiful, but the theology of the Church knows no such doctrine. The good to the Christian is the Savior, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Light of Christ, which enlightens the universe. Evil is the devil, demons and their work, which destroys human souls. Can we say that behind the soldiers of the Russian Federation stands Christ, that they are fighting against the devil and sacrificing themselves in this struggle in Ukraine? No, we see nothing like that. What we see is the usual war of aggression of one state against another, a war of which there have been a great many in history.
Can we say that behind the soldiers of the Russian Federation stands Christ, that they are fighting against the devil and sacrificing themselves in this struggle in Ukraine? No, we see nothing like that.
However, Patriarch Kirill is not the first to put the sacrifice of Christ on a par with the deaths of people who die for political or state interests.
"SMO” and the “Heavenly Hundred”
In 2015, on the anniversary of Euromaidan, UGCC head Sviatoslav Shevchuk spoke extensively and intelligently about the Sacrifice of the Cross: "The Son of God sacrificed Himself to save the world. In this sacrifice all of mankind received eternal life. The Savior's death on the Cross was the beginning of the resurrection, the victory of life over death, the journey of mankind from darkness to light and from earth to heaven."
However, he immediately stated that the deaths of those who died on the Maidan (the "Heavenly Hundred") are quite comparable to the sacrifice of Christ: "We are talking about the Easter sacrifice of the Heavenly Hundred." Moreover, Shevchuk equated the death of the Maidan activists with the Savior's blood of redemption: "This holy blood of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred sprinkled the will of Ukraine... Therefore this sacrifice is the beginning of life. Death that became life-giving."
Unfortunately, it is hard not to draw certain parallels between Shevchuk's words about the "Heavenly Hundred" in 2015 and Patriarch Kirill's sermon on the soldiers of the Special Military Operation in 2022. Both speak of the greatness of Christ's sacrifice and both believe that the deaths of those who died in a war or coup d'état are comparable to it.
However, the Patriarch went even further, saying that the Russian soldier who died in Ukraine is absolved of his sins: "He offers himself as a sacrifice for others. And so we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins a person has committed."
Does death in war wash away sins?
The Church teaches that sins are washed away only by repentance, not by death "for a righteous cause." Moreover, if a soldier commits murder in war, he has a special need for this repentance because he commits a mortal sin.
St. Basil the Great (4th century): "Our fathers did not consider murders committed in war to be murders: in my opinion, they wanted to bestow forgiveness on those who fought in the name of prudence and love. But perhaps they (the soldiers) should be advised to abstain from communion for only three years, since their hands are not clean."
This Rule of St. Basil the Great does not contain a command, only advice, but it has been used as a guide in deciding whether to allow soldiers returning from war to receive Communion. The 13th century canonist Matthew Vlastar, in his commentary on this Rule, wrote: "It is necessary that those who lead their lives in battle and soak their hands in the blood of foreign tribesmen should first be purified by the healing of repentance, and by the fire of repentance they should destroy the filth connected with such occupation, and thereby come to the sacraments of the new Adam".
St. Basil the Great in another of his rules says that both the soldiers (and it is about protection), and the robbers have the same intention – to kill: "Also absolutely free, and there is no doubt about it, is what is done by the robbers and the enemy invasions: For robbers kill for the sake of money, avoiding detection of their wickedness, and those who are at war go to defeat the enemy, with the clear intention not to daunt them, not to instruct them, but to destroy them".
Moreover, St. Basil says that even a man, who kills a robber, defending himself against the attack, is guilty and must have an epitimia: "If those who mutually afflict robbers and are not in the church ministry, let them be excommunicated from the communion of the Holy Mysteries; if they are clerics, let them be defrocked. For it is said, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword' (Matthew 26:52).”
As we see, the Church considers murder of enemies as a sin, which should be healed by repentance, even in cases when a person defends his country, his loved ones in war or from the attack of robbers. But murder in a war of aggression, we think, needs to be healed all the more so, as it can only be seen as an aggravating circumstance. Moreover, nowhere in Sacred Tradition do we find the claim that death in war washes away a person's sins.
Nowhere in Sacred Tradition do we find the claim that death in war washes away a person's sins.
However, there have been attempts to introoduce such theological norms in Orthodoxy, though at the initiative of rulers. In the 10th century the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, who waged numerous wars, demanded that the Church affirm as a motivating tool for his soldiers the new dogma about the automatic canonization of holy soldiers who fell in the war. However, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Synod firmly refused him, citing the Rule of Basil the Great. Such conduct of the hierarchy looked extremely unpatriotic from the point of view of empire and emperor Nikephoros Phokas. Besides, the Byzantine bishops risked incurring the wrath of a cruel ruler, who was used to pursuing his will. But then the truth of God was more important to them than external circumstances and threats.
On the theology of the shahids
Patriarch Kirill's sermon has already resonated in Orthodoxy. Bishop Arseny (Heikkinen) of the Finnish Archdiocese of Phanar said that Patriarch Kirill’s words would be more appropriate for a Muslim leader, since Islam preaches the doctrine according to which those killed in war are promised forgiveness of sins and a place in paradise. The same criticism of the ROC’s Primate was voiced by Metropolitan Chrysostom of Messina (Church of Greece), who stated that the words of the Patriarch resemble the ideology of the jihadists.
I hate to say it, but such taunts by "Greek" hierarchs have good reason.
A quote from the book "Religion: An Encyclopedia": "According to Islam, the shahid asserts his faith by his own death in the war against the infidels. He is guaranteed paradise, where he gets passing the tests of the grave and Muslim purgatory, so he does not need to wash his face before burial. All earthly sins are forgiven him, and in paradise he will be given a high position, close to the throne of Allah."
We will recall the Patriarch's quote: "If someone, moved by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains faithful to his calling and dies in the performance of military duty, then he certainly commits an act tantamount to a sacrifice <...> this sacrifice washes away all the sins the person has committed."
The Patriarch does not promise heaven to the soldiers, but this logically follows from his words, because a sinless man cannot go to hell. In addition, Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) in a sermon on the Exaltation of the Cross stated bluntly that during the war in Ukraine "our soldiers go to heaven, it is a shortcut to heaven. And we should not be afraid, cowardly that we will die."
"Our warriors go to heaven, it is a shortcut to heaven. And we should not be afraid, cowardly that we will die."
Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov)
Note, Shaheed theology states that death in war washes away the sins of only those warriors who fight in the name of Islam. If someone died fighting his enemies not in the name of Allah, but because of worldly interests (material wealth, fame, etc.), he will not be rewarded by Allah in that life, but rather he will be subjected to punishment.
As we can see, Patriarch Kirill goes further than Islam. In his sermon, he lists the values for which death supposedly "washes away all the sins one has committed": the sense of duty, the fulfillment of one's oath, loyalty to one's vocation. It is not hard to see that the Orthodox faith is not on this list. So the question arises: do the words of Patriarch Kirill apply only to Orthodox Christians or to all Russian soldiers in general: Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants and atheists?
For example, the head of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, stated that the war in Ukraine for Russian Chechen soldiers is a jihad, that "our brothers first and foremost defend Islam, they defend values, they defend the greatness of God Almighty."
Nowhere in his sermon did the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church indicate that he was addressing only Orthodox Christians. It turns out that the Orthodox faith, being part of the Church of Christ, is not indicated as a prerequisite for the purification of sins. Does it imply that death in war itself has the power to purify sins?
But if this is so, what about the Savior's Sacrifice of the Cross? After all, for two thousand years the Church has declared that it is this sacrifice and only this sacrifice alone that washes away all of man's sins? The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" (Rom 5:9,10).
It is the same elsewhere: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished" (Rom 3:23-25). It is the same in Ephesians: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace" (Eph 1:7).
The apostle John the Theologian: "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." (1 Jn 1:7).
There are many similar quotations from Scripture and the writings of the holy fathers. As a matter of fact, the dogma of man's redemption from sin and death by the Savior's Sacrifice on the Cross is one of the chief tenets of Christianity. Man is cleansed from his sins only by the Grace of God, he himself can not cleanse his sins, he can only become a partaker of this cleansing Grace of God through faith and the sacraments of the Church. The assertion that the death of a soldier in war (and all the more so in a war of aggression and invasion) "washes away all the sins a person has committed" is inadmissible in any perspective.
Phanariot Bishop Arseny of Finland called Patriarch Kirill's words heresy. His accusation is extremely difficult to refute.
The above-mentioned Bishop Arseny of Finland, Bishop of Phanar, called Patriarch Kirill's words heresy. This accusation is extremely difficult to refute. It is much more serious than the attacks on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church about the "heresy of the Russian world.” The "Russian world" is a socio-political theory that, at best, can be called semi-church. But it does not touch the dogmatic teaching of the Church and therefore cannot be considered in the categories of heresy/not heresy. See the article "About the Tribunal of Patriarch Kirill" for more details.
In turn, "theology of the shaheed" is a modification of the Church's fundamental teaching on salvation and the purification of sins. The fact that such words of the Patriarch could become a call to action for hundreds of thousands of people is particularly dangerous.