On Daniel Sysoev, ‘The Law of God,’ and Russian Orthodoxy

Father Daniel Alexeyevich Sysoev

In my catechism class, we are reading Daniel Alexeyevich Sysoev’s The Law of God, a book that aspires to lay out the basic precepts of Orthodox faith. Sysoev was a Russian priest and missionary who was murdered in his church in November 2009 by a Chechen terrorist in retaliation for Sysoev’s work proselytizing among Russia’s large Muslim community. He is considered a martyr by many Russian Orthodox.

While not as imposing as a leather-bound Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sysoev’s The Law of God is still a doorstopper: 543 pages in total, including a 160-page summary of the Hebrew Bible from Genesis through the Second Temple period and a 200-page history of Orthodox Christianity from Jesus’s birth to the twenty-first century. Only the first third of the book deals with what an Evangelical might recognize as distinctly Orthodox issues: the holy icons, the saints, the liturgy, the Theotokos, &c. And an Evangelical would likely identify with the way Sysoev passionately emphasized the broad applicability of the faith, tying the ancient teachings of Christianity to modern life. He does not shy away from contemporary issues.

The Law of God has proved to be the most difficult part of my catechism. Sysoev represents the strains of Orthodoxy that are most challenging for me. When I began this journey, I had two instinctive reservations about Orthodoxy: its innate conservatism and its ties to nationalism. The first was not as large an issue as I feared: I am quite comfortable with theological conservatism. In my heart, I’m probably a bit of a theological conservative myself, especially if compared to a liberal Protestant. I’m certainly not joining a 2,000-year old institution as a reformer. So long as a person’s “theological conservatism” does not conveniently overlap with the platform of the Republican party, I’m not making a fuss.

The second issue in Orthodoxy that worried me was nationalism. Historically, Orthodoxy has been tied to national churches. Consequently, its history is entwined with the history of nationalism, for better or worse. The Church has taken sides in valiant struggles for independence and criminal wars of aggression. In the United States, the Orthodox Church is associated with the various ethnicities who brought it to North America. Most Americans would question why anyone would become Orthodox if they weren’t already Greek or Serbian. Again, I found this issue generally resolved upon entry. For one thing, the church I attend is remarkably diverse: five continents and at least six languages are represented in our pews. For another, while the Orthodox Church celebrates cultural particularity, it does so within the context of its own universality. Not for nothing do we call it “the Catholic Orthodox Church,” and its catholicity has been a major theme over the course of my catechism.

So, are my concerns resolved? I thought they were. And then I opened The Law of God.

1. Conservative Orthodoxy

In The Law of God, I found all the familiar preoccupations, admonitions, and condemnations I knew from American Evangelicalism. For Sysoev, homosexuality is sinful and deviant; abortion is the moral equivalent of murder; women ought to be barred from the priesthood; the theory of evolution is just a theory, and not a very good one; &c. I could tell myself that Sysoev did not place particular emphasis on these matters, and that’s true. Throughout The Law of God, he was as likely to condemn a person for gluttony or wrath as for lust. Nowhere did I detect the sick obsession with matters of copulation that is all too common among Evangelical leaders in the United States. But Sysoev was a resolutely conservative Orthodox Christian, and I was unprepared for passages like this, in his discussion of the Fourth Commandment:

Today, however, we may observe another terrible sin against this commandment: celebration of feasts of the devil—various pagan holidays—in place of or in conjunction with the days of God. This includes celebration of the Chinese New Year, participating in Neptune’s Day, and various holidays of other religions. This includes numerous pagan rituals such as burning winter in effigy at the close of Cheesefare Week and observing Oriental traditions on New Year’s Day. All these actions comprise the grossest antitheism and a grace sin against the Creator. The early Christians went to death rather than do things their descendants do with a qualm. According to the church canons, those who do these things are barred from Communion for six years! If a person does not repent of these evil deeds, his lot is with the idol-worshipers. (43)

When I was a child, my parents forbade me from trick-or-treating on Halloween because of the holiday’s pagan roots. I thought that I had left such silliness behind, but here is the same doctrine preached by a respected Orthodox priest. Elsewhere, Sysoev wrote that a man “who couples with a harlot becomes of one body with her for all time, and through her with all debauchers throughout the universe” (47). Yikes!

If we could not already infer Sysoev’s politics from these passages, he renders them explicit in his discussion of the Tenth Commandment: “What people once disdained as envy is now given the proud name of ‘seeking equality’ or ‘the quest for social justice.’ People are incensed at the cars, apartments, and houses of others, and they wonder: why does he have all that and I do not? Yet this is a direct violation of the will of the Almighty” (53). Not exactly material for Occupy Wall Street.

Granted, if I had grown up under the yoke of Soviet Communism, I might also be a little suspect of the tenets of social democracy. Political systems intended to achieve perfect economic equality resulted in 100 million deaths, as American conservatives never tire of reminding us, and…fair enough. To his credit, Sysoev also condemned usury, “those who alter the value of money,” and “those who take advantage of others’ adverse circumstances to inflate prices”; he writes that “the wrath of Almighty God will wipe these ungodly ones off the earth” (49). He publicly opposed extreme patriotism and taught that a Christian’s true homeland is the Kingdom of God, not the nation into which he was born (he called Christians Uranopolitans, a combination of the Greek words for sky and city—we are citizens of the heavenly realm). He decried anyone “who accept[s] bribes for distorting justice and who extort[s] money from people for merely performing the duties of their post.” The Russian government (and, increasingly, the U.S. government) could certainly use more of such piety.

Ultimately, the question is whether or not I can submit to the authority of a church that teaches such conservative doctrines. I am finding that I can. On this matter I invoke the privilege of the layperson: I am not training to become a priest or a theologian, I am training to become an Orthodox Christian. As a layperson, I must submit to the authority of the Church; but I also do not have the burden of responsibility that comes with being a clerical authority. Personally, I have some views that align with Sysoev’s brand of Orthodox Christianity and others that do not. I’m not advocating “cafeteria Christianity.” All my personal views are informed by my understanding of Holy Tradition and the Scriptures. But I’m (thankfully) not responsible for shepherding others through the faith—I am no one’s spiritual father. And even if I were, I could practice my faith in good conscience knowing that I needn’t adhere to every dictum of a conservative Russian Orthodox priest.

2. Orthodox Nationalism

When I imagine the world that Daniel Sysoev inhabited, I picture crowded Russian churches whose priests lambast Western parliaments that recognize same-sex marriage; whose theologians spread Creationism; whose laity look askance at liberal democracy, support the Russian government’s actions in Syria, and venerate Vladimir Putin as something close to a saint. I’ve watched news reports about right-wing paramilitary groups that sport Jerusalem crosses, chant “Anathema! Anathema!” at their enemies in the street, slaughter Pentecostals, and burn cars in protest of a film that dares to suggest that Tsar Nicholas II (a saint in Russian Orthodoxy) had premarital sex. (For more on Orthodox paramilitary organizations, watch this video beginning around 7:30). The Russian Orthodoxy is resolutely political. Its role in Russian society is analogous to the role of Evangelical Christianity in the United States. The Russian Church is big, it is powerful, and it is comfortable commingling its authority with secular authority.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

But my images of Russian Orthodoxy are incredibly skewed, not because Orthodox fundamentalism isn’t real but because the vast majority of Russian Orthodox do not identify with such extremists. Russian Orthodoxy is diverse. I’ve met many Russians, some quite devout, and have yet to meet a Russian fundamentalist. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has gone so far as to condemn the Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, whose slogan is “Orthodoxy or Death.” And what the videos and news stories I’ve linked to above won’t tell you is that Russian Orthodoxy’s current love affair with power is rooted in seven decades of Soviet rule. Throughout most of the twentieth century, freedom of religion was prohibited. Ardent believers who dared to dissent faced persecution and imprisonment. With a history like that, who wouldn’t embrace a government-sponsored revival and some state patronage?

In practice, however, I cannot avoid the marriage of Russian nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy any more than I can avoid the nightly news. The war in Ukraine has led to a rupture between Moscow and Constantinople; Putin’s government is accused of spying on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As an American, I try to keep a respectful disinterest in the affairs and policies of other nations, a kind of “aw shucks, who am I to judge?” humility except for the most blatant atrocities. I certainly don’t want to tell the Russian Orthodox Church how to run its affairs. But in the case of the Russian government, I find it increasingly difficult to maintain my disinterest. And aspects of Russian nationalism have already seeped into my religious education. Consider paragraphs like the following, from Sysoev’s The Law of God:

Unfortunately, in recent times, a number of schisms have fallen away from the Russian Church in Ukraine, exchanging their heavenly fatherland for nationalism. This includes the “Kievan Patriarchate” and the “Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.” All these assemblies are devoid of grace, and salvation in them is impossible (525).

Not exactly subtle.

To be fair, my own priest hasn’t called attention to these passages (or the one where Sysoev confidently declares that the Antichrist “will be a Jew from the tribe of Dan”) in our discussions (528). Everything about my catechism so far as been entirely positive and devoid of obvious politics; I found the most troubling passages from Sysoev in my own time, doing my own reading and research. One of the things I love about Orthodoxy is that, while espousing a universal creed and maintaining a strong continuity, it adapts to the particular moods and personalities of individual nations. I am an American Orthodox practicing my American Orthodoxy in a church founded by Greek immigrants. I am totally safe from the crises and controversies of the Russian Church. I have my own culture’s crises and controversies to attend to.

So why do Sysoev and the Russian question bother me? Do my own liberal social views prick my conscience? Am I guilty of “cafeteria Christianity”? As I approach Orthodoxy, I want to tread carefully. I want to ensure that my beliefs are not conveniently mapped onto the platform of the Democratic party, or the Democratic Socialists of America, or the values of my own society. I want to oppose Putin’s persecution of homosexuals because such persecution is wrong, not simply because I happen to support gay marriage as a useful policy in a secular democracy. I want my faith to steer my beliefs, not my politics. This is very difficult in a politically polarized nation such as the United States, where research indicates that people’s religious views are more often than not determined by their political preferences. I want to take a different path.

Furthermore, I want to examine every component of Orthodoxy without sentimentality or hypocrisy. I want to be accountable for my faith, even the unsavory parts. Fact: the majority of the world’s Orthodox Christians are Russian. By journeying toward Orthodoxy, I am journeying into a sphere that is dominated by Russia. And some Russians are just plain crazy. But Russian culture and the Russian spirit have had an outsized influence on my life, from my childhood enthusiasm for Russian literature to my ongoing studies in the Russian language. I am doing all this in small part because I love Russia. Am I accountable for every deed and doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church? No. But I can’t help but examine my faith vis-à-vis the faith of someone like Sysoev, somebody who embodies so much of what we fancifully call “the Russian soul.” I can’t help but consider how my faith compares to, and differs from, his.

I recently spoke to a Russian woman about the lamentable state of Russian-U.S. relations and why, thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, ordinary Russians and Americans are still so distrustful of each other. A deeply religious woman, she speculated that the answer lie in the realm of spiritual warfare: that Russia and the United States represented the two largest Christian nations on earth, and so demonic forces deliberately hold them apart. I might have laughed at such a notion a decade ago. Now I found something lovely about it. As an American, I do not want my faith defined by an exaggerated caricature based on a handful of greedy televangelists. Likewise, I must embrace my Russian brothers and sisters and refuse to conflate their faith with Putin’s regime or with the ravings of a few religious extremists.

Paul told the Corinthians that he had become all things to all men in order to save a few. He certainly understood the peculiar power of cultural identity, and he weaved in and out of different cultural registers, always adjusting to his audience, even as he preached a fervent universalism. Father Daniel Sysoev also tried to become all things to all men, which led him to proselytize widely and without fear and, ultimately, to his martyrdom. He is my brother in Christ. I believe I have much to learn from him.

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