Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Patriarch Cyril, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been partner in crime in the political rhetoric of Vladimir Putin. In one of his first articles on the subject, Katie Kelaidis reminded readers that the Orthodox holiday (or holy day) of Forgiveness Sunday (March 6, 2022) would be the perfect time for Kirill to impose spiritual sanctions on Putin and call for an end to the horrific violence and loss of human life caused by its pride and its ideological embezzlement.
Yet Kirill chose not to condemn Putin in his Forgiveness Sunday sermon; instead, he sank deep into the sticky mud of denial and instead chose to condemn Western civilization, homosexuality, and political freedom for the special operation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. His sermon highlighted the language of global culture warsin which salvation – political and spiritual – is framed fascist language of us against them. With this sermon, Kirill unveiled to the whole world his ideological bent, his vision of the future, that of traditionalism, purity and Russian authoritarianism.
As a scholar who studies far-right American converts to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), I was not shocked by Kirill’s sermon. In fact, I was expecting it. Converts to ROCOR, often from evangelical backgrounds, use the language of the culture wars, combined with Christian nationalism and traditionalist philosophies of the body, to express their fears about secularism, gay and trans rights, feminism, abortion – the list is endless.
By traditionalist philosophies I mean ideas that focus on defending what they see as the primordial and universal truth, the angst of racial and sexual purity and the fear of white extinction, especially in the strain adopted by Julius Evola, a right-wing thinker highly favored in Fascist Italy which is currently invoked across Europe by radical groups. Together, these ideas provide a language for traditionalist orthodox – or what I call reactive orthodox – to express their world-building project of moral security for the future.
The crucial idea of their platform is that a return to a widespread tradition, not limited, but most often spoken of through firm social boundaries and gender binaries, is necessary to counteract secular modernity. Aspiring to all modernity This is not the case, the reactive Orthodox use historical thematic elements – a triptych of family, morality and purity long associated with white Christian hegemony – to make their political vision a future transnational reality. Kirill’s Sunday sermon on forgiveness is an exemplary example of the propaganda of traditional futurism.
sorry sunday marks the eve of Lent in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, and during the afternoon vespers (prayer) service, parishioners and clergy bow and ask for forgiveness. It is a highly kinetic service. Bows. Prostrations. Kisses. Tears. It is a service intended to bring out humility and social solidarity. The fact that Kirill used this Sunday to politicize the deaths of innocent Ukrainians is theologically corrupt.
The sermon, which has yet to be officially translated into English, similarly opens with many of Kirill’s public speeches. He congratulates the faithful on the religious feast; then moves on to talk about how spring is a time of growth and resurrection, but quickly mentions that this season is overshadowed by the political upheaval in the Donbass. From there, Kirill takes a sharp right turn toward a critique of freedom, suggesting that the people of Donbass rightly opposed the freedom of Western civilization because it brought with it a test of loyalty to God, i.e. pride parades (это гей-парад).
By not yielding to this sin, Kirill argues that the Donbass (and apparently Russia too) are therefore foreign to the world (то они не входят в тот мир, они становятся для него чужими.), not welcome in the West because of their opposition stances on pride parades, which he calls a sin. Why this language of strangers important?
As I write in my forthcoming book on American converts to Russian Orthodoxy, reactive Orthodox Christians emphasize a social form of apophatic theology – they distinguish themselves by saying what they do do not do, who they do do not support, and what they refuse to take part. By using this kind of rhetoric about themselves and their worldview, they intentionally craft a form of orthodox otherness that is somewhat foreign to the history of the Church.
It’s not just about showing off as strangers in the alien space of modernity, striving to achieve holiness on their way to the celestial kingdom. Everything is seen through a reactive and biased lens of Orthodox theology, in combination with traditionalist philosophies about the world, the social and the body, so that geopolitics, social values and all other aspects of contemporary culture take cosmic spiritual meanings.
Indeed, in his sermon, Kirill suggests that the events in Donbass did not really [any] Physical, but simply metaphysical meanings (Все сказанное Свидетельствует о Том, что мы вступили в борьбу, которая имеееееее не физическое, метафизическое значениеское значение.). Here it seems that Kirill, like many Orthodox Christians I have worked with, mapping reactive theological views on contemporary world politics.
Reactive Orthodox Christians I have worked with and those I have researched online often use the term “globohomo” in reference to the so-called forces of secular modernity which they claim are at work to destroy traditional family values and Christianity (see images, right). This term, a combination of globalism and homosexuality—with a conspiratorial, often anti-Semitic assumption that the Western Deep State will eventually establish a “woke” totalitarian regime of persecution—is the language of the global culture wars that has been weaponized through engagement with traditionalist philosophies and is easily propagated through digital technology.
Scholars of the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church, including Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlanerremind us that the culture wars rhetoric, emphasis on traditionalism and the reactionary stance of many ROC leaders seem to be an ideological importation of Western evangelical discourses. Criticizing secularism and Western politics, Kirill and the ROC nonetheless engage with both to create the geopolitical and transnational form of post-modern orthodoxy we witness today. In other words, they are not outside Western secularism, they are complicit in its reproduction through their discourses of social morality.
As his remarks, a slightly more sophisticated version of the “globohomo” diatribe, drew to a close, Kirill reminded his followers that they should forgive those who had offended them (. . . .) This reminder to forgive is usually offered by a priest or hierarch on Forgiveness Sunday, but in Kirill’s speech he clearly targets Ukraine and the West as moral offenders and, by extension, the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church, who sees himself, in many ways, as the new moral arbiter of the world.
My Western interlocutors, those who convert to ROCOR and align themselves with Putin’s traditionalism—and we could talk fascist—values, see Russia as the defender of Christian values ”in a world gone mad”. Post-Soviet Russia, the creation of Church and State so to speak, a geopolitical and religious country, becomes a beacon of hope for the eschaton (i.e. the divine plan for the end of the world) ; or as one of my digital interlocutors described it: “a vein stone [sic] for the compass of my soul.
Kirill’s sermon reminds us that religion is a social production, a humanly developed understanding of metaphysics that is as much about divinity as it is about social connectedness, belonging, and defining the boundaries of acceptability. Arming the annual Day of Forgiveness for the Orthodox faithful, Kirill preached anti-modern virtues to create fictional possibilities for a traditional future, a world of religious enchantment in which his version of God could rule and reign over the human race. (. . . чтобы правда Божия царствовала и господствовала и вела за собой род человеческис). This staunchly anti-human rights speech makes it clear that Kirill not only supports Putin’s terror campaign, but also theologically approves of it.