This Fourth of July in America 2020 is a time of severe civil division and unrest, economic depression, and epic uncertainty due to global pestilence. Troubles of “biblical proportions” indeed, they seem to call the question of the “latter days,” at least for a nation that until recently boasted of being the last best hope on earth.
Gathered with friends at a small informal Fourth of July Parade in our rural college town, after the official parade had been shut down due to health concerns, I genuinely wondered if that modest replacement effort would be the last such parade in a town where massive annual Fourth parades and fireworks had been a tradition, but which now seems in the grip of the new secular “Great Awokening,” in which patriotism has swerved into being a dissident act.
As our controversial President flew over Mount Rushmore last evening on his way to a rally there, I also wondered if this would be the last presidential visit to Mount Rushmore, the last time Air Force One would fly by those iconic American presidents in stone, and whether indeed the days of that proud monument to the American republic itself now may be numbered, along with that very form of government as it has existed historically.
Video below: Fourth of July fly-by of Air Force One over Mount Rushmore
By meaningful historical coincidence, the Fourth is also the date on the Julian calendar of the martyrdom of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, led by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, recognized on our civil Gregorian calendar on July 17. At our small Russian Orthodox mission parish in Union Township, Pennsylvania, this is also the weekend of our feast day, when we commemorate our patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. The coincidence prompts this reflection on the enduring Christian meaning of freedom and unity, and the need for deeper spiritual discernment, amid the angst of commemorating the Fourth of July in a fragmenting America today.
The execution of the Russian royal family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, by order of the totalitarian leader Vladimir Lenin as historians since established, marked the end of the last major Christian empire on earth, cultural heir to the ancient Christian Roman empire of Byzantium, at a time when remaining Protestant and Catholic Christian constitutional monarchies in the West already were slipping into secular irrelevancy.
The Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia
The rise in Russia of the world’s first full-fledged totalitarian regime involved the start of a state-sponsored death toll subsequently tallied at up to 100 million by the Communist movements that spread from it around the world, most notably to China, where Communist totalitarianism continues to this day in the rising preeminent global superpower, and point of origin of the Covid-19 plague now haunting the world.
The end of the Christian Russian Empire marked the precariousness of traditional Christian culture in the face of ruthless totalitarian secularism in the twentieth century. Its demise also serves as a reminder of how no regime, however old and established, can be assumed to last forever, especially in the fast-changing advance of global technocracy.
Standing beside the Royal Martyrs in the spiritual panoply of Orthodox Christian saints are the many New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, those whose deaths and targeted persecution by atheistic Communism lit the way for the revival of Christianity in Russia, and the coming of Russian Orthodoxy to our small Pennsylvania town five years ago, in a new mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). One hundred years ago, ROCOR was founded as its Synod evacuated from Crimea to Constantinople with scores of thousands of refugees in a flotilla including remnants of the White Army, civilian families, and even Russian Boy Scout units.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn would help chronicle the suffering of those faithful left behind in his The Gulag Archipelago, which in its section “The Soul and Barbed Wire” outlines three principles of totalitarianism: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and professing “the permanent lie” that “perception is reality.” But how many times are we asked to bow to these very same totalitarian principles in America 2020 by our elites from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum?
The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia
America’s founding on July 4, 1776, was completed in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863, in south central Pennsylvania, less than a two-hour drive south of where I write. Gettysburg still nestles in rolling farmland of the watershed of the same Susquehanna River that flows by our home, and whose source, according to hydrologists, bubbles up from marshland on the grounds of Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, a spiritual stronghold of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
Abraham Lincoln’s words at the Gettysburg battlefield completed America’s founding documents, linking the Declaration of Independence’s axiomatic Christian-inspired principle that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with rights, to the U.S. Constitution, as a republic “under God.” In doing so, Lincoln drew not only on his developing mystical faith from the trauma of the Civil War, but also on his reliance during the earlier Lincoln-Douglas debates on absolute moral principle rather than variations of decision by mob rule. He echoed George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and others, who underscored the indispensability of faith and morality in preserving the republic. The historian Anthony Kaldellis noted how the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium was really a republic, its rulers under a higher law. So too was Lincoln’s vision of the Christian-inspired American constitutional republic, which Adams and others saw combining the best elements of Classical types of government, to reflect the higher law of what the Declaration referred to as “nature’s God,” “divine Providence,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Creator.” The Presidency reflected Monarchy, the Senate Aristocracy, the House of Representatives Democracy, all designed to check and balance one another, as was the case with other elements such as the Electoral College, the Bill of Rights (especially the First and Second Amendments), limited government and the federal system (enshrined in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments balanced by the “Civil War Amendments,” the Thirteenth through Fifteenth), and the Supreme Court. But this basic architecture of the Constitution is under open and foundational attack today. The linked documents of the Declaration, the Constitution (signed in “the year of our Lord”), and the Gettysburg Address are the textual version of the king to be executed now by the cultural (not classical) Marxism of our elites, woke nihilists of all political stripes, little more than a century after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Lincoln at Gettysburg
America helped win the war against Nazism, and the Cold War against Soviet Communism. But her civil religion, originally based in continually fragmenting Protestantism, subsequently weakened. Now “nones”–those associated with no religion–equal either of the two largest religious populations of the country, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, as a segment of the population.
Behind this change lies the “long march” of “cultural Marxism” through the institutions of American culture. Involving intellectuals, the loose-leafed movement leaped over the class struggle ideas of old Marxism to focus on changing culture to enable revolution. In this it was aided by the enervation of American life through the material excess of comfortable and aggressive consumerism and unaddressed sins, which birthed the “woke capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism” that now oddly ally with totalitarian movements of the Left.
Today’s ultimately anti-Christian efforts to weaponize intellectual nihilism for revolutionary purposes, exploiting real and alleged sins of America, draw on the work of past intellectuals and strategists like Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, the Frankfurt School and spinoffs (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm), Judith Butler, Audre Lord, Saul Alinsky, Howard Zinn. But such cultural Marxism has run its course from the sexual revolution and radical counter-culture of the 1960s into American corporate board rooms, popular arts, norm-keeping cyberspace mobs, major newsrooms, intellectual communities of dominant religious establishments, elite K-12 schools, and halls of academe. The rituals of its new civil religion, the “secular privilege” and “secular fragility” of its “secularness,” dominate popular culture in current mass ceremonies that seek to exorcise history, confess social sin, and repeat mantra-like slogans and jargon, all without God and with hostility toward traditional Christian faith.
So Antifa today finds increasing elite American “Marxisant” acceptance for the philosophy of “pre-emptive violence” of its anarchist and communist supporters, the Black Lives Matter organization goes establishment with a platform targeting the traditional family for destruction as oppressive, and the Sunrise Movement/Green New Deal mainstreams its own brand of cultural Marxism under cover of caring for the earth.
Dostoevsky’s novel of revolutionary ideas as Demons
In the half-month before July 4, 2020, conservative appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court helped to re-define sex to include transgenderism, striking a blow against religious freedom and incarnationalist Christian anthropology, by in effect legislating the Equality Act previously deadlocked in Congress. This laid the groundwork for defining traditional faith communities as bigoted outlaws, and came alongside another decision overturning state restrictions on abortion. Neoliberal consumerism and cultural Marxism thus appeared again as two sides of the same coin, championing atheistic and materialistic individual autonomy that engenders nihilism and anarchy. This is the recipe for the social isolation and terror that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt warned laid the foundation of the two classic forms of 20th-century totalitarianism, Nazism and Communism. All this is reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prophetic fiction in his novel Demons, in which secular liberalism led to anarchism and then to nihilism and terror. As the Russian Christian Elder Ignatius of Harbin, China, prophesied, “What started in Russia will end in America.”
But today in Russia, through the prayers we believe of the many martyrs and new confessors under the Bolshevik yoke, Russian Orthodox Christianity is experiencing a revival. In the week before our Fourth of July this year, Russian voters overwhelmingly adopted constitutional amendments affirming faith in God and also traditional marriage as defined in the Christian Gospel in the Russian Federation’s Constitution. The latter effort, a constitutional amendment upholding traditional marriage, promoted but never pushed for by former U.S. President George W. Bush, failed in an early 2000s America that today seems to have existed in another century.
Rebuilding the destroyed Christ the Savior Cathedral
America, too, has her own saints praying for her. They include St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose death in Seattle in 1966 is also commemorated this week. St. John, born in Imperial Russia, was marked by devotion to the faith as a young man and known for his caring work as educator, priest, and then bishop. This included his leading a large community of orphans in China to safety from the Communism of Mao, a more brutal mass-murdering totalitarian leader than even Hitler or Stalin, bringing them ultimately to San Francisco. Known for walking barefoot in Paris as a Bishop, as well as in San Francisco, St. John carried the marks of a “fool for Christ,” beloved and miraculous in his prayers before and after his death, named “the wonderworker,” and sometimes infuriating to those mired in a bureaucratic sense of religion. Our mission parish in central Pennsylvania is named for him because of his influence in linking the earlier tradition of Russian monastic spirituality in Alaska to postwar Russian emigres and to the growth of American converts to Orthodoxy in the 1960s and later, as exemplified by his spiritual child the Blessed Father Seraphim Rose, who went from a dissolute life as a nihilistic beatnik in 1950s San Francisco to being one of America’s great spiritual lights.
Thus, as in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the light of spiritual activism, honest repentance, and “active love” shines from one heart to another, more contagious and powerful than even the plague. Elder Zosima caught it from his dying brother, then transmitted it to Alexei Karamazov, and Alexei spread it to the children of his town, as well as to his brother Ivan and others. In this shared experience of the tender heart through faith, in the sobornost of spiritual unity, there is hope for America in her saints now and yet to come. It is why our mission holds a worship service on July Fourth this year in memory of St. John of San Francisco (the closest Saturday to his July 2 feast), including prayer for America, while struggling to keep spiritual watch against the pandemic of atheistic nihilism, which ultimately is a spiritual and not a political plague.
St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco:
So we pray in our little Russian Orthodox mission in northern Appalachia, currently in rented space in an historic club on our main street, and sometimes outside on our rural land awaiting a temple, by our cemetery. And our family, considered both a “little church” and a “little kingdom” in our tradition (married couples being crowned in covenant with Christ in Orthodox weddings, rather than linked in any mini-version of a social contract), worships in our home chapel mornings and evenings. Our home chapel is dedicated to the memory of St. Jonah of Hankou, another Russian exile saint. Tortured by the Bolsheviks, rescued by the White Army, he participated in an epic march across the Gobi desert that included climbing cliffs with his bare hands in bitter cold. Then, arriving in China proper, he immediately became renowned for his active charity in tending to the needy and renewing the faith. While caring for a victim of typhoid fever, he contracted the disease, said his final prayers, and died. That same night, a young crippled boy saw a vision of a man coming to him and saying, “here, take my legs, I have no need of them.” The boy arose healed. Later, seeing a picture of St. Jonah, he saw the man from his vision.
St. Jonah in his life and death exemplified what the Russian Orthodox exile S.L. Frank in the 1920s and 1930s wrote of as freedom in the mystical Christian sense: Unforced service to universal truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ, not self-willed assertion of rights. In such freedom, identity is relational, not essentialized or objectified. Justice for Frank lay in working to ensure that every human being has that opportunity for a meaningful life of freedom. Frank was dedicated to this Christian freedom and justice: He and his family had been exiled from Russia on the “philosophers’ ships” by order of Lenin, then because of his Jewish ethnicity fled the Nazis first from Germany then from Paris to southern France, where they hid from the Gestapo until the end of World War II. Labeled by some the greatest Russian philosopher, he labored in near anonymity as an indigent exile without a university home, bearing around his neck a Cross and a pouch with soil from his mother’s grave in a homeland he would never see again, and which no longer existed as he had known it.
As for St. Jonah, he was the bishop of Hankou, modern Wuhan City, today the epicenter of the Covid-19 global pestilence that haunts the world this Fourth of July weekend. His icon in our home chapel bears a saying by him that offers a formula for Christian freedom to remember on this Fourth of July in America: “Podvig [Russian for ascetic spiritual struggle] is to live for others”
St. Jonah of Hankou