St. Luke’s account of Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree (19:1-10) is a story rich in spiritual reflection; preachers and Bible-readers, coming from a variety of backgrounds, have explored the narrative unto great profit for the education of the soul.
A certain liturgical use of the text is particularly instructive; namely, the story of Zacchaeus has long been read in the dedicatory service of a new church building. This liturgical custom—warranted by Jesus’ assertion,
Today, I must stay at your house
indicates a symbolism: The home of Zacchaeus represents the consecrated places where Christians gather to meet, worship, and commune with Jesus.
Harvesting apples for Calvados in France
There is an irony here: Even as we insist that Jesus preached the Gospel to the poor, he sometimes did so in the homes of wealthy. The reason was very simple: the wealthy had larger homes; a greater number of people could actually assemble there. (Some folks, doubtless, will be offended by this consideration, but let me mention that the first complaint on the point was made at the time-Luke 19:7).
This consideration of wealth is pertinent to the custom of reading the story of Zacchaeus when a church building is consecrated. It is a tacit admission that the construction of a church building absolutely requires a significant accumulation of wealth. (more…)
On the Observer blog (and picked up on Catholic Online), Antiochian Orthodox priest Fr. Hans Jacobse predicts that the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling will, “by the middle of the next generation” lead those who worked for this program — or ignored the threat — to be “cursed” by their own children. “The children will weep by the waters of Babylon, unearthing old movies and books of an America they never knew,” Jacobse writes.
Antonio Gramsci, that great architect of the coming oppression was a shrewd man. He understood that the overthrow of the great liberal tradition would be a journey that would take generations. It would require a long march through the cultural institutions, overthrowing line by line and precept by precept those bedrock moral values upon which the freedom of men was first defined and later codified into law. Today the children of the great people of the Magna Carta, of English Common Law, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution worship instead pleasure, safety, and wealth.
The God of Abraham has been forgotten, the same God who freed Abraham from the delusion of polytheism and the Israelite from the tyranny of Egypt, who gave man a Gospel from which insights into the nature and dignity man was drawn, and whose teachings unleashed a creativity that brought healing and light into a world in ways that would astonish the prophets and philosophers of old. And in that forgetting, we embrace a darkness the depth of which most of us do not yet perceive.
On the Observer blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I look at the non-reaction of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America to the recent Obama administration mandate that forces most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs free of charge. More specifics here. The Assembly of Bishops, charged with the “common witness” for Orthodox Christians in America, was also missing in action during the 2012 March for Life.
Towards the conclusion of this article, I say:
… we can’t dismiss this problem by saying that the Orthodox, broadly speaking, don’t get institutionally involved in politics. Far from it. How else can you explain the churches’ long membership in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, Protestant-dominated bodies that exist to put a patina of theological legitimacy on leftist economic and political ideologies?
Patriarch Bartholomew is all too ready to talk about how the Church invented hospitals more than 1,600 years ago, as he did in a 2009 speech sponsored by the Center for American Progress and Georgetown University in Washington. He even noted that these Byzantine hospitals were “public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good.” Although the patriarch stopped short of backing the Obama administration’s health care initiative before this liberal/progressive audience, he endorsed the notion that “every member of society, from the greatest to the least” deserves the best quality healthcare.
But Patriarch Bartholomew and his lobbyists are nowhere to be found when 21st Century American hospitals are feeling the heat from an administration trampling on conscience protections. We’re talking about hundreds of hospitals founded by Catholics, Jews and Protestants and serving people in real need — today and not in some idealized forever-gone past.
In stark contract to the Orthodox bishops, some 135 Roman Catholic bishops in the United States — and counting — have spoken out on this mandate.
Reflecting on the state of Russian philosophy among the intelligentsia of his day (the sectarian, Russian intellectuals “artificially isolated from national life”), Nikolai Berdiaev wrote in 1909,
There seemed every reason to acknowledge Vladimir Solov’ev as our national philosopher and to create a national philosophical tradition around him…. The philosophy of any European country could take pride in a Solov’ev.
That, however, was not the case. Why not? Berdiaev continues,
But the Russian intelligentsia neither read him nor knew him and did not regard him as one of their own. Solov’ev’s philosophy is profound and original, but it does not substantiate socialism. It is alien to both Populism and Marxism and cannot conveniently be turned into a weapon for the struggle against autocracy. Therefore, he did not furnish the intelligentsia with a suitable “world-view”….
The life and thought of Vladimir Solovyov are not easy to simply and accurately assess, but one thing is certain: as Berdiaev notes, “Solov’ev’s philosophy… does not substantiate socialism.”
The thought world of Solovyov’s Russia, especially among the upper class of society, contained extremes of atheistic materialism which he set himself against in much of his work, finding favor and criticism in nearly all sectors of Russian society.
He was a man of strong moral and spiritual conviction, and as a consequence, he believed socialism to be “an antithesis” to the Christian faith, writing against it with biting criticism that the Marxist intelligentsia of his day, and afterward, simply could not bear.
Statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation October 29, 2011 Washington, DC The Plight of Churches in the Middle East
The “Arab Spring” is unleashing forces that are having a devastating effect on the Christian communities of the Middle East. Our Churches in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine report disturbing developments such as destruction of churches and massacres of innocent civilians that cause us grave concern. Many of our church leaders are calling Christians and all people of good will to stand in solidarity with the members of these ancient indigenous communities. In unity with them and each other, we the members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, gathered October 27-29, 2011, add our voice to their call.
We are concerned for our fellow Christians who, in the face of daunting challenges, struggle to maintain a necessary witness to Christ in their homelands. United with them in prayer and solidarity, we ask our fellow Christians living in the West to take time to develop a more realistic appreciation of their predicament. We ask our political leaders to exert more pressure where it can protect these Churches, many of which have survived centuries of hardship but now stand on the verge of disappearing completely.
When one part of the body suffers, all suffer (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26). As Christians in the West, we therefore have the vital responsibility to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters who live in fear for their lives and communities at this moment. As Orthodox and Catholic Christians we share this responsibility and this concern together.
Copts are protesting government foot-dragging in the investigation of the Oct. 9 Maspero massacre that killed more than two dozen protesters. Al Ahram reports that Copts are still grieving and many “cannot get past the nightmare of 9 October’s carnage, or the fear of further attacks on churches.” Nadia, a Copt woman who was interviewed by the newspaper as she entered Mar Girgis Church in Heliopolis, fears for her family:
For me, the question is not one of opening closed churches or giving us license to build more churches; the question is rather that when I go to pray on Sundays I cannot but think would there be an attack on the church when I am there with my kids.
On The Hill newspaper, Dina Guirguis points to “mounting pressure in the last four decades” directed at the Coptic community, which represents 10 percent of Egypt’s population. This year the attacks have taken a terrible toll:
… in 2011 alone, before the Maspero massacre, Copts had been the target of 33 sectarian attacks, 12 of which involved an attack on a church, leaving a total of 49 dead. Counting the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve, which added an additional 23 casualties, the death toll rose to 72, with dozens injured and a number of Christian homes and properties burned down. After Maspero, the death toll of Egypt’s sectarian violence rises to 97, with over 400 injured–and immeasurable psychological damage.
For years, rights groups have decried the Egyptian state’s complicity in the growing sectarianism targeting Egypt’s vulnerable religious minorities, but had held hopes high after Egypt’s peaceful revolution that had toppled a brutal dictator of 30 years. Now, the self-proclaimed “guardians of that revolution,” Egypt’s military rulers—SCAF—have extinguished hopes for genuine equality for all of Egypt’s “children” by itself undertaking this heinous massacre in cold blood, and scheming a cover up that would make Mubarak proud, indicating that the repressive ways of the past are alive and well in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Here’s an interview with a UK-based Coptic bishop, recorded last month:
Julia Duin, a veteran religion reporter, has written a profile of the embattled leader of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Jonah, for the Washington Post weekend edition. She does an admirable and fair job of not only telling us about this American-born bishop but explaining why his short tenure has sparked so much controversy within the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. (Let me bring to your attention, right away, that Jonah is our plenary speaker on June 16 at Acton University.)
The metropolitan’s outspoken stances on issues like marriage and abortion, and his desire to operate from a base in Washington, has sparked a palace revolt in the OCA. As Duin puts it:
Jonah’s move to Washington strikes at the core of the traditional Eastern Orthodox reluctance to be on the front lines of the culture wars, much less political conflicts. The religion’s 1 million American adherents, who remain split into 20 separate ethnic groups, are more likely known to the general public as sponsors of bazaars featuring Slavic or Mediterranean food, crafts and dancing than as societal firebrands.
“Orthodox Christianity tends to be heavily theological and more concerned with matters of doctrine, liturgy and belief than evangelical Protestants and certainly the conservative Christian right,” said Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a senior fellow at the Utah-based Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. “They’re wrestling with how to find this balance between Christianity and activism, which makes it difficult for them to speak with a unified voice on social policy and foreign affairs.”
But Jonah sees American Orthodoxy at a crossroads where the choice is either to remain in ethnic enclaves and be irrelevant or jump into the stream of culture and politics and make a difference. He dreams of Orthodox Americans speaking out “as a conscience for the culture.” They would have clout in Congress, advocating for persecuted Orthodox around the world, such as the Egyptian Copts. They would stand equal with evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning and euthanasia.
Fr. Gregory Jensen, a writer for Acton News & Commentary and contributor to this blog, says the battle that Jonah is waging goes beyond polemics on “hot button” issues. On his Koinonia blog, Fr. Gregory says the real fight is whether or not the Orthodox Church will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square. I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly.
Especially in the historical centers of American Orthodox experience, what is unique to the person or the parish has often been minimized if not ignored and even rejected. Our managerial approach to Church polity has historically often confused communion with conformity and consensus with capitulation to the group. And it has done so to the detriment of the individual believer (clergy AND laity), parish and diocese. To those who have become conditioned to think of Church life as a zero sum game (which more often than not means “I” lose and “they” win) an entrepreneurial approach, that is to say an unapologetic evangelical approach that embraces an explicit proclamation of the Gospel in the public square, would be terrifying. We are wrong when we think that new people, new ideas, can only come at our expense.
So I’m clear, this fear is understandable but wrong and based in a Satanic lie and must not be allowed to take hold in our hearts, in our parishes or our dioceses.
Yes, there is a power struggle in the OCA and really in all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I would even suggest that this conflict is being played out internationally among all the Orthodox Churches and it is happening for the same reasons we see it in America—we’ve adopted an implicit zero sum model of Church that confuses position with self-aggrandizement. But in Christ power, ecclesiastical or civil, is always in the service of others and His promise to us is that we will spread to the ends of the earth and always overcome the powers of sin and death.
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.
If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).
The Acton Institute released a new short video to mark Religious Freedom Day. The proclamation from President George W. Bush points to religious freedom as a fundamental right of Americans and, indeed, people of faith all over the world.
Religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society. On Religious Freedom Day, we recognize the importance of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. We also celebrate the first liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which guarantee the free exercise of religion for all Americans and prohibit an establishment of religion.
Our Nation was founded by people seeking haven from religious persecution, and the religious liberty they found here remains one of this land’s greatest blessings. As Americans, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Though we may profess different creeds and worship in different manners and places, we respect each other’s humanity and expression of faith. People with diverse views can practice their faiths here while living together in peace and harmony, carrying on our Nation’s noble tradition of religious freedom.
The United States also stands with religious dissidents and believers from around the globe who practice their faith peacefully. Freedom is not a grant of government or a right for Americans alone; it is the birthright of every man, woman, and child throughout the world. No human freedom is more fundamental than the right to worship in accordance with one’s conscience.
More on religious freedom from the Acton Institute:
Vladimir Berezansky, Jr., a U.S. lawyer with experience in Russia and former Soviet republics, recalls an interview with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in 1991. Like many Russians at the time, the Patriarch was coping with a “disorienting change” following the fall of the Soviet Emprie, Berezansky writes.
At the time, he seemed overcome by the changes taking place around him, and he did not know where to begin.
“For our entire lives, we [clerics] were pariahs, and now we are being called on to do everything: chaplains for the military, ministries to hospitals, orphanages, prisons,” he said.
He even voiced regret about taking the time to travel to the United States. But he had gambled — correctly, as it turned out — that he could do more for his flock by seeking foreign assistance than by staying home to manage the Russian Orthodox Church’s destitution. His plate was full and overflowing, and he seemed keenly aware of the ironies of his situation. The Russian state was returning desecrated, gutted, largely useless ecclesiastical structures to the Orthodox church — a gesture at once desperate, empty and to some degree remorseful.
Berezansky then points to the Patriarch’s rapid rise through the Church hierarchy:
During and after the chaos of World War II, he probably could have emigrated and been numbered among the millions of so-called “Second Wave” exiles from Soviet Russia. But he chose to remain and to serve his church and people in circumstances that could not fail to compromise his own reputation.
“Our choices were cooperation or annihilation,” he told me in 1991.
And like so many other religious and cultural leaders of his generation, he repeatedly expressed regret and remorse for having accepted that Faustian bargain. Even today we continue to learn of the choices of conscience made by the famous names of that generation, including Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass and Czech novelist Milan Kundera.
Patriarch Alexy’s legacy will undoubtedly include two elements that have been assessed negatively, and one major — indeed, overarching — achievement. In inter-church relations, his refusal to meet Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, was seen as churlish. Whether welcome or not, the patriarch’s position was that specific issues of contention between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches needed to be ameliorated before any “photo op” could take place. But he consistently referred to Roman Catholicism as a “sister” church.
Candles flickered and white-robed elders chanted prayers as the country bade farewell Tuesday to Patriarch Alexy II, who guided the country’s dominant Russian Orthodox Church through its remarkable recovery after decades of Communist-era repression.
Nuns, believers and government officials looked on as prayers filled the soaring Christ the Savior Cathedral at a six-hour funeral service for Alexy, who died Friday at age 79. He was buried later Tuesday at the Epiphany Cathedral across town in a ceremony closed to the public and media, the church said …
“We are burying a great man, a great son of our nation, a beautiful holy fruit grown by our Russian church,” Reverend Dmitry Smirnov, a Moscow archpriest, said in an address at the funeral, which was broadcast live on state-run television. “Our whole nation has been orphaned.”
The BBC has a clip from the very moving funeral service here.
I published an Acton commentary today on the Russian Church:
With the death last week of Patriarch Alexy II, Russian Orthodox Christians lost their first “post-Soviet” leader. The patriarch presided over the resurrection of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, a faith community that had been targeted for annihilation by communist regimes that would brook no rival to their own promises of salvation through “world revolution.”
While Alexy led the Church out of the rubble of the Soviet Union, his own history has been clouded with allegations that he worked with the secret police — was even decorated by them. In this, his career reflects the recent history of the Church, which after the first vicious period of persecution was openly criticized by many Russians for being too pliable, too accommodationist with its old adversaries in the Kremlin. In some cases, critics said, the Church had even assisted the authorities in the suppression of believers and their communities.
When its Holy Synod meets next month to choose a new patriarch, the Russian Church will have an opportunity to come to grips with this past, and with other questions: nationalism, the status of minority ethnic and religious groups, secularization and consumerist materialism. Will the new patriarch lead the Church into a future of growth and spiritual renewal, or will he strike another “Faustian bargain” with autocratic leaders?