Honor, Subversion and the Kingdom of God

Many who read the New Testament see it as advocating for and supporting the oppressive structures of its time. They argue that it is patriarchal and pro-slavery. St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters is thus seen as an endorsement of slavery as an institution. His admonition, though, belongs to a category of teachings known as the haustafeln (household rules). An example is found in Colossians:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Slaves, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, give your slaves what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18-4:1)

Such passages, as well as those giving instructions regarding the Emperor and the respect due to authorities, are often treated as a Christian support for the powers of this world. Romans 13, for example, is frequently cited as a model for a “two-kingdom” approach to things:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom 13:1-7)

Indeed, this passage has even been used to suggest that those like Bonhoeffer who sought to kill Hitler were somehow opposing God’s plan.

All such treatments fail to understand the “upside-down” character of Christ’s actions and teachings and their continuation in the Apostolic writings. Christ does not teach us to love our enemies because our enemies are good or have somehow been ordained as our enemies. He teaches us to love our enemies because God is good. And that is a very different thing.

The household rules and the Romans sword passage are examples of Christian subversion: they are practical applications of the Cross to life in this world. They do not exist to uphold the powers that be, but to undermine them by asserting that God alone is Lord and His kingdom alone is the purpose of our life.

Consider this passage:

If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)

“For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head…” These are not the words of an Apostolic endorsement of the structures of this world. It is the proclamation that the “vengeance of God” is brought forth by means of bearing the Cross. The way of the Cross is the way of life. Or, as the Elder Sophrony taught, “The way up is the way down.”

In all of these admonitions, the locus of the authority that is being observed is God Himself, not the thing we are honoring. Slaves do not obey their masters because their masters have a just right of ownership. Rather, it is a matter of doing all things “as to the Lord.” We are slaves of no man, but bondservants to God alone.

In one of the great historical ironies, slave-owners in the American South allowed their slaves to become Christians. The very Scriptures that they heard, over time, provided the hope of deliverance and revealed the coming wrath of God for those who mistreated them. Israel was once in bondage in Egypt and God heard them. In the Scriptures it is quite clear that God sides with the slaves over their masters. The lessons were not lost. African American resistance to systemic oppression has almost always had a profound connection to the gospel.

Christ Himself points to this subversive quality in his conversation with Pontius Pilate. Pilate threatens Him and reminds Him that he has the power to release Him or condemn Him.

You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (Jn 19:11)

In that saying, Christ strips away every pretense of Roman imperial power. “You would have no authority…” Indeed, Christ could rightly have said, “You cannot do anything to me that I don’t want you to do.” It is an essential element of Christian teaching that Christ’s death was voluntary. “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own free will.”

The same is true in all the household rules and the relationship with the powers of the state. The honor we offer, the obedience and service we render, are not offered out of obligation or by rightful demand. They are voluntary offerings of the Cross – “as unto the Lord.” I am able to lose my life because in Christ my life has already been redeemed and rescued. You can do nothing to me. I can obey you as my master, but in so doing I am heaping coals of fire on your head. Those coals are either the burning of God’s judgment or the burning away of sins. But the coals are a promise.

The early Christian martyrs frequently lived this subversion out in a manner that frustrated their persecutors. St. Lawrence, being fried on an iron griddle, is reported to have said, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” The desired result of violence was rendered empty and powerless through the courage of the Cross and the Christian refusal to treat death as though it were to be feared. In time, it brought the empire to the Baptismal font.

For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. (1Co 4:20)

The Kingdom of God, inaugurated in the coming of Christ, is not weak (though it appears as such). Its power does not lie in persuasion or violence. The power of the Kingdom is made manifest in the Cross. Weakness overcomes strength. Honor overcomes dishonor. Service subverts oppression. Death begets life.

When Christians lose this singular vision, particularly when they agree to become a religious institution within the greater life of society, the Cross is discarded. We begin to think that our lives are found in the ballot box or shouting louder than those around us. The slave overthrows his master only to become a master over his own slaves. You don’t need a God to do the politics of this world.

“But be of good cheer,” Christ said. “I have overcome the world.”

Addendum: On Symphonia

I have heard numerous objections to this series of articles and their approach on the basis of the theory of symphonia, the cooperative work between Emperor and Church that became a primary vision of the Byzantine synthesis. Its legacy is the double-headed eagle that adorns both national flags and Church decoration to this day. Symphonia (two voices in harmony) represents an icon of the Kingdom of God in this world (though not the thing itself). It served as a guiding principle in Orthodox nations for many centuries, and then lingered like a precious lost object for centuries ever after.

It should be noted, first, that symphonia always sounded better in theory than in practice. Emperors rarely behaved themselves and acknowledged boundaries and limits to their power. As often as not, they resorted to the crude life violence. Many saw in Russia the continuation of Byzantium (the title “Tsar” is the Russian form of “Caesar”). Symphonia lived on as an icon and a promise. But that vision was repeatedly violated. From the time of Peter the Great forward, for example, Tsars sought to subjugate the Church in an effort to rationalize state control. The Patriarchate was abolished (thus cutting off one head of the double-eagle) and the Church was largely reduced to a department of state modeled after German Lutheranism (many Tsars admired German efficiency). The nadir of symphonia in Russia can be seen in the Nikonian reforms where the state became the persecutor of Christians in the name of reform with a bitter legacy that the Church has sought to heal in recent years.

The greatest problem of symphonia today is its use as a tool of modernity in contemporary Orthodox. Modernity is a project to refashion and build a better world (I refer the readers to many previous articles). It is a mindset, a drive to refashion, create, build in the name of an ideal. Its problem is not in its faulty ideals. Rather, it is the nature of the very project itself. Building a better world, even in the name of Orthodoxy, yields little more than a darkened version of the faith. The only means of Christian life is the Cross in the fullness of its self-emptying and brokenness.

O Lord, save Thy people! And bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the Orthodox peoples, over their adversaries!
And by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation!

 

71 comments:

  1. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)

    Is this the same as “killing them with kindness”?

  2. excuse me Fatherr, the editor in me, “His admonition, though, belongs to are a category of …” in first paragraph

  3. Father, thank you for this wonderful post. So illuminating and affirming! and I don’t mean that in a subversive way 🙂

  4. “When Christians lose this singular vision, particularly when they agree to become a religious institution within the greater life of society, the Cross is discarded.”

    Layers of irony in this! People (even Christians) can no more stop trying to ‘build a better world” than they can stop making mistakes and causing pain. With the “self-emptying and brokenness” of many, or when more people self-identify with a religious institution, the world becomes (arguably) a better place. A “Christian” presence (or variety of presences) in the public square is unavoidable. So is escape from this or that dilemma that our presence or absence brings about. I guess that’s the nature of a cross. It’s a bit like a tar-baby that way. when you try to discard it, and yet can be hard to cling to. Nails are involved.

    symphonia “an icon of the Kingdom of God in this world (though not the thing itself)”
    i think the fulfillment of that promise is only to be when “Thy kingdom come” arrives.
    If St. Paul’s admonition’s in Romans hold true, then, we need do no more than read, mark and inwardly digest them to recognize that there is dynamic tension and sufficiency in God’s administration of the current world order. God’s subversion is politically greater than Caesar’s state control.

  5. In my foggy brain it seems like cross bearing can at times be empowering co-dependency. Maybe somebody has thought that as well and can unpack it for me.

  6. great article Father! if i may, i have a question… given the current political climate, to what end should we stand for (or even that matter, fight) for culture to, at least, lean towards virtue? one good example being abortion, though there are many. of course the Kingdom of Heaven is not an earthly Kingdom (such seems to be the mistake of the jews…), but living in a democracy, to what end should we promote our rights to help overturn the modernity / nihilism of our era? again, not that there is a kingdom of this world, but rather i am thinking along the lines of trying to protect my children from an evil culture which strongly fights for thier allegiance. grated, this is principally a matter of example and education in the home and church, but sometimes this does not seem to be enough. should we, as Christians, be vocal (which often seems so intertwined with pride) or passive? hope this makes sense and follows the context of your article. again, thank you – i am saving this to reread when my children are not being so loud…

  7. Silouan,
    The hard thing in this is a sort of “Catch-22.” We want our children to live in a better world, etc., which draws us willy-nilly into the whole dynamic of modernity. What we do not have, however, is people who know how to live. We concentrate our efforts on how to change, but not on how to live. I utter oppose abortion. I annually join the march. I give to the local crisis-pregnancy clinic and work at doing what I can to serve. No one should have a “right” to take the life of a child.

    Strangely, abortion itself is quintessentially part of the modern project. It is born of the desire to “fix” the world (of a pregnant woman) by eliminating the problem. What is lacking is the willingness to actually live in the world.

    So, one thing, above all else, that is needed is people who are willing to actually live in the world, with patience, with trust in God’s providence, etc. Women in crisis (real or imagined) are failing in the virtues required to just live. Instead, they opt for violence in order to change and control their circumstances.

    And, quite ironically, we are easily drawn into the same model by our desire to fix the evil laws that make this legal. I vote. I give money. I volunteer. But unless I learn how to truly live and become virtuous, then there will be no solution.

    Chances are your children will grow up in a world with legal abortion. How do you teach them to live? We cannot ask the culture to do it for us.

  8. I had an elderly Russian Aunt who was quite something in the 1920’s and 1930’s . ( A flapper I guess). She had a very practical and knowing view of human nature. She once said to me that for a relationship to work: ” The man has to really, really love the woman but the woman doesn’t need to love the man. She needs to respect him and do nothing to embarrass him”. I think this is what St Paul meant when he said wives submit to your husband. If we put St Paul’s words into modern form, more people recognize the wisdom. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  9. Father Stephen:

    I have been following your blog/podcast for some time. I’m currently seriously exploring Orthodoxy, and have also been deeply influenced by Stanley Hauerwas’ work–so your writing and speaking have resonated with me time and time again. Thank you for your witness, your heart, and your serious engagement with the Tradition and the ways of the Gospel. This article is no different, and challenges the very assumptions we so often make–calling us to greater depths of engagement and sacrifice.

    Generally, I lurk in the background, just taking everything in. I do, however, have one follow-up from your response to Silouan. In it you wrote, “Women in crisis (real or imagined) are failing in the virtues required to just live. Instead, they opt for violence in order to change and control their circumstances.”

    My thought is this–are women in that situation there solely on the basis of a failing in their virtues? Or, could the fact that the church is not offering a witness of radical life-affirmation and support for their pregnancy (that is, perhaps, out of wedlock) be a greater failing in virtue? Women in these situations often need incredible support from a community that is willing to help shoulder the financial and emotional burden of pregnancy and raising the child. I’m thinking of Hauerwas’ story of Deborah Campbell, a Roman Catholic:

    “[This] story involves something that happened to Deborah Campbell. A member of her church, a divorced woman, became pregnant, and the father dropped out of the picture. The woman decided to keep the child. But as the pregnancy progressed and began to show, she became upset because she felt she could not go to church anymore. After all, here she was, a Sunday School teacher, unmarried and pregnant. So she called Deborah. Deborah told her to come to church and sit in the pew with the Campbell family, and, no matter how the church reacted, the family would support her. Well, the church rallied around when the woman’s doctor told her at her six-month checkup that she owed him the remaining balance of fifteen hundred dollars by the next month; otherwise, he would not deliver the baby. The church held a baby shower and raised the money. When the time came for her to deliver, Deborah was her labor coach. When the woman’s mother refused to come and help after the baby was born, the church brought food and helped clean her house while she recovered from the birth. Now the woman’s little girl is the child of the parish.”

    –Hauerwas

    I guess my question is this: are failings of the Church’s virtues less than, equal to, or more egregious than the woman’s failing in choosing abortion? How can the church counter the modern project’s “lacking [in] the willingness to actually live in the world,” as you said above?

    Peace, Father

  10. Saint Theophan agrees…

    “Do whatever falls into your hands, in your circle and in your situation… And believe that this will be your true work; nothing more from you is required. It is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labor so, whether for heaven, or as the progressive think, in order to make one’s contribution to humanity. That is not necessary at all.

    It is necessary only to do everything in accordance with the Lord’s commandments…. If you set out to act in this way in every instance, so that your works will be pleasing to God, having carried them out according to the commandments without any deviation, then all the problems of your life will be solved competent and satisfactorily.”

    Saint Theophan the Recluse – 19th century

  11. Here is something I still have difficulty with–George Tiller was murdered in the narthex of his Lutheran congregation almost 8 years ago.

    It would seem that justice was served. Abortions in Wichita have been decreased and late term abortions have ceased, in part due to the fact that the abortionists and their perspective landlords received violent threats.

    I cannot help being grateful for the outcome, especially since the abortion lovers in power did use the act as an excuse to come after all pro-life folk.

    Yet….

  12. thank you Fr. Stephen! abortion is just one of many things… well, i really liked the St. Theophan quote and i, in turn, certainly need to keep things more simple… thank you all for your comments!

  13. Phifer,
    There is widespread failing in the virtues. I did not mean to place all the blame on a woman in crisis. Withstanding a crisis requires a great courage – and there are many women, some of them young and poor, who bravely face the crisis and refuse violence against their unborn child. But the culture (and the Church) have not nurtured such courage.

    When I was a young man, I lived in a Christian commune. A young woman of our church became pregnant and considered abortion, then repented and changed her mind. The brothers of the commune (all young), cleared out one of the apartments in which we lived and fixed it up for her. We helped pay for some education (nursing school). A family in the parish took her in when the child was born and she later married in the family. That, like Hauerwas’ story, is a story of a little virtue – actually, only doing a mildly decent thing. Nothing heroic. Except for her. She is a hero to me.

    “Learning how to live” includes acquiring and nurturing the virtues of the Christian life. I have no idea what the nation’s political fortunes will be. But without a virtuous people, they’ll not be very good in the long run. And we are a deeply unvirtuous people.

    The Church is not called to counter the modern project’s lacking. It is called to live the life of the Church in this world – in obedience to the commandments of Christ. That include the virtuous life in Christ. How that might counter the modern project is in the hands of God. He hasn’t given it to us to know the answer to that.

    The courageous men, women and children who kept the faith under the Communist yoke – did they know that their sacrifice would counter the modern project of the Soviet Union? If you begin to act on the basis that you hope to succeed – you’ve already begun to lose. We have to live on the basis that we are willing to lose. Only then can we win. That’s the strange work of the Cross.

  14. I take no pleasure in Tiller’s death. But it did stop abortions.

    But how is the killing of Tiller differ from Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill Hitler?

  15. Michael,
    It’s a good question. Murder is murder (including the murder of Hitler). The violence of wars does change some things, but very little in the long run. In a nation, private citizens are not given the power of taking a life. Bonhoeffer’s case would have been an act of war. It is still murder, but murder in war, historically, is treated somewhat differently in the canons – indicating something that we instinctively know to be true. Someone might decide to “declare war” on abortion – but that would be a fiction.

    Imagine that I could give you a list of everyone who was going to commit murder tomorrow in the world and gave you a button. Pushing the button would cause all of those killers to be to die a sudden and painful death. Would you do it? Would you be right to do it?

    If you think you would be right to do it, why doesn’t God do it? Why does He allow the Tillers of the world to live? What does He permit the existence of Satan and his demons? We will accomplish nothing of value by being better than God. The mystery that lies in God’s providence is perhaps the greatest of all. That doesn’t mean that we don’t ponder it – rather, it means that when it is revealed to us (which it indeed can be) like Job, we will put our hands to our mouth.

    The conundrum in any of this is similar to the one brought up by the problem of going back in time and changing things. What if one of the children aborted by Tiller would have grown up to invented and applied a mass plague that killed over 62 million people? We cannot be God. We have no idea what we are doing. Aborting the child would still be wrong. But we simply cannot know the consequences involved in taking a human life. It is forbidden to us for a reason.

  16. Might I ‘unpack’ the conversation about abortion between silouan, Phifer, Michael Bauman and Fr. Stephen.

    1. The Church’s understanding of life beginning with conception is fact and should never be compromised.

    2. silouan’s question about ‘fighting for our culture to be virtuous’ introduces the question of what method of ‘fight.’ Murder, as Michael ponders in the death of George Tiller, or political action or Phifer’s challenge to the Church to live a witness of radical life-affirmation and support for a pregnancy.

    3. Given the Church’s position on the sanctity of life, murder must be rejected outright. This leaves political action or Phifer’s option.

    4. 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. I have been involved in political campaigns for many years. To ‘win’ your position a significant, prolonged, unsavory effort is mandatory. Such an effort represents a serious threat to one’s salvation.

    5. Formal participation in legislative efforts or even participation in the very political March for Life communicates an Orthodox political agenda. A woman in ‘crisis’ may well avoid the judgment that comes from ‘institutional’ religion and seek help elsewhere.

    6. It is my opinion that Orthodoxy should distinguish itself from those institutional religions involved in politics and move towards an unequivocal clear affirmation in support of a woman’s pregnancy. This would require significant stewardship within parishes and an appeal to Bishops to resist the political limelight.

    7. Phifer, the Church can only counter the ‘modern project’ through our lived example of Christ’s unconditional love. Your voice is most welcomed.

  17. Father, while I am glad the abortions have been greatly reduced, I am truly saddened that he did not have more time to repent.

    I am reminded of the event everytime I go to Church as his congregation is right across the street from my parish.

    Frequently, I say a prayer for mercy as I pass by.

    It remains inscrutable. There is a deep sadness there.

  18. Ron, would you say the the political battles reduce human tragedy to a game of tic-tac-doh and further de-humanizes all of the participants?

  19. No Michael. I would not say that.

    I am saying participation in politics can be noble in the pursuit of building a healthy community. But this noble effort presents many personal spiritual dangers.

    I used to think that I could be a force for good in the world through politics. I now believe that we should love God, tell the people we love how we feel about them often, and strive to help everyone we meet.

  20. All human societies that I know of have some sort of law or rule against murder. To me, the idea of living in a community where no such law exists seems almost perverse. Even if a law against abortion didnt reduce the number deaths by one single life I would still want the law, because the law is good. It has nothing to do with progress.

    Someone I know, however, once suggested to me that the enforcement of human laws is controlling in a way that is contrary to how God runs things. God tells us why murder is bad, and how it will hurt us, but He is the ultimate pacifist, leaving us free to murder if we so desire. His whole world is a community free of such law enforcement, so to speak. Like you said, God even allows murderers and devils to roam around among their prey. So, should us Christian prolifers really be concerned about the institution of a law against abortion?

  21. Michelle,
    Yes, we should, “as far as it lies with us.” God does indeed establish authorities, such as what is mentioned in Romans 13. It is good to want those authorities to be just rather than unjust. On the whole, we can expect them to have prohibitions against murder, theft, etc., out of some kind of self-interest if for no other reason. Indeed, I think the reason they allow for abortion is out of “self-interest” rather than what they believe to be good. It’s easier, cheaper, more convenient for society. Tragic.

    Science is on the side of pro-life. Ultrasounds have probably been one of our greatest allies. It would help (in the public argument) if we could help people see that treating all life as sacred is in their own self-interest. Anti-abortion sentiment is as strong as it is, I think, on that basis more than on a firm foundation of Christian doctrine.

    God’s providence is not anarchist. There are consequences in his universe, even for the demons. We don’t know a lot about all of their consequences because it’s none of our business – but there are things they can be threatened with (in exorcisms, for example). Hitler came to a bad end. Communism seems to have fallen through its own internal failures. I expect N. Korea to end ugly at some point.

    He does not “manage” evil, but neither is it allowed to have its full run. It seems, according to Scripture, that in the end of things, evil will have the fullest run ever – and then come crashing down with His judgment. God is not a pacifist, as we think of pacifism, but He works in a manner that doesn’t seek to control so much as to convert. His work is ever and always for salvation. His work is always consistent with salvation. He is never divided against His own purpose.

  22. Michelle, please consider the following point of view:

    1. The Orthodox Church’s position on the life of an unborn child is well established and should never change.

    2. We live in a country governed under a few principles: the rule of law is supreme; the rule of law is outlined in the Constitution that defines individual rights, and protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

    3. There is no consensus opinion among the citizens of the USA on the need to protect life before birth. Unfortunately there may never be consensus on this position and a divided nation can only impose one position at the expense of the other. We remain divided and less inclined to love those we disagree with.

    4. Orthodox Christians are free to live our values without imposing them on the majority.

    5. We can engage in politics, but never achieve consensus. We can live our faith, promote alternatives to abortion, and welcome home women troubled by their prior choices. After all, next Sunday is the Prodigal Son.

  23. Fr. Stephen, as an ordained representative of our Church, must be clear and resolute in defending the Church’s position on the life of an unborn child.

    Those of us who struggle to live in this world, but not become of this world, have to choose our path toward salvation. I believe humility to be the most reliable path to salvation. I believe that successful political action feeds pride.

  24. Ron, I agree with your point #1 but all of us must have the same clarity and resoluteness you seem to ascribe only to the clergy.

    I would also question your choice of the word to “defend”. Our kerygmatic duty is to proclaim the truth out of love. We need to defend nothing.

    Your point #2 is an ideal of the social religion which long ago ceased to have any real meaning. Nihilism in fact is the ruling faith.

    #3. Correct. No consensus because we have no center. There can be no center in a nihilistic polity.

    #4. Do not even know what you mean by this one. What are Orthodox “values”. What does “imposition” mean in this case.

    #5. What does the word “choice” mean to you. Clarity on that word is essential because it carries a lot of baggage. Even more clarity is needed given you statement that we each chose our own path of salvation. Do you really think that is true?

  25. Thank you Michael,

    I recognize that this discussion is not exclusive to theologians ( I would not participate at all) but that there are many reading these posts who are exploring our Orthodox faith. My use of vernacular terms represent my attempt to inform a general audience.

    I know that the more a person knows about our faith, the greater their accountability is on Judgement Day. I recall that this expectation is further increased as one proceeds through ordination. Fr. Stephen is certainly better equipped to answer this than I.

    While nihilism is certainly spreading throughout the world, it is not a form of governance. Our constitutional democracy continues to be a unique experiment in human history. I share your concern about nihilism and hope to challenge it through Christ’s example of selfless, unconditional love.

    Finally, we choose our own path in the decisions we make throughout our lives. We can pray that we’ve made the ‘right’ decisions, but we don’t know for sure until our day of judgement. We are not Evangelicals who can point to a specific date and time for their salvation regardless of future behavior. Ours is a daily effort in the hope found in our Lord’s mercy.

  26. Father, Bless,

    Thank you. Thank you. A thousand times, thank you. It nearly brought me to tears to read this. For so long I have felt that what I have been told re: Romans 13 and the State has not been quite right. You have put in words what has been niggling at me deep within, and sort of vindicated me when those around me say “Tough. You better deal with it and submit.” Now I better understand the how and why, and it soothes my mind and heart.

    Again and again, thank you, and thank God for you.

    Pray for me.
    Scott

  27. No consensus because we have no center. There can be no center in a nihilistic polity.

    This raises a certain sense of trepidation in me for the future. As Father Stephen stated above, concerning ultra-sounds, in the comments, “Anti-abortion sentiment is as strong as it is, I think, on that basis more than on a firm foundation of Christian doctrine.” But I think this is a false foundation.

    The enemy has moved powerfully against this foundation by pushing a Culture (or “Right”) of Death upon us. We are, as a society, losing all respect for life. Very soon, I think, even the (ultra-sound) picture of life will not provide even the smallest amount of safety for our children.

  28. Bryon, the fact that nihilism has no center is what leads to its ultimate collapse.

    Constitutional republicanism did work for awhile but as it is only a creation of man’s mind, has largely failed.

    Only the Incarnation, and everything that goes along with it, offers the antidote.

  29. It is truly my pleasure Michael.

    I have struggled with many of these questions most of my life. In an effort to sort through everything I published a book: Three Paradigms of Reality: From Homer to Einstein. http://www.threeparadigms.com

    During the final edits I decided to run for public office (my third attempt). I wanted to win, but wasn’t sure if it was the best thing for me. I would pray everyday that whatever the Lord wills I will accept. I lost by 53 votes.

    The concern about nihilism is simply the scientific concept of entropy applied to humanity. The only remedy is a personal one: Love God and serve others.

  30. Again a thought provoking article. I finally think I understand your statement about “pouring coals of fire on their heads.” It seems that you consider it an imprecatory prayer? If so is it right for Christians to pray imprecatory prayers against the state sanctioned enemies of the gospel? Some say that we cannot love our enemies and at the same time pray this way?

  31. Paul,
    I do not believe it is correct to pray imprecatory prayers regarding our enemies. “Pouring coals of fire on their heads” can indeed be a saving thing – but that’s between them and God. It’s not for us to say such things. It’s for us to love and forgive.

  32. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
    For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head”

    This is anything but imprecatory – however it certainly cuts to the heart of our Faith and whether we love as God loves – as Father Stephen wrote above. God “teaches us to love our enemies because God is good”

    This verse is about the inside of the chalice rather than the outside and speaks to the interior disposition of the heart.

    To give your enemy food or drink is so much more than killing them with kindness. That is, it can only be accomplished from a place of love – love for the Lord and the Greatest Commandment. And that is the only way any of us could possibly nourish a true enemy, because with man, it would be impossible.

    We are supposed to see the face of Christ in all people – what a challenge with an enemy. To nourish an enemy is cooperating with Grace. How else but with Grace can one through their own dim vision see the face of Christ in an enemy and then nourish them? (Matthew 25:35). If someone is your enemy, then they are likely both hungry and thirsty. Because if anyone hates his brother whom he has seen, then he can not love God – and that is a spiritual problem that is beyond physical thirst and hunger.

    To offer nourishment to such a person is to give something needful and boasts of the extraordinary hope of Christians. Whatever the circumstances, it has the power to change the recipient, in the way of leading them to repentance. And for the giver, it can change them too… enlarging the heart – loving beyond only those who love us (Matt 5:44).

    Nourishing an enemy is also the way of the Cross, because love is kind and suffers (1 Cor 13:4).

    This verse is seems really to be much more about personal interactions than interactions within politics at large, though there might be some examples.

    Dostoyevski said “Everyone wants to change the world but nobody thinks about changing himself” and Saint Seraphim of Sarov said “Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved”.

  33. Also about it being coals of fire might come down whether the person (enemy) can receive love. Knowing that feeding an enemy is the work of Grace then it is God working through the “feeder” and so isn’t it is the consuming love of God that is doing the burning? (Hen 12:29)

    That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After all don’t we Orthodox say “if you die before you die then when you die you won’t die”. Seems like an opportunity not to be squandered….

  34. And just in case I have offended anyone…. everything I have written is because I was the recipient of food and drink after being truly terrible to someone – who then acted as nothing less than an agent of Christ. and it did feel very much like fire and it was a very very good thing.

  35. As I recall, St. John Chrysostom understands the instruction about “heaping coals of fire” as the Apostle Paul’s pastoral condescension to the weakness of his hearers. Knowing that his hearers are not yet ready to love their enemies, the Apostle entices them to do good to their enemies by speaking of the torment and vengeance this will provoke. He does so knowing that a Christian who begins doing good to his enemy (even for imperfect reasons) is likely to end up learning to love his enemy.

  36. Father Steven,

    Your remark to our brother Paul:

    “I do not believe it is correct to pray imprecatory prayers regarding our enemies. . . It’s for us to love and forgive”

    seems to me to accept a false dichotomy.

    Yes, we must always love and forgive even our enemies–which sometimes means giving drink or clothing (especially when these “enemies” are in the position of weakness and need and we in that of superior power), and it always means to bless and pray for them.

    It may also mean to ask for their forgiveness–especially when our own wrong is cause of, or a contributor to, the enmity.

    But none of this entirely obviates the possibility of imprecatory prayer uttered in the face of the reality of evil, with the hope or repentance and restoration, and in recognition of the fact that sometimes a person will not repent until his sin and separation from God bears its bitter harvest. A handful of the Psalms contain such prayers and we find them in the the Prophets and even on the lips of our Lord Himself speaking of our father and of us, His own people.

    I agree that our dominant prayer must be “Father, forgive them (and us), for we know not what we do.” At the same time, in being as much like Christ as we can, I am not willing to say that it is always incorrect to pray that a temporal judgment may befall any of us who is in the grip of sin, if that is what is required for us to come to ourselves and return to the Father’s house and enjoy his ineffable and eternal blessings.

    Your writings continue to be one of the great blessings in my life. Many years.

    Christ is in our midst.
    Leo+

  37. Robert (Leo+),
    I can agree that there are clearly times in which someone’s refusal to repent might bring a temporal judgement for their salvation. However, I do not believe it has been given to us to decide such things – barring the frightening case of an anathema of the Church. It is not for me to know what is needed for salvation – who could possibly know such a thing, apart from some great saint.

    The cases in the Psalms are pretty universally treated as referring to the demons or to our own thoughts, but not to flesh and blood enemies.

  38. I looked up the word inprecatory : it means to call down curses upon somebody.

    Are there really Saints that have used imprecatory prayers against their enemies?

    I would imagine such prayers would be used with extraordinary caution and guarding of the heart.

    To pray for someone’s demise could also cause harm to the one praying – couldn’t it? The whole idea of it really bothers me deeply.

    There are Saints who have even prayed for the devil. I think Saint Silouan prayed for Judas and the devil, such was the love in his soul for God.

  39. My friends: it seems that most misunderstood my statement about imprecatory prayer. I am In aggreement with what father Steven has said in regards to our personal enemies but what i said was;

    “is it right for Christians to pray imprecatory prayers against the state sanctioned enemies of the gospel?”

    I would never pray against my personal enemies I have always believed in loving them and doing good to those who curse me.

    However, when a small handful of people are destroying an entire nation through drug trafficing, murder extortion etc. I believe is right to enthusiastically pray the warfare psalms of David against them.
    If that is wrong what do we do with Psalms like 83 and numerous others that clearly and unequivocally profer distruction on the enemies of God?

    As with all the Psalms we are not taking judgment into our own hands we are simply agreeing with what God has already said from heaven and asking him to do it on earth.

  40. Pablo,
    I’m not certain what “state sanctioned enemies of the gospel” means. I wouldn’t trust the state in America in its judgment on anything. But, nevertheless, there is no distinction, spiritually, to be made between your spiritual enemies and other kinds of enemies. Enemies are enemies. God, Christ tells us, is kind “to the evil and the ungrateful,” and tells us to be the same way (Luke 6:35).

    The “imprecatory” prayers found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the OT, are most frequently treated in an allegorical or typological way – applied to the demons, or to our own sinful thoughts, but not to other people, no matter how wicked.

    We cannot pray destruction on anyone and at the same time obey Christ.

  41. I too had to look up “imprecatory prayer.”
    I think the mistake in such prayer is that it fails to understand that the cross is God’s only scandalous answer to evil. Anything except our own self-emptying and utterly humble loving response is to respond as if we are “of this world” instead of born from above.
    We do not even need to resist and evil doer, because our God is the author and finisher of everything that must come to pass for the salvation of the world. The psalmist doubtless wrestles with this in his own heart and gives voice to the truth of my heart’s tensions too. But we look to Christ to interpret the psalsms and Christ has given us the cross to interpret His Divinity. Always a scandal and a stumbling block even within my own willing yet weak heart.

  42. Mark Basil,
    Your comment is spot on. It highlights for me the theological tragedy of reducing the Cross to a transaction whose purpose is simply to acquire my salvation – and not the answer to all things.

  43. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    The blessings of the Lord.
    Help!
    All of your blogs are so interesting and informative that I have to print copies of them to save. This is making a tremendous amount of money for HP, for all the HP copy paper and ink I am using.
    Are you ever going to reprint a book with all your past blogs? They could be grouped into different topics by chapter. Then if I bought one or shared one the money could go to your organization and the Church instead of HP.
    Thank you for the change in your website. It seems now when I go to copy your blog it prints out just your few pages of blog information instead of all the comments also. This is saving alot of paper and ink.
    Blessings in Christ.
    Very Rev. Dr. Stephen A. Lawrence

  44. Hi Mark
    I understand what you are saying about the cross being paramount in all of this but let’s not over simplify the situation. Many of the Psalms are Jesus’ prayers, sometimes warfare prayers prayed through David before the incarnation. For example: Psalm 109, frightening imprecations prayed against Judas:
    “Set a wicked man over him, And let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him be found guilty, And let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few, And let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow. Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg; Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places. (Psalm 109:7-10)

    This is proved by the New Testament scriptures:
    Acts 1:16-21; “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus; for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry. (Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.
    And it became known to all those dwelling in Jerusalem; so that field is called in their own language, Akel Dama, that is, Field of Blood.) For it is written in the book of Psalms: ‘Let his habitation be desolate, and let no one live in it’; and, ‘Let another take his office.’”

    Also let’s consider the New Testament, Every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer,
    “…Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” when we pray that prayer we are effectively praying for the destruction of every earthly power that opposes the establishment of Christ’s kingdom.

    The Apostle Paul also prayed for the destruction of the enemies of the gospel on numerous occasions but we can leave that for another discussion.

    May God give us the spirit of wisdom…

  45. Pablo,
    I’ll not argue the point, but I think your treatment of OT passages is problematic from a Christological point of view. If God had need violence to establish His Kingdom, He would not have gone to the Cross. The Cross is His weapon. It doesn’t need any assistance.

  46. Fr. Stephen
    I’m sorry that you are not willing to exegete scripture and explain what it means. I consider you one of the most intelligent men on the airways. I am open to be convinced by sound exegesis of scripture. If no violence was necessary to to establish the kingdom in its final form then please explain why the Revelation 4 to 20 is in the Bible.

  47. Pablo,
    It’s rather problematic to assume anything particularly literal in Revelation. There is certainly warfare – but our warfare is not against flesh and blood, as St. Paul notes. The use of violence to establish the Kingdom (even in its final form) is a contradiction of the Cross itself. The nature of the Kingdom is antithetical to violence. It’s character is not of this world. When it comes in its “final” form, it will not be different than the form revealed in the Resurrected body of Christ. The Resurrection of Christ is not the product of violence, nor will the resurrection of the created order require violence.

  48. Hello Pablo;

    I am not trying to oversimplify the diverse witness of scripture but rather “distill” it or set my gaze upon the very central Mystery of our salvation. Here I see “nothing but Christ and Him crucified,” and this necessarily informs- even transforms- my vision of everything else including the whole of the Scripture (I desire to read the whole with understanding, with a heart that burns within me or not at all). I confess extremely little understanding of the book of Revelation (it is beyond my spiritual and perhaps intellectual grasp- I do not read it at this stage in my life). But I do know that warfare conducted by a *Lamb* must be radically different from any successful warfare known to carnal flesh and blood in this world.

    I spend little time online (less still when Lent comes next week) so if you reply I may not see it. Please pray for me.

    In Christ’s peace;
    -Mark Basil

  49. Pablo,
    There’s a striking idea in the Fathers that the so-called “violent” Apocalypse is nothing other than the revelation in glory of the same cruciform Truth (but revealed for all to see) that is already seen everywhere by the saints – in various measures. It seems sufficient to explain all of those chapters of Revelation in a light that’s very similar to Father’s latest article.

  50. This notion is also clearly supported by Revelation itself, e.g.: 1:7, (reminiscent of Zechariah 12:10) “every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.”

  51. Hi Mark
    through this discussion I have seen how little i really want to convince you, Fr. Steven or any others of anything, actually I was more hoping to be proved wrong on the issue of imprecatory prayer, so i think I will drop the discussion. Its hard to discuss the Revelation if you have left it off your reading list. John promises a blessing to those who read it. I have found since i quit reading it to find out the future and now only read it to gain a deeper revelation of Christ that it has started to make sense.

    I wish you God’s blessing during Lent

    He is risen!

    pablo

  52. “They do not exist to uphold the powers that be, but to undermine them by asserting that God alone is Lord and His kingdom alone is the purpose of our life.”

    Fr. Stephen,
    You focused on the way that slavery is portrayed in these passages; could you also say something about marriage? You didn’t respond to J.W.M.’s comment above, which seems to me to be the opposite of the point – The household rules are not the “thing,” but bearing the cross within the household rules is the thing (husbands and wives should both love and respect one another). When economies change and slavery falls away, we bear the cross within the new household rules, not demanding that slavery remain. I think this applies to marriage as well (men don’t regularly beat their wives, women vote now, couples generally make decisions together, etc), but it often seems like Christians hold up the household rule of wives submitting to their husbands as the “thing.” It seems that you’re saying, these verses are telling slaves/women how to bear the cross in their situation, but not dictating that this situation is the way things must always be. At worst, these verses have been used to justify slavery and forced submission of women, both of which seems to be inappropriate ways of interpreting these verses. Is that correct?

  53. Mary,
    Yes. I do not in any way think that the Scriptures mean to uphold oppressive structures and behaviors or legitimize them. The wives being subject to husbands has been deeply abused across time (and today among some). A man would do well if he treated his wife like the Theotokos. Interestingly, Christ does not begin His mission until she gives her permission (that is the actual thrust of the story of the Wedding at Cana). Indeed, God Himself awaited her word in the Annunciation.

  54. Thank you. It seems sort of obvious now, as I reason it out next to the verses about slaves. But it was not the way these verses were taught to me growing up, and sometimes its hard to see outside of that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *