14 September 2017

The True Cross and solidarity with ‘crucified peoples’

Iu ic wæs geworden     wita heardost,
leodum laðost,     ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde,     reordberendum.
Hwæt, me þa geweorðode     wuldres ealdor
ofer holmwudu,     heofonrices weard!

Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.
Indeed, Glory’s Prince, Heaven’s Protector,
honored me, then, over holm-wood.

- From the Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood
On the Feast of the Exaltation, a quote from the Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino came to my mind, about the necessity of keeping solidarity with the ‘crucified peoples’ who suffer persecution and oppression in the world – for in them dwells Christ. The True Cross which we venerate today is but one example of the many crosses borne by the people who bear suffering in the world. Whatever one thinks about Sobrino’s logic, I must confess that I would be lying somewhat if I said something similar to this wasn’t one among my motivations for converting to Orthodoxy. Of these there were many, and maybe one day I’ll write about them directly and in a cogent way.

Still. Over half of Palestinian Christians – a minority which has been and still is pressured both by Islamist groups and by the Israeli state, and which is consistently misunderstood and ignored by American evangelicals in particular – belong to the Mother of all Churches, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Christians of Syria, who have recently suffered much, including literal crucifixion, at the hands of Daesh and various other Islamist groups (including those funded by Britain, France and the United States), belong primarily to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Christians of the Donetsk Basin, whose homes, churches, schools and hospitals have been shelled for the past three years by the criminal oligarchy in Kiev and its sadly all-too-existent fascist paramilitaries, overwhelmingly belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. Sadly, even refugees from the fighting face a cool reception among their comrades across the border.

Historically, also, the Orthodox Rusin people of the Carpathian mountains – a people historically without a country of their own – have been a people of many and acute sufferings. They have lived a marginal existence on marginal farmlands, oppressed, heavily-taxed, subject to religious repression by Polish and later Austrian authorities, sent abroad to do hard and poorly-paid labour in the mines of Pennsylvania and the Iron Range, and now unrecognised as a minority (or marginally-recognised) by the countries they currently inhabit.

Even in places where such suffering is not as acute or immediate, Orthodox Christians still number among the most vulnerable. The European country to be hit hardest by the œconomic crisis in 2007, and to take most of the blame and the austerity in the aftermath, was Greece. And the fallout from that austerity has taken a number of very ugly forms: unemployment and poverty, but also depression, suicide and drug abuse.

Even though the stories of such suffering did have some part in my choice to join the Orthodox faith, I am emphatically not saying here that the considerable suffering of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere is somehow unique or set-apart in any way. Indeed, quite the opposite. It has to be remembered that even Christ’s suffering on that Cross which we remember today was not unique; He suffered the same torturous death as that of Saint Dismas and the other zealot alongside Him. And in each and every one of these cases, Orthodox Christians are suffering alongside others: alongside Muslims and other Christians under Israeli occupation and political mismanagement; alongside Melkite Catholics, Ezidis, Alawites and other Shi’ites in Syria; alongside Jews, trade unionists and other targetted minorities in the Ukraine; and alongside fellow sufferers of Washington- and Brussels-driven austerity in majority-Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. And I am not saying, either, that suffering is an indication of anything other than suffering. In all cases but one – the one, that is, which we remember on the day of the Exaltation of the True Cross – the victims are sinners just like everybody else.

There is a certain amount of irony in the history of this feast: the Cross was found by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Saint Constantine of Rome, in 326 – and it was taken by the Persians and only restored to the Orthodox people of Jerusalem by Emperor Flavios Herakleios at the end of a war between Byzantium and the Persian Emperor Khosrow II in 628. There is an Imperial character to the Feast that appears to betray the remembrance of ‘crucified peoples’ – not least among whom Christ Himself. But it deserves to be remembered, in truth, that Saint Helena herself was a ‘stable-maid’ of uncertain origins, and one popular myth holds her to be a Briton – at that time, a low-status, conquered subject people of the Roman Empire. Her status as either the wife or the kept-woman of the Roman general Constantius is likewise unclear from the historical records; later Constantius put her aside in favour of another woman of more noble breeding. Both she and her son were, throughout their lives, remarkably generous to the poor and suffering. Saint Helena built one of the first free hospitals in Constantinople in 330 AD, during her son’s reign – and her example would later be followed by Saint Basil the Great in Cæsarea. Even within these twinned Imperial triumphs celebrated by the Church: the presence of forgotten, subaltern peoples; peoples of the ‘interstices’; victims of violence; subjugated peoples; women – including and particularly women of low birth; poor, sick and suffering peoples; in short, the ‘crucified peoples’ of Sobrino’s liberation-theological meditation – cannot ever entirely be forgotten. Nor should they be.

I remember also a homily given on the Exaltation of the Cross two years ago, by Father Elie at Saint Mary’s Antiochian Church in Pawtucket. He said that even the shape of the Cross was meant to evoke a sense of solidarity. The vertical bar that signifies God’s descent toward man’s condition is only one piece, and if you have only that one piece – that is, if you acknowledge only God’s relation to you as an individual, without reference to anyone else – what you are carrying, and what you are exalting, is not a cross at all. What is needed aside from that is the horizontal bar: the outstretched arms, the understanding that we do not suffer alone, and the necessity of embracing our fellow-sufferer.

The True Cross was, after all, one among three on Golgotha – and tortured to death on the other two, were bandits. And the Lord who was killed upon the True Cross, remembered first the penitent bandit Saint Dismas who was nailed next to him. If Dismas could cry out to Our Lord from his cross, and Our Lord could remember Dismas even as He was dying upon His own Cross, is it not also incumbent upon us – firstly, to take up our own cross, but also to exalt and, if possible, ease the burden of the crosses that are borne by our brothers and sisters, our fellow human-beings both within the faith and outside it?

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