Christian hope lies in the Kingdom of God and not in the kingdoms of this world. The Church puts her trust “not in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3), but rather in the Son of God who has entered history to liberate his creatures from all those practices and structures of sin, oppression, and violence that corrupt the fallen world. Over the course of Christian history, Christians have lived under diverse forms of government—empires, totalitarian regimes, liberal democracies, nations with Christian establishments, nations with other established creeds, secular states—some of which have proved amicable to the institutional Church, some hostile, and some indifferent. No matter what the political regime to which they have been subject, however, the principal home of Christians in this world is in the celebration (at times open, at times in secret) of the holy Eucharist, where they are enjoined to “set aside all earthly care” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) and to enter at once both into the unity of the body of Christ in history and into the joy of God’s Kingdom beyond history.
The Eucharist, in being celebrated and shared by the faithful, ever and again constitutes the true Christian polity, and shines out as an icon of God’s Kingdom as it will be realized in a redeemed, transfigured, and glorified creation. As such, the Eucharist is a prophetic sign as well, at once a critique of all political regimes insofar as they fall short of divine love and an invitation to all peoples to seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice (Matthew 6:33). Here we have no enduring city, and must look instead for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14); here we are strangers and pilgrims (Hebrews 11:13); but here also we enjoy a foretaste of that final redemption of all social order in God’s Kingdom, and have been entrusted with a sign to exhibit before the nations, by which to call them to a life of peace and charity under the shelter of God’s promises.
The Orthodox Church cannot judge all forms of human government as equivalent with one another, even though all fall far short of the Kingdom. It unequivocally condemns every kind of institutional corruption and totalitarianism, for instance, knowing that it can bring nothing but mass suffering and oppression.
Neither does the Church insist that Christian citizens of established states are required in every conceivable situation to submit to the powers that be or to consent to the social and political orders in which they find themselves. Of course, Christ himself acknowledged the right of the civil authority to collect taxes when he said, “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). And it is true that, in very special circumstances, the Apostle Paul enjoined the Christians in Rome to obey the justly constituted civil authority of the city and empire, and even recognized the legitimate authority of those who “carry the short-sword”—machairophoroi, which is to say soldiers, military policemen, civil guards, or taxation enforcement officers—empowered to preserve civic peace (Romans 13:1–7).
But this isolated counsel clearly does not constitute any kind of absolute rule for Christian conduct in all imaginable circumstances. This we know from the words of the Apostle Peter to the Council in Jerusalem, which was the duly appointed legal authority of Judaea: When the commands of even a legally established political authority contradict our responsibilities as Christians, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). More to the point, Paul’s admonitions to the Christians of Rome concerned only the situation of the Church under a pagan imperial authority, and tell us nothing now regarding how Christians should seek to order society and promote civic peace when they themselves wield power, or regarding what Christians may require of peoples and governments when exercising their prophetic vocation to proclaim and witness to God’s justice and mercy to the world. Even Christ, in cleansing the Jerusalem Temple of moneychangers and merchants, did not hesitate to defy both the policing powers of the Judean Temple authorities and Rome’s universal ordinances against civic disorders.
The Church should, of course, seek to live at peace with all persons in whatever lands it inhabits, and to offer that peace to everyone; and in most cases this requires obedience to the laws that exist in those lands. Even so, the Church remains in some sense always an alien presence within any human order, and recognizes that God’s judgment falls upon all human political power in some measure. Christians may and often must participate in the political life of the societies in which they live, but must do so always in service to the justice and mercy of God’s Kingdom.
Such was the injunction from the earliest Christian period: “We have been taught to pay all proper respect to powers and authorities of God’s appointment, so long as it does not compromise us.
At times, this may entail participation not by way of perfect obedience, but by way of the higher citizenship of civil disobedience, even rebellion. The Kingdom of God alone is the Christian’s first and last loyalty, and all other allegiances are at most provisional, transient, partial, and incidental.
In many countries in the world today, civil order, freedom, human rights, and democracy are realities in which citizens may trust; and, to a very real degree, these societies accord persons the fundamental dignity of the liberty to seek and pursue the good ends they desire for themselves, their families, and their communities. This is a very rare blessing indeed, viewed in relation to the entire course of human history, and it would be irrational and uncharitable of Christians not to feel a genuine gratitude for the special democratic genius of the modern age.
Orthodox Christians who enjoy the great advantages of living in such countries should not take such values for granted, but should instead actively support them, and work for the preservation and extension of democratic institutions and customs within the legal, cultural, and economic frameworks of their respective societies. It is something of a dangerous temptation among Orthodox Christians to surrender to a debilitating and in many respects fantastical nostalgia for some long-vanished golden era, and to imagine that it constituted something like the sole ideal Orthodox polity.
This can become an especially pernicious kind of false piety, one that mistakes the transient political forms of the Orthodox past, such as the Byzantine Empire, for the essence of the Church of the Apostles. The special advantages of the Church under Christian rule may have allowed for the gestation and formation of a distinct Orthodox ethos within the political spaces inhabited by Orthodox Christians, but they also had the unfortunate additional effect of binding the Church to certain crippling limitations.
Far too often, the Orthodox Church has allowed for the conflation of national, ethnic, and religious identity, to the point that the external forms and language of the faith—quite evacuated of their true content—have come to be used as instruments for advancing national and cultural interests under the guise of Christian adherence. And this has often inhibited the Church in its vocation to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples.