Being American is to Be a Revolutionary

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann celebrating the Divine Liturgy. Photograph taken by M. RoshakFr. Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on his adopted country, noted that in his mind the very characteristic that made America great and which distinguished America from all the nations of the “old world” is America means change.  America is constantly adapting to changing realities and by its adaptability and embrace of change is in fact changing realities.  This he saw as an energy which drives America’s leadership role in the world and constantly refreshes the American spirit. 

He wrote in his journal on 11 January 1980:

“Amazing – this general hatred for America. It’s truly irrational. By analyzing it and understanding this irrationality, one can perhaps begin to explain the contemporary world. I am convinced that America’s wealth and well-being are not the source of this hatred. Deep down and precisely in its irrational source, this hatred is caused by the fact that America is different from everything else in the world and because it is different, it is threatening. Just by touching it, America changes and – in some way – disintegrates any perception, any structure of life.

The essence of that threat is not only that America carries in itself a different way of seeing and doing things and offers change that always produces resistance, but essentially America proposes change as a method of life. Everything, all the time, is in question, everything ceases being stable, obvious, thus reassuring. The paradox is that Americans don’t talk at all about “revolution,” whereas Europeans, and now the Third World, made this word the basis of all their discourse. The reason is that Europeans understand “revolution” as a replacement of one system by another system; in other words – start with the system, the idea. But an American does not believe in any system and is therefore ruled by an idealistic revolution, although he is, in his very nature, a revolutionary. Even the American Constitution, in the final analysis, is nothing other than a permanent “revolution.” It is not by chance that the main occupation of the courts in America is to test the legality of its laws, i.e., of any “system.” A continuous revolution, guaranteed by the Constitution! 

This is something that cannot be understood or accepted by all others – whether rich or poor, civilized or not. And these “others” cannot be understood by Americans because an American perceives life itself as a continuous change (and strives for it, even when change is unnecessary). A European perceives change as something radical, grandiose, comprehensive, scary, even if wished for – it’s his “revolution.” How ridiculous, therefore, that the most non-conservative, the most revolutionary society in the word – America – is hated as a conservative society and as anti-revolutionary.”

(The Journals of Father Alexander Schememman, p. 245-246)

For Fr Alexander, writing at the end of the 1970s, the genius of the American way is not to see change as moving from one system, perspective or paradigm to another, different system, perspective or paradigm.  Rather the American genius is to see change itself as the way of life – this is what inspired American creativity, the can-do spirit, seeking solutions rather than just seeing problems.  But as we approach 2020, 50 years after Schmemann’s comments, we see a hardening of the mindset in America.  Both the left and the right are so locked into their own way of seeing things that they no longer look for the new way of seeing old things, they no longer work for the compromise and cooperation to solve problems, but have embraced the “old world” attitude of seeing change as moving from their way of thinking to a different way of thinking which makes them feel threatened and causes both extremes to be reactionary against anything that doesn’t perfectly match their preconceived ideology.   Maybe, some Independence Day we will again embrace the creative experience which Schmemann so loved in America as quintessential American.

What maybe resonated in Schmemann about change is his Orthodox roots in metanoia.  We need to change the way we see things and think about things to see God’s new creation.

 

Independence Day (2018)

Even apart from these celestial gifts distinguishing the saints from other living people, there are further ways of recognizing their superiority. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, summoned to him all the peoples to worship the image that he had set up (cf. Dan. 3:1-30). But God in His wisdom so disposed things that the virtue of three children should be made known to everyone and should teach everyone that there is one true God, who dwells in the heavens. Three children, captive and deprived of their liberty, spoke out boldly before him; and while everyone else, in great fear, worshipped the image, and even if not convinced did not dare to say anything, but was virtually speechless, like beasts dragged along by the nose, these children behaved very differently.

They did not want their refusal to worship the image to go unrecognized or to escape notice, but they declared in the hearing of all: ‘We do not worship your gods, 0 king, nor will we bow down before the golden image that you have set up.’ Yet the terrible furnace into which they were cast as punishment was not a furnace for them and did not manifest its normal function; but as if reverencing the children it kept them free from harm. And everyone, including the king himself, through them recognized the true God. Not only those on earth, but the angelic choirs themselves were amazed at these children. (St Symeon Metaphrastis,, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc.  33936-58)

As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think about the nature of freedom by considering the narrative in the Book of Daniel about the Three Youth in the fiery furnace.   Those 3 Jewish children though captives exiled in Babylon were able to exercise their free will despite their enslaved existence.  The Babylonians on the other hand though living at home as free citizens  also lived in fear of the king and were not able to exercise their consciences but rather lived the king’s lie.  So who was truly free – the slaves who had free will or the citizens who had no right to refuse their king’s demands?

Christian freedom means the right to live the godly life even if threatened by punishment of death.  Choosing martyrdom for Christ is the greatest example of choosing free will.  Christian freedom is not just about making all kinds of consumer choices, or being able to express oneself without constraint.  Christian freedom is far greater than any rights guaranteed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights.  As becomes obvious in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, freedom is denying oneself in order to follow Christ.   As St. Mark the Monk  noted Christian freedom,  has nothing to do with unrestricted self-expression ( Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 1717-1718).  Rather the Christian is one who is able to deny the self in order to conform himself to the will of the Creator.  This is something all of us Christians in America need to consider.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

A Prayer for America

The Elizabeth New Life Center in Dayton offered this prayer for our country on our 4th of July holiday:

We pray today for the nation in which we dwell.
We pray you would grant us to be governed by good and wise leaders;
That we would be governed in such a manner that we may live in peace.
We pray you would give the people of our nation a hunger for righteousness and justice.
That your care for the widow, the orphan, the poor-that your light would be shown through us.
May we be a people of humility, generosity and compassion.
May the weakest among us-the unborn, the unfortunate and the elderly-be shown your justice and mercy.
We pray that we who are the followers of Jesus Christ and His peaceful kingdom, would be a peaceful people seeking to live in peace with one another.
We pray that hate and acrimony would give way to love and harmony.
We ask this in the name of your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Orthodoxy Celebrating American Religious Freedom

Wishing all my fellow Americans a safe and blessed Independence Day holiday.

“The theory that America is a melting pot no longer seems to be in vogue. Sociologists are pointing more and more to the pluralistic character of American society. Yet, while America is indeed a nation of many people of diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, who are free to hold and cultivate their customs and languages, no cultural tradition is able to remain completely autonomous or unaffected by the lure of the American Way. The process of Americanization is inevitable and inexorable. Indeed, acculturation becomes easier with each succeeding generation.

There are those, however, who believe that the American Way is suspect and even corrupt. They maintain that to survive Orthodox people are obliged to live as a remnant in artificial islands, isolated from the mainstream of American life. This attitude is not simply myopic but also inherently wrong, because it constitues a betrayal of the Church’s self-understanding and mission. In fact, it is a prescription for the transformation of the Church into a sect and a sure way to erode her internal vitality and to dimish her role as a spiritual force in our society. In response to the moral and spiritual imperatives of the Gospel, we are obliged to rise above every fear, surmount every obstacle, and transcend every prejedice, which would deny the catholicity of the Church, seek to restrict her vision, limit her outreach and mission and seal her doors.

The Church is God’s eternal witness and the sacrament of his love for everyone. The Church is the sign and herald of God’s Kingdom in the midst of the contradictions and anomalies of the fallen world. The Church has no borders and knows no fences. She is the house of all, the universal community. As Orthodox Christians in America we need not abandon our roots nor be apologetic about the fact that we carry with us cultural values that have been hammered out in places and times other than our own. Indeed, this very fact acts to remind us of our responsibility and mission to be active and creative participants in the historical process. We have every right to hope and work for an American Orthodoxy because there are grounds for it in our collective histories.” (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy: Vol. 2, pp 52-53)

 

Happy Birthday, America!

Irving Berlin‘s “God Bless America” is a beautiful prayer as well as a wonderful song honoring our country on its birthday.  So as we Americans celebrate our 4th of July holiday, let us give thanks to God for the blessings we have received.    And let us use the blessing we have received to God’s glory and honor – that is the best way for us to show thanksgiving to God!   We have freely received His blessings, may use them for the commonweal.

Have a safe and blessed Independence Day holiday!

God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her

Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains, to the prairies

To the oceans white with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home

God bless America
My home sweet home

For some thoughts on what freedom is in a Christian perspective see my blog Independence Day 2014.

Independence Day 2014

As we Americans get ready to celebrate our July 4th Independence Day, we can reflect some on what independence and freedom mean within the context of Christianity.   Some modern notions of independence contain ideas that were not particularly in the minds of the early Christians as they too welcomed freedom in their lives, a freedom which came with following Christ.   Modern ideas of freedom shaped by the 18th Century Enlightenment tend to focus on individualism and autonomy largely rejecting any ideas of societal expectations on and for the members of society.   Early and Patristic Christians on the other hand often saw the revelation of God in Christ to be one of love which liberates us from selfish and self -centered interests and enables us to become one with God and with our fellow human beings.   Love in their purview is the opposite of self-love.   Self-love is always focused on one’s own interests while Christ-like love is focused on the good of the other: the salvation of the other.  Here are some thoughts from Dr. Anton Vrame, Director of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, about freedom:

“… in modern Western thought, the notion of freedom has focused on individual independence to the point where dependence and interdependence are virtually excluded.  According to much that is found in modern thinking, freedom is from others; it is a freedom of separation.  … this ‘individualized freedom,’ taken to its logical outcome, ultimately becomes a freedom of alienation ‘of person from society, of people from each other, of humanity from the natural world, of the personal ego from the higher Self or spiritual essence.’

Many today are searching for a way of understanding freedom in a way that reconnects people with themselves, with one another, with the world, and with God.  They seem to find their answer in a conceptual framework that considers freedom as a freedom for relationship, freedom for a communion of persons.

Human freedom is not an abstraction but a complex of personal actions, usually directed toward and typically involving other person.  Directing one’s life to a future project – a goal of some type – is achieved within a world of other people.    In order to become ourselves, others must be involved; without commitment to the freedom of others, our personal freedom is an illusion.  We cannot become ourselves by ourselves, despite the perceptions created by self-centered individuality or individualism.   The philosopher, John Macmurray, addresses this concern:

‘… True personal freedom is a freedom that chooses communion and fellowship with others, enabling and empowering persons to connect and unite with one another in order to transform themselves, one another, and the world.’

. . .     The human vocation, in this view, is to grow from God’s image towards God-likeness.  Growth and progress are not only possible but essential to human existence.  Each person is on a journey: ‘to be human is to be a traveler, always on the move.  Personhood implies constant discovery, ever new beginnings, increasing self-transcendence.’

Within the Orthodox Tradition, there is an understanding that the goal of education is to form ‘a whole person’ and that achieving this goal involves a dynamic and endless process of growth.

Growth in personhood has as its aim growth towards God-likeness, which is ultimately endless because God is a mystery: ‘ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, existing forever and always the same.’ Growth in personhood is growth and development of one’s humanity and is consistent with growth toward God-likeness.  ‘How could you be God when you have not yet become human?’  St. Irenaeus asks.  To grow in humanity is to grow in God-likeness, and to become more like God is to grow in one’s humanity.”

(THE EDUCATING ICON: TEACHING WISDOM AND HOLINESS IN THE ORTHODOX WAY, pp 70-71)

Christian freedom doesn’t mean independence from every one else on earth, but rather the opportunity to become fully human, which in Orthodox means to become god-like.   Freedom and independence are for Christians the opportunity to follow Christ and to love one another as He loves us.   Freedom and independence mean we are free to follow Christ in every aspect of our lives.

The Fathers thought the consequences of the ancestral sin included all of the divisiveness, inequality and alienation in the world.  They saw the Fall as being responsible for the isolation of individuals, the loss of love between humans, for narcissism, egotism, rivalries and tensions between peoples.  In some ways, all that the early Christians thought were the problems caused by sin became in the values of the Enlightenment virtue:  the totally autonomous person who answers to no one, is not shackled by any commandments imposed by tradition, or loyalties to family or society.   The Enlightenment picture of the “free” person sometimes looks a great deal like the person who is freed from bonds of mutual love and interdependence and concord, which in Genesis is much what Eve was like when she decided to ignore her relationship with God, Adam and creation and ate the forbidden fruit because to her that fruit looked good to and for her.  In Genesis we are created to be social, relational, beings.  It is selfishness and self-centeredness that prevents us from loving others.

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.

Independence Day, 2012

For Independence Day this year, I’ve decided to reproduce portions of some famous texts related to the United States’ celebration of the Fourth of July.  Many of us are familiar with the opening lines of these texts, but I’m offering portions of the texts which are far less known to most of us.   The first is the concluding paragraph of The Declaration of independence from July 4, 1776.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I find it interesting that while the authors of the Declaration appealed to God for the righteousness of their intentions, they also profess the belief that the power of government comes not from God but from the consent of the governed.  Government is man-made according to the Declaration, which disagrees completely with what St. Paul states in Romans 13:1-5.

I also note that not only do they seek not only the power to levy war but also to conclude peace. That is something governments and national leaders don’t always keep in the forefront of their thinking –  what would the concluding peace look like.

A great coincidence which is fairly well known, is that two of the five men who worked on the committee producing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who also both became Presidents of the United States, died on July 4, 1826.

The next text is the fourth stanza from “The Star Spangled Banner” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.  The poem was not written about a battle from the 18th Century War for Independence, but about another war the US fought with Britain, the War of 1812.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

It was a time obviously when lots of trust in God and praise for God’s help was still quite common in America.

Mt. Ranier

The third document comes from Katharine Lee Bates’ poem, “America the Beautiful” which was published on  July 4, 1895.  This is the second stanza:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Atlantic sunrise

Two phrases in this stanza really caught my eye.   First, that it asks God to mend every flaw in America.  Just the acknowledgement of flaws in any American patriotic literature is pretty amazing to me.  It is realistic, and humble, but I think unusual as it seems to me Americans rarely patriotically acknowledge that our country has flaws.  The second eye-catching phrase is the request that God confirm America’s soul in self-control.  Self-control is certainly popular in Orthodox Christian ascetic literature, but is not something I usually hear patriotic Americans singing about in our land of excess.    The last line of the stanza also has what I think is not a modern American thought:  that God confirms our liberty in law.  American’s today often equate ‘law’ with big government and restrictions on freedoms rather than as a way to measure our freedom.

I hope that for all of my fellow Americans that you had a safe and blessed Independence Day celebration.

Dayton, Ohio

Orthodox Prayers for our Independence Day Celebration

 

Christ the Divine Wisdom

The GREAT BOOK OF NEEDS  has a few prayers for “Civil Feast Days.”  Two of them captured my attention.  The first is simply a petition from a litany which I adapted for use at Matins this morning:

“O our God Who are inscrutable in mercy: Do You grant unto Your servants, our rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, unto the glory of Your Name, we pray to You, O All-holy King, hear us and have mercy.”

The second prayer is a bit longer and very a good one for all of us to offer for our country this 4th of July:

“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, the God of all mercies and compassions, Whose mercy cannot be measured and Whose love for mankind is an unfathomable deep: As unprofitable servants falling down with fear and trembling before Your majesty, we humbly offer thanksgiving for Your deep compassion revealed in the benefits You bestowed upon our land; we glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as Lord and Master and Benefactor; and again bowing down in thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and ineffable loving-kindness, humbly we pray:  As now You have counted Your servants worthy by receiving our supplications and mercifully fulfilling them, likewise in the time to come, as we flourish in sincere love for You and in every virtue, grant all Your faithful to receive Your blessings.  Deliver our land and its rulers from every evil circumstance:  grant them peace and tranquility, count them worthy always to offer thanksgiving to You, to tell of Your most-gracious blessings, and to sing to You, to Your eternal Father and to Your most-holy, good and consubstantial Spirit; God worshipped in one essence.  Glory to You, O God, our Benefactor, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The Glow Stick: Americana on the 4th

Glow sticks seem to be as much a part of Independence Day celebrations as fireworks and barbecues.

This was my photo of one young child holding his glow stick.  Relatively speaking he was moving slowly (his version of standing still).

It is red, white and blue – very appropriate for our nation’s birthday.