Defending the Homeland

(I started to write a comment in response to another comment on the Monomachos weblog, but it burgeoned into a short essay, as often happens, so I decided to present it here as a stand-alone.)

Forgive me; I’m still trying to wrap my head and heart around the Orthodox phronema. Our spiritual discipline is painfully introspective, yet most of those who comment here are focused on external events since we are in the midst of a new crisis. For that reason, some Orthodox may wonder why George and Gail have worked so hard to maintain this weblog.

We in the United States have been betrayed by our own country for the last two years. Once we thought that we could put the so-called pandemic in the rearview mirror, war broke out in Ukraine. The two most populous Orthodox countries in the world are shooting at each other. Lord, have mercy.

I’ve vaguely been waiting for someone to say something akin to what Mr. B. has said: That is that all political ideologies are essentially “moralistic nihilisms”. I’ll grant him that the United States’ belligerent adventures have turned out to be nihilistic indeed. My count starts from Vietnam, the war that made so many young Americans of the time to question their government’s motives. And their own. Our generation may never quite get over that one. I was hoping to think that the War on Terror would prove to have been fought with greater honor and success. Now, I have gravely ambivalent feelings about both recent wars and the surveillance state that they spawned.

Where will the new borders be drawn?

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Nihilism is a rejection of the motivation that makes us live, work and pray. Political nihilism, if I am to understand Mr. B. correctly, is a negation of the purpose for a nation-state. In other words, for Americans, America is no longer a country worth fighting to preserve. For the Russian people, the Russian lands are not worth fighting for. Where the national boundaries of the Russian lands fall, I am not sure. I’m trying to understand the vast topographical expanses and the long history of that empire, but I’m having trouble drawing lines. I suspect that Mr. Putin will soon be drawing new lines on an old map.

One thing I can say, though, is that all peoples have a country that they call home, even those who remind themselves that they are citizens of heaven who place more emphasis on their loyalty to God’s kingdom than any man’s. (Phil. 3:20) Our Lord was born a Jew and offered a new way of life to the Jews first and then to the Greeks. I’m trying to say that our lives are bound by time and space into which the Holy Spirit steps with exquisite particularity.

St. James’ Church, Skaneateles, New York

For the last half century, I have lived apart from the region of the country where I was born and bred, but the desktop picture on my computer is the nineteenth-century lakeside church where I first caught the wistful glimpses and heard the lofty melodies of the mystery which lifted my soul and transcended all physicality.

Especially in troubled times like this, many of us wish that we could go back to a time when our world was quieter. I almost wish that I weren’t witnessing the period in history when our nation is ruled by charlatans who supposedly represent us but who, in many cases, represent nothing but their own lust for power. It can make you bitter. Oh, how betrayed by tenfold the Ukrainians must feel about their recent government and about the violent intrusion by the Russian army! Many of them now wish they had never even been born, to be sure.

Ukrainian soldiers

There’s a bond that both draws the Russian peoples together and tears them apart. I don’t understand it. God help them all. What I am trying to understand is the root of attachment that I have to my own country. Due in part to the fact that my own son was twice deployed to the Middle East, and in part to the fact that I lived outside this country for many years, the attachment is very strong indeed. There is a fury in my soul that has no outlet and deepens ever further as I see the way that the black dog bites and tears at the fabric of our society, once so new and vigorous.

Maybe Mr. B. is right. Maybe all of us should just turn off our electronic devises and create little monasteries in our icon corners. Maybe I should just repent in sackcloth and ashes, knowing that my fellow man’s sin is my fault. After all, it is Lent.

Autumn in New England

But, I can’t just let it go. I love my country too much to sit back and watch it go to hell without saying something about it. It’s that old “not-on-my-watch” fury. I trust that most of us here feel the same way. Deeply. Some of us have an attachment to another country, like Ukraine or Russia. Or Greece. Without that sense of a homeland, especially for those who have been separated from theirs as the millions of Ukrainian refugees have been, then we are nothing but nomads. Listless.

I’m proud of the America whose ideal I hold close to my heart: God-fearing, hard-working, generous, and strong. I suppose the Russians peoples have a similar pride in the Russkiy mir. and I suppose those adjectives describe them as well.

In that sense, and if I haven’t misunderstood Mr. B., I would say that a political philosophy that longs for what one’s homeland once was and fights to regain it and retain it is not a nihilistic pursuit. It’s what one does without second guessing when one’s country comes under attack from enemies both foreign and domestic.

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

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

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