The society in which we live seems to be aggressively accelerating its deviation from historical Christian morality. This is not hyperbole – but an obvious observation by anyone who is paying attention to the moral direction of the West and who has studied the scriptures on even the most superficial level. The defeat of Proposition 3 in Michigan – its very resounding defeat – should be for us the straw that broke the camel’s back in this regard, in case we hadn’t noticed that the camel has been paralyzed for some decades now.
It is true that there was a time when western society, broadly, aligned with Christian values. Certainly this time had well and truly ended by the 1970s in America, but for some reason the grieving process of the death of this temporary alignment has been a long and painful one for us Orthodox Christians. This extended grief has caused us to look back on that time of societal alignment with Christian values longingly, rather than deal with the reality that we face now. It is time for us to stop looking back and to start looking forward. The Lord put us in this time and place because we can best be saved in this time and place, not so that we would dream of living in some other time and place.
Historically, Orthodox Christians have lived in the world while striving not to be consumed by the world. This was true in the first centuries of the Church when it was under persecution, following the edict of Milan, during the Byzantine Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Empire, and at every time that Christians have lived in the world. One might argue that when the Church was more “legal” the temptations were greater, since the world and the Church were outwardly aligned in many ways, and thus spiritually healthy watchfulness on the part of Christians could be found lacking. When the Church was openly persecuted the lines were clear, and it was more difficult for Christians to be subtly pulled away by the wiles of the world.
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus helps us see how Christians lived in the second century of the Christian era. I would argue that how Christians live their lives has not changed, and most certainly should not deviate from the life of Christians described below. In other words, this is a good outline of how we should live in our twenty first century as Christians striving for the Kingdom:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not destroy them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.” From a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)
I would submit that for us Orthodox Christians it is time to largely excuse ourselves from participating in the culture (popular and otherwise) that surrounds us, because that culture is poison. Morally what the world cherishes we reject, and what the world rejects (faith, hope, charity, love (not just Eros, but Philos and other loftier expressions of love), purity, chastity, fidelity), we cherish. To the extent that we participate in popular culture we poison ourselves spiritually. And yet, although we are called to reject the poison of the world, at the same time we are called to love our fellow man that inhabits this fallen world by sharing the love of the Savior for mankind with all through the examples of our lives, and seeking, through meeting the world where it is with that love in our hearts, to raise the world towards the Heavenly Kingdom.
In other words, just because we reject the evil of the world we do not have a blessing to reject those who live in it. We must see those that drink the poison of our culture and subsequently act according to its morays as victims, not as criminals, even if some of the symptoms that come from the disease of this poisonous culture in which we live impinge on our own lives negatively – even criminally. For a man who has lost his mind is never held as guilty of a crime as one who is in his right mind, even if both the insane and the sane commit the exact same crime.
A Christian must be able to maintain peace, even when surrounded by fire. We are culturally and morally surrounded by fire to be sure, but the Lord has already won the victory, and thus there is no reason for us to fear. The Lord commanded: “Fear not: believe only…” (Luke 8:50), and He then raised a dead child to life. If we fear, let us turn to the Lord and cry out: “Lord, You commanded that we “fear not and believe only” – please help me not to fear! Please bring me also to life!” That is, life in Christ, a paradigm radically opposed to the poison of the culture in which we find ourselves in our days.
One may read all the above and think that all is lost. All is evil. All is bad. We must live permanently in caves. We can have nothing to do with modern society on any level. In fact the contrary is true, for the Christian, God created everything good! Yes – the world is fallen. The symptoms of that fallen world cause much moral disease, many suffer, but we must never forget the Lord’s words in this regard: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The days of society providing any sort of moral support to Christians is long, long gone. Yet we pine for such societal alignment, and even sometimes conflate the society’s morality with something we should embrace, perhaps because of that time when society and Church shared moral values. Let us engage in such fantasies no longer! Let us wake from this stupor! Let us understand that we must stand clearly apart from this culture which conveys death! And let us embrace the Gospel which conveys life!
The Lord has overcome the world. We belong to the Lord. Let us show ourselves as His, not just on Sunday mornings, but always, by rejecting what is false, evil, and ugly, and embracing what is true, good, and beautiful. For there is still much that is true, good, and beautiful in the world! It is just that we have to affirmatively seek these out in our days – we are less likely to stumble upon them because these things are mocked by our society. We need to build our Christian culture to oppose the poisonous culture of the world. We do that not by making stuff up, but by looking to our fathers and mothers that came before us and emulating the best of their lives – especially their spiritual lives - and how they lived in the world without being consumed by the world.
No one forces us to drink the poison of our culture – sadly we do it voluntarily. Let me, as someone who will answer for each of your souls on the day of my appearance before the Lord, encourage you to stop drinking that poison. And let me invite you to drink from the Cup of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ. May His Holy Mysteries strengthen us to struggle to live as Christians not just on Sunday mornings, but every moment of our lives that He has given us to live here and now, for here and now is where He has deigned that we can best save our souls.
Asking Your Prayers,
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