Monday, August 27, 2012

Church & State: The Russian Orthodox Church as a Case Study for Americans

Activists tend to be smart with regard to picking powerfully symbolic locations for their demonstrations. Therefore a thinking person might question why the Pussy Riot activists would have chosen a Russian Orthodox Cathedral as an appropriate place to protest the nature of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly oppressive government.
A May 17, 2007 Time Article described the Russian Orthodox Church as

“increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism…. Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime's major ideological resource. Thursday's rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state's main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument.” Read more...

An August 23rd article by Gabriela Baczynska reported that the the group’s demonstration was in response to close ties between the Putin’s government and the church.

“[Russian Orthodox Church leader], Patriarch Kirill, likened Putin’s years at the helm to a “miracle of God” a few weeks before the band’s protest.” Read More...

I do not claim to be an expert on the Russian Orthodox faith, but I do see in these descriptions and ancient problem that has plagued the Christians throughout the century. Since the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, Christians who are committed to the Kingdom of God face the question of to what extent they should embrace the worldly power given to it by worldly kingdoms. On the one hand a powerful church could be well placed to significantly impact its nation and the world. On the other hand, Paul tells us, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cornthians 1:25).”

A corollary of Paul’s teaching is that in order to embrace the strength of God’s weakness, we might have to forfeit human strength. When a church like the Russian Orthodox Church finds human power in a cozy relationship with a government like Putin’s it seems likely that the gospel of God’s Reign might be compromised.

Of course, as American Protestant Christians, this may seem like a rather foreign problem. But I’m not sure the same concepts are not at play in the life of American politics. Republicans seek a cozy relationship with the Religious Right while the Democrats are increasingly seeking a cozy relationship with the Religious Left. In both cases religious people of goodwill and a desire to effect positive social change that they believe will make the nation more “godly” by using the power of voice and vote to give power to the politicians of their choice. But I’ve always thought that the church is most powerful when keeping enough distance from the political powers using a unique voice to speak words of truth to our elected leaders rather than lending our voices and power to a worldly political entity.

Would a liberal protester find our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Republican Platform? Would a conservative activist find others of our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Democratic Platform? And would the average Christian in the pew readily know the difference between their beliefs as Christians and their beliefs in one or the other party’s platform? If there were ever a modern call that we be careful about linking our faith to elements in our government and even our national identity — it is the case of the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

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