Imperial Christianity Again

The following is an excerpt from Patriarch Kirill’s sermon on “Forgiveness Sunday” on the Orthodox Church calendar.

For eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in the Donbass. And in the Donbass there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power. Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that “happy” world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false “freedom.” Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible—it is the Gay Pride parade. The demands on many to hold a gay parade are a test of their loyalty to the new world order; and we know that if people or countries reject these demands, then they do not enter into that world order, they become strangers to it.

But we know what this sin is, which is promoted through the so-called Prides. This is a sin that is condemned by the Word of God, both the Old and the New Testament. Moreover, the Lord, condemning sin, does not condemn the sinner. He only calls him to repentance, but not to ensure that through a sinful person and his behavior, sin becomes a life standard, a variation of human behavior regarded as respected and acceptable.

Entering the field of Great Lent, let us try to forgive everyone. What is forgiveness? If you ask for forgiveness from a person who has broken the law or done something evil and unfair to you, you thereby do not justify his behavior, but simply stop hating this person. He ceases to be your enemy, which means that by your forgiveness you deliver him to the judgment of God. This is the true meaning of forgiving each other our sins and mistakes. We forgive, we renounce hatred and vindictiveness, but we cannot there, in the face of heaven, accept what is not true; therefore, by our forgiveness, we commit our offenders into the hands of God, so that both God’s judgment and God’s mercy may be administered on them. So that our Christian attitude towards human sins, delusions and insults will not be the cause of their death, but the just judgment of God would be carried out on everyone, including those who take upon themselves the heaviest responsibility, widening the chasm between brethren, filling it with hatred, malice, and death.

I do not normally use an extensive quote from someone else in my blogs. I normally use a few lines. However, when I read a few summaries of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s forgiveness Sunday sermon, I sought an English translation. It took a little while to find it. Upon reading Kirill’s text, the connections between his version of Orthodox Christianity and the Christian Right in America are clear. Each embraces imperial Christianity and claims the authority to use violence to cleanse.

Why is it that when Christianity is closely embedded with a ruling party, almost always Christians justify holy violence and war upon some scapegoated other? How do we who call ourselves Christian so frequently take a religion allegedly modeled on the path of Jesus of Nazareth and use that religion to justify killing others?

Detail from “The Vision of the Cross” by assistants of Raphael, depicting the vision of the cross and the Greek writing “Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” in the sky, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. (Wikepedia)

It is as if Jesus’ call statement in Luke 4 that “the spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach good news to the poor” is mistaken. It is as if the Beatitudes are reversed and the weak are to be swept away by those with military might. Why is it that when a government claims the sacred canopy of Christianity, that canopy is constantly splattered with blood?

We in the United States certainly know this corrupt association between Christianity, rulers, and violence. We know our history of how these 50 states came to be populated predominantly by people from other parts of the world at extreme cost to the nations who first lived here.

We know many of our founders were not only great philosophical thinkers. They were also land speculators who infrequently recognized the humanity of the persons and nations from which they took the land and made themselves wealthy. We know how Christianity was used to justify slavery as well as to promote a post-slavery nation in which Black and White would remain unequal. We know from our own history that some immigrants were seen as desirable and others rejected because they diluted the purity of the imaginary white gene pool.

Why is it that it’s so hard to find persons and parties running on a platform that sounds something like this:

Love is the highest form of human interaction. As a people, we cannot be told by our government whom to love and whom to hate. We can however, by legislation, policy, and influencing culture, demonstrate that we are a just nation. We are a nation in which freedom and equality are equally valued values. We are a nation that provides opportunity for everyone to be prosperous, with prosperity understood in multiple ways. We are a nation in which where the zip code in which one lives does not determine access to good education, affordable and high quality health care, and equal treatment under the law from the police through the courts. Our party stands for the broadly embraced religious value of seeing dignity in every human being. In making decisions regarding the production and use of natural resources, we resolve to minimize the negative impact our decisions may have on future generation and maximize the possibility that their lives will be at least as good as ours.

There is no longer a majority religion in the United States. But Christianity still holds more cultural power than any other form of organized religion. In terms of political power today, Christians of the sort that would resonate with Patriarch Kirill’s words seem more visible and identifiable in American public life than Christians who believe that bringing good news to the poor is at the heart of Christianity.

Patriarch Kirill’s statement ought to be roundly condemned by all persons who name themselves Christian. He is using Jesus and his disdain for liberal democracy to justify Russia’s war against Ukraine. While his language is Russian, his rhetoric is far too familiar to those of us in the United States following how Christianity has been and is being used to justify purifying a land through exterminating those we deem to be dirty and installing a government that claims to be God’s agent.

I close with these words from Martin Luther King, Jr. The contrast between Dr. King’s words and Patriarch Kirill’s will be clear to you:

The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence are emptiness and bitterness.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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