4th of July Reflection: Holy Kingship and Ecology

St. Sergei of Radonezh blesses Prince Dimitri Donskoy, in the northern forest monastic “desert” of 14th-century Russia, before his decisive battle against the Tartars in defense of emerging Christian Russia

By Alfred Kentigern Siewers

At Camp Karoondinha (a Delaware term for “Land of Shining Waters”) on the wooded banks of Penns Creek, at the last morning of Webelos camp this summer, the American flag ran up the pole outside the dining hall with trumpet blaring

. The Scouts saluted. My son and others then ran for breakfast, only to stop when they saw a big beautiful green Luna moth on the dining-hall door.

That glimmering green vision gave a fitting finale to a week of outdoor education. The boys knew that Luna moth populations are declining and threatened in many areas, which is blamed on pesticides. I listened to them talk about how they hoped that in future generations their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be able to see the wonder of these striking creatures. (We also at our house knew of Luna moths from the children’s book Stranger Moon by my godsister Heather Zydek, an OFT consultant.)

The combination of the flag-raising, the vanishing moth, and the boys’ intergenerational concern–just after the the summer solstice, on the cusp of the Feast of the Forerunner, amid planning our parish Fourth of July picnic in a nearby old-growth forest–all led me to reflect on the relation between country and ecology, from the standpoint of Orthodox Christian models of community.

Getting our household in order

Etymologically there is a direct link between human economy, the Orthodox theological notion of economia, and ecology, with the root of all three terms meaning household in Greek. The Orthodox writer Fr. Sergei Bulgakov wrote in his 1912 work Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household of how society should be thought of in Orthodox terms as a household, in which the dignity of human beings should be emphasized, rather than a more abstract and impersonal modern secular sense of rights.

Discussion of Orthodoxy and the environment today rightly mentions a priestly model for the relation of human beings to Creation, the liturgical relation of Man in God’s image and likeness transforming the Creation and offering it to God. But there is another related symbol given us in Scripture and Church tradition, linked to imagery of the priesthood, which also can be helpful in thinking through our relation as a society to Creation, as a household including both “nature” and human community. That is the image in Orthodoxy of holy kingship.

“Kings and Priests unto God”

Melchizedek, king and priest, is an Old Testament icon of the relation between Christ’s kingship and priesthood, referenced by the Apostle Paul as a type of Christ in the letter to the Hebrews. The Evangelist John the Theologian wrote of how, following Christ, Christians are each made “kings and priests” unto God (Rev. 1:6). In Byzantium the emperor as an icon of Christ’s rulership had a special place in the Liturgy in receiving communion at the altar. The mystery of the Orthodox Trinity in a sense also provides a model of holy kingship and priesthood combined in a household, as suggested by St. Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon, which symbolizes the loving relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Holy Spirit from the Father in apophatic terms.

But there is no longer an Orthodox king on Earth amid the modern Diaspora of Orthodoxy and the revolutions of modern materialism. In fact, our upcoming Fourth of July holiday in the U.S. celebrates a republic based on a rejection of Western notions of kingship (more on that in a minute). So how do we in America relate, in a secular republic, to the Orthodox notion of society as a household, and the role of holy kingship, with regard to our responsibilities toward our environment?

Genesis speaks of how, before the Fall, Man (male and female, in God’s image and likness) was given dominion over the Earth. Part of the restoration wrought by the Incarnation, of the coming of Christ and acknowledgment of him as King of kings, can be thought of as a restoration of that dominion, referenced in Revelation, but in an even more profound spiritual way to unfold at Christ’s Second Coming, involving the cosmos as both a physical and spiritual Creation in the Kingdom of God, transformed into a “new heaven and new earth.”

Marriage crowns and ecology

Meanwhile, just as a priest would not allow the befouling of his temple, so too kings and queens can not tolerate the destruction of their kingdom, but will do all they can to wisely protect and love it, and even lay down their lives for their realm, especially as icons of Christ’s rulership. Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron wrote of how reason, logos, is the image and likeness of God in man, and how dominion is related to reason in this spiritual sense. The Greek meaning of logos includes both our modern sense of reason and harmony as well. The crowning of bride and groom in the Orthodox wedding ceremony reminds us of how marriage is an icon of this kind of harmonious and balanced dominion, even as marriage in the Holy Gospels forms an icon of Christ’s intimate relation with His Church. (See in this video of such a ceremony the crowning at 5:20.) The Apostle Paul, who in the Areopagus of Athens talking with the learned of ancient Greece referenced how in God “we live and move and have our being,” also wrote of a kind of holy monarchy and priesthood of the family, reflecting our relationship with Christ in our households, sometimes difficult for us to translate today. Wives should obey their husbands as heads of the family, he wrote, even as husbands should live in their families as images of Christ, laying down their lives for their households, all within the larger context of our Lord’s Holy Church. In both cases, the kingship and queenship of the Orthodox household are marked by kenotic love, a laying down of self in personal relationship and communion, or sobornost. Thus we are offered an icon of the dominion we should exercise in Creation.

Christian “anarcho-monarchism” and care for Creation

The Orthodox scholar and writer David Bentley Hart has described the “radical subsidiarity” (or localism) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christian ecological vision as “anarcho-monarchism,” an organic and personal social model analogous to the iconography of Orthodox marriage and Fr. Bulgakov’s household. From Tolkien’s Christian social ideal, described in his Letters as a combination of anarchism and “unconstitutional monarchy,” Hart writes that we can “imagine other, better, quite impossible worlds, so that one will be less inclined to mistake the process for the proper end of [modern secular] political life, or to become frantically consumed by what should be only a small part of life, or to fail to see the limits and defects of our systems of government.”

The iconography of holy kingship can provide in Orthodoxy such an alternate vision and practice of ecological politics, a sense of caring yet decentralized rulership, which is both transcendent and (combined with the organic anarchy that Tolkien joined to his vision of holy monarchy) immanently dynamic, personal and localistic. This is the vision behind Tolkien’s fictional Shire and his Northern and Southern Rangers (e.g. Aragorn and Faramir), and the Riders of Rohan (e.g. Eomer and Eowyn),  in The Lord of the Rings. Those networks of outdoors-people roamed the wilds of our ancient Earth, knowing its non-human inhabitants and communities intimately, while secretly protecting the realm of the absent king and awaiting his return. (Living near Camp Karoondinha, amid the Valleys of the Appalachians, we recall also that Tolkien modeled much of his notion of the Shire on the commonwealth of Kentucky, an American Appalachian state.)

So how does this relate back to ecology again? Through a sense of dominion, or sovereignty, as personal, caring, protecting, and decentralized, yet grounded in the body of Christ. Such a sovereignty envisions and acts from a realm “not of this world,” eschewing the fallen world of human control and objectification, while embracing a realm of the Spirit that nonetheless comes intimately engaged, both empathetically and transformatively, with physical Creation, among our communities of all types, through the uncreated energies of God.

Conciiarity and Country

How on the Fourth of July do we in America bring such transformative vision of human community to bear on our role as kings and priests of Creation, protecting the relationships and communities of ecosystems, amid our bioregions and what scholars of environmental symbolism might call the inter-communicating “ecosemiospheres” of human and non-human relationships in those regions, such as our Appalachian valleys?

Consider that although America began in a revolution against kingship, it was founded in opposition to the developing Western European concept of the king (and later the state) as an absolute individualized hegemony, in effect an agent of God. The next phase of that development brought with it the removal of God from the equation, leading toward the prototype of the modern consumer-manager, the new tyrant replacing older Western notions of kingship. As Orthodox in America, how do we re-envision and reclaim and transform a more authentic legacy of human community today, in terms of Orthodoxy?

On this Fourth of July, in a presidential election year, amid many unaddressed environmental concerns, it is worth reflecting on how distinctly Orthodox notions of holy kingship, as an icon of Christ (in symphonia with the Church, as in the Byzantine and Russian symbol of the double-headed eagle, rather than absorbing it into the State), can provide a basis for transforming our own work in secular America as Orthodox Christians, so as to better express in grace our roles in our Lord’s household as kings and queens unto God.

Commemorating Royal Martyrs on the Fourth of July

The coincidence of the Fourth of July with the Feast of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, together with that of St. Andrei Rublev,  is instructive, in terms of the significance of holy monarchy mentioned above, in relation both to Orthodox traditions of kingship and theology of the Trinity. Among Western countries, perhaps only the American presidency today can compare with Tolkien’s notion of unconstitutional monarchy, paradoxically set in a democratic republic that certainly has its anarchistic elements as well. The Susquehanna Valley writer James Fenimore Cooper described in his book The American Democrat in 1838 how the American Constitution reflected a meld of Classical ideals of kingship (the presidency), aristocracy (the Senate), and democracy (the House of Representatives). We also know from the work of Native American scholar Donald Grinde and others how the decentralized model of the Iroquois Confederacy decisively influenced the federalism and separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution. The latter has many of the elements of “anarcho-monarchism,” ironically, which David Bentley Hart has expressed a yearning for, from an Orthodox perspective.

But why does the American model, despite such pedigrees and parallels, often seem so frustratingly dysfunctional in dealing with important issues of conservation and cultural sustainability?

The One and the Many

Tadodaho Sid Hill, the current president of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, gave an answer recently to a group of visitors to the Onondaga longhouse of the Confederacy near Syracuse, NY. The central environmental problem with the American system,  he told us, is “the separation of church and state.” By that he meant that what it lacks is an infusion of connective spiritual tradition, as in Iroquois traditions of subsidiarity or organic localism, extending to care for the environment and for the “seventh generation” to come.

Yet there is much potential, in the separation of powers and federal framework of the American system, for the kind of conciliarity and sobornost highlighted as right and beautiful approaches to human community in Orthodox tradition, with all their transformative significance for cosmic practice. Such sobornost (symbolized again in Rublev’s famous icon) in the living intergenerational tradition of the Orthodox Church arguably also provides the basis for an ecological ethos offering ascesis as a deep solution to our global environmental problems, as articulated well by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Building on that foundation of intergenerational sobornost, the parish communities and “villages” of Orthodox communities lay and monastic, the “local churches” of the dioceses, and the conciliarity of the apostolic and lower-case catholic Church, together provide a model for spiritual networks entwined with human communities, as typed by the lodge clans of the Iroquois Confederacy and summed up in the title and content of The One and the ManyMetropolitan John Zizoulas’ recent book.

The Holy Church offers us an organic and personal, not organizational and impersonally corporatist, model of the household as a pattern for (in Tolkien’s terms) integrating a Christian ecological anarchism with holy kingship and priesthood. “Put not your trust in princes,” yet “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In such a cosmic household, Tolkien’s Rangers can meld with the American myths of the Lone Ranger, Walker Texas Ranger, Forest Rangers, National Park Rangers, Ranger Rick of the National Wildlife Federation, and, infinitely deeper, with Orthodox desert ascetics, as models for  a renewed American ecological community of the heart, which can transform the limits of our politics beyond either corporate or socialist models.

Caring for Earth until the King’s return: “Once a king or queen in Narnia…”

In Tolkien’s terms, to be a Ranger, waiting for the return of the King, is part of our calling to be good ascetic stewards and servants of holy kingship, icons of holy kingship ourselves, kings and priests unto God, as St. John the Theologian indicated, while obedient to our King in the dynamic hierarchy of His Church (at all levels in direct engagement with the higher hierarches and uncreated energies of God), including saints and holy elders.

The 20th-century Elder Paisios once pointed out the difference between rulership from God and rulership only by men, as presented in a little English-language booklet of his words entitled God’s Wisdom and the Environment,

“Well, can you create a swallow nest? Look at what God has created with just one word! What harmony, what variety! Wherever one turns, one sees the wisdom and the grandeur of God. Look at the celestial lights, the stars, with what simplicity His divine hand has scattered them in the sky, without using a plumb line and level! They give such comfort to people, whereas man-made lights tire the eyes even though they are placed in regular distances. You see, trees planted by man in a forest, resemble an army battalion, whereas natural forests, made of trees of different colours and sizes, comfort the human eye. Natural forests are so peaceful and restful! Some trees are small and others are big, and each one has its own colour. One of God’s small wild flowers has more grace than a pile of fake paper flowers.”

As Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it of our redemption through Christ in the restoration of holy kingship on earth, “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” Narnia, symbolic of Christ’s Kingdom, as Lewis showed in the finale of his Chronicles of Narnia, is a realm fully integrated with Earth, its geography also echoing that of his native County Down in Ireland, and typing the restored Paradise opened to us by Christ for our synergetic effort in grace-filled prayer and ascetic work, “on earth as it is in heaven.” The rulers of Narnia also can communicate with the non-human beings there, in their love for their land and devotion to their ultimate king, Aslan–a monarch who is, after all, “not a tame lion.”

Alfred Kentigern Siewers teaches and writes on medieval literature and environmental studies, and is the OFT’s web editor. He is the co-editor of Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages and author of Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the OFT.