Volume 2, Number 4

April 15, 2011

Theme: Christianity and Partisan Politics


On the Essence of True Morality

by Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo)

Orthodoxy and Political Conservatism

By Scott Allen Miller

Orthodoxy and the Political Left

By Fr. John Culbreath-Frazier

The Problem of Partisanship

By Dr. David Wagschal

More information on the authors can be found here.

On the Essence of True Morality

April 15, 2011

By Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo)

True morality consists far more in how well we care for one another than in what kind of external behavior we wish to force on other people. Too often, moralism is confused with morality, but they are far from being the same. The moralistic notion that Christianity has a duty to try to force one or another denomination’s understanding of biblical morality on any nation or community is quite destructive and usually leads to persecutions and violence. People with such ideas will usually ignore the Gospel itself and rummage through the Old Testament seeking a bludgeon to use against someone or some group. Another construct that appears to be problematic is focusing the whole concept of morality on sexual matters, often to the exclusion of other very serious issues. One of the greatest moral problems in our era is the destruction of the environment, and this is rooted in egoism and self-centredness. These two, egoism and self-centredness (or “self-love”) are the very bases of all that is genuinely immoral, and moralism itself is a form of egoism and self-focus.

Let us look, for a moment, at the usually misunderstood creation narrative in Genesis and see what this story actually teaches us about the human condition and the true meaning of morality.

Christ's hand in Creation

The creation narrative is not a scientific treatise; it does not actually tell us any of the details about the creation of the universe, only that it was the work of God. The moral idea of the creation narrative is its most important aspect. We are told that God created mankind from pure love. This means that He gave man freedom, for love given without freedom is obsession but it is not love, and love demanded without freedom is a psychosis; it is not love. So God created us with love and gave to us that other factor which is essential to love – trust. If there is to be freedom then there also must be choice.

The story of the two trees in the garden is essentially a prophecy about the Cross of Christ, but in this narrative they also signify a choice and the choice was whether or not to love God and trust Him. The story about the temptation is important because it was a test of the sincerity of love, for love without trust cannot be sincere. We are told that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image and they also had the grace of immortality through unity with God. Satan tempts mankind by offering him a counterfeit of something that he already has. In essence he says “Do not trust God; disobey Him and you will become like God.” Adam and Eve accepted the counterfeit and this was the beginning of egoism and self love: “You will have special knowledge and you will become like God.” The fall of mankind was a fall from an atmosphere of unselfish love and harmony into egoism, self-centredness and self-love.

The real moral issue for mankind is precisely this condition of egoism and self-centredness. Every normal emotion that races out of control into a destructive passion– every offense, every explosion of anger, every murder and every war– is rooted in our egoism and self-centredness. The real moral struggle, therefore, is against these deficits and an ascent to an unselfish love which blossoms into a co-suffering love. Since the real meaning of sin is the misuse of our energies, and this is driven by our egoism and self-focus, unselfish love is the key to true morality. Did Christ really say anything different when He told us that the entire law and the prophets are condensed into this one thing: that we love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves? The only way we can love our neighbor as ourselves is through a genuine empathy. There is no other way to defeat Satan in our lives, the lives of our parishes and the world around us except through the power of co-suffering love, the kind of love that Christ Himself revealed to us in His life, His earthly ministry and the Cross. In order to do this we must see the foremost order of morality as a transformation of the heart, and not in the enforcement of a legalistic code of external behavior.

Where does your moral compass point?

The efforts of some religious bodies to manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law is nothing else but sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love. It is therefore the very opposite of true morality and it has no place for Orthodox Christians. Our greatest moral obligation is to develop an unselfish love for God, our neighbor, and the realization that all of mankind is our neighbor and each one of those human beings is the image and likeness of the living God. If we cannot love the image and likeness of God how shall we learn to love God Himself? Moralism involves fantasies of a “more Christian past,” and is filled with judgment and condemnation, yet Christ ” came not to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved.” Moralism does not use the language of healing, but the language of fire, the rhetoric of self-righteousness and often of hate and violence. Let us think back on two instances from Christ’s own example and one of His parables. The woman taken in adultery was brought before Christ and accused. “According to the law, she ought to be stoned to death!” With a few simple words, Christ sent the arrogant legalists slinking away in shame. To the woman herself, however, He made no word of accusation. But let us think about this: if the fear of the horrible death by stoning and the shame before the whole community could not deliver this woman from the bondage of her passion, how could the simple words of Christ, “go and sin no more,” accomplish this? It could do so because at the same time, Christ penetrated into her heart with the power of His co-suffering love. Nor did our Savior speak a single hurtful or critical word to the Samaritan woman who had lived with several different men. Rather, He likewise healed her heart with that ultimate healing ointment: the balm of co-suffering love. In the parable of the prodigal son, is it not clear that the father’s forgiveness did not come into being when he saw the son returning home; rather the father’s forgiveness followed him the very day that he left home, and it was always there waiting for him when he turned around to face it and entered back into the father’s arms and home. Such are the images of true morality and true faith which our Lord Jesus Christ has imparted to us. We are in this world to strive to be spiritual healers, not to be prosecuting attorneys.

Jesus at the well with the Samaritan Woman

If you desire to be a truly moral person then above all else struggle to conform yourself to the image of the unselfish, co-suffering love of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Strive to escape the temptation to judge and condemn, and become a spiritual healer through unselfish love, even while you are striving to find healing for yourself. True righteousness consists in nothing else but a pure, Christlike unselfish love; true holiness consists in a heart transformed by the power of a co-suffering love that radiates out from that heart with the light of Christ.

Orthodoxy and Political Conservatism

April 15, 2011

By Scott Allen Miller

Republicans, like Democrats, are not all the same. They subscribe to many beliefs, some of which are mutually exclusive and some of which are mutually affirmative. Since the 1960s, the base – that is, the most active, devoted, and ideological members – of the Republican Party have been conservatives. The differences between Orthodox Christianity and the Republican Party can be best illustrated by comparing the Orthodox Faith to conservatism.

The words “orthodox” and “conservative” both can refer to those ideas and practices that are long-standing, established, and time-tested. However, “big-O” Orthodox and American political conservatism are significantly different.

There are in fact several strains of conservatism in the American body politic, and some are not completely compatible with one another. Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Rudy Giuliani, and Pat Buchanan are all conservatives, but they disagree on important issues. Discussing these contradictions within the conservative movement in detail goes beyond the scope of this topic. Mindful of these contradictions and the risk of oversimplification, the core of modern American conservatism can be said to be comprised of:

  • Fiscal libertarianism Low taxes, minimal regulation of industry or interference in the economy
  • Social traditionalism Conformity to established norms of Anglo-American culture
  • Militarism National security effected by a robust military force

None of these three values are theoretically at odds with Orthodox Christianity, but in common practice they often are.

Pore over the Scriptures as much as you like, but you will find few if any passages declaring that the government should regulate the economy. Taxes are mentioned, and in the Gospels, tax collectors like Sts Matthew and Zacchaeus were despised by the people for their perceived corruption and collaboration with Roman occupiers. When asked about the legality of Roman taxation of Jews, our Lord pointed out that Caesar’s likeness was on the coinage of the Empire, so the people were to render unto Caesar what was his and render unto God what was His – that is, our selves (Mat 22:21).

Render unto Caesar...

Critics point out that fiscal conservatism relies on charitable activities rather than government institutions to alleviate the suffering of the poor, that the free market favors those of certain favored social groups, and perpetuates economic disparities between the rich and poor. Conservatives would not dispute any of these criticisms with one exception: In a free market, all economic opportunity is (at least theoretically) equal, so success is limited only by individual endeavor and, to a small extent, the unintended consequences of government interference in the economy. In light of this, class differences are seen by conservatives as the consequences of individual choices, not the cause of individual success or failure. Indifference towards the poor can be a form of benign neglect meant to spur them on to better themselves.

As Orthodox Christians, we cannot neglect those with less means than ourselves. We are devoid of God’s love if we who have enough do not show compassion on those who do not (1 Jn 3:17). The Epistle of St James teaches that our faith must beget tangible actions, specifically caring for the needs of the destitute. Notions of the worthy poor (those who deserve charity) and the unworthy poor (those who deserve poverty because of their choices) are alien to all those who love their neighbors as they love themselves, as Christ commanded. Historically, the Orthodox Church has always aided the poor, even in times of its greatest tribulation.

It is not wealth but rather our attachment to it that damns us. The Bible teaches us not to love money, and that doing so is the root of all evil. (Eccl 5:10, Heb 13:5, 1 Tim 6:10) Love of money and things prevents us from loving Christ and from loving our neighbor.

St. John Chrysostom

St John Chrysostom taught in the 4th century that “all wealth comes from God, and belongs to everyone equally”, so “the rich person who keeps all his wealth for himself is committing a form of robbery.” (It is also worth noting that Chrysostom preached that wealth should be given to the poor by those who have it to give, not by the government taking and redistributing wealth to those it deemed poor.)

That’s not to say wealth is evil and poverty holy. Chrysostom also taught that the poor can be envious of those who have more and despondent about their state. The fact is that wealth, like poverty, is its own ascesis (spiritual struggle). So great is this ascesis that Christ says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. American history has proven the truth of our Savior’s words. As He has blessed our nation with more and more material prosperity, more and more of our people have turned away from Him.

St Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Wealth … is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly.” Consider how Christ favored the widow who gave all of the little she had over the wealthier people who had more to give but didn’t (Luke 21:1-4). His holy words should give pause to all who seek to enrich themselves materially rather than spiritually with works. The kenotic (self-emptying) example of Christ on the Cross should make us eager to give all we can, as He did for the life of the world.

Holy Tradition is “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” according to 20th century theologian Vladimir Lossky. It includes Scripture, the Holy Mysteries, the God-guided wisdom of the Fathers of the Church, and our church’s services. Tradition has preserved our Faith once delivered to the saints to this present day and unites us as members of the Body of Christ with Christ in His Church.

Secular tradition, of course, is something entirely different, even when it pretends to be holy. Our secular traditions in America have come from all over the world, but the most significant and influential sources have been from 18th and 19th century Europe, especially the British Isles. The English-speaking peoples of those days brought to this land not only their language but their Protestantism, stoicism, industriousness, moral values, common law and justice system, and a host of other cultural artifacts of their times. All people of all backgrounds living in this country have been steeped in Anglo-American culture to one degree or another. For many conservatives, the less Anglo-American something is, the less American it is.

The Orthodox Church, with its ecclesial practices and cultural roots in the eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, can seem very much at odds with Anglo-American culture. In fact, socially conservative Christian Americans who are not Orthodox might view the Orthodox Church of present day America as entirely foreign to them.

It doesn’t help that in the past century, the United States has had difficult relations with most countries with large Orthodox populations (with the notable exceptions of Greece and Cyprus). Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and Serbia were all locked in a Communist alliance against the United States for most of the second half of the 20th century, and Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria have spawned terrorists – some Muslim, some Christian – who have targeted the United States and her allies. Most Orthodox churches in the United States have strong cultural roots in or jurisdictional ties to these countries.

Americans who are accustomed to services rendered only in English, complex worship music performed on or accompanied by musical instruments, worship space devoid of all or most iconography, congregational singing, extended sermons, services that end in under an hour, and emotionalism may not know what to make of a Sunday morning Divine Liturgy – let alone an akathist or the services of Holy Week! And that’s not even addressing the serious doctrinal differences separating the East from the West, especially the Protestant denominations. When social conservatives get past those differences, though, they find that the Orthodox Church’s teachings on most moral issues to be quite consonant with their own and respect the Orthodox Church’s steadfastness in a world of change.

The traditional Anglo-American view of criminal justice warrants comparison to Orthodoxy as well. When this country was colonized by the English in the 17th century, the English justice system was profoundly stringent. The accused had few rights. Torture, flogging, and public ridicule were perfectly legal forms of punishment. Slavery was legal. Juvenile criminals were treated as adults, including capital punishment. Inability to pay debts resulted in imprisonment. The Founders of this country sought to protect the rights of the accused, protect individual liberties, and moderate the more excessive punishments of their English forebears, but harsh punishment for criminals is still popular among American conservatives and often justified by selective use of Scripture.

Harsh Punishment?

The Orthodox Church, however, witnesses to the need to show mercy to all. Christ teaches us to pray that Our Father forgive us our sins as we forgive others, and that the measure of forgiveness we give others is the measure of forgiveness we get (Luke 7:2). Furthermore, in a parable in Matthew 18, Christ teaches that God has forgiven us of a debt – our sins – far greater than any debt anyone can owe us. Our mercy is not conditioned on the apology or repentance of others. Christ on the Cross called on His Father to forgive even His killers and torturers as they were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34).

It is necessary to protect the public from those who commit harmful actions, but Christ is the true Judge, not us. We are called to always love and show mercy just as God always loves and shows mercy on us. Too many social conservatives apply the Old Testament edict of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” to others and God’s abundant mercies to themselves.

Finally, it cannot go unmentioned that conservatives give the military a major role in government and foreign affairs. Throughout American history, conservatives have swung back and forth between the poles of isolationism and interventionism while still supporting the military. Since World War II, most conservatives have advocated an expanded role for the use or threat of military force to solve international disputes and further American interests. The military may be the only government expenditure that conservatives, with the exception of libertarian conservatives like Ron Paul, consistently seek to increase.

The Church, too, has had a complicated relationship with the military in its long history. In the Church’s earliest days, the Roman military was used to hunt down Christians, yet some soldiers in service to Rome became Christian saints, such as Sts George and Theodore and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. St Constantine the Great began his conversion to Christianity after a heavenly vision before a major battle. St Constantine later legalized Christianity, and when Christianity became the official Roman religion, wars were often cast as being fought by Christians against infidels.

The unity of Church and State in early Christianity affected the Church. Clergy were awarded ranks akin to military ranks. The epigonation (the diamond-shaped cloth worn by some priests above their right knee) is a vestige of the scabbard that priests were required to wear in imperial times as an insignia of rank. The Great Litany includes a petition, now often omitted, praying that the nation’s leader and military will be granted “victory over every enemy and adversary” by God. In the Troparion of the Cross, we pray the Lord will “[grant His] faithful kings victory over the barbarians”. (English translations are usually less medieval-sounding.) Orthodox Christian armies have sought the protection of the Theotokos. Her icon has been processed before Russian and Byzantine warriors countless times during and before battle, and the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos was composed in honor of her intercessions protecting Constantinople from siege.

But is the Church a weapon of war? Of course not. The Orthodox Church of the United States, free of past entanglements with temporal governments, witnesses the good news of the Prince of Peace rather than advocates aggression. We pray for the well-being of our President, civil authorities, and our armed forces, but we also pray for peaceful times and we pray for those who hate us. Having a strong national defense may deter war, but it might also provoke it or make us arrogant with power. It is up to us to choose wisely. Ultimately, we must look to God for our well-being. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in mankind.” (Ps 117:8)

The Church is not an instrument of war

There are good Orthodox Christians in all political parties, but no political ideology is going to be wholly consistent with the Orthodox Faith. Those who choose a political party will love certain policies and candidates while having to hold their nose about others.

Fortunately, the Orthodox Church does not force us to make such choices. She exists entirely and only for our sanctification and salvation in Christ who dwells in her by the Holy Spirit. As we pray after partaking of the Eucharist, “The Church is revealed to all as a brilliantly lit heaven leading the faithful in the way of light.” The Orthodox Church has no evils, so there are no lesser-of-evils from which to choose.

Orthodoxy and the Political Left

April 15, 2011

by Fr. John Culbreath-Frazier

When considering our faith in relation to any political structure, there is a perennial hesitancy in our pluralistic society to equate the two. The concept of safeguard in separation of church and state is something we cherish, with the intention that our government will be of the people, by the people, and for the people  and not cater to any specific religious ideology. However, whenever you authentically engage another individual, it is impossible not to also engage their beliefs to a certain extent. So when considering the question of our faith, Christianity, we should not be asking how we can effectively root religion out of politics, but how can the Christian faith be an effective, and healthy, influence on political policy?

An often uncomfortable intersection

The political “right” is often criticized as having taken full advantage of the religious fervor of the American people, particularly among conservative and evangelical Christians. To the credit of the “right”, what it has done very well is set itself up as the perceived religious, and effectively moral, compass of our country. Catering to perhaps the most powerful Christian contingent in American society, the evangelical Christians, it has sought to become the “party” largely of this demographic. This, on the other hand, leads to our  criticism of the political “left”- their overall reluctance to engage the American public on a religious level and to remind us that as Christians it is possible to be progressive and pro-life. Simply put, the Democrats have allowed the Republican Party to set the parameters of the religious debate, and consequently have allowed many Republican platforms to acquire religious connotations.

There is no denying that in the political “left” there is a refusal to engage the “right” on the religious playing field regarding  policy. By refraining from this discussion, they have given the “right” a monopoly on making any stance a religious issue. This, of course leads to a political dynamic where there is very little to discuss from a religious perspective and definitely no room for dialogue. This is best seen in the way all of Christian ethics in the political sphere are largely simplified to such charged issues as abortion and gay marriage, and placing little, if any, emphasis on how our faith may also approach such topics as the environment, poverty, and human rights; issues that have equal religious significance.

Using abortion as an example, which often serves as a political gauge during a candidate’s campaign, this topic very easily becomes focused on the issue of the overwhelmingly difficult choice during pregnancy, rather than the alternatives which would support both mother and her unborn child.  If the political “left” took more time to observe their relevancy to the Christian voters, those who hold fast to the sanctity of life being a gift from God, they could address such religious sentiments through programs aimed at building up the community so it may effectively address the concerns of teen pregnancy, discuss adoption reform, and provide support for low-income women. The political “left”, by realizing that abortion is not only about this choice, and the right to that choice, but also about engaging a vulnerable group in our society, can begin to enter into this religious dialogue with the “right”. Our Christian faith has more to say on the topic of abortion than simply concerning the life of an unborn child, and the willingness of the “left” to address these concerns will be an indicator of their engagement in such a dialogue.

But the issue of abortion is not unique unto itself. Through this reassessment by the “left”, what will hopefully occur is a realization that many of the issues that define their political policy can be in fact Christian ideals. With an emphasis on social equality and justice, we are reminded of the Orthodox perspective on the human person; that all of humanity is made in the image of the Creator and the charge of Christians to recognize this image. One does not have to look too far back into American history to realize that the “left” became politically involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, lead by black churches in the American South; as well, they were present in several other social movements lead by faith-based organizations, such as the abolition of slavery and acquiring of women’s suffrage.

Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama

We as Christians, especially as Orthodox Christians, know our God to be communal yet personal, but He has never been an isolated deity encompassed by a singular political perspective. Just as the Republican Party is often accused of distilling  faith into the various categories of their political policy, the Democrat Party can be easily accused of allowing this religious dialogue to remain personal and relativist without ever attempting to enter on a religious level. What is most upsetting of all is that the political “left” has allowed the “right” to decide which platforms will be religious issues, then use these issues to gain political influence. To engage in this dialogue would be to argue that a compassionate concern for all who reside in affluence or on the margins is always necessary. It is our faith that encourages us to provide opportunities- such as health care, education, and economic security; it is not a left/right platform (though they disagree on how to provide these), but a Christian standard.

Much of the divide between the right and left, although in some form is applicable to many of their stances, can be seen in their approach to social issues. The “left”, largely, views the rights of a person to be a more social, or community, responsibility, while the “right” views these to be individually based and driven largely by justice. For example, the needs of a person in one viewpoint would be the concern of the broader community, while the other would put more stress on individual success, the lack of which may be due to an underlying cause specific to that person.

Speaking to the hesitancy of political involvement in these Christian standards, even the fourth century Saints John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea spoke of the responsibility  the wealthy have for the economically disenfranchised. And many of the social programs they enacted came not only from their own wealth, but also from the financial and political support of their government- which had very deep pockets. Similarly, our American political system, through its various programs, is able to be a valuable resource in expressing these Christian truths.

Right now, our American government is in the midst of an intense debate regarding such financial issues as spending, the extension of previously-established tax cuts, and the overwhelming deficit in our national budget. Even as this saga unfolds before our eyes, we see both the “right” and “left” heatedly discuss what is to happen with what we have “rendered to Caesar”. And with the scare of a government shut down, we see a bi-partisan government that is unwilling to engage in an authentic dialogue over what we, as Christians, consider to be a blessing from God. This, like our discussion on abortion, is not an isolated issue. To provide the opportunities of healthcare and education to all citizens, regardless of economic standing, we must first consider how we can be faithful stewards of our financial blessings. As each side argues strongly as to how to best achieve this goal, our faith charges us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). These are not only the words of the Old Testament Law, but also came from the lips of Christ. And when our political dialogue is tempered with these words, we realize that our actions as a government are to not only bring glory to God, but also are to be done in service to his creation. It is entering upon this dialogue that the “right” and “left” begin to speak authentically from a Christian perspective.

Not every Christian in the United States is of one mind, even when discussing our faith. And our beliefs should not become the political slogan of a particular party. As the political “left” responds to this religious engagement, realizing that many of the moral issues of the “right” are equally applicable to many of the policies of the “left”, the result will be a political party that seeks to fulfill not only the communal aspects of their political stances, but perhaps even the view of Christianity toward our neighbor.

In Gods love we trust

The Problem of Partisanship

April 15, 2011

by Dr. David Wagschal

It has become commonplace to note the increasing polarization of American politics.  You don’t need to follow goings-on in Washington closely to sense the increasingly divisive, reactionary and vitriolic nature of political discourse – certainly political commentators bewail it constantly.  It seems that political positions and policies demand ever more absolute and exclusive adherence, and that dialogue with contrary opinions has become a sign of moral weakness.  Gone are the days, perhaps, of the art of gentlemanly opposition, and of the value of compromise and balance.

Gentlemanly Opposition

Of course we might question whether the golden days of civil discourse ever really existed.  We might also wonder if policies and positions of the two major parties are really much farther apart today than in the past.  But the rhetoric of opposition – the tendency to demonize one’s opponents, to exaggerate differences, and to not want to be seen to (openly) into dialogue – does seem more pronounced today than in recent memory.

This is worrying.

Modern western democracies, especially in the New World, have evolved since the 18th Century as systems very good at allowing individuals and communities of different values and backgrounds to coexist together peacefully.  They do this by demanding a “buy-in” on a few basic principles. These include the rule of law, the idea of representative government, and the observance of a number of fundamental human freedoms.  Less obviously, they presume an institutionalized – almost ritualized – system of political opposition.  Instead of hoping that elected representatives will all agree on everything, modern democracies expect the opposite: different views are the normal state of affairs.  Like-minded individuals are expected to organize into opposing parties, and legitimate political power is exercised in the back-and-forth between these parties.

Our rallying cry?

In this type of system the parties are expected to compete with each other.  Power is fundamentally “agonistic”.  Indeed, the healthy operation of the system is dependent upon people taking these parties seriously, investing time and energy in setting their agendas and policies, and in “fighting” for their views in the political arena – becoming partisans, as it were.  But partisanship has its limits. Tacitly the party in power is always supposed to garner some degree of consensus among the opposition (otherwise its measures will simply be reversed later), and the opposition is expected to remain fundamentally loyal to the government (“Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”, to use the British phrase).  Most importantly, all parties are supposed to believe that it is only in the give and take of the party system that responsible and legitimate government can take place.  Confrontation is never meant to reach the point that one denies the opposition’s right to exist legally, morally, or otherwise.  Compromise and balance are supposed to be key values, as only in dialogue can good government happen.

This system is not, I think, an idealistic one.  It is not designed to produce an idyllic state of consensus, or promote the development of the perfect state , or even, ultimately, to promote a relativistic political ideology (although many think it can and should do this).  Its goals are more pragmatic: it is meant to limit violence and provide civil stability.  It is designed to channel human opposition and contrariness into a workable and even productive form.

If the vitriolic nature of contemporary civil discourse is a sign that we and our politicians are beginning to lose faith in this system of “ritualized opposition” – and the pragmatic values of dialogue and compromise that underpin it – our civic system may be in for some very serious trouble.

What are Orthodox Christians to make of this? How are we to participate responsibly in civil society in such a climate?

At first glance the Orthodox tradition does not seem to offer much guidance.  Orthodox Christians have historically lived under autocratic Christian regimes that have not been interested in fostering the type of pragmatic pluralism that is the cornerstone of our modern American civic system.  Quite the contrary: they have been very focused on promoting a maximal vision of a specifically Christian monoculture, with a very defined and carefully regulated set of beliefs, behaviors and values.  The imposition of an ideal uniformity has been a much higher priority than a pragmatic management of diversity.

This heritage might encourage some Orthodox Christians to participate in our political system in only a reactionary way.  One might, for example, opt to withdraw completely for civic life, as this system has little room for a one-sided enforcement of Orthodox values.  Alternatively, one might feel justified in engaging in precisely the type of vitriolic partisan behavior we now see, since this ultimately undermines the values of dialogue and compromise on which the system is built but which seem so dissonant with the imperial traditions of our Orthodox past.

Interestingly, however, both these options have generally been avoided by the American Orthodox community.  The tradition of Orthodox political engagement in America has been – or at least so it seems to me – exceptionally sober and “mainstream”.   We tend to participate (or not participate) in our political processes to the same degree and in the same way as the general populace.  The hierarchy has also tended to keep the respectable distance from politics that our system demands, speaking out only occasionally on critical moral issues, but generally very careful to allow Orthodox citizens the freedom necessary  to participate credibly in the political arena.  Our parish clergy – like judges or members of the military – are likewise restrained in expressing political opinions.  In short, the Orthodox have generally emerged as conscientious and moderate upholders of the American civil system, and of the calm, gentlemanly atmosphere of dialogue and “managed diversity” it requires.

Why is this?  Some who advocate for a more strident, partisan Orthodox voice in the public sphere might see this as a “selling out” to social/moral relativism, or perhaps an exaggerated need to “fit in” on the part of Orthodox immigrant communities.  They might find it questionable that we do not seem to believe sufficiently strongly in our own values to fight for them in a more open and direct way, or question how we can even participate in a system that makes us “dialogue” on non-negotiable moral and social values of our faith.

I think, however, that the political sobriety of American Orthodox communities manifests a very wise traditional Orthodox instinct: to witness to Christ by being exemplary citizens.  This instinct is evinced in our constant prayers for civil authorities (even non-Orthodox ones), and in the injunctions of Scripture to “honor the emperor” (even a pagan one) and “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”.  From the ancient Christian apologists, to the Fathers of the Christian empire(s), to our modern Orthodox forefathers in America, our instinct has almost never been to subvert, negate or radically change the existing political order but to transform it and perfect it – in effect, to do it better than anyone else, and to make it as Christ-like as possible.  In our American context, extreme partisanship or non-participation are subversive of our political order, and thus have been, and probably should be, avoided.  Instead, we have tried to find a way of participating in a political discourse of dialogue and compromise that is authentically Orthodox (ironically, the great Hellenistic-Roman political ideals of the Christian empires have perhaps helped us here: consensus, symphonia, harmony).  Thus we have entered the give-and-take political world of the mainstream in order to move the political and moral agenda in a Christian direction from within – and not simply been content to throw stones at it from without.  The cynicism and relativism of the system do not always make this participation easy – and I’m not sure we’ve yet to be very successful at it – but ultimately we know that this task is an essential part of becoming and remaining Orthodox Christians in America.

...not simply been content to throw stones...

None of this means that the Orthodox are unable to offer sharp critique of the status quo, or even in exceptional circumstances to engage in “civil disobedience” or even radical rejection of the existing order.  This has certainly happened in the past.  But it does mean that our tradition has fixed the political priority for Orthodox Christians on participation and engagement with the mainstream – and thus on society’s total transformation.  The Church knows that partisan sectarianism or extremism is too likely to reduce the Gospel to a set of narrow and human political “positions” which deprive it of its universal power and applicability.  The danger is too great that the Gospel could be identified with a human “party”, and that the scandal of the Gospel become the scandal of the Church’s political positions, not the scandal of the cross.

The Universal Power of our Scandalous Gospel

Volume 2, Number 4- Authors and Contributors

April 15, 2011

His Eminence, Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) is a retired bishop of the Orthodox Church in America. He is also the founding abbot of All Saints of North America Monastery in Dewdney, British Columbia. He is a prolific writer and speaker.

Reader Scott Allen Miller is a radio talk show host who has been heard on Fox News Radio, WRKO Boston, WGY Albany, NY, and other stations throughout the United States. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in 2007, and he has been a member of the Boston Byzantine Choir since 2006. He, his wife of 19 years, and two children make their home just outside New York City. They worship at St Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For more information, check out his page here.

Father John Culbreath-Frazier is a student at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and will graduate in May 2011. He, and his wife Mandy, are from the Carolinas and will stay in the New York area to complete a Hospital Residency in Clinical Pastoral Education and pursue further graduate studies. His previous work experience includes residential therapy for adolescents with behavioral/emotional disorders, as well as customer relations for a Goodyear Tire distributor in western North Carolina before entering seminary.

Dr. David Wagschal was born in raised in Western Canada. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto in 1999, specializing in Church History and Classical Greek. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2002 with a Master’s in Divinity. He recently completed his doctoral work at the University of Durham in England studying under Fr. Andrew Louth. The title of his dissertation was “The Nature of Law and Legality in the Byzantine Canonical Collections 381-883”. His is now an instructor at St. Vladimir’s in Church History  and Canon Law.