Looking back, they lived like frontiersmen. Looking back, I admire them for doing what they had to do. Find a place to survive. A squirrel-hunting boy who skirted their wooded encampment, I considered them bums. Looking back that seems harsh. Down on their luck some would say. Poor decision-makers others would say. Looking back, I […]
March 16, 2018 · Fr. Stephen Freeman
Can a nation ever sin? If so, how can it be forgiven?
The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament are replete with examples of national sin. There are certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from this collective treatment. And we are not the first to complain.
In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the troubling question:
“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)
Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous for the sake of a mere handful.
There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted – both for good and for ill.
Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.
Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens.
In the 20th century, there have been some notable national crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan renounced its military in response to the atrocities and errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were punished. The Russian government, with no outside political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been taken away) in an effort of public repentance.
It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.
Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the details of what happened, but we know all too well the emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very ancient thing.
And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention. Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural disaster, or war – any time and place in which we are endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions. People do not experience war and then walk away as though nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and even physically crippled.
Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with liturgy – rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.
Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.
The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.
Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same struggle. It might be around a new presenting issue – but it was still the same struggle. Healing the parish required a discernment of what was actually going on – to bring something that was latent into the light of day.
Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.
Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.
The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.
There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:
“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)
The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”
For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.
Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)
This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.
There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”
As you give attention to the word of the Lord for this coming Sunday, I would love to share this word with you from A Sermon for Every Sunday. I hope it inspires, convicts, challenges, and encourages you in this work! —Will
In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!” The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.
I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing…
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Do not be careless. Pray as much as you can – more frequently and more fervently. Prod yourself – force yourself to do so, for the Kingdom of God is taken by force. You will never attain it without forcing yourself.”
~ Saint Innocent of Alaska
Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?
These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said “No” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.
This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.
Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperate in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.
That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer they hear within themselves is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.
But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. Synergy was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.
Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.
Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).
There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:
Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)
In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.
In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We really cannot hear the meaning of “grace” in English. In the Greek it carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.
There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.
I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm a false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction.
There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.
This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use. I absolutely do not subscribe to a notion of immorality, or libertinism in any form.
One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).
The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”
There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”
The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.
For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.
“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.
Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:
The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”
It is this gift-giving life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.
If you are in the “helping professions,” confronting problems in people’s lives, it doesn’t take long to realize that no one is purely and simply an individual. The problems we suffer may occasionally appear to be “of our own making,” but that is the exception rather than the rule. Whether we are thinking of economic or genetic inheritance, or the psychological and social environment, almost all the issues in our lives are a matter of “connection.” The same is true when it comes to virtue and wholeness. Saints are not a phenomenon of individuality.
There is a model of what it means to be human that is simply wrong, regardless of its elements of truth. That model envisions us primarily as free-agents, gathering information and making decisions. It emphasizes the importance of choice and the care with which decisions must be made. It lectures long on responsibility and the need to admit that we are the primary cause of our own failings. It praises hard work and admires those with creative insights. Success comes to those who master these virtues and we encourage everyone to take them as their models.
This model of human agency is written deep in the mythology of American culture, and, with its global influence, has become increasingly popular elsewhere. Many elements of contemporary Christian thought assume this model of agency to be true and have interwoven it into the notion of salvation itself. The scandalous popularity of the novel teachers of prosperity and personal-success-schemes have raised this model of humanity into something like cult status. But even those who are scandalized by such distortions of the gospel often subscribe to many of its ideas. Those ideas are part of the “common sense” of our culture.
They are also part of the nonsense produced by our culture’s mythology. There is virtually nothing about human beings that, strictly speaking, is individual. Beginning from our biology itself, we are utterly and completely connected to others. The same is true of our language and our culture. None of us is an economy to ourselves. Even those things we most cherish as uniquely individual are questionable.
We celebrate choice as the true signature of our individuality. However, if you scrutinize decisions carefully, they are something less than autonomous exercises of the will. Americans have a strange way of choosing like Americans (often to the dismay of the rest of the world). We are “free agents” who play the game of life on a field that is deeply slanted.
As I noted at the beginning, it is easy to describe the many-sourced nature of failure. With a bit more effort, we could see that “success” is equally derived from many sources outside of the self. It should not be surprising then, to see that salvation (and condemnation) are also corporate matters rather than strictly individual. Indeed, the corporate nature of our existence lies at the very heart of the classical doctrine of Christian salvation.
One of the earliest complete accounts of Christian salvation was written in the 4thcentury by St. Athanasius the Great. It has long been recognized as a touchstone of Christian theology. In that work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius explains in detail that the salvation of humanity is brought about through the action of God becoming human. The work of Christ’s death and resurrection are not external to our humanity. Rather, their power to work salvation lies precisely in the fact of our communion with Him through the single common human nature that He assumed. Our cooperation with that action completes and makes effective what has been given to the whole of humanity through the God/Man, Jesus Christ.
Our cooperation (a choice) is only effective, however, because of the communion established in the Incarnation. Salvation is not a reward given to someone who chose correctly. Salvation is a new life that is lived as a communion, a mutual indwelling (koinonia).
That primary saving reality, our common nature and its communion with the God/Man, is something that has largely been lost in our modern understanding, dominated as it is by the myth of individualism. Christ’s incarnation is only effective if our humanity has a corporate reality (it would make little sense otherwise). It was classically summed up in the fathers by saying, “He became what we are that we might become what He is.” This is only possible if there is, in fact, a “what” that we all share. This “what” makes possible not only our communion with Him, but also our communion with each other.
St. Silouan famously said, “My brother is my life.” He was not speaking figuratively. Rather, he was giving assent to the very mechanism of our life and salvation. We were created to live as beings-in-communion. Adam declares of Eve, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The story of sin is the story of the disruption of communion:
And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying,`You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:15-19)
The communion between persons is disrupted, as well as the communion with animals and creation, all ending in the dust of death. But even that death is a communal death: none of them die alone.
For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:7-9)
This is the very heart of our existence, and of our salvation as well. In some manner, we carry within us the whole of humanity. St. Silouan called this the “whole Adam.” We could extend that and say that each of us carries within us the whole of the created order. St. Maximus the Confessor called us a “microcosm” (“the whole cosmos in miniature”). The life we live is a life for the whole Adam, the whole cosmos. In some manner, our salvation is the salvation of the whole cosmos. We hear this in Romans 8:
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…. because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom. 8:19, 21)
Our salvation can be described as the restoration and fullness of communion with God. But that same salvation includes the restoration and fullness of communion with one another and with all of creation. Just as Christ’s communion with us is the means of our salvation, so our communion with everything and everyone works towards that same salvation.
[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9)
The modern myth of human beings as individual, self-contained moral agents is not just incorrect. It is also a tool of deception. The myth is often used to absolve us from the mutual responsibility that constitutes a just society, as well as to falsely blame individuals for things over which they have little or no control. That contemporary Christianity is often complicit in this deception is perhaps among its greatest errors.
It has long been observed that the greatest weakness of the Reformation was ecclesiology (the doctrine of the “Church”). Reformers found it difficult to articulate the reality of “the Church” without undermining their own reforming project. From its inception, the Reformation was not a single work, but an immediate work of divisions and competing reformations. There has never been a “Protestant Church,” only “Churches” that were mutually exclusive in their origins. That modern ecumenical theories have invented the notion of the “invisible Church” to mask this essential failure does nothing to address the real problem. Indeed, it has provided the fertile ground for the individualism of the Modern Project with all of its concomitant destruction.
It is deeply scandalous today to quote St. Cyprian’s contention that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” It might be better understood if it were acknowledged that “Church,” in its true form of ecclesial existence as communion, is what salvation actually looks like. We cannot, as individuals, possess that which is only given to us in communion.