The human face of God

What is God's relation to death?

The face of Christ that gazes down from the domes of our churches is a human face, but the gaze is the gaze of God Himself. For we believe that in Jesus Christ, God Himself took on a human form and came to live a human life. That is to say that in Christ we encounter God living a human life, God with a human face.

It was not however, just a human life that he lived, he also endured a human death. For the Orthodox, the fallen condition of the world and humanity is manifest primarily in the fact of death, rather than simply sin. It is death that characterizes the fallen human condition, that challenges every human achievement, that threatens us with ultimate meaninglessness.

Like all creatures, we humans were created by God out of nothing. As the nineteenth-century Metropolitan of Moscow, Philaret put it, ‘all creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness’.In turning away from God, the source of our being, there is nowhere else to go than the abyss of nothingness an ultimate diminishment in which all hopes, longings and desires are swallowed up. We experience this as death.

In creating humanity, God granted us freedom to be, and through human fallenness that freedom has become self-destructive. It has become ordered towards death and in some mysterious way we drag the whole created order into an abyss of meaninglessness.

Because we are free, however, God will not simply extinguish us and start again. Instead, out of love for human kind God has opened up his very being to us. He is the Father sending his Son to become a human being. A Son born of the Holy Virgin through the Holy Spirit, sent to embrace all the conditions of fallen human life, including death - death as a criminal on a cross. Death did not however, swallow him up—as it does finite human beings—it swallowed itself up, in the abyss of the divine infinitude.

So death was overcome and on the third day Christ rose from the dead, the conqueror over death. It is this event that we celebrate at Easter or Pascha, the Christian Passover, singing over and over again: ‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and to those in the graves giving life!’ At Easter we also greet one another with ‘Christ has risen! He has risen indeed!’

The divine taking on death and destroying it sounds like a myth but there has always been the temptation to reduce Christian belief to a myth. Either by turning the Incarnate Son of God into some semi-‘divine’ being, so dissolving the doctrine of the Trinity. Or in some way diminishing the humanity of Christ as if the presence of the divine must overshadow or diminish some aspect of his humanity, making him no longer ‘one of us’.

The first and last of the Seven Œcumenical Synods, both held at Nicaea (modern Iznik in Turkey) and the others mostly held in Constantinople, sought to prevent this blunting of the truth of Christ’s human victory over death. They remain for all Orthodox Christians, an enduring witness to our faith in the human face of God that we encounter in Christ through prayer, in the Divine Liturgy (as we call the Mass or Eucharist), and in the face of every human being that turns to us seeking our love.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage