But it’s not just the university’s name that’s a problem. Just blocks from the main campus is the Mount Vernon Campus, named for George Washington’s former slave plantation. Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history. Such sites, among other locations and buildings, are touted as glorified mementos here at GW. The indignity and injustice of such sites remain overlooked. The racist visions of James Madison, Winston Churchill and others are glorified through building names, programs, statues and libraries that honor their memory.
Whiteshift & The Demons The Left Summons
Is there anybody who doesn’t recognize the Buffalo massacre as a racist abomination, and the (alleged) murderer as the scum of the earth? Of course not! Is there any decent person who doesn’t deplore the racist propaganda on the Internet? No!
This is (mostly) not a blog post about that demonic act and actor, or the hateful philosophy that drove him. You can find those kinds of stories and commentaries everywhere. Insofar as they condemn him, his deed, and the ideology that motivated him, I endorse them, or at least that part of those commentaries. But this blog post is a story about how the media are exploiting this horror to forward a narrative that demonizes political actors they hate.
First, let me share with you a story about how this works, in a fairly non-political story. Check out this new 40-minute documentary from the New York Post, about the Pentagon’s secret office investigating UFOs.Remember what a huge deal it was when The New York Times revealed this thing existed? I do. I believed all of it. We had ex-government officials on the record, and besides, it was in the Times, our national paper of record. Well, it turns out that there was a hell of a lot more to the story than we knew — and a hell of a lot less — as the Post‘s documentary reveals. You’ll need to watch it yourself, but they show how that narrative was consciously constructed, leaving out the inconvenient fact that the government had also been paying, as part of the same program, for research into werewolves, poltergeists, and cryptozoology at a remote ranch owned by a rich friend and financial supporter of Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid. Leslie Kean, one of the main promoters of the UFO story (and a co-author of the Times blockbuster), admits on camera that she left out the occult part of the program because she didn’t want it to discredit the UFO work, which she believes in.
The point here is not that UFOs do or do no exist. The point is that activists had an interest in creating a specific narrative, and it was a narrative that a lot of people — including your blog host — were eager to believe. Who doesn’t want to believe that there’s a secret X Files office at the Pentagon investigating and documenting the Truth That’s Out There™? It’s an awesome story! It confirms what a lot of us want to believe.
In that spirit, look at this:
This is just one example of a story that is everywhere in the liberal media, and left-wing social media. Today the Times uses it to go after Republicans and, in particular, Tucker Carlson — though buried deep in the story is this line:
Measuring the extent of Mr. Carlson’s influence in spreading replacement theory may be impossible.
Here is a clip from Media Matters for America, the left-wing activist organization, alleging that Tucker Carlson is an advocate of “white replacement” theory. They are quoting a 2021 Carlson segment about immigration. Transcript:
TUCKER CARLSON (GUEST): I’m laughing because this is one of about 10 stories that I know you have covered where the government shows preference to people who have shown absolute contempt for our customs, our laws, our system itself and they are being treated better than American citizens. Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term “replacement,” if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.
If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there. So every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter. So I don’t understand what we don’t understand cause, I mean, everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting right question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do it. Why are we putting up with this?
It sounds to me like Tucker Carlson is complaining about mass migration bringing into the US a Democratic-friendly electorate that would weaken the voting power of conservative like himself. What’s wrong with that? Don’t liberals complain all the time about Republican moves that allegedly stand to weaken the voting power of blacks and other minorities? The only question about those complaints is whether or not they are accurate. It is perfectly legitimate for black people and other minorities to express concern over whether or not their political enemies are working to diminish their political power, and to dispossess them of their culture.
Here is another clip, with transcript, from Media Matters — again, a leftist activist group — denouncing Tucker Carlson as a racist for talking about immigration and dispossession. The transcript:
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): You’ve got to ask yourself, as you watch the historic tragedy that is Joe Biden’s immigration policy, what’s the point of this?
Nothing about it is an accident, obviously. It’s intentional. Joe Biden did it on purpose, but why? Why would a president do this to his own country? No sane first-world nation opens its borders to the world.
Promising the poorest people on the planet that they can have endless free taxpayer funded services if they show up and break your laws? That’s not just stupid, it’s suicidal.
For generations, middle-class Americans have had access to the best healthcare in the world, but not anymore. That’s over for good. Our system cannot handle this many destitute newcomers, period. Imagine what hospitals are going to look like a year from now. How about schools?
What Joe Biden is doing now will change this country forever. So again, why is he doing it? There’s only one plausible answer. You’re not allowed to say it out loud, CNN will attack you if you do. The social media companies will shut you down. The Southern Poverty Law Center will call you dangerous, you could lose your bank account. The left has become completely unhinged and hysterical and that’s how you know it’s true. They only censor the true things.
An unrelenting stream of immigration. But why? Well, Joe Biden just said it, to change the racial mix of the country. That’s the reason, to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly-arrived from the third world. And then Biden went further, he said that non-white DNA is the quote, “the source of our strength.” Imagine saying that. This is the language of eugenics, it’s horrifying. But there’s a reason Biden said it.
In political terms, this policy is called “the great replacement,” the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries. They brag about it all the time, but if you dare to say it’s happening they will scream at you with maximum hysteria.
How about some context: here is an archive site that presents the news report that preceded this Carson monologue. It was a report from the US-Mexico border, across which thousands of Haitian migrants were illegally trying to cross — and the Biden administration was welcoming them, facilitating mass releases of these migrants into the US population.
Is it racist to notice this? Is it racist to object to this? According to the Left, it is. And now that a lunatic white supremacist young man in New York has massacred black people, claiming to be defending his race against “replacement,” the left-wing media is attempting to silence all criticism of immigration by saying that those who notice must be in league with this killer.
Take a look at this 2015 clip from a White House event on combating terrorism. Appearing with a large group of Muslim clerics and leaders, then-Vice President Joe Biden mentions at this point that white people in America are going to be an “absolute minority” — and says that this is a good thing:
This is something that blows my mind about leftist white people today: they are so full of self-loathing that they cannot grasp that there is no people anywhere in the world, of any ethnic or religious background, that regards its own dispossession and diminishment of power as something to be welcomed! Only white North American and European liberals and progressives do this.
From that same press conference, here is Vice President Biden, in front of Islamic leaders, talking about how we need to engage those people who are “marginalized,” and therefore susceptible to being radicalized online. He was talking about isolated Muslims — and he was right about that! Watch:
But where is Joe Biden saying that we need to work on reaching out to young white men who are isolated and likely to be radicalized online, to make them feel like they are part of the community? He doesn’t exist. He doesn’t exist because the Left today — including the Democratic Party — has been taken over by an ideology that tells young white men that they are the problem with this country.
How many times over the years have I said in this space that the Left has no idea what kind of demons it is calling up by abandoning the Martin Luther King narrative on racial justice, in favor of racial essentialism? Payton Gendron, the accused mass shooter in Buffalo, is exactly one of those demons. No, I’m not saying “look what the Left made Payton Gendron do”. Payton Gendron is responsible for his own evil actions. And to some extent, so are the white supremacist websites that he frequented. But I have to tell you, I wonder what on earth the Left in this country expects, when it and all the institutions it controls — which is to say, every major institution in American life — has given itself over to a sick, racist ideology that demonizes white people — especially white heterosexual males — because of their unchosen identity (white, heterosexual, male)? You will get some fringe demons who pick up guns and commit racist acts of murder.
A country as big and as violent as the USA will always have fringe crazies who commit bigoted acts of murder. Nothing excuses it, ever. But Joe Biden was right in 2015 to say that we need to be working to keep people who are alienated, and on the margins, connected to society, so they won’t be at risk of radicalization. If you can get past the paywall, this 2015 profile by the Washington Post‘s Stephanie McCrummen, of the people that racist mass shooter Dylann Roof stayed with before he murdered black people in a South Carolina church, is a masterwork of reporting. Here’s how it starts:
The trailer where Dylann Roof found refuge is faded yellow with a thousand tiny dents. It is on the western edge of Columbia, S.C., along an unpaved road strewn with damp garbage, and it is where Roof briefly lived until the day he allegedly killed nine black church members at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Now, a month after the June 17 shooting, the blinds are drawn at noon and the family that hosted Roof is inside, where the boom of gunfire and explosions is so loud the trailer vibrates.
“Ha ha. I just killed all them mothers,” says Justin Meek, 18, playing a video game in which blood and body parts fly across a 42-inch TV screen.
“You got enemy on the other side! Use a grenade!” says his brother Jacob, 15. “Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”
On a lopsided couch is Lindsey Fry, 19, flicking her tongue ring, eyes locked on a cracked cellphone for news about the shooting, which has lately included her boyfriend Joey, 21, the third Meek brother who lives in the trailer, which is in a town called Red Bank that the Meeks call Dead Bank.
“Wow,” she suddenly says and reads aloud what she is seeing on her phone: “The expanded scope of the investigation now includes people with whom Roof associated in the weeks before the June 17 shooting.”
She looks at Joey. Joey looks at his two brothers and his mother, Kim Konzny.
They are the people with whom Roof was associating in the weeks before the shooting, and this is the place he drifted into with little resistance, an American void where little is sacred and little is profane and the dominant reaction to life is what Joey does now, looking at Lindsey. He shrugs.
The piece is so good because it reveals what the headline calls “an American void,” a world of meaninglessness and drift, where disturbed young men can find meaning and purpose in hatred, including race hatred. This was a world that was invisible to me, and I live in a part of America where I don’t have to drive more than twenty minutes to find white people just like that. In the other direction, here is the world of black Baton Rouge, just a short drive north of where I sit writing this. This is an early video from L’il Boosie, a nationally famous rapper from my city:
How do young men of any race who grow up in these savage, violent cultures avoid turning into murderous haters? Right now in Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, the murder rate is very high. It’s almost all black-on-black, especially involving young black men. Baton Rouge, which is 51 percent black, is one of the most deadly cities in America, in terms of homicide. Is this national news? No, it’s not. It’s not in part because it doesn’t fit a narrative preferred by the news media. In Buffalo, the NYT reports today:
“We don’t want to be protected after the fact,” said Marlene Brown, 58, who is Black. For more than a decade she has lived just blocks away from the Tops supermarket, where 10 people were killed. “We want to be protected and treated like we matter,” she said, “without it taking a white supremacist shooting up our community.”
She added: “Time and time again they’ve shown nobody cares about us here. It’s a pattern.”
I don’t know about the specifics of violence and culture in Buffalo, NY, but looking at data from the FBI, it is clear that if you are going to be a murder victim there, you are highly likely to be a black person. Though the race of the murderers is usually unknown, when they are known, the killers are more likely to be black. And given the general criminological principle that most murder victims know their killers, it’s not a stretch to surmise that the killers of these black people were other black people. Look at Buffalo, NY, data from the last four years it’s available:
Maybe the black woman quoted in the Times story is saying that the police only care about black people in Buffalo when a white supremacist comes along and starts killing blacks. But in 2020, Black Lives Matter marched through Buffalo to the mayor’s house, demanding that the city defund the police. Which is it? Which narrative does the Times and the people it quotes prefer? Is the problem not enough policing in Buffalo, or too much?
Our media, corporations, and cultural gatekeepers make an honest conversation about the complexities of race, violence, and crime impossible.
Poverty and cultural dislocation may not explain Gendron, the Buffalo shooter. According to the New York Post, he was from an intact middle-class family … but he was a loner at school, and had once been hospitalized for mental health issues. According to the early reporting, nobody around him knew how far down the hole into race hate he had gone. How was he radicalized? According to the manifesto he left:
Before I begin I will say that I was not born racist nor grew up to be racist. I simply became racist after I learned the truth. I started browsing 4chan in May 2020 after extreme boredom, remember this was during the outbreak of covid. I would normally browse /k/ because I’m a gun nut and /out/ because I love the outdoors and I eventually wound up on /pol/.
Was he radicalized in the same way that some young Muslims in America become radicalized: by evil men exploiting their loneliness, their fear, and their uncertainty? Was he radicalized in the same way that Helena Kerschner described herself (in this powerful essay) being radicalized into transgenderism: by being a lonely and alienated high school kid who found a community online, one that made her feel that she belonged the deeper she went into its radical ideology about body and gender? Elsewhere in the manifesto, Gendron says that he used to be a hardcore communist. Whatever else he is, this was a kid who was primed for extremism of some sort.
We know for a fact that the mental health of teenagers and young adults is in very bad shape these days. We also know that anything you could possibly hope to find is on the Internet. This would be a great time to discuss how the fabric of American society is fraying, leaving young people of all races, of both sexes, and so forth, vulnerable to radicalization online.
But we are not going to have that conversation, because the media gatekeepers have a Narrative to sell. If you are a black radical professor, you can speculate about carrying out mass violence against white people as necessary to achieve racial justice, and you can be rewarded with academic positions and accolades. It is perfectly clear to many of us that racism is a progressive virtue as long as it is practiced against white people. Judging people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as MLK put it, is so outdated, according to today’s Left.
Do you remember the New York City mass subway shooting? It happened on April 12, just over one month ago. The alleged shooter, Frank James, is a black nationalist who hated all white people, including Jews, and left a lengthy trail of hate messages online. Did we see a national outpouring of media examination of how the normalization of racialized discourse by progressive and mainstream institutions may have contributed to the alleged shooter’s mindset? Don’t be silly. It was just one of those things, you know. If people started to do that, the media would have jumped on it to tamp it down, in the same way it tells us all (reasonably enough!) not to connect Islamic terrorism to normative Islam.
The Frank James mass shooting — which, thank God, did not kill anybody — has more or less been memory-holed by the media. We are going to be talking about this Payton Gendron monster forever, though. They’re already trying to tie it to Tucker Carlson and to the Republican Party. Those lies don’t work anymore, though. Amazingly enough, many people are capable of understanding a news story like this without drawing spurious and hateful conclusions about entire classes of people. Me, I think Frank James probably would have done what he is accused of having done even without the broader racialized left-wing discourse about how demonic white people are. I’m not blaming Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo for the New York subway shooting. But we can see right now, all over the American media, the finger-pointing at Tucker Carlson, the GOP, and others on the Right.
One of the goals here is to force critical discussion about immigration to end. In the same way opponents of Hungarian PM Viktor Orban tried to silence his criticism of progressive oligarch George Soros by accusing him of anti-Semitism every time he brought up what Soros was actually doing in Hungary, the Left is trying to make all critical discussion of immigration illegitimate. This is how their soft totalitarian approach always works. If we don’t teach kindergartners that they might be genderfluid, you will have the blood of trans kids on your hands, you bigot!
We know this is a narrative-managing maneuver by the Left now. We know that you cannot trust the major papers, TV stations, or radio broadcasters to report fairly, and to attempt to understand the complexity of these horrific situations. We know that this is information warfare. Glenn Greenwald grasps what’s going on here:
Democratic politicians believe they should and do control the internet and dictate what can and can’t be said on it. https://t.co/1EFGlk2LZo
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 16, 2022
Read this important essay by Greenwald. Excerpts:
At a softball field in a Washington, DC suburb on June 14, 2017, a lone gunman used a rifle to indiscriminately spray bullets at members of the House GOP who had gathered for their usual Saturday morning practice for an upcoming charity game. The then-House Majority Whip, Rep. Steven Scalise (R-LA), was shot in the hip while standing on second base and almost died, spending six weeks in the hospital and undergoing multiple surgeries. Four other people were shot, including two members of the Capitol Police who were part of Scalise’s security detail, a GOP staffer, and a Tyson Foods lobbyist. “He was hunting us at that point,” Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI) said of the shooter, who attempted to murder as many people as he could while standing with his rifle behind the dugout.
The shooter died after engaging the police in a shootout. He was James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old hard-core Democrat who — less than six months into the Trump presidency — had sought to kill GOP lawmakers based on his belief that Republicans were corrupt traitors, fascists, and Kremlin agents. The writings he left behind permitted little doubt that he was driven to kill by the relentless messaging he heard from his favorite cable host, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and other virulently anti-Trump pundits, about the evils of the GOP. Indeed, immediately after arriving at the softball field, he asked several witnesses whether the people gathered “were Republicans or Democrats.”
A CNN examination of his life revealed that “Hodgkinson’s online presence was largely defined by his politics.” In particular, “his public Facebook posts date back to 2012 and are nearly all about his support for liberal politics.” He was particularly “passionate about tax hikes on the rich and universal health care.” NBC News explained that “when he got angry about politics, it was often directed against Republicans,” and acknowledged that “Hodgkinson said his favorite TV program was ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ on MSNBC.”
Indeed, his media diet was a non-stop barrage of vehement animosity toward Republicans: “His favorite television shows were listed as ‘Real Time with Bill Maher;’ ‘The Rachel Maddow Show;’ ‘Democracy Now!’ and other left-leaning programs.” On the Senate floor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) divulged that Hodgkinson was an ardent supporter of his and had even “apparently volunteered” for his campaign. A Sanders supporter told The Washington Post that “he campaigned for Bernie Sanders with Hodgkinson in Iowa.”
Despite the fact that Hodgkinson was a fanatical fan of Maddow, Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, and Sanders, that the ideas and ideology motivating his shooting spree perfectly matched — and were likely shaped by — liberals of that cohort, and that the enemies whom he sought to kill were also the enemies of Maddow and her liberal comrades, nobody rational or decent sought to blame the MSNBC host, the Vermont Senator or anyone else whose political views matched Hodgkinson’s for the grotesque violence he unleashed. The reason for that is clear and indisputable: as strident and extremist as she is, Maddow has never once encouraged any of her followers to engage in violence to advance her ideology, nor has she even hinted that a mass murder of the Republican traitors, fascists and Kremlin agents about whom she rants on a nightly basis to millions of people is a just solution.
It would be madness to try to assign moral or political blame to them. If we were to create a framework in which prominent people were held responsible for any violence carried out in the name of an ideology they advocate, then nobody would be safe, given that all ideologies have their misfits, psychopaths, unhinged personality types, and extremists. And thus there was little to no attempt to hold Maddow or Sanders responsible for the violent acts of one of their most loyal adherents.
The same is true of the spate of mass shootings and killings by self-described black nationalists over the last several years. Back in 2017, the left-wing group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) warned of the “Return of the Violent Black Nationalist.” In one incident, “Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed Dallas police officers during a peaceful protest against police brutality, killing five officers and wounding nine others.” Then, “ten days later, Gavin Eugene Long shot six officers, killing three, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” They shared the same ideology, one which drove their murderous spree:
Both Johnson and Long were reportedly motivated by their strong dislike of law enforcement, grievances against perceived white dominance, and the recent fatal police shootings of unarmed black men under questionable circumstances, specifically the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota . . .
Needless to say, the ideas that motivated these two black nationalists to murder multiple people, including police officers, is part of a core ideology that is commonly heard in mainstream media venues, expressed by many if not most of the nation’s most prominent liberals. Depicting the police as a white supremacist force eager to kill black people, “grievances against perceived white dominance,” and anger over “the white supremacism endemic in America’s system of governance from the country’s founding” are views that one routinely hears on MSNBC, CNN, from Democratic Party politicians, and in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Yet virtually nobody sought to blame Chris Hayes, Joy Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jamelle Bouie or New York Times op-ed writers for these shooting sprees. Indeed, no blame was assigned to anti-police liberal pundits whose view of American history is exactly the same as that of these two killers — even though they purposely sought to murder the same enemies whom those prominent liberals target. Nobody blamed those anti-police liberals for the same reason they did not blame Maddow and Sanders for Hodgkinson’s shooting spree: there is a fundamental and necessary distinction between people who use words to express ideas and demonize perceived enemies, and those who decide to go randomly and indiscriminately murder in the name of that ideology.
To be sure, there have been a large number of murders and other atrocities carried out in U.S. and the West generally in the name of right-wing ideologies, in the name of white supremacy, in the name of white nationalism. The difference, though, is glaring: when murders are carried out in the name of liberal ideology, there is a rational and restrained refusal to blame liberal pundits and politicians who advocate the ideology that animated those killings. Yet when killings are carried out in the name of right-wing ideologies despised by the corporate press and mainstream pundits (or ideologies that they falsely associate with conservatism), they instantly leap to lay blame at the feet of their conservative political opponents who, despite never having advocated or even implied the need for violence, are nonetheless accused of bearing guilt for the violence — often before anything is known about the killers or their motives.
In general, it is widely understood that liberal pundits and politicians are not to blame, at all, when murders are carried out in the name of the causes they support or against the enemies they routinely condemn. That is because, in such cases, we apply the rational framework that someone who does not advocate violence is not responsible for the violent acts of one’s followers and fans who kill in the name of that person’s ideas.
… But when a revolting murder spree is carried out in the name of right-wing ideas (or ideas perceived by the corporate press to be right-wing), everything changes — instantly and completely. In such cases, often before anything is known about the murderer — indeed, literally before the corpses are even removed from the ground where they lie — there is a coordinated effort to declare that anyone who holds any views in common with the murderer has “blood on their hands” and is essentially a co-conspirator in the massacre.
The attempt to blame Carlson for the Buffalo shootings depended entirely on one claim: Carlson has previously talked about and defended the view that immigration is a scheme to “replace” Americans, and this same view was central to Gendron’s ideology. Again, even if this were true, it would amount to nothing more than a claim than the shooter shared key views with Carlson and other conservative pundits — exactly as Hodgkinson shared core views with Maddow and Sanders, or the numerous murderers who killed in the name of black nationalism shared the same views on the police and American history as any number of MSNBC hosts and Democratic Party politicians, or as Pim Fortuyn’s killer shared core views with animal rights activists and defenders of Muslim equality (including me). But nobody is willing to apply such a framework consistently because it converts everyone with strong political views into murderers, or at least being guilty of inciting murder.
But all bets are off — all such principles or moral and logical reasoning are dispensed with — when an act of violence can be pinned on the political enemies of liberals. If a homicidal maniac kills an abortion doctor, then all peaceful pro-life activists are blamed. If an LGBT citizen is killed, then anyone who shares the views that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had until 2012 about marriage equality is blamed. If a police officer unjustifiably kills a black citizen, all police supporters or those who dissent from liberal orthodoxy on racial politics are decreed guilty. But liberals are never at fault when right-wing politicians are murdered, or police officers are hunted and gunned down by police opponents, or an anti-abortion group is targeted with firebombing and arson, as just happened in Wisconsin, or radical Muslims engage in random acts of violence. By definition, “moral reasoning” that is applied only in one direction has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with crass, exploitative opportunism.
Did you know that in his 180-page manifesto, Gendron described himself politically like this: “On the political compass I fall in the mild-moderate authoritarian left category, and I would prefer to be called a populist”? I know this thanks to Glenn Greenwald, who points out that this racist kid had no discernible, coherent ideology. Read the manifesto yourself: he also calls himself a “fascist,” and elsewhere “an ethno-nationalist eco-fascist national socialist,” and says that from ages 15 to 18, he was a hardcore communist. He rejects Christianity, despises conservatism, and says he got his radical ideas “mostly from the Internet.”
Gendron is a monster, plainly — but he has provided the media and left-wing institutional voices with something they can use to advance their narrative. Don’t fall for it. These are the same people who will not shut up about how evil “whiteness” is — and yet, they are shocked when some vicious, unhinged white kid surrenders himself to the demon of race hatred. The hypocrisy is galling.
There is a very, very important reason to think hard about this stuff. It’s identified by the political scientist Eric Kaufmann in his 2019 book Whiteshift, about the challenges ahead as the United States moves from a majority white country into one in which whites are a minority. In a 2019 Quillette article, Kaufmann wrote:
Whiteshift has a second, more immediate, connotation: the declining white share of the population in Western countries. Whites are already a minority in most major cities of North America. Together with New Zealand, North America is projected to be “majority minority” by 2050, with Western Europe and Australia following suit later in the century. This shift is replacing the self-confidence of white majorities with an existential insecurity channelled by the lightning rod of immigration. No one who has honestly analysed survey data on individuals—the gold standard for public opinion research—can deny that white majority concern over immigration is the main cause of the rise of the populist right in the West. This is primarily explained by concern over identity, not economic threat. I explore this data in considerable detail in the first part of my new book (from which this essay is adapted). Not everyone seeks to maintain connections to ancestors, homeland and tradition, but many voters do.
The loss of white ethno-cultural confidence manifests itself in other ways. Among the most important is a growing unwillingness to indulge the anti-white ideology of the cultural left. When whites were an over-whelming majority, empirically unsupported generalizations about whites could be brushed off as amusing and mischievous but ultimately harmless. As whites decline, fewer are willing to abide such attacks. At the same time, white decline emboldens the cultural left, with its dream of radical social transformation. The last time this blend of ethnic change and cultural contestation occurred, in fin-de-siècle America, the anti-WASP adversary culture was confined to a small circle of bohemian intellectuals. Today, the anti-majority adversary culture operates on a much larger scale, permeates major institutions and is transmitted to conservatives through social and right-wing media. This produces a growing culture-war polarization between increasingly insecure white conservatives and energized white liberals.
It’s important to have people criticizing their own group: What Daniel Bell termed the “adversary culture” spurs reform and creativity when it collides with the majority tradition. But what happens when the critics become dominant? In softer form, left-modernist ideology penetrated widely within the high culture and political institutions of Western society after the 1960s. This produced norms that prevented democratic discussion of questions of national identity and immigration. The deviantization of these issues in the name of anti-racism introduced a blockage in the democratic process, preventing the normal adjustment of political supply to political demand. Instead of reasonable trade-offs between those who, for example, wanted higher or lower levels of immigration, the subject was forced underground, building up pressure from those whose grievances were ignored by the main parties. This created a market opportunity which populist right entrepreneurs rushed in to fill.
Ethno-cultural change is occurring at a rapid rate at precisely the time the dominant ideology celebrates a multicultural vision of ever-increasing diversity. To hanker after homogeneity and stability is perceived as narrow-minded and racist by liberals. Yet diversity falls flat for many because we’re not all wired the same way. Right-wing populism, which champions the cultural interests of group-oriented whites, has halted and reversed the multicultural consensus which held sway between the 1960s and late 1990s. This is leading to a polarization between those who accept, and those who reject, the ideology of diversity. What’s needed is a new vision that gives conservative members of white majorities hope for their group’s future while permitting cosmopolitans the freedom to celebrate diversity.
Cosmopolitanism and what I term ethno-traditional nationalism are both valid worldviews, but each suits a different psychological type. Imposing either on the entire population is a recipe for discontent because value orientations stem from heredity and early life experiences. Attempts to re-educate conservative and order-seeking people into cosmopolitanism will, as the psychologist Karen Stenner notes, only generate resistance. Differences need to be respected. Whiteshift—the title of my book, as well as the word I use to describe my approach to the subject—isn’t just a prediction of how white identity will adapt to demographic change, but a positive vision that can draw the sting of right-wing populism and begin to bridge the “nationalist–globalist” divide that is upending Western politics.
We are entering a period of cultural instability in the West attendant on our passage between two relatively stable equilibria. The first equilibrium was based on white ethnic homogeneity, the second on what the prescient centrist writer Michael Lind calls “beige” ethnicity, i.e. a racially mixed majority group. In the middle lies a turbulent multicultural interregnum. We in the West are becoming less like homogeneous Iceland and more like homogeneous mixed-race Turkmenistan. But to get there, we’ll be passing through a phase where we’ll move closer to multicultural Guyana or Mauritius. The challenge is to enable conservative whites to see a future for themselves in whiteshift—the mixture of many non-whites into the white group through voluntary assimilation. (Unmixed whiteness is not about to disappear and may return in the long run, but this is getting ahead of the story, so I hope you’ll read on.)
Read the entire essay — and, if you like, buy the book. Kaufmann’s general point is that this demographic change is coming, and that if we are going to navigate it with minimal violence, we are going to have to have different ways of talking about it than what the Left is imposing on us. If we want to get through the next few decades with fewer Payton Gendrons and Frank Jameses, we need to fight back hard against the Left’s “whiteness” rhetoric, and return to old-fashioned Martin Luther King liberalism.
Last point: I slightly know a young man, now in his mid-twenties, who was a middle-class, megachurched white Evangelical. He tried to be a cool kid in his conservative Christian school, and went down the rabbit hole of racist edgelord-ism by self-radicalizing on white supremacist websites. He’s in a lot of legal trouble now, for a crime not related to race; the rest of his life is settled because of his actions. That said, I kind of know his parents, and know that there is, and was, nothing remotely racist about them. They were just average middle-class churchgoing Christians. But they had no idea what their son was up to online.
Do you? Whatever your race, religion, or whatever, how much do you know about what your young son or daughter is doing online? Maybe you should find out.
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The Holy Fire Miracle
As many of you will recall, I was in Jerusalem for Orthodox Holy Week. My experience included being present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ceremony. According to Wikipedia:
The Holy Fire (Greek ‘Αγιος Φως, literally “Holy Light”) is a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Pascha. It is considered by many to be the longest-attested annual miracle in the Christian world, though the event has only been documented consecutively since 1106. In many Orthodox countries around the world the event is televised live.
The ceremony begins at noon when the Patriarch of Jerusalem or another Orthodox Archbishop recites a specific prayer. The faithful gathered will then chant “Lord, have mercy” (Kyrie eleison in Greek) until the Holy Fire descends on a lamp of olive oil held by the patriarch while he is alone in the tomb chamber of Jesus Christ. The patriarch will then emerge from the tomb chamber, recite some prayers, and light either 33 or 12 candles to distribute to the faithful.
The fire is also said to spontaneously light other lamps and candles around the church. Pilgrims say the Holy Fire will not burn hair, faces, etc., in the first 33 minutes after it is ignited. Before entering the Lord’s Tomb, the patriarch or presiding archbishop is inspected by Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry the technical means to light the fire. This investigation used to be carried out by Turkish soldiers.
The Holy Fire is first mentioned in the documents dating from the 4th century. A detailed description of the miracle is contained in the travelogue of the Russian igumen Daniel, who was present at the ceremony in 1106. Daniel mentions a blue incandescence descending from the dome to the edicula where the patriarch awaits the Holy Fire. Some claim to have witnessed this incandescence in modern times.
I went to the event skeptical. In the past, skeptics have shown that you can make fire that appears to be spontaneous by using white phosphorous. I believe that it might be a miracle, but, well, I was dubious. The thing that would make me believe, I decided, would be if I experienced the stories people tell about the holy fire not burning flesh or anything else for the first few minutes. (Wikipedia says 33 minutes, but I had never heard that number.) Here is one of the many videos you can see online demonstrating that:
Before the ceremony, you buy from any one of the many vendors in the Old City a bound sheaf of thin beeswax candles — always 33. I held mine, and waited for the fire to be passed to me. Then, when my candles were blazing (see above), I passed my hand through the flame, back and forth, several times. I felt nothing.
I’m not kidding: I felt nothing. I moved my hand slowly, too. Nothing. A Serbian pilgrim and friend of mine allowed his flames to lick his bare face. Nothing happened to him.
But then, some time later — I don’t know how many minutes, because I had lost track of time — it became impossible to put my hands to the fire. The quality of the flame hadn’t changed, but suddenly it was … normal. My Serb friend said the same thing happened to him.
Back in the US, my Orthodox friend Frederica Mathewes-Green proposed an experiment. Go to one of the Old City shops, she said, and buy a sheaf of unsold candles. When you’re back home, light them, and see if you can put your hand to the flame in the first minutes, like you can with the Holy Fire.
So I did buy a sheaf of beeswax candles from one of the shops in the Old City — some that hadn’t sold before the ceremony. I brought them back to the US. Just now, my son Matthew and I tried Frederica’s experiment out on his front porch. We lit the candles, and waited for them all to blaze up. Both of us tried to pass our hands through the flame, but it was too painful to do except very quickly. That is to say, it was nothing at all like the first few minutes of the Holy Fire, but exactly what the Holy Fire feels like after it has burned a while. Here’s Matt, unable to pass his hands through the flame, except fast.
I should point out that these beeswax candles, like all the ones for sale in Jerusalem, aren’t treated with anything. They’re ordinary candles. Or if they were treated with something special, then we should have been able to put our hands through the fire tonight, because that sheaf of candles was in the same batch that that particular shop was selling to pilgrims the day before. What’s more, the flame is passed around the church in the ceremony from candle to candle, after the Greek Patriarch brings it out of the edicule. It’s not like everybody dips their candles in the same brazier, or something like that, where you might suspect that the fire was treated by a special chemical.
Make of this what you will. There has been a lot of criticism of the supposed miracle, and explanations for to account for the miracle (e.g., candles soaked in white phosphorus). I assumed that the critics were probably right, especially after Patriarch Theophilos in 2018 ordered the word “miracle” removed from the Patriarchate’s website, in reference to the event. And certainly my faith doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not the Holy Fire is an authentic miracle.
But I gotta say, I can’t explain the phenomenon that I experienced in the church that day, and that so many others experienced. Here is an older Greek collection (subtitled) of pilgrim’s testimonies with the Holy Fire. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Patriarch confects the Holy Fire by trickery inside the sepulcher. Why, then, wouldn’t the flame, after being passed around from candle to candle to the crowds gathered in the church, burn skin, hair, or clothes for some time, and then somehow behave like normal fire, and burn the things it did not burn? Is there a good explanation for this? If so, let’s hear it.
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Tim Keller And Christian Realism
James Wood has further thoughts on his controversial — unjustly controversial, in my view — First Things essay gently criticizing famed pastor Tim Keller. It was unjustly controversial because some of Keller’s friends took unnecessary umbrage at what struck me as a balanced piece written by a man who greatly respected, and still respects, Keller, but who thinks that Keller’s mode of pastoral engagement is insufficient to the times.
The Kellerites propound to abhor division among Christians, and yet I have found them far more divisive than they admit. This is captured in the common trope: “Punch right, coddle left.” Those who are devoted to the third-wayism of Keller generally appear to assume the worst from one side of the political spectrum and give the benefit of the doubt to—or at least provide an apologetic for—the other. (Case in point: David French’s recent piece on my essay.) Kellerites make up a significant portion of the “never Trump” movement among Christians, and this movement is unforgiving of those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to vote in that way (full disclosure: I did not in either election). They are also quick to join in the chorus of denunciations of “Christian nationalism,” which is often a bogeyman label for any robust pursuit of conservative Christian influence in politics. Make what you wish of Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds schema, but I think it is a bit obvious that, for example, in recent years conservative Christian political engagement that would have been seen as somewhat innocuous in previous years is quickly and regularly denounced as authoritarian “Christian nationalism.” I think this is itself partial validation of the Renn thesis, however much we want to debate the specifics of the timeline. And Kellerites are often quick to join in the denunciations.
Wood says that the Kellerites and their “winsome, third way framework,” approach politics through the lens of evangelism. This causes they to worry too much about people thinking ill of Christians over how they (Christians) approach politics. Wood goes on:
I have two primary problems with this approach to political judgments. First of all, I question our capacity to augur such eventualities. How do we know what the future holds for the public’s perception of Christians and their attempts to love their neighbors through political action? We might be surprised what the judgments of history have in store. Not only do I question the certainty we can have in these assessments about how our political actions will impact our long-term gospel witness, but I also think this is a category error. Politics is not about minimizing offense in order to maximize openness to the evangelistic message. Politics is, rather, focused on the pursuit of justice and the just ordering of society.
Here is where the Kellerites, and also the Christian center-right, could really learn from the left (including the Christian left). Politics is the prudential pursuit of justice. The left is quite clear on this. Most Christians on the left are passionate about the pursuit of justice (as they perceive it), and they are not overwrought in concern about how their political actions will help or hinder the reception of the gospel message. They have, I would argue, a better understanding of the nature of politics.
It has been said that I advocated the position that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and that my critiques of the methods of “winsomeness” as a cultural and political strategy for the present moment must mean that I jettison the Christian virtues and the biblical imperatives to show “gentleness and respect” and to love one’s neighbor. I absolutely want to dispel such concerns. If I thought Christians should just get nasty, then I would have been nasty in my piece, which I don’t believe I was. Christians are called at all times and in all places to love their neighbors, even their enemies; no shift in context repeals these imperatives. I just think that much debate is needed over what it means to love one’s neighbor through politics in the negative world.
Read it all. This is definitely a discussion worth having.
Like Wood, I hate the idea that some Christians have that to be hated is to prove your virtue. When I was an undergraduate at LSU, there were these twin brothers who were student evangelists. They were fundamentalists, and presented a gospel that was, frankly, repugnant. They seemed to draw energy from the hatred they provoked in others. Granted, college students aren’t likely to be open to the Gospel in the first place, but these young men, with their hard edges, made Christianity seem like a thing to be shunned. In those days, I was searching for a Christianity I could believe in, and had ruled out liberal Christianity as not worth taking seriously. I was, in the broadest sense, sympathetic to the boldness of those young men, even though I wasn’t really a committed Christian. But the pleasure they seemed to take in being hated, in the vindication they appeared to enjoy, was perverse.
That said, I think Wood is onto something about the religious Left and politics. They believe in doing what they think is correct, and let the chips fall where they may. One important difference, though, is that for many on the religious Left, religion is the Social Gospel — that is, the pursuit of this-world politics. I heard a really good podcast interview the other day between Father Daniel French and Calvin Robinson, both Anglicans (the podcast is “Irreverend”). Robinson is an Anglican seminarian who is a political and theological conservative. Robinson is really smart and interesting, and has a big media platform already. The liberals who run the Church of England have put a stop to his ordination. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll see that Calvin believes — no doubt with absolute correctness — that the cosmopolitan liberals in charge of the Anglican Church don’t want to reach people unlike themselves. If true — and I believe it is — then it is a betrayal of the Gospel. They have over-politicized evangelism.
But then, politics is not religion. Let’s use the extreme example of Syria to illustrate the logic. The only thing standing between the slaughter of Syrian Christians by Islamist head-choppers is the authoritarian government of Bashar Assad. Do you think that Syrian Christians love Bashar Assad, and approve of his ruthless methods? Maybe some do, but I’m guess most do not. But they are very, very happy to have him there, because without him, they would be dead.
Should Syrian Christians worry about how supporting the Assad regime compromises their witness? What would it even mean to be a “winsome” Kellerite Christian in Syria? The question is a silly one, obviously, because the US is not Syria. But you see the point. Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — pious angelism is an obstacle to justice. If Roe vs. Wade is overruled by the Supreme Court, it will have been because Donald J. Trump, a man I found too immoral to vote for in 2016, was president. That right there is a huge challenge to my own angelism, and I have rethought it. I am rethinking it.
I’ll give Wood the last word:
The view of politics I am promoting here does not mean that the ends justify the means. No; but we need to be clearer about the proper ends of political action. Again, our political stances should not be developed, articulated, and pursued primarily in view of minimizing offense so that the gospel can be heard. The ends are justice and the temporal common good (and we can continue to discuss how the temporal common good relates to the supernatural common good; but that would bring us far afield for this essay). As we become more clear about our understanding of the ends, we then must think clearly about the means available to us. We need a good dose of Christian realism, I propose.
I agree. Like I said, I’m having to rethink my own approach. I need to think about what “Christian realism” means for us right here, right now. For example, a very senior legal scholar whose field is religious liberty told me a couple of years ago that the federal judiciary is likely to be the last line of defense of conservative religious believers in post-Christian America. What does that mean for my vote, and yours, in the future?
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Are We Really ‘At War’ With Russia?
Did you authorize this?
If there’s a bigger story than the 82-year-old senior House Democrat, now in his 20th term in Congress, today announcing that the US is at war with Russia, I’d like to know what it is? https://t.co/OJi8elHcao
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 13, 2022
This is infuriating! We are at war with Russia, are we? Do you want to be at war with Russia, which has nuclear weapons? Do you want to risk nuclear annihilation over Ukraine? Most of the Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill do. What is wrong with us?!
Forty billion dollars our elected representatives approved sending to the Ukrainians this week. Forty. Billion. Dollars. Not just the Democrats, but the Republicans too. Meanwhile, people are having trouble buying groceries here at home, thanks to inflation.
But we are involving ourselves more and more in somebody else’s war.
Almost nobody in Washington speaks for the Americans who want to stay out of the war in Ukraine and seek a negotiated end to it. https://t.co/GzJ4DTtwiT
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) May 11, 2022
Well, Sen. Rand Paul does:
My oath of office is to the U.S. Constitution, not to any foreign nation. Congress is trying yet again to ram through a spending bill – one that I doubt anyone has actually read – and there’s no oversight included into how the money is being spent.
— Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 13, 2022
Who benefits from this? Aside from US defense contractors, I mean.
I see today that Finland and Sweden are now applying to join NATO. I don’t blame them. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a colossal geopolitical mistake. That said, our leaders ought to be doing their best to bring this war to an end before it goes nuclear. They’re not, though, at least not American leaders not named Rand Paul.
You watch: decades from now, when historians write about the decline and fall of the American Empire this is going to figure prominently.
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Holy Land Diary: Russell Shalev
On my recent trip to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, I did a few interviews with local people for my upcoming book about re-enchantment. One of them was with Russell Shalev, 31, a reader of this blog who reached out to me. He moved to Israel eight years ago from Montreal. We had lunch in the Mamilla shopping mall, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. I talked to him about what drew him from Canada back to the land of his ancestors.
Rod Dreher: Tell me why you came here.
Russell Shalev: I grew up in Montreal in a non-religious but traditional family. Our house was kosher, but my family didn’t keep kosher out of the house. We had Friday night dinners, and celebrated the holidays. I grew up in a very Jewish bubble — non-religious, but I went to Hebrew school, summer camp, everybody around me was Jewish. But at the same time, I grew up in Quebec, where issues of identity are very much in the air. On the one hand, this story of French vs. English really isn’t my story. And my grandfather’s family was Israeli. They were originally Spanish Jews who came to Israel about 200 years ago from north Africa. He moved to Canada in the Fifties. He never really thought he was going to be there forever. So I grew up very, very connected to Israel.
As I was growing up, I was always very connected to my Jewish identity, but it didn’t make sense to me that we were learning about kosher, and our house was kosher, but we didn’t do it outside. Or that we were members of a synagogue, but we only went there on the holidays. In my head, Israel and Judaism and Zionism were all one, and my family roots, it was all one big thing mixed together. I always wanted to come and live in Israel. There’s just this feeling of being at home. Even on the most basic level, it’s Passover now, and signs everywhere say, “Happy Holidays,” and there’s kosher food everywhere.
I live in a suburb near Tel Aviv. It’s mostly religious, but it’s a mix. There are native Israelis, but it’s a mix. There are native Israelis but whose people come from Eastern Europe, from Arab countries, from Iran. There are also recent immigrants from North America and France. Everybody’s difference, but there’s this commonality. Every time I came to Israel when I was younger, there was always a war or something. The first time I came was in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. We got here, and this war started, and we had no idea where we were staying. Suddenly there was this commonality, this shared experience. The war was in the north, but we were in Eilat, the most southern part. People who had left their homes were there, spending a few weeks. There was this feeling that we were all one people, we were all in this together. It was a very powerful feeling.
I have two kids, a four and a half year old, and a ten month old. My daughter’s kindergarten, she comes home every day and tells us the story of the Exodus from Egypt. She’s like, “Abba, don’t leave my room, I’m afraid the Pharaoh is going to attack me.” It’s just very powerful.
Tell me more about the call of the land itself. Lots of Jews who have a very intense Jewish life in Israel, and other places. Why was it important for you to come back to the land?
A few things. Historically, Jewish religion and nationality have been one and the same. It’s mostly a recent thing, in terms the the Emancipation. For example, you can be French citizens, but you’re French citizens of the Mosaic faith. Jews had to give up Jewish nationality. Part of the modern birth of the Zionist movement were mostly secular Jews. They weren’t keeping Jewish religion, and they didn’t have room to express themselves as Jews, with Jewish nationalism, in Europe. You’ve heard of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of [Palestine under the British Mandate, 1920-48], the father of religious Zionism? He talks about how, in many ways, the Jewish nation was a nation under God, and that there’s no way to separate Jewish nationalism from Jewish religion.
And you agree with that?
Yes. And Jewish nationalism, while outwardly secular, inside it’s holy. The roots of Israeli national symbol are ultimately religious symbols. The [blue and white] Israeli flag is supposed to evoke the prayer shawl. The national language, Hebrew, is the holy language. And so, you see today in Israel, there isn’t necessary a return to religious observance, but there is a return to tradition. My family is here visiting from Montreal for the holidays. We went two nights ago to a concert in a big park in Tel Aviv. The singer is a popular religious singer in mainstream Israeli society, but all his songs are religious songs. There were average Israelis at the concert. One of the most popular songs he’s singing is a song of praise to God. And it’s just on the radio. I don’t know, it’s just a powerful thing.
In sounds like some form of what I call the Benedict Option. You’re all together in one place with your people, and you worship together. It’s not paradise, but nevertheless it’s a place where you can feel connected horizontally to others, and vertically to God, in a place that you just can’t do anywhere else, if you’re Jewish. What made you make the decision to come?
I remember the first time I said out loud that I wanted to move to Israel. The first time we were in Israel and I went to meet my mom’s aunt and uncle and cousins who live near Tel Aviv. My mom had a small family in Montreal, and she always spoke about [her Israeli family]. I met them for the first time, and I was talking to them. I realized that I wanted to live in Israel. It was a feeling of being at home. Canada is a very good place for Jews to live. It’s a free country, there’s not a lot of anti-Semitism, and it’s a safe place for Jews. Still, you know that you are a minority. You walk around at Christmastime, and Christmas is everything. Suddenly, being here, and almost everybody you see on the streets is Jewish — that’s really powerful.
You know what I mean by ‘thin places’? Places where you can experience the holy in a special way? What are your thin places in Israel?
The city of Hevron [Hebron], the Tomb of the Patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]. Most of the holy places, the historical sites, it’s hard to know what’s historically accurate, but of the places, the majority of the building itself was built by King Herod. Most of the stones themselves you can see at the Western Wall. You can see the caves, or see that there are caves there. There’s this feeling that I am touching the beginning of the Jewish people. Politically, it’s a very controversial place, but it’s a very comfortable place. Until 1967, when Israel liberated, or conquered, whatever you prefer, Hebron, Jews could only go to the seventh step of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. There’s this image from history of Jews only going to the seventh step: that we couldn’t go forward, but one day, we’re going to go forward. The truth is that the first person of the Israel army to go past it was the army’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Goren. After the Arabs surrendered, the first order was to smash the seventh step, to say, ‘That’s it, we’re going in.” It’s a powerful place.
(We stop to eat lunch, then resume our conversation.)
We were just talking about the Passover seder, and its traditions. This all goes back to the Hebrew Bible.
Exactly. The truth is that the primary commandment of the seder, the Torah is that you will tell your children on that day what the Lord did for you, bringing you out of Egypt. So the term haggadah, the book we read on Pesach [Passover], comes from the word haggadah, which means “you shall tell.” In many ways the seder is built around doing things differently, so the children should ask questions. There’s a special song that the youngest child sings, and the song asks, “What’s different about this night?” And they ask four questions: Why do we eat matzoh? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip our vegetables twice? Why do we recline when eating?
There’s a special game, of hide-the-matzoh, and the child who finds it gets a special prize. So much of the seder is about telling the story to your children. The things of the seder are simple. We have the bitter herbs to symbolize how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors. We eat a certain food called charoset, which is a mix of dried fruits and wine and nuts that’s supposed to be like the mortar that the Israelites made in Egypt. We dip our vegetables in salt water which is supposed to represent the tears that the Israelites shed in captivity.
It’s just a very powerful thing to do this with your parents and grandparents. Everybody knows the songs. For the past two or three weeks my daughter, who’s four, has been learning special songs in kindergarten. She wanted to ask us the questions. So, we drink four cups of wine in the seder. It refers to the four languages of redemption. In the book of Exodus, God says to Moses, “I’ll take you out of Egypt and I’ll save you from their servitude, I’ll redeem you, and I will take you to me as a people.” And there’s a fifth line: “I will bring you to the land.” During Temple times, Jews would drink a fifth cup during seder, and so when Jews were exiled from the land, they stopped drinking the fifth cup of wine. It’s now considered to be the cup for Elijah the Prophet. It just sits there.
So the seder has past, present, and future in it. We start the seder by saying, “This is the bread of affliction, that our forefathers ate in Egypt. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free. This year we are here, next year we will be in Israel.” We read from the Book of Joshua, where we learn that in ancient times, our forefathers were idol worshipers, but God drew close to us. There’s a part where in medieval, Christian Europe, when we open the door to welcome Elijah into the house to punish the enemies of the Jews. And we end by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s this fun night that the whole family is together to go through the past, to the present, and the future.
It’s a family liturgy.
There’s this great little book by the British anthropologist Paul Connerton who explains what cultures that resisted modernity did. They all have the same characteristics. They share a sacred story. They celebrate the sacred story in unvarying ritual. They experience the ritual as taking them out of time. And they have to use their bodies in the ritual. Everything you’ve said is that.
What’s amazing is that all of this is part of modern Israeli culture. There’s this expression, “We got through Pharaoh, so we’ll get through this.” Or something like, a few years ago, it was the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War. There was this incredible light show right here on the walls of the Old City. There were tens of thousands of people who came to the show. Right before the Six Day War, there was this famous Israeli folk singer, Naomi Shemer, who wrote this song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” and it became like the second Israeli anthem. When the army captured the Old City [in 1967], the Chief Rabbi said, famously, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The paratroopers went down to the Western Wall. Some of them were secular people from the kibbutzim, and the chief rabbi blew the shofar, and some of them just cried. And they recreated it [the capture] on that night, and tens of thousands of people came out to relive this modern miracle. Everybody was feeling it together. It was really incredible.
Do you ever experience moments of enchantment here?
Yeah, regular moments. During all the Covid lockdowns, there was a real community in our building, a bunch of young families. We started having services in the courtyard, on Shabbat, and parties and events. Sometimes there’s just a feeling that on Shabbat, everybody’s together. It’s this feeling of being at home, of being with people who are all from different places, but we are the same.
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Churches Between Red Bull & Ovaltine
Guess I have to offer a take on the big Tim Alberta piece in The Atlantic that my circles are talking about. But first, let me affirm this tweet by Michael Brendan Dougherty, on the adjacent Tim Keller controversy, in which Evangelicals are arguing over whether or not Tim Keller’s approach to evangelizing the culture is still relevant, or passé:
From the outside-ish, it very simply like a class divide. An elite class that believes in being all things to all men, and a populist class that feels like holy war is thrust upon them. Each perceives the other as undermining their chosen approach.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) May 12, 2022
This seems right to me. It comes from the foofarah over James Wood’s essay in First Things in which he said he used to prefer Keller’s winsome approach, but he has come to believe that times have changed, and now Kellerism is outdated. I wrote about it here (including a link to Wood’s piece), and I sympathize with Wood’s critique. It has been startling to me to see how offended Keller partisans are, given how respectful and appreciative of Keller Wood was in his piece. Wood simply argues that the culture into which Keller originally preached has turned more hostile to Christianity. It’s certainly debatable, but as an outsider to Evangelicalism, I had not grasped that Keller’s partisans would be so aggrieved by this gentle criticism.
Maybe Alberta’s long Atlantic piece sheds light on what I’m missing. The title of the piece is “How Politics Poisoned The Evangelical Church,” which is perhaps the first time in years that that magazine has published a piece like that without Pete Wehner’s byline. Alberta is the son of a pastor. He frames his story as a fight between conservative Evangelical factions. One side is super-Trumpy and ultra-political; the other side is more conventionally conservative, and skeptical of how much right-wing populist politics have infiltrated the life of the Evangelical church. Excerpt:
Every time I heard Bolin preach, I could also hear Brown, the pastors’ voices dueling inside my brain. Brown is polished and buttoned-down; Bolin is ostentatious and loud. Brown pastors a traditional church where people wear sweaters and sing softly; Bolin leads a charismatic church where people dress for a barbecue and speak in tongues. Brown is a pastor’s kid and lifelong conservative who’s never had a sip of alcohol; Bolin is an erstwhile “radical liberal” who once got “so high on LSD” that he jumped onstage and grabbed a guitar at a Tom Petty concert.
But in leading their predominantly white, Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing: Both pastors believe there is a war for the soul of the American Church—and both have decided they cannot stand on the sidelines. They aren’t alone. To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.
How did this happen? For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement—the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another.
“Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside,” Brown said.
Because of this, the pastor told me, he can no longer justify a passive approach from the pulpit. The Church is becoming radicalized—and pastors who don’t address this fact head-on are only contributing to the problem. He understands their reluctance. They would rather keep the peace than risk alienating anyone. The irony, Brown said, is that by pretending that a clash of Christian worldviews isn’t happening, these pastors risk losing credibility with members who can see it unfolding inside their own church.
There is one person Pastor Brown doesn’t have to convince of this: Pastor Bolin.
“The battle lines have been drawn,” Bolin told me, sitting in the back of his darkened sanctuary. “If you’re not taking a side, you’re on the wrong side.”
I believe it. I know two conservative Southern Baptist pastors who left their churches mostly because they couldn’t take the hyperpoliticization of their congregations in the era of Covid and Trump. I don’t know how either man voted, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they had voted for Trump. Their problem wasn’t Trump per se, but with how many in the congregation got so wound up about politics that they allowed politics to take over everything. Now that I think about it, what both men described were congregations that had become right-wing versions of Woke, imposing purity tests on everybody and everything.
Anyway, back to Alberta, who says that hard data are difficult to come by, but on reporting this story for a year, he has come to believe that large numbers of Evangelicals are fleeing their conservative churches for congregations that are more ostentatiously and combatively right-wing, in terms of their political stance.
I don’t feel that I have a dog in this fight, but it really is a fascinating story. It’s clear where Alberta’s sympathies lie. He writes:
For much of my lifetime, however, American Christians have done the opposite. Beginning in the 1980s, white evangelicals imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions. [Emphasis mine — RD] Once left to cry jeremiads about civilizational decline—having lost fights over sex and sexuality, drugs, abortion, pornography, standards in media and education, prayer in public schools—conservative Christians organized their churches, marshaled their resources, and leveraged their numbers, regaining the high ground, for a time, in some of these culture wars.
Short-lived victories, however, came at a long-term cost. Evangelical leaders set something in motion decades ago that pastors today can no longer control. Not only were Christians conditioned to understand their struggle as one against flesh and blood, fixated on earthly concerns, a fight for a kingdom of this world—all of which runs directly counter to the commands of scripture—they were indoctrinated with a belief that because the stakes were getting so high, any means was justified.
I don’t want to nitpick, but could you imagine a story in The Atlantic featuring the line “African-Americans imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions”? The word “imposed” really bothers me. It implies that there was something illegitimate about Evangelical political involvement. I am certainly more sympathetic to Alberta’s aversion to the crackpot stuff he details in his piece, but he seems to think that white conservative Evangelicals should have stayed quiet and read their Bibles. Does he, or do the editors of the Atlantic, believe that black churches should have done the same? That progressive churches should have?
I recall reading in the authoritative book American Grace, by Harvard’s Robert Putnam and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, back in 2010, that according to social science data, liberal and progressive churches were more likely to be overtly political in their orientation than conservative churches. Where are the long articles about how left-wing politics ruined Christianity? They don’t exist, because, most likely, liberal and progressive religion’s political involvement is seen by the media as normative. A couple of years ago, I visited a suburb of Boston to give a talk, and as we were driving around, the only church I passed that didn’t have a rainbow Pride flag, or a Black Lives Matter banner, or both out front was a Catholic parish. Every single Protestant church proudly proclaimed its politics. There’s no question that a Christian like me would feel unwelcome there — almost as unwelcome as I would feel at one of the far-right churches Alberta profiles.
I’m not trying to “whatabout” this. Tim Alberta is writing about a real phenomenon, and a truly destructive one. But I don’t for one minute think it’s confined to the Right. Alberta is a conservative journalist, or at least that’s where he made his reputation (I don’t know how he would describe himself today, but he’s a good reporter). Where are the liberal Christian journalists grieved over how thoroughly politics have conquered their churches? Do they even exist?
Alberta writes about a Methodist congregation in Atlanta pastored by a conservative (Bingham), who is assisted by a progressive (Myers). They have struggled to hold the church together in political turbulent times:
But what is left to hold together? When I visited, the church—an elegant structure with room for 500 in the sanctuary—was hosting maybe 150 people total across two Sunday services. Bingham is proud to say that he hasn’t driven anyone away with his political views. Still, membership has been in decline for years, in part because so many Christians today gravitate toward the places that are outspokenly aligned with their extra-biblical beliefs.
For all their talk of keeping Aldersgate unified, Bingham and Myers acknowledged that in a few years’ time, they would belong to different churches. The same went for their members. When I met with some of the longest-tenured laypeople of the church, almost everyone indicated that when the UMC divorce was finalized, they would follow the church that reflected their political views. It didn’t matter that doing so meant, in some cases, walking away from the church they’d attended for decades.
“What’s coming is going to be brutal. There’s no way around that,” Bingham told me. “Churches are breaking apart everywhere. My only hope is that, when the time comes, our people can separate without shattering.”
As I’ve said, I don’t know the Evangelical world, but reading Alberta’s piece, I found myself grateful that we don’t have this kind of thing in Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, even though I really do hate the bizarre things that the preachers Alberta quotes say, and even though I wouldn’t go within a mile of those sanctified political rallies, I don’t blame people for being fed up with churches that don’t seem to have anything at all to say about real life in these post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, times. That so many flock to lurid shock-jock pastors is deeply upsetting, at least to this Christian, but these people are not wrong to believe that we are no longer in normal times, and winsome quietism is not sufficient to prepare the church for the struggles ahead.
I hasten to add that I don’t know much about Tim Keller and his ministry, so please don’t read this as a criticism of him! I think, though, that when Evangelicals criticize Keller, what they’re talking about more generally is pastors who take the view that Everything Is Fine, and let’s just keep calm and carry on, and all will be well. This is a dangerous lie. The answer is absolutely not to run to circus pastors who rant about Trump and Covid and conspiracy! But people are not wrong to want leadership from pastors and priests who can help them understand the signs of the times, and prepare themselves to respond as faithful Christians.
I’ve mentioned several times in this space a conversation I had some time back with a pastor who refused to talk to his congregation at all about gender ideology, calling it “political,” and saying he refused to let politics infect his congregation. I understand and even share the view about keeping politics out of the congregation. But the question of “what is a man and what is a woman” could hardly be more relevant to Biblical teaching, and Christian discipleship! Not all controversial questions taken from the headlines are “political” in the extraneous-to-Scripture sense that the pastor in question meant. I really do believe that if you are part of a congregation that is not preparing you and your family well to endure the intense challenges now present, and coming in the near future, you need to find one that is, if you have that opportunity. But I also believe that flocking to shock-jock right-wing churches is foolish and dangerous, because those pastors aren’t helping people either.
What should responsible leaders, and responsible followers, be looking to as a model? Well, study the leadership of pastors under Communism, and other oppressive regimes. How did they manage? How did Christians live and worship? How do they do so today in countries like Egypt? America is not Egypt, but are there lessons we can learn from them and apply here? What about in the lives of the martyrs? How did they live?
In my book Live Not By Lies, the most important lesson for us, according to all the different Christians from the former Soviet bloc I interview, is that we have to learn how to suffer as Christians. That’s not a popular message. The Christians who go to the shock-jock churches want to be told how to beat their enemies. The Christians who go to the Mr. Rogers-and-Ovaltine churches want to be comforted and told that everything is basically okay, and that they should just keep doing what they’re doing. But it’s not okay, and it’s not going to be okay for many lifetimes. Yet it is very, very easy to imagine how Christians can win worldly victories, but lose their souls, and certainly their minds.
This is not going to be easy. We have never been here in America. This is what it means to be post-Christian. I really do believe that the progressive churches are going to dwindle out of existence over the next twenty or thirty years, and the Ovaltine churches will too. But the radical shock-jock churches will have given people no real spiritual food for the long, difficult journey ahead, only Red Bull and hot wings. What Christians need is priests and pastors who really do have a sense of urgency about the times, and who bring that to their teaching and leadership, but who also don’t yield to the false idols of right-wing politics or America-worship.
Who are the Christian pastors and lay leaders who model this? Anybody know?
To recall MBD’s tweet: Holy war really is thrust upon us, even though saying so embarrasses and alarms many respectable conservative Christians … but we also have to be faithful disciples and compelling witnesses to the non-Christian world, not conspiracy-besotted berserkers. I think it’s also true that on both left and right, churches that focus so intensely on What’s Happening Now — whether looking at it from the Left or the Right — are going to fail.
If there are any liberal journalists reading this, why not do a deep, Alberta-like dive into how politics has affected liberal churches? It’s not quite as obvious, because liberal churches, since the Social Gospel days, have always been more worldly. Still, though, I recall a conversation with a Jewish woman who had begun to attend a Conservative synagogue, because, she told me, she got so sick of everything at her Reform synagogue being so politicized. She’s a political liberal, but she attended temple to worship God and learn about Judaism, not to hear another sermon about Black Lives Matter, social justice, and the rest. What about people like her?
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Graham Pardun’s ‘The Sunlilies’
Most of you know that I write a subscriber-only Substack newsletter, Rod Dreher’s Diary, that I use to focus on positive, hopeful topics, usually having to do with faith and spirituality. Sometimes I repost material from it to this blog, when I think it’s something of real interest. Below is a version of something I posted yesterday. A Catholic friend put me on to a new, self-published Orthodox Christian writer in Minnesota, a young man named Graham Pardun. My Catholic pal said Graham’s thin little book of essays is solid gold. I bought it, and agree wholeheartedly. More people should know this young writer and his work. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I sent to my Substack readers yesterday.
Let me tell you about an extraordinary little book of essays recommended to me by a Catholic friend: The Sunlilies, by Graham Pardun. The author is an Orthodox Christian living in Sandstone, Minnesota. He self-published the book, and sells it through Treedweller.net, his website (there’s something buggy about that site; if it won’t load the first time, reload it, and all will be well). I bought a hard copy yesterday, but persuaded Graham to send me an electronic copy so I could read it at once, and tell you all about it. I’m so glad he did! From the preface:
I’m nobody special, though—just a man of my times, like anybody else. Therefore, I wish to conclude this preface not with my own new words, but the new words of someone else, whose words express my heart completely—Paul Kingsnorth, from his essay, “The Cross and the Machine,” an account of his long conversion to Orthodoxy:
In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer every day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home?
What is this book of essays about? Says Graham:
This is a book about Orthodoxy being a challenge to our culture’s pervasive nihilism by being “radical,” in the sense of getting back to our roots. I mean this in two ways: A return to the ancient path of Yeshua Messiah, the root of all human flourishing, and, secondly, a return to the human body and its simple, but deep connections with the garden of Eden.
For me, the image of a lily fluttering in the sunshine encapsulates both: On the one hand, Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow is at the heart of Yeshua’s teaching and way of life, as relayed above; on the other, the earthy, ephemeral beauty of the flower is a primary biblical image for the earthy, ephemeral beauty of the human person, rooted in Creation: “As for man, his days are like grass—he flourishes like a flower of the field” (Ps. 103:15)—and, also, when God comes to Earth as a healing dew, the Children of Israel will “blossom like a lily” (Hos. 14:6). In what follows, I would like to describe this flowering of Sabbath life under three aspects: wakefulness, surrender, and unity of breath. Taken as attitudes, these are three aspects of love, which is a form of attention and participation. Taken as practices, they’re just a childlike form of “irreligion,” the Orthodoxy of the flowers and the birds.
There is not enough space in this newsletter to quote at length from the richness of this little book, and Graham Pardun’s religious imagination. If you like Paul Kingsnorth’s writing, you will love this book. You want to know how to experience the world as “re-enchanted,” that is to say, as hallowed? Graham Pardun tells you. The only writer who makes me feel this way about God and Creation is the great twentieth century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and sometimes Wendell Berry. Here, in this rapturous passage filled with wonder, is Graham Pardun reflecting on the tension between the Mosaic prohibition on “graven images,” and the fact that God told the ancient Hebrews to make images of the cherubim (here, cheruvim) in the Temple:
And now, to the Inmost Sanctuary, in which the Ark resides—the “Holy of Holies”—which will carry us the rest of the way to the edge of the Hebraic universe: That there is an Inmost Sanctuary within the main Sanctuary, within the city-like Temple, within the Temple-like Earth, in which mountains, rivers, trees, and even stars sing songs of praise, according to the book of Psalms, shows that the usual dichotomy anthropologists and sociologists make between “sacred” and “profane” space doesn’t quite fit here; for the Hebrews, there is only sacred space, and even more sacred space:
The heavens are yours —Also yours the Earth
The world and all its fullness… (Ps. 89:12)
— thus, for the Hebrews, the highest stars are holy, and, below them, the bright planets are holy, too (and, below them, the yellow sun and silver moon— all holy, all full of the beauty of ADONAI), and below the sun and moon and stars, the soaring white clouds are holy, and, below them, the soaring birds of the air are holy, and, below them, the butterflies and dragonflies—all flying insects that flutter in the sky, all of them are holy—and below them, the shining green trees of Earth, and then the lilies of the field beneath them—all holy, holy, holy—and the blue rim of the sky is holy as well, and the sparkling blue seas from horizon to horizon are holy as well, and the red clay and brown earth and yellow sands of Earth are holy as well, and the Holy Land of Israel at the center of Earth is holy, holy, holy as well, and the Holy City, Jerusalem, at the center of the Holy Land is holy as well, full to the brim with the beauty of ADONAI, and the holy Temple, a most holy city within the Holy City, is holy, and the sanctuary within the holiest city is holy, and the Holy of Holies within in the sanctuary is holy—and when the High Priest walks in and prostrates his precious human body to the ground on the most holy day of the year, this completes the whole holy cosmos, as the Hebrews saw it: concentric circles of holy images of God, like flower petals converging on the human heart.
It is within this context that we can say what Orthodox iconography is: It is the lyrical cheruvim of the ancient Temple, but one radical step further: A beautiful, childlike “idolatry” which reveals the true image of God not as emptiness as such, but as the precious human body. And it is in this sense primarily that we can become the “priesthood of all believers” in Messiah: Every deified saint we see on an Orthodox icon is standing, as it were, in the Holy of Holies, not just once a year, but eternally Now, offering praise to the Father of All out of the fountain of his or her own precious human heart.
My longtime readers know that I struggle to find God’s presence in the natural world. My theory is that having grown up in south Louisiana, where the natural world is (to me) unpleasant — hot, humid, full of mosquitoes and poisonous snakes — I have an aversion to it. In the past I have written about being struck hard by the glory of God in certain natural places — in the Japanese cedar forests of the Azores, for example. And in a cave there. I wrote about visiting this cave on the island of Terceira in 2018. Here’s the view from midway to the bottom:
I was filled with religious awe there, but then:
I was shaken out of my reverie by the chatter of the tour group that had settled in around me. They would not shut up. They were mostly older people, and had no respect for their surroundings. How could you be in a place like this ancient cavern and natter on like you were standing in line at the food court at the mall? I tried to block them out, but their chatter grew louder in the echo of the cavern.
Honestly, I’m embarrassed to think about how angry I was in that moment, but thinking about the source of that anger explains a lot to me about myself. All of us were in the presence of something holy, something that, if we were properly disposed internally, would have evoked an experience of awe, of silence. Kingsnorth is not a religious believer, but he gets it [Note: I had quoted from Paul Kingsnorth’s 2014 essay “In The Black Chamber,” about a cave; Paul is now an Orthodox Christian — RD]. Every one of those older people jawing around me might be churchgoers who are more morally upright than I am, but they did not get it. To them, this cavern was just something else to be consumed.
The modern world simply does not know when to shut up. It does not know how to behave in the presence of the sacred. This scorn and indifference towards the sacred, in the presence of the eternal, is what I find so difficult to bear about the contemporary world. It is why I imagine that I would have a greater kinship with an atheist like Paul Kingsnorth than I would with conservative Christians who don’t know how and when to shut up.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but emerging from the cave, I was a changed person. It wasn’t just the cave, but also the Japanese cedars I had encountered earlier that week on the island of Sao Miguel:
I can’t say that I’ve ever felt such a strong bond with nature before this trip. I’m not sure why that is, though my wife says, reasonably, “Because nature here is not trying to kill you.” This is a reference to the venomous snakes in Louisiana. There are no snakes in the Azores. Not having to worry about poisonous snakes — one of my greatest fears — caused me to let my guard down in the presence of nature. It was marvelous, literally: a marvel. If I had the chance, I would take a sack of books, an icon, my prayer rope, some wine and sausage and cheese, and camp out for some days in a grove of Japanese cedars. I can’t explain this feeling. Maybe it’s the latent Entishness within me. Those groves felt sacred in ways that I cannot explain, but definitely discerned.
On the flight back to the US the next day, I dreamed of the cavern, and woke up thinking about it. The cavern represents contemplation, and a descent into the unconscious. My patron saint, Benedict of Nursia, lived in a cave, praying and fasting and seeking God, before emerging to take up his ministry. What’s wrong with us is that we don’t know how to descend into the cave, so to speak. We don’t know how to be silent in the grove. Even when we go into the cavern, we want to take the outside world with us (if there had been a signal near the cavern’s core, I probably would have tweeted the photos), so that we are never truly alone with our thoughts and our God.
The rebirth and restoration that so many of us long for will not happen until and unless we journey into the cave of contemplation.
Now, with that passage from my past writing in mind, read this from Graham Pardun, who, by his words, is teaching me how to re-orient myself to the Lord God manifesting Himself in Creation:
So, whereas to be the children of God is to experience the restoration of nature’s abundance (“I will pour water on the thirsty land”) and also ourselves as willow trees springing up in the grass by flowing streams of water, to be idolaters is the reverse of that: Taking trees planted by God, which have grown “strong among the trees of the forest,” nourished by God’s rain and sunshine, we cut them down and reshape them according to our darkened imaginations—and we also burn them to keep warm, roast animal flesh, and also to bake bread—but since we don’t give thanks to the Source of all who made trees, fire, animals, wheat, yeast, and salt, but instead bow down to the gods of our own minds, in the end, all we eat is ashes—and therefore all we become is ashes, too.
Compare the aliveness of a tamarack tree—its golden needles in the fall, its fragrant cones and bark, the blue sky shining between the needles, the chickadees leaping from branch to branch, all one totality praising the name of God—compare that to a statue carved out of wood: There is no comparison, really. No matter how skillfully carved, the wood statue, next to the living tree, is junk—a piece of cultural driftwood—just a mirror, the human mind talking to itself about transcendence. That we feel we must make, and then bow down to, such images of ourselves, reveals a profoundly debilitating interior captivity.
I think of the practice in ancient Sumeria of worshipers fashioning clay avatars of themselves, and placing them, eternally wide-eyed, in circles around their images of the gods in the center of their temples. This was so that they—truly present in, and as, their avatars, since the priests would breathe the breath of life into these likenesses of clay, ritually completing the identification—could ceaselessly attend their gods, without having to eat, drink, plant, water, harvest, sleep, take care of children, et cetera—since these gods, as nothing more than the magnified human ego, demanded perpetual worship. In a way, this was an ingenious solution to a self-imposed problem; in another way, though, how sad that the tension between the unbearable psychic burden of religion on the one hand, and the vital forces of nature on the other, ended in temples of stone cluttered with artificial people staring catatonically at their own artificial gods.
This is the bleak religious background against which the Hebrew vision appears as a radical, life-affirming iconoclasm:
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)
And then once more:
Now no shrub of the field was in the land yet, and no green plants of the field had sprouted yet….Then ADONAI Elohim formed the man out of the dust of the ground and he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life—so the man became a living being. Then ADONAI Elohim planted a garden in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Then ADONAI Elohim caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was desirable to look at and good for food… (Gen. 2:5,7-9)
This is ancient Near Eastern religion flipped on its head, blown apart by the Hebraic revelation: Instead of people fashioning clay images of themselves, breathing into their clay nostrils, and placing them in temples of stone, to stare lifelessly at lifeless images of the gods, the Living God fashions living images of himself from Earth and places them in a garden, which, as these living images of God themselves come alive in the breath of God, itself comes alive, and vice versa, such that both experience a reciprocal blossoming. This godlike mutualism between Earth and man, is, for the ancient Hebrews, what it is to be truly alive—to have eyes that really can see God, who is everywhere, embodying himself in all things, and to have ears that really can hear God, whose voice is in the song of all songbirds and in all lilies fluttering in the wind.
Thus, sacred space in the Hebraic vision of life is first of all not a temple of stone, but Eden, a Living Garden planted by the hand of God. And thus, the calling of mankind as the kings and priests of God is first of all not the construction of stone temples and the orchestration of liturgies within them, but care for the wild things of Earth and the celebration of the Cosmic Liturgy with the birds and clouds and stars, and the walia ibexes and leaping dolphins.
This is a vision of life which Orthodoxy shares (and even vastly expands, in light of the Risen Messiah)— as expressed, for example, in icons like this:
Here, Saint Seraphim [who befriended a bear, Misha — RD] lacks nothing, dwelling in the Sabbath rest of Eden, a lily-like priest and king of Creation: The floor of the Temple in which he sings psalms to the Creator is the rock he’s standing on—its walls are the birch trees; its roof, the sky.
At the same time, what makes it possible to see this icon as giving an Orthodox theology of sacred space as such is that there is, within the icon—as if in an infinity mirror—an icon of Mary perched on a tree, and it is to her that Saint Seraphim has turned his body. So Seraphim really is standing to pray in an Orthodox temple as such, as delineated by the presence of a holy icon; but, at the same time, he himself is an Orthodox temple, glorifying God from the inmost sanctuary of the heart (which is why his face radiates the shekinah of God—the luminous presence of ADONAI which used to fill the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple of wood and stone). Moreover, he is also aligning his temple-body with an image of the Temple of God, Mary’s precious human body, the body in which God’s long process of self-embodiment in nature climaxed in the miraculous conception of Yeshua Messiah—who said his own body would become the true Temple when it rose from the dead, which it did (cf. Jn. 2:19-22).
Now let’s imagine we place a copy of this icon of Saint Seraphim in the branches of our own birch tree, facing East, and let’s imagine, as we chant a few psalms with our lips, silence, like a Living Fountain, begins to flow from the depths of our own hearts and pervade everything, and our chanting gives way to the ineffable psalms of the heart, and the voices of the songbirds in the trees become, for us, the voice of God, singing psalms, and the breath of wind on our faces becomes, for us, undeniably the presence of the Living God—his Sabbath rest: This a glimpse of what the whole universe is like everywhere all the time, as [Philip] Sherrard said for us at the top of the essay:
In some sense, the image is the archetype in another mode, and only differs from the archetype because the conditions in which it is manifested impose on it a different form. Essentially, therefore, the principle is one of transformation of inner into outer, of an interlocking scale of modalities in which the same basic theme is repeated…It is this structure of participation which constitutes the great golden chain of being…[In it] there is nothing that is not animate, nothing that is mere dead matter…Each thing is the revelation of the indwelling creative spirit.
In our example here in the forest with the birch trees, Yeshua, the Son of God, is the archetype—the True Temple, the One for the sake of whom the universe was created so that God could rest in him. The universe itself, as the self-embodiment and self revelation of God, is an image of that archetype—it is that archetype, shaped by a different set of conditions, and therefore realized in a different form. Thus, “the whole universe is God’s Temple,” too—and also the Body of Yeshua, who fills all things (cf. Col. 1:15-20).
Likewise, the garden-Temple of Eden, the stone and wood Temple of the Hebrews, and the living Temple of Mary’s body—all realizations of the One, each one blossoming forth under circumstances appropriate to itself—likewise, the holy image of Mary and the little forest-Temple of trees and stone it creates for Saint Seraphim, and likewise, Saint Seraphim himself, and our own precious human bodies, too, if the Inmost Sanctuary of our hearts are open to the living, breathing cosmos of God shining forth from Seraphim’s icon: all of these images, daisychained to one another by mutual participation, are transformations of the inner life of God into the outer life of all things.
Thus, what begins as a juxtaposition between “dead” and “living” images of God (wooden idols versus trees, clay avatars versus the real human body) seems to have ended in the transcendence of any such distinctions: All things—from the smallest fleck of blue paint in the dimmest icon to the largest blue whale singing in the deepest, bluest ocean, are living images of the living God—or they can be, anyway: Perhaps better to say that for the living, all things are living images of the living God, whether stones or dolphins, forests or icons—but for the dead, everything in the universe is only so much raw material to be cut down, carved, and burned. This is the lyricism of the Hebrew mind fleshed out by Orthodox theologians with the help of Platonic philosophy; to try to collapse it through logic results only in a tonedeaf idolatry… .
I have to stop there, because I am reaching the limit of length in this newsletter, but more than that, I want to go pray. What a discovery is Graham Pardun’s work! I am laboring on a big book that, if successful, will help people to achieve the vision that Graham Pardun already lives. And I’ve only been quoting from the first essay — there is more to go, and I am so excited to read it. You have to buy this book! I know that this is a book I’m going to buy many times as gifts.
It is speaking to me not only as a man researching re-enchantment (which is to say, re-sacralizing the world; which is to say, re-learning to see what is already there), but also as a sinner struggling to break free of his own head. You regular readers know all too well that I saw myself in this dream sequence from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia:
Present in the holy world, but not able to perceive its holiness, because I, like Andrei, am so locked in my head. In Andrei’s case, it was because he obsessively longed for his homeland. In my case (I can now reveal, in light of the divorce petition my wife filed), it was obsessive longing for the happy marriage I used to have, but could not recover now matter how hard I tried … and could not stop thinking about, trying to figure out new ways back to that blessed land from which I had been exiled.
I did not choose this divorce, but now that it has come upon me, may God help me redeem all the brokenness by opening my eyes to His world, as it is, and becoming a source of light, not darkness. I’m grateful to have discovered, with the help of my Catholic friend, the vision of Graham Pardun. I expect that my next newsletter will contain more reflections on his short but powerful essays. Reading Graham Pardun, I feel that I’m encountering the Orthodox Christian son of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Wendell Berry.
Again: buy The Sunlilies! And once you have read it, tell everybody you know about it. I know I am.
One more thing I want to add: thank you all again for your kind words and prayers regarding the divorce. Please do remember me, my wife, and our children in your prayers. I want to emphasize here that my wife is a good woman, and I bear her no anger or malice. These late nine or ten years have been very hard on both of us, and I am grateful that we have both been given by God the grace to settle this amicably. Some unkind people have said to me that if we were serious Christians, we wouldn’t be divorcing. The truth is that if we were not serious Christians, we would have ended the marriage years ago, instead of struggling with all our might to save it.
Life is long and difficult. Take nothing for granted, friends. As I never tire of telling all fellow Christians, when I was a Catholic, I literally never imagined that I would lose my Catholic faith … yet it happened. I thought I could control it, but the forces that engulfed me in all that tore my Catholicism away from me. If I had been a stronger person, or at least a different person, things might have turned out differently. Similarly with divorce. I thought divorce was something that happened to other people, not good, right-believing, conservative Christians like us. Obviously I’m not going to talk about the circumstances leading up to this sad fate, other than to say, as my wife and I did when we announced the divorce, that infidelity was not an issue — but I am going to caution all of you readers, married and unmarried, never to assume anything about the stability of human endeavor. We are all living out the consequences of the Fall. Man hands on misery to man… . Sometimes all we can do is, like Jesus in Gethsemane, put down our swords (as He ordered Peter to do), and walk bravely to our fate.
It is only by the grace of God that I find myself in a good and serene place in the face of this trauma, and I think the same is true for my wife. One thing I have learned between the loss of my Catholicism in 2005 and the loss of my marriage this year is to trust not in my own power to control things, but rather to trust so much more in God, and in His goodness, and in His presence with us through suffering. To be faithful is not to be an optimist, but to be hopeful. Christian hope tells us that no tragedy, no matter how horrible, can conquer us if we walk in the passion of the Christ. That is a real thing. It is the realest thing there is. I look down every day, often, at the mark I had placed on my skin in Jerusalem, on Holy Week, by Wassim Razzouk, and am reminded that JESUS CHRIST CONQUERS (which is the meaning of this medieval Greek symbol).
Sorry to get all super-Christian on you — I usually keep that kind of thing to Rod Dreher’s Diary (subscribe!) — but I believe IC XC NIKA with all my heart, and it is the only thing keeping me going right now.
Anyway, this isn’t a post about me. It’s a post about the extraordinary Graham Pardun, about whom we will all be hearing a lot more in the future, I am certain.
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The Generation That Hates George Washington
Today the Washington Post publishes this essay by George Washington University senior Caleb Francois, who seems to hate his university as a cesspit of vice. Excerpts:
These problems are rooted in systemic racism, institutional inequality and white supremacy. There are at least four ways the university could achieve progress: Decolonized university curriculum, increased Black enrollment, the renaming of the university and the selection of an African American President.
Yes, young Caleb, that would fix everything. But wait, what’s this about renaming the university?
The controversial Winston Churchill Library must go. The university’s contentious colonial moniker must go. Even the university’s name, mascot and motto — “Hail Thee George Washington”— must be replaced. The hypocrisy of GW in not addressing these issues is an example of how Black voices and Black grievances go ignored and highlights the importance of strong Black leadership.
This privileged twerp — where do you even start? Remember how we were all told that it was just the Confederate statues they were after, not the Founding Fathers, for heaven’s sake? It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it. Wakanda forever!
My challenge to you is to find a single prominent liberal commentator who forthrightly denounces this repugnant crap. They can’t do it, even if they think it, because they are terrified of the radicals in their midst.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Washington Post today, a reporter observes Republicans preparing to pounce. Excerpts:
And they’re already accusing President Biden of catering to college-educated elites as he considers forgiving student loan debt.
In primary races ahead of November’s midterm elections, Republican candidates are embracing contentious battles over gender, sexual orientation and race rather than sticking to tried-and-true attacks on inflation or Biden’s low approval ratings.
I mean … how dare they?! Liberals love to blame conservatives for fighting the culture war, which usually means resisting whatever radical aggression the liberals have tried next. More from the story:
Some Democrats, meanwhile, are explicitly backing away from those battles.
“You want culture wars? I’m not your guy,” Rep. Tim Ryan said in a video released just before he won Ohio’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate — a video in which he also denounced the idea of defunding the police. “You want a fighter for Ohio? I’m all in.”
J.D. Vance, the Republican who will face Ryan in November, offered a heavy dose of culturally fueled grievance during his victory speech last week. Minutes after capturing the GOP nomination, he complained that the Democratic Party “bends the knee to major American corporations and their ‘woke’ values,” and he predicted that Ohioans feel alienated by the left.
In a brief interview while he was campaigning in West Chester Township, Ohio, Vance offered a critique of the identity politics he said Democratic politicians are embracing. The emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation by the left is a distraction, dividing voters who should be united against powerful interests intent on preventing prosperity in the lower classes, Vance said.
“Very often what is framed as diversity, equity and inclusion is actually an excuse to make the American people poor,” Vance told The Washington Post. He noted that Democrats celebrate Janet L. Yellen as the first female treasury secretary, rather than debating whether her ideas have led to inflation.
Damn straight. J.D. Vance understands that often, culture war is class war. Tim Ryan is not going to fight the culture wars because he knows his party holds contemptible, losing positions. One more quote:
Overall, Fratto described a dynamic that many Democratic lawmakers have noted privately: that ideological purity tests on issues such as trans rights in schools or other LGBTQ rights have not left room for argument.
“The problem with a lot of these issues is, if you don’t adhere to the views of the ideological poles, then you’re not pure enough, and so you’re going to be in disfavor,” Fratto said. “So there’s a sense that you need to go further to the point where you find yourself where the middle of America looks at you, frankly, like you’re weird.”
I remind you that the political scientist Eric Kaufmann earlier this year warned that conservatives had better make fighting the culture war their most important priority. He says that most people over age 30 favor what he idiosyncratically describes as “cultural liberalism” — meaning tolerance for liberty and diversity. But those under 30 favor what he calls “cultural socialism” — no tolerance at all for anything opposed to wokeness.
Caleb Francois is our future, unless we fight back. No Democrat at the national level has the guts to say a word of criticism of him and his ideological confreres. In all of our normative institutions, the leaders grovel in front of the Caleb Francoises. Find politicians prepared to push back hard against these radicals, and not just rhetorically, and they will win power. When they win power, they’d better use it, too.
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More Warmongering From The Swamp
Watch the first 15 seconds or so of these remarks by Sen. Mitch McConnell, explaining why Republicans approved Joe Biden’s $40 billion Ukraine war request:
.@LeaderMcConnell“: “I had a chance to call the president last week and request that the Ukraine package more by itself and quickly…He called back in about 15 minutes and agreed…I think we’re on a path to getting that done.” pic.twitter.com/0C8rc8IyJQ
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 10, 2022
McConnell says, “I think we all agree that the most important thing going on in the world right now is the war in Ukraine.”
Who is “we”? Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the Washington gang are marching us slowly into ever-greater involvement in a proxy war with Russia. Why is this in our national interest? I agree that Russia was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what we have to gain from risking war with Russia, or expanding this war to the rest of Europe.
Yesterday, I was stopped at a red light near a gas station. As I waited for the light to change, I saw the price of diesel fuel on the sign go up 13 cents. Living the past three months in Hungary, where the cost of living is low compared to the US, did not prepare me for the inflation shock when I got home. I bought a burger, fries, and a diet Coke at Burger King the other day: $11! And, in the city where I live, violent crime is rising. A friend of mine in Alabama is on his third round of Covid, and he’s been fully vaccinated. Do we really all agree that the most important thing going on in the world right now is the war in Ukraine?
Again: Washington does, and now we are at war with Russia. The US Government is openly bragging that its intelligence helped the Ukrainians kill Russian generals and sink a warship in the Black Sea. Is this really in our national interest, especially after twenty years of failed Middle Eastern wars? It boggles the mind. Here is Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker:
America has crossed a threshold in Ukraine, both in its short-term involvement and its long-term intent. The U.S. was initially cautious during the fall and winter as Russia, a nuclear country with veto power at the U.N. Security Council, amassed more than a hundred and fifty thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. It didn’t want to poke the Russian bear—or provoke Vladimir Putin personally. Two days after long convoys of Russian tanks rolled across the border, on February 24th, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, still claimed that America’s goal—backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid—was simply to stand behind the Ukrainian people. The White House sanctioned Russia—initially targeting a few banks, oligarchs, political élites, government-owned enterprises, and Putin’s own family—to pressure the Russian leader to put his troops back in their box, without resorting to military intervention. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent,” President Joe Biden said, in early March.
Yet in just over nine weeks, the conflict has rapidly evolved into a full proxy war with Russia, with global ramifications. U.S. officials now frame America’s role in more ambitious terms that border on aggressive. The goal—backed by tens of billions of dollars in aid—is to “weaken” Russia and insure a sovereign Ukraine outlasts Putin. “Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators do not pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression,” the President told reporters on Thursday. “They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America and the world, keep rising.”
Forty billion dollars. More Robin Wright:
The Biden Administration has public support for its expanding role—for now. Despite war weariness after two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that the U.S. has a “moral responsibility” to do more to stop the killing of civilians in Ukraine, according to a Quinnipiac poll published in mid-April. In a country polarized on most other issues, a majority from both parties agreed. Three-quarters of those polled also fear that the worst is yet to come. And more than eighty per cent believe that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Yet the public’s moral outrage “stops at the water’s edge when it comes to committing the U.S. military to the fight,” Tim Malloy, a Quinnipiac University analyst, noted. Only nineteen per cent of Americans believe the U.S. should do more even if it risks getting into a direct war with Russia.
That conviction may soon be tested. The U.S. role has evolved—from a reactive response to Russia’s unjustified war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and leverage.
What the Biden administration has opted for is a form of proxy warfare in which Ukraine does the fighting, picks the targets, and fires the weapons, but we often supply the weapons and provide intelligence that enables Ukraine to choose targets wisely and precisely. This demonstrates American and NATO resolve while keeping us at least one step removed from directly engaging Russian forces. It’s good for Russia to know that our intelligence is strong enough to place their warships and senior military officers at serious risk — and that we are willing to share that intelligence with Ukraine. Both could well prompt de-escalation, as the Russian military command and President Vladimir Putin confront the reality that it might be impossible for them to achieve anything beyond relatively minimal war aims.
But such de-escalation becomes much less likely if the American role in inflicting pain on the Russian military is public knowledge. That’s because a big part of politics, even in authoritarian regimes, involves managing appearances. In order to sell a policy of de-escalation to the Russian people, Putin must be able to portray it as at least a partial victory. Otherwise, he would be risking looking weak and opening himself up to a collapse in support and/or a coup attempt that could leave him deposed from power and even dead. Humiliating Putin could also inflame patriotic rage among ordinary Russians, who could end up demanding retribution in the form of some face-saving action against NATO.
That’s how bragging to reporters about the American role in helping Ukraine inflict maximal harm against Russian forces could well initiate an escalatory spiral that culminates in direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
Read it all.I don’t believe we should be fighting a proxy war with Russia, but if we are, then we damn sure ought not to have our officials bragging about it!
UPDATE.2: People can’t buy baby formula in this country, but Democrats and Republicans in Washington and sending $40 billion to Ukraine.
We want to invite any Republican senator who plans on voting for the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine to come on the show and explain why. Please tell us. We’ll let you talk as much as you want.https://t.co/uPAwNtbdrOpic.twitter.com/Ep6HFTbjUP
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) May 12, 2022
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The Cathedral Vs. The Orthodox Church
NPR is such an absurd organization these days. I cannot wait until some future Congress and president remove all federal funding from it, given what it has become. As far as I know, this major player in the Cathedral (the neoreactionary term for the informal system of American elites) have never paid a bit of attention to Orthodox Christianity in America. But now they’ve come out with a hit piece on how Orthodoxy is attracting far right converts.
Here’s how it appears on the website:
This is a biased article, even by NPR’s standards. Reporter Odette Yousef begins by talking about right-wing converts to ROCOR (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — the exile church, though it reconciled in recent years with the Moscow Patriarchate) in a single West Virginia congregation. More:
The case study that Riccardi-Swartz provides adds detail and color to a trend that a handful of historians and journalists have documented for nearly a decade. In publications mostly targeted toward an Orthodox Christian audience, they have raised the alarm about a growing nativist element within the church. Despite Orthodoxy’s relatively small imprint in the U.S., they warn that, unchecked, these adherents could fundamentally alter the faith tradition in the United States. They also warn that these individuals are evangelizing hate in the name of Orthodoxy in ways that could attract more who share those views.
“It’s an immigrant faith. It’s now being sort of colonized by these converts in many respects,” said Riccardi-Swartz. “They’re vocal in their parishes. They’re vocal online. They’re very digitally savvy and very connected to other far-right actors in the United States and across the globe. And that’s really changing the faith.”
Now, before I begin to deconstruct this ridiculous propaganda piece, I concede that it is based on a kernel of truth: some outsiders are finding their way to Orthodoxy, thinking that it will be the far right at prayer. A friend who attends a large parish told me last year that they are seeing some young men showing up with that in mind, only to find out otherwise. Let me be clear at the start of this essay that I concede that this phenomenon is not invented out of whole cloth.
In my own small parish, we have seen a surge of young inquirers, but they are coming not with far-right politics in mind, but because they are looking for something more stable and deeper than the churches they had been attending. And yes, it is true that some come because they correctly sense that Orthodoxy is much less likely to surrender to the wokeness that is infesting many Protestant and Catholic congregations. Note well, though, that to NPR, all of this is “far-right.”
This Riccardi-Swartz talks about how these people are “really changing the faith.” Are they? In my experience of being within Orthodoxy for sixteen years, these leftists — like those quoted in Yousef’s story — are angry at converts like me because they want to change the faith to make it more compatible with American liberalism. Converts like me come into the Orthodox Church warning the unsuspecting cradle Orthodox what people like these activists within the Church are really doing — and how if the Orthodox congregations don’t wake up, they will find themselves turned into Baklava Episcopalians.
The NPR story focuses mostly on ROCOR, which is a tiny jurisdiction in America. There are single megachurches in Texas with more members. From the piece:
“This is in line with American mainline religion, [where] everyone is shrinking in size except nondenominational churches,” Krindatch said. But ROCOR, which Krindatch estimated in 2020 to have roughly 24,000 adherents, experienced a striking shift. While the number of ROCOR adherents declined by 14%, Krindatch found that the number of parishes grew by 15%.
“So what it means [is], we have more parishes, but which are smaller in size. And if you look at the geography, those parishes were planted not in traditional lands of Orthodoxy,” said Krindatch. The growth occurred in less populated areas of the Upper Midwest and Southern states, places with fewer direct links to Russia.
“So for me, those are a bunch of new ROCOR communities which are founded by convert clergy or by convert members,” Krindatch said.
OK, but why should we assume that these converts are far rightists? I worshiped in a ROCOR church from 2012-16, and my priest, a convert, was especially vigilant against far-right infiltration of Orthodoxy. He was a former cop, and understood that this was a potential threat. He was instrumental in educating Orthodox bishops, who were clueless. Again: this was a ROCOR priest who took the lead to fight racist infiltration of the Church by radical converts. And in our church, we founded a mission within ROCOR because it was the only Orthodox jurisdiction willing to send a priest into a mission in south Louisiana. Nobody cared about politics at our parish — well, except for this one elderly man, who seemed perpetually disappointed that nobody wanted to talk politics with him. My experience is subjective, of course, but I have had nothing but warmth, kindness, and normality in my interactions with ROCOR people.
Anyway, these tiny little ROCOR mission parishes within a small and shrinking jurisdiction so alarmed NPR that it decided to do a big story on it. And by implication, the bullying liberals of NPR — who just love “diversity,” as long as diversity goes one way — smear all of American Orthodoxy, as you’ll see if you read the whole thing.
Aram Sarkisian, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Northwestern University’s Department of History, said this new growth from converts has helped some branches of Orthodoxy offset a decline in multigenerational families in the church. Sarkisian said these converts often find their way to Orthodoxy because they seek a haven for what they consider to be the most important cultural issues of the day.
“They’re drawn to what they believe to be conservative views on things like LGBTQ rights, gender equality. Abortion is a really big issue for these folks, the culture wars issues, really,” Sarkisian said. “And so they leave other faith traditions that they don’t believe to be as stringent about those issues anymore.”
That’s true. If you want a more traditionally Christian church, you’ll want to investigate Orthodoxy. But look, Sarkisian is a left-wing smear artist, as I wrote last year when he attempted to demonize Southern converts to Orthodoxy as neo-Confederates.
He focused in part on my praise for the proposal that St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary relocate from Yonkers, NY, to Dallas — this, because Orthodoxy is dying in its historic American heartland (the Northeast), but booming in the South. And, unlike in New York state, legal protections for actually orthodox institutions are likely to be greater than in a hostile woke state like New York. I wrote:
The historic regions where Orthodoxy was first planted in the United States are turning away from God. Nobody can deny that. You might want to make an argument that a seminary should be in a place where the need for proclaiming the Gospel is greatest, but that fails to address the concern that St. Vladimir’s board has over “the legal and regulatory environment in the New York area.”
It is a very, very serious concern for any faithfully Orthodox Christian institution, particularly when it comes to LGBT-focused legislation and cultural norms. For now, the First Amendment protects the rights of seminaries to teach according to religious orthodoxy, even if it contradicts the law governing homosexuality and transgenderism (of which New York is one of the most progressive states). But that says nothing about rules for academic accreditation. It is entirely possible that if SVOTS remains in New York, or another deep blue state, that it could face uphill accreditation battles that could put the very existence of the seminary in jeopardy. Relocating to a red state would mean going to a place that is both more culturally conservative, and, being more religious, better understands the importance of religious liberty.
Naturally this upsets the people at Public Orthodoxy, who are eager to liberalize — including to queer — the Orthodox churches in our country. It appears that these theological progressives fear that they are losing influence over the direction of Orthodoxy in America, and are resorting to neo-Confederate smears to justify their anxiety. The Fordham Orthodox guys helped lead the charge to get my Schmemann lecture at SVOTS cancelled, but they failed. I talked about Live Not By Lies, and the crisis all small-o orthodox Christians — and especially Orthodox Christians — are facing in this post-Christian culture. I know exactly why they hated having me speak there: because I have their number. You rarely if ever hear progressive Orthodox voices complain about the rising soft totalitarianism against moral and theological conservatives because they themselves think oppression of the orthodox Orthodox by the state and by other institutions is a good thing. What these people can’t do within the institution — move it leftward — they are hoping that the state will do for them.
You want to talk about those trying to “change the church”? NPR quotes Inga Leonova, a straight-but-pro-LGBT activist I believe is trying to queer the Orthodox Church in America. [Note: I at first said she was lesbian, not as any kind of insult, but because I thought it was true; turns out she’s not, she only favors LGBT inclusion and affirmation in the church; I apologize to her for my mistake, and have rectified it — RD] It quotes the militantly leftist academic Aram Sarkisian. And it quotes one of the two founders of the Orthodox Study Center at Fordham, the most important center of the attempt to liberalize and queer American Orthodoxy.
The frustrating thing about this NPR piece is that most people in America have never heard of Orthodox Christianity, or if they have, associate it with Greek food festivals. Now, though, NPR has brought all of us Orthodox under suspicion. From the piece, way down:
Those who have followed the influx of extremists into American Orthodoxy agree that those individuals are fringe within the church and are mostly concentrated in newly founded ROCOR parishes. But they also warn that it would be foolish to ignore them.
They are fringe people in one of the smallest jurisdiction of American Orthodoxy, representing only three or four percent of all Orthodox in the US! But NPR devoted ten minutes to sounding the alarm about their supposed threat. Sarkisian told NPR:
“This is how people are finding Orthodoxy now. They’re finding Orthodoxy through these YouTube shows. They’re finding it through these podcasts. They’re finding it through these blogs,” said Sarkisian. “They’re being radicalized by these folks on the internet, and that’s really dangerous.”
Is that really how people are finding Orthodoxy now, through far-right videos? I hear all the time from people who have found Orthodoxy through reading my blog or my Substack, where I talk not at all about Orthodoxy and politics. Undoubtedly, some people do find Orthodoxy through extremist videos. But the idea that the people coming into Orthodoxy through this narrow gate is significant is not demonstrated at all in this article.
So what is its point, other than to tar a Russian church, in a time of Russophobia, as an anti-American menace? Let me give you a little more background on the kind of Orthodox people Odette Yousef quotes. The two Fordham Orthodox guys are George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou. Back in 2014, the Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian wrote a negative review of a book about Orthodox political theology by Papanikolaou. Excerpts:
In the end, The Mystical as Political is not about theology. The book makes much of theological concepts like theosis but deploys them as tropes or gestures to smooth the way for the Orthodox faith to be put in service of a distinctly American religious project, one launched principally from within the academy.
In a telling admission, Papanikolaou writes that, when it comes to political theology “I do not think the transcendent referent need be to the divine, but can take the form of a common good.” In other words, whatever conduces to democracy and justice is of God. The sacramental realism and eschatological maximalism of Orthodoxy evaporates and is replaced by a consecration of the democratic “communion” of the secular liberal state.
Papanikolaou asserts that “in relation to the democratic form of the common good, the church must accept its own limits and recognize that the goal is not the formation of a eucharistic community through persuasion.” This is an astounding pronouncement. The Church must renounce not only the use of the state’s coercive power, something Orthodoxy often depended on in past centuries, but also her ambition to draw the world into the eucharistic celebration.
In the place of this ecclesial vision of transformation, we are served the claptrap of diversity and political correctness. The goal of Orthodoxy, according to Papanikolaou, is “the construction of a community in which diversity and cultural difference must be affirmed and protected and in which the recognition of such diversity must be enforced if they are not voluntarily accepted.” Enforced? Does this not imply that the liberal state has a responsibility and right to coerce the Church when the Church does not affirm “diversity and cultural difference”? Surely, Papanikolaou knows that these terms are the property of the progressive left that insists on same-sex marriage, among other things Orthodoxy refuses to “recognize.”
We’ve sadly seen this within contemporary mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism. In those contexts, talk about justice (or social justice) has displaced the language of holiness. This has been accomplished at immense cost to the eschatological dimension in both Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics. In the effort to insinuate the Church’s mind into public policy, we’ve seen the Church’s singularly biblical and Christian speech stripped away. Papanikolaou would do the same for Orthodoxy.
None of this is meant to minimize the “threat,” such as it is, from a handful of far-right nativists infiltrating a tiny jurisdiction of Orthodoxy. But it is to point out for non-Orthodox readers that NPR aligns itself with an academic faction within American Orthodoxy that really and truly does want to change the Church to make it more like, well, NPR.
I do give the Fordham guys credit, though, for publishing this essay from Sister Vassa Larin, a well-known Russian Orthodox nun who explains why she’s not leaving ROCOR. Excerpt:
In conclusion, let me say a few words in support of “sticking it out” within one’s own church community, at this Time of Troubles. I, for one, am not going anywhere, from my “jurisdiction,” which happens to be the ROCOR (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), also known as ROCA (the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad). Why am I not leaving, even while we commemorate Patriarch Kirill, and many of our clergy sympathize with Putinism? Because I love my Church. That’s my best answer. And as I’ve said jokingly, you can’t take the “broad” out of the Russian Orthodox Church A-broad, just like you can’t take the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad out of the “broad.” I do feel quite devastated by the whole situation, and I do feel betrayed by the utter failure of some of my “fathers” to discern the truth of this horrible war in Ukraine. I have not been able to post my usual reflections on Scripture on social media, nor have I updated our coffeewithsistervassa.com website, since the war began. I have been at a loss for words, frankly, and instead I’ve been focusing on helping a Ukrainian refugee family here in Vienna, which has been a great blessing to me; this opportunity somehow to help the situation has been healing to me. And as I move forward, I see my now more-difficult vocation as witnessing to the truth within my beloved Church, however insignificant that witness is, or how uncomfortable for me, or whether it matters to anyone. I could just leave, but I don’t think, in my case, that leaving my “marriage” to this Church is warranted. I think that God calls me to love, and to truthful witness, to my church family, and that’s where I will remain. I also embrace the promise of St. Paul, quoted at the beginning of this post, that I might become one of the “approved” or in Greek the dokimoi, if I stand in truth at this time of divisions. Thank you to those of you who have read this to the end. “Let us love one another, that we may with one mind confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”
I wonder if NPR has any interest in ROCOR people like Sister Vassa who deplore Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the feeble response of many Russian hierarchs to it, but who stay anyway. Do they think Sister Vassa is a closet Putinist? Actually I don’t think NPR cares. I think they’re just slinging snot at the Orthodox Church to see what sticks.
Well, look, if NPR hates an institution, that might be a recommendation for it. I hope you will go find an Orthodox Church this weekend and see what it has to offer. You will almost certainly not find politics, far-right or otherwise, despite what you’ve heard on taxpayer-funded state radio. Allow me to finish by quoting once again this line from Odette Yousef’s report:
Those who have followed the influx of extremists into American Orthodoxy agree that those individuals are fringe within the church and are mostly concentrated in newly founded ROCOR parishes.
So by NPR’s own admission, these menaces to society are a handful of people who are even on the margins within their marginal Orthodox jurisdiction (our word for “denomination” within Orthodoxy). Yet they gave ten minutes on Morning Edition to this story. How do you think NPR would have handled it twenty years ago if a fringe number of Islamic extremists were attending mosques belonging to a tiny conservative Islamic fellowship of mosques in America? I think we all know the answer to that question.
Y’all better all get used to it, you Christians from non-tame churches. This is what it’s going to be like going forward. Dig deep, pray hard, and never surrender.
UPDATE: From the Facebook page of Orthodox Christian Melissa Naasko, commenting on the NPR story:
1. I’m a mixed race brown woman in a further mixed marriage. No clergy or monastic in ROCOR has EVER made my race an issue. I’m in [the ROCOR monastery at] Jordanville 2-4 times a year and sent all my brown sons to Summer Boys. I have son studying at Holy Trinity as we speak. I have taken all my teens to St Herman’s conferences with Holy Cross monks. My own HUSBAND is a ROCOR priest.
2. Last Western Christmas, the Midwest ROCOR St Herman’s Youth Conference had two speakers. They had a black man who serves as a priest for the Serbs and me. The institution isn’t racist even if there are racist faithful. There are also red heads and left handed people and even those who like pineapple on pizza. That’s because Orthodoxy is for everyone. That’s where salvation is.
3. I have a super low tolerance for racists. I should be a kinder and more forgiving person but, if we are being honest, I’m more often a “catch these hands, bro” kinda mujera. I also run my mouth. If ROCOR was packed with racists, both my lips and hands would be chapped.