Patriarch Alexy: The church, society and politics: a view from Moscow (Part I)
- Europaica 141 03 March 2008
Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia: The church, society and
politics: a view from Moscow (Part I)
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 contacts with those with the same goal. In turn,
political relations, which can be seen as the art of coexistence, are
bound to take religious standards into account. However, human
darkening through sin, a violation of God's plan, inevitably brings
vice and falsehood into a person's life, "and the whole world lieth
in wickedness" (1 John 5:19, King James Version).
Politics is 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 on the journey to eternal life?
Continuing his thought, the Apostle Paul 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 shall 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 purpose, power must serve God and do good.
Can politics be effective without religion?
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
Saviour 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
people's hearts, 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, cannot be called an era of
flourishing 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 become involved in questions of dogmatics. But the tight embrace
of the power of the state hampered our freedom. 1 would not wish such
a future for Russian Orthodoxy. "Ye are bought with a price; be not
ye the servants of men" (1 Corinthians 7:23), as the Holy Scripture
says. In this respect the church must be separate from the state.
However, building a society or a government without God is doomed to
failure. The history of the twentieth century testifies to this.
Thousands of innocents killed for Christ, confessors and devout
Christians slandered and threatened, could repeat with the Apostle
Paul: "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 Corinthians 6:810).
Throughout the history of the church, Christians have demonstrated
through their words, acts and behaviour in society that belief cannot
be separated from life. If a human being really believes in Christ,
he or she obeys His commandments everywhere-at work, at home and 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 and away from the real purpose of life; that is, away from
genuine peace and joy. If society hides faith in museums or
churchyards, 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 human self-sufficiency, the all-powerful force of reason
and will and 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 laboured
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?" (Romans 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 realise 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 realise pride, nor be a servile
accommodation of the masses or a flattering obedience to dark vices,
but rather are meant to be sober and responsible action for the good
of the people and 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 society and from the problems that concern
people. "The Lord has sent us into the world" (John 17:18) "to be the
light of the world" (Matthew 5:14), to be a shining example of active
faith, strong hope and sincere love.
The secularisation 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. l
would like to remind all those who would consider using or have
already tried to use the 'religious resource' of a comment from the
nineteenth-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 a sermon, representatives of various
political trends went up to the priest to thank him for the support
he bad shown. Pleasing anyone was the last thing he had had in mind!
It is simply that the church has always talked of values close to
every human being-love for one's neighbour and one's country, charity
and justice, decency and responsibility.
Alas, politics has now been compromised by intrigues. Young
people-and not only they-now see political activity as something
dirty and shameful. Such a stereotype is dangerous, because it
hampers the entry into politics of those who genuinely wish for the
good of the population and instead facilitates an influx of all kinds
The church is open to people of any political conviction but not to
those who justify sin. We do not classify our parishioners and social
partners according to their political colour. With the exception of
the clergy, any layperson 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 add a small nuance:
this art is a balancing act on the edge of the possible.
The specific nature of politics, with its elitism, the opportunities
to obtain information not accessible to the broad public, the
possibility to take or participate in binding decisions-all this may
sound negative with respect to a human being's moral makeup. As a
priest, l know that not everyone copes well with the burden of power,
nm does it bring benefits 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, 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" (Matthew 16:26-7).
Source: European View (2007) N 6, p. 111-116. To be continued.