The Iconoclasm of War by Nicholas Sooy

This essay originally appeared in the March 17, 2022, edition of In Communion, the official journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF). According to its mission statement, the OPF is “an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict.” Readers of Today’s American Catholic are encouraged to seek out the work of the OPF, whose commitment to peacemaking, ecumenical dialogue, and other initiatives closely aligns with our editorial focus—Ed.  

At least 28 places of worship, mostly Orthodox, have been destroyed or damaged by shelling or other acts of violence by Russian forces. Of the Orthodox Churches destroyed, a great number are of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is surprising on one level, given that President Putin on February 21 cited the “destruction” of the Moscow Patriarchate as a pretext for his invasion.

Kiev continues to prepare the destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is not an emotional judgement; proof of this can be found in concrete decisions and documents. The Ukrainian authorities have cynically turned the tragedy of the schism into an instrument of state policy. The current authorities do not react to the Ukrainian people’s appeals to abolish the laws that are infringing on believers’ rights. Moreover, new draft laws directed against the clergy and millions of parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate have been registered in the Verkhovna Rada.

If Putin is concerned with the destruction of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, then why are his forces literally destroying churches of the Moscow Patriarchate? As Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus said recently, “Putin may go to church, do penance, put his cross on, commune, but at the same time, he kills. Is this his orthodoxy?”

At the same time, this is not that surprising. To paraphrase Indian author Amish Tripathi: there are no bystanders in a holy war. Moreover, Ukraine is the nation with the second largest population of Orthodox Christians in the world, after Russia, and the Moscow Patriarchate is the largest church in Ukraine. Moscow Patriarchate churches are especially concentrated in the east, where much of Mr. Putin’s forces have been attacking. Given the tragic number of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure we are seeing in Ukraine, it is inevitable that parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate would be destroyed (not to mention the many other religious buildings that have been destroyed).

One priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr. Roman of St. Michael’s, recounts,

This is the house of God; this is where people came to pray, seek peace in their minds in this time of trouble, a place of safety for our community, and now this. . . . We have had so many attacks in this area in the last weeks . . . so many people killed, wounded . . . families fleeing from their homes. We knew that the bombing would continue, but we did not think that they would hit a church. . . . I heard the missile coming in this direction—the sound of whistling, rushing wind you get from a grad [multiple rocket launcher]. I threw myself onto the ground and covered my head, and then the blast [happened], and a lot of earth fell on top of me.

All of this is occurring during Lent, a time of extra penance, introspection, peace, and devotion. While it is never appropriate to kill innocents or destroy churches, there is something hypocritical about self-proclaimed Christians ordering such destruction during this season. This hypocrisy is heightened by the fact that the Orthodox Church celebrates the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” during Lent. This feast celebrates the material culture of the Church, as seen in its icons and other religious artifacts. For many years the Church fought over the use of iconography, with iconodules defending such images and iconoclasts opposing or even destroying them. Iconoclasm was declared a heresy. To celebrate the triumph of iconography over those who would deface and destroy icons while at the same time ordering a war that destroys not just icons but also churches and most of all the only image of God made by the Godhead, humans, beggars belief. As St. Maria Skobotsova once said, every human being is “the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America made this connection in his sermon for the feast, saying:

For the past few weeks, we have beheld the desecration of the image of Jesus Christ, not as depicted in icons but as contained in human beings of flesh and blood. We have witnessed heart-wrenching scenes of Orthodox Christians raising arms against other Orthodox Christians. We have watched helplessly as the powerful of this world exert their power without heed to the suffering of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. We are beholding a war that tragically shatters not only peace and unity among sovereign nations, but also leads to divisions and disunity within the Body of Christ, His Holy Orthodox Church.

Though war may not, strictly speaking, be an ecclesiastical heresy, one might consider it to be the perpetuation of the iconoclast mindset. Rather than the burning and destruction of sacred images of the Lord, the Mother of God, and the saints, we are witnessing brothers and sisters lifting up their hands in acts of violence and hatred. There can be no more immoral act than this. There can be no more sinful act than this.

Indeed, the first time the word sin appears in scripture is in the story of the fratricide committed by Cain against his brother, and what is war if not fratricide?

Patriarch Kirill, meanwhile, celebrated this feast by gifting an icon of the Theotokos to Viktor Zolotov, the leader of the Russian National Guard, saying “Let this image inspire young soldiers who take the oath, who embark on the path of defending the Fatherland.” 

There is something of double-speak of the Patriarch’s statement, as there is across Russia these days. There is no invasion, just a “special military operation.” There is no war, just “demilitarization.” Soldiers are not killing priests and destroying churches, they are just “defending the Fatherland.” 

Against this is the truth, which as Christ told us, will set us free. ♦

Nicholas Sooy is a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University. Together with his wife, he runs the U.S. branch of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its journal and website, In Communion.

Image: Nadiia Ganzhyi / Unsplash

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