E-mail Conversations Fall 1999

The Balkans Wars

Where was the opposition to the war? The lack of it in the media was more stifling than the ozone-filled streets of London this July. Even the traditional British left, who can usually be relied on to oppose militarism, toed the line, with few exceptions. The leaders of Church of England were generally in favor or at least uncritical. Everywhere it has been assumed without question that a wicked act by one person justifies a similar act by others.

It has pained me when friends of mine have identified the Orthodox church as part of the problem and ignored (largely because they were unreported) the efforts of those in the Serbian Orthodox Church to oppose Milosevic, to ward off catastrophe and to find a peaceful solution. I have had acrimonious discussions with fellow-Christians (non-Orthodox), who assumed there was no alternative to the use of force, that “we had to do something” and brushed aside my scepticism about the disinformation we have been fed.

All this has left me feeling like the child who waited in the crowds that had gathered to admire the Emperor’s new suit. As the Emperor (NATO) walked past, the crowds (the media and public) murmured their approval, but the child, seeing that the Emperor had no clothes on, cried: “The Emperor is naked!” Never mind, as long as the tailor (the armaments industry, whose shares have meanwhile skyrocketed) gets a fat fee!

During the war I visited Italy, one of several European countries where popular opposition to the war was far more widespread than in Britain. I was with an Orthodox friend, an Italian who lives in a country whose historical roots are still overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and where many cities are sadly bereft of all but the slightest Orthodox presence.

He has written in a pamphlet that the Godless malaise that affects Europe derives ultimately from the shattered unity of Christendom, a unity that once stretched from Constantinople (where the Christians now form only a tiny minority) to Ireland (in the northern part of which the Christian community is divided into two bitterly opposed factions). It is this disunity, as much as anything else, that lies at the root of the West’s failure to understand the intricacies of the situation in Serbia-Kosovo. It also means that any talk about economic integration or any move towards federation is pretty sterile unless the vision of unity is not only financial or political, but also founded on spiritual regeneration.

James Chater

During the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, I started to substitute the words “dead babies” for the more common “collateral damage.” Quite often the “mistakes” made by NATO resulted in much carnage, so I decided to take the worst case scenario and apply it to all reported incidents.

Peter Brubacher

Y2K

I work in the computer field and, as you might expect, getting ready for the year 2000 has been a major emphasis. Over the last few days I’ve listened to a few radio discussions concerning the potential impacts on our lives if the Y2K problem impacts the businesses and services that affect our lives.

For example, will industry grind to a halt? Will the transportation system be brought to a screeching halt? Will telecommunications and broadcast systems fail? Will the food distribution be impacted? Will the water and electricity stop flowing? Will the banking & financial systems close down? Will Western Civilization crumble? And so on.

Tonight, something quite interesting occurred to me that brings a new perspective to this whole matter. This great Y2K crisis has the Western powers and institutions scrambling to rescue its citizens from a certain “end of civilization.”

However, it is these same Western powers that less than a year ago fiercely bombed Serbia, resulting in the following:

Transportation system bombed to bits. Most major industries blown apart, throwing millions of people out of work. Destroyed all major fuel distribution systems. Bombed and disrupted electrical generation and distribution systems. Blew apart bridges that also carried drinking water to major metropolitan areas. Demolished most government buildings. Scattered thousands of unexploded cluster bombs around the countryside. Bombed radio and television broadcast systems. Disrupted and contaminated the agricultural industry. Caused major water contamination by bombing pollution generating industries. Continued imposition of economic embargo, severely impacting the nation. Opened the door for reverse ethnic cleansing, creating many thousands of refugees. Promoted incentive in Serbia for political upheaval and revolution. Created an environment where believers evacuate their holy places out of fear.

Now that the NATO powers have claimed victory, not much news is reported on Serbia. We must assume, however, that somehow… despite what must be intense hardship and suffering… life goes on in Serbia.

So, when our government and other alarmists warn us that our cell phones might not work, that the ATM machine might shortchange us a few dollars, that an airline flight might be delayed or rescheduled, or that we might not have clean water or electricity to keep the hot-tub filled and warm… just think how bad those in Serbia have it now. The disruption of a few luxuries in life will be nothing in comparison.

Dn. Philip Jenson

The Y2K crisis hasn’t been a matter of great concern here in Europe, so I’m just picking up on things I read in the American newspapers and news magazines.

This occurred to me yesterday during the Liturgy. It was a rather solemn event, since our elder priest has had to step down as rector for health reasons and has passed on the baton to his younger colleague. The new rector, Fr. Sergei, preached a sermon on this change, on the New Church Year, and on the millennium. “We are not afraid to face the future,” he said. “We are not afraid of the millennium, or of computer bugs, because we know that God is with us now, right here.”

I admit that I’m not losing any sleep over the coming of the millennium. I agreed with Fr. Sergei that there seems to me to be something spiritually damaging about this attitude, about fearing for the coming of the 1st of January. Naturally, we can’t just shrug our shoulders and pretend it’s not an issue, but I’m concerned about the spiritual problem of being absent from the place where God is speaking to us while being worried about the future.

I’m writing this after having just finished reading Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which I loved. There’s a parallel: the whisky priest had plenty of opportunity to flee the Mexican state where the church was being persecuted; he could have gone to Mexico City and lived in relative safety with his bishop. Instead he chose to live the life of a renegade for several years. It wasn’t even choosing, really, which he himself admitted. It was living from one day to the next, because he was a priest, and these were his people, and he had to serve them.

We are, after all, priests of the world around us. How do we best do that, given the circumstances?

Nancy Forest

Living the truth

Really paying attention to truth is like a leap from the hot sauna into a cold pool. If it’s a new idea to you, you think people are crazy for suggesting it. In fact, if it’s your first time, it can feel like it’s going to kill you. Once you have done it a few times, it actually is quite bracing. Eventually, it feels like an indispensable part of a healthy life.

In tackling the questions of war and peace, violence and nonviolence, “choice” and respect for life, the real agony comes in having conflicting values, and being willing to admit that. One would always prefer to have the way seem to be clear, to have no forks in the road that must be chosen between.

If they were honest, many would see the abortion question as a “Sophie’s choice” wherein two strongly-felt goods cannot simultaneously be chosen because they are mutually-exclusive. Much easier to veil one so that it can be pushed into the background, by talk of “fetal viability” or “medical necessity” or “personal choice” rather than the mother’s lifestyle and autonomy versus the life of the fetus. Or to talk about “prevention of ethnic cleansing and our moral imperatives as a world leader” rather than bombing and death.

Tough things are only for the tough; others run and hide wherever they can. God save us from our timidity.

Alex Patico

Euthanasia

I was deeply impressed by this article in today’s Trouw, a Dutch daily newspaper. It’s comforting to know that the new euthanasia bill in the Netherlands is not supported by the entire medical establishment. The author, Dr. C.A.G. Veelenturf, is a nursing home physician, manager of treatment and guidance at the Elisabeth Care and Treatment Center in Breda. Breda is a city in the deep “Catholic” south of the Netherlands.

Nancy Forest

Death Doesn’t Solve Anything

Articles about the new bill introduced by the cabinet concerning euthanasia have been appearing recently in newspapers and medical journals. The doctors and legal experts who have written these articles have responded positively to the bill, thus apparently providing us with a cram course in euthanasia legislation. The reports of the liberalization of the euthanasia law are ominous, to my way of thinking. If we begin speaking of the “solving of the problem of euthanasia for those unable to give their informed consent,” we’re crossing a new threshold. This development demands a clear reaction from the professional group consisting of nursing home physicians.

Every day, most nursing home physicians come across patients with incurable illnesses. And the topic of euthanasia is becoming more frequently discussed among patients and family members. I have the impression that the lowering of the threshold for euthanasia is negatively affecting the endurability of patients, partners, family members and medical staff. If the possibility of euthanasia comes within reach, the sick individual will feel more responsible for the grief being experienced by the partner or family members who are sympathizing with him. In this way, the decision ” to just kick off” will be influenced by motives other than the physical suffering of the patient.

For the partner and family, the possibility of euthanasia evokes the feeling of co-responsibility for the suffering of the patient. Sometimes, subtle or unconscious pressure is exercised on the sick person to “let them just put an end to it all.” This development also has consequences for the medical staff. If nurses have to do their work with inadequate supplies and manpower, their motivation becomes very vulnerable. The care of old people, who have to be helped with everything, every day, is not always easy, even for the most idealistic caregiver. If society sees death as a solution for these “problems” and is even willing to discuss euthanasia for demented old people who are unable to give their informed consent, it will be difficult to sustain the motivation of the medical staff. Unfortunately, respect for human life in our society is being increasingly replaced by the idea that only a healthy and happy life has any dignity, and that death is the solution for the sick or the suffering, or for undesired pregnancies. In this way, the borders are lowered bit by bit, as we are witnessing in the more liberal indications for euthanasia and abortion.

Within the healing and nursing sciences today there are usually ways to relieve suffering. If a policy is instituted in which a particular medical treatment is halted in plenty of time, good medicines and well-trained and motivated caregivers are there to assume the day-to-day responsibility. Nursing homes are equipped to provide good care for patients in the final phase of their lives if adequate means are made available. Nursing home physicians can play an important role here by providing care that is especially aimed at old people and by providing guidance for partners and family members. In this process euthanasia has no place.

Dying as a courtesy

Thank you, Nancy, for sending along the physician’s article against euthanasia. The idea that “lingering” old persons would come to feel responsible, even guilty, for the distress of their loved ones — and that the loved ones, at the same time, would feel more responsible and guilty for the suffering of their elderly relative (perhaps feeling they haven’t offered the option of death persuasively enough!) — adds up to a profound, ensnaring incentive to push the great-grandparents through the exit by hundreds, thousands: the old, our Jews.

I am very concerned also when I read that the legislation would allow an “informed consent” for medically-enhanced suicide by persons as young as 12. I read that one sponsor of this legislation said “with a laugh” that he didn’t anticipate there would be “many” 12-year-olds, sick or in pain, who would choose this option.

No? This is relief for suffering, no? Does anybody over 40 even remember what it was like to be 12? 15? 19? The euthanasia of the old must be accompanied by widespread acceptance of the idea that suffering need not be suffered — it is insufferable — and that self-annihilation can be mature, effective from a problem-solving point of view, wise, and dignified. Many adolescents suffer intensely, emotionally — I do remember — and who would argue that emotional pain is less serious than physical pain?

A friend of mine said that if there were a pill available which could end your life quickly, painlessly, and without leaving evidence of the cause of death, nobody would ever graduate from college.

We must learn to accompany well those who suffer.

Julie Loesch Wiley

One-way apologies

The Greeks want the Pope to apologize for past sins of the Roman Catholic Church before they consider welcoming him for a visit to Greece.

The Greeks, of course, have always acted in such a way as not to warrant an apology. There are no ancient or modern examples of Greek arrogance with respect to the West, no irrational insisting on privileges, no examples of diplomatic duplicity, no calling of names, nothing of that sort.

The whole Middle East, when the Moslem invasion came, were so sad that they would no longer be under the authority of the Greeks. Indeed, one wonders how it was that the Moslem invader practically walked through all the Fertile Crescent from the Persian Gulf to Egypt, swept across north Africa, crossed Gibraltar, took the Iberian peninsula like it was a 100-meter dash, waltzed up into Gaul, and then were finally stopped by a band of Franks. How did that happen, one wonders, since this whole territory was being ruled by those humble self-effacing Greeks, who had nothing whatsoever for which to apologize and invariably ruled with wisdom and benevolence.

The Greeks, likewise, have never treated other Eastern Orthodox Christians in such a way as to bring reproach on the very name “Greek.” Arab Orthodox Christians in Syria and Palestine, for instance, have always been dealt with fairly by the Greeks, who would never virtually drive them into the arms of the Vatican. No, that would be oppression, and only the pope is oppressive; the Greek Church has never done anything oppressive. Neither in Damascus, nor in Jerusalem.

So the Pope must apologize.

Fr. Pat Reardon

Repentance is not, I think, an action which a national church can demand of a person, Pope or no. The Pope has been addressing the issue of repenting the historic sins of the Church but his voice is still a solo. No other churches are considering doing the same thing as far as I know. Christians who wish to see a good action in someone else need to model that action first. Let he or she who is without sin abstain from apologies!

Alice Carter

Orthodox Tribalism

On the subject of jurisdictional divisions in the Church, I recommend Fr. John Meyendorff’s The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church. At issue here are two conflicting claims: one is a challenge to the philetic character of the Ecumenical Patriarch, in which the Greek Orthodox tradition predominates. The other, which is not really explicit, is a confusion between nationalism and autocephaly. An autocephalous church is in unity with all Orthodox churches, it is not a separate national institution.

As Fr. Meyendorff points out: “Legitimate and canonical regionalism sanctioned by the canons of the early church was transformed, in modern Orthodoxy, into divisive ecclesiastical nationalism.” He goes on to discuss the council of 1872 in Constantinople which condemned ‘Phyletism’ (ecclesiastical nationalism) as “a coexistence of nationally defined churches of the same faith, but independent of each other, in the same territory, city or village.” He further clarifies by stating: “Ecclesiologically, the decree implies that the Church cannot adopt, as criteria of its structure and organization, the divisive realities of the fallen world (including nationalism); that as a eucharistic community, it is called to transcend those divisions and reunite the separated. In its structure itself, it must witness to Christ’s victory over the fallen world.”

Our divisions in the USA are the clearest modern revelation of the disaster of Phyletism. To this issue, Archbishop Iakovos made a direct response in calling for unity. But it would be equally a disaster for the Orthodox Church in America to become a new national church, and this issue was a concern, although perhaps not the most dominant nor the most well-informed, in the opposition of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Alice Carter

Islamdom

Islam certainly cannot be considered a benign presence everywhere it is found. But the malignancy that is evident in the way many Muslims deal with non-Muslims is to be explained less by the inherent nature of Islam as a religious worldview or even as a legal system than by the pre-modern view of “Islamdom” (to use Hodgson’s term) which is still regnant in many parts of the Islamic world and is gaining ascendancy in others. “Islamdom” manifests many of the same disturbingly triumphalistic and intolerant — even brutal — features that “Christendom” did in its day. Underneath it all, I think there is a resentment on the part of many Christians that Christendom (though certainly not Christianity) has all but disintegrated while “Islamdom” still remains — and even seems to be expanding.

Fr. Ted Pulcini

Art (and news) in our culture

Perhaps the blessings of the communication revolution have also become our curse. Diane and I no longer subscribe to a daily paper. We found ourselves leaving the house after reading about the daily disasters either sad or angry. I watch the news a few times during the week and often pick up a Sunday New York Times, mainly for arts and leisure section. But we have had to sort out all the terrible stuff a bit to be able to live more fully in the world. It’s a strange contradiction but it was a solution that has seemed to make the world less invasive. We may be compromising something in this but I’m not sure.

I used to be a news addict. Then I realized who fed me the news. I think the Vietnam War did a lot to make everyone distrustful of what they heard. Maybe that is where our innocence died. I can remember being shocked when I realized the government was lying, had lied, was going to use lies as standard procedure. We were absolutely dismayed at that and I don’t think things have been the same since. Now everyone expects the government to lie and it’s no big thing. I guess it’s similar in third world countries where bribes are built into the budget.

In art the concept has replaced the actual work. Most Post-Modern art and social science for that fact has done away with anything other than a “situationist” approach (not referring to the anarcho-visionary French Situationists in ’68). There are no parameters for judgement other than the idea behind the work. If it’s catchy or entertaining or makes you feel glib or sarcastic or “in the know,” it is shown and described by the critics who are many of the prime movers of this view. I used to like Jean Baudillard but now I wish he would have just shut up and milked a cow.

When artists have to make everything entertaining, we’re lost. I think the same holds true for teaching and education. I’m afraid my generation (including myself) are guilty of that change in perspective. When I taught school I had just gotten out of graduate school and wanted every educational experience to be self directed, etc. But you know it finally dawned on me that the kids I was teaching were actually desperate for structure and boundaries as much as self expression. I changed everything in my class and found the more well defined parameters made both the kids and myself have a place we could measure our successes and failures more effectively.

That’s why there are no real boundaries for the artist or in judging the art. All the old parameters of technique and skill have no place in the work which is primarily idea, concept, and entertainment.

Nilus Stryker