When a recent coffee hour conversation turned, unexpectedly, to politics and what if anything the Church has to say about public issues and then all of the “God talk” in the current presidential contest, a friend said, “Oh, that’s politics. The Orthodox Church shouldn’t get involved in politics. Nothing good can come of it.”
Well, yes and no.
If we’re talking about partisan politics then yes, of course, the Church must stay out of it. The Church was not founded to endorse candidates for office or advance a political ideology. But if we’re talking about the political dimensions of important moral issues, then yes, of course, the Church may quite properly speak to these. Did we notice that there is something going on in California about marriage? Were political institutions involved? Do we recall the 2003 Statement on Moral Crisis on Our Nation issued by SCOBA?
I wonder if some Orthodox Christians wish that the faith could somehow remain removed from politics and other worldly issues. That it stand apart, a walled-off sphere of piety that you visit for a couple hours a week as if you were visiting some sort of Museum of Religion. To be clear about it, the Church does not exist to issue opinions about every political or policy question under the sun, nor is it competent to do so. But on significant moral questions, it’s voice must be heard. Does that drag the Body of Christ into the mud of politics? Here’s a better way to ask the question: Is abortion a political issue? (Remember something called Roe v. Wade?) How about war, or poverty, or the death penalty, or business ethics, or pornography, or the morality of popular culture. Any of these affected by politics?
I have a theory, or really just a hunch, about the reticence among some Orthodox Christians to discuss political or policy issues through the lens of Church teaching. Maybe it’s because these discussions will lead to conclusions and positions that look a lot like those of other conservative Christian groups. Dare I say it? The Christian Right. Wouldn’t that throw the Orthodox in with the wrong sort of conservatives? What would our progressive co-members at the National Council of Churches say to such an unvarnished display of conservative sentiment? Where is the nuance!
In his “455 Questions and Answers” book, published by Light & Life in 1987, Fr. Stanley Harakas took on the subject of the Moral Majority, and the lack of support among Orthodox Christians for its programs. But, paradoxically, he also pointed out how many of its moral positions on issues were consistent with the moral tradition of Orthodoxy. A clear divergence, however, was the Moral Majority’s uncritical support for Israel, something that Fr. Stanley said is opposed by many Greek, Lebanese and Arab Orthodox Christians.
He concludes his observation with this:
The main point I have tried to make is that I think that it is time we Orthodox Christians formed our own organization to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I would very much like to hear from priests and lay people about this idea.
Well, Fr. Stanley, your wish has come true. The American Orthodox Institute was founded “to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective.”
Olivier Clement, in an essay published in 1973, warns us against an “orientalized” or ritualistic conception of the Church:
The Orthodox Church again is by no means a museum of the first thousand years of Christianity. The dimension of fatherhood, so strong in Orthodoxy (which, thank God, frees it from any evolutionist idea of Tradition) may tempt her to think that the Fathers have said everything and that is only remains to repeat them. This doubtless explains the excessive confidence of some prelates for whom truth is an object possessed. But Father Florovsky reminded us, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of Palamas, that the notion of ‘father’ is not at all limited to the period called ‘Patristic,’ that Saint Gregory Palamas was a ‘Church Father’ in the fourteenth century, and The Fathers beget us in the faith that we in our turn might become fathers, that is free creators, in the continuity of the same Spirit. The word of the Fathers is a logos spermatikos: it does not crush, it fertilizes.
You fertilize things that are alive and growing. You do not fertizile things that are dead or petrified. And if the Tradition is to make sense to us in the here and now, we must till the soil and plant the seeds of a living faith. It is a big garden. It is not a museum.
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