Thomas Jefferson: A Blessed Patriarch

Most Blessed PatriarchI’ve tried for many years to read an American history book around the 4th of July.   This year I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination .   I was trying to gain some understanding of how Jefferson was able to on one hand declare that “all men were created equal” and yet be a slave owner.  The book does deal with this issue, but I’m not sure I understand it any better for having read the book.  What I learned from the book was that Jefferson had actually penned (for example in his NOTES ON VIRGINIA) some searing critiques of slavery and how it demeaned and dehumanized the slave owners turning them into inhumane tyrants.  But he then seems to have imagined himself to be some sort of benevolent slave owner with his slaves actually being happy to be part of his patriarchal estate.  Gordon-Reed writes:

Would moneymaking Virginians like Jefferson himself overcome their self-interest in order to secure the commonwealth’s republican future? Laws shaped manners, as their sequence in Notes on Virginia suggested, and educating, emancipating, and then expatriating Virginia’s slaves was the only guarantee that the younger generation would not be “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny” and so be “stamped” by the institution with its “odious peculiarities.”  (Kindle Location 2334-2338)

Jefferson writes that slavery ruins the morals of the children of slave owners, and that slavery needed to be abolished, and yet he loved his landed gentry lifestyle and was not so moved to free his slaves or even to provoke his fellow white slave holders by taking a firm stand against slavery.  He despised the wealthy class of Europe because their elite lifestyle was based in the oppression of the masses.  But Jefferson was willing to enslave some people in order that others like himself could have a comfortable lifestyle – to live like a patriarch.  He was indeed a child of and slave to the Enlightenment and entitlement.  He imagined the American gentry owning large parcels of land and thus maintaining their personal independence (thus he saw himself as a most blessed patriarch).  The state was to stay out of the affairs of personal estates.  Slavery was thus a personal thing for the gentry class, beyond the rule of the state since the state had to respect and protect the privacy and freedom of the gentry class.  His personal failure to deal with the issue of slavery, condemned countless thousands of human beings to the dehumanizing effects of slavery in our country.  A price for that was eventually paid by the nation in the civil war.  Jefferson actually contributed to all that suffering by not being willing to live by his own moral standards.   He saw slave owning as an evil that he was willing to benefit from.

Despite the slaves, he still couldn’t make his plantation run profitably.  He didn’t live within his means, which is maybe one of the sad legacies of Jefferson that the American government and peoples embodies today.  As he aged, his children and grandchildren worked hard (read: enabled!) to allow Jefferson to live his fantasy even as his entire plantation enterprise was financially failing.  Upon his death, they ended up selling just about everything to pay his debts.  None of this takes away from his great contribution to the American revolution or the shaping of the American way.  It only says that his personal vision of life for the gentry was unsustainable with or without slavery.  His failure on this level though also condemned so many to slavery, so the price was very high.

A couple of random quotes from the book.  Jefferson did fear that the American revolution would be undone by people trying to create a European style upper class – an imperial class.  [But of course he didn’t seem to think the slave-holding gentry were like this! Indeed in Europe slavery had already been abolished].

But what if that “spirit” waned, as Jefferson had feared it might after independence was won? “From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill,” he warned: rights will be “disregarded,” and Virginians will “forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money.”   (Kindle, Location 2326-2328)

Jefferson feared greed might be the undoing of American independence.  People would make wealth the highest good and be willing to sacrifice their independence from oppressive government as long as they became wealthy.  He felt independence required an ongoing fight and revolution.  Not sure what he would have made of the modern belief that we should be able to be both rich and independent and that independence requires no sacrifice, no price.

And for our presidential election year, this thought:

The success of America’s republican experiment thus depended on transparency and responsibility: politicians were the people’s “servants,” not their masters, and they should certainly not allow themselves to be influenced by would-be courtiers.  (Kindle Location 2925-2927)

Now elections are all about money and those with money have inordinate amount of influence and power in elections.  The Supreme Court has decided that money talks in elections, and this is free speech.  Jefferson, I think, would have been puzzled by our willingness to let money control our politicians.

Lastly, wisdom for us to consider on many levels.

One is reminded of the words that the Roman historian Tacitus puts into the mouth of a Caledonian general, criticizing the Romans and their depredations in Scotland: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant—“they make a desert, and they call it peace.”  (Kindle Location 1197-1199)

Thoughts on a Refugee Crisis But No Solution

The great human tragedy and resulting human suffering of mass migration out of the Mideast has been caused by the actions of certain adherents of Islam.  These people bear full responsibility for what has happened to all these displaced people including all the deaths that have occurred.    They should be held accountable by the world community for the evil they have done which certainly are crimes against humanity.

The mass migration has put many European countries to the test, and have challenged the moral values of Christians throughout the world.  How should Christians respond to these aliens and strangers who come knocking at our borders?   How do we treat migrants who themselves are related to people who have inflicted oppression and suffering on Christians?

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit  BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past few months as I survived my chemotherapy, my heart and mind were often with these refugees.  My suffering seemed small compared to theirs.  Mine was limited, but for them, there is no end to the suffering in sight.  Nevertheless my own suffering made me more acutely aware of theirs and far more compassionate toward them.

I don’t have any easy solutions to the issue, but some words from our scripture come to my mind.  These words challenge my thinking as much as the presence of the suffering migrants who are fleeing war and violence.   First words from the Torah:

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy 10:12-19)

God is a lover of these sojourners who are fleeing persecution.  God so loved Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  God, according to Deuteronomy, provides for such sojourners and expects us to treat them as He Himself treats them.

God is love.

In the New Testament we see how difficult it is to have sympathy for strangers and sojourners, especially when we see them as a threat or as enemies, not people.

Prophet Elijah

And Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away.  (Luke 4:24-30)

Jesus reminds his fellow Jews of a simple truth in history.  There were times when God did not bless or favor the Jews, but rather chose a foreigner, stranger or sojourner upon whom to shower His grace.  That truth so enraged the Jews listening to Jesus that they wanted to kill Him.   They were the chosen people who enjoyed divine exceptionalism.  They had no intention of letting Jesus point out to them how God acted with mercy and love toward a suffering Syrian.

We Christians need to remember these stories from our scriptures. We Orthodox just this past weekend read the Gospel lesson found in Luke 10:25-37 of the Good Samaritan in which the hero, the moral person in the story, is a foreigner and it is this stranger, even enemy, who acts like God in displaying mercy toward a fellow human being.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Icon of the parable of the Good Samaritan

In July, 1938, a poll of Americans asked whether Americans should accept refugees from Europe who were escaping political events there specifically the rise of fascism and the oppression it represented.  At that time,  67% of Americans opposed allowing these refugees into America.   Then following the events of Kristallnacht when it became clear that the oppression of Jews had already begun in Europe, Americans were polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion in January 1939.   Two-thirds of Americans still opposed bringing refugee children to America.   Americans were overwhelmingly against bringing 10,000 German Jewish refugee children into our country to help them escape persecution and the impending holocaust.  We know the result of our unwillingness to take such Jewish refugees in at that time.

Jewish cemetery in Prague

We can not afford to take the Syrian refugees into our countries and we cannot afford not to.  This situation has been seen in the world before.  As Christians, we have God’s Word to guide out thinking.  Clearly there are risks to follow and enact the teachings of Christ.  On the other hand, there are eternal consequences for not following His teachings as well.  We need to feel the pressure of this issue.

A few final thoughts:

This humanitarian crisis is the result of policies by Muslim leaders in Muslim countries.   Many argue that these leaders and countries are not “truly” Islamic.  But they certainly aren’t Christian or Jewish or Buddhist.   They are countries and leaders shaped by Islam.   Muslims need to consider what is it in Islam that brings this situation into existence and allows it to continue to exist?    It is people claiming to follow Islam who have created this humanitarians crisis.

Note also that the Muslims fleeing the suffering are not in general seeking admission to Islamic countries.  Nor do we see Islamic countries doing everything possible to welcome their fellow Muslims.  Muslims are fleeing traditionally Muslim countries and trying to find their way to non-Islamic countries.  Why?   Again, Muslims need to ask themselves what is it in Islam that allows and causes this to happen?  It may be true that some leaders and countries are distorting Islam, but what in Islam lends itself so readily to such distortion?

Even though Europe and most of the West are considered to be “post-Christian”, we see it is Christian morality which causes people to welcome refugees in.  It is Christian morality which Muslim refugees are seeking.  Even when Christians and “post-“Christians are conflicted about how to deal with these refugees, still it is Christian values which causes people to agonize over how to treat these refugees.

Christians cannot claim a perfectly pristine moral history when it comes to dealing with strangers and sojourners and Jews or Muslims.  But the crisis the world faces now is born in Islamic civilization, even if it is a distortion of Islam.

I would say for my fellow Christians, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not Christian morality.   Neither is an attitude that we should kill others for wounding us.  Or that we should kill seventy fold for everyone of us who dies at the hands of terrorists (this idea belongs to Lamech in Genesis 4, not to those following the Lord).

As Americans, we might remember the ideal we find enshrined on our own Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

 

JFK: Riding the Wave

JFKSince the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has filled the airwaves, the printed media and the Internet with nostalgia for the slain president, I decided to ride the wave publish one more blog on JFK (see also my JFK Assassination Plot: 50 Years in the Making), this time quoting a speech he gave at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 27, 1961.  It has a great deal of America’s self-mythology  in it, which the Camelot President was great at voicing to inspire Americans about their role in the world and their hopeful future.  Somewhere in the last day or so I heard a quote which I tried to find on the world wide web but didn’t succeed and I don’t remember where I heard it or who said it.  The quote was something like: “America is the first nation on earth which believes it was born perfect but whose task is to constantly improve itself.”  That is why our nation has the split personality of permanently enshrining the ideals of the constitution (a conservative principle) and yet ever pushing into the future with the hope of an even better tomorrow.   We uphold the ideal of the past (Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and find new ways of applying it to the present to shape the future.  The conservatism demands constant creativity to apply it to every new situation which arise in the present.   It creates the strange situation where both liberals and conservatives deny they are establishment but both lay claim to be the true heirs of the political tradition.  The federal government is given the sacred trust to protect the rights of citizens and yet the citizens don’t trust the federal government or anyone else to do it.

Constitution DetailThough history shows Kennedy didn’t live up to his own idealism (think Bay of Pigs  and also his personal sexual escapades), he did in speech express our ideals well.  In this speech we see some of these ideals which we need to reawaken in our country today.  The press is the only business protected by the Constitution.  The world is dangerous, but a secret and oppressive society is not the answer; rather, a free and open society is the correct response.  Disagreement, dissent and debate are not the signs of a society fragmenting into irreconcilable factions, but a firm footing for democracy.  Critics of government policy are not disloyal; instead, they are an important resource for improving the general welfare of the people.  Government has its proper role as defined by the Constitution to serve the citizenry and to uphold America’s ideals, but government is not infallible and can embrace a means toward an end in which the means and/or the ends are simply wrong.  America may have been born perfect (at least in our self mythology), but neither the nation nor its government nor its citizenry always behave perfectly.   We have to be honest enough to point that out and recognize that truth.  You can listen to Kennedy delivering the speech at JFK: Presidency and the Press  or read the text of his 1961 speech below:

“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.

We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.

Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.

That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control.

And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”

For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day.

It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.”

Time42312No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers– I welcome it.

This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed– and no republic can survive.

That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.

U.S. Bill of Rights
U.S. Bill of Rights

And that is why our press was protected by the First (emphasized) Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution– not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

This means greater coverage and analysis of international news– for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security…

And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news– that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”

President Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves in America.  Yet we too can become slaves to prosperity – deciding that wealth is the ultimate and highest good and that we must sacrifice some or all freedoms to preserve the nation’s prosperity and wealth.  Or maybe we come to realize that we need to put some limits on government or business in order to preserve the freedom and independence of every citizen and the general welfare of the nation.   Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  So too the Constitution was made for man and not man for the Constitution.  The Constitution exists for the good of the people.    It is the people the Constitution and the government are meant to serve: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.  As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address (whose 150th Anniversary was also celebrated this month):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.

Freedom Must be Learnt

As we Americans celebrate our Independence Day holiday, we are also called upon to contemplate the nature of freedom.  Freedom doesn’t consist in choosing between any fast food place one wants to eat, or what sport team one will root for, or in deciding how much time one will spend on the Internet.   These forms of freedoms are just choosing between choices offered to us.  As Bishop Kallistos Ware says, we have to learn how to be free.

“‘Learn to be free’:  freedom cannot simply be assumed; it has to be learnt.  Suppose that you ask me, ‘Can you play the violin?’  and I reply, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never tried.’  You might feel that there was something odd about my answer.  Unless I have learnt to play the violin through the exacting discipline of a musical training, I am not free to play Beethoven’s violin sonatas.  And so it is with every form of freedom.  Freedom has to be learnt through ascesis, the ascetic discipline, of precise observation and imaginative thinking; and then it needs to be defended with courage and self-sacrifice.  As Nicolas Berdyaev observed, ‘Freedom gives birth to suffering, while the refusal to be free diminishes suffering.  Freedom is not easy, as its enemies and slanderers allege: freedom is hard; it is a heavy burden.  Men, as Dostoevsky has shown with such amazing power, often renounce freedom to ease their lot.’  Yet if we renounce freedom, we become less than truly human; and if we deny others their freedom, we dehumanize them.”   (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 73)

A Prayer for our Nation

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, the God of all mercies and compassion, whose mercy cannot be measured and whose love for mankind is unfathomably deep:  We Your unprofitable servants bow down with fear and trembling before Your majesty.  We now humbly offer thanksgiving to Your deep compassion for the benefits You bestowed upon our land.  We glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as Lord, Master and Benefactor of us all.  Bowing down in thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and ineffable loving-kindness, humbly we pray:  As You have now counted us Your servants worthy and so received our supplications and fulfilled them, now  too in the time to come, as we flourish in sincere love for You and grow in every virtue, grant all Your faithful to be blessed by your gracious benefits. Deliver our land and our civil leaders from every evil circumstance, and grant us all peace and tranquility.  Count us always worthy to offer thanksgiving to You, to witness to Your most gracious benefits, and to sing praise to You, together with your Father who is everlasting and Your Most Holy, good and consubstantial Spirit.  God worshiped in one essence.  Amen.

Monday of Holy Week

Orthodox hymns throughout the year give us some insight into how our spiritual forefathers and mothers in the faith interpreted the Scriptures and what lessons they drew from them.   Hymns from the Lenten Triodion do this as well often focusing on particularly Lenten themes.   The Kontakion for Holy Monday focuses on part of the Genesis story dealing with the aged Jacob and his son, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers  (Genesis 37, 39-46).  [During the weekdays of  Great Lent portions of Genesis are read liturgically, and only a tiny portion of the Jacob and Joseph story is read in the Orthodox Church (small portions of Genesis 43, 45 and 46 are read).]    The Kontakion lyrics read as follows:

Patriarch Jacob's dream

JACOB LAMENTED THE LOSS OF JOSEPH

BUT HIS NOBLE SON WAS SEATED ON A CHARIOT AND HONORED AS A KING!

FOR WHEN HE REFUSED TO BE ENSLAVED BY THE PLEASURES OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN,

HE WAS GLORIFIED BY THE LORD WHO BEHOLDS THE HEARTS OF MEN,

AND BESTOWS UPON THEM AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN!

The portion I think of most interest for Great Lent comes from Genesis 39 in which Joseph now a slave to an Egyptian courtier is sexually harassed by his master’s wife.  Joseph refuses her sexual advances but then is unjustly punished due to false accusations made against him.  The hymn  upholds the virtue of Joseph in refusing the illicit sexual advances of his master’s wife.  The story is unusual at this point in the Scriptures because there is not a lot of sexual purity mentioned in Genesis.  Joseph is an exceptionally moral man in a very immoral world.

What the hymn uniquely brings out is that Joseph, though a slave, behaves like a free man.  Joseph is not physically enslaved by pleasure or his own passions, nor by the bonds of his Egyptian master or the passions of his master’s wife.  He behaves with the free will and determination of a king.  He is the perfect example of a Christian during Great Lent.  For the Lenten season is one in which we can demonstrate that we too will not be enslaved by anything, including our own appetites.  Fasting is freedom from bondage to the body or the self.  Fasting enables us to say no to any desire and to live as free men and women, doing as we want rather than as our bodies demand us to behave.  Fasting is a great sign of freedom.

Another hymn from Matins (the Canon Ikos) picks up on this same theme of Joseph and freedom:

Patriarch Jacob

TODAY LET US ADD LAMENTATION TO LAMENTATION.  LET OUR TEARS FLOW WITH THOSE OF JACOB WHO WEEPS FOR HIS CELEBRATED AND SOBER-MINDED SON; FOR THOUGH BODILY JOSEPH WAS INDEED A SLAVE, HE PRESERVED THE FREEDOM OF HIS SOUL AND WAS LORD OVER ALL EGYPT.  FOR GOD PREPARES FOR HIS SERVANTS AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN.

Once again we see Joseph though a slave preserves the freedom of his soul by practicing abstinence.  Joseph doesn’t allow Potiphar’s wife to determine his own morality or sexual activity.  Joseph rules over his body and his passions. Again, a very Lenten message – fasting isn’t self denial so much as asserting one’s free will to rule over one’s own body!

Joseph is said to be sober-minded which gives all of us who live in a self indulgent culture of excessive eating and drinking something to think about.  The scriptural lesson drawn from the Old Testament story is about sobriety, watchfulness, vigilance and virtue.

Sobriety as a spiritual way of living is important for those of us in a church which doesn’t command prohibition.  We can imbibe alcohol but it is our spiritual combat to exercise self control like Jacob did and to free ourselves from passion, intoxication and addiction.     The need for each of us to exercise freedom from drunkenness and intoxication does not get enough emphasis in many Orthodox cultures and parishes.

 

St. Paul and Old Testament Saints

The above Ikos hymn also reflects another interesting element of Orthodox hymnography – namely it doesn’t follow linear time in its thinking.  Jacob is now weeping for his son whom he assumes is dead, and we are to join him in this lamentation.  The hymn doesn’t place Jacob in the past as a distant historical figure, but very much alive today with us (very reminiscent of Matthew 22:31-32 where Jesus says that God is the God of Jacob who was long dead at the time of Christ, but Jesus says He is God of the living and Jacob is alive in God).   Often in Orthodox hymnography linear time is completely ignored as past, present and future are all enveloped in the timelessness of eternity.  I think Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev calls this an iconographic element of Orthodox hymnology because icons at times also ignore “history” and bring together in one icon saints and scenes separated by vast distances and long time periods.

As another example of this non-linear time use, we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

“You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom which is to come.

For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit…”

Thus we offer thanksgiving to God for the kingdom which is to come as if we have already received it!   God granted (past) His Kingdom which is still (future) to come.   We are no longer in the world of linear time, but rather experience in this world the relativity of time as we come to realize time is contained within and by the eternity of God.

Self Denial as a Path to Spiritual Growth

“Without constraints we cannot flourish. As most parents know, it is only when children ‘know where they stand’ that they start to relax, even more so when they know the limits are set by someone who loves them.[…] The attempt to wrestle free from constraints altogether…  is ultimately self-defeating. We become imprisoned, not free.[…] Of course there are many constraints that do undermine human freedom – epilepsy, terminal cancer, solitary confinement. The point here, however, is to challenge the belief that we automatically increase freedom by reducing limits or multiplying the options open to us. (Does having thirty brands of yogurt to choose from actually make us any more free?) For the Christian, to be free is not fundamentally to enjoy some supposedly blank space before us, or to increase options, but to be at peace with God and one another and thus at home in a God-given world.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, pgs. 248-249)

One’s First Love: Understanding that God Loves You

A friend, Dr. Eike, says that in medicine the physicians job is to help remove the obstacles to healing, so that God can then heal the person.  This too is the goal of  the mystery of Confession – to help remove from our hearts and minds those obstacles to true repentance which prevent us from allowing God into our lives.   We are trying to clear away that part of self which prevents God from entering into our hearts: for example being hard-hearted or stiff necked, or having a heart of stone,or allowing our anger to consume us, or our lusts and greed to blind us.

Oliver Clément expresses it this way:

The millstone

“Your first task is not to try to love God but only to understand that He loves you. If love responds to love and you are awakened in the depth of your heart, then the very life of Christ, that is the breath of the Spirit, will arise within you. Now you have only to remove the obstacles, deviations, all the stones and silt deep within you that stop up the well-spring – though henceforth that will be your desire.”   (Three Prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, O Heavenly King, Prayer of St. Ephrem, pg.23)

Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom

Every year about the 4th of July, I try to read a book on American history.  This year I finally got around to a book I’ve owned for a long time but never read, Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   Despite my general love for reading, I’ve not found as much time to read as I would like and I’m only about ¼ of the way into the book.  However, my initial impressions are very positive and I’m enjoying the book.  I’ll quote two passages from what I’ve read so far both dealing with things Mr. Franklin valued highly.  The first is about the word “condescension.”   Ben Franklin strove to become a “gentleman,” part of that class of gentry, whose virtues he embraced and wished to instill in others.

“Only a hierarchical society that knew it distinctions well could have placed so much value on a gentleman’s capacity for condescension—that voluntary humiliation, that willing descent from superiority to equal terms with inferiors.  For us today condescension is a pejorative term, suggesting snobbery or haughtiness.  But for the eighteenth century it was a positive and complimentary terms, something that gentlemen aspired to possess and commoners valued in those above them.”  (p 38)

The virtue of a superior reaching down (condescending) to be with those inferior to him is also valued in Orthodoxy, as it is a very positive term used to describe Christ Himself who though God, condescended to become man in order to save us (Philippians 2:5-8).

The second quote deals with 18th Century ideas about what “freedom” means.   Dr. Franklin accepted and lived by a notion of freedom which was based in materialism.    It is wealth that enables us to be free, which makes us independent of the demands of society and of necessity.  Freedom enables us to become people of leisure.

“Ultimately, beneath all these strenuous efforts to define gentility was the fundamental classical quality of being free and independent.  The liberality for which gentlemen were known connoted freedom – freedom from material want, freedom from the caprice of others, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from having to work with one’s hands.  The gentry’s distinctiveness came from being independent in a world of dependences, learned in a world only partially literate, and a leisured in a world of laborers.  …    People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries.  Since servants, slaves, and bonded laborers did much of the work of society, it seemed natural to associate leisure with liberty and toil with bondage.  A gentleman’s freedom was valued because it was freedom from the necessity to labor, which came from being poor.      Indeed, only the need of ordinary people to feed themselves, it was thought, kept them busy working.”  (pp 38-39)

Franklin agreed with those who thought that poverty and hunger were the main motivators to keep the lower class working.  He however strove for freedom from such necessity.

So no doubt he would have favored a society which made the lives of the gentry easier and even more free from dependencies and necessity, but which would have kept the lower class working ever harder to help them avoid indolence, idleness and prodigality.  At least to the point I’ve read in the book, Ben Franklin does not conceive of freedom as belonging to everyone nor even good for everyone.   Freedom in Franklin’s thinking would lead the lower class into sloth and poverty.   But for the gentry class, freedom allowed them to live nobly and involve themselves in civil affairs.

Independence Day: Being A Christian

To all my fellow Americans I wish a joyous and safe Independence Day celebration.

“There can be no doubt but that love for anything that exists is divided into these two types. One may lustfully love one’s  motherland, working to make sure that it develops gloriously and victoriously, overcoming and destroying all its enemies. Or one can love it in a Christian manner, working to see that the face of Christ’s truth is revealed more and more clearly within it.” (Mother Maria Skobtsova in Essential Writings, pg 178)

See also my blog America the Beautiful and Psalm 72

You can view my set of Independence Day Fireworks photos at Independence Day 2011 Fireworks.  Once on the page just click on  “Slideshow” which is immediately above the thumb nail photos.