Reflection on “For God and Country” Orthodox Education Day 2011

On my way to teaching class lately, I’ve been walking past a new landmark on our campus: the U.S. flag atop a gleaming flagpole. It was raised for the first time on Orthodox Education Day 2011. It was an especially meaningful day for me, as for many.

I have been coming to “Ed Day” most every year of my life, and yet my involvement in it somehow manages to increase annually. As part of my faculty responsibilities I now oversee the Events Committee that helps plan this day—the committee that was responsible for choosing this year’s theme and developing the program schedule. Between that and serving hamburgers all day in the food tent, I’d say my involvement spanned pretty widely.

This year’s theme, “For God and Country,” was an occasion to recognize those who serve and have served in the Armed Forces, especially our Orthodox military chaplains. I recall the meetings with staff and faculty colleagues where we arrived at this theme, and how quickly and universally the enthusiasm grew around the room. As reactions to the day have been coming in, from people who attended and from those who did not, I have been surprised by some ambivalent responses. Together with the messages of gratitude there were those of puzzlement and even dismay. Summarizing their content, I would like to share some personal thoughts in response.

“’For God and Country?’ Are you kidding me? Are you equating the importance of the two?”

For God and Country, “Pro Deo et Patria,” is the motto of the U.S. Army military chaplaincy. Choosing this as a theme for Ed Day was meant to signal our real honorees: Orthodox Christian military chaplains. But examining this motto and thinking about it—the idea of expressing allegiance to both “God” and “country” and putting the two within one phrase—might raise very important questions.

I can’t imagine that any one of us would equate God and country, placing them on par with each other within our hearts and our devotion. The gospel specifically tells us that our love for God is to take priority over every other love, even love for family, even love for one’s own life (Luke 14:26). And yet there is also a very appropriate kind of love that we have for family, for self, and yes, for our country. The goal, as always, is proper relationship, proper balance. Finding just the right place for patriotism has been a perennial issue for the Church, but there has always been a place for it. We indeed do well to love our country, and to express that love when we defend it and when we support it, as well as when we question or criticize its policies.

But the choice of the theme, again, rested in the motto of military chaplains, whom we were honored to honor on our seminary campus. Our new flagpole, in fact, was dedicated to the first Orthodox Christian Army Chaplain, Archpriest Vladimir Borichevsky of blessed memory.

“Why did the seminary choose such a militaristic theme? War is an abomination, and the military complex perpetuates it.”

Our desire in choosing this theme was to recognize the people who put their lives on the line in the service of their country, and specifically those who minister to them spiritually. Our Lord extols this kind of love, of one who would lay down his life for others (John 15:13). Whether or not we approve of the size of our military, and whether or not we approve of our foreign policy, the lives and the struggles of the people who serve in the military deserve value and respect. If we stop to consider what life in the Armed Forces can be like, in times of unimaginable moral and spiritual conflict, what could be more vital, and more difficult, than giving spiritual counsel and administering the sacraments to those involved in such a struggle? Once we begin to reflect on that, our awe can only deepen. This has certainly been my experience over the years in coming into contact with more and more servicemen and women, and chaplains and chaplains-in-training: deepened respect and love.

“Isn’t support for our military a support for war?”

Well, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. If you look at what we actually did at Ed Day, the talks and workshops that we offered, you would see a bigger picture. Fr. Philip LeMasters gave the keynote address, "Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War, and Violence"; Dr. Stephen Muse offered a workshop entitled, "Listen, Witness, and Weep: What Can the Church Offer Service Men and Women?”. These were anything but militarism: they were thoughtful reflections—theological and practical—on the complex and crucial issues surrounding violence, war, peace, and what human needs demand right now. We also heard stories from people in the field. I might suggest that until a person has sat and listened to these stories, it would be best to reserve judgment.

Still, questions about war and peace are now as central to our lives as Christians as they ever have been. For the past four years I’ve had the pleasure of participating in an Orthodox theological think tank that has been studying the Church’s stance on war. Our study of the scriptures, the church fathers, the liturgy, the saints’ lives, and of contemporary thinkers has yielded a rich tapestry of essays which, God-willing, will soon be published in book form. We found that, through its many voices, the Tradition regularly speaks of war as evil. Little surprise there, for what greater example of the fallen human condition and sin than physical slaughter and depersonalization of “the enemy”? Yet the Tradition also recognizes evils in the world that must be radically overcome: this is why scriptural language regarding inner spiritual struggle so often makes use of military metaphors (see, e.g., Eph 6:10–18). The Church recognizes—given the tragic fallen condition of our age—that war is a near inevitability. The Church recognizes too that alongside brutish impulses, war evinces deep valor and righteous self-sacrifice; God in His greatness can make good come from evil. Nevertheless, these realities do not lead our Tradition to celebrate war, or the factors that lead people to wage war, which cannot but represent a total and tragic failure of human love and creativity.

With all of this in mind, when we honor our military chaplains, we are honoring those who immerse themselves into the brokenness of the world, taking responsibility for its tragedy and seeking to heal it in the name of God. When they do so, they are following the One who immersed himself in our condition, taking on our vulnerability all the way to death, in order to bring us salvation.

“How can we draw bigger crowds to Ed Day and other campus events?”

Good question. Although many of our venues for the day were packed, we noticed a lesser presence than usual of OCA parishes and local clergy. In the weeks to come, we'll be conducting an informal survey of our local parishes in order to help us to plan events, and to bring more people onto our campus. If you are a parish rector or diocesan hierarch and would like your parish(es) to be included in this survey, please contact Matushka Robin Freeman, Annual Gifts Officer, via email (robin@svots.edu).

Listen to the wonderful "Ed Day" presentations by keynote Fr. Philip LeMasters here and workshop leader Dr. Steven Muse here.
See a gallery of photos of Orthodox Education Day 2011 by Kim Piotrowski here.