Tuesday, August 15, 2006

shedding some light on politics

I expressed a few days ago some of my struggles over faith and politics. Something I ran across today might be useful for sorting things out. St. Sergius of Radonezh blessed the Russian revolt against the Tatars, prophesied their victory, and prayed with other monks to that end during the battle. Now, on one hand, you might argue that the Russian princes never really gave up their position as God-appointed authorities over their own people, and so they were simply acting as national defenders to throw off the yoke of oppression by a foreign power. On the other hand, they had been subject to Tatar rule for centuries and were themselves as Christians obligated to obey their overlords, at least as much as any Christian is obligated to submit in such cases. If we argue that way, St. Sergius's blessing of the effort shows that armed revolt is acceptable--even desirable--before God, at least in some situations.

Perhaps we would have to limit the allowance by saying that it only works in cases where an established ruler is rebelling against a foreign authority, but then we get into the sticky questions of how we define a legitimate ruler and what constitutes a foreign authority. I'm also not sure how we could really drive home the limitation except by advising caution. Another qualification might be that it has to be a Christian force rebelling against non-Christian oppression. But how does that follow? If anything, these circumstances should evoke the notion of martyrdom, where it is an honor to suffer and die for one's faith rather than fight back. I'm not saying that the blessing on the Russian forces in this case was unrelated to the religious persuasions of the combatants, but as far as the moral justification goes, it seems like you would have to extend it to include other situations where Christians languished under illegitimate rule. For that matter, there's no necessity that either side would have to be Christian at all. Not that it's going to matter to non-Christian combatants whether or not their behavior conforms with Christian standards, but for those of us who are part of an imperialistic nation, it is still relevant. May I, or for that matter, do I ever have a moral obligation to side with those who are legitimately fighting for their own freedom from American invasion? It doesn't seem like a double standard should be necessary, based on whether the fighters are Serbian Christians or Lebanese Muslims.

The experience of St. Sergius doesn't answer all questions by any means, but it does hint at an interpretation of St. Paul's instructions--that what he's really talking about is the day-to-day submission of the individual to civil laws, not the general legitimacy (or otherwise) of rebellion against oppression of various forms. The problem then becomes knowing where to draw the line. Arguably, if it is appropriate to rebel against oppression, it is therefore appropriate to break the law anytime it is seen as oppressive, or even if it is simply that the government enforcing the law is oppressive. Taking it to that extent would virtually eliminate any distinction between the two issues, so it's probably not right. But where then do we draw the line?

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