The Radical Middle in Historical Perspective


The following is an abridged quote from the “Declaration of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Council” (April 1990). Noting the date, this at a key time in modern Russian history as the Communist government of the USSR collapsed while its replacement was still in doubt. The bold lettering as emphasis is mine, not in the original.

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“God-loving archpastors, pastors, and all the faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church,

In our life, the time has come when everybody must realize their responsibility before the Lord for our Mother Church and its historical destiny.

The rapid changes taking place in the country have not bypassed the church and have posed serious challenges. For decades the church has been artificially separated from the people and largely separated from the life of society, but now it attracts close attention from various social forces and movements. Not infrequently, these forces and forces and movements find themselves bitterly opposed to one another and each would like to see the church among their allies and to have the church support their understanding of the objectives and purposes of the spiritual, political, social, and economic transformation of the country and the solution of ethnic problems.   …. The Orthodox Church cannot be on the side of any group or party interests; it cannot link our destiny with politics. The church is the mother of all its faithful children, and she embraces all of them, irrespective of their political outlooks, with love, demanding from them the purity of the Orthodox faith and faithfulness to their Christian calling. It is this position that gives the church the right to make a moral evaluation of the developments that are currently taking place and the problems that concern our society. …

But our country is still facing many difficult problems that directly affect all of us: the need for spiritual renewal of society through practical measures of the upbringing of children and youth; the task of reviving our fatherland’s culture, … the protection of the environment, which is in a catastrophic state in some regions of the country due to barbaric methods of economic management; and, finally, the need to pay attention to the social sphere, which has been greatly damaged by both the economic policy and the heartless attitude of many people. Today, society expects the church to take practical and effective steps to resolve all these problems in the shortest period of time.

However, we should admit with humility that in many respects our church community, including the hierarchy, the clergy, and the laity, has turned out to be unprepared to respond appropriately to present challenges. The difficult decades have not gone by without leaving their mark. For many years the church was perceived as an ideological force that posed a threat to society. …. During some periods its influence on people was curbed by means of covert encroachments and attempts to compromise it through organized propaganda.  … As a result, the church was forced out of the life of society ….  Looking back over the past decades and the tragic experience of life and the testimony of our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and attempting to understand our own experience, we can state that the church has survived not by its power or human wisdom, but by the power of its spirit and the gift of Divine Grace.  …

But the past no matter how difficult it was, does not relieve us of responsibility for the results of our service today. It is absolutely clear that many people have grown accustomed to the situation of forced social inactivity and, whether they want it or not, continue to remain aloof from the changes taking place and do not use the possibilities now opening for the church. However, there is another extreme. … It is absolutely clear that there is temptation in the church just as there is very frequently in our secular community to replace deeds with rhetorical statements and posturing designed to produce effect.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that under certain conditions the tensions that have emerged inside the body of the church can serve a creative and constructive purpose. They can promote a genuine revival of the mission of the church, the organization of religious and moral education of children and adults, and the cause of charity and the participation of the church is solving problems facing our people today.”

                <“Religion in the Soviet Republics,” Igor Troyanovsky, editor, Harper, 1991, p. 66-68.>

The Russian Orthodox Church, long persecuted, suddenly found itself free to impact society from which it long had been marginalized by the dominant institutions within the USSR. In this declaration, the leaders of that denomination noted two unhealthy extremes within.

Unhealthy Extreme #1.  Members of the church had grown used to acquiescing to the broader forces within society. When the opportunity to lead and to guide arose, many were unprepared and unwilling to positively address societal and moral evils. History is rife with the Church embracing the status quo. In some cases this involves a syncretization of religion and state government. Other times it is a choice to separate off from society, wrapping up their own talent and burying it in the ground.

Unhealthy Extreme #2. Some members of the church, instead of seizing the opportunity to do good, sought to use the opportunity for demagoguery,  and “righting wrongs.” These elements of the church define themselves by allegiance to partisanship rather than to God. I am reminded of stories from a few centuries back when the Mongol forces crushed the Islamic Caliphate freeing Christians in Persia. Many of the Persian Christians used this freedom to speak and to act, to insult their Muslim neighbors, decry the injustices they have suffered,  and to flout Islamic cultural conventions. Many did this rather than embracing their new opportunity to express Christian love openly to Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Mongol alike. It is hardly surprising that the Mongol leadership in that part of their empire decided to embrace Islam rather than Christianity.

The Russian Orthodox church clearly suffered during the time of oppression it experienced under the Bolsheviks having little impact on society… but the church wasn’t at its best as a pawn, in many ways, to the Romanov Dynasty either. In recent years it has had an opportunity for a different path.

The radical middle refuses to abuse either with word or deed based on the power of the moment. It refuses to be a pawn of society or of party. At the same time it refuses to ignore the opportunity given by God to act. The church must always be prepared to act… to be agents of transformation. However, it must do so with love, patience and humility.

The church often appears to be weakest when it has the most secular power. The temptation for Triumphalism and abuse is too great for too many. May the church and its people always reject the trappings of civil power and partisanship, but embrace the role of humble service to God, loving God and loving their neighbors as themselves.

 

 

 

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