"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
Even before the beginning of the direct involvement of Russia in the war in Ukraine (which actually began in 2014), the American people had already been subjected to a steady stream of anti-Russian propaganda. Sorting out what is true and what is false in the midst of the fog of war is not very easy, even if someone puts forth the effort to try to discern such things... but most Americans are not interested enough in the subject to even make the effort, and so assume that what they are hearing in the mainstream media is true. Not only has the Russian government been criticized regularly, since the 2016 election and the beginnings of the Russian Collusion Hoax, but the Russian Orthodox Church has also increasingly been a target.
Patriarch Kirill was put into a very difficult situation by Russia's involvement in the war, and he probably would have been highly criticized no matter how carefully or wisely he had responded to it—and while I suppose one could make the case that he could have handled it better, it is easier to criticize someone in his position than to be that someone, and to try to navigate all the landmines this set of circumstances laid for him.
I doubt anyone in the leadership of the Russian Church wanted to see things come to the point of a direct war between Russia and Ukraine. However, most people inside of Russia—whether rightly or wrongly—view this war as a matter of dealing with an existential threat against Russia, and it seems Patriarch Kirill shares this view. On the other hand, many, and perhaps most Ukrainians have a very different view. Certainly, some of them at least, support Russian involvement, but many do not, to be sure. One has to have enough of an imagination to see how people on both sides can believe that they are on the right side, and not be evil.
Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that most Russians are wrong in how they view Russia's role in this war, they don't have to be evil to be wrong. They could simply be misinformed. That would also be true of Patriarch Kirill. We all view the world through the lens of our own experiences, and we trust some sources of information, and distrust others. Only God has a truly accurate grasp of all that is going on.
The background of the war is complicated, to say the least, and it is not my intention here to argue the merits of Russia's actions one way or the other. I do, however, want to address a very clear example of how western propaganda has attempted to distort something that Patriarch Kirill has said, and twist it into something that is almost the complete opposite of what he said. Even if we disagree with someone, we should at least try to be fair, and when describing their views, we should try to do so in a way that they would recognize as being accurate, and in this case, the efforts being made are focused on distorting what he has said rather than to fairly represent his actual statements.
In a sermon delivered on Sunday, September 25th, 2022 (the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), Patriarch Kirill is said to have promised heaven to Soldiers who kill Ukrainians.
For example, Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Archdiocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate said in a recent seminar, entitled "Religious Freedom, Self-Defense, and the Orthodox Communities in Ukraine":
"Russian mercenaries and soldiers murdered, raped, kidnapped, and looted with his blessing—Patriarch Kirill's blessing—even with his Jihadist-like promise of heaven for killing their spiritual brethren."
The US State Department Funded propaganda website "The Orthodox Times," didn't go quite as far, but it nevertheless intentionally misrepresented what Patriarch Kirill said in an article entitled "Patriarch of Moscow: Any Russian soldier who dies in the war in Ukraine is forgiven for his sins." But did Patriarch Kirill actually say this, or did he suggest that killing Ukrainians would get you into heaven and seventy-two virgins? No, he did not.
Here is a Google Translation of the text from the original Russian text, posted on the Moscow Patriarchate official website, Patriarcha.ru.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16). To death! The Only Begotten Son, the Divine Son! And why was this terrible divine Sacrifice required, the scale and significance of which cannot be grasped by the human mind? Almighty God gives Himself to the execution, which was used to execute criminals, outcasts of human society, who really committed terrible, dangerous crimes.
When one thinks of this ineffable divine Sacrifice, it is difficult for the human mind to grasp the whole divine plan. But it is quite obvious that the Lord does not give Himself, humanly suffers and dies for something that would be completely incomprehensible to us and inherent only in Him, who has an immense knowledge of Himself. He gives us the opportunity to understand that if God in His Son gives His human life for the sake of other people, for the sake of the human race, then sacrifice is the highest manifestation of man's love for his neighbors. Sacrifice is the greatest manifestation of the best human qualities.
We know that today many are dying on the fields of internecine warfare. The Church prays that this war will end as soon as possible, that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war. At the same time, the Church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains faithful to his vocation and dies in the performance of military duty, then he undoubtedly commits an act tantamount to sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others. Therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.
The war that is now going on in the vastness of Russia is an internecine strife. That is why it is so important that this battle should not result in a wave of bitterness and alienation; So that fraternal peoples are not divided by an impassable wall of hatred. And how we all behave towards each other today, what we ask the Lord in our prayers, what we hope for, will largely depend not only on the outcome of battles, but also on what will happen as a result of all this. May God grant that the present military operations do not destroy the single spiritual space of Holy Russia, and even more so do not harden our peoples. So that by the grace of God all wounds may be healed. So that by the grace of God, everything that today brings sorrow to many and many will be erased from memory. So that what will replace the current situation, including in relations between our fraternal peoples, is bright, peaceful and joyful.
And this can only happen if we live with faith in our hearts. Because faith destroys fear, faith gives the possibility of mutual forgiveness, faith strengthens relationships between people and really can and does transform these relationships into fraternal, cordial and kind ones. May God grant that everything that now darkens the souls of many will end. May God grant that during this internecine struggle as few people as possible will die or be injured. May God grant that there may be as few widows and orphans as possible, fewer separated families, less shattered friendship and brotherhood.
The Church, which carries out its pastoral ministry among the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and many others in the vastness of historical Russia, today especially suffers and especially prays for the speedy cessation of internecine strife, for the triumph of justice, for the restoration of fraternal communion and the overcoming of all that, having accumulated over the years, eventually led to a bloody conflict. We believe that all the saints who shone forth in the Russian land—in this case, using the already accepted expression "in the Russian land", we mean Russia, the whole Russian land, Holy Russia—today together with us lift up prayers to the Lord for peace to be established on earth, for the reconciliation of fraternal peoples and, most importantly, for justice to triumph, because without justice there can be no lasting peace.
May the Lord protect us all and help all of us to walk our Christian career with dignity, despite the difficult life circumstances that today are the reality of our earthly existence. Through the prayers of the saints, whose names we have glorified today, may the Lord help us all to be strengthened in peace, love, like-mindedness and purity [Emphasis added]."
Very few references to this sermon make any mention of the fact that he called this a "fratricidal war," and states that the Church prays for it to end swiftly. Furthermore, when he speaks of soldiers sacrificing themselves, he does not limit his comments to soldiers going to Ukraine, nor does he assign any merit to killing Ukrainians. He simply speaks of soldiers who, out of a sense of duty and in the fulfilling their oath as a soldier, die in the course of that duty. These words would apply to Ukrainian soldiers or to any other Orthodox Christian soldiers who lay down their lives out of a sense of duty.
What does he mean by a soldier having "a sense of duty"? Perhaps this comes across differently in Russian and in the context of Russian culture, but I think he is clearly speaking of the love that such a soldier would have for his country, and for their family and friends... and so it seems to me it would have been clearer had he made reference to "love" explicitly, but it clearly is implicit.
So the Patriarch did not say that any soldier who goes to Ukraine and happens to die there falls into this category of soldier, much less did he say this of soldiers who kill Ukrainians. He is speaking of soldiers motivated by love, duty, and honor. Furthermore, there is no reason to think he was speaking of atheists or non-Orthodox Christians here, or even of otherwise unrepentant Orthodox Christians.
But does such sacrifice in fact wash away sins? Let's first consider whether the blood of martyrdom washes away sins? The Church clearly does teach that the blood of martyrdom, in some sense, washes away a person's sins. However, this does not apply to everyone who is ostensibly a martyr. As St. John Chrysostom said:
"Now a certain holy man said what might seem to be a bold thing; yet, nevertheless, he spoke it out. What then is this? He said, that not even the blood of martyrdom can wash out this sin. For tell me for what dost thou suffer as a martyr? Is it not for the glory of Christ? Thou then that yieldest up thy life for Christ’s sake, how dost thou lay waste the Church, for whose sake Christ yielded up His life?" (Emphasis added, Homily 11 on Ephesians).
"What sacrifices do those who are rivals of the priests think that they celebrate? Do they deem that they have Christ with them when they are collected together, who are gathered together outside the Church of Christ? Even if such men were slain in confession of the Name, that stain is not even washed away by blood: the inexpiable and grave fault of discord is not even purged by suffering. He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church; he cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there. Christ gave us peace; He bade us be in agreement, and of one mind. He charged the bonds of love and charity to be kept uncorrupted and inviolate; he cannot show himself a martyr who has not maintained brotherly love" (Treatise on the Unity of the Church 13-14).
For one to be a true martyr, he would have to be a right-believing person, who was offering himself as a sacrifice for his confession of Christ, and this cannot apply to a person who is a heretic or a schismatic. But in what sense does the blood of martyrdom wash away a person's sins? Obviously not in the same sense that only Christ's blood can wash away sin. Christ's sacrifice alone provides the basis upon which anyone can be saved. However, this sacrifice is only available to those who repent and believe the Gospel. But repentance is not a one-time act. St. John the Baptist taught that those who repent have to bring forth the fruits of repentance (Luke 3:8). The Church teaches that if a person dies with at least the beginnings of repentance, but without having had a chance to bring forth the fruits of repentance, he does not immediately enter into God's presence upon death, but that there is some period of time in which by the prayers of the Church, he grows in grace, until he is able to enter into God's presence.
Bringing forth the fruits of repentance involves our cooperation with God's grace, so that we purify our hearts and minds, and become filled with the Holy Spirit. This makes someone a truly holy person, and when such a person dies, they do enter immediately into God's presence. What is true of the sacrifice made in martyrdom, Patriarch Kirill argues is also true of a Christian soldier who willfully lays down his life out of love. In the case of martyrs, the Church usually does not long hesitate to declare them to be saints. In the case of soldiers, this is not true, but probably this is so because in the case of martyrs the disposition of the person is clearer. Whereas in the case of soldiers, they may or may not have died out of love for God, country, family, and friends—it is simply harder for us to make such a judgment, but obviously God would have no such difficulty.
We also find the idea that our actions in cooperation with God's grace can cleanse sins in the Scriptures. St. Peter, in his first epistle, states: "And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). St. Peter is in turn alluding to Proverbs 10:12, which says "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins" (c.f. James 5:19-20). And as Christ Himself said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Christ is the supreme example of this to be sure, but this statement has long been applied to soldiers who lay down their lives for their friends, family, and country. And so if a Christian soldier willfully lays down his life for others, this, according to Patriarch Kirill, qualifies as bringing forth the fruits of repentance fully and completely.
I suppose one could criticize him for not putting more qualifications and clarifications in his sermon [after all, it was a sermon and not a treatise or synodal resolution.—OC], but it is simply not fair to suggest that he said that soldiers would go to heaven by killing Ukrainians, or simply by virtue of dying while fighting in the war in Ukraine. And there is no comparison with the Jihadist belief that one gains salvation by killing people for God. He neither said any such thing, nor did he imply it.