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‘At the heart of Christianity is the rejection of violence’ Jailed dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza on the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the war
Vladimir Kara-Murza is one of Russia’s most well-known political prisoners. First arrested in April 2022, he was later sentenced to 25 years in prison on a range of charges related to his criticism of the Kremlin and its invasion of Ukraine. In a new article that his associates have shared with Meduza, Kara-Murza addresses the Russian Orthodox Church’s decision to support the war. “As an Orthodox Christian, this brings me only pain, grief, and deep sorrow,” he writes. At the heart of Christianity, the dissident continues, is the rejection of murder and violence, but the offical Church “places the authority of Caesar over the foundations of the Christian faith.” Still, there are some priests in Russia who have spoken out against the war, and Kara-Murza thanks them in his article. Meduza in English is sharing a translation of the text.
Russia has long been living in an Orwellian world, and this parallel reality became firmly solidified after February 2022. “War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” It might seem like one shouldn’t be surprised by these insane distortions, the shameless exaggerations, the audacious attempts to say that black is white. And yet, even amid this deluge, a recent piece of news from the Tver region caught my eye. There, a priest named Ilya Gavryshkiv was forced to apologize publicly, on camera, for praying not for “victory” over Ukraine but for peace. And he was forced to do this not by the FSB, not by the Investigative Committee, and not by Kadyrov, but by his own ruling bishop.
“If he doesn’t repent, he’ll be defrocked. He’s free to choose,” declared Bishop Adrian (Ulyanov) of Rzhev and Toropets. And His Eminence’s words aren’t just empty threats: Moscow priest Ioann Koval was previously defrocked for a similar “offense,” and in Kostroma, the Diocesan Court banned priest Ioann Burdin from serving because of his anti-war stance. Now, the former rector of the Resurrection Church in the village of Karabanovo has been accused — I’m quoting directly — of “heretical pacifism.”
These kinds of stories are only becoming more common in Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) dioceses. Christian priests are being punished for publicly expressing their opposition to bloodshed and calling for peace, in accordance with biblical commandments. Even Orwell himself probably couldn’t have conceived of a situation like this.
These kinds of news stories may leave some people bewildered. Others might sneer at them, or even get satisfaction from them. As an Orthodox Christian, they bring me only pain, anguish, and deep sorrow — for the unjustly persecuted clergy as well as for our entire Church, which, through the words and actions of our current bishops, seems to place the authority of Caesar over the foundations of the Christian faith.” Because at the heart of Christianity lies the rejection of murder and violence. The Holy Scripture is unequivocal about this — from the Old Testament’s curse of Cain, who shed his brother’s blood (Genesis 4:10–12), to the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), to the prophet’s words about swords and plowshares: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). It continues with the Savior’s call to His disciple to sheath his sword, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52), and the command “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9).
We find the same attitude towards war and violence in the early texts and sayings of the Church Fathers. The Apostolic Tradition (3rd century) says that Christians should not even entertain the idea of military service: “The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.” St. Cyprian of Carthage (circa 200–258), a bishop and theologian, stated that “the hand that has taken the Eucharist should not be defiled by the sword and blood.”
In the modern era, one of the most important accounts of Christian aversion to war is the book “A Priest’s Confession Before the Church” by Archimandrite Spyridon (Kislyakov) (1875–1930), which was recently published in Russia. During the First World War, Archimandrite Spyridon served as an army chaplain, so his thoughts are primarily a reflection of that experience. “What have I turned the Holy Mysteries into?” he asks himself. “A powerful means of inspiring soldiers to kill their fellow soldiers? By administering communion to soldiers going into bloody battles, haven’t I sent Christ Himself to kill people and be killed?”
It’s important to note that the position taken by the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate regarding the war in Ukraine contradicts not just the foundations of the Christian faith but also its own official documents. The Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (which was adopted with the direct involvement of the current Patriarch during his tenure as Metropolitan) explicitly state that the actions in which clergy and canonical church structures are not allowed to assist or partner with the state include “conducting a civil war or an aggressive external war” (III. 8.). This wording prohibits the Church from supporting the war, even if it accepts the Kremlin’s myth that “Russians and Ukrainian are one people” — and especially not in the context of an actual aggressive foreign war, which multiple resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly have confirmed that this war is.
I want to note that the previous Patriarch, who was often (and justifiably) criticized for his “Sergian” approach of accommodating the secular authorities, nonetheless took a clear public stance during the Chechen Wars. “The Church is raising its voice in defense of the innocent victims of this bloody conflict,” Alexy II said in a statement at the beginning of the First Chechen War. “Not even the most just and lawful considerations of public benefit can justify the sacrifice and suffering of the civilian population. And not even the most benevolent goals should be achieved through methods of violence that could ultimately lead to the evil multiplying many times over.” Today, Russian Orthodox Church clergy face suspension from their service and defrocking for making similar statements.
A few lines above, I wrote that what’s happening has caused me pain, grief, and sorrow within me. But there’s also another emotion I experience: gratitude. Gratitude to those clergymen who have spoken out in support of ending the war, despite the potential consequences for themselves, and who defend the honor of the Russian Federation against their own bishops. I know this is important to many people in our country. It will be even more important when we reflect on the collective responsibility our society, including the Church, will inevitably bear when all of this comes to an end.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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