It’s been a brutal week for Palestinians in the city of peace.
As hardline Israeli groups prepared a provocative parade through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Israeli security forces turned their guns on peaceful Palestinian protesters and worshipers performing Ramadan prayers at the Aqsa mosque, injuring hundreds in yet another brutal crackdown. Videos circulating on social media in recent days have shown Israeli police officers throwing stun grenades and shooting rubber bullets at Palestinians inside the mosque, attacking Palestinian worshippers with tear gas bombs, and viciously beating a Palestinian man in the mosque compound. Disturbing footage showed a group of Jewish ultranationalists dancing in celebration to the sight of flames leaping above the Aqsa mosque compound. Violence quickly spiraled across the country, threatening a civil war in the streets of Israel’s mixed cities, notably Lod, Ramla, Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa, where Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, have managed a delicate coexistence for decades. Farther south, Israeli strikes in Gaza have killed more than 100 Palestinians, including children, and wounding 1000 others, while destroying multistory buildings and displacing hundreds of residents.
Once again, Israel has turned its celebrations of Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City, into an occasion to repress Palestinians, and remind the world that it is in fact, as a Human Rights Watch report acknowledged last week, an apartheid state.
And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords!” Jesus said to them, “It is enough.” – Luke 22:38
Americans, especially American Christians, have a fixation on their so-called “God-given Second Amendment Right” to arm themselves to the hilt. I know many Orthodox, even some clergy, who own and hunt with firearms and eat what they kill. But the weapons-mania of the so-called “Christian” Right is not about food and not about recreation. It’s not even about decorating their hunting lodges. It’s about personal survival at the expense of others. There’s a basic question here: is it our vocation as Christians to be prepared to kill other human beings in the name of clinging to this world?
We have “Christian” Congressional Representatives sauntering around the halls of the Capitol with pistols strapped to their legs (or in their purses), like some Hollywood tableau of the Wild West. Weapons, ammo, and the ridiculous misappropriation of Spartan heroism have insinuated themselves into the Christian story. What does the Gospel say about a weaponized response at the darkest hour?
When it comes to religion and politics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims find themselves in the same predicament. Both of these religions adhere to a particularly strong concept of sacred tradition. This tradition is distinct from revelation itself, but revelation can only be properly interpreted through this tradition. Theological thought, detailed practices of corporate worship, and ascetic disciplines of individual spiritual striving are the key components of both faiths- and crucially, all of these key components must be understood using the words written by their religious ancestors. Moreover, because both communities are globally decentralized—neither of these faiths has a single person to whom all believers look for authoritative guidance—this concept of tradition is absolutely crucial for keeping the integrity of the faith itself, especially in the tumultuous modern context.
This means that both faiths have an historically rich and consistent tradition of belief and practice, and have both conveyed immense spiritual riches across the sometimes-harrowing journey of modernity. But this concept of tradition has one major drawback: the premodern political and social context, during which all of the texts through which we understand the core of our faith were written, was radically different from our own. This is a dilemma common to all religious believers, but I believe it is especially serious in the case of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, given just how strong and all-encompassing our notion of tradition is. When it comes to politics, the contours of the dilemma are particularly clear: nearly all of the central texts of our authoritative and interpretive traditions were written in the context of empire.
At the end of January, what were perhaps the largest protest rallies in the last ten years took place across Russia. The protests were sparked by the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had returned to his homeland after medical treatment in Germany. Back in August 2020, Russian special services had tried to poison him, and Navalny spent several weeks in a coma. Two days after returning to Russia, an investigative filmabout Vladimir Putin’s alleged private residence (“Putin’s palace”) was published on Navalny’s YouTube channel, where it has received more than 100 million views to date. These events became the starting point of the protests. During the rallies, the police carried out a record number of arrests, which caused a new wave of anger.
During times like this, the painful realization that Orthodox Christians, especially post-Soviet Orthodox Christians, do not have a theological language to speak about political events becomes especially acute. This is true both for those who are outraged by the authorities’ actions and for those who support them. Orthodox political speech today is discrete and is a repetition of the same old commonplaces: “There is no authority except from God”; “Not peace, but a sword”; “To Caesar what is Caesar’s”; “The church is outside politics.” But around these commonplaces, no narrative, no meanings or interpretations, no concrete rule or guidance is formed. They are thrown into the public space and immediately recoil back.