Sunday, August 06, 2006

reconciling faith and politics

I'm trying to maintain a general policy of avoiding politics as such on this blog. What does seem more appropriate, however, is to air out my personal struggles over how my own political views need to conform better with my faith. Unfortunately, I have not run across much in the way of Orthodox writing on this subject, particularly that would speak to Western circumstances today. At this point, therefore, I have a lot of questions, but not too many answers. I'm not sure I can put all of this into a coherent form, but I'm going to try to get it all down anyway.

Things used to be much simpler for me. Back in high school, I started listening to Rush Limbaugh, and I accepted pretty readily that the views he articulated on his program went hand-in-glove with Evangelical Christianity. Once I got into college, I started to lose interest in politics, along with just about everything else that had to do with the outside world. That didn't change much throughout seminary either. Toward the end of seminary, as I started exploring other hermeneutical approaches, I came in contact with the ideological criticism of literary theory from about a generation ago (which of course means it's more current in biblical studies, since there's always a lag). This was my first real introduction to radical political views, and I found myself drawn to some of the ideas. Later, I got interested in poverty from an ethical and religious perspective, which also contributed to my left-leaning outlook. Along with that, I was by this point searching for a different faith, and for at least a while my political and faith journeys ran together.

Our Evangelical church decided to organize a discussion of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and since I was interested in Judaism at the time, I offered to work on the anti-semitism question. (Interesting timing that I should bring this up now--I didn't notice the connection until a moment ago, as I was writing the words.) The best Jewish critique of the film that I encountered was written by an American Sephardic Jew who also happened to be a liberal (in the American political spectrum) and critical of Zionism in Israel. Looking for more information about his views led me to an Israeli writer who was an anti-Zionist activist and Stalinist in his politics. I spent a lot of time reading his work and associated materials from an online discussion list. What he advocated was an interesting blend (from the American perspective at least) of far-right, paleoconservative nationalism and far-left, radical socialism. It was at this point that I realized the left-right dichotomy in American politics is not the only paradigm with which to categorize positions. (More to the point, I came to believe that it was a false dichotomy that served those in power.) I started to see things more in terms of class struggle, where the marginalized right and left fringes really need to come together in opposition to the so-called moderate middle.

Along the way, I went looking for a form of Evangelicalism that would fit better with what I was thinking. I discovered the Evangelical left--groups like Sojourners, led by Jim Wallis, and Evangelicals for Social Action, led by Ron Sider. I read a lot of their stuff, which is more mainstream American liberal on economic and foreign policy issues but tries to incorporate more conservative views on issues of personal morality like abortion. Their views never posed much of a problem for me when it came to biblical mandates, but I also never thought their approach went far enough. As an example of where I would differ, I have never participated in an anti-war demonstration, because I suspect that those who do would not want someone like me on their side. You see, I would not be there because I was a pacifist or even simply because I thought America should stay out of other countries' business. I would be there because I actively supported the insurgencies that fought against American occupation.

I've never felt an overwhelming inclination to take up arms against my own government, but philosophically I think it's an important idea. I see in the second amendment an attempt to preserve this option--not that government is ever obligated to lie down and let rebels walk all over it, but that people should have the means available to stage another revolution, if such a thing became necessary. I don't think I would join a militia myself, but on at least one level I support what they're about. Not only is this sort of outlook something that would probably not sit well in a peace demonstration; it's probably not acceptable to most American Christians, and for good reason, it would seem, in light of Romans 13. I'll come back to that in a bit.

As I started to get interested in Orthodoxy (which happened not long after my interest in Zionism), I explored other political views--essentially Russian nationalist and czarist views in opposition to Western dominance of the so-called New World Order. I've come to have a lot of historical respect for the political system under czarist Russia (what I know if it anyway), and I tend to sympathize with the nationalism of Russia today under Putin, particularly as it displays a renewed partnership between Church and state. It also appeals to me, because Russia is one of the few nations in the world today that is able to resist American dominance. I imagine that if I lived in Russia, I could easily support my nation and be content that I was fulfilling my Christian obligations (assuming that I wouldn't transfer my rebellious feelings to the nation I lived in). But living in America, I have no respect for what my government is doing around the world, and I find it difficult not to sympathize with our enemies.

So with all that as background, we come to my present dilemma. I've been trying to follow the lectionary in my personal devotions, and yesterday's epistle reading was from Romans 13. Yikes! As a mainstream liberal, this passage would pose no real problem for me, since I would affirm the value of government as a protector against corporate power and associated evils. I might question some of our foreign policy, but I would not support our enemies. But given my present outlook, there's a lot here to think about:
  • Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. I don't break laws myself, but I would sympathize with a movement to rebel against oppressive government, including if that oppressive government happens to be or be controlled by my own.
  • For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. What does this even mean in a democracy? We have no divine right of kings. Does this mean that we are allowed to oppose political candidates all we want, but as soon as they're elected, we should roll over and submit? What if the election was illegal? What about our laws of impeachment?
  • For rulers are not a terror to good works but to evil. Surely Paul knew that government could terrorize those who did good as well. Generally speaking, this passage is understood with at least one big exception--that government does not have to be obeyed when it's a directly opposed alternative to following God. But how far does the exception go? If in fact a ruler does terrorize those who do good, what then? Our founding fathers' answer was, the citizens should be able to take up arms against their government in such cases. But is this a Christian idea?
I could go on. St. John Chrysostom, in commenting on this passage, calls subjection for conscience's sake the flip side of submission due to fear. Since government is there to restrain evil, we should support its endeavors in that area. But what if government seems also to promote evil? What if the institutions that are supposed to protect us from foreign invasion are invading other countries without just cause and actually making us more susceptible to attack by increasing our enemies? What if our government is actually sacrificing the good of its people to the interests of corporate lobbies or foreign allies? What if our government's supposed advocacy for religious freedom includes compelling Orthodox nations to move toward Western-style separation of Church and state on the one hand, and looking the other way when dictatorial allies allow or support persection of Christians on the other?

Perhaps Paul's point is simply this--we're going to get enough grief from government over our faith; let's not make things any worse by violating the law or acting seditiously when we don't have to. Whatever its methods, whatever its abuses, we can at least respect that government is interested in preserving some degree of order and peace. If it fails in this, those who govern will soon find themselves without jobs, either because they are overwhelmed by their enemies or because they are overthrown or worse by angry mobs. Then again, if Christians are commanded not to rebel, then theoretically a government whose citizens are Christians could do anything it wanted without fear of reprisal, at least from within (assuming everyone acted like a Christian is supposed to act).

But what about prophetic confrontation? Clearly, there were prophets in the Old Testament who were sent to speak against the immoral actions of kings and people. So does the choice between government and Christ include speaking out against immoral actions of governments? To what degree is it permissible? These prophets were imprisoned and put to death for their messages, so apparently they were breaking the law to obey God in this matter. Does this allow for civil disobedience? What about use of violent force? The judges of Israel led various types of armed uprisings. There were also prophetically sanctioned assassinations and coups. Granted, they also encouraged submission at times, as when Jeremiah preached about the invasion of Judah by Babylon. How do these different elements fit together?

In Orthodox history, there have been many different conditions under which Christians have lived. There were the early persecutions under Rome, the Christianization of the empire, the periods when rulers supported various heresies, the dominance in some Orthodox areas of foreign invaders--Persians, Arabs, Turks, Tatars, Latins--and the rise of Communism. Was it right for the White Russians to fight the Reds? Was it right for Greece or Serbia to fight for independence from Ottoman rule? What about the civil wars in Yugoslavia? And today, when so many Orthodox live in regions that were never historically Orthodox, where should their allegiance lie? If the U. S. went to war with Russia, what should be the reaction of Orthodox Americans? What about when the U. S. or its allies carry out operations in the Middle East that lead to death or greater oppression for Orthodox Christians in that part of the world (even if our primary enemies are Muslims)?

Like I said, I don't have many answers. Interestingly, in the few hours since I started writing this, Fr. Andrew has posted a short piece on his site about the war in Lebanon that has some relevance:
How can Orthodox living in the West and citizens of Western countries remain silent in the face of the present outrages?

Orthodox have had to answer such questions in all ages, from the Roman Empire to the American Empire. Their answers are inevitably shaped by the belief that our Faith is more important than loyalty to any earthly State, for eternity is more important than time and space. Orthodox will always put their Faith above their temporal nationality and natural feelings of patriotism. As the West has for nearly a thousand years ideologically opposed the Gospel, incorporating secularism into its very ideology. Orthodox who are devoted to the Truth of Christ are inevitably ambivalent towards the West. We can never integrate the worldliness of the West. We may, and indeed should, love our countries, the USA, England, France or any other, but this is in spite of the actions of particular Western governments, let alone minority regimes, like that of Mr Blair.

For conscious Orthodox, Orthodoxy is in itself a nationality, the ‘nationality’ of Christ, which is above all nationalities and governments. As bombs fall on Orthodox in the Lebanon, we Orthodox feel solidarity with all other Orthodox. As bombs rain down on Roman Catholics and Muslims and rockets fall on Jews, we Orthodox also feel solidarity with all suffering mankind, which is abused and deceived by powerbrokers and their machines of war. All men are created in the image and likeness of God, whatever the religious label, Muslim, Jew, Roman Catholic or any other, which manmade misinterpretation of revelation, conditioned by race, history and politics, have attached to them.

I like what he says here. I wish I could flesh it out with more specifics.

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