The Sins of a Nation

Can a nation ever sin? If so, how can it be forgiven?

The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament are replete with examples of national sin. There are certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from this collective treatment. And we are not the first to complain.

In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the troubling question:

“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)

Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous for the sake of a mere handful.

There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted – both for good and for ill.

Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens.

In the 20th century, there have been some notable national crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan renounced its military in response to the atrocities and errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were punished. The Russian government, with no outside political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been taken away) in an effort of public repentance.

It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the details of what happened, but we know all too well the emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very ancient thing.

And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention. Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural disaster, or war – any time and place in which we are endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions. People do not experience war and then walk away as though nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and even physically crippled.

Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with liturgy – rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.

Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.

Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same struggle. It might be around a new presenting issue – but it was still the same struggle. Healing the parish required a discernment of what was actually going on – to bring something that was latent into the light of day.

Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.

Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.

The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.

There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:

“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)

The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”

For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.

Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.

There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”

50 comments:

  1. Truly Father, as an example of what you are saying is the scourge of abortion that is upon our land is a national sin and we all carry its burden. I believe the rise in violence of all types in this nation is a direct result of the unhealed wounds this scourge has inflicted upon us. The only way out is repentance and yet we try to pass laws and they come to naught. Thank you for your thought provoking post.

  2. Thank you Father,
    The Elder Sophrony, now Saint Sophrony, had a good teacher; Saint Silouan made it a practice to pray for the whole world, even for the demons, as do many of the monastics on Mount Athos.

    Reminds me of the story of the old hermit who visited Saint Silouan (paraphrased) and growled his approval of those who he thought were roasting in Hell. Saint Sophrony reports the incident as follows:
    “I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ Obviously upset, The Staretz said: ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’ ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance: ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all’ ”

    Saint Sophrony refers appropriately to the sixth-century elder St Barsanuphius of Gaza, who asserts that in his day there were three men who through their prayers were preserving the whole human race from catastrophe. Saint Barsanuphius mentions the names of the first two, who significantly are otherwise unknown to the annals of history. He does not say who the third was, presumably because God had revealed to him that it was Barsanuphius himself.

    To me, praying for the nations is part and parcel of praying for the whole world. I sincerely believe that the most important prayer concerning national and international sin is the sin of abortion and we need to pray for all of those who are being murdered in the abortion chambers of the whole world, not just America, and then perhaps we possibly might see the lessening of the results of our national sin.

  3. After I wrote and posted my comment, I noticed that Nicholas had posted on the same sin, abortion. Right on Nicholas.

  4. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this post. I have longed puzzled about national sins and how to understand it in relation to personal sins. This article is a huge help to me.

  5. We must also remember as their is generational sin, there is generational mercy. My recognition of this lately gave me new understanding of why so many saints longed to stay alive just so they could repent more. On a personal basis alone that never made sense.

  6. I must disagree about previous comments regarding abortion as our national sin. I believe our national sins go much further back than that–slavery, the attempted genocide of Native Americans and eliminating their culture, the greedy destruction of God’s natural beauty, the current pursuit (idolatry) of money and wealth; poverty, homelessness, and our general disregard for God’s instructions through Isaiah, reiterated by Jesus himself–visit the prisoners, care for the widows and orphans, the strangers, the outcasts. Abortion is part of this, but focusing on it alone conveniently allows us to forget that our national sins started the moment Europeans landed on these shores.

  7. Dear Father Stephen,
    If you only knew how much your essays provoke a burning desire to further understand the mystery of salvation, a reality hidden but revealed in Christ (His Pascha), you would (should!) be very thankful! It inevitably leads to days of further contemplation and the search for a better understanding. That’s probably why many times I am not quick to comment immediately after a new post…as I am busy pondering the “nuggets” I have just read.
    For instance, the concept of “the sins of a Nation” could not even be spoken of if it were not true that the sins of each person contribute to the ongoing corruption of creation (the world) and our movement away from God…”Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men…”. I don’t think we fully understand the implication of our sins. Then again, as the seed of corruption is within us, thus utterly incapable on our own to reunite back to God, it has been declared before the foundation of the world that the Seed of the Woman, the One Man, through His passion, would be the One who would redeem mankind and creation…”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” So I mean, here we get a glimpse of the reality of sin, our personal sins…and how it indeed can keep us in bondage…as a nation. You rightfully remind us that it is the Church, where we are baptized in Christ’s death, that we are invited into the priesthood of believers to intercede for the life (not death) of the world. Even as still sinners (for the full manifestation of our completeness in Christ will finally be when He is all and in all) we intercede.
    I had thought about this…that as sinners we are still called to intercede…how can that be? Then I read your related article “Abraham at the End of the Age”. After the intro, you invite us to “see with you”. You say “Remove Sodom and Gomorrah from the realm of historical speculation. Instead see with me, Genesis 18 as a parable of the end of the age (which includes our time as well)” What a beautiful way to beckon our attention to the “hidden” meaning of this wonderful story, handed down to us by our Fathers, where we get a foretaste of the Trinity, Christ, the Cross, the Church, the Mother of God…and how God relates to us not from afar, but comes among us. Oh! such an extremely helpful teaching in that post, Father!
    But as for us sinners being called to intercede, here’s what you say:
    “Abraham’s intercession reveals the very heart of the Church’s prayer. The righteous man lives side-by-side with the wicked, but he doesn’t despise them or pray for their destruction. Instead, he recognizes the coinherence and communion of all humanity – “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?” We are with the wicked. We do not have a life apart from them, for we are with them. And this presence becomes the fulcrum for the salvation of the world.” Then:
    “… many Christians number themselves among those who call for the destruction of the wicked. Surrounded by evil, our fears lash out with violent thoughts. We refuse to be with the wicked. And though Abraham and Lot had gone their separate ways, Abraham didn’t set himself as being above him – nor even above the wicked who dwelt in the cities. For though his prayer is for the righteous – he pleads through them for the wicked .
    This is not only the prayer of the Church, it is the ministry of the Church as well. We are called to be the righteous-with-the-wicked. Our lives in their midst are for their salvation. This principle can be extended. For the wicked is something of a relative category. Even within the Church, some of us must always admit that our lives are more like those of the wicked than the righteous. But the principle is that the wicked are always being saved by the righteous . ”
    Nuggets Father, pure nuggets! So the point is not that sinners can not intercede, but that like our Father Abraham, we are friends of God…we stand on His side and plead for mercy. There is none righteous, no not one, says the Word, but in our allegiance, so to speak, with Christ we pray in union with Him.
    Forgive me for the length of my comment Father…it is hard for me to put in a few words what I have learned from your teachings of the Church…the right understanding of Scripture, allegory vs literal-historical, the impact of modernity, the Reformation…goodness, so much adjusting and reordering of what I have learned in the past. I just thank you. If I continue to learn and relearn till the day I die (and I will!), for that I will ever give thanks and due worship to our King and our God!

  8. Janette,
    I am in deep agreement, here. Abortion is, not doubt, a serious serious sin, but has become a convenient point of “finger-pointing” for us as believers, in which it too easily becomes someone else’s sin. The sin of the nation can only be “my sin.” There has been an externalizing and politicizing of abortion such that many Christians have thrown away sanity and judgment, so long as that single criteria is met. Though it is a heinous sin, something much greater is going on within the hearts of many – that is yet more dangerous.

    Abortion, in its present practice, has only developed as an end of a process that began long before. It includes the distortion and loss of what it means to be human, the acceptance of consumerism, and the madness of iconoclasm. It was first popularized in the Soviet Union (the first country to legalize it), and was part of its terrible, failed assault on the family in the first 10 years of Bolshevism – that was, ironically, stopped by Stalin himself with draconian efforts. It was resumed later and has become a terrible scourge in Russia even up to the present. But we willingly embraced in acts of consumer freedom what was brought about there only through revolution. As such, ours is the even greater sin.

    I have no doubt that America’s deep, deep legacy of human brutality (slavery and genocide), never truly met with repentance, is the pool of sin that drives our nation towards utter destruction.

    The politicizing of our nation’s sin is not the same thing as meeting our nation’s sin with repentance. Only repentance, on behalf of all and for all, will make anything different. I cannot think of a single historical atrocity that America has ever faced with serious, sober repentance. I’m not even sure what that would look like. But we seem to meet almost everything with unbridled jingoistic furor (for and against) in which we simply drag one another ever deeper into the black pit of hell.

    I would not point to the landing of Europeans as the sinful moment, however. It is first the question, “What kind of Europeans landed on these shores.” It need not have been what it became…but was inevitable given some of the false theologies that accompanied us. It is heresy that enslaved Africans and obliterated native Americans.

    When I write about modernity – it is the abiding heresy that I am addressing. Modern man cannot repent – for he has no place for repentance in his world view. Repentance is for a true Christian, a rare bird in our present times.

  9. As I read this post, then waited long enough for the comments, as well as Fr. Stephen’s reply, it’s like the thoughts and conversation in my own head had been documented here! — Jacksson’s comment reminded me of a young pastor with whom I worked, who vehemently spat out, “All those atheists, adulterers, and __________ (listing a number of other groups) will surely burn in hell. Serves them right – that’s what they chose!” With tears running down my cheeks, I could only reply, in a very firm tone, “You have already assigned them to hell, and God in His love is not finished with them yet. He’s not finished with me or you either!” Had to leave the office or I would have exploded! Lord, God, have mercy on us!

  10. When I read the formidable list of sins my first thought is “How can we be saved?”
    Historically, the list is all too common for many nations and not peculiar to us but common to much of humanity for all time.

  11. Do you all think that America’s uniquely and highly self-critical nature also prevents us from repenting? I can think of few nations that are so quick to criticize its own culture and history. On all sides of the political spectrum. That criticism is largely right, I think, but we have no positive image of what America should be anymore to balance out our criticism. We just criticize whatever aspect of our nation troubles us- in which surely we take no part- and go on our not-so-merry way. There is little to hokd us together anymore and I would contend that few really identify with the nation at all. The nation is “those people o er there.” I know I am terribly guilty of this. I don’t identify in my heart with my fellow Americans very much.

  12. ELM,
    I think, rather, that American culture has no image of repentance to turn to. We do not know what it would look like. We have images of criticism (most of which is political in nature), but not an image of repentance. Some of this, no doubt, is due to our historically Protestant/secular culture. Repentance is poorly taught there, often meaning little more than a short time of sorrow and a walk down the aisle. Catholic culture offers a number of tools for repentance – reparations, etc. Orthodox culture does as well. But even the small tokens of repentance are missing for us. There was never (not even yet) a repentance for the sin of slavery. Slavery was shortly after replaced by Jim Crow laws that continued a policy of biological/racial inferiority. And those did not go out until 1964 – and have yet to be fully embraced. It was not until the 1990’s (late) that a majority of whites in America said that they approved of interracial marriage. The percentage of those who do not approve is still embarrassingly high. As far as native Americans go, we continue policies of oppression – pure and simple. No reparation has been offered.

    If you bring these topics up in social media (I have) you get push-back – even from many Orthodox(!) who pass off excuses and historical arguments that are nonsense. We have only had 17 years of peace in the entire history of the Republic. The place that military and war plays in our economy is vast. Our policies have done more damage in the Middle East than all the centuries prior managed to do.

    That, of course, is criticism. What would repentance look like?

    First, it looks like me taking the blame instead of placing on someone else. It looks like me praying with sorrow, and making reparations where I can. If we were an Orthodox nation (for example), how would we repent? As a nation, there would be National Liturgies in which our sins were acknowledged and prayers offered for our victims. Permanent memorials would be erected to honor the victims, and serious programs of reparation and restitution would be put in place. It would mean a change in policies and honesty with justice in the present.

    But the nation will not change. It is for us to repent anyway and do all that we can to fulfill the image of repentance.

    ELM, America does not have a uniquely high self-critical nature. Our blame is always on someone else – “those people back then,” etc. We have never shown anything like the sorrow of post-War Germany or Japan.

    Does it not strike anyone as odd that the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (or, even, “Juneteenth”) is not a national holiday. When MLK’s birthday was declared a holiday, a number of Southern states responded by making it a choice – either MLK day or Lee’s birthday. There’s no repentance – there’s not even mild embarrassment.

    I say this as a “son of the South” whose ancestors owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. I’m speaking about my own people – and my own participation in their sin. I did not consider racism to be wrong until I was 13 years old. I was raised like everyone else in my generation.

  13. America is a product of Enlightenment rationalism and Great Awakening messianism. It’s a bizarre combination, really. It explains how we can be the country that built the atomic bomb and invented the big tent revival and televangelists. Imperial Rome is a good analog because it combined a superior military and industry with a confused and irrational spirituality. Rome did not repent. It was changed. America was never properly a Christian nation if you consider the founders to be a collection of schismatics and heretics, so if Orthodoxy is true Christianity, America has never experienced it in any significant way. I’m not even sure how compatible traditional Orthodoxy is with our national ethos. Either Orthodoxy won’t survive America or America won’t survive Orthodoxy.

  14. I love the discourse here. I think it’s up to us as individuals to repent for the sins of our nation, sins that the nation doesn’t even acknowledge. Maybe it’s because our nation doesn’t recognize sin. So just like Abraham, we have to plead with God. Save us O Lord, and we shall be saved.

  15. Fr. Stephen,
    Is there an akathist for national repentance or something like it we could pray?
    Yes, we have treated our native peoples shamelessly. I have traveled to various tribes through the years…Apache, Zuni, Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, etc., and for the most part I have seen stark poverty. I could mention alcohol, drugs, unemployment, suicide, substandard housing, diabetes, lack of education, etc., but most probably know of these conditions. I have lived in Mexico. Many tribal lands look exactly like impoverished areas of rural Mexico. But one usually has to travel a long distance to see these. Whereas many Planned Parenthood clinics are close. With the native Americans, out of sight is literally out of mind.
    My wife and I lived in Alabama in the 60’s. We saw not so much stark poverty, though it was there, as much as stark racism and bigotry. Yes, we do certainly have national sins of which we need to repent, not to mention my own. That’s why an akathist would be so helpful.

  16. Dean,
    Sorry, I know you asked Father, but that’s a good question. Having done a search I could not find an Akathist for “national” repentance. The closest one I could find, and one I am sure all are familiar with as it is in the prayer books, is Akathist Hymn of Repentance in Christ. All throughout it is worded as a collective prayer, i. e., Save us…. .
    https://akathisthymns.wordpress.com/repentance/
    Perhaps there is another that is more appropriate though….

  17. Paula,
    Thank you. And what a treasure of akathist hymns listed after the hymn of repentance. I’ll add the list to Pocket.

  18. I am as troubled by the concept of national sin as I am by the concept of one group of people needing to be eradicated from the earth. When I look at the lenten prayer of Saint Isaac the Syrian I don’t see national sin listed there. I do see my own personal inadequacies writ large and the admonition to not judge my brother.

    I think there is a great mystery involved in the Old Testament writings which the advent of Christ brought to fruition, and it is far from me to say how the events of those early stories come to bear on what is happening in light of that abiding presence, though I know that they do, and we ought to appreciate their relevance.

    Thank you, father, for raising the question.

  19. Juliana,
    We are never truly repenting of our own sins alone. St. Silouan spoke of the “whole Adam,” meaning the whole human race, from the beginning to now. This actually describes our life more correctly, for we never enter the world as a blank slate, and the world itself does not offer us a blank slate to write on.

    My most important point is that repenting “on behalf of all and for all” is farm more important than the political thoughts that dog our world.

  20. Part of the difficulty with the United States is that we are not nor have we ever been a real nation in the classical sense. We are a philosophical construct, artificial form from rebelliion and lust of power. Repentance necessarily involves the dissolution of the construct. The ideological war going on now is a symptom of that pending dissolution.

    The Prayer of St. Epharim is precise on these two things:. “Help me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother”. Then of course prior to that the entreaty to “take from me ..lust of power.

    Since in our system all government is from the “consent of the governed” we are uniquely positioned to repent for the sins of our country without judging anyone else.

    I will say that, unfortunately, any idea of reparations in our context is an ideological idea full of judgemental guilt rather than repentance.

  21. How to repent with neither judgement nor ideological guilt is the question. The nations of Japan and Germany still had remnants of monarchy culturally speaking and therefore could act as a nation. In the US as with Protestantism we are each our own monarchs and so each of us must bear the sins of all.

  22. I left an earlier comment which I don’t see (perhaps it was considered too political in nature although it was factual), but wondering in context about our collective taxes and what they go to. That is, if we who live in a democratic republic contribute collectively to “works” that are sinful and/or highly destructive, where is our responsibility in repentance? We can surely pray for all at any time and in the communion of saints. But what about those who suffer? That would include destructive engagement of own young people on spiritual, psychologucal, and physical levels. I consider this *the* urgent problem of our time. I’m certain vets voted with this in mind, in hope of stopping such policies. But in terms of national discourse, esp with such an important spirutual component, it is nearly totally neglected.

  23. BTW let me add I hope not to write off-topic or inappropriately, and apologize if I do. But thank you Father also for clarifying something I have been struggling with. The world has always had, at least since the beginning of our faith, similar types of troubles with material power. Perhaps the only best solution frequently available to us is prayer “on behalf of all and for all” . Certainly it remains always necessary

  24. Janine,
    Forgive me on not posting the earlier comment. It had too much political material – which is not a judgment on whether the material was good or bad – it simply becomes an invitation to move away from the topic and towards one that I consider futile.

    People may engage in political action as they will, but, I do not think that much will be achieved by it, and worse, engaging in the action often leads people to think that they are actually doing something about a cause when they are not.

    I would rather compare our situation to the late Soviet state – though we disguise ourselves very well. The actual structures of our culture that are destroying us are not addressed by either party – and both are in a gamesmanship for pretty much the same reasons. We are corrupted by money and power in a marriage made in hell.

    I’m nearly 65. My observations are based on years of observation and not a few years of thinking otherwise than I do now. I believe that our sickness as a nation is within the soul. I also think that there are some “great souls” who can do changes that cannot happen any other way.

    I look at Solzhenitsyn as an example of how to live as a believer in the midst of a culture over which you have little to no control. “Do not lie,” he said, “Do not live by lying.” You can google his essay on the topic.

    For me, it means refusing to repeat the political slogans of either Left or Right, because both are rooted in lies, particularly from an Orthodox tradition.

    But I do believe that our lives participate in one another – I cannot pretend that what is taking place has nothing to do with me. So, “on behalf of all and for all,” I pray and try to live according to the gospel, again, “on behalf of all and for all.”

    It is very little. But it is more than the shadowy nonsense of politics. I must confess before God that I am the problem.

  25. Thanks Father, I understand and I tend to agree with you about both left and right (we are almost the same age too). I’ve been reading a book on the lives of saints written by a man who was active in the movement of Dorothy Day. It’s quite good and helpful in my opinion on the saints shared by Orthodoxy and Catholicism and other later saints and their holiness. But there is also as you could imagine some emphasis on activism. Frequently I am perplexed when I am confronted with what I consider destruction of the world and my own lack of work in a prophetic ( let’s say) sense. I know prayer or a prayerful life is where my own internal faith leads me, and Orthodoxy also gives us in its Tradition. Holiness has its own path. (As an aside, I took a history course in which it was clear that for most of our history, and certainly for the Orthodox, the vast majority of Christians have lived under rule hostile to our faith in some degree or other.) But I remain in contradiction often.

  26. After reading the post and all the comments, all I can say is that I feel like I am responsible for slavery, racism, the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture, abortion, gun violence, the intentional manufacture of an excess of opioids, homelessness, the lack of adequate medical care, needless wars fought for oil and profit, consumerism, excess consumption, pollution, global warming and climate change and all of the other sins of America and its empire. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for me. In His name, may God have mercy on my soul.

  27. Janine either become a conscientious objector and suffer the consequences which could include the loss of all your property and jal time or pray, fast, repent and give alms with a spirit of mercy locally to those who are sent to you without political or ideological thought. Be aware and respond.

  28. David, you are not responsible as cause, but as participant. Plus in my repentance for such things as the sexual revolution (I came of age in the 60’s) I do not look to change anything. That is not up to me. Psalm 50/51 seems apt. Especially “renew a right spirit within me….”.

    It has to be approached in a spirit of hope I think.

  29. Thanks Michael. In reading the Solzhenitsyn essay Father recommended I am reminded of the lies we are told, the lies which are easier to accept than the truth, the lies we learn are lies, and finally accept so late. And then there is the daunting decision of how to live with the truth and go forward. All these of course exist on every level of community, including family, and within the self. Perhaps the truest repentance is simply trying to live in and accept the truth in a prayerful life (even if nobody else wants to know).

  30. Father, and all,
    You have a way of getting to the root of a problem…here in this post (and others), the problem of separation (lack of community), individualism, and such, that prevents us as a nation to truly repent. In another article, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/05/24/the-community-we-all-need/, you once again make an astute observation. (Pardon my copy and pasting. Your words say it best):
    “I once read that the Russian instinct, when under pressure, was to gather with other people, while the American instinct was to flee. Thus, the Russian landscape was marked by villages, while America was marked with isolated homesteads…Americans like to homestead and to be alone. The American suburb is not a village, it is streets filled with little homesteads, islands of isolation, affectionately known as “my castle.” Americans are also frightfully lonely.”
    [we see this repeatedly.. new”communities” erected, costly houses built and bought by people moving in from elsewhere who have no roots whatsoever in their new “community”. Fences, gates, property lines and privacy notices posted to keep out all who are not welcome. Listen, I know this, because I did the same thing…I am culpable! Out here in Arizona there is an unspoken rule…you mind your business and God forbid if anyone should suggest to you that your behavior is unwelcome. Indeed, it is a frightfully lonely existence.]
    “The Russian experience for many centuries was marked not only by the dangers of wolves and the like, but the much more fearful danger of marauding Tartars….The American experience…was that of conquering rather than being conquered. They vanquished their foes (native Americans) and took their lands. The so-called “pioneer spirit” was exalted as a virtue, with stories of brave individuals rather than fearful villages.”
    “Communities are not built by pioneers. They are rooted in mutual need and brokenness. Stanley Hauerwas has observed:
    My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger.

    “The need, created by various forms of weakness, must be acknowledged and accepted. The “shame” associated with it must be borne by the community as a whole. Without that acceptance, there can never be sufficient safety for a community to form….” [hence, there can never be sufficient reason for repentance]
    [We do not want to bear even a little shame, but rather exalt “strength” which can only lead to oppression of one kind or another. But in truth “the way up is down”.] Later you go on to say:
    “A careful study of St. Paul’s letters makes it clear that we are saved not by our strength (or even our common faith): we are saved by our weakness . Grace is only truly complete and in its fullness in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Strangely, we fear that our weakness (in its various manifestations) will drive others away. In truth, if others are not with you in your weakness, they are not truly with you. We gladly celebrate our strengths, and place great store by our perceived talents. Those things bring us awards and congratulatory attention. But we do not enter into communion through such things…”
    “I can only bear witness that cowering behind locked doors, I have encountered the risen Christ. [yes! not in the celebration of our strength but in the cowering, the hiding in pain and suffering and shame…there we meet Christ! If only our eyes can see!] The sooner we learn to speak the truth about ourselves to one another, and to confess our abject poverty before Christ, the sooner we will know the only community that will ever exist: founded in need, and filled with God.”
    And perhaps with speaking this truth to one another we will simply confess our culpability in the sins of our nation and intercede in prayer as did Abraham. Because I agree with you Father Stephen, that this nation as a people who are so fragmented and disintegrated has not come close, or will ever come close to true repentance. But those of us who admit this can pray.

  31. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free.

    Father, this wording caught my eye. In Baptism do we indeed journey into Hades with Christ; are we even now there to make intercession? By this I mean that, if our salvation is not a place but the fullness of the presence of God, is our reality also not so much a place but a role we partake in within that communion?

    I always tend to think of entering Hades after death but perhaps that is incorrect. Perhaps we are to intercede from there now, after our death in Baptism? Understanding this reality may in fact help us to understand our own trials? Or perhaps I am overthinking everything yet again?

  32. If we are born, perhaps even genetically, bearing the weight of those unknown generations before us, how does that speak to the idea of our being entirely responsible for our own sins? Someone in prison recently told me, “I alone am responsible for where I am now. I take full responsibility for where I am.” My impulse is to say, “No! The horrible experiences of your childhood and your parents are responsible for where you are.” There is no value in blaming others, I know. But neither do I see the value of this person blaming himself entirely for the violence done against him by others.

  33. Jamie – I could not recover until I took responsibility for all I had done. I cannot remain in recovery if I do not continue to take responsibility for all that I do. Thank God for His grace and mercy. It has freed me from my burdens and allows me to forgive myself, so I can try to make amends for all that I have done. I have never known such freedom as I have today, and it began when I started to take responsibility for myself.

    At least, that is my experience, my strength and my hope.

  34. An interesting article in Crisis Magazine quotes C.S. Lewis’ essay The Dangers of National Repentance:

    “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others.”

    To paraphrase (or butcher :)) Flannery O’Connor: It is a repentance which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When repentance is detached from the source of forgiveness, its logical outcome is terror.

  35. Regarding the comments about the dangers of national repentance, perhaps it goes without saying that the prerequisite for a properly done “National Repentance” is for the nation to become an explicitily Christian country (i.e., what is called a “Confessional State.”) ?

    -NSP

  36. NSP
    Or something. For Christian repentance, yes. It is not healthy, however, for nations to do terrible things, then spend years justifying themselves or ignoring the crimes. It damages the heart. With time, it becomes almost completely ineffective – sort of like the Pope apologizing for the Crusades, etc. But when national crimes go unrecognized and unacknowledged, the crime is perpetuated. The darkness grows and slowly drags a nation into destruction. Many of the present problems of our nation are rooted in its past. But, I suspect the time has passed for much of it.

  37. Jamie,
    A person is obviously effected by their past and the past of their fore-bearers but they still retain choice and as long as choice remains, they are responsible for their actions. What our legal system does is punish and that never does anything positive. I can see removing people who make evil choices from society to protect the rest of us, but rehabilitation not punishment should be the rule while the person is held away from society. When and if they can be redeemed, then they can be returned to freedom.

  38. Nicholas,
    “When and if they can be redeemed, then they can be returned to freedom” sounds like a horribly dangerous policy – to give the state power to keep a person locked away for as long as its agents are of the opinion they are not yet redeemed… I think a system of proportionality is important in sentencing.

  39. Ben,
    The State already has the power to decide what punishment a person should receive and for how long. Additionally, the system does not work. Most people leave prison angrier and more prone to criminal activity than when they went in. I know people who were given long sentences for crimes like murder or child molestation and they were warehoused for a decade or more. At no time were they ever given any sort of treatment to help them not be murderers or child molesters. When they were freed, they went back to their old behaviors. Where is the justice and healing in that? If we do not change the way we deal with such people is it ever safe to release them? How is it not ultimate power over someone to decide to lock them up for long periods of time? Just because a person has served a 20 year sentence in no way guarantees they will not commit more crimes, in fact, locking people up generally results in those people committing more crimes upon release.

  40. Nicholas is right. If you send someone to prison for 20 years because you believe he is a criminal, he will eventually believe you and decide that he is, in fact, a criminal. You can’t treat someone like a criminal for 5, 10 or 20 years, and then expect him to behave as if he is not a criminal.

  41. I saw many come through the prison I was a chaplain at. Many returned because they had nothing when they left the prison except the pants they had on when arrested (no belt) and shoes without their laces. Because they were locked up, if they had a place to stay, they could not pay rent so their stuff was disposed of when they were evicted. They had no shirts or socks because all their underwear fell apart in the prison laundry. I have known people who were dumped on the street by a police cruiser when they were released. It was winter and they had no money, no place to stay, no food to eat and they were unemployable because of their record and lack of education and work experience. The only thing they knew was crime. It was no small wonder they returned quickly. They had to steal, hustle and push drugs to get some clothes, have some food and a place to stay. One fellow lived in a bush in the down town park until he was arrested for vagrancy. We do nothing to rehabilitate people or reform them. We simple warehouse them for a stretch with no attempt to change the course of their future.

  42. In my own experience, most of these folks are alcoholics and addicts. After they are dumped on the street, as Nicholas describes, they are miserable and so, of course, they go looking for the only comfort they know: drugs and alcohol. And so the cycle begins again.

  43. Addiction is part and parcel of this life style. Most prisoners are arrested for drug/alcohol related offences and most I knew made their living as low level dealers. The one thing the system did for this large group of prisoners was to require them to attend long term drug and alcohol programs during their incarceration. I taught the program for three tears in the prison farm which was full of non violent convicts who were nearing the end of their sentences, Some attended as many cycles of the program as they had months left before parole even though they had completed the program. Some of them remain clean and on the outside, but sadly many fell and returned to prison.

  44. Nicholas,
    I did not mean to imply the statement shouldn’t make reform one of it’s goals – certainly it should, I think, and the points you and David make are well-taken. What I took issue with (though perhaps I misunderstood you) was the notion that an offender should not be released unless and until he has been reformed (that is to say, the state judges him to be so) – that is to say, practically speaking, a potential life-sentence with the possibility of getting off early.

  45. Ben
    For the types of crimes I had in mind the offender generally gets Life with or without Parole. I cannot support the death penalty for obvious reasons, but our goal should not be punishment but rehabilitation. Unfortunately, most people who express opinions about criminals demand revenge punishment and our system does too. In truth, our government has already given itself the power to hold people as you expressed concern over. It is the sentence Life with the possibility of Parole.

  46. Nicholas – I go to the jail every two weeks to share a recovery program. Many complete the program, very few maintain their sobriety on the outside. It is all in God’s hands. The important thing for me is to continue to visit my Lord in prison and offer such aid as I can. [Matt. 25:36] I am eternally grateful that God has blessed me with this ministry. I love these men. They may fail, but then they try again. They carry burdens of guilt that would be beyond my strength to bear. They comfort and inspire me.

  47. David,
    I feel the same way about the men I served as well. I have spent many hours in conversation with these men and there stories are heart breaking and I understand why they use, which is to kill the pain and memories. I know many Vets who are the same way, wracked by guilt and trauma. I am glad to hear you are laboring in the vineyards and even what we see as failures may be more than we know.

  48. Nicholas,
    It seems then I misunderstood you, as I took your implication to be that criminals should not be released until they are considered reformed, whereas you were saying that (even those who have committed crimes of the sort that receive life sentences) should not be held any longer if they have been reformed (and that, of course, that reform should be our goal). Correct me if I got you wrong again.

  49. Ben,
    My beef with our system is that reformation is not really the goal. The goal is punishment for punishment’s sake. People clamor for a person to be punished, not transformed. The Protestant version of eternal damnation is the same. They want sinned roasted. My experience with the many I have met in prison is that most are not really much different than those on the outside with the exception being they got caught..
    Yes, I believe that if a person is reformed, further incarceration is unnecessary and inhumane. But, there are some who cannot reform and pose a danger to society if released. I have no quick answers to this and I certainly don’t want the government to have any more power but I do think we can, as a society, come up with better alternatives than what we do now.

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