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.
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?