The Story We Tell

The stories we tell ourselves have the power to shape what we see and even what we believe possible. In our society one of the most deeply embedded and powerful stories is the story of progress.  Broadly speaking, many Americans believe that, as a society, we are progressing. That is, in many ways – economics, social relations, health, etc. – things are better than they were before. Naturally, there are also many who insist that, at this moment, we are not better off but worse. An example of this would be someone who insists that things were moving in the right direction when Ronald Reagan was president and have been going down hill in the 30 years since. This group denies progress at the moment but accepts the concept on the whole. In other words, those who believe we are currently progressing and those who believe we are currently regressing equally operate with the assumption that society is (or would be if x was different) moving forward.

The story of social and cultural progress is usually told as a sort of historical narrative in which progress is the theme connecting the various historical touchstones. The Magna Carta is the newborn gasp of progress, freed from the womb of a wretched, stultified old order; the Renaissance hails progress’s puberty; the enlightenment is the man-child progress coming-of-age; and the technological and social changes of the 20th-21st centuries represent progress’ further maturation toward the full flower of inclusion, equality, tolerance, and freedom. This story is very appealing. It also happens to be false.  Or false enough to be useless at any rate.

There are four fatal problems with the story of progress.

  1. It is a profoundly first-world story. It is certainly true that in specific ways we in the first-world have experienced progress. Healthcare is better than it was 100 years ago; technology affords us access to more knowledge and facilitates broader communication than has been available at any time before; and individual liberty and tolerance for different modes of life is the norm in most first-world nations. However, little or none of this applies to most of the people living on the continents of Africa or Asia. That is, this story is not true for most of the people living in the world. So when we speak about progress what we are really talking about is progress for us. 
  2. But even this narrower definition of progress is untenable. This leads us to the second flaw in the story of progress; namely, that it is a dramatic oversimplification. Whether we are talking about technological or social change, we can only speak of it as “progress” if we filter out the all the ambiguities and problems that tend to rub the shiny off the story. For example, if one is using the internet as an example of progress one will focus on knowledge sharing, crowdsourcing, and other examples of how the internet has changed the world for good. In such an example one will ignore completely the fact that internet has spawned the darknet and facilitated an otherwise incomprehensible growth in sex-trafficking and other horrors we do not care to imagine. Both stories are equally true but including the nasty part makes it sound less like progress and more like mere change.  Further, the sad fact is that very often our “progress” comes at the expense of others. Racial slavery represented an astounding step up in the quality of life of many Europeans and from their vantage point I am sure things seemed to be looking up. In our own time many of the goods we purchase so affordably, including our most beloved technological gadgets, come from wage-slave sweatshops in Asia or support conglomerates that make money through various forms of human and environmental exploitation. This is not progress in any social or moral sense. It is simply change – better in some ways, worse in others. But it is the kind of change wherein the consequences are placed carefully out of sight and thus out of mind. It is this more than anything else that most enables our illusion of progress. We are not obliged, most of the time, to face the negative consequences our society’s appetites. They remain neatly tucked away in another part of the world, in a womb, or another part of town, and we are free to imagine that we humming happily into a brighter future.
  3. The third problem with the myth of progress, aside from its being untrue, is that it dooms us to a conflict oriented social environment. If society is progressing, or should be, then progress itself, embodied by certain goals or policies, is the fundamental “good” of society. Those who are committed to progress, whatever it happens to be, are “on the right side of history” while those who oppose progress are their generation’s Dodo bird, doomed for the evolutionary garbage heap. As in Robespierre’s French Republic, the continued evolution of human society can be secured if only x person or group is got out of the way – sometimes with a little help. This kind of thinking has ended badly so many times in recent history that it might justly be used as a demonstration of group insanity.
  4. The fourth, and perhaps most visceral, problem with progress is its insatiable nature. If progress is the fundamental good of society then society must always be progressing. We must be in a never-ending state of progressive reformation. There can be no rest, no homeplace free from the righteous urgency of the moment. Progress marches to a relentless and pitiless drum.

To sum up, progress is a privileged illusion. it’s the computer generated pin-up girl of the idea world; a pretty but unreal and unsatisfying story we tell ourselves about the way things are. But if we reject the idea of progress what do we replace it with? That is a question for another day. Stay tuned!


You keep saying that word…?

I was having a conversation with a young man. We were discussing philosophy, specifically his philosophy. He was describing his views to me in a beautiful flow of language. When he came to a stopping place I asked him what he meant by certain words he had used. He paused and said, “I don’t really know.” The reading he had done that formed the basis of his thoughts had had a powerful, evocative effect but had conveyed little conceptual clarity or content to his mind. This is common. Professionals use jargon all the time and while it serves as a useful shorthand it can also be a convenient mask for, or even enable, a lack of real, concrete understanding. Evocative language is not itself the problem. We use language in a variety of different ways – what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “language games” – and the way language functions in each of these games is different. For instance, an inside joke can be evoked in all its power simply by means of a certain gesture, word, or phrase. So too with poetry. When Adele says that in her fury toward her ex she has “set fire to the rain” she is speaking evocatively. The problem with evocation comes when we employ it, as did my young friend, in a language game it isn’t meant for.

A perfect example of this kind of mistaken application is a political speech. A campaigning politician will use evocative words and phrases that convey the desired impression – freedom, dignity, fiscal responsibility, etc. –  without describing in any meaningful way what he or she actually intends to do. In cases like this the misuse is intentional and therefore, manipulative. Sadly, this kind of misuse of language sometimes makes its way into theological and spiritual conversations as well. It is especially popular (and useful!) for people who want to see a change of doctrine or practice that they know will be unpopular or contrary to what is currently believed. For example, if someone wanted to change the Orthodox Church’s understanding of human sexual relationships the way to do that would not be to come right out and say that such a change should be made. The way to do it would be to carefully wrap the suggestion in familiar and trusted evocations – dying and rising with Christ, eucharist, eschatology, resurrection, golgotha etc.. These words and phrases evoke a scriptural and patristic content that is familiar and trusted, and this allows the intended thesis to pass unobserved into the mind of the reader. In such a scenario success depends on the reader never stopping to think about the content of the evocations or ask whether that content is consonant with the impressions or ideas he or she is receiving. If the reader stops to do that the illusion will be broken and they will see that what’s in front of them is not an image of the King of Glory but a fox dressed up in His clothes.

Does Israel Really Care About Palestinians?

A friend of mine sent me this timeline of recent events in Israel and Gaza and I offer it to you along with the following question: Does it seem to you that Israel really cares about the Palestinian people, Christian or Muslim, or achieving a two-state solution?

– On April 23, Hamas and Fateh agreed on a unity government in order to mend inter-factional ties and strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. According to Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti at the time, the deal would “end to the division between the Palestinian people… Palestinians are in a unified camp, and Israel cannot claim that Palestinians cannot negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians” (CNN, April 23).
– The Hamas-Fateh unity government was set to “recognize Israel and renounce violence, meeting the conditions set by the ‘Quartet’ of Middle East peacemakers” (NYT, April 24). According to senior Fateh official Jibril Rajoub, “The government of national consent that will be established, headed by Abu Mazen, will declare clearly and unequivocally that it accepts the Quartet’s conditions” (NYT April 24).
– The Israeli government reacted by instantly suspending negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated at the time that, “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace” and that the unity agreement “is the direct continuation of the Palestinians’ refusal to advance the negotiations.” (NYT, April 24)
– On the day of the announcement of the Hamas-Fateh unity agreement, Israel conducted an airstrike in northern Gaza that injured 12 people, including children and teenagers, referring to it as a “counter-terror operation, but provided no other details” (CNN, April 23). Hamas did not retaliate.
–Hamas did not kill the three Israeli teenagers on June 12 (The Jewish Daily Forward, July 10, NY Magazine, July 25). Salah al-Arouri, who claimed responsibility for the murders, is linked to the Hebron branch of Hamas, rather than the leadership in exile and in Gaza (Washinton Post, July 10). The Hebron branch of Hamas, run by the Qawasmeh tribe, has repeatedly gone rogue in order to undermine peace efforts by the leadership. “Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the [Qawasmeh] family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste. If there is a single family throughout the PA territories whose actions can be blamed for Israel’s assassination of the political leadership of Hamas, it is the Qawasmeh family of Hebron” (Al Monitor, June 29)
– The Israeli government knew that the boys were dead from the beginning (Jerusalem Post, July 2, The Jewish Daily Forward, July 10).
– On June 15, despite this knowledge, “the IDF confirmed that Hamas terrorists were responsible for last week’s abduction” and began “working around the clock, on all fronts, to find Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel…” (IDFBlog, June 17).
– Also on June 15, Netanyahu drew a direct connection between the motives for the kidnapping and the Hamas-Fateh unity talks: “Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact… The dangers of that pact should now be abundantly clear to all” (NYT, June 15).
– In the ensuing quest to “bring the boys home”—Operation Brothers’ Keeper—Israel proceeded to arrest around 800 Palestinians without charge or trial, kill nine civilians, raid almost 1,300 residential, commercial and public buildings, and target Hamas members released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap (The Nation, July 25).
– According to Israeli security officials, Hamas’ rocket volley from Gaza on June 30 was the first time the group had shot rockets into Israel since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. (The Times of Israel, June 30). It came after two weeks of efforts by Israel to cripple Hamas during Operation Brother’s Keeper.
– Israeli security sources had previously attested to Hamas’ aggressive anti-rocket efforts, including the establishment in 2013 of a police unit in Gaza dedicated to stopping rocket attacks (International Crisis Group, MEB39, July 14).
– Israeli officials had conceded that, prior to June 30, “smaller groups, such as Islamic Jihad, are usually behind the rocket attacks, while Hamas squads generally attempt to thwart the rocket fire” (The Times of Israel, June 30).

The Invincible Weapon of Peace

We live in a world mutilated by violence. Indeed, at this particular historical moment it seems the world is engulfed in the flames of it. The thunder of anguish and indignation rides on the shockwaves of bombs and fills the world with disturbing echoes of death, misery, and recrimination. In the din of so much bitterness calls for peace seem to have no power. Does this mean that peace is unattainable and naive? As Christians called to reconcile the world to God we cannot accept such a cynical answer. But how can the balm of peace overcome the maelstrom of violence sweeping us away? The answer is the cross. But before we unpack that answer the question needs to be refined. Because we have access to a global perspective we tend to think in global terms, “how can we achieve peace around the world?” But if you ask the question this way you’ll end up with a faulty notion of peace as well as a faulty answer. Political solutions can certainly put an end to wars but the fact that people are not shooting each other in the street or running one another out of town doesn’t mean there is peace. It means there isn’t war. If what we Christians mean when we say we desire peace is that we do not want war then we need look no further than diplomacy for the answer to our hopes. Otto von Bismarck, no saint, successfully kept Europe at “not war” in spite of itself for more than 30 years. Peace however is something much more than “not war” and harder to achieve.
What is peace? Peace is a state of being defined by inner freedom. A person who lives in peace is not dominated in his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors by outside influences of either demonic or human origin. A peaceful person has an inner stability and strength that is more powerful than hatred or desire. Such a person may certainly be manipulated physically; others may kill or wound his body, but they cannot alter the condition of his soul and therefore cannot change what he is. Such a state of being is not something gained by diplomacy, which only controls external factors. It is a gift of God and the cross is the means by which we gain this gift. How this works is revealed in one of the stichera hymns for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and life-giving Cross.
The stichera speaks of the cross as an “invincible weapon of peace.” So much is packed into those four words. Notice first, that this weapon is invincible. It cannot be defeated, not even by the devil. Second, consider the paradox at work here. The cross is spoken of as a weapon but the one who carries it is not going out to slay but to be slain. This means the weapon is not aimed outward, at the world, but self-ward. This further implies that the enemy is not “out there” but “in here.” St. Paul confirms this when he tells the Ephesians that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against… [demonic] spiritual forces of evil.” (Eph. 6:12) These demonic forces manipulate our thoughts, attitudes, feelings, desires, memories, etc., in such a way as to provoke us into doing evil in the world which is what they desire because they are opposed to God and want to unmake everything He has made. Demons are the cause of war. The only way to battle and defeat these demonic powers is to voluntarily crucify in ourselves the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). How do we crucify these things? Self-denial. When you want to throw angry words at someone who hurts you but refuse to allow yourself to do it you are crucifying your desire for revenge, which is rooted in self-love. When a sexually stimulating image catches your eye and you turn away instead of looking again you are crucifying your lust. When you resist the temptation to speak or think ill of others you are defeating self-righteousness and vainglory. The more you deploy the weapon of the cross against your own sinful inclinations the less power demonic forces have over you and the more room there is in your heart for the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit living in us that makes us free; free from the power of sin and the devil, and therefore free not only not to hurt others but to heal them with the love of God. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace [the Holy Spirit] and a thousand around you will be saved.”

Tortoise Christians

One of the most powerful witnesses to Orthodox Faith is the witness of the saints. When a person discovers that golden chain of spiritual experience and wisdom reaching across the centuries from the Apostles to our own time it can be an epiphany. For Americans it can also be treacherous. Why? Because we grow up in a society designed by and for consumption. Everything about our daily experience of the world, from economic policy to the chicken sandwich, is marinated in the principles of consumer psychology and behavior. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of being influenced by these assumptions. Like department store music they hum along unobtrusively in the background of our daily life. But they do represent a serious challenge for converts to Orthodox Christianity. How so?

When Americans convert to Orthodoxy we are conditioned to think of the change as a sort of purchase. Thinking this way, we remain at the center of our own spiritual narrative. Our new-found faith becomes a means – a set of tools or techniques – by which to advance that narrative and the saints become catalogue models stoking the fires of our self-centered spiritual ambitions. Left unchecked this way of thinking leads inevitably to disappointment and desertion. When a person discovers that their shiny new Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver the promised spiritual awesomeness in 10 easy lessons he or she simply moves on to something else and the real, transformative power of the faith of the Saints is left undiscovered.

What can we do about this?  We certainly cannot change our society and, for the most part, we cannot change our own consumer way of being, at least not right away. But we can recognize it and intentionally adjust our behavior to account for this deficiency. What we need is humility and one way of acquiring it is to become Tortoise Christians. What is this beast? A Tortoise Christian is a distance runner. He may not win any awards for style or speed but he is in it for the long haul. A Tortoise Christian has a habit of daily faithfulness that undermines the negative influence of his own spiritual ambition. He says his prayers, watches his thoughts and words, does his work honorably, and goes to church. This should be us! It can be us! And if we do this, we will still be in the race long after the rabbits have forgotten where they were going.

Brass Tacks

This morning I have been reading a longish article on the epistemology of Michael Polyani, a renowned 20th century scientist and philosopher. I enjoy philosophy a lot. I find it stimulating, and this article was no exception. But I confess I also had a motivation for reading other than intellectual and spiritual gain. I was avoiding something. In fairness, the thing I was avoiding wasn’t one of my responsibilities except in the sense that John Donne would understand what constitutes my responsibility:

No man is an island. Every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. 

What I was avoiding was the latest update from a family who’s 5 year old son is dying of cancer. I was avoiding it because I find it hard to function for the rest of a day when I must face this kind of grief whether in person as the priest of a community or virtually through the vast network of acquaintances Facebook provides. When it comes to suffering children I don’t do detached very well. That’s probably a flaw in my pastoral skills but I’m sure it’s not the only one. Anyway, I finally faced my weakness and read what I did not want to read; contemplated what I did not want to think about. What I am left with is this truth that we who are Christians are expected to keep with us at all times. We live in a beautiful wreck of a world; a paradise with monsters in it. All the sweetness of life is mixed with bitterness. Nothing here lasts. This is the brass tacks, the most basic thing. We can escape into pleasure, or thought, or work, in order to forget but the wheels of time and entropy will grind on and we will be grist in the gears. It is only when we face this reality that we can become Christian. It isn’t until we realize that the universe, taken as its own frame of reference, is a meaningless, comfortless place, that hope in a Christian God becomes possible.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive…

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:27-28

Who is the Orthodox Church for? Is it Greek for Greeks? Is it Syrian for Syrians or Russian for Russians? This question is raised frequently in the Orthodox blogosphere. Usually as part of a skreed against phyletism which, for those not familiar, is a belief that some particular ethnicity or race within the Church is superior to the others. While phyletism is an ongoing problem in some parts of the Orthodox world despite having been formally condemned, it is mostly a non-issue in America. However, another form of discrimination emanates from within the Orthodox churches here in America and it’s exactly the kind you’d expect to find in the land of prosperity: for the sake of convenience let’s call it “economic phyletism.”

2009 study by the Pew Forum (in easy-to-read graphic form here) revealed that Orthodox Christians are, on the whole, the most affluent Christians in America. According to the data, 41% of Orthodox Christians reported an income of $75,000 or greater; a higher percentage than any other Christian group. While only 20% reported an income of less than $30,000; a smaller percentage than any other Christian group. In other words, Orthodoxy in America has more wealth and less poverty than any other Christian church. This ought to be grist for many questions. The one I’d like to tackle today is, why? Why is Orthodoxy a disproportionately affluent phenomenon here in the United States?

I believe the answer to this question rests largely in history. Unlike most of the rest of the Orthodox world, Orthodox Christianity came to America primarily by means of immigrants hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. As is common among immigrants, many of these families struggled mightily to overcome hostility, language barriers, and unfamiliarity in order to make a life for themselves here. Not surprisingly, this often led to successive waves of achievement. The children of immigrants worked harder than many of their peers and climbed higher on the socio-economic ladder than their parents, and their children often did the same. The result of this effort to thrive in a new home was a greater than average valuation of success and concentration of wealth in Orthodox Christian communities. Since people naturally gravitate to what they find familiar and comfortable this concentration of success has given birth to a culture of affluence in the Church. I believe this, at least partly, accounts for the low percentage of Orthodox at the bottom of the economic food chain. And I believe it is a problem. What do I mean by a culture of affluence and why is it a problem?

I would identify a culture of affluence by two markers. The first is discretionary income. A culture of affluence is one in which discretionary income, often significant amounts of it, is necessary to participate. The second characteristic is the mimicking of already existing affluent behaviors. Examples would include the importance of being seen in fashionable clothing, expensive dinner meetings, self-congratulatory awards ceremonies, and costly gala banquets. The Orthodox Church has all these things in spades. You don’t have to look far to find announcements like this, Bishop X will be here on Sunday to consecrate our new church. There will be a gala banquet at the Downtown Hilton immediately following. Tickets are $50. Or, We will be celebrating our centennial anniversary next year. Tickets to the banquet are $100. Sometimes the prices go higher. Other areas where the need for discretionary capital is likely to show up are youth or young adult outings, mens group activities, women’s group activities, and pretty much every other category of activity that is done as church aside from the services themselves. These costs associated with participation in the life of the community along with the lavish and self-referential nature of many of the communities activities are characteristic behaviors of the upper classes.

Why do I think this is a problem? First let me clarify: I am not suggesting that wealth is a problem or that wealthy people are a problem. Those blessed with wealth have often been, in turn, a blessing to the Church. What is a problem, a genuine danger to the integrity of the Orthodox Church, is the cancerous growth of division in the parish community. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has threatened the Church. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul has this to say:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. – I Cor. 11:20-22 (emphasis mine) 

It ought to be obvious to anyone who has experienced or known someone at the bottom of the economy that $50 for dinner with the bishop, $25 per child for youth activities, or $15 for lunch with the men’s group is often competing with new shoes, an oil change, or is simply an impossibility by itself. Yet this is how we operate throughout vast swathes of the Orthodox world. The services are free, more or less, but there’s a significant cost be being “part of the community.” We shouldn’t be surprised then that there aren’t many poor people in our churches. In a “pay-to-play” parish economy those without the ability to play aren’t likely to bother joining up. One significant consequence of this reality is that it virtually guarantees continued exclusion of minority communities that are not affluent such as African American and Latino communities. If we wanted to amend St. Paul’s words to the Galatians above we might say that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, [there is neither rich nor poor]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet among us there certainly is a distinction between rich and poor. To quote St. Paul a third time, “my brethren, these things ought not to be.” For too long, we Orthodox have drunk from the waters of American aspiration and a culture of affluence has infected our Church and closed our faith to many who most desperately need the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Every February my Facebook page will be covered up with pictures of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr.. Many Orthdox are justly proud of his witness and share his convictions. In general, we Orthodox in America are quick to decry racism and bigotry of all sorts and we honor the Gospel when we do so. But whenever and wherever we permit a culture of affluence to develop in our communities we betray that same Gospel.  The Church must not be divided on account of money! Our standard of behavior is embodied in the example of the Apostles, the Saints and Christ himself who demonstrated the love of God through humility, simplicity, and selflessness. If we are Christians we must see to it that the quality of our communal life is not defined by income, color, or anything other than Christ-like love.