The Mission of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

by Timothy Beach

I have noticed that most western converts to the Orthodox Church are “thoughtful” people, in the sense of thinking seriously about matters and issues. We also like to express ourselves both in verbal and written forms, frequently entering into impassioned discussions, particularly of a theological or ecclesiastical nature.

A number of years ago, there was a hospital chaplain who for quite some time attended my home parish in the U.S. It seemed as if he was certain to become Orthodox. In the end, he did not. I sympathize with one point that he made some weeks prior to his departure. Sunday after Sunday, he had listened to post-Liturgy coffee-hour discussions between parishioners on theology and politics, and perhaps was a little impressed with how converts to Orthodoxy think deeply about deep subjects. But he asked, “Where are the movers and the shakers?”

It has now been over ten years since I first arrived in Taiwan where every imaginable church had already been represented by missionaries and/or their indigenous spiritual heirs, many of them for decades, and a couple of them for more than a century earlier. Two years after I arrived, a metropolitan was finally appointed to Hong Kong from where he began to administer the world’s largest and newest Orthodox diocese, stretching from Taiwan to India. He’s constantly on and off planes, large and small. Three-and-a-half years ago, we finally got our first priest who resides in Taipei. He makes periodic visits not only to Taichung, where I live, but also to other localities.

I’ve often joked that while Protestants send thousands of missionaries around the world, most of whose endeavors will never be recorded, Orthodox, on the other hand, may boast of at least one hundred or more church historians to record the efforts of one missionary who himself stands a reasonably good chance of being canonized as “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” which is another way to say that missionary activity is quite exceptional and noble, but certainly not normal.

Not unlike my chaplain friend, I too have noticed that many of us Orthodox — perhaps especially converts — love to read church history, perhaps even to write church history, but we’re rather slow when it comes to making church history. However, if we do not participate in the making of church history, others will, and indeed others do and, for all practical purposes — vis-a-vis the world — they are the ones who have ended up defining what the Church is. With regard to missions, Protestants and Catholics have effectively defined what Christianity and the Christian Church are in the minds of most people.

Similarly, as regards OPF’s specific mission, over the course of centuries, Christian nationalists (be they Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant) have succeeded in defining the Christian churches as religious institutions that are compatible with national ends and means, including war. If we are to reverse this trend, we need to be prayerfully precise in diagnosing the root problem and in selecting the right response, then vigorously and sacrificially following through with a plan of action, and finally, periodically evaluating our effectiveness in order to continually modify our strategy as needed.

What is the root problem? At least in some cultures, this becomes clear whenever one dares to utter words like “peace” and “peacemaking.” Many Christians react negatively, not on theological or biblical grounds, but on nationalistic grounds. This is a result of a compartmentalized self-identity in which one’s spiritual identity is kept separate from one’s national identify, or else the latter is defined by the former. In short, the eternal is defined by the temporal.

In contrast, I would like to define a holistic self-identity as one in which the temporal is defined by the eternal. In practical terms, this would mean that one’s Christian identity should supersede all other identities and, in fact, define them. For example, although I am male, it is my Christian faith that tells me what kind of male I am called to be. Although I was born in a particular country with a particularly nationality, it is my Christian faith which informs me of how I must relate to the world and to the people in it.

It seems to me that OPF’s mission directly challenges one form of compartmentalized self-identify: Christian versus nationalist. You cannot say: I’m a Christian peacemaker without your national loyalty being challenged by an ardent nationalist, and, of course, he or she is probably right. By refusing to engage in war, you have de facto limited to what extent nationalism will dictate the course of your actions.

Certainly, there are other ways in which most of us compartmentalize our self-identify in our daily lives. It is very difficult for us to fulfill the Liturgy’s call to “give our whole life to Christ our God,” but if we are to be completely holistic and integrated Christians, this is what we must strive to do, not just in the areas of morality, theology and politics, but also in the areas of health, finances, relationships, social stewardship, etc. This compartmentalized self-identity versus holistic self-identity root issue, which lies behind the global peacemaker Christian versus nationalistic Christian conflict, is not only apparent, it also unavoidably collides with other areas of our Christian lives.

If this is true, then would it not seem equally true that we cannot expect Christians to behave as Christians, politically or otherwise, unless they see themselves as Christian first and foremost? I believe our first challenge is to help our brothers and sisters gain a greater awareness of the competing self-identities that lie within our hearts and souls. Undoubtedly this will be more difficult in countries where the faithful have been labeled as an enemy by an external power and therefore have a sense of being threatened. Nevertheless, since effective peacemaking may take place on many levels simultaneously, if we can persuade some to assert their Christian identity to the point whereby they at least refuse to participate in a war initiated by their own respective governments, then that certainly should constitute at least some measure of success.

There should be a drive to recruit Orthodox teenagers into OPF. If we do not reduce the number of Orthodox entering the armed forces, how can we feel that we have made any real progress towards transforming the Orthodox Church into a true church of peace? What good does it do in the long run if most new male OPF members are veterans? I would think that both the pro-military Orthodox folks and the generals could quite easily live with such an arrangement whereby we recruit as many new OPF members as we want as long as they do their time in the military first!

I don’t know the exact number of Orthodox priests currently serving as chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces, but fifty are listed in the directory published by Orthodox People Together. With a war going on, perhaps there are now more. By contrast, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center reports that it is currently supporting only one U.S. priest in overseas mission work. After adding the three Greek-American metropolitans currently heading mission dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the current number of American Orthodox mission clergy comes to a grand total of four!

One would think that these figures should prompt serious reflection among Orthodox in general and clergy in particular. Can we really, with a straight face, look non-Orthodox right in the eye and tell them “We’re the True Church!” on the basis of our correct doctrine alone, but without being a truly missionary church? Is God really calling us to assign more clergy to military service than to mission service? Is the voice that calls clergy to military service truly the voice of the Holy Spirit? (If we succeed in the area of steering Orthodox teenagers away from military service, this enigma of Orthodox military chaplains should at least partly resolve itself as there will not be a need for them.)

Given the fact that my family and I live in Taiwan, with our only priest tied up with Sunday parish responsibilities at least three hours away, I cannot help but wonder if any U.S. Orthodox military chaplains (or would-be chaplains) might consider serving here in fulfillment of Christ’s calling in the Great Commission. Although the pay and benefits certainly will not come close to matching those of a chaplain, the opportunity to help make living church history should prove far more fulfilling than helping to make military history and would undoubtedly do far more good — even proving far more productive than accompanying American soldiers into battle to protect Taiwan from China.

Our family made a visit to the U.S. in January during which we visited two Orthodox parishes. Both had members serving with U.S. forces in Iraq. I visited my niece’s high school and was alarmed at all the military recruiting posters I saw. Young people find themselves under enormous pressure to acquire a strong nationalistic self-identity. Obviously, many young people are searching for any self-identity. We all know that teenagers tend to be very vulnerable at their particular stage of development, questioning who and what they are.

For Christian teenagers, I personally think that these self-identity issues are best resolved through the formation of strong Christian communities in which the raison d’être of the community is for its members to live out their lives in service to Christ. I envision the kind of Orthodox communities in which members live nearby each other, frequently joining in prayer together, enjoying recreation together, and serving Christ together. Such communities, I believe, have the potential to instill Christian values and a Christian self-identity far and above anything that parents or a typical parish can do unaided. Perhaps the formation of local OPF chapters could serve as a stepping stone to the development of such communities.

I also believe that such communities have the potential to support the evangelical mission of the Church far more effectively than we are doing with our conventional methods of recruiting missionaries. As they are growing up in a service-oriented Christian community, children may be directly or indirectly challenged with the question, “How is Christ calling me to serve Him in His Church?” (Vocations, missions, and service should be seen as the responsibility and privilege of the whole of God’s people, rather than just that of priests, monks and nuns.) Furthermore, I believe that if OPF members were to be more directly involved in missions, then the new churches founded in distant lands would perhaps more likely develop into peace churches rather than nationalistic churches as some other missionaries might guide them to become.

Undeniably, missions is but one form of service that OPF members can become involved in. Other forms include charitable works, adopting orphans, prison ministry, and so on. Regardless of which form it takes, I think that it’s vitally important that OPF members be seen as models of Christian service. There is a perception among some that “pacifists” are out for a free ride. Many say that those who benefit from living in a free and prosperous country should also serve their country (namely, by being willing to go to war.) It’s crucial that we NOT (inadvertently or otherwise) fulfill such stereotypes. We need to make a point of cheerfully living out lives of service for the sake of the Gospel. And when we are successful in steering young men and women away from the military, we need to help guide them towards fruitful vocations and teach them how to serve Christ through service to those in need. If we do this consistently, I think we will have no problem in gaining the respect of our detractors and perhaps even winning them over to the Gospel of Peace and Love.

To summarize, it is my conviction that if OPF’s priorities include (1) fostering a holistic, undivided self-identity among Orthodox, (2) recruitment of Orthodox youth, (3) role-modeling Christian service, including mission service, and (4) the formation of Christian communities, we will indeed become an effective and positive influence within the Orthodox Church.

Timothy Beach and his wife Anna Li-chin support their family by running a small English and Montessori school in Taichung, Taiwan. They also home school their four children. Each Sunday they chant a mixed English and Mandarin Chinese reader’s service in which visitors sometimes join them.