A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)
Fr. 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.
As we approach in the United States our Independence Day holiday, we have much for which to give thanks in our country – so many blessings received. Even with all the political divisiveness and social problems, many of us have prospered and have been able to enjoy some of the blessings which have been given our country.
I usually try to read a history book about America around the July 4th holiday, and I recently finished reading David McCullough’s really superb book, The Wright Brothers. And I found an Orthodox connection to the Wright Brothers. Of course there is the icon at St. Paul Church in Dayton, OH, which has the Wright flyer in the sky over Dayton. It is an icon of the Protection of the Theotokos over Dayton. The Virgin is not flying over or even floating above the city, but interceding before God in heaven. The Wright flyer in the icon helps locate the city of Dayton in time and place.
So what connection is there between the Wright Brothers and Orthodoxy?
French journalist Francois Peyrey had taken a great interest in the Wright Brothers plane and in their work ethic. He wrote a great deal about the Wright Brothers, especially Wilbur who spent time in France to unveil the flyer, as France was the first nation to take a real interest in their heavier than air flying machine. Peyrey found Wilbur a fascinating person with his all work and no play attitude.
At the close of one long day at Le Mans, Peyrey had caught Wilbur gazing off into the distance as if in a daydream. It reminded him, Peyrey wrote, “of those monks in Asia Minor lost in monasteries perched on inaccessible mountain peaks. . . . What was he thinking of this evening while the sun was dying in the apricot sky?” (Kindle Location 2639-2641)
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).
“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)
In the United States, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day which many Americans consider to be the very basis for personal freedoms. We can as Christians look at history to see how Christians in past Centuries (long before there was a United States) understood the notion of freedom. One expression of Christian freedom which grew rapidly after the establishment of the Christian Roman Empire is monasticism. Monastics, among other things, wanted to be able to practice their faith fully, without state interference and without being influenced by the masses of Christians who the monks felt practiced a watered-down version of Christianity. For these monastic Christians, the monasteries and the deserts into which they fled, leaving behind the Christian state, offered them freedom. Certainly we can recognize the value of some of the freedoms they sought.
“The telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise. The desert fathers’ aspiration toward freedom expressed itself in many different guises and touched upon various levels of their lives. They drew heavily upon biblical images to articulate their hopes, focusing on such New Testament ideas as “not being anxious about anything (Mt 9:25),” “not worrying about tomorrow (Mt 6:34),” “seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6:33),” believing in the limitless goodness of God (Mk 9:23), and on what the Psalms call “casting one’s cares upon the Lord (Ps 54:23).” Taken altogether, these images comprise a montage expressing the ultimate goal of renunciation and detachment for the desert fathers: freedom from worry, anxiety, and care, born of a sense of total dependence upon and confidence in God.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, p. 222)
They felt themselves freed of worldly values and norms and able to live completely in and for the Kingdom of God.
I’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)
The Elizabeth New Life Center in Dayton offered this prayer for our country on our 4th of July holiday:
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)
Sometimes emigres to a country see things about their new homeland that those born in the country cannot see. Fr. Alexander Schmemann immigrated to America and found many things he loved about the USA. He also could be insightfully critical about our culture. In his journals he often reflected on America. Here is one thought he penned:
“After so many hours spent watching television, I am quite impressed by this system that purges politics of that which would make it evil: hatred! This is the American miracle, whereas America’s lie, its original sin, is in its cult of riches and its denial of poverty. More precisely: happiness without wealth is impossible; happiness is identified with success. Thus, whatever is rhetorically said, in reality America does not respect the poor man, for his existence is shameful, fearful, like a secret disease. The very first basic myth, therefore, is the faith that each poor man can attain riches, ‘make himself rich.’ Now that this myth has collapsed, another myth has replaced the first: that society must make the poor wealthy, must provide for them, and the debate between Republican and Democrats consists only in how to do it.” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p 132)
At least in Fr. Alexander’s eyes at that time, he somehow imagined American politics were free of hatred. American politicians could bitterly disagree, but, at least in his mind, did not actively hate one another. One has to wonder whether he would have still held this view had he lived to our current political divide and polarity, in which hatred seems prevalent and malevolent in modern politics.
He, like many who come from outside the U.S., also do not always see the great divide between America’s right and left. As he writes above, Fr. Alexander saw both Democrats and Republicans accepting the same basic premises. The goals of the two parties are the same, their difference is not in the goals but only in how to achieve the goals. Don’t know if he would have held that same view had he lived until today. And despite how different the two parties might portray themselves to Americans, outside the U.S. many still do not see any real changes taking place in U.S. policy no matter which party comes to power.
The American mythology as Schmemann saw it was that everyone can lift themselves out of poverty into prosperity if they try hard enough. He felt that myth was disproved and so a new thinking emerged that if people can’t lift themselves out of poverty, then the government must help lift them up. His contention seems to be that as Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us. What to do about that reality, is the painful question America must face.
What I learn from this is that sometimes in the midst of political debates one can realize that the solutions being proposed to a problem may limit the real discussion needed because they frame the question in a particular way which causes people to think they must chose between the two choices put before them, when it may be true that the wrong questions are being asked which in turn misshape the approach to a solution.