As I wrote in “Eve of the March for Life,” I attended the vespers service at Saint Nicholas Cathedral. Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America delivered a talk afterward about how our sin depersonalizes other human beings to us. His talk basically paralleled his message for the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.
I have reservations about the metropolitan’s homily; they reflect my unease with Christianity’s apparent contradiction with human life—best symbolized by Christ’s instruction to us to turn the other cheek when we are struck. Along with many sensible words, the metropolitan’s message states:
All the sins against humanity, abortion, euthanasia, war, violence, and victimization of all kinds, are the results of depersonalization. Whether it is “the unwanted pregnancy”, or worse, “the fetus” rather than “my son” or “my daughter;” whether it is “the enemy” rather than Joe or Harry (maybe Ahmed or Mohammed), the same depersonalization allows us to fulfill our own selfishness against the obstacle to my will. How many of our elderly, our parents and grandparents, live forgotten in isolation and loneliness? How many Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and American youths will we sacrifice to agonizing injuries and deaths for the sake of our political will? They are called “soldiers,” or “enemy combatants” or “civilian casualties” or any variety of other euphemisms to deny their personhood. But ask their parents or children! Pro-war is NOT pro-life! God weeps for our callousness.
Of course, subtlety matters much here, but the general direction of this way of thinking confirms, I fear, Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity as a nihilistic religion—a Western Buddhism—in the sense that it denies life, here and now, for the sake of an unknown future life that he holds to be non-existent. I, myself, cannot see how the metropolitan’s teaching could be anything besides self-destructive for a society to embrace without reserve or hypocrisy. Pacifism—the unwillingness to perform violent acts even in self-defense—is an invitation to the wicked to slaughter or to enslave you and yours.
Of course, we do not see such madness among the ancient Hebrews or among the old Christian kingdoms. Yet, it seems that monkish wisdom holds that such people did not fully embrace the commandments of God. They wail about the hypocrisy of Constantine, but such “hypocrisy” is fully to his credit. A king who lays down the lives of his people for the sake of suicidal ethics does not deserve the trust or the authority given him.
Yet, perhaps, such a view is a distorted understanding of the faith. Maybe the judges and kings of Israel along with the many emperors and princes in Christendom rightly understood and practiced the faith—and our latter day abstractionists fail to understand the inherent contradiction of fallen human life. As Plato’s Republic rightly shows us, the human soul is divided and in conflict. There is no natural human fulfillment that does not do violence to some part of the soul. Virtue and happiness necessarily coincide frustration and pain. Human life is always a tragedy in some way. Plato gives us the best of pagan wisdom in his realization of the limitations of man.
Though the gospel proclaims God’s message of hope and salvation to all men, it does not immediately rid the world of the fall’s curses. Perhaps, Christianity’s contradiction with real life points not to the falsehood of Christ’s gospel but rather to the obstacles to human wholeness in a fallen world. All of the things that the metropolitan condemns—from the vantage point of monkish abstinence from the world—are actually evil and harmful to the soul. War corrupts. Battling a fellow human being as an enemy has a corrosive effect on our humanity. Such is true. Nonetheless, war remains necessary in a world of wickedness.
My annoyance at Metropolitan Jonah and at his fellow teachers results from their inability—in my perception, at least—to recognize the limitations of their advice to self-sacrifice. There is no one thing needful for man. Rather, there is a hierarchy of goods, and prudence demands that we weigh all of our responsibilities to judge the best path. We cannot operate in a fallen world as if we were already in paradise. We must manage accordingly.