The Church and Political Causes

Should the Keystone Pipe-line be built? Is globalization a good thing? Which political party should we vote for? These are questions which have provoked a tremendous amount of debate, not excluding loud shouting and mass protest, including sometimes violent protest. The question is: should the Church of God leap into the ideological fray and join the protest? Should we join the march and carry the signs? And if so, on which side? Please note: the question here is not, “Should individual Christians have opinions on such matters and take individual action?”, but rather, “Should the Church as Church commit itself to one side of the protest?” I ask the question because recently I heard that a Byzantine Catholic community used my akathist Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness as a liturgical part of expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt an odd sense of ambivalence. On the one hand I was happy that they found my akathist useful, but on the other hand I was a bit uneasy at the politicization of liturgical prayer. By this you can conclude that I believe that the Church as Church should rarely commit itself to one side of a political cause.

The dangers of doing so are threefold.

First of all, political movements and causes are hardly ever matters of simple, pure, and unalloyed right and wrong. More often they are complex and nuanced, with truth and falsity, good and evil, to be found in varying amounts on both sides. Sometimes the degrees of good and evil in one side or the other can be seen more clearly in retrospect. But this retrospect takes time, and discernment is harder to come by when we are in the thick of things. It is far too easy for us to over-simplify complex matters, and begin sentences with the words, “The truth is perfectly clear…” when actually the issue is far from perfectly clear. After history has given its mature verdict, hindsight (as they say) is twenty-twenty—but usually not until.

This is especially so because our view-points and opinions cannot be better than the information we are given, and the media rarely gives us good information. The problem is not simply that the North American media is divided between the right and the left, the conservative and the liberal. The problem is that neither side of the media is free. We delight in saying that we have “a free press”, and this is true if by that one means that a reporter writing an unpopular piece will not thereafter be taken out and shot, or vanish into a gulag in the middle of the night. But there are two ways of overcoming a truly free press. One is to terrify the media with threat of shotgun and gulag. The other way is to simply buy the press. This latter insures that only the owner’s viewpoints will find public airing. It is certainly cheaper than operating a gulag and it is, I suggest, the situation in which we currently find ourselves here in the West. (I am not saying it is any better in the East.) Our press is not so much free as it is bought, and those who work for it are perfectly free to toe the party line.

This means that before we form a final opinion we should take care to listen to all the many discordant and opposing voices in the debate and only then try to discern the truth. In most cases, each side has got some things right and some things wrong. That does not mean that we should not support a cause, but that our support must be as muted as the issue is complex. Usually we are choosing one shade of ideological grey over another, not choosing ideological white over black.

Secondly and following from this, it usually means that Christians and all people of good-will can be found on both sides of a debate. The abiding temptation is to demonize the opposing side and to assume that they have chosen that side because they are bad, evil people. “Surely”, we say, “no one with a conscience could support (fill in the blank with whatever you are protesting against)! It is perfectly clear that those opposing us have no arguments at all on their side, and that they only oppose us because they are (fill in the blank with your favourite term of derision)!”   Terms of derision abound, and usually serve in place of sustained and thoughtful argument. There is an entire cornucopia of derisive labels available to choose from. Those on the opposing side may be Nazis, Fascists, Communists, Liberals, Fundamentalists, Racists, Anti-semitic, Homophobic, Transphobic, Islamophobic, and a growing host of other labels, usually now ending with the letters “phobic”.

If we assume that the issue is black and white and if we therefore demonize the opposition, we will almost inevitably be filled with an overwhelming and glowing sense of self-righteousness which blinds us to the legitimacy of the opposing arguments and the humanity of those advancing them. We see ourselves as soldiers of truth and light, waging war against the armies of darkness and barbarism. And (as the proverb has it) all is fair in love and war. And so in this war we are justified in bullying our opponents, of shouting them down, of driving them out, of calling them names, of depriving them of a living and a right to be heard. Even violence is justified against them, for our enemies of the enemies of truth and light, and must be eliminated at all costs. We can return from our violent protest with the warm glow of self-righteousness, secure in the knowledge that our violence is building a better world.

Nothing blinds the human heart and silences the conscience quite so effectively as violence in the service of supposed truth. If you doubt this, try looking at Germany in the 1920s and later when many people—Nazi and Communist—used violence as a tool against opposing ideologies. Of course when we employ bullying and violence in the service of our cause we do not call bullying and violence by their true names. We are not bullying or using violence. We are just standing up for civilization and making the world a better and kinder place. Unqualified support for a political cause which uses violent protest as a tool of discourse too often quickly descends into this kind of confrontation.

Thirdly, aligning the Church with a political cause distracts and detracts from our true mandate, which is the proclamation of the Gospel, the creation of a new and transfigured community, and the glorification of God. The Church then becomes no longer the unique instrument of God in the world and the Body of His Son, but just another NGO, just another loud voice in the marketplace crying for social justice. Our commitment to a merely political cause too easily politicizes the Church and effectively erodes its eschatological nature. We no longer regard ourselves as strangers and sojourners on the earth, but as political animals, partisans of the right or the left. A look around at the Christian communities who strove to be relevant in the 1960s by embracing such causes is instructive. They all have lost credibility in the eyes of the world as far as the timeless Gospel is concerned. The world applauded their political stands and their participation in protest marches and then completely ignored them ever after. Or, in the Lord’s words, having lost its savour, those churches were trampled under the foot of man (Matthew 5:13).

One can perhaps see this warning in the words of Christ to His apostles before His ascension. They asked Him if it was now the time for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel—i.e. for Israel’s political ascendency in the world, which they regarded as having been foretold by the prophets. The Lord told them that such things were not their concern, and that their task was the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Politics—even divine politics—was not the Church’s concern. The Church’s mandate concerned higher and more eternal things, as befitted a community anchored in the age to come.

But, one may ask, what about issues like abortion? Should not the Church as Church take a public stand on such things? Yes, and this illustrates the problem. For abortion is not primarily a political issue, but a moral issue with political ramifications. Political issues are usually always painted in grey, with valid arguments on both sides of the question. For example, there are, I suggest, good reasons for building the Keystone Pipeline and good reasons for not building it. There are good reasons for voting Republican and good reasons for voting Democrat. But there are no good reasons for killing a child (assuming that the child would not die if left alone—i.e. assuming the pregnancy is not ectopic). This issue is not between grey and grey, but between black and white. So, unless the moral issue involved in espousing a cause is as clear as that, I suggest that the Church as Church should stay out of the political ring. Christian individuals within the Church may take action in such causes if they wish. But they cannot say that they speak for the entire Church, or that the entire Church necessarily agrees with their stand.

We live in a liberal democracy, where open political debate is allowed and encouraged. This includes the freedom to gather and protest peacefully. This is very good, and can help to build a healthy society. But building a better society is not the Church’s primary task, and never was, even in Byzantium. Our task is to preach the Gospel, to heal and transform the human heart, and to glorify God. And after we as individuals have voted, and argued, and protested, and done our best to build a better world, we still must look up the heavens and pray, “Maranatha! Let grace come, and let the world pass away.” I am told that the Greek term for the posters used at protests is ephemera. That pretty much says it all.

 

23 comments:

  1. I am confused by how you imagine BLM is a political issue, and not a life/death issue such as abortion. Do you really think life for black persons is negotiable? What if it had been a Blue Lives Matter (police) movement that used your akathist? Would you have written this? The suppression of people of color has been around a lot longer than “legalized” abortion.

    1. Of course black life is not negotiable, any more than any human life is negotiable. But as I understand it there is more to the movement than the simple assertion that black lives have value, and it is these other features that are subject to debate.

  2. Thank you for this Father.
    I spent my 20s obsessed with politics, thinking that with the right people in office, we could make heaven on earth essentially. Those who had different political views than me were “unenlightened” at best. Boy was I wrong.

    Certain issues are a matter of morality (abortion as you mention) and the Church should speak. I also think it makes sense for the Church to address issues of poverty, but must be careful in endorsing specific policies. For example, the merits of something like a “living wage” law is complicated due to unintended consequences, and in reality there are many different possible policies that may reduce poverty, and the Church may not have the right expertise to figure out the best ones.

    1. I quite agree that the Church should speak up on issues like poverty, in that we should say that we are our brother’s keeper and that he who has two coats should share with him who has none. As you say, it is when one moves from general ideals to concrete policies that the water becomes muddied. To take your example, is raising the minimum wage a wise move? Would it ultimately harm the people it intends to help by making it impossible for small employers to hire as many employees as they did before? The issue is far from clear. The Church’s wisdom is in the realm of theology and morality, but not in the realm of economics. We should have the humility to recognize when we are out of our depth on certain questions.

  3. The Church forms individual beliefs which a person then applies to judgements as regards legislative proposals and the people who espouse them. The extent that Churches can engage persons within a given body politic will then determine the nature of the society. Democracy brings us closer to the original form of Israel’s social organization: a society governed by rule of law as interpreted by judges steeped in that law. While modern societies are secular, they are none-the-less governed by leaders who are beholden to the laws. When Churches have done their part, those laws are informed by the moral influence of the Church on individual legislators and on those who elect them. In our society we are blessed with the power to peaceably remove from office those who stray too far from God’s truth. In truth, there is no law, vis a vis China, which requires a woman to have an abortion. It seems to me that the role of the church is to cultivate a nurturing social environment which encourages child bearing, and child rearing, as a central aspect of both government, as well as private, economic policy.

  4. There are issues of life and death that are politicized to the point of not being seen as issues of life and death.

    Would you consider the following to be examples as such –

    a. Global warming
    b. The current zero-tolerance policy

      1. Father, the poster is likely referring to the policy of separating families at the border if they are entering without the proper documentation. President Trump’s administration referred to this policy as Zero Tolerance. The legal means to separate and detain families pre-dates the Trump administration, but they have applied it in a very aggressive way to act, in their own words, as a deterrent.

        I agree very much with the spirit of your article. I would be very uncomfortable if the Church began taking positions on the myriad of political and economic debates that go in society. However, there are times when an issue has moral ramifications that the Church should speak to. I was very happy when SCOBA spoke out about the racist demonstrations in Charlottesville and made it clear that no Orthodox christian should be involved in that nonsense. I was equally disappointed with the Church’s lack of a voice on Zero Tolerance. The Roman Catholics and several Protestant groups have spoken out, and this is to their credit. I fear the Church’s silence on this issue is shameful, though all I can do is try to stand up for what is right as an individual while praying that God grant wisdom and courage to our leaders, both civil and spiritual. I am not suggesting the Church take any position on immigration, but there are ways to condemn immoral practices meant to enforce laws without criticizing the laws themselves.

        Donald

          1. Thank you, Father Lawrence. I had not seen this statement by Metropolitan Tikhon. Given the number of Orthodox jurisdictions that exist in this country, it is a real shame that so few hierarchs have spoken out. Thank God for Metropolitan Tikhon.

            I am a survivor of early childhood trauma. I am also the adoptive father of a little girl who experienced severe early childhood trauma. I know from personal experience the damage that is done to the mind and the soul by these experiences. That a government would design a program to deliberately traumatize families in order to deter migration is a terrible evil. That our leaders have not spoken out strongly and in one, unified voice is a stain on us.

            I understand that in many convert-heavy parishes in the U.S., conservative Republicans are the dominant demographic. I also understand that there are bills to pay. I just think that our stand on moral issues needs to extend beyond the easy ones. Abortion and gay marriage are easy. This one should be easy to, but the overwhelming silence would suggest otherwise.

          2. “I was equally disappointed with the Church’s lack of a voice on Zero Tolerance.”

            I can recall when Bill Clinton’s administration used masked “officers” with “assault rifles” to tear Elian Gonzalez from his families arms in 1999. Controversial yes, but was it did it have the moral (and politics is first and foremost a moral enterprise) clarity that Donald seems to believe it has today? No. The difference was the media was not as polarized and polarizing as they are today (though they were well on the way). It of course helps that Clinton and Reno were Democrats and Trump is a Republican. After reading my Metropolitan’s rambling and almost adolescent moralizing on the immigration issue, I noted how easily he had been sucked into this particular bandwagon and wondered how many children died in the abortion mills while he was writing the letter as abortion is the most popular method of folks “ripping children from their mothers” today. Of course nobody listens to him on abortion, including his own flock who have abortions at nearly the same rate as the general population. The thing about the bandwagon is that it pushes certain pleasure buttons – we “feel” good about it. If we were more aware of ourselves, we would just go out and buy a Harley Davidson and not subject others to what in the end is simply a kind of display of our vanity…

          3. I do take your point. I am loath to weigh in on such issues, especially when as a Canadian I am not well stocked with all the actual facts. And I do wonder how many of my American friends are sufficiently well stocked with all the facts either, especially since everyone is dependent upon the media for them. The point of my piece was that in the heat of the moment everyone is tempted to view their issue as black and white, when there might be more grey in it than first thought.

          4. Oh I agree with you Father about “grey areas” and perhaps my scrabbly post did not make that clear. There is a certain kind of reasoning process however that does not really believe this, and I think Donald is outlining that pretty well. He says that “Abortion and gay marriage are easy” but the truth is actually the opposite as these “questions” are reflective of the deep and deeply difficult beliefs about what and who we are as human beings. The fact that Orthodoxy and RCism has relatively clear and unambiguous dogma on abortion and sexuality, and the fact that Orthodox and RC believers don’t actually follow or believe in it (I think the latest surveys here in America reveal that RC’s get abortions at a slightly higher rate than the general population) tells us that it is hard, not easy.

            I live in a small city about 50 miles from the border of Mexico. We have an “indigenous” population of hispanic-americans whose family roots go back to the 1700’s – they were here before the 13 colonies became the United States. As a group, you are more likely to find them upset (and vocal) with the immigration status quo than just about anyone else. They value their culture and don’t like the fact that America as a whole has become dependant on cheap labor from the south and the cultural consequences thereof. They would have “built a wall” a long time ago! Donald and the rest of America is not aware of this (and neither was I until I moved down here 10 years ago) because it does not fit the *moral* narrative that they sell. Grey area indeed…

          5. In my last post the last sentence refers to “… *moral* narrative that they sell”. The “they” referred to the media and those the media serves, not those who buy into the narrative (like my Metropolitan) all too easily…

    1. “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” The zero-tolerance policy serves the purpose of ensuring that the adults crossing the border illegally with children are their legitimate parents and not human smugglers or traffickers. It is not simply separating the families for the sake of separating them and deterring immigration. It is disappointing to see church officials blindly accepting the political propaganda of a party that also pushes abortion and homosexuality. Where RC and Protestant churches have succumbed greatly to Democratic lobbies and the agendas that accompany them, Orthodoxy would do good to either abstain from holding a position before the true motives and facts are revealed or holding a position at all.

  5. The future is what so many worry about. Women are often driven to abort now because of fear of the future, coping with a child and altering their lives . Environmentalists are driven by fear that their actions will cause future global emergencies. The Future with a capital letter is brought into political movements and doing what is ‘necessary’ now to bring about the imagined Future leads to all sorts of evil, as the rulers of the U S S R showed.
    However, if you think about it, only the Present time exists. In it only can we contact or be contacted by God.
    The Future may or may not happen. “The End of time will come like a thief in the night”. We have been warned.
    Perhaps the Church should revert to “The End is Nigh” placards outside to make passers by think!
    What if this Present really were the World’s Last Night

  6. Thank you for the article, Father. Unfortunately, the church/Church has often made political statements. I read your article more as “how it should be”, i.e. for the One, Holy, Apostolic, Orthodox Church. Its manifestation in local bodies unfortunately acts different that this ideal. For a sad, sad, example, I read official publications of the Romanian Orthodox Church from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I was shocked (and somewhat disgusted) to how the “official voice” of THE Church (it’s autocephalous, is it not?) aligned with the programs and propaganda of the Romanian Communist Party at that time…
    Finally, your example of the akhatist also had me pause (similar to the first comment here). What about all the akhatists and chants we sing outside Planet Parenhood? How about using “Oh God save thy people” in battles?

    1. Quite so, Father: I was referring to what I consider the ideal, not the actual practice. Given that abortion is a black-and-white issue and not a grey one, I agree that the Church should take a stand against it, and that chanting an akathist outside Planned Parenthood is acceptable. I suppose the wisdom of singing the tropar for the Cross before a battle would depend upon the relative morality of the war itself.

  7. Thankyou for these words of sanity Fr. Lawrence. Polarization and marginalization seem to have become the knee jerk way of responding both inside and outside the church.

  8. “, unless the moral issue involved in espousing a cause is as clear as that, I suggest that the Church as Church should stay out of the political ring.”

    I assume this means that where the Church has such clarity that it should get politically involved.

    But here is the rub. What policy should the Church advocate for? There isn’t clarity about *that*. So the Church should sit that one out, too.

  9. All of these posts, including the primary one contain big unexamined assumptions which make the conclusions suspect. The big one in Father Farley’s is that history some how reveals the truth over time. That is an incorrect assumption. Our understanding of history is always interpretative. There is always a cultural hermeneutic through which the available facts and outcomes are filtered and condensed and communicated. Let us not kid ourselves that even “plain matters of life and death” are not subject to the same process. The purveyors of ideology want us folks to think that every cause is a clear cut case of life and death. Yet even with abortion it is not perfect as Father points out.

    I have studied history my entire life with particular emphasis on how history is written and the philosophy of history. While there are a variety of historical hermeneutics in play at any given time there is always a dominant one. The dominant one in our “global” culture is Nihilism, the worship of the individual will to power and “creative destruction” all in the name of a better world. It can be amazingly seductive–until it isn’t. Ultimately it is demonic using fear, lust and the delusion of a chiliastic world without God to motivate. It permeates all of the current causes even abortion. Bishop Basil (Essay) has a wonderful homily on that you can find on the web. I was blessed to hear it in person.

    Being slow of mind and heart though, I only recently realized the Church has it’s own countervaling hermeneutic. My realization came in a discussion with Fr. Alexander F.C. Webster, the new Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary in New York. A ROCOR seminary which was recently certified to offer the M.Div degree.

    In passing, he mentioned that he would be teaching Church History this year. He emphasized that we have to understand that the Church’s view of history is Providential. It is not too much to say that a light went off in my head and all of the study and thought I had done in my life fell into order and a freedom of heart began.

    Without going into all the details, which would take a book, the bottom line is to live a Providential life, thinking Providential; really Trusting in God instead of my own will. It is impossible for me to know good and evil generally. That is why God forbid us from eating from that Tree. The rest is a fall out from our decision to rebel.

    A Providential life is not a passive life. It is a small life filled with repentance, worship, almsgiving with a merciful heart to those nearest you, prayer and thanksgiving. Actively and intentionally giving all up to God in thanksgiving. “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee” is not just in the Divine Liturgy or even primarily there. God will and does give the increase. He provides. His Providence is a sure thing. Isaiah 41:10 says it well. That same “Fear not….” is a recurring theme. We should not seek justice as we know it for “in the course of justice none of us shall see salvation”.
    Glory to God.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments. I agree with you, and do not actually think that “history somehow reveals truth over time” in every instance, which is why I carefully phrased it by saying, “Sometimes the degrees of good and evil in one side or the other can be seen more clearly in retrospect”–note: sometimes, but not always. Very helpful to me was CS Lewis’ article entitled “Historicism”. In it he writes that ‘We can say [history] is an exciting story, or a crowded story, or a story with humorous characters in it. The one thing we must not say is what it means, or what is total pattern is”. This is all the more so because (as the cynics say) history is always written by the winners. This does not mean that “history is bunk” as some say, but that sometimes we do not get from history the lessons we should, since historians always write with a particular purpose and a particular bias. My main point was not that history is always guaranteed to give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that we are all but certain not to get such truthful perspective when we are in the thick of things. If truth is not always guaranteed in hindsight, we must therefore assume truth cannot be guaranteed before such hindsight is available.

      1. Father, I agree but there is one other aspect of the transmission of history–it is the passing on of a culture and a way of life. At best it is Holy Tradition.

        That aspect is why ideologs attack the history of country, a peoples. It is quite key understanding the ideological warfare going on.

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