You Will Know A Tree
Today, I visited my local Orthodox Christian church for the fourth time. My body felt somewhat weak, but my desire for worship was strong. Others clearly felt the same way. I attended a pretty packed Divine Liturgy service. I knew something felt wrong as soon as I arrived at the church, though.
When I pulled into the parking lot, I was immediately obstructed from parking in the small lot by a mammoth SUV trying to pull into in a tight place between the curb and another car. I waited as they backed up and tried to fit into the space. Just down from that spot, there was an almost empty entire row of spots that I was able to take advantage of as soon I could pass. When I parked and started walking towards the church, a couple had just gotten out of their cars. I tried to smile and say, “good morning,” but they averted their gazes. On my way in, I passed a car with the license plate that read ‘Serbian.’ Adorning the car were multiple National Rifle Association stickers. I felt a dizzying sense of cognitive dissonance. You know the strange camera angles that they use in films when they want you to see the world through the eyes of a character in crisis? That is what I felt. Wasn’t I going into the house of the Prince of Peace?
I couldn’t get this contradiction out of my mind as I made my way into the sanctuary. I was barely greeted, so it made it easier to get lost in my own thoughts. My mind wrestled with different emotions as the liturgy commenced. There is little to do as a member of a congregation in an Orthodox worship service, which gives one time for contemplation. I thought back to this blog post I had written. Was the book that the post was based on and the NPR take on that book more accurate than I had been willing to recognize at the time?
I have come to realize, over the years — as I looked at the imperfections of the members of the body of Christ — that a church and even its doctrines are not totally responsible for the beliefs or actions of its members. However, we are taught by Christ himself that “a tree is known by its fruit,” in the book of Luke. I once knew a woman in the church that had a troubled pregnancy. It was understood that her child would have physical abnormalities. A fellow parishioner told her she should have an abortion. She was horrified and determined to bear the child. It’s now years later and her child is healthy, if not perfect. He is a source of joy to his parents. The child’s mother never returned to church. I wouldn’t hold the church accountable for the opinions of one of its members if the church presented moral clarity on the subject of abortion, but it doesn’t. Therefore, the parishioner was only acting in accordance with the teachings of the church.
Perhaps the Serbian was going against the teachings of the church when he chose to follow Moloch instead of Christ. The question is, though, what is the church teaching? While I’ve been attending, children have been murdered in their place of learning. Nothing has been said about it in any of the services I’ve been to. To be fair, in an Orthodox Church, you don’t get much of a sermon. You get a homily that reflects on the content appropriate for the liturgical calendar. You have to wonder, though: Is a church that shuts its eyes to the evil just outside its doors doing an effective job carrying on the ministry of Christ? My Presbyterian church hosts meetings on how to stop gun violence. I got an email after the shooting pointing out ways to enter into dialogue with politicians to stop this scourge. I’m not on any Orthodox mailing lists, but I have to wonder if the members of this church receive the same sorts of materials.
It appears, from my observations (feeling somewhat like a cultural anthropologist), that the Orthodox don’t engage much in worldly affairs. They seem to be so focused on their own worship that the need for Christ’s teachings in the world gets little thought. Maybe I’m missing something, though. I would rather not judge a whole, complex faith based on a few visits to a specific worship service or one individual’s errant beliefs. I would like to know, though, how the church behaves to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, as we pray in the prayer that Christ taught us. As Brother James says in the book that bears his name, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The place of church in the world
How it interacts in the world is an important measure of a church. The prophets taught us this as they again and again called for a society that took care of the least among us and upheld justice. They considered societal sin, which is why they consistently and continuously warned of society facing punishment for its evils. Many modern-day Christians deflect these teachings, though, and the teachings of Christ when they say nothing can be done about gun violence at a societal level. We heard, in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, that we can’t stop violence that begins in the heart of a person filled with evil. Esau McCaulley effectively rebuts this view in a New York Times piece about gun violence.
The reason that some Christians cannot bring themselves to support gun law reforms, then, is the same reason some Christians cannot effectively battle racism beyond condemning individual racists. They have a deficient doctrine of sin and evil, limiting it to the individual.
McCaulley points out that tolerance of slavery was a societal evil, beyond what was in the hearts of any given individual.
They functionally recognize only one source of sin: the heart. Our faith has a much more complex account of evil focusing on the interlocking realities of the individual, the spiritual and the structural. The refusal to acknowledge systemic problems as they relate to gun control is a failure of theological imagination with ongoing deadly consequences. A full Christian account of evil leaves us with hard truths. Granted, the massacre of innocent children reflects an evil heart, but politicians and leaders set on giving evil hearts easy access to tools of mass death share some responsibility for that evil. These politicians and their supporters are part of the structural injustice that gives individual evil room to operate.
A church that allows systemic injustice, without holding those who allow it to perpetuate to account, is not playing its prophetic role in the world. I’m not accusing any particular church of having that problem, but I like to see evidence to the contrary.