May 5, 2008
The Russian Orthodox Scene
— Martin E. Marty
Conflicts over religion in American politics and among forces of "the religions" and the threats these pose (e.g. Muslim/Hindu) are so preoccupying, so headline- and primetime-grabbing, that many tense subjects of great import get overlooked. Thanks to Clifford J. Levy's front-page and full-page article in The New York Times (April 24), citizens have new reason to reckon with the situation code-named "church-and-state" in President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia, during a time of turmoil, repression, and suppression.
Eastern or Orthodox Christianity has been getting a fair press in the United States in recent years. Some notable evangelicals, seeking to remain evangelical but also desiring to be more anchored in church tradition, have either been converted or have advanced dialogues and conferences which make the Orthodox Church an attractive option. Almost two millennia of "Orthodoxy" behind it, one millennium of Russian Orthodoxy within it, and seventeen years of post-Soviet existence have added to the promise, especially in a time of unsettlement and turmoil world-wide.
Unfortunately, no small measure of that turmoil is being created by the Russian Orthodox and their most prominent member, the Russian President, who in recent years has sounded "born again"—or whatever the Orthodox would call it—and has accompanied his own move with governmental moves, alongside those of Church leadership and against everyone else. As Levy points out, a large Muslim minority has not been singled out for harassment, perhaps because its proselytizing has not made inroads into Orthodoxy. Spiritual and theological ties to Roman Catholicism have been sorely strained since the Iron Curtain tore, as the churches fight over property and prestige. Protestants, however, are getting roughed up and driven into virtual seclusion most of all.
After the Soviet Union imploded, Protestant "sects"—a term the Russians apply to "everyone else"—at first celebrated the opening of Russia and the chance for a Russian Christian spring. Of course, some evangelizers were too aggressive, too competitive, and too ready to give Protestantism a bad name in their thirst for reaping the spoils of Russia that had been ungathered or rendered invisible from 1917-1990. Americans are used to such attempts at conversion—for example, as Pentecostals make inroads in historically Catholic populations, notably the Hispanic. Yet the United States' framework for protecting religious freedom helps keep the peace. Russia does not know anything like it. In most regions its allowance for tolerance or religious freedom appears in name only. (There are local exceptions.) Mr. Putin has encouraged the privileging of one church and the repression if not yet full persecution of the others. And Patriarch Aleksei II, the head of that one church, not only does not help things; he fires them up, his inflammatory rhetoric sounding threatening, almost murderous.
Methodist and Lutheran pastors are besieged and their congregations have had to go into hiding. Protestants find it difficult to get permission to let people know they exist. Ecumenical observers, who had worked to keep channels open with the Soviet-era (and sometimes Soviet-controlled) Russian Church are chagrined that the recently persecuted church is now the repressor, with highest level government aid. The Putin era is not a happy time for "free churches", which all too seldom get the attention they deserve, an attention duly accorded them in Mr. Levy's welcome story about an unwelcome scene.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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