20 January 2017

A North American Orthodox social witness

As we are approaching the departure of a deeply-flawed American President and the inauguration of one with even deeper flaws, now strikes me as a good time to put forward one understanding of a political engagement which (I hope!) corresponds to the mind of the Orthodox Church as preserved in the Apostolic deposit, with a particular emphasis on that left by the great Orthodox saints of North America (who, in our own context, ought to serve particularly as our guides in public life).

Firstly, an awareness of our historical background is always and ever in order. (Keep in mind, please, that I speak as a convert – my own proximate immigrant roots are Moravian-Jewish, rather than Transcarpathian. I’m still very much a ‘bohunk’, and I use the term affectionately, but I’m of a rather different ethno-religious extraction.) The Orthodox Church inhabits history, not merely as dry dusty tomes but as a living and immediate reality. To an even greater degree even than our estranged Latin brothers and sisters, to be an Orthodox Christian in the United States is to be a member of a minority faith; and at that, a minority faith which is conditioned heavily by the immigrant experience. Reading the life and letters of Saint Alexis (Tovt), one is struck at once by how very deeply-felt, both by him and by his flock, were the duelling pressures of assimilation and assertion of ethnic identity – not only in the censorious, overweening comportment of Archbishop John Ireland which led to Holy Father Alexis’s embrace of Orthodoxy from the Unia, but also in the more generalised presence of nativism in his own time. Read this excerpt from one of his sermons:
The United States is our new country. It is a land of freedom and, according to its laws, every good person has access to its free doorstep. But some individuals, and even organisations have recently proposed a law that would forbid the entry into the United States of not only the Chinese, but of all foreigners. They have already lobbied in the Congress to pass a law against further immigration. In order to fulfil their objective they have used all kinds of examples – some of them even true! – and some false, examples that rail in both public and private against our workers!

Those under attack include Slovaks and Slavs generally, whom the nativists call ‘Huns’. I do not wish to hurt anyone, but I would like to point out, that many of our countrymen have on many occasions behaved in such a manner as to have injured not only themselves, but also injured the good name of all Slavs. Therefore I would like to suggest a few examples of behaviour, which our people should shun and which would give added material to the ‘nativists’, who are always ready to look for means to injure people…
The same held equally true for the Arabs served by Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, the Russian immigrants whom Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow cared for, and even for the Aleuts and Inuits on whose behalf Holy Father Herman of Alaska and Metropolitan Saint Innocent of Alaska worked with such tireless devotion – both peoples divided upon two continents, and denigrated as ‘savages’ by Russian and American alike. All of these Holy Orthodox Fathers on the North American continent spoke from the immigrant perspective, and none of them were sympathetic to the know-nothing idea that only Anglo Protestants have a stake in American social life. This did not mean then, of course, and it does not mean now, supporting unlimited immigration or open borders. But to be an Orthodox Christian in America now, and not to have some degree of solidarity with and sympathy for the recent immigrant who has already come here, is to betray an ignorance of our own recent history as beleaguered wayfarers.

Keep in mind also the historical fact that almost all of us Orthodox immigrants were working-class. The Rusin immigrants who still form the backbone of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese and the Orthodox Church in America, were political refugees from Austria-Hungary, subject to religious persecution in their own home country, who were quickly and ruthlessly exploited by American steel barons and mining bosses as scabs and strike-breakers. Many Rusins joined, upon finding themselves being used in this way, the only two unions that were open to them as recent immigrants: the IWW and the UMWA. It also behooves us, then, to keep in mind our affinity for organised labour. Holy Father Tikhon (Bellavin) was a notable, vocal and active supporter of the union movement among Orthodox immigrant workers, and had no qualms whatever about giving money even to left-wing and socialist ‘brotherhoods’ in the struggle against concentrated capital. Even if his political inclinations also heavily favoured autocratic monarchy and the Tsar, ‘in these circumstances’, Holy Father Tikhon wrote, ‘it is necessary to come to help the needy. Why not establish a special fund specifically for the purpose of helping during strikes? It would be sinful not to remember the needy and the suffering during the well-to-do times!

The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the leads of Holy Fathers Alexis and Tikhon, affirms and defends the right of the workingman to the fruits of his labour, reminds him of his reciprocal obligations to care for those who cannot work for themselves, and calls for ‘the equitable distribution of the fruits of labour, in which the rich support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly’, and emphasises that ‘[t]he spiritual welfare and survival of society are possible only if the effort to ensure life, health and minimal welfare for all citizens becomes an indisputable priority in distributing the material resources’. The hostility of the incoming administration to the just claims of organised labour, is something which should, given our history, give grave pause to Orthodox Christians in America, and we should again lend organised labour our material and moral support.

With regard to issues of civil liberties, we have additional reasons for trepidation. The courageous actions of our brother in the faith John Kiriakou, along with other whistleblowers, have been persecuted ruthlessly by the Obama Administration, and though we should welcome the commuted sentence of Private Manning, we need to recognise that it doesn’t go nearly far enough – and, given Trump’s staffing picks and regrettable stances on issues of basic human dignity, we must be vigilant about still further encroachments on essential immunities by the incoming administration and its agencies. On a slightly more hopeful note, the gender-ideological policies of legal harassment against religious believers actively pursued by the Obama Administration, which have mostly affected our Latin brothers and sisters – but which affect us also – are likely not to be pursued with such censorious zeal under Trump.

But, we North American Orthodox Christians cannot afford to be insular and concerned only with our own well-being. The Orthodox Church abroad is suffering – whether in Syria or in Palestine or in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts of the Ukraine – and we cannot turn a blind eye. Just as Father Herman of Alaska and Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow begged their respective countrymen not to ignore or dismiss the impoverished and politically-distraught conditions of the Alaska natives, we are also obligated to speak up on behalf of those suffering from deprivation, war and displacement in other countries. In the shifting of the administrations, there are reasons for both hope and trepidation. The policy of the outgoing administration toward Orthodox Christians abroad, in both the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, has been nonchalant at best, and displays at worst a callous disregard of their lives and livelihoods. The geopolitical goals of the neoconservative element – goals largely shared by many under the Obama Administration – have taken precedence over any humane considerations of Christian lives since the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Trump has thankfully shied away from a potentially-disastrous immediate confrontation with Russia; however, his priorities in Syria remain questionable (particularly given his commitment to a ‘safe zone’ and his ambiguity as to how it will be established), and his policy toward Palestinians is likely to be characterised by a similar callousness and brutality to what came before.

The Orthodox Christian social witness in North America must continue, clear and uncompromising, under the new administration. We must be cognisant of the ways in which it is an improvement on what came before, and equally so, we need to be clear-eyed about the ways in which it represents a backsliding.

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