11 September 2017

A Church of empire?

Virgin-Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphadora,
and Right-Believing Empress Poulcheria

The commemoration of Empress Saint Ælia Poulcheria yesterday, alongside the three Virgin-Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphodora, did raise for me a couple of fairly uncomfortable questions and concerns. The three virgin-martyrs on the one side, and the empress on the other, offer two visions of the Church’s imagination that differ starkly from one another – far, far more so than even the contrast of the two abbots of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or the mediæval Russian Saints Iosif and Nil.

The Virgin-Martyrs of Bithynía, after all, were ascetics after the classical Sinaitic mould: sisters of the desert, who had vowed perpetual poverty and virginity, and spent their time fasting, praying and healing the sick from their lonely abode in the wilderness. Their ministry and witness was one of self-denial, of self-abnegation. Their praxis was one of powerlessness. Their martyrdom at the hands of a proud pagan governor displays a meekness in the face of torture and humiliation, which many generations of Orthodox saints have striven to emulate – particularly those in the ascetic mould.

On the other hand, their sister-saint, who lived four generations later, was very much of the world. Though she had also taken a vow of virginity, her similarity with the Virgin-Martyrs who share her feast day pretty much stops there. Saint Poulcheria did not forsake worldly, political power or its exercise. She was, to all intents and purposes, a co-emperor with her brother Theodosios. There was definitely no desert meekness in her virginity, which she held aloft as a beacon from the city walls in the manner of the Vestals. She urged her brother to wage a costly, bloody and inconclusive war with the Persians. She also notably detested Jews, and urged her brother to confiscate synagogues and conduct pogroms against Jewish populations in the Eastern Roman Empire. As an ethnic Jew and as a Persophile, both of these behaviours on her part rather disturb me – particularly as they prefigure certain ideological formations which are entirely and without reservation to be condemned.

On the other hand, Saint Poulcheria was also very generous to the poor and continued her illustrious predecessors’ policies of building and funding hospitals out of her own substance, and encouraged the same to be done out of the tax coffers of the Empire. The Byzantine Empire, for all of its ugly blemishes (of which Saint Poulcheria herself demonstrated only two), was far less squeamish than we are about the use of levies on private wealth to finance what it saw as public goods. That’s something, to my mind, very much to be admired. But the contrast also shows a kind of split personality in our understanding of ‘empire’ which needs to be considered.

‘Empire’ has long had a double meaning. In the rhetoric of mediæval China, the word diguo 帝国 denoted a humane government ruled by a di 帝, or a ‘lord-on-high’, of whom Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 were the models. Not someone who sought after power for its own sake but who sought to rule his people by a peaceable and centred example. In classical rhetoric, rule by a di 帝 was contrasted with rule by a ba 霸 or ‘hegemon’ – someone who ruled other countries and expanded his own by legal trickery and sleight-of-hand. As Wang Hui 汪晖 elucidates from his study of Tang and Song Dynasty sources, Wang Tong 王通 (also referred to by his posthumous name Wenzhongzi 文中子), critically sorted states into five broad categories in his Doctrines of the Middle Way:

States led by usurpers employ armies to do battle [they depend on force alone]. States led by hegemons employ wisdom to do battle [subduing the armies of others without doing battle]. States led by kings employ righteousness to do battle. States led by a lord on high employ virtue to do battle. States led by august-emperors employ nonaction to do battle.
This ranking, very typical of the mediæval Confucian with a critical turn of mind, was moral and had subversive power, with the states led by august-emperors (or huang 皇) being ruled by creative inaction or wuwei 无为, and the states led by lords-on-high being ruled by virtue and benevolence, or de 德 and ren 仁. In the logic of the time, such schema were often employed to criticise officials and policies which did not rule in the interests of the common people but sought their own aggrandisement. All of these concepts were still authoritarian, of course – not even Yao or Shun ruled by a democratic mandate.

However, after the Opium Wars and the Meiji Restoration, the meaning of diguo ended up shifting as it was inflected by the post-Meiji Japanese usage of the same Chinese loanword, rendered in that language as teikoku. Of course, in truth Meiji Japan was something far more similar to Wang Tong’s baguo than his diguo, particularly when compared with the Edo period which came before! But they used the language of teikoku to legitimate their constitutional changes, their disenfranchisement of the old warrior-scholar class and their territorial expansions. Even in Chinese, after 1868 and the establishment of the Dai Nippon Teikoku, the word diguo began to have militaristic and absolutist connotations.

In the West, the words ‘emperor’ and ‘empire’ also shifted in their meanings, though that shift occurred many centuries before, gradually, and through internal pressures that led to changes in the emphasis of meaning. The Greek word basileús βασιλεύς originally connoted a tribal chieftain with certain Homeric, heroic qualities of leadership and aretē αρετή. However, the term acquired a pejorative meaning, at least in Athens, when they transitioned toward a democratic form of government. The word basileús was thereafter ascribed solely to Eastern and other ‘barbaric’ countries, and the term was used as a Greek rendering of the Persian šāh شاه .

From this, one begins to see how deeply, in Christian times, the spirit of the East took its revenge on Western spiritual principles and principles of government. The gentle winds from the desert blew straight into the city, and the city bowed meekly to them. Bear in mind that Alexander the Great only took on the title after, and because, he had conquered Persia – that is to say, he used it only to affirm his lordship over the Persians. Even the pagan Roman Imperators (from whom we get the words ‘emperor’ and ‘empire’) disdained the use of basileús because of its ‘barbarian’ and un-republican connotations, preferring instead the Hellenised Romanisms sebastos, augoustos and autokratōr. But the appellation of basileús began to be adopted proudly by the Christianised Byzantine kings! And at that, because there was a greater basileús than any earthly one, calling out not from the city but from the midst of the desert. (Remember that the Hasmonean Kings, too, titled themselves that way.)

For basileús, if we are to understand it in its classical context as a rendering of šāh, like the Chinese term also has (or had) a subversive, moral dimension that could be turned against the ruler himself if he behaves badly. The Hellenistic idea of the tychē basileús is an understanding that derives precisely from Zoroastrian ideals of just rule. The Zoroastrian principle of farr فر or ‘kingly glory’ dovetails very nicely, in fact, with the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) and its association with the ruler’s virtue (de 德) and benevolence (ren 仁). As with many of their best ideas, the Christianised Hellenes got this one directly from those darn fire-worshipping Persians. Sorry, Saint Poulcheria!

One can begin to see, though, how the idea of ‘empire’, in its classical and early-mediæval setting, is a much more multivalent thing than we can appreciate today. The antinomies and inconsistencies – at least from our modern perspective – of Saint Poulcheria begin to make some sense, even if they cannot be entirely excused. As I have said before, one of the virtues of ‘empire’ both in the East and in the West is that it introduces a level-distinction between the state and the ethnos (or ‘thede’, or ‘nation’), a level-distinction which has been lost in our modern age (with a handful of very noteworthy and admirable exceptions driven by a kind of Romantic regionalism, tangentially and indirectly drawing upon Byzantine legacies). Even if we are uncomfortable with the language of ‘empire’ in our day and age – and rightly so, given the ways in which our entire ‘imperial’ language has been shaped since the 19th century – there remain at least two legacies of the elder, classical and mediæval empires (Chinese, Persian, Byzantine-Roman, even Muscovite-Russian) which need desperately to be recovered. One of them is the idea of the caritative mandate of the state: an idea to which too many American Orthodox in particular are still allergic. The other is the idea that, let alone the Church, it’s not the job of the state or its head to be the sole servant of any given ethnos.

Pace Artur Rosman and friend (EDIT: thank you for the correction, Justin!), the Orthodox imagination is not one which glues the Church to the state-ethnos complex. Rather, the fact that the state-ethnos complex itself goes unquestioned, can be said to show a certain deficiency in the Latin imagination particularly. Indeed, rightly considered (and, as I will be the first to admit, many are the Orthodox who have yet to rightly consider it!), the Orthodox ecclesiology questions the very basis for that complex, and in fact drives a solid wedge between the state and the ethnos, even as it affirms each separately. Orthodoxy may indeed be a religion of empire. As such, we cannot be the religion of the ‘ethno-state’. And as such, we have a responsibility and an obligation to restore the older and more humane understandings implicit in our ‘imperial’ past, and correct for the less worthy ones. It is possible, even within the confines of Orthodox thought, to break up the lumps in the ‘imperial’ understanding of Saint Poulcheria’s time with some of the leaven of the desert, which we might find from the Virgin-Martyrs of Bithynía.

Holy Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphadora, and Right-Believing Empress Ælia Poulcheria, pray to God for us!
Invincible in your struggles for the Holy Trinity,
And through your love for each other as sisters,
You defeated the foe of your spiritual life,
And with the five virgins, entered victoriously into the Heavenly Mansions
Where you ever rejoice with the angels in the presence of the King of All!

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