2016 Presidential Election

  • Being Christian During A Trump Presidency

    by Aristotle Papanikolaou

    When it comes to voting, I had always thought that there was never a way for Christians to vote with clean hands. Regardless of party or candidate, a Christian could not vote without being implicated in supporting principles that are counter to Christian faith. And that’s how it should be: Christian witness points to that which is more than the political. Put another way, the political is something but it is not everything.

    If Christian witness is to point to what is more than the political, then Christian responsibility is not done after we vote; it only intensifies after an election. No matter who is elected, Christians must always exercise a prophetic voice.

    If Hillary Clinton had been elected, Christians would have had to exercise this prophetic voice—some would have focused on her failure to promote a consistent ethic of life, while others might have targeted her collusion with special interests.

    The reality is, however, that we have a Trump presidency: so what should the Christian prophetic voice look like now? 

    First, Christians must condemn unequivocally Trump’s vulgar statements about women. He boastfully proclaimed that because he was rich and famous he could “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Since Trump has been elected, I have heard Christians—including women—say that God has answered prayers in the election of Trump. It is very hard for me to believe that God would have intervened to elect a president promoting “pussy grabbing.” Trump has apologized for the statement, but then dismissed the seriousness of the comments as locker-room talk. This dismissal does not inspire confidence that he will not abuse his office, nor does it unequivocally signal that such behavior is wrong. The US presidency is a powerful symbolic presence not simply in this country, but in the world. Christians should demand of Trump that he take concrete measures to signal that any form of violence against women is unequivocally unacceptable. Rather than using the power of the presidency to demean women, he needs to use it to honor and value all Americans, over half of whom are women.

    Second, Trump has never definitively disavowed support from the various leaders and forms of white supremacist groups in the country. This is a serious problem. As a result, it has emboldened white supremacist groups and has created doubts about Trump’s commitment to fight racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Christians must demand of Trump that he publicly disavow any and all support from white supremacist groups, and that he not appoint anyone to any position of power—let alone his Cabinet—that has any remote ties with white supremacist movements. It is not the case that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist; however, if Christians do not prophetically demand of Trump that he publicly disavow white supremacist support, then Christians are complicit in extending and empowering racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

    Third, Trump has made negative statements about Muslims and Latinos and has mocked disabled people. This does not inspire confidence that Trump has any respect for difference—one of the landmark principles of the United States of America. One of my students confessed to me that she is now afraid to walk around New York City wearing her hijab—this is sad. There can be reasonable debate about immigration reform, but many statements by Trump regarding difference are not reasonable. Christians must demand of Trump that he publicly retract his statements that he will block Muslims from entering this country. Christians must also lead the way in extending hospitality to the stranger. Jesus never said “love thy neighbor, except when you’re feeling insecure.”

    What Christians must avoid most is what I call political Nestorianism, which is a politics of dualism, a politics of us vs. them, a politics of demonization. What Christians need to struggle to realize, and this is an ascetic struggle demanding spiritual commitment and discipline, is a politics of empathy. A politics of empathy calls all Christians to attempt to imagine what it would be like to be in the body of a woman who has been physically assaulted; what it would be like to be in the body of a Muslim afraid to wear the hijab in public; what it would be like to be in the body of someone who is fearful of a hate crime because of their sexuality; what it would be like to be in the body of someone whose disability might subject them to mockery; what it would be like to be in the body of a person of color who lives in a country where slavery is its original sin and who endures continual suspicion in this country due to the color of their skin. Such a politics of empathy is part of what I would call a politics of theosis—it is part of our struggle to love as God loves in the world.

    Trump has made specific statements that have scared many people. Christians cannot simply dismiss those statements as empty rhetoric. Christians must exercise their prophetic voice. If they do not, then they are complicit in racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and mockery of all difference. Without prophecy, Christian witness is a failure.

    Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

  • Healing the Body Politic: A Politics of Communion

    by Fr. John A. Jillions

    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.

  • Politics by Candlelight: Contemplating Political Catharsis and Illumination

    by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis

    candlelight

    “Democracy is coming to the USA.” (Leonard Cohen)

    Americans don’t like talking openly about politics across party lines; they prefer to talk in their own silos and not to each other. American Christians – at least, this is my experience among Orthodox Christians in America – would almost identify political argumentation as somehow betraying the Christian Gospel; I’m not so sure, however, that this is based so much on Gospel principle as on some misconception of the right to privacy.

    Critics, then, may be politically or religiously ostracized – sometimes both. So at risk of stepping into the unknown territory of political purgatory, as a dual citizen of America and Australia, as a layman as well as a theologian, let me briefly consider the topics of money in politics, immigration as inclusion, and climate change in light of the recent presidential election.

    Pay-to-play?

    On the day that Donald Trump announced he would run for our highest political position, a senior prelate of the Orthodox church in this country confessed to me this proved that money could justify anything in America, even the presidency. If you acquired enough funds or were perceived to have enough wealth – whether you ran enough commercials or were given a free ride by the press – you could run for office, any office.

    I have always been surprised that so few people in America seem concerned about the influence of the affluent. Of course, voters on both sides castigated the role of money in politics, whether castigating the abuse of financial donations to the Clinton Initiative or challenging the immorality of contractual transactions in the Trump initiatives.

    The truth is that both of the leading candidates could never consider political nomination if not backed by billions of dollars either in fundraising or investment. That’s billions with a “b.” Has anyone stopped long enough to conceive this travesty and tragedy? Is plutocracy democracy at all?

    Whether the Trump movement results in any social change or economic justice remains to be seen. The struggles for power and profit have consistently and unapologetically proved decisive in American politics. I don’t think we have even begun to witness the level of protests by the American public. And I don’t think we have even begun to ponder ways of bridging the gap between rich and poor.

    Ultimately, whether this was going to be a Trump or a Clinton presidency, it would unfortunately be and undoubtedly remain pay-to-play politics. Part of the reason for this is that American society thrives on such politics. It is why no one so much as blinks an eye – or, worse, people sweepingly condemn alternative programs elsewhere as “socialist” – when I ask how there can be a price for health or education or even religion. Is there anything ultimately not for sale?

    Exclusion or inclusion?

    On the day that Donald Trump became president-elect, I reaffirmed my resolve never to question the ideal of democracy. But I could question the reduction of democracy to demagoguery.

    No one is any longer surprised that political campaigns offer promises or proffer empty words as policies. Politics has become synonymous with rhetorical, even fictional pledges that merely serve as campaign slogans to garner support of voters, who in turn are dissatisfied with broken commitments or proven lies of previous leaders. President Bush promised to stop “nation-building missions” in 2000; and President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay in 2008; and President-elect Trump ran on a “lock her up” platform for Secretary Clinton’s emails.

    So what did it ultimately matter whether Secretary Clinton promised transparency in her financial transactions or Donald Trump refused transparency in his taxation returns? In the end, beyond their pockets, people voted with their preconceptions; and beyond their minds and hearts, they voted with their guts. At some point, people were bound to realize that they’ve been duped for decades on a bipartisan level, that government never really cared about white-collar wages or blue-collar jobs being shipped overseas.

    If politicians can take advantage of constituents, and if citizens can grow in resentment toward minorities, those who still believe in the ideal of democracy can never permit or tolerate contempt or exclusion – much less so, discrimination and animosity toward any social segment in this kaleidoscope we call the United States of America.

    If equality and dignity comprise the sinews of our democracy, the quintessence of our constitution, then we must aspire to the values that “make America great.” There can be no bigotry or classism, no misogyny or chauvinism, whether racial or religious. Indeed, if pollsters are to be believed (itself today questionable), then most supporters of Donald Trump are also Christians, which means that not only should they – with all of America – resist any mass deportation (why, I wonder, haven’t they already done this under President Obama?), but they should welcome more immigrants and refugees than those pledged by the Obama administration. That surely is our moral duty both as Americans and as Christians.

    Bullying the planet?

    If both major parties were not exempt from pay-to-play politics, and if both major players were not averse to demagoguery, then some argued that Clinton trumped Trump’s political qualifications and insider experience, while others countered that this is precisely what won or lost the election. Of course, Donald Trump is not something new to the American public. But he is something new to American politics. In the absence of meritocracy, people resort to insisting on “greatness.” Donald Trump knows better than the generals, imagines bigger than the economists, and understands more than the scientists.

    I am not just talking here about immigration, taxation, and healthcare. The president-elect, who has decided climate change a hoax, has already declared America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, reassessed tenders for the Keystone pipeline, and promised to bring back coal. How depressing and disastrous it would be for the entire planet to be at the mercy of political or corporate bullies seeking to violate its limited resources or, worse, justifying their rapacity on biblical premises. In this kind of world, scientific information and theological articulation only cement ignorance.

    Isn’t it the fundamental role of religion – especially Christianity – to maintain the spiritual connection between heaven and earth, to emphasize the beauty of God’s creation? Isn’t it the moral obligation of religious people – especially Christians – to underline the civil and corporate mandate “to serve and preserve” (Gen. 2.15) the planet and its resources? Why is it that adherents of the only religion that affirms the sacredness of flesh and matter enjoy the worst record when it comes to abusing the natural environment?

    We have one earth, which we are called and obliged to sustain and share. And quite frankly, creation doesn’t seem to care who is in the White House or whether a specific party denies climate change. What we should digest is the integral connection between human rights, religious freedom, and creation care. If we have witnessed a “movement” against political complacency, then this must be more (not less) humane, more (not less) inclusive, and more (not less) compassionate. Otherwise, there has really been no change. Otherwise, there may only be a turn for the worse. Otherwise, it won’t be that great!

    Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis serves the Office of Inter-Orthodox and Ecumenical Affairs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

  • Repentance and Healing

    by Samuel Bauer

    Following the November 8 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Fr. John Jillions, Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, published an essay on this blog urging Orthodox Christians to work towards the healing of the many societal fractures exposed by the 2016 election. The work of healing, he argues, is a Christian imperative and can be promoted by the Churches through charitable projects, speaking truth to power and “standing up for decency,” and the promotion of our uniquely Orthodox asceticism that can offer inner peace in the face of outer turmoil.

    While this program no doubt proceeds from the best of intentions and draws our gaze to important loci for ongoing work, it is inadequate since it fails to recognize the Church’s role in the creation of the current divisive political climate. Furthermore, it proposes to relegate the Orthodox spiritual life to the realm of personal piety rather than correctly identifying it as the foundation of all of our daily activities, including those that are overtly political.

    repentIn order for the Church to meaningfully engage with society and to offer the healing for which Fr. Jillions advocates, the Church must begin to reflect on its own role in having shaped the current political climate and the ways in which it has participated in the same simplistic and hurtful rhetoric that has come to characterize contemporary politics. To this end, the first act of healing work is not charity, but repentance—the recognition of sins and asking forgiveness. If it is to undertake the work of healing and establish “a politics of communion” with any authenticity, the Church must seek forgiveness from the marginalized of society, the very individuals whose dignity it has at times assailed.

    At the 18th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America in July 2015, Metropolitan Tikhon gave the opening address on the theme, “How to Expand the Mission.” Enumerating the opportunities and challenges to the Church’s mission in North America, Metropolitan Tikhon explained why the Church must continue the struggle of its apostolic work—namely, because we as a society face a ubiquitous disregard for human life. He offered several examples of why the Church must expand its mission, and included:

    the story of three year-old Jack, who one day in the car decided that he was unhappy being a boy, prompting his mother to immediately take him to the store to buy girl’s clothing for him, and to seek the support of a therapist, leaving not only this family but most likely an entire community […] in a state of spiritual and emotional confusion. Even without such extreme examples, an Orthodox Christian might rightly wonder if the world really has gone mad.

    It is polarizing and reductionist statements such as this one that undermine the Church’s ability to fulfill its mission to the world. The Church cannot humiliate and dehumanize the most vulnerable among us and then, without acknowledging its lack of compassion and the implication of this behavior for those who look to Church leaders as moral exemplars, undertake the work of healing social divisions and promoting a more empathetic political discourse.

    Once the on-going task of repentance is begun, then we can properly identify and recommit ourselves to the goals of our spiritual practice, particularly our liturgical life: communion with God and the other. Indeed, a “focus on prayer, ascetic discipline, and inward transformation” is gratuitous, self-indulgent navel-gazing when we forget that the foundation of our ascetical life is repentance. The goal of our prayer is communion, and inward transformation is not attained but received. As Orthodox Christians we do not pray for inner peace, for we know that peace has already been given to us. The revelation that Christ is our peace is affirmed at three distinct moments in the Divine Liturgy, when the priest turns to the congregation saying, “Peace be unto all.”

    Here we encounter the power of Orthodox worship: not in the inculcation of interior tranquility, but in the revelation of everyone and everything as what they truly are in Christ. Christ is the Offerer and the Offered and we are the worshiper, reclaimed for that purpose for which we were created in the beginning: union and communion with God. When we appreciate this reality offered to us in our liturgical life, then we can leave our churches and continue the liturgy in our communities, seeing the image of Christ in our neighbor.

    In a divisive and unchartered political climate, our first task as the Church must be our taking responsibility for inflicting many wounds and thereby seeing ourselves as the recipients of God’s mercy. Thus, by an ever greater appreciation for our liturgical worship we will realize that we receive this mercy in order that we may become its visible presence in the world. Only then will the Church be able to expand its mission and work towards the healing for which Fr. Jillions advocates.

    Samuel Bauer is a MTS student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

  • The Politics of Pascha

    by Fr. Aidan Kimel

    resurrection-icon

    Since November 8th, contributors to Public Orthodoxy have advanced various responses to the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Fr John Jillions proposes that the Church needs to practice a politics of communion, which includes charitable works, prophetic political witness, and renewed ascetical life. Aristotle Papanikolaou asserts that the Church needs to vigorously denounce racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric. Samuel Bauer maintains that before the Church can effectively contribute to the healing of our country, she must “seek forgiveness from the marginalized of society, the very individuals whose dignity it has at times assailed.” Each proposal has merit, but each lacks that one needful thing, the proclamation of the gospel itself. The Church has one word that she, and she alone, can speak to the world–Jesus is risen! There are many penultimate words that the Church may and must speak; but if she does not proclaim Pascha, not just one Sunday a year but every Sunday, all other prophetic and pastoral words are emptied of significance.

    Since my retirement I have heard numerous Orthodox homilies. With few exceptions, they have been horrid–poorly constructed, poorly delivered, and lacking in substance. But bad technique may be forgiven if the preacher is at least attempting to proclaim the good news. Alas that has not usually been the case. What I have heard is exhortation … to imitate Christ, obey the ten commandments, be nice to my neighbors, pray more often, confess my sins … even a lengthy harangue scolding the congregation for its failure to support the parish festival. Exhortation and more exhortation–dreary, impotent words that do not convert, do not heal, do not transform, do not deify. A few years ago I listened to an interview with Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos in which he described the kinds of sermons he heard growing up. He called them “try harder” sermons. Yes, I thought, that’s what I’m hearing now. No wonder church is so depressing. If “try harder” is the only word the pastor has to share, then it would be far better to skip the sermon and allow the Divine Liturgy itself to enact the good news of Pascha.

    Jesus is risen! This is the apostolic message that transformed the Mediterranean world. It did not refer merely to an event in the past but to an eschatological act that had made possible a radically new kind of discourse–a discourse of unconditional promise and unconquerable hope. Jesus is risen! and you are free from the bondage of sin. Jesus is risen! and you have been liberated from the power of death. Jesus is risen! and you have been freed from the law and every moralism. Jesus is risen! and your existence is good. Jesus is risen! and you may live in the hope that your deepest and truest hopes will be fulfilled. Jesus is risen! and you may embrace your very different neighbor with extravagant love. Jesus is risen! and you may share generously from your bounty. Jesus is risen! and you may dare to live the politics of the coming Kingdom. Jesus is risen!

    When was the last time you heard a truly evangelical sermon proclaimed in your parish?

    I vividly remember my first Orthodox Pascha. It was all quite glorious … but then came the homily. Instead of announcing the wondrous news of the resurrection and its implications for our lives, the pastor urged us not to celebrate excessively and to maintain niptic sobriety. He concluded his homily with a reminder that non-Orthodox were prohibited from receiving communion (this I already knew) and the Orthodox only permitted if they had kept the Holy Week fast and made their confession. My heart fell. So much for the eucharistic manifestation of the Kingdom. It was as if the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom had not been recited only an hour earlier.

    “Behold, the days are coming,” the prophet declares in the Name of the Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). We are experiencing this famine today. Many priests and congregations pride themselves on their dogmatic orthodoxy and steadfast adherence to tradition, yet the good news of Pascha remains unpreached. To these congregations–but especially to the priests who have been entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel–the terrifying condemnation of Jesus is spoken: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Exhortations and admonitions will never create the righteousness that justifies. Those who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves from their graves; they cannot pull themselves up by their Pelagian bootstraps. Only the unconditional promise, spoken in the power of Spirit and absolute Love, can bestow the new life that is repentance and faith. But if that word is never declared, where will faith be found?

    While it is tempting to think that post-election America needs a more prophetic, socially conscious Orthodoxy, I respectfully suggest that this is wrong-headed, a putting of the political cart before the evangelical ox. If Orthodox Christians are not thinking through their politics with a Christian mind, then this is probably because parish priests are not preaching the gospel and thus not creating a gospel-converted people. And if parish priests are not preaching the gospel, then that, and not something else, is the urgent task now confronting the Church.

    The good news of Pascha is the liberating news that our congregations need to hear, the news that America and the world most need to hear. Only the Church can speak it.

    Christ is risen from the dead,
    Trampling down death by death,
    And upon those in the tombs
    Bestowing life!

    Fr. Aidan Kimel is a retired priest of the Western Rite (ROCOR). He blogs regularly at Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    Please join us on Monday, February 6, 2017 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus for “Out of the Flames: Preserving the Manuscript Heritage of Endangered Syriac Christianity in the Middle East,” a lecture presented by Columba Stewart, OSB.