From the opening pages of Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), the assumption is that the lies which most threaten to engulf Christians today are those coming from the cultural and political Left. Political correctness, cancel culture, anti-racist kinds of training, gender theory, the “cult of social justice”—all treated by Dreher as comprising together a single system of lies—are what he says Christians must remain vigilant against and refuse to participate in. To help strengthen them in this resistance Dreher commends to his primarily North American readers the examples of remarkable 20th century Christian dissidents of Eastern Europe who stood up against totalitarian regimes. Some are familiar figures like Alexander Soltzenhitzyn (from whose 1974 essay addressing the Russian people comes the admonition to “live not by lies”), Václav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla. Others are less familiar, among them Croatian Jesuit priest Tomislav Poglajen Kolaković, Russian Orthodox dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, Russian Baptist pastor Yuri Sipko, and Czech Catholic mathematician and human rights activist Václav Benda. Dreher offers moving accounts of these and other heroic figures and extracts considerable wisdom from their writings and from the recollections of those he has interviewed who knew them.
It should go without saying that the current COVID-19 crisis combined with challenging social issues and a contentious political environment is a time for prayerful and meaningful pastoral guidance. We have seen many of our Orthodox hierarchs, leaders, and theologians engage with the challenging issues of our time, both with sincere and substantive reflection as well as guidance from the foundation of our faith in God and our calling to be witnesses of the Gospel.
One timely example has been the publication of For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. Within this document is the reminder that as Christians we are called to be engaged with the world in which we live—to be aware of the needs of those around us, to act in love with sacrifice, and to demonstrate the power of grace through our faith in God. Addressing engagement with some of the greatest needs in our world the authors state:
On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.
Compassion is the highest virtue! proclaims Gregory Nazianzen in a homily on illness and poverty. Embrace the sick without fear of contagion—leprosy in his case—and care for the poor, for they are Christ to you. Therefore, “Let us visit Christ, let us heal Christ, let us feed Christ, let us clothe Christ, let us welcome Christ” in the person of the poor and suffering.
He does point out that in caring for the lepers his listeners should “accept the evidence of science as well as of the doctors and nurses who look after these people,” even as he calls them to “extend a helping hand; offer food; give old clothes; provide medicine; bandage wounds; ask after them; counsel fortitude; offer encouragement; keep them company.”
The current crisis presents an extraordinary situation of medical, social, and economic need. Gregory already recognized the link between illness and poverty that is made glaringly obvious in a different way by the current pandemic. While the virus itself may infect rich and poor alike, in fact the repercussions are far greater among poorer people who cannot afford to stay away from jobs, are unable to work from home, and live in close quarters without the option of social distancing.