20 February 2019

Sanders and Orthodox social teaching, compared


Now that Bernie Sanders has declared his candidacy for the presidency on the Democratic ticket, and in light of my recent piece on Fei Xiaotong and Nikolai Berdyaev, it seems as good an opportunity as any to compare certain points of convergence between his version of ‘democratic socialism’, or more correctly social democracy, and the social teachings of the Orthodox Church. Here are a few the respective stances of Bernie Sanders and the Orthodox Church (from the Basis of the Social Concept document) on distribution of the fruits of labour:
In the last 30 years in this country there has been a massive transfer of wealth going from the hands of working families into the top ⅒ of 1% whose percentage of wealth has doubled… Of course there will be a limit, but when today you have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, when the middle class is disappearing, yes, in my view, the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.
- Bernie Sanders, 2016
Continuing on earth the service of Christ Who identified Himself with the destitute, the Church always comes out in defence of the voiceless and powerless. Therefore, she calls upon society to ensure the equitable distribution of the fruits of labour, in which the rich support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly. The 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.
- BSC 2000, VI.6


On the principles of just war:
From the very beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis, I was of the belief that the US could push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait without having to resort to war. Diplomacy, economic boycott, isolation, financial leverage: we had many means for reversing the invasion. I was not only opposed to the war because of the potential destruction and loss of life, but also because I believe it IS possible for the major countries of this planet, and a virtually united world community, to resolve crises without carnage. If this matter could not be solved without massive bombing and killing thousands of people, then what crisis could ever be solved peacefully?
- Bernie Sanders, 1997
From the Christian perspective, the conception of moral justice in international relations should be based on the following basic principles: love of one’s neighbours, people and Fatherland; understanding of the needs of other nations; conviction that it is impossible to serve one’s country by immoral means. These three principles defined the ethical limits of war established by Christendom in the Middle Ages when, adjusting to reality, people tried to curb the elements of military violence. Already at that time, people believed that war should be waged according to certain rules and that a fighting man should not lose his morality, forgetting that his enemy is a human being too.
- BSC 2000, VIII.3


On financial institutions which are ‘too big to fail’:
I’ve laid out a very aggressive plan to rein in Wall Street—not just the big banks. We have to go after what is called the shadow banking industry. Those hedge funds. I want to look at the whole problem; my proposal is much more comprehensive than anything else that’s been put forth… You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so. If Teddy Roosevelt, a good Republican, were alive today, you know what he’d say? “Break them up.” Reestablish Glass-Steagall. And Teddy Roosevelt is right.
- Bernie Sanders, 2015
Those standing at the head of international economic and financial structures have concentrated in their hands a great power beyond the control of nations and even governments and beyond any limit, be it a national border, an ethnic and cultural identity or the need for ecological and demographical sustainability. Sometimes they refuse to reckon with the customs and religious traditions of the nations involved in the implementation of their plans. The Church cannot but be concerned also for the practice of financial speculations obliterating the dependence of income on the effort spent. Among various forms of this speculation are «financial pyramids» the collapse of which causes large-scale upheaval. In general, such changes in economy result in the loss of priority that labour and man have over capital and means of production…

The Church raises the question concerning the need to establish comprehensive control over transnational corporations and the processes taking place in the financial sector of economy. This control, aimed to subject any entrepreneurial and financial activity to the interests of man and people, should be exercised through all mechanisms available in society and state.

- BSC 2000, XVI.3


On usury:
We know every major religion on Earth—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, you name it—has always felt that usury is immoral. What we mean by usury is that when someone doesn't have a lot of money and you loan them money, you don't get blood out of a stone. You can’t ask for outrageously high interest rates when somebody is hurting. That is immoral. Yet today we have millions of people in our country who are paying 25% or 30% and in some cases even higher interest rates on their credit cards. Yet many of the credit card companies were bailed out by the taxpayers of this country. What the Fed must do is say to those companies: “Sorry, you can’t continue to rip off the American people and charge them 25% or 30% interest rates.”

In my view, when credit card companies charge over 20% interest, they are not engaged in the business of making credit available to their customers; they are involved in extortion and loan-sharking—nothing essentially different than gangsters who charge outrageously high prices.

- Bernie Sanders, 2010
It is not accidental that many traditional religions have a cautious and sometimes even negative attitude to the collection of bank interest. Usury has always been regarded as a morally unsafe activity. Finance and credit activity becomes morally dubious if in its unscrupulous pursuit of profit it deviates from its original calling which is to make people’s life better and economy more effective. Therefore in our time the profession of financier requires not only serious public control but also strong ethical self-control. Without calling to reject the use of resources offered by modern financial instruments and far less to return to natural forms of economy, we believe it necessary to take a sober view of all the strengths and weaknesses of the existing world financial model. It is important to bring the economic system as near as possible to the needs of ordinary people, creating opportunities for their active and creative involvement in economic activity.
- MP Council on Œconomy and Ethics, ‘Statement on the global financial and œconomic crisis’, 2009


On public education:
When we think about cutting back on education—whether it is childcare, primary school, or college—we are simply cutting off our noses to spite our faces. At one time in this country, we used to lead the world in the number of our people who graduated college, we are now falling very significantly. How do you become a great economy if you don't have the scientists, the engineers, the teachers, the professionals out there, and many other countries around the world are having a higher percentage of their high school graduates going to college? That is something we have to address. Anyone who comes forward and says cut education is moving us in exactly the wrong direction.
- Bernie Sanders, 2010
Christian tradition has always respected the secular education. School is a mediator that hands over to new generations the moral values accumulated in the previous centuries. School and the Church are called to co-operation in this task. Education, especially that of children and adolescents, is called not only to convey information. To warm up in young hearts the aspiration for the Truth, authentic morality, love of their neighbours and homeland and its history and culture is a school’s task no smaller but perhaps even greater than that of giving knowledge. The Church is called and seeks to help school in its educational mission, for it is the spirituality and morality of a person that determines his eternal salvation, as well as the future of individual nations and the entire human race.
- BSC 2000, XI.6


On the œcological crisis:
Pope Francis made this point. This [climate change] is a moral issue. The scientists are telling us we need to move boldly. I am proud that, along with Senator Boxer, a few years ago, we introduced the first piece of climate change legislation which called for a tax on carbon. Nothing is gonna happen unless we [deal] with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change. The future of the planet is at stake.
- Bernie Sanders, 2015
The Orthodox Church appreciates the efforts for overcoming the ecological crisis and calls people to intensive co-operation in actions aimed to protect God’s creation. At the same time, she notes that these efforts will be more fruitful if the basis on which man’s relations with nature are built will be not purely humanistic but also Christian. One of the main principles of the Church’s stand on ecological issues is the unity and integrity of the world created by God. Orthodoxy does not view nature around us as an isolated and self-closed structure. The plant, animal and human worlds are interconnected. From the Christian point of view, nature is not a repository of resources intended for egoistic and irresponsible consumption, but a house in which man is not the master, but the housekeeper, and a temple in which he is the priest serving not nature, but the one Creator.
- BSC 2000, XIII.4


On affordable health care:
I have always been a proponent of a national health care system. It just seemed eminently fair and right. How can we call this a civilized society when the children or parents of the rich get the medical attention they need in order to stay alive, while members of working-class families, who lack health insurance, have to die or needlessly suffer—or go hopelessly into debt to get the care they need? This is an outrageous injustice and it cannot be rationally defended.
- Bernie Sanders, 1997
Without giving preference to any organisational model of medical aid, the Church believes that this aid should be maximum effective and accessible to all members of society, regardless of their financial means and social status, also in the situation of limited medical resources. To make the distribution of these resources truly equitable, the criterion of «vital needs» should prevail over that of «market relations». The doctor should not link the measure of his responsibility for giving medical aid exclusively with the financial reward and its amount, turning his profession into a source of enrichment. At the same time, worthy payment for the work of medical workers appears to be an important task for society and state.
- BSC 2000, XI.3


On criminal justice reform:
Black lives matter. The African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and three days later she’s dead in gaol. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major reforms in a broken criminal justice system. I intend to make sure people have education and jobs rather than gaol cells.
- Bernie Sanders, 2015
The prevention of crime is possible first of all through education and enlightenment aimed to assert in society the authentic spiritual and moral values. In this task the Orthodox Church is called to intensive co-operation with school, mass media and law-enforcement bodies. If the people lack a positive moral ideal, no measures of coercion, deterrence or punishment will be able to stop the evil will. That is why the best form of preventing crime is the preaching of the honest and proper way of life, especially among children and youth. In this effort, close attention should be given to the so-called risk-groups or those who have already committed first offences. These people need a special pastoral and educational care. The Orthodox clergy and laity are called to take part in the efforts to overcome the social causes of crime, showing concern for the just order in society and economy and for the self-fulfilment of every member of society in his profession and life.
- BSC 2000, IX.2


On drug addiction and treatment:
The number of heroin deaths is growing significantly. What do we do? For a start, we have to tell doctors who are prescribing opiates that we cannot have this huge number of opiates out there, where young people are taking them, getting hooked, and then going to heroin. Second, we need to understand that addiction is a disease, not a criminal activity. When somebody is addicted and seeking help, they should not have to wait months to get that help.
- Bernie Sanders, 2015
Drug-addiction and alcoholism point to the spiritual disease that has affected not only the individual, but also society as a whole. This is a retribution for the ideology of consumerism, for the cult of material prosperity, for the lack of spirituality and the loss of authentic ideals. In her pastoral compassion for the victims of alcoholism and drug-addiction, the Church offers them spiritual support in overcoming the vice. Without denying the need of medical aid to be given at the critical stages of drug-addiction, the Church pays special attention to the prevention and rehabilitation which are the most effective when those suffering participate consciously in the eucharistic and communal life.
- BSC 2000, XI.6


The social teaching of the Orthodox Church does have some fundamental and deep-seated disagreements with Senator Sanders’s priorities on sexual and reproductive ethics – it would be dishonest to attempt to paper those over. Sanders, unfortunately, thinks of reproductive issues solely in the terms of the bodily autonomy of the woman and spares no consideration for that of her unborn child – this is a point on which the social teaching of the Orthodox Church stands in fundamental disagreement with Sanders. Likewise, the Orthodox Church considers the anthropological basis of marriage as rooted in reproduction. Though there is some overlap between the Orthodox Church’s pastoral understanding of homosexuality and Sanders’s stance that public treatment of homosexuals is a matter of civil rights, the question of what constitutes marriage is a point of fundamental disparity.

But these two points of difference are well-known, particularly in an American political context. While acknowledging the gravity and the incommensurability of these two points of disagreement, blowing them out of proportion would be an equally-dishonest mistake. What remains to be said is that the basic ethical perspective of the Orthodox Church on matters of œconomy, distribution of resources, finance, œcological crisis, criminal justice, public health and war and peace shares a fundamental likeness to the ethical vision consistently promoted by Senator Sanders. The Orthodox Church presents a consistent vision of, if not equality, tout court, then proportionality and reciprocity in the public sphere, for which the politics of Bernie Sanders provide a fair approximation – on practically all issues but the pelvic ones.

EDIT (21 Feb): On a tangentially-related note with regard to Bernie and Orthodoxy. I realise that it’s a grave temptation right about now for establishment Dems, but seriously, don’t be a jerk. I am seeing plenty of jerks in social media space right now, including certain performatively-woke Catholic bloggers in my immediate news feed, saying Sanders is a ‘sellout to Russia’, a ‘Russian trojan horse’ or worse. Just because Bernie Sanders shares some overlap in views with the Russian Orthodox Church on œconomic matters does not make him a Russian agent, people. And even if he were somehow connected with Russia, it still wouldn’t make him wrong on these matters of œconomics and œcology, for which he was fighting in office decades before anyone was concerned about chasing ever less-credible phantasms of ‘election interference’ by Russia. Remember: accusations of disloyalty, or dual loyalty, when aimed at a patriotic Jewish politician, constitute an old and well-worn anti-Semitic canard. So don’t do it. Take your ‘eevul Pootin’ antics elsewhere.

19 February 2019

A sæcular saint of sociology


I recently finished reading David Arkush’s English-language biography of the great Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, a figure who somehow manages to become more and more impressive to me every time I read something about or by him. Being Eastern Orthodox, I do not use the word ‘saint’ lightly, and certainly here not in the strict hagiographical sense. But there are aspects of his life illuminated in this book that speak to a soul that was filled with love for those near to him, and to a temperament that was willing to forgive even his political enemies for more than a decade of gross personal injustice done to him, both to his face and in the press.

Fei Xiaotong was born to a slightly less-well-off gentry family in Jiangsu in 1910; his parents were both educated and members of the intelligentsia. His father was not religious in the slightest, but his mother Yang Renlan 楊紉蘭 was a devoted Christian, and had him sent to missionary schools for most of his early education. (For his own part, Fei Xiaotong seems to have come down in the middle – his writings evince a vague and ill-defined theism, but he never observed any religious discipline, and even called himself an ‘irreligious man’.) Fei continued his studies at Tsinghua, which had been established by Americans under the ‘Boxer indemnity’; it is thus fair to say that his education through college was deeply Westernised, Western-influenced and progressively-oriented. His major academic influences after Tsinghua were American urban sociologist Robert Park, Russian white émigré sociologist Sergei Shirokogoroff (a family friend of Alexander Kerensky who had cut his teeth on sociological research among the reindeer-herding Evenki people of Siberia, related to the Manchus) and Polish-British pioneer of functionalism Bronisław Malinowski. He didn’t see much use for Confucius as a schoolboy, but in his post-graduate work he came to a new appreciation of the classical philosopher, and quoted him numerous times in his later work From the Soil.

Yet despite Fei’s Westernised academic environment, his Western teachers and his generally Anglophile orientation to scholarship, such politics as he had were – if anything – amenable to a kind of mildly-conservative Chinese patriotism. His schooling happened in the context of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria; his early professional life was situated in the looming context of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and he and his brother Fei Qing 費青 criticised the Nationalist government of the time with accusations of cowardice in the face of foreign threats. This was the extent of his political involvement, however. For the most part, he was content to be absorbed in academic questions and sociological work.

Fei Xiaotong, as stated before, was never a Marxist; indeed, his tutoring under Shirokogoroff and Malinowski instilled in him a deep, Tory distrust of all forms of Whiggish and developmentalist social-scientific schemas. Malinowski in particular, possessed of what Ernest Gellner called an ‘anti-colonial moral intuition’, hated the condescension that ‘civilised’ Westerners deployed when talking about ‘primitive’ peoples, and much of his functionalist approach consisted of demonstrating the complexity and the utility of the social structures of non-Western cultures: this attitude is one that Fei himself took up with zeal. Taking the lead of his mentors – particularly Shirokogoroff’s studies of the Evenki, and Malinowski’s studies of the Trobrianders – Fei undertook his own field studies of minority communities in China, particularly the Yao people of Guangxi Province.

I will note again how important the Chinese southwest appears to be and continues to be as a physical location in the thought development of many left intellectuals of twentieth century China. Though the situation is slightly more complicated now, the inland southwest (Guangxi and Guizhou particularly) continues to be a ‘red’ beacon. The ancestral home of Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 was in Guangxi; that of Yan Yangchu 晏陽初 in Sichuan; and Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 spent much of his politically-formative professional life in Chongqing. It’s not an accident that Kunming was the capital of ‘Third Force’ politics: the populist leftism engendered in the Chinese southwest far predates Bo Xilai 薄熙來, Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元 and the slow-food movement.

Fei’s first wife, a bright young fellow sociologist named Wang Tonghui 王同惠, accompanied him on his field studies into Guangxi Province in 1935. Fei, who had unfortunately picked up a few pseudoscientific notions from Shirokogoroff about skull shapes, often busied himself with calipers among the Yao and travelled from village to village; Wang Tonghui, on the other hand, stayed mostly in one Yao village and used her social abilities and language skills to greater effect. However, this field study would end in tragedy. While hiking on an isolated rural backroad, Fei triggered a tiger trap which crushed his leg beneath a mass of rock. Wang Tonghui left to get help; however, she did not return that night or at all the following day. Fei, cold, thirsty, famished and in wrenching pain, managed to crawl his way to help. When he was well enough to do so, he asked his Yao rescuers to mount a search for his bride, for days to no avail. A week after the search was called, the Yao found Wang Tonghui’s body floating in a river: she had fallen off the road and drowned there.

Fei was devastated. He lost a great deal of weight in the years afterward, had to walk most of the time with a cane, and blamed himself for his wife’s death. He fell into depression and contemplated suicide. What saved him from taking his own life, by his own account, was a desire to be able to face his wife in the afterlife having done something useful with his life that she might take a professional interest in. His work, then, became his life. Moving back to Jiangsu Province and living with his elder sister, Fei Dasheng 費達生, he determined on using his sociological research to study, not isolated aboriginal groups, but instead the Chinese peasantry in the countryside around him – taking up a study of the peasant community in Kaixiangong 開弦弓. It seemed his sister encouraged him in this. She herself was involved in rural advocacy, self-help projects and the development of rural sericulture coöperatives for the impoverished and indebted peasants of Jiangsu. (In effect, she was doing much the same work that the itinerant lecturers of the Farmers’ Alliance had done in the United States two generations before, as Janez Evangelist Krek had done among the Slovenes, and as Svetozar Marković had done among the Serbs.) It was during this time of his life that Fei Xiaotong began advocating rural coöperatives and rural industrialisation. He moved back to the southwest and undertook a programme in Yunnan Province which mentored young sociology students.

He undertook a couple of trips abroad at this time, as well. He was on very friendly terms with American scholars, owing in large part to his training under Robert Park. He cultivated close relationships with the Fairbanks, Wilma and John, with Margaret Redfield and with Dorothea Mayo. Initially enthusiastic about America – being a fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Henry Wallace’s contributions in particular – his impressions began to sour when he began noticing various facets of American life that didn’t agree with him. He didn’t like the ugliness of our urban industrialisation, the thick black smoke that hung over our cities in palls, or the square, faceless frames of our modernist architecture. He didn’t like Western food (with the exception of breakfast) or eating habits. He was disgusted with Jim Crow and anti-Chinese sentiment. He worried over American youths’ addiction to superhero comic books. And he was particularly appalled at the way we treated our elderly:
I know well all the tragedies of the [Chinese] big family, but… I became a reactionary and felt that to make sacrifices to bring up children and then watch them fly away like swallows, leaving one able only to sit on a cold park bench and feed sparrows, is just too cruel. I am glad I was not born in America.
Not for the first time, he wondered if he were seeing a society in decline. Fei Xiaotong briefly flirted with Western reactionary thought at this time – being particularly drawn to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, to whose thesis he would return after the Cultural Revolution was over. Fei saw China as an ‘Apollonian’ society in Spengler’s schema, a society whose creative energies were bent to the preservation and renewal of an established order; and America as a ‘Faustian’ society. In the years after the Cultural Revolution, his criticisms of American society were largely cultural-conservative: in particular, he deplored our ugly suburban sprawl, our skyrocketing divorce rate, our tolerance of crime and drug addiction, and the sexual licence which was evident in our academic life (being embarrassed in one particular case by an American female professor’s discussion of the Ming erotic novel Jin ping mei 《金瓶梅》).

Despite these conservative misgivings about the American spirit and its hostility toward the old, Fei was nevertheless an outspoken fan and proponent of the New Deal, and relentlessly criticised Truman in the wake of the war for having reneged on the promises made by his predecessor and funnelling that energy into the creation and maintenance of a global empire and an aggressive Cold War posture. He became a fervent critic – here again there are echoes of his mentor Malinowski – of the colonialist and imperialist policies pursued by the United States in the Third World in its shadow war with the Soviet Union. Fei Xiaotong was particularly critical of American military and financial support for the Chinese Guomindang 國民黨 in the postwar years, which he felt only worsened the lot of common Chinese people and legitimated a Communist takeover in their eyes.

Fei’s travels to Britain in the postwar era were much more positive in tenor. On good terms with Richard Henry Tawney, whose travels and studies in China had placed him within Fei Xiaotong’s circle of acquaintance, Fei quickly befriended several Labour backbenchers and watched in appreciation as the Labour government of Clement Attlee instituted various œconomic reforms to the benefit of the urban poor: job guarantees, public healthcare, public education, industrial policy. His one critique of British Labour was its continued dependence on American aid money and its subservience to American gæopolitics – he felt that eventually, Labour’s posture of dependency on America would trigger a massive rollback even of Britain’s admirable postwar social gains. (Thatcher sadly proved him right.)

As I mentioned in my previous piece on Fei Xiaotong, it was during this time that this previously rather apolitical or mildly-conservative professor of sociology became political. Fei may have been gentry, but he had managed to get a ground-level view of what the Guomindang’s policies were doing to the Chinese peasantry: bullying, conscription, deliberate starvation. He understood full well the appeal the Chinese Communist Party had for peasants driven to the edge by the casual brutality of Nationalist rule – but he did not join the Communists. Instead, Fei was drawn (initially thanks to his older brother) into the same Democratic League in which the aforementioned Liang Shuming, Yan Yangchu and Tao Xingzhi were particularly prominent. Fei Xiaotong, for all his admiration of English and American constitutionalism, followed the lead of his fellows in the League in that he never thought full democracy was feasible or desirable in a Chinese context.

Kunming – in particular the National Southwestern Associated University or Lianda 聯大 – under the rule of warlord Long Yun 龍雲 was the hotbed of Third Force politics. The Nationalist government was weak there, and the refugee academics from Japanese-held territory were more or less free to critique it. Fei was in good company among these refugee academics, though he also put down some local roots in the southwest. He married again, a woman of peasant upbringing named Meng Yin 孟吟, whom Fei praised affectionately for her humble, hospitable and hard-working character, and appreciated for the long hardships she endured together with him.

The safety promised by Long Yun in Kunming was not absolute, however. Fei Xiaotong and Meng Yin lived in fear of Japanese air raids, once leaving their home for the shelter of the woods while Meng was pregnant with their child – only to return to find their home destroyed. Also, Guomindang secret police and informants were everywhere, and they managed to assassinate Li Gongpu 李公樸 and Wen Yiduo 聞一多 for speaking out against the government. Fei Xiaotong – along with the entirety of the Democratic League – bitterly condemned these shootings, but he himself along with a number of League supporters and their families had to take refuge in the American Consulate in Kunming to keep from being assassinated themselves, and were later evacuated to Nanjing in the care of American consular staff.

Yet, for all his detestation of the Guomindang, Arkush maintains that the extent to which Fei was radicalised and the extent to which he embraced the Communists in the years running up to their victory in the Civil War is far from clear. The Communists themselves would find plenty of reason to distrust him and malign him as a ‘rightist’ from his writings in this period and after. Insofar as Fei speaks of the Communists at all during the Civil War years, he speaks of them with a kind of detached appreciation (in that they pursue reforms beneficial to the peasantry) mixed with apprehension about their ultimate accountability to the peasantry. Yet Fei does not flee abroad the way so many others of his cohort do, to Hong Kong, Taiwan, England or America: instead he stays put, for reasons which any good traditionalist conservative ought to appreciate.
I feel much better that I am going through the dark period with my people… I am glad that I decide to return home instead of run away to foreign countries. The sense of belonging and rooting which grows responsibility is essential to human life. It makes one’s life rich.
Fei would ultimately pay a heavy price for that choice. In the years immediately after the establishment of the People’s Republic, Fei fought an uphill battle to establish and defend the scholarly discipline of sociology, which as often as not (under Soviet influence) subject to fundamental critique on Marxist-Leninist grounds as a ‘bourgeois’ discipline. The documents Arkush cites from Fei usually take on a fairly optimistic and ebullient tone, but the biographer is clear that they were written in something of an adverse political atmosphere, and his work was as often as not regarded as subversive. He was put to work, ultimately, working with the ethnic Mongolians of the Chinese north and the Hmong and Zhuang peoples of Guizhou and Guangxi in the Chinese southwest. During this time he ventured some rather trenchant criticisms of Han chauvinism and uncomradely condescension toward the ‘brother nationalities’ on the Chinese frontiers.

When the Hundred Flowers Campaign opened up, Fei pressed home his advantage and fought to gain a place at the table for the objective study of social conditions within the country, even – at this time – returning to Kaixiangong for a follow-up study to his earlier Peasant Life in China to see how things had improved. He was clear that under the new government’s rule the peasants’ lives had improved materially, but that there was still more work to be done.

But the Hundred Flowers Campaign ended abruptly, as the Communist Party was inundated by internal criticism – much of it, in fact, from League members. In the Anti-Rightist Campaign that followed, the League were among the first and foremost of the targets, and Fei Xiaotong, being a high-profile member of the League whose work appeared prominently in print, came in for early and harsh censure as an unreformed ‘bourgeois intellectual’ who had not sufficiently engaged in self-criticism or thought reform. Fei’s public humiliation was swift, sudden and harsh, and he was denounced by several people and former students he had thought of as close friends. Much of this denunciation was salacious, patently ridiculous, and motivated by malice and intent to humiliate rather than edify. Fei was accused of being a lackey of the landlords and an agent of American imperialism – both of which charges are easily falsifiable by a cursory examination of his work. But his treatment was not nearly as harsh as what later victims of the Cultural Revolution would have to endure. He lost his job and his reputation; he was lucky not to have lost his family and his life.

For the better part of twenty years, Fei was not allowed to return to academic work, and the social ostracism and abuse he endured during those years put an awful strain on Meng Yin and their children. The book does end on a hopeful note, though. In the wake of the trial of the Gang of Four Fei Xiaotong was largely exonerated and rehabilitated, and allowed to return to sociological work. He was particularly eager to return to the villages and the peoples he had studied as part of his national minorities work; and he was warmly received back by the Hmong and Zhuang communities he had studied, in no small part due to his advocacy on their behalf.

Getting back to my first paragraph, though. The reason I consider Fei Xiaotong to have a ‘saintly’ disposition lies precisely in the fact that, after the Gang of Four trial and the thaw in the intellectual climate brought by ‘reform and opening’, Fei Xiaotong did not avail himself of the opportunity to strike back at the people who had denounced and borne false witness against him, for the sake of pursuing revenge. No one came through those years with their hands clean, and it seems like Fei understood that perfectly well. If he was not as outspoken as he could have been about the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution, at least he also did not engage in recriminations or feuds with former friends, and for the last years of his life instead focussed on bolstering his own work and continuing to advocate both for sociology and for the peasantry.

Fei continues to be of scholarly interest to me as one of the ties (along with Wen Yiduo) between the strand of populist leftism in Russia represented by Kerensky (and Mother Maria, and Saint Bunakov, and Priestmartyr Valentin), and the strand of populist leftism in China represented by Liang Shuming. The ties in the present day between the thought of Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov and that of Dr Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 go far deeper than a mere mutual admiration for Immanuel Wallerstein. And those ties continue to have something to do with the interactions on the frontiers of both nations exemplified by the sociological work of Dr Fei Xiaotong and the political poetics of his comrade in Kunming.

The Wandering Earth


Yesterday I took my wife out on an actual date (!), something which has become for us, sadly, a bit of a luxury and a rarity since having children and moving back to the United States – and we went to see the new mainland Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth 《流浪地球》. I’ll try and give some of my impressions of the film. Just be aware that this review is coming from the same contrarian who gave The Last Jedi a rather half-hearted thumbs-up, ironically, because Rian Johnson proved himself to be more of a traditionalist than the Star Wars fanboys in regard to his treatment of the canonical mythos – Mahler’s ‘preservation of fire’ versus ‘worship of ashes’, and all that.

The Wandering Earth takes as its premise a cataclysmic disaster in which the Sun is going nova. It will consume the Earth within 100 years and destroy the Solar System within 300. Mankind embarks upon a grand project to use massive cold fusion reactors to move the Earth 4.2 light years into orbit around Proxima Centauri, using a massive international space station to pilot the Earth toward its new destination over the course of 2500 years. Things take a very literal wrong turn as the Earth passes the orbit of Jupiter, however, and it is up to a Chinese astronaut, Liu Peiqiang 劉培強, and his fellow Russian cosmonaut Makarov on the space station, along with that astronaut’s family still on Earth, to correct Earth’s course before it collides with Jupiter. In the telling of this story, the film makes several attempts to explore questions regarding humanity’s instinct for survival, the ethics of extreme measures in the face of world-ending peril, determinism versus free will, and the meaning and nature of family and home in a ‘post-apocalyptic’ (actually ‘peri-apocalyptic’) universe.

The Wandering Earth weds an ambitious, grand space-operatic high concept with the noisy, landscape-shattering, frenetic pacing and disbelief suspension-straining of a Roland Emmerich-style disaster flick. In terms of special effects (big vehicles, chase scenes, explosions and so on), director and screenwriter (also sci-fi author whose story this was) Liu Cixin 劉慈欣 and producer Frant Gwo 郭帆 really don’t do anything by halves. The atmospheric shots of the exhaust trails of the Earth Engines, of Jupiter, of the moving Earth itself are a cinematographic achievement in themselves: they manage to give the film an appealing æsthetic weight it wouldn’t otherwise have.

The fact that action star Wu Jing 吳京 (of Wolf Warrior 《戰狼》 fame) gets top billing should tell you something about the film’s core target demographic. And yet at the same time, for all the big, noisy pyrotechnics, the core message of the film is not a violent one. Human beings don’t fight each other over the preservation of their planet. Even Wu Jing’s character Liu Peiqiang (though he does get to cause an explosion and drop a typical badass action-movie one-liner) depends far more on suasion and pathos to save the day than on force – and as the emotional climax of the movie draws near, one of the major characters (the charmingly-cynical teenager Han Duoduo 韓朵朵) makes an appeal to hope and to an ideal of peaceful global coöperation that would have the late great Gene Roddenberry himself shedding big fat tears of joy. The problem that they have to solve involves (again, somewhat in defiance of scientific realism) re-rigging one of the fusion-powered ‘Earth Engines’ that are propelling the Earth out of its orbit, to act as an ignition torch to spark a hydrogen combustion reaction that will propel the Earth out of Jupiter’s gravity well. In the scene you see hundreds of people of six or seven different nationalities all literally pushing in the same direction to achieve this goal.

One thing that I fear is lost on American audiences about The Wandering Earth is that it can be loosely considered a New Year’s movie, which means something very specific in Chinese culture. Family troubles and reconciliation are a very common trope in New Year’s films, and The Wandering Earth is no exception to that; the emotional core of the movie is the bittersweet relationship between Liu Peiqiang and his estranged son Liu Qi 劉啓 (all the more impressive when one considers all of Wu Jing’s parts were shot separately from the rest of the film, essentially in post-production). In addition, there is an underlying (somewhat understated) œcological theme about the nature of home and its relationship to specific places. The Wandering Earth project required piling the surviving human population into massive underground cities located around the ‘Earth Engines’ that also provide heat and energy: as it moves further from the Sun, the surface temperatures plunge to negative 100° centigrade. All of the characters in the movie were forced out of their homes; all of them lost loved ones in the ‘lottery’ that was held to determine who got entrance to the underground cities. (These events are more alluded to than directly exposited.) Without spoiling too much: one of the characters, his situation hopeless, chooses to die in a collapsing apartment building – presumably his home before he went underground. As the global situation gets more desperate, the United Earth Government urges people to go home and spend their remaining moments with their loved ones.

A few of the characters don’t quite feel like they ‘earn’ their arcs. Wisecracking hapa haole sidekick Tim doesn’t really even have one, apart from being the comic relief guy who saves Liu Qi’s life from time to time. Han Duoduo’s backstory, though it’s compelling enough that you’re rooting for her at the end and you do care about what happens to her, still feels a bit compressed (coming mostly in flashbacks in the second half of the film). The characters who get the best ‘moments’, in my own view, are Liu Qi’s grandfather Han Ziang 韓子昂 who manages a nice mix of comedy and pathos, at one point getting in trouble for bribing a prison guard; and the Russian cosmonaut Makarov, who exudes a genuine friendly warmth for Liu Peiqiang, and whose (presumably Christian) religious sentiments manage to make themselves known and felt without feeling forced or lampshaded.

Much of the film does feel like it’s riffing off of long-established science-fictional and action film tropes, which is actually fine with me. It’s not like American films have been breaking ground in that direction for the past few decades at least. Instead, it’s the hopeful communitarian, pro-family social vision that manages to peek through the explosions and cliffhangers and futuristic Mack truck chase scenes, that in our cynical and near-nihilistic age seems to come off like such a breath of fresh air. In the end, Liu Cixin and Frant Gwo have put out a big-budget action movie, not to be taken too seriously, but one with a heart; one which holds up fairly well by contemporary action movie standards and extremely well by æsthetic ones.

18 February 2019

Holy Hierarchs Finan, Colmán and Æþelwold of Lindisfarne


This week, on which this very Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee happens to fall, is a particularly important one for the saints of Northumbria, and in particular for the saints of the holy isle of Lindisfarne, which is of such great importance both to those of us with Northumbrian heritage and to Christendom in general. Three saints of the holy isle had their feasts this week: Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Lindisfarne (12 February; not to be confused with the hermit of Inner Farne of the same name), Bishop Saint Finan of Lindisfarne (17 February) and Bishop Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne (18 February).


An example of the illumination from the Lindisfarne Gospels

One of the closest and most trusted assistants to Saint Cuþberht of the holy isle, relatively little else is known of Saint Æþelwold other than that he held the honour of the bishopric, and that he contributed materially to the production of the wondrously-beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels. (Æsthete that I am, I find that reason enough to glorify the man.) He had been, first the prior, and then the abbot, of the Abbey of Saint Aidan at Old Melrose during Cuþberht’s time; at the repose of Saint Éadfrið of Lindisfarne he succeeded to the bishopric and the abbacy at Lindisfarne, whereupon he took an active interest in the illumination work of the Venerable Billfrið and had commissioned a binding for the Gospels in gold and encrusted jewels (a binding which is now sadly lost). His relics were translated along with those of his beloved master Saint Cuþberht, along with a stone cross bearing his name which went from Lindisfarne to Durham when the Vikings invaded. In addition, he may have contributed the core hymnology (the ‘Ymnarius Edilwald’) found in the the prayer-book of Cerne.


Holy Hierarch Finan of Lindisfarne

Bishop Saint Finan of Lindisfarne, a proud and patriotic Irishman who was tonsured a monk at Iona, known also for his great discipline and holy life, was chosen as the successor to the Enlightener of Northumbria Saint Aidan of the holy isle upon the latter’s repose in the Lord. Saint Finan continued Saint Aidan’s work in bringing the Angles of the English North to Christ, including playing Nathan to Oswiu King of Berenice’s David, calling him to repentance for the murder of Oswine King of Dere and the annexation of his lands into the new kingdom of Northumbria. Saint Finan was the one who encouraged Oswiu to build and sponsor monasteries in honour of the slain prince (including the famous one at Hartlepool which would evolve into the cloister at Whitby), and lived on good terms with the repentant king thereafter. He also managed to convert two other English kings to Christianity: Sigeberht King of the East Saxons and Peada King of Mercia – this made the acceptance of Christianity in these two kingdoms that much easier in the long run. It was Saint Finan who called Saint Ceadda of Lichfield to Mercia to continue the work of spreading the Gospel among the common folk there. Saint Finan did not neglect his duties to his home parish and see, however, in his missionary work. He had built a cathedral upon the holy isle, entirely – as was the Celtic custom – in wrought wood, rather than in stone, and covered in bent (a tough and durable sea-grass that grows plentifully on the holy isle). Into this church he translated the relics of Saint Aidan, and his own relics would be lain, after his repose, alongside those of his beloved predecessor.

Saint Finan – as mentioned above, a patriotic Irishman – was an avid and zealous defender of the Celtic Christian tradition, including the method by which Pascha was calculated. For this, his hagiography in the history of Saint Bede is somewhat… shall we say, less than charitable. (Bede does, in fairness, fully acknowledge Saint Finan’s saintly disposition and holy way of life.) He famously got into a heated polemical exchange with his own countryman and fellow-monk Saint Ronan of Iona who advocated for the Roman calculation of Easter. Saint Finan apparently also had some dealings with Saint Wilfrid of York – who fell on the other side of the Paschal date dispute – in that he agreed to allow the Bishop of York to go on pilgrimage to Rome.
As Aidan's successor thou didst rule the See of Lindisfarne fearlessly,
Preaching the Orthodox Faith, O holy Hierarch Finan.
Boldly obeying the Gospel command, thou didst soften the stony heart
Of Mercia's pagan Prince Peada and win his soul for Christ.
Pray for us, O Saint, that Christ alone will rule in our hearts,
That He may save our souls.


Holy Hierarch Colmán of Inishbofin

When Saint Finan reposed he was succeeded in office by Bishop Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne. Colmán, born in Connaught, too was a monk of Iona. A staid and worthy successor to Saint Finan, he shared with his predecessor the zeal for defending the Celtic Christian customs and practices including the method for calculating the date of Pascha. Under the sway of Saint Colmán the issue came to a head, and this was when the Synod of Whitby was called by Saint Hilda (who herself, along with Saint Cedd of Lastingham, favoured the Celtic rule) to broach the subject and find a solution.

The main disputants at the Synod were Saint Colmán with Saints Hilda and Cedd on the Celtic side, and Saint Wilfrid of York with Saint Ægilberht of Wessex (later of Paris) on the Roman; however, there was a political tone to it as well. Oswiu King of Northumbria was a champion of the Celtic rule, while his wife Eanflæd and son Ealdferð (who was the second in line to succeed him as king, after his son Ecgfrið) was a proponent of the Roman rule. All of these sæcular nobles came to the Synod to hear the proceedings.

Both Saint Wilfrid and Saint Colmán disputed eloquently – and often, as was the style at the time, polemically – over the method of calculating Paschaltide. Saint Colmán appealed in his case to the authority of Saint John the Theologian, from whom Saint Columba of Iona had received the apostolic tradition through Bishop Saint Anatolius of Laodicea. This usage Wilfrid disputed, saying that Saint John changed his custom to accord with that handed down from Saints Peter and Paul and which were followed by the entirety of the Christian Church after Chalcedon – with the exception of a few small islands at the extremities of the known world. According to Saint Bede, it was Wilfrid’s rousing appeal to Peter that managed to convince Oswiu King to adopt the Roman rite – though more cynical historians contend that it was instead his wife Eanflæd who swayed her husband thus to decide. Whatever the true reason, Saint Colmán departed the Synod unconvinced and continued to uphold the Celtic rite in Iona, along with the Scots there and a few Englishmen from the holy isle. Saint Colmán took with him thither the relics of Saint Aidan, and had them translated at Iona.

In his later years, Saint Colmán established a humble monastery at Inishbofin (the ‘Isle of the White Heifer’) ayooff the coast of Connaught for the Irish and English monks who had followed him. This monastery was troubled, however, by the custom held by the Irish monks of leaving the abbey every summer on mission work when the harvest came in. The English monks complained that they were left to do all the hard work of bringing in the harvest, but that when the Irish monks came back they expected an equal share. In the end, Saint Colmán resolved the dispute by founding a separate monastery for the English monks on the mainland at Magh Eó, sold to Colmán by a pious lord on condition that the monks pray for his soul. Saint Bede praises the English monastery founded by Saint Colmán at Mayo for having a devout and austere way of life ‘after the tradition of the venerable Fathers’, and an abbot who is ‘canonically elected’ rather than appointed by the previous abbot.

Although Bishop Saint Colmán comes in for some censure by Bede the Venerable for his stubborn persistence in the Celtic rule (which Saint Bede holds erroneous), Bede nonetheless praises the Hiberno-Scottish bishop for his frugality and simple way of life, and by the single-mindedness of his devotion to God and to his brothers. Holy Hierarchs Finan, Colmán and Æþelwold of the holy isle, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
As an upholder of Orthodox discipline, thou didst show forth in thy life
The pre-eminence of holy Tradition, O all-praised Hierarch Colmán.
With great personal sacrifice, thou wast true to thy teachers,
Wherefore we pray that we may unhesitatingly follow
Our fathers in the Faith with loyalty and devotion
And thereby be guided into the way of salvation.

15 February 2019

Fei and Berdyaev contra Dreher


Reading Rod Dreher’s repeated attempts to talk himself into supporting Trump in the upcoming presidential election and re-coining the phrasing of ‘cultural socialism’ as a thing to describe features of hypermodernity which he doesn’t like, I really don’t have much better a riposte to make than that already made by Alan Jacobs at Snakes and Ladders.
[T]he strategies that Christians and conservatives and, in general non-socialists used to survive under Soviet-sponsored socialism are likely to become immensely relevant to many American Christians and conservatives in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean that what we’re battling against is a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market — a kind of metaphysical capitalism.
I think Jacobs is absolutely correct here about what we might call ‘the nature of the beast’, and you don’t have to look far to find where I agree on that. It’s worse than obfuscation to deliberately mislabel a cultural phenomenon like ‘woke neoliberalism’ (or ‘woke capitalism’ or ‘metaphysical capitalism’) as any kind of socialism, a term which refers to a principle of œconomic organisation, despite some socialists perhaps being attracted to it. But here’s the thing. If you want to understand why socialism has such a strong appeal among young people, including to myself, one has to look honestly at the history of conservative thought and praxis in the Old World.

A case in point – and one which Dreher might appreciate: Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, who has been one of my intellectual heroes since I first picked up From the Soil. Fei Xiaotong is most famous for his defences of the peasantry and of sociology in China, for the latter of which he was branded a ‘rightist’ and subject to the brutal excesses of the Cultural Revolution – he was stripped of his academic credentials and forced to clean toilets throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The degree to which Fei actually was a rightist is a matter of some debate. In his early years, he was given to no particular political worldview unless it was a mild form of conservative Chinese patriotism – and even that was tempered by a certain cosmopolitan sensibility engendered by his education in Christian schools. Indeed, his conservatism was more of a gentle, English reformism – he modelled his intellectual course after the Russian white émigré Sergei Shirokogoroff as well as the Polish-British functionalist sociologist Bronisław Malinowski. He militated strongly against both Marxist and Whiggish forms of developmentalism, and sought to understand the institutions of indigenous, rural and agrarian societies instead on their own terms. After his visit to America, this understanding manifested itself as a kind of ‘reactionary’ tendency that led him to briefly embrace Spengler – he retreated into a critical embrace of Chinese family life and the independence of familial bonds from the state.

Fei Xiaotong, like poet and fellow Anglophile Wen Yiduo 聞一多, embraced left-wing politics fairly late in the day, and that largely in response to the corrupt, brutal, callous and authoritarian right-wing rule of the Chinese Nationalists (Guomindang 國民黨). It is really necessary to understand how hated the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 had made themselves in the 1930s and 1940s with their internal policies. Flush with American aid money, their grandees lived in luxury while peasants starved to death by the millions or were shot and bayonetted by the Japanese, against whom they fought a war that was characterised by their total lack of concern for Chinese livelihoods in bello. The Communists under Mao Zedong 毛澤東 managed to attract to themselves a great deal of sympathy by the fact that they promised to undertake the reforms that the Nationalists wouldn’t – in effect, they won by capitalising, violently, on the promises made by the father of the Nationalist Party, Sun Zhongshan 孫中山.

Fei had never been a particular fan of the Communists, or of Marxism. But, as Arkush describes, starting in the 1940s he was led more and more to embrace explicitly left-wing and socialist political positions because he was able to see, at the ground level, the impoverishing and demoralising effects Nationalist political repression, Nationalist concentration of wealth and Nationalist corruption had on peasant family life:
Fei probably only became really interested in politics during the war, in 1943 or so. As a boy and in college, he had been unconcerned with such things. He later mentioned a ‘radical atmosphere’ at the London School of Economics, but there is no indication he was caught up in it. In Peasant Life, written in 1938, he fleetingly criticised the government for its inability to carry out practical rural reforms because of spending so much money on anti-Communist campaigns, but he also suggested that political issues were unimportant, the result of mere factual misunderstandings which would be dispelled by books such as his about ‘actual conditions’. Similarly, in his articles on rural policy written during the early war years, he offered suggestions to the government, but his criticisms were mild and the tone calm.

A little later, just before and during his trip to the United States, Fei seems to have become more concerned over the Nationalist Government’s behaviour. In April 1942, he signed with eight others a long statement protesting the harmful effects of inflation, and proposing government controls and heavy taxes on the rich… Finally, his articles from the United States praising the American war effort implicitly threw Chinese wartime policies into a bad light. In the preface to the first collection of these, dated October 1944, Fei’s disgust with the Nationalists’ corruption and demoralisation was explicit and bitter:
One thing is the same in each article, and that is that I was taking the United States as a mirror to ourselves… In their society the distance between rich and poor is decreasing because of the war, with us it is increasing daily. In order to win the war they have devoted half their citizens’ total income to military expenses, with us it is probably less than one tenth and most of the nation’s wealth is locked in foreign banks. Their sons all do military service without regard to rich or poor, high or low; we have a special class which enjoys honour without the responsibility of protecting the country. They go without coffee and meat at home so that the front lines won’t lack these; with us the rear consumes ceaselessly and frontline soldiers die on the road. The sons of their leaders are first in the line of fire; the relatives of our important people use foreign exchange to travel abroad. I need not give further examples of the difference between the two. I just want to ask, how can we be this way—are we richer, stronger, less afraid of national extinction, more shameless? What can I say?
Amazingly, the exact same criticisms that the elected ‘socialists’ in our day – Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and others – are making about our social order, come not from Marxist principles but from the same observations that the temperamentally-conservative Fei Xiaotong was making in his day about his own country. They see a growing wealth gap; they seek to lessen it. They see capital flight; they seek to stop it. They see poor and indebted young people fighting and dying in endless wars which seem to have no point; they seek various means to end those. They see a political class immune from the consequences of its evil actions; they seek to hold it accountable. I do not share the cultural priorities of these elected officials, but I also have to acknowledge that they do not seek violent or destructive means of accomplishing these goals, but work within the legal confines of our established political system.

The end result in China, of course, was not that the Nationalists changed direction and backed down. Bending an ear to those who held that the reformers were really just Communists in disguise, the Nationalist leadership cracked down on the critical reformists and gunned down the Christian activist Li Gongpu 李公樸 and the aforementioned Wen Yiduo in cold blood on the streets of Kunming. (They had made plans to assassinate Fei Xiaotong as well, but he had fled with his family and several other reformist intellectuals to the American consulate in Kunming.) Arguably, with those and similar actions around the country, they practically handed the moral high ground over to the violent revolutionaries under Mao Zedong, and forfeited the sympathy not only of the peasantry but of the critical intelligentsia whose support they required to rule. The Nationalists had pushed Fei Xiaotong from being an apolitical sociologist with certain ‘reactionary’ sympathies hard to the left by virtue of their brutality – and he was by no means alone. Again, Arkush:
To say he [Fei] was an implacable foe of the Nationalists is not to say he was really close to the Communists in his political views. As late as 1947, he was still writing longingly about Anglo-American democracy and constitutionalism, freedom of the press and rule of law, and the peaceful democratic socialist revolution of postwar England. These political values kept him somewhat aloof from the Communists in the 1940s and were to cause friction between him and them in the 1950s. Yet, a few people who were students at the time have told me of being radicalised by Fei’s articles in the late 1940s, and it seems not unlikely that many young readers must have been encouraged to join cause with the revolution by the persuasive and popular writings of this calm and reasonable scholar about rural distress, Guomindang oppression, American international capitalist exploitation and minzhu 民主 (democracy). The disaffection of intellectuals from the Nationalist Government was a significant factor in the eventual success of the Chinese revolution, and it is worth a close look to see the process by which one so little inclined to radicalism as Fei Xiaotong came to support it.
Dreher’s book promises to be an anthology of voices from white émigrés who lived under communism and fled it, and seek to warn us of its consequences, and these voices are well worth listening to. But it strikes me that he could stand to read more carefully the experiences of not only Fei Xiaotong but also Nikolai Berdyaev and his own impressions of the Soviet revolution as he lived through it. Berdyaev, along with the rest of the Vekhi circle, bitterly opposed the revolutionaries of 1905 – it goes without saying that he was no Bolshevik and had no love for them. But as his book on The Russian Revolution written some time later made clear, he understood the 1917 revolution within its historical context in a Dickensian way, as the judgement of God upon a society which could not and would not listen to those of its members who urged timely and necessary reform within the existing rule of law. ‘Revolutions are a payment of the debts of the past.

It therefore strikes me that if we want to avoid a violent revolution of our own – and believe me, I want to avoid a violent revolution if at all possible – then we need to start paying down those debts now. It should not be the case, but the elected ‘democratic socialists’ are the only ones right now promising to do just that. With a very few honourable exceptions on the right (such as, off the top of my head, Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee) literally nobody else seems willing or able to push back on the problems of endless war; imperial overreach; a hollowed-out œconomy; a rapidly-warming planet; mountainous consumer debt; a widening wealth gap; and a callous, greedy, hubristic political class on autopilot.

Holy Bishop Sigefrið of Växjö, Enlightener of the Swedes, and Priestmartyr Unaman with his two brethren Winaman and Sunaman


Our father among the saints Sigefrið of Växjö

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the feast of the English apostle to Sweden, Saint Sigefrið of Växjö, who built upon the wracked foundation that had been laid in that land by the bold missionary Ansgar of Bremen over a century before. Sadly, documents pertaining to this great missionary saint are lacking; most of York’s written records of its holy men were destroyed in 1069 during the Harrowing of the North by the invading Normans.

Sigefrið, an Englishman according to the tradition born in Glastonbury, was baptised by the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury Ælfhéah and ordained a priest – later a bishop. At some point he was transferred to York, where he laboured for several years. One of Sweden’s kings, again by tradition named Olof – probably Olof Skötkonung, ruler of Svealand and Götland – made appeals to the English to send missionaries among his people to convert them to Christianity. By the time of Sigefrið’s priesthood, northern England – including York – had been retaken from the Danelaw by Eadred King of Wessex, who thus united England under his rule. It is therefore entirely reasonable that the king of England at the time, Æþelræd Unræd, should have chosen a Yorkshire priest with a knowledge of Danish customs to undertake the mission to Sweden.

Bishop Sigefrið sent out across the North Sea and landed in Norway. It is very likely that Sigefrið was in contact with the Church at Bremen with regard to his missionary work: Bishop Sigefrið had entrusted Osmund, who was part of his mission, to the care of the Church at Bremen on his voyage to Norway. Church politics seems to have taken up some years of his life – for some reason, apparently Olof Skötkonung soured on the idea of having an English mission in his country and forbade Bishop Sigefrið from entering the country. Instead he appealed to Bremen to replace him while Saint Sigefrið worked among the Norwegians.

Eventually, however, Saint Sigefrið did make his way eastward into Götland, and found himself at the small town of Växjö which once had been under the sway of Olof Skötkonung, and which was a holy place among the heathen and which housed a hof for animal sacrifices. There, in the midst of the heathens’ holy ground, at great plight to himself he righted a rood and built a wooden stave-kirk around it; he held the Divine Liturgy therein and preached the Gospel to the folk of Växjö – at first with the help of local interpreters. As Christ gathered to himself twelve apostles, so too did the saintly Sigefrið win over the twelve tribal elders of Växjö, to whom he entrusted his work. One of these died, and was given a Christian burial with a cross upon his grave.

Bishop Sigefrið laboured long and hard in the heathen land of the Geats. Unlike Saint Ansgar, whose hard work before him had not borne fruit in his own lifetime, Sigefrið was rewarded by the Lord with seeing the fruits of both his work and that of his Frankish forerunner blossom and ripen before his eyes. Many Geats and Swedes were drawn to the hof at Växjö, where now there was a holy spring and fountain for baptism. Having appointed successors, Bishop Sigefrið could undertake journeys around Sweden, visiting Uppsala (which was ‘not far’ from Birka, the site where Saint Ansgar had carried out his first mission, and which still had a small group of Christians living there) and Strängnäs, founding churches and ordaining priests there.

Saint Sigefrið had entrusted the care of Växjö to a priest who was also his nephew, yclept Unaman. Heathens attacked the church at Växjö while Sigefrið was away, stole away the ornaments for plunder, and beheaded the Priestmartyr Unaman and his two brethren, Sunaman and Winaman, therein. The banes of Father Unaman hid the heads of the three witnesses in a chest and threw it into the lake nearby. When Sigefrið returned, he set at once to work rebuilding the kirk, and bade that the chest be retrieved. So it was, by the help of God, for a light shone over the spot in the lake where the chest had been thrown. He translated the relics of the slain priest and his two brothers into the kirk at Växjö, where they remained until the Reformation had them removed.

The murderers of Priestmartyr Unaman and his brothers were caught and bound, brought before the irate Swedish king, who wanted their blood. Saint Sigefrið, however, intervened on their behalf and begged that their lives be spared. The king therefore sought weregild for the three men from them, to be bestowed upon Sigefrið. However, although both man and parish were armly and in great want, the selfless saint would not take any part of the weregild for Father Unaman and his kin.

Sigefrið continued in his tireless labours for the rest of his life, and reposed and was buried in Växjö. His relics were placed in high honour in the kirk there, where they worked a great many wonders. The Western Church acknowledged Sigefrið as a saint in 1155. Holy Father Sigefrið, pray unto Christ our God to save us!
For thy patience and zeal, O holy bishop Sigefrið,
Thou hast earned a great reward from Christ our God;
For having laboured continually in the vineyard of His Church,
Thou hast been granted to dwell in the garden of paradise for all eternity.
Wherefore, beseech Him without ceasing,
That the land of the North behold His salvation,
And that our souls be saved.

14 February 2019

Matushka Olga, the Theotokos and the ‘stolen sisters’


Today was the the annual march, hosted by the Minnesota American Indian Centre here in the Twin Cities, that was meant to draw attention to the nationwide plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. This is a crisis that is affecting indigenous women, not just nationally, but in our own state, on and off the reservations. Indigenous women are ten times as likely as women of other ethnic groups to be murdered, and multiple times more likely to be victims of sexual violence or human trafficking. The statistics are staggering. An overwhelming 85% of indigenous women have suffered from violence at one point in their lives. In 2016, 5,711 indigenous women in the United States were reported missing – in 2017, 5,646 more ‘disappearances’ were reported. In most cases, this happens because law enforcement (i.e., the FBI) does very little to help indigenous communities, or passes the buck to tribal authorities which don’t have the resources to pursue investigations thoroughly, and which very often aren’t even notified of missing-persons cases in their jurisdictions!

The heartbreaking plight of indigenous women in the United States – the violence and the cruelty that they face on an everyday basis – was something I was only vaguely aware of before coming to the march itself. The photos and names of the ‘stolen sisters’ at the march spoke volumes. I have spoken up before on this blog on the need for Orthodox Christians, not only to become aware of and to embrace our historical legacy of indigenous solidarity and culturally-sensitive social evangelism on the ‘Irkutsk model’, but to listen attentively to indigenous persons and communities themselves as part of that same social witness – because they have often witnessed better than we have to the labour truth and the community truth that were implicit to the very life and ministry of our Lord.

We of the Orthodox Christian communities in North America need to pay particular attention to the life and example of one of our local saints, Mother Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska. A slightly-built Yup’ik woman of Kwethluk, Alaska, she was placed in an arranged marriage from an early age with a local post-worker and general-store owner named Nikolai O Michael. The first years of her marriage to Nikolai were difficult – they did not communicate with each other very well, and Nikolai was often out of the house on business. However, Olga bore thirteen children in her marriage, of whom eight survived to adulthood; these children she raised largely on her own. She became known as a skilled midwife, and assisted many of her fellow Yup’ik in giving birth to their own children – she was even able to tell if a woman was pregnant during her first month. Eventually, Nikolai himself became interested in the Church and became tonsured as a reader; from this point it seemed their marriage improved. Eventually Nikolai was ordained to the priesthood, and Olga took readily to the duties of being a matushka, ever hospitable and understanding to those who came to their door in need. She herself sewed Father Nikolai’s vestments that he used in Liturgy, and also baked prosphora, fashioned parkas, warm socks and other clothing for her children and those of the parish. She was generous also in giving away any spare clothes their family had to families who needed them more.

But she was most active in sheltering and giving aid to women in her village who were victims of abuse – and particularly sexual abuse. She would often invite young women into the banya (sauna, or steam bath), which was the one place in the community where women could be alone and out of the gaze and earshot of men. There she would counsel and encourage them, do whatever she could to heal their hurts both physical and emotional, and work even within the confines of a tight-knit and male-dominated community to speak up for them.

A humble and self-effacing woman, in her later years she enjoyed travelling with her husband to regional meetings of the Church and speaking with women in other Alaskan parishes – though she would always be glad to return to her home in Kwethluk. She fought for a long time with cancer, and eventually succumbed to a relapse; she reposed in the Lord in 1979. Before her funeral, which was held during the early winter when rivers would freeze over, a warm southerly wind melted the frozen rivers such that people from neighbouring villages could attend – and hundreds of them did, filling the little church which she had looked after in life. She very quickly rose to prominence as a local saint; with any luck, one day she will be recognised as such by the whole of the Orthodox Church.

The following ‘miracle story’ comes from the Athonite Pemptousia website, and speaks of an encounter that a native Alaskan woman had with Matushka Olga:
“One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods still feeling a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary dressed as she is in the icon, but much natural looking and brighter, walking towards me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise-looking woman. I asked he “Who are you?” And the Virgin Mary answered, “St. Olga.”

“St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.

“Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and vio­lets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of plat­form bed like a box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant (I was not really pregnant at that time). I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding me by the arm, she pretend­ed to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breathe. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed, I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.

“Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradu­ally became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was like the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God, (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim.) I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back my own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.

“After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write . . . the miracle of the peacefulness and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.

“Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said: “That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame and helplessness I felt. We had labored togeth­er and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God, who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the incense that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is.

“At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern light but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said or we both heard in our hearts -I can’t remember which -that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing -great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort.”

What is one to make of these accounts? If nothing else, for now, one can acknowledge the special place that Matushka Olga has had in the lives of certain native people and a growing number of contemporary women. But it is in the slow and gradually expending process of knowledge which moves from local veneration to broader awareness that God reveals how He can be “wonderful in His Saints.” Matushka Olga herself was a midwife and may also have known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in life. Perhaps it is in this role as an advocate for those who have been abused, particularly sexually, that God will continue to use Matushka Olga in drawing “straight with crooked lines,” His work of “creating beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”
As one of the signs at our march said: ‘Our women are sacred.’ That, they very much are: every single one of them an icon of the living God and of the Most Holy Theotokos. As Mother Olga might tell us, though they might be forgotten in our justice system, not a single one of them is forgotten in æternity. Again, the relevance of this miracle story as well as Matushka Olga’s service in life to the young indigenous women of Kwethluk to the current plight of her ‘stolen sisters’ in the modern day, all over Turtle Island, is immediately apparent. It’s an excellent thing that several outlets of our church already acknowledge it – but we should certainly not stop there. This protective, healing and advocacy work of Saint Olga of Alaska must continue, as it can, with us. Holy Mother Olga of Alaska, pray to God for us sinners!


Blessed Matushka Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska