31 October 2018

News from Nowhere

I did get around to reading, at long last, William Morris’s most popular novel, the utopian News from Nowhere. This is one of those books that left a distinct mark on my intellectual life even without having been read, so I’m glad I was finally able to rectify that. Unfortunately, though it does seem to be his best-known, it doesn’t quite rank with the other two of his fantasy novels I’ve read (The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End) in terms of literary merit. For one thing, it is lacking for the most part in the antiquarian, Old English-inflected language which managed to grow on me so much in his fantasy novels. For another thing, even though there are characters and a setting and movement, there isn’t really that much of a story. The characters are very rarely in any sort of conflict, and the protagonist and narrator William Guest, though emotionally engaged, is largely passive throughout, being led around a post-revolutionary communist England by several of its beautiful inhabitants. It may rather lack in plot, but it still reads the way a Pre-Raphælite oil painting might look: rich and sumptuous and colourful, full of lively detail and worthy of close examination.

William Guest falls into sleep after a heated argument among the Hammersmith Socialists, and awakens in an England that is miraculously greener; brighter; cleaner; populated by fit, lively, happy and beautiful people. These people - chief among whom are Dick and Clara, a once-divorced and now-remarried couple - have an intense respect and enjoyment for their natural surroundings, and work not for the sake of busyness nor for the fear of starvation, but instead for the satisfaction in creating works of beauty. Gone are both the urban slums and (most of) the great houses, gone are the factories and the mills and the iron bridges; in their place are pleasant buildings of wood and stone reminiscent of both the European Middle Ages and the Middle East, as well as villages and forests reinvigorated through a solicitous attention to œcology. National borders are gone, but national distinctions remain to an extent - there are still Welsh and English and French cultures. Money exists only as a curio or as a vague remembrance of an unhappier past time. Law courts and prisons, too, are a thing of the past; even though crime still exists, the primary idea of justice is restorative, with the repentance of the wrongdoer being the desired goal.

However, Morris seems rather determined that the revolution he envisions will have little to no impact on traditional gender rôles or on the sexual division of labour: ‘women’s work’ is held of equal worth to ‘men’s work’, though the women of Morris’s utopia naturally gravitate to the domestic sphere, with a maternalism that is deemed to be natural and honourable. He even anticipates the objection that this view would be deemed ‘reactionary’, but Old Hammond has it that it would be truly retrograde to condemn a woman to live as a counterfeit man. Romantic love still very much exists (as we can see with William Guest’s waxing but hopeless attraction to the utopian Ellen), as well as marriage in an informal way, but the propertarian elements of marriage have been done away with. (In this, his ideas seem rather parallel to those of his contemporaries, the Serbian populist Svetozar Marković and the Swedish difference-feminist Ellen Key.) As with the later Christopher Lasch as well, Morris seemingly finds the ‘battle of the sexes’ to be something insurmountable by mere politics, but rather grounded in something deeper, more essential to the human condition. The preservation of sexual distinctions in this socialist utopia is particularly interesting, because it does point to a certain metaphysical dimension of Morris’s thought.

Another indication of this metaphysical dimension is Morris’s attitude toward work, expressed in the monologues of Old Hammond (and occasionally Dick and Clara themselves). There is a kind of equation in Morris’s thinking, that a society cannot be just if it cannot produce holistically-beautiful things. If I were a Straussian I would make much hay of the point that the meditation on craft is situated at the very middle of the book. But even as it is, when Morris tells us, through Old Hammond, that the consumer goods mass-manufactured under capitalism are ‘cheap’, ‘lowish average’ in quality, ‘useless’ and ‘transparent make-shifts’, it reads more like moralistic censure than like æsthetic disapproval. A key marker of his utopia is the return of handicraft, and the blurring, if not erasure, of the distinction between functionalism and art. This blurring-slash-erasure of the function-beauty distinction is, of course, classic Morris, and indeed one of the undergirding assumptions of the Arts and Crafts Movement which he midwifed. But again, this very materialistic understanding of art actually points to an unspoken Eleatic-Platonic doctrine of the commensurability of the transcendentals: which, again, strongly indicates the necessity of a metaphysics. Even though Morris’s utopian Englishmen in News from Nowhere make only deprecating allusions to the religion of former times, Morris is still both unable and unwilling to shake off this element of his Anglo-Catholic early education.

Note that this is also how Morris answers the common criticism or concern-trolling about socialism not being able to work in practice. Generally the sorts of people who issue such criticisms in the process make brazen appeals to the iron law of necessity and ‘sound œconomic principles’. But in so doing, they demonstrate in themselves a telling lack of metaphysics; for them, the ugliness of capitalism (which is what many in my generation truly revile about it) is justified on the grounds of the countervailing utilitarian material benefits that we reap from it. Morris is not trying to directly argue against this criticism, but instead to out-narrate it and show it as a hollow and even insecure position from an æsthetic and, yes, metaphysical perspective. The question is not whether or not socialism is practical, but rather: what kind of practice should a well-tuned soul actually want to see? His answer to this question, such as it is, lies in the character of Ellen, who is apparently Morris’s vision of a well-tuned soul, looking at the world through eyes of undiluted wonder and appreciation, and the one who most deeply enchants his narrator-persona William Guest.

Again, I would say that this book was instructive insofar as it provided a clear signpost for some of my previous thinking, theologically-informed as it was, on œconomic subjects. In terms of its literary merit, I would say that it is charming and even beautiful, but that it really doesn’t hold a candle to Morris’s prose romances. The only thing that saved Plato’s utopia from being dull were its parodical aspects and the tension between the philosopher and the politician which stood over and behind the whole thing. It is telling that the most interesting parts of Morris’s work came when he was indirectly interrogating his reader in a similar way about contemporary Victorian standards of justice and value. Despite these weaknesses, I would still hold this as an important work. So do not be surprised, gentle readers, to see Morris’s metaphysically-tinted political ideas crop up in my writing here more explicitly and more often.

30 October 2018

The heartrending news from Pittsburgh

Both as an American of European Jewish ancestry, and as a one-time citizen of Pittsburgh (a city of which I still have done memories and to which I still have profound cultural attachments), I feel compelled to write publicly about the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. My heart is broken for the eleven Pittsburgh men and women who died, and grieves with their families: my neighbours and my kin by blood. I have been moved to write by grief, yes, but also by outrage. Thankfully, most of the reactions I have seen to this tragedy coming out of Pittsburgh itself have likewise been unconditionally ones of sympathy and compassion, and that is some consolation.

But this was indeed an attack motivated wholly by anti-Semitic bigotry. That requires particular attention. Firstly, this was undisguisedly an attack on American Jews qua Jews. It was not an attack on a political ideology - it was not anti-Zionism. It was not even an attack on a set of religious doctrines and observances, despite the attack happening at a place of worship - it was not anti-Judaïsm. It was an attack on a people (and particularly because neither nationalism nor religion were the targets, I feel I must say my people) both because of our immigrant heritage and because of our real or imagined place in as aliens in American society. That is to say: it was an attack on an American Jewry that exists in the anti-Semitic imagination as a fifth column. We occupy, in this imagination, the rôle of the instigator and the manipulator in the mythical narrative of white genocide. Which is indeed as much as to say that our purported whiteness is negotiable and revocable, particularly if we associate ourselves in sympathy with non-whites.

Just before this atrocity, the shooter made reference to the ‘caravan’ of desperately deprived people coming northward from Honduras, fleeing climate and political conditions there that have made life intolerable, and the ways in which American Jews (specifically, the historically Russian-Jewish Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) were mobilising to help them enter the country. This, to his depraved mind, was proof of our criminal disloyalty and genocidal intentions against whites - both long-standing anti-Semitic canards.

Let us note well: this is the single worst incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. It was also directed, not at the Zionist lobby (AIPAC or ADL), not at the ultra-Orthodox who are the most visible representatives of the Jewish religion (and who, I note, have a sizeable presence in Squirrel Hill), but at a socially-oriented synagogue whose activity was not Zionist or apologetic, but instead humanitarian. Tikkun olam, the Old Testament mandate to repair the fallen world which is parallel to and sympathetic with Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s participatory sophic ethics, was the specific tendency in American Judaïsm to come under literal fire.

This is noteworthy, because I have seen preëmptive attempts to exculpate the administration by pointing out its Zionist policies (like relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem), or by pointing out the conversions to Judaïsm within the family. In light of the nature of American anti-Semitism and the threats that American Jews now demonstrably face, these kinds of exculpations are not only irrelevant, they are also insulting, patronising, cynical and dangerous.

The kind of political grandstanding so common among Republicans (but not unknown among Democrats) that seeks to curry our favour in such moments as these by ‘standing with Israel’ is particularly egregious in this regard. Pardon the tautology, but you do not comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by standing with Israel. You comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by comforting the Jews of Squirrel Hill. It is bad enough that these statements are made cynically with an eye to political fundraising. But it is also dangerous because it lends implicit credence to the same canard that motivated the shooter; to wit, that our loyalties are, in fact, dual: that our civic consciences are collectively motivated by a cabalistic ethnic self-interest. (And obviously, to judge by the mission and activities of the Tree of Life Synagogue, this simply is not true.)

Standing with Israel’ is also a cheap way for far-right nativists both here and in Europe to buy themselves some semblance of plausible deniability. Iowa congressman Steve King, to give a recent domestic example: his loud pro-Zionism serves as a useful fig-leaf for a history of supporting white nationalist rhetoric which is now a manifest danger to American Jews. This is common on the American far right: Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon both do the same song-and-dance. Or, in Europe: Mateusz Morawiecki (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode), Orbán Viktor (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode) and Petro Poroshenko (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode). This kind of obscene charade needs to be axed.

And that isn’t even because most American Jews, particularly us younger folks, have a declining attachment to Zionism. This is because our security, indeed our lives, are at stake. We are under attack here; the response, therefore, must also be here; and we must bear in mind that we are not the only ones under attack. This localism and this neighbourly fellow-suffering is the only way our corner of the fallen world might indeed be healed.

My prayers and deepest condolences are with the souls and with the families of Rose Malinger, Melvin Wax, Sylvan and Bernice Simon, Joyce Feinberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Rich Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal. May the God who knows all things and cares for all things grant them eternal rest and keep them in His remembrance.

28 October 2018

Šťastný sté výročie!

Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. I did thankfully manage to celebrate a little bit yesterday by going to a concert by the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra, playing Romanian and Hungarian folk songs as well as a rendition of Eugen Suchoň’s Psalm of the Sub-Carpathian Land.

I know several monarchists who see the occasion as a cause not for celebration, but for grief – however, that is a sentiment I cannot share. Given the horrific atrocities they committed upon Slavic bodies in the War, I can no more lament the partition of the Habsburg Monarchy than I can lament the fall of the Soviet Union, despite the very obvious political downsides to each. (Historical revisionism regarding the Great War does rather lose its charm when one goes to church with Arab-Americans, Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Rusins whose families remember the Central Powers as existential foes.) And, like the fall of the Soviet Union, that of the Habsburg Monarchy happened quite suddenly and with little to no thought beforehand of its taking place. As Daniel Miller put it in his biography of Antonín Švehla: ʻDespite the tensions within the Monarchy, few politicians from any of Austria-Hungary’s constituent nations were calling for the dissolution of the realm as the guns of August 1914 sounded.ʼ The republicanism of Masaryk and the Russophile politics of Kramář were not particularly popular even among the first Czechoslovak statesmen (including Švehla) to inherit this republic, in its way every bit as accidental as the independent Kazakhstan birthed around this same time in 1990.

All that having been said, though, this most accidental republic did have a spiritual mission to the world. I say this in part from my own residual conservative agrarian-distributist sympathies, of course. As Chesterton himself acknowledged in his own writings, the greatest hope for distributism was the peaceful peasant revolution underway in countries like Romania, Yugoslavia and – yes – Czechoslovakia, under activists and statesmen like Švehla and Hodža. I also point to this spiritual mission, in acknowledgement of the Orthodox holy men who were spiritually-formed in this interwar period: Bishop Saint Gorazd of Prague and Saint Iov the Venerable of Ugolka.

Neither of these developments is to be greatly wondered at. The lands of the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Carpatho-Rusins rest in a transitional area between the Christian civilisation of the West and the Christian civilisation of the East – even just as they lie on the dialect continuum between the West and East Slavic language groups. These were the lands where Saints Cyril and Methodius first took up preaching in the late 800s AD. Are we therefore to be surprised, that the pent-up spiritual energies repressed by four hundred years of a Teutonic captivity should be released with independence in the form of advocacy on behalf of the peasantry, and in the form of a renewal of the Orthodox Christian witness?

One other thing to note – the intellectual side of Orthodox Christian development also owes a great debt of gratitude to the interwar Czechoslovak state, as a haven and a refuge for Tsarist and White refugees fleeing the Soviets. Among these were a talented Prince, Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi, whose contributions to the field of linguistics have been unrivalled (being a particularly strong influence on a certain Dr Noam Chomsky); as well as a father and son: Nikolai Onufrievich Lossky and Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky, whose combined contributions to Orthodox religious philosophy and intellectual development cannot possibly be understated. The reasons for this solicitude may be stated in a twofold way, though the two in fact are related. Firstly, the Czechs and Slovaks have always had a certain public pan-Slavist, Russophile streak that has been absent among, for example, the Poles. We see this also in the work of people like Karel Škorpil and Konstantin Jiriček in the newly-independent Kingdom of Bulgaria. And secondly, the Czechs were the first and most eager to turn to Byzantine concepts of statecraft as part of their growing Slavic awareness – their friendliness to the Russian white émigrés may also thus be seen in this light.

It is a complex and multifaceted heritage for so short a time-frame, between the end of the Great War in 1918 and the occupation by the Nazis in 1939. It is very far from being one worthy of outright dismissal. It is in such a mind, and in memory of people like Saint Gorazd, Saint Iov, Švehla, Hodža, Kramář, Lossky père et fils and Trubetskoi, that I for one can heartily wish the Czechs and Slovaks a hearty ‘šťastný sté výročieʼ on this, their hundredth national day of independence.

26 October 2018

A hope denied, but not a hope in vain

The end of the Great War did not bring about many changes at all for the better – and certainly none, as we now know, that were lasting. (Many of the effects of the Great War’s aftermath could have been resolved with a more gracious attitude toward the losers.) However, for the Rusin people as well as for many other stateless peoples of Central Europe, the end of the First World War was a great breath of hope. It offered them a chance for self-determination. And for the Rusíni in particular, this chance was something hitherto undreamt-of. The Carpatho-Rusins had been starved, scattered abroad, brutalised and murdered for decades and centuries before – first by the Poles, then by the Germans and Hungarians, and by their own neighbours, the (Ukrainian) Galicians. Little wonder, we should say, that the members of the Rusin community abroad saw the President-to-be of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Masaryk’s proposal as a veritable godsend!

In the coming years, the Carpatho-Rusins would become perhaps some of the most enthusiastic and loyal participants in the Czechoslovak project, which seems natural given the interest so many Czechoslovak public figures displayed in the political legacy of Byzantium. Many Carpatho-Rusins joined the Czechoslovak military and served with distinction. They were also at the forefront of various agrarian and socialist political formations within Czechoslovakia, putting aside cultural concerns for the sake of a fair distribution of land, fair trade practices and more equitable welfare policies. They were, in short, realists – not nativists. (In this, the differences between their own œconomics-first political consciousness and the identitarian one of their Galician neighbours are marked indeed.)

Again, though, the hopes of a true self-determination, whether œconomic or political, were every bit as fleeting and ephemeral as the peace that had brought them. Between the rise of the Nazis in the West and their conquest of Czechoslovakia, and the rise of Stalin in the East, the Rusins were left again in the uncomfortable position of being the inconvenient, unwanted people. Even before that, as the Carpatho-Rusin historian Simeon Pyž makes clear, the Czechoslovak government under Masaryk, Švehla and later Beneš was far from friendly even to any political attempt by the Rusins to assert an identity of their own. Attempts by Carpatho-Rusin political leaders – Grigorij Žatkovič foremost among them – at fostering political regionalism and cultural goods particular to the Carpathian region were met with deafening silence at best.

During the Second World War, things turned much worse. The Nazis and their Galician collaborators treated Rusins with the same genocidal dehumanisation that they visited on most of the other Slavs – particularly Russians. When they fled eastward, hoping to find a warm welcome from their hitherto-solicitous and -hospitable Russian brethren, they found waiting instead Stalin – who promptly sent them to Siberia, where they perished by thousands. The Carpatho-Rusins who survived or returned to their home country have never since had any sort of political or cultural recognition or independence, though in most Central European countries today (notably Serbia and Slovakia, where Rusins form significant minorities – but not in the Ukraine) the Rusíni do have some communal rights. Even so, the Rusins of Slovakia today are more concerned with securing œconomic rights and the common welfare, than they are with communal and cultural rights.

So this is, indeed, still something of a bittersweet centennial commemoration: the memory of a hope denied – though hopefully not a hope in vain. Here is to my neighbours and friends and distant kin the Rusíni; may God save them, keep them and remember them always with love.

24 October 2018

The high demands of the axiomodern

Something about our days has me thinking about the fall of (Western) Rome. The crisis of faith in the old established institutions – in our case as much political as religious. Wasteful infighting among the ruling class (check). The growing wealth gap between the rich and the poor (check). The insecurities about immigration and the border (check). The prevalence of usurious consumer lending (check).

What’s more, in both cases, there is a worrying trend of being closed off to radical alternatives. The Roman Empire was addicted to œconomic growth – and it grew by conquering land and slaves. In our case, growth is predicated on leveraging debt into investments in technological progress. But just as the Roman Empire ultimately lost steam as they began running out of land and people to enslave, so we are also coming up against certain hard limits to technological progress, as well as on the strain we can put on the biosphere. This is – to put it mildly – very troubling. We are headed full-steam toward a big collapse and we seem to have misplaced the brakes.

But more than that, we need to begin considering our place in the historical arc. We are living in the waning days of a hyper-capitalist globalism, and we are caught between factions which are taking refuge in a range of extreme and bizarre ideologies held over from the last century. The ‘alt-right’ is preparing for a race war over dwindling resources, while the ‘Tumblr liberals’ are still stuck somewhere between Rules for Radicals and Excitable Speech. Libertarians and counter-culture conservatives are sounding a retreat from the institutions. Honestly, I think the counter-culture conservatives get more right than most people credit them (at the very least they have the civilisational scope of the problem right), but really none of the above ‘options’ offers anything resembling long-term thinking. Indeed, the ‘Tumblr left’ and the ‘alt right’ seem to be flip-sides of the same Mad Max petrol-can cap. The libertarian-slash-crunchy-con position offers very little more by way of a map to the coming wasteland.

To be sure, there are some interesting proposals out there: the ‘slow food’ movement in developing countries isn’t, by the way, so much about boutique consumer alternatives as it is about preserving food sovereignty, which – it strikes me – will become a much more widely-regarded topic as political weakness, biosphere stress, scarcity and mass migration begin to make themselves more strongly felt. (People need to eat even after the collapse of the state.) Even so, these alternatives are lacking in the big-picture department. The one man who, it strikes me, has laid his finger solidly on the current problem – if not yet the solution – is the counter-cultural Russian conservative Aleksandr Shchipkov.

Here is how he puts it in his essay, ‘Axiomodern’:
Postmodernism seems to be rolling, rolling back and rushing into antiquity. Sociologists broadly discuss the “technical paganism”, “new pantheism” and “new barbarism.” … The refusal to subsidize complex and costly cultural projects gives rise to simple and radical projects. All this is true, but it is only one part of the problem. The second, even more important part is that the archaism of culture is secondary. Its real reasons lie in the archaism of politics.

It’s not about thousands of Syrian refugees, these Eastern “barbarians”, as Europeans call them. Our own inner barbarian of the West, which has been set at liberty, is much more dangerous. The era of neoliberal panopticon is inevitably slipping away. The time of idols and temples of the post-digital era comes. This means a rapid dechristianization of the Western world. And the elitist concept of culture, for its part, welcomes the moral terror by all sorts of “Pussy Riots” and attempts to call politics “art”.

Elitism has already turned into barbarism in arts. Similarly, it has turned into dechristianization and dehumanization in society and politics: fundamentalism, neo-Nazism, new Migration Period flooded Europe, the latter, as a “reward” for centuries of colonialism. For the sake of preserving the situation, the present Western political regime cultivates “a new barbarism” to counter the inner barbarian, who always was on guard, but now he seems to be unleashed, with the outer barbarian. Such is the result of postmodernism that rehabilitated the primitive sacrality and cave instincts.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, notice the incredibly short shrift Shchipkov gives to the various alt-right Camp of the Saints fantasies. The real problem – and, being a practising ‘cradle Orthodox’, he understands this all too well – lies instead within. (This is a common talking point among counter-culture conservatives who have at least skimmed After Virtue, but not one, in my view, taken seriously often enough.) Our élite classes have inculcated and ‘set at liberty’ an ‘inner barbarism’. Now, in order to figure what Shchipkov means by this, one has to rather intuit it by means of the various examples he gives (the radical ‘feminist’ art of Pussy Riot being the main one); but reading him charitably, he takes the ‘inner barbarism’ to mean more broadly a politics of affect or a politics of emotivism, motivated by ‘cave instincts’. The ‘new barbarism’ responding to the enemy at the gates, who is now also unleashed by the élites, is clearly the faux-populist nativism now seen in various far-right politicians in Europe and the Americas.

Shchipkov mobilises a high historiographical language to contextualise and counter this dichotomy. Actually, the ‘Bronze Age’ terminology that he uses along with ‘Axiomodern’, is summoned forth out of the Russian literary usage – i.e., the Golden Age of Russian literature and the Silver Age. (And his reference to the late-Soviet poetry of Oleg Okhapkin shows that the Russian literary usage is foremost in his mind.) But in Russian as in English, ‘Bronze Agecalls back to Hesiod in this context – and doubly so when coupled with a Jaspersesque epithet like ‘Axial’. Shchipkov isn’t just quibbling over poetry; he’s talking about the grander-scale rise and fall of human epochs. He understands that we are in the middle of a massive historical transition, and not a particularly pleasant one. The reference to the plight of literary Christians like Okhapkin under the Soviets, additionally, hints that the already-arrived age of ‘post-digital idolatry’ will make overwhelming and even martyrific demands on Axiomodern Man.
Axiomodern has a bronze colour shade reminiscent of the golden classics. This bronze glow, of course, can be noticed not only in literature but also in the sphere of social mores. It is Russia who will play an important role in the return of Europe to Christian roots. Therefore, the “Bronze Age” may be universal. We already have one foot in the new era. Axiomodern has come. And responding to Pasternak's catchphrase: “What millennium is it outside, my dears?” you can answer directly, “Axiomodern. Bronze Age.”
We new ‘axiomoderns’ are faced with a crisis of the soul and a crisis of the social sphere that go hand-in-hand. The twin collapses of Catholic and Orthodox public praxeis are merely signposts of these broader crises. We are the Goths and Huns and Vandals who have sacked Rome, who are sacking it right now. On the other hand, we are also the Goths who are tasked with picking up the pieces and assembling it into mosaic. We are being called to transcend both the politics of affected umbrage plaguing the left, and the politics of nativism plaguing the right – both of which we know will end in the filth and debasement of bestial savagery. Also, the aretē being demanded of us now has an additional element of danger attached. Where in collapses of ages past man was tasked with conquering and taming wilderness in forging a new civilisation, now we are tasked with compassing a sophrosunē that preserves and restores our ailing and overburdened biosphere, not through atomised ‘green’ pieties but through acts of collective political heroism.

No pressure.

23 October 2018

Complications of Fedotov’s threefold Kievan typology

My mind has been going back to Fedotov recently with the crisis in the Church, with its focal point in old Kiev. The spiritual divides, if such we may call them, are not along nation-state lines: the fault-lines run through each of the East Slavic nations today. The religious-gæographical typology of Orthodox historian Gyorgi Fedotov regarding the history and tendencies of Kievan Rus’ has started making more and more sense to me, from an anecdotal perspective. The radical, caritative Kievan Rus’ spirituality, coherent at first, had already begun to disintegrate and variegate itself by the 1200’s, along with the political disintegration of the Rus’ polity itself. The three centrifugal ‘regional centres’ of Kievan Rus’ spirituality have been Vladimir (-Suzdal, with Rostov and Moscow), Novgorod (with Pskov and later Saint Petersburg), and Galich. The spirituality of Vladimir is marked by a certain studied disavowal of temporal affairs in the pursuit of spiritual ones, which at its best can produce breathtaking feats of meekness and holy foolishness, and which at its worst produces a kind of cynical submission to temporal authority. Moscow is still not immune from these sins, as one can readily see.

The spirituality of Galich is marked by a ‘closeness’ to the West, a pull in the direction of Rome prompted by propinquity to the Poles – which at its best can take on a needed seriousness in social doctrine; but which at its worst can produce an overbearing hubris, triumphalism and pride, whether nationalistic or personal. (For example. Claiming, as does a certain baizuo Uniate blogger, that you can understand and ‘read’ Orthodox politics better than do actual Third World prelates of the actual Orthodox Church with actual experience of actual Third World political conditions – and then claiming that your spirituality is the only Non-Aligned one even as you align with the Trumpist religious policy of the biggest imperialist power bloc – that takes a pathological level of arrogance and spite.)

Don’t get me wrong, though: there are positive sides to the ‘Galician’ spiritual tendency. The uprising of the Cossacks under Bogdan Khmelnitsky was a grave tragedy as far as my Jewish forebears are (still) concerned, but it did win the peasantry a greater degree of consideration – and in the Treaty of Pereyaslavl, Khmelnitsky demonstrated that he did have a caritative side as well as a vengeful one.

The third centre of Kievan Rus’ spirituality, in Fedotov’s view, is Novgorod, which he feels was better able to preserve the radical-caritative and kenotic aspects of Kievan spirituality against the feudalistic pride of Galich and the political calculation and cynicism of Vladimir – at least for a time. Now, typical of Russian liberals of a certain stripe, there has always been a fascination with the Old Novgorod Republic as a kind of primitive democracy. This is a fascination Fedotov himself, a liberal-socialist in exile, does not escape. It is also a fascination that comes under spirited attack from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who sees Novgorod instead as a primitive oligarchy, and sees in the romanticisation of Novgorodian democracy a kind of bourgeois pretentiousness. Instead, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the nearby Pomory, a homesteading and seafaring folk who originally hailed from Novgorod but who developed a very different kind of communal small-holder democracy.

Be that as it may: the older analysis – stereotype, really – of autocratic conservative Muscovy versus liberal westward-facing Novgorod (and Saint Petersburg) no longer really holds true. Russian spirituality such as it is has undergone a bit of a rôle-reversal, even though the internal dynamics have remained the same. Novgorod, as well as the nearby cities of Pskov and Saint Petersburg so beloved of Russian democrats and westernisers of a bygone age, have intriguingly become bastions of Slavophil-flavoured conservatism, while now it is urban Moscow that has become a hub for liberal and zapadnik criticism of the current government that sits at its centre. Novgorod, Pskov and Saint Petersburg now all emphasise their age, their culture, their ties to the Russian past; instead it is the bourgeoisie of Moscow that seeks a more Europeanised future.

At the same time, the old spiritual dynamics seem to be working themselves out under the surface, even if the outward and superficial politics of each cluster of cities has changed. I would argue that Novgorod and Pskov are no less democratically-minded now, but that the old democratic faith seems to have tied itself to the traditions upheld by ‘the people’. It is almost as though the old quasi-populist pochvennichestvo has sprung to life again there. Likewise Moscow’s traditional cynicism – though none of the old kenoticism or yurodstvo – can be seen surfacing in the reticent attitudes toward the government and the not-so-soft-spoken disdain for ‘the people’ that once accompanied the old autocratic officialdom. That having been said, there is a place for an authentic Russian liberalism of the Moscow ‘type’. Paul Grenier likes to point out that the peculiarly-Moscow liberalism of, say, an Aleksandr Herzen, is of a caritative type and is at least able to understand and appreciate the Slavophil perspective even as it rejects certain key aspects. It is also no more amenable than Slavophilia is, to the deracinated and alienating capitalist ordo.

I don’t really have a good explanation for why this rôle-reversal has happened; from where I sit on another continent I can only observe the effects, rather than attempt to probe the inner dynamics. Personally, I’m not even sure a ‘synthesis’ of these forms of spirituality is even desirable, and unity would only be possible between them in a free and brotherly sense rather than a straightforwardly-administrative one. The fact that the disintegration of Kievan Rus’ was accompanied by a greater variegation of religious perspectives. The fall of Kievan Rus’ into infighting and conquest by the Golden Horde was lamentable, but the variegation of the lives of her holy men – this was and is not to be lamented.

20 October 2018

Enlightener Saint Jonah, Bishop of Hankou

Bishop Saint Jonah of Hankou

Today we celebrate the brief but holy, meek and self-giving life of Saint Jonah (Pokrovskiy) of Hankou – another of the saints of China alongside the Chinese Martyrs and Archbishop Saint John the Wonderworker. Though Saint Jonah’s life was full of hardships, sorrow and displacement, he nonetheless lived in a spirit of service to the poor and unfortunate.

Vladimir (nicknamed ‘Volodya’) was born in 1888 in the rural area of the oblast’ of Kaluga in western Russia to peasant parents, and was orphaned at the age of eight. He was adopted by a village deacon surnamed Pokrovskiy; and subsequently schooled within the Church. He graduated from the parish school and from seminary in Kaluga proper before entering Kazan Theological Seminary in Tatarstan in 1909. (Note how many of the Russian clerics who go to China either have roots in the Turkic regions or else have done scholarly work there!) After his third year there, he took the tonsure with the monastic name of Jonah, and entered the Optina Pustyn’, where he learned the gentle wisdom and meekness of the Optina Startsy Saint Joseph and Saint Anatolius the Younger. He returned to Kazan Theological Seminary as a priestmonk and graduated in 1914, (reluctantly) accepting a position to teach Scriptural theology as a private-docent (or associate professor).

Father Jonah, however, was not content to sit idly by in safety while men and women on the Eastern Front of the Great War were being slaughtered – he joined the Eleventh Army of the Russian Empire as a military chaplain. He returned to Kazan after the withdrawal of Russia from the War following the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks forced him to flee Tatarstan to Perm. There he was imprisoned, beaten and sent to a kangaroo trial in Tyumen; however, he was freed en route at Tobolsk by the White Army. He served again in the White Army as a military chaplain, and his unit (led by the Cossack General Aleksandr Dutov) took him all across the Urals and southern Siberia. Though he was raised in rank to abbot by ROCA for his service in the White Army, he was nonetheless subjected to long marches, extreme cold and severe physical hardships on his journey into the Gobi Desert and Inner Mongolia – all of which took a toll on his health.

In 1922, he came to Beijing. He was received into the Russian Mission there, and elevated to Bishop with the titular Eparchy of Hankou 漢口 (which is now part of Wuhan in Hubei Province 湖北武漢); however, he was actually called to serve in the border town of Manzhouli in what was then Xing’an Province 興安滿洲里, but which is now part of Inner Mongolia. Manzhouli, a ‘railway town’ set up as a frontier (not unlike the later-blossoming Baotou) on the China Far East Railway, had recently become home to great throngs of KVŽDist Russians – some Red, mostly White – displaced by the Civil War. The Chinese, Mongolians, Evenkil and Manchurians who lived in Manzhouli helped the recent refugees as best they could. However, resources and space were strained. Children did not have enough bread to eat. Families did not have space to sleep safely. In addition, the Orthodox Christians of the city were poorly-catechised and lacking in leadership and spiritual energy; very few people regularly attended the Orthodox Church, and the parish priests there were often lacklustre in their homiletics and wanting in their basic Orthodox formation.

The newly-crowned Bishop of Hankou had his work cut out for him, but he took to it with great zeal and love. He began preaching sermons from the amvon of the church in Manzhouli brimming with a spirit of love. He established a full church choir. He even began teaching local children in the state-run high schools, published church writings, and taught university-level courses in theology and philosophy at Harbin. The spiritual side of his mission was not attended to the neglect of the social side, however. Within three years of his arrival, Bishop Jonah: founded an orphanage feeding and housing thirty homeless children; a parish grade and junior-high school teaching five hundred; a soup kitchen feeding two hundred people a day; and a clinic that provided free medical care to the very poorest people of Xing’an. He had a particular parental love for children, having lost his own birth-parents at such an early age.

Bishop Jonah, a model of Christlike self-giving, was attentive to all of the needs of his flock, whether spiritual or material, and showed a sincere friendship and compassion to everyone he met, even to the Communists in Manzhouli who were the enemies of the Church. He worked tirelessly for his flock, often making the trip to Harbin by train to raise funds for his various social and churchly projects in Manzhouli. The bishop had an eager and intense mind, a broad wealth of intellectual interests, but he lived with remarkable simplicity and humility – often on a diet of stir-fried potatoes and black rye bread, with old, frequently-patched clothes and shoes.

Bishop Jonah fell ill in 1925 after treating a priest who had typhoid, and himself became infected with an inflammation of the tonsils. Though he ran a high temperature and was barely able to stand, he still blessed the carts collecting food and goods for the orphanage and helped to send them on their way, even waiting at the window of his study to hear that the errand was discharged. His infection grew worse, spread to his throat and gave him blood poisoning. The saintly Bishop, understanding that he was reaching the end of his life, saw his doctor (who confirmed the seriousness of his illness), received confession from Archbishop Methodius of Harbin, and then went into his study to type out his testament. In the church, a molieben was being prayed for his health; he retired to his room, where a number of Chinese and Russians had gathered to visit him. He put on the vestments that had belonged to Saint Ambrosius the Younger of Optina, and began to fervently pray the canon for the departure of the soul. He asked, however, to be buried in the simple white robe and mitre he’d received from his Manchurian flock, and to be buried behind the altar – he wanted to be close to the poor folk he served even in his death. He made those present promise not to throw the children out of the orphanage, but to take care of them as he had. He then lay down on his bed and said: ‘Forgive me; pray for me.’ With these simple words he reposed.

Eight thousand people came out to mourn Bishop Jonah at his funeral, served by Archbishop Methodius. At the time, the town of Manzhouli had about ten thousand people. However, even leaving this life did not prevent him from helping his flock. A young boy, Nikolai Dergachev, suffered from a chronic disease in his legs, such that he couldn’t stand without intense pain. At the hour of Bishop Jonah’s repose, Nikolai had a dream in which Bishop Jonah visited him and told him: ‘Take my legs. I don’t need them anymore; give me yours!’ On waking up, young Nikolai Dergachev found his legs had miraculously healed. Nikolai Dergachev, who moved to Harbin (and later married and had two daughters), had a lifelong devotion to Bishop Jonah, whom he venerated as a saint and whose portrait he kept alongside his personal icons.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and particularly the monastery of the Holy Trinity in Jordanville, undertook an investigation to seek out his relics and ascertain his fitness for glorification. The site of the cathedral in Manzhouli had long been abandoned; it had been demolished by the Chinese Communists in 1964. His relics were not found, but not for lack of trying: his Manchurian, Chinese and Russian flock had been incredibly diligent in their fond memory of Bishop Jonah, and they spared no effort or expense in trying to locate him. On the twentieth of October, 1996, the Bishops’ Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia glorified his memory, and this glorification was confirmed by the Moscow Patriarchate on the third of February 2016. Holy Enlightener Jonah, Bishop of Hankou, pray to Our Lord Jesus Christ for us!
Thou wast a good pastor for the Russian people,
Who had departed in exodus to live in a foreign land,
Guiding them in every way,
But especially with the love of Christ,
In all providing a model of love unfeigned.
O Father Jonah, holy hierarch of Christ,
Entreat Him for the salvation of our souls!

19 October 2018

The brightness of the ‘Dark Ages

Eike von Repgow, from the Oldenburger Sachsenspiegel illuminated manuscript

First of all, three cheers and a hearty bravissima to Dr Claire Breay, a librarian with the British Library, who recently gave an interview to the Telegraph about ‘the sophistication and interconnected European world of Anglo-Saxon art, literature and history’ as shown through its poetry, written music, fine metalwork, medicine and administrative methods – and made the point that the ages so often thought-of as ‘Dark’ in Europe were really anything but. As something of an amateur Old England buff myself, I was particularly gratified to see her references to Beowulf and to the Junius manuscript. The beauty and the erudition both, of which the people of Old England were capable, was clearly what Dr Breay wanted to demonstrate.

That fits rather nicely, I think, with another story I read recently: about how the first categorical legal sanction against slavery was issued by the cousins of the Old English on the continent, the Old Saxons. (There had been legal sanctions against slavery and the slave trade prior to that, but they were almost always conditioned on the status of the enslaved as Christian or the status of the owner as non-Christian.) The Sachsenspiegel (‘Saxon Mirror’), or Sassen Speyghel in the original Middelsassisch language, was a systematic collection (often in verse) of earlier customary Saxon law, and indeed the first law code to outright forbid the ownership of a human being. Its compiler, Eike von Repgow, was apparently a well-educated lay-clerk with a formidable understanding of both Scripture and canon law. As such, he put forward a radical theological justification for this proscription. According to Roman Catholic ‘solidarist’ œconomist Prof Dr Hans Frambach of the University of Wuppertal:
The total power of one man over another was first condemned in the Sachsenspiegel, whose author, Eike von Repkow, judged it a violation of God’s likeness in man.
The theological instincts of Eike were correct, of course. And the Low Germans (some of my own forebears being, I presume, among them) can be justly proud of this particular mediæval contribution of theirs to jurisprudence. Still, East or West, the insistence on the inherent dignity of the human being has always had a theological basis. In the brightest flowering of the theological thought of the Middle Ages, as we can see with Eike von Repgow, the traditional Teutonic detestation of servility – that ‘noble Northern spirit’ which so moved Tolkien – combined with the Christian witness to produce a conviction that all slavery is wrong.

The infamous transatlantic slave trade represented, not a recapitulation or an outgrowth of European mediævalism, but instead a backsliding from it. The ‘progress’ of the Renaissance, at least in terms of treatment of people, was anything but. The rise of mercantile capitalism in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and the concomitant development of a ‘new political science’ there; sustained contact with Turks and Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean; and ill-fated new contacts with indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas in the Age of Discovery; all combined to bring chattel slavery back in a new, particularly heinous and brutal, form – particularly among the English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.

In light – so to speak – of this history, let’s remember that the idea that the Middle Ages were ‘Dark’ was in fact a prejudice, indeed a kind of historical propaganda, of this very same Renaissance-era Italy that birthed capitalism and the ‘new political science’. The paucity of this propaganda has been apparent for some time now, yet it still persists. May more folks who know better do the same commendable due diligence against this myth as Dr Breay has done.

16 October 2018

Shamanism and the tragœdy of the divine

An Evenk shaman

In the northeastern part of Inner Mongolia (not the central part that I lived in and blogged from for two years) there lives a semi-nomadic pastoralist people called the Evenkil Эвэнкил, or Ewenke 鄂溫克 in Chinese, who traditionally made their living by herding reindeer. Today, they are either Buddhist or (nominally) Orthodox Christian, having been baptised by Russian Cossacks during the eastward expansion. They form a significant portion of the population of Siberia further north, but they are not well-known in the West outside of anthropological circles. Indeed, better known are their close linguistic kin, the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty in China. However, they made an important conceptual and linguistic contribution to the English language, in the term shaman (шаман).

Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am drawing for my commentary upon a very limited number of sources, only a couple of which are anthropological in the proper sense, and only a couple of which are ‘primary’. If I make any misrepresentations here of the shamanic tradition as it is traditionally understood, please understand that these are errors of ignorance and not of malice. It is not my intention to belittle or to misrepresent the shamanic traditions, which – in my view – grab hold of some very important truths that we moderns have lost sight of completely.

That said: there are various definitions of shamanism that make the rounds in anthropological circles, of varying levels of generality including some that border on vapidity (basically referring to any religious practice of pre-modern peoples). However, more cogent definitions restrict discussions of shamanism to East and North Asian contexts, and cite a narrower set of religious practices. David Hawkes, the translator of the anthology of southern Chinese poetry Chuci 楚辭, uses the following definition of shamanism:
  1. A shaman is an expert in spirit-matters who knows the world of spirits at first hand and can use this knowledge to give professional advice and assistance to his (or her) fellow men.
  2. Shamans often receive their vocation during, or as a result of, an illness – what is sometimes called the maladie initiatique.
  3. Shamans are able, while in a state of trance or ecstasy, to project their souls on journeys into the world of spirits.
  4. Shamans often receive guidance from a long-dead Shaman Ancestor who in some cases is thought to have been the First Ancestor who in some cases is thought to have been the First Shaman or the inventor of shaman techniques: ecstasy, healing, etc.
  5. Drumming and dancing are the almost invariable accompaniment of the shaman’s self-induced ecstasy.

A Manchu shamaness

These practices were common to the indigenous religions of East Asia – including not only the kissing-cousins of the Evenkil, the Manchus, as well as Mongols, Koreans and Japanese (whose miko is a representative of the old shamanic ways), but also the Chinese people themselves. As Arthur Waley (another Chuci translator) puts it: ‘the functions of the Chinese wu were so like those of Siberian and [Evenki] shamans that it is convenient (as has indeed been done by Far Eastern and European writers) to use shaman as a translation of wu.

One notable trait of the shamans – both in the Siberian Evenk-Manchu and in the ancient Chinese tradition – is that, as the description states, they are responsible for healing illness and illness is often responsible for making a shaman. Illness was thought to have a spiritual cause, and in the case of the shaman-initiate, illness brought one closer to the realm of the spirits (that is, in a literal sense closer to death). This should not be taken to mean a primitive superstition. Shamanism is truly a reasonable and logical approach to the problem of evil – particularly as it pertains to the relation between the human being and the natural world. Modernity has by and large attempted to shelter us from this, given us a certain distance from surd evils such that we can consider ourselves self-sufficient. But faced with scarcity, disease and senseless suffering, shamanism was an eminently reasonable response to The Problem – that is, the problem of a world subject to death. Someone who had understood and experienced such gratuitous suffering, who could explain it through contact with a world beyond human sight – such a person was to be revered and consulted.

Not only that. Reading the Chuci again – songs which are related intimately to the practice of shamanism among the pre-Qin Chinese people – I am struck by another facet of the shamanic attitude toward the spirit world. They combine a true awe and reverence for nature in its sublime beauty and terrible power with a love for nature that is literally erotic; however, this erotic love is tinged with a sense of tragœdy. ‘In the Nine Songs,’ says David Hawkes in his commentary, ‘the shamans and shamanesses appear to be actually wooing the deities they invoke, but the wooing seems invariably to end in sadness and frustration.’ The shaman, at least in this Chinese tradition of wu 巫 shamanism, during his or her departures from the body into the spirit world, is engaged in a ‘combination of erotic pursuit and lachrymose despair’. The offices of shaman in other East and North Asian, and even some European heathen traditions originating from Asia, also include a sexual dimension: the seiðkona (spæ-wife) of the ancient Germanic religion, for example; or the volkhvy of the Slavic rodnoverie who were involved in fertility rites. But what is notable about the shamanic tradition proper as it appears in the Chu poetry is that it always ends in heartbreak, and leaves the shaman in a shattered state returning from his ecstatic trance back into the mundane reality, a kind of ‘post coitum tristitia’ as Hawkes again puts it. The shaman’s attempts to bridge the world of spirits and the world inhabited by the people, even when successful, end on this lachrymose note.

The shamanism that appears in the Chu poetry of Qu Yuan again strikes me, not as backwards superstition and not as flights of fancy, but as a very genuine reaction to and attempt to grasp The Problem at its most basic level. The same natural phenomena and supernatural, the same spirits and gods, must be propitiated – must be sought out, must be wooed. All spiritual life, all religious life – is erotic at its core. This is something the Evenkil understood, and something the ancient Chinese understood. We human beings find ourselves broken, incomplete, subject to suffering and death, and we have this basic need to go out of ourselves in search of that completion. The shaman, the wu, embodies this erotic need, makes himself vulnerable and pours himself out to cruel and fickle spirits who take him, possess him and leave him – broken. And he does this, takes this illness and this ill-fated ecstasy (which he knows will end in desertion) upon himself – for his people, for their health and mental well-being. The shaman is respected and revered and consulted, but in a way it is so he can serve as a kind of collective sacrifice.

Christian orthodoxy, at its deepest level, does not actually deny any of this. And I am certain that the great saints of the Orthodox Church (and many among the Catholic missionary saints too, to be fair) who preached and taught among peoples of this shamanic sensibility – Holy Father Herman the Wonderworker; Holy Father Sophronius of Irkutsk; Venerable Tryphon of Pechengaunderstood this deep erotic longing for completion, and even sympathised with this lachrymose tendency, this sense of tragœdy that undergirds paganism at its deepest level. At its very best, the heathen sense of tragœdy can produce an awe-inspiring nobility. Though the Germanic religion preaches a world that ends bitterly, a literal Reign-Wreck ending in the violent deaths of all the human beings and the gods, it calls people to a sublime, Stoic disregard of self. Though death is a certainty, there is a way in which one can go to meet it which is beautiful and virtuous. There is something equally noble in Qu Yuan’s unwillingness to debase and compromise himself, his total rejection of flattery and artifice, as he writes his verse and ‘goes to Peng Xian’ (his shamanic forefathers).

Qu Yuan

The shaman must go out of himself, must sacrifice himself (repeatedly), to chase after the sublime, terrible (but treacherous) spirits and gods, which are both the cause and the remedy of the evils of the world. The shaman is both journeying hero and scapegoat, the sole link between the people and the realm of spirits. Christianity radicalises this shamanistic worldview, by turning the understanding of The Problem inward. It is not the spirits and gods that are the cause of illness, suffering and death. We are. This is something the Jewish prophets from Moses on all intuited and spoke to their people at every turn. If we wish to find the reason for our suffering, we need to look inside ourselves. And moreover, the Abrahamic God takes no delight in propitiation: ‘thou delightest not in burnt offerings’, says David. Instead, what Christ shows us is a shamanic worldview, not invalidated wholesale but instead turned upside-down. It is not we who chase and woo the spirits and gods, but rather God that chases after us, that seeks to woo us – not to force us to His will, but to win our hearts.

Moreover: Christ is the shaman. A human shaman projects his soul outside the body into the spirit world. In the human person of Christ, the Logos, the spiritual principle undergirding all of creation, all natural things seen and all things unseen, projects Himself into history and into a this-worldly body through the womb of the Mother of God. A human shaman subjects himself to the fickle will of the spirits. Christ, the shaman, subjects Himself to our fickle wills. A human shaman is heartbroken and spiritually-shattered when his trance ends. Christ, the shaman, is crucified upon a Cross, His body broken and condemned to death – and He even gives voice to a shamanistic lament, when He cries: ‘Alahy, Alahy, lama na šabaqtany?’ A human shaman seeks to cure illness and grant wisdom to his people. So does Christ, the shaman. He cures even the very source of illness and ignorance; to wit, death.

The point here is not to make yet another hackneyed Christian apologetic: the point is to demonstrate the radicalism of Christian doctrine as someone from a shamanistic or heathen viewpoint might have seen it. Classical Christianity does not wish away the tragœdy that the heathen all too well understands. Classical Christianity is not a shrinking-away from suffering, nor is it a bland smoothing-over. We moderns have done our best to sanitise suffering and death, to distance ourselves both from the grandeur of nature and from its terrors, and even to distance ourselves from our own emotions. But we have done so at the expense of Christian orthodoxy, which seems to require a certain ‘heathen’ outlook on life that has been lost. In order to recapture and understand the radicalism of Christian orthodoxy, I wonder if we don’t have to in some sense become good pagans again.

13 October 2018

Meekness and generosity are the way out

The recent crisis in worldwide Orthodoxy over Ukrainian autocephaly has reached a new and dangerous precipice, with the Œcumenical Patriarchate unilaterally lifting the anathemas on the schismatic body of the ‘Kiev Patriarchate’ and establishing communion with them. This action, more so than any the Moscow Patriarchate has taken yet, is probably closer to a ‘nuclear option’ than any that has been taken so far. And my first and foremost reaction has been one of grief. I had indeed hoped that the calls for sobornyi unity and a conciliar solution to the autocephaly problem issuing, not only from my own church, but also from the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Cyprus, Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia and the Czech and Slovak Lands, would be enough to make the Œcumenical Patriarch reconsider. Unfortunately, it looks as though we were mistaken. With our Arab brothers we have to mourn how far we have lost sight of Christ.

N.b., how the Orthodox ecclesiastical expressions in the non-aligned global south are arrayed on this: Yugoslavia, Asia, Africa. And then note how the wealthy and well-connected local Orthodox churches in the West are aligned. If Wallerstein were Orthodox, he might have a thing or two to say about this – and even though he isn’t Orthodox, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t listen to him. The political schema of ‘core’, ‘semi-periphery’ and ‘periphery’ is equally valid here: and the ‘periphery’ clearly doesn’t want this to come to a full-blown schism within the Church. But that is what it is looking like, more and more.

This grieves me deeply. The problem with the Orthodox Church is that we have both the ideal and the imperfect historical realisations of sobornost’ before us. But we have yet to embrace them of our own will in the absence of an Emperor. This leaves us in a precarious situation in which the realms of politics and ecclesiastical affairs are confused. There are serious questions raised by this controversy which require answers found in the light of truth and in the light of agapē, but which are relegated to the corners by political concerns. How is church autocephaly decided? What is the correct relation of the Church to the State? What is the correct relation of the Church to the ethnic-linguistic nation? To what extent, and on whose behalf, should the Church involve itself in questions of political action? I believe that the Orthodox Church as a whole already possesses the correct approaches to these questions. (I am also far from neutral on this question: I believe that the attitudes and actions of the government of the Ukraine and the Œcumenical Patriarchate are fundamentally at odds with that approach.) However, we, the believers – and that includes priests, monks, metropolitans and patriarchs as well as us laymen – are darkened by self-love, by selfish interests and calculations, by desire for power. Says the Master of all in the Gospel of St Mark,
Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
With the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople squabbling and fighting like James and John over who gets the power and the glory and who gets to sit at the right hand, is there anyone among us in this entire situation who can be found willing to be the ‘servant of all’ after Christ’s word to His apostles? For the life of me, the only one I can see in this entire mess, who has been even imperfectly a public exemplar of this ethic of servanthood rather than mastery and lust for dominance, has been Metropolitan Onufriy – and it is his lack of political ambition which has made him a hated figure in the eyes of the legal scribes, princes and powers. Given the threats he faces, would it be too great a stretch to say that Metropolitan Onufriy, in his powerlessness and studied neutrality, is arrayed against Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas, who seem to have decided between them that it would be preferable for one man – and his part of the Orthodox Church – to die for the sake of the nation?

In the meantime, we cannot pretend that the current bone of contention has nothing to do with us, the Orthodox Church in America. The problem is here, with us. Though our origins are in the missions of the Russian Church to the Native Alaskans, the pivot of our historical witness has been the immigration of Ruthenians to these shores, including from the territory which is now included in the Ukraine, and their reconversion to Orthodoxy through resistance to the combined ideological power of capitalism, assimilationism and Americanist Catholicism. The American Orthodox witness reached back into the ‘old country’ through people like Holy Father Aleksei of Khust, to the chagrin of the Austrian-Hungarian authorities.

We, the laypeople of the Orthodox Church in America, are tied to both sides of this conflict in the Ukraine, by blood and water. Through the imagery, that is to say the iconographic imagery of ‘blood and water’, it should not be lost on us that we are called to be crucified with them. Given this history, and given our habitual silence in the face of the wrongs committed by our government, it may be up to us to show meekness in defiance of our own culture, in defiance of the flesh and in defiance of the reigning political logic. Perhaps we could do so by offering up, without defence, our own disputed tomos of autocephaly to a pan-Orthodox synaxis. We would then humbly abide by their judgement in the hopes that a principle and a body for church autocephaly might result. I am not saying that this is the answer or even the preferable course of action. But I do suspect that it will take such conscious acts of meekness and aggressive generosity to undo the Gordian knot of suspicion, cynicism, imperial legacy, ethnic-national and ecclesiastical pride that has only tightened with every pull made by a powerful Patriarch.

The hour is later than we think. Already, we must observe, the Church’s enemies are exulting in our confusion and selfish quarrelling; they believe they have scored a victory. Even though, as Fr Andrew (Damick) puts it, we do not refer victories and losses to ‘the immanent frame’, we still participate (or refuse to participate) in the final victory of Christ through our words and actions here and now. May we not be found jostling over who is greatest, or worse still plotting to kill the Heir to the vineyard in our hearts when He comes.