Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Church, the Culture, Tolerance, Repentance and Love

Crowning, June 2013
I've been disappointed in much of what I have read online the past few days in the wake of the Supreme Court's historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which was handed down two days after the 20th anniversary of my own marriage and the 2nd anniversary of our Crowning in the Orthodox Church.  The disappointment is directed more toward the fringe extremes on both sides of the issue, though the same concerns seem to seep into the more murky middle as well.  The following encapsulates my specific concerns, and my thoughts on the issue as pertains specifically to the Orthodox Church.

To those disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision, I understand your concerns.  However, the tone and tenor of some of those concerns are both overblown and frankly ill considered.  I have seen everything from calls for like-minded states to secede from the Union, to claims that clergy will be "persecuted" by the government, to claims that our nation is now beyond hope, to claims that our country has abandoned God.  My response: settle down.  It seems to me a call to secede only goes to further the (IMHO, false) claims of those who slander those opposed to same-sex marriage by claiming they are no different than racists in the 1950s who opposed integration.  It also is quite an apoplectic response to what just happened.  Likewise the claims that clergy will be persecuted for not performing same-sex marriages.  In addition to suggesting the free exercise clause would forbid this, allow me to also submit that this country knows of no real persecution based on religion.  Our brethren are currently being beheaded, raped, burned and drowned in the Middle East.  And you feel persecuted because the government might remove your tax exemptions or people might shun you or treat you poorly based on your beliefs?  If the Church can withstand the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire, Islam and the Bolsheviks, we'll manage just fine in this brave new America.  Let us be glad to be so "persecuted" for the sake of Christ.  As for the claim that the country is now finally spinning down the tubes, this is the straw that broke the camel's back for you?  Beginning with the Court's decision in Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), the Supreme Court has steadily increased Federal power at the expense of the state and local governments and the individual.  This is simply another extension of that ever growing power.  Beyond that, as a society, we have sanctioned the killing of our unborn, no fault divorce, sexual liberation to include cohabitation and, let's just be honest, serial bed hopping.  And all of this by heterosexuals.  Do you really think allowing same-sex couples to get married is the one thing that finally will send our country into the moral sewer and violate the sanctity of Holy Marriage?  Christians have been looking the other way as sexual sins go on right under our noses for decades now.  I would suggest this outcome is a natural result of our society's lax views on marriage and sexuality, not to mention the sin that infects us all.  And honestly, I don't think this is the end, but merely a step along the way.  The same logic that commands same-sex marriage to be recognized will inevitably lead to polygamy and polyandry, or simply polyamory.  It could easily lead also to at least some forms of incest being allowed (after all, there may be quite good reasons why I cannot marry my sister, given the potential for harm to our future offspring, but such concerns in no way argue that I shouldn't be allowed to marry my brother or uncle).  Not only is this not the last straw, it might be barely the first.

The most ill considered of all of these concerns, however, has to be the notion that our country has "abandoned God."  In the first place, we were founded largely by deists who were not Christians except in the most nominal sense.  Thomas Jefferson was a rank heretic.  Washington, by all accounts, did not commune in his Anglican parish.  Adams was a Christian, but he is more an anomaly than representative.  Putting "In God We Trust" on our money and "under God" in the Pledge does nothing to save our pluralistic, watered down civil religion from its own trappings.  Put simply, we are not a Christian nation, and we never were.  Further, our system of government is set up precisely to avoid making Christian doctrine into law.  And for good reason -- as an Orthodox Christian living in the heart of Evangelical and Teetotaler country, I have no desire to let the majority Christian denominations determine what I may and may not do.  I am not, and ought not be, bound by their doctrine.  Thankfully, we have the establishment clause, which forbids government from legislating based on religious doctrine.  I've long said that if the only argument against same-sex marriage is that God disapproves, then it not only ought, but must be allowed in the United States.  If that's the best argument that can be made, then prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional, and every Christian ought to support the Court's decision, since the alternative is to have your religious beliefs trumped by the religious beliefs of others.

This brings me to those elated by the Court's decision.  First, congratulations.  In our country, we make our arguments, we vote, we submit our laws to the courts and we agree to abide by the outcome, whether it is through the direct democratic process, representative legislation or Court decree.  The Court has ruled.  There are reasons for all of us, you included, to be concerned about how the Court got to its decision, but the simple fact is you won.  Your arguments carried the day.  

I have seen far too many of you, however, dancing on the proverbial graves of those you defeated.  Including callous and frankly intellectually dishonest suggestions that everyone who disagrees with you is bigoted and evil.  I've seen this from a lot of sources, but this one from Gawker (I refuse to link to it and support the author with web hits) might be the worst (warning: severely foul language follows):

I can’t help but be happiest, though, about the defeat of the anti-marriage equality crusaders. The defeat of people who signed up to lose, who wasted their time and ours on a platform of animus and contempt. The defeat of people who put principle over the practical, who fought to preserve their limited understanding of an already imperfect institution over the actual human lives that would benefit from it. The defeat of people who did what bigots do: discriminate, vilify, fear-monger, argue irrationally and without respect to human dignity, and then bristle when they’re called out for what they are (bigots).

The jig is up. The world has turned and left you fuming, seething, weeping. Fuck you, Mike Huckabee. Fuck you, Bryan Fischer. Fuck you, Maggie Gallagher. Fuck you, Ben Carson. Fuck you, Fox News. You should all feel like assholes because you are all assholes. And now you’re also, definitively, losers. And it feels incredible.

Thus, "tolerance" dies (more on that infra).

While this language and forceful hatred is unusual, the sentiment is not, and I would like to see such nonsense stop.  There are people who have real, honest concerns about same-sex marriage, particularly in light of how we got there, determining that childbearing is no longer related to government's interest in marriage.  And you too, dear reader, might find yourself on the wrong end of that stick one day.  After all, it has not taken very long for "keep the government out of our bedrooms" to meld into "we want the government to sanction our private relationships."  You may live to regret that decision down the road.  Those who had concerns about the path that took us here are not all your enemies.  They are not all "bigots."  They are not all evil.  Some of them (many of them) simply disagree with you and have concerns. Please refrain from lumping them all into the same box with the Westboro Baptist Church (we mainstream Christians despise them too, after all), the better to flog them with your derision and hatred.

Which brings me to "tolerance."  The scare quotes are intentional.  Tolerance means being willing to live alongside those who disagree with you.  The greater the disagreement, the more tolerant one is to abide it.  What passes for "tolerance" anymore, however, is better described as "agree with me or else." The most intolerant, bigoted, hateful comments I have seen following the Supreme Court's ruling, and honestly preceding it, are those which claim that no dissent is legitimate.  No concern is honest.  All disagreement on this issue is bigoted and hateful.  This is not tolerance.  It is hateful.  Shame on those of you who think, speak and act this way.  You are what you pretend to despise.  And when your own rhetorical smears are turned against you on an issue you care about, you deserve whatever you get, because you set the rules of debate.  Be careful the poison you pick.

So ……… how does the Church deal with all of this?  I would submit, no differently than it ever has.  The Church does not and will not bless same-sex relationships with the Sacrament of Marriage.  Full stop.  Those who think that given enough public shaming and name calling and so forth, the Church will do an about face on this issue are sadly mistaken.  And while I cannot speak for the Roman Catholic Church, I feel quite comfortable saying the same is true of that communion, and collectively, we comprise roughly three-quarters of the world's Christians.  Both communions believe, and have always believed, that Christ, the Apostles, the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers taught that same-sex activity is sin.  The Church has held the same view on this issue for 2000 years, and it is not in the Church's nature to change its doctrine.  Given the fact that our aforementioned brethren in the Middle East are willing to have their heads sawn off rather than denounce Christ and His Church, it is unlikely that rude manners and petty childish behavior will bend the Church to change on this issue.  Given our ecclesiology, where each bishop is bound in love to his brother bishops, to teach the truth as handed down and never change the doctrine he received, those hoping for the Church to come around on this issue will be waiting into eternity.  This is what we believe, what we have always believed.  Get used to it.

However, steadfast though she is, it must be said that the Church does not condemn homosexuals, nor advocate hatred toward homosexuals.  As Father Andrew Stephen Damick has said:

When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.

Father Andrew refers to the pre-communion prayer all Orthodox Christians pray before going to the chalice:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
So while we do say homosexual conduct is sinful, we do not condemn homosexuals, even practicing homosexuals, much less condemn them to eternal damnation.  Instead, we place them behind us as sinners.  This is something that is not well understood, so much so that I have had lengthy discussions with people who, after literally hours of discussion, remain outraged that we see homosexuals as "sinners."  Well, get in line.  Behind me.  We see everyone as a "sinner."  No one escapes that judgment.  Nor do we pretend that those with same sex attraction are qualitatively different than we are, other than of course being lesser sinners than me.  Same sex attraction or activity is no different than the sin I commit every time I linger my eyes on a woman other than my wife.  Except, of course, that my sin is worse.  Worse because I am betrothed and wed to another.  Worse because I do it more often than I should.  Worse because I hold a clerical office in the Church.  Worse because I am to worry about my own sins and not those of my neighbor, so I commit the sins of self-love and pride when I judge my neighbor and excuse myself.  Moreover, we believe that sexual activity or attraction within heterosexual marriage can also be sinful.  Both when we seek out that activity selfishly and when we selfishly deprive our spouse of that intimacy.  So when we say we are worse sinners than you, please believe we mean it.  Because we really believe that we are.

The practical application of this within the Church is one of pastoral concern.  Meaning, for the most part, the communion status and standing in the Church of a gay Orthodox Christian is to remain between him or her and his or her priest and, by extension, his or her bishop.  It is to be dealt with in confession and with guidance by a competent spiritual father.  We do not interfere in that relationship between priest and penitent any more than we would interfere in any other person's relationship if we were aware they were greedy, or lustful, or prideful, or vainglorious, or whatever.  I do not ask my priest why so-and-so is allowed to commune while he/she does this, that or the other sin.  I will not ask my priest why one of my gay brethren is allowed to commune either.  It is none of my business.  The state of repentance of the homosexual is something for the homosexual to sort out with his spiritual father.  I have my own concerns to deal with, my own sins to confess and repent of, and I hope no one goes behind my back asking our priest why I am allowed to commune, chief of sinners though I be.

In short, the charge for us as Orthodox Christians is to remember our place in the world.  We call all to repent, and to get in line behind us in that endeavor.  We see ourselves as chief among sinners, and we are to defend and speak well of our neighbor instead of slandering him.  This means that when my neighbor is slandered for being a homosexual, I must defend him.  I must stand between him and those who accuse him and lay my own sins bare, for they are worse than his.  I must speak well of him and demand that others do the same.  I must refuse to allow him to be mistreated, or marginalized, or slandered.

And when he comes to me asking what he must do to be saved, I must point him to the Church and invite him to repent.  Lord grant that he will love me as much if I am ever able to put aside my pride and ask the same of him, for my sins are worse and my need is greater.  Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.