Forgiveness: A few thoughts on community as we approach Forgiveness Sunday
In his story of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky points out that the deepest desire of humanity is for community, especially for worship in community, for all to bend the knee together and worship as one. Yet this has also proved our greatest downfall; the desire for community in worship has led to wars of religious aggression, inquisitions, witch hunts, and, most recently, religiously and culturally motivated genocide. Our desire for community frequently brings out the worst and the most demonic in us. Recognizing this fact, in the modern era we have come to value tolerance.
The ideal of tolerance is that we accept each other’s differences as irreconcilable while consenting to live peaceful but separate lives. Yet tolerance, though it is certainly better than killing or hating our neighbor for religious reasons, cannot provide for real community. Our tolerant society is in a very real sense a society that is breaking down. We are like grains of sand, each with its own separate existence, and we all know what happens when you try to build anything on sand. We have come up with innumerable replacements for community, television, entertainment, the Internet itself, whereby we can surround ourselves with virtual “community” while remaining completely isolated.
In our religious communities, we find both tendencies in about equal measure. On the one hand, there are those who passionately believe that everyone must follow the proper “Orthodox” way of doing things. They insist on doing things the “right” way, backing up their position with references to the Rudder, the Canons, the Typicon, the Fathers (at least the Fathers who validate their point of view on a given subject), and are willing to argue passionately for their position, because what is at stake is nothing less than community in worship. We engage in heated arguments, flame wars on the Internet, angry exchanges in which we question each other’s Orthodoxy.
On the other hand, there are those who adopt the tolerance model but refuse to invest themselves in community because they have tried it and been deeply wounded. So they come to Church on Sundays, politely exchange the obligatory handshake, drink their coffee, exchange pleasantries, and go home. They tolerate the “fanatics,” liberal or conservative, but they do not invest themselves in community.
The question is, are we doomed to one or the other? Doomed to spend our days either squabbling over our faith or living it out in utter isolation? If there is a third possibility, it is offered to us on Forgiveness Sunday. Forgiveness Sunday teaches us that the only possibility for true community is forgiveness and reconciliation. And this means much more than just forgiving whatever personal slights or insults I may perceive myself to have suffered at the hands of another. It means the willingness to live an in imperfect community of which we are a part. There are many forms of askesis, of ascetic endeavor in which we engage during Lent.
But none is perhaps so difficult as the askesis of forgiveness. All of the other forms of askesis — fasting, prayer, almsgiving, etc. — depend more or less upon us, upon our willpower and personal determination. Even if we fail, we know that we can always try harder next time. But the askesis of forgiveness demands the recognition that our relationships with others are not within our control. Others will disappoint us, wound us, fail to meet our expectations. And we will do the same to them.
The only possibility for meaningful community lies in our willingness to be reconciled with each other, to relinquish our expectations of each other, to live within the tension of dynamic community. Reconciliation is always a kenotic act, a form of self-emptying after the example of Christ who “emptied Himself,” a shouldering of the Cross, a personal Golgotha. Yet it also contains the seed of the Resurrection.
Fr. Paul Schroeder
Superman over Baghdad
Nancy and I watched the bombing of Baghdad for half an hour last night. It was like a fireworks show except that with each explosion one knew there were people being killed or wounded. Meanwhile the broadcasters were narrating the explosions in a voice that was hardly different than one would hear if it were a sports event. Frequent references were made to the weapons being used: state-of the-art, latest technology, etc. Apparently we are supposed to be in grateful awe of how very “smart” these hugely powerful weapons are and relieved that, thanks to their amazing smartness, they were exploding not at random but only at carefully selected targets. Still, it is hard to be grateful that “only” 250 people were killed or wounded when the night’s total might have been far more were less brilliant weapons being used.
Those doing the killing were far away. The only glimpse they will get of the human results of their night’s work may be brief news clips of survivors in Baghdad hospitals — but perhaps not even these images will make their way to TV screens on the Navy ships firing the missiles.
Finally we could take the war show no longer, turned off the TV and went to bed, only haunted by the thought of people in Iraq for whom there was no off-switch and for whom sleep was not an option.
I woke up thinking of Superman. When I was a child, like millions of Americans growing up in the fifties, I was a faithful reader of Superman comics and, when it became a TV show, an equally steadfast viewer, even if the sets were tacky and the black-and-white Superman of those days was no match for the comic book original.
In Superman’s ordinary life as Clark Kent he was something like the decent, self-effacing man Jimmy Stewart played in such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I didn’t think theologically in those days, but now its strikes me that Superman was presented to us as a person totally unaffected by the sin of Adam and Eve. He lived an absolutely virtuous life and had only pure thoughts. He never erred. His x-ray vision was never used for seeing what an upright male ought not to see. He might have been the romantic object of Lois Lane’s eyes, but he was as dedicated to celibacy as the priest played by Bing Crosby in “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.”
Only now does it dawn on me that Superman was really the USA incarnate. Indeed, when he was shown flying on the TV program, there was the American flag rippling in the wind just behind him. His life was devoted to “truth, justice and the American way.” It was unthinkable that the baby who became Superman might have landed by chance in some country other than America.
A child who will not walk again
Listening to the BBC news as I was driving home today, I found the usual stuff about towns captured, troops moving on, generals crowing about military achievements, bombs dropped on Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers surrendering, and so on.
And then: “One of the casualties of the bombing was a five year old girl. She suffered a spinal injury, and she will never walk again”.
If I met that little girl, how could I start to explain to her, and her parents, why she has to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, if the United States government and its friends will be so kind as to provide one?
This is what this war is all about.
War? What war?
On the Sunday after the bombing of Iraq began in the parish I attend, a prayer was read which I found difficult to listen to. I don’t have the exact words, but it included such phrases such as, “Let our enemies and be brought down and awed by or Orthodox faith.”
That evening, at a pan-Orthodox gathering, I checked with a priest from a different parish about what he had said during the liturgy at his church. He said that he had simply prayed for everyone that was suffering in this conflict. So, knowing that I had the possibility of a second church to attend should I need it, I spoke to my priest about the prayer he had said. He defended it. He was a military chaplain in the Gulf War and thought America was doing the right thing in Iraq. He was taken aback when I pointed our many bishops had spoken against the war. (Thanks to the OPF website for educating me.) When I suggested that in praying before God we should show love for everyone and pray for Iraqis as well as US troops, he said no because the enemies were doing wrong. So, the conversation ended.
I did return to my church and, the next Sunday, our priest read the four petitions which the OCA hierarchy has designated. In these petitions we pray for the innocent men, women and children of Iraq as well as for the safety of our troops. I am quite peaceful about these petitions. The priest came up to me with a smile after the first time he read them and asked whether I’d liked them. I said I had and we hugged.
The Orthodox liturgy points us to what Fr. Moses Berry calls “other worldly Christianity”, that is “purification, illumination and deification.” It is a realm beyond this world of wars and disasters. I don’t think we can or should ignore wars and disasters, but I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by them to the extent that we forget to relate all that happens to God, the God who is beyond all this and has, for reasons we don’t know, allowed all this to happen. To me, finding the balance between a contemplative and active life is my life’s work. It is being brought even more sharply into focus by this war.
A priest’s appeal
With regard to announcements and guidance given in parishes regarding the war: please remember that this is indeed a divisive issue. I have known priests who have dutifully read the messages issued by their bishops and who have dutifully included the special petitions into the designated litanies who have been blasted for doing so by their parishioners. In the parish I serve, we have read the statements, and even include a special prayer at the end of the Liturgy for peace. But even I have had to do so very carefully, lest parishioners perceive that which is being done as a “political statement” rather than a “spiritual concern.” Priests are walking a tightrope right now, and it is not too much to ask that the laity understand this, as well as acknowledge that not all clergy are adept at addressing the war without splitting the congregation right down the middle.
Many clergy are having a difficult time right now. On the one hand, they are entitled to their personal feelings; on the other, they must maintain the teaching of the Church, not interjecting their personal opinions into the discussion as if their personal opinions are synonymous with official Church teaching. On top of all this, they need to address the issue in congregations that can easily be divided over the issue. Not all priests are adept at walking this tightrope. I know some who are petrified to say anything, one way or the other, other than to read the statements issued by their hierarchs where, if some “hawk parishioner” objects, at least he can say, “Hey, if you don’t like it, take it up with the Holy Synod — it’s their statement, I merely dutifully read it.”
As a priest, I always appreciate it when people ask me for clarification. This keeps the doors of dialogue — and ultimately the doors of essential unity — wide open.
In cases where silence reigns, perhaps clergy should be asked why no statements were read, why no guidance has been given. Maybe they’re afraid, as many clergy are, to do anything, fearing that otherwise peaceful congregations will go to war within themselves. Maybe they simply don’t know how to handle this — remember, few priests, especially younger ones, have had to address issues of war during their ministries, so this is “new territory” for many.
I suggest we try to focus on that which unites us. One thing that unites everyone is that everyone is feeling discomfort over the war. Be vigilant that while proclaiming the unity in peace that we all seek, we don’t create disunity by walking out on a parish simply because the priest doesn’t measure up to our expectations on the war issue.
I know there are many priests struggling right now to determine exactly what is expected of them at this point. In one parish I know, the “hawks” are blasting the priest because he’s praying for the “enlightenment of our leaders,” which they read as accusing Bush of being stupid, while the “doves,” over that very same phrase, are accusing him of saying that “Bush is enlightened.” The priest gets nailed by both factions. Expectations are based on what people of both sides want to hear — and, I dare say, neither side in that parish really wants to hear what the Church has to say but, rather, they merely want the Church to “affirm” what they personally choose to believe.
We need to recognize that this is not an easy time for parish clergy, that the parish clergy need our prayers now more than ever, that our parish clergy need some sign that they will not find people “bolting” from their parishes because of what they say or don’t say on the war, and that the desire for peace and unity is not betrayed by generating a lack of peace and disunity on the parish level.
Many are concerned with “nation building.” Should we not be at least as concerned with “parish dismantling,” which is hardly the hallmark of the peacemakers Christ blesses.
Pray for the clergy. Don’t make them the victims of “less-than-friendly fire” while lamenting the victims of “friendly fire.”
Father John Matusiak
Talking about war in the parish
I am a parish priest and do find it difficult to know what to say to our community about the war. I have had some very heated conversations about the war with parishioners who are pro-Bush and thus trust his leadership of our country. I have concluded that for many of them, they want the same thing that I want for the world: peace. Our disagreement is about how we attain and then maintain the peace.
We do pray for one another. And though I have not had the conviction that war was the right response to this situation, I do continue to pray that God will work in and through us, even using our sinful faults to bring His Peace to us all.
I am saddened and brought to tearful repentance by the fact that in the world we cannot live at peace with one another. I am saddened by the fact that armies and police are needed to maintain order among the most civilized (or Christian!) of peoples. The power of evil causes me to weep.
Fr. Ted Bobosh
Is the anti-war movement too anti?
A recent posting criticized the anti-war movement on the grounds that it is, well, merely anti. To be credible and morally defensible, presumably we have to be advocating a positive alternative.
I guess one alternative would be for the US not to create conditions in the first place that force individuals into making this kind of a choice, which in many ways is a false choice. Those who oppose the war in Iraq did not ask to be put in the position of having to protest; they were not even offered the opportunity to engage in an informed and honest debate about the wisdom and legality of this armed intervention. It was simply rammed down their throats.
Part of the reason for the bitterness on the part of many opponents of war is that they have no political representation: they are between 17 and 30 percent or so of the population (depending on when the polling has been done) that has no voice in Washington.
We have to distinguish between those who have adopted an antiwar stance because the political system has disenfranchised them — which probably includes most of the opponents of the war — and those who oppose the war in principle.
For this latter group, which, I assume, includes most OPF members, I agree that there is a moral obligation to translate our pacifism into action. But I believe that action could take the form of prayer — as it certainly does for monastics — as well as acts of charity that aim to ameliorate the suffering of those hard hit by the war.
Letter from Romania
I recently found your web site and heard about you after seeing a rebuttal of the anti-war statement made on another web site. Of course there was no link to your site but I found it anyway.
I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy. I am an American working among the poor in Romania, and have gradually fallen in love with the Orthodox church. I was chrismated with my wife a year and a half ago. We recently baptized our first child in the Romanian Orthodox Church.
My desire is to see Romanians encouraged in their Orthodoxy and to see in it through the lives of the saints and the witness of scripture and the liturgy the very Orthodox response to poverty and to peace. I have had personal conflicts initially hearing of cultural heroes whose lives were built on conquest being sainted. While these things seem to contradict the faith as I understand it I trust God’s hand in the Church and the faithfulness of the Word in the Liturgy.
Our bishop has been pretty outspokenly anti-war. His Easter massage was blatantly and beautifully applying the meaning of Easter as peace to the world and anything else as contradiction.
Death penalty in old Russia
The first great prince St. Vladimir had forbidden capital punishment as one his first acts as a Christian king. But the nobles and petty princes, fearful of increasing lawlessness, forced him to reinstate it. So it’s interesting that Vladimir Monomakh should have felt as he did a few centuries later. “Take no man’s life, whether he be innocent or guilty, for nothing is more precious than the human soul,” he ordered in his Law Code.
When the death penalty was enforced in old Russia, it was often applied for infractions we would not consider capital offenses. But it wasn’t usually the royal court system which deprived Russians of their lives in punishment for their crimes (real or imagined) — it was the local landowner and his private police who did that.
Prior to their emancipation in 1861, serfs were often abused physically as well as morally and materially, and they kept their lives at the pleasure of the landlords, who were immune from prosecution for virtually any of their cruelties toward the peasants. These social evils were only gradually relieved, much too slowly, in fact, so it came as no surprise that Russia fell so quickly to the Communists: life under the tsars was miserable. (Not that life under the commissars proved better.)
Although it was never asserted, to my knowledge, that the Russian state had no authority to execute criminals, it was often the case that churchmen pleaded for clemency, resulting in patterns of “internal exile” to distant provinces. In fact, this happened so often in Russian imperial times that the death penalty was almost never imposed, but was semi-automatically commuted to exile so as not to have to prolong the process by listening to bishops and monastics who took up the government’s time with their pleas for mercy. But even this depended on a criminal’s being tried in a state court rather than in the landlord’s courtyard.
Monk James Silver
A culture of fear
I finally went to see “Bowling for Columbine” this evening. I found it very thought-provoking in part because it provided fresh insight on some of the issues we’ve been discussing online recently.
Now I have to ask. Do people in America really lock their doors when they’re at home? When Michael Moore got to Toronto and started interviewing people there, I thought at first he’d found some folks who were pulling his leg by telling him they didn’t lock their doors. It was only after he started going through a neighborhood trying people’s doors that I realized he was asking about locking themselves in! I’m assuming this behavior is out of the ordinary in America, but his reaction suggests otherwise.
Thanks for all of you who have been posting Lenten items and spiritual reminders. Remembering the purpose of both this season and the Way is helping me survive moment by moment. At work, representing death-sentenced inmates in post-conviction proceedings, I am bombarded by the negativity of the broken system and the pain and suffering of victim and client alike. The rest of the time, I am bombarded with the insanity of the march toward war. I am trying a media fast this Lent and yesterday was noticeably more peaceful. However, one can’t escape colleagues and those we encounter in the store and on the street.
I am grateful for the font of knowledge and insight and commitment to Our Lord that appears regularly on this list. May the reality of the victory of Christ’s death, descent into Hades, and glorious resurrection sustain us everyday of our lives.
On military chaplaincy
I suggest a future issue of In Communion that focuses on war, especially the role of chaplains. What about a piece by an Orthodox chaplain in the U.S. military about what he sees as acceptable/not acceptable for chaplain to do and/or bless?
More chaplains than missionaries
According to the 1994 Orthodox People Together Directory, there were, at that time, 45 Orthodox priests serving as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces, which is many times more than the number of American Orthodox missionary priests serving on the mission field, then or now. And speaking of which, by the way, I also never want miss the opportunity to remind our readers and their acquaintances that the Mission Center and our Metropolitan are now officially seeking a second priest for Taiwan. Present and former military chaplains are welcome to apply.
One of the things that I have been interested in seeing OPF do is place greater emphasis on outreach to youth. Many of the teenagers in our parishes will become the future parishioners of Orthodox military chaplains if we do not help them to find the path of Christian peacemaking!
There is another issue involved in this and that is Christian career development. Many young people end up in the military because they can’t think of or find a better job. All of this pertains, of course, to committing the whole of one’s life to Christ and allowing him to be the Lord of one’s career path as well. So this is really one part of what I like to call Christian holism.
I cannot think of a more worthwhile way for OPF members to spend their time and energy than in talking directly to the teenagers (and their parents) of our parishes about the work of OPF and Christian peacemaking in general. I’m sure it could lead to some very meaningful discussions about peace and its deeper meaning.
Timothy Beach, Taichung, Taiwan
No throw-away people
Part of seminary life here at St. Tikhon’s includes the privilege of visiting our local prison once a week. I’ve been visiting the Special Needs Unit, spending time with inmates who are elderly or medicated. Several days ago, I shared a conversation with “Jeffrey,” an inmate whose meekness makes him stand out like a dove in a crowd of blue jays.
Jeffrey believes that he deserves prison. His hope for release is heightened by a desire to heal relationships with those he hurt. He speaks gently. I asked him toward the end of the day, “What is one thing that you want those of us on the outside to know about life on the inside?” After staring at the base of his cane for awhile, he looked up and replied, “That there are no throw-aways.”
Dn. John Oliver
I want to affirm how much I profit from In Communion. It is among the most refreshing journals that comes before my eyes at this time and “hits the spot” for me more than other publications I read. Some of the articles are so strong and clear, not only in verbal message but in the spirit they carry. I feel, with trepidation, for the leading that may be in this for me. With hesitation also.
In the last issue I was especially struck by the contribution from Joe May. I notice that every time I read about this kind of ministry to the poor, a chord is struck in me. I do feel there may be a leading hidden in this for me. I do not know what shape it will take in my life. It may also be that I am already living in this leading, but I feel a call to go further in it.
I am working on plans for a visit with friends in Ohio and hope while there to visit Matthew 25 House to meet Joe May.
Last night Nancy and I, with several friends, had dinner with Archbishop Anastasios, head of the Church in Albania. It happens he was taking part in a World Council of Churches meeting near Amsterdam. It was an altogether refreshing evening. Before it ended I had the presence of mind to ask him if he would be willing to join the OPF advisory board. He readily agreed.
OPF launched in Northeast Ohio
On February 15, Mary-Ann Frishkorn, Joe May, and John Oliver met at Matthew 25 House on Princeton Street in Akron to form a Northeast Ohio OPF Chapter. Joe will serve as Interim Coordinator, Mary Ann and John as members of the Steering Committee. Our plan is to begin with reading together The Ladder of the Beatitudes. We see the Beatitudes as central to what the OPF is about.
Central Ohio OPF
An attempt will be made to begin a Columbus/Central Ohio chapter of OPF. We’ll have our first meeting sometime after Pascha. Fr. Mark Lowery, our Associate Priest, has agreed to help to keep us on track.
So Yung Wilson
Copyright by the authors.