E-mail Conversations Fall 2000

Basic questions for OPF

Having been in the “peace movement” most of my adult life, it seemed natural to join an Orthodox Peace Fellowship. However integrating this into my faith life has not been as simple as it was when I was not Orthodox. In the many conversations I have had with our priest, he sees our greatest temptation is becoming another activity, one which is not focused on increasing faith in the Gospel. Perhaps European members are not as subject to the distractions activism can promote; Americans seem to be constitutionally addicted to activities and busyness (me not least!)

So my questions are: how does the OPF point to the Gospel, how can it help increase faith in the Gospel, how does witnessing to the Gospel differ in OPF, than in the Church as a whole. I am willing to live with these questions for a while, especially since I have no answers. If we are simply another activity, do we run the risk of reducing the message of the Gospel? I have had an experience of parish life in which the Gospel is the whole focus, a liturgical life which goes beyond the minimum weekend Liturgy, always inviting us to “enter into the Kingdom.” Most of the seeking folks I meet are so hungry for holiness that a specific focus on peace is not what they need. They want to know the rock on which our lives stand. How are we different from the Christians of late antiquity who found themselves suddenly responsible for the pagan populations surrounding them after the fall of the Roman Empire, needing food, medical care, burial of the dead? What was their witness? (my historical bias!)

Alice Carter

Bravo to Alice for asking basic questions! She questions whether our collective endeavor can be expected to increase faith in the Gospel or is rather mere activities and busyness. Is OPF involvement in danger of becoming a distraction (“a snare and a trap” if you will) rather than a part of glorifying God and coming closer to Him?

Of course this is a possibility; what human endeavor can not be subverted and distorted by our egotism, our inattention or the influence of the Evil One? But is it, still, worth our while?

Peace as a serious pursuit – not just platitudinous sops to toleration and “niceness,” but a willingness to risk whatever must be risked in order to follow Christ’s teachings about our relationship with our fellows – is a core element in Christianity, it seems to me. This is no more a distraction from worship or piety than the Samaritan’s stopping to help was a distraction on his journey to temple. Jesus’ own time on Calvary was not an “interruption” of his preaching and teaching; it was his teaching.

The real question is the one Alice also poses: how do we actuate our “realization that each person, even our enemy, is a bearer of the image of God”?

She says that “most of the seeking folks I meet are so hungry for holiness that a specific focus on peace is not what they need. They want to know the rock on which our lives stand.”

But what if “peace” – in its most profound and comprehensive sense – is the rock on which our lives stand? Can we not see in “turning the other cheek” seventy times seven a powerful manifestation of the new insight that Jesus brought to the world? The old covenant said “I am your God”; the new covenant said “hold on to your hats – I am their God as well” – God is God – everywhere, filling all things (including all people). So where are we to cast our arrows and slings if all around are children of our own same God?

Alice’s question is the right one to ask – not because the cause of OPF is marginal or irrelevant, but because we spend our time on debate and discussion when we should be helping to advance Truth in all situations where it is threatened. I am myself guilty of deleting far too many bulletins on Kosovo without reading them, telling myself “you can’t focus on everything at once,” and ignoring talk of Department of Defense budgets as though they are mere bureaucratic and political exercises that hold no fascination for me (nor any personal challenge).

I would submit that the questions we should be asking ourselves and each other are:

Are we teaching our children how to listen to TV news that concerns war and peace – as Christians?

Are we challenging the congregations of which we are a part as to their commitment to reduction of both community violence and national militarism? (Not because we should be “socially active” but because we are exhorted to “love one another” as God loves us.)

Are we helping to support those who are living their faith by traveling to Iraq or protesting executions or bringing soldier-witnesses to address young people, if we can’t do those things ourselves?

Many thanks to Alice for a splash of cold water.

Alex Patico

Political parties

I was recently in a conversation with a friend who has become a Republican solely because of his opposition to abortion. This led me to thinking about whether or how a Christian person can belong to a political party. My gut reaction is that you cannot do both, because to be in a political party almost requires you to assent to things that are in conflict with the Gospel.

I am assuming that a party has a “platform” and that by becoming a member of that party one actively or passively assents to that platform by working or voting for the candidates of that party. So, for instance, Republicans could be pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-capitalist, pro-family. Some of these things a Christian person could ostensibly support, and some of them are at least in tension if not antithetical to the Gospel. By belonging to the party, it seems that you end up assenting to the whole gig, at least de facto. Am I wrong about that?

I think that as Christians we have to be about the Kingdom of God in all things, including politics. That doesn’t really seem like idealism to me, but faith-based critical realism. Either the Kingdom exists and we strive for it or it doesn’t and we don’t strive for it. That seems like the choices available to me.

Drew Don

Being a member of a political party does not make you assent to anything at all. I have belonged to both major parties, and no one ever asked me to assent to a single proposition.

A political party founded on principle is going to have a very short life. Politics is the art of the possible, not the embodiment of the ideal. Working within political parties is the only practical way to accomplish certain political goals (such as abolishing capital punishment). It is messy, but it is not necessarily compromising.

I am disposed to think that the abortion question, by itself, is sufficient reason for being a Republican. Very much the way many, many people joined the Republican Party, at its founding and during its formative years, solely because of its sympathy for the abolition movement.

I am talking here only about what is legitimate, nonetheless, not what is required in conscience. I have no criticisms to make of those who belong to the Democratic Party, in spite of the latter’s pro-choice policy.

As a priest, however, my ministry to the Church is best done if I am not a member of a political party.

Fr. Pat Reardon

It seems as if both US presidential candidates are campaigning on a platform of death: Gore and Lieberman are killing unwanted unborn, while Bush and Cheney are killing unwanted criminals.

I’m in Canada and not eligible to vote, but I guess if I had to choose on this basis, I’d go with the latter, simply because at least there is some pretense to sparing the innocent, however flawed the justice system may be in fact. Certainly the number of abortions performed in America is far greater than the number of executions.

But I understand the dilemma others have mentioned. Is it really best to choose the lesser of two evils?

Peter Brubacher

I respect the reasons others have expressed for voting for Bush and see no compelling reason to vote instead for Gore, but there is so much that Bush is committed to, including vast increases in military spending and abandoning many environmental safeguards, that I cannot bring myself to cast a ballot for him – or Gore, for that matter. (In any event, by the time overseas ballots are counted, the new president will have moved into the White House, but that’s another matter.) I find myself contemplating an election in hell.

Jim Forest

Forgive me for making a comment on US politics, but here in the UK from 1945 until the 70s there were effectively two parties, Conservative and Labour. There was a tiny Liberal Party, a surviving rump of a party which had produced Governments in the 19th century, but the big parties always advised electors not to “throw their votes away” by voting Liberal. However from the 70s the Liberals did start to make headway, winning the odd seat here and there, and benefited from splits in Labour in the 1980s and in the Conservatives in the 1990s. They now have almost 50 MPs in a Parliament of 625 members – in the 1960s they had only six. It is quite conceivable that the Liberal Democrats, as they are now called, could hold the balance of power if a Government had a small majority.

If people are disillusioned with the major parties, small parties can benefit.

The Liberals did have a regional emphasis at first – they were always stronger in the north of Scotland and in the West of England – but they now look a national party like the other two.

The electoral system discriminates against them – at the last general election the voting was Labour 13 million, Conservatives 11 million, and Lib Dems 6 million. If this was translated proportionately into seats in the House of Commons the Lib Dems would have 125 MPs. Things can change.

Seraphim Honeywell

The Gospel according to John Wayne

It seems as if the American idea is that the response to evil is “kill it.” We seem to think if we could kill evil, then paradise would be free of the serpent. This I think is why we still have the death penalty in the US. It certainly is the Hollywood version of what to do with evil – kill it, blow it up, shoot it, beat it to a bloody pulp.

A friend told me this is why American kids grow up so in love with violence: violence is presented as the only way to defeat evil. But then comes the other element of American pluralism and relativism which says: but what is evil? And so we train our children to violently oppose evil but then can’t quite define what evil is since everything is acceptable and there are no clear definitions of what evil is. So the violence in America is often senseless. When nothing is recognized as evil, neither can anything be recognized as good. So more confusion sets into our children.

Characters played by John Wayne at least had a sense of right and wrong. Certainly those of us who grew up in the Cold War were taught there are good guys and bad guys. But today, we can’t tell who is good and who is evil.

In The People of the Lie , Scott Peck challenges the psychiatric/psychological community into recognizing that perhaps there does exist a personality which is evil – he labels it the “Evil Personality Disorder.” He says his life as a psychiatrist has led him to believe that there really are those individuals who live by a different set of morality and values then most of us, and that by our standards they are evil – they are willing to lie, cheat, steal, kill, maim, hurt and destroy life. Peck thinks they should be recognized as such and then society needs to come up with a way to deal with them.

Ultimately he believes that the way to deal with them is not to kill them but to love them, though he admits that they may never recognize that love, may in fact hate and rebel against it. But he seems to think if we surround them with love, that is the only true way to deal with their evil and distorted thinking.

Killing “evil” is quick and often easy. We do it in countless ways – we dump thousands of pounds of pesticides on our gardens, farms and homes to rid ourselves of all types of unwanted and destructive pests – insects, animals, weeds, blights, fungi and diseases. We seem to carry that thinking into many aspects of our fight to survive on earth. We believe that is the way we won World War II, and it was our ultimate weapon against communism.

“You cannot kill an idea,” Leo Tolstoy wrote, yet we try to uproot all evil in the world by killing it. Evil doesn’t die so easily. The Cross is God’s weapon against evil. Not by arming and equipping His saints do we destroy death, but God does it by death itself. Was it Emperor Theodosius who boasted that his armies could eventually defeat Satan? That idea is alive and well in America today where we believe a bigger, stronger, better equipped army and police force will eventually take care of all the evil in the world.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

What a pertinent comment, coming as it does on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross! The Cross remains a sacrificial mystery that we attempt to fathom, ever so superficially, to the day of our death.

Hardest of all seems to be internalizing the truth that, in “killing” any evil, we kill part of ourselves rather than redeem it; meanwhile we are called, along with Christ, to redeem creation (“groaning” in anticipation of its deliverance) by taking its evil into ourselves and transforming it by loving compassion. Killing evil by crucified love is the most powerful “weapon,” the only one which preserves the integrity of being, and look how helpless we often feel.

Ioana Novac

Tsar Nicholas a Passion Bearer

An OPF member wrote me this weekend to express dismay about the Bishops’ Council in Moscow recognizing Tsar Nicholas and his family as saints. I responded that this has been a contentious issue within the Russian Orthodox Church for years. Also it’s one I’ve had to struggle with, growing up as I did with a very negative idea about tsars in general. In 1985, when I first saw an icon of the royal family at a “White Russian” monastery in Jerusalem, it seemed to me more an anti-Communist political poster than an aid to prayer. It took me years to open my mind to a different way of seeing them.

When I began to visit Russia, I would occasionally see photos or icons of the royal family in homes of people I respected. I learned many Russians have long regarded Nicholas II, his wife and children as saints. Perhaps this is more for symbolic than biographical reasons: the tsar represented an order that, for all its faults, was far superior to the society of fear the Communists created.

Other Russians take a different view, blaming Nicholas and Alexandra for helping create conditions that favored the Bolshevik takeover.

If there is much about the life of Nicholas and Alexandra that fell far short of wisdom and sanctity, both had high ideals which they attempted to live by. Both were devout Orthodox believers.

What finally tilted the Church toward their canonization was popular devotion plus the extraordinarily witness of love of enemies the tsar and his family gave in the last months before they were shot, while under house arrrest.

It’s never too late to achieve sanctity. There are many saints on the calendar who were sinners on a grand scale earlier in their life: murdered, stole, lied, etc., etc. If we eliminate from the calendar all saints who committed great sins during their lives, not many will be left. Peter denied Christ not once but three times. Paul actively persecuted the followers of Jesus.

The tsar and his family were canonized as “passion bearers,” a category of saint unique to the Russian church: not quite a martyr (a martyr would be killed for no other reason than his or her religious faith), but a person whose manner of death gives a clear witness to Gospel values. The first two to be recognized as passion bearers were Saints Boris and Gleb – see on the OPF web site for details.

Jim Forest