How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1928, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed: Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(destruction,_1931)

The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts.  The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like king Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, a worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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There Were No Heroes In Charlottesville—Only Two Resurrected Monsters

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There is no denying that Hitler and Stalin are alive today… they are waiting for us to forget, because this is what makes possible the resurrection of these two monsters. (Simon Weisenthal)

It is interesting that Weisenthal, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, mentions two men in this quote.  One of them the man responsible for his own internment and the other a man who helped to liberate him.  Seems odd, right?

The Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, played a decisive role in the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.  And yet, despite that fact, Weisenthal creates an equivalency between the two men in his quote.  How is this possible?  How can the man who played a pivotal role in defeating fascism also be regarded as a monster?

Simply put: Hitler’s evil is remembered, but the great evil represented by Stalin has been largely forgotten.

There are constant reminders about Nazi crimes against humanity in movie portrayals and museums.  Marxists, however, have escaped the same accountability for their atrocities—their mass murders remain mostly concealed behind the steel curtain, and modern adherents are good at hiding themselves in the latest social cause.

Some things to remember…

1) An Enemy of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend

Fascists and their racist contemporaries are easy to hate.  It is not popular to be a white supremacist in modern America.  Democrats have cut their ties with the Ku Klux Klan years ago, Republicans remain the party of Lincoln, and it is safe to say that most people in this country (conservative or liberal) strongly oppose Nazism.

I am, like most people in America today, opposed to racism and fascism in all their forms and therefore am opposed to rallying around those ideas.  And, while I support the right to free association and public protest, it is completely incomprehensible to me why anyone would want to unite under a banner of racial prejudice and hate.

That said, my opposition to the KKK and neo-Nazis does not equate to support for Antifa or other leftist groups that deface property and engage in violent protest as a means to advance their own hateful ideological agendas.  The events in Charlottesville, while defined by a young white supremacist plowing into a crowd, was a clash of two historical monsters and we need not pick one over the other.

Unfortunately, many people have an overly simplistic view of current events and history.  In their initial emotionally reactive (and virtue signaling) response they are willing to condemn Nazis—the cliché Hollywood villains—but not the violence of groups that hold to an ideological perspective equally divisive and dangerous.  It is probably because most people do not know what Antifa is.

Many seem to assume that since Antifa is fighting white supremacists that they are good.  Yet that fails to comprehend the reality that these left-wing extremists are a different side of the same coin.  They do not just fight against actual fascists, but elsewhere they have been initiating violence and, underneath their cowardly masks, are simply the latest iteration of Marxist thugs.

Marxism has been rebranded in many different ways—it is sold as “social justice” and “sticking up for the underdog” and anti-fascism.  Yet, despite the new sheep’s wool, it remains the same old wolf that gave a man like Stalin power to kill with impunity.  No matter where Marxism has been tried the end result is always the same—the murder of millions and the totalitarian rule of a few elites.

Yes, it is true many millions died as a result of fascism.  However, it is also true that many more millions died because of Marxist ideologies.  In fact, according to Reason.com, Marxism is the leading ideological cause of death in the past century:

The 94 million that perished in China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe easily (and tragically) trump the 28 million that died under fascist regimes during the same period.

During the century measured, more people died as a result of communism than from homicide (58 million) and genocide (30 million) put together. The combined death tolls of WWI (37 million) and WWII (66 million) exceed communism’s total by only 9 million.

Perhaps we do not oppose Marxism as strongly because those who died were foreigners?

Perhaps it is because their stories were interned and buried with them…

Whatever the case, it seems we have forgotten that those who use “fascism” as an excuse to do violence will, given power, apply the term to anyone who disagrees with them and kill them too.  Stalin may have helped defeat the Nazis, but he was not a good man himself nor are the modern promoters of Marxist ideologies who justify their own violence as anti-fascism.

Don’t be fooled by the different packaging…

2) The Next Hitler Won’t Be Another Hitler

That is the great irony here.  The next Hitler probably won’t wear a Swastika, “Seig Heil” or goose step, he will likely not be a white nationalist or foment hate against Jews.  The next Hitler could very well be a globalist, a smooth talker, pushing “tolerance” in the daylight and then letting others do violence against his/her political opponents in the dark of night.

Nazis and the KKK are less dangerous because they announce their extremism and are widely opposed.  Many Americans don’t even think they should be allowed to march and thousands show up to denounce, belittle and taunt them when they do.  But, truth be told, there is little a chance a relatively few angry white guys fighting for lost causes will gain much traction.  We already know who they are and have rejected them.

What we should be wary of is the backlash.  It is the overreaction that justifies our own evil that we should guard against.  Overreaction to one evil oftentimes leads to another and greater, more insidious, evil.  What the history books seem to have forgotten is that Nazi Germany did not arise from nowhere.  It is, in part, a consequence of onerous and unfair war reparations that led to economic collapse and desperation.

More significantly, before Hilter’s rise to power, Marxist agitators tried (and failed) to overthrow the German government in 1918-19.  It is actually that event which helped to fuel the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s (or Nazi) Party and later gave their charismatic leader an excuse to round up those whom he deemed to be a security threat and eliminate them.

What’s more troublesome to me (than the violent extremists themselves) is political opportunists who take advantage of tragic circumstances and use the raw emotion of the moment to advance an authoritarian agenda and curtail freedoms. We need voices of calm and reason, those who do not excuse violence against anyone (including violence against their own ideological enemies) or we risk going the way of Nazi Germany ourselves.

I can still recall how my guarded optimism about President Obama ended abruptly when he refused to correct those who used the epithet “racist” to silence those who opposed his policy agenda.  He decided to look the other way rather than be the leader of all Americans and speak up for those misrepresented.  It encouraged polarization, it ended the reasonable conversation and is probably how we ended up with Trump several years later.

Antifa isn’t only attacking people we would regard to be fascists either.  A week later, in Boston, they were attacking police officers protecting free speech—that a day after six officers were shot and a young woman killed seemingly at random.  Those who don’t see the problem with a bunch of anonymous hoodlums running around playing judge, retaliating against anyone they construe to be fascist, are at best naive and enablers at worse.  We need to stand opposed to the Marxist extreme as much as we oppose fascism or we are inviting an escalation.

Violence leads to violent backlash.  Not addressing the violence of Marxist agitators—especially glorifying their violence and treating them as heroes—could have terrible unintended consequences.  It could lead to something worse than the evil we see.  Lest we forget, both Nazis and Klansmen were also once enabled by a sympathetic public that saw their cause as righteous and justified.

Let’s see, hooded vigilantes, breaking windows, dehumanizing and terrorizing anyone who opposed them, sanctioned by the Democrats, approved by Christians—where have we seen this before… 

Nah, nevermind, what could possibly go wrong?

3) Hate Is Not Overcome By More Hate

We should oppose racism, condemn all racial supremacy movements and warn against all ideological extremism.  But what we should never do is use the hatred of other people as an excuse for our own.  The answer to hate is not to hate the hateful.  We can and should oppose bigotry—and also oppose violence against those labeled (correctly or incorrectly) as bigots.

Hate is not solved through shouting slogans or protest. What happened in Charlottesville has accomplished nothing besides the death of one woman and will only serve to further divide our nation if we let it.

Racial purity or ideological purity movements, especially those who pursue the elimination of competing perspectives through brute force rather than logic or reason, should be rejected rather than joined or justified.  It is hypocritical to denounce the hatred and violence of Nazis and then totally ignore that of Marxists.  Instead, we should choose “other” which means to reject the ideologies and loving those on both sides.

There is a Yiddish proverb, “If someone throws stones at you, throw bread back,” which basically means to overcome evil with good, and that applies as much today as it ever did.

The problem is our assumptions about those who throw stones.  When we assume they are irredeemable we can easily justify our own evil in response and throw stones back.  But, when we see our adversaries as human, as a person influenced by circumstances, worthy of a little love and respect, then there is the chance of redemption.

That is not to say we should stand idly by or oppose the punishment of evildoers—police are responsible to reign in the violence and we should not stand in the way.  However, that does mean our part is to do good:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14‭-‬21)

If you think a racist white nationalist is beyond hope, then think again.  There are several accounts of courageous men, like Daryl Davis, taking the gracious approach against their enemies (as described in the passage from Romans above) and convincing them to repent of their hate.  At very least, even if the effort fails, we have not been overcome by evil.  Hate never wins when we refuse to hate those who hate us.

Don’t choose one evil over the other.  When asked to pick a side, don’t choose “the lesser of two evils” (as those who are sympathetic to one side or the other will urge you to do) and instead reject both extremes—choose “none of the above” and choose love for all people.

Marxism was and remains an evil alternative to fascism.  When two ideological monsters resurrect themselves in modern form we do not need to pick one or the other.  When far-right clashes with the far left we should always choose against both extremes.  We should fight against extremist ideologies, not people. We should resist with love rather than try to fight hate with hate.

Ignore the many different justifications from the partisans.  Hate and violence, all hate and violence, springs from the same evil well.