Rick Warren had an enigma on his mantle: a medallion of a double-headed eagle. When I asked him if he knew what it meant, he admitted that he did not know, and asked me. The double-headed eagle is the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, and that symbol carried through to Russia. One eagle represents Church, and one the State. The symbol shows the synergy between both. Then, as now, there have been both benefits and drawbacks to such rule. And still, even though our country is founded in opposition to such a principle (we have a one-headed eagle), it was the way of the Roman and Byzantine Empires for over 1000 years, until 1453. Similarly, Church and State have long been linked in Russia. Perhaps it is the persistence of the double-headed eagle that Americans find Russia so puzzling.
Knowing these things, as an American Orthodox Priest—one whose Christianity is the same as Russia’s—“President Putin’s Patriarchal Games”, Nancy Folbre’s December 23 column in the New York Times , caught my eye. Her politico-religio-social commentary, thinly veiled in an article about the Olympics, was laced with accusations against Russia, her Orthodox Church, and her president, Vladimir Putin: bribery, power, coercion, environmental corruption, and abuse against women. She found it impossible to avoid the tired references to Mr Putin’s former KGB days, and even compared him to Joseph Stalin. Her column made me wonder: what makes journalists, professors (she taught Economics at UMass), and the general public so concerned about Russia, the Russian Church, and Putin? Certainly their contempt does not arise from American purity, chastity, or peace.
I wonder if Ms Folbre recalls our own former President Clinton, who had deviant sexual escapades in the Oval Office while his wife was home, and made a bold-faced lie about his actions on National Television (escaping perjury by a technicality)? Or if she considers the euphemism “reproductive rights” a reasonable and humane name for abortion, by which 300 lives will be taken, today and every day, on children 13+ weeks in gestational age and older? Or if she saw the Super Bowl ads last Sunday night, where before the eyes of hundreds of millions of teenagers, one could be sold on three-way sexcapades in a Butterfinger candy bar commercial, oral sex in a Dannon Yogurt spot, or nearly pornographic licentiousness for a Hardee’s cheeseburger? Talk about propoganda!
Even still, Professor Holbre wrote one sentence which “really, really, really” (that is how my son indicates something is VERY important) captivated me:
“The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are shining a global spotlight on Russian domestic priorities, including a long history of efforts to enforce traditional gender roles.”
Russia, like all nations, has domestic priorities. That is, an emphasis at home and in the home. Russia has seen the wicked face of Atheism and Communism at home, where 70 years and 70,000,000 corpses equaled more Christians martyred in Russia in the 20th Century than all the Christian martyrs total in the previous 1900 years—and more than 10 times the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. What didn’t kill Christianity in Russia, made it stronger. Perhaps Russia is eager simply to return to her unabashedly Orthodox Christian Culture and morality?
To appreciate that possibility, consider the professor’s words: “Long history”. It is nearly impossible for us to fathom in our individualistic society, where the Constitution guarantees no established religion, and where we have 217 varieties of disparate Christianities, that Russia has had not just Christianity, but a single Christian faith and moral vision, for almost 800 years longer that our country has existed. Russian Orthodoxy predates the Magna Carta (1215AD) by nearly 250 years, and antedates Christopher Columbus (1492AD) by double that. The end of communism in Russia coincided with the celebration of 1000 years of Christianity there. That, indeed, is “a long history”. A long, rich history of prayers, piety, and morality, a foundation without which communism and atheism would most certainly have won out. Rather than taking offence at Russia’s “traditional views”, might it not be timely for us to remember that America shared a similar moral vision with Russia for the first 200 or so of our short 238-years of American History?
With that in mind, it is a mystery to me why there are people who find it difficult to believe that women are biologically endowed to be mothers, and men to be fathers—the “Traditional Gender roles” about which Folbre writes. Traditional, by definition, means “handed down”. Perhaps it is safe to say that one of Russia’s “domestic policies” may simply be handing down what has been obvious to her Christian Culture for 1000 years.
What does all of this have to do with the Olympics in Russia? Well, very little, except that Russia’s “traditional domestic policies” have led to suggestions of boycotts, and continue to elicit all sorts of ranting about they way Russians are governed. Besides less-than-private toilets and terrorist-related security, it is Russia’s firm moral stance which is written about most with respect to Sochi.
In closing, it might be helpful to note that Orthodox Christianity is not so much a formal religion that can be treated, remolded, or cast aside like an outdated custom; rather, it is the longest-standing unchanged, living Christian Tradition in the world, in which Russia has been immersed for one half of the age of Christianity. It is the Christian Tradition which continues to hand down Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be truly human.
And with respect to the Olympics, it is helpful to recall that one Christian exemplar, St Paul, compares the living of the Christian life to that of an athlete in training and competition.
He said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” An ice-skater cannot win the Gold—or even compete—wearing skis.
He also said, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do so to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” The Sochi Olympians from the world over have followed strict training regimens in order to be victors. Christians likewise—Russian Orthodox in this example—are called to exercise self-control and to follow a strict training regimen in order to be holy and truly human, according to the teachings of Jesus as we have received them. And this to receive not a perishable medal, but a crown in heaven.