The following essay was originally delivered as part of the 2017 St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival, an annual youth event hosted by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). When no political party represents genuine Christian teaching, how does an Orthodox Christian navigate political conversations and make political judgments?
A political party that represents genuine Orthodox teachings does exist–it exists in the true nature of humanity, instilled in each of our hearts by the breath of life, and the Word of God–we must rediscover it in the face of our neighbor. Throughout the course of history the Orthodox Church has served as a vessel of hope amidst the raging waters of the fallen world, never ceasing to revert our course back to Christ and our true nature. This is our political party, it is not Republican or Democrat, but a way of life that fulfills the message of Christ. We are the greatest threat, and the greatest hope that our modern world faces. Will we prove to be His faithful servants–the examples that our world so desperately needs?
The purpose of politics is to govern the body, the purpose of the church is to guide the soul; fundamentally the two are very different, but participating in our political system is our Christian duty. When Christ says: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” this is not merely a suggestion, but a commandment! However, as George E. Demacopoulos, the chair of Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University, says: “Most of us allow political allegiances to predetermine the moral calculus that we perform individually.” Politics is the easy path–we find a problem, blame someone else, and nothing gets done; but in Christianity, we are the problem, and we must change in order to change the world.
As Orthodox Christians we should not simply get involved in politics, we should evolve politics. Christianity began as a persecuted underground religion, but became the greatest force for good that the world has ever seen– because it was the loudest voice? The most persistent opinion? Or because the faithful were living, breathing, examples of Christ’s teachings?–they loved those who hated them, prayed for those who persecuted them, and forgave those who killed them. In the words of Archbishop Demetrios: “We must love in terms of actions” because we encounter Christ in the palms of one another–but how can we find Him when we are at war with the sword of our tongues?
A beautiful story of our true nature exemplified in the context of the political world, comes from the relationship between Republican president Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Polar opposites politically–yet not allowing that to define their relationship. One time Reagan confronted O’Neill about some nasty things said in the newspaper, and O’Neil replied with: “That’s just politics, after 6 o’clock we’re buddies–we’re friends.” And that’s exactly what they were–frequently going out after work and simply having a beer together, and after Ronald Reagan was shot, the first person to come and visit him was Tip O’Neill. Reagan took it, that when things would get a little heated in some of their meetings, he would visibly set his watch to 6 o’clock, as a frolicsome reminder of their true identity in friendship.
The Christian life is to love. Recently, Mark Dayton, the governor of Minnesota, was giving a speech to both state legislatures, when he suddenly collapsed–as he falls, you see an entire room of opposing opinions and beliefs stand up in unison out of concern for their fellow man, and those who were close, rush to catch him before he hits the ground. It’s a simple story, but a profound testament to the nature of humanity–that we are created to love. It is in the love of one another that we draw near to God, and it is in the love of one another that we find our political party. We should absolutely welcome politics, but never at the expense of our neighbor–because our opinions, discussions, and debates won’t be there to catch us when we fall. My brothers and sisters in Christ, the course of history has arrived at our hour, it is time we ask ourselves: is it 6 o’clock yet?
Stefan Kleinhenz is 18 years old and attends St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego, California. He recently graduated from Santana High School and will attend Hillsdale College in the Fall where he plans to major in American Studies, with a minor in Rhetoric & Public Speech.
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