On at least three occasions in recent years, hierarchs of various Orthodox Churches in the United States have publicly involved themselves in political discourse: first, in 2008 the California Orthodox Bishops issued a statement on Proposition 8 [i]; second, since 2009 Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America has officially participated in the annual March for Life in Washington DC [ii]; and third, in 2012 the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops published a statement of protest regarding the proposed mandatory insurance coverage of contraception by the Department of Health and Human Services. [iii] While individual Orthodox Christians most certainly should be participating in the political process, this author believes that formal political participation by our hierarchs should be resisted.
As the various Orthodox jurisdictions in America move towards administrative and canonical unity, the temptation to appear relevant on political issues may seem like a natural consequence of this visibility. Western converts to Orthodoxy, seeing other religiously motivated activists, may want our hierarchs to get involved in political affairs. This is not the experience of many Orthodox Christians. For example, Arab Christians have been a minority community in the Middle East since the seventh century, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has been in a Muslim city for over five hundred years, and the political involvement of the Russian Patriarchate has, at best, been difficult. These experiences helped Orthodox Christians through the ages and around the world appreciate God’s love and mercy and remain focused on salvation as life’s goal. The political engagement of the official representatives of Orthodox Christianity in the United States should not automatically resemble the activism of other religious groups, but be thoughtfully considered.
The relationship between civil authority and Christianity has been difficult from the first persecution of Christians by the ancient Roman Empire. Even after Constantine the Great united the Empire and ended the persecution, the relationship continued to be difficult between the defenders of Orthodox Christianity and the Empire’s political elite. For example, several Fathers of the Church, such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373 A.D.), St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 A.D.), and St. Maximus the Confessor (580–662 A.D.), were exiled multiple times. The example of St. Maximus the Confessor is particularly informative. The Empire of the seventh century was under assault from the Pre-Christian Slavs, the Persians, and the Arabs. The Monophysite ambiguity regarding the natures and wills of the Only-begotten Son, while helpful in holding the Empire together, was challenged by the clarity of St. Maximus’ theology. [iv]
Emperor Constans II (Roman Emperor from 641 until his assassination in 668 A.D.) was appropriately concerned with holding the Empire together, and St. Maximus the Confessor was equally dedicated to the precision of Christian theology. Ultimately, the Emperor’s efforts to silence Maximus failed when the Sixth Ecumenical Council accepted Maximus’ teachings on the two wills of Christ. The Emperor’s political attempts to maintain the Empire would fail, and it never again regained its former glory. The appropriate temporal concerns of political leaders and the appropriate personal concerns for eternal salvation are necessarily different. Herein lies the Orthodox struggle to be simultaneously in the world, but not of the world.
A less flattering example of the unhealthy relationship between civil and religious authority was the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria (370–415 A.D.), who was a popular Neo-Platonist, astronomer, and mathematician. Some historians believe that she was the victim of a political rivalry between St. Cyril (c. 376–444 A.D.), the Bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes, the civil governor. [v] In any case, Hypatia was ultimately murdered by a Christian mob. Such persecutions of alternative belief systems by Christians were at the very least inconsistent with the canons of the Ecumenical Councils. Persecuting opponents was neither “turning the other cheek” nor an example of humility. Unfortunately, when politics and religion mix, self-righteous people kill.
The Problem with Politics Today
The political process and personal salvation are necessarily different. The effort to become politically significant, to pass legislation, or to elect candidates is a very focused enterprise where winning is all that matters. There are no rewards for second place. Negative campaigning may be distasteful, but if winning is all that matters, every means must be exploited for victory. Once advocates “win” they cannot relax. There are campaigns every six months and there are forces at work to repeal or undermine any accomplishments. The emphasis on winning and the need to remain politically vigilant in protecting victories is a goal without regard to salvation. In today’s political environment issues are framed as black or white. There is no middle ground or room for compromise. But responsible governance requires compromise, unless one side dominates the political process. The personal sacrifices required for responsible political leadership cannot be underestimated. One must either compromise to achieve anything or be principled and irrelevant. In such an environment, what do Orthodox Christian hierarchs achieve through official political engagement? More importantly, how does official Orthodox Christian political participation lead people toward communion with the Triune God?
Simply stated, there is no way any political statement of an Orthodox position will communicate the depth of our Lord’s love and mercy, and His joy at a returning member of the flock. Our church is outstanding in communicating the principles of love, mercy, forgiveness, and humility. The self-righteous tone, judgment, and arrogance of political leaders claiming to speak on behalf of Christianity in general, are antithetical to the Orthodox appreciation for humility and our personal struggle through dispassion toward deification.[vi] Joining politically active religious and spiritual communities overshadows the Orthodox understanding of repentance and forgiveness, minimizes our message of hope in the Trinity, and places us on the side of political extremists who exploit every means necessary to “win.” There is no way a message of love and compassion can be communicated through political engagement.
Examination of Recent Political Activity
Let us consider the three instances of political participation identified above. California’s Proposition 8 sought to legally define marriage as a union between a man and a woman exclusively. The word marriage, however, is problematic because it communicates both a civil relationship that bestows legal rights and a sacramental relationship imbued with God’s blessings. Before St. Paul likened marriage to that of Christ and the Church, the history of this institution addressed such diverse issues as co-habitation, procreation, paternity claims, legal obligations, and property rights.
The United States, however, is a secular pluralistic nation governed under the principle that the rule of law is the supreme authority. Our more than 200-year-old Constitution does not tolerate racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination. We fought a civil war to defend the principle of equality. All public officials swear to uphold the Constitution, not their own belief systems, in the performance of their duties. Our nation’s legal system grants unique privileges to married couples that are legally unavailable to couples that are not married. These different allocations of privilege challenge the Constitutional principle of equality and become a matter of civil rights. Thus, it is only a matter of time before the rule of law remedies this legal discrimination and recognizes marriage solely in secular terms. This decision is not an attack on religion because there is no requirement for religious institutions to recognize civil marriages.
Whether one believes that marriage is a religious sacrament or a civil right will be irrelevant since our nation’s highest authority, the Supreme Court, can have no legal regard for sacramental implications. The Orthodox Church clearly has an understanding of right conduct, but appropriately asks, “Who is without sin?” Do we set the legal standard of right conduct so high that the punitive nature of the law undermines the redemptive nature of faith? [vii] Who among us will pass judgment on all the relationships outside of the Orthodox sacrament of marriage? Where is the justification for hard-heartedness that condemns with no opportunity for redemption? The good thief, the Samaritan woman, and the tax collector are just a few of the examples of personal redemption that Orthodox Christians remember in the hope of salvation. Orthodox Christianity should aggressively oppose, through legal rather than political means, any attempt by government to require our Church to recognize such unions as sacramental.
With the issues of contraception and abortion, Orthodox Christians believe that life begins with conception. In some Orthodox circles, however, arguments have been made claiming conceptions that result from rape may not adhere to this clear definition because the victim was coerced and therefore this violated the Orthodox belief in free will. My point is not to debate the issue of abortion, but to ask what the appropriate role of government is before a child is born. There is simply no way to achieve consensus in a pluralistic America between government and religion on the legal status of a fetus. If, however, the government agreed to involve itself only after a child’s birth, the fruitless debate between religion and science could be set aside.
Should the debate about abortion and contraception be the issues where Orthodox hierarchs make their political stand? The Western Christian attitude toward the human body is too influenced by Platonism, which sees the body as a prison of the soul instead of an integral and good part of God’s creation. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, might encourage a healthy sexual relationship within marriage. More importantly, Orthodox Christianity should get more involved in promoting adoption, and actively participate in the foster care networks. These efforts do communicate an Orthodox attitude of unconditional love and forgiveness devoid of judgment and arrogance. This is the difference between political involvement and Philanthropia. Philanthropia is the long tradition of Christianity for living our faith through acts of charity. We can be clearly against abortion as a method of contraception, but we must emphasize options that encourage women to bring unwanted pregnancies to term. Western converts to Orthodoxy seem more inclined to get involved in charitable works than do “cradle Orthodox.” Shouldn’t we perform good works and leave politics alone?
Neither someone’s personal choice for an abortion, nor a governmental decision about contraception funding, threatens the sanctity of the Church’s conscience. Active participation in partisan politics does, however, pose a serious threat to our Orthodox conscience. Our nation’s current political divide has no regard for compromise, cooperation, or salvation. The vigilance needed to gain and maintain political victories is both all-consuming and unhealthy. Substituting an official Church agenda of political action for the goal of eternal well-being is clearly wrong-headed. There are legitimate questions as to the moral direction of our nation, whether we are sufficiently compassionate or morally compromised, but the political future of our nation should not be a concern for Orthodox hierarchs. Like the poor, governments will always be with us. We perform our civic duty by voting, but our duty to the Triune God is to perform good works. Given the choice of changing laws or changing lives, I pray we remain committed to loving God and serving others. Our Church’s leadership should be above politics and emphasize the praxis of living Christian lives in a pluralistic country.
As we celebrate this year’s Pascha, let us remember the words of St. John Chrysostom: “If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness. For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention. Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.”
This must be the official message of Orthodox Christianity. The clarity, absence of judgment, and emphasis on forgiveness is a message that should unite all Orthodox Christians as we strive to do a better job living our faith.
[iv] An excellent summary of the political and theological environment of Maximus see Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, The Early Church Fathers (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 3-18.
[v] Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), 123.
[vi] The Orthodox understanding of dispassion is not the absence of passion, but the free exercise of unconditional love. Deification, or theosis, is the Orthodox term for participation with the divine (2 Peter 1:4).
[vii] Galatians 2:16 “…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Romans 3:25 “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993).
[viii] St. John Chrysostom, “Paschal Homily.” http://oca.org/FSsermons-details.asp?SID=4&ID=10.
Ron Dudum is the author of Three Paradigms of Reality: From Homer to Einstein, www.threeparadigms.com. He is currently working on his Master’s in Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Mr. Dudum has been actively involved in partisan politics for almost three decades and was a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where in 2006 he was defeated by only 53 votes out of more than 20,000 cast.