Last month, when Vladimir Putin ordered that the Black Madonna of Kazan, the holiest icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, be flown over the Black Sea, many believed he wished to secure blessings for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
It was the first time the icon, or rather a copy of it, since the original was stolen and possibly destroyed in 1904, was deployed to bless a peaceful enterprise. Over the centuries, the “Black Virgin” has been taken to battlefields to bless Russian armies fighting Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Persian, French and German invaders. Stalin sent it to Stalingrad in 1943 to ensure victory over the German invaders under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.
With Putin’s troops in control of Crimea and threatening to move further into Ukraine, we now know that the icon was brought in to bless a military operation this time as well.
A more reliable source, especially when it comes to matters of Christian iconography, would be Peter Berger, whose 2011 article Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism adds valuable background to the icon, and to the sinfonia of church and state in Russia which it in some sense embodies:
The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy. One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad.
Read the whole thing for further background…
I leave the political implications to others better suited than myself.
Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists. If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover — without a sense of its Christian background — we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.
But then as Gary Sick — heh, I know, not one of Zen‘s favorite characters — says he was told by a friend in the State Department during the Iran hostage crisis:
It was mid-morning as we drove up to the Ukrainian marine base at Perevalnoe. Russian soldiers were ranged along the wall and as I looked left I could see dozens of Russian military trucks in the lee of the hill where the Ukrainians normally do their training.
Suddenly I heard the sound of chanting. An Orthodox priest was approaching the soldiers with his golden casket of holy water. As he sang his incantations and sprayed the soldiers using a brush, local people ran alongside clapping. I wondered if the Russian soldiers thought God was on their side – most armies have believed that through history.
A few yards up the road, we came across a baffled young man looking at the scene wide-eyed “I’m not happy about this – who are these people? “I am Crimean, Russian and Ukrainian, I feel that I am all of these three, and I don’t want to be occupied.”
Here’s an extraordinary series of tweets from ITV’s Europe Editor, James Mates, a couple of days ago:
Russian soldiers and 20+ vehicles. Surrounding Ukrainian base at Perevalne in Crimea. Reported demanding surrender.
Squad of Russian reinforcements arrive at Perevalne base where Ukraine troops surrounded. No sign of them moving in.
Surrounded Ukraine troops at Perevalne look young, frightened, hopelessly ill-equipped vs Russians.
Priest + Ru Orthodox choir sing chants, prayers outside surrounded Ukraine base, while 2 armies stand-off
Col i/csurrounded Ukraine base just returned from talks with Ru counterpart. Said ‘will be no shooting, no war’.
Pro-Russian civilians have come out to support Russian troops at Ukraine base now surrounded.
Troops in Perevalne base say they understand units surrounding them are Russian special forces base with Black Sea Fleet.
ArchBsp Clement of Ukraine orthodox church, stands at gates of surrounded base ‘to protect my people’.
Here, I believe, we see Archbishop Clement of the Ukraine orthodox church standing at the gates of the surrounded base…
Below, or opposite him, is His Holiness, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’.
An echange of notes:
Locum Tenens of the Kiev metropolitan department sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill
His Holiness, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’
Your Holiness !
Today Ukraine is experiencing without exaggeration the most difficult moment in its recent history. After three months of the socio-political crisis , a bloody confrontation in the center of Kiev and the death of dozens of people, we were faced with another equally formidable challenge.
On March 1 the officials of the Russian Federation made a statement about the possible introduction in Ukraine of a limited contingent of Russian troops . If this happens, Ukrainian and Russian people will be drawn into a confrontation that will have catastrophic consequences for our country .
The Locum Tenens of the Kiev metropolitan department appeals to you, Your Holiness, with a request to do everything possible to avoid bloodshed in Ukraine. I ask you to raise your voice about preserving the integrity of the territory of the Ukrainian state.
In this difficult hour we raise fervent prayers to our Lord Jesus Christ, that He by the prayers of His Blessed Mother save us from a collision between the fraternal Russian and Ukrainian peoples .
Onufriv, Metropolitan Chernovtsy and Bukovina, Locum Tenens, Kiev metropolitan department
The Church prefers to avoid taking one side or another when it comes to political struggle, but what Kyrill, Patriarch of Moscow, wants to ensure is that there will be no deaths of civilians in Ukraine.
“Dear Lord, I assure you and our Ukrainian flock that ? will do everything possible to convince those who have the power on their hands to prevent the death of innocent people. The blood of our brothers shed in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, is the fruit of the hatred that the opposition members from different parties have allowed the enemy of the human race grow in their hearts. May God stop any hand raised with intent to cause pain and suffering and bless those who defend the world” Kyrill stated during his address to the Ukrainian flock and Locum Tenens Metropolitan of Kiev Metropolitan Onufriv throne.
Three documents of interest, not comprehensible to me in their original language, nor via Google Translate:
The British, Anglican, conservative blogger who names himself Archbishop Cranmer has an intriguing twist on the matter, invoking in his title today, Crimea – a battle of principalities and powers, one of the most fascinating verses in the entire Bible, to wit Ephesians 6.12:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
His Grace, writing under the pseudonym of a martyred (21 March 1556) Archbishop of Canterbury, writes:
While we view the current conflict through the distorted prism of secular European enlightenment and the primacy of economics, millions in the Ukraine are asserting their cultural and religious identities. On the one hand are the Western-inclined pro-EU reformists who are seeking liberation from oppression and corruption; on the other, the Eastern-facing pro-Russian conservatives are battling once again to preserve their way of life. And these are by no means the only hands: the region is fraught with complexities. But when priests sprinkle holy water over the troops, it is because they believe they are defending Christian orthodoxy and traditional morality against social liberal secularism and moral relativity. For many millions of ethnic Russians, this isn’t simply a question of gay rights and wrongs, but of good versus evil. It is about the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation itself.
So when we read the Daily Mail or listen to the BBC, we are understanding nothing of this crisis, for it is not a conflict of flesh and blood, but of principalities and powers. It is not about politics and opportunism, but morality and mission. Obama and Cameron can issue their warnings and demands that Putin respect ‘equality’ and ‘democratic values’, but when you believe you are called by God to do His holy work, a pesky liberal president and a devalued prime minister are of very little significance at all.
A happier picture to close with?
Ah, but other issues cropped and popped up on my screen — like Judaism and Neo-Nazism…
Delta says the Kremlin is using the anti-Semitism card falsely to delegitimize the Ukrainian revolution, which is distancing Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence.
“It’s bullshit. I never saw any expression of anti-Semitism during the protests, and the claims to the contrary were part of the reason I joined the movement. We’re trying to show that Jews care,” he said.
Still, Delta’s reasons for not revealing his name betray his sense of feeling like an outsider. “If I were Ukrainian, I would have been a hero. But for me it’s better to not reveal my name if I want to keep living here in peace and quiet,” he said.
Fellow Jews have criticized him for working with Svoboda. “Some asked me if instead of ‘Shalom’ they should now greet me with a ‘Sieg heil.’ I simply find it laughable,” he said. But he does have frustrations related to being an outsider. “Sometimes I tell myself, ‘What are you doing? This is not your army. This isn’t even your country.’”
Svoboda, the flag…
To what extent is the battle here one of ex-Nazis fighting ex-Commies?
I don’t of course know, and y’all may have strong opinions. Knowing how hard it was for almost anyone to understand Afghanistan, for instance, and how ignorant I am myself of the former Soviet sphere, I won’t hold my breath for accuracy, certainty, or concensus. But I’ll read and listen.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a well-known Baptist pastor and top opposition politician in Ukraine, took office on Sunday, Feb. 23, as acting president after the Parliament voted to oust President Yanukovych. [ ... ]
The choice of a Baptist pastor as acting president in Ukraine, which has had an Orthodox majority population for centuries, does not come as a huge surprise to Sergey Rakhuba, head of U.S.-based Russian Ministries. For years, he has been in periodic contact with Turchynov.
“He is well-known in political circles as a principled, honest leader, although he was somehow always in the shadow of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed prime minister who was released yesterday.
“He is well-known as a preacher who, despite his political opposition work, preaches on a regular basis at one of the Baptist churches in Kiev, even though security must travel with him.”
With a an unsettled population facing East and West a la Dr. Doolittle’s pushmipullyu, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in Ukraine in the next few weeks. Will Ukranian and Russian speakers find a way to live independently and profitably if not always perfectly harmoniously together? Will the country disintegrate? Will it descend into civil war? Will it find constitutional coherence by way of federalism? Will an emergent authoritarian type try to hold it together by force? Will Russia respect Ukraine’s sovereignty over all its territory, including the Crimea? Will the West accept a Georgia-style Russian intervention? Will Europe or Russia come up with the best financial bid (aka bribe) for Ukraine’s loyalty?
Some more quick photos, these ones via Chant Cafe:
Prayer by bullhorn, Kyiv-style
Orthodox priests between pro-European Union activists and police lines
Priest holds analog breastplate of righteousness, Ephesians 6.14 -- photocredit Sergey Gapon, AFP
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, photocredit AFP
And from the Russian side? This quote goes back about 6 weeks, but the viewpoint would be that of “Putin and the Patriarch”:
[ by Charles Cameron -- a death at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, and a glance at the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord ]
There’s something very simple and profound about the sheer faith the snake handlers of the Holiness tradition bring to their worship. It’s not yo my aesthetic taste, and the doctrines espoused are, to my mind, literal-minded and unwise — but the faith, the trust moves me.
Pastor Jamie Coots has now died of snake-bite in the course of woship:
Like the police chief, Jeffrey Sharpe, interviewed above, in my own way and to my own degree I feel saddened by dis death.
I find myself feeling a similar fellow-feeling for the worshippers in this church, with it’s quite similar rusticity and simple ways. And what interests me here is that the group worshipping here is one whose theology I have very little sympathy for — the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord or CSA, a Christian Identity paramilitary church whose 200-acre compound was besieged and shut down by the FBI in 1985.
The opening of this video, from the trailer for Silhouette City directed by Michael Wilson, show us the worship of the CSA — and much as I dislike their racism and proneness to murderous violence, I find there’s something affecting in what this clip shows of the simple hearts of the believers. Reading Tabernacle of Hate, the autobiography of Kerry Noble whose quest for Christ brought him in contact with the group before it became infected with racism and hate, who went on to become its second in command and eventually left in disgust at all the hatred, I have the same feeling — of a simple piety led horribly astray.
Here then is the clip — it’s the first 35 seconds I’m inviting you to watch — the movie then turns to present day, more mainstream uses of militant Christian imagery:
I don’t want to leave you on the sour note of CSA Christianity — so let me turn back to the Holiness snake-handlers.
For a deeper glimpse into their ways, you could do worse than to watch this documentary:
The deadly rattlesnake that delivered the fatal bite to “Snake Salvation” pastor Jamie Coots in Middlesboro, Ky., last Saturday will be back in church to help praise the Lord in another heart-pounding service this Saturday, according to his son, Cody Coots.
Cody, 21, who will be burying his serpent-handling father on Tuesday night, told TMZ that the snake will not be killed. His father’s death, he says, was “God’s way” of taking him home, and his family will embrace the deadly rattlesnake that delivered his death sentence at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro again this Saturday.
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