Skip to content

Christianity, Western Civilization and me

22 April 2017

This is one of those “now it can be told” stories, because most of the people mentioned in it are probably dead. It’s a response to a lot of articles that I read about the impending demise of Western Civilization (or Civilisation if you prefer)

Many of these articles attribute this predicted demise of Western Civilization to loss of faith — usually the loss of Christian faith, but occasionally, as in the following example, loss of faith in Western Civilization itself: The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times: “Faith in the West has declined and, amazingly, people have been slow to rise to defend it.” Many or the articles complain that people in the West have lost their faith in God. This one is, I think, more honest, and is referring to loss of faith in the West itself.

The problem, from a Christian point of view, is that both attitudes are idolatrous.

The first attitude, which sees “faith” as faith in God rather than as faith in the West itself, nevertheless subordinates God to Western Civilisation. We need to revive faith in God in order to “make The West great again”. One is the means, the other is the end. It is as if the Gospel of St John said, “God so loved Western Civilization that he sent his only-begotten Son…”

The article also identifies Western civilization with modernity and liberalism, and describes illiberal regimes as “premodern” The Crisis of Western Civ – The New York Times:

…the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

The problem with that is that modernity, as we know it, begins with the Renaissance, not with ancient Egypt or ancient Greece. Modernity includes the Reformation and the Enlightenment as well as the Renaissance, but Western Civilization also includes the Middle Ages and even the so-called “Dark” Ages. You can’t just pick and choose the nice bits of history to include, and dismiss the not-so-nice bits as premodern, and therefore not included. Yes, Liberalism developed in the West, and I generally think that liberalism is a good thing. Like G.k. Chesterton, I say “As much as I ever did, more than |I ever did, I believe in liberalism, but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” Western Civilization in its “modern” stage, encompassed liberalism, but also witchhunts and the transAtlantic slave trade.

So, if I am somewhat sceptical about modernity, let me get a bit postmodern, and say “where I am coming from”. I do not try to pretend, in “modern” fashion, that my narrative is the Voice of Science. My narrative is produced by my own history and experience. So let me say something about that. It’s not because I think that “it’s all about me”, but if I tell you how much it is about me, it will make it easier for you to judge how much is just my personal opinion and bias. And you can then reinterpret it through your bias, even if, in modernist fashion, you like to pretend that you don’t have one.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where the dominant narrative was that only the National Party could protect White Western Christian Civilization for South Africa (and the world). At the age of 13 I consciously accepted some of the major parts of the Christian narrative (some might call this “being born again”), and after that I became increasingly aware of  the growing divergence between the Christian narrative and the National Party narrative (some might call this “cognitive dissonance”).

In the 1960s I went to study in the UK, and, somewhat to my surprise, I experienced culture shock. I had assumed that speaking the same language would be a protection against that. I became something of an African nationalist when I discovered how narrowly chauvinist some British and European views were.

In 1968 I took part in a seminar on “Orthodox Theology for non-Orthodox Theological Students, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. It consisted of a week of lectures at the WCC study centre at Bossey, Switzerland, and participation in the Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris. That stimulated my interest in Orthodoxy, and for a while I subscribed to the Eastern Churches Quarterly, from which I learned that the Orthodox Church had been in Africa since the first century, and that the Anglican Church, to which I then belonged, was a Johnny-come-lately in terms of African Christian history. The head of the Orthodox Church in Africa was the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, and the first to hold that office was St Mark. I did not learn that in any university church history course, in either the UK or South Africa. Such  courses were pretty Eurocentric.

On returning to Southern Africa, I spent the first few years in Namibia. There were no Orthodox Churches there. The Anglican bishop there, Colin Winter, invited me to go there, making it clear that the diocese had no money to pay me, but I could work there as a self-supporting deacon if I could find a secular job, and report to him on what I was doing or what I thought I could do.

I did some research into that, and discovered that a former priest of the diocese, the Revd Ron Gestwicki, an American, had worked mainly among Herero-speaking Anglicans, and had also set up a theological education scheme for clergy of the Herero-speaking independent churches, notably the Oruuano Church and the Church of Africa. When the previous bishop, Robert Mize (also an American), had been deported in 1968, the Revd Ron Gestwicki had also left, so the work he had been doing had stopped. I checked the diocesan records, and got an idea of what he had been doing, and was most impressed by it. He seemed to have done  a lot with impressive energy and devotion.

Herero Anglicans in Namibia

I wrote a report for Bishop Winter, suggesting that I should try to revive some of the work Ron Gestwicki had been doing, but not on the same scale, as if I had a secular job, I would not have as much time. But there was also something different. I had been in touch with the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, which had been asked by a group of African Independent Churches (AICs) to provide theological education for their clergy. The Revd Danie van Zyl had been appointed to oversee the project, and had developed, in consultation with the AIC leaders, and impressive syllabus. I recommended in my report that we link up with that project, and also mentioned that I thought the Christian Institute syllabus was much better than Ron Gestwicki’s one. When he read that, the bishop blew his top, and said I was denigrating the work done by Bishop Mize and Ron Gestwicki, even though that had not been my intention.

I had, however, seen the outline of Ron Gestwicki’s syllabus, and thought it most unsuitable. Quite a large part of it was teaching the history of Western Civilization, the writings of Western philosophers, and European and American history. It seemed to me that that was not Christian teaching, but Western cultural imperialism, and there were plenty of things that clergy in Namibia would need to learn before they learned those things.

The Christian Institute theological course never actually got off the ground, in spite of its good syllabus. Danie van Zyl left, and was replaced by another Western theologian, Basil Moore, who westernised Danie van Zyl’s syllabus, and then was banned. As a result of these failed experiments, I became quite interested in theological education and training for ministry, and later became involved in such things.

All this made me very aware of how “Western” and western-centric much theological education was. And the thread seems to run through Ron’ Gestwicki’s syllabus to the article that I quoted from at the beginning of this blog post. There seems to be, especially in North America, an attitude towards Western Civilizati0n that seems almost idolatrous. There have been good things in Western Civilization, but they are good because they are good, not because they are Western. Likewise there are bad thinga, but they are bad because they are bad, and not because they are Western. We should be less concerned about preserving or propagating civilizations, and more concerned about preserving the good, and reducing the influence of the bad. And if we are Christian, then the Kingdom of God is more important than anyone’s civilization, culture, nation or ethnic group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wondering about worship

19 April 2017

After reading a few articles on the Web about worship this week, it seems that Christians from different backgrounds and traditions are in different galaxies in an expanding universe, rapidly moving apart.

First, some background.

There’s a fellow called Hank Hanegraaf who ran a radio programme called Bible Answer Man. Apparently one of the answers that his study of the Bible gave him was that he should join the Orthodox Church, which he did. As a result some of those who had supported his radio programme stopped doing so; you can read about that here — ‘Bible Answer Man’ Booted From Bott Radio Network After Hank Hanegraaff Joins Orthodox Church

But here comes the bit about worship — Visiting Hank Hanegraaff’s New Greek Orthodox Church – Pulpit & Pen:

One of the biggest complaints against Pulpit & Pen we get consistently is that we somehow don’t “have all our facts,” or are “misrepresenting” someone or something. I received countless emails claiming that I “misrepresented” Greek Orthodoxy in my recent posts regarding Hank Hanegraaff and that I should do more research. Well, what better way to research than to go straight to the source in person? Saturday, April 15, known as Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition, I along with a couple of friends went to visit St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC–the church that Hanegraaff was recently chrismated in. The service began at 11:30 pm, and was still going strong showing no signs of slowing down when we decided to leave at around 2:00 am. While we hoped to have the opportunity to confront Hanegraaff in person, being that we all had to get up early the next morning to worship the living God on Easter morning, we decided to call it a night early. However, there are quite a few things that we can take away from this experience in this church

Go on, read the whole article. see how they “had all the facts” and gave a “fair representation” of Orthodox worship. the bit about “deacons” going out to smoke gives a clue to the quality of the research.

St Nektarius Church, North Carolina, USA, where Hank Hanegraaff was chrismated

Obviously the people at Pulpit & Pen don’t like Orthodox worship, and to judge from some of the other posts on their blog, they don’t like a lot of other people’s worship either. What they don’t tell us is what kind of worship they do like, and what criteria they use to judge. I won’t go into detail in discussing the article in Pen & Pulpit — if you want a detailed point by point discussion you can find one here.

What this does show, however, is that words like “worship” mean different things to different people, and the meanings seem to be growing rapidly more divergent.

This works both ways, or perhaps all ways. If the people at Pulpit & Pen didn’t have a clue what was going on in Orthodox worship, I had exactly the same experience of Protestant worship. I was waiting for the worship to begin, and then discovered that it was over. It turned out that what I thought was a band practice was the worship.

And then there is this — Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers | Gallup:

As Easter and Passover help fill churches and synagogues this week, a new Gallup poll suggests the content of the sermons could be the most important factor in how soon worshippers return. Gallup measured a total of seven different reasons why those who attend a place of worship at least monthly say they go. Three in four worshippers noted sermons or talks that either teach about scripture or help people connect religion to their own lives as major factors spurring their attendance.

That is very interesting in the assumptions it makes about worship.

Note that it talks about “worshippers” and a “place of worship”, but most of the criteria used for attending have nothing to do with worship, certainly not in the way that Orthodox Christians understand it. There are two other criteria that might have made it more relevant to Orthodox Christians, and possibly some others as well

  • It is an expression of my ethnic culture
  • This is the right way to worship God

 

 

The Vespers of Love

17 April 2017

Holy Week and Pascha is always a busy time for us, rushing to get to different services. to prepare things and so on. But it ends with the Vespers of Love on Easter Sunday evening, which is always relaxed and quietly joyful.

This year was no exception. We had got home from the Easter Vigil at 4:00 am, up again at 7:00 to go to the Hours and Readers Service at Atteridgeville at 9:00. That was shorter than usual, because the Hours of Pascha are much shorter, and there’s a lot more singing.

Then at 4:45 we set off for the Vespers of Love at St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, which we always think of as our “home” parish, since we were among those who started it 30 years ago. Even the drive down was more relaxed and leisurely. There was time to enjoy the sunset at Midrand while waiting for the robot to change. Val says Midrand sunsets are always spectavular because it has a big sky — Midrand is the highest part of Gauteng, so in many places the horizon is lower than your viewpoint.

Sunset at Midrand, Easter 2017. Allandale Road.

At Vespers the church is usually dimly lit, except at the Entrance, where we sing about beholding the light of evening. But for the Vespers of Love and the rest of Bright Weak (Easter Week) it is brightly lit all the way through, and the doors on the ikonostasis are always open, symbolising the empty tomb.

St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church, Brixton, in Bright Week.

During Vespers we read the Gospel story of Jesus meeting the disciples after the resurrection, when Thomas was absent, and it is read in as many different languages as one can find people to read. This year there were fewer languages than usual, only about 7. I think the most we ever had was 19, including Mandarin, read by a former parishioner, Michael Gluckman, whose business included trading with China, where he spent quite a lot of time.

This time I was also serving with Deacon Irenaeus (Brian) MacDonald, for whom St Nicholas was also a “home” parish, though now most Sundays he, like us, serves elsewhere. So here’s a picture of two aged deacons. And, as also usually happens at the Vespers of Love (Agape Vespers), people seem to hang around chatting for a long time afterwards.

Two superannuated deacons: Stephen Hayes and Irenaeus (Brian) MacDonald

On reading The Silmarillion

13 April 2017

As anyone who has read my blogs will know, I’m a fan of the Inklings, an early 20th-century literary group that included such writers as Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you look at the blogroll in the right-hand column you will find links to several blogs dealing with the Inklings, and you will also find a “tag cloud” where you can click on “Inklings” to find posts in this blog that deal with the Inklings.

One of the blogs I link to has just posted a guide to reading The Silmarillion, which lists a lot of very useful resources, though I disagree quite strongly with some of his recommendations for reading them — Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

This is what a friend of mine called The Silmarillion: the Bible for Tolkien geeks. It is an astute observation, I think. Like the Bible, The Silmarillion includes genres like myth, legend, history, genealogy, prophecy, and poetry. It is a text of texts from another culture based in other languages, but a text that is meant to inform not just the past but the present. Like the Bible, it better reread than read.

That’s one of the bits I do agree with.

If you encounter Christianity for the first time, and want to know more about the origin of the phenomenon, it can be good to look at the Bible. But rather than reading it from beginning to end, it might be best to start with the gospels. I would recommend beginning with one of the synoptic gospels — Luke, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, and then St John’s gospel, and then go back and start with Genesis. Genesis begins with the creation of the world, but if you want to know something about Christianity, then you need to know that, for Christians, the most significant thing about God is not that he was in the beginning and created the heavens and the earth, but that the God who is in the beginning is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

So with Tolkien.

One’s first encounter with Tolkien’s world is likely to be with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In those books, in addition to hobbits and men, one finds various kinds of beings like elves and dwarves and wizards, They appear in the story, have different roles to play, and they sing songs referring to other events and a background that the reader does not know about. The Silmarillion, which deals mainly with elves, fills in some of the background.

Where I part company with A Pilgrim in Narnia, however, is where he says Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

But why must we begin at the beginning? Here are some alternative ways to read The Silmarillion.

  1. Begin at Chapter 3: It sounds strange, but beginning at chapter 3 gets the reader right into the adventure of the elves and heroes of Middle Earth. Once the story of Middle Earth’s origins is in play, the reader can the go back to fill in the mythic material.
  2. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien: As I said in this post, I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien. It is a gorgeous sad tale of fidelity, courage, and the great deeds of the heroes and heroines of the past. It is also a great way to get a sense of the storytelling in The Silmarillion.

For me, The Lord of the Rings is a bit like the gospels. Having read that, it is time to go back to the beginning and read the Ainulindalë. The Ainulindalë is the first “Book” of The Silmarillion, and, if you are comparing The Silmarillion to the Bible, then the Ainulindalë is like John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38.

So my recommendation is (assuming you are already familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings):

  1. Read the Ainulindalë
  2. Read John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38
  3. Read the Ainulindalë again
  4. Read the chapter “The Fight at the Lamp Post” from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
  5. Read Job 38:1-7 again
  6. Read the Ainulindalë again, and the rest of The Silmarillion

If you haven’t got it by then you probably never will.

I’ve read the Ainulindalë more than any other part of The Silmarillion.

And by all means make use of some of the very good resources mentioned in Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia.

Lazarus Saturday 2017

8 April 2017

Lazarus Saturday is the last day of Great Lent, and we took three members of our Atteridgeville congregation to the Divine Liturgy at St Sergius in Midrand,

The Raising of Lazarus, Decani Monastery

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion,
Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God.
Like the children with the palms of victory,
we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death:
“Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord.”

In Atteridgeville we normally use the African Orthodox Church, where we have the Hours and Readers Service (Typica, Obednitsa), but occasionally we go to other churches for the Divine Liturgy so that our two baptised members, Demetrius Mahwayi and Artemius Mangena, can receive the Holy Communion. St Sergius Church in Midrand has an English Liturgy once a month on a Saturday. One of our other members, Charles Nkosi, who is not baptised, came with us to St Nicholas in Brixton at Christmas, and after the service said he wanted to be baptised, so he came with us today to find out more.

After the service we have brunch, and that give Charles a chance to talk to Fr Danil Lugovoy, the priest of the church.

Fr Danil, Charles Nkosi & Val Hayes

On one wall of the classroom where we gathered were some ikons which were very familiar. They had come from the old Russian Chapel in Yeoville, which the community of St Nicholas of Japan used for a year in 1990 before getting its own temple in Brixton.

Fr Danil, Charles Nkosi and Val Hayes, with the old ikonostasis from Yeoville behind them

We discussed who had painted the ikons, but no one could remember. I thought that it may have been Tretchikoff, but that may just be a half-remembered rumour. But it was a familiar sight, because we had worshipped in front of it for nearly a year.

Charles Nkosi, Val Hayes, Demetrius Mahwayi & Artemius Mangena, with the old Yeoville ikonostasis behind.

It was also a farewell to one of the members of St Sergius, Erica Scott, who will soon be moving to Australia. She will be missed, because she leads the singing for the English Liturgy.

Brunch after the Liturgy. Third from the left is Erica Scott, who will soon be leaving.

We are grateful to Fr Danil and the parish of St Sergius for welcoming us to their church, and helping our struggli9ng mission congregation.

What is to be done?

4 April 2017

The question was asked by the Russian novelist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. It was asked by Vladimir Lenin. And it is being asked by many in South Africa today when faced with the entrenched Zupta faction in the ANC.

What is to be done?

Some are putting their hopes in a no-confidence debate in parliament, but that is a delusion.

Such things may work in a constituency system, but not in a proportional representation party-list system such as we have, Any ANC members of parliament who vote no confidence in Zuma will soon find themselves out of parliament, and they will be replaced by more compliant members. Such a move will only serve to strengthen the Zupta faction.

What is to be done depends on whether the ANC capture by the Zuptas is reversible. And that will only become apparent at the next ANC conference when Zuma’s successor as President of the ANC is chosen. If the anti-Zupta people (the “stalwarts”) leave the ANC or are kicked out before the conference, the chances of the Zupta faction retaining and increasing their control will be increased.

But people need to be prepared for whatever happens at the conference.

If it ends with the Zuptas in control, then will be the time for the stalwarts to leave, immediately, and take a leaf out of the book of Dr Malan’s book, and form a purified ANC to fight the 2019 General Election. If the ANC can’t be saved, then at least the country might be.

Here’s another suggestion of what is to be done:

The Big Read: The guilt of the gutless three – Times LIVE:

They must call an emergency meeting of the ANC national executive committee. They must have one item on the agenda: the recall of Jacob Zuma. They must use every ounce of their being to get every single national executive committee member to support the motion. Then they must bring it to a vote.

Those three men, if you haven’t realised it, are Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Zweli Mkhize – the deputy president, secretary-general and treasurer-general respectively of the ANC.

Perhaps it is still possible for them to do that. Perhaps it will be as easy for the ANC to remove Jacob Zuma from the presidency as it was for them to remove Thabo Mbeki, which they did for far less cause. But perhaps those three know something that we don’t know — that ANC capture is complete, and that it is impossible for it to be reversed. It was already complete at the ANC’s Polokwane conference, or even before the conference, when Zuma conned all sorts of people into voting for him as leader, but promising them everything they wanted. He could not possibly deliver everything he promised, and when he failed to deliver, some of those who had supported him became critical (like the leadership of Cosatu), but by then it was too late, and he sidelined them.

So the crunch will come at the next conference of the ANC, to choose Zuma’s successor. That will be the last chance to liberate the ANC from the Zuptas.

Of course we’ve seen it all before. After the Polokwane conference some ANC leaders broke away and formed COPE. But that fizzled because of their bickering and in-fighting and leadership squabbles. But if Zuma’s successor as President of the ANC is another Zupta, then there needs to be a united opposition to dislodge them, and that might mean aiming to form a new government of national unity. Just as the 1994 government of national unity tried to dismantle apartheid, so a new government of national unity will be needed to undo the damage done by the Zuptas. And the rest of the damage done by apartheid that still needs to be repaired.

No confidence debates in parliament won’t solve the problem. Even raising endless points of order, as the EFF members are wont to do, is likely to be more effective. Marches on the ANC headquarters organised by other political parties will be counterproductive — even ANC members who don’t like the Zupta faction are likely to resent it when another political party tries to tell them who their leader should be. ANC leaders who don’t like Zupta trickling away in dribs and drabs won’t solve the problem — that will just strengthen the Zupta faction.

Don’t knock the non-Zupta people who are closer to the centres of power as “gutless” and the like. They may, like Pravin Gordhan in the more recent past, be able to restrain some of the worst excesses of the Guptas. And for other ANC members, the word is, “Don’t mourn, organise”. Organise for the next ANC conference by taking back the branches from the Zuptas and the tenderpreneurs.

Is there anything that non-ANC members can do? Whatever seems possible, but try not to join in stupid stunts like marching on Luthuli House. Try to be aware of what is going on, and help to make other people aware of it.

_____________

Note

I’m not usually given to political rants like this. It’s just that all sorts of people are asking and saying what they think should be done, so there’s my 2c worth. But it’s the exception. As I get older, I tend to agree more and more with G.K. Chesterton when he wrote:

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.”

Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

So please forgive this momentary incursion into discussing practical politics. Back to the Battle of Armageddon.

Justice and mercy

31 March 2017

Over the last couple of weeks I have been struck by some significant differences between Orthodox and Western theology.

I don’t want to go off into an Orthodox triumphalist rant (though having said that, I probably will), but I think it is worth examining these differences, first, to see if they are merely semantic, or are something more. Secondly, to see if they tell us different things about ourselves and the world we live in.

What sparked it off was something Thorsten Marbach said at TGIF this morning.

He was speaking about justice, and said that at a conference on justice he had attended recently someone had said that as Christians we knew all about mercy, and needed to advance to justice.

That struck me, from a theological point of view, as a rather spectacular putting of the cart before the horse.

We surely need to advance from justice to mercy. To put it the other way round seems (to me) like saying that we need to advance from gospel to law.

I didn’t have much quibble about the particulars of what Thorsten was saying, and reporting what other people had said, about justice. It was the generalisation that seemed to have got it backwards.

An example that occurred to me was a recent political one, of the German attitude to Greek debt.

When the Nazis plundered the countries they occupied in the Second World War, there was a need for restitution, and the debt was calculated, But the Greeks forgave the debt in the interests of building a more peaceful Europe. Mercy trumped justice. Now, however, the German government is unwilling to forgive Greek debt, and demands justice — mercy be damned. Jesus told a parable about that (Matt 18:21-34). And in response to that, the Greek government is now moving back (or is it forward?) from mercy to justice.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John Climacus

Earlier in the week, because last Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Lent on which Orthodox Christians commemorate St John of the Ladder, I posted a copy of the ikon of the ladder on Facebook. The comments of some Western Christians were illuminating, in the sense that they illuminate some of the differences in outlook, though some responded with mirth, and others saw it as fear-inspiring.

St John Climacus uses the metaphor of Jacob’s ladder to show spiritual growth in the acquisition of Christian virtues, and four weeks into Lent is a good time to take stock of how we have grown or failed to grow.

An anthropologist, of all people, summed this up succinctly when he wrote:

The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil… Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force.[1]

The angels aid people in attaining the virtues, and the demons seek to hinder them, St John’s book was written for monks in a neighbouring monastery, so all the humans shown in the illustration are monks, though it can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to any Christian.

One of the responses to this was “What an interesting image! It would be enough to terrify many“. and another “I often think of the picture that shows folk in he’ll shouting out to those saying ‘ why didn’t you tell me’. Sad that do many get saved through fear…

I wonder if people would respond in the same way to C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, which seeks to do much the same thing for 20th century suburban Englishmen as St John Climacus was doing for 7th-century desert-dwelling monks. Is the difference simply a cultural gap, signifying a different time, place and environment, or does it indicate a theological difference as well?

Each step of the the ladder signifies a particular virtue to be acquired, or passion (vice) to be avoided. At the bottom is obedience, and at the top is love (not justice).

At TGIF Thorsten also showed a progression — Creation –> Fall –> Resurrection –> Restoration

We live in a fallen and broken world, and in that broken world, justice is one of the defences established by God to stop it becoming more broken. One of the major causes of the brokenness of the world is human unlovingness. It is human hatred and violence that make the world the mess it is today. Law cannot make people love each other. It cannot make people good. But law can limit the evil effects of our lack of love. Law cannot stop me hating my neighbour, but it can say that if I hit my neighbour over the head with a hammer, I’ll be locked up in jail. Justice is not love. The best one can say is that it is congealed love.

On the Sunday of St John of the Ladder, when I preached I tried to contextualise the message for a South African township, in much the same way, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis tried to do for English suburbs. So I said that many Christians say “I am blessed”. Those are the ones at the bottom of the ladder, but they have a long way to go. Those at the top do not say anything, but they are a blessing to others. They do not say of themselves “I am a blessing to others” — if they did, they would be dangling below the ladder, the demons having pulled them off. But it will be others who say of them that they are a blessing to others.

Justice is akin to righteousness (and they same Hebrew word is sometimes used for both in the Old Testament). And the problem with righteousness is that it so often leads to self-righteousness. I have met some crusaders for justice who would gladly give their bodies to be burned for the cause, but as St Paul says, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (I Cor 13:3).

The third thing that happened to me recently that made me think about this was a discussion on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship mailing list on the relation between justice and mercy.

It was sparked off by a news report that the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle had expressed remorse shortly before his death, and had the deaths of thousands on his conscience — those who had been killed by the weapon he designed. There was also a report that a church spokesman had sought to console him by saying that it wasn’t so bad, because the weapon had been used to protect the motherland from assault and that was a saving grace. In response to this, someone said,

Self defense is the most excusable of human weaknesses. Sometimes it is a sin deserving of the greatest mercy, for fear-driven will to survive is perhaps too powerful an instinct to resist. So we justify horrible things in the name of defense.

But surely defense can never be a “saving grace.” Especially when institutionalized and made a servant of the State’s own merciless self-interest.

My response to this was:

One of the problems with Western theology is that it tends to be legalistic — perhaps this is related to Latin being the language of law. Hence the emphasis on “justification”. There are the debates about justification by faith, about the “just” war, and “justifiable” homicide.

As I understand it the Orthodox position is that there is no such thing as “justified” killing. Even if one kills in self-defence, it is still a sin to be repented of, and so if Kalashnikov indeed repented as was reported, his spiritual father should not have tried to minimise the sin, but rather spoken to maximise God’s mercy.

That is what I see from most of the wise spiritual fathers. They never try to minimise the seriousness of sin, but always speak of the greatness of God’s love and mercy.

So that was what got me thinking about justice and mercy, and it was that discussion that made me think that we should be going forward from justice to mercy, and not going backwards from mercy to justice.

I realise that the “mercy” Thorsten (or rather the person he was quoting) was talking about was so-called “works of mercy”, but in that sense they are indeed works, but without mercy, because works of mercy can only proceed from a merciful heart. Such works of mercy are sometimes called “charity”, but in a context that deguts “charity” of all meaning. One group of protesting workers once carried a sign that said “Damn your charity, we want justice”.

But for Christians, works of “charity” and a struggle for justice can only proceed from a merciful heart.

Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart | Incommunion:

Works of mercy can and should extend to efforts to change social structures and policies on behalf of, as well as to advocate for, those who are poor, vulnerable, or treated unjustly. Our works of mercy should express the holistic view of the Orthodox ideal that, as Archbishop Anastasios writes, “embraces everything, life in its entirety, in all its dimensions and meanings…[and seeks] to change all things for the better,” that is, the transformation of all things in a life in Christ.

Justice without mercy quickly becomes vindictive, vengeful and satanic. Satan is, after all, the prosecutor, who wants to take over the judge’s job, because the judge, in his view, is too merciful. Satan and his minions could not understand this, because if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (I Cor 2:9).
______________________

Notes and references

[1] Stewart, Charles. 1991. Demons and the devil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p 146.