This essay was first published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
In our time, racism has many faces. Sometimes it manifests itself in a more visible way and other times in an invisible way. Whether it is racism of gender, race, religion or social class, of ethnic origin or sexual orientation, it is certain that the enemy is always the other. It does not matter if the other amounts to whole nations, social groups, or individuals, the other in this case becomes the “red cloth” of a blind ideology, which does not define people as unique and irreplaceable persons in the image of the Triune God, but primarily based on certain natural characteristics.
This is, one might say, the very source of racism and the rejection of otherness. Hostility towards the other, or rather hatred for the different is what defines our identity. This counterpoint is the cornerstone on which all kinds of ideological or religious justifications for discrimination between people are based. Not only each of us, but also entire nations form their collective identity in an oppositional way, in the name of a national, political, cultural, economic, but also religious superiority over others.
In his preface to the social ethics document “For the Life of the World,” Archbishop Elpidophoros of America invited the Orthodox faithful, as well as Christians of other denominations and all people of good will, to engage with the text and enter into a discourse about it. In response to this invitation, the author, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, has thoroughly analyzed the text, written in the spirit of the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, and appreciated its significance.
The social ethics document was intended to continue the engagement with the modern world begun by the Holy and Great Synod of Crete in 2016. In view of new questions and challenges, additional efforts were needed to provide forward-looking impulses for the church and its faithful. A comparison with the synod documents shows that the social-ethical document contributes a significant facet to this. Documents of social-ethical content published earlier by the Russian Orthodox Church were included in the study in order to be able to answer the question of continuities or new accents. Access to the world of thought and to the understanding of the social-ethical document is opened not least by the manifold contributions and publications of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and many Orthodox theologians. It was neither intended nor possible within the framework of this study to attempt to fully cover the diversity of positions and statements of Orthodox theology on the broad spectrum of topics covered by the document. The inclusion of a selection of contributions by hierarchs and theologians rather served the goal of approaching the text in the horizon to which it belongs, namely that of Orthodoxy. In doing so, it has become apparent that “For the Life of the World” has been consistently drawn from specific aspects of modern Orthodox theology developed over decades.
“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed coyly by a slick lawyer looking for an easy answer, is most poetically answered by Christ in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The story involves a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Many supposed noblemen pass by and offer no help, while a foreign stranger of an offbeat faith comes to the man’s aid with great compassion and becomes the silent hero of the day. The Good Samaritan was insightful in its Biblical time, but I also find the story to be most relevant now in our post-pandemic world.
It has been over a year now since I began working on a tribute art piece honoring lives lost in the Houston, Texas area due to Covid-19. I’ve combed through obituaries, news articles, TV programs, and have spent literally thousands of hours trying to place a name and a face to the over 7,000 deaths that have occurred just in and around my own city. So many stories have come out of this project—the loneliness, isolation, separation of families, the inability to properly grieve and bury loved ones, the mental strain—so much sadness.
The January 2021 Schmemann Lecture delivered by Mr. Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor of The American Conservative, has provoked bewilderment and objections especially among former students of Father Alexander. Was Dreher—neither an academic nor a theologian but a polemical journalist who proclaims it pointless to “dialogue” with Orthodox progressives—the appropriate person to deliver a lecture named in honor of the late archpriest? Not, certainly, if one compares the scholarly and ecclesial standing of Dreher to previous Schmemann lecturers. Does the warm, even apparently tight embrace of Dreher by the current President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, signify an already accomplished “culture war” transmogrification of the seminary and portend further hardline, divisively ideological efforts to reorient the whole OCA? The answer to the first question seemed evident enough to provoke a letter of protest from a number of anxious alumni to the seminary’s board of trustees. But a plausible answer to the second question requires considerably more effort—an informed and judicious reading of many ecclesiastical signs, a dangerous task that few OCA clerics would be equipped or eager to undertake publicly. The recently provoked band of objectors seems confronted by a debilitating choice: naively continuing by impotent complaints to close the barn door after the horses have fled, or bravely and equanimously—but perhaps foolhardily (as many will surely think)—enlisting themselves among those who speak the neuralgic truth because it is the truth. Are there many people who want to listen much less act upon the latter?
Gregory Thompson, a Protestant pastor, who is himself an academically trained theologian, has written an extensive and trenchant critique of Dreher’s most recent book: see Comment, “Return of the Cold Warrior: Reflections on Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies,” December 3rd 2020. Dreher’s book, the proximate source of his Schmemann Lecture, rhetorically targets the “soft totalitarianism” menacing American culture: in Thompson’s description, the “progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition” Thompson, however, details what he considers to be four egregiously ruinous errors in Dreher’s “Cold War,” fearful political theology. It is: (1) a morally black and white, Manichean account of history; (2) an ideological division of persons into godless progressivist villains and godly conservative victims; (3) an instrumental and tendentious use of people identified as allies; and (4) a self-confirming projection of Dreher’s own politicized religiosity but a reductively escapist account of the Church’s mission. All of these themes can be found in his recent Schmemann lecture.