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?