The Russian Orthodox Church might get as bad a rep (if not worse) in the secular West than the Catholic Church did under Benedict XVI. It’s certainly as badly misunderstood. The media of the West settled on the figure of Patriarch Kirill only after his statements about Pussy Riot, and then only to descend into uninformed and bigoted histrionics like these about how corrupt the Orthodox Church was (with as much attention lavished on Patriarch Kirill’s left wrist as on Pope Benedict’s ankles) and how it served only as a doormat for Putin. But viewing Patriarch Kirill in this way is simplistic and wrong-headed in the extreme. I had been only vaguely aware of how Kirill was breaking open dialogues between Russia and Georgia and with Syria back in 2011, but I didn’t know he was gaining a reputation as an aggressive peacemaker.
His resume along those lines is quite impressive. He has been very active in the Middle East and in the Balkans at their most dangerous, making visits as an Archbishop to the Levant and to Yugoslavia (also here) as a mediator. Just as his predecessor Patriarch Alexiy II had done, he has expressed repeated concern for the Christians of the Middle East, and more recently has entreated President Obama to back off of his sabre-rattling in Syria. He has also been active in the World Council of Churches and in correspondence with Benedict XVI (with whom he had a warm relationship), and was instrumental in drafting the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many important ways brought Russian Orthodox social teaching closely into alignment with the Catholic.
But he hasn’t been unwilling to criticise Russia’s economy or its internal policies at all! Take a look at what he said on Interfax-Religion.ru:
‘Современная экономика построена в значительной степени на очковтирательстве, создании денег из воздуха. [Деньги - это] эквивалент человеческого труда и ценностей, которые Бог дал нам, таких как уголь, руда, нефть, наш интеллект, физический труд, культурный и духовный. [Однако сегодня] каждое предприятие выпускает свои собственные деньги в виде акций, которые, поступая на вторичный рынок, превращаются просто в не понятные никому ценные бумаги, которыми можно торговать и спекулировать. Если на этих фантиках зарабатываются миллиарды, не подкрепленные ни трудом, ни реальным капиталом, то как такая экономика может существовать? Вот и расплачивается сегодня простой труженик, который ценности производит, за весь этот мыльный пузырь! [Нам необходино] справедливой экономической системы, чтобы деньги и капитал являлись эквивалентом и выражением реального труда.’And not only that! Take a look at what he said ten years ago, highlighting both the responsibilities of the individual and of the state in light of the teachings of the Church, as well as taking a shot at the Russian government and lawmakers (and he even made my inner existential personalist squeal with glee by quoting Nikolai Berdyaev!):
‘The modern economy is built largely on fraud, creating money out of thin air. [Money is] equivalent to human work and the riches God has given us: namely coal, ore, oil, our intellect, our physical labour, our culture and our spirituality. [But today,] every company produces its own money in the form of shares, which in the secondary market, rather than acting as simple securities, are used as items of trade and speculation. If these spectres earn billions, not being backed by real labour or capital, how can such an economy exist? And what becomes of the simple worker, who produces the value behind this entire bubble! [We need] a fair economic system, where money and capital are equivalent and are the expression of real work.’
Any person on the street whom you ask about the reasons for the public confusion in the country, will point first to economic problems. Indeed, the material component largely determines the social, cultural and even partly the spiritual dimensions of human life. It is clear that poverty provokes vice. A system which unfairly distributes material goods, which are accumulated as a result of the labour of society’s members, can also create social and political tensions, and thereby provoke vice in both public and private life.This is real heavy theology. Patriarch Kirill is not only critiquing the mainline of Russian business practice and public policy together, and defending Russia’s small businessmen (it’s notable that he uses the word людей in the original, with all its populist shades of meaning) with more than a bit of Chestertonian flair. He obviously has no objection either to non-exploitative business practices, or to government which understands its obligations to enforce justice. But he’s no worshipper of state power, as the latter part makes clear, and he’s certainly no ally to the Yeltsinist Russian right (SPS, Yabloko and so forth)! And as with his close collaborator Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, his perceived support of Putin aside, he holds economic views considerably to the left of the President – particularly with regard to his support for progressive taxation and fiscal policy. And that last part? It’s pure, sweet, unadulterated Saint Augustine, with all its native radicalism intact.
Thus, the region’s economy is not merely to be considered in terms of material interests. The outstanding Russian philosopher N. A. Berdyaev outlined both projections of economic relations in the sphere of our lives in this way: ‘Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbour is a spiritual one.’
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The modern value-system, which encourages people to apply greater efforts to the continuous improvement of private material consumption, is sinful and depraved. The Church reminds people that economic activity can be justified morally and religiously only if the person is working not only for themselves and for their loved ones, but also to help the needy. This motive for working may be called the spiritual dimension of the economy. The Church encourages people to work effectively for maximum return such that the surplus may be transferred to those who are unable to earn a living, or whose labour for public benefit ought to produce no material gain. The ethics of Orthodoxy postulates a very important principle: the economy must be efficacious and fair.
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How is it possible today to transition into morally justifiable and efficacious economic relations? Education should play an enormous role in this process. Our Church’s participation in the learning process will help equip children with the high ideals of the Orthodox work ethic. One of the goals of teaching the ‘Bases of Orthodox Culture and Ethics’ is to familiarise students with the moral norms of Orthodoxy, which embrace not only the rules of private and family life, but also are able to develop a moral approach to participation in public life, including politics and economics.
Charity plays an important role in the redistribution of surplus wealth. From the history of pre-Revolutionary Russia, we see the importance of the place occupied by charitable organisations in the public life of the country. However, it must be recognised that to achieve an equitable redistribution of wealth to support the poor, to provide programmes in the public interest, to requite those whose activities do not produce economic value, through charity alone is impossible. Here, a special role belongs to the state. The state should assume responsibility for a just distribution of the fruits of labour – which is to say, for the realisation of the spiritual dimension of the economy.
Taxation and fiscal policies take a special place in this process, which is designed to redistribute public goods for the benefit of the weak, and to support institutions which are required for a normal existence in society. Therefore, the upbuilding of such policies is an obligation which is not only economic, but moral and even religious. By developing fair and effective legislation, state officials are performing a godly duty, and their actions have an obvious spiritual dimension.
The Church calls upon her children to abide by the law, but it cannot be denied that compliance in good faith with all the laws, regulations and administrative statutes drives the entrepreneur to the brink of ruin. The Church reminds legislators that their duty is to create a system of laws which do not impose upon the people ‘heavy burdens, hard to bear’. But until then, a man cannot create surplus wealth without breaking the laws on the books.
But if the current legal code pushes even the most decent of people to cheat the state, is it even possible to call the prevailing economic system in Russia moral? The situation does not help Russian entrepreneurs to form concepts of business and economic ethics. If the situation remains unchanged, in five or ten years it will be difficult to find an entrepreneur who wants to do business openly and honestly!
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We need to remember that, from the religious point-of-view, the sole legitimate owner of all earthly blessings is God, who is Creator of the world, and we only temporarily make use of them. We should not forget that, since God has given us these blessings, He can take them away from ‘he who lays up treasure for himself, but is not rich towards God’.
We need to start paying attention to this guy – and certainly to more of him than just his left wrist!