ANALYSIS | Charles Villa-Vicencio: Religious Captivity in Ukraine and South Africa
Russian Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and ally of President Vladimir Putin, has refused to publicly denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Russia, Ukraine and South Africa face entrenched ethnic and cultural differences that evoke political-religious tensions. Charles Villa-Vicencio examines whether the nationalist religion is only the shadow of a dominant political order.
Religious nationalism hangs over the world like a body of death. Christian nationalism was the heartbeat of apartheid. This is the deep soul of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s imperialism. Add greed, privilege, ethnicity, racism, and gender privilege to fundamentalist religion, and the bomb goes off.
There is no obvious parallel between the tensions inherent in the history of the South African Church and those of the Orthodox Churches of Russia and Ukraine. There are some disturbing similarities, however.
The three countries face deep-rooted ethnic and cultural differences that evoke politico-religious tensions. This raises the question of whether the nationalist religion is a mere shadow of a dominant political order?
Fueled by the pursuit of political power, land grabbing and nationalist aggression, the Russian Orthodox Church was spawned by the Great Ecclesial Schism of 1054. The Roman Catholic Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul), who responded by excommunicating the pope!
Extending its influence in the 13th century, the Constantinian Orthodox Church established Orthodoxy in Kyiv, Ukraine, where it became the heart of Orthodoxy in the region, until its importance shifted to Moscow three centuries later. late. This situation lasted until the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, when a group of churches in Ukraine established the Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), declaring loyalty to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is currently the spiritual leader of 260 million Orthodox Christians. worldwide.
About 75% of Russians claim cultural allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church, and 70% of Ukrainians are Orthodox adherents. The Russian Orthodox Church continues to recognize Kyiv as the historical cradle of Orthodoxy and the soul of Mother Russia.
The Patriarch of the Russian Church views Vladimir Putin’s war as a form of legitimate resistance to Western aggression and secular values, while several members of the Russian Church clergy condemn the war as an act of brotherhood. The OCU opposes war.
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The escalation of nationalism and religious extremism in states bordering Ukraine, such as Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, Europe and Eurasia, raises fundamental questions regarding the role of state and populist religion in future political developments in the West and beyond.
The history of this type of religion, which often includes right-wing extremism, evokes memories of ethnic polarization and fascism in Europe over the past century that impacted the whole world, including South Africa. South.
Former statesman Henry Kissinger suggests it’s time for a political compromise, advising Ukraine do not to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while supporting its right to determine the direction of its economic and political policies.
The question is why South Africa abstained in the UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, refusing to join 28 other African states in condemning the Russian aggression. The answer presumably includes loyalty to its place in the Non-Aligned Movement, nostalgia for Russia by ANC cadres in pre-democratic times, and speculation about possible mediation in the Russian-Ukrainian war?
South Africa’s Protestant churches were the backbone of colonial subjugation and white rule. This led directly in the 19th century to a separation of the African Independent Churches from the churches established by colonial missionaries.
A broader rebellion against white church domination came in 1985 with the publication of the Document Kairos by politically aware, predominantly black Christians.
The document made a clear distinction between state theology, which supported the apartheid state; ecclesiastical theology, which emphasizes reconciliation as the defining principle of the South African conflict; and prophetic theology, which rejects “tyranny in the Christian tradition”.
Siding with the poor and engaging in acts of civil disobedience against white supremacy, Kairos theologians called on Western nations to support economic boycotts and divestment campaigns. Groups inside and outside the South African church have shared initiatives to make the country ungovernable, calling on people to pray for the fall of the government.
READ | How South Africa’s multicultural churches are breaking down racial barriers
Institutional churches have been faced with a challenge from which they may not have risen. The influence of suburban white congregations waned, with many becoming increasingly pietistic and socially isolated from the black community.
Most white believers apparently favor the predominantly white DA and Freedom Front Plus, while most black believers theoretically support the ANC, EFF and other majority black political parties – indicating a important subjective and religious dimension of South African politics. .
Prophetic theology faces three options: sectarian forms of activism, bombastic rhetoric, or strategic peacebuilding. The theology of the Church in South Africa is dangerously exposed to cultural, racial and spiritual captivity. This can only undermine any serious attempt at nation-building in South Africa or any form of mediation in the Ukrainian-Russian war.
* Charles Villa-Vicencio is Professor Emeritus, University of Cape Town, and Visiting Professor, Conflict Resolution Program, Georgetown University, Washington DC.
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