ORTHODOX RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS SOCIETY by Deacon Stephen Hayes

1.  Introduction

Recently Orthodoxy in Dialogue posted the following tweet on Twitter:

In the context in which it appeared it seemed to assume that “we” (non-women, non-LGBTQ, non-immigrants, believers, non-adherents of other religions) did think that our only responsibility towards society was to stop other people from doing what they want to do.

I question that assumption, and some of the other assumptions that the statement seems to make.

I don’t think it is our only, or even our primary responsibility towards society, as Orthodox Christians, to stop people doing what we don’t want them to do. But I must admit that I do wish that some people would stop doing what I don’t want them to do—for example, murderers, rapists, robbers, embezzlers, corrupt businessmen and politicians, destroyers of the environment, and people who enjoy torturing cute furry animals.

As Orthodox Christians we pray (or the priest prays on our behalf) in the Liturgy of St Basil, “Preserve the good in goodness, and make the evil to be good by Thy goodness.” It is God’s responsibility, not ours. And our primary responsibility is, as we pray during Lent, “Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.”

Our primary responsibility, therefore, is not to society, but to God. And it is not to stop other people from doing what we don’t want them to do, but to stop doing ourselves what God doesn’t want us to do.

2.  What don’t we want people to do?

I believe that the list of things that Orthodox Christians are said not to want other people to do comes from two polls that Orthodoxy in Dialogue posted on Twitter earlier:

Which of the following would most make you feel that the Orthodox Church had lost its way? Orthodox and those who admire the Orthodox Church may respond.

All of these are highly contentious issues. It may be hard to choose one.

Ordination of women     11.1%

Same-sex unions           25%

Open Communion          38.9%

Reunion with Rome        25%

The second poll followed soon afterwards, and asked which of those four things people would most like to see the Orthodox Church do. For what it’s worth, my answer to the last question was “None of the above,” which wasn’t an option in the poll. But I disagree with the apparent conclusion that just because I don’t want the Orthodox Church (us) to do those things, I therefore must think that the only concern of Orthodox Christians must be to want to stop other people (them) from doing them.

Three of those concerns are dominant or fashionable ones in Western Christianity, and 35 years ago I left the Anglican Church and became Orthodox partly because I did not want to spend the rest of my life being involved with them. I don’t see any need to stop other people doing those things. Western Christians can ordain women, have same-sex unions and open communion, and I won’t see it as my duty to stop them, much less my primary duty, and much less still my only duty. But I really don’t want to see the Orthodox Church getting bogged down in arguments about them either, as Western denominations have been for the last 40 years and more.

As I said earlier, there are some things that I would like to see people stop doing, like violence, racism, oppression and destruction of the environment. And yes, I know some people like to talk about “intersectionality” and say they are all linked, and that is where I start to get all Marxist and see it as the privileged Western bourgeois riding on the coattails of people who are really oppressed, and trying to divert sympathy to themselves. And they succeed because they are privileged and their voices are more likely to be heard by the powerful,  and their politicians give them what they want, and go on bombing the poor in other parts of the world.

3.  The Church in the World or the World in the Church

Much of this, it seems to me, is following the (Western) world’s agenda. And it is wanting to do those four things listed above that would indicate that the Orthodox Church had lost its way. Instead of the Church being in the world like leaven to change the world to resemble the heavenly kingdom, that vision wants to put the world in the Church, and to change the Church and remake it according to the world’s ideals.

G.K. Chesterton put it rather well:

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. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner. This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker…

… As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.

Chesterton, Orthodoxy

And so we want the Church to change to suit the world. It doesn’t matter if they are bombing kids in Yemen and Gaza, as long as the Orthodox Church ordains women, does same-sex unions, and has open communion, all will be well in the best of all possible worlds.

4.  Stopping other people doing things

When we talk about preventing other people from doing things that we don’t want them to do, I’ve already noted that we don’t seem to be able to agree on just what things we don’t want them to do. But while the lists of things we don’t like people doing may differ there remains the question of how important it is to try to prevent them from doing those things.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, thinking of the Nazi government in Germany, that if he saw a madman driving down the street knocking people down, it was not enough for him to give first aid and call an ambulance for those who were knocked down, he must do all in his power to stop the madman driving at all, and that required involvement in politics.

And the importance of preventing other people from doing things depends on which kind of things they are. And that importance is very much bound up with culture, which varies from time to time and from place to place.

In the late 18th century, for example, British Evangelical Christians became concerned about the morality of slavery and the slave trade. They did not merely try to ameliorate the conditions in which slaves lived and worked, they did what Bonhoeffer said and tried to stop people doing things they didn’t like—buying, transporting, and selling slaves, and later keeping slaves.

So they got involved in politics and became political agitators and appealed to the Christian conscience of British Christians and outlawed the slave trade in British ships. The slave traders, of course, said “business is business” and the Church had no business interfering, but interfere it did.

Then they went still further, and used the power of the British Navy to stop the slave trade using other ships. This, of course, laid them open to the accusation of cultural imperialism. Buying and selling of slaves was okay in African culture and American culture, and here was the British Royal Navy interfering with business at the behest of a bunch of bleeding-heart do-gooder Evangelical Christians in the UK.

But in the 21st century we were treated to the somewhat bizarre spectacle of British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologising for British involvement in the slave trade three centuries earlier, but refusing to apologise for his own bombing of Belgrade and Basra. Confessing other people’s sins is a relatively undemanding exercise; confessing one’s own is much more difficult.

Another strange instance of cultural imperialism is bodily mutilations. Human beings have thought of many different ways of mutilating their bodies, but mutilations that one culture finds aesthetically pleasing are regarded by another as horrifying and disgusting. So there are tattoos, piercings, bits cut off, bits cut into; necks are lengthened, earlobes and lips pierced and enlarged, feet are shrunk, teeth knocked out and more.

Western Christian missionaries in China found the local practice of binding girls’ feet to keep them small cruel and barbarous, and founded the Natural Foot Society to counter it. Similarly Western Christian missionaries in Kenya opposed the practice of female circumcision among some ethnic groups. Since all schools there were run by churches, those who rejected this as cultural imperialism withdrew and started their own educational associations, one of which eventually linked up with the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church, unlike some Western denominations, did not rail against and denounce the practice, but thought it was more important to be positive and lead them to Christ, and when people came to Christ, they abandoned female circumcision, so that it is rare today, and not practised by Orthodox Christians, but back in the 1930s it was an important cultural issue.

One can try to describe this abstractly by saying that Christian morality makes little sense without Christian doctrine. St. Augustine of Hippo is said to have said “Love God, and do what you will do,” because if you love God you will seek to do God’s will. It is the difference between law and Gospel.

So the Protestant missionaries in Kenya concentrated on trying to prevent people from doing things they didn’t like, but Orthodox concentrated on the love of God and right worship (which is what “orthodoxy” means), and believed that the morality would follow.

So when we go to people who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we basically say, “This is what we do, this is what we do not do.”

Our message is not “This is what you should not do,” or “What you are doing is wrong.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indicative, not imperative. It is about what God has done for us rather than what we must do to please an angry God. It is good news, evangelism, not a series of prohibitions.

That is why, in the middle of most of St Paul’s letters, there is a “therefore.” He begins by saying what God has done, and therefore you ought to love worthy of the calling to which you were called, by putting off behaviour that is inappropriate for Christians and putting on behaviour. Trying to enforce Christian morality without the Gospel is putting the cart before the horse.

But where do you draw the line between the activities that you try to prevent people from doing, like Bonhoeffer, or the British Royal Navy, and actions that belong more to individual conscience?

Some people say, “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.”

Can you then say, “If you don’t like slavery, don’t buy and keep slaves”?

5.  What should the Orthodox Church be doing?

One of the polls on Twitter asked me to say what I would most like the Orthodox Church to be doing.

  • Ordaining women
  • Same-sex unions
  • Open communion
  • Reunion with Rome

But the four things I would most like the Orthodox Church to be doing (and without which it would have lost its way) are those given in Acts 2:42—continuing in:

  • The Apostles’ teaching
  • The Apostles’ fellowship
  • The breaking of bread
  • The prayers

I believe that the Orthodox Church has continued in those four things from the day of Pentecost AD 33 until today, and that is why I am Orthodox. Without those things, the Church cannot be described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

And I can’t find any of Orthodoxy in Dialogue‘s four things in the Apostles’ teaching.

Starting with the last of them, Reunion with Rome, which I think would be more or less incompatible with the other three, Rome departed from the Apostles’ Fellowship in 1054, and has drifted further away from the Apostles’ teaching ever since. If Rome is willing to return, okay, but the doctrinal issues need to be dealt with first.

There is also a question whether the Orthodox Church is continuing, or will continue in the Apostles’ Fellowship much longer: the Ukrainian schism* seems to be spreading and infecting all the Orthodox Churches. But “open communion” (or “open fellowship”) would mean that the Apostles’ Fellowship doesn’t matter, people can drift in or out of it at will. The Orthodox Church would just become another Protestant non-denomination, like the Liberal Catholic Church. Believe what you like, commune with whom you like, as long as you do it with incense.

6.  Summary and conclusion

The sequence of tweets on Orthodoxy in Dialogue discussed here implies that Orthodox Christians who do not think that the Orthodox Church should be doing the four things in those two polls believe that the sole responsibility of Orthodox Christians to society is to prevent other people from doing what they want to do. I believe this is an unfair characterisation and that it is actually more complex than that, because

  1. It is too negative. It is more important to encourage people to do good things than to prevent them from doing bad things.
  2. It assumes that everything “other” people want to do is good, but I would maintain that not everything that we and other people want to do is good, and that preventing people from doing bad things does have a place, though it is not the only thing we should be doing.
  3. The polls and the statement that followed them seem to imply that the Orthodox Church should uncritically follow the Western world’s agenda.
*Orthodoxy in Dialogue refers to this as the Muscovite Schism.
Editor’s Note: Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s mission is to foster open dialogue on those contentious issues where Orthodox Christians already hold divergent opinions, including but not limited to sexual and gender diversity, the role of women in the Church and society, the place of the Church in worldly politics, the limits of ecumenism, how best to respond—pastorally vs. politically—to the reality of unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, etc. The Twitter polls that we conduct are no more reflective of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s positions than the guest articles or reprints that we publish: we often publish articles and conduct polls expressing positions with which we disagree.

Deacon Stephen Hayes holds a DTh in Missiology from the University of South Africa, where at one time he taught in the Missiology Department. He serves in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, blogs at Notes from Underground, and has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter @hayesstw.

On this, the Leave-Taking of Pascha, we greet you one last time with the joyous proclamation:

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

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