Orthodox Passivity: Why We Think “Someone Else” Must Lead

If you like to listen to discussions regarding contemporary culture and Christian conviction, I would recommend subscribing to Mars Hill Audio.   You can get their bimonthly audio magazine in various formats – CD, MP3, etc. and listen to it at your leisure.   Each edition offers 90 minutes of interview and discussion on a variety of topics.

The May/June 2008 edition (Vol 91)  has several interesting interviews with  John Witte from the Emory University Law School Center for the Study of Law and religion, Hugh Brogan author of ALEXIS de TOCQUEVILLE: A LIFE,  and Daniel Ritchie English Professor at Bethel College in Minnesota.  I will offer a brief synopsis of what I got from their interviews and what it might offer in terms of understanding the OCA financial crisis.   What I took from the different interviews is this:

From John Witte –  as a historian of law, he spoke about 4 watershed or revolutionary moments in Western civilization.  Two are relevant to what I want to say.  First there was the embrace by Constantine of the Christian Church, and the return embrace by the Church of the Roman Empire.  For the first time Christians used law and the legal system to resolve theological issues.  The church took on the features of the imperial monarchy in its dealings with dissent and problems.   This generally involved a heavy handed and hierarchical method of dealing with issues.  Pastoral thinking gave way to hierarchical rule.  But then according to Witte there was a Papal Revolution occurring in the 11-13th Centuries in which the church threw off its royal and imperial rulers and established the church not only as an independent legal entity but also a power player in determining law.   The church retained the hierarchical heavy handedness, but shook off the imperial control of secular authorities. This particular change is something which affected Western Christianity, but not very much the Orthodox, who maintained a close tie between civil and church authority/law despite being under Muslim and later Communist domination.   The Orthodox Church has not in the old world established itself as an independent legal entity in completion with the state for power, and certainly has nothing equivalent to the international (uber-national!) status of the Papacy.

From Hugh Brogan – Alexis de Tocqueville noted that European society was totally based in social status or level.  Everyone knew their place in society, how to dress and how to speak and what was expected of them based upon their social status.  But de Tocqueville was struck by how America, though founded by Europeans had nothing like an inequality of status.   He saw in America a freedom for everyone to solve problems and not to wait for or rely on the people of the “right” status to solve the problems. 

Daniel Ritchie picked up on this same idea about how in aristocratic societies everyone has a defined status, place, role and duty.  Everyone knows their place and relies on people of the right status to fix problems.  However in a democracy there are few defined duties.  Everyone can equally work to solve problems or ignore them, and people can become petty and avoid civil duty.   He says this opens the way for tyrants because the many are willing to let someone else do the work.   Ultimately people look to defend their rights, while the duties of citizens become less clear.  

What came together in my mind is how this in some ways explains what happened in the OCA.  The OCA exists in a democratic society, and yet its structure is purely aristocratic, hierarchical and authoritative.  Egalitarian Americans tend to demand action to fix the problems, but then as Orthodox waited for the proper authorities to do it for them.  Only with the rise of OCAnews.org and the Orthodox Forum, did the American side of OCA members rise and band together to work on a solution and demand that the authorities fix the problem.   The passivity we see is an end result of the “old world” overly heavy authoritarian and hierarchical attitude which caused people to passively accept what was the prerogative and competency of “someone else” (= the bishops) to fix. 

While some complain about such egalitarian democracy working its way into the Church, I think this is the very gift that God is offering to Orthodoxy by bringing it to America, and through America offering it to the entire Orthodox world.  The image of the Church as the Body of Christ (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12) is much better suited to democratic ideals than to pure hierarchical status.