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[The Creation of the Chicken]

An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Saturday, May 10, 2008

How does Orthodoxy translate into Politics?

A friend asked me this question last night. In essence I think what they were aiming at was to find out if the Orthodox Church preaches social justice in the context of political endorsements and such. I generally get the impression that my questioner is left-leaning in that regard and was hoping that they'd see Orthodoxy's teachings expressed that way.

As most of you know it doesn't. Personally I am exceptionally happy that you are just as likely to see a McCain sticker as you are an Obama sticker in our Parish parking lot. Fundamentally we Orthodox all agree on the same things in terms of social justice, the difference is simply in an understanding of the role of government and the best way to accomplish social justice.

What are the limits of government? These sorts of question are not directly answered by the Church and thus, thankfully, the Church doesn't pontificate to us about for whom we ought to vote. Intelligent, conscientious, loving, and Christian people can agree to disagree on the role of government...but not on the teachings of Christ.

Christ Himself avoided political questions...at least as I read the Scriptures. He always seemed (SEEMS) to take all of our questions that we deem important and turn them around in such a way that we realize that the REAL issue is to be found in ourselves...often spinning us about like a top. It is my opinion that fundamental issues of the Christian life are rarely ones that we would direct toward our government for their fulfillment, but this doesn't mean that we ourselves might not translate those fundamentals into a particular vote...again in the context of how we understand the role of government.

Government is HUGE. It is a roaming behemoth in a china shop and when we ask it to work for us (whether on a liberal or conservative cause), it must rumble and lumber about as said large animal in a place ridden with breakables - having vast and far reaching effects. Whether it is a Medicare program or the removal of a dictator in a foreign land, the government has the means of greatly helping people, but it has a great deal of difficulty doing so (being the behemoth it is) without also causing harm to varying degrees. Often times its like doing micro-surgery with an axe. of course, now I'm just laying down my political philosophy...but it explains why I'm glad I don't walk away Sunday mornings feeling exhorted to vote a certain way.

I have been in both sorts of churches that will predominantly have one or the other candidates bumper stickers found in their parking lots. And in both cases I would judgmentally argue that there was a fundamentally flawed reason for this being the case.

The vote I should feel like casting after Sunday mornings is a vote to change ME. A vote to HOPE in Him who is Risen from the dead.

The Orthodox Church has been around for almost 2000 years and has seen her fair share of governments, I expect it will see more in the future. Governments come and go, but people and the illness they REALLY suffer from doesn't change...that's where the Church has work to be done. And in so doing, we'll see real change that begins in ways that we never foresaw: little ways, local ways...in our own hearts, in our families, amidst our friends, amidst our neighborhoods, amidst our communities...

Orthodoxy doesn't translate into politics...it absolutely TRANSCENDS politics by incomprehensible magnitudes!


...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 7:54 AM [+]


James, honestly, when you write these things, or when I hear well-meaning liberals or moderates say that Orthodoxy is neither Right nor Left, aren't you rather ignoring 1500 years of slavish pro-government policies by Orthodoxy? How can we honestly deny this? One reason we have an Islam is that the Church and State were so tightly involved in each other's business in the Byzantine period. People in Arabia couldn't see the difference. I would argue that the confusion of religion and politics in the East was a dimension of the split with Rome as well. In Russia, the Church was a predictable supporter of tsarist policy, soviet policy, and now Putin policy. The Russian Orthodox bishops do backflips as well as any American politician. What you say is perhaps how things should be, and it would seem as though the politics haven't invaded the texts of the services, so in America, we can sing all the services and pretend to "rise above it all", but that's just us bringing our "separation of church and state" into a context where that's the only choice. In Orthodox cultures of the past, no one would understand you. But then they wouldn't understand America, either.

-Steve Knowlton

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:45 AM  


I think I was speaking to two things: how it should be AND generally how I think they are at least in my experience.

Historically, Orthodoxy has little experience with real democracy...though I must admit I know little about how things go for the Churches in places like France etc. The Tsar's were easy to "deal with" compared to the politics we must wrestle with here in America. We are a strange case.

And the reality of the bumper stickers in the parking lots says something doesn't it: Orthodoxy has an appeal that does indeed transcend politics - as it should. I would argue it is one of the few (if not the only) Christian gatherings where you can see such an eclectic display.

I would suggest the historic Russian approach of being in bed with the Tsar or the Soviets is just as disordered as anything we Americans can manage...frankly I think "render unto Ceasar" has a certain "separation" feel to it.

In the spectrum of american churches you often see (oddly despite the separation clause adoration we are accused of having) a great deal of appeals to politics. On the left you'll have appeals to the poor and suffering and on the right appeals to social issues (gay rights etc).

Faith in the government to fix whatever ailments the Christian sees in society I would argue is misplaced faith. This isn't an appeal to being apolitical, at all. It's a recognition that something about American Orthodoxy (at least) is indeed transcending politics...I don't think this can be denied, nor can its merit. The Church is FAR more than adoration of the institution of the Tsar or fallible bishops cozying up with the soviets, no? I suspect one can find a few Russian priests, bishops, theologians, and lay persons who would agree with me here.

Nothing that I see in the Orthodox faith convinces me that I can cause transformation via a vote. Or via supporting the Tsar.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 9:13 AM  


There is a recently canonized priest (married, if you can imagine such a thing) among the Greeks, a very simple man Papa Nicholas Planas. He was in a group of men discussing politics, and one asked him what he thought of the question at hand. He replied "Who is ruling now?" Excellent. I don't mind never knowing who the parish priest or bishop votes for. I'll find out more than I want to anyway. look at St. John Chrysostom "On the Statues" sermons preached in Antioch when the Emperor threatened to level the city. Not once (as far as i know) is he mentioned, and certainly not by name. It's amazing. I don't know that it makes a policy.

By Blogger bob, at 11:13 AM  


I'm pretty sure the conversation we were having with our friend had more to do with TODAY! With elections coming up and all, he was wondering what our Church's stand was on the politics of TODAY.

By Blogger Susan Sophia, at 11:41 AM  


We should probably realize that there's a world of difference between what Orthodoxy has DONE (at least in some of its ethnically determined forms) and what Orthodoxy actually TEACHES. Specifically, Orthodoxy teaches me to do what St. Peter and St. Paul teach me to do in their epistles: Pray for those who have the power of the sword. It doesn't teach me exactly WHAT to pray for; even less does it mandate that I positively and actively support their every whim and jump on their foreign and domestic policies. So the Byzantines did this or that, and the Russians did (and do) this or that. What, exactly, does that have to do with me, right here, right now?

For what it's worth, I find myself mostly praying for the repentance of civil authorities, and then I move on. It's not that I pretend to be above it all; it's that I realize that repentance is (a) individual; i.e., I refuse to believe that there is any such thing as "national repentance," and (b) difficult, if my own attempts at it are in any way indicative of the experience of others.

I don't pretend anything; I AM above it all, in the sense that political decisions and policies do not determine my ultimate concerns or my pursuit of them. One well-meaning but woefully misguided brother criticized me for not realizing that America is "the very air that I breath," and that therefore I should become more deeply involved in the political topography. Well, sorry, but no. The Church is the very air that I breath, and if it ever comes down to the State wanting to strangle me for breathing that air, then I doubt that my objections of unconstitutionality will stop it from doing so, because by that time (and may it never come), the very definition of constitutionality will have changed such that it no longer protects me. Furthermore, I will not have been consulted about that little bit of historic revisionism, any more than I was consulted about any other revisionistic instance. It's called "the spirit of the age," and the only weapons against that don't have triggers, calibers, or lobbies.

Gary Patrick

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 AM  


Susan you are spot on...though my post rather seemed to transcend (if I may use the word again) the specific question to some degree. You are right though, our friend was hoping (I suspect) to find that the Orthodox Church is one that is in bed with liberal politics. So...how best to explain the presence of both left-leaning AND right-leaning folks...except to say what I said:

The Orthodox Church does not tell me how to vote. It teaches me how to change.

If we wished to follow arguably poor examples in the past, well then the Orthodox Church would be lobbying for a return of Tsar and despite what Rade might suggest (grin), I'm not buying that that is an inherent part of Orthodoxy.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 12:04 PM  


Here's an interview with St. Elizabeth the Grand Duchess from 1917. It shows an interesting attitude toward the US by a member of the royal family of Russia, as well as a monastic: Admiration.

The website also has an interview with St. Tikhon.

By Blogger bob, at 1:58 PM  


Interesting comments all, thanks. The parish my wife attends, if I may be so bold as to make an observation, seems to be made up of converts and this group tends to be by and large counterculture in terms of their perspective and liberal to libertarian in terms of their political views. The lead parish priest has a Ron Paul sticker on his car.

By Anonymous Mike, at 3:49 PM  


When it comes to politics, my favorite Orthodox story is from Papa Nicholas Planas (+1932):

'Another time some people where discussing politics at a certain house. "So, what do you say, Father?" they asked him. Once he recovered from the depth of his thought, he wanted to say something. "Who is governing now?"'


By Blogger orrologion, at 12:56 PM  


Gary writes:

"We should probably realize that there's a world of difference between what Orthodoxy has DONE (at least in some of its ethnically determined forms) and what Orthodoxy actually TEACHES."

O, really? And what lens do we use to decipher the teachings and/or actions that aren't Orthodox? What kind of contortions must we go through to deny the amazingly obvious? Maybe instead of just shutting our ears to the evidence, we should listen. Maybe what Orthodoxy has DONE is related to what it teaches. Imagine that.

And who said anything about ethnicity? I can assure you Russians in Moscow don't go to Church to celebrate their ethnicity.

Also, many many saints of the past wouldn't understand your individualization of faith. Someone like St. John of Kronstadt was perfectly comfortable preaching a highly personal faith in Christ, but at the same time participating boldly in politics in support of the Tsar. He would have been shocked to hear us reducing faith to an individual thing.

- Steve Knowlton

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:30 AM  


I think the issue is though, Steve, is that we are no longer remotely in the context of the Czar or the Christian Emperor's of the Byzantine Empire.

What was Christ or His Apostles approach to the pagan Roman Empire? Christ seemed to have a live and let live attitude toward it, I think. He neither praised it or decried it. Roman soldiers would come to Him and He would not "Code Pink" style insist that the soldier leave the army of the largest and most oppressive empire arguably ever seen on earth. But rather told the soldier to be a GOOD and JUST one.

Once the government became hostile we have record (ala St. Justin Martyr) of the early Church trying to appeal to the Emperor and show that the fledgling and growing church was no threat to the established order.

One Christianized, as we all know things began to change and I the notion of the "powers that be" was much more comfortable to embrace. But clearly governments collapse and change...and we have no idea what St. John of Kronstadt would think of the situation in Russia right now. Let alone what he must have thought of Russian Bishops praying and cooperating and defending Soviet leadership.

This is NOT a well-meaning liberal or moderate trying to take away the traditional conservative stances of the Church at all. I'm a fairly rock hard conservative, though with growing libertarian leanings. But that comes from recognizing that our government here is growing more and more and more secular a long with our culture and as such I'd prefer a government inspired by such values to be less and less intrusive into my life. (sidetrack)

Nor am I advocating a moratorium on political participation. While I think there is something to be learned from the story from Papa Nicholas, I would not wholly endorse such an approach literally.

Democracy is an odd thing from the Church's historic perspective...as is our even more odd culture in which we have little to no idea what our neighbors opt to do on Sunday mornings, let alone having a remote expectation that they do ANYTHING on Sunday mornings if you get my point. To some degree, how can we live OTHER than an individualized faith in this environment? I mean, I can't really easily invite my fully secularized neighbors over for a BBQ in honor of the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord - unless they are REALLY into celebrating diversity.

You know my politics Steve...I'm pretty right leaning on just about everything. But I don't hold much faith in the government being able to make life beautiful or perfect. As surely as it will not stop homosexuality by banning same-sex marriages, I don't think it is going to end poverty via massive government welfare programs.

All of this to say that by insisting the Church is neither politically left or right is something we on the right can insist on to also protect the Church from the left, no? From reducing us to Unitarians or any of the other social gospel emphasizing groups who would just as well see well fed people with video games marching their way to hell.

In the end though...I still have to answer the question as to why the spectrum of political opinions are displayed in the parking lot at church. I've no other way to explain it, except to say that Orthodoxy transcends politics. Which is not the same as saying that it's adherents or Hierarchs ALWAYS have.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 7:56 AM  


There is an inescapably individual component in the Faith once delivered to the saints. How could there not be, unless someone can vicariously believe and repent for me?

There is a difference between Holy Tradition as such and how some prominent saints have chosen to implement it. Neither dogma nor tradition are reducible to "what every saint has done or said about anything." For example, St. Maximos the Confessor has some Gnostic moments. Am I to believe that therefore Gnosticism is a valid option in Orthodoxy? Similarly, St. John of Kronstadt was a tsarist. What does this mean for an American Orthodox? Actively advocate the current policies, no matter what?

You speak of listening, and seeing evidence. Good: Then do so. And unless you want to straightforwardly identify everything that Orthodox people have done with Orthodox dogma or even the Tradition as a whole, then you must realize that sometimes, thought and action by Orthodox people (even prominent ones) is neither the natural nor the inevitable outgrowth of Orthodoxy.

You do not (or at least should not) need a lens to discern the difference between opinion and the Tradition.

You seem to think that there is a constant, necessary, well-nigh automatic relation between what Orthodox do and what Orthodoxy teaches. I do not understand how you can live in the same world I do and still think that. People are inconsistent, people make mistakes, people misunderstand (all in good conscience) what the proper application of a teaching is. I do not see why the simple statement of what should be obvious makes you so sarcastic and angry. Oh well: One more thing I can't do anything about. Sorta like most political things.

Gary Patrick

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:47 PM  


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