While it is indeed refreshing and heartening to see Orthodox hierarchs publicly engage with issues unrelated to abortion or homosexuality, the Open Letter to President Trump by Bishop David (Mahaffey) in response to the manufactured migrant crisis at our southern border leaves much to be desired. Not only that, it contains historical analogies and certain harmful right-wing tropes that, left uncorrected, are disconcerting when one considers the role that a bishop plays in shepherding his flock.
In the letter, Bishop David writes:
Our current president has done many good things for churches, but you wouldn’t know it if you listen to those on the extreme left.
Who, I wonder, constitutes the “extreme left?” What are these “many good things for the churches” that President Trump has done? Has he aided the poor, the afflicted, and the marginalized? Has he welcomed the refugee? Has he created a tax policy that benefits the many? Has he de-escalated American militarism? Has he extended healthcare to the sick? By any objective measure, President Trump has done nothing for those kinds of people so central to the biblical narrative; and thus, I’d suggest, has done no “good things for churches.” One must then wonder if, instead, His Grace has in mind Trump’s fanning the flames of the culture wars, with their myopic emphases on sexuality, abortion, and “traditional morality” as his touchstone for what’s good for the churches—issues that most objective observers would recognize are used as tools of the administration to rile its political base.
In his letter His Grace uses the historical analogy of the Civil War to make a point about our current national disunity. In doing so, he frames the war as an episode in American history that, it seems, could have and should have been solved through compromise. One must wonder if the perspective of the enslaved is at all relevant to this analogy. He writes:
Our country has not been in such a dire situation since the Civil War of the 1860s. Then, people took strong positions and refused to compromise, and this is what we see happening to us today. The result was the loss of thousands of lives and destroyed homes, cities, and livelihoods.
Additionally, he would like to believe that “we are beyond waging such a war again in the name of ‘our rights.'” Here it is important to remind His Grace that the rights most central to the Civil War were the rights denied to enslaved people, and it was only in taking sides—in crushing the Southern slavocracy and in the emancipation of the enslaved—that justice could prevail. Conflict first, then justice, then unity. Of course, the meaning and purpose of the war changed over time, but at its heart, the war was about the supposed “right” to own human beings.
Here’s where this becomes relevant today: if one is willing to suggest compromise with a slavocracy, then with what else is one willing to compromise? If slaveholding, now such a clear sin, is presented as essentially not worth a “war in the name of…rights,” as His Grace suggests, then where does that leave one on today’s most pressing issues? What signals do such implications send to readers? I would suggest that, instead of “compromise,” justice and truth are primary—and justice and truth are the foundation on which an authentic unity can be built. The Church posits much the same in its position on closed communion.
I can only assume that His Grace did not mean to suggest what is the only logical conclusion of his assertions; but in a time when Orthodox hierarchs are seemingly unwilling to explore or address why the Church is becoming increasingly attractive to the alt-right, words matter. These words matter. History and its uses matter, and we must be precise.
His Grace goes on to assert:
Our media seem bent on destroying your presidency by hook or by crook.
Such a broad and unfounded assertion (in a document meant for the Orthodox faithful, no less!) can only send one signal: “the media,” broadly speaking, are not to be trusted. This unsubstantiated viewpoint, essentially a parroting of the administration’s propaganda, has now received a holy stamp of approval from a hierarch. What are those under his spiritual care to believe? One step above a panicked cry of “Fake News!” this kind of claim can do nothing but lead to the erosion of a free press and undermine basic democratic norms. This claim provides fuel for a “post-truth” fire and offers cover for any and all administrative actions.
Lastly, His Grace suggests:
We are, or at least were, a great country founded on biblical principles.
What’s suggested here is essentially a parroting of Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. We were great. As was the case during the general election, one might wonder when, specifically, were we great? What did that greatness look like? Who were the primary beneficiaries of that greatness? Much like his analysis of the Civil War which curiously leaves out African-Americans, one must also wonder: Who was left out of that greatness, and why?
The question of whether we were founded on biblical principles is too large to address here, but I’ll remind His Grace that Thomas Jefferson literally excised, with a razor, all of the miracles from his Bible, considering them contrary to reason. In other words, it’s complex.
When compared to several of the Gospel-centered exhortations written by some of his Protestant counterparts who seem less afraid to speak truth to power, His Grace’s statement reminds me that, while the Orthodox empires may have fallen, the Church has a long way to go in re-imagining its relationship to the state.
Joshua Hatala is an Orthodox Christian who holds a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts, an MA in History from SUNY-Albany, and an MAT from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson NY. He also completed the course work and comprehensive exams for a PhD in History at SUNY-Albany. Currently he teaches history and religion in a private high school.
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