Post-Imperial Orthodoxy

This morning I read a quotation from my well worn copy of The Orthodox Church by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, and I wanted to share it with you. Writing “by the rivers of Babylon,” so to speak, exiled from Soviet Russia and tending to the Orthodox Christians in Paris, Bulgakov writes about the way church and state have related in the past and they way they should relate in the future.

The Church’s methods of influence change; the work is no longer done outside, from above, but from within, from below, from the people and by the people. The representation of the people by the Christian sovereign, in force at the time of the Orthodox Empire, no longer exists; the laity participate in the life of the Church, without any intermediary, so that the Church influences the state in a democratic way. But it is a democracy of souls. New dangers, new difficulties arise in this way, analogous to those which existed at the time of the alliance between Church and state. The Church m ay be led to interfere in party politics; the latter, in its turn, may divert the Church from its true path. But an essential advantage remains; the Church exercises its influence on souls by the way of liberty, which alone corresponds to Christian dignity, not by that of constraint. Constraint leads more quickly to certain results, but it carries with it its own punishment. Contemporary history in both East and West proves this.

What I like about this quote is that it points a way for Orthodox Christians to think about politics in a post-imperial situation. I have noticed that some of us have a tendency to idealize the past, as if being Orthodox requires we have a Christian emperor (which of course meant that the church did not exist until Constantine passed the Edict of Milan in 313).

The other tendency I have noticed is similar, and Bulgakov predicted it. Those of us who came to Orthodoxy from Evangelical traditions want to have a Christian nation by force of law. I see many of “my people” repeating the mistakes of the past, and it saddens me.

Bulgakov is describing something a little different. To put it rather simply, I see him talking more about the witness of the church in the world. The church is the body of Christ, extended into the world. Our mission is to draw the world to Christ through us.

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A Christian empire and a quasi-Christian “democracy” are two sides of the same coin. Each thinks that the church can best transform the world from above (which is what I see us doing when we work so hard against gay marriage). Instead we should pursue the way of liberty, which is to say the way of human dignity. Perhaps when we think about Christian politics, we should remember our past and remember that faith is about falling in love with God, and you cannot force love. Thus instead of telling people how to live, we should treat them as if they were actually made in the image of God.

Personally, I think people would be much more responsive to the church if the church were a lot more attentive to them, if we stopped telling people how to live and started giving them cups of cold water in Jesus name. In my opinion, that is what Christian politics look like. What do you think: What are the risks and rewards of shifting our politics from the legislation of “biblical values” to a life of service?

17 Comments

  1. Nathan Duffy April 12, 2013 5:19 pm  Reply

    "Our mission is to draw the world to Christ through us." – Indeed. One way *not* to do that? Confirm and normalize sin via the institutions of the State i.e. legalizing gay "marriage". We don't love people by escorting them gently along the path to damnation, obviously. Not that opposing gay marriage ought to be the centerpiece of our witness to the world, but supporting it by definition can be NO piece of our witness.

  2. John Meese September 12, 2012 3:16 pm  Reply

    Oh my! Dr. Dunn, it’s a miracle! We 100% agree on something political!! I just… wow, this is a stunning moment. Let’s pause and enjoy the silence. You hear that? No, exactly. You don’t hear dispute. This is the sound of me not disputing a single word of your post.

    • John Meese September 12, 2012 3:22 pm  Reply

      Scratch that. We 99% agree. Just caught the meaning of your very last sentence. But still, 99% is really good!

      • davidjdunn September 13, 2012 10:36 am  Reply

        My last sentence was a question. What do you mean? I agree that 99% is pretty good.

        • John Meese September 13, 2012 2:53 pm  Reply

          I could be wrong, but it sounded like you were suggesting we legislate a “life of service”.

          • davidjdunn September 15, 2012 7:14 am 

            No. I don’t think we should legislate a life of service. I am definitely more socialistic than you, John. So I think our politics should focus on creating capacities (following the work of Sen), but legislating service would be like – what? – slavery, I think. I was actually referring to the way Christians should think about politics. I definitely think Government has a larger role to play in social well-being than you do, but I was referring to Christians serving others.

  3. Alex September 7, 2012 1:52 pm  Reply

    I don’t see why it’s an either or, instead of both. Or perhaps, why aren’t both to be considered service?

    How does voting, going to the ballot box and casting a vote, significantly impede (other) Christian activity, and, if one were to engage in “Christian activism” or something like that, what prevents him from also engaging in (other) Christian activity? It doesn’t seem like an either or.

    And on what basis are we to vote if not on Christianity? So maybe Christians should choose not to abuse their children, but who are they to require that of all people? Shouldn’t those non-Christian people have the freedom to do/choose what’s within their power? Is putting the structure in place to promote living that is moral and right really so bad for humans or human dignity?

    What’s your support for the idea that we shouldn’t tell people how to live? Is this part of tradition? And why doesn’t that amount to staying out of the ballot box? The law is after all a constraint on how people live, so participating seems to be about telling people how to live or at least how they will live if they want to avoid the consequences.

    • davidjdunn September 7, 2012 4:45 pm  Reply

      I am not saying we shouldn’t vote. I am suggesting that our approach to politics is often flawed.

      • Alex September 7, 2012 7:49 pm  Reply

        David, I never suggested that you’re saying we shouldn’t vote.

        If we are to vote, on what principles will it be based, if not Christian ones? And if we vote on Christian principles, how does this prevent us from behaving like Christians when we’re not voting?

        If 1) law inherently constrains people in one sense or another, and tells them how to live, and 2) you are saying that these things aren’t things we should engage in, how is that we should in fact participate in the formation of law? I know you’re not saying that we shouldn’t vote, but it’s possible that your position is one with which voting would be inconsistent.

        I still don’t understand why we shouldn’t participate in the democratic process to put in place a structure that promotes moral and good living. If we’re to participate at all, should it be for some other purpose? Would it be loving to not do this with the power the process gives us?

        I grant that only participating in the political process isn’t sufficiently Christian, but like I said in my previous comment, I don’t think it’s an either or. One can participate in the political process and treat others in a Christian manner outside the political process.

        • davidjdunn September 7, 2012 10:52 pm  Reply

          I guess I am confused by the emphasis on *and* because it reads like a rebuttal.

          Of course we should vote in ways that we believe will be just and create the conditions for a more moral society, but is voting *for* our morals the best way to do that? If we ban SSM, will people stop being gay? If we overturn Roe, will people stop having abortions? I doubt it. So why don’t we vote in ways that show our compassion toward those around us? Poverty is correlated to abortion. So let’s focus on reducing that, and let’s continue to make the moral argument against abortion, which we have been winning. I am not saying many of us have bad motives. I think we have bad tactics.

          • Alex September 8, 2012 12:19 am 

            First, just because a law won’t eliminate an evil doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile law. Few laws would fit the bill, and that’s just not the intent. By that logic, there should be just about no law. I don’t see how the fact that abortions would still occur has anything to do with the usefulness or appropriateness of outlawing abortion.

            As for same-sex marriage, I don’t see why a Christian is wrong to vote against something that promotes or normalizes immoral behavior. I doubt that in the absence of same-sex marriages homosexual behavior will disappear, but a law isn’t useless to the people if it can’t completely eliminate something.

            As for compassion, is it compassionate to those around us to allow abortion to be an easily accessible procedure? Is it compassionate to normalize immorality?

            The political process isn’t the Christian’s only opportunity to interact with others, and within the political process, it isn’t obvious to me why both poverty and abortion can’t be addressed.

            As for my previous comment, I might have been a little confusing. Perhaps it would have been better w/o the first sentence.

          • davidjdunn September 10, 2012 1:08 pm 

            It is a straw man to suggest that I believe we should oppose a law if the law will not eliminate an evil. The question is one of efficacy. Though I am pro-life, I think it is reasonable to worry that overturning Roe will not significantly reduce the abortion rate and may cost more lives as the procedure goes underground. Consider that abortion rates have steadily declined since Roe, regardless of whose been in office. This suggests that those opposed to abortion are winning the moral argument. Perhaps that is where we should focus the most energy. Second, consider that the rate of decline has slowed since the beginning of the financial crisis, the theory being that women are not paying for birth control, but when they become pregnant, they are having elective abortions instead. We can argue about their choices, etc. But this does not change the facts, nor is it likely to have a great impact on behavior. Thus it is reasonable to think that the greatest effect on reducing the abortion rate will be to focus on reducing poverty and even making contraceptives more accessible or even free.

            Again, it is a question of tactics. I think legislating our morality is backwards. That is, we start with a moral principle and pass a law that conforms to it in the false believe that said law will encourage moral behaviors. (This also raises issues about who gets to decide what is moral. At one point in time the “moral” thing to do in the United States was to avoid alcohol. Thus the prohibition is a useful example of a well-intended bad idea.) Instead we should think about the kinds of behaviors we want – maybe even look at longitudinal data – and focus on more marginal changes that will promote them.

          • Alex September 10, 2012 1:51 pm 

            I’ll put what I think is most important first: Your original post doesn’t seem to be about efficacy. You wrote things like, “we should pursue the way of liberty, which is to say the way of human dignity,” and
            ” instead of telling people how to live, we should treat them as if they were actually made in the image of God.” To those sorts of statements, my original questions stand: “What’s your support for the idea that we shouldn’t tell people how to live? Is this part of tradition? And why doesn’t that amount to staying out of the ballot box? The law is after all a constraint on how people live, so participating seems to be about telling people how to live or at least how they will live if they want to avoid the consequences.”

            It’s also worth noting that your position is also one of legislating morality, just in a different way. You write about the “wrong” way: “we start with a moral principle and pass a law that conforms to it in the false believe that said law will encourage moral behaviors.” You presumably also start with a moral principle, and pass laws to encourage behaviors that conform with it.

            As for who gets to “decide what is moral”, that’s easy: the voter. The voter may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that the voter doesn’t or shouldn’t decide. We could ask the question “who decides which laws are good or best”, which gets us the same answer: the voter.

            As for the rest: I didn’t put up a straw man, though perhaps what I argued against wasn’t your position. You asked: “If we ban SSM, will people stop being gay? If we overturn Roe, will people stop having abortions?” It at least seemed like you were talking about elimination. In regards to abortion, it’s not at all obvious that no people would choose not to have an abortion due to prohibition.

            As for what you wrote about abortion numbers since Roe, are you saying that there are less abortions now than there were before abortions were legal, or simply that if we look at the time between Roe and now, numbers have been decreasing? Either way, some argument would be required to support the idea that abortions would be higher if we made them illegal.

          • davidjdunn September 10, 2012 2:25 pm 

            Alex, you have raised more challenges than I have time to respond to (as I stand waiting for an elevator). I will attempt an intelligent response later.

          • davidjdunn September 15, 2012 7:33 am 

            “What’s your support for the idea that we shouldn’t tell people how to live? Is this part of tradition? And why doesn’t that amount to staying out of the ballot box? The law is after all a constraint on how people live, so participating seems to be about telling people how to live or at least how they will live if they want to avoid the consequences.”

            Asking me what my support for not telling people how to live is inviting a very long discourse. Briefly: It is not effective. It does damage to the witness of the church. It does damage to the theological education of the church.

            Is this part of the tradition? Yes. It depends on which part of the story of the church you are focusing on, and it depends on whom you mean by “people.” Orthodoxy is not tied to empire, and even when it was, the majority of its “telling” was to its own people.

            Why would it amount to staying out of the ballot box? I am not advocating we abdicate the political. I never have. I am saying we need to think more creatively about how we engage in politics.

            I think the idea of a social contract is less about telling others how to live than agreeing to a basic set of rights and responsibilities we have to each other.

            You presumably also start with a moral principle, and pass laws to encourage behaviors that conform with it.

            I think it is without question that we want people to be moral/ethical in society. The question is whether the best way to accomplish said objective is by passing laws saying, “You will/will not do this.” For some behaviors, that is necessary. For others, it is counter-productive. Let me offer a more libertarian example: pot. I don’t smoke pot, fwiw, but there is a strong argument to be made that outlawing pot does more harm than good. An (arguably) moral law ends up having consequences that are damaging to a whole lot of people.

            As for who gets to “decide what is moral”, that’s easy: the voter. The voter may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that the voter doesn’t or shouldn’t decide. We could ask the question “who decides which laws are good or best”, which gets us the same answer: the voter.

            I think this answer is more simplistic than the question calls for. I was asking you to consider the possibility that even within Christianity there is a wide range of what is/is not considered “moral” or “right.” Jerry Falwell’s vision of a Christian America would probably have involved outlawing interracial marriage (if his university is any indication of his morality). Maybe the voters do decide to agree with Jerry Falwell, but are you willing to live under such a system?

            Of course the beauty of constitutional rights is that you cannot simply vote them away. That is why they are called “rights.” You would have to amend the constitution in order to re-instate anti-miscegenation laws.

            As for the rest: I didn’t put up a straw man, though perhaps what I argued against wasn’t your position. You asked: “If we ban SSM, will people stop being gay? If we overturn Roe, will people stop having abortions?” It at least seemed like you were talking about elimination. In regards to abortion, it’s not at all obvious that no people would choose not to have an abortion due to prohibition.

            Fair enough, I suppose a literal, albeit uncharitable reading of my rhetorical question would imply that I was talking about elimination.

            I will save comment for the abortion issue, specifically, because it is not directly relevant to this point, and my fingers are getting tired. I will just clarify my point about abortion numbers: Abortions peaked with Roe v. Wade, but they have been steadily declining ever since, regardless of who has been in office. In fact, one of the greatest dips was during the latter part of the Clinton administration. So if declines in abortion rates have very little to do with the views of the president, then why should we prioritize having a “pro-life” president. (I put “pro-life” in scare-quotes, of course, because our last “pro-life” president, Bush, was not actually “pro-life” if you think about tens-of-thousands of dead Iraqis.)

            I need to be done with this conversation now, Alex. I responded because I said I would, but this response has taken me too long.

  4. Margie September 6, 2012 11:41 pm  Reply

    I do like the photo of Mother Theresa, the “reminder” of her life! And I would so support our Congress and any legislative body that wants to go and be just like her, and actually, I should pray more for this!

  5. Margie September 6, 2012 11:40 pm  Reply

    What are the risks and rewards of shifting our politics from the legislation of “biblical values” to a life of service?
    Well, I truly believe that if every member of congress, each state’s governing body, all administrators of government and voting citizens really stopped what they were doing and looked at their neighbor and gave that neighbor the “cup of cold water” which I see as the listening ear, the coat, the shirt, the money for the newspaper, the reward would be that we actually would have a life of service actually based on biblical values! The risks are what they are and it seems that those risks are what keep people from doing the very thing to get rewards. Seriously, if the people in governemnt, and the judges, and the preachers of Christian thought want to go out into the streets and do what Christ recommends, I do not see any real risk to the reward that Christ promises.

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