Chinese Christian Scholar: The Outbreak of Russian-Ukrainian War Calls for Deep Reflection on Russian Orthodox Culture, Thought

The national flag of Ukraine
The national flag of Ukraine (photo:
By Jiang YuanlaiJune 10th, 2022

The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war since February 24 shocked the whole world including the Chinese people, generating many concerns, discussions, and controversies in Christian circles.

In early April, a Christian scholar of folk culture put his deep thoughts in his new book Christ and Culture on important social topics such as the Russian-Ukrainian war and the pandemic. Jiang Yuanlai, a playwright and classical music connoisseur from Shanghai, believes that due to the events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is necessary to re-examine Russian ideology and culture, especially for those in China, who are concerned about Russian ideology and culture and Orthodox.

In the 20th century, Jiang went to a remote village in Heilongjiang to “join the labor force” for more than three years. After graduating from college, he worked in the government and research institutes for a long time in the environmental planning of scenic nature reserves and field environmental research. Jiang became a Christian in the 1980s, entered the field of folk culture and Christian culture in the early 1990s, and started writing in the late 1990s. He is regarded as one of the most important Christian playwrights in mainland China and is called “Floor Playwright" because he was living in a tiny room during his playwriting

The scholar bluntly says, “From now on, any contemporary theology and ideological culture of the Orthodox Church and of the broader Christianity without a thorough repentance, reflection and criticism of the brutally desperate situation of the Russia-Ukraine War will have no legitimacy!”

This article is the sixth postscript that he will publish in Hong Kong, which is added to his 500,000-word monograph Christ and Culture based on the recordings of lectures given in theological colleges in various places for twenty-one years, titled “As the ‘Great Religious Judge’ Rages War - Rethinking Russian Ideology and Culture”.

Jiang explains the reason why this article is added to his book, “There are young church workers that suggest: in view of the fact that more and more Chinese Christians have adopted Russian Orthodox ideology and culture in recent years, the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war has caused great confusion to everyone, and the war is still raging. The article is absolutely necessary, but there is a lack of domestic Christians who deeply reflect on this important event and the relationship between Russian Orthodox ideology and culture. So, I hope I will publish this article on an official WeChat account first. After a week’s deliberation, I decided to adopt the suggestions made by church workers hoping it can promote the exploration of such an important issue as mentioned in the introduction of this article.”

Unfortunately, however, this article was deleted less than one day after it was posted on WeChat, China's largest social media platform. 

Jiang cuts to the chase in his article, saying, “When I was about to finish this postscript, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine broke out. This great change is beyond the expectation of the international community. So far, the world ideological circle has just recovered from the shock and started to conduct in-depth discussions one after another in the past months, and the Christian world has also started to reflect deeply on the shock. This war is bound to profoundly change the world, and it has also severely challenged the broad Christian world because most of the soldiers on both sides are Christians (among them, the Orthodox Christians are the most), and Ukraine, in the blood pool of this war, is the area with the largest number of churches under the long-term jurisdiction of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. All the children of God have the responsibility to face this tragedy completely. The brothers and sisters are in a desperate situation of killing.”

Therefore, Jiang regards it necessary to examine this topic, so he spent more than a month before June praying with his brothers and sisters for the Ukrainian people for a long time. He continuously summarized and browsed many works and documents that he had studied for decades, reviewed the accumulated contacts with Orthodox believers, and pondered the lessons of this war. Starting from his ministry, this introspection focused on Russian ideology and culture and its possible relationship with this war.

Jiang states that, in fact, apart from the Russian mainstream church led by the Patriarch who supports the war, there are millions of independent old liturgists in Russia and a huge foreign church in Russia shortly after returning to Patriarch Moscow. Most of the Christians in these churches opposed the war, and the middle and lower class priests and Christians in the mainstream church in Russia also voiced many anti-war opinions. Therefore, during this war, the decline and obedience of Russian mainstream Orthodox Church leaders and a large number of laymen coexisted with the increasing anti-war stance of some churches and some laymen.

He claims that it is a bare necessity for Russian mainstream church leaders to support the war because they are constrained by the dilemma of their church-state relationship. “In such a political-religious relationship, it is a basic necessity that church leaders succumb to and even actively support the rulers and even launch such fierce wars of aggression, which is bound by the jungle world. Faced with this painful reality, we should honestly distinguish that the relationship between church and state is an important part of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it is by no means the whole. The Russian Orthodox Church, like the Eastern Orthodox tradition in the whole world, has extremely rich and lofty connotations led by the Lord: saint tradition, retreat, rich theology; the church and the public treasure house of thought, culture, and art based on this tradition.”

Later, Jiang puts forward his own point of view: we need to distinguish the two main streams of Russian ideology and culture. First, the “Holy Ross” religious national concept culture gradually formed over many centuries, which has become the ideology of the power of the Czar empire, and finally made the Russian empire sacred with the religious image of “the third Rome”. However, another vein is the precious stream of the Orthodox background thought and culture that is truly in Christ: it takes retreat as the core, follows (even Lu Xun lamented “Christ in Russia”) with complete humility and devotion to life, and has achieved the deepest insight into human nature and confession, and the most thorough practice of holy love in the troubled and sinful Russian history.

Jiang stresses that we Chinese Christians need to pay more attention to and learn from the second pulse stream. “This pulse stream has many spiritual treasures. For us, Chinese Christians, the most intimate of them is the story of the saints of Shanghai Bishop St. Yiwang, Dostoevsky’s peak works, the icon paintings of Rublev, and the music works of Musorgsky and Rachmaninov. This pulse stream also has the Sacred Rose Complex, but a thorough examination shows that their understanding of it is essentially different from that of the previous pulse stream. They regard those in power as sinners who need repentance and compassion, and any existence of the country-nation-world needs salvation first. Therefore, they refuse to surrender their faith to power.” Moreover, “this pulse of ideological research and cultural creation is more independent especially in the brilliant Russian literature, from Pushkin, through Gogol, Toon, Gippius, Mandelstam and Pasternak. This kind of alert criticism of power sinners can be seen most clearly.”

Jiang clearly expresses his anti-war stance: “Russia launched a war of aggression against Ukraine, and even threatened all mankind with nuclear war, which was an all-out evil war. For us Christians, what is particularly shocking is that although some Orthodox clergy and believers stood up to fight, Russian Orthodox leaders declared that this was a holy war. We must make a clear position: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in countless deaths. It is a heinous crime committed by the initiator, a Judas-style war against the Lord and eating people, a contemporary war in which Cain invaded and killed Abel, and a 'religious judge' - style war in Moscow! The complicated historical origin of Kiev and Moscow, the complicated international geopolitical game involved in the war, and the complicated entanglement of Russia-Ukraine relations caused by the existence of external structural crimes in the world, all these reasons can only make us more aware that this is a criminal massacre caused by Satan, which was launched by the attached sinner who did not really repent of his deeds.”

The long-term ideological preparation and war ideology of this aggression is closely related to the above-mentioned first pulse of Russian mainstream ideology and culture. “This war is also the darkest event in the history of Christianity in the contemporary world. Every Christian together with every brother and sister of the Orthodox Church needs to repent thoroughly in the ashes - truly 'repent' as it is urged in the Orthodox tradition, so as to continue to be with the Savior,” he adds.

From the angle of ideology and culture only, his acceptance is that he needs to thoroughly repent, criticize and reflect on the following four aspects: we need to always be on guard against the alienation of the sacred belief - against faith becoming ideology; Christians should think about how to stick to holy love (agape) in the jungle world; people should firmly believe in the fundamental importance of freedom in Christ, and we receive God’s special revelation and universal revelation in an integrated way.

Talking about freedom, he says, “The Orthodox tradition attaches great importance to the harmony between Christ’s grace and human free will, and believes that the two are indispensable and complementary to each other. The key issue of Dostoevsky’s religious justice story is the issue of Christ and freedom. Freedom is not free theology, freedom is God’s respect for people (He doesn’t force people, God’s grace salvation and people’s free choice to follow are God’s wishes for people.) The true sacred faith must be the faith of freedom in essence. In today’s world, especially in the ideological, artistic, and cultural circles, where freedom is most needed for research and creation, freedom is becoming scarcer. In particular, freedom in Christ should be one of the key textures of local theology and local Christian art and culture. Through the Russian-Ukrainian war, the trinity of truth (truth and facts) - love (agape and mercy) - freedom in Christ should become the inherent texture of Christian life.”

He continues, “Today, I feel that God has allowed Christianity to be divided into three sections. Just as the separation of powers in the democratic system restricts each other, the differences among the three major Christian sectors on the premise that the core of faith is consistent can learn from each other’s strengths, watch each other and even criticize and alert each other. Imagine if the Christian world is the general unified structure of Russian Orthodox Church, what devastating consequences will that fatal injury to church-state relations bring? Without the wonderful ideological and cultural achievements of the Orthodox Church, such as the tradition of saints in the treasure house of retreat, how great the scarcity in the Christian world would be.”

He points out that we should reprimand the crime of raging war. “Only by thoroughly confessing their sins and repenting, the leaders of the Russian Church can return to the holy tradition of St. Philatellite, Bishop St. Yvonne and all saints, and make amends for the war crimes and countless sacrifices of people and Christians from generation to generation, can they get rid of the reality of demon possession.” However, he also points out that after the outbreak of the war, the cultural and artistic circles in some areas completely rejected all Russian culture and art indiscriminately. This “one size fits all” and “one pot at a time” phenomenon also appeared in those places, which deserves our attention and consideration.”

“For us, by uncovering these two veins existing in Russian ideology and culture, Chinese Christians, especially Christian cultural ministries, should cherish the lofty thread in Russian ideology and culture more. Because Russia is destined to be a neighbor here. The great exposure to the advantages and disadvantages of the Russian Church and Russian ideology and culture is the mirror that we can easily understand and compare immediately, and the closest example. After careful consideration, I strongly recommend you pay more attention to Dostoevsky and other excellent Russian ideology and culture. Because the incident proved the importance of the prophetic works of Dostoevsky, for example, their deep insight into the desperate situation of the human heart and the external world, and their deep understanding of freedom will be more meaningful for us to walk in the future.”

The Russian-Ukrainian War makes some researchers lament, “The prospect of the unity of broad Christianity has been completely broken.” Before Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, and Protestantism were trying to promote the unity of Christianity in a broad sense, but the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war embarrassed such efforts for a hundred years. Jiang quoted a line from his play Easter in Lin Lan, which is now widely circulated in China, “The unity of Christian brothers and sisters can never be achieved at round table conferences held by various churches, nor on the boulevard of seminaries, but already starts to be done by brothers and sisters who are on the wild and bitter pilgrimage of their cross.”

- Translated by Charlie Li

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