Being Christian in a Western Democracy


Fr. Ilya Gorsky

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Our first and foremost concern is our salvation. We are on this earth to seek out God, to love Him, and to do all in our power to be like Him. The holy Scriptures stress this again and again. In [the Gospel of] Matthew our Lord says, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." In Chronicles we read the same: "Seek the Lord and His strength. Seek His face continually." And there are many other quotes from the New and Old Testaments. The emphasis is on continuous seeking to be God-like. This, of course, means keeping oneself away from sin. We long for God and the next world. The next world is our home, not this one.

In the course of this discussion we must also remember that good government or a good society is not an end to itself; but rather, they are just the circumstances within which we must earn our salvation.

Why are we talking about being Orthodox Christians in a western democratic society? There are many forms of government in the world and one should be able to live a Christian life in any of them. Particularly, since this world is just a temporary abode for us. Throughout the Holy Scriptures, we are taught to respect government. As we well know, Our Lord, in response to the Pharisees' questions on paying the Roman taxes said, "Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." The Apostle Paul clearly states, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers for there is no power but of God and the powers that are ordained of God." We may be familiar with this passage but Saint Paul continues this verse with the following: "Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God. And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain for he is the minister of God. A revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. For this cause, pay ye tribute also for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, respect to whom respect, and honour to whom honour."

Why can't we just follow these commandments and try to live a Christian life, seeking the kingdom of God? What is this special concern that we need to talk about democracy? To be brief, the answer is that western democracy is filled with traps, half-truths and deceptions. Good and evil have been so intertwined that one can easily mistake one for the other. One may thus be committing grievous sins and not be aware of it. The answer has everything to do with one's salvation.

Just to give you some examples of traps and half-truths and deceptions...

All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. This statement is taught and accepted by democratic peoples as the mainstay of American democracy. This statement is purported to mean that all men are to be treated equally by the law. By its reference to God, this statement seeks to make itself more credible as if it is God-sanctioned. However, this reference to God is grossly misstated. God created people with an equal chance of salvation. But even then, different people are endowed by their Creator with different numbers of talents, each to facilitate their salvation. As for earthly equality, which is referred to by that statement, people are born as unequal as night and day. A person who is born a millionaire with all the facilities at his disposal, is he equal to someone born, for example, in Harlem? How could you say these two persons are equal? Are both treated equally before American law?

Then the issue of tolerance, another example. Tolerance in western democracy is billed as a supreme and unquestionable good. God endowed men not with inalienable rights but with free will. And God forces no one to be with God, but longs for men to freely choose to love Him from their hearts. However the tolerance, this preoccupation with tolerance has degenerated to extremes. Open tolerance, for example, of homosexuality and not only tolerance, but promotion.
As we see from Saint Paul, throughout the history of man government has been instituted by God to keep man away from sin, to aid man in his quest for salvation. In the pre-Mosaic law, in the Garden of Eden, the first government consisted of one single law, instituted by God, to allow man to obey God out of his own volition. As we know that first law was broken by Adam and Eve and they, and the entire human race, became estranged from God. Adam and Eve were thus punished for their sin. The consequences of their sin are borne by mankind to this day.

The Hebrews received God's law through Moses on Mount Sinai. This law was both religious and secular. Actually, it was just one set of laws for both. Any disobedience to it was a sin against God. There existed no dichotomy between secular and religious laws. There was no contest between secular laws and religious laws. And also, each person was responsible for his own sins before God. As we know, the Hebrews were punished many times for disobeying God. God sent judges to help the Hebrews in time of need, for example, Gideon and Samson, and to bring them back to God when they strayed, like the judge and prophet Samuel.

In today's language, this would be called a theocracy. In the eyes of the western democratic society in which we live a theocracy is a most oppressive intolerant form of government, markedly worse than a dictatorship. In reality, it is the best form of government. Laws were given to man directly from God, each person answering only to God. God was the head of that state. However, what we are taught in this democratic society, is that that was the most evil of forms of government whereas our Church teaches that this is the best.

The Hebrews, however, saw that other peoples were governed by kings and were envious. They sowed discord among themselves and felt that a king would restore order. They asked the prophet Samuel, who was also the judge at the time to anoint for them a king. Samuel at first refused but received word from God. "And the Lord said unto Samuel, 'hearken unto the voice of the people and all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. Hearken unto their voice and make them a king.' And Samuel anointed Saul to be king. Note that the Hebrews did not rebel openly against God, but asked God's judge and prophet Samuel to anoint for them a king, and God so instructed Samuel.

From the time of the kings there became a dichotomy in laws - the secular law, in other words, those issued by the king, and God's law, those given to the Hebrews on Mount Sinai. But that is not really the main issue. The king anointed by God to rule His people was now personally responsible to God for the laws that he imposed on the people. If the king issued laws contradicting God's law and thus led his subjects into sin, God would hold the king accountable for the sins of the people whom he was leading astray. The people, being sworn to support the king, God's anointed, would be judged by God much less severely for any of their sins caused by improper laws instituted by the king. Throughout history, we have seen how God punished the kings who have led God's people astray, those who have abused the power with which God entrusted them to lead the people to salvation, because as we remember, government is there, instituted by God for the salvation of the people.

We must remember, though, that God punishes to seek the repentance of the sinner, and the king is no exception. A person who is beyond repentance may be left alone by God and in this earthly life may appear to flourish. Likewise, such a king may be allowed to rule by God to punish people who deserve such a king. (A saint who once lived in a country ruled by a particularly harsh king asked God, "Why did You place such a bad king over us?" God answered, "Because I could not find anyone worse.")

Imagine an Orthodox Christian monarch anointed by God, who governs his people with a fear of God in his heart. He understands the heavy burden placed on him by God for he must answer to God for all the souls of his subjects. If his laws are too loose, he is not using his sword to keep his people from evil. If his laws are too strict, he may be pushing his subjects to sin. Imagine being governed by such a monarch. You can almost relax and not question the righteousness of his laws for he is the God-fearing, the "Father-King", fulfilling, to the best of his abilities, the heavy cross which is imposed on him by God, the cross to govern the people. Imagine the weight of such a cross. Millions of souls are your responsibility. No wonder the coronation of an king or queen is compared to the sacrament of ordination. But our western democratic society looks on all monarchs as being equivalent to dictatorships. The aspirations of an Orthodox monarch to govern his subjects according to God's law are equated to a dictator's lust for power and riches. Both are considered equivalently evil.

Then the time came and the people again rejected God's appointed ruler as in the time of Samuel. But this time the people rejected God's anointed ruler not by asking, but through force, via revolution. This time they were not asking God for a king. Now they want to be kings themselves and they did not ask but usurp and they killed God's anointed. And again, God allows this to happen. They seek to be masters of their own destiny. They seek to be answerable to no one. They seek to make their own laws, a government "of the people, by the people, for the people", through democratic voting. But with the usurpation of the throne of God's anointed, they have also taken the heavy cross of governing - for themselves.

The people now choose their rulers and the laws which the rulers choose in their name. Now the people are responsible for the laws and bear the same full accountability that God's anointed king used to bear. For example, if a king issued a law allowing abortion, all the resulting murders of innocent babies were sins of murder on his soul.

Likewise, having usurped the the throne of God's anointed, if you knowingly vote for the politician who espouses abortion, all resulting abortions are sins of murder on your soul. "But wait", you say, "I am not the only one. There are millions of others who voted with me." Yes, that is true, but a sin is a sin. If ten people conspire to commit murder, does each one carry just one tenth of the sin? If so, then if the conspiracy involved a hundred, a thousand , or a million of people, then for each person, it's almost not even a sin? But no, we know, that if ten people commit one murder, each
person's soul carries the full weight of such a sin.

So what is happening in our country? We have the sins of millions of murders of innocent babies on the soul of each voter who cast his vote. How many repent? How many such sins continue to mount on each person's soul? And we have not even touched the other so called issues like homosexual rights - this abomination before the eyes of the Lord, is protected and promoted, and taught openly to the innocent children of our schools. How many people freely chose the rulers who passed such laws? We have the AIDS epidemic, and we have more frequently occurring earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. We can no longer remember a time when one could walk safely in our streets. Very faintly and very infrequently we may hear a voice saying, "This is punishment from God." We also then hear many persons' response, "These epidemics could not possibly be a punishment from God. Innocent people and even babies are struck. I refuse to believe who God is so cruel."

But who is truly innocent in a western democracy? Each one votes for the candidate of their choosing. Each one can open their mouth in protest or defence of a law but how many do? According to the Apostle, one who has an opportunity to do good and does not, has committed a sin. So who is innocent? The babies, perhaps. But the consequences of sins of the parents are borne by their children. This is a spiritual as well as a physical law. Physically speaking, babies born of drug addicts are addicted themselves. Spiritually speaking, according to the scriptures, a parent's sin is borne by seven generations of offspring. It may be theologically debatable whether the number seven, in this case, is the specifically countable seven, or the generic seven, like the seventy times seven number of times we are instructed to forgive one who commits a sin against us. The consequences of the first sin of Adam and Eve are still being borne by us, removed only through the sacrament of Baptism-Chrismation.

Considering the multitude and magnitude of the sins in our society, in other words, how many sins are being committed, and they're all placed on so many people, with each person responsible for those sins, there is no question that these epidemics are punishment permitted by God. He is jolting us to repentance. The wonder is that He does not smite us from the face of the earth as in Sodom and Gomorrah. I suppose there must still be more than ten righteous men in this society.

So our democratic society has usurped the place of God's anointed. Is it now content? The answer is of course, "No." Although this country has proclaimed itself a Christian country for the last two hundred years, it is now coming to the next step. Not content with being kings, the people now want to take the place of God. They want to become gods, but not through the path of salvation offered by God, but again through usurpation. Laws being enacted currently are anti-God. The current laws protect and exalt the sin and the sinner while the worship of God is curtailed. As we know, one can hardly mention God in the schools at all.
So, how should we then live? We must return to our primary concern, our salvation. When we vote, we must be cognizant of what we are doing. We are selecting our rulers and as with all our actions, we must answer to God for them. But we must realise that when we vote, we bear the responsibility of a king. We are effecting the enactment of laws which will affect many souls, either promoting sin or preventing sin. And we answer to God with the full weight of the cross of governing. Once we acquire the right to vote if we do not vote to promote righteousness when we are able, we commit the sin of inaction. How great is this sin. We remember Eli, the high priest and judge who raised the prophet Samuel, his entire house was put to death for the sin of inaction for not restraining his sons who were evil priests. We read in the holy Scriptures, "because his sons made themselves vile and he restrained them not."

How much of the Apostle Paul's commandments concerning government authority is applicable here? We must particularly note the passage "For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good, but if thou do that which is evil be afraid for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

When the governmental authority is clearly opposite, it rewards evil and persecutes God, we must be extra diligent. Saint Paul was speaking in the time of pagan Roman emperors, and when the emperors demanded sacrifices to the pagan gods, Saint Paul did not obey the authorities, but as many other Christians, received the martyr's crown. We thus must not blindly obey the governmental authorities.

In conclusion, let us reflect on our salvation. We must seek the kingdom of God. Christ told many parables in which He said "the kingdom of God is likened unto ...." and He would relate a parable. All of these parables are extremely important to us, for Christ is explaining to us that which we must seek. We have all heard the parable of the talents many times. The talents are being given to us not just at birth, but throughout our lives. The talents are our tickets to the kingdom of God, our opportunities to do good. If we accept them, take up the cross given to us, and work the good presented to us, we will gain more talents. If we reject the opportunities to do good, these talents will be taken away from us and given to another who will bring them to fruition at the appointed time. A simple but poignant example is Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who comforted and took in so many orphans. These orphans were in the streets of Shanghai and undoubtedly could have been cared for by any one of a multitude of people besides Archbishop John. The orphans were, in fact, talents given to all these people by the Master, but each one of these people rejected them, buried the talent, and said to God," Here is your talent, as you have given it to me. I do not want to do your work." And so the talent, the opportunity to do good is taken from the evil servant and given to one who already had ten other talents - to Archbishop John, who accepted the cross of the talent and raised a multitude of orphans and brought fruit a hundredfold.
A transcript, edited by Fr. Hieromonk Michael of Saint Petroc Monastery with the permission of the author, of a talk given at the Saint Herman Conference in1994