On the strength of anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced people are now especially interested in apocalyptic themes. Social unrest, fires, climate change, a global pandemic—all of these evoke themes found in apocalyptic texts from numerous traditions. Christianity has its own narrative of what will happen at the end of all things. The variety of interpretations that are offered, though, leaves us to wonder whether people are satisfied with what they find when they look to these texts. The idea of apocalypse intrigues us, but the question of how to draw sustenance from it remains.
If we look at Mark 13, for example, we are stunned by images that would portend disaster, should they actually occur. I propose that one helpful way to look at this chapter is to understand its images as portrayals of the kinds of trauma that sometimes occur at the extreme edges of our existence, and to understand its admonitions as pertinent to moments in which trauma separates us from our usual sources of assurance.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Our society was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans, guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins of labor or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable. (“Beyond ‘White Fragility’“)
These words are a vivid backdrop for reflecting on the economics of Father Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). They provide the social parameters for appreciating the insights of one of the most profound and creative Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. While Bulgakov does not pretend to solve the problem of poverty, he offers a prophetic voice for how the Church can address, in an industrialized context, the social structures that foster it. He extends the work of previous pastor theologians who recognized that social structures perpetuate social and economic disparity.
Few Copts today remember Bishop Samuel, the first General Bishop of Ecumenical and Social Services. They do not hang his picture in their homes or keep it in their wallets as they do with his contemporaries like Pope Kyrillos VI or Pope Shenouda III. Those who have heard of him are likely to know little beyond the shocking manner of his death: he was killed in the crossfire during the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981—39 years ago today.
But long before that day and the bitter controversies surrounding it, Bishop Samuel had served as the public face of the Coptic Church under three successive patriarchs; he had been, in the words of John Watson, “in effect, the Coptic Orthodox Minister of Foreign Affairs,” and “the most famous Copt inside and outside Egypt.” In fact, he was very nearly the 117th Pope of Alexandria himself; his name was one of the three in the altar ballot which selected Pope Shenouda III in 1971. Westerners who worked with him at conferences and ecumenical gatherings were consistently struck by his keen intellect and his open heart. When he met him in the early 1960s, Edward Wakin (late Fordham professor of communications) wrote: “He is the only member of the monastic elite who is addressing himself to the contemporary problems facing the Copts.” After his death, he was remembered in TheTimes of London as “a small bustling man, with a big heart [who] will be missed by Christians in many parts of the world” (Obituary: Bishop Samuel, The Times, October 12, 1981).
Austin Farrer, the great Anglican theologian, drew a line in the sand for Christians living in our post/modern era. We can’t erase, hide, or ignore history. Our #cancelled and #metoo and #woke friends won’t let us get away with it. In the good old days, we could hide the disciplina arcani—the Orthodox truths handed over to new converts when they were first baptized—from outsiders. Not anymore. Fr Tom Hopko used to remark with his customary aplomb, “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Anybody with a laptop and a Google Chrome browser can discover nearly anything about anyone at any time. Some of the search results will be wrong. But some of them will be correct. We cannot hide behind ignorance.
If we’re going to canonize heroes as genuine heroes, we must see them as they really are. The famously ugly Oliver Cromwell once sat for a portrait. The artist, Samuel Cooper, wanted to airbrush some of his many blemishes. Cromwell, good honest Calvinist that he was, protesteth vigorously. Paint me as I really am. Warts and all. The #cancelled generation doesn’t want pious un-truths that impart moral lessons, even if they are earnestly taught. Just tell us the unblemished truth and let us sort it out. Warts and all.