Sozhenitsyn, the OCA, and Good Enough Morality

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn prompted an outpouring of articles about him and his role in the 20th Century, including his steadfast opposition to the Soviet regime.  He is credited by some with helping bring the Soviet regime to an end by his exposing the lies on which that system was based.    His being in the news made me look into his thought a little more and to read his famous speech at Harvard University in 1978, a portion of which I reproduce below because I think it apropos to the OCA’s ongoing scandal and how our metropolitan and  the central church is dealing with that scandal.   Here is what Solzhenitsyn said:

“Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. …

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

Why I think his comments are relevant to our OCA scandal is that I have the impression that right now the central church administration feels “we have finally, at last and at least, risen to the level of doing things as a central church legally.”   This has in fact entailed a great amount of work on the part of a few individuals who were recently hired/appointed to their jobs at Syosset.   It has not been easy getting the central church to the level of doing things legally.  And though it leaves behind what was the business as usual methods of the old regime, it still leaves it behind – that mess is still there, though now we can see it as our past.  Some, especially those in the central church administration now want to leave that toxic dump where it is and build a new edifice around it.   In my estimation they have attained Solzhenitsyn’s “letter of the law” morality.  This is a whole lot better than what did exist.

However, for others, Solzhenitsyn is correct and “letter of the law” morality leaves a “moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”   Certainly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenged those who thought following the letter of the Torah was moral enough.  Read Matthew 5:21-48.  Jesus rejects letter of the law thinking and demands much more from His followers. 

Interestingly Solzhenitsyn mentioned in 1978 that in the letter of the law morality, we end up having to rely on an “expert” (an attorney, lawyer) to help us navigate through society.  We see in the OCA that is precisely what our metropolitan has done – and at great expense to the OCA, diverting monies that could have been used for the mission of the Church, to supposedly “defend” the Church.   But in so doing, he conveniently defends himself and anything he has done, and now can justify his position by saying the “experts say…” and then mentioning that we spent a fortune to get the expert opinion so it would be foolish for us to follow the teachings of Christ rather than these experts who certainly know best how to navigate through the legal system.

As Solzhenitsyn noted, we might be doing everything legally right, but is that moral enough?  Is that the level of morality to which Jesus Christ called us?   Are we expected to go beyond moral enough and practice self sacrifice, self denial, self emptying love? 

Is it good enough to simply leave the toxic dump of immoral and illegal behavior behind and to build a new edifice around that toxic waste?   Or do we need to do a total cleaning of the toxic waste dump before we try to build a new edifice?   That is the morality of confession and repentance, which is the basis for Orthodox spirituality.  Letter of the Law thinking may be good enough morality for American society as a whole but it is not the level of ethics which Jesus taught nor to which Jesus raised humankind in dying on the cross.

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