Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Place of Authority 3-2:Byzantium, Triangles and the Quest for Stasis

As a symbol and expression of the universal prestige of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Justinian built the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, Hagia Sophia, which was completed in the short period of four and a half years (532–537).

One of the things I’ve been doing as I took an extended break from my more historical work on the place of authority within society and religion was to do some broader thinking about where this all might be heading and to try to bring in some other disciplines that could help me process the large historical stories in a way that both made sense and was as fair as possible to the historical narrative. I’m going to take you on a brief journey into the sometimes scary process of how my mind thinks through things (clearing away as much of the clutter as possible) and hopefully you will be able to see why I am drawing some of the conclusions I am at this point and as I move forward and then I will apply the scheme I develop to the period of the Byzantine empire (what remains of the former Roman empire after Rome collapses based out of Constantinople) and then we shall see how far I move forward in history before I feel the need to re-evaluate.

One thing that every society seeks is stability, instability is notoriously bad (at least in the short term) for the people in any society and people will endure a lot of things to avoid a drastic upheaval of what is considered normal. That got me thinking about Bowen System Theory and specifically his (and other’s who followed Murray Bowen’s work from the 1970s on) work on triangles:

“The theory states that the triangle, a three person emotional configuration, is the molecule or the basic building block of any emotional system, whether it is in the family or any other group. The triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system may be stable as long as it is calm, but when anxiety increases, it immediately involves the most vulnerable other person to become a triangle. When tension in the triangle is too great for the threesome, it involves others to become a series of interlocking triangles”[i]

If any place in this time period could be talked about as stable and able to resist major changes it was the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox Church which was the dominant expression of religion within the empire. Thinking about what a triangular system might look like from the Byzantine perspective might look like took me back to another three fold characterization.

There is an ancient way of talking about Jesus which is called the three-fold office, which goes back into the ancient church, at least to the early church father Eusebius (263-339) and probably earlier than that. It breaks down the offices of Jesus as: prophet, priest and king- and as I mentioned in an earlier post for the early followers of Jesus he occupied the central defining role in forming their identity as Christians. Let me expand each of these roles briefly:

The kingly role is the role of political power, to those familiar with a Lutheran two kingdom way of thinking this is the left handed kingdom which deals with military power and security, taxes and wealth, roads and trade. Typically in every layer of society there is someone who occupies a place of political power and who guarantees safety, peace and security for the price of obedience and taxes. This is the role of the secular power, and it can be abusive or benevolent (although it more often trends towards abusive) and it often depends on the next office for it’s authorization in some manner.

The priestly role is the role of religious authority, this would be the right hand kingdom of Lutheran two kingdom typology, which deals with placing people in a right relationship with the sacred, whatever that may mean for a society. In almost every society that I am aware of the priestly function is carried out by those who are closely aligned with those in the kingly role. In a theocracy the priestly office will dominate the political office, this is less common but there are societies and times where the priestly office will hold sway. More commonly the political office will exercise greater power than the priestly office and the priestly office will give additional legitimacy to the political office. This may sound skeptical and there is give and take in the relationship, however for stability there is a mutual self interest involved since the political office protects the priestly office and the priestly office legitimizes the political office.

The prophetic role is that place, person or thing within a society which places a check on the political and the priestly offices when they are not acting in accordance to whichever divine source of authority , they are the mouthpiece of God that challenges the excesses, abuses, deceptions, oppression, idolatry or hubris of the other two offices. The prophetic role may be occupied by a person or persons or it may be an idea, book, etc…as we will see in some of the upcoming transitions. All three roles are necessary and linked together.

In the Byzantine empire the emperor remained the dominant political figure, and had a lot of authority within all realms of both political and religious authority. The bishops had and exercised their authority with the protection and in cooperation with the emperor, but for the Orthodox church and the Byzantine empire the prophetic role was occupied by tradition. Tradition was what the church had believed and confessed, hence orthodoxy, and anything that deviated from that tradition of the earlier church fathers and councils was considered heresy or at least unorthodox. After the reign of Theodosious I (379-395 CE) the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople would remain in some form with the emperor reigning and the Orthodox church intact until Constantinople falls in 1453.

In Gruene, Texas there is a dancehall which proudly proclaims “Gently resisting change since 1872” and in many ways the Byzantine empire was able to gently resist significant changes for 1,000 years. The world around its borders changed and went through a number of upheavals and eventually it would find itself caught between the Catholics on one side and the Muslims on the other, and yet the emperor, orthodox priests and the tradition of the fathers provided stability while the world around them was filled with chaos.

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[i] Murray Bowen, 1976 quoted in Roberta M. Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and The Group, Falls Church and Basye, Virginia: Leading Systems Press, 2004 and 2006, 47.

The Ballad of Ruth

The Ballad of Ruth[i]

William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah

There was no bread in the house of bread[ii] and so from the house of bread the breadless fled

To Moab went Elimelech and Naomi[iii] the sweet with two sons, departing hungry yet full

Foreigners in a foreign land they seek life but find only death and emptiness

A father dies, but leaves two sons behind to watch over the sweet one and to carry the name on

And yet the names of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, tell a tale all their own and a short tale it is

For Ruth and Orpah marry men whose part in the story seems only to perish, and perish they do[iv]

So in Moab is left Naomi the sweet made bitter, no longer hungry but empty

And yet in the house of bread, bread has returned

In the land of Moab sweet has turned bitter, bitterness has filled Naomi from bone to bile

In a foreign land the blessing of God seems to have turned to a curse, fullness to emptiness

The joy of wedding and the blessing of hope into the dirge of mourning and sons buried too soon

There is no gift for the wives of her children except to send them home to their father’s house

No sons left to give or bear, only a wish for the Lord’s kindness and a new beginning

For with Naomi there is only death, what is left but to return home to die

Breadless, childless, loveless, hopeless and bitter

And yet to the house of bread, Naomi will return

In the land of Moab, Orpah returns home to her father’s home but Naomi will not return home empty

The love of God comes wrapped in an unexpected form, the Moabite wife of her son

She becomes not only the bearer of grace and mercy but as the agent of God’s love[v] for the wounded child

Ruth’s words that, ‘where you go I’ll go, where you live I’ll live, your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I’ll die and there I’ll be buried.’

You asked for the Lord’s blessing in my departure, but may the Lord judge me if I depart

For neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate Naomi

From the love of God shown in the Moabitess

To the house of bread, Naomi returns with Ruth as her only harvest

To the house of bread came two women, one known and one unknown

The known is Naomi, gone for a decade or more, returning as Mara[vi]

Departed sweet and returned bitter

The other is the Moabitess, the daughter of former oppressors, the alien, the outsider

She is the immigrant, the unprotected, the dangerous defiler, and yet she is Ruth

The outsider bears God’s grace in a way the insiders do not

At harvest time they return to a home long abandoned with empty fields.

Will there be bread in house of bread for the breadless?

Is there a place for the alien, the outcast, the widow, the poor and the weak?

Will the leftovers be enough to fill their emptiness or will they die forgotten?

Will their bodies be sold or taken for free in the reaping fields?

Or will new life begin in the harvest, will life return to the lifeless and bread to the breadless?

What will be gleaned in the barley harvest? Blessing or curse, life or death?

The fields are ripe in the house of bread and the harvest begins

The worthy man extends the blessing of the Lord’s covering[vii] and offers the shelter of his protection

For he has taken notice of the Moabitess working in the fields and knows of the grace she has shown

The outsider is made equal of the servants out in the fields and return home with a bushel of grain

Bread had returned to the breadless, life to the lifeless

Boaz has spoken to the heart[viii] of Ruth, and his words have returned hope to the bitter one

Bless the one who has covered us, who has not forgotten the dead

Bless the one who grants bread from the house of bread

Harvests come and harvests go in the house of bread, and then comes the celebration

The eating and drinking, the festival and feasting for once again the work is done

On the field of the threshing floor lies the worthy man, the fruit has been separated from the chaff

On the floor, covered[ix] lies the man who provided a covering for Ruth and Naomi

Work done, mercy extended, blessing shared…

Yet in the mystery of midnight what will happen to what lies on the threshing floor?

For in the mystery of midnight Ruth comes, perfumed and prepared

On the threshing floor at midnight the man finds himself uncovered and a woman lying at his feet

“I am Ruth, spread your covering over me” Once you wished the Lord’s covering on me, now be that covering

Can you accept the foreigner as one of your own, can your family be my family and your home my home

Your God is already God, may I go where you go, may I die where you die

In the mystery of midnight are the worthy man and the foreigner

Two agents of grace, two who covered others

Will the mystery of midnight on the threshing floor of the house of bread be fruitful?[x]

The worthy man and the kinsman and the elders at the gate must make settlement

Land must be redeemed, a family saved, life will begin anew

A sandal is passed, the deal is done

The worthy man and the foreigner are now one

God’s covering came, life begins anew

A child named Obed in Naomi’s lap grew

And from Obed, Jesse, and from Jesse , David the King

And a foreigner showed grace, a worthy man covered her and life began anew

In the house of bread begins a line of kings

And in ages to come over the house of bread the angels will sing.

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[i] This is taken from the book of Ruth, this is not a translation or paraphrase but I do stay fairly close to the story and try to capture some of it’s patterns

[ii] Ruth plays on the Hebrew word for bread which is lechem, Bethlehem is literally the house of bread

[iii] Naomi one of the meanings of Naomi is sweet one

[iv] Mahlon’s name is similar to one of the Hebrew words for disease while Chilion name is the Hebrew word ‘to perish’

[v] Another of the key words to Ruth is the Hebrew word ‘Hesed’ often translated kindness in Ruth, but most other places it refers to God’s actions of unmerited grace and mercy

[vi] Mara is the name she gives herself which means bitter, the opposite of her former self

[vii] Another of the keywords in Ruth, kanap which can mean wing, covering or garment and will be used playfully from this point on in the story

[viii] Another Hebraism which may mean speaking kindly to or may indicate sweet-talking

[ix] This is again Kanap, as the blessing of the Lord’s covering was  wished on rush, now this covering will become that covering

[x] This scene is pregnant with images that can go either in an innocent or non-innocent way, it is like a movie where the door is closed and what goes on is based largely on assumptions.

Goodnight (Promised) Moon

On the great big tube
There were blue states
And red ones too

And a picture of….
A politician who had promised the moon

And there were three derrieres sitting on chairs
And a donkey in blue and a red elephant too
And a divided house and a perplexed spouse
With a bunch of attack adds full of mush
And a quiet old lady who was whispering “hush”

Goodnight tube, goodnight moon
Goodnight politician who promised the moon
Goodnight blue states, goodnight red (the elections over it’s time for bed)
Goodnight derrieres and goodnight chairs
Goodnight polls, goodnight clocks
Goodnight divided house, goodnight perplexed spouse
Goodnight attacks, goodnight adds
Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush
Goodnight pundits, goodnight hot air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Adapted from Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon by Neil White in expectation of the close of the 2012 election cycle. Happy voting to all and to all a good night 🙂

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