True Freedom: Exists in the Heart

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela after 27 years in prison said:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Many people walk away from relationships still imprisoned by their bitterness and hatred.  Mandela showed it is possible to remove such evils from our hearts.  We may even feel we wasted 27 years of our life in a relationship, but if we don’t leave that bitterness and hatred behind, we will certainly wasted the next 27 years still enslaved by our own emotional attachments.  Christ offers us a different way, a way of love in which we liberate our selves from any slavery to revenge, retribution, or even justice.  Sometimes in life we have to choose between liberty and justice.  Mandela choose liberty.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offers us another insight into how this liberty can work.

“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”    (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)    Liberty sometimes involved containing the evil another person represents rather than constantly trying to  be victorious over it.  Our desire to “win” sometimes is a form of slavery.


The Internet, Internationalism and the Internal Self

There is a truth that people often ignore when they embrace some utopian idealism:  People will be people.  We can imagine, depending on our beliefs and ideology, that a world in which everyone is a Christian might ideally be a world in which there is no more sin.  However, as long as we are still in this world of the fall, people will be people, and that means sinners will be in the church and among the clergy.  The recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman church expose the fact that people will be people.  In the general population there are sexual predators and pedophiles.  And guess what?  They make their way into the church.

People might then imagine, well, that is only in the Catholic Church but not in other church bodies.  However, I read statistics from companies which insure religious organizations which show across denominational lines pedophiles exist.  The Roman Church makes the news more because it is a huge organization.  Sexual misconduct occurs in clergy of all kinds of denominations.  But among small denominations the appearance is of individual cases and they seem more rare;  nevertheless, they too add up to serious numbers of problems.   People will be people.

Atheists blame “faithists” for causing all the problems of the world, forgetting the truth that people will be people.  You don’t need religion to hate, be prejudiced, to murder or rape.  People will be people.  Whatever exists in the general population will exist in religion, in atheistic society, in clerical ranks, and among ideologues of every stripe.  Atheism will not escape fanatics or the mentally ill because it is supposedly based in pure reason.   People will be people, and will cause people problems.

If people problems persist despite philosophical, religious or ideological differences, we might try to convince (delude?) ourselves that technology will make a difference and change the world.  But people will be people.

As Ethan Zuckerman in “A Small World After All?” (THE WILSON QUARTERLY Spring 2012) notes:

“In 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, ‘The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.’ Two years later a ridiculous war began, ultimately killing nine million Europeans.”

Zuckerman goes on to comment on the belief that the Internet is going to change the world:

“While it’s easy to be dismissive of today’s Marconis—the pundits, experts, and enthusiasts who saw a rise in Internet connection leading to a rise in international understanding—that’s too simple and too cynical a response. Increased digital connection does not automatically lead to increased understanding. At the same time, there’s never been a tool as powerful as the Internet for building new ties (and maintaining existing ones) across distant borders.”

Yes, the Internet is a powerful new tool, but because people will be people, they will continue to behave as people.  Violence will not disappear from the earth if Islam and all other religions disappear.  The Internet can be used to promote violence as well as democracy or cooperation.  People will continue to be people even into the future just as they were in the past.  Some people will be hungry for power and wealth, the narcissistic personality disorder will continue to appear in the population.   People will sin, make bad choices, inflict suffering on others.  Maybe it is in our genes, Jesus said it is in our hearts (Mark 7:21-23).

Religion at its best calls people to some self denial and self restraint and self control.  It calls us to reign in on our “people will be people” tendency.  And yet, and yes, it has been used to call people to violence.  Christ called people to self martyrdom, not to kill anyone else.  Some Muslims do note that Islam calls people to an internal spiritual warfare more than to any jihad against the world.  Atheism and technology will not change people more than theism and theology.   Ideologues and abusers will continue to be part of the human population.  We can however continue to point out this truth, and we can consciously try to resist those violent and destructive tendencies which come from our human hearts.

“People will be people” is not a phrase enshrining determinism or defeatism, but rather taking a hard, realistic, factual and truthful look at the human condition.  Orthodox Christianity acknowledges the truth and calls all of its members to some forms of asceticism, abstinence, self denial and self control.  Jesus said we have to take up the cross and follow Him.  It is a call for us to exercise our free wills and to aspire to something greater than our genes appear to be willing to allow us to attain.  It is a call to self will and to self emptying (kenosis) and to self sacrificial love for the other.    We are not going to legislate ourselves to perfect behavior, nor genetically engineer the perfect human being, nor defeat evil by technology driven weapons of mass destruction.   The process starts in each human heart by an act of will, when we respond to that invitation to change ourselves and to be like Christ.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”    (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)

Sozhenitsyn, the OCA, and Good Enough Morality

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn prompted an outpouring of articles about him and his role in the 20th Century, including his steadfast opposition to the Soviet regime.  He is credited by some with helping bring the Soviet regime to an end by his exposing the lies on which that system was based.    His being in the news made me look into his thought a little more and to read his famous speech at Harvard University in 1978, a portion of which I reproduce below because I think it apropos to the OCA’s ongoing scandal and how our metropolitan and  the central church is dealing with that scandal.   Here is what Solzhenitsyn said:

“Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. …

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

Why I think his comments are relevant to our OCA scandal is that I have the impression that right now the central church administration feels “we have finally, at last and at least, risen to the level of doing things as a central church legally.”   This has in fact entailed a great amount of work on the part of a few individuals who were recently hired/appointed to their jobs at Syosset.   It has not been easy getting the central church to the level of doing things legally.  And though it leaves behind what was the business as usual methods of the old regime, it still leaves it behind – that mess is still there, though now we can see it as our past.  Some, especially those in the central church administration now want to leave that toxic dump where it is and build a new edifice around it.   In my estimation they have attained Solzhenitsyn’s “letter of the law” morality.  This is a whole lot better than what did exist.

However, for others, Solzhenitsyn is correct and “letter of the law” morality leaves a “moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”   Certainly in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenged those who thought following the letter of the Torah was moral enough.  Read Matthew 5:21-48.  Jesus rejects letter of the law thinking and demands much more from His followers. 

Interestingly Solzhenitsyn mentioned in 1978 that in the letter of the law morality, we end up having to rely on an “expert” (an attorney, lawyer) to help us navigate through society.  We see in the OCA that is precisely what our metropolitan has done – and at great expense to the OCA, diverting monies that could have been used for the mission of the Church, to supposedly “defend” the Church.   But in so doing, he conveniently defends himself and anything he has done, and now can justify his position by saying the “experts say…” and then mentioning that we spent a fortune to get the expert opinion so it would be foolish for us to follow the teachings of Christ rather than these experts who certainly know best how to navigate through the legal system.

As Solzhenitsyn noted, we might be doing everything legally right, but is that moral enough?  Is that the level of morality to which Jesus Christ called us?   Are we expected to go beyond moral enough and practice self sacrifice, self denial, self emptying love? 

Is it good enough to simply leave the toxic dump of immoral and illegal behavior behind and to build a new edifice around that toxic waste?   Or do we need to do a total cleaning of the toxic waste dump before we try to build a new edifice?   That is the morality of confession and repentance, which is the basis for Orthodox spirituality.  Letter of the Law thinking may be good enough morality for American society as a whole but it is not the level of ethics which Jesus taught nor to which Jesus raised humankind in dying on the cross.

Solzhenitsyn, America and the World

The death of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn this past week has been called the Death of a Prophet by conservative commentator Cal Thomas, among many others, including Orthodox writers.   His courage to stand alone and to stand against the Soviet regime is credited in part with bringing down that ideology which endeavored to destroy the soul not only of a nation but of humankind itself.  Solzhenitsyn did not limit his critique to the Soviet system of oppression.  Keep in mind he was also a Russian nationalist at heart: he was very pro-Russian and against the Soviet ideologues.  Consequently he did not blindly embrace everything American or pro-Western, but proved himself to be quite a curmudgeon in his evaluation of America and the West.   In a speech Solzhenitsyn gave in 1978 at Harvard, he outlined what he saw as a number of problematic issues America and the West needed to face.  I agree with Thomas that we all should read that speech.   One of the prolems for America Cal Thomas writes as:

Solzhenitsyn warned the West not to be deluded by what he said was a false belief that all nations yearn to be like us. This thinking is at the heart of President Bush’s doctrine for dealing with the Arab and Muslim world. Solzhenitsyn called this “the blindness of superiority” and warned against thinking that only “wicked governments” temporarily prevent other nations from “adopting the Western way of life.”

Well Cal Thomas sites this as a critical point against the Bush administration’s policy in dealing with Arabs and Muslims, it is worth reading Solzhenitsyn’s entire comment, because it also applies to understanding Russia today:

But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.

Anguish about our divided world gave birth to the theory of convergence between leading Western countries and the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all developing into similarity; neither one can be transformed into the other without the use of violence. Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side’s defects, too, and this is hardly desirable.

 According to Solzhenitsyn it is America’s lack of ability to understand that there really are different ways of seeing the world, that there really are alternative ways of nations developing democracy than how America has done it, which prevents America from dealing realistically with the world.   And as he saw it, the world of Russia and its development and the world of the West’s development puts them on a collision course not a convergence course.   Additionally a convergence is not desirable, since it is the differences in the systems which actually allow each to see the defects in the other.  We don’t need convergence since that means the defects of the systems get transferred to the other systems.   We need an ability to be able to critique the faults and failures of our system, and sometimes this can only come from outside or beyond one’s frame of reference.    Thus America can benefit from listening to the criticisms made of it by competing political or ideological systems or even by listening to its enemies.   There is something to be learned by listening to those who criticize us.

Obviously Solzhenitsyn said what he thought without regard to who his audience was.  The emperor never likes to hear he has no clothes.  Solzhenitsyn fired away from a position not beneath or within American supremacy.  Too bad his words have not humbled our politicians to begin seeing that America exists as part of the global community, not above it.  We may be a great nation, but we as humans have escaped neither the common hubris nor our common humus origins of all mankind.  We in our might-is-righteousness thinking have forgotten that truth about our common humanity, which is tragic for us and a tragedy for the world.  Americans are still humans, fallen beings influenced by sin, living in the fallen world, sharing the same planet with all of fallen humanity.  We have been blessed by God, but sometimes have failed to remember we are “under God” not His equal nor are we the Lord of the world.  That position is held by God alone.
Something for America to consider in this presidential election year.