Conversations by e-mail – Winter 2006

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPFs e-mail discussion list.

A life based in experience

Orthodoxy, being a way of life that is based in experience rather than in merely repeating formulated doctrines, calls each person to live their faith.

In contrast to the pure individualism of Enlightenment Protestantism, I think Orthodoxy makes a strong appeal to the fact that we are relational beings, and so everything doesnt hinge on what one person thinks/believes, but rather each persons thoughts, experience, beliefs are tested by Tradition — that collective experience of the people of God. That is the conservative principle in Orthodoxy.

And here I think it is worth us considering whether total and absolute personal freedom — the ability to do and think whatever we want, whenever we want to do or think it — is not actually opposed to the Christian notion of love. Can a person really love (where love is something directed to another, or places the other first) if they are determined to always do what they want when they want to do it? Does not love in the end require surrendering some personal freedom in order to love the other? And are not we as humans actually given that great freedom: the ability to deny the self in order to love the other?

Orthodoxy has had a creative response to the many challenges and contingencies which it has faced during its history. Its leaders and saints have not responded only with pat formulas, but by keeping in mind the past experience of the Church in its members, and thus the saints in every generation bring forward the collective and refined experience of the Church to deal with new challenges and the need for new ways of presenting the faith in order to stay faithful to the tradition. Repeating pat formulas is not the same as staying faithful to the living Tradition of the Church.

When one looks at Tradition in the big picture of history one sees that there was often a great outpouring of creativity in the church. The hymnology and the canons are very creative traditions that emerge in time. The cathedral rite emerged over time replacing earlier liturgical forms and then, when times changed, was replaced by the monastic rite.

But Orthodoxy in general still relied on the real experience of its faithful — in the sacraments, in hesychasm, etc. — to carry the faith forward. Formulas and rubrics were not all important, valued though they were. Somehow the dogmas and liturgical life brought forward to a new generation the recognized experiences of the saints for new generations to learn from and to which to compare their own experiences.

In Orthodoxy if we experience our Tradition (listen to and try to live by what we pray in liturgy — even as simple as let us pray to the Lord, Let us attend!, Let us stand aright, let us bow our heads to the Lord, let us love one another) — then we might have some greater awakening of the consciences of our members.

Fr. Ted Babosh

Neither liberal nor conservative

As Orthodox Christians, our every striving, our very bones seek the will of God and to become and live as Christians. It is not my striving to be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. None of these labels cuts the mustard. None of these things is the calling of my eternal soul. Christ is, however, and living his precepts is a huge and very real challenge in this world. And, conversely, contrary to many peoples opinions on both sides of the aisle — to be a liberal Democrat does not equate with being a good Christian any more than does being a conservative Republican equate with the faith of our Fathers.

Once I heard a story shared by the poet Maya Angelou. She shared that once she met some folks and they came up to introduce themselves. They said, Were Christians. Her reply was, Already?!

Perhaps if we think about ourselves first as Christians in process and dis-attach ourselves from party politics and all of their inherent guises and blinders, even in this fallen world and through the darkened glass we peer through, we might be able to not only see ourselves much more clearly, but also, we may be able to see and discern better our brothers.

Matushka Elizabeth Perdamo

A shift in priorities

Being in Holland, I live far from the American scene and dont know how things are shaping up regarding the Orthodox church and OPF support in the US, but is it really true that the majority of OPF support tends to come from the liberal camp? That surprises me.

I wonder if something isnt happening in American politics in recent years that is characterized by a major shift in priorities and values, not only between the Democrats and the Republicans but within the two parties themselves? I find myself much less sympathetic with the Democrats and far less likely to regard myself as a liberal than I did thirty years ago. I hear the occasional Republican voice that really resonates with where my head is at — and has been since I became Orthodox. But I hear a great deal in both parties that sends me running for cover. I wonder if this sort of thing isnt happening for many Orthodox, who find themselves alienated by both the Democrats and the Republicans.

Nancy Forest

Selling all

Sell all you have and give to the poor. I have long been haunted by this Gospel passage and felt not only challenged but judged and condemned by it.

I talked about this in confession some time ago with our the rector, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. He urged me not to think of the text only in economic terms. To sell all and give the proceeds to the poor should be understood as an open-ended invitation to self-giving love. While this has a financial aspect, it equally involves being more attentive to others, listening more closely, giving time and attention even though I may feel I have no time, praying more for others, etc. He was concerned that I was looking at the Gospel through too narrow a keyhole: money.

Judas was scandalized that valuable perfume was wastefully poured over Jesus; according to him, it should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. It must have seemed to Judas that Jesus was violating his own teaching. (Perhaps Judas was a person preoccupied with money?)

I dont think Fr Sergei was trying to get me off the hook but rather to deepen my understanding of what selling all and giving might mean in my life.

Jim Forest

Small steps

Theres an overused expression the perfect is the enemy of the good — and I fear that I sometimes let commandments like sell all serve as excuses for complete inaction. I cant imagine giving all, so Im less likely to give some…

But Ive found that giving some is a self-lubricating process. We do a little, discover that not only are we still alive to tell the tale, but that weve benefitted — so were strengthened to do a little more.

So I find that in practice the best way for me to read sell all and the like is to take them as commandments to do something. When Ive done something, more somethings seem possible.

Ive just been reading the lives of the Righteous Joachim and Anna (Sept. 9), parents of the Most Holy Theotokos, and was struck by this line from the Prologue:

They lived devoutly and quietly, and of all their income they spent one third on themselves, distributed one third to the poor and gave the other third to the Temple, and they were well provided for.

Something we might bring to mind when we murmur about unrealistic calls to give a mere tenth of our income to the Church and the poor.

John Brady

In Communion

The Fall In Communion arrived yesterday. What a beautiful, beautiful issue! I sat down and read it from cover to cover last night. I stayed up late because I found it so greatly encouraging that I just couldnt put it down.

Thank you so very much for the wonderful article on conscientious objection. How very helpful it is! As a child of a bellicose nation, I really needed some help understanding the ancient Churchs perspective. I plan to order extra copies.

Sometimes I am touched by a mysterious grace and find myself unable to sleep. Reading this issue affected me that way, and I was awake all night in joy. I think my holy angel embraces me somehow when this happens. I do not end up a basket case the next day, either. Its very puzzling, but I am getting accustomed to it now and just enjoy it when it happens. It turns out to be a night of joyful silence.

Sally Eckert

On poverty

Im at work on a book about poverty and think Im beginning to make some good progress on understanding this from an Orthodox point of view. The traditional teachings about almsgiving and care for the poor are just that — traditional and very powerful and demanding, especially when one focuses on the writings of the Three Hierarchs.

On a more practical matter, I was delighted to find a group seriously discussing a basic income guarantee for the US: www.usbig.net/index.html

I had thought that this sort of discourse had gone by the wayside in the US after all of the welfare reform movements of the 90s in which the Democrats under Clinton joined with the Republicans to effectively sell out the poor — at least in terms of governmental anti-poverty policy.

Im convinced that such a guarantee has got to be part of any effective and comprehensive anti-poverty policy in the US given that we have never been able to generated enough private sector jobs so that all of those who are expected to work can do so on a full-time basis and live above the US poverty line.

What astounds me is that most Christian response to poverty in this country virtually ignores this sort of discourse. To the extent that any of various Orthodox Churches in this country address poverty, the same situation arises.

A basic problem in the US is that the economy seems unable to produce enough jobs. Nor is the problem of poverty always solved by those who have jobs. Granted that an increase in the minimum wage would help some of these people. One has to remember that more that half of the people in poverty in the US live on incomes that are less than half of the poverty line for the family. Except in rare periods, unemployment rates hover around 5-6 percent. When combined with underemployment — increasing low wage part time jobs — there simply are not enough jobs to go around so that all of the people the US expects to work can find jobs at living wages — above the poverty line (which is far too minimal to begin with). More education and job training are great, but you have to have to jobs for that to work.

The stigma of poverty is inherent in capitalism for the simple reason that capitalism promises to deliver the goods — if you work hard enough, you will not be poor. Acknowledging massive structural causes of poverty — inherent problems with unemployment — implicitly critiques capitalism as an economic system. The stigma of the poor is a buffer against that sort of guarantee; it is rampant in our society and in the policies we formulate. (The one possible exception was during the great depression when there were too many good white folk unemployed to believe this particular myth of capitalism.)

The welfare system in this country is degrading to the poor not because of too many benefits but because it is effectively designed to reproduce the poor through policies that are inherently defective in terms of anti-policy poverty whether in principle of because of inadequate funding.

The welfare reform movements of the 90s, which were supposed to end welfare as we know it, continue this tradition. The poverty rates have climbed as unemployment rates have climbed and the economy has soured. It astounds me that people are surprised about this failure of the welfare reforms.

But then these reforms were effectively geared not to eliminate poverty, but simply to get people off the dole, for the simple reason that none of the welfare to work programs ever dealt with the problems of a sufficient number of jobs for people. Those programs were created during an economic boom when unemployment was low. Even then people moved off welfare often to live in dead-end low paying jobs. Why was any one surprised when things got worse when unemployment dramatically increased and the low-wage labor market grew bigger.

John Jones,

Professor, Department of Philosophy, Marquette University

A European perspective

My impression is that Orthodox Christians in Europe are committed to the existence of the strong social net that has been created in the post-war years: subsidies for children, housing subsidies for those in need, post-high school educational support, universal health care, support for the unemployed and handicapped, public transportation, etc.

Due to my kidney illness, I have good reason to be grateful that Im in Europe rather than the US. When I go into the local pharmacy for medication that would cost us hundreds of dollars a month in the US, I bring home what I need without paying a penny. Nor is there any question in Holland of being deprived of health insurance or good medical care because of ones economic condition, having chronic illness, etc. Sickness here is not an economic catastrophe that quickly reduces the victim to poverty.

Jim Forest

Welfare

I agree with John about the welfare system being counter-productive and self-perpetuating.

The one factor everyone keeps not noticing is that the poorest of the poor are assumed to be stupid, incapable of education. Having worked in a proprietary school (in the 1970s, before I entered the monastery), I was acutely aware of how much the poor — especially the Black poor — were counting on job training to get them out of the slums. As Dr. Jones rightly observes, this helps only if there are jobs.

But I noticed something else. Most of these people couldnt speak, let alone write a coherent sentence. Their math skills were virtually non-existent. And this wasnt because they were stupid. Its because they were ignorant — by which I mean uneducated. And that was transparently the fault of an inadequate public school system.

Nearly all of the students in my school were subsidized by federal grants, and took on government guaranteed loans besides. There was a less than stellar completion rate, and the schools placement office got to work only with actual graduates of the 9 to 18 month programs intended to prepare them for work as medical records clerks, or as medical and dental assistants. Yet they could barely use the English language or do the calculations needed for prospective employment, so the instructors had to give a lot of attention to remedial details before they could successfully teach their courses technical content.

But proprietary schools are businesses whose main interest is making money, which they get paid regardless of the graduation rate or employment of their graduates. In a way, this is also true of the public school system in the ghettoes.

It became easy for me to predict which students would graduate, and which would find jobs they could keep. It took me a while to catch on to the cynical business attitude of the industry, but not long at all to gauge new students chances of success based on their use of language and their ability to understand even the simple calculations of their grants and loans.

So I take a dim view of job training per se. I want there to be better school education and I want to see more poor kids do well academically in high school so they can be successful in college and then find a good job.

Federal subsidies ought to be channeled into this endeavor, along with federal support for a greatly increased minimum or living wage, which should be indexed by annual — not hourly — income.

Fr. James Silver

An appeal

This letter was e-mailed to Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, on the 8th of December:

Years from now, when you look back on your years as governor of California, you will no doubt have quite a number of painful memories. In the column of memories that will comfort you, let one of them be your decision to save the life of Stanley Williams.

Trials are far from a perfect mechanism. Time and again innocent people are found guilty and even executed for crimes that were in fact committed by others. In making a life-saving decision in this case, you will be sending a positive message to many young people whose lives have been influenced for the better by Mr. Williams books.

Jim Forest, secretary,

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship

Note: Williams was executed December 13.

Doing Unto Others

Ive been thinking a lot about nonviolence versus violence. For me the dichotomy is not between the communal and the personal but rather between this world and the next, between our mortal life and eternal life.

I think nonviolence is clearly an eschatological witness. Jesus death on the cross is the ultimate paradigm of this nonviolent eschatological witness. But is it a paradigm for the smooth functioning of government, of nation states, even for cities or neighborhoods? I doubt it.

There was a bumper sticker in the 80s and 90s that said something like imagine a world without violence or visualize world peace. I could never do that. All I could manage was envisioning the end of the world as we know it. Imagining a world without violence is like imagining a world without sin, like imagining the world before the fall of Adam and Eve. I cant do it except as an act of faith and hope in the life of the world to come, in the universal resurrection of which Jesus resurrection is the prototype.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote about the tension between this world and the world to come. We live in the world but are not of it. We live for the sake of the world, its salvation and theosis, but our spirit is not of this world. The Gospel proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that the end of the world is upon us, the eschaton, and yet we continue eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, doing business, acquiring property — and using all available means to protect it!

Aside from a few radicals and saints, we err on the side of this world! And the Church as well, even more so. After all, the Church is us.

So far as I can tell nations, cities and communities need at least the threat of violence to maintain something that we recognize as minimum order. Does that mean there is no place for Christians refusing military service, or refusing to retaliate, or witnessing to unconditional love? Absolutely not. We need to witness Christs love, which is the love at the end of the world, the love of the Second Coming. We need to pray for the end of the world as we know it because, for all its beauty, there is something terribly wrong with it. We need to pray that precisely because we love the world so much, because we cant stand the status quo with its acceptable levels of violence, with its destitute poor, with all its broken minds and broken hearts.

Paul del Junco

Preventing war in Iran

I have been asked to take on co-coordinator duties in the US for an effort to forestall military intervention in Iran. I wanted to direct those who are interested to our website and ask your prayers and advice, from any of you who would want to offer them, or who know someone whom I should be contacting.

Those who are particularly interested can let me know, and Ill share the list of peace groups and others that I have thought are logical ones to reach out to for support or possible collaborations. You may have additional suggestions about how to get this effort into high gear fast enough to make a difference, now that the referral of Iran to the Security Council seems all but assured, and things may pick up speed on the path to war.

Alex Patico

OPF in Minnesota

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is alive and well in Minnesota. We have a small but faithful group that has been meeting every month now for almost two years. We have an ecumenical advisory board of eight people that is still growing. Here is a quick run down of who we are and some of our accomplishments and goals:

We chose a patron saint — Mother Maria of Paris.

We had Jim Forest come and speak twice — once at the inception of our chapter, and once to speak on the topic of Christian Discourse in Politics.

We helped out with a group in our area called Families Moving Forward that works with local churches in opening up their space to homeless families.

We planned and held a Love Celebration on Valentines Day last year at a local homeless shelter. We will be doing this again this year.

We have arranged talks about OPF at local Orthodox churches.

We have gone to many meetings and locations to assess the needs of the poor in the Twin Cities metro area and find out what is being done to help them and what other needs there may be.

We have held an advisors dinner to bring our advisors together and further clarify our goals and needs.

OPF members from Minnesota took part in the OPF national conference at St. Vlads last summer as well as the conference on Violence and Christian Spirituality at Holy Cross in October.

We spent many hours talking about, investigating and trying to educate ourselves and others on how to open an Orthodox House of Hospitality in this area. This includes phone calls and visits to Catholic Worker houses in Minnesota.

We have had regular meetings the first Tuesday of every month for the last two years.

We have produced three newsletters.

We have raised $3650.00 as a down payment on a house of hospitality.

We are in the process of planning a Lenten Retreat on serving the poor in which we hope to have Joe May of Matthew 25 house come and speak on his experience founding and running a house of hospitality.

In addition to this, I have taken a position as a volunteer and am serving on the executive board of a homeless shelter in the area called Peace House.

Please keep us in your prayers.

Renee Zitzloff

OPF in Kansas

I just bought a copy of For the Peace From Above from Eighth Day Books. It looks like a wonderful resource for our little Peace Fellowship Group. Our group seems to have developed in an interesting way. We are getting some interest from older people in the congregation. For some it may be first of all a social outlet — but I think it is a good sign that they feel comfortable with the conjunction of Orthodox and peace.

Don Lemons

Conscientious objection

Let me tell you how something I did this week made me appreciate OPF all the more. With my 14-year-old daughter, I attended a presentation on conscientious objection given by a local mother who is a peace activist and draft counselor. Among other things, we learned how to begin building a file of supporting documentation for a conscientious objection claim. The presenter and several attendees were Mennonites. I was reminded, wistfully, of how nice it is to have the kind of support and affirmation they have from their church for their anti-war efforts — and CO status claims, should that become necessary. Whereas in the Orthodox Church, well, you know how it is; acceptance of militarism is probably about the same as in the general population, and many Orthodox have a low opinion of conscientious objectors.

I was glad to notice that the conscientious objection essay on the OPF web site includes discussion of saints who were COs of their time.

One of the things my daughter mentioned on the way home was how difficult it is to want to reject the thinking represented by the Marine chant, Blood Makes the Grass Grow (we watched the video with that title), to feel the profoundly anti-Christian nature of such an outlook, and yet to know that many Orthodox Christians support war and criticize those who refuse. I feel inadequate to the task of helping my kids sort all this out, being rather bewildered by it myself, and really appreciate the help OPF offers.

So I came home feeling inspired to make a donation to OPF. And I was happy to find that youve added a PayPal button for donations to the website. That makes it marvelously easy, and thats important. Viva OPF! How I hope OPFs message will spread further and that more Orthodox will attend to it.

Diane Boardman

On our web site: Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

Memories of Margot

Nancy Forest with Margot Muntz

Margot Muntz, one of the founders of the Orthodox parish of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam and a former president of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, fell asleep in the Lord on July 11, 2005. An account of her life is posted at:

http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/nancysessays/margot-muntz/