Stopping the Buck in Russia and Elsewhere

I have always been amused by Milo Yiannapoulos, and have regarded him primarily as a funny person, an obvious provocateur.  Every court jester knows that he has to push the envelope to fulfill his duty.  The king must remain flexible enough of mind and heart to laugh rather than get angry.  It is indeed the foolish king that gets angry at his fool.

Milo has always contained contradictions and has never hid his admiration for Catholicism, despite the fact that he was abused by a priest as a young boy. Despite the fact that he lives as openly gay, he has never wanted the Church to change its official position on gay marriage or homosexual behavior in general.  But despite his support of traditional morality, he is gay married.  But, he then goes on to insist that his is not a marriage at all–which can only be between a man and a woman– but rather a civil partnership of some kind.

In a recent interview with Patrick Coffin, Milo showed that he honestly wrestles with some of these contradictions.  He spoke of how he used free speech as a tool against the radical left and the good effect he felt it had.  But he also acknowledged his realization that free speech by itself remains a mere tool and not a destination.  The tools need used in the service of some greater good, and he feels now that this “greater good” is found in the Christian foundations of western civilization.

But he still remains gay married.  We’ll see where this all ends up for him in the coming years.

I have felt for some time that the current debates about free speech and our current political mess are really about our search for a new center, a new place where we can all agree that the buck stops.  The left, which used to ardently defend free speech, now uses exeedingly irresponsible language in regard to curtailing this right on campuses and beyond.*  We all recognize at least subconsciously that free speech cannot stand as our absolute monarch.  No one thinks we can yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  We know that free speech needs some limits and direction. Our problem now is that we have no agreement as to what end we should direct our rights.  And, if we do not know how they should be used, some now think that we should put away these “weapons,” or at least reduce the scope of these rights.

I use the word “monarch” intentionally.  We booted out George III and banned aristocracy.  But of course we have makers of taste, and of course the buck must stop somewhere in any culture.  In some cases it might be with a person, or possibly a place, or in America’s case, most likely in some shared ideas and beliefs.  As Milo has discovered, not even our vitally important right to free speech is an absolute value or a final destination.

Russia has been in the news for some time lately, and we are used once again to the idea of Russia autocracy.  Certainly Russia’s history gives ample evidence that they have less of a problem with authority than most Americans.  But Russia too has at times had crises of authority, and George Fedotov gives us the context and story of one of their most famous confrontations involving the power of the state in volume three of his collected works entitled, St. Fillipp, Metropolitan of Moscow: Encounter with Ivan the Terrible.

Fedotov gives good background to the conflict between the czar and the saint:

  • Czar Ivan III (grandfather to Ivan IV, the Terrible) began to introduce more “foreign” court subservience via his marriage to a Byzantine princess.  One can argue that the expansion of royal courts could hypothetically serve as a buffer to the unlimited power of the king.  Alas, they can also tend to create competitions for the favor of the monarch, with the resul that royal favorites are merely obsequious to the king, and this seemed to happen in Russia.
  • Fedotov gives proper blame to the church under the reigns of Ivan III and Vasilli III (grandfather and father of Ivan IV, respectively) for continually extolling and promoting the wars of the monarchs.  Many church heirarchs made sacrifices of conscience to honor the power of the czar.
  • As a case in point, Fedotov highlights the divorce and remarriage of Vasilli III, who while not an abusive despot, obtained a most uncanonical divorce due to his lack of children with his first wife.  Some church heirarchs supported the divorce on purely political grounds of succession, which set a dangerous precedent of the church finding ways to justify whatever the czar wanted to do, of putting the state before God–or confusing the state with God.

Thus, by the time we reach the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible, b. 1530, d. 1584), the power of czars badly needed curbed, and the church desperately needed a soul and spine to give proper direction to the government and the people of Russia.

Ivan IV likely had some kind of genuine religious faith.  However, his faith focused on apocalytpic visions, and he felt himself beseiged by traitors everywhere.  He saw himself as Russia’s last bastion of hope.  Perhaps Ivan truly suffered from a psychological disorder, but as Metropolitan Fillip knew, Ivan did not need “understood” so much as he needed stopped.  Ivan built on his grandfather’s court policies and elevated certain favorites, even foreign favorites from Germany.  He executed his brutal repression of “traitors” through them, the so called “Oprichina.”  In a time reminiscent of the Reign of Terror in France, thousands had property seized, and thousands of random murders took place on a whim.  Fedotov rightly points out that Ivan inaugerated civil war within his own land, a likely reflection of the torments and divisions in his own mind.  No one who looks at those persecuted by Ivan believes that no more than a few were guilty of anything.  But, the will of the Tsar prevailed without question.

Beneath the tragedy lay the genuine questions: what is the basis for authority in the state?  What is authority for?

Ivan possessed great intelligence and had a keenly developed theory to buttress his use of power.  Like many other monarchs of his day he believed in the divine right and gifting of kings.  He saw his power like that of the emperors of Constantine, and even Augustus, showing that he believed Russia to be the new “Rome” after the collapse of the west and of Byzantium.  Ivan asks, “How can an autocrat rule if he does not do so by himself?”  In the realms of the “godless” a different situation exists, he argued, but in Russia, “autocracy has always been supreme in the realm.”  “Every kingdom is destroyed when it is ruled by priests.  [Priests] destroyed the Greek state and now it is ruled by the Turks.”  In Israel as well, “God did not place a priest or commoners as the ruler or rulers of the people when he led them out of Egypt, but gave power only to Moses, like a Czar.  But when Aaron the priest “temporarily assumed this authority over people he led them away from God,” and the same happened in the days of Eli (see I Samuel) “who took unto himself the sacerdotal and lay power,” leading Israel into disaster.  “Do you see how it is not good for the clergy to rule over that which belongs to the czar?”

Ivan points out further that of course, the czar might sin, but even many of the saints “were among the fallen and the rebellious.”  His sins then, did nothing to limit his power.  Russia may suffer, but through suffering Russia will be purified and brought to greater faith.

In his political writings Ivan talks much about justice and wrath against evildoers, and the need for God to rule unfettered in the state through his chosen man.  The czar should promote the good and punish the wicked. Fedotov skillfully points out, however, that for Ivan the reality of truth rarely receives mention, and that, “The patriarchial relationship of the Tsar to the people as his children, as ‘wards of the state,’ gives way to the severe rule of a master over his slaves.”

We may not want the Church to weild political power, but as Fedotov states, “The Church’s participation in worldly affairs is natural, because the world too is subject to Christ’s truth.”   We have many recorded words from Fillip, some of which I include below:

The crown of piety adorns the Tsar more than any earthly glory.  It is glorious to display one’s power over one’s enemies, and one’s humanity to those who are submissive.  And, in defeating enemies by force of arms, it is glorious to be conquered by one’s own unarmed love.

You have been placed by God to judge the Lord’s people in truth, not to take upon yourself the image of a torturer.  Do not divide the realm.  Unify your people, for God is present only when there exists a spirit of sincere love.  Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.  Do not put your trust in any kind of justice which is not from God.

Ivan told Fillip he had heard enough and warned him on many occasions to be silent.  Fillip responded,

Our silence places a sin on your soul and causes national death.   Our faith will be in vain as will the very Incarnation of God.  If I maintain silence in matters of truth, then I cannot retain episcopal rank.

Fillip’s failure to maintain this silence eventually brought about his death at the hands of Ivan, who felt that he had found yet another “traitor” seeking to undermine his holy will.

One notable aspect of Fillip’s responses to Ivan is that they do not concentrate on legal distinctions, but rather personal commitment to something beyond rights and arrangement of power.  In the west, for better or worse, church and state fought at times over legal rights.  Fillip makes no appeal to the legal rights of the church or his own legal standing as Metropolitan.  He sought not a legal solution but a moral or spiritual one.  The “buck stopped” not with a code of conduct, but in the hearts of men committed to universal truth.

For all of my numerous objections regarding the progressive left’s attack on free speech, I acknowledge that they, along with Milo, see that free speech alone gets us nowhere, and should be in service of some higher truth.  One area where I diverge from the left is that their persistent insistence on dividing people into separate identities of race, sexuality, and gender will defeat their very purpose of finding this universal higher truth and lead us all, like Ivan the Terrible, to find “enemies” everywhere we look.

The postscript to Fillip’s death illustrates this.

In 1590, 21 years after his death, the monastery of which he as formerly the head requested that his body be returned to them.  They wrote to Ivan’s grandson Tsar Fedor, who eagerly gave his permission.  His exhumed body showed no decay, and very shortly after he was reinterred at the monastery, many were healed at his tomb.  The miracles continued, and by the 1650’s, Fillip was now St. Fillip of Moscow.  Czar Alexis (who had the interesting moniker of “the Quiet”) wrote a letter to the monastery, addressing St. Fillip directly,

Even though I am innocent of your vexation, my great-grandfather’s coffin convicts me and leads me to grief.  For this reason I bow my imperial dignity for him who sinned against you, that you forgive him by your coming here.  I submit the honor of my kingdom to your venerable relics.  For the sake of his penitence, and for our forgivenesss, come to us, holy one. You have accomplished the word of the Gospel . . . and there is no controversy about the commandments of God.

The monastery did send the body of St. Fillip, and when he appeared in Moscow Tsar Alexis spoke,

O blessed commandments of Christ!   O blessed truth!  O blessed is he, and thrice blessed, who carried out Christ’s commandments and suffered for them for his own people.  Truly, one can choose no better than to be glad and joyous in truth, to suffer for it, and to reason with God’s people about truth.  . . . God’s judgement does not dwell in falsehood . . . . and we have concern for all Christian souls, and it is our duty to stand strong and pillar like in the faith and in truth, and to suffer unto death unto ages of ages.

The Tsar understood that the repentence needed to be on a national level, for many had profitted from Ivan’s plunders and murders, contributing to the de facto civil war within Russia, and many cooperated with the notorious Oprichina.  But if the repentence involved all, so too the joy.  Tsar Alexis wrote to Prince Odoevskii that,

God has given us a great sovereign, a great sun.  Just as the relics of the radiant John Chrysostom were returned to the ancient emperor Theodosius, so also God has granted us a healer, a new Peter, a second Paul . . . the most splendid and most radiant sun.  We have been granted the return of the relics of the miracle-worker Fillip, Metropolitan of Moscow.  . . . We greeted Fillip at the Naprudnaia settlement, and took the relics upon our heads with great honor.  As we were taking them, a miracle occurred–a raving and dumb woman immediately became well and began to speak.  . . . And when we brought [Fillip] to the square across from the Granovitaia, here again a miracle occurred.  A blind man was healed, and just as in the days of Christ, people cried, “Have mercy upon us son of David!

DM

*I refer primarily to Justice Kagan’s remark about the right seeking to “weaponize” the first amendment.  The Janus case has complexity that deserves a fair hearing on both sides, but I found the phrase itself troubling.  But as a counterpoint, see this argument as to why we should think of righs as weapons (though he makes no comment on the merits of the case itself).

 

 

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