As a resident of Minnesota who has a platform, I feel it my responsibility to offer my take on the current horrendous situation. With that in mind, I will postpone Part II to my Bestiary article for another time, but this article will also be helpful for understanding how the symbolism of the Bestiary works. Hopefully, using symbolism, we can strike close to the heart of this terrifyingly complex issue.
Growing up in Minnesota, I never really knew what I had. But last summer, my wife and I took a trip up to Duluth and Grand Marais, and I gained a new appreciation for the North Star State. Here, her rolling green hills, her dense forests, and her thousands and thousands of pristine lakes beckon any who love the outdoors. 1 Minnesota’s gorgeous scenery is second only to her people. I am often startled when I go back to my hometown of Paynesville (population 2600) and I receive that charming country wave from every person I drive past. I have called this state “home” for 24 years, much of that time blissfully unaware of this blessing. I never thought my state would become a war zone.
The events taking place in Minneapolis are difficult for many of us to wrap our heads around, especially for those of us who live in Minnesota, who have loved her, and who will continue to love her despite the wounds that fester in her side. Not only has a man been apparently murdered in cold blood, which is horrifying enough, but the response to this has been even worse. While many have taken to the streets to protest peacefully, something more nefarious has been taking place on the fringes of this movement. At the time of writing, two more murders have occurred and businesses have been lost to fires and looting. All of this in the midst of a pandemic and a lockdown that had already been the nail in the coffin for many small businesses. Businesses that had nothing to do with the alleged murder, some of them minority-owned, have been looted and destroyed. The violence is random and impartial, and frequently appears to be motivated not by a desire for justice, but by selfishness. When has stealing a $2,000 TV ever resulted in justice? In my area, dozens of miles away from Minneapolis, stores and restaurants closed early on the day after the riots, then boarded up their windows and doors in dreadful expectation that the riots would come here. 2 People say there are no dragons. But there is a dragon in Minnesota.
The existence of dragons has been known from olden times. In those days, before satellites and smart-phones, men had to map out the world by their own experience. They would travel as far as their energy, time, and resources would allow, documenting the areas that they had seen first-hand as best they could. But once they reached the limits of their navigation, as the edges of the map began to fade into mystery, they simply wrote, “Here be dragons.” The Dragon exists at the edge, in caves, in holes in the ground, in the forest outside the walls of the city—or perhaps hidden in the dark places within. 3
To ensure the survival of one’s society, it is crucial to keep the Dragon where he belongs: away from civilization. We build walls to do this, in our homes, along our streets, and, finally, around the perimeter of the city. Redundancy is key, for if the Dragon breaches the outer walls, then there must be one more wall to stop him, and one more, and one more, until he reaches the keep, where the royal family lives and where the citizens find shelter while the fighting men attempt to fend off the beast. But, as with all things, there are problems with redundancy when it becomes excessive. All of these walls inevitably result in isolation. When one can no longer see his neighbor from his own backyard, he cannot speak to him. And when he cannot speak to him, he begins to mistrust him. When he mistrusts him, he begins to dehumanize him. But an even stranger problem can occur: Walls cast shadows, and dragons live in shadows.
Less than a year ago, even less than six months ago, the political spectrum of the United States could have been crudely, but perhaps accurately, divided into two groups: the Right, which embraced borders, walls, and fortifications, and the Left, which wanted not only to forgo the construction of new walls, but also to tear down the existing ones. For a while, the Left has been winning this debate, politically speaking, as globalization has proven itself to be the inevitable result of the 21st century’s unprecedented advancements in travel and communication. This has been beneficial for those hoping to see increased prosperity and material quality of life in this extravagant country. But, of course, when a city has no walls at all it invites evil as well as good.
In February of 2020, the Dragon took its first victim, and by the middle of March, his fire was raging throughout the whole country. 4 That is when the political shift began to take place. I will not get into the potential motives of particular players, but gradually, the narrative flipped. Our Republican President was the one who implemented the lockdown in the first place, who built up the walls of isolation, but he is now the one telling us to tear them down and once again commune with our neighbors. At the same time, the Left, despite their rhetoric about open borders and uninhibited travel, eventually began to demand that the isolation continue indefinitely. But it was all too late, for the Dragon was already in the city, and dragons lay eggs.
The walls have been built—some visible, some invisible. Many at first believed that the masks we wear were to keep the dragons from entering our own personal cities. But now we know better: The masks are not to stop foreign dragons from coming in, but to stop our own dragons from coming out. We know the Dragon is already here, and so we keep him locked in the dungeon of our lungs. But when a dragon is caged, who ends up as the victim? The dragon, or his keeper? I think we are beginning to find out.
But some of these walls were built long ago, long before the pandemic. We had already grown to mistrust each other, to stereotype, to generalize. Why? Because the only way we see each other anymore is through a wall. Is it coincidental that the Facebook “timeline” used to be called a “wall”? These posts that we scroll through—these pictures, emotional rants, jokes—are tiny windows into a whole world, into the universe that exists within the person with whom we pretend to interact. They are portholes looking out into a vast sea which we could not possibly hope to explore without the proper equipment. Though we are so close to one another, we are, in truth, isolated. The isolation we now feel from being locked up in our own homes is not especially new, it is only the most immediate and the clearest manifestation of what has been developing for some time. Even the places that were once the final bastions of community—churches, shopping malls, bars—have been locked down, and the walls loom larger and larger.
All of this builds up to the release of the Dragon of Minneapolis. It begins with mistrust and dehumanization: A white officer kneels on the neck of an unarmed black man for little more than using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Moments later, he is dead. It appears to be murder. The very next day protests begin, the leaders driven by what they perceive to be a history of white police officers targeting black men. Mistrust between the police and the black community has been building for years. It is decades, perhaps more than a century, since the first brick was laid in the walls of mistrust. These walls have become high and complex, and the dragons have found a place to hide. They are in our own homes, in our own hearts. Now they have come out of the shadows and are burning down the city. Though many march for pure motives and with a peaceful heart, at the fringes of this march the Dragon crawls, and he is not a creature of logic.
He is the Monster of Chaos, burning indiscriminately without care for friend or foe.
He is the Worm that festers in the wound, hastening the death of a dying creature.
He is the irrational Beast that hoards gold simply for the pleasure of having it, that kidnaps the damsel with no intention of ravishing her.
He is the Serpent who eats his own tail.
He is Fire, and he is Death.
Slaying the Dragon
The solution to our problem, which extends far beyond the city of Minneapolis or the state of Minnesota, lies not in politics. Limiting our use of technology and social media, lifting restrictions on religious gatherings while taking minimal, common-sense measures, police reform, and so on, would all certainly be helpful. However, dehumanization cannot ultimately be cured through policies, nor through riots or protests. The Dragon was born in the human heart and it must be defeated there. Orthodox iconography is filled with images of saints slaying serpentine beasts, some of them quite grotesque. The most recognizable of these saints is St. George, who, mounted on his steed, slays a dragon and saves the damsel in distress.
This image of a knight slaying a dragon is so commonplace in our culture that it has become cliché, and is often seen as a trope to be avoided in modern literature. This is a grave mistake. For when the Dragon is no longer considered to be an enemy, it becomes a friend. And dragons eat people. Dragons must be slain. Not with sword or spear, for that was not how Great-martyr George slew his dragon. He destroyed the Dragon by the Sign of the Cross and by the Name of God. As the Victory-Bearer charged the serpent, he made his Cross, and yelled his war-cry: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” 5 It was by the power of God that he laid that serpent to waste, and by virtue of the Life-Giving Cross, which God gave us for the routing of all enemies. 6
This is not to merely say what is obvious—that we should start with ourselves, and by the power of God root out our own dragons. Nor is it only to say that we must tear down some of the walls within our own hearts, while still leaving enough standing to keep out the dragons. All of this is necessary, and it is part of my point. But the Gospel goes even deeper than this. Christ went even deeper than this. Christ the Word, Christ our God, Being Itself, descended from Heaven and took on the flesh of man, then nailed that flesh to a Cross.
Though Christ Himself knew no sin, He became sin on our behalf. 7 Though He Himself had no dragons, no serpents hiding in the crevices of His heart, He assumed the very flesh that the dragons feast upon. He saw the weaknesses and the stains of all mankind and considered them His own. It is in this moment, the moment in which He took the sins of every man into His own flesh, that, being our mystical representative on the Cross, He cried out, “Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?” 8 As St. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
For my sake He was called a curse who destroyed my curse, and sin who takes away the sin of the world, and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as head of the whole body. As long, then, as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. . . . For this, according to my view, is the subjection of Christ, namely, the fulfilling of the Father’s will. But as the Son subjects all to the Father, so does the Father to the Son, the one by His work, the other by His good pleasure. . . making our condition His own. Of the same kind. . . is the expression, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?’ It was not He who was forsaken either by the Father or by His own Godhead. . . but He was in His own person representing us. . . . In the character of the form of a servant, He condescends to His fellow servants, nay, to His servants, and takes upon Him a strange form, bearing all me and mine in Himself, that in Himself He may exhaust the bad. . . . By the art of His love for man He gauges our obedience, and measures all by comparison with His own sufferings, so that He may know our condition by His own, and how much is demanded of us, and how much we yield, taking into account, along with our environment, our weakness also. . . . This is the language of Him Who assumed our nature. 9
In becoming human, God took on the flesh of every human—man, woman, adult, child, black, white—everybody, in our whole nature and our whole weakness. If we are to magnify Christ as the Theotokos did, 10 if Christ is to be our example, and in truth He inevitably is, for we are all of the human kind, then we must consider the sins and weaknesses of every human being to be our own. As Fr. Seraphim Rose of Blessed Memory says, “Don’t criticize or judge other people—regard everyone as an angel, justify their mistakes and weaknesses, and condemn only yourself as the worst sinner. This is step one in any kind of spiritual life.” 11 You must, like St. Paul, condemn yourself as the chief of sinners, and in your own flesh carry the sins of the world. 12
In our evening prayer to the Holy Spirit, we begin by listing all of the sins that we have committed that day, written out for us to see and contemplate. Occasionally, I come across one and think, “Well I didn’t do that one today.” But once I have listed them all, regardless of all my silly rationalizations, I proclaim, “I have done all this and more.” 13 And it is true. It is all too easy to overlook our own dragons and see only the dragons that dwell in another. Somehow, in our pride, we justify our own dragons, and indeed, the Devil often disguises himself as an angel of light. 14 The dragons we see in others often appear more sinister and condemnable, as though those dragons are not our own. But they are. If the flesh of my brother is the same as my own, then the dragons that feast upon his flesh feast upon mine. And we must slay them. We must consider the sins of our fellow brother in manhood to be our own, and we must repent of them. I killed George Floyd. I burned down the city.
But Christ did not stop in assuming our nature. He nailed it to the Cross. He offered it up in sacrifice, and we can do the same through the Eucharist. For when we offer up the Eucharist, we offer up “our food, our lives, ourselves, and the whole world. . . in Christ and as Christ because he himself has assumed our life and is our life.” 15 The answer to the sickness of our society, as always, is worship. Through this worship and through the sacrifice of Christ, death is destroyed, trampled down by death, and upon those in the tombs, who are each and every one of us, life is bestowed. The dragons are rooted out, and our flesh is made new again. By offering ourselves up in sacrifice, we heal the sins of our brother. Worship is the solution. This is the hope of salvation, for myself, for my brother, and for the whole world.
- Yes, we have more lakes than Wisconsin.
- Helsel, Phil. “George Floyd protest turns deadly; Minneapolis mayor requests National Guard.” NBC Universal, May, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/conflict-erupts-minneapolis-l-protests-over-george-floyd-death-n1216096.
- Author unknown, Barber, Richard, tr. Bestiary MS Bodley 764, at 183. The Boydell Press, 2016.
- CDC COVID-19 Response Team. “Geographic Differences in COVID-19 Cases, Deaths, and Incidence – United States, February 12-April 7, 2020.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, April, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e4.htm#:~:text=Community%20transmission%20of%20COVID%2D,of%20COVID%2D19.
- “Greatmartyr, Victory-bearer, and Wonderworker George,” The Orthodox Church in America, https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2018/04/23/101184-greatmartyr-victory-bearer-and-wonderworker-george.
- Mikitish, John and Heiromonk Herman, editors. Orthodox Christian Prayers, at 90-91. St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, October 2019.
- II Corinthians V. 21
- Matt. XXVII. 46
- Manley, Johanna, compiler and editor. The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox: Daily Scipture Readings and Commentary for Orthodox Christians, at 888-889. Monastery Books, 1990.
- Luke I. 46
- Marchenko, Vyacheslav, editor, Fr. Seraphim Rose, author. Letters of Fr. Seraphim Rose: 1961-1982. Vladimir Djambov, 2016.
- I Timothy I. 15
- Mikitish and Herman. Prayers, at 80-81.
- II Corinthians XI. 14
- Fr. Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the Word: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, at 53. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973.