. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Orthodoxy's Defense

I was drawn to the Oct. 2 opinion piece by Yury Buyda on what the Russian Orthodox Church has to say to Russia. It's my impression that most of your recent articles silently side with his position, which I would like to argue with: a perception that the Russian Orthodox Church is a kind of colorful antiquities shop that displays all kinds of picturesque wares, but where the goods are obsolete and the salesmen are rude.


From here we proceed to the usual row of complaints: The church is too conservative; the patriarch is too submissive; the priests are too nationalistic. As a result, the people who are not sick with bigotry and who come to the temple for God's sake alone soon return home, complaining that while Christ was a Jew, the priest suggests he was an Aryan. But had they been better informed about the true nature of the church, they might have realized that they came to it for the wrong reasons.


The church is not equivalent to its temples or its clergy. It is a community by nature and a community by name: The original Greek word for church -- ecclessia -- in fact means an "assembly," not a "temple." The central doctrine of Orthodoxy is that salvation is possible only within the church; therefore, everyone seeking God and eternal life has to learn to live in peace with his or her neighbors.


The problem of democrats in the church is that they expect the spiritual environment to adjust to themselves, not vice versa. Obviously, making peace with the homebred monarchists and nationalists, just as throwing pearls to swines, makes no sense. But if we see that the church houses people who do not display Christian love as most Christians understand it, must we necessarily turn our backs on it and run away?


Is Mr. Buyda's claim that the church has been ugly, is ugly and will go to hell (while the righteous sit at home reading the New Testament at their leisure) correct? I believe it is plain wrong.


Some external aspects of Russian Orthodoxy rightly raise great concerns, but, contrary to what many articles that have appeared in these pages suggest, I would argue that such appearances are deceptive. The Russian Church has managed to maintain its strong grass-roots spirituality, which goes several centuries back to the days when Church leaders risked their own heads leading dissenters and rebels against tyrants on the throne or foreign invaders. The last great leader was St. Veniamin who was shot by order of a Bolshevik court in 1922.


I have visited many parishes in remote regions and have seen friendly people and dedicated priests, babushkas in kerchiefs and rockers with tattoos praying side by side at the Sunday liturgy. And, above all, the spirit of faith -- true and unconditional -- is in the air.


Many will recall the summer article in The Moscow Times about the icon procession, whose members walked barefoot for six days, 20 hours a week. The author portrayed them with surprise and some scorn, like exotic animals in a zoo. However, no matter how seemingly lacking this procession was of purpose, it was a deed of faith, because many of them took on this arduous journey not to seek healing, success or any other benefits from God, but to repent and atone for their sins.


This is a huge distance both from vocal nationalists who draw on the church to support their ideas and from the democrats who demand from the church free "spirituality" instead of laborsome faith. By the way, there is no reason to trade domestic religion for imported ones. This does not mean, of course, that foreign missionaries should be banned, but that they will simply find it extremely hard to compete when Russian Orthodoxy finds ways of showing its full spiritual heritage. In Britain, for example, the Russian Orthodox flock has been growing steadily in the last decades at the expense of the dominant Anglican Church.


The only blame that can be laid on the decent members of the church is that they do not try hard enough to stop the bigots or do not adequately compensate for the sins of their unholy brethren with their own piety and righteousness. "Why do you see a straw in the eye of your neighbor and miss a log in your own eye?" These words of the Savior are addressed to the fundamentalists and modernists alike. The fact that nationalists and conservatives are nasty does not make democrats any better.


Democrats tend to forget that the church is meant to be a home to everyone. The church -- be it Russian Orthodox or any other Christian church -- is not a club or a political party (even if the actions of the bishops or clergy tend to suggest the contrary); it is a visible part of the mystical body of Christ, and will remain such -- integral and indivisible -- in eternity. Its members unite to gain unity with God and to become as holy as He (and not to follow the "teachings" or "example" of a certain courageous Jesus, as Mr. Buyda suggested). The church has no other purpose. As a human community, the church houses only sinners; as a home of God, it is sacred. Many find this hard to comprehend, but despite this, the church's task is Herculean.


So, do not be in a hurry to bury the Russian church. It is not terminally damaged; it only needs to recover from its current coma. It has more spiritual force than outsiders may feel and will eventually emerge with a new power of spirit and become a forward-looking, dynamic, modern community. Its followers are its greatest asset, and it just needs time to find its own words and ways.


In the meantime, I would advise its new Russian critics to follow the advice I follow myself: Do not ask what the church has to say to you; ask what you have to say to the church. Go join it and help it recover.





Eric Mikkiver, a resident of Moscow, writes on Christian themes. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.