2016-06-30
This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in Spring 2000.

As Orthodoxy develops an ever-higher profile in America, and in the process confronts temptations it hadn't known before, we have to make decisions about identity--about who we really are. Are we the "Marines" or the "Army"?

I believe that we Orthodox are largely unaware of how profoundly out of step our tradition is with the surrounding culture, and even with our Christian contemporaries in other churches. We assume we can have our cake and eat it too, be both good, consuming secular Americans and good Orthodox. We want salvation--and we want the world to love us.

Let's illustrate the point by contrasting two alternative military "styles": the United States Marine Corps, and the U.S. Army.

The Marine Corps, with its clarion call "Always Faithful," and its exhortation to young recruits to uphold honor, courage, and commitment, resembles the traditional Orthodox Church more than most other Christian groups do.

A Marine Corps drill instructor (DI) on Parris Island, who has abandoned the pleasures of this life in order to train up "a few good men and women" for selfless service to Corps and country, is like a traditional Orthodox priest, nun, or monk dedicated to self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Likewise, an Orthodox monk, nun, or priest is more like the DI than he or she is akin to the typical Protestant minister or post-Vatican II Roman Catholic priest. No one mistakes a Marine DI for an entertainer, or a touchy-feely psychologist or counselor. No one mistakes Parris Island Depot for Disneyland. The DI is there to do a job that does not involve making recruits "feel good about themselves." Rather, the goal is to inculcate the self-discipline needed to survive the battlefield and win wars.

Are we Orthodox an ethnic club bent on succeeding within our soft materialistic society? Or are we the Body of Christ on earth, unique, ready to sacrifice, ready to be different if need be?

On the other hand, these days the Army seeks new recruits by promising goodies: "We'll put you through college, give you training and flexible hours, a signing bonus, only a two-year tour ... and we won't even shout at you in boot camp anymore." The Marines hold out nothing to would-be Marines but the guarantee that if they desire it with all their hearts, they too can pass through the fire of boot camp and become one of the proud, the few, the Marines.

You would think that a tough approach like this would drive recruits away. Yet, paradoxically, only the Marine Corps has consistently met and even surpassed its recruitment goals for the last five years. The Army, for all its appeals to lowest-common-denominator self-interest, has fallen far below its quota; so have the equally soft Air Force and Navy.

Perhaps this is not surprising. If the Army is just another job, just another way to go to school, why bother? There are better scholarships available, which don't include being shot at as the price of admission.

Perhaps it is time for us Orthodox to ponder why it is that the Marine Corps, with its uncompromising call to sacrifice and honor, can still stir the hearts of America's youth, even though everyone else seems to have written off that same youth as terminally selfish. The lesson is that being true to yourself has its advantages. The trick is to figure out what and who you are--and stick to it.

Are we Orthodox an ethnic club bent on succeeding within our soft materialistic society? Or are we the Body of Christ on earth, unique, ready to sacrifice, ready to be different if need be? Should the Orthodox tradition of podvig (a Russian term meaning inner struggle against the passions, fleshly and spiritual) be softened to accommodate our self-indulgent, entertainment-oriented American culture? The central prayer of the Orthodox Church is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" How does this cry of the repentant heart relate to the central "prayer" of our culture: "I'm a wonderful person, all I lack is even more self-esteem!"

Are we Orthodox going to be the Marines or the Army?

Until we Orthodox figure out who we are, and what our nonnegotiable core beliefs are, how will we know what our future should be? And if our aim is "to be all I can be!" how will we learn to be all Christ wants us to be?

"Many are called, few are chosen." "We're looking for a few good men and women." "If you would gain your life, you must lose it." The recruits sweating in the sand pits of Parris Island know what these words mean. Do we?


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