28 June 2018

Attacks on Romani and Jews in the Ukraine must end


This past week, a camp of Romani outside the city of L’vov was attacked by a gang of fascist hooligans. One Roma teenager was killed. Eight suspects – all local young men from L’vov – have been apprehended and claim membership in a radical-right ‘straight edge’ group, but higher authorities wasted no time blaming Russia for the attack. This attack is, however, the latest of a series of violent pogroms against Roma and Jews in the Ukraine, carried out by right-wing youths, and is part of a rising trend of violence against minorities by right-wing ‘angry youth’, often aided, abetted and ignored by Ukrainian police. Oftentimes, Romani are afraid to come forward because they know the police are on the side of their attackers. Strangely enough, this consistent uptick in right-wing violence against the marginalised dates back about four and a half years, and had not yet started when the Yanukovich government was overthrown.

Now, it is true that violence and discrimination against Romani (and Jews, and Rusins) is by no means unique to the Ukraine. It is also true that the Maidan is fundamentally a rightist-neoliberal project, and not one of the fascist far-right. However, whether knowingly or not, the neoliberal leaders of the Maidan enable and embolden the fascist far-right when they ignore it or when they attempt to dismiss it as solely a ‘Russian problem’. It is no longer credible (if indeed it ever was) to dismiss as ‘Russian propaganda’ the observation that the violence by the Ukrainian right wing has coincided with the rise of the Maidan movement.

Nationalism in the Ukraine is not benign; it has a long and sordid history of violence against minorities, particularly Jews. This is a legacy of the long mediæval Polish-Lithuanian influence (and later Austro-Hungarian and German influence) even on Orthodox spiritual life and political ethics in that country, and that history cannot simply be swept under the rug and ignored. Pointing to the linkages between that history and this modern crisis facing Carpathian Rusins, Ukrainian Jews, Romani and others is neither irrelevant nor ‘gaslighting’ as the partizans of present-day Kiev would like us to believe. Indeed, ignoring and downplaying these linkages presents us with the sordid face of yet another neo-colonialist ideology, the same which was presciently indicated several decades ago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

If police discrimination against Romani in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech and Slovak lands is unacceptable, so is this. These attacks against the Romani and the Jews by the far-right must end. State inaction and complicity in these attacks, now acknowledged by independent human rights groups, must end. The civil war – and yes, it is a civil war – in the Donetsk Basin must end. The linguistic discrimination against the Rusins must end. What is called for is repentance and moral renewal. What is called for is an actual return to the pluralism and radicalism of Kiev’s distant past – not merely a recitation of it for the sake of nationalist glory, pride and vengeance.

27 June 2018

A gift of words from afar

I have rarely had the feeling that, in translation, I was getting less than half of the meaning implied in a work. But such was the case with The Ways of Childhood, the book by Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Byblos and Botrys. Though it is a work of epistolary and biographical non-fiction, about a dear friend in exile of the Metropolitan’s who remains anonymous without, I have few words to describe this work other than ‘prose poetry’, and even then the words I could spend on its description would hardly be equal to the task of praising it.

I’ve been praised for my writing before, on this blog and elsewhere. But reading the Metropolitan’s work I was suddenly put in mind of being a callow untrained tyro in the school of a world-renowned martial arts master, such was the lyrical craft of his sentences. In a few short phrases he could transmit the breath and life of an image, an event, an emotion, a habit. At times, a profound theological truth could be expressed in a mere seven or eight words – a breath, but to unpack it would already be to do it violence, like plucking a flower to examine its petals. The chapter titles themselves are examples of this: ‘Friendship Is the Place That Leads to God’, ‘Men Are Always Wounded by History’, ‘The Majority of Christians Have Not Yet Been Born’ and ‘Creation Is the Breath of Life’. If such is the effect of a translation, I have to marvel at His Eminence’s command of Arabic!

It’s hard to introduce this book, in part because it is so far-reaching, and in part because it describes the life of a certain delicate but deeply-sensitive Arabic worker-intellectual from his childhood on, in ways that touch upon every aspect of human life, from work to worship, from sex to friendship to national and civilisational belonging. Sayyidna Georges offers us a brief biography of his friend from his early childhood up to his sudden departure for a foreign country, followed by excerpts from nine of his ‘letters from exile’. What emerges is a touching portrait of an inner life touched from an early age by the light of Orthodoxy, and its attempt to live that light in a world which is as yet only ever imperfectly (at best) receptive to it.

The eponymous ‘child’ grows up surrounded by Muslims, impacted deeply by the Muslim calls to prayer, takes on a Western education, flees to a certain mountain village that has been impacted by a century and more of war and imperialism, undertakes a semi-eremitical existence, returns to the city life, is enchanted and disenchanted with church and nation, joins the labour movement and its struggles against capital and the police, falls in love with a woman, and then suddenly leaves the country without saying a word. The state of his inward life is revealed subsequently through his letters to Sayyidna Georges, who takes from them certain excerpts to do justice to his friend.

One can take a look at certain facets of this inward life. There is, on the one hand, a deep and passionate thirst for justice and hospitality for the downtrodden, which is not satisfied with nationalism or even anti-authoritarianism, but which insists emphatically on a ‘confrontation’ with the ‘new society’ and all its manifestations (not least of which those within our own psyches). ‘It is hypocritical to denounce only one kind of violence; by remaining silent about other kinds, we become objective accomplices. But woe to him by whom the offence comes!’ On the other hand, there is the deep sorrow with which he chastises the œcumenical movement, which he feels has cheapened the depth of the word of the Gospel in favour of ‘monotonous bureaucracy’, ‘boring papers’ and corporate ‘double-talk’. (And for one who treats the Word – the Living Word and the spoken word both – with such great awe and respect, that is no mere quibble.) He values education – he doesn’t disdain it or relativise it or individualise it the way modern American homeschoolers do; nor does he treat it as a mere instrument toward political or cultural indoctrination – instead, he sees it as a way of bearing forth the light of the Resurrection. At the same time, he sees the end of education a kind of simplicity and singleness of heart; at the same time as he acknowledges the dangers to both in becoming educated in the wrong way. ‘Reason is inseparable from our plunge into the body of the world… Æternal life is not the domain of intellectuals and scholars, but of those who are wounded and disfigured.

He develops a particularly strong bond with the Russian émigrés who, like him, lead a life in exile in which they are burdened intolerably (as Mother Maria Skobtsova would have it) with a kind of boundless freedom, the freedom to become (if they choose) Christ-bearers in exile. There is a kind of brotherhood he expresses between his own Arabic soul and those of his Russian fellow-expats. This brotherhood is expressed through the natural Russian sympathy with the deprived and the poor. The Russian priest he meets in exile he holds up as a model of the self-sacrificial parish priest, giving himself ‘on behalf of all and for all’ as he gives to all his parishioners of the chalice he bears.

He is broad, seeing the value even in the Muslim tradition and its spiritual graces, without being relativist. ‘Christ is the æstuary into which flow the virtues and beauties dwelling within every religious tradition.’ Having been sickly from his youth, he pays special attention to the prayers of the Church for the sick, and treats sickness and health themselves as bearing witness to certain spiritual truths about the human soul and its indelible relationship to the body.

Reading back over this, it looks like I’ve given only the barest of possible overviews of this book, and haven’t done it justice at all. Presented here by Sayyidna Georges is no hectoring preacher, no new Victorian moralist: merely a living, suffering and sensitive human soul who has been wounded, and who speaks from a hidden fullness that is belied by and which comes from his wounds. Being as it is so deeply biographical and epistolary, it seems strange to call this a ‘spiritual’ or a ‘religious’ book, even though its perspective is profoundly Orthodox (and specifically Antiochian). I did indeed enjoy this book, but at the same time felt a strange kind of sweet sadness in reading it, the kind of sadness which comes of receiving a letter from a friend one has not seen in years.


Sayyidna Georges (Khodr)

23 June 2018

Memories of a duck hawk

Nine years ago I started this blog specifically as a Peace Corps journal named Matt’s Existential Musings, and it’s kept me company in various forms throughout the years long after I left Peace Corps. Going back and reading my first entries from the MEM days, some of them strike me as painfully naïve. I’m not entirely sure that the ‘me’ of nine years ago would recognise the Matt Cooper writing these reflections now. Of course, there are some threads of commonality and some repeated themes that run through my writing even from then to the present time; and these have been refined and honed with deeper reading and learning, but more importantly through experience.


Anglican hatchery; German flight

When I started off out of college, I was primarily influenced by the works of liberal, latitudinarian Anglican and Episcopalian divines like Charles Gore and Frederick Denison Maurice who contributed to Social Gospel Protestantism. This was a result of having studied religion under Dr Gary Dorrien in college. After Dorrien left Kalamazoo for Columbia, I transferred to the philosophy department and began studying continental philosophy under Dr Chris Latiolais. The thinkers that I latched onto most heavily during this time were, of course, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, although my senior thesis was essentially a Hegelian / Marxist defence of the communitarian ideas of Dr Michael Sandel, whose work on justice continued to be influential on me after college.

Again, I look back now and I view my collegiate work as hopelessly naïve, incomplete, one-sided, detached from lived reality in a way which makes that same work’s fixation on lived realities seem all the more ironic and existentially-pathetic. But the same drive, the same desire to understand justice at a deeper level than that offered by the ubiquitous Lockean liberalism that makes up so much of American political discourse – that has never left me. Part of the reason I ended up joining Peace Corps was to make real those values which I had given voice to – but life hits you harder than you first expect.


A strong Eastern wind

Studying at Kalamazoo College, I took full advantage of the study abroad programme they offered there. The Chinese language very quickly became a passion of mine, thanks to the now semi-retired Dr Madeline Chu, though I had taken an interest in Chinese history since my high school area studies class on the subject, and also through the novels of Pearl S Buck and RH van Gulik. I decided to take a year abroad in Beijing, studying at Capital Normal University.

Once there, through Dr An Yanming, I encountered the philosophical traditions of Buddhism, the Zhuzi Baijia and – most importantly – Confucius. The ideas of Confucius as presented to me in the Analects appealed deeply to me – here was a man for whom justice (yi 義) in its full depth, was everything, and for whom the question of justice could not be detached from its social moorings – particularly ritual (li 禮). Only through ritual could justice be attained, with the final flower of that justice being love (ren 仁). Even though I understood that Confucianism and the Social Gospel Christianity in which I’d been brought up were two very different worldviews and religions, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their similarities and potential synergies. In one way or another, I have been approaching and grappling with these synergies throughout my entire intellectual life.

It pains me somewhat to own that for all its advantages, Kalamazoo College was only of limited help to me in pursuing these synergies. Even though the study abroad programme was truly a blessing and even though my professors did encourage me to take full advantage of it, when I came back it became clear that there was no space for Eastern philosophy to be had on campus. I had to go back to the religion department if I wanted to continue studying Confucianism and Buddhism with any degree of seriousness (which I did). I have never, however, stopped taking Confucius seriously on his own merits rather than filtering him through the lens of the German-idealist canon.


By the Silk Road back to a green England

Again, when I left college I sought after some form of real-life service, and I found it in AmeriCorps and Peace Corps. It was in preparation for Peace Corps that I first discovered the Orthodox Church – in fact, the same church in which I would become a member after coming back from China the third time: Saint Mary’s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I also picked up a thin old cloth-bound volume at the Providence Athenæum, by a man who would come to be one of my foremost intellectual influences in life ever since. The book was The Russian Revolution. The man was Nikolai Berdyaev. His religious, personalist approach to the continental tradition of philosophy blew my mind: it was only on reading him that I came to understand Marxism as a religious heresy; through him and only through him, my rarefied undergraduate Marxism was transformed into something more clearly, self-awarely and cogently Christian again, something more human. He impressed me with the importance of the creative impulse even in considerations of the grand scale. He started me on the long and arduous process of holding my philosophical convictions up to life as a whole and seeing if they worked – a process I’m still on, by the way. Poets began having importance for me, too. Particularly the Qazaq Muslim poet Abai Qunanbaiuly, whose open and creative spirit in the Book of Words seemed to rhyme with what Berdyaev was saying philosophically.

I washed out of Peace Corps; partly a victim of my own bad habits, and partly a victim of bureaucratic CYA on Peace Corps’s part. I’ve got enough distance on it now where I can keep from beating myself up about it, and where I can acknowledge both my own failures and points at which the American government could have done more to help me succeed. Still – failure kicked my arse hard, sent me into a downward spiral. Reading Kurt Vonnegut helped. I didn’t do much intellectual work at all in the years to follow, even though I went back to school and took a few courses in œconomics and mathematics. I continued to delve into the moralistic Anglicanism of yore: I read William Laud and Richard Hooker and Hugh Latimer and Samuel Johnson and Ken Leach. I continued to be shaped by Gore and Maurice. I became an admirer of Newman and Pusey and the Oxford Movement. It was a beautiful socialism I wanted, a socialism fragrant with red roses and incense, a workers’ and families’ movement that bowed only before Christ the True King, and which would leave no man or woman behind, no matter how unfortunate – and sweep them all up into a glorious Renaissance polyphony of praise and thanksgiving to the Creator of All. I confess: that’s still a winged vision that I cherish.


Rebel without a class

My faith in that socialism would be deeply shaken by graduate school. I was still very much a do-gooder at heart, and I longed to be in a place where other do-gooders planned to do their good. And that place, as it turned out, was the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. (Yes, they encourage you to spell it all out that way on your résumé. I should have known then what I was getting into.)

I made close friends with the international students – the Chinese students, yes, of course, first and foremost, because I spoke Mandarin. But I also got close to Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Bengali, Senegalese, Kirghiz and Nepalese folk in Pittsburgh – mostly grad students like myself and, to top it off, mostly fish out of water themselves. But for the most part I was withdrawn into my own shell. I studied hard. I began reading George Grant, John Ruskin, Wang Hui, Jiang Qing and Peter Viereck, and my socialism began taking a hard consciously-conservative turn. I began to distrust the élites with whom I went to school, not least because I couldn’t start to tell with most of them where the self-promotion ended and where the actual work began. My rebellion was unconscious at first, and only became conscious when I started to realise that I was basically training to become my own public relations agent. I threw myself instead into the academic side of things – like a crazy man, I undertook both a capstone project and a senior thesis (even though GSPIA only required one of the two from me). The senior thesis marked a kind of distributist turn: I wanted to turn political and social power back to the neighbourhoods, back to the black communities that the ‘big planners’ and ‘urban renewal’ types had taken so much from, and I wanted them to do it using public, common spaces.

Problem was, I was turning out to be a ‘big planner’ myself. I couldn’t help it. I had an inkling of it while I was there, but the school was essentially designed to crank out three types of people: spooks, sophisters and superintending fussbudgets. I certainly wasn’t going to be a hitman for the CIA; I’d be damned before I became a promoter of laisser-faire and ‘markets cure all’. And as for the fussbudgets, well… I almost became one. It was only Viereck and his suspicions of the bourgeois bureaucracy who largely held me back from it. As grad school ended, I had a pregnant girlfriend on an expired student visa and no medical insurance. I did the only decent thing: I married her, and I followed her back.


The perpendicularised expatriate

So, there I was. In the birthplace of Lü Bu.

Teaching English to the students of farmers, living in a Soviet-era brutalist apartment complex on the edge of the Gobi Desert in hands-down the strangest boom town I’ve ever experienced, fuelled by a heady mix of rare earths processing and consumer electronics. Listen: it was a place that, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, had come unstuck in time.

Sinicised ethnic Mongolians from Yuan-era families answered to English names in my classroom as they followed the soap-operatic lives of Korean comic-book characters in their textbooks. Cafeteria-quality pizza and fried chicken were served at fancy cafés with red curtains and lacquer tables, but the good food was served at the street stalls run by people from every other possible part of China. Brand spanking-new hospitals built like skyscrapers dispensed prescriptions for traditional Chinese herbs which, as often as not, worked better than the ‘scientific’ Western remedies. My daughter was happy, bless her. My wife wasn’t, bless her too. We survived mostly because we didn’t drink the damn tap water. I still get otorhinolaryngological infections from my bout with pneumonia there. But China changed me. It’s probably better to say that life changed me, because it kicked my arse. No wonder I turned into a metalhead.

China was a different country where the politics and the philosophies and the assumptions that I’d been raised with didn’t seem to apply in the same ways. I suddenly found myself with this very odd, very fierce conviction that China was screwing up, but she should be allowed to screw up in her own way. She shouldn’t have to take dictation from us, we clueless Americans and expats, who didn’t know up from down or left from right, but had still managed to delude ourselves that we knew best. Partly because I myself was so disoriented, and partly because I’m a contrarian and wanted to show myself off as clever, I began defending all of my egalitarian convictions in the language of reactionary high tradition; and my distrust of democratic liberalism with all the revolutionary stridency of Mao Zedong. How was all that supposed to work? Damn if I knew.

The people who made the most sense to me were the ordinary people. My in-laws. My students and their parents. My co-teachers, especially Vivian, whom I’ve mentioned before. China was upside-down, jumbled-up, mish-mashing its most venerable of traditions with the crassest and most gaudy possible approach to development. And yet somehow the people I worked and interacted with at the face-to-face level were sane; they were human, even in the face of these things that should not be. How? Dare I say it? Was this beauty? Was this… hope?

It may seem strange, then, but it really makes a kind of sense to me, that somehow Berdyaev should come back to me in China, smiling wryly beneath his moustache and bringing under his arm copies of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, War, Progress and the End of History and On Spiritual Unity. Vladimir Solovyov and Aleksei Khomyakov soon joined my list of philosophical influences, and all because of what I beheld in Baotou. Somehow the apophatic spiritual politics of the Slavophils and the apocalyptically-inflected Platonism of Solovyov were able to speak wisdom to me about this perpendicularised public sphere, this orchestrated chaos that was my life – but it was a wisdom that wasn’t their own. And that was how I sought out and found Mitrophan Chin in Boston, who introduced me to Fr Sergiy Voronin at the Russian Embassy in Beijing and… well…

The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox was born out of the chaos. Queue the theme of Lü Bu.


Old faith in the old capital

I moved schools, largely for personal reasons. I became a schoolteacher at a public middle school in Luoyang. My wife was happier: we were within daily reach of her parents, and they helped us so much in raising Ellie I can’t possibly thank them enough. (The elder Chinese wisdom of the multi-generational household is old, and wisdom, for a reason – though I have to admit, at the time I was more than a bit of a freeloader.)

I was left quite a bit to my own devices in following the dictates of my conscience and adapting myself to the faith that had suddenly visited me. Mostly, those dictates involved watching terrible B-movies and playing Smash Bros. with my next-door neighbour and best friend in Luoyang. I got good at playing several characters, but was still most comfortable with Marth. I took on a prayer rule. I fasted. And I read Russian Orthodox authors. Saint Filaret of Moscow; Saint John of Kronstadt; Konstantin Pobedonostsev. I became an insufferable traddie for a little while, and annoyed everyone with the fasting rules I tried so hard to keep. It was not the best of foundations to build on, but I tried my hardest to build on it with what tools I had to hand.

For the time being, I was philosophically stagnant. Philosophy wouldn’t save me; I had to put it aside. I didn’t cease being interested in œconomic or political questions, though – I read some works by Fr Sergey Bulgakov, and also some by my father’s old friend and colleague, the late Dr Jaroslav Vaněk, about the heterodox political œconomy of Yugoslavia, and came away with a newfound interest in gæopolitics wherein I found myself more and more often taking the side of the victims of empire and the resisters of neoliberalism, wherever they happened to be. A rather ironic position to be in, for a Henan nüxu 河南女婿 living in a city of peonies, the very heart of what was for much of human history the most powerful empire in the world. But neoliberal – Henan is not. My father-in-law is a businessman and entrepreneur, but (as I came to learn during my time living with him) he’s got opinions which occasionally range well to the left of my own on questions of œconomy and gæopolitics.

My son Albert was born in Henan, same as his sister Ellie. I got to see him and hold him for a couple of weeks before I had to return to the United States, which I did in advance of my wife.


Homeward bound

I returned home in the middle of 2015 and began looking for work. This would begin one of my long stretches of unemployment where it was pressed firmly home to me, just how little I’d learnt from graduate school these seemingly all-important lessons about being a self-promoter. (I’m not one.) I attended Saint Mary’s Antiochian, and befriended several people there – one of whom hooked me up with an internship at a policy research group: the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; later I would get a job at EAB, which is how I ended up in the Twin Cities. I gush about Arabic hospitality, but I really could stand to gush quite a bit more than I do. It is really only owing to the efforts of the wonderful, caring people who worship at Saint Mary’s Antiochian – particularly Fr Elie Estephan and his contacts in the legal world – that my wife is living with me in the United States now, and that we are once again a united family. To him and to the Saint Mary’s family as they prayed for me and supported me both spiritually and materially, I truly owe a lifelong debt.

Intellectually, I sustained myself on history: the history of agrarian movements in Eastern Europe; the history of third-party politics at home. Movements of language, cultures and peoples fascinated me. I became consciously interested in the people living in the margins, at the crossroads, on the borders, between the cracks. The crucified peoples of the world. It became a desire of mine to stand with them and to share their suffering, in however small a degree. I got my wish. Not in the way I would have hoped, but I got it all the same. I was fired. Some bare six months after my family had come here.

Unemployment sucks. Even for someone like me, who understands all the pitfalls of our meritocratic mythology and of Lockean contractarianism, being unemployed feels like a failure of manhood. The literature which could best give voice to my pain was proletarian and immigrant: the novels of Carpatho-Rusin immigrant Thomas Bell, who understood all too well the slow dehumanisation that takes place for the unemployed. The consciousness of being an object of pity. It was through this unemployment period that I came to sympathise far more strongly and in a far more visceral way with the plight of workers. Before, in my Marxist phase, I had considered them only in abstraction. Now I was among them, one of them. Material conditions suddenly mattered a great deal more; when you don’t have money, worrying about anything else seems like a luxury. The working-class Rusins who had come here from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a people truly marginalised and between the cracks, had understood this. They found strength in their faith, but they still organised and fought. And suffered. And died. And those who lived, and were literate, wrote through their suffering. In this writing I found consolation, and a will to fight.


The Platonic machinist

I’m still processing from my year of reading Plato, which began when I was still employed at EAB. Actually, I began reading Plato in part because I felt it necessary to understand the historical reasons behind the rise of a certain political figure. But I found that Plato wasn’t necessarily as interested in history as he was in the same questions that drove Confucius: what is justice? What is the Good? What do these things look like (and act like) in the human being? And he had a way of approaching the question which shook all my certainties and made me feel completely, philosophically inadequate to the task.

I also found that the Plato who wrote and left his Dialogues was a very different Plato than the Plato of the public imagination. The Plato of the public imagination is a great abstracter, a kind of proto-Gnostic – someone more concerned with the realm of the ideal than with the demands of life here and now. But the Plato of the Dialogues was very much this-earthly; he was very much concerned with how we are to behave in the here-and-now, with how we justify ourselves and our actions, with how we deceive ourselves with various approximations of the truth which are not actually the truth. For Plato the Forms are not their own end, but a practical exercise which we use to approach and measure ourselves against the Good. He used a gæometric exercise – that is, he used Forms – to convince Meno’s slave that what he thought he knew wasn’t actually true, and to prompt Meno’s slave to figure out for himself (or rather, to ‘remember’) how to reason for himself toward the truth. Though Plato may have been an élitist, his emphasis on knowing led me to a new appreciation for manual labour. There is no shame in it when I became an hourly wage-earning machine operator here.

I didn’t abandon interest in history, though. In our current gæopolitical mess, I found I had to become interested in China’s Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, in which Chinese thinkers had to grapple with the behaviours and problems of states in an environment of international anarchy. It’s not surprising, given my reading of Jiang Qing, that I would turn to the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals; what did surprise me was how realist it was, in spite of (or maybe because of) its eschatological fixations. It charted a kind of grand-historical ‘fall from grace’, and it drew careful distinctions between what was laudable, what was acceptable, what was possible and what was outright wrong. Only suddenly, at the end, are we treated to a kind of flashing eschatological hope – the arrival of the qilin, a prefiguration of the intrusion of Christ into history.

Dong Zhongshu, the great interpreter of the Gongyang Commentary and the father of an entire philological-hermeneutic tradition that would include He Xiu, Gong Zizhen, Wei Yuan, Lin Zexu, Kang Youwei and Jiang Qing, became another great philosophical influence on me. He took the philosophy of Confucius, and – applying it to history, seeing the outworkings of Tian in the historical records – transmogrified it into an intense, demanding form of personalism, a witness to the Heavenly personality of persons, a personalism which had definite political ramifications. This again brought me back to the personalism of Berdyaev.


The unlikely places

Alien Qazaqs were my dear friends;
Chaotic China my sanity;
Wise Greeks my cloud of unknowing;
New England Arab refugees my anchor;
Stateless Rusins my consolation.

Hatched east of the Mississippi,
Migrant to the seaboard,
My whole life I looked east.
Further and further thence I flew in my search,
Only to roost on the western bank.


I think I’ve done a fairly good run-down here, of where I’ve been the past nine years – and, incidentally, drawn up a decent list of my more important intellectual influences and guiding spirits along the way: Plato, Confucius, Dong Zhongshu, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, Aleksei Khomyakov, Abai Qunanbayuli, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, George Grant, Wang Hui and Jiang Qing. Gathering up all the fragments, perhaps there is a pattern to be seen there. Or perhaps not. Even if there isn’t a pattern (or rather, better to say, there is a pattern but it is for God’s eyes and not for mine except in the fullness of time), what I’ve seen of life, even the ugliest and hardest parts of it, is still beautiful and still to be cherished.

20 June 2018

Despatches from the Xinzuopai in Monthly Review


Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍

I don’t think I’ve gushed on this blog yet about how awesome Dr Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 is. Allow me to do so now. Wen Tiejun, a contemporary and friend of Wang Hui 汪暉 and Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元 and a key voice on the Chinese New Left (or xinzuopai 新左派), has made his name primarily as an activist attempting resuscitate the Rural Reconstruction Movement. A native of Hebei Province, he grew up in a poor farming family and worked as a trucker to support himself before becoming a social worker. His early life experiences and education convinced him of the need to strengthen rural communities, build a coöperative œconomy from the grassroots in the interests of the farmers, and establish food security through œcologically-sustainable methods. He was a vocal and ardent critic of the 1990’s pro-globalisation and neoliberal ‘reforms’ under Jiang Zemin 江澤民, and was dismissed from his teaching position as a result – and only reinstated with the growing realisation under Hu Jintao 胡錦濤 that a more balanced approach to rural development was needed.

Crucial to his thinking were the ‘three rural problems’ (sannong wenti 三農問題), namely: those facing rural agriculture, rural villages and rural persons. He was a critical advocate of Mao Zedong 毛澤東 and held that Mao’s policies, though necessary to retain independence from the capitalist world system, had left rural areas underdeveloped and culturally-weak. Wen’s work has been aimed primarily at achieving sustainable agricultural practices, the independence of rural villages and the collective self-respect and advocacy of China’s rural people; for this he and his students – many of them transplants to the mainland from Hong Kong – have looked to alternative models. Sustainable agriculture in India has been one of these: they’ve drawn inspiration from Gandhi and from the political-educational projects of Kerala Province.

In any event, Wen Tiejun’s (relatively-)recent English-language articles on the Monthly Review, co-authored with his colleagues Dr Lau Kin Chi 劉健芝, Dr Margaret Jade Sit Tsui 薛翠 and Dr Erebus Wong 黃鈺書 are all golden and all worth reading in detail. Here is a list:
I’m not going to bore you, gentle readers, with what is sure to be a brief, overly-simplistic and boring synopsis of these four essays. Suffice it to say here that they draw upon a number of interesting sources. Old-school Marxists Immanuel Wallerstein and Samir Amin figure very prominently in their understanding of the global scope of the problems facing China’s farmers. But – as indicated above – they do not draw upon solely Marxist sources. The very name of the Rural Reconstruction Movement (a name not all of these scholars accept) is meant to recall the work of the rural reformers during the Republican era. And in contradistinction to the colonial semi-peripheries of Hong Kong and Shanghai, they view the ‘indigenous’ culture of the Chinese inland, of the ‘99%’, as a valuable deposit of knowledge and culture rather than as a blank canvas upon which ‘modernisation’ and ‘industrialisation’ can be painted.

Dr Wen Tiejun himself has invoked the names of Jimmy Yen 晏陽初 and Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 – the ‘progressive intellectuals of the 1920s and ‘30s’ mentioned in his first Monthly Review article – in his establishment of rural advocacy groups, credit unions and educational organisations. His students have also done so in their own work. Jimmy Yen did not claim any denominational affiliation for himself, but in terms of his education, he belonged to that great broad stream of Social Gospel Anglicanism which sustained Richard Tawney, who met with Dr Yen and admired his work on his trip to China. Dr Yen was not deterred from his Christianity even by the ill-treatment he received in Hong Kong at the hands of bigoted white-supremacist Englishmen. Indeed, as head of the Chinese YMCA he spoke of being a follower of Christ. His intellectual formation and friendships with Methodist and Anglican rectors and volunteers including William Aldis, James Stewart and Fletcher Brockman deeply informed his rural activism and belief in mass education. William Aldis in particular was a deep influence on Dr Yen – he was no overbearing proselytiser, and did not preach to the boys under his care, but instead took care to witness to the Gospel by leading a gentle and unobtrusive life.

Liang Shuming, on the other hand, was a Buddhist by religious conviction and a Confucian by philosophical ones; and he combined a deeply conservative – even reactionary – social outlook with certain radical populist demands on the social organisation of rural life. Though he never quite saw eye-to-eye with Mao Zedong (with whom he was intimately related at several points in his career; sometimes in a friendly way and sometimes far less so), he shared with Mao a conviction that China needed a culturally-specific socialist revolution from the rural grassroots in order to stand on its own feet. Unlike Mao, Liang felt this revolution needed to be peaceful and needed to draw from ‘traditional’ sources – in particular the philosophy and group-oriented pædagogical methods of Wang Yangming 王陽明.

Wang Yangming was also a significant influence on the third of the great rural reformers of the Republican Era, Tao Xingzhi 陶行知, who actually took his name from Wang’s works. Tao Xingzhi bridged the Confucian and the Christian worlds; like Dr Yen he was educated at a Christian missionary school. He ended up joining, along with Yen and Liang, the democratic-socialist China Democratic League (Zhongguo Minzhu Tongmeng 中國民主同盟) and, like Liang in particular, Tao was more sympathetic to the Communists than he was to the Nationalists. He sheltered CCP cadres from the Nationalist secret police. He was outraged at the political assassinations of Li Gongpu 李公樸 and Wen Yiduo 聞一多 and declared himself ready to take the ‘third bullet’. Tao dedicated his life to educational reforms, and even though (like Dr Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, his comrade in the CDL) he was proscribed by the Cultural Revolutionaries as a ‘rightist’, he has since been rehabilitated in the ‘official’ histories as a key player in Chinese modernity.

As witnessed in these essays and elsewhere, the advocates of rural regeneration are synthesising and integrating insights borrowed from a wide spectrum of thought. Indeed, the Hongkonger members of ARENA have directed the students of Dr Wen toward Gandhian thought and the left-democratic politics of Kerala in India. The philosophical ‘concentration’ of Dr Wen is specifically political, of course, and it leads in an unmistakeably populist, that is to say narodniy, direction – Dr Jade Sit Tsui works in Chongqing, after all.

But Chinese thought in general needs, and naturally gravitates to, precisely such ‘concentrations’ as those heralded by Liang Shuming and Jimmy Yen. The work of digging up the ‘indigenous’ wisdom of the Chinese inland must be continued and deepened, and not limited merely to the political-philosophical sphere. The work of Dr Shen Jiming 申紀明 (or Gi-ming Shien), a traditional Chinese philosopher who introduced the deep and subtle thought of Laozi 老子 to a certain Fr Seraphim (Rose), inspired precisely such a concentration. Fr Seraphim, and later Hieromonk Damascene, would come to see Laozi as a prophet of the Way, whose Incarnation in the person of Christ he had not yet seen.

16 June 2018

Who knows?


One of the complaints that Socrates’ critics – especially the elder Athenian statesmen and Sophists, and this is particularly significant – had of him was that he was constantly carrying on about ‘shoemakers and carpenters and smiths’. This was particularly true of the tyrant Critias, who has a half-dozen ready answers to the question Socrates asks him about moderation in the Charmides. This looks like knowledge of truth, of course – but it isn’t. Critias understands enough of rhetoric to appear as though he has gnōsis, but he doesn’t actually have it. Which is particularly frustrating coming off the end of that first tetralogy of Plato’s, where all he does is raise aporias which deflate all our readerly pretensions to knowledge. Critias has the answers! we want to cry. Just let him give them to us! But Plato wants us to see and understand, through Socrates’ cross-examination of Critias, the danger in that.

Let me put this another way. Plato is an élitist insofar as he distrusts the wisdom of ‘the many’ and believes the government should be in the hands of the wise and virtuous. But his élitism is often badly caricatured by his late-coming readers. He is by no means an apologist for the wealthy or propertied, for the status quo. He is actually most eager to deflate the public intellectuals of his day, the Sophists and their students, the ‘serious men’ of the Athenian ship of state – the sort whom Alcibiades was wont to be wooed by. He raises the questions among the statesmen like Critias. He goes to the ‘wisest’ and ‘worthiest’ teachers of the men of means he can find: Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias and Polus. Each time he leaves mostly unsatisfied, in the dark, more confused than before.

So where does Socrates go to find the truth? Well, ultimately, he dies for it. He goes to trial before the Athenians and is judged for his doubts about democracy and about the gods, for corrupting the youth – but most of all, for making the intelligent and ‘serious men’ (the Friedmans and Krugmans, the Pinkers and Chaits, the Coateses and Fukuyamas of his time) look like the fools they truly were. For Plato, the first glimpse we get of the truly true and the really real – the nous bending itself to ‘remember’ some kind of formal wisdom which transcends it – is actually in the Meno. But it’s not Meno himself who utters it! It’s not Meno who experiences metanoia. It’s Meno’s slave!

This is an important point, and these reflections are actually thanks to Rebecca Bratten Weiss and her excellent take on the ‘Western canon’. She points out, with no small degree of well-intentioned mischief, that Plato delighted in subverting the expectations of his audience. She cites Plato’s Symposium and how it’s the voice of Diotima ‘breaking in on the sausage party’ to deliver the most convincing of the tributes to erōs. Or when Socrates uses a scandalously feminine analogy for himself, likening himself to a midwife in the Theætetus (and, by extension, his male students to mothers of thought). So when we see Meno’s slave committing and then correcting – by and from himself – a mathematical error in calculating the area of a square, it must be taken both symbolically (that in Meno the ‘noetic’ faculty is enslaved to the will and to the animal ‘mind’), but also literally. For Plato, the philosopher can come from anywhere. The philosopher might even be a cobbler or a smith or a carpenter. Or a foreigner or a woman or a slave.

In the Apology, Socrates lambastes, each in their turn, the statesmen, the sophists, and then the poets, and then the common workmen of Athens. The statesman earns the harshest and most absolute of rebukes, the full brunt of Socrates’ mockery, followed by the sophist, whose pretensions to philosophical wisdom are even higher than the statesman’s. Socrates has a bit more patience with the poets, but he ultimately dismisses what they have to offer of ‘wisdom’ because he finds that they are merely intuiting it rather than knowing; their ‘wisdom’ comes as a kind of irrational ‘genius’ or ‘inspiration’, and the Muses may bestow or take it at their pleasure. It’s actually the working men, the craftsmen, who come off the best in Socrates’ Apology; even though he judges that the artisans ‘fell into the same error as the poets’, at least in this case Plato’s Socrates softens the blow, saying this error is actually based upon a real form of knowledge. A cobbler makes good shoes; a smith makes good pots; a carpenter makes good chairs. Among the Athenians they are the ones closest to the Good, but they don’t yet quite have it. They are removed from the Good as far as a painter is removed from the craft of the material he paints.

Socrates clearly demonstrates the ability of the hoi polloi (like Meno’s slave) to love wisdom, even though this ability is for the most part latent. And yet… Socrates largely speaks with, and attempts to teach, the ‘perilous young men’ of Athens, the privileged sons of the aristocracy. These are the ones he is charged by the Athenian assembly of ‘corrupting’. These are the ones who are – in his view – most in danger of the real corruptions of a Critias (who, you will note, gets very close to the ‘beautiful’ youth Charmides). The ‘élitism’ of Socrates and Plato is one which acknowledges the deep dangers of élite rule! The failures of Socrates – the ones for which he must truly be ‘tried’ – are those in which his students remained strangers to his teaching and flocked instead to the rhetorical promises of the tyrants.

Though I suspect his philosophical sources are more Bergsonian than they are Platonist (and this is certainly a topic I will have to come back to at a later time, given Bergson’s influence on Liang Shuming and the Arab nationalists), Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Byblos and Botrys has this to say: ‘Spiritual discernment does not acquit a person of his own political responsibilities. In order to build the perfect city, it is necessary to handle bricks, stone and steel.’ I must wonder if Plato wouldn’t agree.

When Socrates attempts to lead his two interlocutors toward discerning the nature of justice, and viewing it in ‘large print’ in the ‘city in speech’, Adeimantus begins with the producing class and the question of labour – this is the ‘city of utmost necessity’. Justice does not yet appear in Adeimantus’ necessitarian city of producers, but at the same time, justice cannot appear without it. And when a workable notion of justice finally does appear in the Republic, it is expressly in connexion with work. Justice cannot be done without doing. I have said it before, but once again: it is grossly unfair to Plato to paint him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist or a gnostic who tried to build up a world of pure ratiocination. It’s true that he wanted us to ‘forget the body’ temporarily when considering justice, but he was equally insistent that we can’t forget it forever! And that is why, in the second half of the Republic, Socrates must talk Adeimantus and Glaucon down from their spiritual vision of the Good at the mouth of the cave, shared in silent awe, and back into the cave where they must work to enlighten others. It’s left as an open question whether Glaucon in particular is up to the task.

13 June 2018

The doyikayt of the Mother of God


Yiddish is one of those languages that has been on my ‘wish list’ a long time, and not merely for genealogical reasons. The tongue of the Jewish diaspora in Eastern Europe, a Germanic language inflected by various older Hebrew usages, it expresses an existence ‘in the margins’. The story of the Jews in Europe is the story of a people ‘between the cracks’, a people not entirely innocent even within the context of its own oppression – but oppressed all the same.

Yiddish has two words for ‘here’. The first is simply: do דאָ, cognate to the German da (as in Hegel’s Dasein). The second is a compound word also derived from German, and its connotations are more complex: aher אַהער, which comes from the German hier and a prefix a- which is derived either from the Germanic as or also.

There’s a difference in connotation between the two forms. The first, being simple, monosyllabic and straightforward, doesn’t seem to connote any kind of self-awareness; it’s literally just ‘being there’. But the compound aher already has a kind of reflexivity built into it; it means ‘in this place’. I have to wonder about the prefix here, the ‘also’. The ‘also-here’ construction of aher seems to connote that the Jew in Europe has trained herself to think of herself as ‘also’, as ‘other’. The ego is present in aher; there is a self-distancing and a double-mindedness in aher which is absent in do, which – again, I have to wonder, not being knowledgeable about Yiddish except in a second-hand way – may be one of the reasons that doyikayt was constructed from the latter.

Doyikayt is a political idea that arises, interestingly, from the aher, the ‘also-here’, experience of Jews in Europe. It is the idea that a kosher Jewish life, a life in accordance with the Mosaic law, can be lived wherever it is already found. It does not require a ‘homeland’ because its homeland is already here. But even as a political idea, the parallels between the political life of the European Jew and the spiritual life do not have to be sought at a very deep level.

The Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, may be thought of as truly doyiker. Let’s first understand the context: she was living ‘between the cracks’ in an occupied Roman territory – Judæa – which was under the rule of a deeply-Philhellene, all-but-pagan client ruling house – the Herods. Everything about the experience of the Second Temple Jews under the Herods was aher. They were ‘also-here’ in the sense that their political expectations had been shaped by the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom of the Maccabees. The debates within Second Temple Judaism about the rôle of the law in Jewish life all arose within this historical-political context. The political questions about the law and its interpretation were all aimed at the achievement of the same ‘homeland’ that the Maccabees had won in the Holy Land, for their one brief glorious historical moment. The Pharisees and the other teachers of the Law were not wrong to take an expansive – one might even say ‘liberal’ – account of it. But their embrace of the Law was fundamentally egoistic, fundamentally reflexive, fundamentally ‘also-here’. The Law was a means of distinguishing themselves from the Romans, from debtors, from the ‘unclean’.

By contrast, the Most Holy Mother of God had a spiritual understanding that was never ‘also’, merely ‘here’. An impoverished but highly noble descendant of David, she never sought any return to the glory days of the earthly kingdom of Israel. During her life she who was most worthy of distinction and honours never sought after any this side of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Saint John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, put it: ‘the Virgin Mary during Her earthly life avoided the glory which belonged to Her as the Mother of the Lord.’ He cites the Evangelist Luke, who was the one not only to paint the first icons of the Virgin Mary, but also to recount her life. Her devotion to God is single-minded, is completely lacking in ego. Notice how in the icon of the Annunciation her head is always inclined, bowed meekly. She never seeks to compare herself to anyone else. Her first reaction to her visitation by an angelic power is one of awed silence.

Great attention is given in Orthodox Mariology to the ‘yes’ that she gives to God, that allows Our Lord Christ to be born within history. In the Gospel of Luke, she says: ‘Ίδου η δούλη Κυρίου’, which is rendered into Jacobean English as: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’ But unfortunately, this sounds a trifle ostentatious to the modern ear – the word ίδου simply means ‘look!’ In the Aramaic that the Mother of God would have spoken herself, this language is even simpler: ‘ܗܐ ܐܢܐ ܐܡܬܗ ܕܡܪܝܐ Hâ ’annâ ’amtâh d’Mâryâ.’ There were other words she could have chosen to express herself: the more formal ‘hineni’, for example, or the theatrical ‘chava’. But that monosyllabic , that ‘here!’ which is also an exhaled ‘ah’ of self-forgetting admiration, is the same word as the Yiddish do, with the same meaning and connotation. Before God, the Blessed Virgin has nothing ‘also’ to prove, nothing to expect, no one to compare herself to or against; she is simply here. Her ‘here-hood’, her spiritual doyikayt, makes her uniquely free to give her ‘yes’ to God.

At this point, I feel I should apologise if I have overstepped my mark, tried to intellectualise something that is best comprehended in the same awed silence that the Mother of God held at the Annunciation. At the risk of exposing everything I have said up until now to the charge of being linguistic-analytical sophistry and etymological fallacy (a charge which may indeed have some validity), I am not arguing that the Blessed Virgin was somehow a forerunner of the General Jewish Labour Bund among the Eastern European diaspora. Though it would take a peculiar and wilful kind of density to ignore the radical political connotations of her song to the Lord, the ‘autonomy’ that she has is a spiritual truth first and foremost, a fruit of her soul’s self-forgetting transparency to God that allows her to magnify Him.

11 June 2018

New Priestmartyr Mitrofan of Beijing and the Two Hundred Twenty-one Holy Orthodox Martyrs of China


The Orthodox Church in China dates back to 1683, when the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 captured and resettled the Orthodox inhabitants of a ‘Christian Tatar’ colony named on the Amur named Albazin within the city limits of Beijing. Apostolic Christianity in China dates back much further (to the days of Guo Ziyi 郭子儀, a famous Chinese Christian celebrated in history and opera as a patriot and military hero), the first Han Chinese man to choose to become an Orthodox priest did so in 1880.

Chang Yangji (常陽吉), born on 10 December 1855, was raised within the Russian ecclesiastical mission inn Beijing by his mother and grandmother after his father died young. He was educated by a Chinese Orthodox Christian named Long Yuan 隆源. Humble, peaceable and self-effacing as he was, he became a catechist at the age of 20 and was ordained a priest at the age of 25 by Bishop Saint Nikolai (Kasatkin) of Japan. He objected to this appointment at first, demurring: ‘how can a person with insufficient abilities and charity dare to accept this great rank?’ However, he was prevailed upon by the head of the mission, Abbot Flavian (Gorodetsky) to accept the office. He had a premonition when he took the priesthood that his death ‘would not be pleasant’, but he meekly accepted the office, taking the name of Mitrofan after the saintly bishop Metrophanes of Constantinople.

Fr Mitrofan spent fifteen tireless years serving God, and assisting Abbot Flavian in translating, proofreading and disseminating Orthodox liturgical books in the Chinese language. He was a true unmercenary and thought nothing of giving away much of his salary to the poor and needy. He was thought of as foolish for this. Not only did many people take advantage of his generosity, but he also had to endure a great deal of abuse both from his own people and from outsiders. At one point he suffered a mild breakdown and was relocated outside the mission. However, he remained firmly within the Orthodox faith, knowing (in the words of Hieromonk Damascene) ‘that he had embraced a faith that transcended culture’, and firm in the belief ‘that the revelation of Christ was as much the property of China as it was of any other country’.

This was a contentious point. China at this time was subject to imperialistic designs by foreign powers. The Qing Empire had already lost two Opium Wars to Britain, and other countries (including Japan, Germany, France and Russia) secured through the unequal treaties various other concessions from the Qing government, some of which remained in force until 1997. The ham-fisted rule of these foreign governments was rightly resented by ordinary Chinese people. Unfortunately, the foreign ‘devils’ were not the only targets of resentment. One of the ‘concessions’ extracted by the Western governments was the freedom to send missionaries anywhere in the country, and many Chinese people, like Fr (Chang) Yangji, were converting to Christianity. Foreigners themselves were often well-protected and ensconced within fortified legations; Chinese Christian converts, however, were softer targets and easier prey.

The anti-foreign sentiment had begun to congeal, toward the end of the nineteenth century, and produced several subversive secret societies with an anti-government agenda and millenarian beliefs. Such secret societies have a long history in China: the Huangjin 黃巾 movement against the Han; the Bailian 白蓮 movement which rose up against the Ming and Qing. Indeed, when Chang Yangji was born, the Qing government was busy repressing a bloody revolt in Zhejiang and Jiangxi called the Taiping Tianguo 太平天國, which was ironically driven by a heterodox Christian belief drawn from heretical forms of Protestant fundamentalism. This revolt lasted for 14 years, claimed the lives of around 25 million Chinese people, and permanently weakened the authority of the Qing government. However, unlike the Taiping Tianguo, the secret society that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century was anti-Christian. The Yihequan 義和拳, or ‘Fists of Righteous Harmony’, were an offshoot of the Bailian movement that sprouted up in Shandong province. This movement practised a certain form of martial arts, and attracted peasants as well as disaffected lumpenproletariat. After one failed attack on Qing forces, these ‘Boxers’ instead began attacking defenceless missionaries and Chinese Christian communities.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Orthodox churches in Beijing and Zhangjiakou were destroyed in a pogrom by the rebels, along with the Orthodox printing press, unpublished Chinese translations of Orthodox texts, and a large collection of movable type. On 10 June 1900, the Yihetuan attacked the Russian mission; many Chinese Orthodox met their martyrdom there, including Fr Mitrofan. The rebels found him sitting in his courtyard and ran him through with spears; he met his repose under a jujube tree growing in the courtyard.

A number of other Orthodox Christians were murdered by the rebels in subsequent weeks. Fr Mitrofan’s wife, Tatiana, was spared from the Yihetuan’s crazed violence on that first night by the courageous actions of her daughter-in-law Maria. However, Matushka Tatiana was captured on the morning of 11 June and beheaded outside Beijing. Fr Mitrofan’s elder son Isai had met the same fate, martyrdom by beheading, four days prior to that, because the rebels knew that he was Christian. Fr Mitrofan’s second son, Sergei, managed to survive the pogrom and later became a priest himself. Fr Mitrofan’s third son, Ioann, was tortured by the rebels – they split open his shoulders with wounds 1¾ inches deep and severed his toes; however, Maria managed to save him by hiding him in the privy. The following day he sat at the entrance to the mission, where he was mocked and jeered by other boys, who called him a ‘follower of devils’, to which he replied, ‘I believe in God; I don’t follow devils’. Some adults asked him if his wounds hurt, to which the young martyr Ioann replied that ‘it doesn’t hurt’. When the rebels returned and carried him off to be executed along with Saints Tatiana and Maria, two witnesses (Protasy Chan and Irodion Xu, who had not yet been baptised) testified that he went with them willingly, without fear and without hurt from his wounds.

A number of the Orthodox Christians martyred by the Yihetuan were ‘cradle Orthodox’ descendants of the Albazinian Cossacks who had been relocated to Beijing by the Kangxi Emperor. These included Saints Klementy Kui, Matvei and Vit Hai, and Anna Chui. When the catechist Saint Pavel Wan was killed, he died with a prayer on his lips. Saint Ia Wen, the head teacher at the mission school, very much like her namesake the Persian martyr, suffered twice for her belief. On 10 June the same rebels who killed Fr Mitrofan, threw her to the ground and hacked at her with spears, leaving her for dead. A sympathetic Chinese man discovered her still alive and nursed her back to health in his home. However, the rebels discovered her again and tortured her to death. Both times, Saint Ia confessed Christ before her tormentors.

The Orthodox Christian martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion were killed, not because they were unpatriotic and not because they were collaborating with foreign governments, but solely because they confessed Christ. Many of them had done so all their lives, and were part of a Chinese Orthodox community that had been welcomed by Emperor Kangxi and encouraged by Emperor Yongzheng 雍正帝. If you had asked them directly, most of them would likely have answered – as Fr Mitrofan Chang’s spiritual father Saint Nikolai of Japan did during the Russo-Japanese War five years later, when he refused Russian diplomatic protection and allowed his Japanese priests to hold Orthodox prayers for a Japanese victory – that there was no conflict between their Orthodox faith and loyalty to their country.

The Russian Orthodox Church has proclaimed all 222 of the Orthodox victims of the Boxer Rebellion to be saints. Though in 2000, the officially-atheist Chinese government loudly protested against the beatification of the 120 Catholic martyrs of China (86 of whom were Chinese converts who suffered under the Boxers), the same government had no objections to the simultaneous glorification of the Orthodox martyrs of China by the Russian Orthodox Church. This asymmetry of reaction is significant. Although it may be merely a case of our confession being (for now) too small a presence in China to be worthy of notice, it’s also true that China considers the Vatican a diplomatic rival and a foreign state; however, China does not seem to view the Russian Church in the same way.

The glorification of these Orthodox martyrs also bears witness against the evil cults (xiejiao 邪教) such as the Bailian and Bagua sects which gave rise to the Yihetuan, and against the heretical chiliastic and fundamentalist distortions of Christianity that led to the Taiping Rebellion. Though they started out as rebels against the Qing government, the men who killed Fr Mitrofan and his family and parishioners were motivated by a rabid hatred of Christianity, spurred by just such fanatical beliefs.

As China begins to rediscover her true nature and true path, may the first martyrs of that country for the sake of the Orthodox Church be a guiding light. Victorious and Holy Fr Mitrofan, Martyrs Tatiana, Maria, Isai and Ioann, Martyrs Klementy, Matvei, Vit, Ia, Pavel and Anna, and those Martyrs whose names are lovingly known and remembered in eternity by God, pray to Christ Our Lord that he might save our souls!
Thy two-hundred twenty-two martyrs, O Lord,
Shining forth from the Empire of China,
Held the Christian faith as a shield and bowed not before idols,
Accepting torture and death from their fanatical countrymen.
The lips of the passion-bearing youth cried out:
‘We hold suffering for Christ as nothing,
In this fleeting life we trade for life eternal.’

Мученицы Твои, Господи, два сте двадесят и два,
В Царствии Китайстем просиявшии,
Веру Христову яко щит держаще и кумиром не поклоньшеся,
От единополеменных обезумевших муки и смерть прияша,
Усты отрока страстотерпца воспевающе:
Болезни за Христа ни во что же вменяем,
За жизнь временную жизнь вечную улучити желающе.

09 June 2018

The problem of becoming doyiker


Enlisted men from Racine, Wisconsin, 1915

I’ve said before that whatever Jewishness I have is problematic and hopelessly Americanised. I have a biological grandmother on the ‘wrong’ (that is to say, spear) side of the family who was Jewish. She sadly didn’t live long enough to pass on much of her experiences or cultural awareness to her children, let alone to her grandchildren. Religious Jews would consider her ‘apostate’. Sæcular Jews would consider me (at best) bet Gershom. And yet, as I’ve also said before, having Jewish family is not nothing. Relatives of mine perished in the Shoah; I’ve learnt their names and (as far as my amateur genealogy would allow me) their stories. I’ve felt that that much was my solemn duty.

The results have been intriguing. History – even personal history – rhymes in strange ways. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Moravia, settled in Racine, Wisconsin and became a machinist. I, a ‘peregrinator’ as one dear reader of my blog put it (fun factoid: my favourite bird growing up was the migratory duck hawk, of the sort which perched in the rafters of the MS&E building at UW-Madison), made a temporary home in China before moving back to the Upper Midwest – the Twin Cities, in my case – and became a machinist. To my knowledge, my Jewish family had not one Zionist bone among them (though of course, that could be a very different case now). And my great-grandfather may have had Bundist sympathies. Certainly he lived the ideal of ‘there, where we live, that is our country’, to the point where he picked up a gun and fought in a war opposing his own former homeland – and came home wrecked by the invisible brutality of chlorine warfare.

By contrast, doyikayt – that is to say, ‘here-hood’ – has been something truly difficult for me to learn, ‘peregrinator’ that I am. My political and cultural sympathies are with Yugoslavia, with Czechoslovakia, with that Russia that embodied the highest ideals of Tsarism and narodnichestvo both. In certain political quizzes (a time-wasting online weakness of mine), my values don’t match up that well to any American political party – and in fact match up far better with certain parties in Russia (of both right and left). Particularly given that I believe fervently in ‘here-hood’, my beliefs and my praxis (or at the very least, my expressions of that praxis) do not match very well. This is a problem. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong to describe this suspicion that I would belong better somewhere else, as a form of acedia, an intellectualised and sæcularised sloth on my part.

As my priest here in the Twin Cities says, the retreat into such suspicions and dissociative fantasies of ‘belonging elsewhere’ is a form of mâyâ, of illusion – distracting me from the more important work closer at hand. At times, it seems to me that the world presented to us by television, radio, popular mass entertainment, social media: is all mâyâ. Such an illusory world is seductive. It feeds my ego. It makes me feel ‘in control’. And from an Orthodox perspective, there is little that is more dangerous than that.

Becoming doyiker, then – becoming here, starting to live where I live and not somewhere or somewhen else – needs to become a spiritual and practical struggle for me. Although I am not a monk and have no plans to become one, I could certainly learn a thing or two from the cœnobitic discipline of stability and the Patristic cautions against monks and novices feeling as though they could be better and would make better progress somewhere other than they are. Part of being doyiker is not seeking for some other homeland, except in the eschatological sense, and instead trusting to God that He wasn’t blindly or haphazardly placing me where I happen to be.

I don’t think it is an accident that these reflections have fallen on the eve of the synaxis feast of the Saints of North America. Even though doyikayt is an autonomist principle which comes from a radical-socialist sæcular Jewish philosophy, it has deep resonances within the Orthodox Christian tradition. These men and women had to be doyiker. In many cases, they simply had no choice but to do the work before them, as impoverished working-class minorities – even refugees – in a culture which ranged from indifferent to outright hostile. But they did it anyway and they did it gladly.

Holy Martyr Juvenal of Alaska, Holy Father Herman of Alaska, Metropolitan Saint Innocent of Moscow, Holy Father Jacob Netsvetov, Holy Hieromartyr Tikhon of Moscow, Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut, Holy Father Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, Holy Father Raphael of Brooklyn, Holy Father John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Holy Priestmartyr John Kochurov and Holy Priestmartyr Alexander Khotovitskiy, pray to God for me, the sinner, and for all of us struggling with our delusions.