This is Part I of II parts. The second part will run next Tuesday.
I have been asked why I think Russia has returned to the center stage in world events, despite all attempts to push her off the edge. The reason is simple enough. Russia will not obey. She will not obey Imperial Rome, nor will she obey Holy Rome. Not that either Rome is demanding much obedience of anyone lately, but that’s another story. Or two.
In addition to that attitude, Russia will not beg for mercy either, from anyone. Especially the Emperor or the Pope. And maybe that’s a good thing, at the moment. But in the long run, there’s going to be trouble. And maybe in the short run as well. I’m not sure if there’s still time for 2 runs. But let’s get back to the situation as it exists today. In order to understand Russia, we simply have to understand mankind as a whole. Easy enough, eh? All we have to do is study what I believe is the greatest lesson in purely human humility that history has bequeathed us. But to do this properly, we have to have the right approach. So let’s ask ourselves a few questions before we begin.
First of all, can a subordinate extend mercy to his superior? Well, no. He can only offer obedience. True, he can be merciful to an individual who happens to be his superior, but only in cases outside their superior/subordinate relationship, which is strictly business. The very meaning of the two words, superior and subordinate, require that. But let’s reverse the question and ask if a superior can extend mercy to a subordinate within this same business context. Yes, obviously, the superior has the power to do so. It is innate to the position he holds. Simple enough?
Now then, can a superior give obedience to a subordinate? Again, no, ontologically speaking. He can demand obedience from his underlings, but he can’t give it to them. And once again, he could obey an individual, in some setting outside of the superior-subordinate relationship. But that destroys the original premise. The point is that the relationship determines the relative powers and obligations of each position. If this is so then here’s what we have: a subordinate owes obedience to his superior, and the superior has the power to extend mercy to a subordinate. The question, of course, is whether the superior actually owes his subordinate any mercy. Now we’re getting somewhere. And it all depends on the morality governing the relationship. What’s in your wallet?
So what does this have to do with Russia? Well, let’s not deal with that yet. At least, not directly. Let’s first take a look at a particular situation from the distant past that almost everyone is (or should be) aware of. Let’s look at the story of the Roman Centurion. You know, the guy who came to the God-man Jesus (as Solovyev would describe him) to beg help for his dying servant.
Now let’s apply what we know about obedience and mercy to this Roman Centurion. First of all, the setting is in Israel, where the conquering Romans have subjugated the stiff-necked Jews. At least, for the moment. And the Centurion, as an officer of the Empire, is a man of authority and power. But he too is under the authority of his superior, who is answerable to his General. And the General is answerable to the Emperor, who answers to the gods. They all understand the need for obedience. It’s what keeps the Empire together. Long live the Empire!
The Centurion has a servant who is deathly ill. We don’t know if the servant is Jewish or Roman, but that doesn’t really matter (although for the sake of irony, I’m betting he was Jewish). Anyway, the Centurion has tracked down the Godman in an attempt to get help for his servant. Just like a lot of other people were doing at that time in Judea. Word of mouth has always been the best advertisement.
Now let’s apply what we know to this relationship and this time context. The Centurion is the superior to the servant. The Centurion, from an Imperial Roman legal standpoint, owes the servant nothing except his wages (if even that). As long as the servant performs well, the Centurion is more than likely to keep him alive by feeding and clothing him. But little else, from the standpoint of equity. In fact, in the ancient world, a master could even put his servant to death, for no reason, without violating Imperial law. Yet here is the Centurion, coming to beg help for the servant. Surely it would have been easier to let the man die and simply replace him with another slave. The army had a cheap and routine way of replacing slaves. They would simply substitute one Slav for another. Yes, I said Slav. That’s where the word came from, you know. As in ‘let’s cross the Danube and capture some more Slavs’.
Anyway, let’s look at what the Centurion replies when the Godman says ‘Sure, I’ll help. Let’s walk the umpteen miles to your tent and have a look’. The Centurion says ‘Oh no, my Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Just say the Word and my servant will be healed’. Notice that the Centurion has just recognized the Jewish Godman as his superior. He called him Lord. That is not a small thing, especially given the cultural context. The Centurion then goes on to say that he too is a man under authority, and that when he is called by his master, he comes, and when he is sent by his master, he goes.
So what has the Centurion actually said? First, he has explicitly said that he believes the Godman has the power to heal, and to do it remotely, with just a word. I don’t know about you, but I think that comes pretty close to saying that he believes that this man is actually God. Why? Because that is the description of the power of a god, at the very least. And he has also said, implicitly, that he (the Centurion) believes that this Godman is approachable, even by one who is not ‘worthy’ to ask such a mercy. Obviously, the Centurion was under the impression that mercy could be had by anyone (Jew or Gentile alike) in this Godman’s book. All you have to do is ask. As in all of life, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s what prayer is all about, right?
Here’s the point. The Centurion wasn’t demanding mercy, as if Jesus owed him some obedience. After all, the Centurion was the conquering Roman, right? No, here the conquering superior was begging for mercy. From the conquered Jew. Which obviously placed the two of them outside the Roman concept of a superior/subordinate relationship. As a matter of fact, that might be enough to get the Centurion killed by his own Roman superior. And notice also that the Centurion wasn’t begging mercy for himself. He was begging for someone else, someone to whom he owed no debt. And what does the Godman reply when he has heard all of this from the Centurion? He marvels at him, telling the crowd of Scribes and Pharisees (money-grubbing lawyers and moral lepers, same thing) that He has not found such faith in all of Israel. You can guess how well this went down with that crowd. My guess is that was the moment when this crowd of elite Hebrews said to themselves ‘Can you believe this crap? He’s saying a filthy Roman pig is better than all of us! This guy’s gotta die!‘
And so it came to be. But not before the lesson was given, for them and for us. This, I believe, is the singular lesson that encapsulates all of the Scriptures. Obedience and mercy. These are the two means to salvation. Give obedience to your superiors and mercy to your subordinates. Do both of these, at whatever cost, and you have fulfilled All of The Law. Your faith is complete. Welcome to Valhalla. Allow me to show you to your table. It’s up front. Where your enemies can see you. What can I get you to drink?
‘Yeah, so what’, you may say. Everyone is in awe of the Centurion’s mercy. Even a Pharisee would have a hard time openly carping about this act of generosity. But I never hear anyone marvel at the Centurion’s obedience. No one goes on about this ‘bending of the knee’ to authority. And why is that? It’s because the proud (that is, all of us) like to think that we too are merciful, and that will be sufficient to save our skin in the end. It’s like the Pharisee who says ‘It is a gift‘ when he does something good for his elderly parent. No, I’m sorry, you idiot, it’s not a gift. It’s a duty. You owe it to your superior. Bend that knee now, while you still can.
And therein lies the problem of the proud. They know in their heart that there is a superior but they cannot openly acknowledge the fact. That would diminish their worldly status. They are more than willing to grant mercy, but only if it makes them the ultimate superior. In other words, it makes them a god. And the gods owe nothing to anybody. Well, maybe to Zeus. Maybe. But we can always outfox that dolt, right? After all, just look at him—his sister/wife Hera beats him up all the time! What a wimp.
So just what in the world does this have to do with Russia? Everything, actually. Because Russia has a hard time with both concepts. Both mercy and obedience. And why is that? It’s partly because she has not received much of either from the rest of mankind. And so a big part of the problem lies West of Moscow. Or Novgorod, actually. We’ll get to that in Part II.
But let’s be fair to the West. Why should we obey Moscow/Novgorod? Well, we shouldn’t, actually. But we should obey someone, right? Yes, of course. But who? Napoleon? Charlemagne? Henry VIII? Hitler? Churchill? Eva Peron? Hillary? Any Bush? Well, no. Well, who? The answer of course, is that mankind, either East or West, cannot follow a nationalistic leader without following them into war. Because that’s what Emperors (and would-be Emperors) do. They go to war. To demand obedience. Obedience to them. And so now we are back to the problem of individual mankind, writ large. And so, who do we finally bend the knee to, here on earth? After all, even the Centurion followed his Imperial superior, right?
Yes and no. He followed his Imperial superior up to the point of moral righteousness. We’ve all read the stories of Roman soldiers who balked at the orders to slay the Martyrs, right? And that they were slain in their turn for their disobedience to their earthly superior. But nonetheless, these soldiers had stayed true to their ultimate superior. And so, they too embodied the dual acts of the Centurion; they gave mercy to the incipient martyrs (by refusing to slaughter them) and gave obedience to their ultimate superior in this same act. Their faith was complete.
The same can be said of moral (versus secular) authority. Whom shall we follow? To whom do we give our allegiance? Can it be to a nationalistic sect? If so, how can there ever be a reality to the concept of a universal belief system that is true? How can a nationalistic Church be the head of a universal Church? Will this not also lead to war among nations? What can make one nation or race morally superior, genetically speaking? Doesn’t this destroy the commonality of all mankind? As Vladimir Solovyev said in The Russian Idea, how can this lead to peace?
So here is the answer to the question of ‘to whom do we bend the knee?’ (not that it is any great revelation); we bend it to the Ultimate Authority. The Buck doesn’t stop at the Emperor, whoever he may be at the moment. He has a boss too, whether he realizes it or not. And most do not. Our ultimate allegiance must be to The One who is actually in charge. And that’s not me, I’m quite sure. And it’s not you either, correct? You, as in any purely human being. In Part II, we (finally) get back to the problem of Russia. The Russia that will not obey.