Nicolai N. Petro is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. His books include Ukraine in Crisis (2017), Crafting Democracy (2004), and The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (1995). He has written for a wide variety of newspapers and is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and The Nation. His website is www.npetro.net.
The function of the Orthodox Church is to heal the world. Healing the world is understood to mean reconciling us with our Creator, from whom we have fallen away. It is in our God-given divine nature to strive for such a reconciliation, and the church was established, by Christ, to serve as a helper in this all-important endeavor (Matthew 16:18).
From this theological perspective, illness or disease are not just physical manifestations. Instead, they need to be viewed holistically, as the consequence of both physical and spiritual decay. That is why, after healing the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus admonishes him further with these words: “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (John 5:14).
From this theological perspective, illness or disease are not just physical manifestations. Instead, they need to be viewed holistically, as the consequence of both physical and spiritual decay.
The current pandemic is therefore not substantively different from any other that humanity has previously endured. Like those, its longevity is something that ultimately lies in God’s hands. This is as true for nations as it is for individuals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore not affected relations between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in any particularly dramatic way, since the theological and historical context for such events is not new for either party. Now that the ROC has recovered some of its historically symphonic role in Russian society, it is more socially active and much better integrated into the work of social and governmental efforts at both the national and local levels to curb the spread of the virus. I assume that the Russian government’s reluctance to impose mandatory vaccination is, to some extent, an acknowledgement of this role.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not affected relations between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church in any particularly dramatic way, since the theological and historical context for such events is not new for either party.
The Russian Orthodox Church recommends that its communicants follow all locally prescribed health guidelines. But in Russia, as in many other countries, skepticism and confusion abound because these guidelines are constantly shifting. Moreover, although the church can recommend behavioral guidelines, it cannot impose them. Just as individual parishioners must choose for themselves how to respond to this pandemic and what preventive measures to take, so in Orthodoxy’s decentralized tradition, it is completely normal for individual clergy to respond in different ways, within the constraints imposed by the law and the authority of the local bishop. (Those who understand Russian can watch an interesting debate among clergy on this topic streamed live on the popular Russian television channel Spas). That is why in Orthodox countries, including Ukraine and Russia, there has been such a wide diversity of practices regarding local religious assembly.
Symphonia (harmony) is an important feature of Orthodoxy, making a close connection between church and state easier than in the West because the relationship is not presumed to be adversarial. As I have discussed elsewhere, this facilitates dialogue between religious and state organizations, as well as coordination on policy. Since the community of the faithful and the polity should strive to share a common set of values, in the logic of symphonia, religion and politics should not be divorced. To do so would be to “privatize” and segregate what is by nature a communal activity—the construction of a harmonious society.
Since the community of the faithful and the polity should strive to share a common set of values, in the logic of symphonia, religion and politics should not be divorced.
Another common Western charge against the Orthodox Church is that it ought to take a clear political stand in favor of democracy. The reason it does not, according to the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, is because “In Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner.” In reality, such a conflation of politics and religion is more in the tradition of certain strands of Western Christianity, but quite alien to Orthodoxy.
One could cite innumerable authorities on this point, but for simplicity’s sake, I will rely on an ecumenical Western contemporary, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) and his book, Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).
Archbishop Anastasios argues that the Western view of people as political beings whose actions should be evaluated through the prism of relations between individuals and the state is insufficient for Orthodoxy, which, he says, “has never made natural institutions absolute” (52). Instead, he says, the Orthodox Church views individuals in the context of their greater obligation to build a community of love, or koinonia, that transcends their political identities.
So much of political discourse and party politics is inherently divisive and therefore profoundly alien to the Orthodox tradition.
There are so few Orthodox political texts, and so little in the way of systematic doctrine about law and politics, says Archbishop Anastasios, because when human beings limit themselves to political discourse “something of the universal and ultimate truth” gets lost (57). “Religion,” he says, “has an obligation...to transform the perceptible world by keeping our gaze firmly fixed upon the transcendental” (19).
So much of political discourse and party politics is inherently divisive and therefore profoundly alien to the Orthodox tradition. It therefore has no preference for one form of politics over any other, because that which is needful, right, and proper for human salvation simply lies beyond the ken of politics.