Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Orthodoxy and the American Awakening

Rev. Johannes Jacobse

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How did Americans respond to the attack on September 11? They did not take to the streets. They did not march in demonstrations. Instead, they went to church.

Churches opened their doors expecting that a few believers might come to pray. Instead, millions turned up. A weekday service in our Greek Orthodox parishes might draw a handful of worshippers. On September 11 many Orthodox parishes were nearly full.

Orthodox Americans do what many Americans do in times of trouble. They go to church. This habit developed from ideas that shaped America's beginnings. The Founding Fathers knew that freedom depends on individual virtue. Freedom is preserved only if Americans remained a moral people.

Morality is derived from religious faith. Church is the place where faith is nurtured and taught. Americans know that freedom depends on faith so they return to church whenever freedom is threatened.

When the nation faces a crisis, Americans respond by embracing religious faith more deeply. The crisis can be caused by threats from the outside or problems on the inside. These crises were met with movements of renewal called Great Awakenings that swept through the nation throughout its history. The movements were religious in nature and successful in healing many of the problems within, particularly when those problems required a moral solution.

The Second Great Awakening of the early and middle nineteenth century for example, emerged when America was in a period of steep moral decline. Following the Revolutionary War, the chaos of battle including the pain of separation and death, wartime inflation, the taxing effort of building a new nation among other problems, tired the nation. Greed, sensuality and family breakdown increased. Alcohol abuse became rampant with predictable social results. People quit going to church. Thomas Paine declared that Christianity was dead.

But out of this exhaustion and breakdown arose renewal. Stellar progress was made. One effort included the Temperance Movement. It worked. Within a generation alcohol consumption in America fell by two-thirds. Families became more stable. Alcohol related disease decreased.

Other efforts included the establishing of settlement houses for the homeless and aid to the massive influx of immigrants during the first great wave of European immigration. Women especially took an interest in those who found themselves financially or morally bankrupt. By 1913 more than 500 urban rescue homes were organized and run by women of faith including Protestant, Catholics, and Jews, from urban slums to small mining villages.

The greatest good to emerge during the Great Awakening was the Abolition Movement. Opposition to slavery emerged out of the Christian churches. It began in England in Wesleyan Methodism and quickly gained hold in America among people of religious faith. The freeing of the Black slave, although laborious and painful, began as the work of men and women moved by Christian conviction.

Some religious thinkers say that today we are on the verge of another Great Awakening. One sign is the shift in public recognition that many of America's current ills and challenges are moral in nature.

For example, the moral dimension of problems like addictions, STD's, AIDS, abortion, family breakdown, is self-evident. More people recognize that healing these maladies will require a moral reorientation that needs to reach into most corners of the culture.

In the meantime, America faces other challenges such as the direction that scientific research should take as it probes the frontiers of life and death, or the abject failure of past policies to relieve poverty and homelessness in any lasting way are also at their foundation moral issues. Clearly we are at a crossroad.

When the nation acknowledges its helplessness in the face of these problems, renewal and restoration can begin. In some areas this is already happening. When the time of renewal arrives, Orthodox Christianity will be offered an unprecedented opportunity to give this nation the ancient faith. We need to be ready for it.

The Orthodox faith has been in America for well over two hundred years but it had no appreciable presence except for the last hundred years or so. The first immigrants brought the faith to this new land not as missionaries but as people seeking a better life. Through a deep and abiding faith in God and hard work, they established their families, neighborhoods, and parishes.

Today that immigrant faith offers the nation a depth and stability difficult to find elsewhere. Countless Americans are searching for the Orthodox faith without realizing that the Orthodox Church is where they can find it. Specifically, the Orthodox believers must prepare to teach the Gospel of Christ as it is comprehended and articulated in the Tradition. People are being prepared to hear it.

This obligation falls on the shoulders of the Orthodox because the weakness of much of the Christian establishment in America. American Christianity is fractured. Many American churches are confused about faith in God.

Some of these churches have a noble history of leading the moral life of the nation in years past. In recent decades however, they have lost confidence and direction and often are indistinguishable from the culture they one time informed. Some have abdicated leadership altogether.

One reason for their decline is that the historical dynamics that shaped this nation are similar to those that shaped those churches - particularly the Protestant confessions. The rise of modern society and the rise of Protestant Christianity happened simultaneously.

In more recent times, the foundational beliefs and values that shaped this nation faced increasing skepticism and were even attacked in places. Many of these churches applied the same skepticism to the foundational tenets of their faith and met with the same paralyzing results. Even those churches that counter the skepticism with energetic critiques are not able to offer the depth and stability of faith that the nation sorely needs.

The Orthodox in America face the same perplexing questions, the same trials, and have the same responsibilities as every other American. However, Orthodoxy can avoid the internal skepticism and paralysis that afflicts other Christian churches because it draws from a tradition that predates the rise of modern society.

When the yearning for things that are good and right and true finds its voice is when the new Great Awakening will be upon us. It already may be here. If the Orthodox believer remains faithful to the Gospel as he received it and if he loves God and neighbor as the commandment dictates, he offers America a deep and stable faith that can lead the nation towards clarity and healing.

Fr. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Copyright 2002 Rev Johannes L. Jacobse

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