Wise as Serpents

Sometimes the meaning of Jesus’ words, and their application, seem entirely obvious once you read them.

Sometimes He confounded His audiences both then and now.  He did not always seek to give answers.  It seems to me that sometimes He wants to draw us deeper into a Mystery.

His command to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16) has always perplexed me.  Do we have to be one or the other, or can we be both wise and innocent at the same time?  The command to be “innocent as doves” seems easy to understand, but of course hard to achieve.  The first part apparently asks us to mimic the cleverness of the Devil, which might seem easier to our fallen selves but surely more dangerous.  And how to apply this first admonition?  I have no idea.

I thought about this saying of Jesus during one particular section of Kyriacos Markides The Mountain of Silence, a series of interviews with one particular monk from the monastery on Mount Athos.  I strongly recommend the work, not because of the author but because for most of the book he simply allows his subjects to speak at length.  Early on in the book the author tells of two events in the life of the monastery.

In W.W. II the Nazi’s began to overrun Greece and the monks on Mount Athos wondered what they might do.  The monastery is located at the very edge of one of the Chalcedonian peninsulas and remains somewhat isolated territorially.  As a pre-emptive strike of sorts, they decided to ask Hitler to put the monastery under his personal protection.  They correctly deduced that Hitler would be flattered to do so, which might have spared the area damage from bombs, or at least allowed the monks to stay.  They then proceeded to use their privileged position to hide many Jewish women from the Nazi’s, the only time in their long history that they have allowed women within their walls.

Turkey invaded Greece in 1974, which again endangered both the physical structures of the monastery and its spiritual independence.  This time the monks made a special appeal to Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union to have the monastery put under his personal protection.  Perhaps they hoped to hearken to Russia’s own special monastic tradition. Or perhaps they hoped to appeal to Russia’s rivalry with Turkey in the late 19th/early 20th century over the fate of the Balkan Orthodox Christians.

Both instances, and especially the appeal to Hitler, did not at first impression sit well with me.  But then I reconsidered.  In neither case did the monks side with their protectors.  They stood above the purely national aspects of the wars — but not the moral ones.  They had the foresight to use Hitler’s vanity for good.  In the second instance they may have exhibited real foresight in standing above the national aspects of that conflict.  Alas, based on what very little I have read, it appears that many Mediterranean churches use the events of the 1970’s as a rallying point for Greek nationalism and ignored deeper spiritual aspects.  The monks on Mount Athos avoided this.

Might we consider these actions as correct applications of the Jesus’ words cited above?  Perhaps.

One can springboard from thoughts about these incidents to speculations about the relationship between the church and state, something the church in the west may have to reconsider in light of recent events.  In western thought the classic exposition of the issue came from St. Augustine’s City of God where he outlined the nature and purpose of the “City of Man” and the “City of God” — in simplistic terms — the state and the church respectively.  Augustine seems to advocate cooperation between the two when it appears that interests genuinely align, even though they may seek to achieve the same ends for very different reasons.

This sounds entirely reasonable. It looks like something along the lines of what the monks of Athos did in the circumstances cited above. But I wonder about its applicability in modern democracies, a context Augustine did not envision.

A monarch or emperor has the sum total of political power in his hands.  He may share power with unofficial advisers or an an official council like a Senate.  But whether an absolute ruler or no, the power remains with him.  In these situations the Church can easily stand aside and say, “This is good king, we can work with him, ” or the opposite as the case may be. Whether they cooperate or no, they stand outside the power structure and can detach themselves (in theory) from it with ease.

But in democracies power coheres with the amorphous “majority.”  Cooperation in the sense Augustine entails with a democracy would likely mean the need to become part of the power structure itself. Standing outside said structure effectively puts you within the minority.  Influencing government would then involve not cooperation with the City of Man but joining the City of Man.  Of course in a monarchy all are equal because everyone is in the minority.

We shall need great wisdom to navigate this dilemma in the coming years.