In his commentary Luke for Everyone, N.T. Wright shares an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal though repeated by many, about the Russian Orthodox Church during pre-communist Russia. Apparently, in October of 1917, a contentious, drawn-out debate broke out among the church’s leadership during its synod in Moscow.
What was it about?
The color of clerical vestments. Some apparently wanted white; others wanted purple.
Oh, the controversy!
Though such a debate seems somewhat silly to us, those who know history understand just how silly—and ironic—it really was. Because, at the same time the Church was hotly debating the trivial matter, the Bolsheviks were planning a revolution. And, indeed, in that very same month, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, carried out their plot 500 miles away in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), turning the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union—a change that would last 70 years, during which the Orthodox Church was largely impotent and at the mercy of the state.
Simply put, while the Bolsheviks were plotting a revolution, the church was plotting the colors of its clerical vestments.
Talk about being out of touch with reality and missing the forest for the trees!
The Pope and the United Nations
I recalled this story this morning after receiving an e-mail from a friend, calling my attention to an article that has left me baffled—for a number of reasons. The article, written by Jeffrey D. Sachs, who is the “director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University in New York City,” and a special advisor to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is published in America magazine—a publication of Jesuits in the United States.
There is nothing secretive or conspiratorial about the article; it’s hiding in plain sight. But in it, Sachs anticipates the agenda that Pope Francis will pursue during his trip to the United States this fall.
Of course, many of us are already familiar with Francis’s itinerary—though reviewing it, in Sach’s words, provides a little sobriety: “Pope Francis will come to the United States and the United Nations in New York on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations,” he writes, “and at the moment when the world’s 193 governments are resolved to take a step in solidarity toward a better world. On Sept. 25, Pope Francis will speak to the world leaders—most likely the largest number of assembled heads of state and government in history—as these leaders deliberate to adopt new Sustainable Development Goals for the coming generation” (emphasis added).
That Francis will be—in all likelihood—addressing the largest gathering of the world’s leaders in history is sobering enough; but what caught my eye even more is the message that Sachs anticipates Francis will be proclaiming during his trip to America.
In short, Sachs proposes that Francis will be aiming his guns at the very bedrock of America: individual liberty.
He opens the article with this paragraph:
Pope Francis has declared that the joy of the Gospel can help the world to overcome the globalization of indifference to others. Undoubtedly, he will bring this message when he visits the United States. But when he does, he will face a society in thrall to a different idea—that of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The urgent core of Francis’ message, which is the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, challenges this American idea by proclaiming that the path to happiness lies not solely or mainly through the defense of rights but through the exercise of virtues, most notably justice and charity.
Sachs continues by noting how, though the United States has been “a society of many glories, including the protection of the individual from state tyranny,” America is nevertheless, “a society that has been wounded, even gravely, by its flawed and limited vision of humanity.” Indeed, in current political discourse, “the unalienable rights of the individual have been transmuted into the modern doctrine of libertarianism,” a doctrine that has “not only put individual rights on a pedestal above all others but also actively denies any claim by society to hold individuals to account for their behavior toward others, other than to respect their liberty.”
This uniquely “American idea,” as Sachs calls it, has, in his opinion, led to very “disturbing” results—to the point that, he postulates, Francis will come to America, not “as a scold but as a guide to help us find a solution to the paradox of the poverty of the spirit in the rising sea of affluence,” sharing his “Gospel” as he understands it based on the Sermon on the Mount.
All of it is quite alarming—even if one does not subscribe to Adventist eschatology. Any time a person starts questioning—discreetly or otherwise—the foundation of American government, it should be cause for concern.
To be sure, individual liberty does not negate corporate responsibility. But what Sachs, and likely Francis, seems to downplay—intentionally or otherwise—is that individual liberty is the only true foundation for corporate responsibility. Indeed, corporate responsibility and solidarity is only truly effective—and truly Christian—when it is freely chosen by the individual.
The Five-Minute Solution to Most Debates
I highlight all this, of course, because I can’t help but see parallels between our contemporary landscape and 1917 Russia. Because, while Francis holds an audience with the world and plots to undermine American Republicanism, which is the last linchpin in Rome’s aspirations to rule the world, what are we as Adventists doing—even, perhaps, during our own “synod” in San Antonio next month?
Talking to ourselves about clerical vestments? Women’s ordination? The pastoral pay scale?
This is not to say such questions should be ignored. But might there—in the words of someone with whom I’m close—be “bigger fish to fry,” especially in light of where we are in earth’s history? Instead of exerting great energy arguing about non-foundational matters, might it not be better to unite to pursue our clear mission—accepting the message of the “True Witness” of Revelation 3:14-21 and proclaiming the three angels’ messages to the world?
Ellen White, in Early Writings, quite presciently anticipated such a time. In fact, speaking of some of the “social meetings” during the early days of Adventism, an angel warned that “ye suffer your minds to be diverted too readily from the work of preparation and the all-important truths for these last days.” The angel added, “Get ready! get ready! get ready! for the fierce anger of the Lord is soon to come. . . . A great work must be done for the remnant. Many of them are dwelling upon little trials” (p. 119).
But here’s the really relevant part: “If pride and selfishness were laid aside,” White boldly offered, “five minutes would remove most difficulties.” In other words, if our pride could all be subdued by the Holy Spirit, all these secondary issues—clerical vestments, women’s ordination, you name it—could be quickly resolved and we could, as a body, move forward with power, focusing on the Revelation Revolution that God wants us to be a part of.
And then, finally, beautifully, the “one interest” of Christ our righteousness could fully prevail—as Ellen White anticipated long ago (Review and Herald, December 23, 1890).
So how about it?
Will it be clerical vestments . . . or Revolution?