Remarks on the War in Ukraine

V. Rev. Dr. Gregory Jensen, Pastor Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

On behalf of his Eminence, Metropolitan ANTONY and his Eminence, Archbishop DANIEL of the UOC-USA, thank you for your presence, your support, and above all your prayers for the Nation of Ukraine and her people who are suffering and at risk for their lives as a result of “the unjustifiable and unlawful invasion of … Ukraine – a sovereign and independent nation recognized as such by the entire world – by the armed forces of the Russian Federation at the direction of its President, Vladimir Putin.”[1] May you receive the blessing Jesus promises:

Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.

Matthew 25: 34-36, NKJV

Thank you as well to Fr Chris and Assumption Greek Orthodox Church for opening their doors to us this evening. By so doing you have fulfilled the Apostolic command and I pray will receive the blessing of your obedience: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2, NKJV).

To my brother priests and deacons as well as the other clergy here this evening, let me simply make my word to you those of Psalmist (133:1-3, NKJV):

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments.

133:1-3, NKJV

Finally, to those of you here tonight from Ukraine, and especially those of you with family and friends in that war-torn country, may God grant you all consolation, keep your loved ones safe, grant a swift end to this war, victory to Ukraine and repentance to her attackers!

To tonight’s topic.

My bishop, Vladkya Daniel, argues that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is primarily a religious rather than geopolitical war. Yes, Putin wants Russia to regain the prominence it had in the Soviet era and before that during the time of the czars. In this sense, the war is about geopolitics. Thankfully though, an increasing number of Russians have rejected this.

In the past few days, thousands of anti-war protesters in Russia have been brutally arrested for demonstrating against an unjust and immoral war. By their actions, these brave sons and daughters of Russia have proven themselves co-suffers in the defense of Ukraine and with their Ukraine brothers and sisters, true Passion bears. May God bless and preserve them!

To call the invasion of Ukraine a religious war is simply to acknowledge that a key element Putin’s agenda is the weaponization of the Russian Orthodox Church. What is worse, some Russian Orthodox have embraced this goal as well.

Prominent churchmen such as head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kyrill and Metropolitan Hilarion, who is primarily responsible for his Church’s office of ecumenical and interfaith dialogs, have embraced Putin’s notion that the West is at war with the Orthodox Church worldwide and especially in Russia. Most distressing is the unwillingness of His Holiness Kyrill to condemn the war and instead call for an end to the war by re-uniting Ukraine to Russia and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine with the Moscow Patriarchate.

At its core, this religious war is aimed at undoing the values that undergird liberal democracy, human rights, and the prominent role of science in human affairs. In its place, Putin would substitute the Russian Orthodox Church. Or rather, a parody of that Church.

To be sure, none of the values of the Enlightenment are sacrosanct; especially in their more aggressive secular forms, they can and should be criticized. But such criticism better serves the Gospel when it is appreciative in both tone and content.

In this religious war, however, the weaknesses of the Enlightenment, liberal democracy, and the free market are not being criticized with an eye to correcting them by the Gospel. Rather they are simply being rejected in favor of an autocratic government legitimized by the support of the Orthodox Church of Russia.

We can contrast this with the more irenic, dare I even say evangelical, stance to the West, taken by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. While not shy about criticizing what he sees as the excesses of Western culture, His All-Holiness is also willing to learn from the West in both its Christian and secular expressions. He speaks as a partner, as one who respects the autonomy of others rather than as an autocrat or a scolding father.

And now we come back to the religious war in Ukraine.

While Ukraine is the BATTLEFIELD, the RELIGIOUS war being waged by Russia is against the West. Ukraine’s “crime” is that it has turned toward the West. They have not done this militarily but culturally and economically. If Ukraine is successful in this, then the Russkiy Mir, the Pax Russica, fails and with it Putin’s attempt to re-establish a Christianized version of the former Soviet Empire whose fall he calls one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

So what can we do?

Let me make a few suggestions first to my fellow Orthodox Christians here this evening and then to our honored friends who have joined us in prayer.

As early as the 1960’s the liturgical theologian Fr Alexander Schmemann criticized and warned the Orthodox to resist the temptation to try and re-create Byzantium or Holy Russia. Such attempts he argued reduce the Church to little more than a museum and are contrary to the Orthodox Church’s self-understands as the Body of Christ whose whole reason for existence is for the salvation of the world.  

To Schmemann’s waring let me add that however sophisticated, the attempt to re-create or preserve some mythical golden era is merely another form of Gnosticism and will in short order degrade the Church making her simply another in a long line of failed, sectarian projects.

We cannot as Orthodox Christians withdraw from the surrounding culture no matter how hostile it may at times be. Called as we are to live in the world even as we are to not be of the world, we can and must engage the great questions and concerns of our age. Yes, we are to do so on our own terms but not to condemn but so that we are able to take what’s true and correct what is wrong. If we don’t do this then whether we look back to “Byzantium” or “Holy Russia,” or forward to the “Benedict Option,” we have abdicated our responsibility to Christ and the Gospel.

Now, let me turn to our friends.

First, please continue to pray; pray not simply for Ukraine and Russia but the whole Orthodox Church. We need your prayers.

Second, learn about us. I don’t say this out of any sense of triumphalism but from the sober realization that at roughly .4-.5% of the US adult population, we are little known even by our Western Christian brothers and sisters.

What do I hope you’ll learn?

Well, I hope you learn, what the late Orthodox writer Fr Lev Gillet (better known to many as A Monk of the Eastern Church) came to understand about his adopted tradition:

O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involved, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, asceticism, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha like no other.[2]

Like other minorities, our marginalize status means we are easily misunderstood when we are not simply overlooked. Because of this, and like other minorities, we are tempted to remain silent.

Our tendency to remain silent, is compounded by the fact that our parishes have members who carry hidden scars. It is the rare Orthodox parish that does not have members who have suffered, or whose family has suffered, persecution like what we see today in Ukraine. Given this history, for many of us it is simply easier to remain silent.

And even when we do speak?

Well, and again like other minorities, we frequently must shout to be heard.

And even when we are heard our message is often not understood. We use the same words as our Western brethren but often mean something different by them.

To speak personally for a moment, after 25 years as a priest and  30 years as a social scientist, I find this all rather exhausting and—to my shame—this makes me more willing to shout and much less inclined to listen and explain with even a semblance of patience or good humor.

So please, talk with us and learn about our tradition. Not only will you lift the burden of our loneliness you will undo Putin’s lies about you. Remember he says—with the blessing of the Church of Russia—you hate us and want to humiliate and destroy us.

Third, don’t simply learn about us for our sake; learn about us for your sake as well. Some of you may find a home with us and, if you do, thank God.

But as we see now in Ukraine, ignorance of the Orthodox Church, even if it is without malice is dangerous. Western politicians, pundits, and media sources must understand Orthodoxy to understand that Putin, like a small cadre of Islamic terrorists, is waging a religious war against the West.

Finally, we must ALL of us learn from Ukraine. What do we learn?

Well sometimes “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. We must act and sometimes even fight.

Allow yourself to be inspired by their courage so you can “speak out boldly in support of the … Ukrainian nation – her government, armed forces, and her people.”

If you love your own freedoms here in America, then please show your “support for the people of Ukraine not only in prayers and thoughts”; but with these same prayers on your lips and in your hearts “take to the streets demanding that … elected government officials seek every possible way of supporting them with whatever they need to survive.”[3]

Thank you for your kind attention.


[1]Council of Metropolia Issues a Statement on the Ongoing War in Ukraine,  https://www.uocofusa.org/news_220304_2

[2] Lev Gillet The Burning Bush, Springfield IL: Templegate, 1976: 33

[3] Council of the Metropolia.

Fr Gregory
Fr. Christodoulos Margellos, pastor Assumption GOC

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