The Right Question?

By John Oliver

A lecture given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002.

We are shaped by our questions

An example: in The Historian and the Climate of Opinion, Robert Skotheim says our understanding of American history changed in the 20th century in ways that “coincided with alterations in the prevailing climate of opinion.” This was not because historians offered better answers to old questions. Rather each succeeding school of historians posed, researched, and answered its own questions about the past. The historian Louis Hartz remarks that the best way to refute someone is “to substitute new fundamental categories for his own, so that you are simply pursuing a different path.”

Asking a different question enables us to “step outside the box.” If the sacred gift of life becomes the basic question, this open doors to an old, but long neglected, way of thinking.

The Right Question?

My historian father was schooled in the early 20th century to see the United States as different from Europe because of the democratizing influence of the frontier until, coming to Pittsburgh, the steel mills made him think about technology. For the rest of his life he taught, wrote and argued that the uniqueness of America does not lie in art, the frontier, government, literature, or religion, but in our genius for technology. (His book, History of American Technology, was published in 1956.)

In the 20th century, technology was on a fast track. Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970, “If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately 62 years each,… the vast majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th lifetime.” Churchill was more prophetic. Speaking of the technology of nuclear war, he said, “What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!”

Modern technology brought change more important than transitions from the Stone to the Bronze to the Iron Ages, not least for ethics. For the first time, the old double standard of treating the powerful one way, the weak another, became, potentially at least, obsolete. We are entering a period when the “weak” may well have weapons to retaliate.

Consider three things:

1. For the first time in history we can destroy all human life. Everyone is vulnerable.

2. This technology of mass destruction won’t go away. We can expect more nations to have weapons of mass destruction and more individuals and small groups to have means of acquiring such weapons: billionaires, mafias, drug lords, radical political movements.

3. Future biological, chemical and nuclear weapons promise to make present technologies of death seem primitive by comparison.

If the threat to life is so clear and so widely admitted, why is it so hard to challenge killing as a method and to seek nonviolent alternatives? Is it because we don’t have the right focus, the right question? It’s not that we focus on bad things. Even good values such as freedom and justice, if not kept in their proper place, can bring disaster. Why is it that even people in peace movements often become nervous about the phrase “the sacred gift of life”?

When values collide

Some months ago I gave a talk at a Quaker conference center. Afterwards, when the director asked what I thought about what they were doing, I said Quakers should “speak truth” — a key phrase among Quakers — and thus stop lying. Quakers say they stand for nonviolence, but, while opposing war and capital punishment, they commonly favor “abortion rights.” After shutting off the recorder, the director responded, “You must understand. Among liberal Friends, when feminism conflicts with nonviolence, feminism wins.”

That, I think, is a key to why it’s hard to persuade others to oppose killing. It’s the focus. It’s the question that matters. It’s not just feminism. Nationalism also wins over nonviolence. So does freedom. So does various kinds of idealism.

The Christian doctrine of freedom goes back to Eden. Feminism has Christian roots. Protecting innocents is central to the Gospel, though not protecting our innocents by killing their innocents. Secular nationalism is perhaps more fiercely held in our era, if less rooted in Christianity.

Focus shapes what we see. Historians who focus on freedom celebrate the American Revolution for replacing absolutism with a republic, the Civil War for ending slavery. They once celebrated westward expansion as a divine mandate or manifest destiny to civilize the continent or build a great nation. From this perspective, killing was the price we pay for progress.

But what if we take as our focus Christ’s words that what we do to others we do to Him? How does this change our way of regarding war, revolution, the killing of native peoples to obtain their land? Cause for celebration? Or repentance?

What about the American Civil War, fought by southerners to resist intrusive government and protect property, and by northerners to hold the Union together? If what was done to others was done to Him, each death was another crucifixion.

What about westward expansion and the destruction or relocating of native Americans — what we now call ethnic cleansing? If what we did to native Americans is what we did to Christ, does resettling or killing them look the same to us as it did to historians who focused on progress and the advance of democracy?

Shift to the present. If life is sacred, if what we do to others is done to Christ, how will we regard killing for secular America? Or for some other people or nation elsewhere in the world?

My Quaker friend was right. In our world, other values “win” over reverence for life.

An Orthodox Foundation

If it is hard to persuade others to center their focus on the sacredness of life, perhaps the place to start is with ourselves. Does Orthodox Christianity see life as sacred? Or am I misusing Orthodoxy to make it fit an ideology that is alien to the Gospel?

We are indebted to Fr. John Breck, who reminds us in his book, The Sacred Gift of Life , that our calling is to examine “all sources of revelation within the Church: Scripture; the doctrinal, ascetic and mystical writings of the holy fathers and mothers; the Church’s liturgy and traditions governing personal worship…; canon law; iconography and other graphic representations of the faith, such as church architecture; and hagiography or the lives and teachings of the saints.” What do these teach us about the character of human life?

The Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova, a saint of hospitality who died a martyr’s dearth in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, said, “No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end, and without exceptions, And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.” She calls on us to “venerate the image of God” in others because when Christ said “`I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison,’ He put an equal sign between himself and anyone in need.” She also said, “The Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

C.S. Lewis had a similar insight. He said, next to the Blessed Sacrament, “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. We rightly honor Christ in bread and wine. But will the Eucharist stand in judgment of us if we fail to accord near equal honor to Christ in our neighbor?”

He is merely echoing St. John Chrysostom: “Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, ‘This is my body,’ and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.” (On the Gospel of St. Matthew, 50, iii)

But how to we get from intellectualizing principles to incarnating the faith? What about starting schools where questions are asked that help resensitize us to the sacredness of life? Dare we ask tough questions?

An Orthodox mind, with its special sensitivity to mystery, sacredness, and mercy, should be considering questions like:

How did early generations of Christians regard life? The body? Sexuality? All creation?

Does our faith not suggest that the wonder residing in the Eucharist is present, if scarcely seen, in every human being?

Does translating liturgy into life not require venerating the hungry, thirsty, sick, prisoners, orphans, newborns, other races, as we do the Eucharist?

Is it right to appeal for God’s mercy for ourselves, as we do again and again every Sunday at the Liturgy, then for the rest of the week demand justice — not mercy — for those we regard as enemies?

Are we too used to killing as a means of solving problems?

What special lenses does our faith provide which enable us see what we do when we take a human life? Is there a connection between Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and his image in an enemy?

It is often said war is a “necessary evil.” But then we have to ask the question, necessary for what? To guard a secular nation? my standard of living? my freedoms? To protect my loved ones? Even if the answer is in each case yes, still we have to ask ourselves: is killing necessary to obey the One who commands us to “do good” to enemies and not retaliate in kind?

We must not get side-tracked with the question, “What would you do in response to September 11? Or to Hitler?” I have no answer, only the comment that this is the right question for a pragmatist, but the wrong one for a Christian. The right question for Christians is not what will work. The right question is what does Jesus tell us to do. What example has he given us to emulate?

The Quaker peace testimony sprang from focusing on simple obedience to Christ, who tells us to do good to enemies, not from humanistic concerns. More important, Fr. James Silver reminds us, is the witness of the early Church. Christians refused to kill because the example of Christ was more important than what we think of as practical concerns.

History offers hope. Western civilization was in large part founded by nonviolent monks who, after the Roman Empire fell in western Europe, set up schools and converted the West to a mix of primitive Christian and Greco-Roman ways of thinking. Christian Rome fell. Western and Eastern Christendom arose, in large part from folk who were more faithful to Christ than to Rome.

Let me sum up. Technology can destroy all human life. Yet more terrible weapons are coming. Popular ideologies commonly take priority over nonviolence and reverence for life. Let us embrace whatever is good in modern ideologies, but as Orthodox peacemakers let us focus on the sacred gift of life, doing so with every resource available to us, including the vision of God incarnate in every human life.

Dr. John W. Oliver is retired professor of history at Malone College, Canton, Ohio, and was adjunct professor at Walsh and the College of Wooster. He is the author and editor of various books including a forthcoming history of America’s Quaker colleges. He was a member of the executive board of the Ohio Academy of History and convener of the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists. He belongs to Assumption Orthodox Church in Canton and serves as coordinator of the North American chapter of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.