What We Can’t Forget, What We Must Remember

Writing at The Ludwig von Mises Center (Why we are Where we are – Part One) Duncan Whitmore observes that

… it is all too easy for us to overlook the brevity of our current epoch that is distinguished by economic, intellectual, cultural and scientific advances that are far in excess of anything that has been seen before. Those who are adamant on castigating the West for its supposed brutality, oppression, racism and patriarchy might like to remember that … [it] was the West … that developed (and implemented) the moral and philosophical apparatus that rejected these abominations, embracing instead a view of all humans as possessing equal moral worth regardless of race, gender, or social status. Thus was paved the way for the eradication of violence and for the ascendance of social co-operation under the division of labour. Indeed, the irony of those who criticise Western civilisation is that they have to resort to Western values in order to do so. The fact that, in spite of their dissemination by the West, such values can be in short supply in much of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East simply shows their tenuous grip on the human imagination.

I have seen on campus this tendency to forget the culture and social institutions that make our too often imperfect liberty possible. I have also seen it, sadly, among Orthodox Christians.

When we forget, as Whitmore points out, that defense of natural rights does not come naturally to us (we are fallen after all), we open the door to our own loss of freedom. Because this typical happens incrementally we are afforded the false luxury of not having to entertain the unpleasant thought that our fellow citizen, our neighbor, is robbing us of our liberty.

More to the point though for Orthodox Christians, the slow decay of the culture and social institutions that make liberty possibly, that help freedom and respect for others feel natural, allows us–allows me!–to absolve ourselves of our complicity in the death of liberty and so the degradation of our neighbor.

Frequently this escape from our own culpability takes the form of asserting that the Church is not concerned with politics but preaching the Kingdom of God, of calling people to repentance and a life of holiness. While the latter is certainly both true and our priority, the former also has its place. Christians that pursue personal holiness while remaining indifferent to the loss of liberty are frankly no better than the “Pharisees [who] sit in Moses’ seat” and “who bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

And like the Pharisees those Orthodox Christians who ignore politics and, what is worse, counsel others to do so, are liable to the charge that “all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:2, 4-7).

St John Chrysostom says of the Pharisees (and so their contemporary heirs) that Jesus accuses

…them of vanity, from which came their ruin. His previous charges concerned signs of harshness and laziness, but these charges accuse them of a mad desire for glory. This desire drew them away from God. It caused them to make a show in front of others who were watching and corrupted them. Now that it has become the priest’s special interest to please those who are watching, he exhibits whatever they want. If they are noble, he makes a spectacle of confronting conflicts. If they are lacking in enthusiasm and lazy, he also becomes more lackadaisical. If they delight in ridicule, he delights in ridicule, in order to please those watching. If they are earnest and practice self-restraint, he tries to be the same way, since this is the disposition of the one from whom he seeks praise. It is not that he does some things one way and some things in another way. No, he is far more predictable. He always acts with the spectator in mind, in all things absolutely. Then, having laid bare their vanity, Jesus shows that it is not even about great and necessary things that they are vainglorious. They are vain about things without warmth or worth. These are the proofs of their baseness: the phylacteries and the fringes of their garments. “For they make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

And a later father, St Theophylact of Ochrid writes in a similar vein:

The Pharisees laid heavy burdens on men, forcing them to fulfill the commandments of the law which were detailed and difficult to observe. Indeed, they weighed them down with more than the commandments of the law by handing down certain traditions that went beyond the law; these traditions they did not move with even one of their fingers, that is, they themselves did not practice them, nor even dare to undertake such burdens. For whenever a teacher not only teaches but practices what he teaches, then he is seen to carry the burden and to labor along with those who are taught. But when he gives me a load to carry, but himself practices nothing, then indeed he weighs me down, showing by what he himself neglects to do that it is impossible to accomplish what he says.

He goes on to say that Jesus “is accusing the Pharisees of themselves not wanting to carry the weight of the commandments and to practice them.” Worse still, “not only do they not do anything good, but they pretend that they do good.” But even “if they had done something good, because they did it for the sake of appearance, any gain they might have derived from it would have fallen through their fingers. So indeed they are worthy of condemnation now, since they do not do good and yet they wish men to think that they do.”

When we neglect to defend the culture and social institutions of liberty, we are complicit in laying on our neighbor the heavy burden that flows from the diminishment of liberty. We also culpable for those vices that our neighbor adopts to ease the burden of liberty’s absence.

Or as Whitmore writes, “Huxley showed us in Brave New World (and in contrast to most other dystopian depictions) it is quite possible for people to be un-free but also comfortable, even happy.” When, as today, the abundance of “relatively inexpensive food, clothing, energy, entertainment and so on has relieved people of what were once life’s primary hardships, the relative weight of different values has changed, with people more willing to trade in some of their freedom in exchange for security and relief from responsibility.”

Put another way. Even the relatively thin gruel of political and economic liberty requires we cultivate the life of virtue. That these virtues and the liberty they sustain fall far short of the virtues and liberty of  the Kingdom of God doesn’t invalidate them. We cannot forget any of this. But having forgotten it we must remember it again.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory