08 November 2018

The inconvenient politics of everyday acts of decency

I have only ever met His Beatitude Vladyka Tikhon (Mollard) once; and that was at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. My first impression (and at that, the all-too-brief impression of a lay parishioner of a visiting bishop) was that of a calm, genteel and well-educated man, not overbearing in his intellect but demure and irenic in his demeanour: in other words, a temperamental conservative. That impression has been expanded upon and deepened by several things I have read about him recently: not only his pastoral letters on various topics of importance, but his actions, like condoling with the victims of the horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh, or sending birthday greetings to the sole canonical Orthodox bishop in Kiev.

Let me assure you, gentle readers, of my awareness that by remarking on these acts by our Metropolitan myself, I am contributing somewhat to the sense that these things are not simply what a bishop, or indeed what a human being, ought to do at such times. Of course we ought to comfort the bereaved! Of course we ought to celebrate our friends’ birthdays! And, in a less politically-fraught time, perhaps, these little and unobtrusive acts of simple neighbourly and friendly decency would pass as unremarkable. But now they have a deeper significance, as Vladyka Tikhon himself alludes in his letters.

As I have said before, one condoles with the Jews of Squirrel Hill by condoling with the Jews of Squirrel Hill. As Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein puts it: ‘showing support for Israel does nothing to combat anti-Semitism or bolster the safety of Jews in the United States’. One should think that this is a fairly obvious thing. But Orthodox and Catholic priests showed greater common sense, greater grace and greater humanity in this instance than did Israeli leaders like Naftali Bennett. How is this so? It is not the show of solidarity itself that is political, but instead an environment of strategic calculation which lends it a political ‘look’. It may look naïve, but the true and unmediated love of neighbour comes only from a certain (implicit or explicit) trust in the Most High, the ‘source of mercy, consolation and hope’, who can ‘free’ us ‘from the assault of attitudes and ideologies of prejudice and hatred, fear and anxiety about those who are indeed our neighbours’. And that was true of the Tree of Life congregation themselves, who reached out to help Honduran refugees without pausing to consider that they were not Jews or white Americans, but (largely) Catholic Hispanics and mestizos. They did a right and decent thing, even though this right and decent thing was seen as inconveniently radical.

A similar trust pervades likewise with the birthday wishes of Metropolitan Tikhon to his brother Metropolitan Onufriy. It is a simple letter (but not a simple-minded one), expressing simple but heartfelt sentiments. Some observers might even call it naïve, in a political environment fraught with questions of imperial legacies and ideological constructs like New Rome, Third Rome, Hellenism and the Russian World. But who is to say that the simpler approach isn’t the correct one here? Has Metropolitan Onufriy ever once alluded to a ‘Russian World’ or proclaimed a Third Rome? Even these concepts are broadly (and in some cases wilfully) misunderstood, both by their supporters and by their detractors, and I will get to that at a later post. For now, though, it is worth dwelling on the position of Metropolitan Onufriy himself.

Metropolitan Onufriy is a man of deep faith, whose guilt and transgression in the eyes of the state he lives in, is that he sat in silent protest at a state event commemorating the Ukrainian armed forces, when doing so would mean taking a side in a civil conflict in which members of his flock were murdering each other. (Sound familiar?) Indeed, he was doing the only right and honourable pastoral thing in refusing to stand, even though it brought down a charge that he was taking sides. He was saying, in effect, that ‘East Ukrainian Lives Matter’ (and Russian, American, Black and Asian lives) and refusing to assent to a lie that would erase them from the picture. Of course, the nativist right-wing over there could no more tolerate such a protest, however civil, than the one over here could. They had to find a way to punish the good Metropolitan for his protest, and they did so by attacking his Church and by branding him an enemy of the state. Note that all of the ideological miasma, the talk about duelling Romes and Greek vs Slavic Orthodoxy, arose in the aftermath, when the Œcumenical Patriarchate chose to intervene on Poroshenko’s side. Again, we see that the simple, decent thing which Metropolitan Onufriy did in virtue of his office, is inconveniently radical in the eyes of those with an agenda.

There is the risk of engaging in something of a tautology, pointing out that even small everyday actions toward our neighbours are political. (After all, what is politics but the question of how to treat our neighbours?) But that is the thing about tautologies; they happen to be true. The recent actions and words of Metropolitan Tikhon show clearly that even these small gestures can have important political ramifications in a world awash in what Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov would call ‘post-digital idols’. It can be difficult to rid oneself of the imperialist hangover (doubly so for those of us living in the sole post-Cold War empire left standing) and start seeing clearly again with eyes of faith, but it can be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment