06 May 2008

Putin picks a church?

Another example of the truism that the media just don't "get" religion!

But this article from the New York Times is more than that. It illustrates some of the huge cultural barriers to understanding between Christians of different understandings and traditions, especially when they are filtered through nationalistic spectacles.
clipped from www.nytimes.com

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers.

Mr. Putin makes frequent appearances with the church’s leader, Patriarch Aleksei II, on the Kremlin-controlled national television networks. Last week, Mr. Putin was shown prominently accepting an invitation from Aleksei II to attend services for Russian Orthodox Easter, which is this Sunday.

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There is an excellent cultural deconstruction of this article from an American Orthodox Christian, who has had some experience of both religious cultures (Orthodox and Protestant) and both national cultures (Russian and American) -- Notes from a Common-place Book: "Putin Picks a Church":
There are several problems with the story, however. For starters, the title itself is ludicrous: 'At Expense of Others, Putin Picks a Church.' I find this image of Putin choosing among churches as an American would shop between denominations to be amusing. Can you really imagine Vladimir Putin trying to decide between, say, the Freewill Baptists, or Missouri Synod Lutherans, or say the New Life Covenant Believers Outreach Center (or is it the New Covenant Believers Outreach Life Center?), rather than say, the Orthodox church which has been the faith of his nation and forebears for over 1,000 years now?
Another quote:
Others complain that some government bureaucrats and Orthodox priests do not show proper respect to Protestants, labeling them "sects" and "heretics." We are accustomed to making distinctions between the term "denomination" (which is acceptable) and "sect" (which is unacceptable). Many Americans assume our situation to be normative, and one that should be a model for less enlightened lands. We are too deep in the forest to see the truth behind the shopping mall this is American religiosity. Our situation is nothing short of bizarre. Russians see little substantive differences between denomination and sect. Why should we expect them to play our silly word games?
And of course the word games also work the other way:
Many Russians perceive it as alien to their culture. This suspicion was not helped when Western missionaries rushed in after the fall of communism. Eager evangelicals viewed the society as completely atheistic. To the extent that they were aware of Russian Orthodox Christians, they were dismissed as superstitious quasi-Catholics, who were not really Christian at all. I know, for I was an evangelical in those days. The Russian Orthodox Church, which had to begin rebuilding, retraining and teaching at that same time, was obviously frustrated by the crush of Western missionaries. But the situation is changing. The Church is resurgent in Russia today. Recent polls find that 71% of the nation considers themselves Orthodox. Studies also point out that there is something of a "baby boom" underway, and that with such, Russia may be slowing turning from the path of demographic suicide.
Lest it be thought that this is simply Orthodox prejudice, back in 1995 Prof Willem Saayman, the head of the Missiology Department at the University of South Africa and a Protestant, visited Russia in 1995, and on his return he said very emphatically that he thought Protestant missionaries from the West should be banned from Russia because of their cultural insensitivity and blatant cultural imperialism.

The Russian Church was like the man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves, and Western Christians came but, unlike the priest and the Levite in the story, they did not pass by on the other side, but rifled the victim's pockets while he was still unconscious to see what the robbers had left.

And it was not only Orthodox Christians who suffered from this process, Russian Protestants did as well. The story was told of one Protestant church where the congregation had not heard their own pastor preach for more than a year, because there were so many American visitors who were absolutely convinced that the Lord had laid a message on their hearts that they simply had to give that congregation.

For a Russian Protestant viewpoint on this process, see Mission in post-perestroika Russia by Johannes Reimer. Though the article is somewhat dated, it does give the background against which the present Russian suspicion of foreign Protestant mission groups needs to be seen.

One of the interesting thing about the rush of Western Protestant missionaries to the former Second World in the early 1990s is that quite a surprising number of them have become Orthodox. Something that impressed them was the faith of Orthodox Christians who had lived under atheist hegemony.

Back in the 1970s, when atheistic communism seemed well entrenched in the Second World, I met a Croatian Catholic priest at a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting in Durban. He remarked that everywhere he went in the West, Christians prayed for those behind the iron curtain, that they would have faith. "They may lack many things," he said, "but one thing they do not lack is faith. Their faith is far stronger than that of most of the Western Christians I have met."


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve. As I see myself on the road heading into Orthodoxy, I am seeking understanding. The reasonableness of Putin as Orthodox because he is Russian (and the Serbians as Orthodox because they are Serbian, for another example) seems to me to be something different than your comments on Khanya about not judging anyone by worldly standards, and race is a worldly standard. Isn't ethnicity a worldly standard too?

In other words, should one be Orthodox merely because one is of a certain ethnic background? It seems to me that being a faithful Christian should come first, and ethnicity belongs somewhere farther down on the list.

I'd appreciate some more thoughts from you about this. The ethnic thing would not keep me from becoming an Inquirer, but it does strike me as missing the mark with regard to love, and it is painful when I encounter it among (usually ethnic) Orthodox.

Dana Ames
Ukiah California

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, being a faithful Christian comes first. It is more important to be Orthodox than to be Russian, or Greek or whatever. One of the most heretical statements ever uttered is "Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism".

On the other hand, one can recognise the historical role Orthodoxy has played in countries where it has been around for a lopng time. What brought people back to the Christian faith during the Bolshevik period was precisely the recognition that Orthodoxy had helped to shape Russian culture.

Yewtree said...

The thing is, when people hear the word "heretic" in the west, they think of people being burnt at the stake. When Orthodox say "heretic", the severest sanction they have in mind is presumably excommunication.

There is a sociological difference between a denomination and a sect, by the way. A denomination is a broad church, less differentiated from mainstream society; a sect is smaller and more differentiated from the mainstream. For example, pre-Nicaean Christianity was radically differentiated from the society around it (holding property in common, not eating with unbelievers, etc) so technically it was a sect; later as more people joined, it accommodated mainstream values like property-owning and hierarchies (thus it became a denomination) and only when every member of society was signed up to it does it actually become a church. So in America, Orthodoxy is a denomination; in post-Soviet Russia, it's a denomination well on its way to becoming a church.

Admittedly these sociological distinctions were devised to describe Protestant Christianity; but they kind of work in other contexts, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. No problem with the Church shaping culture- I think that is what it is meant to do, like leaven in the dough. The problems come with mistaking the culture for the Church...

Blessings in your Paschal season.

Steve Hayes said...


I commented on sociological jargon a couple of weeks ago in a post on "Cult", where I said that they had almost skunked the word. I'm not sure how widespread the sociological jargon is, but outside that particular discipline they are certainly tendentious, and in other disciplines they are used with different meanings or avoided altogether.

Unfortunately the burning of heretics is not entirely unknown in the history of Russian Orthodoxy, and several Old Believers suffered that fate.

Anonymous said...

Other late breaking news:

Prince Vladimir of the Kiev PICKS a Church (Orthodox Church) in the year 988 and a mass baptism of his people, the Kievan Rus follows. The New York Times is shocked, SHOCKED!


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