This article has been published in a special edition of Russia in Global Affairs, May 2019
– You mentioned a couple of years ago a “post-Christian vortex” in the United States. Yet lots of experts now talk about the post-secular world. Could you comment on those two trends? Are they linked in a way or do they evolve independently of each other, or are they perhaps mutually antagonistic?
– The term ‘post-secular’ was coined by Jürgen Habermas, and it required that a society had known or practiced as a culture a particular religion or a number of religions and then abandoned them. I’m not sure we’ve achieved the post-secular standing here in the West. I’m not sure that we can put that Habermas label on us.
In my article Transfigure or Die Trying I was trying to effect a parallel between what the Church underwent in the first three centuries of its existence prior to the Edict of Milan by Saint Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius to what’s coming in the Western world especially since the 1960s.
The difference between the two though is even more profound than similarity. The early Christians confronted a hostile world on all sides initially: first in the reluctant Jewish authorities regarding the new Way, the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Then, as the Church spread to the Mediterranean world with its Greco-Roman culture, Christians found that even more hostile. But the Church survived that dual onslaught and it managed, I would say, through the providence of God. I view history as providential, not simply as sociological, political, geographic, and social. All of those factors matter as well, but God uses them, as well as conquers and empires for His divine purpose to convert the very power that was the state. I don’t think anybody—except perhaps the most hopeful, the most positive prophets and leaders of the early Church—could look forward 200 years and think, “Wow, this is going to be the Roman Christian Empire!”
If that were a hope, it was forlorn or at least distant. We managed to convert the greatest power of the Western world and arguably the whole world at that time, the Roman Empire. That’s a feat that just staggers imagination today. And then it managed to survive in the West the incursions of the migrant Germanic tribes. The Western Church, again, managed to convert vast swathes of territory: the Visigoths in Spain, the Goths in Germany and in Italy, the Franks, the Angles, the Saxons, eventually even the Vikings. Those were brutal peoples, pagans, of course—we would say godless. It was an amazing feat that Christian missionaries could actually sway the Vikings to Christianity, the religion of peace and justice, love and mercy, and joy.
Meanwhile, in the East the Byzantine Empire remained firm and stable, witnessing and creating a wonderful civilization for a thousand years. Even after the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453, the culture of the Christian East remained, for the most part, the legacy of Byzantium. Of course, in Russia and in the East Slavic lands a whole new culture began to flourish among new kinds of Slavic peoples. And, as a result, we see Imperial Russia reaching its apogee in the 19th century in terms of Orthodoxy and culture, the magnificent literature above all.
In the West, of course, along with the secularizing trends of the Reformation, the separation of Church and state eventually emerging from that upheaval, the so-called Enlightenment, and philosophical nihilism in the 19th and 20th centuries, all of the Western Christian legacy was gradually and inexorably squandered.
Here’s the difference: in the first few centuries the Church had never known a culture that it could call its own. The wonderful anonymous epistle to Diognetos in the 2nd century declares that Christians are not known by their dress or by their speech or by their foods—they blend in wherever they live, because, they’re people from all cultures. This couplet summarizes the author’s magnificent universal social visions of Christianity: “For the Christians every fatherland is a foreign land, and every foreign land is a fatherland.” That’s how the Church survived through those years.
But then with Saint Constantine and, again, later with Emperors Theodosios I and Justinian I, the Church and state became very harmonious—symphonia we call it, meaning “one voice” or harmony instead of opposition. We’ve lost every trace of that. Christendom in the East and West is not being conquered; it’s being squandered by the Christians. We’ve lost our own way, our purpose, our identity, our own sense of value as not just the true faith, Christianity—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—but Christendom, a magnificent civilization. And we’ve allowed secularism to prevail through various incursions, without putting up a stiff resistance. So we’re about to face perhaps the deluge: in spiritual terms you might say a great Satanic descent over culture, things that were never even countenanced by the ancient Romans such as “transgender” identity changes and homosexual “marriage.” The latter didn’t begin anywhere in the world until the year 2000 in the Netherlands. That’s a staggering fact to consider! Even the worst of the pagans, the worst of our precursors in Western Civilization never thought of marriage as something that could happen between two men or two women. There was no purpose without children!
We’re sinking to new lows, but the thing I wish to stress is it’s not like those early centuries when the Church was clinging to life, and they were all in it together, brothers and sisters, struggling to survive and reach the world, to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth for the first time. We’ve already done almost all of that, but now we’re losing it. We have a memory of what was once glorious in the past. And we’re forfeiting it, and it’s being taken from us by very militant atheistic or, at least, anti-Christian forces, and we’re not putting up much of a fight.
Now, Russia may be different. I look at Russia perhaps as a beacon since the fall of the communists. But in the West (by which I mean the Western Hemisphere, Western Europe, Australia—Western nations that were once part of Christendom) we are witnessing a great absconding of responsibility, forfeiture of inheritance such as the world has never seen. This is a new situation that requires a more dramatic response than even that in the first few centuries.
– Should the Church, then, today seek to reinvent itself in order to survive and re-establish those values? To re-construct itself, to reread the Gospel itself, change its structure or its communication?
– As for “communication,” as a retired U.S. Army chaplain, I would call that a “tactical” question. I prefer to specialize in strategic questions. What are we communicating? What is our mission, our purpose?
Contrary to the idea of reconstructing, we have to re-discover and re-energize the patrimony that we have. We have existed for 2000 years. We have survived, sometimes in small numbers and sometimes in great numbers, every kind of political totalitarianism that the world could throw at us: from Roman emperors to invading Huns, and, in later centuries, totalitarianism of the far right and the far left.
And we Orthodox believers didn’t really change anything. We didn’t change the doctrine, we didn’t change our moral theology, we didn’t change our spiritual patrimony, the indescribable value of prayer and worship together and individually. We didn’t change anything even if other Christians are changing all the time. The Orthodox Church, the unique fullness of divine revelation, has maintained the ship of faith afloat, not always full speed ahead, but persevering for two millennia. There’s no reason why we can’t do so in this era as well.
My mission as a Russian Orthodox moral theologian in the 20th and now 21st century is not to reinvent the Church or Christianity. It’s not to reconstruct it. It’s not even to reorder it. My mission, our collective Orthodox mission, is to recapture the phronema—the “mind” of Christ and of the Church Fathers—that Orthodox Christians have known and experienced from the beginning of the Church and to live it, to promulgate it, and, if necessary, to offer even resistance to worldly powers at times.
Rod Dreher, who is a Russian Orthodox layman, wrote a book recently called The Benedict Option. He’s calling faithful, traditional Christians, in a very ecumenical way to survive the coming onslaught by not publicly resisting the political authorities and culture. He cites as a model Saint Benedict of Nursia and his Monastery of Monte Cassino in the 6th century, which stood through all the hordes of invading foreign barbarians and all the wars in Europe—imperial wars, papal wars, nationalistic wars, until, ironically, during World War II the Allied forces bombed it when the German occupying force made it a strategic stronghold. That monastery stood the test of time and Dreher is very fond of that example. He proposes that we form similar, small, below-the-radar religious communities, perhaps in the rural countryside, around monasteries, or even among people in cities who know one another—like early Christians who communicated secretly among themselves just to hang on and to preserve their culture and to preserve, more importantly, the Christian faith undiluted and unchanged.
That’s a good option but it’s not sufficient. Unlike the era of the so-called barbarians in the 6th through 9th centuries, in the West today we’re facing people who have turned their backs on the Church. They’ve turned their backs on Christianity, and they’ve turned their backs on God. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said famously, “Men have forgotten God.” That’s an act of incredible defiance across the culture. They are not going to be assuaged or deterred: no appeal is likely to succeed. They’re going to be ruthless, and we’ve seen it already. American politics has never been as vicious as it is now between left and right and also between secular and religious Americans.
We Christians are facing an unprecedented, determined, persistent opposition, and I predict it will get worse. It’ll be unlike anything that the Church has already experienced. We simply can’t hunker down in little monastic communities and hope for deliverance, or try to persevere and preserve the patrimony “below the radar” of the militant secularists or militant Islamists.
There’s something we can do though. I think we need a “prophecy option,” just as God called prophets in the Old Testament. We need the likes of Moses, a prophet and leader of the people of Israel, who challenged and defied the mighty pharaoh of Egypt. We need the likes of Nathan, who stood boldly before to King David after David had, in effect, forced himself upon Bathsheba. Nathan demonstrated the personal courage to call on David to repent for his egregious sin, because the Spirit of God was within him. That kind of voice is what we need—not simply hunkering down, the “Benedict option,” monasteries, small communities or hidden people, or an underground Church.
We need those who will be called by God to stand firm and to continue that prophetic witness which has continued for two thousand years: Saint John the Baptist confronting King Herod, Saint Ambrose of Milan refusing to allow Emperor Theodosios to receive Holy Communion, Saint Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, resisting Tsar Ivan IV, and many more illustrious examples.
Of course, the price of prophecy—the title of one of my books, by the way—is often death. People don’t like to be forced to face reality, their own abominations, whether it’s adultery, injustice, or idolatry. But I’m calling not for merely the “Benedict option” but also for Christians to maintain some public presence in the wider society, no matter how bad it is or how oppressive. We still need those few who will choose the “prophecy option.” God asked Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah replied, “Here am I. Send me.” We’re looking for Isaiahs today.
Meanwhile, another Orthodox scholar, John Mark Reynolds, PhD, has proposed the “Constantine Project”, which I think is worthwhile, too. He reminds us that we can’t dispense entirely with empire or power. We can’t jump off the cliff away from the world. Reynolds points to the same Saint Constantine, of course, who dramatically solved the tensions between Church and empire in the first few Christian centuries by legalizing Christianity and the Church in the Roman Empire. And Reynolds also reminds us that, while Saint Benedict was hunkered down in Monte Cassino and monasteries proliferated throughout Western Europe, there still was Byzantium in the Christian East, the mainstay of Civilization, the bastion of a free Orthodox Church, and a powerful imperial protector of Christians. The Germanic barbarians never overran Byzantium, praise God!
Well, what do we have now? As Western Civilization crumbles from its own apostate weight and without much of a fight from the Church—in Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere it’s very bleak—Russia, coming out from under the Soviet rock, has emerged in the last three decades as a force to be reckoned with. The Russian Orthodox Church today, after its ignominious history for almost 74 years of collaboration and total obsequious obedience to the Soviet masters, has, since 1991, gradually recovered its lion’s voice of prophecy—of courage and justice, speaking truth against power. That’s what biblical prophecy is—speaking divine truth against unjust, immoral power.
Russia is now a bastion of traditional Orthodox Christianity. I’m not saying that Russia is sinless. I’m not saying that my country, the United States, is sinless. No human being is sinless, and no nation is sinless. But some are a lot less sinful than others. And I look at Russia now as perhaps that “Constantine Project” that Reynolds proposes. Russia may be the Byzantium for us in the neo-barbarian West today. Maybe the strong, powerful voices of Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), and many others in Russia can give us in the West some realistic hope that all is not lost, no matter how bad it gets here in the West.
– But we are witnessing the global Orthodox community splitting today. What would be the consequences for Orthodox Christianity in general and for Constantinople, Moscow, and Kiev, in particular, and for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia?
– I’d like to reply by invoking a historical analogy. World War I effectively began in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by, unfortunately, a Serb, Gavrilo Princip—a cowardly, vicious, and evil act. And then the Western world and Russia were plunged into the vortex of total war and “the lost generation.”
Princip’s action is analogous, in a limited, symbolic way to a “powderkeg,” to Patriarch Bartholomew’s unilateral unnecessary, unwarranted, and uncanonical intrusion into Ukraine. In retrospect, a world war began with something seemingly local and confined to one territory, not having much significance around the world. What Patriarch Bartholomew did late last year in Ukraine is, for most of the world, even most Orthodox Christians perhaps, insignificant—merely regional and confined to one national territory.
But what is the present reality? The Patriarch of Constantinople has intervened in Ukraine, the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Moscow since 1686, ensured by a letter from Patriarch Dionysius of Constantinople to Tsar Peter I that expressly states, “From henceforth and forevermore.” Whatever people are saying in the Phanar or in North America or Western Europe or Ukraine, that was an irreversible transfer of jurisdiction to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Given the precarious circumstances of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century, the Patriarch in Istanbul could not foresee a future for the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine. It was good all around that former Kievan Rus, or what was left of it, would come under the auspices of Moscow, the emerging ecclesial center for all the East Slavs.
The Patriarch of Constantinople’s intervention in Ukraine at this particular time and the way he did it without consulting the other Orthodox patriarchs and autocephalous metropolitans is comparable to a home invasion: as if your neighbor who lives across the street from you—towards the southwest, which is where Constantinople is compared to Moscow—barges through the front door of your house one day and announces, “Hey, Joe! We’re taking over your living room and the kitchen. We wish to claim it, so it’s ours. You can stay in the second-floor bedrooms, if you like, but you’re not allowed to enter the kitchen or the living room. That’s the way it is.” No permission, no consulting, no negotiating. Kiev is the original heartland of the Orthodox Church of Russia. We all know this.
Inspired by Bishop-elect Luke (Murianka), abbot of the Holy Trinity Monastery and Holy Trinity Seminary, where I serve as Dean, I like to say, “Kiev is the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church is Kiev.” You cannot divide the two: there’s a continuum of Orthodox faith and identity for more than a thousand years. There’s also a patrimony in Kiev, a living tradition: the Kiev Pechersk Monastery and the Pochayev Monastery. The monks here in Jordanville, New York, trace their origins to the Pochayev Monastery! And they’re Russian!
In the American vernacular, the whole thing stinks to high heaven. There was no need for this intrusion by Patriarch Bartholomew. It certainly was not the right time, unless there are other, political, global factors in play that I do not know of for sure. Go down the list of improper actions by the Patriarch of Constantinople to restore to the priesthood or episcopate individuals who had been deposed by the Moscow Patriarchate for cause. I’m speaking especially of Philaret (Denisenko). By restoring deposed clergy or granting canonical status to schismatics, Patriarch Bartholomew ignored the judgment and the proper ecclesial decision-making process of another autocephalous Church. That is grounds not only for public protest by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, but also for a judgment by all the other autocephalous Churches.
The term ‘autocephalous’ comes from the Greek words autos and kephal?, together meaning “self-headed.” How, then, can an autocephalous Church report to another autocephalous Church? Constantinople’s “Church” in Ukraine must do that. How can one autocephalous Church depend on another for its chrism? Constantinople’s “Church” in Ukraine must do that. How can an autocephalous Church not even proclaim its own saints? Constantinople’s “Church” in Ukraine must get approval from Constantinople for such decisions. The Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t have to do that. Nor do the truly autocephalous Orthodox Churches in Serbia, Romania, or Bulgaria. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has concocted in Ukraine not a truly autocephalous Orthodox Church, but merely a semi-autonomous “Church” born of schismatics subservient to the Phanar. Worse than that ecclesial fiction is that Patriarch Bartholomew has clearly transgressed the unique ecclesiology of Holy Orthodoxy.
Now, more than ever, in this time of internal dissension, vast external upheaval, and even signs of apostasy within Orthodoxy, we have to claim, embrace, live, and witness for the fullness of faith and life and morality in the Church. That’s “traditional” Orthodoxy.
– What, do you think, the Russian Orthodox Church and other autocephalous Churches should do?
– We know that Patriarch Kirill traveled to Istanbul last August to plead in person against intervention in Ukraine, where the only canonical Church was—and remains—the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, whose senior bishop is the widely respected Metropolitan Onuphry. But Patriarch Kirill was turned away with nothing.
Patriarch Bartholomew, therefore, left the Russian Orthodox Church no choice but to cease eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and its subsidiary Orthodox Churches around the world. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill and other Russian Orthodox public figures, especially Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), have said repeatedly, “Let’s call a genuine council of all the Orthodox autocephalous Churches, and let’s put our respective cases before the entire Orthodox Church.” Now, Moscow could simply declare, “The Church in Ukraine is ours, and we’re not going to give it up.” But that would be acting as petulantly and defiantly as the Patriarch of Constantinople has behaved.
But Moscow has taken the high road on this. Even though the breaking of communion is not a joyous decision, it is necessary though also painful. In the Assembly of Bishops in America headed by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop, for example, bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church (including, of course, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) may no longer meet together, and Russian Orthodox clergy may not concelebrate the liturgical services with the fellow clergy from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, because they’re all directly under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its appointed metropolitans.
Nonetheless, Moscow had no choice. You can’t give up the first floor of your house to an interloper, to a person who’s acting as a criminal, a moral criminal. The home invasion is unworthy of respect or approval. The Russian Orthodox Church can’t pretend that we are brothers at the altar of truth and love with the clergy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate under the present circumstances.
– Do you perceive other vested interests in this story, which go beyond the power struggle within the Orthodox world?
– It pains me even more to have to acknowledge that the U.S. State Department from the beginning of this internal Orthodox crisis over Ukraine has been singing the praises to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and his granting of independence to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. You may have the open source U.S. State Department documents: first, on September 11, 2018, by Samuel D. Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; then on September 25 by Heather Nauert, the press secretary for the U.S. Department of State at the time; then on December 17 by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch; finally, on January 10, 2019 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for whom I have a lot of respect. Both Nauert and Pompeo specifically used the word “autocephaly” for the “new” Orthodox Church in Ukraine. But I wonder, as an Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox theologian, and an Orthodox priest, whether those two public officials can properly define the word “autocephaly,” a uniquely Orthodox theological term that they invoke so glibly in diplomatic statements
Nonetheless, the U.S. government through the State Department, an official voice of our government, is, I regret to say, unanimously backing the machinations of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine. Whatever happened to the boundaries between Church and state in America? I happen to prefer the Byzantine concept of symphonia—particularly in countries where Orthodox Christians constitute a decisive majority of the population. In America, however, we’re supposed to have a so-called secular government. Why is our secular government intervening, choosing sides, proclaiming winners in Ukraine?without mentioning the losers, to be sure, but still choosing sides in a strictly internal Orthodox ecclesial conflict?
Also vehemently opposed to the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP) and all things Russian are Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, the Cardinal Richelieu of this religio-political operation, and the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev. The latter, at the instigation of the former, has demanded via legislation that the UOC-MP change its name to the “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine”! Can you imagine the U.S. Congress declaring to a religious group in America, “You have to change your name, because we don’t like the name that you’ve chosen”? We’ve also seen priests, monks, and the archimandrite of the Kiev Pechersk Monastery—all in the UOC-MP—summoned to the offices of the security police in Kiev on suspicion of “hate speech,” UOC-MP churches taken over by mobs, UOC-MP priests locked out of their churches, and other incidents of harassment. It’s a phenomenon that any Russian Orthodox Christian knows from history. The Bolsheviks started that stuff after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in October 1917. Now here we go again in Ukraine!
All autocephalous Orthodox Churches must agree to call a Council to resolve this issue once and for all. It’s a self-inflicted wound in the body of Christ fired by the Patriarch of Constantinople, and he must attempt to defend his actions before his brother hierarchs. If, however, he insists that only he, as the Ecumenical Patriarch, can call such a council but declines to do so, then that would prove beyond any doubt that he’s acting as a pope. We Orthodox believers anathematized one pope in Rome almost a thousand years ago; we don’t need another one in Constantinople. It’s quite clear who is acting in accordance with traditional Orthodox morality, canon law, spirituality, and theology. And it’s not the Ecumenical Patriarch.
– Perhaps, this situation may justly call for what you’ve said, the prophetic voice. It may produce such a prophet who would somehow lead this council.
– I hope the Lord raises up prophets in the other autocephalous Churches. In this regard, I would mention retired Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia. Recently he stated publicly that he thinks his own patriarch, Bartholomew, has acted improperly towards Ukraine, while also criticizing the decision of the Patriarchate of Moscow to sever eucharistic fellowship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Kallistos’ may be the first prophetic voice that we need to hear in global Orthodoxy.
– Yet, aren’t there other ideas and practices today that the Orthodox Church will never condone?
– First, I wish to note that Holy Trinity Seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Jordanville, New York, where I teach and serve as Dean, does not traffic in theological innovation. We’re unabashed in proclaiming our mission or “brand” as “Traditional Orthodoxy for the 21st Century.” Traditional Orthodoxy. No reinventing. No accommodating or adapting to the point where we’re losing our soul while trying to “reach out” to the contemporary culture, to ideologies, or to the modern ecumenical and inter-faith movements. We must be true to ourselves, to our Church and to our Lord at all times and under all circumstances.
Alas, many of my fellow Orthodox scholars—above all, those in my own primary field, moral theology—are racing after every current fad in philosophy, theology, or other scholarly disciplines.
Christos Yannaras in Greece, for example, is a renowned moral theologian, but he’s imbued with philosophical existentialism. In his Freedom of Morality (1984), which I assign to the seminarians in my moral theology courses, we get an unsavory blend of Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, and St. Gregory Palamas. That’s hardly traditional Orthodoxy. But it is a potent temptation for Orthodox believers who yearn to be “modern.”
In our fluid contemporary societies, our Orthodox faithful may ask, “Why can’t we be more like our non-Orthodox friends and neighbors?” And I reply, “We do not wish to be like them. We choose to be like the ancient Church without modernistic dilutions, detours, or distortions.” That is, obviously, a radically different pre-modern paradigm, but I offer no apologies for it. We should be calling back the faithful and the parishes, the clergy, sometimes even bishops, to the primary sources of our Holy Orthodox Tradition. Too many contemporary Orthodox theologians ignore or, worse, dismiss the Church Fathers. We Orthodox believers are always distinguished by our devotion to the Fathers, including the decrees and canons produced by the Seven Ecumenical Councils in Byzantium, by many of those venerable Church Fathers.
We should also, of course, immerse ourselves in the Holy Scriptures, the bedrock of Orthodoxy and the lives of the saints. Those vitae are a cornucopia of moral teaching, spiritual teaching, and guidance for daily living. Sometimes we find surprising, seeming contradictions. That’s what launched me on my pursuit of the Orthodox moral theology of war and peace. The Church has canonized Saints Boris and Gleb, two pacifist passion-bearers who refused to defend their own lives against their murderous brother Sviatopolk in Kievan Rus’ in the 11th century. Five hundred years later, the Russian Orthodox Church also canonized Saint Alexander Nevsky, a warrior prince who led the resistance of Novgorod against the invading Teutonic Knights and Swedes in the 13th century. Later that same hero bowed before the khan of the Mongol Horde to spare his people from the overwhelming wrath of the Mongols. His subjects deemed that act ignominious. But Saint Alexander had the wisdom to know when to fight and when not to fight. The question that confronted me when I was new to Orthodoxy as a convert and a budding scholar was how can the church embrace both pacifists and justifiable warriors as saints? I’ve devoted more than 40 years as an Orthodox scholar working on that question and others like it in moral theology.
– You have served in the U.S. army, and you are serving in the church. Did those experiences help you find an answer to that paradox?
– I should start by saying that I was not a regular, you might say combat, soldier. I was an Orthodox priest-chaplain from day one until my retirement 24 ½ years later. Chaplains do not bear arms or engage in active defense with weapons. Orthodox military chaplains are also prohibited by our Church canons, together with all Orthodox clergy, from killing human being—even by accident. We cannot have blood on our hands—even if it’s accidental, even in self-defense, even to save a neighbor or the people of God, which are the usual, albeit limited, justifications for war in Orthodoxy—and enter the Holy Altar and handle the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.
There’s a mystical reason for this. We’re in seminary where the only shed blood in the altar is our Lord’s own human blood. His death on the Cross was a sacrifice once for all; His blood was innocent, pure, perfect human blood. No other human blood may pollute it, even if shed in a morally justifiable cause such as defense of the innocent from unjust attacks.
Still, through the two millennia of Orthodox Church history we may discern clear trajectories from the Old Testament (Greek Septuagint) and the New Testament, the Church Fathers, the lives (vitae) of the saints, the liturgical and hymnographic texts, the icons of the Church, the spiritual writings—even Orthodox novelists in recent centuries like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Two continuous, conflicting moral trajectories emerge from those primary sources: absolute pacifism and what I call “justifiable war.”
Whatever my personal preference between those two sanctioned moral positions in the Orthodox Tradition, as an Orthodox military chaplain, I was a de facto absolute pacifist who, nonetheless, could and did bless numerous soldiers to carry out their “justifiable war” missions.
– Can you compare your personal experience of the service in the U.S. Army and in the Orthodox Church?
– As I said, I was not a “regular” combat military officer, I did serve 24 ½ years in uniform by the grace of God before retiring in June 2010. For the last five years of my career I was called back to full-time active duty, which is how I began my career in 1986. Assigned first to Fort McNair in Washington, DC., and then Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia, both serendipitously near my home, my primary duties included emergency management, pastoral support for troops returning from combat areas and for family members of deployed soldiers, and death notifications—all of those missions being a consequence of the unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon by Islamic terrorists.
But the primary reason for my mobilization on active duty was to serve as a traveling Orthodox chaplain with the senior officer rank of Colonel during the three major Orthodox fasting and liturgical seasons to the U.S. and Coalition military forces “down range,” as we say, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar. I deployed 12 times between 2005 and 2010 for 30 to 35 days each time, only to come back home, resume my stateside duties, go down-range again. One of the hardships for my matushka (Mother – Ed.) and family was my absence for five consecutive Nativity and Theophany seasons, but the joy on the faces of the Orthodox troops (and even civilian contractors) from Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Slovakia, and Egypt, as well as the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Australia, as we celebrated our Lord’s birth was priceless and something I shall never forget! Those were some of the best years of my life.
I must hasten to add that for half of my adult life, I have served joyously in three vocations: priest, padre (universal term for military chaplain), and professor. But I have always been a priest first and a padre and professor second or third.
– Can you compare the army and the church as institutions—their missions, their purposes? Don’t they have something in common?
– I’m reminded of the remarkable insight by Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard scholar known in recent years for his controversial work titled The Clash of Civilizations (1996). That is a helpful template for considering the religious components of most violent conflicts in the last 25 years or so. But in 1957 he wrote another great book called The Soldier and the State. I don’t know whether Huntington was a professing Christian. I don’t know whether he was religious or not. But he had a wonderful section in that book where he compared the Gothic architecture and the “severity, regularity, and discipline” of the U.S. Military Academy, also known as West Point, to one Mont-Saint-Michel, a renowned French monastery dating back to the Middle Ages.
As I read that book, I marveled at the happy, though unexpected, comparison. The idea of the completely structured day—every day, every hour, every activity specified to form and train a certain person, a product. In one case it was a monk, who would be a spiritual warrior, you might say, those who go deep behind enemy lines, praying against Satan and his minions on behalf of the Church. They’re not simply retreating from the world. The monks are taking on the “other” world every waking hour of every day. It’s a very rigorous, ascetical way of life.
Compare that to the U.S. Military Academy and it’s a very rigorous, we might even say ascetical, four-year undergraduate college program. The same applies to the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. And then, upon graduation, the cadets, who are selected in the first place as the best of the best, are commissioned to the lowest officer rank of Second Lieutenant (or Ensign in the U.S. Navy) and gradually work their way up the chain of command, many of them becoming admirals or generals. But the educational and spiritual formation of a warrior Huntington perceived as similar to the formation of a monk. Who else would’ve thought of that in 1957? That was an amazing insight that I, for one, can appreciate as a chaplain for so many years with one foot in the Church and the other in the Army!
As it happens, in my present position as Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville I can see favorable comparisons between military formation and seminary formation. Holy Trinity Seminary is co-located and closely connected with the Holy Trinity Monastery. Undergraduate seminarians studying for the four-year Bachelor of Theology degree wear cassocks and the monastic belt, and their school day is rather rigorous. Days other than Sundays and major feast days begin with the Daily Divine Liturgy at 6:00 am, similar to the American military’s “zero-dark-thirty,” and continues with breakfast, classes in the morning, obedience or community service after lunch in the trapeznaya (refectory – Ed.), study time after that, evening prayers, and another hour or so for study before quiet time at 10:00 pm. On Sundays and major feast days All-Night Vigil begins at 7:00 pm on the eve and lasts for 3 hours or more, and Divine Liturgy follows the next morning from 9:00 am until approximately 11:30 am. Classes are not held on those days, so the seminarians have extra time to study or relax in the afternoon. That daily routine is, by any conventional collegiate standard, a highly structured school day akin, ironically, to “boot camp” or “basic training” for enlisted military recruits in America.
So, comparisons to monastic life or military training for our Russian Orthodox seminarians are not far-fetched.
– What would be the differences, then?
– Another simile I’ve heard compares the military person, at least in the modern American experience, to a radio station slightly off frequency. Think of what that sounds like: you get the signal, but it’s a bit distorted by static or fading out.
Unlike the clergy and parishioners in an Orthodox church, the soldier, sailor, airman, marine, or coastguardsman in the American military is someone who’s willing to dedicate his (or her) life for two, four, six years, or a full twenty years, to one overriding mission: to defend the nation from all enemies, whether from nation-states or international terrorist groups, and to do so, if necessary, by lethal force of arms. That may entail killing fellow human beings, albeit deadly aggressors, and destroying things. But even more important, from a moral perspective than that mission is the soldier’s willingness to put his life on the line for others. That takes an extraordinary person. The Lord says in the Gospel of John 15:13: “There’s no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friend.” What the soldier is always prepared to do goes beyond what the Lord said. The soldier is willing to lay down his life for strangers, people whom he has never met and never will meet: the folks back home.
Any nation’s military, and I would, of course, include Russia as well as United States, act in accordance with the best ethical standards of Western Civilization and our own Orthodox moral tradition only when they are constituted as defensive organizations to protect the homeland, the fatherland, Rodina (motherland – Ed.), whatever we may call it, against foreign invasion or conquest, or against the recent scourge of global terrorism, or to regain territory seized unjustly or liberate fellow nationals who have been taken captive. The key is that the use of military force must be defensive to be justifiable; otherwise the military option merely cloaks an attempt to conquer or impose a religion or ideology upon a foreign nation.
Orthodox laymen in any nation may serve in such a military capacity in accordance with their own conscience. But the Orthodox clergy—bishops, priests, or deacons—may not take up arms for any reason, as explained above. As chaplains, the Orthodox clergy may accompany combat troops into harm’s way as long as the clergy are unarmed. Perhaps they’re more vulnerable in a way: the combat soldier has his rifle, or his pistol, his grenades, and other weapons.
In general, the faithful, traditional Orthodox Christian’s highest calling is not to defend the nation. Our mission as the Church is to witness for the Gospel and to bring everyone to a saving relation with our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. In our home parish the primary role of the Orthodox priest is to be a pastor to the people of God: to care for, nurture, and minister to them whenever, wherever, and however we can, especially when parishioners are sick or dying or in emotional distress—to do all those things to help the faithful grow in the love of Christ and the life in Christ. And not only our parishioners.
Every Orthodox Christian is summoned by our Lord Himself in the Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to clothe the naked. And every member of the Church is also called upon to be an evangelist. Christ told the apostles, “Go to the ends of the earth.” Each member of the Church can, at least, start in his own family or among his friends and neighbors.
We must always be witnessing, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we have been fortunate to discover or have inherited from our parents as a priceless gift. In fact, I feel as if I’m witnessing to you right now!
– However, soldiers on active duty are not called to witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or any religious teaching). Nor are they in military uniform and deployed in harm’s way to convert people to any modern Western ideology. Perhaps I ought to say that they better not be! That’s one very off-putting component that I see in some of the current foreign policies of the U.S. and NATO: a sometimes veiled and sometimes open attempt to export a morally debased domestic culture along with the more familiar modern values of freedom and human rights.