YES, WE CAN! Orthodoxy and Political Involvement

February 19, 2016 Length:

In the current crazy Presidential contest, Fr. Steven considers the duties and difficulties of an Orthodox Christian in engaging the political process.

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Dear friends, inasmuch as the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the humbling of the exalted at the exaltation of the humble, is upon us, we might do well to give some thoughts and considerations to the wild, woolly, and raucous presidential campaigns that are bombarding us every second of every day, and it’s only going to get worse long before it gets better. Though I generally make it a rule to avoid partisan conversations publicly and with my parishioners unless some topic impinges directly upon the teachings of the Faith, I must admit to being a bit of a political junkie. As a disclaimer, it must be admitted that I am a great believer in the governmental foundations of this country and greatly respect the Founding Fathers and their achievement, surely the most brilliant and effective attempt at fair and just ruling over peoples ever conceived.

For those wondering—and I am sure they are not a few—I am not especially enamored with so-called Christian monarchies, even of the Orthodox stripe, and while I do see the workings of God in such environments, I see nothing in history or in the teaching of the Orthodox Church that sets any kind of approbation upon this kind of system. Of course, the reverse is also true. There is nothing in history or the teaching of the Orthodox Church that blesses the democratic system we currently live under. One thing we do know: political systems of any kind are always going to be a faint reflection of our desire to construct modes and manners of living that best image the more considerate aspects of the God within us—most of the time—and that’s where the rub comes in, isn’t it? because many, perhaps most, of the governmental systems in the world’s history have given short shrift to the majority of the populace at the expense of a controlling few, lusting for power and authority at the expense of the majority, even when the excuse, as it often is, is that the need for order and rule outweighs the advantages towards the individual.

Now I’m not here to argue the pros and cons of the Enlightenment, for instance, that age that is often demonized as granting the needs of the individual special prerogatives, even at the expense of booting God out of the picture, nor am I advancing a thesis of progressive illumination in terms of our civilization slowly advancing towards Thomas More’s Utopia. I do not believe that mankind reached some kind of nirvana when the Founding Fathers hit the scene, but I most certainly do believe that the hand of God was behind their efforts in some mysterious way, and it matters not a whit to me whether they were Christian, Deist, or atheist—though, since no civilization worth the name has ever been established with atheism as its base, this is highly unlikely. My experience and reading of history and culture in general is that God acts when and where and how he wishes, so I don’t feel the need to exonerate his activities in the establishment of the American republic any more than I feel the need to promote political systems present in Orthodox countries as somehow sanctified solely on that basis.

There are no perfect political structures anywhere, and there never will be, though some are more advantageous than others in advancing the freedom of the individual. I do realize that, for some, the very idea of the freedom of the individual is something contrary to the tenets of Orthodoxy itself. Instead, the myth of the happy, illiterate, starving peasant living under the benign, God-anointed Orthodox ruler dominates a rather romantic notion of Orthodox government, one read about, instead of lived under, and often convoluting the aspects of the Orthodox symphonia with dogma itself. The idea of the symphony and harmony of the Orthodox Church with the God-fearing state is a certain reality in our history, but was conditioned on the realisms of the time and unquestionably never sanctioned as the once-for-all model of Church-state interaction.

Personally, I do not see how anyone could question the notion of the desire for individual freedom other than something inherent in our very nature, and the Faith teaches us how important are all of our decisions and actions in the realm of complete freedom of will and choice. This freedom is axiomatic and intrinsic to our very beings, created by God to use this blessing in ways pleasing to him. The Lord himself was rather nebulous in his consideration of the prevailing political climate of the day. Though many of the time wanted him to take on the established order for the betterment of the chosen people, he had none of it. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” has become a byline for everyone wanting to state the ideals of Church and state, but by any norm it seems to leave a lot of questions floating in the air in terms of an acceptable governmental system. In fact, the Lord was not concerned with this, seeing as his disciples were to regard themselves as devoid of any earthly homeland and to concentrate on the heavenly. It’s as if he were saying that anything destined for disillusion could never be worthy of an ultimate circumscription coming from heaven. Governments will come and go, and even within one particular system there will variances of good and evil exist. In our own democracy we have seen this before, and we will see it again.

Journeying into the future Church through the eyes of the Acts of the Apostles only confuses us further, as the Christians then had all things in common and apparently brought their goods to the assembly in order that a true distribution of the good be accomplished. We find this echoed in other early Church documents, especially in the Didache, the teaching of the twelve apostles. I am amazed, as I am at so many other things set forth in Scripture, that this has not been used by more Protestants as an example of a God-determined method of life and living. It certainly seems quite clear. However, there is nothing in the text or in the suggestions of early Church leaders that the communality of sharing that our early brethren enjoyed is to be a model for all generations.

It certainly hacks away at our current, often selfish, standards and imposes a moral imperative on our proclamation as Christians, but I think the Church, early on, knew that the uniqueness of the initial Christian witness is something that would not necessarily be emulated in the future. But the arguments will continue as to the witness of the early Christians on commonality versus private possession. As the Reverend Veasey says in the movie, Cold Mountain, “You’ll find the good Lord very flexible on the subject of property.” The degree of that flexibility is debated even today, and there are no definitive answers.

The Church has always walked a precarious walk with the state. The Fathers, perhaps aside from Augustine, spend precious little time on the topic, though many of the saints or writers who are also involved in the governmental process do have some things to say. The most prolific in this regard may be the sixth-century emperor and saint, Justinian the Great. In him we find the seeds and foundation of the modern Byzantine conception of Church and state, each as originating from God and each as cooperating in the quest for the human being’s salvation. This comprehensive origin point for the theory of symphony is stated quite clearly by the great man and reads as harmonious and God-directed as anything ever penned on the subject, but it is also clear that this delicate balance depends on the goodwill of the emperor, and unfortunately Justinian stands above most. When the empire is at least nominally Christian, things can work out; when not, well, the Church has to learn that everything it has to exist in the world is intrinsic to itself and nothing else.

Yet in this country, despite not even being influentially Orthodox, the Christian veneer is still present, but it is not nearly unified enough to present a formidable front that can alter political outcomes. Many speak of the Evangelical vote, but a cursory glance at the doctrines and beliefs of the various groups subheading under this label show that there is but little chance of a unified Christian witness, except in the minds of the media that uses the moniker for the sake of convenience. In the Orthodox Church, the variances in the political affiliation are many and significant. This distresses some, but in reality reflects the broad and against-the-grain reflections of Orthodoxy in terms of its approach to modern culture.

For the Church, being by nature traditional is not to be confused with being conservative. Many people get confused by this idea and see congruency of the faith with a more conservative political stance. This is not to say that there are no intersections between Orthodoxy and political conservatism. In fact, there are many, but there are also cases to be made for a similar crossover with what we normally call liberal stances on some issues. In many cases, there are no clear issues, especially on which the Church has yet to utter a word or has given different opinions from different quarters. Take abortion, for instance. The Church has been crystalline in its convictions from the very beginning on the indecency of the act and has not hesitated to equate it with murder. Leaving aside the peripheral considerations always brought up, like rape, health of the mother, etc., in which Orthodoxy has the ability to act with economy according to the particular pastoral need and individual considerations of the case, the basic fact remains that the canonical penalty for this action is the same as for murder.

The basis is not philosophical but biblical, one of the most telling passages coming from St. Luke when Mary greets Elizabeth. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” A baby is, of course, a human being, and a clearer indication of life beginning at conception is not to be found in Scripture. One would think that all Orthodox are firmly on this bandwagon, and most are, though some try to fudge the issue by allowing political expediencies to override common sense. It is ridiculously hypocritical to say that one personally opposes abortion while insisting that a woman retains a “right to choose.” That she has this legally is, of course, true, but it’s a little like saying, “It’s wrong for you to kill my sister, but if you want you certainly have a right to do so.” There is no law written that takes precedence over the commandments of God.

We all have to live in a society where we get along and agree on certain premises, and I am sure that those Orthodox members of Congress who take the aforementioned stance on abortion feel this way, yet for many this issue in particular encapsulates the entirety of the political process. It is the issue for many, and anything but complete objection to any candidate who is soft on the topic is tantamount to approval of murder. One can see the reasoning, yet, in a fallen world, there are sometimes other considerations. Another candidate, equally opposing abortion, might be rather inflexible on the idea of helping the poor and downtrodden, an issue that is not as directly palpable in its viciousness as abortion, yet in its own way can be equally as devastating and result in death to many people. Do we then excuse him or her on this issue because of correct inklings on abortion? Is it not a fact that there are many categories of inhumanity that can all result in the demise of human beings, yet in the case of some, these remain hidden from view because they are dependent on circumstances and chain-of-events that are not nearly as discernible to the general public, but which are nonetheless devastating in many ways to those involved? This is in some way a rhetorical question because the answers are not easy. Despite the fact that the Church has always granted the state the right to defend itself internally from the criminal element by invoking the death penalty, there are many Orthodox uncomfortable with this idea, seeing it as inconsistent with the same reasoning that prohibits abortion. Politically, this means that an Orthodox Christian, and indeed the Church itself, might be straddling the ideological divide in a way that confounds the current stratifications as to what is liberal and what is conservative. In a fallen world, this is bound to happen, and though we seek the guidance of the Church, the Fathers and the saints, there are issues to date that were not spoken of, in fact never even conceived of, that require more than ever a clear and exhaustive command of both the teachings of holy Scripture and the counsel of the Church.

An Orthodox Christian today, living in this country that not only allows but considers as mandatory the participation of its citizens in the rite of governance, does indeed labor under the burden of God-inspired and prayerfully considered contribution to the political process. Make no mistake: our imperative and command is not to make the world a better place, for we know that it, as all of us, are riding a path of ultimate mortality. The calling is actually far greater. We are to transfigure this world using the light of Jesus Christ given to us, a continuation of his work transferred to a redeemed humanity. We may not be required to end poverty in the world, but we are certainly tasked to feed the hungry. We can’t alleviate the actions of criminals found in the jails of this country, but we can visit them, comfort them, and give them hope to change their lives even in the midst of confinement. As long as mortality exists, there will be sickness, yet that does not excuse us from reducing the pain of illness and attempting to bear, as best we can, the burdens of another.

In our United States, we grant on a level far greater than we can manage the state itself to aid and assist in many of these activities. The fact that we are not directly involved in the actions of this giant entity does not excuse our absence from the offered involvement of setting the agenda for a country acting in our name, whether we participate or not. Nowhere is it written that the transformational processes of our faith need be limited only to those things that directly affect or are affected by the individual. The Orthodox Christian vision, by its very nature, is one that far outdistances the efforts of the individual in its outreach and life-altering message of the salvation and good news of Jesus Christ, whether explicitly by name or implicitly by action.

“Do you believe in the Son of man?” was uttered by the Lord to the blind man only after sight was received and he followed the promptings of the Spirit to seek out the Lord. In like manner, our efforts to give conscience-directed and meaningful prayed bearings upon the inner life of our country can blossom in ways that we can’t imagine, an opportunity granted by God for us to influence the activities of our cultural and national boundaries by infusing, if only a little, the pure light of Jesus’ transfiguration into the body politic and which may be understood only much later by us.

So engage with the political process conscientiously, prayerfully, intelligently, and with a thankful heart that here, at least, in this day and age, God is granting you the opportunity. It’s the Orthodox thing to do, and as long as we are paying attention to that “still, small voice,” we can trust the Lord to make up for our deficiencies and mistakes and turn our good intentions into good for all. May God bless this political process and work all things unto the good of our country. May God bless the United States of America, which still sees itself as under him, and may God bless each and every one of you.