russian-letterSource: Religion Dispatches


SEPTEMBER 27, 2016

The Russian government’s shutdown of the country’s top LGBT website, BlueSystem, is just the latest entry in its gruesome record with respect to LGBT rights. While the time for passive concern by all parties has long past, it is a matter of utter amazement that American Orthodox Christians—even the most conservative—are not more vocally horrified about events in Russia.

The complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow in Russia’s systematic persecution of its LGBT citizens speaks to a deep crisis in Orthodoxy’s encounter with the modern world. This crisis threatens to align the Church with some of the most odious actors around the globe and to undo so much of what has made Orthodox theology and culture unique through the centuries.

It is time for American Orthodox Christians to object.

As with many things, history and human shortcomings are the culprit in this situation. From the High Middle Ages, the history of Orthodoxy has largely been one of siege. Western Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. This seemed like the worst of calamities until two and a half centuries later, when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks. The fall of Constantinople plunged what remained of the Byzantine Empire, and consequently huge tracts of the Orthodox world, under Turkish rule. This 400-year period of occupation was only temporarily interrupted by Western Christian empires vying with the Ottomans.

When in the 19th century, Serbian and Greek nationalist movements began to throw off the Turkish yoke, independence was often accompanied by interference from the modern Western powers, such as Great Britain, France and the United States. Throughout this entire time, Russia was actually the exception for the most part. At least until 1917, when “The Third Rome” became the capital of atheistic communism.

Throughout the same period, poverty, oppression and occupation drove millions of immigrants from traditionally Orthodox lands to the far corners of the globe: Canada, South Africa, Australia and the United States. Thus Orthodoxy emerged in the United States as an immigrant church, the church of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, as well as Arabs—all of whom occupied the lower rungs of America’s all-important racial pecking order. Consequently, respectability and assimilation quickly became important goals of these communities.

This longing for assimilation, if not always respectability, has arrived over the last three decades in a rather unexpected form. For the first time, Orthodox Christianity in America has seen conversions not propelled by marriage. The source of these conversions has largely been disaffected mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics fearful that their own traditions have become too progressive.

Of course, these are the most innocuous of American converts. American Orthodoxy has also managed to become the go-to religion of the alt-right, courtesy of being sufficiently medieval without being Roman Catholic.

The combination of these historical realities has created an environment in which—even though there exists a progressive plurality among self-identified American Orthodox Christians—public statements that could be perceived as critical of the Orthodox Church and its social teachings are rare. Those cradle-Orthodox from immigrant backgrounds (who make up the majority of progressive Orthodox Christians) have inherited their parents and grandparents desire for belonging in America and know the stories of those grandparents’ experiences on America’s margins. For far too many, public critiques of Orthodox leadership or traditionally Orthodox nations seems a kind of treason to the upward mobility their ancestors fought so hard to achieve.

As for that wave of new American converts, it is arguably unclear how much objection to the actions of the Moscow Patriarchate there really is. From conservative former-mainline Protestants trapped in a zero-sum game Culture War mentality to truly reprehensible fascists, the culture of conversion with American Orthodoxy does not lend itself to this kind of dissent.

That is not to say there isn’t much to which one could object. Russia has become a byword for the oppression of sexual and gender minorities. Poll after poll and study after study indicate that nowhere outside the Middle East and Africa is more homophobic than Russia. This homophobia manifests itself in everything from oppressive “propaganda” laws to unconscionable acts of mob violence. In short, the plight of LGBT people in Russia today is a human rights crisis, a crisis that has been fostered, protected and encouraged by the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church at large.

And just as we (admittedly unfairly) demand that progressive and moderate American Muslims challenge the most radical members of their tradition no matter where they exist in the world, so too must American Orthodox Christians hold to account those who wield Orthodoxy as a weapon.

In the case of Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens, this does not even involve engaging the Church’s teachings and history regarding homosexuality, same-sex relationships or marriage. It involves defending the Church’s ancient teachings regarding human dignity, compassion and agape. It demands declaring in no uncertain terms that “violent Orthodox mobs” (as those who attack LGBT activists in Russia are routinely described) are irreconcilable to the heart of Orthodoxy. It requires an unconditional affirmation that anyone who would join a violent mob, for any reason, has estranged himself from the Bride of Christ.

This should not be too much to ask. It cannot be too much to ask. Silence here, as is so often the case, represents complicity.

The voices of Orthodox Christians must join the chorus of condemnation against Russia’s human rights record. This opposition must come, because it is necessary if the most beautiful parts of Orthodoxy are to be preserved in Russia, in America, and throughout the world. But most importantly, this opposition must come because it is perhaps the most important opposition that can emerge against the horrific crimes that are being committed in Russia.

For nearly a millennium now, the Orthodox world has been dominated by a sense of attack—from the East and the West, in its traditional lands and in its diaspora. This constant sense of siege has made it far too easy for the Russian government and the Russian Church to dismiss any criticism of its treatment of LGBT people as yet another attack on Orthodoxy. When faithful Orthodox Christians become the critics, this line of evasion disappears. For this reason, if no other, public and frequent admonitions of the Russian government’s treatment of sexual and gender minorities, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s support of it, have become the duty of American Orthodox Christians. Silence is no longer an option.

Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian, interested in the intersection of politics, religion, and culture. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of London. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiekelaidis.



  1. It seems like an attack on Orthodoxy because of you’re blatantly ignorant of the effects of LGBT. They are pushing moral depravity in every corner of the earth. LGBT is a force of evil. Not people themselves but the actual ideological group. Russia should be praised for their banning of homosexual Propoganda to children. In America there’s probably not a TV show that doesn’t have a gay person on it. Is that really necessary? If I look at my friends they’ve all become feminine and act like they’re gay. No one is concerned for young American souls anymore. You let society empty its dumpster full of corruption on our heads and don’t even defend or help our sick souls. We’re basically heathens now. You just act and live like this is normal! It’s not! Lord have mercy!

  2. The tendentious moralism Kelaidis displays in her essay above would earn her a place in the Orthodoxy Culture Warrior Hall of Fame if we ever decide to build one. She argues that we should drag the LGBT culture war into the Orthodox Church and then marshal the moral authority of Orthodoxy to attack other countries for not supporting the LGBT cultural agenda. At the same time she brands anyone who opposes her as the kind of culture warrior that she unquestionably is!

    Kelaidis needs to look at the public health data of the LGBT lifestyles. Then she will understand why Russia and other countries resist the ideas that she argues we should impose.

    • Rev. David Bissias on

      While normally thoughtful, Father, in your approach to such issues, I think you have misread the main thesis of Kelaidis’ article. While I am ignorant of her views on a so-called “LGBT cultural agenda,” her point about the Church perceived as a persecutor of minorities is valid, and she does not call for any support of an LGBT agenda, but rather for the Church to refrain from joining the secular state in persecuting persons of the LGBT community. In fact she specifically notes that condemning Russia’s human rights record need not involve any assessment or negotiation with the Church’s moral stance on such a “cultural agenda” as she correctly notes,
      “…this does not even involve engaging the Church’s teachings and history regarding homosexuality, same-sex relationships or marriage. It involves defending the Church’s ancient teachings regarding human dignity, compassion and agape. It demands declaring in no uncertain terms that “violent Orthodox mobs” (as those who attack LGBT activists in Russia are routinely described) are irreconcilable to the heart of Orthodoxy. It requires an unconditional affirmation that anyone who would join a violent mob, for any reason, has estranged himself from the Bride of Christ.”
      One can certainly uphold the Church’s ideals regarding sexuality and her proper resistance in the public sector to re-defining, for example, the definition and meaning of marriage without resorting to a neglect of the Church’s ideals regarding the commandment of love (mob violence is obviously not an expression of love for the “least of the brethren”). While the situation in Russia is undoubtedly complicated, there is little doubt that–at times–the Church there has appeared to allow itself to be a tool of the (secular!) government’s populist political agenda. It would seem that there is no need for the Church of Christ, wielding the power of grace, to fight diabolical fire with fire rather than the “streams of living water” flowing from Christ. Loving the enemy does not mean agreeing or acquiescing to the enemies demands to change fundamental beliefs, and turning the cheek does not entail surrender.
      If anything, many Orthodox Christians are guilty of the “tendentious moralism” which you mention. Instead of making sympathetic martyrs of those with whom we disagree by –in many cases– perceived or de facto persecution, a pastoral approach reminiscent of our Lord’s association with sinners (including adulterers and harlots) in a call to repentance would be preferable to blanket condemnation.
      In fact, the “culture wars” that have arisen throughout the Western world (both in North America and Eurasia) have resulted in damaging rhetoric that is designed more to rouse the support of one’s own side rather than dialogue. As evidenced in this country, such “political” tactics do little to resolve issues. The Church should refrain from the tactics of populist demagoguery and issue a call for repentance aimed at the healing of human lives and not the wounding of human consciences. Christians are called to bless, and not curse. I believe that was the urging of Saint Paul whose writings, it seems to me, are an impeccable standard of Christian morality.
      Of course, I do not accuse you, Father, of anything inappropriate, but do think as clergy we have the responsibility to be less reactionary when responding to the views of others, and accept the good when it appears even when, as may be the case with this writer, there is–be it implicit or explicit–something wrong.
      Just a thought.

  3. Two things frighten me here. First are Kelaidis’ observations that many Orthodox converts are coming into the Church with arch-conservative political, as well as religious, viewpoints. It is, as she accurately notes, in direct opposition to the thinking of cradle Orthodox, third generation people (like me) who have built upon the progressive and “live and let live” attitudes of our parents and grandparents. This has created tensions in parishes that I never saw until about thirty years ago.
    The second, and related to the first, source of my fear is the tone of the two comments above. These strident and doctrinaire statements endorsing discrimination and even cruelty to certain groups or people….How in the world can they reconcile this with what they hear in church every Sunday…..”Let us love one another….”?

    • Pelagia Gilchrist on

      Perhaps the problem is that you have remade Orthodoxy in your own image to suit your own “progressive” desires.

      • Anthony Carris on

        Pelagia, simple and to the point…Katherine is not addressing Gods Wisdom on this LGBT matter. I understand we as Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in the Holy Bible and teachings of the Holy Fathers of our Church. We do not change Scripture or Theology for the needs of contemporary individuals as recently proclaimed by the Church Bishops.

        • Pelagia and Anthony,

          Why is this such an issue? The Orthodox Church has been knowingly ordaining and consecrating gay priests and bishops with no objections. The faithful continue to venerate their presence. So, what’s the problem?

          • Anthony Carris on

            Peter, I do not venerate hypocrites…God who I do venerate at the last judgement will decide the hypocrites fate. Peter or is it Petros have you ever read Scripture? The Bible old and new Testimate explain Gods design on all of us sinners especially the perverted. Anthony Carris.

            • Anthony,

              As far as I’m concerned, those who prostrate before priests and prelates and kiss their hand venerate them. Anthony, I’ve formally studied the scriptures and I read them daily especially the prophets Hosea, Jeremiah and Elijah. These men were not especially fond of the established religion and its practices of Israel. For that matter, neither was Jesus. The Lord predicted the fall of the Temple and said that there will soon come a time when God will be worshipped neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria but only in Truth and in Spirit.

              • Anthony Carris on

                Peter, Thank you for replying to my question of Oct. 16th…I agree with you on prostrating before Priests and Prelates for this is idol worship. Kissing their right hand for me as I learned from family, learned theologians and Saints in our time is we acknowledge through Ordination they symbolically represent Christ and The Holy Spirit. We kiss not their human hand but Gods. I as you and the past three great prophets you stated have personally experienced sinful acts of our fallen Bishops and Priests which is continuous without utopia…only Heaven is sinless and faultless….I reflect on my life and see fault and sin in this fallen world. The then Elder now Saint Paisios of the Holy Mountain personally told me that if I wish to enter the kingdom I should not look at the short comings of Priests but attend Church and concentrate on the Icon Of Jesus Christ on the Iconostassios and be an elumine of Christ by doing good works…Elder Paisios also told me that even on Mount Athos they have problems and sin…this is the world. Your brother in Christ, Anthony Carris

    • Jeff, do you know how and why that “live and let live attitude of our parents and grandparents” came about?
      I’m an 84 yo 1st generation “cradle” Greek Orthodox American whose parents and grandparents came to the USA in the very early 1900s, and I have my own answer for that which, I believe, will be quite different but more accurate than yours. My answer is that it was instilled in their psyche by 400+ years of slavery to the Ottoman Muslim Turks which meant, in reality, martyrdom if they acted otherwise. And PS, the Greeks still haven’t recovered from that.

    • Jeff,

      I agree wholeheartedly with your response to this article. Like yourself, I’m also a cradle Orthodox and it was very disheartening to read the other responses. Apparently, the Orthodox Church may need to reexamine its commitment to the basic precepts of Christianity and may, indeed, have to undergo a radical reformation and a good house cleaning.

  4. Would someone please explain to me what the what the legitimacy of the 4 letters in LGBT portray and what is the reasoning for the Church to ‘adopt’ them. I understand the “L” and the “G” and in my 84 years I have finally come around to understand and accept the naturalness of the Lesbian and the Gay homosexual. They are born as homosexuals so God had a hand in placing them on this Earth. How the Church deals with it is another matter.
    However, the letters “B” for bisexual and “T” for transexual are not in the same category as the first 2 letters and should be treated as a joke. The bisexual is merely a voyeur and maybe sick in the head but certainly not homosexual where he or she woulld love only their own sex.. The transexual has the equipment of his or her sex but develops a mentality whereby they want to change for reasons of their own. It, therefore, is their problem and not a problem for the Church or its laity. Let them find their own way.

  5. Angelina Rosalina on

    I cannot believe that there is even a discussion, a consideration, of embracing homosexuality, as if it should accepted in our ancient faith. Our minds have surely warped. We are all sinners, yes, but when you enter the church you either embrace the apostolic and traditional way of life, or you don’t…and leave. Otherwise, why enter the Church? Our tradition should not adapt to sin, but sinners come to be healed. There must be a willingness on the part of the sinner to repent, otherwise it is a waste of time.
    This discussion of accepting homosexuality is a mockery of all that is truly Christian. It’s almost as bad as having to listen to the filth of the current presidential candidates.

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