I was not able to attend the recent OTSA meeting which revolved around Orthodoxy and Politics. This is particularly unfortunate because despite the apparently theological bias of much of my work, I am deeply interested in social issues which, in the United States, are often inherently political. Unfortunately, this inherent politicization is part of why I have not written more extensively about social ethics. It is not that I lack political convictions. Nor is it that I am afraid of disagreeing with my fellow Orthodox. In part, I believe that good social ethics (on, say, gender issues) comes out of good theology. Orthodoxy simply does not have a robust connection between 'mystical' theology and its social relevance. This is weakness we must rectify. But my silence is in part because the current climate of the Orthodox blogosphere, at least when it comes to social issues, is stormy and likely to electrocute.
This climate is an unfortunate reflection of the general lack of civil discourse endemic to our current political climate. Polarization, slander, and rhetorical excess is the name of the game. What is particularly disturbing is the ease with which Christians seem to believe that their position is the only Christian, the only Orthodox, perspective to take, and all those who do not agree with us are insufficiently Christian or Orthodox. This indicates a fundamental failure to properly distinguish between what is a religious conviction or belief, the pragmatic means of turning belief into practice, and the passion which leads from one to another.
Take, for example, healthcare. I strongly believe that the most effective means of caring for the sick in the United States is to implement single-payer healthcare. But this belief rests on two distinct convictions, one which derives from my religious faith, the other of which derives from my pragmatic reading of political theory and economic realities. Let me unpack this.
Christianity insists that caring for the needy is what it means to be a Christian. Jesus opens his ministry by declaring that he came to bring sight to the blind, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and set the prisoners free. I take this to mean that the health of those around me is of paramount concern, and it is my obligation as a Christian to seek the health of my neighbors. Compassion is a central Christian virtue. Other people may share the same compassion without also sharing my faith, or any faith at all. For me, it is a matter of faith. Period.
My advocacy of a single-payer system is the means by which I think my Christian compassion is best manifest in this country, at this time, given the system we currently have in place. In other words, this is a pragmatic conclusion based on factors that are not directly related to my Christian convictions. While I certainly think Scripture has a great deal to say about how we are to welcome our neighbor, distribute goods, and care for others, Scripture does not advocate a single way of pursuing these ends. My practical conclusion on healthcare is the result of what I believe about political systems, economic realities, the practical results of medicare, the evidence of single-payer systems in other countries, etc. I do not think, and will not pretend, that the Bible tells me that single-payer systems are more, or less, Christian. Neither scripture nor my faith says anything of the sort. Nor does scripture, faith, or the tradition, make definitive statements about private or religiously run hospitals, work-based health insurance or private charity as the only acceptable means of caring for the sick.
Where these come together is that my passionate belief that I am called to care for my neighbor intersects with my equally strong conviction as to the best means to do so, and so, I advocate for a single-payer system. I would like to say that it is the only Christian position. However, this would be a lie that only serves to make me sound more righteous than my neighbor, and allows me to disagree with them not only on pragmatic grounds, but deny that they are my sister or brother. Shame on me.
If people of faith (whatever that faith is) are going to engage together in the public square, we must become better at distinguishing between the convictions which arise from our faith, and those that arise from our more practical beliefs regarding what is effective in a society. As Orthodox, we should be very careful making claims that one practice is more 'Orthodox' than another.
The unfortunate truth is that if Orthodoxy has a bias, it is towards a Symphonia which virtually every scholar (Orthodox or otherwise) notes looks an more like ecclesial complicity with or subjection to the State than a theocratic balance of power. Orthodox in this country who see in the health care debate a violation of the separation of Church and State are being very American, not very Orthodox. I don't mention this because I am an advocate of Byzantine Symphonia, I am not. As a North American Orthodox, I rather prefer the separation of Church and State, and along with theologians such as Aristotle Papanikolaou, I think that Orthodoxy and democracy are compatible (though I do not think that democracy is actually another form of symphonia). I think conservatives are right, and Orthodox history certainly supports their belief, that involvement with the state leads to compromise. I just happen to think that a single-payer system is an acceptable compromise because it most effectively cares for the sick.
Other people of good faith can disagree with me. Hopefully, we can do so without impugning one another's faith.