Sunday, November 09, 2008

An Orthodox Bishop Talks Politics

John Couretas over at that most excellent blog of the American Orthodox Institute has a post this morning on recent comments by Bishop Savas of Troas (GOA) on His Grace's blog "Sava on a Rolla." Let me let John speak for himself:

Did God ordain an Obama victory? You get that impression from Sava on a Rolla, the blog of Bishop Savas of Troas. In a post titled, "This is the Day that the Lord has made!," the chancellor of the Greek Archdiocese celebrates the victory of President-elect Barack Obama in terms that can only be described as divine:

Do I expect miracles from the President-Elect? Am I confusing the man with the Messiah? Of course not. But neither is he the Antichrist, as some of his opponents would have you believe. Americans did a good thing yesterday, an inspired thing. They didn't voice their opinion, they shouted it. A new day has dawned, a day that the Lord has most emphatically made. Are you as delighted as I am? Send up thanks to the Lord our God! Are you for any reason unhappy? Pray to the same God for our President-Elect's enlightenment.
I don't know. It's almost like reading the Genesis account of Creation. OK, the Bishop's guy won, and he has every right to celebrate. Then he goes — to put it nicely — really over the top.

You can read the rest of John's comments here.

Below for your thoughts are my comments posted on AOI:


Thank you for your post and comments on Bishop Sava's blog.

The election of Sen Obama as the 44th president of the United States is, I think, a mixed good. Certainly, it is noteworthy that within Mr Obama's lifetime we have traveled as a society from the shame of Selma (a shame I should add was not limited to the South) to the election of an African-American as president. In addition to this, I think his election will have a generally positive effect on how we are viewed throughout the world, especially (though not exclusively) in Europe.

I agree with His Grace that "The Body Politic is another body altogether" from the Church. I agree as well that the "only way the [Body Politic] can approximate the [Body of Christ] is if the goal of government were to fulfill the law of Christ, which is to 'bear one another's burdens' (Gal 6:2). 'Have you seen your neighbor?' asks one of the Desert Fathers of the Church, and continues, 'You have seen your God.' Blasphemy? Reread St John's 1st Epistle."

Where I disagree with him, and agree with John, is his contention that "The goal of government ought not to be to protect us from one another, to teach us to treat the other as competition or nuisance or threat, but to help us to help one another." Here His Grace conflates a number of points in a manner that obscures rather illumines an Orthodox Christian response to government–secular or ecclesiastical.

To dismiss out of hand the policing function of the government is simply not biblical. St Paul is clear, the government is entrusted with the sword not only to punish wrong doers but also for the common good (see Rm 13.1-7).

Immediately after discussing the God-ordained authority of the government (a government hostile to Christians in general and Paul in particular) and the obligation of the Church to submit to that authority, the Apostle then begins to delineate in verses 8-10 the obligation of Christians to love their neighbor. Government, rightly ordered, I would argue, allow us the freedom and affluence to care for one another. While not perfect, there is no better example of this the US government.

While governments can and do have a role in the care of especially the weak, they do this first and foremost through the establishment of an society in which its citizens are (relatively) free from the predators among us (which I why abortion cannot be legalized–it is a threat to the life of one of the weakest among us).

This first step is admittedly a negative one–but the policing powers of the State or no less essential for being protective and preventative.

Following on its police powers, the State much ensure the equal treatment under the law of all it citizens. This means not only passing and enforcing laws against criminal conduct, but also contract law and the somewhat more mundane concern of government for commerce, weights and measures.

None of this of course will make us virtuous. But the American systems does not aim at cultivating virtue it the citizenry. Rather the US Constitution presuppose virtuous citizens and strives (however imperfectly at times) to provide them with the political freedoms need to exercise virtue without fear.

Where the American experiment seems to be breaking down is our transfer of virtue from the private realm to the governmental. We have come to expect the State to be virtuous so that we don't have to be.

The genius, and weakness, of the American experiment it that the government presuppose strong, healthy private (as distinct from governmental) mediating structures –the family, the church, newspapers and businesses–that stand between the person and the government and serve to foster virtue it the citizenry.

But these smaller, mediating structures, have more and more abdicated their responsibilities as corporate citizens–what does the Orthodox Church do for example to counter the range of social ills in her midst–unwed mothers, divorce and dead beat dads to name only three–that plague society as a whole?

I agree with those who say that Pro-Life Christians are sometime narrow in our focus. But that narrowness of vision is not the exclusive property of the religious right. The religious left also seem disinclined to foster virtue as well.

(For example, what percentage of the Orthodox Church's resources go to care for the poor? What percentage of the GOA's budget is given to the poor? What do we say to men who abandon their children and the mother of their children?)

There is much in Bishop Sava's words to reflect on. But I am worried that his post reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the American experiment and the Church's obligation as a corporate citizen in the Republic.

Again, thank you for your important ministry.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Receive That Which Has Already Been Given

Sunday, November 9, 2008: 21st SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (7th of Luke) —Onesiphorus and Porphyrius of Ephesus (3rd-4th c.). Ven. Matrona, Abbess, of Constantinople (ca. 492). Ven. Theoctiste of the Isle of Lesbos (881). Ven. Onísifor (Onesiphorus) the Confessor, of the Kiev Caves (Near Caves—1148). Martyr Alexander of Thessalonica (4th c.). Martyr Anthony of Apamea. Ven. John the Short, of Egypt (5th c.). Ss. Eustolia (610) and Sosipatra (ca. 625), of Constantinople. St. Nectarios Kephalas, Metropolitan of Pentapolis. Ven. Euthymius, Founder of Dochiariou Monastery (Mt. Athos—10th c.), and Ven. Neophytus, Co-founder of the Monastery. Icon of the Most-Holy Theotokos, "SHE WHO IS QUICK TO HEAR."

And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue. And he fell down at Jesus' feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying. But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped. And Jesus said, "Who touched Me?" When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, "Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?' "But Jesus said, "Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me." Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, "Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace." While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue's house, saying to him, "Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher." But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, "Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well." When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, "Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, "Little girl, arise." Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

(Luke 8:41-56)

For St Ambrose of Milan the woman with the issue of blood is an image of the Church of the Gentiles—of us who, before we came to faith in Christ, "lost all the gifts of nature and squandered the inheritance of life." He continues by saying that we did this, we squandered what wealth we had as we ran vainly from one hoped cure after another.

Thinking about Ambrose's observation, it is important to keep in mind that he is not of individual believers in the Church who came from outside Judaism. No, he is speaking about the whole of the non-Jewish people, the whole of the Gentile nations—who by grace must grafted on to the Jewish People (see Rms 11.16-24). As with the Apostle Paul, for Ambrose there can be in Christ no "me" or "you" or "them," only "we" and "us."

This isn't a denial of human uniqueness—far from it since this would be a denial of not only human responsibility but the love of God for each human person. It is rather a rather stark reminder that because I am social being what I do, always do as a member of some type of community.

Either, therefore, together we reach out for healing, for forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ with the Father and one another or we don't. And if we don't we simply continue to squander the gifts we've been given personally and as a community in our futile attempts to find life and health and hope and forgiveness and reconciliation and love separate from Christ.

This second path, the squander's way, is not really an option that we can choice. Because of Adam's sin this is where the human community already finds itself each and every single day, day in and day out. Not that love and forgiveness, to take two quick examples, are absent from the lives of fallen humanity. Love and forgiveness can be found outside the Church, but they are damaged. They do, but apart from Christ they remain still-born, a source of joy, but also something that drains us and wears us down.

And if this second path is always already with us when we were apart from Christ, it is always also with us even now that we are in Christ. This second path, the way of death, is always present as a temptation.

If we succumb to this temptation, if we return to that path that Adam laid out for us by his sin, we die.

But even here, even in death we are not abandoned. As with the little girl in the Gospel, the daughter of Jarius, Christ comes to restore us to life. Christ comes not to the immoral but to the dead; He comes, as the later Fr Alexander Schmemann once put the matter, not to make a bad people good, but a dead people alive.

This transition from death to life hinges not simply on the grace of God, but on our own willingness to understand, accept and act on the truth that no one is saved alone.

Yes salvation comes to me and to you.

Yes Jesus is my Lord and Savior, even as he is yours.

But, I am saved, because you are saved, because we are saved.

He is my Lord and Savior, because He is yours, because He is ours.

If we lose sight of this, if we forget or act as if we are not saved together, or as if the grace given you somehow comes at my expense, then in that moment we become again like the woman with the issue of blood. We become unclean, ever weaker, and more frustrated chasing one false hope after another.

But again, even when we fall, there is Christ. A life of false hope need not be our lot. What the Apostle Paul says of himself, he says for all of us, personally and as a community, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." "(Galatians 2:20)

Reflecting on his imprisonment by the Soviet government, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago,

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

No matter how deep the darkness in a person's heart or a community, no matter how much evil seems to have succeeded, we must not forget that Christ lives in us and that together we live in Him. For too long it seems that God's People have lived as if this were not true, as if there was some other standard besides Christ. In giving us Himself, Christ has given us everything—all that is necessary has been proved for us. All that is lacking is that which He cannot give us, our free consent to him. All that is needed is that, like the woman with the issue of blood, like Jarius and his wife, that together we reach our hand to Him and receive that which He has already give us: Himself and each other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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