Archive for the ‘capital punishment’ Category

Blessed are the Meek: Capital Punishment and the Gospel

Friday, March 24th, 2006

by Fr. Thomas Mueller

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall loveyour neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies…”

Mt 5:43

In September 1995 the Wisconsin state legislature once again considered enacting capital punishment. Wisconsin abolished capital punishment 141 years ago. Of course, states can enact such laws as the majority endorses. These laws may be morally good, neutral, or evil. A new capital punishment statute would put the state in the business of killing. What is most appalling is the fact that many religious people are saying that capital punishment is morally good, righteous, and even compatible with the Gospel. Some political organizations that label themselves Christian loudly advocate capital punishment as well. If the state conducts executions, it will be another triumph of violence. That will be one thing. But for Christians to promote such state violence is another thing. And this is the unrighteousness I address — not that of a violent state, but that of Christians.

I am grateful that the Orthodox Church in America, at its All American Council in St. Louis in 1989, passed resolutions condemning both abortion and capital punishment as unrighteous and evil. Both are killing. The distinction of innocent and guilty victims, that it’s evil to kill the first and all right to kill the second, is not a New Testament concept at all. Some use such a distinction to condemn abortion on the one hand (as it must be condemned) and then to advocate capital punishment at the same time. Such a distinction and contradiction cannot be found in the Gospel or justified by it. In reality, all such killing harms not only its victims, but also its perpetrators — and the society that espouses it.

In the case of capital punishment, the basic motive (if truth be told) is not deterrence but retribution — vengeance, to use a less polite word. In fact, the public outcry for capital punishment is clearly and admittedly a cry for vengeance. Vengeance not by God at the Last Judgment, but by men here and now. We can find many references to such vengeance in the Old Testament; but how can the Gospel of Christ be twisted and misconstrued to justify it? Can the spirit of the Gospel be so misinterpreted? What’s more, how can those who claim to be Biblical literalists and fundamentalists so ignore the direct meaning of Jesus’ words? To his credit, Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical calls both abortion and capital punishment evils, unconscionable acts of violence.

The Gospel’s Testimony on Killing & Vengeance

“And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

“Forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (Lk. 11:14)

What are we to say to the condemned criminal? We forgive you, but now die to pay your debt to society? To kill is an act of absolute unforgiveness. In killing, we do not affirm life but attempt to destroy it. Whatever worldly sense this may make to some people, it cannot be squared with Christ’s words, or with our taking them to our mouths in prayer — the Lord’s Prayer.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…” (Matt. 5:5)

Before someone suggests that a prosecuting attorney can call for the death sentence in a meek way, or the judge meekly pass a sentence of death, or the executioner carry out the state-sanctioned killing in all meekness, let us look at what the Greek word — – used in the Gospel implies. When Plato used the word “meek,” he referred to people who are mild and gentle rather than hard or violent. For Epictetus, it indicated a nature that is not inclined to become embittered or angry at what is unjust: the attribute of a generous and magnanimous soul. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek Old Testament, the prophets use the word to describe those who endure the severity of exile with patience and hope that God — not man– will eventually bring forth justice.

“For I will leave in the midst of you a meek and lowly people. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel… For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zepheniah 3:12-13)

God expects his faithful people to be meek and lowly. He will bring justice and peace to them — not in this age, but in the age to come.

The clearest interpretation for Jesus’ use of the word “meek” is seen in Psalm 37 (LXX 36:8-11):

“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the Lord will possess the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more. Though you look well at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in an abundance of peace.”

The psalm tells us to leave vindication to God. We are to be meek –gentle, patient, long-suffering — until God brings about His justice in His time. Will the state ever exist in such patient meekness? Evidently not — but the state belongs to this age which is passing away. Christians belong to the age to come. It cannot be Gospel-loving Christians who cry out for the state to carry out vengeance. It is the meek, not those who demand an eye for an eye, who are the blessed inheritors of the Kingdom. So says the Word of God. In fact, He says that He Himself is “meek and lowly in heart,” and that we are to take up ourselves the “light” and “easy” yoke of this lowly meekness. (Matt. 11:29)

Jesus is the King who comes to us “meek and sitting upon an ass.” (Mt 21:5) The mission of Jesus takes place on earth in lowliness and meekness. His life is not a life at court. In Matthew 21:5, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is depicted as that of a nonviolent, non-warlike king of salvation and peace. In this respect, Jesus stands radically opposed to the Zealots and to all champions of a political Messianism.

In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:5 we read of the “meek” who, out of their oppressed situation, depend not on their own will but the gracious will of God. To them Jesus promises the inheritance of the coming aeon, which includes secure dwelling in their own land. (V. Hauck, S. Schulz, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, p. 649)

We who assume the name Christian are to follow Him in the way of meekness and lowliness. We cannot venerate the Lord while we follow a way other than the one He treads before us.

On several occasions, Jesus Christ comes face to face with the issue of violence for retribution or self-defense, with the issue of capital punishment. In John 8, Jesus comes to the Temple, sits down as a rabbi would, and teaches the people. The scribes and Pharisees gather to put Him to the test. They bring forward a woman caught in adultery, presumably a married woman. The penalty prescribed for this in Deuteronomy 22 is death by stoning. (There are still some countries, like Saudi Arabia, where adultery is a capital offense for women today.)

As we know from John 18:31, the Romans had taken away from the Jews the right to administer capital punishment. The hypocrites who test Jesus ask him about applying the Deuteronomic law, and demand, “What do you say about her?” This is meant as a trap for Jesus, involving both the Jewish law and the prerogatives of the Roman state. But Jesus simply bends down and writes with his finger on the ground, just as His divine finger once inscribed the Law upon the tablets of stone on Sinai. Then He says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again He bends down to write in the dust.

The words He writes send the strict enforcers of the law of retribution stealing away in silent confusion. Jesus asks the condemned woman: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, Lord.” No one — neither the self-righteous nor God. “Neither, do I condemn you,” He says. “Go and do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

The point is this: The Word of God foregoes enforcement of the strict law of retribution. This is not just a personal commutation of sentence. For He also dispels the condemners who would take God’s authority over life and death upon themselves. To avoid falling prematurely into a political trap, Jesus does this silently, by shaming the devotees of capital punishment. By His actions He sets aside the law of retaliation.

Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, He overturns the principle of retaliation (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… ‘But I say to you: Do not resist one who is evil. But, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)

Do you see how much farther the Word of God goes than just forbidding vengeance? He commands forgiveness and even love of persecutors. (Matt. 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-28) We poor sinners may fail to carry out this command, but let us not confuse the spirit of the Gospel with the barbaric cry for blood-vengeance that rise from the same mouths that dare to say, “Our Father… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Jesus Provides the Example

Does Jesus merely tell us how to deal with those who offend and transgress? No. He provides the example that we can only set aside if we want to give up Christ altogether and return to the Old Law. When the evildoers come to seize Him in Gethsemane so that they can inflict upon Him an unjust death, an apostle takes a sword and slashes off the ear of one of those who come to seize and slay the Son of God. But Jesus says to him: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) Then, according to Luke 22:51, He touches the ear of the wounded man and heals him.

The constant interpretation of this passage in early Christian times was that wielders of the sword of vengeance — the judge, the executioner, (by modern standards, the judge or jurist seeking the death penalty) — all these fall under this threat. They all participate, as the murderous criminal does, in the shedding of blood, the taking of life. And they too become marked by the experience, cursed by their own bloodletting.

St. Cyprian, the third century bishop-martyr of Carthage, makes it clear that it doesn’t matter whether the murderous retaliation comes from an individual or from the state. Killing is killing.

The world is drenched with mutual bloodshed. When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state, it is called a virtue. (To Donatus, 6)

Whether or not the state sanctions it, says St. Cyprian, the Christian can have no part in the shedding of blood: “…after the reception of the Eucharist, the hand is not to be stained with the sword or bloodshed.” (On the Goodness of Patience, 14)

Finally, we have Jesus’ ultimate sermon of active love on the cross. The mob cries out for capital punishment for him, marking themselves with blood: “His blood be on us.” (Matt. 27:25) They call for the death penalty for Him — one of the countless times from that day to this that innocent people have been sentenced by courts to die. But the God-Man, hanging beaten, mocked, and naked upon the cross, wants no vengeance. His words resound in our ears and throughout all time, the living testimony of God for all who really look to Him to know the way of life: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

Not avenge them, not slay them, but “forgive them.” The answer to this question of capital punishment, and to every question of violence, is not to be found in the words of political theorists, of demagogues, of talk show babblers, or even of the aggrieved victims of violent crime. The answer is to be found in the words and actions of Jesus Christ, who is always the Father’s positive answer, His “Yes” to life.

Fr. Thomas Mueller is pastor of SS Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Dean of the Chicago Deanery of the Orthodox Church of America. He is a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

The troublesome word “murder”

Sunday, November 14th, 2004

On several occasions in recent months the Orthodox Peace Fellowship has been criticized for using the word “murder” in the statement it issued last January opposing the Iraq War. Here is the section of the text that gave rise to this debate:

“…Because we seek the reconciliation of enemies, a conversion which grows from striving to be faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good, and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder. Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilians?…”

The full text of the OPF Iraq Appeal plus some of the criticisms are posted on the OPF web site.

Here are some of the recent postings to the OPF List (an e-mail discussion forum for OPF members) about this topic:

The reality of taking life

At first I was made uncomfortable, too, by the use of the word “murder” in the OPF statement. After all, these soldiers are good guys, they’re operating from pure, patriotic motives, and this is what soldiers do.

But that’s not the way the Church thinks. The Church always thinks in terms of individuals, and in terms of the individual immortal soul, and the eternal life and salvation of that soul. If a soldier kills in battle, he has this on his conscience. He will bring it home with him, and it will stay with him for the rest of his life. In the darkest hours of the night it will haunt him. After all the patriotic parades and speeches and fanfare are over, the individual soldier will be stuck with this fact forever. And the Church doesn’t care about patriotic feelings. The Church cares about what that soldier did and how to heal his soul. The Church cannot obfuscate here. It cannot say, it’s not murder, it’s not killing, what you did was something else, you did it for your country. Because the soldier, in his heart, has a prior fear. And he needs the Church to name the sin and heal him. This is hard, and it sounds harsh. But you cannot heal a disease if you dare not name it.

The same is true, by the way, of the executioner. Or of the woman who has an abortion. All these people are involved in some very personal way in the taking of life, and all of them carry this truth with them. They need something like the Church, something that is beyond all earthly allegiances, which come and go. They need the healing of Christ.

Nancy Forest

Does the word “murder” say too little?

With Newton, I feel like a child gazing with wonder at an ocean of truth. If life is sacred, what does it means to kill a child? Or a civilian? If “murder” means people with deliberate intent, our critics are right to contend that our use of “murder” in the OPF’s Iraq Appeal was too strong. But we know Christ lives in the least person. If each person is created according to the image and likeness of God, and our Lord tells us that anything we do to the least, we do to Him, may the word “murder” say too little?

Are we not, as people who venerate icons, heirs to a theology whose beauty and depth we may never exhaust? Is “Christ in our midst” not only in our liturgy, but in our enemies?

On the last Sunday of Orthodoxy I watched children carry icons to celebrate the victory over iconoclasm. Suddenly I saw not single icons, but pairs: one wooden, one living. At that moment, as we set about to kill living icons in Iraq, I dared to wonder, “Who are the real iconoclasts? Ancients who destroyed wooden icons? We who kill living ones? All of us together? Is a living icon less sacred than a wooden one?”

War, like abortion, dehumanizes brothers and sisters. Some days ago a priest kindly gave me an article in the National Review, “Ministers of War,” in which a chaplain explains that “to prepare soldiers to … kill [the enemy], … they must believe … they are not personally connected with [them], but are acting solely as disinterested agents of the state.” I was as mesmerized as when seeing children as icons, but this time by horror. I thought of the saying of one the Desert Fathers: “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to see all humanity as one.”

In this age of ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction, has recognition of the mystery of the sacred character of life ever been so urgently needed? Has it ever been so clear that W.H. Auden was right to say our choices are to love one another or die? Can a faith that sees the icon of Christ in every person and in all creation open our eyes to see enemies in a transforming way?

John W. Oliver

A loaded word

Even secular international law recognizes individual responsibility. The defense “I was just following orders” has been consistently rejected, most notably at the Nuernberg Trials following the Second World War. It hurts just to write those three words….

Soldiers along with everyone else who kill people, whether non-combatants or “enemy” soldiers (no one is truly “innocent”) are indeed morally accountable for the lives they take. The sin of murder may be explainable, but not excusable, and the only remedy for it is repentance which can’t happen unless the sin is acknowledged.

I’d be the first to admit that “murder,” as used in our Plea for Peace in Iraq is a harsh, loaded, troublesome word; I should know: I wrote it. I pray that God’s Holy Spirit was working through me then, and that it wasn’t merely my own poor attempts to serve Him which generated that sentence.

Given the great discomfort, even confusion, which people have expressed concerning the word “murder” in that context, I’ve wondered if it might have been better to express the concept more tactfully, but the conversations ensuing the “Plea” have been helpful and productive, clarifying ideas and causing people to take some moral inventory of themselves, their consciences and attitudes. It’s probably better, on balance, that murder was called murder; the civil law’s concepts of inculpable “manslaughter” or “justifiable homicide” don’t exist in the Gospel or in the larger Christian Tradition.

This has repercussions even in (mostly) non-religious areas such as medicine, particularly psychology/psychiatry, and sociology. People who kill other people, even at the behest of legitimate civil authorities, are personally responsible for their actions. Despite efforts of civil authorities to dull, if not eliminate, the consciences of military men, many soldiers who have had to kill people are haunted for years by nightmares, not always while asleep, about the atrocities they felt forced to commit. Priests and psychiatrists attempt to help them, but healing depends, to a very large extent, on each individual’s acknowledgment of his sin/guilt.

This sort of healing isn’t available to a nation or state. Only individuals are moral agents, and states are composed of individuals who must make moral judgements. It isn’t possible for us to make moral judgements and then expect that “the government,” rather than ourselves as individuals, will be held accountable at the awesome tribunal of Christ.

In the specific matter of an executioner’s acting for the state, there was a discussion not long ago among a group of priests, one of whom had (apparently seriously) asked advice: what can he tell his conflicted parishioner who is employed as an executioner in his state?

Naturally, there were a certain number of responses suggesting that, since that state has a legal structure which allows capital punishment under certain conditions, there is no personal moral issue at stake. Those who thought this way were mistaken, and were corrected by others who pointed out that there are canonical penalties imposed for even the unintentional taking of human life; a fortiori, intentional killing is to be more severely punished and more profoundly repented.

So, for instance, a priest who even accidentally kills someone is ipso facto deprived of his priesthood. A layman who even accidentally kills someone may not be ordained. Anyone who takes a human life is excommunicated for various stated periods, depending on the circumstances but always excommunicated.

An executioner would be excommunicated by the very act of doing his job. He could be reinstated in the Church and restored to communion after ten years or so, as St. Basil seems to suggest. But if he killed someone else during the period of his excommunication, that would require additional canonical discipline, not to mention that the executioner’s repentance would seem at least a little insincere. Given the parameters, an executioner could never be restored to communion; his occupation is completely at odds with the Gospel.

Monk James Silver

Objective act, subjective state

I may be wrong, but I think a fundamental distinction has been missed in the discussion of whether the term murderer ought to be applied to a soldier who fights in a war in which non-combatants are either directly or indirectly are killed. The distinction is between an objective act and the subjective state of the actor. A person’s culpability depends on whether he knows (or should know) that what he is doing is participating directly or indirectly in murder and whether he or she freely chooses to do so. In the case of a specific soldier involved in war, we are not in the position of knowing his subjective state, so we can’t judge him a murderer. Indeed I would suggest that military training, as well as the propaganda of national policy, tends to make soldiers (and many civilians) think that this war is a patriotic duty to stop terrorism and to rid the world of a brutal dictator. This should not stop us from stating that objectively the killing of non-combatants in Iraq is murder and so try to transform his and other American soldiers’ (and civilians’) malformed consciences.

Dr. Al Raboteau

In knowledge or in ignorance

We might decide that “murder” was a poor choice because people who hear it will think in the legal terms with which they’re familiar. But this whole discussion has reminded me of something that struck me when I was preparing to be received into the Church: that, in Orthodoxy, sin is seen as objective. That is, a sinful act is sinful regardless of intent. Thus we often pray for forgiveness of sins committed in knowledge or in ignorance. If I commit a sin ignorantly, perhaps thinking it’s not a sin at all, and later come to a better realization, I’m still called upon to repent, not just to say that it wasn’t a sin because I didn’t know it was.

John Brady

Right word at the right moment

I find the use of the word “murder” in the OPF statement entirely appropriate. Although the Church has not traditionally identified the killing of enemy combatants in war as murder, killing in war becomes murder when the line between combatants and non-combatants is blurred, when the killing of civilians is regarded as an acceptable threshold for the accomplishment of the “mission.” (In Iraq, The United States violated international law by dropping cluster bombs in populated areas, “acting with deliberate disregard for human life.” This is one of the legal and canonical definitions of murder.)

Canon XIII of St. Basil, which contains an exemption clause for soldiers engaged in warfare, was written with a defensive war against enemy invaders in mind, and a kind of warfare in which one actually saw the enemy one was fighting. He could not have imagined munitions that would travel miles to indiscriminately destroy soldiers and civilians, men and women, adults and children, killing hundreds (or even thousands) of people in a single blast. The new reality of warfare requires a corresponding adjustment in the Church’s approach to war. When Basil thought of war, he thought of swords and arrows. He could not have imagined napalm falling from the sky in great swaths and burning up entire villages. He could not have imagined what a 500-pound bomb falling into a busy marketplace would do. He could not have imagined Hiroshima.

In such cases, the distinction between war and murder is simply no longer meaningful.

The OPF statement was and is prophetic in its clear recognition of the fact that, behind the curtain of sanitized language and cleansed photo-ops, munitions-based warfare is predicated upon a “margin of error” approach that regards the killing of large numbers of civilians as acceptable. This is a horrific cheapening of human life that must be squarely addressed. It is estimated that between 7,500 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war. And that number rises daily.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

From the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The text is copyrighted by the author and should not be published or reproduced on another web site without the author’s written permission.

The Right Question?

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

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.