Monday, May 12, 2008

More Thoughts On Orthodoxy in America

An interesting comment from Blogger Audra Wooten that many readers might have missed while I was trying to clean up the stray code on my blog.

Audra writes in response to my earlier post "American Orthodoxy?":

Father Gregory,

I had been pondering both the Ocholophibst post you reference and your comments on it, when today I opened the copy of The Word (publication of the Antiochian Archdiocese) and saw a related article: "Orthodox & American Ideals in Foundational Texts." I wonder if something like this is what you had in mind. At any rate, I thought you might enjoy reading it and might not have seen it if you don't subscribe to The Word.

Thank you Audra for your comment, I value them greatly. Thank you as well for bringing the essay by Gregory Cook to my attention. I took you advice and read Cook's essay in the May 2008 issue of The Word.

To answer your question, I would say that the article both was and wasn't what I had in mind.

To paraphrase Lincoln, historically we American have always seen ourselves as an "almost chosen people," committed fundamentally to an idea: "that all men are created equal." As Lincoln suggests both at Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address, this is an idea that will continually be tested even as it was tested by the Civil War.

The heart of this test, and the question that faces all American, including Orthodox Christians, is found in the last paragraph of the Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln's words are pointed challenge to not only his contemporaries, but to us as Orthodox Christians. America, for better and worse, is a work that we are invited to participate in. As Orthodox Christians we are no more called to consecrate or hallow this work this work today, then were Christians of Lincoln's era called to consecrate or hallow the battlefield at Gettysburg. This has been done by those "brave men, living and dead who struggled," not only during the Civil War, but in the wars that both proceeded and followed.

If America is an idea, it is also a gift and a responsibility.

Lincoln is squarely within the tradition of American political philosophy when he says that it is our task to dedicate ourselves "to the unfinished work" of "a new birth of freedom," a form of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." The American experiment is both a challenge and an invitation. The questions for us as Orthodox Christians is this: Are we willing to participate, personally and as a Church, in that common task of civil self-government? And what, if anything, do we as Orthodox Christians contribute to this common task?

It seems to me that many in the Orthodox Church have succumbed to what I see as a growing problem in many segments of American society. Whether we see ourselves as politically liberal or conservative, many in American society, and in the Orthodox Church, seem more inclined to use America, then to contribute to America and to the American Experiment.

Allow me to borrow from another inaugural address, this time from President Kennedy: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." Just prior to making this oft quoted challenge Kennedy recounts the global social and scientific changes since World War II. He then says "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

He tells both sides of the differences that divide the human family that they all should "heed . . . the command of Isaiah—to 'undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.'" This can, however, only be accomplished Kennedy tells us through "cooperation." It is only by our willingness to cooperate with one another that we "may push back the jungle of suspicion." The American project, the American invitation, to all people of good will including Orthodox Christians, is that we "join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."

For all his optimism, Kennedy is also a realist. He knows that this endeavor "will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." But even if we are being invited to something that necessarily awaits an eschatological fulfillment, he says nevertheless "let us begin."

There is a certain humility that is as deeply engrained in the American character as is our optimism. If we go wrong, either on the world stage or as Orthodox Christians it is when we forget the humility and wisdom embodied in Kennedy's speech if not always his life:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

American culture is deeply collaborative—from barn raisings onward, ours is a culture that fosters all sorts of voluntary associations. Working together to face a common challenge is part of our character. And so Kennedy says, "the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

An effective Orthodox witness to America, I would suggest, requires that we surrender our tendency to use America, and instead demonstrate by our actions our willingness to contribute to the great American project of promoting liberty in all facets of human life, physical, moral, political and cultural, both here and abroad. This might mean an explicit proclamation of the Gospel; but regardless of its theological and historical integrity our proclamation will be ignored by all but the most base in American society if it is not embodied in an active philanthropy which demonstrate to others that we hold ourselves (and to borrow from Kennedy's speech) to "the same high standards of strength and sacrifice" that we ask of them.

It is not sufficient, I think, for Orthodox Christians merely to be residences of America. We must be good citizens, even exemplary citizens, who are committed to bringing to bear all our resources, both personal and as a tradition, to the project of human freedom in all its many dimensions. In a word, our must be a witness not of judgment, but of cooperation and collaboration, "remembering" as Kennedy said, "that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof."

For all our theological erudition, as a Church we have failed in the most basic task of our witness to America. We have failed to be exemplary, or even, I fear, good citizens.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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