In this paper, I discuss major political contexts and legacies in the history of Orthodox Christianity that defined, in important and often challenging ways, the trajectories of Orthodoxy’s institutional development, social presence and theological responses to important issues such as modernity, secularization, globalization, religious pluralism, human rights and gender equality, among others. I introduce the notion of self-colonization and argue that Orthodoxy’s responses to adverse historical circumstances, particularly in Eastern Europe, have typically been dominated by a “besieged fortress” mentality. This mentality has entailed a self-imposed institutional and theological stagnation that can be described as self-colonization.
The notion of self-colonization proposed here differs from the “self-colonizing metaphor” explicated by Alexander Kiossev1 as well as from the narrative of “internal colonization” introduced by Alexander Etkind.2 Kiossev showed that the countries in Eastern Europe and other places not subject to an actual military, economic, financial, and administrative rule by a colonial power nevertheless succumbed to the rule of colonial Eurocentric imagination. Etkind interpreted Russia’s imperial experience as simultaneously external (the colonization of other people) and internal (the colonization of its own people). In my usage, self-colonization refers to Orthodoxy’s self-induced encapsulation and stagnation as a result of the traumatic experiences of significant social and economic restrictions under Ottoman rule and of oppression and persecution under totalitarian communism. This psychological mindset has real practical consequences reflected in what Prodromou has called Orthodoxy’s “discernible ambivalence” about contemporary pluralism3 – and, one can also add, about human rights, modernity, gender equality, etc. Orthodoxy’s ambivalent engagement with sensitive contemporary issues is further aggravated by theologies emphasizing the Church’s “otherworldliness” on the one hand and its symphonic alliances with state powers on the other, at the expense of its social service in the world and its preferential option for the poor and the powerless.
Nevertheless, Orthodox Christianity can draw on a significant body of theological doctrine to elaborate new positive theological and institutional responses to challenging contemporary issues and thus overcome its self-colonization.
The Byzantine Theocratic Legacy
From the 4th to the mid-15th century, all Orthodox countries in Europe, and not merely the Byzantine Empire proper, formed a supranational commonwealth that in principle acknowledged the emperor as its head.4 In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian elaborated the doctrine of symphonia,5 according to which the Christian empire was the earthly icon of the kingdom of God with the Christian emperor at its center. The Byzantine emperors’ official policy aimed to eradicate heathenism and had little respect for religious tolerance. Therefore, as Aristotle Papanikolaou points out, the theologies of state and culture of the Orthodox Church “were shaped within the context of an empire in which it was the state-sponsored religion and, hence, the primary principle of cultural unity.” The present-day Orthodox Churches are inheritors of the Byzantine theocratic legacy, which often impedes their support for the democratic principles of church-state separation and multiculturalism.6
An in-depth critical assessment of this legacy and its continuous influence on contemporary Orthodox self-definitions, symbolic appropriations and political practices still remains to be done. It bears mentioning that the largest church body in the Orthodox world today, the Moscow Patriarchate, has frequently insisted, through some of its spokesmen – particularly Father Vsevolod Chaplin – that Byzantium did not vanish without a trace but “has been reincarnated in Russia.”7
The Ottoman Legacy
In the late 14th to mid-15th century, the historical Orthodox dominions of the Byzantine Empire were conquered by the Ottomans and lived under non-Christian rule until the 19th century. Ottoman rule is often interpreted in binary terms: either as a completely negative historical experience that stymied Orthodoxy’s ecclesiastical and theological development for centuries or in an overly positive perspective that emphasizes the peaceful and even harmonious coexistence of multiple religions and cultures. More balanced interpretations concentrate on the relative administrative and social autonomy of the different faith communities under the leadership of their respective religious hierarchies within the framework of the so-called millet system. This system of social organization was based on the confessional affiliation of the diverse populations (called millets) in the empire. The Orthodox millet was headed by the patriarch of Constantinople and included all the Orthodox Christians regardless of their linguistic or ethnic identities.
In the Ottoman Muslim-dominated system of rule, Christians and Jews remained second-class citizens who were subordinated politically, socially and economically, yet, as “people of the Book,” they enjoyed a protected status. During this period, Orthodox Christianity lived “in the shadow of the mosque,” to use Sidney Griffith’s metaphor,8 and Eastern Orthodoxy thus became a surviving rather than a thriving faith.
The Legacy of Communism
After WWII, all Orthodox countries, except Greece, became part of the Soviet sphere of influence. The communist regimes’ policies towards religion varied from country to country and changed over time. The initial persecution of religion during the first two decades gave way to its consequent limited toleration, co-optation and utilization for various political goals. Oppression was strongest in the Soviet Union and Albania and only slightly milder in Bulgaria. The Orthodox Churches in Romania and Yugoslavia experienced the state’s significant liberalization of religion from the mid-1960s onwards and became important vehicles for the mobilization and expression of growing national sentiments. The different experiences among the Orthodox Churches under communism were related to the diverse state policies towards religion, to cultural variations as well as to the different relations between Orthodoxy and ethnonational identities in individual societies.
Admittedly, the traditionally close ties between state and church, and specifically the cooperation and submission of the church to the state, made the Orthodox Churches particularly vulnerable to the encroachment of the totalitarian regimes. Furthermore, as Irena Borowik has observed, Orthodox Churches have loose links, structurally, among themselves and lack both the centralized authority and leverage to influence the positions of a particular church in a given country. In this respect, they resemble to some extent the nationalized Protestant Churches and differ significantly from the Catholic Church with the latter’s centralization, powerful international structures, and a strong tradition of opposition to the state which allowed for better defense strategies against communist oppression.9
Participation in the ecumenical movement was not an option for the Orthodox Churches under communist regimes in the first two decades after WWII. In the 1960s, those churches became members of the WCC with the blessing of the ruling communist regimes, yet the rationale behind their membership was politically calculated. Church representatives at the ecumenical gatherings were supposed to praise the alleged advantages of life under communism but to remain silent about the persecution of religion.
The churches’ subordination to the state bred their institutional and spiritual stagnation and reinforced conservative and exclusivist tenets. The historical legacies of living initially under Christian theocracy (Byzantium), later under non-Christian rule (the Ottoman Empire) and more recently under authoritarian regimes (the Communist Bloc and the far-right junta in Greece) bestowed on Orthodox Christianity a weak institutional culture unsupportive of liberal democratic values.
The Orthodox Churches’ experience with democratic regimes started with the democratization of Greece after 1974 and the rest of the Orthodox countries after the fall of communism in 1989. Democratization established a free, competitive public sphere and fostered ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity. The dynamics of multiple transitions, particularly in the post-communist societies, from a command economy to a liberal market one, from authoritarian to democratic polities, from non-freedom to freedom of religion presented the Orthodox Churches with enormous challenges.
The Orthodox Churches were ill-equipped to come to terms with those challenges – and particularly with the increasing religious pluralism. The competition implied by religious heterogeneity and requiring adequate “theological ideas, financial resources, institutional networks, and human capital”10 was difficult to handle. All these assets were immensely weakened by the historical contexts in which Orthodox Churches evolved.
What are the major traits in the organizational behavior of the Orthodox Churches today that exhibit persistent ecclesiastical self-colonization and impede constructive responses to the contemporary challenges?
(a) The persistence of a “besieged fortress” mentality, which was related to the struggle for survival under Ottoman rule and later under oppressive authoritarian and atheistic regimes, has reinforced the encapsulation of the Orthodox Churches. It has hampered enormously their capacities to address constructively their internal pluralization as well as the external religious and social heterogeneity. Both internal and external diversity are often seen by these churches as a threat to their survival. Consequently, the former is heavily restricted while the latter is either tacitly ignored or forthrightly dismissed. This stagnating mentality also obstructs a constructive reevaluation of the Orthodox Churches’ patriarchal and anti-modernist positions in line with contemporary core liberal democratic values of human rights and gender equality.
Self-colonization in the case of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, for example, is evident in its growing isolationism. The Church withdrew from the ecumenical movement, leaving the World Council of Churches in 1998. Furthermore, it gradually alienated itself from other Orthodox Churches, with the notable exception of the Russian Orthodox Church. Conspicuously, it refused to take part in the historical Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete in 2016, an important event organized by the Ecumenical Patriarch to consolidate an Orthodox position on pressing contemporary issues such as the mission of the Orthodox Church in today’s world and its relations with the rest of the Christian world, among others. More broadly, the Church regularly expresses “traditionalist”11 negative attitudes towards modernity, the West, liberalism, the rights of women, sexual minorities, and the “sects,”12 among other things. However, it has never expressed a critique of the neo-liberal economic restructuring and its disastrous social costs, of the rise of poverty, endemic corruption, inequality and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. In the rare cases when it takes a public stance on sensitive issues, it raises eyebrows among many of its followers. In 2018, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church vehemently opposed government plans to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In its official statement, the Synod insisted that the Convention tried to introduce “a third gender,” whereas “sex can be only biologically defined because man and woman are a creation of God.” It expressed concerns regarding the Convention’s Article 12, which calls for the eradication of “prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men”13 – thus inadvertently displaying its attitude towards women’s equality. The ecclesiastical hierarchy’s take on the document left the impression that they did not see violence against women as a serious social issue, even though they condemned it in general terms. Furthermore, in a baffling effort to denounce the Convention, the Synod ordered parish priests to distribute a special prayer called “The Canon of the Holy Mother of God” so that it would not be ratified.14
(b) In post-communist Eastern Europe, the historical (often also called “national”) Orthodox Church has turned into a central preoccupation in the discourses on the “nation.” Orthodoxy has often been regarded by many people, including non-believers, as a “national religion,” even as a kind of new state ideology. The re-emphasized link between religious and national identities, which is historically embedded in the institutional organization of Orthodox Christianity in autonomous (autocephalous) churches territorially linked to individual nation states, fostered exclusivist attitudes. If being Bulgarian, Serbian, or Romanian means being Orthodox, then religious others – Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, etc. – are not members of the nation. At the same time, religious heterogeneity is perceived as a threat to political and social stability. For example, the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Russia have often been accused of proselytism by the Orthodox Church, which has insisted that the state should limit the activities of foreign missionaries as well as of new religious movements.15
Recently, those exclusivist attitudes became evident in some of the national churches’ attitude to the migration wave from the Middle East. During the refugee crises in 2015–16, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church called on the government to stop admitting more refugees, even though it expressed compassion for those already in the country. It pointed out that accepting more refugees from the Middle East could threaten Christianity and raise “questions about the stability and existence of the Bulgarian state in general.”16
(c) Orthodox theological education in post-communist countries generally pays little attention to disciplines such as comparative religions, interreligious dialogue and ecumenics.17 When it does consider other religions, this is almost invariably done in the tradition of negative apologetics, which prevents objective presentation and discussion of other faiths. The introduction of the comparative study of religions emphasizing a dialogical approach would be an important step towards a more adequate appraisal of cultural and religious plurality and would encourage the understanding of diversity as a positive challenge rather than as an ominous threat.
To be sure, Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe have coexisted for centuries with Catholics, Jews, Muslims and, more recently, with various Protestant denominations as well. They have developed certain modes of living together peacefully and of negotiating differences and tensions on a daily basis and, in certain cases, have supported and helped people from other faiths. For example, in 1943, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was at the forefront of political initiatives and social protests against plans of the pro-German interwar government to send Bulgarian Jews to extermination camps. This saved the lives of some 48,000 persons. Reflections on and the interpretation of similar historical experiences in a theological key can form the basis of a new theology of interreligious coexistence and pluralism.
(d) The post-1989 reassertion of male domination in the Church imposed over the assertiveness of women both in the wider society and the Church, and over a renewed promotion of gender equality in all aspects of life. Orthodox Churches today are largely feminized in terms of church attendance, confession and receiving communion. This feature closely mirrors the de facto feminization of Orthodox Christianity during the communist period as a result of the privatization and domestication of religion. The confinement of religious practice and beliefs to the domestic sphere under communism turned women into the unofficial custodians of religiosity. Women, particularly elderly women, continued to attend church at the major Christian feasts and to prepare the ritual meals at home, to pray and to perform domestic religious customs related to birth, death, and marriage. They conveyed the basics of Orthodox beliefs and practices to their children and grandchildren in the absence of other sources of religious knowledge in society, and they would often secretly have their grandchildren baptized.18
With the break-up of the communist regimes and the newly acquired religious freedom, the Orthodox Churches reemerged in the public sphere. Women’s roles in the survival of Orthodoxy under the communist atheistic policies remained unrecognized, whereas men’s institutional power and ritual expertise in Orthodox settings was re-emphasized through a process that can be described as re-clericalization. The inherent contradiction between the official masculine domination and the unofficially feminized spaces in Orthodox Christianity has caused anxiety among conservative ecclesiastics and theologians. Orthodox female subjectivities have been restricted by a continuous emphasis on women’s roles as wives, mothers and caregivers at the expense of women’s professional realization and clout in public life. The extensive ecclesiastical promotion of the so-called “traditional gender values and norms” in society has typically implied male leadership and female domesticity. The Russian Orthodox Church in particular has made the defense of the “traditional values” a major staple in its ideological struggles at home and abroad, liaising with conservative Catholic and Evangelical groups in the West and opposing gender equality and LGBT rights at international forums and in organizations such as the UN and the Council of Europe.19
The post-1989 masculinization and clericalization of the Orthodox Churches coalesced with the advent of post-communist “hegemonic masculinity”20 that revolved around the avowed ethnonationalism with Orthodox identity as its symbolic element, aggressive machoism and, frequently, anti-intellectualism. In Bulgaria, for instance, self-professed Orthodox “experts” do not hesitate to denounce Bulgarian liberal intellectuals as a “catastrophe” and praise “simple, ordinary people” for their “natural instincts” about the subversive conspiracies of a globally imposed “gender ideology.”21
Toward a Constructive Engagement with Contemporary Challenges
The transition to a neoliberal economy and financial deregulation resulted in huge imbalances in income and wealth, the commodification of life, demographical collapse, and the rise of a culture of ultra-individualism that corrodes the social fabric. The Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe, in the grip of self-colonization, have failed to address the crucial challenges of economic injustice, rampant corruption, and rising political authoritarianism as they have failed to come to terms with ecumenism, human rights, gender equality and the cultural and religious diversity in contemporary society. Disturbingly for many Orthodox believers around the world, the Moscow Patriarchate praised and celebrated the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and openly condoned President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine in 2022.
Admittedly, the general absence of critical reflections and cogent politico-theological analyses by ecclesiastics and theologians on the state of affairs in the Orthodox Churches and societies in Eastern Europe has been aggravated by the lack of a transnational institutional structure and authority in Orthodox Christianity. This, according to Aristotle Papanikolaou, has prevented “any meaningful deliberation on the contemporary challenges and questions confronting the Orthodox churches.”22
Yet Orthodox Christianity is not a cultural monolith, and the post-communist churches often differ from the vibrant Orthodox communities in Western Europe, North America and Australia, both in their social and political outlook and in their role in the public sphere.23 Orthodoxy in the West has a long experience with democratic systems, where human rights policies figure prominently, and with living in a heterogeneous social environment. Different political contexts and sociocultural dynamics, especially the historical and sociocultural realities of being a majority versus being a minority religion, have shaped varied approaches to pressing contemporary issues. Father Dragos Herescu, for example, points to the existence of “multiple Orthodoxies” and counterposes Orthodoxy mediated by ethnicity, place and custom versus Orthodoxy as a universal, mobile, voluntary religion. He also usefully reminds us of a generational gap as younger generations in Eastern Europe who have firsthand experiences of Western modernity, secularization and pluralism relate in a different way than their parents and grandparents to contemporary sensitive issues.24 Indeed, the emergence of new generations of clergy, theologians and lay people, who have enjoyed better educational opportunities, international travel, study abroad programs, access to internet resources and social media, is inevitably transforming Orthodox identities.
More importantly, Orthodox Christianity can draw on a significant body of theological doctrines that can serve as cornerstones for laying out a theological framework to explore and justify its engagement with contemporary challenges. These doctrines include its teaching about the human being as the image and likeness of God and the associated ideas about personal freedom and responsibility, its soteriology that proclaims that Christ died for all and especially its Trinitarian doctrine which emphasizes diversity in unity. Theologies of asceticism certainly have a lot to teach us regarding consumerism and the commodification of life, and the pioneering work by Father Gregory Jensen on asceticism as a cure for consumerism is an inspiring example to follow.25 Tenets about the “traditional values,” instead of being employed as a strategy to reconfirm patriarchal orders of male leadership and female subordination, can serve as a program for resistance against the dominance of the “neoliberal values” in society and the attendant marketization of education, healthcare, culture and even human bodies. Teachings about the divine economy of all creation have underlined the humanity’s intrinsic relationship with nature and ecological responsibility. God gave human beings “dominion” over creation, according to Genesis 1:28, which involves responsible stewardship and duty of care for the planet Earth rather than the ruthless exploitation of natural resources in the name of unlimited economic growth and consumption. Orthodox authors, among whom Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew figures prominently, have already laid the groundwork for a sound theology of the environment.26 Last but not least, Christianity has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” Matthew 5:5). This option emphasizes social justice and the duty of the faithful to help the oppressed and to recognize the marginalized, which in the contemporary world means to responsibly address issues related to immigration, racism and social and gender inequality.
This paper was inspired by my participation as Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.
According to Alexander Kiossev, “The concept of self-colonizing can be used for cultures having succumbed to the cultural power of Europe and the west without having been invaded and turned into colonies in actual fact. Historical circumstances transformed them into an extracolonial ‘periphery,’ lateral viewers who have not been directly affected either by important colonial conflicts or by the techniques of colonial rule.” See Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonizing Cultures,” in Cultural Aspects of the Modernization Process, ed. Dimitri Ginev, Francis Sejersted and Kostadinka Simeonova (Oslo: TMV-senteret 1995), 73–81.
Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011).
Elizabeth Prodromou, “Orthodox Christianity and Pluralism: Moving Beyond Ambivalence?” in The Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic World: An Ecumenical Conversation, ed. Emmanuel Clapsis (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004), 22–46.
See Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500–1453 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971).
The frequent subordination of the Orthodox Church to the state has often been described by Western writers as “caesaro-papism” in contradistinction to the Catholic Church’s model of “papo-caesarism,” yet this notion has been contested by Orthodox authors. According to Father Sergius Bulgakov, “Caesaro-papism was always an abuse; never was it recognized, dogmatically or canonically.” See Sergius Bulgakov, “Orthodoxy and the State,” in The Orthodox Church, http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/orthodox_church_s_bulgakov.htm#_ Toc45589064.
Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Byzantium, Orthodoxy and Democracy,” Journal of American Academy of Religion 71, no. 1 (2003): 78.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin wants Russia to become “Byzantium without its faults,” Interfax Religion, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=4345 (accessed 29 January 2020).
Sydney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Irena Borowik, “Orthodoxy Confronting the Collapse of Communism in Post-Soviet Countries,” Social Compass 53, no. 2 (2006): 269.
Elizabeth Prodromou, “Christianity and Democracy: The Ambivalent Orthodox,” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 2 (2004): 63.
For an illuminating discussion of “traditional Orthodoxy,” see George Demacopoulos, “‘Traditional Orthodoxy’ as a Postcolonial Movement,” The Journal of Religion 97, no. 4 (2017): 475–99.
On the conflictual attitudes of the traditional Churches in Eastern Europe towards the so-called “new religious movements,” disparagingly referred to as “sects,” which arrived in the region after the fall of the Berlin Wall, see my Religion, Nationalism, and Civil Society: The Post-Communist Palimpsest (Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), 33–67.
Stanovište na Svetija Sinod po povod Istanbulskata Konvencija [Statement of the Holy Synod regarding the Istanbul Convention on January 22, 2018], http://www.bg-patriarshia.bg/news.php?id=254101 (accessed 16 September 2018).
For the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s backlash against gender equality see my article “Women, Orthodox Christianity, and Neosecularization in Bulgaria,” in Women and Religiosity in Orthodox Christianity, ed. Ina Merdjanova (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), 50–75, here 66–9.
This official document lists as one of the areas of church-state cooperation “opposition to the work of pseudo-religious structures presenting a threat to the individual and society.” “Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/3/14.aspx (accessed 25 January 2020).
The situation is different in Greece, where, already in the 1930s, the study of world religions was introduced into the curricula of the theological schools. The theological faculties in Athens and Thessaloniki run well-established chairs in the history of world religions and comparative religion.
On the domestication of religion under communism see Merdjanova, “Women, Orthodox Christianity,” 59.
For an in-depth discussion of the transnational conservative alliances and activism of the Russian Orthodox Church, see Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner, The Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars (New York: Fordham University Press, 2022).
Hegemonic masculinity is a dominant form of masculinity in society constructed in relation to women and to subordinate/marginalized masculinities. See Raewyn W. Connell, Masculinities (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2005).
These are quotes from a discussion at the book launch of the Bulgarian translation of Gabriele Kuby’s The Global Sexual Revolution: Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom in Sofia, 1 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQbwN9umSes (accessed 12 November 2019).
Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Orthodoxy, Postmodernity, and Ecumenism: The Difference That Divine-Human Communication Makes,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 42, no. 4 (2007), 527–46, here 542.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate on how the influx of converts, particularly from evangelical Christianity, to the Orthodox parishes in North America in recent decades has complicated the picture by exacerbating significantly the rift between the “modernists” and “fundamentalists” within Orthodoxy in this part of the world. As Father John Jillions aptly reminded us during his Georges Florovsky lecture at the Orthodox Theological Society in America in January 2022, this rift undermines the catholicity of the Church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2SVk_Zhk2c&t=103s (accessed 7 March 2022).
Father Dragos Herescu, “Secularization, Multiple Modernities, and the Contemporary Challenges of ‘Multiple Orthodoxies’,” Public Orthodoxy, 29 October 2019, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2019/10/29/secularization-multiple-orthodoxies/ (accessed 31 January 2021).
Gregory Jensen, The Cure for Consumerism (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, 2015).
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been promoting a theology of the environment for decades. For an overview of eco-theological writing by Bartholomew and other Orthodox authors, see Theokritoff who also states that “the Orthodox tradition goes beyond the dichotomy of man and nature to offer a ‘deeper ecology’ in which the physical interrelations between creatures are set within the divine economy for all creation.” Elizabeth Theokritoff, “Green Patriarch, Green Patristics: Reclaiming the Deep Ecology of Christian Tradition,” Religions 8, no. 7 (2017): 116; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8070116.