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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

We have a choice

This week, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot.  The apparent motive was that he is a Republican, though that is still being sorted out.  It is perhaps a reflection of where political discourse is in our country.  More and more, we view people of opposing political beliefs not as people of good will with whom we can disagree, but as enemies to be vanquished.

This is not to say that anyone, and certainly not anyone with a certain set of political beliefs, is to blame.  Blame is a concept for assigning fault, and there is unfortunately plenty of fault to go around for our political climate.  Rather, it is a suggestion that we have lost our basic humanity in this country when people think violence is an appropriate response to political differences.  This is not a reflection of our politics, but of our souls.

For that reason, I do not intend to discuss the variant abhorrent reactions to the shooting, whether it be those of a conservative persuasion assigning blame to those of a liberal persuasion, or those of a liberal persuasion making excuses for attempted murder.  Both are, fortunately, atypical responses, which gives me hope.  Instead, I'd like to discuss the theological problem inherent in political violence -- the dehumanizing of the other.

I know very little about Congressman Scalise.  I had never heard of him before this shooting.  I've heard things since that would lead me to believe he is not somebody I would vote for, but most of that is from sources that probably don't like him very much to begin with, so I have little basis to form an opinion.  In any event, it is immaterial.  Whatever else he might be, Congressman Scalise is a child of God, one for whom Christ died.  Because he is from Louisiana and of Italian descent, one might presume he is a Catholic, though I do not know that.  It matters not, because even if he were not a Christian at all, he is still a child of God and one for whom Christ died.

After Osama Bin Laden was killed, I wrote this:
So it is that I struggle to keep the death of this man in its proper place. In the end, all we can rightly do is commend his soul to God. I will one day face death, and looking in the mirror I have no basis to be confident I will fare better than he. My confidence is in Christ. Would that Osama bin Laden had that same confidence. Would that he had more time to repent. May God have mercy on his soul, and ours. It's later than we think.
If I can say that of Osama Bin Laden, surely I can say it of Congressman Scalise.  Or of anyone else whose politics I may disagree with, even vehemently.

As Christians, we believe that all are redeemed by Christ.  Some do not have benefit of that redemption, for sure.  And that is tragic.  Yet, we are called by our Lord to love our enemies.  We pray in the Service of Compline during Great Lent "for those who love us and those who hate us."  During the Paschal doxosticon we sing "for the sake of the resurrection, let us forgive all things to those who hate us."  Why?  Because Christ died for those who hated Him.  He said "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Each of us has a choice.  We can dehumanize the other, or we can appreciate the humanity even of those who hold views we personally despise.  Racism is a sin.  And yet we can love racists.  Adultery is a sin.  And yet we can love adulterers.  Murder is a sin.  And yet we can love murderers.  This is a hard teaching, for sure.  But it is the teaching our Lord has given us.

Surely if this is true, we can love those who hold policy views we disagree with, even vehemently.

I recall shortly after President Trump was elected, when I was just beginning to learn about the so-called "alt-right," reading a story about Derek Black, whose father founded Stormfront, a leading alt-right website, and as best I can tell (though I dare not visit to confirm for myself) a white supremacist group.  Derek went to school at New College of Florida.  There, his white nationalist views began to gain some notoriety.  He intended to change the students there.  They ended up changing him.  But the real story is how that happened.  You can read about it here.

Derek left for a time to study abroad.  When he returned, he had basically been "outed." He read the online discourse about him, and planned to use it as fodder for an upcoming white nationalist conference.  Then, he got a text message.  "What are you doing Friday night?"

The text came from an acquaintance, an Orthodox Jew, who pondered whether it was a good idea to invite Derek over.

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking.
Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson at Matthew's apartment

Before long, through interaction with Matthew and his friends, Derek's views began to change.  To the point that he eventually wrote this:
After a great deal of thought since then, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.
The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.
My point is not to identify Derek Black's former views, much less Osama Bin Laden's, with Congressman Scalise's views or political stances.  That would be slanderous.  As I said, I don't know enough about Congressman Scalise to have any but the most poorly considered opinion about his personal or political views.  My point is simply this -- if Derek Black can change, simply by being included and loved, we all can change.  And that, really, should be our hope in this great country.

One of the things that was said in the thousands of comments about Derek Black at New College of Florida was this:
I just want this guy to die a painful death along with his entire family. Is that too much to ask?
Another was this:
Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?
We have a choice.  Which of these people do we wish to be?