March 28, 2011
*originally written for OCANews.org
I once heard Father John Meyendorff of blessed memory say that: “The Christian is always a shaky political ally.” That simple phrase has stuck with me to this day as a corrective to my own proclivity for social and political activism. I believe he meant to remind us what we’re about in the church, since we somehow always need to be reminded: We are the community of people who’ve experienced Truth in the person of Christ and who are collectively responding to that experience. Everything else fits into that core truth and purpose. We may worthily align ourselves with various political and social causes. We may even sincerely identify those issues with right or wrong according to the Gospel. But our ultimate goal, our ultimate commitment, is God. It’s that ultimate goal, Father John concluded, that makes us such shaky allies: “We look for the resurrection of the dead.”
Father John was certainly what would be called a social conservative by any current standards, and I, by the same standards, could only be considered very liberal. Yet he and I are united by our understanding of the One Thing Needful, and I end up with far more in common with him than I do with many of the left-tending people with whom I’m in agreement on social and political matters. Father John and I are both shaky allies when it comes to those issues because as Christians we are unable to regard them as ultimate goals.
This relates to why I believe those who are straining to cast the current episcopal crisis as a struggle between liberal and conservative elements in the church to be doing so duplicitously.
For one thing, the “sides” they’ve created in the controversy just don’t work, as a glance at the prominent figures who’ve ended up in opposition to them will show. Anyone who’s had the slightest contact with Father Thomas Hopko, for example, knows how absurd it is to cast him in the role either of social liberal or of someone timid about speaking out about the truth as he perceives it.
But the conveniently constructed “sides” also don’t work because such good/evil dichotomies are generally always false. His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah and his supporters may indeed be sincere in their social conservatism, but those of us in opposition to their approach aren’t, conversely, necessarily liberal: we represent a broad range of views. I’d speculate that what unites us is rather that we don’t identify social conservatism (or liberalism for that matter) as an ultimate value. Our vision of the church is of a Divine-human community that--due to the human element--goes through a continual process of sin and repentance together, that collectively falls and gets back up again. It’s something of a complicated mess sometimes, but it’s a mess transfigured by our mutual aspiration toward communion with God and each other.
The church to which Rod Dreher was attracted, as he expresses it in his piece in the Washington Post, seems to me to be something other than that. For him, the Orthodox Church is “the only safe harbor from the tempest that threatened to capsize our Christianity.” It’s “a rock of stability in a turbulent sea of relativism and modernism overtaking Western Christianity.” This effort to see in the Orthodox Church a kind of perfection braced against the world as horrible “other” seems to me fundamentally misguided. It’s troubling to me that it's also becoming a view found with increasingly frequency in our church these days.
I believe this view is also the main problem with His Beatitude and his partisans: a focusing on social issues as though those were what our faith is all about. According Julia Duin’s article that also appeared in the Post (one can only assume with His Beatitude’s approval), “the 51-year-old leader of the Orthodox Church in America wants to add political action to the faith’s traditions.” And he has publically proclaimed as much multiple times, offering the church as a sort of refuge for those who don't find their own churches conservative enough, like Mr. Dreher.
This isn’t to say that an Orthodox Christian might not be a social conservative. A majority likely may be, and they may sincerely aim to justify their stances on various conservative issues by the Gospel. But to identify social issues as what the Church is all about is misguided. Horribly so, I would say.
If there is an opposition movement to His Beatitude and his supporters, it is neither a cadre of social liberals, nor is it a group of people afraid to speak the truth. Those accusations need to be exposed as lies any time someone tries to tell them. I would instead identify his opposition to be those of us who understand the church to be the complicated mess referred to above, that community whose concern is above everything else the working and struggling together toward God. We don’t look first of all for a perfected community of right-thinking people taking refuge from a demonized society. We look for the resurrection of the dead.