31 December 2013

Bombings in Volgograd


Thirty-two dead and at least sixty-eight injured in Volgograd (see here and here).

I am immensely grieved over this. Please pray for the souls of the dead and for the quick and full recoveries of the injured; we must all stand now with Russia, now that the evil that visited Boston has now settled upon one of their cities. (A city, it should be said, which is already hallowed with the blood of nearly five hundred thousand Russian patriots, saints and martyrs against Nazi tyranny.) And let us all help, as best we can, to heal the growing rift between Russia and the West that continues to take such tolls.

Now in Nanjing


I’m currently at the Hopkins Centre at Nanjing University at the invitation of a friend of mine, Dr Adam Webb, to be discussant at a philosophy discussion about Jiang Qing’s political Confucianism and possible routes and limits of oecumenical dialogue (hopefully with some reference to the work of Thomas Han Hong-Soon!). It’s bound to be a truly fun talk in any event; I am told that there will be in attendance at least one Chinese grad student who is a committed Rawlsean, and one professor with decidedly left-anarchist sympathies. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes! I’m already enjoying my stay immensely; Dr Webb’s work is fascinating, and he has given me already a great deal to think about recent Middle Eastern politics, and Egyptian politics in particular.

Happy New Year to you all, gentle readers, and let’s await Christ’s birth together in joyful expectation!

28 December 2013

The trouble with white émigrés


Now, as I make the following commentary, please bear in mind, gentle readers, that I write as someone with a very profound respect for a number of white émigrés – in particular Nikolai Berdyaev and Fr Sergei Bulgakov, the two intellectual lights which most strongly directed me toward Orthodoxy. And of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fr Alexander Schmemann, Vladimir Lossky, S. Ioann the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco and numerous others are worthy of mention as decent, well-grounded Orthodox men and women who deserve our respect and admiration. This commentary is not directed at them. This commentary is directed at a much wider, and dare I say much more troubling general phenomenon.

White émigrés – those who fled or who were forced into exile by the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, East Asia, Indochina and Latin America – are often hailed as heroes and stalwarts of anti-communism, and not just the Russian ones, for reasons which continue to puzzle me. For one thing, strange and even contradictory though it may sound, not all white émigrés were anti-communist. (Those defenders of the Republic of China and the Guomindang, for example, who fled to Taiwan in 1949, included amongst their number the ‘true’ Chinese Marxists who saw Mao Zedong as a threat because he would not embrace the Marxist prejudice that only the urban industrial proletariat would have the class consciousness and the wherewithal to form and sustain a successful revolutionary state. And, of course, the Dalai Lama still calls himself a Marxist, despite also being the head of a Buddhist sect and at least two virulently anti-leftist political movements.) But this merely showcases the fragmentation even within that failed philosophy. What I speak of is something much more subtle.

The white émigrés were generally people of privilege, and that privilege has followed them into the lands where they sought refuge. One may recall the passage of A Tale of Two Cities (aye, pre-Marxist and all of that, but even so quite prescient), wherein Dickens – no friend he of the French Revolution! – recounts:
Monseigneur, as a class, had dissociated himself from the phenomenon of his not being appreciated: of his being so little wanted in France , as to incur considerable danger of receiving his dismissal from it, and this life together. Like the fabled rustic who raised the Devil with infinite pains, and was so terrified at the sight of him that he could ask the Enemy no question, but immediately fled; so, Monseigneur, after boldly reading the Lord's Prayer backwards for a great number of years, and performing many other potent spells for compelling the Evil One, no sooner beheld him in his terrors than he took to his noble heels.
We need not be communists to recognise that communism was in part a judgement upon the people who fled it; just as, indeed, Dickens being no revolutionary had very little sympathy for the old French élites, beyond the needed human sympathy he extends to all people in a hard way. And indeed, though we must feel some compassion for the plight of the white émigrés at the hands of the communists, we must be vigilant and careful in not allowing that sympathy to cloud our political judgement. Heroes and stalwarts they are not, merely for happening to be in the right places at the right times – although the actions which led to their exiles may have been heroic or somewhat less so. Sadly, both they and their admirers seem to be of that most curious of opinions: that they are more suited to lead and speak authoritatively about former communist societies precisely on account of their not having lived through them.

And, too often, the white émigrés form a political consciousness entirely in the negative, and this can have some very serious implications. To give one example: the alliance between the Tibetan exiles in India and the far-right Hindu nationalist movement there is troubling indeed, given the political capital that the Tibetan independence cause has can sway amongst India’s allies on the world stage, and the barbaric violence the followers of Hindutva inflict, not so much upon India’s Maoists, but upon her Christians and Muslims! For another: the continuing detrimental influence Florida’s Cuban exiles continue to have on that state’s – and our nation’s – domestic politics. For yet another: the embrace of neoconservative ideology by the Ignatieff clan in Canada, stemming from his alliance with Pearson so steadfastly opposed by that greatest and most truly conservative of the Ignatieff in-laws, George Parkin Grant. For still another: the execrable anti-Christian fanfiction and serial-killer worship of one Miss Alisa Rosenbaum, which still for reasons unfathomable continues to exert an undue influence on our nation’s political discourse.

Liberalism – identity politics, libertarianism and neoconservatism all very much included – widely being considered the Manichaean counter-pole to communism and the ‘strongest’ in geopolitical terms (being backed by the full power of the American nuclear and conventional arsenals), it is little wonder so many white émigrés have embraced it without much question. This is why it is so important to treat white émigré polities and positions with discernment and caution, preferably at arm’s length, and not just blind sentimentalism and sympathy.

Too many of them are now opposed to the reassertion of geopolitical strength by an increasingly-Orthodox Russia, based entirely upon their experiences with a virulently anti-Orthodox regime. Too many of them are unwilling to even deal with China’s leadership, preferring instead to throw monkey-wrenches into her international engagements whilst doing massive collateral damage within their host nations. Too many of them have no problem with Christians being slaughtered in the Middle East and elsewhere as long as it saves face for liberal-democratic governments in the global north. Too many of them are willing to trample children, the elderly, the poor and the economically-distressed underfoot, wherever they are, as their ideological commitments demand. Too many of them are still boldly reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards and performing spells to compel the Evil One.

And if we are honest in our conservatism, we will not help them in doing so.

23 December 2013

Sergei the Samaritan

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Now is the time for Ukraine to ask, who is the better neighbour? The Frank who disdained to get into a ‘bidding war’ over Ukraine for the association agreement? The Teuton who would not so much as meet with Ukraine’s government? Surely not the thieves in Brussels who wish to strip Ukraine of even more of its wealth, and leave it half dead and wounded on the side of the road? Or is it the Russian who bought up 15 billion dollars of Ukrainian debt and poured in oil and wine to keep it away from default and economic disaster?

Like the Samaritans of Our Lord’s time, the Russians are despised and reviled on the world stage by the global elite and the holders of economic and political power in the West. They are constantly and consistently portrayed in the news media as backwards and mean-spirited, and their government as cynical, grasping and hateful. And yet they continue to care for their elderly and their poor and their young as best they are able with what limited resources they have (including protecting them from perverts and pornographers, in a way which the Anglo-American West has long since abandoned). And now Sergei Lavrov is making the case that economic aid (and let’s be clear: aid is what it is) to the Ukraine is his nation’s Christian duty. Who is the better neighbour to Ukraine?

16 December 2013

This far, no further

From Notes on Arab Orthodoxy, an unofficial translation of his Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East’s call for concrete action in defence of the Christians of Syria:
Amidst the calamities besetting Syria and the bloodshed afflicting our people and amidst the uncertainty that still surrounds the fate of our metropolitans Boulos and Youhanna in Aleppo, it is with deep pain that the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East has received news of the abduction of her daughters, nuns and orphans of the Monastery of Saint Thekla in Maaloula on December 2, 2013 and their being transported to Yabroud. Because our initial attempts to obtain the release our abducted daughters did not achieve the desired outcome, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East calls upon the international community and all governments to intervene and make efforts to release them safely. She likewise calls upon the conscience of all humanity and upon the spark of living conscience that the Creator, may He be exalted, sowed in the souls of all those who worship God, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters the nuns and the girls of the orphanage.

Our appeal to the international community: Although we are grateful for all the feelings of solidarity, we no longer need denunciation, condemnations, or "feelings of concern" about the assault on human dignity that is occurring, because all this is engraved in the conscience of every one of us. Today, however, we need concrete actions, not words. We do not want voices of condemnation from decision-makers, whether regional or international, but rather efforts, pressure and action leading to the release of those whose only fault was their clinging to their monastery and refusing to leave it.

We reiterate our call to stop the logic of conflict in Syria and replace it with the logic of peaceful dialogue and not to use stalling the start of dialogue to make gains on the ground because Syria is bleeding and with her too our hearts. Let all know that one drop of innocent blood shed on this earth is holier and more precious than all the slogans in the world. Let all understand the the bells of our churches, we the Christians of the Middle East, which were hung and rang in time immemorial, shall continue to ring out and be heard as the sound of our love and our peace for others, with their various religions, throughout the world.

The cruelty of the present days shall not uproot us from our land, because it is our being, our essence and a piece of our heart.
Never forget these nuns, and please keep them always in your prayers, along with all other Christians of the Levant who have been displaced or abducted or martyred. Most Holy, Blessed and Ever-Virgin Theotokos, please watch over your daughters and keep them safe from harm; and please deliver your people, All-Holy Trinity, from the clutches of our enemies.

12 December 2013

Feminism™

By Proctor & Gamble and GoldieBlox. Guh.

Both advertising campaigns have featured prominently in my Facebook news feed, which is how I became aware of them. A number of my friends have, with the best of intentions, cited both as positive examples of how marketing campaigns are helping to bring about social change for gender equality.

If only I could be so sanguine about it. For one thing, GoldieBlox became a real class act when it pre-emptively sued the Beastie Boys for being sexist, after the Beastie Boys (who have made a principled stand against using any of their music in advertising) sent GoldieBlox a C&D letter. GoldieBlox appears to have dropped the lawsuit, though their claim to be fans and the passive-aggressive posture they take rather belie their earlier nastily litigious behaviour. Overall, I have to respect the Beastie Boys in their position on this: no matter how ‘empowering’ it might be, it is still meant to manufacture demand for a specific product. And, make no mistake, Pantene is doing the same thing. Whatever genuine concern the ad may reflect gets dried up and distilled into marketing slogans: ‘Whip It’ and ‘Be Strong and Shine’; carrying the implication, naturally, that the solution to double standards at the workplace is the kind of shinier and sleeker hair an executive woman would only get from using Pantene.

Oh dear.

Thankfully, several sensible feminists (for example, here and here and here) cottoned on quite early to the fact that their cause was being used and cheapened for gain. But then the bourgeois-femme webmag machine kicked in and aggressively asserted their individual rights to sell out: Slate asserted that patronising companies with feminist ad campaigns was merely ‘voting with your wallet’, and Elle rejoices at the corporate branding of feminism as proof that ‘feminism is mainstream and popular again’.

It does really get to the point where one has to stand back and admire the sheer profundity and wisdom of Nancy Fraser’s critique in the Guardian of modern feminism as ‘handmaiden to capitalism and neoliberalism’, in which ‘the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality’. In the Pantene ad in particular (though really in the GoldieBlox ad too), conspicuous by their absence are women who belong to any social matrix outside the urban professional, intellectual or consumerist middle-to-upper classes. Is there to be found here any basis for concern for any dimension of social engagement outside the narrow confines of an identity politics expressed in purely atomistic and consumerist terms? If there is, I’m not seeing it.

10 December 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Preemptive Strike’ by Andromeda


Andromeda are not my usual fare; to be honest, I heard of them through one of the first extreme metal bands whose album I bought and enjoyed (Esoteric by progressive melodeath outfit Skyfire, with whom they share a guitarist, Johan Reinholdz). But Manifest Tyranny, wow! Tell us how you really feel, guys! Raging against the oppressions of market and bureaucracy, against war (however ‘humanitarian’) and capitalism, against social Darwinism and technocracy, these guys really are my kind of band! The subject matter might make you think they ought to be playing crossover-thrash or something, but in truth even though they’re merely pushing their boundaries in a much heavier direction, they’re playing top-tier prog metal. This album isn’t as spacey or as intricate in its tempo and sound as Extension of the Wish or II = I, but it’s definitely still in the same vein overall. Please listen and enjoy, gentle readers!

04 December 2013

Dear American Catholics:


Please, please, please stop conflating liberalism and leftism, even colloquially.

Please do this not for my sake – I’m used enough to being misunderstood as a ‘left-authoritarian’, as the Political Compass sorts me – but for your own. If you want to understand or foster greater understanding of the Popes – in particular Francis – or the Early Church Fathers, for that matter, you have to learn to see things outside the one-dimensional American spectrum. Do this to take, as Sir Alec Guinness once famously put it, your first step into a larger world.

It is all too common in Catholic circles (which, for the most part, I still gladly frequent in spite of my having embraced – from their view – a ‘schismatic’ faith) for people to decry ‘cultural Marxism’ when what they actually mean is relativism, which at its root is one logical outworking or another of either Lockean liberalism or postmodernism. Or they use socialist, ‘red’ and Soviet imagery to describe what is in fact a purely ‘yellow’, Anglo-French phenomenon: here is merely one particularly egregious example. Even normally-intelligent Catholic apologists like Mark Shea tend to blame ‘the Left’ when they complain of people or cultural practices which refer not to leftist intellectual currents like Marxism, socialism or syndicalism, but rather to pragmatism or (neo-)liberalism! (I would say that anyone who calls Tom Friedman a Leftist should be subjected to re-reading each of his Times columns until his grievous error is corrected, but I do happen to be opposed to torture. Same for Chris Matthews and Hardball.) To be fair, there was once a very good reason for conflating leftist and liberal concerns – it has long been a strategy particularly of social-democratic parties and trade unions to forge electoral coalitions with liberals against traditionalist and nationalist elements. But those days are long gone.

In order to understand the tradition of the Church West or East, it is first of all necessary to lose the Americanist ‘Left’-versus-‘Right’ blinders (insofar as the DNC can be considered ‘left’, anyway).

As a matter of first principles, being committed to understanding and addressing the culture with the ‘mind of the Church’ for the purposes of salvation means much, much more than refusing to countenance the systematic slaughter of the unborn (which is also, by the way, a systematic slaughter of the next generation of the working class), and refusing to equate the fruitless unions between two people of the same gender with the life-giving ones between a man and a woman. It also means refusing to countenance the systematic deprivation of the majority of working- and middle-class Americans of the fruits of their productive labour, by a completely unaccountable and increasingly reckless financial-capitalist elite. It also means refusing to discriminate against others merely for having darker skin or speaking another tongue. It also means acknowledging the indispensable role of the female genius in all things, even in the Church – and refusing to fall into the Satanic trap that says that because women are wired differently to men and have different roles to play in society and the Church, that they are somehow inferior.

It is also necessary to note, as John at EifD has very adroitly pointed out, that for all their materialist wrong-headedness, European and Russian Marxists have traditionally opposed the evils of divorce, abortion and contraception, and have agitated actively for the integrity of the family (including the family wage!). The tradition of pro-life leftism has not been broken, either, as Mehdi Hasan demonstrates. Notable also is that, particularly in southern Europe, the right-wing Italian liberals were the movers and shakers for the ever-broader legalisation of divorce.

Sergey Kurginyan in Russia has already begun sensibly advocating for a rapprochement between the salvific concerns of Orthodox Christianity and leftist political ideals. (From the Marxist side, Gennady Zyuganov seems to have started doing the same thing.) As we have seen, Pope Francis is articulating Catholic social doctrine through a grammar which is intensely critical of capitalism, just as Patriarch Kirill has done in our own Orthodox Church.

These are signs of the essence of our times. In order for conservative American Catholics (and Orthodox, for that matter) to understand them, they have to abandon their view of the Left as inextricably bound up with liberalism, relativism and materialism, and as an existential foe of all they hold dear.

29 November 2013

Some animals are more equal...

Again with reference to the late great Mr Eric Blair (whom many of these somewhat oblivious pro-EU, neoconservative types ironically take as the progenitor of their tribe), the excellent Neil Clark writes:
One thing’s for sure: if you live in the US or Western Europe, and haven’t spent the last three days locked in a wardrobe, you’re probably well aware that protests against the Ukrainian government have been taking place in Kiev.

That’s because western news networks and media outlets are making sure that you know about them. ‘Tens of thousands rally in Kiev for closer EU ties’ the Washington Post posts this AP article . ‘Thousands protest Ukraine’s rejection of trade ties’ says the New York Times.

Leading western media outlets have not only have deemed the protests to be a major story, but their reporting makes it quite clear whose side they are on. Here‘s the New York Times talking about two of the protestors.

For young people, the future is brighter with Europe,” said Maria Lyskenko, 20, a student, who stood with her friend, Alyona Zorina, also 20, holding a sign that said, “Europe = Future Ukraine”. Ms. Zorina said that President Viktor F. Yanukovich was acting out of selfishness and self-interest in deciding not to sign an agreement with the European Union.

In its report on the protests, CNN quotes a Mr David Kramer of ‘Freedom House’, described as ‘a US-based nongovernmental organization’. “He (Yanukovych) has left his country vulnerable to Vladimir Putin's threats and pressure”, Kramer told CNN. “That will be Yanukovych's legacy if he doesn't reverse course.

It’s revealing to compare the highly sympathetic, high profile western coverage of the Ukrainian protests with the way other protests have been covered in recent years.

Last summer I was in Spain, at a time when there were massive nightly demonstrations in Madrid against the government’s austerity program. I sent a text message to a friend in England to ask if he had been following events in Spain and how they had been reported back home. He said that he hadn’t seen or heard anything on British television about the protests.

It’s not just the Spanish protests of 2012 which failed to receive the coverage they warranted. There have been widespread anti-austerity protests across Europe in recent years, but none of them have gained as much attention as the current protests in Ukraine. Everyone has a right to protest, but it seems that some protestors are more equal than others.
Truer words were never spoken. This was also known to be true back when Western news media covered the ‘white ribbon’ protests in Moscow in glowing terms, but refused to cover the counter-protests, which drew as many if not more people than the anti-Putin ones. And what failed to be noted about these Ukrainian protesters, which drew largely regional support from Lvov and the Polish March, was that they were organised in part by the far-right racial-nationalist Svoboda movement - essentially the Ukraine’s neo-Nazis. (Small wonder they want closer ties with Germany, but I do highly doubt it’s for warm and fuzzy democratic reasons.)

The EU is an economic deathtrap for the Ukraine, and Yanukovych seems to have dodged a bullet for the time being, as Steve Lendman of the Progressive Radio News Hour put it. The terms which the EU provided to the Ukrainian government for accession would have placed them at the mercy of the IMF and the ECB, and essentially in the same ghetto of permanent trade deficits (and the structural adjustments, with all that implies, that come with them) to which the PIIGS and much of EU-facing Eastern Europe belong, and to which Germany must keep adding more territory in order to sustain their current economic model. Some animals are more equal than others, indeed.

20 November 2013

Symphoneia or monasticism?

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

Secular states and secular nations have this problem.

It’s a problem which has been approached by such major figures in philosophy as the Canadians George Grant and Charles Taylor, the English theologian John Milbank and several others. The economistic high priesthood of modern capitalism, the political high priesthood of the laicist republican nation-state and the cultural high priesthood of Hollywood, pop idols and mass consumerism, all serve to confine the reality in which we live. Having been birthed by the spreading suspicion that material benefit (wealth, power, goods, sexual pleasure) is the highest and the best end of human life, that suspicion has since calcified into the conviction that material benefit is the only end of human life – and that it is best furthered by precisely the articulators and self-appointed arbiters of secular reality: capital, the state and the cultural elite. But at the same time, we experience a contradiction, a ‘cross pressure’: a dissatisfaction and anger with secular reality, stemming from the countervailing suspicion that this is ‘not all there is’.

Sadly, the most common expression of this suspicion is in those transcendentalisms directly sanctioned and supported by the modern moral order of secular reality: moralistic therapeutic deism and the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ phenomenon, related to what philosopher Robert Bellah called ‘Sheila-ism’ (a wholly individualist re-purposing of religion). Various fundamentalist movements also make doomed attempts to refute modernism from within its own ontology – Islamism making use of the political ontology of violence or fundamentalist Protestantism making use of a scientific-materialist ontology to try to attack evolution. On the other hand, we have also noted other aesthetic counter-cultural expressions of this dissatisfaction which deserve careful attention: punk (including steampunk and cyberpunk), heavy metal, goth, emo and the strange, self-protecting phenomenon of hipsterism. Most or all of these latter emphasise some ethic of authenticity and a social spirituality – which is to say, a truer spirituality – emphasising something other than material benefit. But these are all expressions, to some extent, of the ‘cross pressure’ facing people living within a secular reality which is flattened to include only things immanent.

Though I realise I wade out into dangerously Hegelian waters by saying so, it is tempting to view this problem, and these expressions of resistance, as various attempts at a negation, a rejection of the social facts of secularism. But, given the heterogeneity of these expressions, and the dominating logic of the secular state which extends over and tries to explain and police these expressions, it strikes me that there will likely be no easy ‘synthesis’. What can be done, however, is to look to the roots of this logic.

John Milbank would likely begin by saying that ‘once upon a time, there was no secular’. Whether or not this is true (and I tend to think it is), it is absolutely true that the secular did not always have the iron grip upon the public imagination that it does now. Within Christendom, the state had to share its time and its space with the expressions of a church which could lay its own claim upon the moral imaginations of its laity – so influential was this claim that it has continued to shape all of the secular theory which has followed it. For example, Milbank observed that the ‘social contract’ of Hobbes and Locke was based in an Enlightenment countermyth against Genesis about the human condition. Before him, Nikolai Berdyaev and Fr Sergei Bulgakov noted that Marxism was actually an eschatological religion portending a revolution rather than revelation, and seeking salvation in the proletariat as a messianic class.  In order to get at the roots of secular logic and the problems contained within it, it is thus vital to explore in further detail the engagement between the state and the Church. Fr Stanley Harakas, the Greek Orthodox priest and professor of theology, ethics and political theory, identifies four main patterns of state-church engagement in Christendom:

  1. Papocaesarism (theokrateia) – the subordination of secular authority to the church
  2. Caesaropapism (autokrateia) – the subordination of church authority to the state
  3. Laicity – the separation of the state, whether friendly or hostile, from all church affairs
  4. Harmony (symphoneia) – the complementarian, active accord between church and state, acting in distinct but mutually-supportive roles

Caesaropapism, or autokrateia (‘self-government’, that is, a government consisting of a single self), vests all power, sacral and secular, within a single body following the rules of the saeculum. Caesaropapism was followed first in the Byzantine Empire when the Emperor acted as the head of the Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople served essentially at the Emperor’s pleasure. However, caesaropapism began to take hold in the West as well, first in a mild form with the Investiture Controversy, then the Reformation and finally in the aftermath of the brutal Thirty Years’ War, in which the religion of the King defined the religion of all the people in his state.  The peace of Westphalia enthroned sovereignty, but sovereignty as defined by autocrats.

The movement of Christendom in a caesaropapist regime, especially in a modern context, tends to promote private pietism and acquiescence to the secular narrative of functionalism in accord with the will of the state, superimposed as it is over the Church. In other words, religion may be used to articulate certain ‘useful’ norms, to provide certain social services or to answer individual existential questions.  But it can make no claims on public space, let alone on public authorities! Its expressions are, of necessity, individualistic – and many of the reactions against the secular reality take refuge in such individualism. Susannah Black identifies fundamentalism and certain forms of evangelicalism and dispensationalism as Protestant reactions to secular caesaropapism, but I think that to these may also be added the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ types, moralistic therapeutic deists, Sheila-ists and even the politically quietist element within the Protestant mainline. Though politically opposed to each other, these groups still work out of the same social ontology.

The opposite reaction, therefore, may be seen as appealing, and this is especially a temptation for Roman Catholics. Papocaesarism first manifested in the High Middle Ages, particularly after the Schism which divided the Franco-Latin Church from the Slavo-Hellene one. In the name of reform against clerical abuses and laxity, the Franco-Latin Church under Leo IX and Alexander II and formalised theologically by Gregory VII, took on the mantle of fully-immanent, secular authority, and began adopting for itself the organisational stylings of feudalism (often explicitly, with the Popes as feudal lords!), and later of proto-capitalism. This movement to assume political power, and to proclaim ‘kingdom now!’, is tempting particularly in a secularist age where the Church has been reduced to a spectator in the public arena, but this movement is one which dooms itself the moment it has begun.

For the Western Church to begin aping the saeculum was a grievous error the first time around. In seeking to exercise the powers of government for itself, the Church began to give the laity and the saeculum grounds for the belief that the rules of the earthly powers, and not the rule of God, were primary. It became possible to imagine a social universal order forming without the guiding intelligence of God, and to begin asking questions about how the will of God might be changed. In addition, certain Western monastic orders (notably the Cistercians), with the assent of the Church to a fee-simple regime, began enclosing the land they owned and employing hired labour rather than the traditional feudal lord-peasant relationship, laying down the groundwork for a money economy and the rise of modern banking. From the newly-opened possibilities of philosophical voluntarism and nominalism, and from the first inklings of capitalist economic relations, sprang the Renaissance, Machiavelli’s neo-pagan political theory, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Ironically, then, historical experience would seem to indicate that grasping at this-worldly power is one of the surest ways for the Church to lose her other-worldly authority.

Thus, we must look for alternatives other than papocaesarism. One will notice immediately that one of these alternatives is not like the others. Indeed, laicity is a modern invention, a product of the American and French Revolutions, and therefore has no name in Greek antiquity (in modernity, Greeks made up their own word for it, kosmikismos, though they also use the loanword laïkismos). The track record within the political concept’s short lifetime has been mixed. It could be said with some justice that laicity is either an unstable or metastable state: the tendency of formal laicity toward caesaropapism is demonstrated to a significant extent in the history of Communist states, including (for a modern-day example) China, where Party authorities appoint all religious leaders and register all officially-sanctioned forms of public religious expression. It also manifests itself in an official civic religion, beginning in the French Revolution but manifest to some extent in most representative regimes, which worships the might and right of the nation as embodied in its people. Examples of polities where this faith makes itself manifest include Kemalism in Turkey and naturally in the French credo of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. In both countries there are harsh limits on what manner of religious expression is allowed in the public square, and in which the state, nationalism and the civic religion have a final and definitive claim on a citizen’s loyalties.

But it is possible to tip the balance in the other direction as well. Laicity and non-establishment in the United States, though in nowhere near as strict a form as in France, has tended to give free reign to mass religious movements beginning with the Great Awakenings – which exert their powers specifically within the public realm and attempt to capture and make use of democratic avenues of public power. This capture can be oriented to the public good (the movements to abolish slavery and to guarantee civil rights for blacks, for instance), or it can be oriented more destructively (the temperance movement and Prohibition, political Zionism and the dysfunctional marriage of neoconservatism and the religious right in more recent decades). But the result seems to be a kind of papocaesarism, one susceptible to identitarian politics and demagoguery – ironically, it is in America and in France where ‘kingdom now!’ theology seems to have the most draw on the popular imagination! But this papocaesarism is still flavoured by secular national mythbuilding: the religious right in the United States still by and large clings to an idea of America as God’s chosen ‘shining city upon a hill’.

Thus we are left looking at some kind of theory which advocates complementarity of powers – the symphoneia theory, popular amongst the Eastern Orthodox, first put into practice by Saint Emperor Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles and explicated by Emperor Justinian. The symphoneia theory represents a brotherhood, a familial relationship between Church and state, with each one respecting the other’s proper duties but actively helping and supporting each other – the most common analogy from Scripture is the fraternal relationship between Aaron (the high priest of Israel) and Moses (the leader of the Israelite exodus), though it draws also from Pauline exhortations for believers to respect the state, to obey its laws, and to pray for its leaders. In turn, however, the state must respect the liminal boundaries of the Church. Saint Constantine, for example, never tried to enter into the Church councils as one of the bishops, either to rule over them or to be ruled by them, though he did support them from without.

Symphoneia is an ideal for a time, however, when government is aware in the light of the Christian witness of its ultimate accountability before the throne of Christ Pantokrator, and thereby of its temporal responsibilities to be just, to be merciful and to be aggressively compassionate. We now live in an age where Weberian ideals of impersonal efficiency are normative, rather than a Christianised ethic of virtue – striving after symphoneia in such an environment may be a wild-goose chase, or something even more dangerous. Two giants of American Orthodox social thought, Fr Stanley Harakas and Dr Vigen Guroian, have placed themselves at odds over precisely this question: does the impersonal, secular way of doing government, closed to any consideration of the transcendent, preclude any form of church-state engagement modelling itself on the Constantinian-Justinianic ideal?

Guroian fears that symphoneia may be precisely as unstable as laicity in such a case. He warns that the catholic ecclesiology of the churches laying claim to apostolic succession (Orthodox, Episcopal, Roman Catholic) is directly at odds with secular logic, because a catholic ecclesiology implies and demands a concern for the common good which the state, the market and the culture have systematically cordoned off.  He sees as unacceptable to any aspiration to symphoneia the American state’s insistence that it alone is competent to police the ‘conflicting’ claims of denominational Christianity. A state which has set itself up in a laicist manner, propounding a pluralist mythos in order to govern through sublimated warfare a vast array of heterogeneous projects, can never enter into a harmonious, equal and complementarian relationship with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Guroian therefore presents (mirroring contemporary Catholic thinkers like William Cavanaugh and Alasdair MacIntyre) a ‘cenobitic’ option to the followers of Christianity in the United States – preserving the witness of Christianity through ‘discrete disciplined communities of faith’, with lay communities carrying forward from the Eucharist into the surrounding culture the ‘“sign that God, not the nations”, not politics, not economics, not science, nor business nor technology, “rules this world”’. I don’t think Guroian is being pietist or individualistic here; even if he is proclaiming something which might look in its formal tactics like a Great Awakening, it is posed as a direct challenge to the secular mythos, as opposed to capture of or accommodation to that mythos.

Worth considering, however, is that the positions of Dr Guroian and Fr Stanley are not necessarily at complete odds.  After all, the Early Church Fathers had the culture of a pagan empire to contend with, in many ways as driven by libido dominandi as our own—perhaps even more so, since the pagan Romans, without a history of knowing the Gospel, had fewer restraints upon their pride.  Even if symphoneia would have been difficult-to-unthinkable with a Roman state which saw Christians as a threat to be stamped out, perhaps we should keep that ideal in our hearts and minds to be extended, if ever another Saint Constantine or Emperor Justinian should arise, and a civil order more open to the promise of virtue should result.

It may very well be that the public fruits of our podvig, our Christian struggle for ascesis within the world, to live and thereby show a truer alternative to the problematic confines of secular state-market-culture, will not be seen or tasted within our lifetimes. As such, Dr Guroian’s cautions against misconstruing the structure of American society and against making ill-advised accommodations to it should be taken seriously.  All the same, Guroian’s ‘cenobitic’ option is not a despairing one. It would be wrong and a great disservice to the Holy Fathers and to the saints to think of symphoneia as a naïve pipe-dream. A catholic faith is inescapably a public faith, and giving over the public realm to those who deny any meaningful common good is not an open option for us.

11 November 2013

Motes and beams

Hansen Ding at Perfect Payload has a few choice words for first-world liberal leftists:
The first time I ever saw photos of death was when I was 5.

It was a war memorial opposite my grandparents’ house in Harbin, dedicated to the anti-Japanese WW2 partisans in Manchuria. There were stories of the utmost brutality, hopelessness and heroism - as well as an assortment of photos of massacres, rape victims and beheadings, all ready to be gawked at for a weekend family fun-time. One photo that stuck with me is the dissection of a partisan commander’s body - he and his unit were surrounded in the mountains, cut off, outnumbered and slowly cleaned out, men by men. By the time they dissected his body they found his stomach full of barks and roots - it’s what they had to eat to stave off hunger in their last days.

I was reminded of this Mao Ze Dong quote earlier today referring to Americans (regardless of what you think of Mao, and I don’t think that much of him, he was a rhetorical genius): “You grew up eating honey, and thus far you have never known suffering. In the future, if you do not become a rightist, but rather a centrist, I shall be satisfied. You have never suffered—how can you be a leftist?”

Now, this is not to say I have known true suffering. Yes, my parents came to Australia dirt poor - my entire family lived in a single bedroom in a rat infested terrace house in Redfern - but I was too young to have anything but a happy childhood, and by the time I really knew about poverty we were already middle class. But, there is something to be said of coming from a background where you knew about colonialism and poverty – true poverty. It comes from the stories you were told growing up, of family members from old photos and family trees who aren’t around, it came from growing up amongst the sites and memorials to desperate battles, public massacres and immortal martyrs. Call it a collective consciousness if you want.

I find increasingly that on issues of foreign policy and geopolitics, there is a huge disconnect between first world liberals/leftists and liberals/leftists from non-first world backgrounds. It’s about an issue of recognizing self-determination - true self determination – even if said self-determination came from the end of a Kalashnikov and a river of blood. A developed nation is rarely the product of a peaceful and dignified history. Western liberals & leftists do not seem to understand the mind of winter which occupies the people of most developing nations past and present. They are willing to erase all their achievements to point out the stains on their country, ignoring the fact that almost every country of note is incredibly stained – even Sweden had that psycho phase where they killed like 30% of the population of Germany in a war they had no business being in.

Too many leftists I know are all too happy call out liberals on all their BS at home but then afraid to deviate from the mainstream liberal view abroad – we should condemn the coup in Egypt, we should support the Tibetan resistance, Putin’s Russia is bad and of course the latest in the ceaseless opining of the paragon of morality that is the western liberal/leftist – “something something Lee Rhiannon something Sri Lanka bad something boycott CHOGM”.

So I am pleading with my comrades from western backgrounds:

Stop.

Not another thing for you to intervene on with the endless criticisms and Avaaz letter writing campaigns and flashy youtube videos. Just stop.

No, you don’t even need to go “educate yourself”, you just need to stop with the opining and moralizing - it’s literally that easy. I mean, educate yourself by all means and be aware, and spread that awareness if you want, but do not, I repeat, do not, go into yet another country and lecture yet another people to literally no effect aside from a lot of brown people feeling insulted. And definitely don’t do it at an event which is meant to be a moment of pride for a people and to celebrate whatever progresses made.
Hansen is quite worth reading any day, not least because he brings to the table the experience of growing up in the Anglosphere as the child of Chinese émigrés, and thus manages to speak about both cultures with both sense and good humour. We don’t always agree, of course; he’s much more of a social liberal than I am - to the point where, on Facebook, he even questioned in jest whether I even count as white! - but I have rarely met another commentator on these issues who manages to navigate them with his level of graciousness. (Certainly I don’t come anywhere close!) So do please read the whole thing, and keep a weather eye on Hansen’s blogging!

07 November 2013

Few brief links

A Facebook acquaintance of mine created an incredibly short two-dimensional Excel-based political quiz (yeah, I know, I’m a sucker for these sorts of things!), the Obnoxiously Short Political Ideology Test. I don’t think my results should come as a surprise to any of my gentle readers (80.95% communitarian), but if you are interested, please give it a whirl! Bit less slick and glitzy, but also orders of magnitude less obnoxious than other quizzes modelled on a similar concept.

Also, I recently watched a couple of interesting interviews on YouTube with Deep Purple frontman, co-father with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin of heavy metal (and voice of Jesus) Ian Gillan, both from Russia. Very fascinating fellow, very intelligent. He touches on a wide array of topics: political correctness, war, the economy, the EU and its devaluation of democracy, Pussy Riot, culture, the devastation of globalisation on rural people, social networking and its effect on young people, 'progress' and the music industry. I’m not altogether comfortable with what appears to be a kind of Gnostic transhumanism and a sort of misanthropy which crops up every now and again, but he has some very good and thoughtful insights here:




Enjoy, gentle readers, and Christ in Our Minds!

05 November 2013

In Sadad, more crimes that cry out to Heaven


Forty-five more innocent civilians were martyred last week by Islamist rebels in Syria, led by the al-Nusra Front. His Eminence Metropolitan Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh of Homs and Hama, of the Syriac Orthodox Church, spoke out strongly about the incident:
Forty-five innocent civilians were martyred for no reason, and among them several women and children, many thrown into mass graves. Other civilians were threatened and terrorized. Thirty were wounded and ten are still missing. For one week, 1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields. Among them children, the elderly, the young, men and women. Some of them fled on foot travelling eight kilometres from Sadad to Al-Hafer to find refuge. About 2,500 families fled from Sadad, taking only their clothes, due to the irruption of armed groups and today they are refugees scattered between Damascus, Homs, Fayrouza, Zaydal, Maskane, and Al-Fhayle.

There is no electricity, water and telephone in the city. All the houses of Sadad were robbed and property looted. The churches are damaged and desecrated, deprived of old books and precious furniture. Schools, government buildings, municipal buildings have been destroyed, along with the post office, the hospital and the clinic.

What happened in Sadad is the largest massacre of Christians in Syria and the second in the Middle East, after the one in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq, in 2010. We have shouted aid to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort. We ask everyone to pray for us.
These are deadly crimes which, as our French and Latin brothers say, cry out to Heaven for vengeance. And insofar as the government of my country has waged war in Iraq and inflicted death, torture, suffering and mutilation upon its people; as it has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of Iraq’s Christians; as it has supported a rapacious, greedy and ruthless apartheid regime in the Levant which dispossesses Christians and Muslims alike on a regular basis; and as it has armed and given comfort and aid to these murderers in Syria, I too am made guilty, and implicated in these crimes.

Our hands are stained with the blood of our brothers and sisters, for we have placed in the hands of Antichrist the weapons which destroyed their lives, and to our everlasting shame our leaders congratulate themselves on our humanitarian compassion in so doing! Unworthy as we are, let us do as His Eminence asks: let us pray for the martyred and for the refugees from Sadad, and let us speak out as His Eminence has done, on behalf of those who have been crying to the Heavens until they can no longer speak.

03 November 2013

This week in calling a spade a spade:


Alessandro Rippa in The Diplomat:
There is something profoundly disturbing about the way most Western media and Xinjiang scholars have reacted to the attack in Tiananmen Square last Monday. As has been widely reported, the attack left five people dead, two of whom were tourists, and 40 injured.

Shortly after the attack, in which a man with his wife and mother drove an SUV into a crowd of people and set it on fire, Chinese authorities identified the perpetrators as Uyghurs. Since then, Western experts have appeared in the media, attempting to shed some light on the tragic event...

What bothers me, in both analyses, is the facility with which the authors dismiss the attack itself. Paradoxically, as I was reading the pieces, I felt that they could have made the very same points without the attack even having taken place. What happened in Tiananmen, it seems assumed, is just another example of the repeated violence we have witnessed in recent years, ultimately rooted in Beijing’s disastrous policies in Xinjiang. But is this really the case? Isn’t Tiananmen a turning point?

What is hard to understand is why the attack in Tiananmen is rarely acknowledged as an act of terrorism. Granted, we don’t – and probably never will – have access to all the details, and yet I believe we have enough material to claim that the attack was clearly intended to be deadly. The place of the attack, moreover, certainly has major symbolic value as the political center of the PRC, but it is also packed with Chinese and foreign tourists at virtually all hours. It thus isn’t just politically charged, but also in the spotlight of international observers. I find it hard to believe that both these factors weren’t part of the attackers’ calculations.

Moreover, what generally makes terrorism so disturbing is the randomness of the victims. We are constantly reminded of this when something happens in Boston, London, Madrid or any other Western city. Media run stories on the victims, their backgrounds, and how they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why hasn’t this been the case with Monday’s attack in Beijing? I have lived in Beijing for years and I visited Tiananmen many times. This summer, for the first time, my parents visited China. I took them to Tiananmen, I’ve got a picture of them in the very same place where the two tourists died on Monday. I could have died, my parents could have died. My Beijing neighbor, my Chinese teacher, my best friend: all could have died in Monday’s attack.

Why is it so difficult, then, to call the attack what it is: terrorism? Why do scholars and journalists (see, for instance the BBC and NYT) seem more concerned about the weakness of China’s claims that the ETIM was involved in Monday’s attack, rather than in the tragedy of the attack itself?
I do agree with the author’s scepticism (to some extent) about the existence of ETIM as an organised movement, though I stand completely by my prior assertion that Räbiya Qadyr is, to use the technical term, a total douchebag. And I don’t want to come off as glib or jaded here, since these are certainly good questions to ask which don’t necessarily have easy or straightforward answers. But there does seem to be a distressing pattern which conspiracy theorists are likely to make hay of: our media don’t pull any punches when calling such acts terrorism when they happen on our soil, and for good reason. The Boston bombing was an act of terrorism, pure, simple and dastardly. Yet we must keep in mind that our media have a horrific blind spot when it comes to terrorism overseas. The Boston terrorists were Chechens, about whose political radicalism Russia’s government warned us well in advance. Prior to the Boston bombing, Americans - particularly of the neoconservative mindset - were likely to view the Chechens not as terrorists but as allies and freedom fighters. The designation of ‘terrorist’ as commonly used in Anglo-American news media, therefore, seems needlessly selective and political. Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, regardless of whether it is inflicted upon the civilian populace of nations whose governments we don’t happen to like at the moment.

This has been the case with China for a long time. The Uyghurs were considered the Tibetans with an unsung cause - even by yours truly at one point. (To be clear, I am far from saying now that the Uyghurs of Xinjiang do not have cause to be angry! The poverty and systemic prejudice are still points which the Chinese government must do far, far more to address.) But in the analysis we must never lose sight of the facts: five people are dead, the random victims of an attack targetted at a significant, symbolic hub of Chinese public life. And yet Western media are still placing the term ‘terrorism’ in this story inside scare-quotes, and are making sure to elicit as much scepticism of China’s government’s claims as it dares.

There are points where the hermeneutic of scepticism to which China-watchers are prone goes way, way too far, to the point where they come off as crazy or inhumane. I daresay that this is one of those points. Innocent people, including tourists, were killed. I would kindly advise China-watchers and ‘public intellectuals’ to stow the anti-CCP political crap for another day, and direct the outrage where it truly belongs. Just as we were all Bostonians then, and just as we were all New Yorkers twelve years ago, we should all be Beijingers now.

27 October 2013

Orthodox England’s last stand


Ealdgýð Swan-Neck discovers the body of Harold the Martyr

Harold II of England, son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the last of the Saxon Kings, was on this day nine hundred forty-seven years ago martyred in battle at Hastings by the conquering Norman army of William the Bastard. Thus began what has come to be known as the ‘Norman yoke’ – a memory of an England whose traditional language and traditional folkways were repressed by the imposition of foreign laws and a continental nobility. The Norman yoke was no fiction, and they wasted no time in laying it upon Saxon shoulders: within three years of King Harold’s death they had laid waste to the entire north of England and reduced it to starvation and beggary. Within twenty, they had effected a massive upward concentration of wealth, through force consolidated the holdings of over 4,000 Saxon thanes and earls into the hands of some 200 Norman lords, clamped down tight on minting to ensure their control over the developing monetary economy, introduced a more rigid form of feudal administration, introduced usury through fresh arrivals of Jewish financial families from Rouen, and took their payment by bleeding off the English economy to finance infrastructure in Normandy. The common English folkways crushed and driven underground in the aftermath of King Harold’s death still found expression through, for example, the popular mediaeval legend of Robin Hood, who championed simple folk and the commons against a ravening nobility.

Regrettably, during the Reformation and through the English Civil War, the ‘Norman yoke’ came to take on an anti-Catholic and anti-apostolic flavour as English Protestant nationalists attempted to marshal the Saxon heritage to their cause. In actuality, the deep irony of the ‘Norman yoke’ legend being invoked by the radical Calvinist Roundheads, was that their ‘reformed’ heresy was every bit as much a legalistic, repressive and regicidal Norman import as William the Bastard had been! (Jean Chauvin hailed from Picardie.) And, of course, in the end, those same English Protestants who bemoaned the ‘Norman yoke’ gladly welcomed with open arms yet another continental invader named William, who harrowed the Scottish, Irish and northern English every bit as brutally as his eponym had harrowed the Saxons.

In truth, Old England was not heterodox in any way, even if there was a backsliding in the moral life of the Church its twilight years. Much, much less were they wont to treat their kings with the dishonour their heretical offspring shew theirs, the doom of Saint King Edward the Martyr not withstanding. (Even that regicide was treated as a hitherto unheard-of and nigh unforgivable crime.) And, as Archpriest Andrew Phillips put it: ‘England of the Old English with all its faults was also a land of hallowed bishops and holy kings, of martyr-priests and confessors, of noble princes and princesses, saintly abbesses and humble cowherds, meek hermits and lowly monks, righteous families and silent nuns, faithful queens and gentle abbots, who hallowed it from North to South and East to West’. Just as the English people were generally loyal to their own kings, the English Church and people were highly loyal to Rome in all things beginning with St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury. But, as Vladimir Moss put it in his book, The Fall of Orthodox England, ‘the “Romanity” to which the English were so devoted was not the Franco-Latin Catholicism of the later Middle Ages. Rather, it was the Greco-Roman Romanitas or Ρωμιοσύνη of Orthodox Catholicism’. The English maintained a special relationship with Byzantium not only on account of St Gregory the Great’s Byzantine apocrisiary post, but also as a consequence of so many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes faring thence to serve in the Varangian Guard - a connexion they upheld and even intensified after the Norman Conquest.

The only true peculiarities, which came to be regarded as a faults from the perspective of Rome, pertained to matters of ecclesiastical governance. Rome detested the Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury for having failed to receive the omophor of his office directly from the Pope, even though no English archbishop had done so since 735. The Roman Church, in its quest to reform itself and to take up the mantle of secular and political power in its own right, in imitation of and over-against the kings it consecrated, was beginning to tread a dangerous path which would ultimately result in the heresies of nominalism, voluntarism and the moral plagues of the Reformation. Vladimir Moss makes the case persuasively, that even if it was by ecclesiastical-political happenstance rather than by a deliberate upholding of traditional doctrine, the English Church found itself in the position of being more orthodox than Rome.

The papacy of Alexander II, having rejected Stigand as non-canonical, was left hearing only the Bastard’s side of the story. The Bastard, aided by Prior Lanfranc of Bec, insisted to the Pope that: a.) Harold was the son of a murderer (though even if Earl Godwin of Wessex had killed Ælfred Æþeling, there was no right cause to hold his son to account for it); b.) St King Edward the Confessor had promised to make him his heir (though in this, we have William’s word alone); c.) that Harold had been crowned king against canon law by an illegal Archbishop, Stigand (even though this is not attested from English sources); and d.) that Harold had broken an oath sworn over holy relics to support William the Bastard’s claim to the English throne (even though, as hostage of the Normans, he was clearly under duress when he made the oath, and had no knowledge of the relics he had sworn that oath upon, since William had made shameful and blasphemous use of them by hiding them from Harold’s view). The Pope, however, in the absence of any delegation from England or the English Church, lent his full support to William and even proclaimed it a holy war to save England from error.

Harold himself should be considered here. He was, by all accounts, a good king and a good man: ‘wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate and prudent in character’. He repeatedly showed courage, loyalty and compassion - he saved two men from quicksand when he was a hostage of the Normans. In the wake of the death of St King Edward the Confessor, he ascended to the throne without any opposition from the Saxon witan. Vlaidmir Moss cites Florence of Worcester’s glowing account of his short reign:
[Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerics; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbances of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm.
Given his evident piety, the news of Pope Alexander II’s excommunication of him and support for the Bastard doubtless came as a great blow to Harold and to his men. Yet, as Moss recounts, Harold still fought bravely, and many of his men, including men of the Church, fought stalwartly at his side. Moss wonders:
Why did they stay, knowing that they stood to lose, not only their bodies, but also, if the anathema was true - their eternal souls? Very few probably knew about the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople or about the theological arguments - over the Filioque, over unleavened bread at the Liturgy, over the supposed universal jurisdiction of the Pope - that led to the schism of 1054. Still fewer, if any, could have come to the firm conclusion that Rome was wrong and Constantinople was right. That Harold had perjured himself in coming to the throne was generally accepted - and yet they stayed with him.

In following King Harold, the Englishmen who fought and died at Hastings were following their hearts rather than their heads. Their hearts told them that, whatever the sins of the king and the nation, he was still their king and this was still their nation. Surely God would not want them to desert these at the time of their greatest need, in a life-and-death struggle against a merciless foreign invader? Perhaps they remembered the words of Archbishop Wulfstan of York: “By what means shall peace and comfort come to God’s servants and God’s poor, but through Christ and through a Christian king?” Almost certainly they were drawn by a grace-filled feeling of loyalty to the Lord's Anointed; for the English were exceptional in their continuing veneration for the monarchy, which in other parts had been destroyed by the papacy.

The English might also have reflected that this day, October 14, was the feast of St. Callistus, a third-century Pope who was considered by many Roman Christians of his time (including St. Hippolytus) to be a schismatic anti-pope. If that Pope could have been a schismatic, was there not much more reason to believe that this one was schismatic, too, being under the anathema of the Great Church of Constantinople and presuming as he did to dispose of kingdoms as he did churches and blessing the armed invasion of peaceful Christian countries by uninvited foreigners? And if so, then was it not they, the Normans, who were the schismatics, while the true Christians were those who refused to obey their false decrees and anathemas? In any case, after the battle very few Englishman fled to Old Rome, the traditional refuge of English exiles. They preferred, as we have seen, the Orthodox capitals of Constantinople and Russia!
We beseech you, Harold, Holy Martyr and Strastoterpets, intercede for us with our Heavenly Father, that we may also find the kindness to insist upon his justice and the courage to fight for his truth, even when all the forces of the world, of empire and of worldly gain are arrayed against us. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages; amen.


The golden dragon of Wessex

26 October 2013

Birth parents of Greek ‘mystery girl’ Maria found


The story of a young girl who was taken from her Romani parents by the Greek authorities on suspicion that she wasn’t really their child has just taken an interesting twist: her actual birth parents have been found, confirmed through genetic testing. And they are Romani. To be completely frank, I am angered and disgusted that it needed to come to this.

This doesn’t really prove anything yet, of course. We still don’t know all the circumstances of little Maria’s case, and we should forbear from judging either her parents or her foster-parents. But the case has unmasked part of the depth of the race-based resentment, suspicion and phobias against the Romani that still undergirds a lot of European culture, including (to my chagrin as an Orthodox catechumen) Eastern European culture, even if it hides under a humanitarian gloss and pious opposition to child trafficking. (Always the rich and the settled blame the destitute and the outcast for the problems their avarice creates! How truly blinded do we have to be, to attribute the very real problem of child trafficking solely to the assumed moral failings of the Romani? Or of the poor generally?) Neither her birth parents nor her foster parents benefit at all from this sort of posturing, much less the young girl herself! As such, this resentment, suspicion and fear must be exposed, addressed and repented thoroughly. Thankfully, the facts of the case as they stand have gone some way toward discrediting the typical anti-Romani canards, and that is to the good. As Christians we are wayfarers (or, more accurately, Wayfarers), and if we are serious about following the words and example of Our Lord in all things, we are obligated to treat other wayfarers with generosity and hospitality, and not to cast them off, mistreat them or prejudge them.

Ultimately, though, we need to hear from little Maria, and from those who best know her and how to take care of her.

Most Holy and Ever-Virgin Theotokos, blessed among women, our sweet hope and source of our salvation, please hear and deliver our prayers to your Son our God, that he may for love of you save our souls. Watch over and protect this young girl who bears your most glorious and magnified name. Protect her from all who would do her harm or use her for their own selfish or hateful ends, and please see her delivered safe back to where she is loved and where she truly belongs.

23 October 2013

Huge statue of Our Lord erected in Syria

In the war-torn country, on a hilltop near Saydnaya, there has been erected an immense statue of Christ, taller than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue and in progress since 2005, entitled ‘I Have Come to Save the World’, the work of Yurii Gavrilov and Artush Papoian. The director of the St Paul and St George Foundation, Samir el-Gadban, had this to say: ‘We hope that this sculptural composition brings peace and love to the hearts of people and that our work will help restore peace and calm in this long-suffering region.’ And the Moscow Spiritual Academy: ‘The ensemble with the blessing Christ in its center, seen from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, is designed to bring peace, mutual understanding, and hope for common salvation to a region engulfed in the flames of war.’

So too do I hope! And that this massive statue may serve to inspire others to do the ordinary works of mercy and care, still greater in Our Lord’s sight, in a land which so desperately needs it, I also pray.

21 October 2013

Pointless video post - ‘Nothing to Save’ by Sunless Rise


Now, I’m not the greatest fan of melodeath. But Sunless Rise know how to do melodeath and extreme power metal properly - clearly they were looking to the masters amongst their neighbours to the west: Finland’s Children of Bodom and Sweden’s Skyfire... and then wasting no time trying to outdo them in every aspect! It’s not just the frenetic keyboard and shredding guitar solos - overdone, those can be needless frippery - but the sheer relentlessness and ultra-technical prowess of these powerful Peterburgians is a phenomenon to listen to, even on the slim four tracks they’ve released on their 2009 demo. Everything fits together like clockwork: the clean and death vox, the incredible drumwork, and of course the duelling keyboards and guitars! The first track, ‘Nothing to Save’, is a masterwork! If that weren’t enough reason to listen in awe, though, it’s clear that this band is looking in a very interesting direction in terms of their lyrical themes, which deal with disillusionment from a capitalistic-consumeristic world of material distractions, and the discovery of deeper permanent and spiritual truths. Do have a listen, gentle readers - hopefully they are as much to your liking as they are to mine!

17 October 2013

Their problem, never ours

Don’t be suckered by Greenpeace’s ‘Arctic 30’ campaign. It isn’t about pollution.

The Saker calls it a ‘political judo move’, which is precisely what it is. The reasons why outlets like the Guardian are busily drumming up the usual Russophobia and negative spin from all the usual corners (the French calling Russia ‘implacable’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘repressive’, charging their own government with supposed weakness on challenging Russia’s human rights record; the British with the typical slurs of a ‘nationalist strongman’ who is ‘crude, combative’ and ‘no gentleman’ while making the usual snide predictions about Russia’s inscrutable brutality and immanent decline; the Germans as always trying to make themselves out as the voice of reason and moderation without challenging at all the official line; the Poles displaying their perennial paranoias and Pharisaical attitude on economics; the Italian contributor seems the only one taking a realistic and rational line), is simply to cover their arses from criticism over this. The charitable view is that Greenpeace has been played like a violin by the UK and US petrol industries, who are motivated only by getting their piece of the Arctic action. At the very least, the environmental movement’s loudly-stated concerns over the environmental impact of Russia, in this case as in all too many others, seems far too selective to be fully sincere.

Oh, and the police in that most enlightened and tolerant of nations, the Netherlands, seem to have matters well in hand, breaking and entering the apartment of a Russian diplomat without a warrant, beating him up, detaining him and so forth. What, as Lord Peter Wimsey might put it, an awful, bitter, bloody farce.

It strikes me that the gentle reminder of Our Lord to pick the beam out of our own eye before reaching for the mote in our brother’s is a bit of advice most of us in the Anglo-American West (and aligned countries) could take more carefully to heart. Heaping odium upon a nation which is struggling and muddling forward with as much grace as it can from its traumatic communist past and equally-traumatic post-communist transition is both unfair and unkind. If the problems we see in the world are always the fault of ‘those people over there’, and never our own, that is a hint that, both as a society and as individuals, we need to take a long, hard and careful look at our own priorities and perspectives.

16 October 2013

The heirs of Jackson


John at EifD links to an intriguing analysis of the Tea Party and its place in American political history by Salon contributor Michael Lind. Lind argues, contra the mainstream liberal consensus which declares the Tea Party to be irredeemably irrational, that this is merely the latest expression of a Jacksonian faux-populist politics. It is meant to service and sate, quite rationally if we are defining rationality as the use of beliefs to satisfy material desires, the economic gluttony of Southern elites (the ‘local notables’) and some of their class allies from elsewhere. He notes that in that attempt, they even use the same demographic-electoral and tactical toolkit that they have been using for centuries now: the ‘Solid South’, the filibuster, voter-ID and voter-registration initiatives to disenfrachise non-whites and privatisation of public works.

Lind’s analysis is compelling, and these are important insights. The Tea Party may try to speak on behalf of working-class whites, but the statistics show that they are more likely to be educational and economic elites, and that they are more likely to be regional. And it shows clearly that we traditionalist conservatives (particularly, but by no means solely, those of us who live outside the American South) need to tread with extra caution regarding the Tea Party. Though we might with reason share some of their critique about government overreach, we simply cannot afford to give licence or turn a blind eye to what Dostoevsky would doubtless call the ‘vanity’, in that sort of cynical rabble-rousing the Tea Party elites engage in, and in the idea that we might sustain ourselves and our society upon bourgeois self-satisfaction and material prudence alone (however selectively applied).

15 October 2013

Words of hope from Gar Alperovitz


Members of Ohio Solar Co-Operative, image courtesy Axiom News

Writing in The Nation, co-op proponent Dr Gar Alperovitz outlines some of the ways in which a distinctly American form of economic democracy might come about - and indeed, some of the ways in which it already is. A broad alliance between the petit-bourgeois of the public service sector and the traditional proletariat - of the new NGO sector and the unions - for the sake of placing greater productive power in the hands of ordinary citizens, seems to be already underway. Dr Alperovitz takes care to stress that this effort will be ecumenical in terms of ideas and institutions as well as classes: the resources (particularly real estate and credit resources) and purchasing power of various instruments of the state, particularly at the local (city, county, state) levels, will have to be marshalled to the task, as will private and non-profit resources. Of course, the instruments of civil society will have to take the active role: traditional credit unions and trade unions are already mobilising in the wake of the credit and jobs crises, respectively. Dr Alperovitz turns to the examples of Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, to show how even in the wake of big steel and big automotive leaving their American workers out in the cold, church and labour leaders were able to build up enough grassroots support to open the mills again, now run by around 500,000 worker-owners. (His reference to the collaboration between the big traditional American unions and the Basque Mondragon Corporation for establishing worker co-ops is particularly interesting!)

Do read the whole thing, gentle readers. It is incredibly heartening to see!

12 October 2013

A personal announcement

For a long time now – since the very beginning of this blog, actually – I have given serious consideration to joining the Orthodox faith. Searching my conscience, I cannot pretend that my own motives have been entirely pure or that they were always motivated by right. It was idle curiosity more than anything else that led me to pick up Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Russian Revolution and ‘Unifying Christians East and West’. It was the eager, naïve xenophilia of one about to embark on the mission of Peace Corps which led me first to the Antiochan Orthodox Church of St Mary’s in Pawtucket, and then to the Russian Orthodox Church of Aleksandr Nevskiy in Saimasai. I can only bow my head in gratitude to Fr Isaac and Fr Valery for the patience and kindness they showed to me, in gently leading me toward the truth in spite of my cultural (and in the case of my conversation with Fr Valery, linguistic) biases and barriers.

But the more I continued to read, and the more I continued to search, the more I was led back to that crossroads which stood before me in Kazakhstan. And just as I was taking note of the life that the Russians of Saimasai led – even in the midst of the spiritual darkness and bondage I was in at the time – I have no doubt that God was taking note of all as well. And as S. Cyril did not throw such students with internal turmoil and doubt and ulterior motives out of his congregation, but welcomed them to return, so I always found Orthodoxy beckoning me to return, back to that lonely crossroads. From the news and press releases from the Patriarchate of Moscow, or from the pleas for peace and stability in the Middle East joined by the Catholic Church, or from the pages of Berdyaev or Bulgakov or Plato even.

At the same time, I was finding Anglicanism to be incomplete and floundering on the whole, particularly the ECUSA whose ‘lightweight modernism’ has long been a source of discomfort and frustration to me. Notwithstanding the exception of the wonderfully smart and kind clergy and laypeople of S. Stephen’s (to whom I owe a tremendous debt in my spiritual recovery and growth), the liturgy of the Anglican Church was a comfort, but I found there was very little reflection in the broader church upon what the liturgy meant. (I’ll be blunt: Bp KJ Schori’s homily in Caracas was a tipping-point for me.)

And even as I was beginning to accept more and more of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church as true, I found within her the same regimenting Aristotelian tendencies, her need to classify everything down to its last detail, her need not only to reach for God, but to take him apart to see what made him tick. As much as I admire Pope Francis, the unseemly wrangling within Catholic circles over what he and his message mean to the Church – and the need for every side to grasp at some sort of certitude over it – managed always to hold me back from conversion. The warnings of John Milbank and George Grant loomed always in the background. Always the rebuke of Christ to S. Peter stood baldly before his throne, and the question left standing: ‘who do you say that I am?’

And always, somehow, Orthodoxy seemed to be there, speaking in her quiet and contemplative voice. And more and more, she began to make sense.

I am beginning my catechesis into the Orthodox faith, under the guidance of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos Church in Beijing. Your prayers and your well-wishes would be greatly appreciated as I undertake this journey.

11 October 2013

‘You can still see their blood’


Human Rights Watch has issued a report accusing the Syrian rebels (particularly those in ISIS, al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham) of systematically slaughtering the Alawite communities in their 4 August assault on Latakia Province, in mass executions and indiscriminate shooting sprees, leaving (at latest count) over 190 dead, many in mass graves, with 200 more having been abducted and held hostage. These figures are as yet still incomplete. The rebels are no longer even pretending to give lip-service to continuity even with the demands of the early protests for democracy in Syria; these fanatical murderers are no longer even trying to cover the evil they are wreaking upon the Syrian people. Any claim they may once have made to being the legitimate voice of the Syrian opposition lies utterly discredited by their actions and by their calls to that action (however rapidly backpedalled). The idea that the rebels are in any way committed to peaceful living with their non-Sunni neighbours is now as phoney as a three-dollar bill (or Liz O’Bagy’s doctorate).

The Alawites and Shi’ites are not the only ones being targetted in Syria. The Christian community native to Syria has long been one of the main targets of ISIS in particular. When ISIS and al-Nusra occupied holy Maaloula, they turned it into a ghost town, driving all the Christians out and desecrating all of its churches and reliquaries. As the refugees continuously point out, this is the very cradle, the heartland and historical centre, of Christendom which is being torn asunder today.

Please pray for Syria and all of her people - Orthodox, Catholic, Alawite and Sunni alike! Please pray that peace once more comes to the Holy Land, and that the leaders of the world may be guided by God and his gifts of reason and compassion, to forge a diplomatic solution which respects all of her people. And please give generously and with discernment to those groups which are actively seeking to help Syrian refugees.

10 October 2013

The curse of the political independent


We are the largest political contingent in the United States. In recent years we have quite reliably made up more than a third of the voting electorate: in 2011, as many as 40% of American voters identified themselves this way. We don’t like attaching themselves to the political parties, and with good reason. We (quite rightly) see the political parties as so much institutionalised theatre, driven by groupthink and rancour, either to dysfunction or to extremism. We would rather rely upon our own good sense, and take our stands upon each issue as it comes to us.

Many of my best friends and mentors growing up were political independents. I understand how they think and why they think what they think – in part because I myself have come to sympathise with them so heavily now. Like them, I am not a fan of either the mainstream Democrats or the mainstream Republicans. (Though, there are quite a few Democrats in recent years with some incredibly decent ideas: Elizabeth Warren, Dennis Kucinich, Kathy Dahlkemper. Republicans with good ideas are harder to find, admittedly, but they still have a Sisyphean battle to fight for those ideas to even to gain attention within the ‘big tent’.) But we independents have our own problems which we must sort out.

The first of which is the curse the non-label label puts on us. ‘Independent’, in the popular imagination, summons up the image of a lone cowboy, someone beholden to no tradition and no value, someone who does and thinks as they please with reference to nothing outside themselves. This is regrettable enough when it characterises popular social reaction to being ‘independent’, but it becomes truly dangerous when those amongst us who do not subscribe to the entire programme of either major political party begin to believe it of ourselves. The lures of libertarianism lie down that stream – the cheap anti-establishment, individualist rhetoric which masks merely a vulgar defence of the corporate status quo. Libertarianism is a temptation to which, sadly, all too many American ‘independents’ are vulnerable, because it arises straight out of (and appropriates shamelessly) the Americanist civic-religious mythos which surrounds the term ‘independence’.

What we independents have to remember is that this mythos is as much to be distrusted as the narratives put forward by both major parties. Indeed, they all stem from the same source. And we must recognise our curse and political label as a potential mark-of-Cain, because no man or woman is truly ‘independent’, ever. Everything we are is dependent. Physically and bodily, we are dependent upon our parents for having birthed us, and upon them and the communities in which we have lived for having cared for and nourished us. Intellectually, we are dependent upon our teachers and mentors, and upon countless influences from our society. The paradox of the doctrine of predestination is that we are free – we have free will – but that even that freedom is dependent upon the goodness of the power that created us. This is a paradoxical formulation which is coming to be adopted (albeit in a necessarily methodologically materialistic way) even by some within the scientific and sociological communities in response to the nouveau atheists and others who cannot reconcile freedom with the fact that we are physically and causally contingent beings.

The problem stems from our political label being, ultimately, a negative: ‘not dependent’. In a sense, it is not a label of our choosing, but rather a means Democrats and Republicans have of saying: ‘okay, you’re not one of them, but you’re not one of us either’. And the negative descriptor carries with it the implication of a concession, that the sum total of American political reality is meant to be defined by allegiance to one party or to the other. I’m going to call the approach that demands such concessions nomicohoplichrimatian pseudo-communitarianism – NPC for short – after the habit of certain bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money of deriding those not-(vocal-enough-)Democrats with commitments to the common good as reductive atomists, hyper-invidusalists and narcissists. I can’t really improve that much upon Dr Russell Arben Fox’s deconstruction of the NPCs (also here), but I’d like to add my agreement to his point that it rarely strikes those advocates of NPC that elections do take place in different contexts which are not entirely dictated by the logic of partisan politics, and that some of us might have politically-meaningful commitments outside the structure of the DNC or the GOP, which might demand that we occasionally make stands on issues not in line with the party platform. (A commitment to a church, say. Or to a union.)

Party politics is indeed part of the social reality of modern America. But if we independents continue to define ourselves by what we are not, or allow ourselves to be defined by what we are not, and thereby concede to the NPCs that the sole or the ultimate expression of community and solidarity is within the established corporate party structures, we will fall victim to the social pathology they promulgate. We will essentially be proving their point for them that there is nothing to political non-alignment except reductive atomism, hyper-individualism and narcissism.

For many of us, perhaps, it is simply a matter of orienting ourselves to more local forms of political expression. But regardless of the solution they choose, self-declared independents who are dissatisfied with the current political status quo quite simply cannot afford to keep calling themselves ‘independents’. We know what we’re against, but what are we for?