by Metropolitan Jonah
The West’s Absolute Misunderstanding of Russia
Soon we enter into the Paschal mystery, accompanying Jesus to His Passion, the Cross, death, tomb, His harrowing of Hell, and Resurrection. This is the core of the Christian year, the celebration of the essence of the Christian Faith. We accompany Jesus to His Passion, as He accompanies us through our suffering and death, and resurrects us in Himself on the awesome Day of His Coming. We celebrate not only Jesus’ resurrection, but our own; not just His triumph over death, but our own in Him.
Nowhere in the Christian world is the Resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Mystery, celebrated as grandly as in Russia. The hours long solemn and usually sober services become a dance to the syncopated beat of the chant, the people swaying and even dancing in joy at Christ’s Resurrection. The festive greeting Christ is Risen! is shouted from the altar and answered by thousands of people not only in but surrounding the temples, Truly He is Risen! Even at football games, half the stadium, as if on cue, will shout Christ is Risen! and the other half, Truly He is Risen. Churches and houses, businesses and stores, even government buildings and public squares proclaim the Paschal joy of Christ’s Resurrection. Festal processions of tens of thousands of people, led by hundreds of vested clergy, wind through the streets of Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin, singing the Paschal hymns, as all the bells in all the churches and bell towers, from the Kremlin to the countryside, toll in joy.
This was unimaginable thirty years ago. It is still unimaginable to many in the West, and outrageously politically incorrect. Who could permit the faithful Christians to process from their churches, some at the heart of the center of the government buildings, with Christ is Risen! hung on the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House? It might offend someone! Choirs of students gathering in the quads and halls of the State Universities to sing the Paschal hymns and shout Christ is Risen! Call the Police! The CIA! The NSA… Homeland Security!
Russia rejoices so completely in Christ’s resurrection because it was crucified and has been raised from the dead. The blood of twenty million martyrs for Christ and the suffering of tens of millions that had been imprisoned in the gulags cry out the Paschal greeting Christ is Risen! because it is their life and experience.
In the West, we are blinded by our secularist world view. Nor have we suffered like the Russians. Not only has war not touched our soil, save for the terrors of 9/11. We have not had to go through a bitter persecution, seventy years long, of our Faith and the destruction of our churches, and all that we valued and held dear. We are still willing to tolerate… until the waves of oppression have destroyed our society and drowned our hope.
In particular, we are unable to understand other societies that reject our own values and culture, especially the moral degradation that now afflicts us which we exalt as virtue, and that we are as intent on forcing on the rest of the world as any evangelist. In particular, we are confronted with two major adversaries, the Islamic world, and Russia, which reject our secular materialist liberalism. We completely misunderstand them and their cultures, and they resolutely criticize and reject ours, especially when it is imposed upon them. We are unable to understand why they don’t want our values, and we give no thought to theirs.
As 21st century Americans, our worldview is the product of a deeply secularized culture, which has devalued faith and religion to the point of irrelevancy, at least among a certain class of educated elites now in power. What is valued is autonomous individualism, materialism and complete liberty in regards to personal relationships and the gratification of the self and its desires. We have tried to ignore the existence of God, and in the end, have come to hate Him. This is the new politically correct norm, from which one dare not dissent in this new culture of libertine conformism. We insist that the whole world has to submit to our enlightened way of thinking, the new moral standards which are an uncritical rejection of the old established morality, and the new faith in our idiosyncratic version of reality. However, this decadence and libertine view of morality, the atomization into autonomous individualism, and loss of faith, are signs of a society that is disintegrating, having rejected the foundational vision of Faith and sense of commonality that held it together.
What we don’t realize is that Russia was made a victim of that same kind of radically secularized materialist ideology that we have, and suffered the same disintegration, and paid for it with rivers of blood, decades of suffering and grief. It doesn’t matter that it was labeled “communist,” and ours “capitalist.” It is secular materialism, just the same; tyranny of the State, just the same. Forced political correctness, just the same; the invasion of and deprivation of privacy, just the same. And the brutal persecution of Christian faith,… Moral decadence, however, was tried in the 20’s, but never tolerated, unlike us; instead was radical demoralization.
Russian went with Christ to His Passion, was humiliated, persecuted and tortured, and killed. The whole society collapsed, socially, economically, politically, ideologically about 1990-1. And despite continued political humiliation, Western carpetbaggers, and an invasion of missionaries—unwitting agents of cultural imperialism—Russia rose from the grave, and the Soviet Union was left in the ash heap of history.
Russia is on a path to the rebuilding and reintegration of its culture by Orthodox Christianity. It took the total collapse of the secular materialist Soviet system to prepare the ground for the new Christian re-structuring of society. This process, begun just 20 years ago, will take generations. It is not a return to the Soviet Union with its communist ideology. Rather, it is the return of Holy Russia, a society that derives its identity and way of life from the Orthodox Church. Reintegration means that every aspect of life derives its meaning from the Faith. Russia is not seeking political domination; rather, it sees itself now as the great bastion of Christendom. Orthodox Russia is again the defender of persecuted Christians, as it was historically, especially those being oppressed and butchered by Islamic regimes. Hence, its involvement in Syria. The resurrection of Holy Russia does not mean the subjection of all the people to the Church by force; but rather the gradual re-Christianization of the culture.
Russia has, for the past thousand years, had a single strong leader, whether Czar, Commissar or President. It has no real tradition of democracy. It has no tradition of religious pluralism. It has always tolerated other religions, not without issues; but the essential world view that is at the heart and soul of Holy Russia is Orthodox Christianity. This has not yet been achieved, but is rather, a goal, a process that has begun and will take generations to fulfill. But the course is set.
This means a definitive rejection of Western political values and social liberalism, democratic egalitarianism and moral relativism. It does not mean, however, the Russia is an enemy. Rather, if the West in its liberalism can tolerate that Russia and other countries have the freedom to determine their own life and culture, Russia can be a great friend. But not subservient. Russia is and will be subject to the political and economic vagaries that will inevitably bring it into conflict with other countries and its neighbors. However, that is simply the real politik of life in a broken world. When its reintegration is mature enough, Russia will likely enthrone a new Czar, an autocrat consecrated by the Church as an icon of Christ’s reign on earth. However, there are years to go, decades perhaps, even before they are finished cleaning up the mess that is left by the old regime.
Equally critical and rejecting of the West and its values are the Islamists. They also represent a culture thoroughly integrated and motivated by their religion, and militantly so. They have every intention of subjecting everyone around them to Islam, and the destruction of those cultures. Russia is the front line against the Islamists, their whole southern border west of Mongolia. The West can understand Islam even less than it understands the Russians. From the Russians, we get a lecture from their President about how we’ve abandoned the Christian roots of our culture; from Islamists, we get jihad and the intentional violent destruction of Western culture and Christianity. Russia has for centuries seen itself as the great bastion of Christianity; albeit interrupted for most of the last century. It has again assumed that role, the protector of oppressed Christian peoples.
The last thing Russia wants is a war with the West, even though the West continues to strive to humiliate Russia as it did Germany after the First World War, oblivious to the results. Russia is not the enemy. The Islamists are; and they are our common enemy. And we are at war with them, and incomprehensibly on opposite sides.
Russia took back Crimea, whether we like it or not. That does not mean they want to take over Ukraine. However, Western meddling installed its own regime in Kiev, and has not ceased provoking Russia. To provoke a war? The ignorant media even refer to Russia as the Soviet Union, a comment as tasteless and insensitive as toasting Hitler at the commemoration of the Holocaust.
All of this is politics as usual, the clash of nations and cultures. As the hypocritical exaltation of democracy in the toppling of a democratically elected regime by violent mobs does not ultimately corrupt the American ideal of democracy; neither does Russia’s involvement in international political conflicts corrupt the Christian ideal of a unified Orthodox society. As it was from the founding of the United States through the 19th Century, Russia could be a major ally of our country, albeit with a different political structure. There is no reason for enmity or even competition. Our common interest is to contain and even roll back the Islamist hordes, and prevent the formation of a new Caliphate. And if, in the meantime, America finds again its Christian roots, and again tolerates the public expression of religion, all the better. Yet I fear that America will have to go the way of the Soviet Union, and collapse in demoralization, before it too can rise from the living death of immorality and despair.
The Soviet Union of the Cold War era is long gone, and will not be resuscitated. The phoenix emerging from its ashes, the new Holy Russia, will become stronger than ever, not necessarily in military strength or financial or political influence, but in what matters most: the Christian Faith. This is faith in Jesus Christ that transforms and transfigures the world, raises us from the dead, and gives hope to a nation that had fallen into corruption, and is now rising from death into the new life of the Kingdom of God.
As the Orthodox Church, and all of faithful Russia triumphantly proclaims on Pascha:
Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered.
Let those that hate Him flee from before His Face.
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire!
So sinners shall perish before the Face of God, but let the Righteous be glad!
(from Psalm 68)
Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Metropolitan Jonah is an American Orthodox bishop who served as the primate of the Orthodox Church in America.