In some North American quarters the Orthodox faith has come to be associated with extreme forms of social and political conservatism and—in some alarming cases—even with white supremacist nationalism. Deacon Hayes’ short reflection attests to a time, not so long ago, remembered by those of us old enough or Orthodox long enough to have experienced. In publishing this companion piece to Jim Forest’s article of December 12, Orthodoxy in Dialogue hopes to bring into the open a vitally important conversation that is mainly limited to anguished Facebook comments by those who hardly recognize their Church anymore. Hayes concludes with a parodoxical observation: only a changeless theology has the power to change the world.
Jim Forest recently wrote a biography of a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel Berrigan, who died in 2016.
Why would an Orthodox Christian write a biography of a radical Roman Catholic priest, and why would an Orthodox Christian want to read such a thing? Forest himself wrote an answer to that question for Orthodoxy in Dialogue the day before yesterday:
When he died last year, age 94, obituaries focused on the anti-war aspects of Berrigan’s life: he was eighteen months in prison for burning draft records in a protest against conscription of the young into the Vietnam War; then there was a later event in which he was one of eight people who hammered on the nose cone of a nuclear-armed missile. No one has kept count of his numerous brief stays in jail for other acts of war protest. He was handcuffed more than a hundred times.
But this raises another, wider question, too.
For the last few years the mainstream media have focused on the phenomenon of the religious right. But 50 years ago the focus was more on the religious left, exemplified by people like Daniel Berrigan protesting against the Vietnam War.
I first learned of Daniel Berrigan in 1969 through a radical Christian magazine called The Catonsville Roadrunner. The magazine was inspired by the actions of Berrigan and his brother Philip, who with several others had broken into an office containing records of military conscription and publicly burnt them. It became a legendary act of Christian civil disobedience.
Jim Forest himself was involved in a similar act of civil disobedience in Milwaukee, for which he was jailed. Those were interesting times, the late 1960s and early 1970s, the age of hippies and moon landings and radical Christian protests. Inspired by The Catonsville Roadrunner, I and a group of friends launched our own radical Christian magazine in South Africa, called Ikon. The cover of the first couple of issues showed an ikon of Christ, and had several articles on Orthodoxy and Orthodox ikonography.
So Jim Forest’s question prompts another question: It is not just “Why should Orthodox Christians be interested in the life of a Jesuit priest like Daniel Berrigan?” but why did so many people involved in the radical Christian scene of the late 1960s become interested in Orthodoxy?
One factor may have been that, at that time, Orthodoxy was peculiarly powerless.
In 1968 I visited St. Sergius Orthodox Church in Paris. There was a seminary in the crypt of the church where the students lived in humble and primitive conditions—sleeping cubicles separated by threadbare curtains, and an open drain running down the middle of the floor. That, to me, represented the poverty of Him who came to be poor among the poor, rather than the power and prestige needed to maintain a religion.
Most of the traditionally Orthodox countries were then under communist or Muslim rule. In those places Orthodox Christians were treated as second-class citizens and deprived of civil rights. Many Orthodox Christians in the West were refugees and asylum-seekers, or the children of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Another reason for the attraction of Orthodoxy for radical Christian activists was that Orthodoxy had a firm theological base.
In the West, theological liberalism led to political conservatism and vice versa. Theological liberalism embarked on a project to adapt the Christian faith to the modern world, and that meant adapting Christianity to support the status quo. Radical Christians wanted to change the status quo on earth, so that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
G.K. Chesterton said that the modern young man would never change the world, for he would always change his mind. Christians who are always changing their theology will never change the world.
This can be seen at the present time in the media expectations of Pope Francis. They are looking to him to bring about change in the Roman Catholic Church. Will he change the theology and bring it up to date? But most of the time they are disappointed, because instead of changing the theology of the church to meet the expectations of the world, he criticises the state of the world from the point of view of existing theology—the wars, civil repression, and exploitation that continue pretty much as they did in the 1960s.
There is much talk about “progressive” theology and “progressive” politics, but what do we mean by “progress?” As Chesterton put it, more than a century ago now, in his book Orthodoxy:
Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all.
And that is why I think that some radical Christian activists have been attracted to Orthodoxy. That complements Jim Forest’s point about why Orthodox Christians should be interested in people like Daniel Berrigan—because several people who have shared the interests of Daniel Berrigan have also become interested in Orthodoxy.
Archimedes is said to have claimed that if he had a lever long enough and a firm enough fulcrum, he could move the world. The shifting sands of Western theology will never provide a firm enough fulcrum to move the world. Only Orthodox theology can do that.
Deacon Stephen Hayes holds a DTh in Missiology from the University of South Africa, where he at one time taught in the Missiology Department. He serves in the Orthodox Archbishopric of Johannesburg and Pretoria, a diocese of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. He blogs at Khanya, where the original version of this article appeared yesterday.