The Archbishop’s Exhortation for the Fourth of July

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His Eminence Abp. Elpidophoros had his priests read an encyclical (see below) from their ambos this Independence Day morning. Our hierarch said that we should “pause and give thanks for our American democracy.” Okay, it’s more precisely a republic, but he’s right; we should give thanks for our nation, especially to our Founding Fathers who gave birth to it 245 years ago.

But then the archbishop goes negative in the third sentence, suggesting we should be ashamed of our country for which we were just giving thanks.

“Like every form of governing the πόλις (polis) it will always be less than perfect, for the human beings who conduct the affairs of state and the rule of law are imperfect as well. But let us rejoice that what we have witnessed in our land – from coast to coast – is a willingness to confront the injustices of past and present, and to find common ground to address them.”

That’s intentionally vague wording that couches a subtle implication. Judging from the archbishop’s participation in the Black Lives Matter march in New York last summer, and his congenitally liberal way of thinking, one must assume that he is talking about the past injustices of chattel slavery and the oppression of African Americans after their emancipation. Are the actions that the bishop says have shown a “willingness to confront the injustices” the protests and riots and general mayhem that “we have witnessed” in our major cities after the murder of George Floyd? Although his wording is ambiguous, I’m suspicious. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s what it sounds like to me. Does the venerable archbishop then support the instruction of Critical Race Theory in our children’s schools to undo past wrongs committed? Will anti-racist racism solve the problem that the archbishop cites obliquely? God forbid. If that happens, we will have indoctrinated the next generation and the country will never recover from that.

Back to the encyclical:

“Grateful for the religious freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights…” Stop right there. I don’t know whether it was the archbishop or who it was who was responsible for shutting down the churches last year, but everything has changed from the easy-going days of 2019. At the beginning of the pandemic, no one knew how bad the number and degree of sicknesses might become. The churches may have been justified at first to take all the precautions mandated by the various levels of government and the health organizations.

However, from our perspective a year and half later, knowing as we now do that Covid-19 isn’t nearly as deadly as Ebola, and suspecting that the case numbers have been inflated for political reasons, it’s not difficult to see that the net effect of our obedience to the secular governments has been abject capitulation. “Religious freedom”, you say? If the rest of the parishes behaved as my parish did, then the Greek Archdiocese followed the protocols to a “T” and lost a good portion of their religious freedom while they were at it. Our parish is open again, and many communicants have come back, but many others still have not returned to worship in person. Are they happy to forgo communion, to stay at home and watch the Divine Liturgy from their living room sofas? Don’t they know that they who do not eat His flesh and drink His blood have no life in them? (John 6:53) God forbid again.

A year and a half ago, we got spooked and gave up our freedom as Americans to gather and worship without hardly a fight. We have retreated to a position of submission from which it may take another crisis and the will to fight in order to advance. I am left wondering whether the Church will have the fortitude to stand up for Christ when Caesar puts the screws to us again. This is our God-given religious freedom that we are talking about, and we have handed over a significant portion of it to the government. That does not bode well for the Church, particularly the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

“There must be the same rights for all Americans, or there is no safety of rights for any American.” Well put. May every American who studies and works to support himself, to be a good citizen and contribute to the greater good of our society enjoy those rights. But, may every American who fails to do those things, but rather willfully contributes in his small way to the downfall of our Church or our society contemplate whether he deserves those rights at all. As the archbishop says, this is “‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’, which has been defended by the sacrifice of so many.” This perilous time is our time to struggle to protect our American nation and our Orthodox Church from any forces that would tear them down.

The body of the encyclical:

My Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Αἰνεῖτε τὸν Κύριον πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, ἐπαινέσατε Αὐτὸν πάντες οἱ λαοί! (Ψαλμός 116:1)
Praise the Lord, all Nations; laud Him, all peoples! (Psalm 116:1, LXX)
As we gather with family and friends to celebrate our National holiday of the
Fourth of July, let us all pause to give thanks for our American democracy. Like every form of governing the πόλις, it will always be less than perfect, for the human beings who conduct the affairs of state and the rule of law are imperfect as well. But let us rejoice that what we have witnessed in our land – from coast to coast – is a willingness to confront the injustices of past and present, and to find common ground to address them. This is the genius of a democracy. This is the genius of a people seeking a “more perfect union.” This is the genius of America. Our national blessings do not come without responsibilities. We have a civic vocation to participate in public life, regardless of our personal political views. The Church has its own moral and ethical ground, but we recognize the civil rights of others to disagree with us. Grateful for the religious freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, we must make our case in a spirit of love and acceptance of others, even those whose opinions – minority or majority – strike us as wrong. There must be the same rights for all Americans, or there is no safety of rights for any American. Beloved Faithful, we are so very blessed to live in this ‘land of the free and home of the brave,’ which has been defended by the sacrifice of so many. We Orthodox Christians are relatively few in America, but we should have an outsize influence – for justice, for equality – to speak for the voiceless and advocate the downtrodden. This is our way of giving back and of giving thanks. Together, let us help to make of our Nation a place that does, indeed, praise the Lord in word and deed. Thus, all citizens shall be happy and blessed; for, as it says in the Psalms: “Blessed are the people who know
jubilation” (Psalm 88:15, LXX).
A happy Fourth of July to all!
With paternal love in Christ Jesus, + Elpidophoros

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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