The New Sergianism

Ever since Constantine saw the Cross appear in the sky prior to the Battle for the Milvan Bridge (AD 312), the relationship between the Church and the state has been a precarious one. In contrast to the romantic image of Holy Byzantium or Rus oft envisaged by eager young converts to Orthodoxy, Father Alexander Schmemann paints a rather depressing picture of constant subjugation of the Church beneath the heel of the government in his monograph The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. A handful of Christian kings and emperors are considered saints, of course; but many more are remembered for the harm they caused the people of God. And why shouldn’t this be so, when we can count the righteous kings of Israel and Judah on one hand? History always repeats itself. As it was in the Old Covenant, so it is in the New.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 outlines clearly the office of kingship: he shall be chosen by God from among the holy people; he shall be presented a copy of the Law of God by the priests, and shall study it every day of his life; he shall not multiply wives, nor gold, nor silver; and he shall not exalt himself over anyone in the nation. Such a monarch and his descendants “may reign long in the kingdom of Israel.” David was the first such man chosen by the Lord. This isn’t to say his reign was without sin (we have only to recall his affair with Bathsheba and indirect murder of Uriah); but when impugned for his transgressions by Nathan, he repented. The prophet was able to speak freely because he represented the voice of God. And David was willing to listen because he was a servant of God. Yet most of his successors refused to heed the prophets sent to them.

A prophet hears the small, still voice of God that tears down strongholds and false arguments (2 Cor 10:4). He does not fear the authority of earthly lords, nor the demonic hordes, for the Truth must prevail over aught else. And this vocation is no longer entrusted to a few.  The Lord tells Joel, “And it shall happen in those days that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (2:28). This prognosis came to pass on the Day of Pentecost, and continues to be fulfilled in each Christian who hears God and speaks on his behalf.

Many have taken this calling to heart over the centuries, condemning even Christian kings who failed to live up to the measure of Christ: bishops and presbyters, monks and nuns, and the occasional Fool-for-Christ. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, St Basil (for whom the famous Muscovite cathedral is dedicated) often challenged his sovereign. Once, the saint presented meat to Ivan during the Great Fast, who in turn recoiled and chastised  the holy fool. St Basil responded, “I only eat meat, but you are devouring your people.” In similar fashion, St Philip of Moscow, himself chosen by Ivan for the patriarchal throne, was thrown into prison and later strangled to death for challenging his Tsar (while his brother bishops acquiesced to his condemnation out of fear). Had St Philip known the outcome of his actions, I doubt he would have forsaken his prophetic calling.

As it was in the time of the Tsars, so it is now. The temptation to remain silent in the face of injustice, or even to condone wickedness, remains strong (just as Patriarch Sergius did beginning in 1927 when he endorsed the Soviet regime). At the time of writing this, my brother priests in Russia have informed me that their Patriarch has openly endorsed the invasion of Ukraine in Russian media. And not only that, he has asked his priests to add this litany to every Divine Liturgy: “To the foreign peoples who want to fight, and those who turn against Russia, forbid and overthrow their plans, we pray to the Lord.” This stands in stark contrast to the brilliant document, now two decades old, titled The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church:

The Church infallibly preaches the truth of Christ and teaches moral commandments which came from God himself. Therefore, she has no power to change anything in her teaching. Nor has she the power to fall silent and to stop preaching the truth whatever other teachings may be prescribed or propagated by state bodies. In this respect, the Church is absolutely free from the state. For the sake of the unhindered and internally free preaching of the truth, the Church suffered persecution by the enemies of Christ not once in history. But the persecuted Church is also called to endure the persecution with patience, without refusing to be loyal to the state persecuting her.

Where is the prophetic voice of the Church which the authors of this text assume? For the most part, it is not coming from the upper ranks of the hierarchy, but from below. One priest was jailed and fined for preaching against the war; and almost 300 Russian priests have now signed a petition calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Only one bishop under the Moscow Patriarchate has spoken clearly: Metropolitan Onufry. Unlike others, he hears the small, still voice of God.

The Christian must remain “free among the dead” (Ps 88:5), ever careful not to align with the state or capitulate to its rhetoric when it fails to reflect the ethics of Paradise. And the clergyman must likewise be free, for he is entrusted with God’s law, not the law of men. He must speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), embodying the eternal ideal he constantly represents. His prophetic voice must not only be true, but pastoral in application. He will not vilify the powerful, but call them to repentance, just as Nathan did to David. He will not disparage the people who fall prey to propaganda, but summon them to return to their first love, as Jesus commanded the Church at Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7).

The man of God must be an icon of Christ in the midst of the world, bringing the kingdom of heaven with him wherever he goes—the same kingdom we pray daily to come upon the earth here and now. Such a man is not only enjoined to pray for this, but to also manifest it in his works. And those who hear his inspired message are the ones ready to pick up their cross and follow the Lord. They will be prepared to turn the other cheek and forgive their enemies. These are the ones who “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is 2:4). They shall reign with Christ in the midst of his enemies, for the meek shall inherit the earth.

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