Atlantic City as a Precedent in a Russian Zoning Dispute

The city of Ivanovo in Central Russia got involved in a zoning dispute over the proposed construction of a church

It’s one of those language quirks: “polemos” means war or strife, while we get involved in polemics with one another for the sake of peace in our society, in our family, even in our own soul. Conversely, it is silence ─ indifferent, dumb, haughty, arrogant silence, ─ which is hostile more often than not. And, needless to say, polemics does not have to be related to any kind of grudges, insult or discontent.

It has been more than a year since the city of Ivanovo in Central Russia got involved in a zoning dispute over the proposed construction of a church next to the city park. The opponents of the project claim that the park is a place of entertainment, not of prayer for the “pious brethren and sisters”; a proximity of the church, as they insist, would so deeply upset the fun-seeking public that the park would be forced to shut down.

In a thoughtful reader, however, such arguments cause primarily joy and optimism. Let me explain why.

Even if you have never been to New Jersey, you ought to be familiar with the name Atlantic City: a city famous by its file of waterfront high-rises with a panoply of services — gambling casinos, lounges, erotic outlets of diverse orientation, etc. — the very same services which our residents see so aggressively advertised from newspaper and magazine pages, TV screens, radio speakers, billboards and ads posted indiscriminately on walls, fences and utility poles. In other words, Atlantic City needs no introduction as the world leader of the entertainment industry.

And what do you think? Spiritual merchandize is held here in a great esteem, no less than that of get-rich, get-drunk or get-AIDS categories. An astute astrologist is certainly instrumental in gambling away a share of one's income, big or small, legal or illegal, just as a psychic is instrumental in selecting a partner for a night and a healer — in handling consequences. Prayers are also widely utilized: earnestly pray to the right "spiritual being" — and rush to the gambling hall… Moreover, affirming the affinity between the material and spiritual values in the world of entertainment, shapes and forms aping Russian church domes are boldly scattered there all over the place.

Thus, the entertainment industry most cordially welcomes business partnership with the realm of the invisible, both in theory and in practice. What happens, then, when the venue is changed from the New Jersey coast to the Russian heartland, and the spiritual gateway — from psychics to the Orthodox Church? The business outlook is reversed so completely, that the mere proximity of a church threatens the whole existence of the park in the view of the entertainment specialists. Apparently, the reason for that is some feature of ours which we have carried on into the XXI century: this is precisely what gives us ground for optimism and causes bitterness in our enemies.

There is a Convent of Our Lady in Ivanovo whose church houses the sepulcher of a modern-day Saint, Bishop Basil of Kineshma (+1945), known and venerated all over the world. Besides his confession of Faith and his pastoral labors, St. Basil is renown as a Christian author. In his Second Homily on the Gospel according to St. Mark he touches upon this subject, noticing that in our age "…everything lofty and pure is suppressed; although man would not abandon his lofty ideals altogether, he is intimidated into keeping them out of limelight…" However, such a man cannot be a Christian: Christian faith "is an unconditional switch to the new tracks, full conversion of all values in the heart and mind".

Russia is a free country. Everyone believes in anything he wants, or pretends not to believe in anything. Someone reads the Gospel, another one — porn magazines; someone switches his life to the new tracks, while someone else happily stays on the old ones. But behold! A cross over the city park — merely a cross on the church dome — spells uncontrollable panic for the entertainment industry and its advocates. Those familiar with the Orthodox service will surely recall the Hymn of the Resurrection in the 8th Tone: "Thou hast given us Thy Cross, O Lord, as a weapon against Satan…"

For centuries and more, in Russia as well as in other Christian countries, no city park or any other public place would ever be disturbed by a close proximity to a church. Crosses on top of cathedral spires, towers and domes served as guides and protectors for every soul and for the entire society, just like icons in the living quarters. Glancing at a cross or an icon would be sufficient for clearing the dimmed memory of things lofty and pure, for rekindling the weakened sense of right and good. This sense is called human conscience.

In spite of the devilish efforts of the XX century, conscience is alive in our souls. Attesting to that is the pathetic appeal of the opponents of the church construction and proponents of the entertainment industry: "There is no justification for pushing park visitors into a position of blasphemy, mockery of the faith, sinfulness and vice!" Meanwhile, the response to this appeal is absolutely clear and simple.

Unless the Atlantic City-style entertainment, cherished by the park planners, were sinful and vicious, there would have been no dispute in the first place: some folks would patronize the park, others — the church, with no argument about tastes. But since there is a dispute, since our conscience is accusing us, since the cross over the park makes us think about blasphemy and mockery of the faith, — rather than worrying where the church ought to be, we'd better worry about where we ought to be; rather than complaining of someone "pushing us into a position of sinfulness", we'd better abandon that position altogether: quit doing wrong, quit harming ourselves and our neighbors.

As you see, this whole dispute provides not only a source of joy and optimism, but also direct guidelines for action. And if anyone is concerned with reduced revenues and plunging share prices because of that, he would be well advised to review his investment strategy — or else apply for a foreign visa.

Deacon monk Macarius Ivanovo, Russia

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