Orthodox America


What Price Freedom


by Vladimir Moss

For at least two hundred years, the value most highly esteemed in Western society has been freedom. Even those, such as the monarchists, fascists and communists, whose programs have advocated a greater degree of State control, have had, at least for propaganda purposes, to pay lip-service to the values of liberal democracy. Thus monarchists have tended to be constitutional monarchists, fascists-populists claiming to express the will of the people, and communists-self-appointed champions of the oppressed against imperialist and capitalist oppressors.

It requires an effort of historical imagination to realize that the absolute value of freedom has been by no means self-evident to previous generations. In Roman times, for example, the value most prized in Roman rule was peace, and the loss of their freedom was considered by most of the Empire's subject peoples (the Jews were the main exception) to be a price well worth paying for the Pax Romana. Certainly the Christians never agitated for political freedom.

When the Roman Empire became Christian, the supreme value of external peace was replaced by that of spiritual peace, which is based on right belief or Orthodoxy. And this value was transferred to the "Third Rome", Russia. In the medieval West the same ideal prevailed, albeit in a very corrupted form, and both popes and kings justified their rule by claiming to be God-appointed "vicars of Christ" or "defenders of the Faith".

Of course, the fact that a society values peace or Orthodoxy above all else does not necessarily mean that freedom is despised or not considered worth fighting for. Indeed, a certain measure of freedom in some spheres may be considered a necessary condition for the attainment of the supreme value. Thus in the Orthodox East, with few exceptions, the principle of freedom of conscience was upheld and the torture of heretics discouraged (unlike in the West, at any rate after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215). But history shows that societies in which freedom is the supreme value form a distinct type, liberal democracy. The question is: is it the best type? Freedom means many different things to different people. To a Christian it means full spiritual freedom, freedom from sin, the law of liberty (James 1:25), of which Christ spoke when He said, Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32). The liberal democracies speak very little of this kind of freedom-much less than did the Orthodox autocrats. This does not necessarily entail that liberal democracy is not conducive to spiritual freedom. But it has to be admitted that as societies in the West have become more liberal and democratic they have at the same time become less Christian. Christian liberals may argue that this development is the result of quite other factors-the rise of science, perhaps, or the Industrial Revolution. But the fact remains that, whatever the reason, Britain, say, in the late twentieth century is a less religious society than Britain in the early seventeenth century.

Many-many even who call themselves Christian-welcome this, arguing that the religiosity of seventeenth-century England was in fact bigotry and fanaticism, and the humanism of twentieth-century England-a sign of our greater humaneness. They even argue that the humanism of twentieth-century England is closer to real Christianity than the seventeenth-century version. I believe that if one examines such a person's ideal of freedom, it will turn out to have very little to do with spiritual freedom as Christ defined it, and be much closer to freedom of conscience, of speech and of the press. People are free, according to this definition, not because they know the truth, but because they can speak the truth or falsehood without being prosecuted. Sometimes this ideal is combined with an agnosticism about the existence of any absolute truth; at others-with a belief that the truth can be attained and retained by the greatest number of people only if the maximum freedom is given to those in error to express their error and, hopefully, have it refuted.

But freedom of thought, it is argued, is possible only if all power is not in the hands of one man holding one point of view. Hence the need of political freedom, or democracy. For although the ruling democratic party or leader cannot express and put into effect all points of view, he will at any rate express the majority point of view, and he must continue to take the views of the majority into account if he wants to remain in power. At this point I should like to make the assumption that absolute truth does exist, that that truth is Christianity, and that spiritual freedom is an absolute value attainable only through knowledge of the truth that is Christianity. The question now is: is this spiritual freedom more surely attained and retained by a society locating its absolute values, not (or at any rate, not explicitly) in spiritual freedom, but in free speech and political freedom, or by a society which places some restrictions on the latter for the sake of the same spiritual freedom? It should be obvious that we are not here contrasting democracy and dictatorship of the Leninist or Hitlerite varieties; for the latter's highest values are explicitly anti-Christian. The contrast is rather between a modern democracy such as ours and a more authoritarian but also more explicitly Christian society such as ninth-century Byzantium or nineteenth-century Russia. It should also be obvious that the greater technological sophistication and wealth of one kind of society is not relevant here, except insofar as one society is deemed to be more conducive to the accumulation of wealth, and this in turn is deemed to help or hinder the attainment of spiritual freedom.

Now a vital preliminary question that must be asked is: do men begin from a condition of freedom or slavery, spiritually speaking? Of freedom, insofar as man has free will. And yet, he is born in a condition of fallenness or original sin, which, without removing his free will, nevertheless distorts his thinking, heavily influences his feeling and weakens and diverts his willing. Thus it is Christian teaching that man cannot liberate himself spiritually by his own efforts alone.

If man cannot liberate himself, then another must help him, even push him, along the way to freedom. We can see this most easily in the case of children. We do not leave children to find out by themselves that fire burns, that arsenic kills, that reading and writing are very useful skills, or that Jesus is God. We tell them these necessary truths, and we do not feel that we are violating their freedom in so doing. Rather, we feel that the one who deprives them of this knowledge is restricting their freedom. This is the principle of education, and it applies throughout our lives. Thus the great scientific advances of modern civilization are the result of the accumulation of knowledge over many generations, and each succeeding generation makes advances by taking the truths discovered by previous generations on trust, and then building on them. Thus we are told that electricity and bacteria exist, and that the earth is not flat. These are not presented as one man's point of view, no better than any other's, but as fact-dogma, if you like. No one objects to this kind of scientific dogmatism (even if some scientific dogmas, for example, evolution, are in fact untrue), because we know that a person who continues to believe that the earth is flat is going to be at a severe disadvantage in the struggle of life.

Of course, if a person, contrary to all that his teachers tell him, continues to believe that the earth is flat, he is not imprisoned or tortured for his wrong belief. This is because we believe that gentle persuasion is a better means of convincing him, and/or that his error does not constitute a major threat to society as a whole. But we do penalize him in other ways-by ridicule, for example, or by failing him in his exams. And in general, if we did not penalize what we considered to be wrong belief in any way the foundations of society would quickly crumble. NO society is completely liberal; societies differ not so much in degrees of liberality as in the things they are liberal about.

In Britain, for example, it is forbidden to use corporal punishment to discipline one's children, but homosexuality is allowed (except in the Isle of Man); it is forbidden to emit certain industrial effluents into rivers, but abortion is allowed; it is forbidden to make racist or anti-semitic remarks, but the crudest blasphemy against Jesus Christ and Christians is allowed (blasphemy laws do exist, but they are never invoked). These laws may be counted as liberal by some, but they go directly counter to the law of liberty preached in the Gospel. According to that law, he that spareth his rod hateth his son (Proverbs 13:24); homosexuality is a deadly sin which brought about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; abortion is murder; and if any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema (I Cor. 16:22).

Of course, it is true that truth and virtue cannot be instilled at the point of a gun. At the end of the day the evil will will manifest itself, whatever the incitements to good, just as the good will will manifest itself whatever the enticements to evil. Thus the angel of the Apocalypse says, he that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Rev. 22:11).

And yet this truth must not be understood in a Calvinist sense, as if no amount of persuasion or external pressure make men one whit better or worse than they would be otherwise. Both the Gospel and the common experience of mankind demonstrate that we as individuals and society as a whole both can and do influence our fellow men to good and evil, to heaven and hell. And that without violating their basic freedom of choice. Thus there can be no doubt that a society which, for whatever reasons, condones homosexuality and abortion makes the incidence of those crimes that much more likely, while a society that forbids them on pain of imprisonment or worse will deter some who might otherwise be tempted. And those who are thus deterred, far from suffering a diminution of their freedom, will be saved from that terrible slavery of the soul-far more terrible than any physical slavery-which ultimately leads down to the eternal bonds of hell. It is an old maxim that liberty is not license. And no society, we repeat, can license everything. Thus, "in order to protect ourselves from the unprincipled preferences of others a system of laws had to be devised, and every law in the code restricts someone's freedom in order to protect someone else's rights. In our republican form of government [in the USA], each person's rights have to be protected from incursion by the majority. Unfortunately, unjust laws can be passed which make moral rights illegal and immoral activities legal-abortion laws being a case in point. And so-called natural law, the common ground on which Church and State could co-exist peaceably, has been eliminated as a foundation for societal law. Even the constitution is being eroded by moral relativism" (The True Vine, Summer, 1991, no. 10, p. 18).

If we begin from Christian, as opposed to humanist principles, then the best society is that which most encourages and helps men along the path to salvation, which is attained by obedience to the dogmatic truths and moral commandments revealed and ordained by God. In essence, such a society is what we call "theocratic"; that is, it is ruled by God, not by the people. This is not to say that the democratic or electoral principle is entirely lacking in such societies-in the theocratic society of Old Israel, for example, the judges were sometimes elected by the people (Judges 11:11), and the first Romanov Tsar was elected by a zemsky sobor. What it means is that all authority in the theocratic society, however it is established-whether by right of primogeniture in the case of kings, or canonical election in the case of bishops, or educational qualification in the case of teachers and magistrates, or physical parenthood in the case of fathers and mothers-is acknowledged to be providentially instituted and preserved by God, so that rebellion against these authorities is ultimately rebellion against God (unless, of course, the authorities themselves have rebelled against God). For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Rom. 13:1).

Now it is important to note that all the world's leading democracies, which have become the model for all the rest, have been founded on the explicit rejection of the theocratic principle. Thus the English Revolution of 1649 explicitly rejected the Divine right of kings and killed the king, thereby adding murder to oath-breaking. And having abolished one pillar of the theocratic society, the Monarchy, it proceeded to dethrone another-the Church, the two being replaced (temporarily) by Puritan republicanism. The American Revolution of 1776 began with a refusal to pay taxes to the lawful king. It involved less of a radical change in society than the other democratic revolutions, partly because the States were already of necessity largely self-governing through their distance from Britain. However, an important new principle was added to the Constitution: "the pursuit of happiness", by which was clearly meant material prosperity and psychological well-being rather than the blessedness of the saints. The French Revolution of 1789 was by far the most bloodthirsty and radical of the revolutions so far. Not only were the Monarchy and the Church overthrown, and a terrible persecution unleashed against the propertied classes, but a completely new and in essence atheist religion-the worship of the goddess Reason-was instituted. It was in reflecting on the French Revolution that Dostoevsky uttered his famous saying: "If God does not exist, then everything [that is, everything that is evil] is per-mitted." As the logical conclusion of all the previous revolutions came the Russian Revolution of 1917. The overthrow of the tsar was welcomed by the Western democracies, although he had been their most faithful ally in the World War against Germany and Austria. And as Dostoevsky had foreseen and Solzhenitsyn has clearly demonstrated, it was the persistent agitation for "freedom" by liberals both within and outside Russia which led to the imposition of the most illiberal and destructive tyranny the world has ever seen.

Nor did the Western democracies show any consistent zeal against the communist regimes they had done so much to install. The Anglo-American expeditionary force withdrew from north Russia in the Civil War when it was on the point of breaking through to Moscow. Britain and America both recognized the Soviet Union at a time when persecution of the Faith was at its height. British journalists gave glowing reports of the Soviets at the height of dekulakization. Stalin remained "Uncle Joe" even after the end of the Second World War, when he had enslaved Eastern Europe. The Allies, and especially the United States, did fight against communism in Greece, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, but not in Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Cambodia or Ethiopia. Red China was admitted to the United Nations, but free Taiwan was expelled. Castro and Ortega were warred against, but Brezhnev, Mao, Tito and Ceausescu were fêted. The real bogey-men for Western liberals remained South Africa and Chile, even liberal America, not the communist regimes which had vowed to destroy all religion and every capitalist state. Even as the West has hesitated to recognize the openly anti-communist democrats and fears above all a return to "fascist" Orthodox regimes. This brief historical synopsis tells us many things about the real nature of modern democracy and its worship of freedom:

1. Its root is anti-God. Therefore its fruit cannot be godly. For either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33). The fruit we are now seeing is blasphemy, murder and immorality on a vast scale. It is difficult indeed to be a true Christian in a modern democracy.

2. The major argument produced in favor of democracy-that it prevents the emergence of imperialist or totalitarian regimes-is false. British imperialism really began after the English Revolution. Napoleon was a direct product of the French Revolution. Russian democracy gave birth to Lenin. German democracy voted Hitler into power. The spread and continuance of communism in the twentieth century was in large measure due to the apathy and dividedness of the Western democracies, whose anti-monarchical and anti-Christian ideology had infected the educated elites of the Eastern countries, and most of whose leading intellectuals have been socialist in their sympathies. The world has not been made safe by or for democracy; communism was defeated (if it has been truly defeated) not by Western democracy, but by the blood of the New Martyrs and the thirst for freedom and truth of the subjugated Eastern peoples.

3. The major argument in favor of unlimited free speech-that it constitutes the best conditions for the discovery of the truth-is false. If unlimited freedom is given to the publication of blasphemous and immoral material, then the result, given the fallenness of our nature and its inclination towards evil, will be an increase in blasphemy and immorality. This in turn will lead to pressure for the muzzling of those few publications and individuals who speak the truth. Already it is difficult to speak out freely against, say, anti-Christian Judaism or soul-destroying homosexuality, in liberal England and America. Absolute power may corrupt absolute rulers (although history shows that there are exceptions to that rule), but absolute freedom is no less corrupting-and it corrupts not just a few people at the top but absolutely everyone, from the power-seeking politicians to the youngest and most powerless children.

What, then, are we to do, we who live in modern democracies but seek to live by God's law?

One temptation we should avoid at the outset. We must understand first of all, that no radical change in society-or at any rate, no radical change for the better-can come about simply by changing the political system. For as Dostoevsky warned when discussing the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, it is not forms that must change, but the spirit that underlies them and that brought them into being.

Liberal democracy, together with its offspring, communism, came into being as the result of a change in the spirit of the Western peoples a change involving a decrease in faith in God, and an increase in the belief that man can control his own destiny independently of God. So theocracy, rule by God, was rejected-actually, the critical change came many centuries earlier, at the time of the Schism in the eleventh century-in favor of democracy, rule by the people. In essence, this was the spirit of rebellion, the same spirit which cast satan out of heaven. The nature of this spirit has been masked by such fine-sounding slogans as freedom, equality and fraternity. But its true nature has been revealed by the unprecedented horrors of the twentieth century, most of which have been carried out in the name of the same high-flown ideals. But the spirit of a society can change only when the spirit of its individual members has changed. Thus a truly theocratic society can come into being only when each individual has truly made God the ruler in his own individual life. Then, and only then, will God-not man-act to change the structure of society in order that it may reflect and confirm the new spirit that reigns in its members. It would make no sense, for example, to agitate for the installment of an Orthodox king in a society which understands neither Orthodoxy nor kingship. For such a society would only say, like the backsliding Israelites: We have no king, for we fear not the Lord, and a king, what could he do for us? (Hosea 10:3).

And there is another reason why action on a large, political scale is fruitless. We live in an age of apostasy foretold by the prophets. And as Bishop Iganty Brianchaninov wrote: "The apostasy is permitted by God, so do not try to stop it with your weak hand; keep away, protect yourself from it and that will be enough."

And yet there is a society both ancient and modern in which the theocratic principle already reigns-the Church, and the Lord has promised that the Church will survive to the end of the age and overcome the very gates of hell (Matt. 16:18). Therefore it is possible to work both for oneself and for the salvation of society as a whole by working for the Church. And even if the Church has always avoided identifying herself even with the most pious of extra-ecclesial societies-for she knows that the world lies in evil (I John 5:19) and that the Lord's Kingdom is not of this world (John 8:36)-the transformation of society into a truly theocratic organism can only come about in and through the Church.

Indeed, it is the Church which provides the real checks and balances against state-induced evil which democracy so prides itself on but which have proved so ineffective in fact. For sixteen centuries, from 312 to 1917, the Orthodox Christian Empire brought up generations of Christians in the fear of God without ever descending into the godless tyrannies or immoral democracies of the twentieth century. And those few rulers who could be called tyrants, such as Bardas or Peter the Great, were able to practise their cruelties only because the Church's voice was temporarily silenced. As long as the Church is strong and spreads her leaven through the whole of society, political rulers are restrained from the cruder forms of evil and can work for God with the wholehearted support of the people.

But when the Church is weak, or is replaced by godless humanism or anti-theist communism, then no power on earth-and certainly not the ballot-box or a democratic press-can stop the whole nation from sliding into ruin.

The Lord said, Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). He, and only He, the only sinless One, can truly set us free. Therefore, says the Apostle, live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but live as servants of God (I Peter 2:16).

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