Vasilios N. Makrides is professor of religious studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His expertise is in Orthodox Christianity.
Even before the eruption of the crisis following the August 2020 presidential elections with the mass protests against the long-time President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, it was no secret that Belarus was perhaps the strongest ally of post-Soviet Russia and Putin’s regime. The same holds true for the predominant Orthodox churches in both countries, given that the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) is an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate. This particular situation lies at the very core of the discussion about the role of Orthodoxy in the above protests. Does the Orthodox Church have the potential or the interest to resist political regimes, especially totalitarian and authoritarian ones like the Lukashenko regime? Is the Orthodox Church a factor that can foster a concomitant democratization process?
No doubt, these are complex questions to answer here thoroughly. In fact, they have bothered numerous scholars and policymakers in post-communist times, considering Samuel P. Huntington’s notorious geopolitical theory about the “clash of civilizations,” in which the democratization chances in predominantly Orthodox societies were depicted rather unfavorably. All this relates to the role of religions in fostering or inhibiting specific political developments. If we compare the relations of the various Christian churches to political power across time, we can locate significant differences. In general, Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestant churches are considered as significant sources of multiple resistance towards political regimes. On the contrary, Orthodox churches as institutions are not commonly regarded as potential factors that would resist political power.
Recent history with regard to communism seems to validate this assumption. For example, engagement by the Catholic Church in Poland and the Evangelical Church in the German Democratic Republic has been considered as having led to the collapse of the respective communist regimes. However, the official Russian Orthodox Church has never been considered as such a factor in the Soviet Union. This difference mostly relates to the fact that Western Christian churches historically showed a greater autonomy from state control, while Eastern Orthodox churches were more prone to support and legitimize political power. In many cases, this resulted in their instrumentalization for various goals, for which they also paid a high price.
This close church-state relationship owes much to the tradition of Byzantine symphonia and its transformations across time. Thus, in the Balkans under the Ottomans there were various Orthodox legitimations of this foreign rule in an attempt to prevent any revolt against it. Furthermore, the term “Sergianism” is notorious as reflecting the voluntary submission of the Russian Orthodox Church to the atheist regime of the early Soviet Union. To avoid any misunderstanding, here we are talking about general attitudes observed in Orthodox cultures at the institutional level. However, there were church hierarchs, clerics, monks, and lay actors who individually objected to political power for various reasons and sometimes successfully, even if at a high cost. Hence, there is often a gap between the church hierarchy and the ordinary Orthodox believers, even if the church tries to maintain a “popular profile.”
All this can be observed in the present crisis, when the BOC’s official stance was clearly supportive of the political status quo. It called for peace and non-violence, but refrained to explicitly criticize the Lukashenko regime, which, in turn, praised its submissiveness to state interests and its lack of political intervention. Interestingly enough, the Moscow Patriarchate under Patriarch Kirill also supported the Lukashenko regime. Its move to replace the Russian-born Metropolitan Pavel with the Belarusian-born Veniamin as head of the BOC in late August probably aimed at increasing the church’s popularity among the Belarusian Orthodox believers due to their mounting critique of the official church.
On the contrary, the Catholic Church in Belarus under Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, although much smaller in size than the BOC, was far more critical of the political injustice and showed far greater solidarity with the protesting people. It also played a cardinal role in organizing “ecumenical protests” of various churches and denominations including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants in Minsk and in other cities, which were met with disapproval by the BOC.
These differences cannot be understood without looking at the long historical background of Orthodox and Western Christian churches in their attitudes towards state authority and especially in their potential to resist an oppressive regime and support democratization. In general, the Orthodox churches show more loyalty to the state and try to preserve its stability, while protests are often attributed to external enemies within a conspiracy scenario. In this context, the Orthodox churches are usually ready to pass over in silence state violations of basic human rights, which may cause heated reactions on the part of their adherents at the grassroots level.
Truth be told, the traditional Orthodox position of basically and sometimes unconditionally supporting state authority seems to have changed in recent decades. In the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000), the possibility of peaceful church resistance to specific political decisions is in theory allowed. In another context, this was the case with the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014, but this was most probably due to the greater diversity within Ukrainian Orthodoxy, a significant part of which was decisively against the Moscow Patriarchate. Finally, in the 2020 document For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, civil disobedience or even rebellion are mentioned as potential reactions to political decisions jeopardizing Orthodox Christian principles.
The remaining question is how this social ethos can be translated into concrete action. In any event, all this is again far away from the Western Christian tradition of resisting political power and preserving church autonomy. This is also evident by comparing the stance of the Catholic Church in Belarus in 2020 with that of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine in 2014 during the respective protests. Without idealizing Western Christianity, which has its own negative share in political developments across history (the case of “clerical fascism,” for example), Orthodox churches have generally been more passive in their societal engagement and have put more emphasis on forms of “spiritual resistance” and on the “inner freedom” of the church and the believers, which can never surrender to political control. No doubt, these are valuable tools in the current secularized environment, and the Orthodox always like to remind other Christians of this often-neglected potential. However, ordinary Orthodox believers seem to demand at the same time a more active societal engagement of their church on numerous levels including the condemnation of political fraud, violence, and injustice, as in the Belarus case. This is a challenge that Orthodox churches will have to address more persuasively in the future, especially in order to avoid rendering the gap between the church leadership and the faithful people even bigger.