Democracy in the Kingdom of God


Nothing is equal because nothing is the same. All things are unique and unrepeatable. This is especially true of persons. Understanding this helps us deal with reality. But the mindset of our modern world suggests in a very seductive manner that things are quite different. It suggests that all things are indeed equal and that wherever inequality exists, it should be overthrown or corrected. Elsewhere, I have called this the “sin of democracy.” I do not mean that political arrangements that are democratic in nature are wrong. However, certain ideas in our modern world go far beyond political arrangements and suggest things about the nature of how things are. It is in these suggestions (and our accepting them as facts) that the “sin of democracy” can be found.

A quick note on positive aspects of democracy. I have always understood the political advantages of democracy as the ability to vote someone out of office – it is a protection against tyranny. It is not, however, a guarantee of good government, the best government, or wise government. It just means that with the vote, I can organize and vote something out that I want to change (maybe). Having said that, I want to give my attention to the spiritual aspect of what I mean by the “sin of democracy.”

The law wisely treats everyone as equal. Everyone should have equal rights before the law. But that will not make them equal. Medical personnel will likely have more accurate information about health matters than a six-year-old child. They are not equally qualified in medical matters. And that we recognize someone’s expertise does not mean we despise the less-qualified. However, we would be seriously insane if we treated all opinions as having equal weight.

What I mean by the “sin of democracy” is a sort of “interiorizing” of certain cultural assumptions and habits in such a manner that they become the matrix of our spiritual understanding. For example, the Scriptures make clear that not all people are spiritually “equal.” Some in the Kingdom of God are greater than others (which implies that some are less).

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. (1Co 15:40-41)

This passage, treating the question of the resurrection of our bodies, has traditionally also been seen as a reference to differences in eternity between one person and another. Christ Himself speaks of some as being “greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven,” or as being “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” In the same manner, He speaks of some as having a “greater condemnation” than others, implying greater and lesser sufferings in hell.

These distinctions undermine the legal framework of salvation taught by many who hold to a disordered understanding of salvation. There is an extreme version within the legal model that holds that we are saved by grace alone, with no regard whatsoever to our works. If our salvation is truly a legal matter, if God “considers” us righteous simply because we believe (and that’s the end of the matter), then why indeed would He consider one more righteous than another. Thus, a kind of equality of grace is argued because anything else would seem unjust (if there is no merit involved whatsoever). But in the classical model of salvation, “grace” is not God’s “unmerited favor,” (simply a matter of how God thinks about us), it is, quite literally, the Divine Life, the Divine Energies. It is the life and power of God given to us in order to change us and conform us to the Divine Image through our union with the Crucified and Risen Christ. And though no individual can possibly save themselves (because we cannot ourselves manufacture the Divine Energies), nonetheless, for varying reasons, some yield themselves more fully and completely to this work within them. Some, indeed, become great saints.

I say that this is for “varying reasons,” because we really cannot pierce within the mystery of each individual. There is doubtless some role played by the unique intention of God for their lives, but there are other mysteries which we cannot know. However, it is clear that “one star differs from another in glory.” For example, the Church says of the Mother of God that she is “more honorable than the cherubim, more gloroius beyond compare than the seraphim.” This is clearly related both to her unique role in our salvation, as well as to her unique and total yielding of herself to God (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Your word”).

The perversity of the democratic force within the spiritual life, however, reveals itself in our unwillingness to accept that someone might be greater than ourselves or more deserving of honor. Researching this matter, I ran across a question someone posed asking, “How can I be happy if someone receives more reward than I do?” I understand the question, but it is born of the perverse spirituality nurtured in a democracy that seeks to rule heaven itself.

The Kingdom of God (and all of reality) is hierarchical by nature. But its hierarchy is just that – a “sacred” (hieros) “order” (arche).  In the case of Mary we can see how this hierarchy is not that of the world with its competition and violence. Mary sings, “You have exalted the humble and meek and the rich you have sent away empty.” The mere “arche” of the world is measured by power (and its frequent abuse). The hierarchy of the world (sacred order), however, is a hierarchy of grace in which self-emptying love is the greatest thing of all.

The devotional habits of the Church seek to inculcate in our hearts a proper regard for this sacred order. The veneration given to the Mother of God, described as “hyperdulia” by the Fathers (“extreme honor”), teaches us not that she is equal to God, but that she is greater than I am. For strangely, when I refuse to grant that any other creature is greater than I am, then I am slowly drawn towards a heart that will not grant that the Creator Himself is greater. This gives us the refusal of the contemporary culture to acknowledge the limits of its own creaturehood. We imagine that we can be anything we want to be and that we are the creators of our own reality. Such a “creator” can only be found in the mirror.

There is a legend, widely cited in the Tradition, that in the great Council of heaven, before the creation of humanity, the archangel Lucifer saw the Theotokos and the dignity to which she would be raised. It is said that this sight stung his pride and provoked his rebellion. He could not bear to think that a creature who was mere dust could be greater than all the hosts of heaven (including himself). In his rebellion, his anger was directed less at God and more at us, for we were the cause of his humiliation. Thus, he became a “murderer from the beginning” (Joh 8:44).

That same spirit, unrecognized, breathes in our culture and its rebellion against the true hierarchy of heaven. The saintless equality of a democratic heaven is, strangely enough, only a colony of hell. There, only the private light of self is allowed to shine, no other being permitted to eclipse it.

I like living in a democracy for certain reasons, but I do not imagine it as the only way to live, nor do I want it to infect my heart such that I cannot bear to be less than another. The Kingdom of heaven calls us to become the least of all. And even that paradoxical excellence escapes me.

Most Holy Mother of God, save us!



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


36 responses to “Democracy in the Kingdom of God”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless, this is thought provoking as always. I am thinking about how your post reflects on the many things I have exposed to in not only the world of Modernity but even in Christian circles that contradict your points. This gives me a better measurement to review past teachings in light of the truth you reveal. I am firmly convinced, however, that I am first among sinners.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The western experience of democracy is due, in part, to the theological egalitarianism of the Protestants.

    There seems to be something in us however, that does not want to be ruled by anyone, even our own selves. I assume that is the passions at work reminding us that “we will be like gods” if we give them sway.

  3. John Kemp Avatar
    John Kemp

    I really liked this post but I really do not understand the last sentence. What salvation are you speaking of by invoking “Most Holy Mother of God”? I was raised Roman Catholic but I could never see this “salvation” apart from Jesus or in another.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In Orthodoxy, the prayer, “Most Holy Mother of God, save us,” is frequently invoked. It is easily misunderstood by those outside of Orthodoxy. It is an extremely ancient prayer. If you look carefully at the NT, the word “save” has a broad range of meanings other than the very narrow one that contemporary Christianity uses. It means, “deliver us,””help us,” and the like. It is a prayer for her help. If I were in the water drowning, and you were standing on the shore with a rope, I might yell, “Save me!” If you, however, said, “I can’t. Only Jesus can save you,” you would be making the same mistake that the non-Orthodox make when they hear us use this prayer.

  5. John Kemp Avatar
    John Kemp

    Thnx for this clarification. I abandoned my ties with Roman Catholicism in 1970. That does not mean that I am not open to non/ protestism understanding. I am seriously not able to embrace that understanding even though I have looked at it since 1970. Being 65 years old I want to connect with Abba Father even though I have been on a journey for decades. I am not necessarily able. He is able. I DO know that.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand. The Orthodox have a very deep veneration for the Mother of God, but it seems to differ significantly from the Roman Catholic, particularly in “how it feels.” It’s very hard to describe, in that it’s one of those things that really takes experience to understand. I can say that she is very essential to my relationship with Christ and that I cannot imagine my relationship with God without her. What is essential is not some doctrinal/intellectual issue, though I could say a lot about her in terms of doctrine. Rather, it is very much a matter of the heart, not in a private way. She is such an intimate part of Orthodox life in a manner that I do not see elsewhere in Christianity.

  7. Karen Avatar

    John Kemp,

    There is only one salvation in the ultimate spiritual sense–that which comes to us at the initiative of the Holy Trinity through the economy of the Incarnation of God the Son, Jesus Christ. This salvation did not come to any of us, however, apart from the willing obedience of the Mother of God (through whom God the Word took human flesh and became incarnate) and also the obedience and prayers of the whole Church (through which Holy Tradition–witnessed/received, lived/prayed/practiced, and written–has been preserved and passed down to everyone who comes to believe). In this prayer to the Theotokos, it has the sense of “save us by your prayers” and also of “rescue us from immanent danger to soul or body.” (See also 1 Corinthians 7:15 and 1 Timothy 4:16 for other examples of this use of term to “save” in the Scriptures.) No one can be saved apart from the initiative of God in Jesus Christ, but God delights to also use His willing grace-filled human servants (all the saints) in this work.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, if I may, the difference is that for we Orthodox Mary is, despite the poetry and praise, right with us not “up there” some where. A real person.

  9. newenglandsun Avatar

    I always say that democracy is two wolves and a sheep fighting over what to have for breakfast.

    This is the main problem with democracy that many hyper-democracy defenders don’t get. Often times, it further marginalizes the disadvantaged.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The main problem with democracy is, as with every other system of government, it is run by sinners.

    That is why government and politics never really make anything better.

    Tyrannies get stuff done. Mussolini got the trains to run on time.

  11. Rebecca Carp Avatar
    Rebecca Carp

    Father Bless,
    If you permit me I would share an excerpt from George MacDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” that greatly helped me understand how hierarchy works in the Kingdom where “in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” is perfectly fulfilled. It is from the chapter entitled “The New Name” where he expounds on Revelation 2:17 – “To him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

    “But here there is no room for ambition. Ambition is the desire to be above one’s neighbour; and here there is no possibility of comparison with one’s neighbour: no one knows what the white stone contains except the man who receives it. Here is room for endless aspiration towards the unseen ideal; none for ambition. Ambition would only be higher than others; aspiration would be high. Relative worth is not only unknown–to the children of the kingdom it is unknowable. Each esteems the other better than himself. How shall the rose, the glowing heart of the summer heats, rejoice against the snowdrop risen with hanging head from the white bosom of the snow? Both are God’s thoughts; both are dear to him; both are needful to the completeness of his earth and the revelation of himself. “God has cared to make me for himself,” says the victor with the white stone, “and has called me that which I like best; for my own name must be what I would have it, seeing it is myself. What matter whether I be called a grass of the field, or an eagle of the air? a stone to build into his temple, or a Boanerges to wield his thunder? I am his; his idea, his making; perfect in my kind, yea, perfect in his sight; full of him, revealing him, alone with him. Let him call me what he will. The name shall be precious as my life. I seek no more.”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, et al.
    As I noted in the article, I have no issues with democracy as a political arrangement. I am only interested in reflecting on what internalizing certain assumptions related to it does to our spiritual perception. It can create false habits. There are huge injustices in the world (as there have always been). By God’s grace, some are lessened and redressed in some measure (usually limited). The problem comes within us.

    For example, Christ tells us:

    But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (Mat 5:39-42)

    If you actually made laws to “enforce” such behavior, you would have created an unjust, even oppressive state. Imagine having laws that say you can do nothing if someone steals your stuff, or hits you in the face. But Christ is not here giving instructions on how to construct a just political order. He is, however, giving instructions on how to live in the Kingdom of God.

    But, if I internalize the rules of this age, (sue them, defend myself, etc.), I will gain the world but lose my soul in some measure. The way of life is the way of laying down our lives. But because self-emptying, the way of the Cross, can only ever be completely voluntary, there can be no law that requires it. That would be oppression. We cannot in any measure legislate the Kingdom of God.

    We can legislate some measure of justice, such as fair treatment, equality before the law, and the such like. And I would think it’s surely a good thing to do that. And there will only ever be debates about the best way to do it, etc. But none of that is a debate about the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom cannot be debated. It can only be entered voluntarily – that’s all there is. Nothing we do can affect the Kingdom. We cannot build it up, nor break it down, make it come sooner, etc. The Kingdom of God is Divine and is utterly beyond any human effort to affect it.

    That people confuse political action with the Kingdom of God is itself an artifact of the modern project. That project is, to a great extent, a Christian heresy. It has, very early in its inception, confused the coming of the Kingdom with progress in the future. That subtle shift easily derails efforts to do justice and substitutes efforts to create ideal utopias. Whatever history is about, it is not about creating a utopia. History is not about the coming of the Kingdom, in one sense. The Kingdom is outside of history and comes into history as the gift of God. When it comes in its fullness, there will be no more history.

    Our question, and the full thrust of my writing, should be towards the Kingdom of God. I’ve been encountering some “pushback” recently, mostly on social media, about my critique of modernity. Most of it seems to be an effort that thinks what I’m saying is about a political agenda. I have none. But we live in a highly politicized society, one in which politics itself is a passion, or works primarily through the passions. Argument wants things to be on that passionate ground.

    I have taken the liberty to occasionally delete comments that move us onto the ground of the world of politics. My only interest in that topic is what various aspects of it do to the human heart. I will continue to shepherd our conversation here towards the actual point. I mean no offense in removing comments. But our conversation requires it.

  13. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Your posts are like clear, crisp mountain air blowing sweetly through the trees, whistling softly to the chords of my heart. They can be compared to a compass as well, as it points to magnetic north, your words always pointing us steadfastly toward Christ and His kingdom. Thank you for helping us keep our spiritual bearing.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I was trying to point out, badly, that our politics is wound up in our faith in an unhealthy way. It can be difficult to separate and that such confusion has been with us a long time.

    It does not seem to matter much what one’s professed faith is. I suspect a lot of the push back you get is because of the confusion.

    They perceive you as attacking their faith. Maybe you are.

    Or at least you are requiring folks to examine where their faith lies: in the world or not.

    An incarnational faith requires an incarnational response, just not a legalistic/ideological one.

    It is difficult for people to understand how someone can have a different political view and “really” be Orthodox.

    I have two Orthodox friends whom I love. Each of them looks at their faith through a political lens opposite from each other. Fortunately they are not in the same parish, but each suffers because of their perceptions. In both cases the politics proceeded them becoming Orthodox.

    How to disentangle all that is a tough to discern I think.

  15. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Good point. We need to separate faith from politics. As for myself, I am trying, with difficulty, to become apolitical, but that is a tall order when reason has flown and we are stuck in polemic arguments and name calling.
    I believe, and Father correct me if I mistook your point all along that Modernity has some built in assumptions that are antithetical to the Faith and many in the world today try to hold both these presuppositions and faith at the same time.
    Modernity has as a basic assumption the aggrandizement of the Ego of Man where each man is elevated to a level approaching divinity. For example, we think we can, by ourselves, determine truth. Therefore, for every person who holds this Modern World View there is a different truth. The Ego of Man is the persona of Ancestral Sin, the thinking of Self as equal to God. It seems that this underlies the very concept of Equality that Father is speaking about. It is heresy because it exalts the Self of all mankind to the level of the Divine in which we determine truth. All else is disregarded and one’s opinion becomes truth.
    We can see this in the arguments of gender and in faith. When I have been drawn in by a Protestant acquaintance into a discussion of faith, inevitably they resort to a statement of belief that is framed: “Well, I believe such and such” and then they use some passage to prove what the “I” has said. It is not dissimilar to identifying as something that we are not in the area of gender.

  16. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Thank you AGAIN, Father!

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nicholas, et al
    The entire political spectrum of modern democracies, from the far left to the far right, are all part of the Modern Project. In the late 18th century, as democracies were being put in place and the old order of classical monarchy was being overthrown, it was normal to describe the movement as “liberal democracy.” The word “liberal” did not have its present meaning, but only meant what I am now saying by “modernity.” It was “liberal” because it was a philosophy rooted in a particular concept of freedom (including radical individualism, etc.).

    But since the entire political spectrum can be described as the “modern project,” we should, as Christians, recognize that we only, tangentially, have a horse in this race. We can vote, run for office, etc., but should never confuse the modern project (especially most of its rhetoric) as the Christian enterprise.

    For example, it is right to oppose all forms of abortion because it is the taking of a human life. It is forbidden in the canons and in all of the teachings of the Fathers. It is not an option without sin for a believer. One party or another may take up that cause, but this does not make them a Christian party. We cannot vote the Kingdom into the place of government. It is right to protect the lives of the innocent. Just as we have laws against theft and murder, so, we traditionally had laws against abortion (only doctors were ever punished for this). It is only in the radical politics of modernity that this has been deemed acceptable. Abortion was first legalized in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s under the Bolsheviks. That bloody regime rarely found a murder it didn’t like. We should consider very seriously how dark such an ancestry is!

    It was right to oppose slavery. It was right to oppose the Jim Crow laws of the South (American Apartheid). It is right to demand that workers be paid a living wage (more or less by definition, since everyone who lives, has to have the means of “living”). It is right to expect protection for the weak and equal treatment before the law.

    It is worth noting, that none of these things is inherently “modern.” The traditional understanding of right and wrong are more than sufficient to uphold such concerns for justice. The modern project is not the inventor of justice – that is simple propaganda. Democracies are as likely to be unjust as other states. Hitler was a democracy. The Soviet Union was certainly a modern project. Slavery in America was a very modern project, not a hold-over from the Middle Ages. The exploitation of workers is quite common in many modern democracies. Jim Crow was a democratically imposed racism. Etc.

    Indeed, it is more correct, in my understanding, to say that Jim Crow laws were overthrown, not by an appeal to modernity (“we now know better and should evolve beyond this”), but by an appeal to tradition – the Scriptures. MLK, Jr., appealed to a traditional conscience. He was very much a preacher. I was here. I lived under Jim Crow, and heard it preached from White pulpits. I also saw it disappear and public opinion change and repent – far more because of an appeal to the gospel than from any appeal to progress or any such thing. Had the South not been as deeply rooted in Christian tradition – I think his preaching would have been far less effective – perhaps of no effect at all. We did not evolve or progress out of Jim Crow. We were preached out of it, and shamed out of it through the courageous preaching and practice of the gospel.

    That is timeless and could be applied to all moral undertakings of culture. Modernity is a narrative about how the world and history works that is not true. But it has become so widely believed that to critique it sounds like denying antibiotics and every possible improvement in the lot of humanity. That is facile nonsense.

    I do not necessarily think Christians should be “apolitical.” But we should understand what we are about. We need clear teaching on the nature of our life.

  18. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    I am choosing to try to stay out of politics and political debates, not because it is antithetical to faith, but that the process has become so polemic and hate filled. Similar to debates about faith with persons of a particular ilk, it has become impossible seemingly to have a rational conversation about truth and the right course for this nation. The evening news is being emotionalized to the point I cannot even listen to it and truth has become a casualty. It is not just one side either. Every news outlet uses sensationalism to pitch its point. Our politicians are doing the same. Of the three names still in the hunt they all say terrible things about the other two. I simply find it spiritually unhealthy to participate in this madness. I will vote, but it will be the hardest vote I have ever cast and I will not debate it with others.

  19. Lina Avatar

    More than 35 years ago, our wise Episcopal priest, taught us that the things of God cannot be voted upon, for if we try, God’s one vote will cancel out our 2,000,000 votes. He rules His kingdom. If we want to live there, we must learn to live there and not think that we can overrule Him.

  20. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Here are some key parts of a policy statement, Equality Is Death, I wrote over half a decade ago on this very subject (it isn’t currently available online, but I may repost it in full in the future). Like the article, I wanted to avoid making an either/or sort of political response to major issues but rather look at them, deconstruct them, and answer them from an Orthodox angle, as far as such a thing is possible. Not all of these statements have “political” answers and none of them really lean towards one one sort of political program or another, so hopefully the analysis will be of use:

    Generally, equality is defined as total sameness. However, outside of the field of mathematics, problems arise very quickly if this literal definition is used. How can one perceive two things as equal when they are different in so many ways? How can one deny the fundamental diversity on which life is based? The only way to perceive the world equally, without bias, is to find a starting point without any bias or difference at all. There is only one such point: total nothingness; death.

    If one tries to create literal equality, the same occurrence takes place. How can one make things equal? Perhaps in the realm of inanimate objects, one can mass produce “things” which are more or less the same. But when it comes to humans, this is not the case. People have limitations which they do not want to overcome; they cannot be given more of certain things. Even with a full-scale system of eugenics or some other regime-wide evil, this holds true; individual people are different. The only way to create equality would be to take the “extra” away from others. Here again, this leads to a downward spiral which ends in total destruction.

    If literal equality leads to the murder of mankind, why is it such a popular idea? And where did it come from? For those who have not thought through to the logical end of this philosophy, it is appealing in a very selfish way. If a person is less powerful legally, for example, he may use the idea of equality to justify the removal of some legal rights from others. Or, he may use it to justify the fact that he should have just as many legal rights as others. Either way, the net result of this selfish behavior, pulling others down and pushing oneself up, is called “equality”. And this is the true source of such equality and the reason why it is so popular: it does not stem from high morality and charitable goodness, but base self-worship and thoughtless evil. Striving for this kind of equality is nothing more than the outward projection of a person’s own power-hungry selfishness and it leads to the same doomed end as selfishness. Equality is death.

    Equality before the law was mentioned in the article and the comments, but I wonder if that is not actually equality. Having dealt with this ideology for so long, I tend to see every appearance of egalitarianism negatively until proven otherwise—I have a very strong, learned skepticism and even revulsion to the term. So in the case of “equality” in the law, I wonder if it is not more rooted in the fact that God Is Love: Unchanging, Unimaginable, Pure Love. This has little do do with any sort of equality on our part, but rather something on God’s part. This interpretation also reveals that the true purpose of the law is to reveal Christ and make Him present. For example, It can act as a teacher (as St. Paul writes), it can be prophetic (the OT Law was written so that only One Man could ever fulfill it, and that fulfillment was a sign of His Divinity), and it can be iconic (it reveals the character of Christ and more generally in that it reveals what is valuable, important, and true at both a personal and societal level). If law fails these things—e.g., if it reveals a “christ” who stands for retribution—it ceases to be law (in a truer sense) and becomes mere traditions of men and legalism, at best.

    Hopefully this is not getting too political, but here is a snippet from another policy statement I wrote, this one in 2011, called Tunisia, Egypt, And More: The Truth About Democracy:

    How is the modern manifestation of democracy different from other times in history? In an ironic sort of way, the damage done to people’s souls has been limited in many historical regimes. The regime may have been so conspicuously evil that people actively resisted, and resisted not to form a “new regime” to protect and placate themselves, but because they genuinely loved and cared about what was happening to their neighbors. Or, the regime might have been such that it could have been ignored: people tolerated and humored the regime but did not actively will for it to do evil. But with democracy, each person gets to be that regime. The more democracy is realized, the more the person takes on the role of tyrant, in spirit if not in actual effect. True obedience is lost and genuine humility is completely unknown. Persons begin to gain so much [illusory] “power” that even the poorest and weakest have a political opinion and the desire to exercise it, no matter the cost. Thus, even those whom Christ once called “blessed”, and all those who “labor and are heavy laden” to whom He promised rest, cease to be humble victims and become merciless persecutors. The democracy which was supposed to “empower” all ends up only destroying all. Instead of freeing all, it takes the sins of a few—political infighting, coups, assassinations, petty wars, genocides—and shoulders them upon all. And only in this way is its promise of equality fulfilled: it kills all without discrimination or remorse.

    These are the sorts of things I think about, the types of questions I ask. In The Church, we have even more of a buttress against this sort of thing because while we have an ordained ministry, we simultaneously hold that all believers partake of the priesthood of Christ to some degree. The tension we keep between those has spared us from many troubles in both directions. As you start to tease out in the comments, I think that there is far more wrong with modern democracy than the ideology of egalitarianism. You noted that Jim Crow was democratically maintained, yet that has little or nothing to do with the ideology of equality. Not to come down hard and oppose all forms of democracy absolutely, but there is definitely more going on with it than initially meets the eye. The modern project has much bigger ambitions—or, rather, the spiritual forces behind it.

  21. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    “For example, it is right to oppose all forms of abortion because it is the taking of a human life. ”

    I have difficulty with this statement coming from an Orthodox Christian.
    Not because I disagree with the logic but because it does not seem to be consistently held by Orthodoxy; it is only select human lives that we (sometimes) wish to protect.
    Otherwise Orthodox would naturally believe, “It is right to oppose all forms of war because it is the taking of human life.

    If only we were so faithful!
    But many in the Church have found it too great a burden to bear, and so go to war and even think it a good (or euphemistically, “necessary”) thing to do. We even argue this is part of the Tradition- because history teaches us that Orthodox nations will fight and kill their neighbour as surely as any others in the world.
    It seems more consistent with an Orthodox ethics that does not resist all warfare and discourage all soldiering, that there may also be extreme circumstances too difficult to bear and a woman and those who support her may think it a good thing to abort her child.

    Those killed in warfare- do they not have mothers too? Is the taking of their lives somehow morally permissible (even agreeable in the eyes of God) simply because they are our enemies?

    I am also confused by the language of “innocence”. Its usage here seems to judge the worth of a life. Why do we oppose the killing of innocents and yet allow the killing of enemies or the ‘guilty’ (those who support the death penalty even encourage it- and there are many Orthodox who support the death penalty).
    Would it have been morally permissible to kill Hitler- in the womb? Or Osama Bin Ladin- in the womb?

    I especially do not see this logic of “protecting the innocent” but allowing for killing of the “guilty” (capital punishment) or killing our enemies (warfare), as any way supported by Christ’s life or teaching about how the Father loves.

    The language of “protecting the innocent” seems like reverting to the distinctions Christ taught us to abolish as Christians. In the mountaintop Sermon, we are told what makes Christian love different from “instinctual love” which is common to the carnal world: it is the love of enemies, precisely, that makes us Christians.
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    -Matt 5:43-48

    Perfect love does not differentiate between innocent and guilty, righteous and wicked.

    Neither does “protecting the innocent” (but killing our enemies) line up at all with the “oneness” in Adam that we all share- whereby I am worse than my enemy and his life is no less precious than my own beloved child. When Orthodox start consistently teaching that we must love our national enemies the way we love our own children, then I will accept that we should always oppose aborting our own children as a truly and consistently “Orthodox” position (politically).
    “He who will not love his enemies cannot come to know the Lord and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love our enemies, so that the soul pities them as if they were her own children.
    – St Silouan the Athonite

    I wish it were true that Orthodox teaching about human life were inconsistent with abortion, but our shameful support of warfare and capital punishment puts the lie to this claim. We have departed from the Way in this regard. Or, perhaps, there is a time to kill the unborn too.

    -Mark Basil

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    The Church is quite clear in the matter of abortion – it is the taking of a human life and is therefore sin. Yes, we oppose it. War involves the taking of human life and killing, even in war, is sin. Killing in self-defense is sin. Sin is not a legal problem – as I have written about extensively – so bear that in mind. There are ways that the Church seeks to heal the ravages of sin in human lives, because people do sin. The pastoral treatment for sin is repentance, sometimes involving various requirements. There are directions for repenting from abortion, from killing in war, etc.

    Killing in war, and abortion, are both treated differently in the canons (which are about healing), than is premeditated, first-degree murder. I think there is a recognition of the peculiar pressures present in various situations. A priest has some fairly wide discretion as to how he treats the healing of a soul. All of the canons are for the healing of a soul, not for the punishing of a sin.

    The difficult question that can arise of the life of the mother and the life of the child – which to choose should there be no other solution – receives no particular guidance. There is no absolute prohibition either way. It is a pastoral decision. But when such a decision is made, and a life is ended, it is still a sin, a requires repentance and healing.

    One way of thinking about such sin is that it involves trauma. Untreated, the trauma goes on to create yet greater problems.

    If the laws of the land returned to pre-Roe v Wade, it would be a good and salutary thing. There is no arguable or defensible Orthodox position that is pro-abortion. I’ve seen some claim otherwise – but, I do not know of any solid Orthodox theologian who would agree.

    The Orthodox Church today and always has condemned capital punishment. That is the teaching of the Church. Nor has the Church ever endorsed warfare. We bless the troops, but this is not to be understood as the blessing of taking human lives. I don’t know who told you that we support capital punishment, etc.

    As to the question of “innocence,” it only makes the matter more grevious.

  23. Onesimus Avatar

    Mark Basil,

    Following the logic you have expressed above-it seems to me -that until “orthodox” people stop engaging in divorce – it somehow justifies sexual promiscuity and depravity until such hypocrisy regarding divorce is eliminated.

    I find the thoughts as you’ve expressed them above quite incoherent and I think both a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of war as it relates to Orthodoxy. If Orthodoxy supported war in its teaching…I would not be Orthodox….id probably be a Mennonite or a Quaker.

    It is better for Fr. Freeman to respond to this. I indeed agree with you that warfare (having myself participated in it) is not a truly Orthodox endeavor. But to predicate your views and stance on abortion to “orthodox” attitudes towards orthodox departures from the teachings about warfare Which DO NoT represent dogma or Doctrines of the Church, but individual or group departures from Those teachings – and then blaming the Church itself which teaches no such embrace of war dogmatically- but strictly forbids killing in war – is problematic to say the least.

    The world is messy to live in. Each of us exhibit our own inconsistencies and hypocrisy in Living out our orthodoxy….even (and sometimes esp.) some of our shepherds….but the whole of The churches teachings always condemn both killing in war and abortion…but offer forgiveness and healing for both…recognizing that life is not a zero sum game and we are all struggling against a world which is under the power of the evil one.

    What the Church teaches and what people turn a blind eye to are two different things…canonically killing in war is a sin….a sin in fact that keeps people like me from being eligible for the priesthood.

  24. Arnold E Karr Avatar
    Arnold E Karr

    On political democracy, I should only like to point out that it not only serves as an antidote to oppressive and ineffective government, but also opens up the possibility of good that might not otherwise be realized. The breaking down of artificial class distinctions allows a sort of cross-pollenization of ideas that would not be possible where the rulers and the ruled must know and remain in their place.

    The irony of spiritual democracy, as I understand it, is that all beings are, at some times and in some ways greater than I, if I will receive it. In humility, I must also be willing for others, excepting God, to find me greater than they. It is not a fixed equality, but rather an equality of submission to the will of God.

  25. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Onesimus I appreciate your comment. My “logic” was a rhetorical device meant to provoke. I believe we should always strive to love our neighbour- unborn and enemy of the state alike. However I see Orthodox priest everywhere condemning abortion under all circumstances, but I do not see our priests preach or teach this way about soldiers who kill.
    I would like to correspond with you more deeply if you will: man or they [all one word] at gmail dot com

    Father Stephen I appreciate your comment and the light it sheds. I only wish it were more vociferously taught and preached. Do you not think that your readers are all quite comfortable with calling abortion sin, but far more surprised to hear you say that killing in war is always sin, or that Orthodoxy is always opposed to capital punishment? I do not think the latter is nearly so clearly taught. This is why I press it.

    Furthermore I know that killing in warfare has *sometimes* been done really to protect some innocent party. But we are fooling ourselves to think that modern nation-states have this intention. And it is laughable to imagine that the world’s most powerful nation today has such motives. Yet I do not think our Orthodox faithful are being taught to laugh at such a claim in their catechesis. Instead many think it is indeed right and good to “police the world” with the most powerful and unimaginably excessively funded military. It comes with a whole culture that only sees soldiering as commendable and heroic; sacrificial and noble. But really, a good soldier kills well, he does not aim to die for others (that is what a good *martyr* does).
    I do not understand why we should not proclaim boldly that war is wrong. Yet the majority of Orthodox bishops do not do so when their nation is at war. There may be extreme scenarios when killing in defense of the threatened weak and innocent is understandable. However this scenario almost never obtains in first world nation-state motives for warfare. So we in developed countries should discourage our faithful from participating in military, should we not?

    I recall reading in the Russian ‘social concept of the church’ document a defense of capital punishment. Not to mention the Russian Church’s failure to condemn the invasion of the Ukraine, and ongoing atrocities being perpetrated there.

    Further to press my “logic” more- why does the church not bless the abortionist doctor’s instruments of death? We bless missiles and bombs after all (as if a bomb can distinguish between the “guilty” and the innocent).

    I think that your comment does not address the more fundamental question of distinguishing between innocents and “guilty” (or enemies, whatever). Christ teaches us to love our enemies just as we would love our family. When would I kill my son in defense of the innocent?
    I might die in front of my son’s weapon to protect the innocent, but where in Christ’s journey to the cross- which literally included his rebuke of his own disciple for using the sword to protect The only Innocent One- where do we see any room for us to take up the cross, or condone the faithful to kill under any circumstances?
    Here I am suggesting that Holy Tradition actually does not allow for killing in warfare. I am suggesting a mature Christian must grow out of soldiering as a career. I am suggesting that we have strayed from the early Churches witness– always laying down our own lives in response to a violent enemy force and never mobilizing to defend ourselves. This defense of those near to me against an “other” enemy- this is perfectly reasonable to the world. There is no Christian witness in it.
    When our proto-martyr Stephen was killed, did the disciples organize a self-defense millitia among the faithful to “protect the weak”?
    Yet we justify this all the time today. We, Orthodox, have strayed from our own Tradition.
    I am suggesting that we Orthodox today, who claim to be His faithful disciples and claim to hold fast to the whole deposit, have heard his difficult word on love of enemies and we have fled from it when it comes to laying down our lives rather than killing in self-defense.

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
    At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

    -Matt. 26:52-56

    Modern Orthodox nations have developed militaries and there is a great deal of collusion between some elements of the Church and this sanctioned violence. I would respectfully suggest, however, that we do not do well as Orthodox converts in North America to look to these unfortunate military-church relations as our example. I believe we need to go deeper and further, and I am sad to say that few Orthodox converts in N.A. are being catechized to reconsider their support for the military.
    I would humbly suggest that this military-church relationship is the manifestation of an antiquated and troublesome error that has dogged the Orthodox churches’ efforts to cooperate with the Empire, and worse today with nation-states.

    It is very difficult to see how, for example, St Justin Martyr’s early Orthodox Christian teachings about nonviolence are being manifest in modern Russia’s church-military relationship: “unreasoning men… who speaks strange things against the Most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against us the Christians, who, having learned the true worship of God from the law, and the word which went forth from Jerusalem by means of the apostles of Jesus, have fled for safety to the God of Jacob and God of Israel; and we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,— our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage, —and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified; and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing his own married wife”

    St Justin Martyr knew an Orthodoxy that taught we no longer participate in warfare. Today, Orthodox Bishops bless troops and their weapons of death. This is not fidelity to Tradition, is it?

    I will end this comment with a word from Blessed Sophrony. I wish this was what our chaplains preached to our troops- pleading with them to lay down their carnal weapons in exchange for spiritual weapons, for indeed we Christains do battle not with flesh and blood but with spiritual powers behind the “enemies” they have enslaved.

    When we read the Gospel, the reactions of Christ to what is taking place around Him astonish us. When Judas is going out to betray Him, He says, ‘Today the Son of Man is glorified’. At every Liturgy we commemorate this moment, we repeat it in our consciousness. If a hostile enemy military force takes us to kill us, will we be capable of saying: ‘It is today that I am glorified and that God is glorified in me’? You all know this account in the Gospel; it is the very content of our everyday life.
    -Bl. Sophrony

  26. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    My comment should read:

    I might die in front of my son’s weapon to protect the innocent, but where in Christ’s journey to the cross- which literally included his rebuke of his own disciple for using the sword to protect The only Innocent One- where do we see any room for us to take up the sword, or condone the faithful to kill under any circumstances?

  27. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen, et al:
    Speaking of capital punishment;
    I recently found myself on the jury pool of a very high profile death penalty case, the first to be tried under our State’s controversial new death penalty laws (making it significantly easier to get).
    The juxtaposition of intense pressure to kill this child (who, although present, was perpetually discussed in the third person) with the fawning promise to do everything possible to have the trial ended in time to celebrate Western Good Friday was BIZARRE. Surreal.
    PS After 11 hours I didn’t get picked.

  28. Dino Avatar

    What you say about war needs saying but also needs discernment and more. It is more complex than we would like sometimes. Some demonically inspired tortures of Christian Martyrs, to take a very extreme example, created such awful dilemmas purposefully: they would present the believers with two options, one more perverse than the other (an implausibly blasphemous act or a torturous killing – “make your choice”). [and you do not have the discernment of a St Porphyrios to help you].
    Sometimes we become partakers in something called ‘unavoidable sin’ and must still recognize our sinfulness while trying not to discern that of others
    –it’s messy. E.g: Protecting your child from an otherwise unstoppable attacker by hitting/maiming/killing him, or not protecting your child so that it becomes hit/maimed/killed would both be sinful, yet the most appropriate choice must be taken quickly and this is usually the first of these two. This is what the Church has tried to do in defensive wars in Her history in Greece for instance, exclaiming that one would not have partaken in such ‘unavoidable sin’ while not in that predicament is easier said than done. General Giannis Makrigiannis for example was reputed to surely have killed many in battle, yet also to repeatedly have had experiences of the Uncreated Light, fasting excessively and keeping a constant spirit of sacrifice for his fellows, continuing with his hundreds of prostrations every night despite his exhaustion and despite having blood pouring from his wounds sometimes – he never gave them up.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    Points noted. In defense of the preaching of my brother priests, abortion kills far more than war and capital punishment is rather rare. Most parishioners will never be in a war, much less deal with capital punishment up close. But abortion is immediate, almost universal in our culture as a temptation. If priests spent as much time preaching about war and capital punishment, I’m not sure what that would mean other than providing a better “political balance.”

    Pray for priests. They do a very difficult job.

  30. Brian Avatar

    Mark Basil,

    I clearly remember an Episcopal visit to our parish during the time that the US’s entry into the first Iraq war was being debated. Our bishop was quite emphatic that no good could come of it (and he was, of course, correct). After he left there was much discussion in our (mostly convert) parish. Many, if not most, insisted that ‘we’ had a right and even a duty to come to the defense of Kuwait. I remember being very uncomfortable with the whole conversation, focused as it was almost exclusively on the morality of the question – on what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’ – as if anyone could consider himself blameless in such a situation.

    When I got home that evening I penned my thoughts, and I think they are worth sharing in the context of this thread:

    “War is a microcosm of this present world. It is the ultimate manifestation of the battle in which those of this world are always engaged, albeit stripped of the facade of civility that is commonly referred to as peace. For war is the logical extension of the hatred which results from the struggle over wealth, power, and pride – and their reduction to the essential violence thereof.

    “Those who rightly decry the evil of war need look no further for its cause than the hatred, the selfishness, the lust for power and possessions present in each of our everyday lives. For war, like pain, death and the struggle for economic survival, is the inescapable consequence of our common fall into sin. It cannot be avoided whether we are combatants or civilians. Nor can it be considered ‘just’ from our human point of view. For how is it just that the evil actions or even the apparently justifiable reactions to evil of a few are able to cause the suffering of so many?

    “The essential violence of this present world made manifest in war can only serve to reveal what is in the hearts of men altogether aside from political motives for armed conflict. War reveals hate and love, selfishness and sacrifice, cowardice and courage, greed and generosity, pride and humility… All the vices and virtues present in our hearts are brought into sharp relief by the immediacy of the danger of death – to ourselves, our loved ones, our countrymen, our security, our way of life.

    “No amount of rationalization can change the fact that all war is evil. But the evil of war is not external to us personally, something at which we can wave our fingers in condemnation. It is the shared lot of humanity. And like all the evils which the providence of God allows us to suffer in common, it can be used for our redemption or our destruction. It all depends on how we respond to Him in the midst of it. War can never be said to be just, but it can be transformed into a means of redemption through the deeds of just men caught up in its torrents.

    There is a time for everything…”

  31. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Mark Basil,

    “You shall not murder” – the sixth commandment forbids the unjustified taking of a human life, not just any killing.

    Please check out Fr John Whiteford’s article to see the difference:

    “How can someone who is pro-life oppose abortion and yet be in favor of the death penalty? Christians often ask this question, but it’s hard to get a satisfactory answer. Fr. John Whiteford discusses the difference between “killing” and “murder”:

    As for wars, “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” states it clearly:

    War is a physical manifestation of the latent illness of humanity, which is fratricidal hatred (Gen. 4:3-12)… War is evil. Just as the evil in man in general, war is caused by the sinful abuse of the God-given freedom… While recognising war as evil, the Church does not prohibit her children from participating in hostilities if at stake is the security of their neighbours and the restoration of trampled justice. Then war is considered to be necessary though undesirable but means. In all times, Orthodoxy has had profound respect for soldiers who gave their lives to protect the life and security of their neighbours. The Holy Church has canonised many soldiers, taking into account their Christian virtues and applying to them Christ’s world: «Greater love hath no man but this, that a man lay down his life for his friends» (Jn. 15:13).

    Read more:

    Every Sunday, during the Divine Liturgy, the Russian Orthodox Church has a special prayer for peace in Ukraine. We do the same in our small parish in South East Asia.

    Our church has Russian and Ukrainian parishioners. Somehow, we are always in peace. Probably, because we never discuss politics – be it Russian, Ukrainian or American. Each of us has his or her own spiritual warfare, therefore we have no time for condemnations. We just pray.

  32. John H Avatar
    John H

    On this Memorial Day Weekend, let us all pray for those who have fallen in defense of our country and our freedom:

    God of Power and Mercy, You destroy war and put down earthly pride. Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears. Keep in your mercy those men and women who have died in the cause of freedom and bring them safely into your Kingdom of Justice and Peace. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  33. J Clivas Avatar

    “Perverse spirituality”, or just envy ?

  34. Agata Avatar

    I wanted to share this beautiful quote I came across in Fr. Zacharias’ book “Remember Thy First Love”:

    “We are all of equal value before God. For we have all been given the same commandments and the same calling.

    For this reason, we can say that God honors everyone equally.

    But it is our own disposition that determines how much we are worth. Man has to justify this gift in his life by offering a sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own corrupted will, through obedience….”

    May God help us and grant us to have this “single-souled” disposition.

  35. S. Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Would you be willing to write an article specifically on killing in war? I am a sergeant in the Army and if or when I deploy it is my sworn duty, not only to kill the enemies of the United States, but to command others to do the same. It is also my job to make sure the kids under my command make it home alive. How do I reconcile that with my Christian duty of loving my enemies? It does seem that most military saints were either martyred for their faith (like St. George) or left the military and spent years as monks before achieving sanctity (like St. Martin). What does that say about following the Gospel in the military? I know this probably doesn’t affect most readers of your blog but it is a question I have wrestled with for the last six years and I would appreciate any clarification you might be able to give.

    Thank you.

  36. Onesimus Avatar


    I spent 15 years in the military (both USMC and Army) and as a private military contractor. I have been in heavy combat. I am VERY familiar with this struggle and while I am not Fr. Freeman — I most certainly would like to correspond with you privately to be of some support to you in this difficult question. For my part, as part of coming to terms with this – I moved from being an Infantry Squad Leader to becoming a Combat Medic. This allowed me the ability to both serve my fellow man (soldiers and enemy combatants) without partiality (insofar as this is possible) and to allow for the exercise of my conscience in a more active manner as a classified “noncombatant.” This is not a suggestion – simply how I was able to come to some sort of semi-practical solution to the impossible dichotomy. In any case, please feel free to email me privately. I hope to be of some support. ajisom at fuller dot edu

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