Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are Christians a Persecuted Minority in the West?

          Everyone loves a victim, and is happy to claim victim status.  It bestows a kind of righteous aura, as well as a Get Out of Jail Free card when caught behaving badly.  Perhaps for this reason many places cultivate a culture of victimhood.  As the North American culture war rages on, the question may be asked:  are Christians victims?  Do they constitute a persecuted minority in the West? 
            It all depends, of course, upon how one defines persecution.  When one looks back historically and abroad geographically, one sees real persecution.  The Christians of pagan Rome in the second and third centuries, and the Christians of Soviet Russia in the twentieth endured true persecution.  They were arrested simply because of their faith in Christ and membership in His Church; they were imprisoned, tortured, sent into exile or killed.  Similar suffering is experienced now by Christians abroad, such as in the world of Islam (for which, I need hardly add, one should not blame one’s Muslim neighbour down the street).  This is true persecution, and as far as I can see, no one in North America experiences that.  Many people face discrimination and bullying, including gays and Muslims, but arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution are not experienced by any citizen on North American soil for their religious allegiance.  If we choose to define as persecution the discrimination experienced by these groups, then we need to find another word to describe the experiences of those who are arrested, tortured, and killed for their Faith.  Accordingly I would reserve the term “persecution” for those experiencing this latter form of suffering.
            Perhaps a better way of approaching the whole question would be to inquire whether those publically espousing and promoting the beliefs and values of the Christian Faith pay a social price for such espousal and promotion.  Here, I think, the answer is clearly, “yes they do”.   But in asserting that traditional Christian values have become unpopular in North America and that Christians pay a price for espousing them, we must further define what we mean by “Christian values”.  All sorts of people claim the Christian label, people as different from one another as John Spong and Billy Graham.  Some assert, for example, that support for the LGBT agenda is incumbent upon them as Christians, while others assert that resisting this agenda is a part of their duty as Christians.  Some feel that their Christian Faith compels them to support a woman’s right to abort her child, while others feel that their Faith compels them to oppose abortion.  Given the tremendous diversity of people all claiming that their values and views are specifically Christian, a definition of Christian values would be helpful.
            By the term “Christian values” I mean the values and views contained in the New Testament Scriptures and held by the Fathers as the authoritative and recognized interpreters of those Scriptures.  Thus, to speak to the two issues mentioned in passing above, the Scriptures and the Fathers assert that homosexual acts are inherently sinful, and that abortion is tantamount to murder.  One can disagree with these sentiments, but it seems clear enough that they are indeed those of the Scriptures and the Fathers.  Of course one can disagree with the foundational documents of historical Christianity and its acknowledged spokesmen and still claim to be Christian.  But integrity would seem to demand that one then admit to inventing a new religion, and have the honesty to give it a name other than “Christianity”. Some label adherence to the older and historical values of Christianity “conservative Christianity” or even “fundamentalism”.  All such heated rhetoric and labelling aside, “conservative Christianity” is the only kind of Christianity that would be acknowledged as such by the Fathers, and a more liberal kind of Christianity that advocated acceptance of homosexual practices would not be called Christianity by them, but rather heresy—or perhaps simply worldliness.  (Please note that I am referring to the historical theology of “conservative Christianity”, not to the politics of the American Religious Right.)
            That Christians find themselves at odds with the prevailing culture is not surprising, and should not be a cause for Christians to wail in shock as if this were something new.  Or, in the words of 1 Peter 4:12 they should “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you as though something strange were happening to you”.  Nothing new or odd is occurring; the World is simply acting like the World, as it has always done.  Our Lord warned us that the world will hate us because we are no longer of the world since He has chosen us out of the world” (Jn. 15:18-19).  Paul exhorted us not to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Rom. 12:2, Phillips translation).  James reminded us that friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4), and John told us that the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One (1 Jn. 5:19).  Recognizing this fundamental opposition of the World to the Kingdom is not paranoia, but a basic category for Christians living in this age.  This age (in Latin, saecula, from which we get the word “secular”) will always challenge and tempt Christians to cease living differently than others live and conform to the fallen categories of the world around us.  These temptations will differ from century to century, and from place to place.  In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, the main temptation was to idolatry.  In the Old South at the time of the American civil war, the prevailing secular blind spot was its racism.  The varying ways in which the World tempts Christians differ according to time and place, but the element of threat from worldliness remains, as the strong and rich tyrannize the weak and poor.  In any age or place if Christians simply go with the secular flow, they will be going in the wrong direction.  Worldliness remains one of the perennial temptations for the disciples of Jesus; and the perennial challenge for us is to discern where the secular world is right and where it is wrong.  This discernment doesn’t require one to be a prophet or a genius.  One just needs to be humble and teachable, able to read the Scriptures and willing to listen to the Fathers.
            Just now in North America the World is pressuring Christians in matters of gay rights and abortion, and identifying yourself as a Christian who opposes these things is enough to bring angry voices and retaliation.  Despite the fact that Christians form a sizable clump of the population in the U.S. (less so in Canada), espousing Christian values in these key areas where the World presses its agenda brings vigorous push back.   This pressure seems to be increasingly hostile and frequent.
            It seems that as long as Christians speak and act like the World in this cultural shift no sanctions will be forthcoming.  If they dare to contradict the World as it changes older Christian norms and values, a price will be exacted of them.  In a very real sense, there will be hell to pay.  Admittedly this does not constitute persecution.  But it does mean that the World is aggressively pursuing its own agenda and putting pressure on Christians to either conform or at least shut up.  Living in a democracy where laws and norms can be debated and changed encourages us not to shut up just yet.  Discipleship to Jesus Christ demands that we refuse to conform ever, no matter what.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Anglicans and Copts and an Agreed Statement

          In October of this year, as reported by theAnglican Communion News Service, the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission held its third meeting at the Coptic St. Mark’s Center in Cairo.  The Commission consists of Anglican and Oriental Orthodox theologians who met with a view to resolving the Christological differences which for centuries have separated them.  The Oriental Orthodox (so called to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox—i.e. us—a bit confusing, since “oriental” simply means “eastern”) have in times past been called “the Monophysites” (from mono physis, “single nature”).  The term derives from their historical refusal to accept the two-nature Christology articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in favour of their own single-nature Christology.  They dislike the term “Monophysite” as misleading, if not derogatory.  A politer term for them is “non-Chalcedonian”.  Whatever the nomenclature, since 451 A.D. they have been out of communion with the rest of the “Chalcedonian” Orthodox Church.  The Coptic Church (“Coptic” simply means “Egyptian”) is joined in this dialogue by the Armenian Church, which shares their single-nature Christology.  It is the schism between these churches and the Chalcedonian churches that the Anglican Communion centered in Canterbury wishes to resolve.  In October the Commission met to finally approve an Agreed Statement about Christology which they had been working on and circulating among their member churches since 2002.
            A lot of the Christological legwork and doctrinal heavy lifting has already been done.  Our own “Chalcedonian” theologians have also been meeting with our non-Chalcedonian brothers for some time now (they first started in 1964), and have come to the same conclusions arrived at by this Commission.  That is, it seems that at the end of the day when the political muscle and interference of the Byzantine Emperor is no longer around to muddy the doctrinal waters, that the two groups are both confessing the same truths about Christ using different terminologies.  We both confess that (in the words of the recent Agreed Statement) the incarnate Christ is “perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity, consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity and consubstantial with us according to His humanity, for a union has been made of two natures”.  These two natures are so closely united that they can be distinguished “in thought alone” (so St. Cyril of Alexandria), and these natures continue to exist “without separation, without division”.  Christ has a single nature in the sense that He has “one incarnate, united, divine-human nature”.  In many ways the Agreed Statement which our Coptic friends have signed with us and our Anglican friends leads one to heave a heavy sigh.  If we could’ve gotten this in the fifth century, the schism originating in that century would not exist now.  As it is, the current Agreement is being hailed by the Anglican Communion News Service as “a significant step of reconciliation”.  The agreement is now being sent to the “responsible authorities” of the churches involved for “their consideration and action”.
            How should we regard this recent development?  Certainly any level of agreement between Christians is a good thing and should be treasured and celebrated, especially if it involves resolving long-standing disagreements.  But is this really “a significant step of reconciliation” in the sense of being newsworthy?  After all, the Copts and Armenians more or less said the same thing to us some time ago.  Does this recent Agreed Statement mean that Canterbury-centered Anglicanism (there are now several kinds of Anglicanism) will soon reconcile with the Copts and share communion?  Is it really almost time to uncork the champagne?
            Well, no.  The ecumenical goal of restored communion between presently divided churches cannot be accomplished simply by having their theologians issue agreed statements to which their synods later simply sign on.  The insufficiency of such a method is well illustrated in the case of the Anglican Communion—for how can the Anglican Communion agree with the Copts about Christ’s divine and human natures when some of their own clergy don’t even believe that He is divine?  The goal of restored communion presupposes that the churches involved in the restoration share not merely bureaucratic assent to the contents of a piece of paper, but also share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life.  This includes not only agreeing upon a Christology, but also upon agreeing upon the very importance of Christology itself, as well as other important things.   
To share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life, the reuniting bodies would have to agree upon such things as how decisions in the church are made, and by what authority.  They would have to agree upon what constitutes true liturgy, and how to prepare for that liturgical experience.  They would have to agree upon what things are morally forbidden to Christians, and what things are mandatory.  In other words, they would have to agree upon such presently controversial issues as the synodical structure of the church, the authority of Scripture and the Fathers, the sacrificial Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of the efficacy of prayers for the dead, devotions to the Mother of God and the saints, the use of icons, and of the necessity of fasting.  They also would have to reach a consensus regarding the ordination of women, the legitimacy (or otherwise) of homosexual behaviour and of abortion.
Put another way, the ecumenical goal will not be reached until the members of either church in those reuniting with each other can attend the other’s churches and find the same doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and ascetical realities and standards.  For sharing communion means not inter-communion between different churches, but communion within the same church.  That is why these other details are so important, for they constitute what it means to live as a part of a church.  If “living the Christian life” for one person means effectively jettisoning the Fathers and Tradition, accepting the ordination of women, gay marriage, abortion, dispensing with fasting, and having a stripped down 30 minute Mass, while for another person “living the Christian life” means abiding by the Fathers and Tradition, rejecting the ordination of women, gay marriage, and abortion, and insisting on fasting in preparation for the Church’s historic Liturgy, then clearly these persons are living in two entirely different churches.  This fundamental fact cannot be altered simply by having some theologians sign an Agreed Statement affirming a Christology which some of one church’s members regard as meaningless anyway.  One wonders if the Anglican Communion News Service recognizes this.  Regardless, it should be apparent even to journalists that the Anglican Communion and all Orthodox Churches, whether “Oriental” or “Eastern”, are miles apart on all these issues, and that the gap separating them grows wider every day.  It is good to have reached this agreement, but it is far from time to uncork the ecumenical champagne.  This agreement is but one step on the long road to unity.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How To Expand the Mission: a List for the OCA

          The theme of the first All-American Sobor of our Church was “How to Expand the Mission”, and this is significant, for the fathers of that Sobor identified their Church as “the Mission”.  Our church in North America is thus a missionary church, with the missionary impulse written into our ecclesiastical DNA.  Those setting the theme of that first Sobor knew this.  We forget this today at our peril.  We sometimes act as if our survival in this country is a “given”, and that because Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, Orthodoxy in North America is somehow immune to decline or eventual obliteration.  It is not so.  When the church in Ephesus proved unfaithful and disobedient to Christ, He threatened that He would “remove their lampstand from its place” unless they repented (Rev. 2:5).  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Orthodox Church in North America could suffer a similar fate if it embarked and continued on a similar track did as the Church in Ephesus.  After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)—both in faithfulness and in judgment.  So, the question remains now as it did for our forefathers at the first All-American Sobor:  How can we expand our mission in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ?  I suggest that a list of faithful duties should include four things.
First, we must preach Christ.  This may seem too obvious to need stating, as some may ask, “What else would we preach?”  Actually, sometimes we preach ourselves.  Of course we call it “Orthodoxy” and not “ourselves”, but it is really ourselves that we are preaching.  That is, we all to often give the impression that our message is about becoming Orthodox, and joining the true Church.  We talk about the glory of our icons, the beauty of our Liturgy, the long pedigree of our history, the richness of our theology.  The glory, the beauty, the pedigree, and the richness are all wonderful, but they do not constitute our central message to the world.  Our main message is not “join us because we’re so wonderful”, but “come to Christ because He is Lord”.  Obviously coming to Christ as Lord involves joining His body the Church, but joining the Orthodox Church is not the Gospel itself, but the way of responding to the Gospel.   As St. Paul reminded us, the trumpet must sound a clear note to be heeded (1 Cor. 14:8), and the note our Orthodox Gospel trumpet must sound is about the necessity of living in repentant commitment to Jesus Christ.  “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5).  We must preach Christ so relentlessly that when an outsider hears the words “the Orthodox Church”, he instinctively thinks not of  “icons and brocade”, but of “repentance and commitment to Jesus”.
Secondly, we must worship with an eye towards our youth.  The Church must evangelize or die, since it always lives its life on the precipice of mortality.  That is, we are all going to die after about seventy or eighty years of life, and if we do not convert our children and our grandchildren to the Faith during that time, then the Church will be extinct in about two or three generations.  Evangelism is often thought of in terms of outsiders, but it includes us insiders as well.  A quick look around at the people in the pews will reveal that not all churches have retained their children, to the point where some churches consist primarily of the elderly.  That is what the oft-quoted proverb, “Children are the future of the church” means—we must convert and retain our children for the Kingdom of God, or our churches will eventually close (or, worse yet, be converted into museums).  How do we keep our children in the Faith?  I don’t know of any sure-fire way to guarantee that our children will remain faithful, but we can at least not make the way more difficult for them by worshipping in a language they do not understand.  That is, our liturgical worship should be in a vernacular language, such as one the children speak at school and which comes to them as they watch television.  That is the language in which the church should liturgize, though of course using the most elegant and stately version of that language possible. 
We sometimes face the temptation to liturgize long-term in a language other than the vernacular, in order to appeal to the immigrant population of Orthodox coming to us from abroad.  That will pay immediate dividends in terms of making them feel welcome, but it builds in a longer-term problem when it comes to keeping the youth.  The question must be squarely faced:  is the church’s survival here ultimately dependent upon evangelization or immigration?  Obviously we must utilize both in some way, but a church like ours which aspires to be the indigenous Orthodox church of North America must give priority to one or the other.  If we choose to give priority to the former, then we must make the vernacular the main language of our liturgical worship.
Thirdly, we must keep the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).  The perennial temptation is to alter and water down the Faith so that it conforms more closely to ever-changing canons of political correctness—or, in more Scriptural language, to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Romans 12:2 Phillips).  Every generation faces its own temptations to become worldly and to conform to the moral fashions of the day.  In our generation, this fashion includes acceptance of abortion and of homosexuality/ transgender as normal.  Altering the Church’s traditional Faith to conform more closely to the world around us might gather popularity in the world’s eyes, but it is not the scrutiny of the World with which we are ultimately concerned, but the scrutiny of Heaven.   A number of denominations in North America have already changed their belief and praxis to conform more closely to the world in the name of being relevant and inclusive, but this seems not to have resulted in the secular masses stampeding into their emptying churches and filling their inclusive pews.  Rather, the faith-groups which seem to be growing are precisely the ones which demand the most from their adherents and which differentiate themselves most radically from the secular world around them.  Nonetheless, our fidelity to our apostolic Tradition should not be motivated simply from a desire to avoid the numerical decline afflicting the liberal churches, but from a desire to please the Lord and be faithful to the Scriptures.
We should settle it in our minds in advance:  if we remain faithful to our apostolic Tradition in our public preaching, a number of people will be very vocally upset with us.   They will accuse us of being judgmental and uncompassionate, write angry letters to church websites, and denounce us in their blogs and on Facebook.  But we may take comfort in something Dorothy Sayers once said (in her essay The Dogma is the Drama):  “It is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”  This remains true even though some men resist being thus adapted.  Proclaiming the truth always is divisive and it always upsets certain people.  Bearing this with serenity is the cost of our being faithful in a dark age; it is what carrying the cross is all about.
Lastly, our church communities must become islands of welcoming love and mutual support, shining like lights in the world, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15).  The world is a hard and unforgiving place, and the human heart accumulates many knocks and wounds from it in very short order.  Our parishes should present an alternative to the way of the world, and be seen as places where everyone may come, and repent, and find a safe home and a loving family.  The Lord told us this long ago:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  Too often are our parishes are simply gatherings of religious people who are really not that that much different from anyone else.  We need to repent, and become communities of acceptance, radiating a love which makes us different from anything found anywhere else in the world.  Religiosity is easy to resist.  Resisting love is much harder.
All Christians of the traditional sort in North America will face challenging days in the coming decades, and will have to endure a kind of internal exile, increasingly banished from the cultural mainstream.  That is fine, and represents a new kind of opportunity.  It was difficult to do mission work and convert people to Christ in a day when most equated being a Christian with being nice.  Hardly anyone makes that equation any more.  The time of Christianity’s cultural ascendency and privilege in North America is over.  The time for real mission work has begun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Lords of Life and Death

On Saturday November 1 a young girl committed suicide.  Brittany Maynard had been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and she was told that chances of beating the cancer were pretty much nil.  She suffered from seizures as her disease grew worse, and did not want to suffer anymore.  She therefore moved to Oregon where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, and killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates.  She was twenty-nine.  Her death kicked into overdrive an already active debate about the morality of such suicide.  Its proponents, of course, do not call it “suicide”.  The movement calls itself the “right-to-die” movement, and the state law under which Brittany killed herself is called the “Death with Dignity Act”.  No who hears Brittany’s story can fail to be moved by her suffering, and the first Christian response must be compassion for her and her family, and prayer.  It is a hard and heart-wrenching tale.  Nonetheless, as lawyers say, “hard cases make for bad law”, and personal compassion for Brittany and her family should not be allowed to pre-empt our duty to think about the morality of the movement which she championed.   We therefore ask:  How then should Orthodox Christians regard the right-to-die movement?  Is it something we should embrace, or should we regard it as yet another symptom of the creeping secularization of our western society?
            Certainly the advances of the right-to-die movement constitute a fundamental shift in how our civilization has regarded suicide.  Formerly those who had died by their own hand were not even allowed Christian burial in consecrated ground.  Most Orthodox now have rethought that prohibition (one jurisdiction has produced a liturgical rite for use in the case of suicides), but stigma still attaches to the choice.  Perhaps that is why Brittany contended that she was not going to commit suicide.  In an interview with People Magazine, she said, “For people to argue against this choice for sick people [of ending one’s own life] seems evil to me.  They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair, because there’s not a single part of me that wants to die.  But I am dying.” 
            It is true that Brittany did not want to die.  Rather, she wanted to live without cancer.  It was only when it became apparent that such an option was not open to her that she chose to kill herself.   But this is true of all suicides.  Take Robin Williams, for example.  I imagine that not a single part of him wanted to die.  He simply wanted to live without depression.  But when it became apparent to him that such an option was not open to him, he killed himself.  No suicide wants to die.  They choose suicide because they feel that they have no other option.  Living with depression for years became too difficult for Robin; living with advancing seizures for six months became too difficult for Brittany.  One can and should have compassion for both of them, but this does not mean that neither committed suicide.  If the right-to-die debate is to be fruitfully conducted, both sides must call things by their proper names.  This is a debate about the personal morality and cultural wisdom of allowing suicide.
            One group in North America has traditionally doubted the wisdom of allowing such doctor-assisted suicide— the handicapped and the elderly.  Currently most states do not allow for such legal suicide, but what if the present exception becomes the future rule?  What is such suicide becomes normalized and accepted by most people as one way of sensibly dealing with approaching death?  Some have warned about stepping into an abyss, for this would have far-reaching impact.  Currently our culture regards life as sacred and inviolable, so that no one may kill another person, however old and socially-useless they may appear, and however handicapped they may be.  A line has been drawn beyond which we may not go, and we cannot cross that line and kill someone before their time.  But if we erase that line and allow the terminally-ill to kill themselves, what about the elderly, as the prolongation of their lives becomes increasingly costly?  What about the disabled and handicapped, whose lives are judged to have less social utility than others?  Are they next?  In our current climate this is unthinkable, but that is only because the line still largely exists.  If the line is erased, the unthinkable will become thinkable very soon—especially as the cost of health care escalates.  Nothing personal, grandpa, but keeping you alive is becoming very expensive.
            For the Christian there is another consideration as well.  In past ages everyone accepted that God was the sole Lord of life and death.  It was by His will and permission that men lived or died.  In the poetic words of the Orthodox prayer uttered at Pentecost Vespers, almighty God was the “Maker of every nature of man, of that which is brought together and again put asunder, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and of translation there, the One who measures the years of life and sets the times of death”.  In our culture we now arrogate such lordship to ourselves.   By our own will and by our own untrammelled choice, we decide whether a baby in the womb will be born and live or be aborted and die.  We decide whether the terminally-ill should be cared for until death overtakes them or be killed with medical assistance.  We decide whether someone should be kept on life-support indefinitely or unplugged and left to die. 
Some choices of course are easier to make than others, but the cultural fact remains that we now consider that these choices are solely ours to make.  As a social-medical expert wrote in the Washington Post,  “We are beginning to focus on what patients want, on their right to self-determination.  And people are increasingly asking why anyone—the state, the medical profession, religious leaders—would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.”  Note:  none can interfere with “what patients want” (now labelled “their right to self-determination”).  For anyone to tell a patient that they must continue to “die by inches” is denounced as “presumption”.  Does this “anyone” include God?  The very concept of submission to God’s will has been removed; everything now depends upon the will of the patient, the decision in the moment of the sovereign individual.  As Brittany wrote in her Facebook page,  “Today is the day I chosen to pass away in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer which has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more.” 

Note:  Brittany passed away on that Saturday because that was the day she chose to pass away.   If Brittany’s online video campaign (which she has called “Compassion & Choices”) succeeds, we will become the Lords of life and death.  The invisible line protecting the weak (what Hamlet called God’s “canon against self-slaughter”) will have been erased, and all will be entirely dependent upon human wisdom for matters of life and death.  There are many, such as the handicapped and the elderly, who regard such a wisdom as far too fragile a foundation to bear such a weighty load.  Right now all eyes are on Brittany, a dear and beautiful young woman afflicted with a terrible disease.  But ultimately it is not about Brittany.  It is about the dangers to a society when its people arrogate to themselves ultimate moral authority.  History provides no support whatsoever for the view that that we can use that authority wisely.  With the tragic death of poor Brittany we take one step closer to the abyss.