The following is an excerpt from The Forgotten Faith, by Fr. Philip LeMasters, Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary
The cultures, forms of government, and economic systems in which Eastern Christians find themselves vary widely around the world. It is safe to say, however, that we are responsible for discerning how to witness to the social implications of God’s kingdom, even as we live within earthly kingdoms, where our options are inevitably limited. In American democracy, for example, voting for one candidate instead of another is rarely a choice for perfect good instead of perfect evil. At times there might not be a candidate on the ballot for whom we can vote in good conscience. Nonetheless, believers should prayerfully discern how to live out the teachings of the faith in relation to the given set of circumstances in which they find themselves.
Prudent judgment and a conscience formed by solid Christian teaching and practice are necessary to determine what candidates, parties, or ballot initiatives best serve God’s purposes for the collective life of humanity. Christian citizens should vote accordingly. Politics remains, however, the art of the possible. And faithful people with identical moral commitments may disagree, for example, over what specific candidates and policies will best serve to protect life in the womb, provide more appropriate care for the sick and dying, encourage the flourishing of families, and enact better stewardship of natural and economic resources.
In comparison with many Western churches, the Orthodox Church does not have a precisely defined political theology, and rarely identifies itself with a partisan agenda in the American sense. At the risk of stretching the category too far, voting and other forms of political action may well involve us in what the Church calls involuntary sin. These are sins that we do not intend, may not even know about, and cannot reasonably avoid.
For example, someone may in good conscience support a candidate or party whose positions do not line up perfectly with the social vision of Eastern Christianity. That candidate may enact policies that are contrary to God’s purposes in various ways, but if voters did the best they could under the circumstances with limited options, the spiritual gravity is not nearly as great as that of voting for a candidate because he promised to increase abortion rates, start pointless wars, promote sexual immorality, and disregard orphans. Even a candidate whose positions fit perfectly with Christian values may exercise bad judgment, be overwhelmed by circumstances, or otherwise end up doing more harm than good.
In the world as we know it, there are surely politicians who cynically use religious and moral rhetoric to gain votes without ever intending to act upon their promises. There is a brokenness, an imperfection about the collection life of fallen humanity that is impossible to avoid completely in politics and social life. Perhaps that is part of the reason Orthodox pray for the forgiveness of sins, “voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance,” before taking Communion. No matter how we vote or live, we stand in constant need of our Lord’s mercy.
The Christian witness is not simply or primarily a matter of voting, of course. The first calling of disciples is to be faithful to their lord, which is a vocation fulfilled through the life of the body of Christ, not by isolated individuals. Particular members are formed, strengthened, and encouraged to live faithfully each day, as they offer themselves and the world for blessing and fulfillment in God. Such a path of discipleship, grounded in the Church, is necessary in order to speak with integrity about matters that extend beyond the visible boundaries of the community of faith.
For example, Christians, both individually and collectively, must pursue sexual purity throughout their lives and fidelity in marriage if they are to have anything to say in societal debates about the family or sexual ethics. If we don’t, we don’t have the standing to speak about these matters. Congregations and families have ample opportunity to live out the Christian witness on how to raise children, how to welcome pregnant women in difficult circumstances, and how to provide care to sick and lonely people.
It is a small endeavor, but at our parish of St. Luke, we sponsor a table each year at the fund-raising dinner for Pregnancy Resources of Abilene, which is a wonderful ecumenical Christian ministry that provides pro-life healthcare and counseling to expectant mothers and to the fathers of their children. The organization even has ministries to women who have had abortions and to men who have fathered aborted children. If our own house is not in order, no one will take seriously our speeches, demonstrations, or activism on moral and social issues.
We will not speak with integrity if we do not actually live out the moral and spiritual agenda that we teach in ways that cannot be confused with a merely worldly agenda. If believers become addicted to spending money in self-indulgent ways or without regard to the needs of the poor, rhetoric about caring for the needy and vulnerable will fall on deaf ears. If patterns of convenience lead us to abuse the environment because recycling and conserving energy are simply too difficult, then the language of stewardship will amount to so many empty words. If we make our own economic interest the highest standard to the exclusion of concern for others or the common good, then we will end up loving money more than we do our neighbors.
True Christian faithfulness costs something and requires us to die to self as we grow into the life of the kingdom. Equating the Christian witness with simply joining in the regular political fray, by running our mouths or carrying signs, is a sorry substitute for the difficult, long road of following in the costly way of Jesus Christ. It is also to place worldly power and domination before taking up the cross.
Whether as a result of constant media bombardment through the internet, talk radio, or partisan cable news channels, many people on the right and the left—and the shrinking middle—seem to have succumbed to the dangerous temptation to think that the real playing field for matters of Christian faithfulness is located in mainstream politics. Eastern Christianity reminds us, however, that no earthly realm is the kingdom of God or the body of Christ. It is an illusion of Western democracy that you or I rule our nation, let alone the world. What we have real responsibility for is far smaller: our own souls, and those with whom we share a common life in a substantive way.
Of course, our lives are linked not only with members of our families and congregations, but also with fellow citizens of our nation and world, not to mention those of past and future generations. We must do the best that we can to offer ourselves and our world to the Lord for the fulfillment of his purposes for us and for the entire creation. How we vote or what bumper sticker we put on our car is a very small part of how we serve God, and even then there is not a one-to-one correspondence between any worldly political movement and the Holy Trinity.
Religious groups that are strongly identified with politics risk becoming so entangled in debates shaped by interest groups that their distinctive witness is obscured. To give the impression of being merely a political party at prayer is a good way to make the people think that the Church has little to say to the world that the world does not already know on its own terms. If all Christianity provides is a bit of spiritual inspiration to live, act, and think like dominant groups in our society already do, then we must ask seriously what it means to be salt and light.
In addition, politics makes strange bedfellows, and we must be careful not to tempt anyone to confuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a partisan political movement. Parties are collections of interest groups and ideological advocates. There is a danger in aligning the Christian witness so clearly with them that we give the impression that the faith unambiguously endorses a whole range of positions that may have nothing to do with Christianity—or are even contrary to it. Those who disagree on some extraneous partisan issue may then think that they must also reject our Lord.
Part of being salt and light is providing a distinctive witness, not blending into the background with everyone else. The cultural witness of the Church should not be reduced to questions of whom we will support, like any other interest group, to be in charge of the government in order to pass laws that serve our agendas. The fullness of the faith must not be reduced to passing laws or engaging in contemporary culture wars or partisanship, but instead calls for a spiritual vision and a way of living that grows from worship: fasting, almsgiving, reconciliation, and the other disciplines of the Church.
The most fundamental political action of the Christian community is not to support candidates or even the moral reform of society, but to become a living icon of God’s kingdom that draws others to the salvation of the world.
Orthodoxy’s most fundamental cultural engagement is neither American nor Russian, neither liberal nor conservative, neither Republican nor Democrat. It is to be faithful to the body of Christ. It is to be faithful to our Lord. Everything else grows from that fundamental commitment, and nothing can take its place. Though we rarely think of worship as having any political or cultural significance, the Divine Liturgy grounds the Church’s witness to God’s salvation. Indeed, it enacts the offering of our lives to the Lord that we should make every day as we enter more fully into the life of the Holy Trinity.
Instead of living according to the standards of the kingdoms of this world, the Liturgy begins with the proclamation of our ultimate destiny: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Petitions follow immediately for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, and for the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all men. Then there are more prayers for God’s mercy upon the poor, sick, and needy, as well as for the governing authorities and armed forces.
The Church enters spiritually into the peace of the heavenly banquet in the Liturgy, into the wedding feast of the Lamb as described in the Book of Revelation. We offer bread and wine as symbols of the whole creation, for they are our fulfillment in the kingdom.
“Thine of thine own, we offer unto thee, in behalf of all and for all,” the priest proclaims immediately before invoking the Holy Spirit to transform these gifts into the body and blood of Christ. The Church prays here for the salvation of the entire world through the redemptive work of the Lord. More prayers follow for God’s blessing upon the Church, the sick, the suffering, and victims of injustice, as well as for the armed forces, that they will know peaceful times, that we in their tranquility may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.
The Divine Liturgy is an enacted liturgical icon of our salvation. Through our participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we enter into heavenly peace and holiness, not something reserved for the distant eschatological future, the blessings of sharing in the eternal life of God are already available to those who call upon the name of the Lord with faith, hope, and love. Even the most pleasant, peaceable, and just society is not the fullness of the kingdom, and suffers from spiritual and moral corruption in many ways. Nonetheless, all goodness is the work of God, and we should rejoice when any society does better rather than worse, whenever the Lord’s purposes for humanity are fulfilled, even imperfectly and partially. Christians should be the leaven in all societies, inspiring by word and deed anyone who will pay attention to the possibility of entering more fully into the blessedness for which we were created.
The salvation of human beings is an infinite journey of participating in God’s holiness. It is the dynamic process of theosis, as we become partakers of the divine nature by ongoing repentance and growth in Christ. We are not isolated individuals, but persons in communion, who flourish in relationship with one another. We cannot pretend that our relationship with the Lord is not shaped decisively by our relationships with other people, including how we treat others and organize our common life. The kingdom of God is a social image of salvation that in many biblical passages concerns meeting fundamental human needs, overcoming divisions between people that are the result of sin, and reversing the order of the world as we know it. Of course, humanity cannot build the fullness of God’s reign by its own power, but societies may be more or less in line with his intended purposes for social life. Surely how any community organizes its common life reflects the spiritual state of its members and shapes them for better or for worse.
God wants to heal, bless, and transform every dimension of the creation as part of a new heaven and a new earth. Nothing is intrinsically profane, evil, or beyond his concern. Hence the political life of humanity is not evil in and of itself or necessarily cut off from holiness or salvation. Neither, however, is it a way to usher in the fullness of God’s reign by dint of our own efforts. We are too weak and too corrupt for that, but our social interactions are a way that we may become more or less the kinds of people God created us to be in his image and likeness. The more the collective life of humanity provides a glimpse, no matter how faint, of the coming kingdom, the better. The more the ways of the world come in line with the faithful witness of the Church, the more fully society serves God’s purposes.
Church and state are distinct institutions, but what people believe and how they live are not ultimately separate matters. The witness of the Church and its members should model the blessed and truly human existence to which our Lord calls everyone, in ways that challenge the corruptions of every social order. If Christians fail to respond faithfully to that most fundamental vocation, they will have nothing to contribute to the culture, but if we will fulfill it even partially then we will be salt and light in our words and our deeds by calling the world to holiness. The Orthodox Church invites its members and ultimately everyone else to enter into the life of the kingdom.