II. Church and nation

II. 1. The Old Testament people of Israel were the prototype of the peoples of God the New Testament Church of Christ. The redemptive feat of Christ the Saviour initiated the being of the Church as new humanity, the spiritual posterity of the forefather Abraham. By His Blood Christ “hast redeemed us to God out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The Church by her very nature is universal and therefore supranational. In the Church “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek” (Rom. 10:12). Just as God is not the God of the Jews alone but also of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29), so the Church does not divide people on either national or class grounds: in her “there is neither Greek, nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).

In the contemporary world, the notion of “nation” is used in two meanings, as an ethnic community and the aggregate citizens of a particular state. Relationships between church and nation should be viewed in the context of both meanings of this word.

In the Old Testament, the terms ‘am and goy are used to denote “a people”. In the Hebrew Bible, each term is given a quite concrete meaning, the former denoting God’s chosen people of Israel, the latter in its plural form goyim the Gentiles. In the Greek Bible (Septuagint), the first term was rendered by the term laos (people) or demos (a nation as a political entity), while the second by the term ethnos (nation, in plural ethne, meaning “heathens”).

God’s chosen people of Israel are opposed to other nations throughout the Old Testament books associated in one way or another with the history of Israel. The people of Israel were chosen not because they surpassed other nations in number or anything else, but because God chose and loved them (Deut. 7:6-8). The notion of a God’s chosen people was a religious one in the Old Testament. The feeling of national community characteristic of the sons of Israel was rooted in the awareness of their belonging to God through a covenant made by the their fathers with the Lord. The people of Israel became God’s people whose calling was to preserve the faith in one true God and to bear witness to this faith before other nations so that through Israel God-Man Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all people, may be revealed to the world.

In addition to their sharing one religion, the unity of the people of God was secured by their ethnic and linguistic community and their rootedness in a particular land, their fatherland.

The ethnic community of the Israelites was rooted in their origin from one forefather, Abraham. “We have Abraham to our father” (Mt. 3:9; Lk. 3:8), the ancient Jews would say, emphasising their belonging to the posterity of the one who God ordained to become “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). Great importance was attached to the preservation of the purity of the blood: marriages with strangers were not approved because in these marriages “the holy seed” was mingled with “the people of those lands” (Ezra 9:2).

God gave the people of Israel the Promised Land for livelihood. After they came out of Egypt, these people went to Canaan, the land of their predecessors, and by God’s will conquered it. Since then the land of Canaan became the land of Israel, while its capital city, Jerusalem, became the principal spiritual and political centre of God’s chosen people. The people of Israel spoke one language that was not only the language of everyday life, but also the language of prayer. Moreover, Hebrew was the language of Revelation, for it was in it that God Himself spoke to the people of Israel. In the era before the coming of Christ when the dwellers of Judea spoke Aramaic, Greek was elevated to the status of the national language, while Hebrew continued to be treated as a sacred language in which worship was conducted in the temple.

Being universal by nature, the Church is at the same time one organism, one body (1 Cor. 12:12). She is the community of the children of God, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The unity of these new people is secured not by its ethnic, cultural or linguistic community, but by their common faith in Christ and Baptism. The new people of God “have no continuing city here, but seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14). The spiritual homeland of all Christians is not earthly Jerusalem but Jerusalem “which is above” (Gal. 4:26). The gospel of Christ is preached not in the sacred language understandable to one people, but in all tongues (Acts. 2:3-11). The gospel is not preached for one chosen people to preserve the true faith, but so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).

II. 2. The universal nature of the Church, however, does not mean that Christians should have no right to national identity and national self-expressions. On the contrary, the Church unites in herself the universal with the national. Thus, the Orthodox Church, though universal, consists of many Autocephalous National Churches. Orthodox Christians, aware of being citizens of the heavenly homeland, should not forget about their earthly homeland. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Divine Founder of the Church, had no shelter on earth (Mt. 8:20) and pointed that the teaching He brought was not local or national in nature: “the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (Jn. 4:21). Nevertheless, He identified Himself with the people to whom He belonged by birth. Talking to the Samaritan woman, He stressed His belonging to the Jewish nation: “Ye worship ye know what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Jesus was a loyal subject of the Roman Empire and paid taxes in favour of Caesar (Mt. 22-16-21). St. Paul, in his letters teaching on the supranational nature of the Church of Christ, did not forget that by birth he was “an Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), though a Roman by citizenship (Acts 22:25-29).

The cultural distinctions of particular nations are expressed in the liturgical and other church art, especially in the peculiarities of Christian order of life. All this creates national Christian cultures.

Among saints venerated by the Orthodox Church, many became famous for the love of their earthly homeland and faithfulness to it. Russian hagiographic sources praise the holy Prince Michael of Tver who “gave his life for his fatherland”, comparing his feat to the martyrdom of the holy protomartyr Dimitrius of Thessaloniki: “The good lover of his fatherland said about his native city of Thessaloniki, ‘O Lord, if you ruin this city, I will perish together with it, but if you save it, I will also be saved’”.

In all times the Church has called upon her children to love their homeland on earth and not to spare their lives to protect it if it was threatened. The Russian Church on many occasions gave her blessing to the people for them to take part in liberation wars. Thus, in 1380, the venerable Sergius the abbot and miracle-maker of Radonezh blessed the Russian troops headed by the holy Prince Dimitry Donskoy before their battle with the Tartar-Mongol invaders. In 1612, St. Hermogen, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, gave blessing upon the irregulars in their struggle with the Polish invaders. In 1813, during the war with the French aggressors, St. Philaret of Moscow said to his flock: “If you avoid dying for the honour and freedom of the Fatherland, you will die a criminal or a slave; die for the faith and the Fatherland and you will be granted life and a crown in heaven”.

The holy righteous John of Kronstadt wrote this about love of one’s earthly homeland: “Love the earthly homeland it has raised, distinguished, honoured and equipped you with everything; but have special love for the heavenly homeland that homeland is incomparably more precious that this one, because it is holy, righteous and incorruptible. The priceless blood of the Son of God has earned that homeland for you. But in order to be members of that homeland, you should respect and love its laws, just as you are obliged to respect and really respect the laws of the earthly homeland”.

II. 3. Christian patriotism may be expressed at the same time with regard to a nation as an ethnic community and as a community of its citizens. The Orthodox Christian is called to love his fatherland, which has a territorial dimension, and his brothers by blood who live everywhere in the world. This love is one of the ways of fulfilling God’s commandment of love to one’s neighbour which includes love to one’s family, fellow-tribesmen and fellow-citizens.

The patriotism of the Orthodox Christian should be active. It is manifested when he defends his fatherland against an enemy, works for the good of the motherland, cares for the good order of people’s life through, among other things, participation in the affairs of government. The Christian is called to preserve and develop national culture and people’s self-awareness.

When a nation, civil or ethnic, represents fully or predominantly a monoconfessional Orthodox community, it can in a certain sense be regarded as the one community of faith an Orthodox nation.

II. 4. At the same time, national sentiments can cause such sinful phenomena as aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, national exclusiveness and inter-ethnic enmity. At their extremes, these phenomena often lead to the restriction of the rights of individuals and nations, wars and other manifestations of violence.

It is contrary to Orthodox ethics to divide nations into the best and the worst and to belittle any ethnic or civic nation. Even more contrary to Orthodoxy are the teachings which put the nation in the place of God or reduce faith to one of the aspects of national self-awareness.

Opposing these sinful phenomena, the Orthodox Church carries out the mission of reconciliation between hostile nations and their representatives. Thus, in inter-ethnic conflicts, she does not identify herself with any side, except for cases when one of the sides commit evident aggression or injustice.

Continue on to III. Church and State from The Orthodox Church and Society