30 March 2021

Holy Hierarch Gavril, Archbishop of Chişinău and Hotin

Saint Gavril of Chişinău and Hotin

The thirtieth of March is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of a great saint of Moldavia under the Russian Empire, Saint Gavril (Bănulescu-Bodoni) of Chişinău. A Romanian clergyman who served the Russian Church during a politically troubled period in the region’s history, Saint Gavril always showed his care and concern for the common people of Bessarabia and the edification and spiritual welfare of the Church and its clergy. Even though – then as now – the political struggle between the old Empire in Constantinople and the new Empire in Moscow raged with him in the middle, Saint Gavril never lost sight of what was important in his life and in the life of the Church. That is – the love of God and the love of his neighbours, whether Romanians or Russians. His life was marked by a self-giving pastoral ministry and missionary work, and he was not afraid to speak out on abuses within the Church, and called for greater autonomy of the Church from the Russian state.

Gavril Bănulescu-Bodoni was born in the year 1746, in the Transylvanian town of Bistrița. His parents were from the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc in Bukovina. He was twenty-five years of age when, in 1771, he went to study at Kiev Theological Academy, before he travelled for his studies to the Greek island of Patmos, Smyrna, and the Athonite monastery of Vatopaidi. He struck up a close friendship with polymath and ‘teacher of the Greek nation’ Nikēphoros Theotokēs, with whom St Gavril taught together at the Princely Academy of Iași in 1776.

Three years later, Saint Gavril was tonsured a monk in Constantinople, and travelled back to his homeland of Moldavia to serve in the Stratenia Church as a homilist in 1781. He taught philosophy and Greek language at the Slavic Seminary in Poltava in the Russian Empire. In 1784 he transferred to Iași again to serve under Metropolitan Gavriil (Callimachi), then to Huși as a parish priest. Saint Gavril was nominated to serve as the bishop of Romania; however, the Phanariot ruler of Moldavia barred him from consideration. During the ravages of the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92, both Saint Gavril and the Phanariot prince Alexandru II Mavrocordat of Moldavia were compelled to flee to Russia together with a great many of the Moldovan people. He returned to Poltava and became the rector of the Seminary where he had once taught.

There were a number of administrative changes that were made to the Russian Church under Ekaterina ‘the Great’, among which were the reorganisation of diocæses in the Moldavian territories which came under Russian occupation against the Ottomans. Saint Gavril was appointed to one of these diocæses as Bishop of Cetatea Albă; eventually Saint Gavril was appointed Metropolitan of Moldavia. When the war ended and these territories reverted to the Ottomans, Patriarch of Constantinople Neophytos VII attempted to remove Saint Gavril from his see, and resorted to force. He pleaded with the Ottoman Sultân to arrest Saint Gavril and haul him to Constantinople in June of 1792. Neophytos tried to cajole Saint Gavril with the offer of a bishopric in Greece, but Saint Gavril refused to give up his Russian citizenship (as he would have to have done to accept). It was only after the intercession of the skilful Russian-Tatar statesman and ambassador Prince VP Kochubei with the Ottoman Sultân that Saint Gavril was released from captivity. As we can unfortunately see from this sorry episode of Constantinopolitan persecution of a brother-bishop, the scandalous rivalry between the two sees has a long and ugly history.

Saint Gavril returned to Russia after his release from Ottoman imprisonment, held several bishoprics including in Crimea and Kiev, and joined the Holy Synod of Petrograd. He administered the anointment of the sick to the Tsarina on her deathbed.

The foregoing litany of appointments and elevations might give one the impression that Saint Gavril was a political climber within the Church, but his subsequent career shows that this was not the case. He did care deeply for his flock, and in general did not fear to tread on political toes within the Tsarist bureaucracy when the right of Christ’s Church was at stake. After a period of illness and temporary retirement in Odessa, Saint Gavril was appointed primate in the new Exarchate of Bessarabia, which was created out of the occupation of Bessarabia in 1806 and the Treaty of Bucharest between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1812. During this time – particularly from 1808 on – Bishop Saint Gavril took immediate action to: reduce the interference of the Tsarist bureaucracy in the life of the Church; safeguard the people of Bessarabia against abuses and predations by the warring military forces in the region – including the Russian military; and weed out the priests who were mere functionaries and hangers-on of the state bureaucracy in preference to those genuinely committed to serving the spiritual and earthly needs of the Moldavian people. For this period of activity in his career, Saint Gavril is particularly beloved by modern Moldovans both as a committed religious guide and mentor, and as an activist-bishop for a kind of popular justice.

In 1813 he petitioned Tsar Aleksandr I for an ukaz for the creation of a new eparchy encompassing Bessarabia and parts of what are now the southern Ukraine and Crimea. This ukaz was granted, and the new Archbishopric of Chişinău and Hotin was allowed to organise itself in accordance with local customs. Saint Gavril, together with the local boyars, managed to leverage this ukaz in order to establish an autonomous region – in which both the local Moldovan dialect of Romanian and Russian were used by the state. During this same year, Saint Gavril founded a Romanian-language printing press, and in 1817 he oversaw the foundations for the Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral in Chişinău as well as the Soborul Cathedral. He oversaw a Romanian translation of the New Testament in 1817, followed by one of the whole Bible in 1819 in Petrograd. The hard-working bishop reposed in the Lord in 1821, and was interred with honour in the Church of the Dormition at Mănăstirea Căpriana near Chişinău.

Saint Gavril was glorified by the Orthodox Church in Moldova in a ceremony at Mănăstirea Căpriana on the fourth of September, 2016. This was due in no small part to the efforts of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, who received a letter of thanks for his efforts in this glorification, as well as that of Saint Agafia Maranciuc whose feast we celebrate in June, from Moldovan President Igor Dodon. Holy hierarch Gavril of Chişinău, friend of the downtrodden and defender of the rights of Orthodoxy, pray unto Christ our God this day that our souls may be saved!

Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral, Chişinău, Moldova

28 March 2021

Holy Righteous Prince Boyan-Enravota, Protomartyr of Bulgaria

Saint Boyan-Enravota of the Bulghars

As well as being the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas this year, the twenty-eighth of March is also the feast-day of Saint Enravota, the first Bulgarian martyr for the Orthodox Christian faith. He is also called Saint Boyan, an epithet derived from the Slavic word for ‘warrior’. Saint Enravota is known for being a friend to the captives and merciful to his enemies, though these are not traits one normally thinks to look for in a Turkic chieftain. His conversion to Christianity and his prescient, Divinely-inspired prophecy of Orthodoxy’s spread in Bulgaria led to his martyrdom at the hands of his own family.

Saint Enravota, or Boyan (Bg. Енравота or Боян) was born probably in the early 800s. He belonged to the ruling family of the Old Bulghars, the Dulo clan, which claimed descent from Attila the Hun. The khaghan Asparukh of the Dulo clan, who had originally hailed from the banks of the Volga, migrated south and west along the Black Sea coast, and founded the first Bulgarian state in Thrace in the year 681. This state had a Turkic-speaking, Tengri-worshipping Bulghar ruling class – kin to modern-day Chuvash, Bashkir and Tatar peoples – and a commoner class comprised mostly of Slavs and Thracians, who had for the most part not yet begun the process of Christianisation. It is noteworthy that Saint Enravota is one of the Orthodox saints who is regularly portrayed in traditional iconography, as in the icon above, with Asian features.

Enravota was the eldest son of the Bulghar khaghan Omurtag the Builder, and the grandson of the great khaghan Krum the Fearsome (known for his immense territorial expansions; his strict-but-fair law code which had, for its time, generous welfare provisions for state assistance to beggars; and – oh, yes – fashioning drinking vessels out of the skulls of his fallen enemies). Enravota was of a considerably different temperament than his father and grandfather, which may be one reason why he was passed over for consideration as Omurtag’s heir in preference to his youngest brother Malamir.

The Bulghars were at this point in time constantly at war with the Eastern Roman Empire. This was the old nomadic style of chronic warfare which took the form of harassing one’s neighbours, stealing their chattel and occasionally carrying off captives. During Omurtag’s time this was the norm – the Bulghars would stage raids for cattle and slaves into Byzantine-held territories. One of the captives that was taken by the Bulghars in such a raid was a Christian bishop named Kinamon. When it was learned that Bishop Kinamon was literate and knowledgeable, Omurtag hired him as a tutor for his children – however, Kinamon began teaching them not only reading and writing and the seven liberal arts, but also began to teach them the præcepts of the Christian religion and encourage in them the Christian virtues. Kinamon also refused to take part in the pagan ceremonies of the Bulghar state. Omurtag, under pressure from his boyars and enraged at this corruption and ‘softening’ of his children, had Kinamon seized, tortured and thrown into a dark pit, where he remained as a prisoner for many years.

Malamir had not listened with particular attention to Bishop Kinamon. The elder brother, Enravota, had, and among the first requests he made of Malamir when he became khaghan was to release Kinamon from captivity. This request was granted, and Kinamon was released to Enravota as a slave. But Enravota listened further to Kinamon as he taught him about Christ and the good news of mankind’s salvation and reconciliation to God. Ultimately, Enravota chose to accept baptism and become Christian himself. He was filled with a love of prayer and fasting, and his younger brother took notice.

Malamir demanded that his brother renounce Christianity at once and return to the pagan worship of the Bulghars, but Enravota steadfastly refused. Malamir then ordered – taking upon himself the sin of Cain – that his elder brother be killed. The eleventh-century chronicler Saint Teofilakt of Ohrid gives us a record of the prophetic speech he gave to his brother Malamir before the sentence was carried out:
This faith, which I now die for, will spread and increase across the whole Bulgarian land, although you may wish to oppress it with my death. In any case, the Sign of Christ will establish itself and churches of God will be built everywhere and pure priests will serve the pure God and will deliver ‘sacrifice of praise and confession’ to the life-giving Trinity. Idols, and priests as well, and their ungodly temples, will crumble and will turn into nothing, as if they had not existed. Besides, you alone, after many years, will cast away your ungodly soul without receiving anything in reward for your cruelty.
Saint Enravota was then put to death by the sword, and he joined the ranks of the holy martyrs. This happened in the year 833. It was not long before his prophecies began to be fulfilled, for the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius was about to begin among the Slavic peoples of Europe. As for Malamir, he died some years later, childless and heirless. The khaghanate passed to his and Enravota’s nephew by the middle brother Zvinitsa, named Presiyan. Presiyan’s son, Saint Boris, would be the one who invited the two remaining of the Seven Saints into Bulgaria – Saint Kliment and Saint Naum. And, just as Saint Enravota predicted, from their efforts the Sign of Christ did establish itself in Bulgaria, churches were built everywhere, and priests were lifted up from among the Bulgarian people to serve and praise God in gladness and singleness of heart. Holy protomartyr Enravota, bearer of God’s Good News to the Bulghar people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Boyan-Enravota of Bulgaria, Tone 3:

Your holy martyr Boyan, O Lord,
Through his suffering has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!

26 March 2021

Holy Greatmartyr Georgi the Elder of Sofia

Saint Georgi of Sofia

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate a great Bulgarian martyr of the Ottoman yoke, Saint Georgi the Elder of Sofia. In fact, he lived at the time when the Turks had only recently established themselves on the European continent, and he was among the first victims of their fanaticism. Under Ottoman rule, in fact, he served in their army, but he bravely refused to brook insults against Our Lord from the officers, which was the reason for his execution.

Saint Georgi was born in Sofia, probably around the year 1407. We have little knowledge of his parentage, but we know that they were Bulgarians and that they loved him and gave him a good education. His hagiography describes Georgi as a handsome, powerfully-built young man who was also literate. He lived at a time when, as mentioned above, the Turkish enemy was advancing into European Thrace, and the few remaining holdouts of the old Eastern Roman Empire – which in its hubris had descended into petty political bickering, backstabbing and even apostasy from the Orthodox faith – were under significant political pressure from the Ottomans. Georgi may have belonged to one of these minor statelets before they were conquered by the Turks; however afterwards it appears he joined the Ottoman Army without having adopted Islâm.

He was in Adrianopolis, which was renamed Edirne by the Turks, in his armour and military insignia in order to have his bow repaired by a local craftsman in service to the army, who was also a Turk. As the craftsman while working on his weapon, some nearby Turkish soldiers began to blaspheme against Christ. And Saint Georgi, hearing this, could not refrain from saying back to them:
The Lord Jesus Christ, our God, is great and unique and His wisdom is unparalleled. Yours, whom you call a prophet, can’t even be counted among the dogs. Who is like the Lord Jesus Christ our God, Who dwells in the heights and watches over the humble? One alone is Holy, One is the Lord, One is worshipped, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, amen. What God is as great as our God? He is the sole Creator; all other things are created!
The Turks then flew into a rage, and beat Georgi mercilessly about the face, and then they tried without success to strangle him and then bind him with his own bowstring. However, Georgi being as large and powerful as he was, they could not restrain him, and he continued to confess Christ in His Lordship. The Muslims at last succeeded in binding his hands behind his back, and marched him to the local governor, the vâli. The vâli asked the young soldier if it was true that he had spoken as he had. Georgi owned every one of his words, repeated them, and added still more. The governor ordered him to be tortured on a rack and beaten, and then sent to another official of higher rank.

This official then asked him: ‘Is what I have heard true, you accursed man?

Georgi answered back: ‘Shall I hide the truth now? What I have said, I have said. Yes, you tyrant – I have spoken everything that you have heard.

The Turkish official then ordered him to retract his speech, forsake Christ and confess Muhammad as the prophet – promising him honour and gifts if he did so. But Georgi refused, continuing to confess one Lord Jesus Christ, as God and Creator, Who reigns eternally. Then the official handed Georgi over to the mob, which beat him, struck him, spat upon him, and then had him thrown into prison, where he continued to be mocked and tortured.

The Islâmic scholars then came before the official to protest his leniency against Georgi, whom they deemed a blasphemer. When Georgi was called again before the court, he appeared radiant and happy, as though he were about to be presented with high honours. The official had been content to follow the letter of the law, to have him horsewhipped and then released. But the mob demanded that Georgi be put to death by burning at the stake, and the Turkish official feared them, and so he handed Georgi over to the mob and to the pyre that they had already prepared. Georgi approached this fire bravely, knowing that although the enemy could burn his body they could not touch his soul.

Several Turks tried to impede his progress to the pyre and entreated him to recant his Christianity, but Georgi would not listen to them. Two Turkish soldiers struck him in the heart with a sword as he ascended the pyre. As the blaze was lit and he knelt upon the pyre to pray, another soldier ran him through with a spear, disembowelling him. In this way Saint Georgi of Sofia met his martyrdom and joined the ranks of the saints. The Muslims employed various means of preventing the Christians from finding his body. They threw animals on the pyre with him, added fuel to the fire and left it burning from the afternoon until the following morning so that everything was burnt to ashes, and then scattered the ashes away.

However, for several days after this, the Lord saw fit to honour His martyr in a perceptible way. A pillar of fire appeared over the spot where Saint Georgi had been executed, such that everyone living in Edirne could see it. Sometimes it appeared as the light from a gentle candle; at other times it appeared as a small flame; and at other times it appeared as a great star falling from the sky, but remaining in place for hours over that hallowed spot. In 1880 the Ottoman Sultân Abdülhamid II gave permission for the Bulgarians to build a church in Edirne in honour of the martyr. In this day as well let us remember Saint Georgi, and pray for his intercession for those who continue to suffer persecution and martyrdom for the Orthodox faith. Holy martyr Georgi of Sofia, bold confessor of Christ, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Georgi of Sofia, Tone 3:

Your holy martyr Georgi, O Lord,
Through his suffering has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!
Church of Saint Georgi the Greatmartyr, Edirne, Turkey

21 March 2021

Iconography and the Asian face

Saint Ia the Teacher

Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the day on which we commemorate the vindication of the veneration of icons in the Byzantine Empire, but I find that I’m still trying to process what happened in Atlanta this past week. An intensely-religious young man suffering from sexual frustrations and loneliness took out his rage and self-loathing on the bodies of women, with six of the eight known victims being Asian-American women. How can we deal with this?

If we are honest, we must acknowledge the several dimensions of this case. It is simply not enough to write off this case as a mere example of individual misogyny and sexual frustration. That is a partial truth at best. Several conservative commentators have tried to do so already, including Rod Dreher (who is never short of excuses when it comes to explaining away American culture’s lowkey mistreatment of Asian Americans). If the Asian women involved were ‘just’ prostitutes, and their killer was ‘just’ a deranged sex pervert whose problems can be dismissed as individual psychosis, it becomes that much easier to dismiss them and anyone who might find broader grounds for concern. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, though, we must beware of dismissing the full humanity of any person, or need for a full rather than a partial justice, and we must bear in mind the sort of table fellowship that Christ Himself kept.

There is in my icon corner, an icon of the Chinese saints of the Boxer Rebellion. I keep this icon – a reminder to my children that there is holiness in faces that look like theirs – in a place of special prominence, next to icons of the Maccabee martyrs, and next to an icon of Saint Niketas the Goth – which serve as reminders to me that there is a holiness in faces that look like mine. There is a reason for this placement. The light of Christ shines through ‘yellow’ Asian faces, just as much as it shines through ‘white’ European faces; just as much as it shines through ‘black’ African and Melanesian faces; just as much as it shines through ‘brown’ South Asian and Middle Eastern faces; just as much as it shines through the ‘red’ faces of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The icons of the saints show us that Christ is fully present, that the full nature of transfigured humanity is entirely present in every single person, regardless of their sex, their class, what job they have, where their ancestors came from or what colour skin they have. Iconography demolishes racial difference by placing it beneath the universal-personal Reality of Christ. Saint Ia the Teacher appears to us as she truly is in her icon.

This is the opposite of how the broader society treats Asian faces. This is the opposite of the way Dreher, and Hughes, and others, expect us white men to treat women with Asian faces. Dreher even quotes, with tacit approval, a reader on his blog who literally defends the ‘mysterious and magical’ racial archetype of the Asian ‘exotic seductress’ – an archetype which is created and reinforced by the demands of the market in prostitution and pornography – even as that same reader recognises and decries the fact that it’s all a calculated act, for show.

There is a reason why Fr Seraphim Rose referred to pornography as ‘the devil’s iconography’, and why Plato’s Socrates made connexions between prostitution and the sorts of crowd-pleasing acts that demagogues in the public square do. Even though skin is shown, and touched, what is felt and beheld is not the real person. The aspects of the real person that are there, are falsified even in being shown, because they are marketed as the instruments of another’s lust – another’s desire to dominate. Pornography does the exact opposite of what iconography does: it occludes the real person being portrayed. Our society’s exoticised, eroticised, submissive ‘yellow-fever’ portrayal of Asian women is a hindrance to seeing them as they truly are.

What Dreher and Hughes deliberately refuse to understand, and refuse to understand because of the New Cold War and culture-war angle that is part of their own marketing strategy, is that pornography does have an inescapably racist dimension. This is precisely because it appeals to a disordered desire to dominate, and racial power disparities are marketable. The same logic holds true for prostitution: backdoor brothels are businesses, and they simply would not sell Asian bodies to frustrated men if there were not a marketable power disparity there. These things do the opposite of iconography and the opposite of relic veneration, in that they take pieces – body parts, aspects of identity – of real women, and turn them into an illusion of actual connexion: a sham, a façade, a facsimile of love. They turn the meeting of body with body into an occasion of idolatry, the worship of the self. The men who visit prostitutes – or who look at porn – do so because it gives them an illusory sense of power over women. The same logic holds true of men (whether white or otherwise) who frequent prostitutes or pornographic images of women of another race: that illusory sense of power over someone of another race is part of the ‘product’.

Fr Seraphim Rose spoke wisely. Iconography and relic-veneration do destroy these illusions: precisely because being one in Christ destroys these power differences between Greek and Jew, slave and free, man and woman. At church, I take care to venerate an icon of Saint Mary of Ægypt. She was, for much of her life, a prostitute – and a particularly shameless and indiscreet one at that. She is venerated because she repented, but her repentance consumed the entire latter half of her life. Here’s the thing: when I venerate this particular (brown-skinned, half-naked, Middle Eastern) woman, I am acknowledging before her and before Christ my own powerlessness, my own weakness, and I am not given back any illusion of power or any sense of entitlement to satisfaction, sexual or otherwise. (She is the saint. I am not.) The meeting of my lips and hands with her image is not the occasion for lust or for idolatry. It is the occasion for healing, however slow and however arduous (just as it was for her), from both.

20 March 2021

Trying to process the Atlanta shootings

It’s been my experience that Clean Week always seems to hit hard with bad news, at least in recent years. Tuesday’s news of the shootings of eight workers in massage parlours in Atlanta kind of struck home hard for me and my family. We haven’t discussed it that much, but it’s been on my mind a lot. Firstly, there is much here to grieve over, much here to pray over. In particular I pray for the affected communities in Atlanta, for the victims and their families, and for the Asian American and Pacific Islander folks in the United States who feel the grief and insecurity of this massacre most keenly.

But it is only natural, as part of that grieving process, to ask ‘why’ and to seek to understand how this could have happened. This case should raise for us Americans several troubling questions surrounding the modern relationship between the sexes. We should be intensely scrutinising how particularly American Protestantism has attempted to address that relationship, and how fraught it has become in recent years. We should be looking closely at the historical ways in which white American (and British and French too, to be fair) men have ideologically colonised the (female, or feminine) Asian body, and how the association of Asian-ness with a certain kind of femininity has fed into sexist myths. And following from this we should be carefully examining the current-day power struggles and ideological struggles between Western and East Asian countries that continue to prop up both the related ‘yellow fever’ construct and the ‘yellow peril’ construct. I’ve already encountered people commenting on this story, already trying to dismiss the killer as ‘mentally ill’ and pointing out his sexual hang-ups to preclude any discussion on how race relations, œconomic exploitation or foreign policy might have had some bearing on his motives or on the vulnerability of the victims. This is remarkably depressing, because there is much that needs to be said along each and every one of these dimensions.

To the first, the fact that there was a self-acknowledged motive of sexual entitlement and ‘sex addiction’ on the part of the killer, and the fact that the killer was a fundamentalist Baptist, are both worth commenting on. To a certain extent, the same commentary that I made in the blog post Misogyny and the flight from feeling also applies here. Our culture places a ridiculously unhealthy emphasis on sex. American culture having abandoned healthy traditional rites-of-passage, fraternal and communal forms of male bonding, and ideals of physical fitness and activity in their own right as expressions of masculinity, American manhood is now primarily expressed in the unhealthy terms of capitalist wealth acquisition, risk-seeking behaviours and sexual conquest. Although women have not been desocialised to the same degree by the culture, there is also an unhealthy burden placed on women to make themselves sexually-appealing and -available; contradictorily to remain chaste and ‘pure’; but at the same time also responsible in toto for the consequences of frustrated male libido, including any violence perpetrated against them. The killer in this case seems to have been motivated by the same frustrations, and foisted the responsibility for his own sexual hang-ups onto the women who ‘tempted’ him.

It’s also worth exploring the relationship of how these ‘temptations’ are configured, to the expressions of chiliastic American fundamentalism and the incredible, intolerable psychic burdens that it places on its members as individuals as a result of its apocalypse-oriented legalistic and Calvinistic theology. The Southern Baptist Church of which the killer was a member has, of course, repudiated all of his actions and made a public statement renouncing all forms of misogyny and racism. We may take that statement, for what it’s worth, as sincere and well-meaning. But we also need to be examining the content of the misguided and hæretical theology that this church and its pastor have preached, which absolutely had an effect on the actions the killer chose to take. It is worth asking what sorts of beliefs made him think that murdering masseuses would ‘help’ and ‘protect’ other men, and preserve them from ‘temptation’; and if a belief that the end of time and the threat of hell was imminent might not have accentuated and lent an urgency to these beliefs.

Likewise with the idea that Asian women’s bodies are in some way ‘fair game’ for white Western men – a power dynamic that undergirds an entire marketing and business model of Asian-themed American erotica. That goes all the way back to the days of British and French colonialism in Asia. Among George Orwell’s œuvre (knowledge of which among Americans seems to stop with his anti-Soviet screeds Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm), his book Burmese Days actually manages to be an insightful view into the way that even well-meaning British colonisers used their military power and carefully stage-managed social prestige to sexually dominate and use local women (and then toss them aside). This pattern also held true with the French in colonised Southeast Asia, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the American military in the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea (still ongoing), Guam (still ongoing) and Okinawa (still ongoing). The entire stereotype of Asian women as ‘exotic’, hyper-feminine, submissive sex dolls, which figures into the marketing of pornography and prostitution involving Asian women, stems from this long legacy of colonial violence and rape by Britain, France, the Netherlands and America.

The ‘yellow fever’ problem and its associated stereotypes among Western men, are thus inextricable from even the present-day configurations (and associated myths) of military power and capitalist exploitation in the Pacific. The mirror image of this, of course, is the demonisation of Asian masculinity in the ‘yellow peril’ stereotype. It’s an old story, but the ‘yellow peril’ mythology has extended in the modern time into the international scene, where it has metastasised into a shadowplay of anti-Russia and anti-China narratives, meant specifically to distract the American people from the gross political mismanagement and œconomic rapine happening at home. But to begin with, the stereotype of the fecund, inscrutable, untrustworthy and ultimately disloyal and seditious Asian man has its roots in the deliberate capitalist exploitation of Chinese wage slavery on the railroad construction projects in America in the latter 1800s. To prevent Chinese workers and ‘native’ white American workers from banding together or unionising, California railroad bosses actively promoted anti-Chinese racism as a way to divide the workers and depress wages. Which leads us full circle back to the beginning consideration: the deconstruction and hyper-individualisation of masculinity in America by capitalist modernity, and the sole remaining outlets for masculine self-expression being wealth acquisition, consumerist excess, violence and sexual domination.

What is clear to me is that in the murders of these eight Atlantans – six of whom were AAPI women – the entire American culture needs to grapple with itself. Standing in the dock are the emptying of American masculinity of all values except violence and material gain and sexual domination; the pervasiveness of evil doctrines of penal substitutionary atonement and chiliastic proclamations of a divine judgement in wrath and wilful damnation; and the ongoing American imperialist warmongering in East Asia and the Pacific that initially led to, and reinforces, these racial stereotypes of Asian women. Not just one man, and not just one confession, but America as a nation must repent of its sins before God and humankind.

11 March 2021

Holy Hierarch Sofronii of Vratsa

Saint Sofronii of Vratsa

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate Saint Sofronii of Vratsa, an Orthodox bishop of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who was an instrumental figure in the Bulgarian National Revival at that time. Bishop Saint Sofronii was one of the first authors to write in colloquial modern Bulgarian. He was also a key figure in building ties of friendship between the Russian and Bulgarian peoples, as well as a ‘social saint’ who did a number of works aimed at improving the lot of the poor people of Bulgaria. It is meet and fitting that we should remember him on this day.

Saint Sofronii [Bg. Софроний] was born in 1739 in the town of Kotel in east-central Bulgaria, to the name of Stoyko. His father Vladislav was a cattle-herder by profession. His mother Mariya died when he was three years of age, and his father died of the plague just after Stoyko had reached his eleventh birthday. The orphaned Stoyko had already demonstrated an aptitude for learning, and while studying at the local monastic school he read and memorised religious literature in both Greek and Church Slavonic. The townspeople noticed his scholarly and spiritual aptitudes. On account of his father’s heavy debts, Stoyko’s relatives forced him to marry a girl named Ganka when he was eighteen years old, and then to become a parish priest. His early life was therefore marked by severe financial hardships and toil, although he devoted himself entirely to selfless service and care for his parish.

He encountered Saint Paisii of Hilendar in 1765 – a fateful meeting for the entire Bulgarian nation. Saint Paisii showed the young parish priest his opus, the Slavonic-Bulgarian History, and the young Fr Stoyko – most thankful for this honour that Paisii had bestowed upon him – took pains to copy out the entire thing by hand. Inspired by this work that he was copying out, Fr Stoyko began to focus his own efforts on the awakening and liberation of the Bulgarian people. In addition to his duties as a parish priest, Fr Stoyko also became a teacher, teaching young Bulgarian children in their own language. He even started one of the first grassroots organisations for Bulgarian independence, and spearheaded the movement to re-establish the autocephalous Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Fr Stoyko’s family and community suffered during the Ottoman repressions, which accompanied the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774. Shortly after this he undertook one of his first trips to Athos, and came back to Bulgaria with more religious materials so that he could teach children. He fell foul of the Ottoman authorities at several points and was thrown into prison, where he developed illnesses of the digestive tract. His wife Ganka fell ill, was bedridden, and died after six months in 1787. Although it seems Fr Stoyko and his wife did not get along well together, they had four children – Tsonko, Vladislav, Mariya and Ganka. Tsonko would go on to father the great Bulgarian naval officer and statesman Stefan Bogoridi.

In 1794 Fr Stoyko was made a bishop, first taking on the monastic tonsure and the name of Sofronii. He was sent to Vratsa in northwestern Bulgaria, and continued there his social witness and his efforts at upbuilding and educating the Bulgarian people. However, the tensions and warfare between Russia and the Ottoman Empire necessitated Bishop Sofronii to move from Vratsa to Bucharest, where he stayed for a significant time. Here he was engaged in diplomatic exchanges between Russia and Bulgaria, and established ties of friendship and cooperation between the Russian Empire and the Bulgarian people. He helped to raise Bulgarian volunteers to fight alongside the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War of 1806.

He also compiled the Nedelnik, a homiletic text in Bulgarian, which gave practical guidelines for parish priests and laymen about Eastern Orthodox liturgics. He also published at this time his autobiography, The Life and Sufferings of Sinful Sofronii. It is noteworthy that Saint Sofronii writes not in Old Church Slavonic, or in a literary form of Bulgarian artificially crafted by Romantic scholars, but instead in the colloquial, folk style used by common people and easy for them to comprehend: his style is marked by frequent use of conjunctions, rhetorical questions and exclamations common to the oral Bulgarian of his time. He also writes in a confessional mode that portrays him as less of a saint and more of an anti-hero. With both humility and self-deprecating humour, Bishop Saint Sofronii describes the travails of the Bulgarian people under Turkish oppression and the moral compromises he himself had to make living under them, and asks the reader’s and God’s forgiveness to his sins of greed and cowardice.

Saint Sofronii was also a sketch artist and a landscape painter. However, the painting that is most famously associated with him is the oil painting of him done in 1812, which is shown above. Sofronii spent most of the rest of his life in a monastery in Bucharest, although he continued to care for his flock in Vratsa whenever the political climate permitted. We do not know the exact date of his blessed repose; the last document of his that we have is dated to August 1813. Saint Sofronii was officially glorified by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on 31 December 1964. Holy hierarch Sofronii, edifying author and meek and humble servant of the Bulgarian flock, pray unto Christ our God on behalf of us sinners!

Vratsa, Bulgaria

08 March 2021

How capital mobilises Russophobia against conservation

I recently saw a sponsored advertisement on Facebook from a group called Consumer Energy Alliance. It was an ad that was designed to be structured like a meme, as many ads on Facebook are, in order to draw one’s attention in the news feed. On the one side it had a happy flag-emblazoned map of Canada saying ‘Eh’ and on the other side it had a flag map of Russia with a caption of ‘Nyet’. The fine print beneath the meme was describing why Canadian oil was valuable to American consumers, saying why Minnesotans need the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline which is slated to run underneath the Mississippi headwaters, and threatening us that if we didn’t support Line 3, we would run the risk of America becoming dependent on those damn dirty Russkies and their damn dirty oil. The subtext of the ad was clear: good liberal Minnesotans, like all good liberal Americans, ought to support Canadian tar sands pipelines running through our drinking water. Otherwise, we’re siding with Eevul Pootin, his reactionary war machine and his filthy semi-Asiatic hordes.

Now, it’s important to be aware of what Consumer Energy Alliance is. The name might ring as being suggestive of a consumer protection watchdog, and indeed, if you visit the website, the group does portray itself as a concerned citizens’ group. However, they are essentially a sockpuppet of the energy industry. Their staff consists almost entirely of employees of the corporate PR firm HBW Resources. And they were founded by the chair of the North Carolina state GOP, Michael Whatley, with ties to the Alberta tar sands industry. Their principal modus operandi is essentially to work as an astroturf concern-trolling group against environmental and conservationist concerns. Their talking points are explicitly designed to appeal to left-leaning and liberal voters: by portraying the energy industry as diverse and equitable, friendly to families and small businesses, concerned about local communities and vulnerable jobs.

And here’s the thing: ads like this show how they clearly understand that liberals react to global news and gæopolitics. Even if, being Trump supporters, the grifters at CEA clearly know that Russiagate is a sham, they also understand that hate is a powerful emotion and can be cynically leveraged. They understand that the manufactured anti-Russia messaging can key into the stronger emotions in the average MSNBC-watcher’s lizard-brain, in ways that concern for things like indigenous communities and clean drinking water at home simply can’t. And CEA would not pay Mark Zuckerberg money to run this sponsored message, if they didn’t think it would be effective.

So here we have it, folks. We have energy industry operatives trying to fool us into running heavy risks of contaminating our own drinking water with a tar sands pipeline. And they’re using the Russiagate madness and the careful acceleration of anti-Russia messaging in order to sell Line 3 to liberals in the Twin Cities. That is, firstly, good enough reason to be vigilant and follow the money, particularly when ads like this show up in your social media news feed. Secondly, that’s good enough reason to throw out the anti-Russia narrative in its entirety.

There’s an old dictum: Think globally, act locally. The big problem we face now is that even local actors are being gobbled up by global concerns, and we tend to see big, far-off problems of gæopolitics as somehow more relevant to our lives than the stuff that comes out of our tap every day, that we drink and bathe and wash our hands in. (I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, by the way – possibly more so.) And the global actors – the neoconservatives, the multinational conglomerates – are constantly learning new ways to stifle and stymie local actions that, if they ever gained significant enough traction, might threaten them. And both Russia and China continue to be convenient boogeymen which these bad corporate actors can trot out, either to bolster their own moral credibility when defending ‘democracy’ or ‘religious freedom’, or else to scare people on either side of the political aisle into giving them what they want – our natural resources, our clean water and air, our health and safety, which they can sell away to line their own pockets.

Don’t let them do it. Don’t let these corporate fat cats and their sockpuppets cynically use hatred of Putin to manipulate you into mortgaging the Mississippi headwaters to the oil industry. Putin isn’t your enemy anyway! The Russians can’t sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids, but Canadian and American energy conglomerates will certainly try to befoul our drinking water… using the Russians as an excuse.

A call from the heart against her class

Catherine Liu

I just finished Dr Catherine Liu’s newest book Virtue Hoarders this weekend. I can easily say that it is, though perhaps not a polished work of exhaustive and objective scholarship (which it never pretends to be), a book after my own heart. Concise, impressionistic and self-avowedly polemical, Virtue Hoarders is a full-on broadside against the ‘progressive’ pretensions of the professional-managerial class, or ‘PMC’. Virtue Hoarders deflates the professional-managerial class’s self-appointment as a vanguard of liberation, and exposes its actual rôle as an ideological handmaiden and propagator of capitalism. It carries this argument forward in the same vein – which Liu herself acknowledges and celebrates – as Christopher Lasch, Barbara Ehrenreich, Diane Ravitch, Michael Lind, Angela Nagle and Amber A’Lee Frost. The punchline is in fact a call to class treason: a member of the PMC calling other members of the PMC to repent of, and renounce, their support of capitalism, and to rebuild actual solidarity to with the working class.

Catherine Liu’s argument is fairly straightforward. She argues that the upper middle class has come to project an image of itself as a kind of vanguard of virtue. The professional-managerial class conceives of itself as blazing a brave trail of liberation for humanity, through the personal lifestyle choices and consumption habits of its members. The professional-managerial class presents itself as having forged a path to the end of the world’s problems through cultivated pieties of gender radicalism and ‘woke’-ism. It attempts to cast itself as more virtuous than the hoi polloi, based on its embrace of postmodernism, based on its reading and dietary habits, based on its sexual mores and childrearing methods. Liu draws a clear line from the ‘free love’, countercultural ethos of the hippie of the 60s, to the rapacious hedonism and predatory self-interest of the yuppie of the 80s.

At the same time, Liu argues, the professional-managerial class has been busily kicking away the ladder it climbed up on, and blaming the working class for its perceived failures of moral constitution. If the poor could only eat, read, screw and raise kids like us, the professional-managerial superego says, they wouldn’t be poor, and then we shouldn’t need a safety net or a state oriented toward the common good. The professional-managerial cultural diktats in fact put a great deal of psychological and financial strain on the poor, and also make it harder for the poor to access or even be offered public assistance.

Liu’s writing here can, as I said before, often be impressionistic. It may not be entirely obvious why she begins by levelling the same sort of caustic polemic against Gabriel Winant that Georges Sorel reserves for the likes of Jean Jaurès. It might also seem a bit baffling at first, why she chooses to ‘zoom in’ on the Sokal hoax, on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the Yale-based New Criticism, or on Rolling Stone’s misadventures in reporting campus sexual assaults at UVA. But when one looks at the way that Liu connects and composes these vignettes, the overall picture becomes clearer – that in each case the professional-managerial class actors are seeking to tear down the preexisting standards of academic or professional or personal sexual behaviour, and replace those standards with ones that self-servingly promote their own material interests. It is not a style of argument that all will find convincing. However, one cannot help but admire Liu’s gift for deftly and poignantly illustrating trends with a few simple strokes of comparison and argumentation.

It also quickly becomes clear that as Liu argues for greater empathy for and compassion towards the working class – one that goes deeper than merely a performative exercise of putting oneself in ‘someone else’s shoes’ vicariously by reading Harper Lee – she is making a deeper and profounder argument. She is waging a battle against postmodernity as a whole and the ‘floating signifier’ in particular, and in favour of an older way of doing politics that is grounded in concrete material realities. She places herself on the side of ‘good enough parenting’, Medicare for All, childcare for all, professionalism (as opposed to expertise) and objective reality (as opposed to social constructivism).

Some of the stances that Liu takes in Virtue Hoarders will, I’m sure, be dismissed as ‘conservative’. She rejects, for example, the narrative of the 1619 Project. She has a certain degree of contempt for the sort of ‘sex-positive’ feminism that imagines the material conditions of all women to be unconstrained enough for perfect consent to be normative. In Liu’s view, such feminism ignores the œconomic and material constraints that many women live under, and fails to account for instances in which women’s bodies are sexually exploited by their bosses. Liu highlights the oscillation in the professional-managerial imagination between a sterile, plastic, commitment-free world of sexual adventure (in reality open only to the affluent), and moral panics over imagined or real transgressions against puritanical norms of sexual expression (whether by men or by women), and points out that these panics invariably miss the point and serve to generate a great deal of performative outrage but little real lasting benefit for women. She also has a certain degree of contempt for the sorts of identity politics that discourage underprivileged groups from banding together in common cause, but instead seek to form networks of patronage and dependency that are fully compatible with American late capitalism.

But these are merely the consequences of a view that takes class seriously. Liu may occasionally sound like Sorel in her polemics against her class, but her conclusions are markedly different. She champions an ‘unglamorous’ left politics, devoid of ‘new pronouns’, ‘fancy neologisms’, affect and posturing, which is grounded in ‘good statistics, objective reality, and the power and uncertainty of the scientific method and reason’. In other words: she is proposing a realist direction for the left. In order to get there, though, the professional-managerial class must abandon its own self-righteous, faux-radical posturing and learn to criticise its own material interests and behaviours.

There is something in Liu’s final exhortations against the self-righteous pieties of the PMC that sounds, at least to this Orthodox Christian’s ear, quite familiar. This past twenty-first of February was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and of course the relevant Gospel verse is the one from St Luke 18. Notice that the Pharisee in this passage comments upon his own righteousness before God – we could also say things like ‘the right side of history’ – by pointing to his eating habits, his spending habits, his charitable giving and even his sexual habits; while the tax collector stands far off, holds his head down, beats his breast and humbly asks for God’s mercy. It would have been known to Christ’s audience in His day, that the Pharisee was meant to represent an upper middle class reformer: a literate Jew knowledgeable in the law, who carefully followed all the præcepts, avoided debt and cultivated ritual cleanliness for himself. The tax collector was a ‘deplorable’ of his day: a man who worked with the hated idolatrous Romans and incurred debts which he paid off with ill-gotten tax money.

In our modern understandings of the dynamics of debt and cleanliness, we have told ourselves stories about which people are ‘responsible’, which people are ‘successful’, which people are ‘deserving’ – and which people are not. The professional-managerial class has worked actively to shape these stories in ways which accrue these virtues and perceptions to themselves… and deny them to the working class. When Liu says, toward the end of her book: ‘We should be heretics; we should blaspheme’, what she means is that we must reject these standards of virtue which revitalise and reimbue the pagan, peripatetic notion of ‘moral luck’. Her prescription – that we should actively reject ‘the cloaks of virtue, erudition and detachment’ and instead agitate for the older standards of excellence that were achievable by the working class – is the same call that characterised early Christianity’s radically-universalist overturning of Platonic-Aristotelian virtue ethics. Liu’s call to a humbler, less glamorous politics in support of the working poor, is the rejection of the self-righteousness of the Pharisee in the parable.

In sum, Catherine Liu’s book, short and sweet, is profound and provocative. Not only so for the quality of her writing, but also for the impressive array of intellectual resources she marshals into the lists. My own reading list has expanded quite a bit following Liu’s bibliography and acknowledgements. Her willingness to engage with the marginal, and sometimes ‘cancelled’, figures of both the twentieth and twenty-first century left, has enriched her narrative materially, and certainly broadened my horizons. It’s my hope that she’ll flesh this short volume into a longer, more comprehensive work… but even if she doesn’t, this is a highly worthwhile contribution to our current political moment.