Thursday, October 31, 2019

Lutherans, step into my office for a moment please.....

An interesting, if misguided, article has been making the rounds among some of you that I would like to address this Reformation Day.  Why Reformation Day?  Not to be inflammatory, but to remind us all of why we ended up here, and why some of the premises in this article are so badly wrong.

The article, from Real Clear Religion, is well intentioned.  I won't link to it, mostly because those of you who are interested have already read it and I'm not inclined to give it wider distribution.  It notes, correctly, that some evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism for ancient faiths, and it posits that a viable alternative is the ancient faith, as Lutherans see it, that is Lutheranism.  So far, no harm no foul.  I don't begrudge Lutherans their distinctives nor their outreach.  In fact, one reason I became Lutheran was the insistence on grounding doctrine not only in "the Bible" as any single individual may see it, but in the Bible as understood by the Fathers of the Church, the Councils, etc.  Lutherans believe that "Popes and councils can err," a broad statement that we Orthodox could agree with in part, but which I think overstates the case.  After all, Lutherans do not profess to believe that, for example, the Ecumenical Councils erred.  Your confessions cite to them often.  It is this citation that drew me to Lutheranism in the first place.  Here is a faith that is not grounded in subjectivity.  It has roots.

But here is my issue.  The article also states the following, regarding the proverbial "swimming" of the Tiber or Bosporos (shorthand for becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, respectively -- forgive me the presumption that readers will understand the references or at least consult a map and figure them out):

Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism.
The latter, Church history, is the ground on which I became Lutheran and eventually left to become Orthodox.  I will address that point in a bit, but I certainly respect that Lutherans have a valid claim to hold to at least a substantial volume of the dogmatic proclamations of the pre-schism Church.  But the notion that people leave any tradition because they are enamored with externals like "ceremonial aspects" or "art and literature" is a common Lutheran trope, and a silly one.  I know a lot of former Lutherans, most of whom are Eastern Orthodox, some of whom are Roman Catholic.  Of those, I don't know a single one who would say "our liturgies are prettier" or "I really like the aesthetics of icons (or statutes)" as the reason why they left.

Were that my only complaint, I probably wouldn't write this at all.  But the article goes on to address, or more accurately gloss past, the real reason most of us left -- ecclesiology.

But Jesus does not lay out a proper form for his church. A true church, as limned in the New Testament, is one whose ministers teach the gospel purely and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly, according to Christ’s institution and mandate. That’s all. If your church does that–and the Missouri Synod hangs its hat on this directive–you belong to the true church.
Now, this is certainly the Lutheran view, and I do not take issue with it as a Lutheran view.  What I take issue with is the begging of the question in favor of the Lutheran understanding of the Church, and the glossing past history which shows that view to have some holes in it.  That is, I object that the very historical and Apostolic foundation being appealed to here is treated as if it can be reduced to locating the Church where the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered in accordance with their institution, over and against those communions who maintain the Apostolic structure.  As we all know, Jesus never said "the Church is found where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered in accordance with their institution" either.  So to understand either view -- the view of the historic communions such as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, some Anglicans, etc., versus the Lutheran view -- one must look past the Scriptures and get deep into that very history the author appeals to here, but fails to adequately address.

It is true that Jesus does not "lay out a proper form for His Church," inasmuch as Jesus does not say "these are the things which constitute the Church" in so many words.  But Jesus did appoint men to carry on His ministry.  John chapter 20 is one of numerous places we see this.  "Receive the Holy Spirit," said Jesus.  "Whoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven.  Whoever's sins you retain, they are retained."  We both share that Apostolic foundation.  The Bible, after all, is the Apostolic record.

The view Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, among a few others, share is that the Apostles then passed on their ministry to the episcopacy.  That is, bishops were appointed to head the various sees established by the Apostles.  Over time, those bishops had their territories expand such that they could not effectively act as pastor and overseer, and so the office of presbyter developed, with the presbyter being responsible for being the bishop's representative in a parish.  The diaconate came about much earlier, as recorded in Acts.  So it is the office of the parish pastor that developed over time, not the office of the bishop.  In the nascent Church, the parish pastor was the bishop.

This is the basic structure of the Church in history.  It is attested to as early as the late 1st to early 2nd century, with no objection to the structure itself being raised.  It is utterly uncontroversial.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop of an Apostolic see first headed by St. Peter, wrote:

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest. 
— Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1

He also wrote:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. 
— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8

Now, this clearly sets forth not simply a loose, "wherever" standard for the Church, but rather a tight, "where the bishop is, there the Church is" standard for governance.  Nor is this historical truth controversial in the slightest.  Nearly everyone agrees this is what St. Ignatius said about the Church save those radical "Age of Apostasy" Protestants and ahistorical atheists, some of whom deny that Ignatius was even a real person.  And this is not only the same structure for the Church we see in Ignatius' late 1st century to early 2nd century writings.  It is the same structure we see, for example, in Acts 15.

So leaving aside the trope that people become Catholic or Orthodox because they want more pretty shiny stuff, we are left with the idea that they seek out these communions because they appreciate Church history.  And the very same history that leads one to appreciate Lutheranism, if plumbed to its depths, leads in a straight line back to the historic communions.  The article even notes that Luther did not seek to leave the Church, only to restore it.

Of course, the problem with that premise is Luther did not simply restore.  In many ways, he did in fact leave.  Some of that I account to historical accident.  If the bishops are corrupt, and if the bishops will not ordain or recognize your pastors, there is not much to be done, if one believes one's view to be correct, but to leave the bishops.  The problem is, that true history is glossed past in favor of a question-begging narrative that pretends the 16th century Lutheran conception of the Church is just the way things always were until everything got corrupted.  When the corruption entered is not stated by the author, and in fact the very notion that it was corrupted is hinted at only vaguely, but I have shown above that it would have to be in the very first generation of Christians.  Ignatius, after all, was born in 35 AD or thereabouts.  His episcopacy was before any of the councils or Popes Lutherans believe erred.  His writings were widely disseminated.  Antioch was one of the five pre-eminent Sees in the early Church, along with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem.  In order to claim the current Lutheran understanding of what the Church is was the "early Church" view, one has to also adopt the view that the entire ecclesiology of the Church was corrupted right about the time the last Apostle died.  And yet, I don't know a single Lutheran who believes that.

There is a proper Lutheran view of history that accounts for this.  Many of my friends in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod hold the view, for example, that the parish pastor fulfills properly the role of the bishop in the ancient Church.  That is, as they see it, their ecclesiology has been reformed to a more proper model consistent with that of the early Church, where there were no overseers, only pastors.  Again, that is well and good and I don't quarrel with it, though I do disagree with it.  The problem is, in disseminating articles like this one which fails to make that case, or even attempt to, one invites prospective evangelical converts to delve into the history behind the claims.  When they do, they will inevitably find that the claims are inadequate, and frankly, wrong.  That does no one any good.

I don't write often on Lutheran distinctives.  I look back with fondness at my time in your midst, and I was formed by the teaching of theologians whose views I value to this very day.  I do not write this as an attack on you or your tradition.  But I do wish some of you would consider how this comes across, not only to those of us who left, but perhaps chiefly to those the article addresses -- potential converts.  Because the honest truth is, I believe it tends to come from a position of weakness and ignorance.  Too many of you cannot understand why we do not see what you see.  And instead of questioning us about it, or trying to figure out why we reject Lutheran theology in the end, assumptions are made.  Assumptions such as no one would reject Lutheran theology if they understood it, therefore, it must be something else.  This article grasps blindly for "something else."  It attributes it, in the first and second instances, to a superficial love for shiny pretty things, and in the third, for an appreciation of history that is marred by the very claims the article attempts, weakly, to make.

An anecdote to make the point further.  When I was still firmly a Lutheran, in June of 2009, Pastor David Jay Webber did a 3-part series on the Lutheran radio show, Issues, Etc., on Eastern Orthodoxy.  Even then, having no interest in the Orthodox Church, but having read volumes of Church history, I knew it was badly wrong.  For example, rather than placing the genesis of the Great Schism properly at the extent and scope of Papal jurisdiction and authority, culminating in the Filioque controversy, Webber's view was that the West went with Augustine and the East went with Pelagius on the central article (as Lutherans see it) of justification.  Pelagius, that great Protestant boogeyman, was thus presented as the central figure in a schism that occurred over 600 years after he died.  Augustine, that great Protestant hero (when he isn't talking about imitating the lives of the martyrs, sharing in their merits and being aided by their prayers), is posited as the hero of a schism that occurred nearly 600 years after he died.  This sort of ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense does not win people to your cause, at least not after they learn they have been lied to.

When we were exploring Orthodoxy, in mid-2010, well-meaning Lutheran friends sent me articles written by Lutherans who said things like "the Orthodox don't take sin seriously" and "the Orthodox don't believe in original sin."  The first of those statements is laughable, as I wrote about here.  The second is true only in a word-concept fallacy sense -- we believe in a concept called "ancestral sin," and the differences are beyond the scope of my point here.  Suffice it to say, at the level of theology, both statements are horrifically wrong.  And things like that naturally made me ask a question:  "if they're wrong about that, what else are they wrong about?"

It turned out the answer was "quite a lot."  Most Lutherans, even most Lutheran pastors and theologians, do not understand Eastern Orthodoxy.  I've written about some of the differences here before, but the conceptual framework is so vastly different that one really must spend a lot of time defining terms and understanding basics before one can even have a conversation.

My advice, then, is stop trying to tell us why we left and what we believe, and start trying to understand.  That begins with listening, and I am happy to offer my thoughts anytime any of you would like to discuss it.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Christchurch New Zealand: the Church and Islam

Last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, a terrorist attacked two mosques, killing 49 people and injuring at least 48 others.  The shooter -- who I will not name in order to deny him the notoriety he coveted -- was an Australian born white supremacist and nativist.  The manifesto he left behind indicates a desire to preserve a future for "his people," that is, white people, and to create a climate of fear for Muslims.

I don't write here as much as I used to, but those who follow this blog know that I have written an unfortunate number of such posts over the last couple of years. I have addressed varying forms of bigotry, hatred and sectarianism hereherehere and here.  That's just since 2017.  I'm frankly weary of it, yet it appears this sort of attitude toward one another is all too prevalent, and so I speak.

The shooter, who had something of an obsession with the history of the rise of Islam, so much so that he visited historic sites of battles between Christians and Muslims, does not seem to be any sort of practicing Christian, but he does place great value on the perceived decline of Christianity, presumably mostly as a white ethnic identity instead of as a faith and life God gives us to live.  This is at once heartening and terrifying.  Heartening because he did not know Christ and therefore his actions do not speak to the Christian faith at all.  Terrifying because he was apparently willing to nonetheless commit unspeakable acts in protest of his perceived loss of Christian (that is, white) identity in the world.

The horror present in this atrocity is appallingly simple.  The shooter, in doing what he did, became precisely that which he claimed to despise.  He did so because he reduced people to the most superficial attributes -- mostly racial -- while simultaneously failing to give any nuance to the most complex attributes, their religious faith.  To the shooter, Christian = European = white.  Muslim = non-European = non-white.  I'm sure there are other, equally superficial, distinctions he made, but I honestly lack interest in trying to find them.  It is enough to say he had a very reductionist view of humanity.

Of course, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Christian history knows that this view is not simply false, it is laughably false.  Middle Eastern Muslims are of similar racial stock to our Lord Himself, and His mother, our Lady the Theotokos.  And before Christianity was much of a thing in Europe, it spread first in the Middle East and North Africa.  The early patriarchates were located in Rome, yes, but also Alexandria, Antioch (in modern-day Turkey, though the Patriarchate is now located in Damascus), Jerusalem and Constantinople.  The main theological disputations in the earliest centuries were between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria.  Christianity is, first and foremost, an Eastern religion.  European Christianity comes to the game somewhat later in time -- even Rome was more culturally Eastern than what most people imagine "European" (that is, mostly medieval Roman Catholic) Christianity to be.

This misunderstanding goes beyond the Christian faith, but to Christian and Muslim persons.  Our bishop, who is visiting us this week, was born in Damascus, and has a still-thick accent even though he has lived here since 1981.  Those who overvalue the superficial might mistake him for a Muslim.  My brother has spent quite a lot of time in Indonesia.  I suppose one can make distinctions between Middle Eastern Muslims and Asian Muslims, but isn't that sort of the point?  Besides, Indonesia is the single largest Muslim nation in the world.  My brother encountered no difficulty there.  On more than one occasion, the kindness of local Muslims -- because of their faith, not in spite of it -- was very comforting to him.

Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo
I do not say these things lightly.  I am aware of the atrocities of Muslim fanatics in this world.  I remember, as do all of us over a certain age, September 11, 2001.  In 2013, one of our Metropolitans, Paul of Aleppo, was kidnapped along with a Syriac Orthodox bishop, John, with whom he was traveling, by Islamists.  Bad people commit bad acts.  And yet our former bishop of blessed memory, Antoun, once told our parish that in Syria, Muslims and Christians get along well.  Being hyper-focused on the superficial, therefore, is not the proper approach.  We condemn actions, not races, faiths or ethnicities.  And we praise actions, not perceived cultures based on skin color or other superficial differences.

I am also aware, as I noted in my last post, that the Orthodox Church has those within it (and others who wish to be within it but are not allowed) who espouse such superficial distinctions between humans.  The simple point I would like to make is this -- those who commit such atrocities, like those who would try to use the Orthodox Church as justification for their racism and hatred, do not do so because of their faith, but in spite of it.  There will be many true Scotsmen eager to point out, rightly, that the Christchurch shooter does not represent Christianity.  I hope they will seek out a mirror, and realize that this is also true of the 9/11 terrorists and those who kidnapped our beloved Metropolitan.  They do not represent Islam.

As I noted a while back in 2 separate posts, we have a choice.  We can choose to see others, even those of different faiths, as brothers and special creations of the Father, or we can choose to see them as evil, as (ironically) infidels, as irredeemable.  The former path is the Christian path.  Christianity is an exclusive faith, in that we truly believe Christ is the only way to reunification with God.  But Christianity does not value superficial distinctions.  Racism is sin.  Xenophobia is sin.  Which is only to say, false witness is sin.  A person is no more or less a Christian because of the color of their skin or their national origin.  A person is no more or less representative of Islam based on the same superficialities.  We are not universalists.  We do believe some will be damned, but we do not get to choose who.  It is not ours to judge.

Bishop Nicholas told us yesterday evening that there are 613 total commandments in the Old Testament, and that our Lord summed them all up in two -- love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  We have a choice.  Choose to love your neighbor as yourself.  And pray for those who lost loved ones, and those loved ones lost, when someone who felt very strongly about the loss of Christian identity missed the entire point of the Christian faith.  Lord have mercy.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anti-Semitism is un-Christian

Sadly, I feel I only write after tragedies these days.  I find myself writing today, just two days after a man shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh for the sole reason that its inhabitants were Jewish.

Pittsburgh is a city close to my heart.  For the past three years (and for at least the next two) I have traveled through her borders in order to attend the Sacred Music Institute (the past two years) and the St. Stephen Course residency (this past year and for the next two).  I have gotten to know her people, including several I consider personal friends.  And Pittsburgh is a city of fine people, people who love, who work, who treat others with respect.  She is the best of what our country has to offer.

But this was not an attack on Pittsburgh.  Nor was it an attack on some vacuous notion of "religion."  It was an attack on Jews.  Ethnic Jews.  People who were targeted not because they had done something wrong, but because they are part of a group who was wrongly considered by the shooter to have done something wrong.  To call this an act of terrorism is to understate the problem.  Because it is not the terroristic act that moved him to do it, but the false association of ethnic Jews with all manner of evil.  This was an act of terrorism, but it was a sin of the heart.

The Orthodox Church has recently had some serious issues with anti-semitism.  Fortunately the worst of the worst -- the high profile so-called "white nationalists" who infected certain of our parishes -- have been excommunicated.  That is not to say there are not others.  I'm certain there are.  It is to say our hierarchs appear to be dealing with the problem appropriately.  I pray they continue to do so.  Those who bring hatred into Christ's Church must repent or be expelled.  Their beliefs are an infectious invader upon the Body of Christ.

I'm not sure what attracts such types to the Church.  Perhaps it is the "old world" manner in which our  troparia speak.  Our parish patron's troparion, for example, includes the phrase "for when thou hast censured the Jews' madness thou sawest Christ Thy Savior standing at the right hand of the Father....."  We do not intend such to be a condemnation of modern Judaism, nor of modern Jews, nor even of ancient Judaism or ancient Jews.  It is a simple historical statement. But maybe that is misunderstood by people looking for justification for their anti-Christian views.  And, per the title, anti-semitism is anti-Christian.  Perhaps, instead, it is our roots in traditionalism.  The Orthodox Church cares little whether she is perceived as backwards, old fashioned, stuck in old ways.  Often, we revel in it.  And perhaps those who wish to look to a previous time which they perceive as "better," a time when Jews and others were persecuted, see us as refuge for the idea that any old idea is a good idea.  Perhaps, yet again, it is our own phyletism -- our own ethnic enclaves that seek to exclude and remain exclusive.  Perhaps, that is, it is our own sin that draws such people in.

In any of these events, or in any other, we must repent.  We must repent of our failure to explain our hymnody and writings in a way that makes clear we may speak archaically, but we do not speak bigotry.  We must repent of our elevation of tradition to something higher than Christ and His Church, that is, we must repent of valuing tradition for its own sake rather than valuing Holy Tradition for Christ's sake.  We must surely repent of our own sins and sweep around our own back doors in regards to how we treat our fellow man.

As Christians, we have a duty to reject the false divisions of this world.  "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."  (Galatians 3:28).  We are to see our neighbor as our brother, as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  This is true, perhaps especially true, of our brethren who do not claim Him.  For our Lord did not say to judge and persecute those who reject Him, but to love even our enemies.  And Jews, Muslims and other religious groups are not our enemies, certainly not by the loosest of associations.  How much more are we to love them?

On the subject of loose associations, we have a corresponding duty to refuse to view our neighbor by association with some larger group, the better to tar him with.  Our Jewish friends are not "Jews" (or any of the current code-word associations for people of Jewish ethnicity or identity).  They are the creation of the Father.  They are beloved of God.  Without getting too far into the thorny issues of the exclusivity of the Christian faith and the salvation of those outside the Church, because that is a far longer and more intensive topic than may be dealt with here, suffice it to say that God's earnest wish is that everyone come to know the truth and be saved.  And without reciting the various Christian heresies that lead to a belief that those outside the canonical walls of the Christian Church are our enemies, it should be sufficient for any Orthodox Christian to understand the properly basic Christian belief that judgment is not ours to render.  We are to love our neighbor.  Christ will judge us all.  And who is to say He will judge my self-defined exclusivity and hatred less severely than another's unbelief, weak belief or uncertain belief?  We are not universalists.  Some will be damned.  But it is not for me to say who.

All of which is a long way of saying this:  If you want to know how to be saved, I point you to the Church, to Christ and His Mysteries.  If you want to know who is damned, I can only say that is not for me to say.  And if you want to know who you are called to love, simply look around you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That is, love everyone.

So it is that we offer prayers to those who lost lives, health, security, friends and family this past Saturday.  We pray for all of our Jewish friends, and for those who suffer under the weight of such tragedy.  We pray for all who are persecuted, hated and reviled.  We pray for those who persecute, hate and revile, that they might repent.  We pray for he shooter, who I will not further enshrine in infamy by repeating his name here, that his heart may be softened and his hatred be quelled.  And we pray for ourselves, that we may do better.  Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Anger, Narcissism, Politics, Social Media and Personhood

Like many, I have become dismayed at the breakdown of our social discourse.  I had occasion to consider it recently in listening to a podcast I've come to enjoy -- the Joe Rogan Experience.

Most people know Rogan as the spokesman for the UFC, the somewhat sophomoric comedian, and from way back, the host of the 2nd iteration of "The Man Show" (the first iteration of which included misogynist-turned-feminist Jimmy Kimmel).  Most people -- until recently present company included -- do not consider Joe Rogan an intellectual.

Perhaps he is not.  However, in avoiding overstatement, we should be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other direction.  What Joe Rogan is, is intellectually curious.  He challenges without being a jerk.  He asks good questions.  And he has interesting guests to interview in long-form format, which obviously gives a better picture of the person than a shorter interview, much less Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

The interviewee that got me thinking along these lines was Ted Nugent.  Yes, that Ted Nugent.  Some people love Ted Nugent, for his music or his politics.  Others hate Ted Nugent, for the exact same reasons.  I've never quite known what to make of Ted Nugent.  On the one hand, he's a fantastic guitar player and upholds some of the ideals I cherish too -- family, the lifestyle of an outdoorsman, hunting, fishing, shooting, etc.  On the other, he's got a quick tongue which often seems to be ahead of his mind.  Put bluntly, he says things that make me cringe.

This interview gave me a glimpse of him I haven't seen before, either in shorter interviews or even on his hunting show, "Spirit of the Wild."  And one of the things I realized was that for all of his wackier political ideas, for all of his lack of couth and vulgarity, and for all the times "overstatement" was a kind way of saying he'd gone off the deep end, Ted Nugent also has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom about bowhunting.

This might seem out of sorts so far -- this is after all an Orthodox Christian blog, not a blog about politics or hunting or music.  Bear with me.

The thing that really stuck out to me was this guy who I'd put in a box with others I perceived to be like him -- Alex Jones, maybe Ann Coulter or Ben Shapiro -- this guy who at times says things that made me want to turn the channel, had another side to him.  A side that interested and intrigued me.  A side that was honestly fascinating.  Ted Nugent is an historian of the bow and arrow.  How the compound bow came to be.  How bowhunting became legal in various states.  How the bow and arrow began as a primitive tool used by primitive people, but became refined and perfected over the years as archers learned better and better ways to apply it, even as its use as a primary weapon for defense or obtaining food was greatly diminished.  As a beginning archer I was fascinated by this.  I listened to the entire interview.

And that got me thinking -- how often do we simply put people in boxes?  I think social media, Twitter in particular, but there are others, tends to bring out that tendency in us.  We see others through the lens of their politics, or their religious affiliation, or their race, sexual orientation, or other abstract classifications.  And if we don't like the box we put them in (perhaps that is precisely why we put them there), we write them off as having no value to add to us as persons or to society as a whole.

Yet we as Christians are to see others in Christ, and more, to see Christ in them.  Part of this problem is social media and its limitations encourage some of our worst traits.  Narcissism is chief among them.  We think we are so very important that our opinions matter more than other considerations (like someone else's feelings).  Sarcasm is another.  I speak it fluently, so mea culpa (more on that below).  Still, when you only have so much space, points are sometimes easier to make by using rhetorical tools that mock and deride instead of explain and build up.  Having these tendencies encouraged seems to me to make them habitual.  And as with any other passion, becoming habituated to sin necessarily means losing habituation to virtue.

I had occasion to witness this earlier this year.  I posted an article by the Babylon Bee, a satire site, on Facebook.  The article poked fun of Planned Parenthood by claiming they defended Bill Cosby because "sexual assault is only 3% of what he does."  I found it funny, and also insightful.  Several friends found it offensive.  Some made that known in very polite terms.  Some did not.  But one thing that struck me was the desire on the part of those whose views had been mocked to virtue signal in the other direction.  Instead of refraining from comment, comments were made.  Publicly.  The purpose was clear -- to let others know which side the commenter was on.  In one instance, the respect for boundaries broke down entirely, resulting in that person's comments being deleted from my page.

On the one hand, I certainly bear some responsibility for that.  I posted an article I knew was intended to make a point with sharp, biting sarcasm.  And it quite clearly made that point.  On the other hand, others felt it necessary to respond, with the responses nearly all polite save that one responder I mention above.  And it makes me wonder -- why?  Why did I want to post that article?  Clearly, I thought it made a good and valid point, but I knew it was inflammatory.  I knew people who felt a certain way about abortion would be challenged by it.  And certainly those challenges are necessary in a world where the mainstream media works so hard to pretend opposition to abortion is some lunatic fringe in our society.  But then, I posted it in a place where the only possible responses were combox responses.  And I got exactly that which the forum gives best -- mostly gentle commentary that served the purpose of showing opposition to the article, and in one case mocking and sarcasm in return (directed, unfortunately, at my wife).  And why did they feel the need to respond to it?  What is it about social media that encourages us to draw battle lines in this way?  To show everyone which side we are on?

One thing that should be stated is that I know all of the people who commented -- including the one whose comments were deleted -- personally.  These are not merely virtual acquaintances.  I've met them.  I know they are more than their comments on social media.  They know I am more than mine. And yet one felt comfortable attacking my wife in that forum because he disagreed with her politics.  Mocking her and deriding her.  And when that happens, it tells me a polite society (such as we were ever polite) is broken.  And I wonder what we can do about it.

I think part of the answer comes down to how we view each other as persons.  We as persons are defined first as being created in the image of God.  Those we disagree with, even vehemently, are created in God's image.  Those whose comments might cause strong offense are ultimately there for our salvation because they are sons of the Father.  They are our brothers and sisters.  They are not our enemies.  I fall short of this, often.  It is too easy to reduce people to arbitrary classifications.  And we know the evils that are borne of this -- racism, antisemitism, etc.  Every mass murderer in history has first reduced their targets to the level of subhuman.  The great irony of the example I chose is this is exactly how people who wish to see abortion continue in our society treat the unborn.  But it starts with me, and for you it starts with you.

As persons, we are more than our politics.  We are more than our prejudices.  We are more than the lowest common denominator we share with some larger group.  I am not in any way calling for us to stop using social media.  I do think we ought to consider how we use it, and why.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Tradition Matters: On the Ever Virginity of the Most Holy Theotokos as pertains to Senate Candidate Roy Moore

Allegations recently surfaced that Alabama U.S. Senate candidate and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore had romantic involvement with four teenage girls, including one 14-year old, when he was in his 30s.  Moore's defense to these allegations is that they never happened.  For a variety of reasons, including the well-sourced Washington Post story that broke the allegations, I believe they did.  Some Republicans, including several prominent Senators, have said that if the allegations are true he must step down from the Senate race.  However, a litany of other prominent supporters have given.......let's say, less satisfactory responses.

Among those is Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler.  Ziegler has given two main defenses of Moore.  The first, while still grotesque, is by far the better of the two.  Ziegler said “[t]here’s nothing to see here.  Single man, early 30s, never been married, dating teenage girls. Never been married and he liked younger girls. According to The Washington Post account he never had sexual intercourse with any of them.”  Now, one can certainly argue that cultural norms change, but suffice it to say, if a 30 year old man comes a courting my soon-to-be 14 year old daughter, that man is taking his health and safety, not to mention his freedom, into his own hands.  This defense also glosses past the fact that even in the 1970s, the conduct alleged by the 14-year old (though not with the other three girls who alleged Moore pursued them, who were all over the age of consent of 16, and all of whom said their contact with him was limited to kissing), was illegal in Alabama.  It also seems to miss the obvious fact that his conduct with 4 separate girls was limited to kissing with the older girls, but progressed to fondling with the youngest of the four, which implies predation beyond that which the law imposes simply by virtue of her age.  Meaning -- Moore apparently felt more comfortable pushing the envelope with the youngest of the four.  So Ziegler is just being obnoxiously disgusting here.

Not content to be merely disgusting, however, Ziegler then came out with what might be the oddest defense of allegations of child molestation I have ever heard.  Ziegler said “[t]ake the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist."  He then said "[a]lso take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth is the easier nut to crack here.  Ziegler is simply wrong.  Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were older, past childbearing years, when St. John was born.  "But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years."  (Luke 1:7).

However, the argument about Joseph and the Theotokos is odder still.  Here, Ziegler has no Biblical support, because the Bible does not tell us Joseph's age, nor Mary's.  Rather than following the Bible, Ziegler is conflating two variant traditions about Mary and Joseph.

The Bible tells us "[i]n the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary." (Luke 1:24). Was

Saint Matthew elaborates.

"Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.'

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus."

The Bible does not tell us how old Mary was.  It does not tell us how old Joseph was.

Where Ziegler gets this information about Mary and Joseph's ages is not from the Bible, but from the classical Christian tradition that says that Mary was a young teenager and Joseph was betrothed to her to be her caretaker.  The problem for Ziegler is this same classical tradition also holds that Mary remained ever-virgin, that is, she and Joseph never had sexual contact.  The reasons for this are varied, but mostly center around the classical Church's view that Mary, having borne the Christ in her womb, was sanctified -- set apart and made holy by His indwelling within her.  And Joseph, being a chaste and God-fearing man and, not for nothing, much older than Mary, would never wish to reduce Mary's body to a secular purpose after she had borne God Himself in her womb.

While it is true that Moore also never had sexual intercourse with the girls who raised these allegations, one can hardly imagine on this account Joseph and Mary engaging in the conduct Moore is accused of.  Suffice it to say, if true, Moore was feeling up a 14 year old girl.  To suggest Joseph did roughly the same is to do violence to the Christian tradition.

The other main tradition about Mary and Joseph is that they did have other children after Jesus was born.  The main support for this view does come from the Bible, though the implication that Joseph was "an adult carpenter" and Mary "a teenager" is still nowhere to be found in the Bible.  The Gospels of Mark and Matthew reference brothers and sisters of Jesus.  This tradition stems from Protestantism, and late Protestantism at that.  It is based on the principle of Sola Scriptura and assumes that "brothers and sisters of Jesus" also means "sons and daughters of Mary by birth."  Based on this reading, Protestants who hold this view tend to reject the May-December betrothal tradition and assume Joseph and Mary were both closer to the same age.  Why?  Because the Bible doesn't tell us their ages.  The classical tradition holds that these "brothers and sisters" were either cousins of Jesus or, as we in the Orthodox Church contend, step-siblings, children of Joseph from a prior marriage.  Notably, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli all held to the classical view, so the later tradition is also not something all Protestants adhere to.

However, no tradition, certainly not one that claims as Ziegler does to be based on "the Bible" holds both that Mary was a teenager and Joseph a much older man and that they had sex with each other and bore children.  Leaving aside the patently obvious problem with invoking Mary, Joseph and Jesus as examples of why sexual contact with adults and young teenagers is not wrong -- even if one assumes Joseph and Mary later had sexual intercourse and bore other children after Jesus, literally nobody has ever suggested Joseph was robbing the cradle.

Ziegler's problem, it seems to me, stems from his desire to defend his politician friend, not any desire to be faithful to the Bible.  And his bungling of this narrative demonstrates the value of tradition very clearly.  Everybody follows somebody's tradition.  Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics and many tradition-minded Protestants follow the classical tradition.  Joseph was much older than Mary and betrothed to her as a caretaker.  Joseph and Mary never had any sort of sexual relationship.  Mary remained and still remains ever-virgin.  This is encapsulated in our Divine Liturgy, where during litanies we "remember[] especially our all holy, most pure and blessed and glorious Lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary."  Those who do not follow this tradition have assumed another tradition -- that Joseph and Mary did have marital relations and Mary bore other children, and also that Joseph was not that much older than Mary at the time they were married, and certainly not at the time Jesus was born.

Ziegler, of course, invents his own tradition out of whole cloth, conflating the two main traditions while invoking the Bible to defend his politician friend from allegations of child molestation.  In so doing, he slanders Saint Joseph the Betrothed and the Mother of God, all for the ignoble purpose of defending an accused child molester.  Tradition matters.  Choose yours wisely.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

We have a choice, part 2


This is Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.  The photograph, as you all likely know, is a car driven by what by all accounts is a white nationalist protestor into a crowd of counter-protestors.  Eyewitness reports are that he drove it into the crowd from around 50 feet away, backed up, and did it again before fleeing.

I am tempted to write something hyperbolic such as "this is the face of political discourse in America today."  But the reality is that it is not.  The reality is that while our discourse is assuredly bleak, and too many hearts assuredly hardened, the people who do things like this, much like the person who shot Steve Scalise and prompted me to write the first installment to bear this title, are in the minority. The problem is, such people are still a mirror to our society.

Too much of our public discourse is centered on othering our perceived "enemies."  We just elected a president who has mastered the art of othering, so this is a reflection of us every bit as much as it is an awful terrorist act committed by, well, the other.  We have to do better.  We can do better.

In my previous blog post on this topic, I wrote about Derek Black, the former white nationalist whose parents founded Stormfront, an alt-right website with white supremacist goals.  Derek's heart was changed from being an ardent white nationalist to being an ardent opponent of white nationalism.  How?  Because he was invited to play cards by a Jewish friend.  Derek is a story of what can happen when we talk to each other instead of at or past each other.

And yet when one crosses the line from othering people to harming people, the time for making friends has passed.  Since this story broke, I have seen claims that the entire episode was engineered by George Soros.  I have seen claims that the driver was merely defending himself from an angry mob.  I have seen the "yeah, but" defense ("yeah, but Antifa commits violent acts all the time and....").  Not only from alt-right people, but also from some Christians who are politically conservative.  Instead of a quick and clear condemnation of an act of domestic terrorism by someone who, by all accounts, is part of a movement that views non-white people as culturally inferior to whites, and that views "Western Civilization" (read: white people) as the source of all that is good in the world, some have chosen this time to be defensive.  To make excuses.  To pretend this is something other than what it is.  And all over partisan politics.  This is unacceptable.

Racism is heresy and it is sin.  Period.  And while it is true that Western Civilization has at times been a shining light in world history, it is hardly the only civilization that has been so.  Not for nothing, it is not good chiefly because white people were behind it, but rather because Western Civilization is inextricably bound up with Christian values.  Lose the Christian values, and you lose everything good about Western Civilization.  Which is to say, inject racism into the equation, and what is left of Western Civilization is not worth discussing.  That is not, of course, to suggest that Western Civilization never knew racism.  We knew it well in this country.  It is only to say that romantic views of Western Civilization as embodying the best and brightest tend to rightly gloss past those portions of Western Civilization where we, for example, enslaved black people as chattel or colonized Africa to extract natural resources without regard to the well being of the native people there.  To the extent Western Civilization is good, and I think it mostly is, it is not good because of white people.  It is good because it espoused such values as temperance, charity, tolerance, chastity, justice, mercy and so forth.  That the people who espoused those virtues happened to be white is as insignificant as if they had blonde hair or green eyes or a hitchhiker's thumb.  Race is a fiction anyway.

St. Moses the Black
St. Raphael of Brooklyn














It should also be noted that racism is not only anti-Christian in the relatively narrow slice of history since the American Civil War.  Among the very first communities to receive Christianity was North Africa.  Alexandria is one of the Pentarchy, after all.  Churches that were founded from the very beginning of Christianity are still active in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and numerous other countries in Africa.  Leave aside that Jesus and the Theotokos are ethnic Jews (white supremacists hate them too) -- we also have black saints in the Church.  Saint Moses the Black is probably the most well known, but Saints Perpetua and Felicity were martyred in Carthage as well, and there are numerous others -- too numerous to list.  St. Mary of Egypt was hardly a white European.  Obviously, the Arabic Church, of which I am a member, has a notable share of saints and martyrs, most of whom would be considered non-white (especially by white supremacists in America).  My bishop was born in Damascus, and so was my former bishop, recently retired.  Our Metropolitan was also born in Damascus, and his predecessor, Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory was born in Lebanon.  The first Orthodox bishop consecrated in North America and one of the many Saints of North America, Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, was born in Beirut.  I had the honor of visiting the tombs of Metropolitan Philip and Bishop Raphael this summer and last summer.  These aren't just unknown people in history who are easily dismissed -- these are actually the pastors of the very Church I attend!  Are the saints an inferior race?  Are the primates of our churches?  Our bishops, deacons and pastors?  Dare we measure the lives of, say, Richard Spencer or David Duke against theirs?

We have a choice.  We can make excuses or we can condemn heresy and sin and the atrocity it spawns.  Which type of person do we wish to be?

The Early Church

One of the most interesting observations one can make about Christians is most, regardless of tradition, wish to claim "the early Church" as authority for why they do what they do and believe what they believe.  I am presently reading "A History of the Christian Church" by Walker, Norris, Lotz and Handy, and I have to say, some folks would be really surprised at what "the early Church" actually did:

"There was, in short, general assent to the belief that the churches' teaching and practice had to be consistent with its origins in the work of Christ and of the first generation of his disciples.  The seriousness with which this conviction was held is demonstrated by nothing better than the tireless regularity with which early Christian writings are attributed to one or another of the Twelve -- or, like Didache or Epistula Apostolorum, to the entire college of the church's founders.
The common life of the churches, moreover, was shaped by shared institutions which functioned as instruments of unity and continuity.  The disciple was admitted to the church by the rite of baptism. This involved not only washing but also the making of a traditional confession of faith, and it presupposed instruction in the meaning of that faith and in the style of life that it demanded.  The regular assemblies of the community, which took place on the Lord's Day (Sunday) in celebration of Jesus' resurrection, involved not only prayer, praise and the reading of the Scriptures, but also preaching, prophecy, and the celebration of the Lord's Supper or eucharist.  These regular common actions were occasions which both shaped and interpreted the life and identity of the community, and they provided a matrix in which a common symbolic language was preserved and developed. 
Of equal importance int he life of the second-century church was the discipline of the community.  The church was a 'separated' body whose members were expected to conduct their lives in a certain style.  There were disciplines of fasting and prayer.  It was understood that Christians did not enter into second marriages, put unwanted babies to death by exposure, or practice abortion.  They were to have nothing to do with pagan festivals or with any occupation which could be construed as them putting them in the service of the 'demons' they understood the pagan gods to be.  All of this meant, of course, that they could have little to do with the public life of any city in which they dwelt, since pagan religion was inevitably a part of the very fabric of that life.  Above all, however, they were to love the brethren and to practice almsgiving and charity.  'Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both.' Ignatius' most eloquent condemnation of heretics comes in his allegation that 'For love they have no care, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the distressed, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, or for him released from prison, none for the hungry or thirsty.'  I Clement knows of believers who have sold themselves into slavery to support the needy.  Christian communities not only lived by a discipline, but they also functioned as close associations in which systemic mutual assistance was organized and practiced.  This fact, too, no doubt contributed to a sense of cohesiveness and to a low threshold of toleration for fundamental disagreement or conflict."
 (citations omitted).  So to recap, the early Church:

  • Took doctrine very, very seriously, to the point of writing letters of support and/or rebuke to sister churches or fellow Christians
  • Was sacramental, centering its initiation around baptism and its worship life around the regular celebration of the Eucharist
  • Practiced regular fasting and prayer
  • Was anti-divorce and pro-life
  • Was anti-syncretism (unionism was not yet a "thing" among Christians)
  • Centered the life of the Christian outside the liturgy around prayer, fasting and almsgiving
  • In particular, took almsgiving much more seriously than most American Christians do today
  • Considered unity to not merely be outward unity, but unity of belief, faith, the Sacraments and the Christian life
One claiming to mirror one's doctrine and practice around the early Church should take note.  And this list should concern everyone reading it, though to be fair, some will have more concern than others.