There have been both progressions and setbacks lately in discussions about Christian unity – Oriental Orthodox vs. Eastern Orthodox. Catholic vs Orthodox. Protestant vs Catholic. You name it. We have acronyms to express every denomination and viewpoint on the planet. I cannot speak to most of those, but I want to reflect a little bit on the division between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. This first blog will be an analogy of sorts from which to work from, and the follow-up blog or two will be personal reflections of this story as it applies to our present-day situation through the lens of my own life and experience thus far. They are thoughts about the matter after years of reading about it, being angry about it, and then arriving at where I presently am.
There was a family. There were parents, and there were a bunch of sons. They were united as a family unit. Existentially speaking, they were family simply because they were family! In spite of anyone’s opinions, they were a family because genetically they were a family. One day, the brothers got into a fight. Some claim the fight had something to do with facts about their Dad, and others said the fight was purely political. As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but regardless, they definitely had a fight. The fight had some point to it, but some might argue that like most brotherly fights, the whole argument was not really one of principle. There was stubbornness and self-serving interests in each involved. The fight, however, was also the culmination of lots of pent-up things within each brother. So when they exploded, they really exploded. Unfortunately, instead of trying to resolve the issue, the brothers walked out of the house. Each claimed to kick the other out. Each party believes that the others left their house. Each person claims the others to be in error. Each wants the other to apologise before being permitted to re-enter their own home. Each claims his own home to be the real home. None saw his own home as incomplete without his brother.
Over time, the brothers grew independently and divorced from one another. Some of them kept in contact with one another and had decent relationships with one another, having only minor hiccoughs with one another along the way. Others had no contact with anyone for very very long periods of time. Each one would express to his children the stories of what happened ‘back in the day’, about the fight that put them where they were. Each one told stories, and those stories over the years got embellished. Some stories were entirely fabricated, others were rooted in truth but with fabricated frills, and still others were entirely true. The mixture of the three of those, made finding out what really happened very difficult. This did not matter, however, as most were only telling the story as they heard it, and not worrying much about what actually happened that day, believing that whatever they said happened, actually happened.
Each son told his own story to his children, and their children retold the stories to their own children. Each maintained that the relatives were best cut off, unless they groveled back in submission. Some even went so far as to deny that they were ever even really family. It was easy to speak about the relatives behind their backs, in the comfort of everyone’s own homes. It was easy to be polemical about people when they were not sitting at the same table. It was easy to boldly proclaim things about people when they could not defend themselves. Some had even developed songs and poetry calling other siblings names. Some developed specialised communities to talk about how awful the other siblings were. They wrote their legends down so as not to lose them, and promulgated it among the masses. Embellishments became facts, fiction was woven into documentary, and the people slept soundly at night.
One day, situations occurred that caused the brothers to all move into the same area. They were not moving into one another’s area, rather, they were all immigrating to the same place. The brothers and their children for the first time in so long, were physically coming into contact with one another. At first, they were outwardly cordial as best as could be, after all, they were all in a foreign place. They might say hello to one another in the street, but when they got into their own homes, they would continue to speak badly of one another. Then, people started to confront one another. The children could not keep what they heard at home to themselves, but instead, went to their cousins to tell them how awful they and their parents are. The cousins went home and told their parents, and their parents told them that the truth is that their cousins were horrible people. Thus, the discord grew. Some would let non-relatives into their own homes, but refuse entry to their own cousins. It was truly a sorry state. Many reactions and developments were seen as they increased their interactions with one another.
There were those who were suspicious of their relatives. Some wanted their relatives to be exactly the same as themselves in order to believe that they were truly family that should be united and reconciled again. Some saw that their relatives had developed ideas or practices that were either different than their own, non-existent among their own, or applied differently than among their own. Instead of asking how these practices and differences came to be and why, and whether they are actually of significance or not – they used these differences as bases not to reconcile. They did not ask the relevance of these identified differences to the original division, they simply stopped at the fact that there were differences.
In one family, for example, the members of one household had dealt with so many problems within itself and dealing with others, that they were compelled to lay down a law for themselves. This family demanded that other families sign their rule sheets as though they were present at those meetings if they wanted the other family to accept them. They wanted them even to sign sheets saying that their forefathers were horrible people in order to accept them. Another family heard ideas that were never expressed that way in their own households, and quickly reacted to say that the idea was foreign and suspicious, and thus any family that said those things should be avoided rather than confronted. That family did not stop and ask, why are they saying this? What does it mean? Just because it is different than how I said it, does that mean that it is wrong?
Some families, having gone through different experiences than others, developed their own customs and habits and ideas. They took pride in those things and were excited to show those things to the whole world. They saw these things as superior than what everyone else had, and as items that made them rich. On some level this might have been true. What they did, however, was say, if you do not have these things, then you are not really family. You have been influenced by your environment differently than us, therefore you are wrong and not family! Your lack, in our view, of these things is a sign that you are not really family. The claim was that somehow not having certain riches made one not truly family. This sometimes lured people from other families to go reject their own families to join their cousins, even though these things were not objective measures of what it means to be family. Those families saw their so-called riches as a sign of blessing, and that that blessing must mean that they were the authentic family. They did not necessarily have an objective measure of wealth or family, but simply defined wealth, riches and family, to be what they themselves appeared to have.
Other families had gone through extreme hardship, and had been struggling to survive. Some people saw the hardships as a proof that they were not blessed, even though that family had many stories of countless blessings that they had experienced and received. Their hardships meant that they did not have the material wealth of some of the other families, but their hardships brought out a spirit of humility and kindness. These people perhaps could not flaunt rubies in a very obvious way as its riches, but the rest of the world that interacted with them saw in them a genuine kindness that perhaps was not as obvious as in other families. Many people did not see this family as impoverished at all – but again, nobody had a clear definition of wealth, and yet were assessing the wealth of one another all the time.
There were still some, however, who were not interested in just pointing at others and calling one another names. There were some who wanted to know the Truth. Some people, instead of just hurling insults at their relatives, started to dialogue with one another. They started to ask important questions: what was the historical fight actually about? Were the stories that were told about one another actually true? If true, what difference did those stories actually make to the original fight? Why were those stories actually still being told and used? Those that took this route often found themselves liking their relatives. These folk were able to look past the stories and rejoice in their newfound relatives, and were able to engage in learning from one another. They discovered that so much had happened in one another’s lives when they were separated, that they had much to talk about and discuss. Everyone in their exile from one another had faced their own personal challenges and also had their share of blessings – those experiences shaped each family’s character and traditions. Some had gone through misery, others had been highly exalted. Each had a story. Some were able to get to this point and feel that the wealth of each individual family member was the wealth of the whole family. These came to rediscover their family and realise that in spite of the fight, they were family. These were able to look past the emotionalism of the narratives and ask objective questions.
Regardless of which group one belonged to, the interactions continued, the name-calling continued and accusations against one another continued. Some people would go to trusted members of their family and ask, “Are you sure that they are so bad? They do not seem as bad as we thought!” The answers would vary from, “Don’t you trust so and so? So and so said they did these things and I trust him!” It did not matter that so-and-so, as nice or kind as he may be, was not even at the original fight. Others responded with, “Of course they seem fine, that’s the usual way the devil deceives people!” Others said, “I don’t know”, and still others said, “They’re good folk!”
Yet, the real issue was not being addressed in all of this. If the original fight was truly about some fact about their common Dad, then why were they still divided? Why could they not objectively ask each other, “What do you presently believe about our Dad, and is it the same as what we believe?” If this was truly the issue, then this is truly the only question that truly matters. Why did these other issues that they were discussing matter as much? If everyone was agreed about the facts about who their Dad is, then what exactly was it that was allowing them to remain in division? If the fight was more political than it was factual, then was that good enough reason to remain divided?
What seemed to escape the notice of all of them, was that whether they liked it or not, they were still one family. No matter who left whose house, it was still brothers who fought and brothers they would remain in spite of themselves, their claims, their fights and their stories. Their genetic link as brothers could not be invalidated even if they desired it because in spite of themselves, they were brothers. Changing names, changing identities, dying their hair – none of these things could invalidate the fact that they are brothers. Yes, they were brothers, brothers who fought, but brothers nonetheless.
Ah, that they would be one! What were these brothers to do? The story cannot be completed, because in reality, the story is still in progress.