Unity and Peace
Seventh Sunday of Easter. Fr John Patrick Kenrick traces the relationship between Christian disunity and war. Our sermon for the Solemnity of the Ascension can be found here.
Pope Francis suggested not long ago that we all bear some measure of responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine, and if we carefully consider the gospel today we can see that he is right. There is a basic truth about our human condition that is undeniable. We are all sinners and therefore all involved in the ‘sin of the world’. If people in Africa are dying of hunger or Muslims in China are being persecuted it doesn’t take much imagination to see how we might all bear some responsibility for that – by our acceptance of the unjust distribution of global food supplies or by putting the desire to trade with China before any concern for human rights. But when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine there may well be a particular responsibility attached to Christians due to our neglect of that all important matter of failing to live in genuine communion with each other.
From the very beginning, when Jesus chose his disciples and founded his Church he meant all his followers to be united. The Church was more or less united during the first millennium but in 1054 there came about a great schism between the western and the eastern churches. In recent years efforts have been made to heal this rift, which is nothing less than an open wound in the body of Christ. That division is painful in itself but what we have tended to ignore is the damage that this has caused in our ability both to witness together to abiding Christian values and to act together for the good of the world community as a whole.
One can only wonder how many conflicts could have been settled quickly or even avoided altogether had this disunity not played its own role as a further obstacle to mutual understanding. In the conflict in Ukraine various voices have been raised in criticism, both outside the Russian Orthodox Church and also within it, of the way that its leadership has openly endorsed the grave sin of invading a sovereign nation for the sole purpose of territorial expansion and the subjugation of the Ukrainian people and the destruction of their culture.
Had the relationship between east and west never been damaged in the first place then perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church would never have become so subservient to the state in the way it has been for much of its history.
Fortunately the way that Christians east and west relate to each other cannot be reduced to historical issues – whether to matters of jurisdiction, or to differences in tradition. The body of Christ in itself cannot be divided. The prayer that Jesus makes in today’s gospel is not a vague hope that we will all get along together. As the Son of God the prayer that Jesus makes brings about the very unity it speaks of. In other words the unity is still there in the body of Christ just waiting to be rediscovered – we Christians east and west simply have to return to living that unity and reject the complacent attitude of centuries that it doesn’t really matter if there is no visible communion between us. Just as Jesus prayed for unity so should we.
In this conflict we should be concerned not only for the protection of the people of Ukraine but also for the moral well being of the young Russian conscript whose conscience should be telling him that this war is evil. As a Church we ought to be in a position of being able to give fraternal correction to Patriarch Kirill. The painful history of our relations does not make it easy to do this. There is a humility is accepting the ancient roots of present evils and seeing that in the end we do share in each other’s guilt, even if the secular world chooses to ignore this insight; and by thinking, speaking and acting with humility in the light of our responsibility for each other, we may yet open to door to that charity for which Christ prayed, the charity which we can only pray will give the Church in Russia the courage to remind its government of God’s judgment and to follow the example of St Stephen in being prepared to pay the price for telling the truth.
Image: detail from a photograph by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons