31 January 2018

Antonius and the Arab Movement

Sir George Habib Antonius, CBE

I just finished reading The Arab Awakening by Sir George Antonius, a sweeping and remarkable account of Arab modernity up through 1938, when the work was first published. As it rather needs be, it is a sprawling historical epic, and it can be divided neatly into three ‘sections’. The first section deals with ‘the movement’: its ‘false start’ in the Wahhabi and other ‘back-to-basics’ Islamic reform movements in the eighteenth century; its take-off under the Arab Christian intellectuals al-Yâzijî père et fils and al-Bustânî; its long periods of stagnation punctuated by fiery and impassioned outbursts of organisation and activity. The second section deals with the Arab Rising of 1916 under the ægis of Sharîf al-Husayn ibn ‘Alî and his sons, ‘Abd Allâh and Faysal ibn al-Husayn – including the promises made to the Arab monarchs by the Allies, which were later shamefully broken. And the third section deals with the aftermath of the World War as it pertained to the destinies of the eastern half of the Arab world – the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent.

It is not a neutral work, and it does not pretend to be so: in the foreword, Antonius clarifies that the ‘object of this book is primarily to tell a story’, and that it is ‘not the final or even a detailed history’, of the Arab nationalist struggle. And in telling that story, Antonius does not place himself as a disinterested observer but as an insider and an advocate. He is well-placed to offer insights from sources not available to other English-speaking explorers of the topic, and does so with a kind of journalistic zeal. He is nonetheless a gifted writer and a careful scholar, which makes his advocacy on behalf of the ordinary Arab, particularly the ordinary Arab living in Syria or Palestine, that much more pointed and potent.

Antonius himself is a (nominal) Orthodox Christian, though one would not know it to read his history, which is – very typically for the Arab nationalist sentiment of the time – impartial and anti-sectarian on religious questions. Though thoroughly sæcular and non-sectarian, Antonius’ book clarifies and confirms the point that the estimable David Lindsay loves to make, about the formative role played by Arab Christians in the Movement generally and in the concept of Filastin in particular. Antonius includes and gives prominent place to the Yâzijîs, Bustânî and (reluctantly, on account of his heavily pro-French sympathies) ‘Âzûrî as founders and early stewards of the Movement, as well as the central importance of the American missionary societies in cultivating those first generations of independent-minded young Arab leaders, but it soon becomes clear that his sympathies are equally engaged with the Muslim (al-Kawâkibî) and Druze (Arslan) voices who lent themselves to the cause of liberation and unity. He makes note of the difficulties faced by Arab nationalists of the time attempting to navigate upsurges in Islamic piety in various flavours, as well as an active policy of Turkification and centralisation being pursued, first by the tyrannical Ottoman sulṭâns (particularly the treacherous, deceitful, militaristic and ham-handed ‘Abdü’l-Hamîd II) and their pashas, and then by the French Revolutionary-inspired and Meiji-influenced Committee of Union and Progress. Even though ‘unity’ and ‘liberation’ are two goals of the infant Arab movement, they were not particularly keen on the centralised bureaucracy that comes with a modern state. The early Arab-nationalist understanding of ‘unity’ was, if my gentle readers will pardon the analogy, more familial, more local, more Slavophil in flavour (though, more on that a bit later).

Antonius is not without critique of his own countrymen. He shows, with love but not without a bit of chagrin, the dual tendencies of the early Arab activists to lethargy and dormancy on the one hand, and swift, inspired action on the other:
It is in the nature of the Arab temperament to conceive action in spasms rather than on a plan of sustained effort, and the history of the national movement is in a sense a chronicle of vivid outbursts with periods of recovery and preparation between them. It unfolds itself in a pattern of flames shooting upwards from a dull fire of smouldering feeling. The revolutionary effort of the Beirut secret society was the first of a series of waves which were to follow each other at regular intervals.
At the same time, the crucial catalytic rôles played by Arab-nationalist secret societies modelled on the Young Turks, like al-Fatat and al-‘Ahd, are well-documented by Antonius. It was a testament to their discipline that despite arbitrary arrests and torture employed by the Turkish secret police, their existence remained hidden from the Turks until after the World War. The closest they came to learning of al-‘Ahd was in the arrest and kangaroo trial of its founder ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Masri, whose death sentence (later commuted) had the unintended effect of galvanising the Arab intelligentsia and members of the military against Ottoman Turkish misrule. And they also managed to win over, for example, Sharîf al-Husayn and Faysal to their cause in the run-up to the First World War, when it looked increasingly like the Ottomans would join on the side of Germany.

Even as Antonius acknowledges the failures of al-Husayn and Faysal to successfully advocate for the Arab cause to the Allies or to fight effectively for it themselves, his portrayal of them is nonetheless deeply sympathetic, rendering them as tragic victims of their own honest and trusting natures. Sharîf al-Husayn, already a convinced and die-hard Anglophile (to the end of his days protesting the English as ‘an honourable kind in word and in deed, in fortune and in adversity’) and an expert in carefully-crafted diplomatic language to boot, did his level best to placate both his Ottoman superiors and his English contact Sir Henry McMahon until the critical moment came, whereas Faysal advocated for immediate action on Britain’s behalf, and ‘Abd Allâh prescribed caution. Al-Husayn demanded, and got, assurances from McMahon that Arab independence would be guaranteed and protected in the event of an Arab rising on the Allies’ behalf. In 1916 his hand was forced: the brutal, sadistic Ottoman pasha Ahmed Jamal had, to discourage any Arab nationalist sentiment from making itself felt in Syria, sent out an order for massive numbers of Syrian Arabs to be rounded up, imprisoned and tortured: he then signed death sentences for 68 Arabs suspected of nationalist activity, 13 of whom were identified in custody and 11 of whom (including Muhammad al-Mihmisani, one of the founders of al-Fatat) were summarily hanged without trial.

After such a demonstration of brutality, a revolt became inevitable. Sharîf al-Husayn was forced to act swiftly. He led a few thousand Arab ex-military officers and tribesmen in an insurrection in the Hijâz, capturing several key Turkish fortifications along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only did this force the Ottomans to turn their attention inward and take the pressure off of British troops who were fighting in North Africa, but even more importantly from a strategic standpoint, the Arab Revolt effectively thwarted German communications with the colonies through Ottoman territory. In the two years to come, Ottoman resources would be drained and its manpower sapped trying to put down revolts throughout Iraq, Syria, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula.

The reprisals against the Arabic civilian populace by the Turks were by no means as dramatic or as broad in scale as the Medz Yeghern, though they were every bit as heinous. A famine struck Syria in 1916 which, by the war’s end, had claimed between 300,000 and 350,000 lives. As with all famines, this one was the result of political choice. In this case, Ahmed Jamal Pasha deliberately withheld shipments of grain into Syria in order to starve the Arab nationalist elements there into submission. The only reason the death toll from this famine did not ultimately rise to the sorts of figures calculated for the Armenian genocide, is that the Allies were stunningly efficient in the aftermath of the war in distributing food and medical supplies to the suffering Syrian countryside.

However, for all the debts of gratitude owed by the Allies – particularly Britain – to the leaders of the Arab Revolt and their supporters among the populace, their actions in the wake of the war fell stunningly short of fitting. The promises proffered to Sharîf al-Husayn regarding Arab independence and political sovereignty in the Fertile Crescent and in the Peninsula were roundly ignored. Instead, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, made by the European Allies completely over the heads of the Arab people, was aimed at essentially turning the Arab lands into a new colonialist frontier between Britain and France.

In Iraq, after a brief struggle against Britain and a successful bid for independence, the state-building project undertaken by Faysal ibn al-Husayn – that is to say, Faysal I of Iraq – met with a mixed record of success. Antonius describes many of the sectarian and ethnic divisions of Faysal I’s Iraq – Shi’ites and Sunnis; Arab Sunnis and Kurdish Sunnis; tribal and urban-intellectual leadership – in a way that sounds eerily contemporary (with the notable exception that the Christian population in Iraq is, sadly, no longer such a force to be reckoned with).

In Syria, however, at first the French mandate behaved themselves with brutality and supreme contempt for the rule of law. Combining a squalid and corrupt colonial bureaucracy with administrators who hardly saw their Arab subjects as human, Antonius describes the first twelve years of French governance in Syria as even worse than the tyranny of ‘Abdü’l-Hamîd. He describes the indiscriminate bombing of villages and the looting of neighbourhoods by French regulars and mercenaries under General Sarrail. Interestingly, not only armed uprisings but also peaceful measures, including mass labour strikes, were used against the French administration to effect. Antonius describes (with some irony and reference to Saul of Tarsus) the sudden and inexplicable change of heart the French High Commissioner of Syria Damien de Martel underwent when it came to the treatment of the people of Damascus. He questions whether it was motivated by genuine humane considerations or simply by pragmatism, but closes his treatment of Syria on a hopeful note that the French have learned from their mistakes going forward.

In Palestine, the Balfour Declaration gave the Arab leadership still deeper misgivings. Sir George Antonius takes pains to describe, not only the lack of hostility, but even the sympathy and brotherly affection Sharîf al-Husayn and his son Faysal both felt toward the Jewish people, and the support even from the local Arab populace for allowing limited Jewish settlement in Palestine on a humanitarian basis. He is eager to defend both the monarchs and their subjects from charges of antisemitism, which he repeatedly attempts to demonstrate is foreign to the sæcular Arab nationalist mind. However – understandably – they were not about to give up their legitimate sovereign claims to the land to make way for a Zionist state-building project, and they saw (rightly so) the Balfour Declaration as a dangerous step in that direction. Here Antonius also makes plain his own sympathies for the plight of the Jews in Europe under the looming storm of fascist hatred – but also his conviction that settling them in Palestine would be no solution worthy of the name at all:
The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilised world. It is morally outrageous.
It is at the very end, though, that the sympathies of the author are the most directly and the most viscerally engaged. Though one can hardly accuse Antonius of being a romantic – his treatment of even historical figures he admires being unfailingly multifaceted, attempting sober, realistic and objective assessments – it is here that his history turns from a story of the movement into a thundering, apocalyptic prophecy and a stirring plea. And that plea for Palestine is – in the finest tradition of the Russian educated class (as, even if he wasn't personally the beneficiary of a Russian education, many of his Orthodox Christian Arab elite peers were) – motivated almost wholly by narodnichestvo. It’s practically Slavophil in its emotional content.

He takes it upon himself to speak to English-speaking audiences on behalf of the politically-voiceless Levantine peasant, attached firmly to his land and to his neighbours by inexpressibly-profound bonds of love, and oppressed not only by British and French mandatory maladministration, not only by Zionist settlement, but also by the shortsightedness and greed of the Arab landowning class and traditional tribal elites. In his own words:
One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that the trouble in Palestine is the result of an engineered agitation… The blindness of that view is clear to-day. Former outbreaks had similarly been explained; but, after inquiry by one or other of the commissions appointed by the mandatory Power, the underlying causes had always been found to have lain in the profound attachment of the Arabs to the soil and their culture. The rebellion to-day is, to a greater extent than ever before, a revolt of villagers… The moving spirits in the revolt are not the nationalist leaders, most of whom are now in exile, but men of the working and agricultural classes who are risking their lives in what they believe to be the only way left to them of saving their homes and their villages. It is a delusion to regard it as the work of agitators, Arab or foreign.
This is a view toward which I am already profoundly sympathetic. But if it seems incongruous and jarring for what reads for the first four hundred pages like an academic history of the Arab nationalist movement, and in the last eight or nine pages like an openly-political, populist apologetic for the working-class, common men and women of the Palestinian soil, even against their own statesmen and élite class – that’s because it is. But it’s a jar that demonstrates very clearly the fine line Sir George Antonius is attempting to walk between scholar and activist; between intellectual and narodnik.

The Arab Awakening was, in its own day, a capital-‘i’ important work of contemporary history, invaluable to the English speaker who wanted to understand the Middle East. And Antonius’ work remains, even in an era where the Arab nationalist dream seems faded and outdated and its supporters thrown into despair and confusion, eerily relevant. Many of the predictive and admonitory aspects of the work – particularly those pertaining to Iraq and Palestine – have indeed come to pass. There are, indeed, weaker passages: it’s hard to read Antonius’ treatment of the House of Sa’ud now, because his belief that their land-grab in the Hijâz would force them to modernise and moderate their followers’ fundamentalism now comes off as painfully naïve. But in the broad strokes, this is still an extraordinary book and well worth the time taken to read it.

Participants in the 1916 Arab Revolt

30 January 2018

A most salvific teacher, for all and always

Saint Basil the Great

It’s the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs! And so far I’ve commemorated Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John the Golden-Mouthed here, two of the three Holy Hierarchs. That leaves only Holy Father Basil the Great, whose feast on New Year’s Day I unfortunately missed. Saint Basil is another whose writings and insights on various matters pertaining to political philosophy I have shamelessly borrowed, so my oversight shall not pass uncorrected!

Saint Basil of Cæsarea was born in Cappadocia, right in the middle of Asia Minor, in the year 330. His family were all remarkably illustrious, and very well-respected in Christian circles. His paternal grandfather and grandmother had fled to Pontus during the persecutions of Diocletian, and his wealthy mother Emmeleia of Cæsarea was the daughter of a martyr in the same persecutions. His father, Saint Basil the Elder, was a lawyer and a master of rhetoric. From the prolific union of Saint Basil and Saint Emmeleia sprang ten children, of whom five were to become saints in the Orthodox Church in their own right: Saint Basil the Great, Saint Naukratios, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Peter of Sebasteia and Venerable Macrina the Younger.

The eldest son, Basil, was given every attention by his doting mother Emmelia and grandmother Macrina the Elder, and thus raised to respect and love the Church. His father saw to it that he got the finest tutors in Cappadocia, and then sent him to Constantinople and later to Athens to finish his learning in philosophy and the classics. He was acquainted with Gregory of Nazianzus (later Saint Gregory the Theologian) from childhood. Being schoolmates in Athens, the two of them came to be lifelong friends, closer than brothers. Basil soaked up knowledge like a sponge soaks up water, thirsted after it insatiably, and never stopped learning – he mastered each discipline in turn until he could truly be considered a polymath. He mastered dialectic, rhetoric and grammar, as well as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy; in addition, he gained a thorough knowledge of the practical arts of medicine and law.

Basil, now being an accomplished scholar and rhetorician, returned to Cappadocia where he was at once solicited by a number of well-to-do families to tutor their children. However, instead of such a life, he chose instead the tonsure and habit after being baptised into the Christian Church by the local bishop, Dianios. Where Basil had learned rhetoric from sæcular and pagan teachers, he now used his knowledge to expound the Holy Scriptures and reveal their inner meaning to his pupils.

He made journeys thereafter to the great centres of ascetic life in the early Christian world: the Egyptian Thebaïd, Syria and Palestine. He made careful note of the practices and wisdom that he found there, and began to imitate them on his own, upon his return. He sold everything he had, gave it all to the poor, and settled in a small dwelling close to where his mother Emmeleia and his sister Macrina had also retired from the worldly life. He gathered disciples around him who would become monks, and invited his friend Gregory to join him. Together they laboured to build a common, simple monastic life, and soon Basil’s fellow-monks asked him to draught a Rule, based on his observations in Egypt, Syria and Palestine and also on his experiences building a monastic community. This Rule would come to be followed by all Orthodox monks who followed Saint Basil. Saints Basil and Gregory also made intensive study of the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church who had come before them, and the teachings of Origen – and from these they compiled an anthology of spiritual writings, a Philokalia. Basil taught the infant cœnobitic communities in Cappadocia and the Pontus, which naturally gravitated to his reasoning and advice, both by preaching and by his personal example.

Basil’s relationship with his bishop, Eusebios, was apparently a bit rocky at first. Eusebios was a little bit awed, intimidated and envious of Basil’s success and his sway with the new monastic communities. In order to avoid a clash with the bishop, Saint Basil yielded and retired to his own monastery, using his seclusion to write more books on the cœnobitic life. However, later on, when the Arian heresies began to gain ground in Cappadocia, Eusebios asked for Basil’s aid and advice in countering them, which Basil was happy to give. As helpmeet to Eusebios, Basil was tireless. He authored the Divine Liturgy which now bears his name; delivered daily homilies; authored commentaries on Genesis (the Hexæmeron), the book of Isaiah and the book of Psalms; and published refutations of the Arian heresiarch Eunomios. In addition to this – and Saint Basil himself would likely argue, most importantly – he began funding houses for wayfarers, debtors, the impoverished and the sick.

Eusebios reposed in 370, and Saint Basil was given his omophor, to the great joy of other bishops in the Greek-speaking world. Saint Basil’s tenure as bishop, however, was not an easy one. The Arian heresy was making inroads into Asia Minor with the encouragement of Emperor Valens, who sent one of his prefects, Modestos, into Cappadocia to harass Saint Basil and to threaten him with exile. The saintly Basil responded thus:
If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.
The prefect expressed shock that someone would speak so audaciously to him. Saint Basil then answered:
Perhaps that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.
Modestos reported back to the Emperor that Saint Basil would not be intimidated; the Emperor himself, when he took it upon himself to visit Basil, was awestruck by the devotion and selflessness with which the Saint celebrated the Divine Liturgy. As Bishop, also, Saint Basil managed to establish a relationship between the Church and the state that made the Church the instrument of public philanthrōpía; he also established a free hospital on the edges of Cæsarea, attached to his monastery and at which the monks of his monastery would attend the poor and sick, the Basilead, which received support from the governor of Cappadocia. In addition to this, he established poor-houses at each settlement in his eparchy, which were funded from whatever his monastery could produce or had left over. Saint Basil preached caritative, self-giving love in a radical way that still challenges many of us. (I know that, for me personally, reading Saint Basil’s Homilies on social justice, and taking his unsparing admonitions to heart, was a challenging task to say the very least.)

When Saint Basil the Great reposed in the Lord at the age of forty-nine – the result of his hard toils, his demanding fasts, his active pastoral ministry, combined with a weak constitution – he was remembered in eulogy by his younger brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa, by his friend Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and by the latter Gregory’s cousin Saint Amphilochios of Ikonion, not only for his virtues but also for the knowledge of holy things which he took pains to impart to his fellow monks, and for the social service with which he faced the world more broadly.

Holy Father Basil, revealer of the heavenly mysteries for all and always, entreat Christ our God to save our souls!
Your proclamation has gone out into all the earth
Which was divinely taught by hearing your voice
Expounding the nature of creatures,
Ennobling the manners of men.
O holy father of a royal priesthood,
Entreat Christ God that our souls may be saved.
Let us who love their words gather together
And honor with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead:
Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.
These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines.
They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom
Filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge.
Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!

28 January 2018

Venerable Efrem the Wonderworker of Novotorzhsk

Venerable Efrem of Novotorzhsk

The twenty-eighth of January, as well as being the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee this year, is also the feast day of Venerable Efrem, Abbot of the Monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb in the town of Torzhok, now in the Tver Oblast’. Saint Efrem was a ‘Hungarian’ (which, in those days, might have meant either a Magyar or a Rusin), one of three saintly brothers born in the Carpathian Mountains. Baptised Orthodox, Efrem left his home alongside his two brothers Moses and Yuri to serve under the meek Martyr-Prince Boris of Rostov, until the innocent last was murdered by his wicked brother Svyatopolk. Efrem’s brother Yuri was among the retainers who was martyred alongside Saints Boris and Gleb, and beheaded so that his body could be plundered by Svyatopolk’s men. His other brother Moses was kidnapped by the Polish king Bolesław, and sold into slavery in that country.

In the wake of the bloody fratricide on the Al’ta, Efrem found his brother’s remains and buried them, though he kept his brother’s head. He withdrew from the world and began a life of monastic contemplation. He settled down on the road between Kiev and Novgorod, on the Tvertsa River. There, he, with several other monks, founded a monastery in memory of his fallen lord and his brother; he was freely chosen by the monks there to lead them. In those early days of the monastery, he oversaw the construction of a way-house on the road to Novgorod, where the poor could stay for free and the hungry could be fed.

Venerable Efrem lived to an old age and died; according to his wishes, he was buried alongside the head of his brother Yuri in a stone casket inside the monastery. His relics were uncovered in 1572.

Unfortunately, this was all of the hagiographical information I could find in English on Venerable Efrem, as provided by Holy Trinity Orthodox Church and the OCA website; however, I did also discover that Venerable Efrem is also remembered in the Synaxis of the Carpatho-Rusin Saints alongside his brothers, and thus, beneficent to the poor in death as in life, does he give some part of the glory that Our Lord Christ bestowed upon him upon his long-suffering people.

Holy Efrem, overflowing with brotherly love and pity for the poor, pray to God for us sinners!
Brothers, let us not pray like the Pharisee:
He who exalts himself will be humbled!
Let us prepare to abase ourselves by fasting;
Let us cry aloud with the voice of the Publican:
O God, forgive us sinners!

27 January 2018

His tongue a golden beacon

Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom

One of my favourite saints, the Archbishop Saint John of Constantinople whose Liturgy is celebrated regularly in every Orthodox Church I’ve yet attended, is one I’ve had yet to write about at any length on my blog, save in reference to some other point of theology or political philosophy, upon which his homiletics and other writings were relevant (as here, here, here, here and here). I hope Holy Father John will forgive me this oversight, and I don’t intend to let another one of his feast-days pass by unmarked!

Saint John the Golden-Mouthed was born in Antioch to Syrian-Greek parents. His father, Secundus, was a career soldier who died when his son was still an infant; his mother Anthusa did not remarry, but instead schooled her son at home. Anthusa herself was gifted in rhetoric and had an extensive knowledge of classical pagan literature, which she transmitted to her son along with a love of the Holy Scriptures. It was a joy to her, though not a surprise, to see her son John – apparently so similar in likeness to her late husband – take so readily to this knowledge, and seek even deeper knowledge of theology. She sent him to learn rhetoric and oratory from the great Sophist Libanios, and theology from Saint Meletios of Antioch, who loved the youth as he would an adopted son, and had him tonsured as a reader in the Church there. Later Saint John studied under the well-known Bishop Diodōros of Tarsos, who gave him instruction in the ascetic disciplines.

On the death of his mother Anthusa, John withdrew from the world and became a monk. He spent four years in the wilderness and there wrote several volumes in defence of the monastic life. His time in desert solitude took a toll on his health, however, and he was compelled to return to Antioch, where his mentor Saint Meletios made him a deacon. Some years after Saint Meletios reposed, Bishop Flavianos of Antioch had John ordained as a priest – an office which John graced with his remarkable gift for oratory and homiletics. In addition to this, he began writing exegetical commentaries on Genesis, the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul, emphasising not only the spiritual dimensions of these works but also their practical applications to the lives of everyday people, with a special focus on the need for almsgiving and on the abuses of wealth and power. This populist mode of discourse made his homilies and writings wildly popular in Antioch.

During this time, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus had unexpectedly resigned his position as Archbishop of Constantinople, to the surprise and dismay of the church there. He was succeeded by Archbishop Saint Nektarios, who died in 397. Upon Saint Nektarios’ death, the consul Eutropios submitted a ballot for Saint John to be appointed as his successor, without Saint John’s knowledge or consent. When Saint John was summoned to the election, he had to leave Antioch in secret to prevent a civil disturbance; once there, he was duly appointed.

Saint John set about at once reforming the Church – holding priests to higher standards of personal conduct, refusing to host lavish parties and refusing to offer bribes to priests in outlying districts. As in Antioch, where he preached charity and railed against the affectations and sins of the wealthy, these reforms made him very popular among the lower classes but also earned him quite a few wealthy enemies and detractors. He also set a personal example, living an ascetic lifestyle and using the funds allocated to his own office and upkeep in Constantinople, to opening and funding several way-houses and shelters for pilgrims, and hospices for the sick. He did not neglect, however, the glories of the Church. The Divine Liturgy which we celebrate ordinarily on Sundays was written by Saint John the Golden-Mouthed, and the antiphonal singing was a style that was pioneered in Constantinople under Saint John’s omophor.

Saint John continued to make enemies in high places, including the Empress Eudoxia, who – according to John’s enemies at court, who were more than willing to use intrigue to turn the powerful Empress against him – figured into some of Saint John’s more polemical homilies against worldly vanity, and in particular the taste of rich women for ornamentation and outward luxury. Empress Eudoxia convened a council composed of Saint John’s enemies, both temporal and ecclesiastical, had him accused of Origenist heresy, declared him deposed and had him sentenced to death. The Emperor Arkadios had his punishment commuted, however, to exile, though Saint John refused to tone down his language in criticising the Empress. When the authorities came to place Saint John under arrest, an angry crowd gathered to prevent them from taking their beloved bishop; however, Saint John went with them willingly – again, in order to prevent a civil disturbance which he feared would turn bloody.

During this time, a series of both natural and man-made disasters – including an earthquake, a fire at the Hagia Sophia and a barbarian invasion – were interpreted by Saint John’s supporters as Heavenly proof of his innocence and vindication of his cause. Saint John himself wrote epistles pleading his case with the bishops of the West, who attempted unsuccessfully to intercede on his behalf with the Emperor. Saint John was then sent outside the Empire into the Caucasus, forced to walk through months of cold and wet weather. Having fallen ill from the journey, he died en route in the Pontus, and his last words were: ‘Glory to God for all things!

Saint John Chrysostom’s influence and legacy have been keenly felt. He was one of the most prolific saints speaking on topics of social justice, and his Homilies were read and translated as far afield as Kievan Rus’, where they no doubt had a deep impact on the unique form of caritative Christian social ethics that took root in that country. On the other hand, Saint John’s rhetorical style could also be polemical, and he wielded it to biting effect against Judaïsing Christians and homosexuals. This is a point on which his legacy comes under a great deal of scrutiny, some of it well-deserved (though certainly not all, and not in a blanket way).

In any event, the depth of his understanding; the moving power of his oratory; the keen concern he felt for the needy, the sick and the suffering; the love he had for the Church; the willingness he had to speak truth to the power of the Empress and her clique; the disposition he had to suffer rather than to do injustice – these are all things for which we rightly celebrate Saint John, who after his death was given the deserved epithet of ‘Golden-Mouthed’. Holy Father John, pray to Christ our God to have mercy upon us sinners!
Grace shining forth from your lips like a beacon has enlightened the universe.
It has shown to the world the riches of poverty;
It has revealed to us the heights of humility.
Teaching us by your words, O Father John Chrysostom,
Intercede before the Word, Christ our God, to save our souls!

26 January 2018

Don’t be ‘orrid; don’t be a twerp

From Edward Poynter, Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, 1890

First off, I ought to give credit where credit rightly and deservedly belongs. I was inspired to write the following from a much more concise (and, to be honest, much better-tempered) Facebook post by Teena Blackburn of Eastern Kentucky University.

The scientific facts are as stands: a healthy man from any ‘race’ of people, is capable of having natural and fertile offspring without any aid of technology, with a healthy woman from his own or any other ‘race’ of people. Without the aid of technology, no two men are capable of having natural and fertile offspring together. Without the aid of technology, no two women are capable of having natural and fertile offspring together. Regardless of the ethical implications, there is therefore one factual conclusion to be drawn. Race is a fiction, at least insofar as it regards genetic viability. Biological sex, on the other hand, is not a fiction.

Well, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? I hear you cry.

Though they may not agree on anything else, the recent exchange of petitions and missives from Orthodoxy in Dialogue and the Traditional Workers’ Party proves that they do share one belief in common: that there are only two sides and one must be forced to choose. The problem? The OriD side apparently believes that you can dispense with traditional Orthodox anthropology on the nature of the human body whilst still somehow maintaining that races are equal. And the TWorPs believe that you can dispense with traditional Orthodox teachings on racial equity without also undercutting a sexual ethic that favours the family. They both grasp at what they see as the one bedrock truth without seeing that those two truths are connected.

Both the OriDs and the TWorPs, for all their mutual grandstanding about how they (and only they) stand within the main of the Orthodox tradition, miss a key element of the larger picture. Just as the heresiarchs of our early days as a Church overreacted to one another and lost sight of the larger divine-human image of Christ in the process, so too it seems the heresiarchs of our day are overreacting to one another and losing sight of the larger image – not of divine things, but in this case of the merely human.

How about this for a novel solution, then? The ‘races’ are equal and commensurate on the most fundamental possible biological standard – the proven capability of any healthy man of any ‘race’, and any healthy woman of any other ‘race’, to have natural, viable and fertile offspring together. That’s the the reality and duality of biological sex, along with everything else that implies. However much I may disagree with him on other political matters, there is good reason at this juncture in our history to be thankful for someone like Father John Whiteford of ROCOR, who is willing and able to publicly stand up for both realities, and not lose sight of their broader anthropological meaning and purpose. It’s possible – and indeed necessary! – to be neither an OriD nor a TWorP on this question.

25 January 2018

An eloquent shepherd’s pipe

Saint Gregory the Theologian

One of the several Orthodox figures cited specifically by the Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr as having a particular resonance with modern œcological thought is also one of the three (count them) people gifted by the Holy Orthodox Church with the cognomen of ‘Theologian’, alongside Holy Apostle John and the Venerable Symeon. He is also one of the handful of saints (alongside Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Ephraim the Syrian, his contemporary Saint John Chrysostom and Saint John of Damascus) whose translated works were available in the vernacular to the people of Kievan Rus’, and contributed to the early depth and breadth of feeling and action in that people’s shared Christian life. I am speaking of Saint Gregory the Theologian, whom we commemorate today.

Saint Gregory was apparently a bit of a character – a ‘gentleman-bishop’, in the words of Lionel Wickham, with a flair for rhetoric; ‘touchy, rather vain, sometimes downright tiresome… waspish and given to self-justification’ – and a friend of mine from church recently compared him to a blustery, stuffy British aristocrat. For all that, however, he loved the Church with a devotion that couldn’t be faked (particularly since that same love bore him up to offices which he resented and duties which he loathed), and brought a truly formidable intellect to bear upon the deepest questions of our existence, expressing those mysteries not only with a finely-honed poetic tongue and pen, but with a reverent awe and humility that apparently didn’t come easily or naturally to his upbringing.

Having recently read his Five Theological Orations, the depth and subtlety of Saint Gregory’s thinking is instantly remarkable, and even in translation (a poor substitute, I am told, for the original Greek!), the beautiful poetry and parallelism which Saint Gregory deploys in his descriptions and understandings of the nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit come through, in some cases, loud and clear. So too, indeed, does the Platonic influence, even though Saint Gregory himself disavows many of Plato’s pagan concepts of the Divine.

And it also becomes clear to see, in the twenty-eighth Oration in particular, why a Sufi Muslim traditionalist like Seyyed Hossein Nasr thought so highly of his writing, and saw in it such deep potentials for an œcological Christian theology. For Saint Gregory, all of natural creation – from the wings of songbirds and the feathers of peacocks; the music of cicadas and the industry of ants, spiders and bees; the petals of flowers, the depths of the seas and the heights of the mountains and heavens – all of it is pregnant with the glory and grace of the Divine, and is stamped with the Creator’s mark. For him, it becomes something of a sign of ingratitude to look on any of these things and not value them rightly – not only for their own sake but for the sake of Him who made them. Although he places this point at the service of a broader theological aim: that of refuting the critics of trinitarianism, the argument is still a firm one standing on its own merits.

Also of interest: at one point Saint Gregory puts paid to the notion that Christ’s sacrifice was an act of legal satisfaction and appeasement of the Father. From the thirtieth Oration, chapter fourteen:
‘Ever living to appeal for us:’

Yes indeed—what deep significance and humanity it expresses! ‘Appealing’ does not imply here, as it does in popular parlance, a desire for legal satisfaction—there is something humiliating in the idea. No, it means representing us in his role of mediator, in the way that the Spirit too is spoken of as ‘appealing’ on our behalf. ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man, Jesus Christ.’ Even at this moment he is, as man, making representation for my salvation, until he makes me divine by the power of his incarnate manhood.
How far a cry from the later distortions of the atonement! In addition, Saint Gregory issues a firm and sterling defence of Orthodox trinitarianism in these Orations. What is worthy of note is that he does it not by appealing to the infallibility or the literal interpretation of Scripture. He notes repeatedly, and with a palpable sense of disgust, that he has little patience for the sorts of semantic games such literalists devise to sow confusion. ‘It is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block that the literal text of Scripture contains—that is,’ he addresses his interlocutors, ‘if your stumbling is real and not just wilful malice.’ Indeed, at one point he says outright: ‘Some things mentioned in the Bible are not factual; some factual things are not mentioned; some nonfactual things receive no mention there; some things are both factual and mentioned.’ And again: ‘“Believing in” is not the same thing as “believing a fact about”.

Was Saint Gregory a theological liberal then? No; not at all! Can a man who stood steadfast on the side of the Orthodox, Chalcedonian understanding of the Trinity be truly considered a ‘liberal’, least of all by a presumptuous peanut gallery standing at a sixteen-century remove? It’s only within an anachronistic, early twentieth-century American frame of reference, which empties theology of its content and focusses solely on methods and pragmatics, that he can even be suspected of such. Saint Gregory refers instead, not only to Scripture (though plenty to that!), but also to the sense and the spirit which motivates the Church of Christ as a whole, and not just in any one of its constituent parts. The ‘we’ with which he speaks is the conciliar ‘we’ of the Church, as here:
We shall give fuller grounds when we discuss the question of what is not in the Bible, but for the present it will be sufficient for us to say just this: it is the Spirit in whom we worship and through whom we pray. ‘God,’ it says, ‘is Spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.’ And again: ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.’ And again: ‘I will pray with the Spirit but I will pray with the mind also’—meaning, in mind and spirit. Worshipping, then, and praying in the Spirit seem to me to be simply the Spirit presenting prayer and worship to himself.
The subtlety of Saint Gregory’s thinking, and the foundational respect it deserves particularly within the Orthodox tradition, is on full display in the Theological Orations. Even if he was, for many of his contemporaries, a grouchy, reticent, stubborn and stuffy personality to deal with – can there be any better proof that the Church has needed such difficult people than the example of Saint Gregory, and the corpus of theological writings which he bequeathed to us? Holy Father Gregory of Nazianzus, pray to God the Father, to God the Son and to God the Holy Spirit – whose eternal and beautiful mysteries you came so much the nearer than any of us to glimpsing – for us!
The sweet-sounding shepherd’s pipe of your theology
Overpowered the trumpeting of the orators;
For having searched the depths of the Spirit
Eloquence was also bestowed upon you.
Pray to Christ God, Father Gregory,
That our souls may be saved!

24 January 2018

Of Christian Arabs and Arab nationalism

I do realise that I will be opening myself up to charges of hypocrisy on this topic, after all my numerous blog posts denouncing nationalism as a modernist turn away from the old, multivalent political forms that prevailed under Byzantine rule and more broadly in the mediæval world. To these critiques I still hold somewhat. I still believe nationalism links people to state structures far too easily and far too glibly for it to be a comfortable social position, even for a Church which has developed sympathies for it. However, this is a topic which is never as simple as it first appears, and nowhere is the reality of that messier than in the former lands of Byzantium itself.

Arab nationalism is a tricky thing, not least because so many of its early proponents and theorists were Christians, educated in Catholic and Presbyterian colleges in Syria. Dr Nasif and his son Ibrahim al-Yâzijî were Melkites. Butrus al-Bustânî was born Maronite but became a Presbyterian later in life. Dr Faris Nimr Pasha and Nagîb ‘Âzûrî were Orthodox Christians. As with other Christian subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire – the Bulgarians and the Greeks most noticeably – nationalism had a strong attraction to Christian Arabs. The liberation of their people, on a mass basis, from the Ottoman yoke would yield a chance for dignity that the previous subjugation had never offered. There is, I grant, good reason for sympathy here, although it’s something I refer to as a ‘historical accident’: a moment in the relations between Church and state which is passing.

But with Arab Christians there has always been an additional difficulty. Unlike Bulgarians and Greeks in their own homelands, they were always minorities – and always minorities, at that, among potentially-hostile neighbours. Paul Eedle put it best: ‘to be an Arab and a Christian provoked an identity crisis for many long before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and many sought to take refuge in radical revolutionary movements where religion was not an issue.’ It’s not an accident that an Arab national consciousness began to grow at around the same time as the fundamentalist revival movement led by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb was taking shape elsewhere in the Arab world. The national movement, at least, was non-sectarian. The Muslims who joined and led nationalist circles – figures like al-Kawâkibî – were notably friendlier with and more sympathetic to Christians and Jews than their contemporaries were, and abhorred sectarian prejudice and violence. Is it any wonder that Arab Christians, faced with the choices between the loss of their culture and language from the Turks on the one hand, and with the loss of their faith from the ‘revivalists’ on the other, would seek refuge in a third way that could make room for them, as Christians and as Arabs? Is it any wonder that Christians could be driven to support ‘tyrants’ and ‘dictators’, where those same political leaders offer them the one meagre protection they might lay claim to, the one chance at having a voice of their own?

It’s an option that too many Arabs, in too many corners of their own world, have been actively denied by the machinations of the great powers. The irony should not be lost that the Arab nationalist moment – the rising against the Ottomans in 1916 – could not have occurred, as a ‘moment’, without the interference and support of great power politics. In the aftermath, even the strongest and most charismatic Arab nationalist leaders who, like Nasser, tried their damnedest to break free of great power politics, could not manage it.

So, yes, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Arab nationalism – a soft spot which is denied to the more ‘successful’ forms of nationalism like those found in Bulgaria and Greece (or certain Slavic countries further north). The ‘successful’ nationalisms are that much more likely to take the triumphalist road, as they have done. They are that much more likely to deny any king but Cæsar and to cry out for Barabbas. They are that much more likely to rewrite history to suit themselves, to embrace power at the expense of truth. On the other hand, a civic nationalism which has been broken against the shoals of history, which was cast into despair and confusion by the passing of historical events: now that is a nationalism which is capable of coming before the tomb, and weeping there.

23 January 2018

Duds in al-Quds

A certain former Indiana state governor’s recent visit to the Holy City may have gone over well with Likud and their American and British supporters. It didn’t go over well with anyone else.

Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church, no doubt remembering what it was like when his countrymen were visited by another American neoconservative statesman and unceremoniously thrown under the bus, refused to meet with the veep. Wise move on their part. The Copts have long shown excellent judgement on these issues. They have to; that’s how they’ve managed to survive this long.

As for the Palestinians themselves, they’re having none of it. The Christians of Palestine, notably Archimandrite Theodosios (Hanna) of Sebastē, have already registered their great displeasure with the diplomatic move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. None of them welcomed the Hoosier. In fact, Fatah called for a general strike today; most Palestinian businesses closed up shop for the duration of the state visit, according to the Quartz article.

Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Ahed Tamimi, along with her mother and cousin, is still in indefinite military detention, awaiting what’s sure to be a kangaroo trial for defending her fifteen-year-old cousin, who was shot in the head by an IDF soldier. The well-oiled machinery of collective punishment as it applies to Palestinians is still, it seems, running smoothly in the State of Israel. Hardly a Christian – or, rightly speaking, even a Jewish – principle.

So much for the ‘realist’ at 1600 Pennsylvania. The fact that America is no longer considered a trustworthy broker in the peace process in the Levant is now apparent to Israel’s liberals. If for nothing else, we may have the current administration to thank – or, more likely, blame – for tearing off even the veneer of objectivity and civility we may have had previously. Our now open and blatant hostility to a two-state solution loses our government further ground in the Middle East, and jeopardises some of our true national interests.

I honestly pray for my Palestinian brothers and sisters, both Muslim and Christian. I pray that our nation’s short-sighted and foolish policies toward them will be short-lived. I pray that we come out of this with a stronger appreciation for the patience of the Palestinian people.

21 January 2018

Living to Some Purpose

Dr Adnan al-Pachachi

I recently finished reading the memoirs of Iraqi elder statesman and diplomat Dr Adnan al-Pachachi: Living to Some Purpose.

More nonagenarians should write memoirs, I feel. It struck me on reading this book that anyone who has lived through and witnessed first-hand the devastation of the second world war, the existential anxieties of the postwar era, the social upheavals of the Sixties and everything afterward probably has more than one or two interesting things to say about them. Also, in general, the experience and the wisdom of the elderly is far too often undervalued in our day. Would that more folks like Dr Pachachi put pen to paper! They’d find a willing reader in me.

As it is, though, Adnan al-Pachachi is no ordinary ninety-year-old. He served under four different Iraqi governments with distinction. He was a peer and (sometimes grudging) admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was an earnest and unflagging advocate for the rights and dignity of Palestine at the United Nations. He was the man behind the scenes who did as much as anyone else to forge the Trucial States into the United Arab Emirates. He was active in Iraqi opposition politics, but he adamantly and steadfastly opposed American policy, from the prosecution of the First Gulf War, through sanctions and no-fly, through the decision to declare the Second Gulf War. And then he reluctantly came out of retirement to serve as a political figure in the centrist, non-sectarian political formations in the new Iraqi republic. The Iraqiya List of the present day was the vehicle constructed by Pachachi and his peers.

If there is one weakness in Dr Pachachi’s narrative, it appears to be his insistence of inserting praise for himself in the form of commendations, letters and articles written to or about him by other high-ranking and prominent figures in the world of international diplomacy and politics. In the best and most piquant of these cases this can be a little bit underhanded – he delights in being considered a formidable foe by his adversaries. He justifiably revels in being labelled a troublemaker and an intransigent thwart to British interests in the Middle East, for example. I actually don’t mind that much reading what other people thought of his actions in the context of the geopolitical situations he found himself in: they serve a useful purpose and illuminate Dr Pachachi’s own rôle in events. But sometimes they could interrupt the flow, and I feel these might have been better served as entries in the appendices.

One is struck as one reads, with the remarkable breadth and depth of Pachachi’s understanding, his erudition and his strategic sensibility – but more than that, with the subtle turns of his political ideas. He is a man of conviction, but does not fit comfortably into any ideological box (unless one is willing to speak broadly of Arab nationalism). I don’t pretend I would agree with him on every particular, but the man speaks with consideration, integrity and authority. He blends a certain earnestness when it comes to human rights and democratic procedure, with a deep-seated and emotional attachment to the Hashemite monarchy and the generation of civil servants which it fostered. He blends Third World sensibilities – including advocacy for Palestine, a certain limited admiration for Nasser and a certain gratitude toward some Soviet leaders (particularly Khrushchev) – with a palpable Anglophilia.

These may seem incongruous, but Dr Pachachi points out that this is not a contradiction: what he loves in Britain pertains to what is permanent to Britain, whereas what caused him to rail bitterly against British actions at the UN and later as an elder of the Iraqi opposition was the imperialist legacy which he felt to be a betrayal of the British spirit. He is a self-proclaimed centrist and an admirer of American sæcularism, convinced of the failures of both planned œconomy and religious-fundamentalist sectarian politics. And yet he had no truck with the American ‘centrism’ of the neoconservatives and the liberal interventionists when it came to how they treated his own home country, believing them to be serving Zionist goals. The two words he uses most to describe himself are ‘nationalist’ and ‘democrat’, and yet each of these descriptors has its limits. I have no way of knowing how he’d take the comparison, but in many ways he reminds me somewhat of an old-fashioned, moderate-tempered Whig in the mould of Edmund Burke.

I appreciated and enjoyed reading of his own insights into the situation in Iraq from 1990 onward. The fact that he had opposed, from positions of conscience and long experience, all of: the invasion of Kuwait, the American reprisal, the sanctions régime, the open lies (which he doesn’t hesitate to call out as such) on which the younger Bush based his intervention in 2003, the prosecution of the war itself, the destruction of the country he loved and its recomposition on a sectarian basis, renders his account that much more valuable.

Again, much of what makes this political autobiography so interesting, is how Dr Pachachi is able to foreground his take on current events in the Arab world against a context of the past hundred years of history in the Levant and on the Arabian Peninsula – events which he himself witnessed as they were happening and analysed directly in their own aftermaths. Over a career spanning the better part of seven decades, the man has plenty worthwhile to say.

19 January 2018

Don’t be a sucker

I denied the ‘bromance’ in 2016, and I still deny it now. In fact, I’d say there’s more evidence of a bromance between the White House and a certain Slovenian Marxo-Freudian pop ‘philosopher’ than there ever was of one between the White House and the Kremlin.

The problem is, of course, that there’s never been that much ‘there’ there, when it comes to any sort of sub rosa relationship between the Russian and the American heads of state, and subsequent events have long since proven it. Trump’s surrogates have been attacking Russian interests in Syria and the Ukraine more actively than Obama’s had done, and just recently Tillerson has announced that the United States will be keeping a military presence in Syria, one committed to the removal of Assad, indefinitely. Obama’s one foreign policy initiative to have drawn praise and support from Putin, has been the one foreign policy initiative Trump has been the most assiduous about wanting to undo (to Putin’s chagrin).

The thing is, all of this was foreseeable, if one knew where to look. Trump did not offer substantive change, only a change of style. He was friendly with the NED; he was friendly with the big banks; he was friendly with the military contractors. What it boils down to is this: if Putin were for a moment to have believed that Trump was a trustworthy or useful surrogate in Washington, he would have to have been an idiot of colossal proportions.

And whatever else you may think of Russia’s President, an idiot he is not.

My advice to my fellows on the left would be to stop baying after the Russian collusion red-herrings, and start looking at what Trump actually does in office, whom his policies are actually meant to benefit. If you want to beat him, get a sense of strategy. Start looking at the big picture. Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents. Don’t be blinkered by ideological blather from the American think-tank industrial complex. Trump’s closest friends on the international stage are decidedly not in Moscow and still less in Beijing, but in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The more astute observers of American foreign policy, those with the best track record, have already seen ample enough evidence of this to draw that conclusion, and deplore it.

If we want to get serious about rebuilding an equitable, just, prosperous and respected America again, then we need to get back to basics. Liberal bromides from the Cold War – followed by people across the political board – need to be checked at the door. We need to look further back, to the éminences grises of great power politics in the past: specifically Metternich and Pobedonostsev. We need to focus on our domestic problems – particularly those related to healthcare, jobs, infrastructure, education and local government – and in so doing we need to rid ourselves, as the Federalists and British Tories of days past did, of the illusion that we have either permanent friends or permanent enemies on the international stage.

I say we’d do well to follow Dr Bacevich’s lead.

18 January 2018

The promise of Pereyaslavl

Vasiliy Buturlin at Kiev

In my series before on the invaluable work of Gyorgi Fedotov, in detailing a believer’s-eye view of Russian spirituality and revealing the inner content of Russia’s religious ‘folk-history’ from a sympathetic view in The Russian Religious Mind, I noted in the context of his discussion on Russia’s tradition of attempting to approximate a just-war praxis in the absence of a hard-and-fast doxa that the early radical, kenotic and humble spirituality of the early Kievan Rus’ degenerated in several ways.

Fedotov describes it thus: the first places where this degeneration took place were in Galich and Kiev themselves. Their spirituality was infected, from their long contacts with Poland-Lithuania and polities further west, by a certain kind of upper-class pride – an emphasis on honour and revenge. Nextly, Vladimir and Moscow. The spiritual authorities in Vladimir and Moscow did not succumb to this emphasis on honour and revenge, and outwardly they still condemned even their own princes for pride, cruelty and violence. But instead they took refuge in a kind of self-protective political cynicism. The religious genius and political expediency became too narrowly conflated. Only in Novgorod did Fedotov comprehend a safe haven, at least temporarily, for the old caritative and kenotic spiritual values of Old Rus’.

The 18th of January, an important date in the history of early-modern Russia under the early Romanovs, marks the conclusion of the Rada of Pereyaslavl between the Cossack hetman Senovi Bogdan Khmelnitskiy and Tsar Alexis the Quiet. Bogdan Khmelnitskiy was the leader of the bloody, messy Cossack uprising against Poland, and he drew his support not from the nobility but from the lower classes. (Even Rusin peasantry, some of the poorest people in Europe long-oppressed under the Polish państwo, joined in the uprising.) As with Tsar Alexis himself, Bogdan’s legacy is mixed. I am not talking merely about his shameful treatment of the Jews or of the kholops (a servile institution which, to his credit, Tsar Alexis did abolish).

I’m talking more about the contradictory spiritual principles which Bogdan Khmelnitskiy’s uprising represented. As a Polish-educated nobleman, Bogdan had of course inherited in full the Galician-Kievan distortion of Christian ethics. He had a haughty and high-handed character, quick to anger and revenge. Much of his motivation in warring with the Poles came from his personal enmity with the overbearing Polish lordling Daniel Czapliński, who murdered his son and kidnapped his wife during one of Bogdan’s absences. His campaign was as much about offended honour and personal revenge as it was about justice for the people of Ruthenia in any broader sense. The transformation of the Zaporizhian Cossacks from a quasi-democratic steppe league into a more Westernised hereditary noble warrior caste was, in fact, largely Khmelnitskiy’s doing. And yet, by the lights of the time he did acquit himself with regard to the common people. Khmelnitskiy did have a sense of noblesse oblige toward the poor which he could exercise… when it suited him. To the poorer Ruthenians who joined his campaign, he was their ‘Moses’, their ‘redeemer and liberator’.

Khmelnitskiy wasn’t perfect – he was prideful, and held an immense capacity in his high-born heart for spite, revenge and cruelty. But he could also embody some of the best tendencies of Rus’ caritative spirituality. The reunion of the lands under the Cossack hetmanate with the Great Russian Tsardom was also accomplished through a council of accord on 18th January 1654: the Rada of Pereyaslavl, during which the Cossacks met with Vasiliy Vasil’evich Buturlin, the representative of Tsar Alexis, and came unanimously to the decision to place themselves under Russian military protection with a number of guarantees of their autonomy. That council represented the humane traditions of the Cossacks and the Russians both, the spirit of sobornost’ that characterised even the zemsky sobor which chose Alexis’s father Michael Fedorovich as the Tsar of Moscow. The later abrogation of that treaty which united the lands of the Cossacks with those of Great Russia, however, was largely a result of the wanton, unilateral treachery of the later Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa.

Mazepa represents the other side of the coin from Khmelnitskiy, even though they occupy a similar position in nationalist mythology in the country which claims them both. The two of them had similar educations and upbringings. Khmelnitskiy may have established the Cossacks as a class of landowning nobles; Mazepa exploited this system to his own benefit, amassing vast swathes of land for himself and becoming a ‘patron of the arts’ at a time when such things were an ostentatious affect. He was a masterful manipulator, a schemer and, if the legends Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt et al. spread so salaciously are to be believed, a seducer. He made his name as a loyalist to the Russian Tsar, particularly in his early career. However, he quickly saw that the winds were blowing in another direction, made plans to defect as early as 1706, and indeed so did, to the Swedish king Charles XII when the opportunity presented itself in 1708.

Whereas Khmelnitskiy had at least some sense of noblesse oblige, Mazepa had none, unless it burnished his own reputation. Khmelnitskiy saw fit to consult with his fellow-Cossacks before and at the Rada of Pereyaslavl. Mazepa did no such thing. No council was called; no consultation with the other Cossacks took place. His sudden defection from Tsar Peter I came as a shock to those Cossacks not under his direct command. It’s telling that even though Peter’s reaction to the betrayal was swift, brutal and deliberately-galling, executing over 5,000 Cossacks at one stroke at Mazepa’s home base of Baturlin, most of the remaining Cossacks still flocked to his banner – and not out of fear or cowardice. After all, Mazepa had not consulted them first. He had not only betrayed the Tsar, he had betrayed them. The campaign Mazepa led against his own former comrades was every bit as brutal as Peter’s reprisal; the Swedes he supported were indiscriminate in their violence against civilians, and the lands of the hetmanate were laid waste with a fury born of the Thirty Years’ War to which the Swedes had also been party. The diminishment under later Tsars of the liberties and autonomy Tsar Alexis promised them at Pereyaslavl, is to be attributed as much to the civil war between them as it is to the policies of Tsar Peter the Great.

As if to prove Dr Samuel Johnson’s maxim that ‘(false) patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, one of the first things that Mazepa did upon his defection was to defend himself as a ‘true son of the Fatherland’ to his second-hand man Ivan Il’ich Skoropadskiy, and urge him to attack the Muscovites. Skoropadskiy was taken aback by this, but not for long. The civil war among the Cossacks was accompanied by a ‘war of manifestos’ between Mazepa and Skoropadskiy, with each of them attempting to rally support by proto-nationalistic references to the ‘fatherland’.

As to the Treaty of Pereyaslavl itself, it went into decline from there, as noted above. The substance of the Treaty, the sobornyy-conciliar openness with which it was concluded, the willingness of Vasiliy Buturlin and the Cossacks to come to a peaceful and even-handed accord between them, stands in stark contrast to its later furtive, unilateral abrogation. But it did, for a time, represent a high-water mark in the relationship between the successor-countries to Kievan Rus’. God willing something similar may one day happen again.

15 January 2018

The uncomfortable King

It’s become something of a piety on the left (including here, on this blog) that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr has become a ‘Santa Clausified’ figure, in the words of Dr Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School: a flag-draped, marble-bound idol of the American civic religion, who in that very transformation found his fundamental message to be effectively neutered. I fully agree there. It’s become a bit of a hobby-horse of mine to retrieve and present the Dr King whose messages were uncomfortable, particularly for the bourgeois white America who has come to see him as its own kind of magic uncle.

Dr King was particularly unsparing in his critique of the ‘white moderates’ in his own day – the people who today would be sporting ‘I’m With Her’ bumper stickers on the backs of their SUVs and listening to NPR while sending their kids to private schools in the safety of gentrified urban and suburban neighbourhoods, and who castigate young people and millennials poorer than themselves as ‘privileged’ and ‘selfish’. (Worthy of note is that Dr King himself never endorsed a single political candidate from either party.) His Letter from a Birmingham Gaol had this to say about the white liberals of his day, the people who made expediency and strategy, law and procedure, the measures of justice itself rather than the other way around:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’…
This is the necessary thing to understand. Dr King’s far-too-overused and -abused soundbite about ‘the arc of the moral universe… bend[ing] toward justice’ was not a blessing that he personally bestowed upon the contemporary liberal creed of Progress which even the ‘white moderates’ held to; moreover, it was far from an assurance to later generations that they could be complacent or forego vigilance against injustice. Nowadays when we hear that quote it has just a soporific effect, and one which would have appalled the Dr King who wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Gaol. He was not a historical determinist, and furthermore, as a personalist he would be profoundly insulted if you were to take that meaning away from this quote.

There are problems with America in 2018 which King had already seen as such in 1968. He would not take kindly to the fact that his warnings on this front have gone so long unheeded. America, still in the brazen grip of capitalism and the iron grip of militarism, once again goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy, to uphold the lie that she was the ‘indispensable nation’. It was the very topic of his impassioned plea to his own countrymen in Beyond Vietnam, a topic on which the great orator and good reverend refused to keep silent:
This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam… Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans…

it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land…

But even if it [this calling] were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy’, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
The Cold War, proxy-war logic that Dr King opposed so firmly in Beyond Vietnam has resurfaced in spots like Libya, Syria, the Ukraine and the Yemen, with some remarkably ugly consequences. The same people who today will be mouthing obsequies and eulogies to Dr King will tomorrow (or even sooner) be going back to repeating the same old State Department and FBI propaganda, treating the Russian people, the ‘enemy’, as non-white and less-than-human. It’s not enough to decry the president’s language, however foul and detestable, in discussing foreigners, when those of us who would never be so gauche as to make such an utterance still harbour these prejudices so tightly within ourselves.

This is not what Dr King himself taught. This is not what Dr King himself did. Dr King sought to visit Russia personally in 1958 (the trip never quite worked out), because he believed – rightly, as it turns out – that his Russian brothers and sisters were complete persons and human beings, that they had souls, and that they had not ever wholly given up on the Christian faith in spite of an atheist dogma being forced on them from above for four long decades previous.

Dr King was never a Russian stooge as the FBI believed, a charge which is now levelled at other people willing to humanise the Russians, like Dr Stephen Cohen. But he had, as my good friend Paul Grenier rightly says today, ‘the courage to converse’. Would that that same courage, that same conviction of the personhood even of our nation’s enemies, were more evident among us now!

And Dr King used the last year of his life to fight for the very same things that the social-democrats in this country are fighting for now (and more!), and are derided as ‘unrealistic’ by our current-day ‘white moderates’ for so doing. Full employment. Living wages. Affordable housing. Land grants for the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr, supported all of these initiatives not because they accorded with the received wisdom of the centrist technocracy. They didn’t – certainly not in his day and age any more than in ours. But he supported them because the demands of justice, of natural law and virtue rightly conceived, were that much weightier.

Repentance is something too often demanded of others and not of ourselves. I look at Dr King’s example and think of the opportunities I missed, myself, to speak on issues of importance, and am left to wonder if my own silence won’t be remembered by my friends in their hours of need. But for all that, I would deeply love to see it, if we could use this Martin Luther King Day to look to the example of one of our few civic, sæcular (and yet very far from sæcular) saints, and use that opportunity to both individually and collectively repent – both of what we have done wrong, and of what right we have left undone in the pursuit of lasting and just peace.