Now that the American elections are over, it is time to assess the role of the Orthodox Churches in helping to shape our country. They could take a passive stand entirely apart from the political process, but then we would have to accept that everyone else would decide the conditions under which we live as Orthodox Christians. And we would then also have to admit that we don’t actively care about what happens to our country or about contributing to the common good. This would be entirely contrary to the history of the Orthodox Churches, which have almost all played central roles in shaping national cultures, even when they existed—as they did for most of history—under autocratic regimes.
Learning to adapt to a democratic, constitutional, pluralistic political order of the kind we have in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon. What happens when Orthodox Christians live in a political order where they are free to participate as much as anyone else in helping to shape the society through democratic processes limited only by a constitution? We proclaim a kingdom that is not of this world or its politics. But it should go without saying that as Christians, we want to contribute to the peace, general welfare, relief of suffering and improvement of people’s lives in this world. We do this in the name of Christ who “went around doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38), but our vision of the common good should be compelling for many other citizens of our multicultural, pluralistic country.
So, as Orthodox Christians, what is our vision for such a society? In the Orthodox experience, to be human is to be in communion with God, with each other and with all creation. We envision a society that allows this communion to flourish. And we can promote this vision by three forms of ministry that could be labeled charitable, prophetic and spiritual.
- Charitable. Churches need to keep doing the sorts of charitable projects that they have always been known for, but in concert with other churches, religious groups and organizations that do the same to serve and to stand up for those in need. They can train local congregations and communities, especially on an ecumenical and inter-faith basis, to do more of this. They can create a culture of service and sacrifice, which for Christians is rooted in commitment to following the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ. In the words of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (+1994), “Sublime joy emanates from sacrifice. Only when we sacrifice ourselves can we be related to Christ, for Christ is sacrifice.”
- Prophetic. Churches can closely monitor what the government and people in positions of political and economic power are doing and raise the alarm when that power needs to be checked or rebuked. Prophets are watchmen who keep an eye on authorities and challenge them when necessary and speak up for those who have no voice. They also cry out when they see idolatry. But prophets are not just the party of “no.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks of the “prophetic imagination.” Prophets can imagine a world better than the one in front of us. The church may be a force for doing all things decently and in good order, but on occasion it may also have the prophetic vocation of overturning the tables of the money-changers, being counter-cultural, enabling people to dream dreams, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. This includes standing up for decency, facts and truth in the face of “truthiness” and outright lies. The Church must be especially on guard against politicians masquerading as Christians and using Christian rhetoric to sell political snake oil.
- Spiritual, or better Eschatological, “Not of this world.” This is the most particular but also the most paradoxical and “foolish” Christian contribution to the political order. “Spiritual” does not mean disengaged or disincarnate. Orthodoxy is emphatically material and incarnational. But the churches should be just as concerned about the problem of spiritual alienation as they are about the problems of poverty, social justice and the environment. An inwardly transformed people can withstand anything a crisis throws at them, especially when other solutions have yet to kick in. So the traditional Orthodox focus on prayer, ascetic discipline and inward transformation may be what a world in crisis needs right now. It was this peace that sustained Jesus in his own crisis and which he promised to give his disciples in their hour of need. Human beings “do not live by bread alone” (Matt 4:4, Luke 4:4). How many have bread but don’t know how to pray and connect with an eternal source of meaning, peace and hope? There should be no tension between the active peacemaking of the Beatitudes and cultivation of inner peace. But a politics of communion affirms that every human being can be filled with an ever-replenishing inner well that brings peace even when his or her other problems refuse to go away.
After a bruising election season I believe it should be our aim as Orthodox Christians to do our part to promote the healing of the body politic and promote a national politics of communion. I believe as well that many others would welcome this.
Fr. John A. Jillions is Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America and Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.