We ended our last entry in this series with a string of questions regarding how Orthodox Christians should approach moral issues in the public sphere. How are we as Orthodox Christians are to conduct ourselves in public discourse, especially in disagreements and clashes over the meaning of our life together? Culture war at its heart is a conflict of meaning and how to order our lives together. There are grotesque and even cartoonish ways in which we can engage in disagreement. Slander, misrepresentation, and arguing from a place of bad faith pervade so many interactions. The meme culture that has grown up in the past few years points to just how cynical we have become and how alienated we are from each other. Instead of engaging with a different point of view, we immediately caricaturize and mock. We discover someone has a background in Evangelicalism and is from Mississippi and we have their number. Likewise someone else may engage with a person from Brooklyn who is in the Greek Archdiocese and immediately have them pegged as some kind of liberal or “Episcopalian”.
There are even worse permutations of how the “culture war” can become an excuse for all sorts of malicious and contentious behavior, all of which is justified by being “right”. This attitude applies to all parts of the spectrum, both to the “right” and to the “left.”
Is this how we are supposed to conduct ourselves when disagreeing with one another?
Is it possible for us to calmly, humbly, and respectfully engage in debate?
We will most likely not convince someone with reasoned arguments. Humans are more complicated than computers. This is one of the hangovers of the Enlightenment, the belief that through reason we can completely transform human life together and achieve peace. Accruing more sources, proof texts, and an array of arguments very rarely transforms moral debate. It is a truth that the way in which we engage is as important as the content we are arguing about!
The patience of the Church, especially exhibited by her martyrs, assumes that the world will respond to her message as they did to our Lord. The light entered into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light (John 3:19-21). We are to witness to the truth, in rational discourse but especially in the way in which we conduct ourselves. In fact, we fail to serve as witnesses when we use our disagreements as license for abuse and disrespect.
Orthodox Christians wage their war against false idols and counterfeit gospels by speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Our speaking the truth in love means we will come into conflict with so many of the tightly held beliefs of the world around us. This should be of no surprise to us. But why do we keep on acting as if it is? The world thinks differently than us and the thinking of the world infiltrates the Church. It always has. For us it should be our duty to continually examine our own mind and heart. The truth spoken in love should first shine a light upon our own assumptions and actions which do not line up with the truth of the Gospel. Within us all live ideas and/or ways of being that contradict and even exalt themselves above the knowledge of God. It is exactly these falsities which are to be cast down (2 Corinthians 20:4-6). The war which we are to wage as Christians begins with the roots of sin that are so deeply set within our own hearts. To be sure, this does not relieve us of our duty to witness to the truth of the Gospel, but it does underline for us the importance of attending to the Gospel at home first before we fire up Twitter and let’er rip. “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless” (James 1:26).
The Challenge of Metaphors
One of our core challenges in discussing how the Church is to relate to the world stems from the metaphors we employ. Using martial language can be a source of confusion. Describing the challenge of witnessing to the truth, through reasoned arguments as well as in a life shining with the virtues of Christ, as a kind of warfare can be challenging. What is the goal of war? For many of us we think of “total warfare” and perhaps think of von Clausewitz’s On War or Sherman’s March to the Sea. This is a kind of warfare that does not blink at bringing about total destruction against one’s enemies as a means to ending the conflict and securing victory. Whatever tools are available to bring the enemy to their knees are to be utilized.
This is not the kind of war we are to wage as Christians. The end does not justify the means.
The martial language of St. Paul must be understood from the perspective of our crucified Lord. He is the truth which measures all other truths. In fact, it would be a twisting and an abuse of St. Paul’s martial language to justify evil. As St. Paul clearly states, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
The reality of measuring all of our warfare against the tree of the Cross means that we have to come to a completely different understanding of warfare. This is the life in the Spirit described by the Holy Fathers. This is warfare waged through forgiving wrongs, reconciling the alienated, and rescuing the perishing. It definitely means the transformation of our rhetoric and the way in which we act on all of social media. What we say and how we say it must always be a witness to the love of Christ. It is not an excuse or cover for sin, for true love will address the reality of sin.
If we step into the public square to engage and point to the truth of the Gospels about sexuality, race, gender, marriage, peace, the environment, usury, economic justice, abortion, technology, etc. We must have prepared ourselves to engage with more than conviction, memes, and hyperlinks. We must be following in the footsteps of our crucified Lord.
Onward, Christian Soldiers
This series was kicked off by contemplating Robert George’s article, The Pagan Public Square: Our Christian Duty to Fight Has Not Been Cancelled. George employs this martial language in order to encourage and ground Christians for challenges he sees coming for little “o” orthodox Christians in North America. Disagree with his assessment? Fine! One can surely disagree with his read of the contemporary landscape. But I am hard pressed to understand the vitriol and disdain poured out against him for encouraging Christians to stand their ground.
George ends his article underlining the faith and courage it takes to witness to the truth of the Gospel.
So the question and challenge we face is simply this: Can we muster the courage to be faithful, to boldly bear witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political, and economic power? Are we willing, if necessary, to pay the costs—the heavy costs—of discipleship?
Of course, without God’s help, nothing of this kind would be possible. Yet we have it on the authority of Christ himself that God’s grace is superabundant. No one who asks for the courage to bear faithful witness will be denied it. No one who is prepared to take up his cross and follow Jesus will find the burden too great to bear.
So, shall we flee from the battle? No. Quite the opposite. Onward, Christian soldiers.
The battle before us is not with flesh and blood. And it is a constant battle. There is no pristine past to look back towards. And there is no need to think that the virtues we need to cultivate are any different than they ever have been. Our specific challenges lie before us and it is in the midst of these specific challenges God desires us to be faithful witnesses. Do not shirk the work of witnessing to the Gospel – some will deride this as “culture war.” Some will ask you politely, or even impolitely, to mind your own business and keep your opinions to yourself. For the sake of the Gospel one cannot remain silent.