Healing Society: Revisiting Witnessing Christ in a Secular Age

And whenever thou art praying, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, in order that they might be made manifest to men. Verily I say to you, they have received their reward.  But thou whenever thou art praying, enter into thy chamber, and after thou shuttest thy door, pray to thy Father Who is in secret; and thy Father Who seeth in secret, shall render what is due to thee openly. (Mt 6: 5-6)

From the times of my earliest memory these words of Christ were implanted on my mind.  A simple practical example of putting this into practice was the proper way of saying the Prayers at the Table,  popularly known as 'grace' before and after meals, while in public. It meant making a silent and mental Sign of the Cross and saying the appropriate prayer mentally as well.  Any public display of one's commitment to Christ, would, at that time and locale, have been considered hypocrisy.

However, the world of my early years was spiritually and culturally very different from the world that has ushered us into the second decade of the 21st Century.  Practically everyone in my hometown was a practicing Christian. There was one devout Jewish family that had a small grocery store and a travel truck to service remote areas. On any  given Sunday morning most people went to the church of their choice.  It might be said that there was a shared culture of the value of religion in daily life. If someone ostentatiously displayed some overt religiosity, in all likelihood such a display would have been considered hypocritical.

In thinking about this today, I can see a parallel to religious life during Christ's time. Although surrounded by pagan Romans, the Jewish people shared a common commitment to their Abrahamic and Mosaic heritage. Thus, singling oneself out by ostentatious display of one's Jewishness would certainly cry out for considering such showy behavior hypocrisy. This would have been especially true when one's inner disposition, that is to say one's heart and mind, contained and was motivated by just the opposite. Jesus pointed out that it was not eating with "unwashed hands" that defiles us, but what comes out of our mouths, from the heart: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. (cf. Mt 15: 16-20). Jesus is unrelenting in His excoriation of hypocrisy:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye cleanse the outside of the cup and  the dish, but within  they are full of plunder and incontinence. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like tombs, which have been whitewashed, which on one hand appear beautiful outwardly, but on the other hand are full of the bones of the dead and of all uncleanness within. Thus ye also on the one hand appear righteous to men outwardly, but on the other hand ye are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness within. (Mt 23: 25, 27-28)

In fact, in this regard the teaching of Christ is clear:

And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard.  Be not you therefore like to them, for your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask him. (Mt 6: 5-8)

The Church in the Age of Persecution

The first three centuries of the Church have come to be  known as the Age of Persecution. Christ Himself foretold this would happen when He said to His Apostles: "Keep on remembering the word which I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his lord,' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . ." (Jn 16: 20). The Age of Persecution began in Rome in 64 AD with the arrests, torture and executions of Christians by the Emperor Nero, and ended in 313 AD when the soon to be sainted Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. The type of persecution undergone by the Christians of the first few centuries has been described ,in a term used by Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1977), as permeated by The Blood of Martyrs. While similar bodily persecution is undergone by Christians todayi in some places in the world, today in the West we are undergoing another type of persecution.

Cultural Persecution

Interestingly, Schmemann alludes to another type of persecution undergone by the early Christians. He termed as a type of persecution the “. . . contact with the ideas and beliefs of surrounding Hellenism," pointing out that even in St. Paul's (1Cor 1: 23) comment in this regard the full text reads: ". . .but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks." 

In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries Godless secularism has replaced Hellenism in the cultural and political persecution of Christians in the West.  Consider the New York Times account of a high school girl, Jessica Ahlquist, whom the newspaper described as an outspoken atheist, who won a lawsuit in early 2012 to get a prayer taken down that had hung from the wall of her high school auditorium for 49 years.ii It was originally written by a student in 1963 to serve as a moral guide to other students. A facsimile of the prayer, originally written on paper had been stenciled onto T Shirts:

The Swedish Example

A recent Zenit Catholic international news agency article,iii considers what a society that pushes the envelope of atheistic secularism would be like. Sweden points the way. The article lists some disturbing consequences. Since 1975, for example, abortion has been free on demand. In 2009 it  had the highest rate of abortion in Europe for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 (22.5 per 1,000).

I want to reassert strongly, as I have written previously (Morelli, 2009), that I eschew politics. My only concern is the morality of any issue or policy. With this proviso, let me point out that Sweden has a policy regarding healthcare providers, that is totally immoral, very similar to the policy proposed by the Obama administration healthcare plan.iv

It should be noted that some consider even the compromise that followed this plan to be immoral. The compromise exempts religious institutions from paying for, or providing, unconscionable healthcare procedures, but requires insurance companies to cover the cost of such procedures. The moral objection is that conscientious objectors are forced to become involved, albeit indirectly, by the payment of their insurance premiums.v

In terms of abortion, for example, Swedish law does not allow for consideration of conscience informed by morality in the healing care given to their patients. What the Zenit article termed "Conscientious objection." In 2011, the Swedish parliament, with almost no opposition, issued a decree obligating the Swedish delegation to the Council of Europe “to fight against the rights of doctors to refuse to participate in abortion.” (c.f. Endnote iii)

I am not de facto against Sex Education in the schools as long as it is scientifically factual and age appropriate. I also have the expectation that a sex education instructor would point out that there are ethical factors to be considered and practiced in sex activity for humans. Furthermore, the students should discuss these moral issues with their parents. In this regard, my hope would be that in any discussion about sexual practice Christian parents would conform their minds to the Mind of Christ and His Church (Morelli, 2007). However, this is not the way it is done in Sweden. The Zenit articles states:  ". . .sex education is graphic and compulsory, and children are taught that whatever feels good sexually is OK. The age of consent is 15." I maintain that, in this case, the Swedish state has overstepped its moral bounds; actually, the statement indicates that the Swedish state has no moral bounds in this regard.

The personhood of mankind is based on being created in God's image

The Holy Spirit-inspired writer of the first book of the Old Testament gives us the foundation of the value of the personhood that constitutes the unique nature of Man.

 "And He [God] said: Let Us make man to Our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. And God created man to His own image: to the image of God He created him: male and female He created them." (Gn 1: 26-27)

The understanding that God "breathed into his face the breath of life (Gn 2: 27) can be taken that it is by the action of the Holy Spirit that, right at the moment of creation, mankind partakes of the Divine Nature even though in limited form. This Divine  action makes mankind above all the materially created world. Mankind's obligation and responsibility to care for creation can be understood from God's instruction, described by the writer of Genesis: "And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth" (Gn 1: 28). There is a spiritual and psychological similarity but simultaneously a uniqueness in the make up mankind.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (2002) reflects on the alternate use of the singular and the plural in Sacred Scripture,vi a seeming antinomy, in its referencing both God and mankind.

From two human beings the third, their child, is to be born: the fully realized family — husband, wife and child — which is a reflection of the Divine love of in three Hypostases [persons of the Holy Trinity]. . .This interchange emphasizes the unity of the nature of [mankind] even though each individual person is unique. 'God is a Nature and three Persons; man is a nature and "innumerable" persons; God is consubstantial and in three Hypostases, man is consubstantial [nature] and in innumerable hypostases [persons].

The Ultimate Goal of Personhood is Being "Like" God

The Holy Father St. John of Damaskos summarizes in very practical terms the meaning of personhood in mankind: a reflection of the Divine personhood:

First, every man is said to be made in the image of God as regards the dignity of his intellect and soul ... is immortal and endowed with free will, and in virtue of which he rules, begets and constructs. Second, every man is said to be made in the likeness of God as regards his possession of the principle of virtue and god-like actions... having deep sympathy for one's fellow men, in mercy, pity and love ... and in showing heartfelt concern and compassion. (Philokalia II).

St. John is emphatic in pointing out that because of our being made in God's image it is the likeness of God that we must attain. The image is but a stepping stone, so to say, to achieve our ultimate worth: being 'like God.'

But only a few — those who are virtuous and holy, and have imitated the goodness of God to the limit of human powers — possess that which is according to the likeness of God.

Furthermore, St. John distinguishes sin and its opposite virtue in terms of body and soul, with the soul being on a higher level than the body, as he says, more "excellent and precious." St. John notes that "this is especially true of those virtues which imitate God and bear His name." This leads him to the conclusion that "the vices of the soul are much worse than the passions of the body." His down-to-earth discourse on this distinction is very insightful both psychologically and spiritually:

I don't know why, but people overlook this fact. They treat drunkenness, unchastity, adultery, theft and all such vices with great concern, avoiding them or punishing them as something whose very appearance is loathsome to most men. But the passions of the soul are much worse and more serious then bodily passions [emphasis mine].  For they degrade men to the level of demons ... These passions of the soul are envy, rancour, malice, insensitivity, avarice — which according to the apostle [Paul] is the root of all evil. (cf. 1Tim 6: 10) — and all vices of a similar nature.

It is clear that St. John of Damascus is not downgrading the sins of the body, but rather astutely indicating that the sins of the soul are the source of these bodily sins and thus ultimately more primal. They indwell in the heart of the soul. As Christ Himself said "But the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man. For from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man." (Mt 15: 18-20)

The meaning of martyrdom

The word ‘martyr’ means witness.vii  Martyrs are described by St. Diadochos of Photiki as those who "confess their faith despite all persecution." (Philokalia I, McGuckin, (2004) commenting on the "witness (martyria) or public confession" of Christ in the early Church, says that it was seen as inspired by the Holy Spirit. He notes the words of Jesus to His Apostles, Peter James John and Andrew: "And it is needful for the Gospel first to be proclaimed to all the nations. But whenever they lead you away and deliver you up, cease taking thought before what ye should say, neither be meditating. But whatsoever shall be given to you in that hour, be speaking this; for ye are not the ones who speak, but the Holy Spirit." (Mk. 13:10-11). As I pointed our previously in this article, early Christians were subjected to physical torture and death in mimesis of the passion and death of Christ Himself.

Spiritual Preparation for being a martyr-witness in the modern world

Martyrdom may be laudable, but there can be grievous spiritual danger for Christians in  public display of their commitment to Christ, as I noted in the introductory quote from St. Matthew (6: 5-6). It would do all of us well to reflect on Blessed Theophylact's (2006) commentary on Christ's teaching: "He also calls those men hypocrites who pretend they are looking to God when in fact they are only looking to men; and from men they have received the only reward they will receive." In contemporary terms we must be aware of cultivating 'purity of intention.' St. Simeon the New Theologian writes: "In brief, do everything as if you were in the presence of God, so that your conscience does not rebuke you." (Philokalia IV). We would want to purge ourselves of any witness that may be carnal, material-minded, profane or unspiritual. This would be the spiritual understanding of St. Paul's teaching to the Corinthians: "But a material-minded man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him, and he is not able to come to know it, because it is spiritually examined." (1 Cor. 2:14) In order to attain purity of heart or intention the virtue of humility must be cultivated. St. Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) counsels:

All these good things are born to a man from the recognition of his own weakness. For out of his craving for God's help, he presses on toward God . . .  and to the extent that he draws near to God in his intention, God also draws near to him through His gifts. . . .

Cultivating a Heart Enlivened by Christ

When we think of sin we think that it springs from what is in our hearts and into our thoughts, words and deeds. “For out of the heart cometh forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.”(Mt. 15:19). So, too, to witness Christ in the modern world we have to start with our hearts, that is to say our inner disposition, and be in conformity to the mind of Christ and his Church. (Morelli, 2010a) As I have previously written:

Secularism can be defined as the marginalization of God and the Church, and in place of God and His Church, a focus on "earthly things" (Php 3:19). That is to say, the values of contemporary western world, including: radical individualism; moral relativism; and religious and political correctness, which guide individual and social behavior and inform political/public policy. (Morelli, 2010b)

Thus we must start our witness of Christ, from the depths of our personhood, with our hearts focusing on 'Godly things.' St. Hesychios the Priest is clear what must be done to bring this about:

The heart which is constantly guarded, and is not allowed to receive the forms, images and fantasies of the dark and evil spirits [earthly things] ... We should wage this spiritual warfare with a precise sequence; first, with attentiveness; then, when we perceive hostile thought attacking [worldly values], we should strike at it angrily in the heart, cursing it as we do so; thirdly, we should direct our prayer against it, concentrating our the heart through the invocation of Jesus Christ . . ."viii (Philokalia I)

So, then, what follows from our heart is either sinful or Godly. As St. Ilias the Presbyter succinctly put it: "The soul is liable to sin in three ways: in actions, in words, and in thoughts." This suggests that if our hearts are imbued with the spirit of Christ, so, too, then will be our actions, words and thoughts. With this "armor of God," we are now prepared to face our modern martyrdom, that is to say witnessing Christ. As St. Paul reminds the Ephesians (6: 11-13):

 "Put on the full armor of God, for you to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil; because for us the wrestling is not against blood and flesh, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the cosmic rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of evil on account of the heavenly things. For this cause take up the full armor of God, in order that ye might be able to withstand in the day, and having counteracted all things, to stand."

 An important caveat is to recall that sin is not only what we do; it is also what we fail to do. 

 

Witnessing in the Modern Secular World

Example One: A Simple Personal Example

For many years in the past, when dining outside of my home, say in a public eatery, in the spirit of Christ's instruction to pray in secret (cf. Mt 6: 6) I would make the Sign of the Cross and Grace before Meals mentally. In today's world, which marginalizes God, Christ and His Church any public display of commitment to Christ it is likely to be considered worthy of castigation and surely not given honor. Thus, all the more reason for Christians to say such prayers in public and not limit themselves to private times. I now make a public confession of my commitment to Christ in this manner and strongly urge others dedicated to Christ to do likewise.

Example Two: A Public Sports Figure

The sports news that captured the attention of the media in the United States in 2011, if not around the world, was the very public acknowledgement of God by National Football League (NFL) quarterback Jim Tebow. After making a favorable play, he would drop to his knee and bow his head. The act generated a new word in American English language; it came to be called "Tebowing."ix

This act has been copied by others:

Can we not see this as drawing people to God and helping to re-establish the importance of God in society and our personal life? At a time in which Christ and his followers are being disparaged,  deprived of fundamental rights, ignored and sidelined from public life and political policy, this display is a welcome witness.  It should be noted that the witness that Tim Tebow gives is Christ-centered. While in college play he had the number  "Jn 3:16" on his sun protection eye black, a reference to the well-known Gospel verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that everyone who believeth in Him should not perish, but may have everlasting life.] The use of any number or text for under-eye sun protection is not allowed in the NFL. However Tebow's Christian orientation was made known. In fact, he commented that:  "It just goes to show you the influence and the platform that you have as a student-athlete and as a quarterback at Florida".x May I comment on how much influence any of us could have who are true witnesses to Christ in our lives? Consider Christ's direction: “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what ye hear in the ear, proclaim upon the housetops." (Mt 10:27) The eyes of the world are around us and upon us.

Example Three: Engaging Moral Issues

It goes without saying that if Christians are in political life or have societal leadership of any kind, they are to follow Christ’s moral teachings in what they legislate, propose, support, vote on, execute or adjudicate.  To name but a few contemporary political-social issues that have moral implications: abortion, same sex marriage, and torture, such as waterboarding. These activities are a grave illness, infirmity, missing of the mark, that is to say sin, and are thus antithetical to Christian moral teaching; not worthy of sincere Christians, and should be against the conscience of those who claim to be Christians.xi

What about the rest of us, however, who are not politicians, business executives or who, like me, actually eschew politics?  Let us recall the ways of participating in sin. We are culpable by: counsel, command, consent, provocation, praise or flattery, concealment, partaking, silence or defense of the sin.xii Permit me another personal example. I was recently exiting a market when I was approached by a young lady. She asked me: Do you support civil rights for gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals? Without hesitation, very directly and firmly, but in charity, I answered: "I certainly, do. . . equal pay for equal work, etc. . . . (by God's grace working on my intuition as she was asking the question, I discerned the motive behind her question and where it was leading, so I continued responding with no pause whatsoever). . . but not same-sex marriage, that is a moral issue, not one of civil rights; marriage can be only between a male and female, and blessed by God." Let me say, she was stopped in her tracks. I guess my Christ-centered response-witness was certainly unexpected. I had a genuine smile and said something like: "Take care and God bless!" Let us recall on the ways I have acted in a similar way when confronted by others supporting un-Christlike moral issues. Psychologically what I was doing was responding assertively. (Morelli, 2006). I might call such encounters 'assertiveness for Christ.'

A shame for Christians that many who deny Christ have no problem witnessing

It is well known that many who deny Christ as true God and true man have no problem publically witnessing their view. In Europe, this view of a young lady is a common sight:

Public Schools Toronto Canada allow formal prayer services for Moslem students during the day in the schoolsxiii:

In fact, among Moslems it is a duty to perform public worship.xiv

It is well known that in some Moslem countries any public display of commitment to Christ is prohibited and harshly dealt with.xv I saw a video a couple of years ago of a world known Orthodox bishop who had to wear a sport shirt and pants while in Turkey, because his clerical garb was not permitted. Unless under Church obedience, I have no intention of ever visiting a country that will not permit me to wear my appropriate clerical garb and possess my Sacred Scripture, readings of the Church Fathers and service books. I pray that God would give me the strength that if ever I were somehow forced into being in such a location, I would be a witness-martyr in this regard even unto death.

Our Baptismal Vocation and Responsibility: Being a Martyr for Christ

The last words of Christ to His eleven Apostles as recorded by St. Matthew (Mt. 28:18-20) is this instruction: “All authority is given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you; and behold, I am with you all the days until the completion of the age. Amen." All those baptized into Christ, as we chant in the Baptismal Hymn: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia," means that now all the baptized are of the royal priesthood. They themselves are called to make those of all nations become committed, baptized followers of Christ. Writing to the persecuted Churches in Asia Minor St. Peter told them, "But ye are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for a possession,” that ye might “tell forth the virtues” of the One Who called you out of darkness into His wondrous light, who once were “not a people,” but now are “a people of God. . . .""  (1Pt 2:9-10)

Now, God has created us with different personalities and different gifts. As St. Paul told the people of Corinth: "Now there are distributions of gifts of grace, but the same Spirit, there are distributions of ministrations, and the same Lord. But to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given to the profit of all. . . ."  (1Cor. 12: 4,5,7) One gift that we all share is the gift to witness-to martyr Christ.  At the very least, we can all make the Sign of the Cross, say a prayer, and (with discernment) say that something we may encounter is contrary to the teaching of Christ. Let us remember Christ's words to St. Paul, and his response: "My grace is sufficient for thee; for My power is being made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore will I rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of the Christ might dwell upon me. Wherefore I am well pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in straits, for Christ’s sake; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor 12: 9-10)

Blessed are they who have been persecuted on account of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.

Blessed are ye whenever they reproach you and persecute you, and say every evil word against you falsely on account of Me.

Be rejoicing and be exceedingly glad, for your reward is great in the heavens. For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Mt 5: 10-12)

Date posted: April 1, 2012