Politics and Pessimism

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.   (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Supreme Court front steps looking up

voteNovember 6 is Election Day in the USA.  One can wish that campaigns and elections would make us more hopeful, that change for the better is going to occur.  Unfortunately, election campaigns often bring out pessimism in many people, perhaps because of the negative tone of some campaigns.  Lots of fear mongering is done.   Many people feel campaigns have gotten more negative through time.    I would just note that throughout history, there have always been voices which have claimed that yesterday was better than today will be and today will be better than tomorrow.  St Cyprian of Carthage (martyred in 258AD) at one point in his life lamented the decline of everything in his day: the weather, the military, justice, friendship, skills and ethics.  [One can hear Ronald Reagan saying, “There you go again . . .”]  He no doubt would have found election time proof of the decline of civility and civilization.  His is a familiar voice we can find in history – things are declining. His lament about the declining fortunes of his time:

In winter there is not as great an abundance of rain storms for nourishing seeds as before, in summer the temperature does not reach normal oven heat for preparing the crops for ripening, nor in the mild season of spring do the crops flourish as they did once, nor are the autumn crops so abundant as before with trees bearing fruit. There are less marble slabs brought forth from mountains that have been mined out and are exhausted. Their mines, hollowed out, now supply less wealth in silver and in gold, and their impoverished veins of metals run short as each day proceeds. The farm laborer grows less in number in the fields, and ceases to be available. The sailor at sea, similarly, has vanished, like the soldier in the barracks, integrity in the Forum, justice in the court, concord between friends in alliance, skill in practicing the arts, and moral order in practicing ethics.   (On The Church: Select Treatises, Kindle Loc. 1408-15)

I do find the campaign process to be spiritually oppressive, and I see the fears, anxieties and anger which grow in people during elections.  And yet, I think this process, as much as I dislike it, to be a good sign for our country and humanity in general.  It is easy to imagine that life used to be better, but for us Christians, hope does not lie in the past but in what lies ahead.   As St Paul says,  “. . . one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

I used to think of America as an optimistic country.  American ingenuity sparked hoped.  The American can-do spirit kept us pushing into the future’s ever expanding vision.  The horizon was ever expanding and we were always pushing toward it no matter how far it kept receding.  Boundlessness seemed part of our attitude.  Of course, such thinking also at times contributed to our excesses, wastefulness, selfish consumption and rapacious greed.  What we need to learn to balance is the boundless hope with the reality of how our behavior affects others and our planet.  Profit is not always evil, though greed is real and destructive.  Concern for the environment doesn’t have to mean all consumption is wrong – humans need to live.  Both extremes need to bring humanity back into the picture, both need to consider how to benefit a growing population in a sustainable way.

I saw a bumper sticker today which read, “It’s easy to wave the flag, harder to carry it.”  I don’t know if that is a slogan of some organization, but that doesn’t matter to me as I’m not advocating for them.  The words express a truth.  Part of the burden for Americans of carrying the flag is democracy itself – and caring about the country and one’s fellow citizens.  The election process is messy and at times brings out pessimism in many.  It als0 is part of the burden of democracy, it is the weight of the American flag.  We are asked to choose between candidates who are imperfect and issues which are complicated.   I hope we will show that we are worthy of carrying that flag not just waving it.  Carrying the flag means  enduring campaigns, and working together for the common good even when we disagree on issues or solutions.  When we value each other as fellow citizens then we will make America great.  Look for politicians who actually care about their constituents more than their political ideologies.

Truly, democracy and elections cannot solve all our human problems, and sometimes contribute to them.  Yet democracy allows us to light a candle, not just curse the darkness.  It is a sign that we can change, that we are capable of creatively working together to deal with some of the issues confronting us, that we can survive our own mistakes, and that there is reason to hope that we can make some things better.   Democracy is not foolproof – the best candidate doesn’t always win.  Democracy is not omniscient or omnipotent but it can show us the need for looking at issues from different perspectives and the need for cooperation in order to produce better solutions.  It can also show us why we need divine help to deal with human problems.   We do need Wisdom of God to solve issues which are greater than our limited knowledge and perspectives.   We need that godly hope to overcome our fears and failures and to see potential instead of only our limitations.  We need the love of God to energize us to overcome our selfishness so that we work for a greater good.  Even if things are worse than they used to be, we can show up and care for one another, rather than simply despair.

Remember, O Lord, this nation and her civil authorities, those who serve in the government and the armed forces. Grant them a secure and lasting peace; speak good things in their hearts concerning your Church and all your people, so that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.  (from the Liturgy of St. Basil)

Laying Aside our Ideological Weapons

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you … (1 Samuel 15:23)

The political polarity and party spirit which so divides America is becoming so deeply ingrained in the minds of some as to cause them even to judge the Scriptures as being too liberal or too conservative. When Christians view Christianity or the Scriptures through a political lens they lose sight of God’s Word as being literally above partisan politics.  God’s word is meant to challenge us in our thinking so that we consider things not just from an earthly or human point of view but to also take God’s own viewpoint into consideration.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself … (2 Corinthians 5:16-18)

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.  (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Today even Orthodox Christians can be heard commenting on and judging the Scriptures or a prayer of the Church or a message from Church leadership not from the point of view of God but from that of a political party. We begin to hear people say that scripture sounds liberal or conservative acting as if the American political viewpoint is the standard for measuring God’s word. When we “hear” the Scripture as sounding liberal or conservative, we have already adopted a worldly mind about the Word of God.

We may not like what we read in Scriptures. We may not agree with it. We may not want to do it, but it still remains as God’s word to us. We have to wrestle with what God revealed.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  (Isaiah 55:8)

We have to listen to God’s word and allow it to come deep into our hearts and minds in order to either live it or wrestle with it. Otherwise we are at risk to do and to become exactly what the people were in the days when Jesus walked on earth and He warned them that they had ears but could not hear and eyes but could not see.
When we come into the church, we need to lay aside our political prejudices and allow God to speak to us so that we hear God’s word and do it or begin to wrestle with it. But if we accept as a filter for reading the scriptures a political party’s point of view then we have stopped our ears with partisan politics and we will never hear God’s word.
Roman Emperor Theodosius issued an edict in 431AD at the Church Council in Ephesus. Emperor Theodosius was an Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox emperor and is even listed as an Orthodox saint. The Emperor said:

Although we are always surrounded by the lawful imperial weaponry, and it is not fitting for us to be without weapon-bearers and guards; when, however, entering the churches of God, we shall leave our weapons outside and take off the very diadem, emblem of our imperial dignity.

The Emperor said he and his entourage were to leave their weapons and emblems of the imperial dignity outside the church. They entered the church just like everyone else – as sinners in need of salvation. The only way they could truly hear God was to lay aside all their political thinking, their earthly status and even the signs of their political power.

Today we need to do this by laying aside our ideological weapons when we enter the church, so that we can hear the Gospel. We should Leave our ideological attacks and political grenades and partisan weapons outside the church so that we don’t look at God’s word from an earthly point of view, but rather we enter the church with open hearts and minds to hear God fully.

Whether we are on the political left or on the political right, whether we are politically right or wrong, we need to hear the Word of God and to take it home with us and to judge ourselves based on God’s word. We need to pull the liberal and conservative plugs from our ears and remove the conservative and liberal lens from our eyes so that we can see the world as God proclaims it.

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.  (Matthew 13:15)

Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot serve God if we come to the Scriptures or to the Church to judge God by a political ideological point of view. Listen to God first. Don’t react to what God says until you understand His teachings and comandments.

St. Paul said: For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

In Acts 4:15-31, the Apostles were arrested by the temple authorities and told not to speak about Jesus any more. They replied: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  Political parties love it if we take their point of view in order to measure and judge the Scriptures and the Church.  We however are not to see the world from that human point of view but rather are to view every human point of view from the perspective of God’s own will.

In the Church we must speak the word of God and hear it whether we like it or not. Listen to what God says and allow it to enter into your mind and willful choices. Obey it if that is in your heart, and if not, then wrestle with it and ask God why He says things that you find so difficult to do. Carry His Word in your heart so you can take it into your life and home to become a doer of God’s word.

Some More American Heresies

This is the third blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy.  The previous blog is Some American Heresies.

Faced with rapidly changing political, moral and religious values in the last half of the 20th Century, some American Christian leaders tried an accommodation to the emerging culture to help make the church seem relevant to the times, while others tried to resist what was becoming the new norm in American religious thinking.  But for Ross Duthat both efforts to deal with declining church numbers and a changing culture in the 1960s and ‘70s failed to see that unbelief was not the greatest threat to Christianity, but rather that all forms of Christianity were embracing heretical ideas thus distorting Christianity by conforming it to American values rather than trying to be the salt of the earth and a light to the nation.   A blurring between church and state occurred for some American Christians as they endeavored to defend a notion that this is a Christian nation.  Conservative Christians embraced conservative politicians, and the conservative politicians looking for votes welcomed these Christians into their ranks.  The benefit for the Church, Douthat points out, was not that clear cut as is obvious during the presidency of George W. Bush:

“Having a conservative Evangelical in the White House, it turned out, didn’t necessarily make it easier for conservative Christians to win converts or to gain ground in moral and cultural debates.  Indeed, in certain ways it seemed to make it harder.  The president’s very public piety made it easy for his detractors to lay the blame for the administration’s policy failures at the door of Evangelical Christianity itself, so that the more things soured for the Bush administration, the more they soured for Evangelicals as well.  And the extent to which Bush’s religious style ultimately polarized the country rather than uniting it hinted at deeper problems facing the Evangelical community—problems that limited their ability to fill the space that the Mainline had once occupied and that placed sharp constraints on their influence and growth.”  (pp 136-137)

And as the image of the conservative church became tainted, conservative Christians further embraced American methods and values to try to correct the church and lead the nation.  The media driven culture favors extroverted expressives as far more attractive for the “news.”  Controversy of any kind attracts viewers and so controversy and frenzy is favored over substance.  So Douthat comments:

“Worse, no sooner had Barack Obama succeeded Bush in the White House than there was an immediate search for the next political hero or heroine, the next godly Evangelical come to save the republic from itself.  Many of the candidates for this role (including Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry) embodied Evangelical politics at its worst: the tendency toward purely sectarian appeals, the reliance on the language of outrage and resentment, the conflation of partisanship with Christian principle and the confusion of the American political system with the Church itself.”  (p 141)

palinAn over emphasis on seeing America as a Christian nation caused some to distort exactly what the Church is and is supposed to be.  Media hype begins to determine who rises to leadership and even what the nature of leadership ought to be.  A ‘superstar’ model of politician and televangelist emerges – not in the image of Jesus Christ but in the image of who are the most attractive kinds of people for the attention seekingAmerican media.  It all creates a christianity  without humility which truly can carry the label: Made in America!

And while the American church  and American Christians conformed themselves to the growing political partisanship, they failed to see that the interests of the Church were distinct from the interests of political parties, or that Christ had very ambivalent attitudes towards political power as seen in His proclaiming a kingdom not of this world.   The Gospels in fact portray the power of the kingdoms of this world as really becoming to the Evil One (Luke 4:5).  Satan made no exception for America in that claim.  Regardless, many Christian began to feel the only real power of the Church is political power, a problem Christians in the 4th Century were not prepared to deal with when Constantine embraced Christianity.   Byzantine emperors boasted that their armies could defeat Satan!  And while many Americans would laugh at such a preposterous idea, American presidents also proclaimed that they could defeat evil.  Distinctions between church and state, human hubris and godliness, or folly and evil all become blurred so that some imagine the state is doing what the church is supposed to do.   They embrace the state as doing God’s will until they realize the state is also approving things the Church cannot.  So as Douthat described it the political party in power has messianic delusions while the party out of power is proclaiming the apocalyptic end of the nation.  And, it doesn’t matter which party is in and which is out for they easily change these ‘religious’ roles.

Meanwhile outside of American Christianity’s enmeshment with America’s political divide, other streams of thought within the theological world were also at work in the Church in America.  A number of Christian scholars basically abandoned the Christian faith in favor of some supposedly neutral scholar position from which they could critique the Christianity.   They rejected the “Jesus of faith” and pursued a search for a “historical Jesus.”    This was a Jesus based in pure rationalism, who turned out to look a lot like 20th Century materialists might create Him.   They made Jesus in their own image and sold the idea to America through books and movies.  They endeavored to abandon anything that seemed in their minds mystical or theological and replace it with a more human and rational Jesus.

“Understandably, few of the thinkers invested in the quest for a ‘real Jesus’ want to admit that their journey backward through the Christian past dead-ends somewhere in the early second century, generations shy of Nazareth and Calvary.  But this refusal has led the whole project inexorably downward—from scholarship into speculation, and rom history into conspiracy theory.”   (pp 170-171)

Despite claiming to be in search of the ‘historical Jesus’, these scholars have to ignore the historical fact that their Jesus was an invention of a later century than the one portrayed in the Gospels.  This historical Jesus may have been more palatable to these scholars stripped of faith, but the Jesus they created was not the Christ proclaimed in the First Century and which Tradition had faithfully preserved and handed down through the centuries.  Nevertheless many American Christians were eager to abandon Tradition which faithfully preserved the earliest images of Christ in order to embrace a Jesus they were inventing and investing with ideas of their own.

Next:  The Heresy of God and Mammon

Romans 12: Challenging Christian and Atheist America

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

St. Paul Preaching Christ Crucified

Christianity often is a challenge to Christians.  Just consider the words above from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:14).   For those who claim religion is a crutch, try supporting yourself on those words.  See if they make life easier in some way.

How many blessings have American Christians composed for their current enemies?

How many Christian politicians would dare compose such blessings?

How many Christians would vote for those who did?

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:17-19)

What was St. Paul thinking when he wrote the words above?  Are we to allow ourselves to be persecuted?  What does it mean to treat with nobility those who do evil to us?

Are we to let Hitlers and Stalins and bin Ladens run rampant on the earth?   Murdering millions including children?

Certainly these teachings are not crutches for the weak.  They are rather hurdles and traps that give us little comfort in our decisions.  They do not support ideas of humans demanding retribution or revenge.

Christians will have to look elsewhere for that morality.  St. Paul allows for Christian martyrdom – the imitation of Christ, voluntary suffering – not Islamic fundamentalist “martrydom” which murders innocents and children.  There is no justice based on “an eye for an eye” here.  No just war theory.  No “holy” war.   There is an ethic here and a logic which is not a human demand for justice.  It is based in the logic of the Cross and of the Crucified God.

St. Paul sees in Christ God’s love which is unfathomable deep.   This is not human justice, but divine love.

Can we trust God to exact justice and retribution on enemies?  Are we willing to hand such justice over to Him and accept whatever He chooses to do?

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:20-21)

Christ taught us to give food and drink to the least of His brothers and sisters.  St. Paul says we should do the same to our enemies.

This is no crutch for believers to lean on.   It is a challenge to the very ground on which we stand.  We are not to heap fiery coals upon the heads of our enemies, but rather food and drink.  Or reversing the thought we are to heap food and drink on them.  Such love according to St. Paul will be experienced by them as being burned alive.

Replace armies with generous foreign aid to repay our enemies?   Will believers believe this will really work?

St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:14-21 do not make believers comfortable, do not make life more palatable for Christians, do not prop us up by making life easier.

They no doubt for some place burning coals on our own heads.   How many biblical literalists want these words of St. Paul posted in every courthouse or read by military chaplains to the troops or pronounced by our presidents in response to terrorist attacks?

Scriptures often do comfort the afflicted, but they also afflict the comfortable.

If we take St. Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart, who are the sinners and who are the righteous?  Agreeing to be a Christian, taking up the cross of Christ is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with weak knees, nor for the spineless.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.  

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;  

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(My note:  normally, 3 mornings each week I do Matins during which we read the Scripture assigned for the day according to the Orthodox lectionary.   Following the reading of the Scripture, we have a few minutes of silent meditation.   Romans 12 was the Epistle for today, and what I wrote above is the meditation I had while contemplating the words of St. Paul.) 

Just the Facts – or at Least some Statistics

I happened across a few statistics regarding religion and America which I will pass along.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in February of 2008 the details of its study based upon the answers of over 35,000 Americans surveyed.  Orthodox Christianity which represents a tiny minority of Americans did show up in the survey.   According to the Pew research about .6% of Americans identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.   This translates into approximately 1,800,000 people in the U.S. who call themselves Orthodox Christian.  Approximately as many people in the U.S. identify themselves as Muslim as identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.  There are fewer Orthodox Christians in America than Jehovah Witnesses or Buddhists according to this study.  There are about 3 times more Jews or Mormons in the U.S. than Orthodox Christians.   Compared to the national average of all religious traditions covered in the Pew research, the Orthodox tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average church attendee in America.

There also is a great amount of movement of people from one religious tradition to another.  About 28% of those surveyed say they have left the faith they grew up with and now embrace different religious ideas (this does not include those who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another – if that number is included about 4 in 10 American adults belong to a different religious tradition than they grew up with).   Among the Orthodox in the study, about the same number of people joined Orthodoxy as defected from the Church.     

A little over 16% of those surveyed consider themselves independent of any religious tradition.

Last November’s Presidential election was heralded by some as a major shift in thinking among American Christians – supposedly demonstrated by the election of Democrat Barack Obama.  But in a 26 January 2009 NEWSWEEK article the statistics do not bear out this major change in how religion is affecting political affiliation – or as the article, “Faith Beyond His Father’s”, notes the picture is much more complicated than simplistic analysis indicates.  Among Evangelicals ages 18-29, about 33% voted for Obama while in the previous election only 16% of this demographic group voted for Kerry.  But the study showed that among older Evangelicals only 25% voted for Obama while in 2004 nearly 33% voted for Kerry.  The overall totals showed 24% of Evangelicals voting with Obama in 2008, while 21% voted for Kerry in 2004, which is considered a statistically insignificant shift in voting pattern.  This change in voting might have nothing to do with changes in thinking among Evangelicals, it could very well be that Evangelicals felt more negative toward the unpopular President Bush, not changing their basic political beliefs, but voting against the status quo.  Approximately the same percentage of young Evangelicals as their elders oppose abortion – 70%, so age does not seem to be a factor on that issue.  However on the issue of gay marriage, among Evangelicals over age 30, only 9% support gay marriage, while 26% of white Evangelicals ages 18-29 give a favorable nod to allowing gay marriage.  That does represent a statistically significant difference in attitude among the younger Evangelicals.

To Believe or To Not Believe: For Americans Is there a Question?

Believers often take comfort in numbers, especially in America where people like to identify with winners.   And so the 23 June 2008 released Pew Forum poll on religion in America will be heartening to those believers especially those who suffer anxiety about holding a minority viewpoint when it comes to thinking about God.  And it does seem that many American believers find strength only in numbers or that somehow majority numbers prove the truthfulness of a proposition.   Is this the result of having even their religious thinking dominated by “democratic majority rules” ideas or is it some kind of “might is right” thinking?   One wonders how these Christians would have survived in the Roman Empire, under Islamic domination, or in the atheist Soviet Union, where Christians made up a distinct minority.     Do Americans really find strength in their faith or in God, or do they really rely on the majority opinion to determine what they believe?   Perhaps some of this explains why some American Christians find their “faith” so threatened by science, cosmology or evolution.

Ninety Two (92%) percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a universal spirit.  Strangely enough 21% of those claiming to be atheist also say they believe in a God or universal spirit.  That reminds me of the statistics I’ve seen in Russia where more Russians claim to be Orthodox Christians than claim to believe in God; or as one priest stated it, not all Russians who claim to be Orthodox  believe in God.   It all may only show how difficult it is to do a reliable poll on religious belief, especially when each person is self defining the terms he/she uses. 

Despite the obvious problems polling on religious topics may have, they do offer us some type of portrait of American beliefs.   The Pew fellows tend to emphasize American tolerance and flexibility in their beliefs as a good point.  A majority of those who actively pray tend to be more conservative in their values such as on issues of abortion and homosexuality. Interestingly 60% of those polled “want the government to do more to help the needy and support stronger environmental laws.”  All of these points I would think show that the religious faith of Americans do affect the moral values by which they live and engage the world.   There is a close connection between theological belief and personal morality.  Because of this connection and because of the number of people claiming a belief in God, religious discussion does have a proper role in our elections despite what some claim to the contrary.  And despite how some politicians and religious lobbies distort this proper role in public debate.

 And in this presidential election year, candidates might note that a majority of believers want the U.S. to concentrate more on domestic issues and think the U.S. is too focused on foreign issues. 

To see what the Pew Poll had to say about Orthodoxy see my Bilingual Orthodoxy