Russian Patriarch Kirill must use faith as a guide, not nationalism

There is only one person who can put a stop to the carnage in Ukraine, besides Vladimir Putin, and that person is the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church. I was an acolyte for many years, knew all the catechism, would fast during Holy Week, and attended church regularly.

Being the son of a Greek immigrant mother, Orthodoxy was an important part of my life and shaped me into whatever I am today. I recall seeing Archbishop Iakovos of North America on the cover of LIFE Magazine, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.

LIFE Magazine Cover

I recall our local parish priest, Father Vieron, standing in front of Mayor Henry Loeb urging him to recognize the strikers’ rights, during the 1968 Sanitation workers strike, in what has now become one of the famous pictures of the Civil Rights era, showing the Mayor being confronted by Memphis ministers while keeping a sawed off shotgun under his desk.

One day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb - a shotgun beneath his desk - greeted about 300 black and white ministers in his office Friday, April 5, 1968, shaking hands with Rev. Joseph P. Toney while Father Nicholas L. Vieron (behind the clasped hands) looked on. The ministers - who represented congregations in wealthy East Memphis and the impoverished inner city - were impressed with Loeb's cordiality in the face of such a potentially uncomfortable confrontation . The ministers were calling for an end to the sanitation strike and union recognition for the workers. But Loeb gave no indication he was willing to compromise with the strikers. "I know this might sound corny, but it happened. I knelt before Jim Jordan (pastor of First Baptist Church - Beale Street) and said, 'On behalf of we who represent the white race, I make a gesture of apology and ask for forgiveness,'" said Father Vieron in a 1992 interview. At the tim  e of his death, Dr. King was on his third visit to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers.

One day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb – a shotgun beneath his desk – greeted about 300 black and white ministers in his office Friday, April 5, 1968, shaking hands with Rev. Joseph P. Toney while Father Nicholas L. Vieron (behind the clasped hands) looked on. The ministers – who represented congregations in wealthy East Memphis and the impoverished inner city – were impressed with Loeb’s cordiality in the face of such a potentially uncomfortable confrontation. The ministers were impressed with Loeb’s cordiality in the face of such a potentially uncomfortable confrontation. calling for an end to the sanitation strike and union recognition for the workers. But Loeb gave no indication he was willing to compromise with the strikers. “I know this might sound corny, but it happened. I knelt before Jim Jordan (pastor of First Baptist Church – Beale Street) and said, ‘On behalf of we who represent the white race, I make a gesture of apology and ask for forgiveness,'” said Father Vieron in a 1992 interview. At the time of his death, Dr. Ki ng was on his third visit to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers.

Now here we are, 54 years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and over 80 years since Hitler marched into Poland; and we are watching an unprovoked attack, which is again yielding war crimes and genocide for no other reason than salving the narcissism of another authoritarian, one whose goal is nothing more than self-perpetuation.

What troubles me the most is Vladimir Putin is doing much of this under the veil of restoring Russia to its old geographical glory. And he is doing this with the full support of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

Lenin, Stalin and the old Bolsheviks did all they could do to repress the strong influence of the Russian Orthodox Church from its prominence during the Czarist days; yet, Putin has restored the church as a dominant cultural influence in Russia.

One need only look at the huge Gold “bling” Cross dangling around Putin’s neck like a Clydesdale Horseshoe. I recall my personal guide in Russia a few years ago. Whenever she entered a Russian church, the tour would not begin until she made a huge gesticulating bow while crossing herself to several icons in the church.

I recite all of this to appeal to the head of my Eastern Orthodox religion – the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Even though there are anywhere from nine to 11 patriarchs, Bartholomew is known as the first among equals. He is much like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

It is time Bartholomew rose up, organized all the patriarchs and called out the genocide and war crimes being committed by Putin. Putin, the overtly Orthodox President, is committing these atrocities against Ukraine, a fellow Eastern Orthodox country. And as far I know, it has not been condemned by the Russian Patriarch Kirill.

Everyone with access to any free media outlet knows what is going on. It is hard for me to believe the Russian Patriarch is unaware. How can he be a Christian leader, and yet not speak out?

Everyone is asking “is there an off ramp for Putin?” I believe there could be.

If Patriarch Bartholomew and the other patriarchs will call out Patriarch Kirill of Russia for the genocide and war crimes being committed by one of his staunchest parishioners, maybe some meeting can be held with Patriarch Kirill urging him to meet with Putin offering him a way out to save face, but most importantly to save the lives of the Ukrainians, and the economic life of the Russians.

If Putin will not meet, then the Patriarch should use his pulpit to call the Russian citizens to take to the streets. This call need not be limited to the Orthodox Patriarchy. All world religious leaders should join in, beseeching Patriarch Kirill to do his duty .

John Vergos

John Vergos

Now is the time when my religion must decide whether it’s a voice for the teachings of Christ, or some political mechanism which looks down on women’s rights, homosexual rights, and wastes its time talking about how one should not eat meat on Fridays.

As we enter Lent and celebrate the most important period of Orthodoxy, will we be witnessing genocide by one of our Orthodox brethren against another, or will the Patriarch Bartholomew and the other patriarchs stand up and use their power, their influence, and their message from God to solve the worst crisis the world has faced in 80 years?

A meeting between Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill should occur immediately, and Patriarch Kirill will have to decide if he is a man of God, a political hack, or a Putin stooge. He could have the power to call a halt to the genocide, and Unlike the average citizen, he will not be arrested or shot.

It is time for Patriarch Bartholomew to make the call and for Patriarch Kirill to be a leader.

The world cries out, and time is of the essence

John Vergos is co-owner of BBQ restaurant The Rendezvous, former Memphis City Council member and a lawyer.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Opinion: Russian Patriarch Kirill must choose his Christian faith over nationalism

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