A Holy Nation (Part II)
By Father Brendan Pelphrey
This raises the question how we understand ourselves as American Orthodox. Many Orthodox Christians in America today want to see a self-ruling, or autonomous, American Orthodox Church. Others, however have consistently referred to Orthodox churches in America as “diaspora”—not an American Church, but a collection of missions sent out from “mother” churches overseas.
When American converts to Orthodoxy hear the language of “diaspora,” it can seem very strange. Those of us who were born in this country may not feel like “diaspora” at all. We are simply Americans: part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church worldwide, many of us converts to the Orthodox faith. More and more Orthodox churches are using English as the predominant language of the Liturgy—just as Orthodox churches throughout history have used the language of the local people. But even where that is not the case, increasingly we realize that the language, customs and culture of the “mother churches”—our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—are in danger of being lost. Surely, part of our task is to preserve this heritage.
The issue of “American Orthodoxy” has been much debated in recent years. However, rather than debating whether there should be, or can be, a truly “American” Orthodox Church, it might be helpful to think about what the Apostles taught with regard to faith and government. This can be a model for us today.
The Roman Empire during the Apostolic Age was of course pagan, with a minority of religious Jews living as an occupied people. In the Apostolic era, Romans viewed Christian faith as a dangerous superstition (superstitio), rather than as a true religion (religio). Indeed, Christians were often charged with being “atheists.” Nevertheless, even during the fierce persecution of the primitive Church and shortly before his own martyrdom, the Apostle Paul called upon Christians to pray for the Roman emperor and for all those in government, so that the nation might have peace. Our churches continue this practice today in the Divine Liturgy.
The Apostle Peter went further, to say that as followers of Christ we are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (ethnos)” (1 Peter 2:9). He was fully aware that the Church did not, and could not, constitute the government. However, Pentecost meant that people of all languages and ethnic backgrounds, from every part of the known world, were joined together into the one Body of Christ. So while Christians would respect and obey their government, even a hostile one, they would be primarily citizens of Paradise, a multi-ethnic Heavenly Kingdom ruled by Christ.
Because we Orthodox in America are a small minority, our non-Orthodox friends may say that we are strange or peculiar. We can respond that we are indeed a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, in the translation of the Authorized Version of the New Testament). However, we are also American. At the same time, we are also diaspora. Like the rest of America, our Orthodox churches originally came here from somewhere else. Nevertheless, we have the power to transform the American culture in a way that no other interest group, or government agency, or individual, can.
Just as the Holy Spirit is given to us individually so that we might grow into the likeness of Christ, so the Holy Spirit can, and does, enter into every culture where there is the Church. Where death may be at work in our society, nevertheless life is at work through our presence in America. In this sense our American culture can be “baptized.” This happens gradually and quietly, as we Orthodox participate in American life.
Jesus said that we are like leaven in a loaf, or like salt. Leaven and salt are virtually invisible, but they transform and preserve. Similarly, the presence of Orthodoxy in America brings change to America, giving life and preserving and protecting what is here. We do not need to be the ruling party; the Church does not need to be the government; we do not need to constitute a majority. Rather, we simply need to be a presence—the presence of Christ in America.
~The Sounding, Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), http://myocn.net/a-holy-nation-religious-liberty/. Father Brendan Pelphrey is a former Protestant pastor and missionary, who has been a priest in the Greek Archdiocese since 2000. He has taught in a number of universities in different parts of the world, including Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. His academic degrees and publications are in the fields of Philosophy, Comparative Cultures, Christian Dogmatic Theology and Patristics, New Testament, Christian Medieval Mysticism and Christian Mission.