Thursday, October 22, 2015

Politicians and Character

       Anyone who knows me knows that I am a political junkie.  I don't know when it started; it could have been as early as junior high.  By the time I was in high school, politics seemed unavoidable - and I don't mean the student council level kind, although I was elected to serve on what was called the, "Council of Twenty-Five." (Ours was an experimental school at the time, and we did a lot of things that were, well, unusual.) The Vietnam War was raging on, with over half a million men fighting for... what?  We were given all sorts of reasons - and that's not the purpose of this post, so it's
Richard Nixon was elected as President
in the 1968 election in part because he
told the American people that he had
"a secret plan to end the war."
probably best not to go there right now! (Maybe another time...) But I know I couldn't wait to vote, and if I recall correctly, the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen years of age around that time.  That meant that I was able to vote in the 1972 election, and I still remember waiting in line for hours to cast my vote for... well, it wasn't the winner, I'll say that much, anyway.  But since that election, I have only failed to vote one time: in 1996.  We were living in California - San Francisco, to be exact - and I knew that every candidate I would have supported and every ballot proposition option I would have selected was a lost cause, a moderate drop that would be quickly swallowed up and lost in the midst of a sea of progressivism. Even so, that never prevented me from being vocal. I still recall a letter I received from the member of Congress who represented the district in which we lived, to whom I had written to express my views on a particular issue, asking that the vote to be cast soon take my stance into consideration.  I think the word, "snotty" is all I want to say of the tone of what was expressed in the reply.  Probably best to move on.  Anyway, if you go back a ways in the archive of this blog, you'll find a sample or two of some political thoughts.  On election day, my family knows that I'll be glued to the television set, up all night watching the returns as the votes are tallied.  Want to know how serious it can be?  Remember the referendum in Scotland in September, 2014? I stayed up all night and into the early hours of the morning, counting votes, until every last district had reported in.  Scotland!  Okay, our family is Scots-Irish, so there's a bit of a connection; but while a sane and sensible person would have been content to go to bed at a normal hour and get up in the morning to find that a majority of those voting had opted to remain in union with the rest of Great Britain, that wasn't how it was for me...
       So far in this campaign cycle, I've seen (or heard) the majority of both Republican debates (the main events, that is: I missed the "matinee" event which preceded the first major debate), and the majority of the Democrat debate, which took place just a bit over a week ago.  Frankly, the Republican debates are still too much of a circus - there are too many participants to take them all seriously.  We need someone like Gordon Ramsey to choose at least one, or maybe two, at the end of each debate, and have them turn in their microphones, and get off of the stage, and not return. Cut the
"Right. Your poll numbers are lower than
a sheep's bollocks. Hand over your
microphone and leave Hell's Stage."
number down to five.  That's still too many, but it's at least on the fringe of being manageable.  As for the Democrat debate, they started with five, but there's already been some sorting out done there, as well, with former Senator Webb withdrawing earlier this week from the contest.  That's too bad. He brought a great deal of integrity, and more than a few good ideas, in my opinion, to the discussion - when he could get a word in edgewise.  I know some commentators have dismissed him as a "whiner" for objecting to how much time was being given to others, but I thought he had a point. As I was listening, it was clear that the moderator, Mr. Cooper, was either unwilling or unable to restrain Mrs. Clinton, who repeatedly blew down the verbal "stop signs" he attempted to give her, time after time.  It was hard not to conclude that, to some degree, this was not so much a debate as a showcase, with the other four there to serve as "window dressing" against which to display Mrs. Clinton at her finest.
       The "highlight" of the debate for many was the moment when Senator Sanders gallantly sprang to Mrs. Clinton's defense regarding the email server issue, saying that the American people have had enough of the matter, and that it is time to move on.  I remember distinctly saying (I talk back to the radio or television from time to time, especially during moments such as these), "You don't speak for me, Bernie! I haven't had enough!"  Mind you, it's not that I want the details: but the entire issue is of concern to me, because it speaks to the character of the former Secretary of State as a candidate for the office of President of the United States.  Did she break the law?  Even if she did not, did she act as if she was above the law, or as if the law did not apply to her?  Did she at any time treat sensitive information in a casual or even careless manner?  If she did any of these things as the Secretary of State, would she feel in any way constrained from doing the same, or worse, if she became the President?  Did she lie about what she did?  Why did the story that she told change over time?  Why did she say at first that she didn't, and then later admit that she did?  How did she not know about the second server?  Who ordered the first server to be erased? Why wasn't the second server erased?  I mean, the list could go on, and on, and on; and that's just about the email issue.  There are others, perhaps even more important, such as what happened in Benghazi, where four Americans, including our Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, died in a violent attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound and at another nearby location on September 11, 2012. Ten others were injured by the attacks, which occurred after requests for increased security had been denied by the U.S. Department of State, led by Secretary Clinton at that time.
       My point is not to examine the particulars of these or other criticisms made by the moderator during the debate, or by other candidates for the Democrat nomination, or by Republican candidates, or by pundits in the media.  Obviously, I have been giving this a good deal of thought, trying to decide, first of all, whether to even say anything at all.  Now, having decided that I want to make a statement that the issue is one of character, more than of content, I have to say that my thought process took a most unexpected turn this past Sunday morning.  Quite often, I will wake up before my alarm goes off to start the day, rising to get dressed and do the preparation prayers for Holy Communion - the "yellow book" and the "blue book," for those familiar with the Jordanville booklets containing the "Canons for Holy Communion" with its yellow cover, and the "Order of Preparation for Holy Communion," with its pale blue cover. Usually, I will use the time to reflect on the theme of the sermon that will be delivered after the Gospel has been read during the Divine Liturgy.  This past Sunday ran pretty much true to form, until, all of a sudden - and with no discernible connection to the sermon that I could ascertain - I realized that my focus on the character of candidate Clinton was entirely misplaced.  Has she done things that were foolish?  I have done worse.  Has she done things that were dangerous, if only potentially?  I have done worse.  Has she been wicked, a servant of evil?  There is no way I can answer that question for her or about her; but for myself, the answer, I am ashamed to say, has to be, "yes." How, then, can I presume to question or challenge her character, when my sins are undoubtedly greater, more wicked, more vile?    
       Anyone who knows me knows that I am a political junkie.  However, they also know - at least, they should know - that I do not endorse candidates, or parties, or ballot propositions.  It is not my place to use the pulpit, or the teaching authority entrusted to me, to tell you what to do in such situations. The Church is not, and should not be, a political agent.  Certainly, we have a duty and a responsibility to proclaim what is moral and acceptable and pleasing to God, and to warn of what is immoral, and therefore not pleasing to God.  The Church should be active in shaping your conscience; and, as Jiminy Cricket famously advised Pinocchio, "Let your conscience be your guide." That's good advice, as long as you are doing your best to bring your heart and mind and soul closer to knowing and doing the will of God; and if you are regular in your attendance in the worship services of the Church, are attentive to your prayers both in the worship services and in your home, if you are giving from the bounty God has entrusted to you for the needs of others, and laboring to turn away from the sins that always seem to trip you up, your conscience will not fail to give you the advice you need when it comes to knowing how to vote on any particular issue, or how to choose between the candidates for the office for which you are about to cast your vote.  Does the person support or oppose the positions you hold on matters which are of the greatest importance, or not?  Can the person be trusted to keep their word, or not?  Find out all you can, pray all the while, and then make the best decision you can make.  I will be doing my best to do the same.  We may not always arrive at the same conclusions! But we can't go wrong if we do it that way, if we fulfill our duties as citizens in this way.  It's complicated at times: are we citizens of this world, or of the world to come?  Sometimes, the answer to that question is simply, "yes"; and in holding dual citizenship, if only for a brief while, we are called upon to carry out our duties in both realms, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's. May the God Who calls us and gives us grace to respond to His love with love grant to each of us, as the time for the crucial decisions to choose our leaders for the years ahead, and especially for the President of our nation, the remembrance that those who are seeking our support are also sinners, just like us - and that we are called to be merciful, as we hope to receive mercy.  May no harsh words pass our lips, may no anger, dismay, fear or despair trouble us in heart, mind or spirit, and may God raise up a person worthy of His blessing and our support when the time comes for us to cast our votes.
       Oh, and, don't worry.  I'm sure this isn't the last time I'll have something to say before Election Day arrives in November, 2016!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Should Christians Support the State of Israel?

       As Americans, we are often told that our country should support the state of Israel, if only because it is the only democracy in the Middle East (which ignores Egypt, Lebanon, and, at least ostensibly, Syria). We are also told that Israel is our only ally in the region; and when it is pointed out that we have, or have had, other allies in the Middle East, then Israel becomes our only "reliable" ally. For the moment, let's pretend that no American military personnel were killed by Israeli air strikes in Egyptian waters; friends don't attack friends, after all. Similarly, we will pretend that the Israeli government has never spied on our government; because allies don't do that to each other - right? So let's accept as valid the premise that it is in our country's best interests to support the state of Israel.
       But it has to be said that much of the unspoken argument for this support comes, not from a geopolitical perspective, but rather from one based in religion. Now, no one will be surprised if a majority of Americans who are Jewish favor American support for Israel. (It would be more surprising to find Jewish-Americans who are opposed to support for Israel, although there are surely some who hold this position.) Likewise, few will be surprised to find that there is widespread support for Israel among American Protestants, and especially Evangelicals. Why? And is this support warranted?
       Part of the story has to be told from the time immediately after the end of the Second World War. The attempt by the Nazis to exterminate the "undesirables" they found in Germany and in the  regions of Europe and Asia which they conquered - Communists, homosexuals, those found to be physically crippled or mentally incompetent, and, of course, the Jews - led to the deaths of millions of people. Add to this the utter destruction of countless cities, towns, and villages, and there were hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples with no homes to which they might return; and, in the case of the Jews, even if their homes were still intact, the treatment they had received at the hands of their "neighbors" was itself an incentive to find a new place to live. As such, many Jews sought to emigrate to Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.  Centuries before, Palestine had been incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, having been a battleground between Christians and Muslims who both sought to control Jerusalem and the surrounding area, each religious group asserting its own claims to the Holy Land, in addition to the claims made by the Jews, as the heirs of Abraham, to whom the land had been given by God.  The Jewish refugees were welcomed by some of the Arab residents of Palestine, but while the Arab Christians might not have objected, and perhaps some of the Muslims might even have been willing to accept some Jewish settlement, many other Arabs did not, and tensions rose.  In time, the difficulty of maintaining order in the region led the British, who had taken charge in Palestine according to a mandate from the League of Nations in 1920 after the end of the First World War, and who had been confirmed in the same mandate by the United Nations after the Second World War, to announce on February 7, 1947, that it would terminate its participation in the mandate, returning it to the United Nations to administer. An eleven-nation Special Committee appointed by the United Nations to study the question reported on August 31, 1947, that the mandate should be terminated and that Palestine should be granted independence at the earliest possible date, with the territory being partitioned between the Arabs and the Jews. The vote for independence was unanimous; but the motion for partition received only seven votes in favor.  On November 29, 1947, U.N. Resolution 181, which called for an end to the mandate by no later than August 1, 1948, and which created three zones - one under Arab control, one under Jewish control, and an internationally-controlled zone containing Jerusalem - was approved with thirty-three votes in favor, thirteen votes opposed, and ten abstentions. The representatives of the Palestinian Jews accepted the partition; the leaders of the neighboring Arab states, all of whom voted against partition, obviously, did not. The United States voted in favor of partition, as did the Soviet Union, and the vast majority of its allies. On May 14, 1948, hours before the mandate was to come to an end, David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister-elect of the nascent State of Israel, issued a declaration of the existence of that state's existence, effective as of midnight on May 15, 1948, when the U.N. mandate expired and British authority in Palestine was no longer in effect. Eleven minutes after midnight on the fifteenth of May President Truman recognized the provisional Jewish authority as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state.  After the first Arab-
Israeli War, which began on May 15th with the invasion of Palestine by armies from Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq, supported by contingents from Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, and ended March 10, 1949 (the ceasefire being ratified on July 20, 1949), the new state found itself in control of all the areas set aside for the Jews under the partition plan, plus almost sixty percent of the Arab areas, including West Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank of the Jordan River. In the midst of the war, the provisional government was replaced by a government elected on January 25, 1949; and the United States formally recognized the State of Israel on January 31, 1949.
       There is no denying the horrific experience of the Holocaust, or the need for a safe refuge for the Jewish refugees in the postwar world, or the logic which concludes that the best, and perhaps only, way to protect the Jews against any recurrence of any acts of antisemitism as was displayed by the Nazis is a Jewish state which has the power to act to protect its people against any enemies who might seek their annihilation. There is also no denying that the uphill battles against seemingly overwhelming odds fought time and again by the armed forces and people of Israel against those who sought their destruction is worthy of some admiration. The stunning victories of the Six Day War in 1967, and the hard-fought battles of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, for example, might well be described as legendary.  But the history and the reasons so far are all geopolitical and secular.  Is there any outstanding reason for deliberate Christian support for the state of Israel?
       As best as I can determine, Christian support for the state of Israel has as much, or more, to do with Christian eschatology as it has to do with any secular reasons, as good as these reasons may (or may not) be.  As I follow this line of reasoning, in order for our Lord Jesus Christ to return - the "Second Coming," as it is sometimes described - it is necessary for the following "pieces," among others (the list is not exhaustive) to be in place:

  1. Israel had to exist as a state. Thus, for many, the declaration of May 14/15, 1947, started the "countdown clock" for the initiation of the "end times," setting the stage for our Lord's return.
  2. The Temple in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt.  There are some additional cultic requirements associated with the reconsecration of a rebuilt Temple, if and when that happens, steps toward the fulfilling of which are reportedly being pursued by certain American protestants; but central to this is that Israel must, obviously, continue to exist, and continue to remain in control of the Temple Mount and the City of Jerusalem.
       Additionally, there may, or may not, be an invasion of Israel from the north by the forces of "Gog and Magog," sometimes associated with Russia and its allies; there may or may not have been a restoration of the Roman Empire in the form of a European union of some sort, although the current European Union is larger than the ten states usually identified as constituting the renewed Roman Empire; and there may, or may not, have been a battle fought at "Armageddon," although the exact location is unknown, and subject to speculation.  
       Are they right?  Who knows?  I know I don't.  But we've certainly had more than our share lately of the "end of the world" prophecies that have fallen flat on their faces: the "end"of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012, and the "blood moon" last month; these sorts of predictions have been going on, and influencing people for generation after generation.  Now, when I was asked about the Mayan calendar, and the blood moon, and this prediction, and that prophecy, I would give the same reply: "You know, when the disciples asked, 'What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?' He said to them, 'But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.' So if our Lord didn't know, or wouldn't tell, we aren't meant to know anything more than that we are to focus our attention on doing what we are supposed to be doing.  That way, if we depart this life before He returns, no worries; and if we're doing what we're supposed to be doing when He returns, no worries.  It's win-win either way."  I think the same is true for these concerns for the "need" for there to be a state, in the man-made, secular sense, of Israel: we're worrying about something over which we have no control, when God can, and will, make what needs to happen happen, when it needs to happen.  It's not as if our Lord is lurking anxiously somewhere overhead in the clouds, waiting for us to somehow make all the arrangements in order for Him to return.  Rather, if He tarries, it is to give us the time we need to repent of our sins, and to confess them, and to take the steps needed to transform our lives, to turn away from the ways of the world and embrace instead the ways of the kingdom of heaven. He delays as an act of mercy and compassion, and not because we've yet to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, or breed a perfect red heifer, or meet any other condition someone thinks humans have to do in order for our Lord to return.
       So, should Christians support the state of Israel?  That's a question each of us will have to decide on its merits: but I think we can do so without having to be concerned about whether or not our support will have any influence on whether, or when, our Lord will return.  Rest easy, brethren!  God will make that decision on His own; and all we need to do is to decide what is right in terms of how our friends and allies in Israel are doing in relation to us, to their neighbors, and to the people who live within their borders: Jews and non-Jews alike.  Let us also remember that, when we cast things in terms of Jews and Arabs, it is all too easy to fall into the false assumption that "Arab" means "Muslim."  In many instances, especially in many places in the Holy Land, that "Arab" or "Palestinian" is a Christian; quite often, an Orthodox Christian.  Sadly, the recent turmoil has caused many of our Christian brothers to flee their ancestral homes - an aspect of the tragedy in the Middle East all too often overlooked; and one which the policies of the Israeli government should more often be held accountable, but is not.  May the Lord God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"How Doth the Little Busy Bee..."

Yesterday, in the early evening, as I was getting out of our pool (yes, it's still warm enough for us to enjoy a swim: the water was a perfect seventy-eight degrees, and the air temperature was just a few degrees warmer as the sun was just a few minutes from setting), I happened to notice a bee struggling against the surface of the water.  It's not unusual to find a bee which has perished in the pool, as well as any number of other insects which have, for whatever reason, strayed too close to the water, and become trapped as a result of the surface tension exerted by the water.  It's surface tension which helps hold a drop of water together; and it is that same force which can cling to an object, or an organism, making it impossible for it to escape.  Whenever I'm able to do so, I try to rescue these helpless creatures, whether a bee, or a beetle, or a spider, or an ant, lifting them out of the water and placing them onto the ground.  Sometimes I have to think long and hard about it! There are some bugs and beasties I'd just as soon not save, although I generally do, anyway.  I've never come across a black widow spider or a scorpion in need of being saved from drowning.  I don't know what I would do if I did encounter one in the pool, as these are two critters where the policy around the property is, basically, "stomp first, ask questions later."  

Having placed the bee on the cool deck, I then watched from the edge of the water, wondering whether it had been pulled from the water in time.  At first, it seemed that my efforts had been in vain: the bee was trapped on its back, as if even the surface tension of the water around it on the decking was such that it could not break free and right itself. I nudged it gently (and carefully!) to set it upright, and then resumed my vigil. The bee alternated between grooming itself - which wasn't an unexpected reaction - and staggering about in a manner which almost suggested that it was intoxicated, or, I feared, had been poisoned; perhaps by the chlorine present in the pool as a
disinfectant. Chlorine, after all, is a component of many insecticides.  In particular, I couldn't help but notice how the bee kept elevating its abdomen, while at the same time dragging its hindmost legs, with their prominent pollen pouches.  It wandered about erratically, at times heading directly toward the pool.  I was prepared to deflect it from such a path, but it never became necessary to do so.  It moved in fits and starts, sometimes looking as if it was improving, and other times looking as if it was getting worse. I lost count of the number of times it staggered and fell into one of the cracks that separates one segment of the pavement from the next, like a drunken sailor who keeps falling off a curb - a very high curb - and then stepping back up, only to fall off again.  As I watched it, I couldn't help but wonder: was it in pain? Was it aware that something was wrong? Was it confused, as we might be, finding ourselves unable to control our bodies in a normal fashion?

This went on for quite a while, and I realized that I was more than a little concerned for the well-being of this little bee; so much so that I started to pray, asking the Lord to heal the bee. Almost immediately I felt more than a little embarrassed, and, still having a sense of being in the presence of the Lord, I said, "Is it wrong, or foolish, to pray for a bee?  After all, it is one of Thy creatures; and we were to be the stewards of Thy creation, which would include the bee..." To be honest, I felt more than a little guilty, given that we are the ones who established and maintain an "attractive nuisance" that has lured many a bee to its demise...

Now, please understand that I take no credit whatsoever for what happened next: the glory is God's, and God's alone. The bee ceased its staggering, and began moving both normally and purposefully along the deck. I could see its proboscis was extended into the shallow irregular indentations which are the effective features of a cool deck, and I knew, without exactly knowing how I knew (although this isn't rocket science) that the bee was in search of water, and was probably finding some; the deck was damp, but only just. Slowly and carefully, coming as close to the bee as I could without disturbing it, I let drops of water fall from my fingertips to the deck, and then waited, hoping the bee would find them. Finally - it seemed to take forever - the bee came to one of the resulting puddles, stopped there for a long pause, and then, suddenly and unexpectedly flew straight up into the air about ten feet before moving off to the southwest, and out of sight.

Is there a point to this story?  If there is, I think it is this: Every time we hear the accounts of saints living in harmony with various animals - St. Zosimas and the lion, who helps him bury St. Mary of Egypt; St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear who was his companion - and every time we see the many
photographs that make their way to places such as FaceBook these days of monastics in peaceful scenes with wild animals, we should recall that, at one time, the animals lived without fear of us, and were obedient to us, until we ceased to be obedient to God.  Now, they have reason to fear us, separated from God as we are, even after we have been baptized into Christ's death, and raised to new life in Him Who, having risen from the dead, has broken the power of death, which can no longer exert any hold upon Him.  We still have so far to go before we are transformed into His likeness; and yet, when we love, when we reach out to help, when we remember what might have been, and mourn for what we have lost, and give thanks to God for not abandoning us, but rather establishing a way for us to return to Him, what peace, what joy, what awe, what wonder is ours!  The bee will not remember what was done for it; it would be foolish to think otherwise. That is not in the bee's nature. But I will remember - at least, I hope I will remember - what it might have been like to be able to reach out with the power and the authority of God to heal, if only for a fleeting moment, one tiny, tiny part of a world which groans as it awaits its deliverance, and the incredible sense of being a servant of the saving love of God for a tiny creature in His world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Islamic Violence, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Old Testament

Recently, I was asked on FaceBook to respond to a blog post by Benjamin L. Corey, entitled, Why Standing Against Islamic Violence Forces You To Rethink Biblical Inerrancy. I have chosen to respond here because I am certain that the length of my reply would test the limits of one's patience when reading it on FaceBook, if not an actual word limitation itself! The plan is to write it here, and post a link to it there.  In part, Father Deacon James Ferrenberg has given a response much as I have intended to write; I will be expanding upon his comments here.  (I also reserve the right to edit and amend my comments should I find myself having misstated the teachings of the Orthodox Church out of my ignorance and misunderstanding, which I freely acknowledge.)

First, a preliminary comment.  "Inerrancy" isn't really a term used, to the best of my knowledge, in the Orthodox Church. If saying that the Bible is, "inerrant," what is meant is that the Bible is without error in what it teaches, then I don't think an Orthodox Christian would disagree.  However, we must then establish what the Bible is meant to teach.  For the Orthodox Church, the Bible is not a science textbook, although it contains scientific truths; nor is it a "history" textbook as we understand "history" today, although it contains historical truths.  Rather, the Bible is a record of God's revelation of Himself, as well as a revelation of truths about of ourselves, and of the relationships established between God, His creation, and human beings, the pinnacle or "crown" of creation.  The Bible - which is the Church's Book, and which cannot be properly understood nor correctly interpreted outside the Church, which, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gave it to us - contains all that we need to know in order to be saved, and to be transformed from who we are into the fullness of the image of God, and unto the likeness of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is our Savior and Redeemer.

Like Mr. Corey, I abhor the violence being practiced by the Islamic extremists of ISIS; and, like Mr. Corey, I am uncomfortable with the similar instances of violence found in the accounts of the Old Testament, in which the people of God are commanded to slaughter the populations of entire cities, men, women, children, and even cattle.  Perhaps Mr. Corey also abhors the notion which he raises in his blog: not only did God command these things; He "approved of them."  Unless I've missed something, this is why he has chosen to reject the inerrancy of the Bible.  That would be where he and I would part company.  Instead, I would cite what we called in seminary (based on a very popular commercial at the time) the "Prego Spaghetti Sauce Theory of Scripture": it's in there.  In other words, we may not always like what we read, but that doesn't mean we are free to dismiss it.  Instead, we have to dig deeper, and seek to understand the lesson we are to learn from what we have read - and accept that what has been recorded in the accounts of Scripture is part of God's revelation of Himself to us, given for a specific and definite purpose. We are free to accept or reject what God has revealed, but not to dismiss it, unless, of course, we elect to practice a sort of "cafeteria style" approach to the Bible, in which we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we will accept and follow, and which parts we want nothing to do with, and so we don't bother to put on our tray.

Mr. Corey's examples are drawn from the giving of the Law of God by Moses prior to the entry of the people of Israel into the land which God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; what we would come to know as the "land of Israel."  The instructions given in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy would include a great many elements pertaining to the necessity for maintaining holiness, and avoiding what was unclean, so that the people with whom God had made a covenant to accept them as His own would not break that covenant, and so remove themselves from the blessed relationship God desired to share with them.  After this, led now by Joshua, the people of God entered into the Holy Land, which was not vacant: it was inhabited by many different peoples, many of whom, if not most (or all) the people of God were commanded to destroy, in what Mr. Corey has labeled a "jihad," or a holy war. From the little I know of Islam, that is not, in fact, what "jihad" actually means; but it has come to have that meaning in the larger context, and so we will use it in that way here.

In addition to jihad, Mr. Corey cites instances of burning people alive (as ISIS did to a Jordanian pilot they had captured), putting people to death by stoning (as a crowd did to St. Stephen the first martyr, presumably for blasphemy, while a young man named Saul stood by and held the coats of those who did the stoning), and even sexual slavery and trafficking: 
Sex slaves? Yup. The Bible says that after they conquer a city they can take the women, force them to come home and live as their wives. Straight up an endorsement of sex trafficking.
Here I'll take issue with Mr. Corey.  Although there are some who interpret passages such as Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and Numbers 31:18 as God condoning, or even commanding, sexual slavery and rape, Mr. Corey is not among them; at least, not as far as the post in question is concerned. But does God command, or even approve of, sexual slavery or rape? Not so!  In fact, a rapist was to be executed (by stoning). Now, I will certainly concede that, from our understanding today, the passage from Deuteronomy 21, in which combatants are allowed to take women they find appealing with them and make them their wives, does not describe acceptable behavior, and that the women who experienced this type of treatment might well have described it as rape; but there are differences, and those differences make a difference.  Let me try to explain.  A woman taken after a battle was not at all an unusual practice in those days - or in this day, as women around the world in war zones without number could recount, and as is happening now at the hands of entities such as ISIS and their ally, Boku Haram.  What is unusual is how such captives were to be treated by the Israelites. They were not put up on the auction block, nor were they given as trophies to be used for the pleasure of the troops.  Rather, they were given a month to mourn: presumably, for their fathers, brothers, and husbands; and then they became the wives of the men who had taken them.  If the man found no pleasure, she was set free; it was forbidden for them to be sold.  This by itself is a major departure from every other nation and people who practiced what we might call "captive slavery." But it should also be noted that, in becoming a wife, the woman gained all the rights, privileges, and protections of being a wife, on the same basis as if she had been born an Israelite.  There is a reason for this, and it is related to the larger question of the "barbaric practices" we find during the time of the conquest of Canaan, and authorized in the Law God gave through Moses.

But let's back up for a moment; in fact, let's go to the beginning of the story.  God, having brought all of creation into existence, decides to complete His work by creating a creature made in His image, and after His likeness.  Unlike everything else, which came into being through the power of His Word - God said, "Let there be..." and there was... - when it comes to creating human being, we are told that God formed him from the dust of the earth, and then breathed into his nostrils, and man became a living soul.  Adam - whose name comes from the earth, adamah - and Eve, whom God fashions from a rib taken from Adam's side, live in the presence of God in the Paradise God has established, the Garden of Eden. The Genesis narrative suggests that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God; we are told that Adam named all the animals, and was given dominion over all the earth.  Everything was permitted to them, except for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was forbidden to them; and God told them that, on the day they ate of it, they would surely die. This, in turn, suggests that Adam and Eve were, by nature, good, and that their will, while free to choose, was, perhaps inherently, in alignment with God's.  That would be put to the test when the serpent tempted Eve, and she ate the forbidden fruit; and then took the fruit to Adam, who ate it, as well.  At this, God cast them out of the Garden, for they had sinned; and, from that time forward, God sought to establish a way back for us from our state of sin and death, while we found ourselves having to struggle to bring our will back into alignment with God's.  Among other things, we lost the state of righteousness in which we had been living; and it was, and remains, necessary for that righteousness to be restored in order for us to once more live in harmony with God.

Things didn't go well.  The sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, soon came into conflict, which came about as the result of God's rejection of a sacrifice offered by Cain, while favoring a sacrifice offered by Abel. Cain murdered Abel, and became an outcast. Ultimately, humanity became so corrupt, so unrighteous, that God determined to destroy all life on the earth, except for one man and his family, whom He commanded to build an ark to hold two animals of every kind from the face of the earth and the birds of the air.  When this was completed, God closed Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark, and caused a great flood, which drowned all those who had given themselves over to wickedness, rather than righteousness.  When the floodwaters receded, Noah and his family set out to repopulate the world.  Now, you would think that the descendants of Noah would have remembered what had happened when people gave themselves over to their animal desires and became wicked; but, once again, sin increased, and righteousness decreased.  God, having promised that He would never again destroy all the world with a flood, set to work to bring about the salvation of the human race, making a covenant with Abraham, a righteous man who was obedient to God. The land to which Moses brought the people of Israel (a term we need to clarify) after their time of purification in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt and the renewal of the covenant with God at Mount Sinai, from which Moses descended with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, was the land God had promised to Abraham, to his son, Isaac, and to his son, Jacob: the "Holy Land"; another term fraught with great significance.  This was the land Moses beheld but did not enter; this was the land into which Joshua led God's people; and this was the land where Mr. Corey's "jihad" took place.

Today, I think, when we hear the term, "the people of Israel," we think of a place: as in the "state" or "nation" or "country" of Israel.  But that is not its original meaning. Let's remember that "Israel" is the name the angel of the Lord gave to Jacob after the two spent the night engaged in wrestling at the ford of Jabbok, in which neither could prevail, until the "man" touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, putting it out of joint. Jacob would not relinquish his hold on the man until he had been blessed, and, when the man asked him his name, he replied, "Jacob." In reply, he was told, "Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God, and with men, and have prevailed." (Gen. 32:8)  As such, the "people of Israel" are not the people of a place, but the descendants of the heir to the covenant with Abraham.  As such, the land into which Joshua is leading them is theirs, because it is the land given to them by the promise of God.  This is the source of the phrase for the region being the "Promised Land."

The terms of the covenant required the people to adhere to the holy way of life set out for them in the "Holiness Code" contained in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; essentially, to remove any uncleanness from their midst.  As distasteful as it may be to us today, this included the removal - the extermination - of those peoples whose practices were an abomination to the Lord. Now, we might ask, was this right? Should they have been given the opportunity first to repent, and submit themselves to the terms of the covenant, and so become part of the people of God, and participants with the house (another term for "descendants") of Israel? The only answer we can give to these questions is that we do not, and cannot, in this life, know.  Moreover, who are we to question God?  Do we know better than He Who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent?  Can we possibly know what is better for another person than the One Who knows the very depths of our hearts?

Now, it has to be said that the perpetrators of the current acts of violence in the name of the god whom the people making up the Islamic State follow would undoubtedly give similar answers to the same questions, and justify the violence in much the same way.  They would say that they have a divine mandate to cleanse the unclean and pagan practices from the land, and put to death the unbelievers.  All we can offer in response is that, while the requirement to be holy that God gave to humanity remains unchanged, what has been revealed since the time when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into this world, and since the time when the world was cleansed by God by means of the Great Flood, and since the time God commanded the extermination of the unclean nations in the Promised Land at the time His people entered it is that the "holy war" moved from being one fought against external enemies to being one fought internally: from cleansing the land of its uncleanness to cleansing one's heart from what is unclean.  The battle remains the same: but the battlefield and the weapons are different; and in that difference, which the Jews understand in the Law, and Christians understand in the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead and given to us in baptism, we find ourselves with a different understanding than that of the butchers of ISIS.  We do not, and cannot, deny our inheritance, found in the pages of the history of the people of God recorded, accurately - inerrantly, if you will - in the Old Testament. Rather, we accept it, learn from it, and, even if we do not embrace it, we recognize that, above all, it calls us to understand we must strive to be a holy nation, so that we can fulfill our calling to be as well a royal priesthood, fit to be empowered to proclaim the good news of our salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Preparation for Martyrdom

The holy martyr Julian of Tarsus was a young man when he suffered and died for the Christian faith. Born into a family of wealth and influence, from his youth, he was taught the Faith; and so, when the time of his suffering came, he was ready, and despite being taken from town to town and being out to torture in each one, he would not deny that Jesus Christ is Lord. After a year of enduring torments, he was sewn into a sack filled with sand, snakes, and scorpions, and thrown into the sea. He was eighteen years old when he departed this life.

Our holy father John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, was also born into a noble family; and he also, from his youth, learned the Christian faith, embracing the Orthodox way of life, inspired by the asceticism of the monks he saw living near to his village. His family fled from his homeland during the Russian Civil War for Serbia. He left Serbia for Shanghai when he became a Bishop. Forced to flee from Shanghai once again ahead of the Communists, he led his flock to the Philippines, from where they were resettled, some in Australia, some in South America, and some in the United States. He knew of his impending repose some four days before it happened, and foretold as well the place where he would die. He was seventy years old when he departed this life.

Both of the holy fathers whom we celebrate this weekend experienced what our Lord spoke of in the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. Luke. Both experienced persecution; both knew that a martyr's death was a very real possibility, and one achieved a martyr's crown.

What about us? Although none of us has been born to a family of power and influence, we live in a time and place with riches and conveniences that we take for granted, which not even emperors had of old – and they could have almost anything they wanted. In addition to the prosperity we enjoy, we also live in a time of relative peace, and in a place where we are not suffering for our faith – at least, not yet. But the words our Lord spoke to warn and to encourage His disciples remain as true today as when He first uttered them. The apostles saw the armies of Rome arrayed against Jerusalem, and their defeat of that city. The faithful were persecuted again and again across time and space – and there are places around the world today where Christians suffer for the Faith, and martyrs are killed all the time. We don't see it happening on the evening news; we don't see it happening in our neighborhoods – but it is taking place all the same, and we are na├»ve if we think that it will never happen here.

What, then should we do? We must be instructed by what our Lord tells His disciples – and we are His disciples if we follow His teachings, and His example. By enduring, we will win our lives. Not in this world, to be sure – but this world, this age, this life will not endure. Only that which is established in heaven will endure. If we will embrace and live the life of our Lord Jesus Christ given to us in baptism, fed in us by His Body and Blood, taught to us by the holy Fathers and Mothers, shown to us in the lives of the saints, then our lives, too, will be established in heaven. Above all, it is by so pursuing the life of Christ being expressed in our own that we can endure even betrayal by friends or family, to say with our Lord, "Father, forgive them," even as we are being put to death.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for the grace and mercy He gives to us from His love for us, that we may not love our lives in this world, but rather desire the life to come, so that we will not fail in the time of trial, but may also come, with our holy father Julian and our holy father John, to a blessed repose, and a place in His kingdom that shall never end.