Defining Church by National Boundaries?

March 03, 2014

As the hostilities between Ukraine and Russia remain high, questions are emerging regarding the state of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Most politicians and citizens in Ukraine claim to be Orthodox (although the current acting president is Baptist). However, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been split between rival groups. The official body, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), is a semi-autonomous group under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The other major group, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate, is not officially recognized by the broader Orthodox Church but rivals the official body in size and is viewed positively by those leery of Russian oversight (interestingly, its current leader used to lead the official Russian Orthodox branch in Ukraine before he helped create the Kyiv branch following Ukraine's political independence).

This religious divide in some ways matches the political divide as the ousted president (Viktor Yanukovych) is a member of the Moscow Patriarchate branch. Viktor Yushchenko, a political rival of Yanukovych and Ukraine's president from 2005-2010 was criticized for receiving communion in a church that is part of the Kyiv Patriarchate and baptizing his children in churches in that branch and another unofficial Ukrainian Orthodox group. Yushchenko even urged the creation of a united Ukrainian Church, a goal the Moscow Patriarchate branch opposed. That vision, however, might gain more attention as relations between Ukraine and Russia worsen. The Economist reported that the competing Orthodox branches might dialogue with one another about working toward Ukrainian unity.

The idea of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches uniting to create an Orthodox branch in the nation that is autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, it seems problematic to divide the church by national boundaries as if national identity trumps religious faith. For as Catholic political theology scholar William Cavanaugh brilliantly noted in his book Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time, modern state thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau warned against an international church since it would undermine the sovereign state. Thus, those philosophers sought to confine the church within national boundaries and create religion as a realm separate from politics. To split the church up is to allow nationalistic differences to trump religious unity. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church serves as a good example of the problem of a nationalistic church. The punk rock group Pussy Riot captured the collusion between church and state in their punk prayer that landed a couple of members in prison. Thus, it seems problematic for Ukrainians to submit to the state church of a state trying to undermine their state. Neither option, then, seems good. Either Ukrainians further allow the church to be divided by national boundaries or they place themselves under the authority of a church divided by national boundaries.

These difficulties are part of why I identify with the free church tradition. Interestingly, the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, also comes from the free church tradition. As Religion News Service noted, his Baptist faith might actually serve as an asset for him since he does not come from a tradition solidly entrenched in the nation's religious-political divide. Similarly, Tony Peck of the European Baptist Federation remarked in an Ethics Daily video interview that not being "the state church" actually helps Baptists like Turchynov since they are not seen as acting as part of a "state machinery." As Cavanaugh urged, we must carefully consider these issues and we should seek ways to resist making the church subordinate to a state.

 

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