Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
In his poem “The Second Coming,” the Irish poet William Butler Yeats describes the post-World War I atmosphere in 1919. His first stanza is not only gripping, it speaks of so much of what we have seen during the past year.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The brutal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas – the largest shooting ever in a house of worship in our country – the carnage just one month earlier in Las Vegas, the slaughter at Mother Emmanuel Church in South Carolina, the attack at the night club in Florida – all give us pause. Literally hundreds of our fellow citizens were killed in mass shootings during this period of time, the highest toll in more than a decade.
Yeats could have been writing of us and of our day and time. Who of us has not caught ourselves worrying that “the center cannot hold”? New psychological studies from actual clinical practice, reveal an increasing degree of chronic anxiety among people, many of whom used to worry about making ends meet and now feel palpable anxiety about leaving their house to go to a mall, or a concert—or even to their church.
No faith community can be silent about these moral realities, or close its eyes and make believe they are not there, or think that we can simply “pray them out of existence” without acting to speak and witness the Gospel in the public arena. (“Be ye doers of the Word, not hearers only!”—James 1:22). Someone must stand up for the value of human life because the more it is senselessly wasted, the easier it will be to waste it, and the cheaper its worth will become.
The prophetic voice of the Church needs to be raised as much today as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel raised their stern voices and confronted ancient Israel head-on to return from its delinquency to its covenant with Yahweh-God! Yet how do we get our arms around it? How can we understand, in Yeats’ words, why “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned”?
Facing the Truth and Living the Faith
I offer that at the root of the crisis of violence we face is primarily the de-humanization of the person, a natural outgrowth of the de-Christianization of the social compact that once held us together at the center. In other words, once we move to sterilize God out of the human heart, the same God who breathed His Spirit into man and thus constituted true personhood—the result is the “sanitizing” of all spiritual and religious values from society.
Individuals and interests pick away at the social glue until the whole falls into pieces. As this occurs, people become spectators, watching the systemic disassembly of the truth, the abandonment of ethical and moral moorings, and the replacement of God-centered values with behaviors and attitudes that are light years away from what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Does this automatically compel people into crimes and killing? Perhaps not, but it surely creates an ecology of evil, reflected in the Psalmist’s words “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” (Psalm 73)
The most dangerous characters in this scenario are not only those who actually pull the trigger or those who act from severe mental illness, but those who try to convince us, to sell us the notion, that the moral and spiritual erosion that is taking place, is not really happening at all. That it is a figment. We listen to them, we grow psychically numb, we buy what they’re selling, and we arrive at the same place again, and again, and again, and again!!
In Texas we saw this happen as we witnessed the crimson-red floor of a Sanctuary on a Sunday morning and the bloodied bodies, over half of whom were little children who moments earlier may well have sung the child’s tender hymn “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
How quickly those strains of praise gave way to the abject screams of horror. What do we Orthodox Christians do beyond shaking our heads and saying “This is really a tragedy”?
1. Make sure that WE don’t de-humanize others. Treating others, individuals or groups, as objects, as unfeeling or expendable, as people we can manipulate or control for our own ends, as play things for our egos, these are real the seeds of tragedy. As with all sin, the shades of darkness in our own hearts, if left unchallenged, can become personally destructive to others.
2. Leave the sidelines and take up the witness of defending human life – at every point of its development. By educating ourselves, by reading, by praying, by sharing our convictions with others, we witness the unmovable truth that all life is holy, all life deserves reverence, all life is the dwelling place of God the Most High, and that is what constitutes us as human persons.
3. Learn to see and to touch those who struggle. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom, if you cannot see Christ in the needs of your brothers who suffer outside the Church as you pass by, you will never see Him in the chalice inside the Church. We need to make our prayer real and our worship authentic by concrete acts of Christian love, beyond sending a check. Find those people in your life who are love-starved, whose personal darkness is becoming too much, and reach out. You will grab the hand of the needing Christ, and then you will understand what is in that chalice! May God give you the strength to rise from hopelessness and to live your discipleship as we welcome this season of Great Lent. Please pray for me!
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