Photo: Predrag Trokicic
Photo: Predrag Trokicic

The Easter Epistle of the Serbian Orthodox Church calls on the faithful to rejoice because of the resurrection of Christ, not to be afraid, and to be brave. For this purpose, it quotes parts from the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. However, the epistle also tells us about the issues that cause unease and instill fear in the Serbian bishops.

First of all, there is the image of civilization as a place of human decadence. For this purpose, the epistle mentions the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, saying that those cities had “the appearance of heavenly habitats”, but that “the inhabitants of these cities were immersed in a shameless life that is hateful to God.” That is why “the Lord gave Sodom and Gomorrah over to destruction and ruin,” but – now comes the climax of the lesson – “the biblical truth about Sodom and Gomorrah is still valid today.” Today, Russian Patriarch Kirill justifies Russian aggression against Ukraine by calling it a part of the fight of Holy Russia against the decadent Western civilization which the Ukrainians have joined. In March last year, Kirill blamed the war on Western powers who want to impose “the organization of gay Pride parades” on others. Opponents of the human rights of LGBT+ people usually refer to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it is unequivocally clear what the epistle means when it says that the inhabitants of these cities led a life that is hateful to God.

Nevertheless, the author of the epistle admits that a certain level of progress is important for society, but that “the spiritual health of our people is incomparably more important.” What, then, is needed for spiritual health?

It is necessary that the progress of society, education and culture “be built on the foundation of the Gospel on which they were created.” Therefore, it is important to preserve the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet, hence the appeal “to standardize the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in public space.” We know very well that the Serbian language can also be written in the Latin alphabet, but it is necessary to lament over the Cyrillic and even intervene in its favor, because this is a way for the Serbian Orthodox Church to establish a monopoly over Serbian culture – a completely anachronistic aspiration. The Serbian language is allegedly being subjected to violence and hence the appeal to “abolish the provisions of the law that impose this violence.” This is referring to the “violence” of gender-sensitive language “which hides the war against marriage and family.” It seems to me that the bishops, lifelong bachelors that they are, might be using this concern for marriage and family as cover for efforts to impoverish the Serbian language and disenfranchise certain social categories.

The epistle practically copies the rhetoric of the Russian Patriarch Kirill.

Epistle: “We build our way of life, our ethos, our values based on the foundations of the Gospel.” Kirill’s words on the Feast of Tsveti: “Holy Russia, thank God, still preserves Christian values, which are built into our national value system.” The West intended to deceive Russia and “draw it into its world and instill its values,” but when it became clear that the two worlds had nothing in common, that realization “led to a military confrontation.” Kirill also said that Russia is not at war in Ukraine against the people, but against “the rulers of the darkness of this world and the spirits of evil.” The dehumanization of Ukrainians goes hand in hand with the glorification of Russia, which, according to the Russian patriarch, does not want to gain material benefit from the war, but to preserve “its value system.” Christian spirituality is on Russia’s side, while the West and Ukraine fight on the side of decadence, materialism and inhuman phantasmagorias: rulers of darkness and spirits of evil.

When it comes to Ukraine, the epistle says that the Serbian Orthodox Church is praying for peace and an end to suffering, but, in essence, it seems to repeat what Bishop Irinej of Backa said last week to the Russian propaganda service in Serbia: “Regardless of the fact that we consider the war to be completely just on the side of Russia, which is the dominant opinion among the Orthodox, and that the war was not sought by Russia but by the West, we cannot simply say: ‘Let the Ukrainians suffer’.” So, the Serbian Orthodox Church is praying for the end of war and suffering, but the war is viewed through the eyes of Patriarch Kirill. If, however, the majority of the Orthodox are on the side of Russia, does that mean that it is only a matter of time before other traditionally Orthodox nations go to war with the decadent Western countries? The Ecumenical and Alexandrian Patriarchates have already declared that the ideology of the Russian world is a heresy, so it seems that not all Orthodox Christians are ready to wield the anti-Western sword.

The ideology of the Russian patriarch also finds support among religious fundamentalists in the USA. The secretary of the World Congress of Families – a Protestant organization based in America – said that Russia is defending “Judeo-Christian values.” Which led some Protestant theologians to take a more serious approach to deconstructing the myth of Holy Russia and embark on proving that secular Western institutions are more in line with Christian understandings of personal dignity than supporters of Christian nationalism in the East and West want to admit. Kirill’s narrative is not limited to Orthodox Christians and has clearly become a topic and issue of ecumenical importance.

Great works of Russian culture can also help with deconstructing that narrative. Namely, in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor from the novel “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky, the inquisitor rebukes Jesus because he did not make an effort to meet human needs and turn stones into bread – as the devil asked of him in the desert – but instead intended his teaching only for the minority, neglecting the majority who desperately needed bread. After coming out of the catacombs where he was hiding from persecution, the Grand Inquisitor corrected the work of Christ and fed the people with earthly bread in the name of Christ, but took away their freedom. In return, he allowed them to sin: “They are weak and powerless and will love us like children for allowing them to sin,” he said confidently to Christ. Has the Russian Orthodox Church not come out of the catacombs it was hiding in during the Soviet regime? Is it not feeding the people with the narrative of Holy Russia – that is, earthly bread in the name of Christ? And is it not giving permission for sins (the looting of Russia by the Putin oligarchy, war, mass murders, destruction and war crimes)? The same applies to the recent past of the Serbian Orthodox Church: they feed people with the bread of identity and take away their freedom.

The epistle ends with the words of the New Testament: “In the world you will have sorrow; but do not be afraid, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The world that Christ has conquered writes using the Latin script, uses gender-sensitive language, is against marriage and family, supports Ukraine and – of course – “alienates Kosovo and Metohija from the state of Serbia.” Let us, too, end the celebration of the Resurrection with a citation from the New Testament, but with a slightly different message: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). Meaning: For what shall it profit a Serb, if he shall gain Kosovo and all the Serbian lands, and lose his own soul?

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 19.04.2023.