I’m going to break a few personal rules in this post. Normally I try to write within the known bounds of the Eastern Orthodox faith. I also try to write about things I know – both rules limit the range of my writing. But for this post, I want to “think aloud” about some things that seem worth puzzling about.
I’ve long found it useful to look at things that are taken for granted, and question them – not question whether they are true (though sometimes I will go that far) – but mostly to ask what do they mean and to ask if there is a different or better way to say them.
I am not a “political scientist,” whatever that may mean. However, recent conversations on the blog have reminded me about some thoughts that I’ve not entertained for a while. These are questions about the nature of the thing we refer to as “the state.” What is a state and why does it have authority (even over life and death)? Where did the state come from – is it legitimate from a Christian perspective?
First answer. It seems obvious that there is something that people call a “state” and that it is not going away any time soon. The planet has arranged itself into “states” for a number of centuries (not that many actually) and states have amassed for themselves enormous powers, enormous wealth, and dreadful armaments. Whatever states are – they are big, rich, and dangerous.
Most states today embrace some theory of democracy (at least in an official sense). Very few, though some, still make some claim to divine right. Modern democracies do not make a claim to divine right (though some of them are given such a right by many of their Christian subjects – cf. America).
Imagine for a moment, a world that was organized not into states, but into commercial providers and commercial consumers. I’m not sure what we would call such an organization – maybe a business-state or some much more enlightened term. In such a world, providing for consumers would be the primary activity. Failure to provide would create the danger of being replaced by a more attractive provider – sort of like Microsoft being replaced by Apple. Can’t happen? Almost has.
In such a world, would you as a consumer feel any particular loyalty to the product providers? Would you go to war and kill for them? I have used this illustration precisely because killing for a corporation, for Kelloggs, or General Electric, just sounds absurd.
What is it about the nation-state that provokes such loyalty in people? America was the first nation that was founded as an “idea.” Whatever one may think of the Constitution – it is not a divinely inspired document and the founding of our nation was not a great divine intervention into the course of human history (except in the mind of a few heretical sectarians and cultists). My ancestors, if you need to ask, lived here then, and fought on the side of the American Revolution. However, having been to Great Britain, I cannot think the shedding of blood to have been reasonably justified in that revolutionary cause. Slavery lasted at least a generation longer in American than Britain – so much for freedom as a founding ideal.
I am not opposed to being rich – though I think to be rich is to have an ontologically precarious position (cf. camels and eyes of needles). I do not think that keeping somebody rich is a justifiable cause for killing someone. In the same manner I do not think killing someone to take their money is justified.
I will offer several conclusions – just thoughts from the day.
The State is an illusion (a very dangerous illusion). It is an illusion in that it has no particular standing within the Divine scheme. States are secular entities, the inventions of man for his own reasons, and are therefore illusory (in an ontological sense). The Kingdoms of this World will become the Kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ – Scripture tells us (but not until the end of all things). I am more afraid of being ruled by some Christians than I am of the current corporate class.
Having said that the State is an illusion doesn’t mean that I think you or I should try and make it disappear. I simply think the State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God. The State will not usher in the Kingdom, nor make it move further away or come closer.
I have mentioned several times lately that I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke when I was in the Doctoral Program there. I have carried a quote of his with me for the past 20 years or so that seems to go to the heart of question of the State:
As soon as we agree that we are responsible for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do murder.
I am not responsible for the outcome of history – God is. The current world drama is an act upon a stage written by those who believe they are responsible for history’s outcome. Of course, it is presently an absurdist drama. None in the American State Department have any idea what the “Arab Spring” is about. Even those who are making it happen seem to be less than sure. But we are certain enough to kill. That seems to me to be a serious bet that you either know the outcome, or think you can manage it.
One of the great tragic dramas of human world-management followed the Cease-fire that ended the First World War. The winners (led in large part by the British and by American President Woodrow Wilson) re-drew the map of the world. They created countries where none had existed. Some of the countries included dangerous imbalances of ancient enemies (Shiites versus Sunnis, for instance). The decisions were often arbitrary beyond belief. The result has been a century of turmoil and war – much of which is rooted in absurdities born in the space of six months of 1919.
I apologize for such political asides – but the fact that we do not control the outcome of history is made be exceedingly obvious by this small six month lesson.
So what is a Christian to do? “Do your best – and try not to sin so much.” A quote I rather like. But we should understand for our soul’s sake, that God has not placed human beings in the position of world-management. We should obey the authorities under which we live – so long as they do not ask us to break God’s commandments – but we should not become enamored of their power. They are chimeras – endowed with all the power of Pontius Pilate. He imagined himself to be a world manager – one who controlled life and death. The absurdity and emptiness of his self-conceit is revealed in the Person of Christ who stands before him, tolerating his judgment, because, “You could do nothing if it were not given you from above.” It is the Father’s will that Christ obeys – not the wicked fears and threats of a Roman Procurator.
When we think about the State (ours or any other), we would do well to bring the image of Pontius Pilate to mind, and remember the eternal figure of Christ before him. We need have no fear – nor need we listen to snake-oil salesmen who tell us that we rule the world.
Hauerwas, said once in class, “Because we are not in charge of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Please forgive me. I am an ignorant man. But these are things I’ve thought about today.
Amen. We had children and attempted to communicate to them the Gospel. My politics is ‘maranatha’. And the fifty other children that lived with us for months to years….we tried to communicate the Gospel.
Lord have mercy.
Well thanks for thinking of those things. I think what you said is interesting, so maybe you should wander outside your limits more frequently.
I especially liked, “Do your best and try not to sin so much.” It seems like a good plan to me.
Recently I heard what you’re saying put this way, “I wonder why I’m not a saint? Is it because I settle for less when I’m capable of being more? I wonder what God thinks of me.” He might be thinking I’m not doing my best and that I’m sinning too much.
would love to read more of these sort of musings, they make me feel like I am not alone when I ‘ponder’ things not often discussed in ‘Christian’ circles – hope you dont mind but I have shared this on Facebook
Father — I am reminded of the opening of the Edward Estlin Cummings poem “sonnet entitled how to run the world”: “A always don’t there B being no such thing …” You make many valuable and salutary points in this brief essay. Thank you.
Thank you for your thoughts on this, Father. Something I so needed this morning.
Put not your trust in princes…
Lord, have mercy.
The love of money is the root of all evils…..Paul
That’s the verse! It kept nagging me in the back of my mind and I could not seem to bring it forward (I was up late writing). But that’s precisely the thing – isn’t it?
I wish I had awards to hand out. Yours is the first comment out of over 25,000 to quote ee cummings. Congrats! My own thoughts usually turn to America’s master poet (Bob Dylan of Course). Several of his songs were playing through my head as I wrote… “Only a pawn in their game” was the most prominent.
Good thoughts, Father. I like a lot of what Hauerwas has to say… I think he would make a good Orthodox. 🙂 I wonder if you have read Peter Leithart’s “Parable of Prophet Stanley” interacting with his ideas? Basically, Leithart asks “What if the King accepts the Lordship of Christ? What is he to do, and how should the Church respond?” I believe our royal saints hold the answer.
I humbly submit the balance: Jesus told us to render what is due to the state in Matt. 22:21, While it may not have been God’s original plan for a Jewish Kingdom, He did bless its outcome in the line of David, Jesus’ human ancestors.
When there is no State government, we have anarchy, war, starvation and death. Thomas Hobbes is borne out in Somalia – life is solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short where there is no social contract to create a government and establish order.
Thanks Father for your post.
Odd things are certainly at play here with “the state” and its role.
Emporers called our Ecumenical Councils, which Councils we recognize to have divine authority over us, yet the emporers didn’t carry divine authority in themselves.
Christ is the true nation of Israel which results in the founding of a holy nation (the church).
And Acts 17 says this:
“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.”
Woe to us as nations of the world, but God has placed us where we are to seek him and find him, hence the church among all nations.
Careful, father. You’re dangerously close to the same kind of thinking that got the Romans riled up a while back. 😉
What do you propose we do then with the long list of imperial saints? Constantine, Helen, Irene, Boris, Gleb, Vladislav, the Romanovs, et alii… Certainly the role of the Church in the coronation ritual (dare I say sacrament?) implies that the state is not merely an illusion but as properly deemed authority given by God. In fact, St Paul’s verses on the authority given by God is precisely what is read at such services (at least in some traditions). It is precisely this reason why Czar Nicholas II didn’t surrender to the Bolsheviks: he believed his authority was given by God and that, as such, he had no authority to surrender it.
I think I can agree with you insomuch as democracy is concerned however. The notion that authority is merely that of human creation and that we can build a better society without the Church is certainly illusory at best, and Babel at its worst.
I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. I do not think it is outside the topic of your blog. Thank you.
Nathaniel, forgive my interjection.
I think that states and other political entities are necessary if only to fill a void Adam created when he abdicated his role as the world’s eucharistic priest and king. Adam was to bring the world to maturity / perfection by nurturing its potential to love God.
The church is the only place on earth where proper governance may be seen and enjoyed because only there is the kingdom of this world lovingly restored to its creator by the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord.
First of all, thank you for your excellent blog. It is both invigorating and thought-provoking on many occasions.
Second, have you read the work of another Hauerwas student, William T Cavanaugh? His thoughts on the subject you’ve brought to light here are very instructive. I heartily recommend him.
Fr. Gregory Long
Thank you for this post. I especially like your phrase “the State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God.” I strongly feel the same should be said about political parties and the most popular commentators… or maybe about politics in general. As you point out, some things are not worth killing for, but it is easy even in American to whip people into a frenzy to the extent they will cheer for the death of a person.
The first few centuries of Christianity witnessed powerful voices that defied political convention by preaching the simple message that our faith should be lived out, to give of ourselves for the healing of the world. And for our own salvation. No marches or protests required for either the facade of liberty or the pittance of government assistance.
As someone who teaches classes on politics, I also try to look at things we take for granted and see if there is a better way to explain them. It is a difficult task in a political climate where everyone with a political axe to grind cries “freedom!” and yet devolves into a boorish hypocrisy, whether legislating the death of innocents or cheering the death of the poor. As in the early centuries we need to hear again from those who live within the cycle of feasts, those who pray the hours, the ascetics, and the descendants of martyrs. I suppose that is a long way of saying your thoughts on politics and the state are welcome. Give us more as best you can.
Father, bless! Thank you for thinking aloud. I think it is time well spent.
“Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” We sing it during every DL.
Reflecting along with you: We submit to, but do not put our ultimate loyalty or trust in, the governing authorities whom God has allowed temporal power for his own purposes. If they require us to sin, we are obligated by God to resist and accept the consequences. If God calls us to serve within a government in some capacity as he did with Joseph and Daniel in the OT, it is possible to do so with spiritual integrity and reliance on God. (As an aside, I just realized as I am writing here that neither of these were in the Promised Land–they were both in exile, Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, when pressed into worldly service in this way. That has to be significant. I also am reminded that the pre-monarchy Israelites were rebuked and sternly warned of the negative consequences when they clamored to have a king like the surrounding nations!)
We indeed do not control outcomes, but the story of Joseph and Daniel show we may, as faithful persons, be used of God to further his good purposes even within worldly governments. What is perhaps also important to note about Joseph and Daniel is that they did not seek, but rather were thrust, into positions of authority and influence because of the gifts of wisdom given them by God. I’m not sure what that means in terms of seeking office in a democracy–perhaps it just means we had better be doubly careful about our own motives, i.e., are we seeking to better serve God and our neighbor in this way with the gifts of wisdom he has given us, or looking for undue influence and control? As the prayer of St. Ephrem reminds us, lust of power is a vice to be avoided.
What do you propose we do then with the long list of imperial saints?
I’m not sure they are canonized due to their standing in a particular form of government (a monarchy or empire). They are saints because of what they did with that power (Constantine) or because of how they died (Boris and Gleb). Tsar St. Nicholas, for instance, isn’t a saint because he was a good Tsar, he’s a saint because he was a passion bearer accepting the death put before he and his family as a Christian would. I think Canadian’s comment important: “Emperors called our Ecumenical Councils, which Councils we recognize to have divine authority over us, yet the emperors didn’t carry divine authority in themselves.”
Similarly, saints who were wealthy in life are not saints because of their wealth – often, it’s despite their wealth, and due to an acceptance of poverty or a martyric death (e.g., St. Elizabeth the New Martyr).
Allow me the voice of dissent, to continue the questioning. With democracy and representative governments it is much more difficult to draw a sharp line between those that govern and those that are governed. In a real way we all are those that rule and we share responsibility. This complicates an a-political position. So what then does this “extreme relativized” stance toward the state mean? Is this not side stepping the underlying issues, a convenient hat trick? I think it can be argued, as O’Donovan demonstrates in “Desire of the Nations” that authority pre-dates our existence and from the very beginning is part of creation (I.e. God over Adam, Adam over Eve, God’s kingship over Israel, and so forth). The state of the modern state is not a justification to ignore or do away (if we could) with authority. The state thus is not an illusion.
It seems to me that the binary categories of world management on the one hand and “nothing else better to do” on the other, provide us with a false set of choices. Truly, are we confined to a choice between murder and withdrawal?
In a revolutionary age (from 1776 forward) and in the face of the religious fealty both the nation-state and ideology too often demand as their right, I think it’s important to balance the two points you made here:
“We should obey the authorities under which we live – so long as they do not ask us to break God’s commandments – but we should not become enamored of their power.”
The post seems to stress the illusory aspect of the State (the second point) and less the first point. Obeying our rulers is, however, important when all seem too eager to oppose those in power, in words mainly, but maybe also in deeds beyond voting and lobbying given the heat of rhetoric being thrown around.
Another pole to balance would likely need to account for whether the state can be rightly opposed, and how. Can we rightly throw off tyranny and exploitation directed at us, personally, or should we turn the other cheek? More importantly, what is our responsibility in caring for our neighbor in the face of tyranny and exploitation directed at them? Are we our brothers’ keeper?
There will be a State (of some sort) until the time of the fullness of Christ’s Second Coming. No doubt. But we should treat them as far less than ultimate.
Nations and States are two very separate things (I would note). Emperors called Councils (and often caused far more trouble than the few, very few, that the Church accepts). Emperors persecuted the Church about as often as they tried to manipulate it to their own ends. That God used some of this nonsense is because He is a good God and loves mankind, not because Empires and their rulers are so great and good.
I venerate saints, including those who were imperial. But their canonization is not on account of their imperial status – it’s almost in spite of it. Else there would be far more imperial saints. Boris and Gleb are wonderful examples. We have crowned Czars and had a right to expect better of them than we often received. But we don’t crown presidents, etc. I have a very high regard for Royalty, and think of that as far different than the modern nation state. But, of course an emperor can renounce his crown just as a Bishop or Priest can renounce their orders. We’re human beings.
I think you well stated the propaganda of the modern democracy. Its ability to co-opt citizens into idealized notions that they, too, are part of the state is far too successful. “They” are largely taking care of interests that have little to do with their citizenry.
Of course the state is not going to go away until God sweeps it away. I do not advocate any such thing. But it is, at best, a “necessary evil.” Obeying God’s commandments is never a withdrawal. But I believe the world is held together far more by the prayers of the saints than by the empty power of the state. Violence is emptiness. And yes, the State is an illusion. It has no ontology. There are people, who exercise authority, and must be held accountable for that stewardship. But there is no such thing as a state. “Nation” in Scripture is not to be confused with “State.” The word “Nation” is “Peoples” or “Tribes,” in Scripture. There is no word for State in either Old or New Testament.
The American state has far more assurance about the ontological status of the banking industry and the IRS, but not about unborn children. I obey God’s commandments (obey and pray for those in authority) but don’t ask me to think of them in a way that would give consent to the lies of modernity.
“The planet has arranged itself into “states” for a number of centuries (not that many actually) and states have amassed for themselves enormous powers, enormous wealth, and dreadful armaments. Whatever states are – they are big, rich, and dangerous.”
In our fallen world, us fallen people, gather for both good and bad reasons into states. Though many states are “big, rich, and dangerous”, many have also at the same time,helped to provide for the common good, protected their members from evils both from without and from within, and provided a space where love of God and neighbor can be freely exercised. The abuse of a thing though does not neglect it’s proper use. And though the state will always be subject to the abuses that have been outlined, and indeed should never become a substitute for the kingdom of God, it still can fulfill a useful role in our now and not yet world.
Keep God’s commandments, and we will fulfill all that He requires.
I’m glad you feel so safe. Big, rich, and dangerous, is still dangerous. I live here, by the will of God, but that doesn’t mean I gathered myself into a state. I obey the state. Pay my taxes. Give Caesar his due. But I do not agree that I gathered into the state – nor did you. I am not an anarchist or revolutionary (far from it) but I will not give more than a very relative status to the state. That someone is an American or an Afgan makes no difference in the eyes of God. (Boy that was hard to say!)
I am so glad I found this blog. I love reading your musings. For someone stepping outside of “what they know,” you make a whole lot of sense. Thank you!
I understand your distinction between state and nation, and I agree, however as political authority goes I don’t see how this resolves my question. Where does this political authority come from? Is it granted by the people, or assumed and kept by those in power? Whoever is in power is ordained so by God, and we simple resign ourselves?
And yes, we must keep the Gospel commands as you mention to Melxiopp – but our discussion is how this is done, what does it mean such as in situations Melxiopp raises. Well, anyways, thanks for raising the subject.
And yes, please forgive me, I too am an ignorant man.
Fr. Stephen, if I may,
Apparently, the entire universe exists solely for the good pleasure of the Creator.
I say apparently, because there is a thread that runs through Holy Scripture (right through) that is only visible to the unbeamed eye.
We are, it seems, in very good company indeed. 🙂
Like Kathy I found your blog a few months ago and am very grateful I did so. You do good work here. I have no illusions – it IS a work. Lots of us are like Robert and are desperate to have answers for big issues and tough questions. You are only one man, doing the best you can. You may be years in coming to have concrete answers for those kinds of questions – or never. And yet that doesn’t stop you from feeding the poor with what you have.
I want to honor and thank you for that work. Like yourself and many here, I come from a Protestant background and am very thirsty for something deeper and more solid than my past. Orthodoxy has much richness to share with the world, and yet I find a great need for a translator. My ears are not always shaped to hear the words that come from the mouths of the saints and I’m too far away from the pool that the angels have stirred.
I heard about you from Benedict Seraphim (http://benedictseraphim.wordpress.com) and am very grateful for the light you shed, the ministry to you have to us in “the West”. I pray that you continue to do so. The prudence is always the watchword, I like others hope that you will continue to venture outside your two usual limits when God nudges you and/or you see the great need.
God bless, drew
“The State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God.”
“Because we are not in charge of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Good words, but why can’t we establish Orthodox schools and hospitals?
I would quickly say that All authority comes from God – except for that which is an impostor. The state may say that it gets its authority from the consent of the governed. But it is God to whom it is accountable. For instance, if the Nazi party was legitimately elected, then it and all those who voted for them and all those who allowed them to remain, have an accountability before God. Not that many could have done much. But democracy is no more a defense than “I was just following orders.” We follow God, and God alone. Thus, all political power must be under the judgment of the commandments of God, and therefore relative. It’s claim to authority cannot trump its responsibility for obedience to God’s commands. My ancestors who held slaves here in the American South were wrong, and were wrong before God and the State that allowed it was wrong. This was not a matter of simply evolving to a new moral awareness. In the history of Christianity, such slavery was a giant step backwards (even from the Law of the Old Testament). It was simply wicked and evil and any reader of Scripture who refused to see that was blinded in his heart by greed. I will not try to absolve my ancestors in such a manner – but I pray for their salvation (because I’m Orthodox, and that’s what we do).
In my lifetime (which now stretches nearly 6 decades), I have not seen a government that was righteously more in need of support and in less need of citizens who criticized and corrected. Things are in many ways worse rather than better. I’ll readily admit that I’m cynical about modern governments – though I always vote – but I am frankly disgusted by much that we do, and by much that the citizenry allows to continue. And I know that I will have to give an account along with the State for much that has taken place. May God help us.
I am hopeful in Christ, and find increasingly that we should hope in Him alone. Princes and the sons of men are a dangerous, lying group of scoundrels (not to be too judgmental). I rejoice when we see light in such places, but I see very little of it.
Trust in God and keep His commandments, and pray for the salvation and forgiveness of all. That, to me, is the road of hope.
Of course, OO, such things would be very good things.
“Princes and the sons of men are a dangerous, lying group of scoundrels (not to be too judgmental). I rejoice when we see light in such places, but I see very little of it.”
Go Ron Paul!
(Sorry, couldn’t resist 😉
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your sane voice amidst the present insanity of political discourse, sectarianism, and vitriol from the both left & the right. May you, in your ignorance most blessed by God, continue to bless us with your ministry.
Maybe living within the State and simultaneously living within the Church provides the perfect venue for spiritual growth. Most of us tip one direction or the other throughout our lives.
We call those who live in the world, and with God,
St. James said, “O ye adulterers and adulteresses! Know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” Seems to have had a different take on the subject. The world belongs to God – not the State.
A reflection, if I may, on Prudence’s:
We call those who live in the world, and with God,
This rocks. For the Lord comes not to call the just, but sinners. (Mk 2:17)
This is one of the aspects of orthodox philosophy that I find troubling. It seems to me that it basically negates the potential for man’s involvement in the world as a historical force.
History can be seen as a long tale of suffering and unnecessary misery, but it can also be seen as a tale of great accomplishments and progress. It probably is both, but you can’t disentangle one dimension from the other.
By setting a standard of a detached, ascetic mindset with minimum interference with worldly affairs, I’m afraid that orthodoxy prepares the ground for societal backwardness and idleness.
If for example, as a christian, I am not prepared to kill, for whatever reason, and I make this the priority that guides my whole philosophy of life, then it follows that I must be prepared to be killed – for whatever reason. Because this goes against my survival instincts, if I really take my religion seriously I ‘d better leave this fallen world for the safe solitude of the monastery. And that is, as far as I know, the case in most of the orthodox world: monastic life is considered somehow ‘better’, holier than a secular one.
Why then should I have children, why in fact should I do anything that involves long-term commitment and investment of my time and energy?
If I deny the ability to influence history, then I don’t really exist within history, I am simply passing the buck to those willing to do it.
I would love to see your thoughts on this Father. Thanks for your patience.
Father Stephen, you mentioned:
“Imagine for a moment, a world that was organized not into states, but into commercial providers and commercial consumers. I’m not sure what we would call such an organization – maybe a business-state or some much more enlightened term. In such a world, providing for consumers would be the primary activity. Failure to provide would create the danger of being replaced by a more attractive provider”
This is one very interesting idea, that suggests further research. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take this idea and see how far it can go and how implementable it is.
I had a discussion elsewhere a fellow believer from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who felt that since we hold the ecumenical councils as infallible (and we do) and the councils were called by the emperor in response to heresy, that that somehow brought legitimacy to the Throne. I responded as follows: Just as Moses struck the rock, when God instructed him to speak to it, water still gushed out and the thirsty people drank. But God said “Since you hit the rock rather than speaking to it, you will not lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel” (Numbers 20.11-12). It was not God’s best for Moses and his people. Evidenced by the letters of Paul and Ignatius, as well as the writings of Irenaeus and others prior to the establishment of Roman Orthodoxy, the early Church was able to put error and heresy in its place without the aid of the Emperor’s sword. The question as I see it is would the councils have been necessary had Arius not had the condition to spread his teaching without impunity or Arianism reaching the highest levels of the imperial court? Would the third council have been necessary had bishops outside the realm been excluded? Fast forward, would the seventh council have been necessary if the iconoclastic emperor and his measures against the Church been initiated? I hold to the ecumenical councils in high esteem but they were not Plan A but Plan B because the faithful departed from Jesus’ opposition to and rejection of the demonic realm. I know that I’m not the only Orthodox Christian that feels that way.
Father, making me think, as usual. One thought, and one question:
1) I am not an Afghani Christian, but I’m guessing most Afghani Christians would much rather live under the U.S. government than the Afghan government.
2) Assuming a Christian politician shared your view of the state, what should his/her political program for the U.S. look like in light of the pressing issues the U.S. faces today?
Thank you Father! I agree that each of us needs to engage and think through the issues that affect our lives. As you say, not always to change things but to understand them. I have a few miscellaneous thoughts, not so much in opposition to yours, but perhaps a different facet on the jewel perhaps even sitting next to yours.
First, I believe the state is necessary for the ordering of the community and, if you will, the regulation of morality and ethics. As has already been pointed out, without the state you have anarchy. If you subject ethics to a system based on principles of consumerism all you have is a rule of personal perference with no right or wrong. I think we see hints of this in some of today’s social trends. I think we can also see how differing moral perspectives give rise to clashes between civilizations. How are today’s cultures whose legal and moral systems are built, in part, on God’s Commandment not to tell lies to effectively engage those cultures for whom lies told to protect or promote themselves are virtuous?
I believe that the state generates loyalty and even sacrifice because it is realitvely fixed. As such it affords our lives some amount of stability. To challenge the state is to challenge our stability – not always a bad thing. A system of consumerism cannot provide that stability of life. It’s a bit absurd to consider shedding blood over the question of “Coke vs. Pepsi” (Pepsi) or even “Old Coke vs. New Coke.”
Lastly, while it certainly contains some truth, I am not comfortable with your statement that we are not responsible for the outcome of history. Yes, indeed God is. But we too are responsible, not so much for the grand scheme of things but for the incidents of daily life that fit together to build “history.” Are we to sit at home and assume that God will do something about the poor and homeless? Are we simply to shake our heads and “tsk” about abortion? Our individual efforts may not bring about change, but our collective efforts can. Doesn’t God work through us to order the course of history?
Again, I post these thoughts not so much in disagreement but as perhaps an expansion. Thank you.
Peter, I agree completely. From an Orthodox perspective, Councils are never inherently good thing. They are only called to deal with something that for some reason cannot be dealt with effectively on a local basis. St. Gregory the Theologian, walked out of Constantinope ! say, “Ive never seen a council produce anything but anger and rancor.” The Council met, it’s actions were accepted as authoritative – but his attitude was truly Orthodox.
Sometimes, it seems that the RC definition regarding papacy and Councils makes some in the West feel that a Council is authomatically infallible is its just organized in the right way. Councils have authority because God acts. The Anglicans treat their local councils (a national convention, etc.) as infallible or as “The Holy Spirit has spoken” when the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to have said much to them in any number of centuries. God is not mechanical, nor is he impressed with creditials. God is God and is no repecter of persons.
Thomas, since you cannot make even one hair white or black, or cause yourself to grow an inch, you are not apparaently in control of the outcome of history. We are responsible to keep the commandments. I’ve seen too many good men (and women) lose their way because they were worried about how something would be perceived or how it would turn out. Worse still, we have more and more people turning to the Masters of Deception to convince people things turned out one way when they didn’t. We are fast becoming a culture of the lie.
Simply keep the commandments. We are not commanded to do these other things. God might choose to work through us, and He may just as well work through a fox crossing a road, to quote the Elder Paisios. Keep the commandment and pray and don’t think to highly of ourselves. God resists the proud but gives more grace to the humble.
As fine as the American nation is – it must renounce lying as acceptable on so many levels. A lie is an allegiance with non-being – a prayer that the devils have their way.
I wanted to thank you Fr Stephen for a thought provoking blog which I am sharing with others. I am a born Englishwoman who became Orthodox nearly 2 years ago and it was good to read this, on so many levels
This is a topic that I tend to think about on occasion, having been born in Romania, lived in Nigeria for a couple of years and in the US for sixteen. Perhaps because I read it at an impressionable age, when I do think about nations and states, a quote from Friedrich Durrenmatt comes to mind. In “Romulus the Great,” when Romulus is asked to save the mother/father land (don’t remember which), he replies, “when it sends the multitudes to their deaths, the state always adopts the name of mother/father land.”
I also read somewhere something about a priest and his congregation – that a holy priest will have a good congregation, a good priest a decent congregation, a decent priest a lukewarm congregation, etc. I wonder whether there isn’t a similar logic to be applied to people and leaderships in a democracy – a holy people will have a good leadership, good people, a decent one and so on. Maybe it’s just a hope, since I tend to think (though ‘think’ is rather the wrong word here) that one of the main jobs of the priest is to bring people to holiness and viceversa – which is why it is an impossible job and it requires the Holy Spirit to fill what is lacking.
In any case, and this is somewhat in reply to Petros, there may be other, more direct, ways in which the Church engages society and the state, but at the very least she tries to plant the leaven of faith within society. Perhaps this isn’t as direct a change as you may envision, but neither is it a lack of involvement within society.
Phew. For two cents, I sure write a lot…
Fr. Stephen, congratulations on your initial foray into an obviously controversial area. Owing to your expansive treatment, you’ve included a little something with which all of us, even those of us who favor the periodic freshening of the Tree of Liberty, can agree.
On a more speculative note, it seems to me that statecraft belongs amongst those curses that God pronounced on Adam and Eve, such as farming, labor, childbirth, patriarchy, death and so on (Gen 3:16-19). Maybe you have a different view.
I am not sure what specifically provoked this topic, but it is certainly not outside the realm of fair comment. Of course, carefulness is in order as well…
Firstly, America may be held up as the world’s best surviving example of a credal or almost ideological nation. However, while its constitution and laws may make reference to classical liberal thought, this has never been a particular motivator for its population. That is to say, far more people shed blood for their land and folk, even in America, than for any abstract notion of “freedom”. Equally, when Soviets of various ethnic groups defended their land against German invasion, Marxism-Leninism was not first in many soldiers’ minds. I am rather sure most colonialist soldiers thought they were fighting for their land and collective future freedom (not least control over its own monetary system), not so much for some sort of proto-libertarian doctrine.
Feeling the need to respond to an aside remark: slavery may seem antithetical to the propagation of human liberty, but chattel slavery can only be seen in relativity to wage slavery. Liberal activists in Britain who agitated for the abolition of slavery often also heralded the rise of “those dark, satanic mills”. Slavery was likely far more rife in free trading, Whiggish Britain than in, say, the German states (or, more arguably, in the industrial US North than the patriarchial South). It is an error to term all slaveholding as an “evil” rather than setting the issue in relativity to other social and business relations. Chattel slavery was eliminated not because we became better people, but because it came to be economically backwards or anti-historical.
Addressing your primary theme: yes, the State should not have the total, unquestioning allegiance of Christians and the latter should view its power and function in relativity to other institutions. I can sometimes find it a dangerous illusion that some other Christians (to some extent Catholic doctrine, but not least many American Protestants) claim that God created the State. That said, the State is a hallmark of civilisation whose violence and corruption should equally be viewed in relativity to those tendencies of private individuals and of non-State institutions. It is rational and righteous for Christians to be involved in the State, I would think, far more so than being involved in private sector corporations whose purpose is apparently less moral than that of the State. After all, everyone has to have a job; the need for survival is always a source of compromise.
I am not sure I have a picture of Pilate as highly conceited from the Gospels. Perhaps it is a better example of how a non-State group (in this case, the Jewish clerical establishment) can use an otherwise neutral or sceptical (<Pilate) State to accomplish the evils for which the State alone is so often held responsible.
Equally, most wars and major campaigns of oppression launched by governments are not the natural outcome of their existence, but the result of private cliques or groups manipulating its machinery for its own benefit. If it were not called the State, it would go under a different name. Christians cannot simply retreat from issues of war and revolution, because all options contain violence, though they certainly should not lose their perspective. Rather, it is imperative for Christians to be as informed as possible in order to understand and evaluate the motivations of various factions involved, the likely outcome of conflicts if X, Y, or Z shall triumph, and make a positive reaction. Perhaps, Petros Konstantinidis made this point in the comments more succinctly.
In the current situation, this would mean taking a stand on American foreign policy. The Church is right to view such conflicts and revolutions as in Libya and other Arab countries as events that come and go, without allying too strongly with States or protestors. However, it could be much stronger in speaking out against self-interested imperial interference that prolongs bloodshed, suffering, and general disorder. If you want to talk about evil, there it is…
My concern is that I understand the “state”‘ to be simply more than abstracte entity towering over people. This implies a certain distinction between public and private which in many ways did not exist for many cultures, civilizations, and religions. The state is the highest expression of human interconnectedness and arises from society, and ultimately, the family. This simply seems inherent to being human, and to say the state should be marginilized or relativized seems to speak in an incorrect context. It implies when I read it, a certain degradation of the family. I do not mean to be rude or bothersome, I just don’t see how the “state” is only as you describe it, and if it is fundamental to human nature, then would God not crown it with His authority?
Father, I honestly think you have overreached here. Certainly the modern ‘state’ is not permanent or has any eschatological substance. However, to say that it does not have an ontological meaning is incorrect. Human beings simply cannot exist without some temporal order.
The state therefore reflects our being. In a real sense it is the sum of what we believe ourselves to be as human beings. Thus it cannot be an illusion. It may be distorted, evil, a comic/sad mixture of good and evil, but also capable of genuine virtue even beyond what most individuals are capable. When a people, as a whole are striving for some semblance of Christian virtue and transformation, the state will reflect it–but less than the best.
In that is the seed of why people are willing to die in service to the state and to kill as well. To kill another human being is a horrible thing to do, but there are worse things we can do such as to stand idly by while others are subjected to soul killing ideologies to protect our own sense of virtue.
We always, even in a tyranny get the type of government we want as a people. Just as in the Church our bishops reflect the level of our own desire to know and be like Christ.
Chris, on what basis can you claim that the State,and not the Church, is “the highest expression of human interconnectedness”?
We do disagree. All good things come of God. He alone is the source of our life. There may a a “stochastic” role, some order given to our lives by how we organize ourselves, or by very natural orders such as the family, but to take such an order and project it into some that has an existence of its own, and of its own can make rightful demands, etc., is false and illusory and would become dangerously idolatrous in the hands of many. We obey the state, out of obedience to God, but not because the state has some sort of inherent good. It might have an “inherent” order, but order can be quite dubious at times. Many young people have been deceived in the name of states (Hitler Youth, etc.). We chould teach respect, etc., proper loyalty, etc., but some things belong to God alone. We venerate saints, but we worship God. We have an honor that is due to rulers, but not something ontological, actually possessing an existence of its own. Such an existence I do not find in Scripture or the Fathers – I’m willing to be corrected but not on the basis of experience alone. If I’m over-reachng, I do apologize, but I’ve held such thoughts as a Christian for a very long time (though not with as much discussion as here).
Robert, I indeed agree with you. The interconnectedness we have with one another is in our life in Christ – this transcends even our biological “interconnectedness” which perishes with the body. God alone is the giver of Life. It is union with God that alone makes union with one another possible, except in forms that are “soulish” (to use the Scriptural term) or worse.
I have no problem giving honor, etc. to authority, but unity among human beings comes only from God in Christ.
Not Orthodox, but not unOrthodox either, I like to think – a quote from G.B. Caird’s commentary on Revelation 13:
“But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv).”
A superb blog entry. I wish I had your ignorance, Fr. Stephen!!
It is interesting that the fathers see the State (or whatever passed for state in their time) under the heading of the “garments of skin” (Gen. 3:21). Panayiotas Nellas’ Deification in Christ (St. Vladimir’s Press), dedicates a fair amount of time to the topic. The “garments of skin” are taken to refer not just to Adam and Eve’s need for clothing, but for the entire provision of God for man’s life in a fallen world. It would include such things as the state, laws, customs, etc. They are protective and provisional (like garments of animal skins) but only provisional. These are given us because God is a good God. We should give thanks for these things – without them live would be brutish and short. But the garments of skin, in their various guises still have to be named for what they are – particularly when they may be mistaken for more.
In the book of Daniel we get a rare glimpse at “nations” from an angelic perspective. Daniel prays for an extended period before the angel Michael came to him. Michael’s excuse for the delay was that he was “resisted by the Prince of Persia,” making reference to an angelic/demonic/something-or-other that had Persia as his interest. Michael was the protector of Israel. There’s so much more to the reality of nations than governments, etc. But that reality is not the same as the ontology of our salvation.
If I may, I’d like to add a bit to the discussion here.
The “consent of the governed” is in tension with the “will of the governors” in most states nowadays. For instance, the government of Syria is cracking down on what they see as an insurrection bent on toppling that government. People are dying; the president of Syria remains in power. The governed are beginning to withdraw their consent, but the will of those in power in the established government remains stronger than the muted consent they now possess. A willingness to kill is at play.
Sooner or later, the population will become so completely sick of the government, though, that they will take measures sufficient to topple the existing order. If what we’ve seen in other countries this “Arab Spring” is any indication, the outcome may be far from what is expected.
The Who had a song years ago, Won’t Get Fooled Again. The money quote is this: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That was true a century ago, and it likely hasn’t changed. Power is taken by those who aspire to it, and power becomes a god that shakes its fist at the one true God and his ways.
There is no such thing as a “Divine Right” of states. That applies only to kings.
I Think that the problem with the “State” as we know it today is that it has no divine mandate whatsoever. In the past the Emperor could claim rule by Divine Right and it was accepted as a matter of fact . The modern state seeks its own Deification or acts as its own god irrespective of being a ‘democratic republic” This reminds me of reading about the early Church. The Saints were martyred because they wouldn’t acknwoledge the Divinity of the Roman Emperor, they wouldn’t burn incense to him or worship him. Whats the parralel? the Modern State is just like the Emperor , and the outcome is is that we will go back to square one like what the early Church had to endure. It will be almost impossible to be a Christian and obey those in civil authority because they “they eat the forbidden fruit and like the taste” or in other words they seek to be god without Gods assistance
Throughout history you can see the “spirit of this world” manifest itself in different ways and use diverse methods. I don’t think we are or have been in danger of late to be in open persecution for our Christian faith (at least not in the west, and not that it can’t return to this), but we are facing persecution of a different kind: one of subversion. We allow our faith to be subverted by means of conformity to the cultural norms around us, re-defining the meaning and purpose of the Gospel to serve the ends of this spirit – to further the goals of the state and nation, political and military goals, commercial needs, personal comfort, entertainment and so forth. Subversion is hard to recognize, hard to identify – it is not all-out open warfare, but more akin to hidden-in-the-bush guerrilla attacks.
What this means for Christians is that we need to be prepared to fight the guerrilla warfare. Know our enemy, the types of ways and methods he uses. Things are much more complicated, not out in the open and clear, issues are less black and white, but much more nuanced. This requires a heightened awareness on our part, a greater familiarity with our faith and deeper, nuanced understanding of the touch-point issues, a humility to question our own ways and habits. In short, an ability and willingness to resist the spirit of the world in its subversive ways, and maintain a robust personal and communal spiritual life.
Isn’t the first step to resisting the “spirit of the world” to not speak of those who hate us as “enemies.” We should not be plotting strategy against them, but praying for them. This militarized talk is not what our Lord demands of us.
Right you are, things are not as black and white as they may seem, hence the need for a healthy spiritual life….
As to the use of military metaphor, I am content to follow the Apostles’ footsteps and see no reason why we shouldn’t use their examples.
as I understand it, the military and warfare imagery is essential to the Christian calling. It is precisely because we- as Christians- use such language *spiritually*, as an image of the true warfare “which is not against flesh and blood, but against powers”, that we know bloodshed is not the Way.
In Christ, we have one enemy- the prince of darkness. And our King and General has overcome him!
If we are speaking about spiritual forces, I agree. If, however, we are speaking about fellow men, then I prefer the path of St. Isaac:
“Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”
I took your words as references to culture war rather than spiritual war.
While remaining neutral on the point about military imagery, I want to ask, what is the difference between a cultural war and a spiritual war, unless we take a spiritual war to be an individual struggle alone? Of course, culture conflicts can concern non-spiritual forces as well, so a better way to phrase the question is how is a spiritual “war” carried out among large groups of people not also a cultural war? One can certainly participate in a mass struggle of spiritual forces concerning a large group of people without being a persecutor. I am sure we would agree we cannot say you should not advocate your positions due to the risk of looking zealous or being overcome by arrogance. I might even argue that you are a participant, willing or not, in how you live both publicly and privately, in what you tolerate in yourself and in your nearest company.
If I may. Spiritual wars are always waged in the desert. I would add that there is very little (nothing) that is cultural in the ultimate facedown between light and dark. Amen.
Again, I do not think I follow unless you mean to isolate all spiritual struggle as an individualistic phenomenon, the war within one spirit alone. In any other case, you are dealing with spiritual issues that are partly individual but also social. Insofar as they are social, they are manifest in the culture…thus struggles of a spiritual nature are cultural. If you say “spiritual wars are always waged in the desert” simply as if it were fact (with emphatic “amen”), you seem to be implying you only see spiritual wars as issues within a man’s soul. This only works if you actually do live in the desert, outside of society and civilisation.
Culture itself is not the struggle of good vs. evil, it is the domain in which the (majority of the) struggle is carried out. Without civilisation/culture, which provides us with education, technology, and free time, we would not be having this discussion about spiritual warfare.
Philip, historic Christian and Orthodox theology and practice does not know a bifurcation between the spiritual and cultural, they are distinct but certainly intersect and do influence each other. Such a bifurcation is to overlook our interconnectedness with our neighbor and a failure to bear his burden. This is not to advocate culture wars.
Father Stephen, ignoring the discussion, I wanted to say that you’ve said things here that my husband and I have been feeling our way toward for some time and which have reached the status of something like a conscientious conviction. Just before we started to consider Orthodoxy, my husband joined a branch of the U.S. military. So far he has been prevented from deploying overseas, but now when he has only a year of military service left he is being deployed – and with all the changes that have occurred for us since he joined, this prospect presents a much different face to us than it did five years ago.
There is only a slight chance that the deployment will be cancelled and we will probably know within the next two weeks. One of our deepest desires is that he will not be put in a position in which he has to kill anyone with his own hand. If he has to he will, because at that moment it is necessary to protect one’s companions. But it is not a good situation to be in. Of course there are all sorts of questions of obedience… and questions of why our nation is fighting the battles it is fighting right now. It’s not as clear as outright pacifists want to make it – at least not to us, not now. Some Orthodox prophecy seems to indicate that Islam will be the primary instrument of the end of the world and that Orthodox nations will go to war again. But this does not seem, as I said, a good situation for my husband right now and many deep doubts attend it.
In a related comment, I wanted to point out something about the connection between idealism (as in ‘the U.S. was founded upon an idea’) and the rise of that particular kind of violence found within the order of the modern state. While most people think of an idealist as someone who just wants things to be better, it’s more precise (and, I think, more accurate) to say that an idealist is someone who wants to move from an idea born of their own mind to a new form of reality which resembles that idea, while a realist moves in the opposite direction – from his best assessment of reality (not in its changing temporal facts but in its eternal structure and in the created nature of things) toward a rule of conduct for himself and those he governs. This difference goes to the heart of what it means to be a good man. Who creates the goodness with which the good man is endowed – the man’s own mind, or his Creator?
That said, I think that violence is inherent in idealism. The moment I am willing to force reality to conform to an ideal I invented, I also become willing to do violence to the existing structure of reality. And lest anyone think that is not serious, the structure of reality includes human nature – the great battleground of recent generations. Gender studies is perhaps the most cutting-edge example of this kind of thing. From what I can tell, college departments of gender studies frankly accept lying (“re-writing history”) as the modus operandi of their efforts to force human nature to conform to a new idea of what sexuality should mean and be. So far they have only done violence to the Truth – but an “only” like that is hardly a “merely.” Most young secular “conservatives” now seem to accept the basic conclusions propagated by gender studies and young Christians don’t seem to be far behind. The recent law passed in California instructing that all K-12 history textbooks from that state (which are used all over the U.S.) include lessons on the positive contributions of sexually disordered people shows that people devoted to the ideal of a multiple-gender view of human sexuality are more than willing to put the force of law – which, in the modern state, always includes or implies the force of armed police – behind their dream of dismantling human sexuality. It is a dread beginning when we consider that our battle is not against flesh and blood – but our enemy’s is.
Philip / Robert. The Lord’s teaching of the Samaritan on his way to Jericho renders much of what we would normally understand as “culture” quite ineffective and meaningless. We can talk “animal skins” or “new wine” all day long, but the two occupy very different eschatological positions. This is where so much of “Christianity”, particularly literalist Christianity, comes a cropper.
I cannot comprehend your last statement. Perhaps you could expand.
Father, this is a very difficult subject to approach. The Lord himself speaks of such difficulties — spirit speaks only unto spirit.
Something you said recently covers this well. Hesychasm is the orthodox (proper) way to interpret the cosmos (that is, to do theology “properly” is also to live in perfect harmony with God).
This of course would apply as much on the battlefield as in the home or Church.
What I’m saying is this: Many Christians, especially western Protestants, have a tendency to employ martial imagery in the context of cultural battles, such as abortion. They speak of pro-choicers as “enemies,” and talk of power and strategy in glib, cynical terms. I think this is dangerously lacking in humility and charity. As Paul said, we wage a war against powers and principalities, not flesh and blood.
Personally, my primary “enemy” is the coldness of my own heart and the anarchy of my own passions and the wildness of my own pride. Who am I to wrestle with others — even demons — until my own sinfulness is healed through the love and communion of God?
I didn’t mean to jump on you, and I don’t want to get engaged in a long discussion about this difficult topic. I only caution thinking in martial terms. We are a people of humility and peace, bound to love, after all.
Forgive me having been awhile.
As we know Christ came to bless and transfigure our fallen state and blessed the material world by taking it on Himself; my concern then is for a certain creeping gnosticism implicit in that the biological interconnectedness does not matter. The Gnostic groups, among other things, claimed the spiritual state not only superior to the material, but said there was no inherent goodness to the material world proposing then, a radical distinction between the two.
The state has been formed on the basis of families than interact to create societies where in turn the state organically arises from the interactions and interpenetration of everyone sharing in community. This seems very very human and not bad at all, in fact, it must be good as even in the Garden there was birth and one must assume, families.
If Christ totally transcends our biology then what was the purpose of Him taking on our biological body if not to bless it and restore it? This feels like gnosticism to me, implicitly saying the spiritual is good, the body is bad, or at best, lesser than the spiritual. Then should we find having children, families and love in a very concrete way a bad, or lesser thing?
My point was not to suggest it is the state that is highest expression of human interconnectedness instead of the Church, but to suggest if we maintain a radical distinction, between material human connectedness and spiritual interconnectedness, then is this actually Christian ,or just gnosticism?