Church, Society, and Politics: A View from Moscow

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By His Holiness Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia
(in a special issue of ‘European View’ dedicated to religion and politics)

The DECR Communication Service publishes an article by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia from a special issue of ‘European View’ dedicated to the problems of religion and politics (“European View’, Religion and Politics, No. 6, December 2007).

‘European View’ is published by the Centre for European Studies under the Supervision of the President of the European People’s Party Wilfried Martens.

The Church, Society and Politics: A View from Moscow

Even the ancients remarked that there is no society on earth without religion and politics.

A human being’s devout aspiration to Heaven is reflected in his contacts with those like him. In turn, political relations, seen as the art of coexistence, are bound to take religious standards into account. However, man’s darkening through sin, violating God’s plan, inevitably brings vice and falsehood into his life, “and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5.19).

Politics are usually built around power. We know that “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans, 13.1)

The power – the authority – of some and the subordination of others to that power are part of the intricate fabric of society. But do all orders from the ‘powers that be’ correspond to the will of God? Does power always arrange life on earth properly and does it help – or at least not hamper – people towards life eternal?

Pursuing his thought, the Apostle points out that “whosoever resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shallt have the praise of the same.For he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Romans 13, 2-4). Thus, to fulfill its destination, the power must serve God and do good.

In some cultures, state and spiritual power are synonymous. Such an understanding of the indivisibility of power – and sometimes even its deification – took place in antiquity. The Egyptian pharaohs and the leaders of Sparta, the Athenian magistrates and the Roman emperors fulfilled priestly functions. Many people wanted to see Christ the Savior on earth as a temporal king. But He said “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36). Therefore the Church of Christ does not assume temporal powers. The powers of government are called upon to do good, to safeguard and support it, but goodness itself ripens in man’s heart and it is the Church that tries to foster this treasure.

It is sometimes said that the Orthodox Church wishes to become the state religion. Does the Church itself need this? The period when the Russian Church was governed by a Synod, and was subject to severe pressure from the state apparatus, can not be called an all-around flourishing era in church life. The preceding and concurrent acts of removal of church property put the bishops and clergy in a position of humiliating dependence on the secular power. Admittedly the various emperors and empresses did not interfere with the purity of teaching or get involved in questions of dogmatics. But the tight embrace of the power of the state hampered our freedom. I would not wish such a future for Russian Orthodoxy. ”Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men” (Cor. 7.23) as the Holy Scripture says. In this respect the Church must be separate from the state.

However, building a society or government without God is doomed to fail. The history of the twentieth century testifies to this. Thousands of innocents killed for Christ, confessors, devout Christians, slandered and threatened could repeat with the Apostle:” as deceivers and yet true; as unknown and yet well known; as dying and behold we live, as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6. 8-10)

Throughout the history of the Church, Christians through their words, acts, behavior in society have demonstrated that belief can not be separated from life. If a human being really believes in Christ, he or she obeys His commandments everywhere – at work, at home, in public. If a person turns into a “Sunday Christian” or a run-of-the-mill non-believer” she or he is bound to move away from God, away from the real purpose of life, that is, away from genuine peace and joy. If society hides faith in museums or church yards, living on the whole as if there is no God, then it is doomed.

The Soviet Union was a powerful state, but since it was built on the concept of man’s self-sufficiency, the all-powerful force of his reason and will, on the denial of God, it collapsed as will any construct that resembles the tower of Babel.

Yes, credit is due to the daily heroism of millions of people who in Soviet times genuinely labored for the prosperity of their homeland, for a better future for their offspring. The fact that some considered themselves atheists was not their fault, but regrettable because “how shall they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10.14). How much we, servants of the Church, are defending its interests against the powerful of this world, God and history will tell.

Much has changed today. But we must realize that in the book of human fate there are no blank pages and we must remember that making a man or a woman happy according to his or her own will is not possible. Politics are not meant to realize pride, nor a servile accommodation of the masses nor a flattering obedience to dark vices, but sober and responsible action for the good of the people in the glory of God.

The Church is outside politics in the sense that we do not aspire to worldly, secular power and do not take sides in party strife. This does not mean, however, that we remove ourselves from societal life, from the problems that concern people. “The Lord has sent us into the world” (John. 17.18) “ to be the light of the world” (Math 5.14), to be a shining example of active faith, strong hope and sincere love.

The secularization of political consciousness has had quite a negative impact on the relationship between politics and religion. The utilitarian approach to religion is dangerous for politicians. I would like to remind all those who consider using or already try to use the “religious resource” – a phrase from the 19th century Russian publicist and philosopher Yuri Samarin who wrote: ”faith is not a stick, and in the hands of those who use it as a stick to defend themselves or frighten others, it crumbles into splinters.”

Once, after the sermon, representatives of various political trends went up to the priest to thank him for the support he had shown. Pleasing anyone was the last thing he had in mind! It is simply that the Church has always talked of values close to every human being – of love for one’s neighbor and one’s country, of charity and justice, of decency and responsibility.

Alas, politics have now been compromised by intrigues. Young people – and not only they – now see political activity as something dirty, shameful. Such a stereotype is dangerous: dangerous because it hampers the entry into politics of those who genuinely wish for the good of the population and facilitates an influx of all kinds of villains.

The Church is open to people of any political conviction except those who justify sin. We do not classify our parishioners and social partners according to their political color. With the exception of the clergy, any lay person may stand for office or be occupied with other political activities. Obviously, if such work does not prevent him or her from being a Christian, it does not sully the Christian conscience.

Sometimes I am asked:” to what extent will this or that political decision contribute to the common good; will it not be disadvantageous to this or that segment of the population, will it not cause censure at some point in the future?” It is sometimes said that politics is the “art of the possible”. Let me bring in a small nuance: it happens that this art is a balancing act on the edge of the possible.

The specific nature of politics, its elitism, being able to obtain information not accessible to the broad public, the possibility to take, or participate in, binding decisions – all this may sound negative in respect of a human being’s moral make-up. As a priest I know that not everyone copes well with the burden of power, nor does it bring it benefit to all. From the lives of the saints we have many examples of great men elected by the people to high office, who declined such a fate.

To make decisions on which the fate or life of millions depend is not so much a privilege as a heavy burden, an ordeal which can only be borne with God’s help, through the gift of wisdom and selflessness, of a loving heart and a strong spirit.

The glory of the impious is deceptive and short-lived: “for what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul; or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Math.16. 26-27)

I remember in 2004 a meeting between the president of the Russian Federation and the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church which was then taking place. Vladimir Putin said at the time that gradually the government is paying back its debts to the Church. I must point out that the clergy also has a debt to the people. We owe the people that same love which they showed to churches and priests during the hard times. We have to do everything possible and put a stop to the impossible so as not to deceive the people, who expect our help and participation. Yes, the material Church is not as rich as some think. But it is not just material support that is expected of us. Often a good word said at the right moment, a hand proffered in friendship, sincere participation, but mostly prayer, can work miracles. Be that as it may, we will do what we can in combating one of the major problems of post-soviet countries – poverty. The Jubilee Council of Bishops in 2000 adopted the Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, calling on society “ for a fair distribution of the products of labor in which the rich shall support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly”. In these complex times, when striking examples of spiritual impoverishment are abandoned children and old people living in poverty the hopeful eyes of a great many are turned toward the Church.

The life of the Russian Orthodox Church cannot be seen separate from the fate of the people. Why did the Church acquire such high authority in society? Is it not because Christ’s disciples turned, and still turn, to where this is much grief, hopelessness and human suffering; the prisons, hospitals, children’s shelters and homes for the elderly, helping people to bear privation and at times to regain the meaning of life?

A true scourge of our times is orphanhood while the parents are still alive. Thousands of homeless and unsupervised children make up the ranks of young criminals. This stark, sinful reality will for a long time, if not forever, spoil the delicate heart of the child.

It happens that a family is not able to feed its children; they go to work at an early age, faced with burdens beyond their strength and the indifference of the adults. Thrown into adulthood early, the child still remains a child, needing attention and affection.

Our Church organizes youth groups that visit children’s homes and shelters. Priests and laymen take the children in to bring them up. A number of monasteries have children’s shelters. With parishes, the monasteries set up various sections and groups allowing the children and youths from single-parent and unstable families some leisure time. Camps, tourist outings, excursions and pilgrimages are organized.

Another crying shame is that of the elderly and disabled, who have to eke out a miserable existence. They literally have to rely on the crumbs from the tables of the better-off. Monasteries and churches have mess-rooms for the poor, distribution points for donations and humanitarian aid. Through these anyone who wishes can provide as much succor as he is able to his neighbor in need. The priests and parishioners – among whom many youngsters – visit the sick and old, providing material and practical household assistance. Some parishes have doctors and lawyers who provide free assistance to those in need in solving day-to-day problems.

Today, Orthodox churches are active in many prisons while the collection of and their actual construction is in the hands of the prisoners themselves. From personal experience I know how much interest there is the word of the Gospel in places of confinement. Verily, the more churches we shall have the fewer prisons we shall need.

After all the convict, upon his release, may find himself cut off from society; that raises problems of finding work, a place to live, adjusting to life as a free man. It is the Church’s task – and of the whole society – to help return such people to normal life. Through prayer and the word of God many former inmates show repentance, find hope and serenity and prepare for a new life.

One peculiarity of the big cities is the appearance of the homeless. According to several statistics most of them stay alive for about one year under those circumstances and then die. The Orthodox service “ Miloserdie”(Mercy) founded in 2004, assists the homeless. A specially equipped bus regularly cruises near the places where these people are, saving them from the cold. Staff of the service and volunteers provide hot meals and medical first aid. When necessary hospital care can be arranged, and help provided with documentation and finding work.

The Church is taking up the issue of poverty in a nation-wide discussion. The topic “wealth and poverty” was central in the 11th World Russian People’s Council – a civic forum with the active participation of the Church which was held in the spring of 2007 in Moscow. During my opening address to the Council I said that “we all – Church, government, enterprise and society as a whole – must be concerned that there should be as few poor, marginalized, desperate people as possible”. According to official data, the gap between citizens with a high and those with a low income in 2006 was more than fifteen times as great. Therefore, in the concluding document of the Council the question was raised of a progressive tax scale on high incomes and luxury items so that the means thus liberated can be used in full to reducing this gap. The Council also addressed many other important issues. Thus, a negative response was given to the plans to sharply increase taxes on housing. The potential role of a stabilization fund in the socio-economic development of Russia was mentioned. The council stressed the need to combat corruption which “having become a rope around the neck of Russia’s economy, especially the small and medium enterprises, undermines the prestige of the country in a monstrous way and obstructs its investment climate”.

In today’s society, where the word sometimes has a material value, the voice of the Church is not always heard. In the exclusive circles of the market mechanisms, the victors are human passions: greed, adultery, cruelty, vanity. Some adults behave like children, who unexpectedly are allowed “ everything, right now”. But, thank God, the intoxication of freedom is beginning to wane, revealing neglected problems which can only be solved if we all work together.

One of these problems is pseudo-religious extremism. Its roots spring from ignorance of religious matters while the breeding ground for extremist tendencies lies in unresolved economic and social problems plus an alien, foreign way of life that is foisted on people out of step with their social and political models. All this constitutes a serious threat to the stability of today’s world. This is why our Church tries to stand for the integrity of civilizations and calls for a peaceful solution to all contradictions. In this context the issue of positive instruction of religion in schools is quite topical. Introducing lessons on the basics of the Orthodox or say, the Islamic culture as a subject at the choice of the students and their parents would help not only overcome extremist tendencies but also promote among our youth a healthy way of life and defend family values. Experience has shown that in countries and regions where such teaching is already conducted, it acts as an intra-national peace maker, instilling an understanding of one’s own history and culture in the participants and fostering respect for representatives of other religious traditions.

Throughout its history, the Russian Orthodox Church has demonstrated to be a peacemaking force. As early as the fourteenth century, St. Sergy of Radonezh united the Russian princes in a peace mission. There have never been drawn-out inter-religious conflicts on Russian soil. For centuries, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists have lived in peace, creating a prosperous fatherland. And today the Orthodox Church, with its peacemaking tradition in mind, shares with its people not only the joys but also the difficult trials that befall it.

In the turbulent year 1993, the dramatic clash between the legislative and executive powers in the new Russia could have led the nation to the brink of civil war. The Church leaders presided over the negotiations between the opposing factions, accepting the burdensome cross of mediation. The mass media did broadcast the Patriarch’s call for a peaceful solution. This precious step smoothed the conflict and ultimately prevented hatred and fratricidal discord from triumphing.

Many will recall the meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and the Mufti of Chechnya, Muhammad-Hussein Alsabakov. A joint declaration by the two spiritual leaders was made in a period of intense bloodshed in the northern Caucasus. Its aim was to prevent the tragedy from escalating and turning into a religious conflict.

Mention must be made here of the activities of the Inter-religious Council of Russia whose Inter-religious Peace Forums are one of its outstanding achievements. The first Forum took place in 2000 attended by the spiritual leaders of the traditional religious communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). At the initiative of the Second Inter-religious Peace Forum in 2004 the Inter-religious Council of the CIS was founded whose task it is to achieve intra-national conciliation and the prevention of ethnic conflicts.

A bright event was the World Summit of Religious Leaders in Moscow. The heads and representatives of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Shinto communities from 49 countries attended. The message from the Summit contains a call to unite efforts towards solving global problems and establishing peace based on mutual respect.

“ The use of religion as a means to foment hatred or as a pretext for crimes against persons, morality and mankind – is one of today’s challenges. The only proper way to deal with that is through education and moral upbringing. The school, the mass media and sermons from spiritual leaders must recover in our contemporaries a full understanding of their religious traditions, calling on them for peace and love”. At the summit, the religious leaders reiterated their willingness to “develop a dialog with adherents of non-religious views, with politicians, with all levels of civil society and with international organizations”.

All the above problems indicate a profound sense un-wellness and crisis in today’s world. People need clear goals and visible references. We should remember that a viable society can only be built in harmony of soul and body. Politics concern themselves ‘par excellence’ with earthly matters while religion attempts to give meaning to human life. Without spiritual principles, the activities of the authorities are like attempts to maintain life in a body from which the soul has departed.

If the natural equilibrium between the spiritual and the material is broken, our society will face ruin and yield its place to other peoples.

Only if the state authorities unite efforts with all well-intentioned powers can a society be built that is free from the yoke of untruths and violence, inspired by conceit and destructive voluptuousness, utter indifference and naked envy.

The Almighty God is the source of all power (Math. 28.18) granting to all the freedom to chose their path on earth. In making one’s choice, however, we are not only accountable to ourselves but also to our neighbors. Political activity is a special kind of service. It assumes power over the people but at the same time imposes a heavy responsibility. “If you shall fear the Lord and serve Him and obey His words and not fight the commandments of the Lord then you and your king that rules over you shall follow the Lord your God <…> and if you do evil then you and your king shall succumb” (1 Samuel 12.14,25) so let us serve one another “as every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God”. (Peter 4.10)

Source :

Collected by: George Alexander @tvoo