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On God and Justice

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

There are many who imagine theologically that at some later point, a final judgment, God’s justice, will be manifest. In this manifestation of justice, the punishments of hell figure prominently. Of course, this is simply poor theology. Eternity in hell is not a matter of justice nor can it ever be. Justice involves equality. For what failure or crime is eternity in hell an equal payment? And, of course, such justice is unsatisfactory at best. There is nothing that can be done to the murderer of a child that in any way creates a balance. Nothing satisfies. This is the point of Ivan in the chapter “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov. This chapter is a tour de force demonstrating not the bankruptcy of belief in God, but the bankruptcy of the concept of justice interjected into the theological mix.

I belong to a family that has lost two members by murder. I am familiar with the grief and anger that accompany those experiences. I have also, for a time, been involved in “victim’s rights” ministry and been deeply aware of the pain of those involved and the hunger for justice that often accompanies grief. It is certainly the case that no punishment inflicted by the state ever satisfies this hunger for “justice.” I know, I have been there.

The truth is that this hunger for “justice” is, in fact, a hunger for the event never to have happened. The injustice is not created by the lack of punishment (for there are no truly “just” punishments). The injustice is created by the event itself an event in which an innocent is made to suffer for no reason whatsoever. That innocence is not restored by any amount of punishment inflicted on the perpetrator. Hell is not a scheme of justice any more than the American prison system is a scheme for justice. Any thought that either of them has anything to do with justice is a fiction and a dangerous fiction.

These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness.

Such mercy and forgiveness is nothing less than miraculous and does not come easily or naturally to us. It is something which belongs to the character of God, and only by being transformed by the grace of God can we become people who are capable of such extraordinary love and mercy.

I have seen such love and mercy. It is astounding and utterly without justification. To show mercy upon a murderer or someone who is guilty of inflicting deep injustice is an act of pure grace. It is a gift whose existence can only be explained by the love of God. It is the voice of Christ to the thief on the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

I wonder what the thoughts of those who had been the victims of this thief would have been had they heard the words of Christ? Would they have shouted that an injustice was being done? Would they have said that his death on the cross was insufficient punishment for all that he had put them through and that paradise was an unjust reward for the simple request, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

Of course, the victims have justice (as we humans understand it) on their side. Justice has a voracious appetite that can never be satisfied. For no matter how much the thief were to suffer, the crimes he committed would not be undone. The money would not be replaced. The fear and shame inflicted on the innocent would not be undone. Once the passion for justice is awakened, it is insatiable.

There are many stories of political madness that have at their core the lust for justice. The insanity of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, fed by the perversions of the human lust for justice. The crimes (real and imagined) of the Tsar and of those who held power in pre-revolutionary Russia, fed the imagination of those who were “setting things right.” There was no humiliation or crime that they themselves were forbidden to inflict in the name of a Marxist version of justice. By the time of Stalin this “justice” had murdered many more millions than had ever suffered in the entire history of Russia. Such is the insatiable appetite for justice.

On smaller scales, this same appetite has accompanied every revolution in the history of the world. Those who come to power feel compelled to administer justice. But no amount of blood-letting is ever truly sufficient.

The one revolution that stands apart is the revolution of the love of God who answered injustice with mercy, who answered hatred with love. Love does no harm and does not add to the madness of the scales of justice. It relieves the burdens created by our own sense of entitlement that we call “justice.”

The commandment to “love your enemies” is frequently a painful commandment for it asks us to forego our perceived rights. We renounce our claims to justice and give ourselves over to the hands of a merciful God. It is an act of faith which accepts that unless we become conformed to the image of Christ unless we can love as He loves we will never be free of the madness and the self-made hell that our lust for justice births in us. The Cross is the only form of freedom. Nothing less than its radical mercy will heal the human heart.

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Fr. Stephen Freeman is priest at St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A convert from Anglicanism, where he was a priest for 18 years, he was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in 1999. This first appeared on Fr. Stephen’s blog, Glory to God for All Things: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com

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Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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Salt of the Earth: An Orthodox Christian Approach to Peacemaking

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

by Jim Forest

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” This verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel comes just after the Beatitudes.

But how many of us want to be become like salt? Perhaps we ought to advise Jesus that it’s time to revise the Sermon on the Mount? “Dear Lord, we revere your every word, but couldn’t you use more attractive metaphors? How about, ‘You are the sugar of the earth, but if the sugar should lose its sweetness, it is tossed out the doors and trodden under foot by men’?”

Living in a sugar-addicted world, surely sugar would be a much more welcome term for modern people. Salt is bitter. Sugar is far more appealing.

But for the time being we are stuck with the Gospel Christ gave us rather than the one we might write ourselves. He tells his followers that we are intended to be like salt, a substance normally used in small amounts.

Salt was more valued by our ancestors. In commentaries on this passage, the Church Fathers stress the value of salt as a preservative and thus a life-saving substance. “Salt preserves meat from decaying into stench and worms,”says Origen. “It makes meat edible for a longer period.”

St. John Chrysostom comments on the salt metaphor in these words:

It is a matter of absolute necessity that he commands all this. Why must you be salt? Jesus says in effect: “You are accountable not only for your own life but also for that of the entire world. I am sending you not to one or two cities, nor to ten or twenty, not even to one nation, as I sent the prophets. Rather I am sending you to the entire earth, across the seas, to the whole world, to a world fallen into an evil state.” For by saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus signifies that all human nature has “lost its taste,” having become rotten through sin. For this reason, you see, he requires from his disciples those character traits that are most necessary and useful for the benefit of all.

There is a great deal of salt in the Gospel, and not much sugar.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ identifies peacemakers as God’s own children, but peacemaking is often a bitter, salt-like undertaking. To stand against hatred and killing in time of war (and when is it not time of war?) is no sweet task. One is likely to be regarded as naive, if not unpatriotic, if not a traitor.

Yet at every service, Orthodox Christians hear the challenge: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” We begin the Liturgy with an appeal to God not just for a private peace or the peace of our family or the peace of the parish community or the peace of our neighborhood or the peace of our city or the peace of our nation, but “for the peace of the whole world and the union of all.” The Litany of Peace draws our attention to the world-embracing mission of the Church. We are, as St. John Chrysostom said, “accountable not only for [our] own life but also for that of the entire world.”

Prayer is not simply a request that God do something or give something. It is a summons to responsibility. What I ask God to do implies a willingness on my part to participate in God’s answer to my prayer. If I am unwilling to help in doing what I ask God to do, can it even be thought of as prayer? Why would God do at my request what I refuse to do? We are talking then not only about what we ask God to do but what we are asking God to equip us to do. If we ask for peace, the peace of the whole world, then we must be willing to become people actively doing whatever we can that contributes to the peace of the world.

Consider three key words: Orthodox, Christian and peace.

Often the word “orthodox” is used as a synonym for rigidity. Not often is it understood in its real sense: the true way to give praise, and also true belief. Attach it to the word “Christian” and it becomes a term describing a person who is trying to live according to the Gospel. He may have far to go, but this is the direction he is trying to take. “To be an Orthodox Christian,” said Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

To be an Orthodox Christian means belonging to the Orthodox Church. It is not possible to follow Christ and remain alone. I am part of a vast, time-spanning community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we are encouraged to read.

It is also a Church of Councils. We hold ourselves accountable to the results of those councils even though they met many centuries ago. This means not letting my own opinions or those of my peers take charge of my faith. This requires guarding myself from the various ideologies that dominate the world I live in.

We are also a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call on them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said. We have icons of some of them in our churches and homes.

Attention to the Church Fathers and the saints can be a bewildering experience. For example we discover one Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage while another regards marriage as a barely tolerable compromise for those unable to embrace the real Christian calling: celibate monastic life. It can be disconcerting to discover that on various questions different Church Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases or just plain disagree.

Or we look at the saints and find one who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier, then the next day discover a saint who was a hero on the battlefield. Or we read about a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and then find another saint whose only clothing was his uncut beard. Here is a saint who was a great scholar while there is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, while over there is a saint who refused to leave the city and was critical of those who did. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions and even certain problems. The puzzle pieces don’t always fit. We discover that neither the Church Fathers nor the saints on the calendar are a marching band, all in step and playing in perfect harmony.

Devotion to the saints solves some problems and raises others. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. They were not saints every minute of every day. Like us, they had sins to confess. But their virtues overwhelm their faults. In different ways, each saint gives us a window for seeing Christ and his Gospel more clearly.

To be an Orthodox Christian means, as St. Paul says, that we are no longer Greek or Jew. Nationality is secondary. It is not the national flag that is placed on the altar but the Gospel. For us, even though we find ourselves in an Orthodox Church divided on national or jurisdictional lines, it means we are no longer American or Russian or Egyptian or Serbian. Rather we are one people united in baptism and faith whose identity and responsibility includes but goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us.

On to the next word: peace. This is a damaged word. It’s like an icon so blackened by candle smoke that the image is completely hidden. “Peace” is a word that has been covered with a lot of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Soviet Russia there were those omnipresent slogans proclaiming peace while the Church was often obliged to take part in state-organized and state-scripted “peace” events. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, it was almost the same situation. “Peace is our profession” was the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, whose apocalyptic task — fighting nuclear war — was on stage center in the film “Doctor Strangelove.” In more recent years, there was a nuclear missile christened “The Peacemaker.”

Not only governments but peace groups have damaged the word “peace.” Anti-war groups often reveal less about peace than about anger, alienation and even hatred. It’s always a surprise to find a peace group that regards unborn children as being among those whose lives need to be protected.

In wartime talk of peace can put you on thin ice. I recently heard a story that dates back to the first Gulf War. Three clergymen were being interviewed on television. Two of them insisted that the war was a good and just war and had God’s blessing. The third opened his Bible and read aloud the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers Love your enemies ” But he was cut short by a shout from the angry pastor next to him: “That’s not relevant now! We’re at war!”

War does this to us. Parts of the Gospel are simply abandoned. They are seen as temporarily irrelevant, an embarrassment to the patriotic Christian. “Peace” is put in the deep freeze, a word to be thawed out after the war is over. Thus the salt loses it savor and sugar takes its place.

Part of our job is to clean words like “peace.” It’s a work similar to icon restoration. Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy and impossible to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.

Peace is one of the characteristics of the Kingdom of God compressed into a single word. Consider how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word “peace” in the Gospel: “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it.” “And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” “And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” “And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’” “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.” In Mark’s Gospel, once again we come upon the metaphor of salt: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

In the Slavic liturgical tradition, the custom is to sing the Beatitudes while the Gospel Book is carried in procession through the church. Why? Because the Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ascending to readiness to suffer for Christ and at last to participate in the Paschal joy of Christ. Near the top we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Christ’s peace is not passive nor has it anything to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ says, in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He means the sword metaphorically, as Luke makes clear in his version of the same passage: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” To live truthfully rather than float with the tide means most of the time to swim against the tide, risking penalties if not punishment for doing so. Christ had, and still has, opponents. Christ’s words and actions often brought his opponents’ blood to a boil. Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens on others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was injured, but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.

Jesus speaks the truth, no matter how dangerous a task that may be. He gives us an example of spiritual and verbal combat. But his hands are not bloodstained. Think about the fact that Christ killed no one. Neither did he bless any of his followers to kill anyone. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them. His final miracle before his crucifixion is to heal the injury of a temple guard whom Peter had wounded. He who preached the love of enemies took a moment to heal an enemy while on his way to the Cross.

In the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. You get a sense of what that was like in this passage from second-century hieromartyr, St. Justin:

From Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

The big problem for early Christians, a problem that so often got them into trouble, was their refusal to regard any ruler as a god. This doesn’t mean simply a ruler who claims to be a god, but the persistent tendency of so many rulers down to the present day to behave as gods and expect to be treated that way. Christians were obedient members of society in every way they could be without disobeying God, but were prepared to suffer even the most cruel death rather than place obedience to Caesar before obedience to God.

While eventually the baptismal requirements of the Church were relaxed, it was once the case that those who did not renounce killing, whether as a soldier or judge, could not be baptized. It is still the case that those who have killed another human being, even in self defense or by accident, are excluded from serving at the altar. Presumably this would also bar anyone whose words incite others to kill.

What’s the problem? Killing in war is often awarded with medals. Aren’t soldiers only doing their duty, however horrible it may be? Is there not virtue in their deeds, however bloody? I am reminded of an interview with an American soldier in Iraq that I heard on television recently: “A part of your soul is destroyed in killing someone else.” He might have said, but didn’t, that a part of your soul is wounded when you kill another. The Church looks for ways to heal such wounds.

Christ is not simply an advocate of peace or an example of peace. He is peace. To want to live a Christ-like life means to want to participate in the peace of Christ. Yes, we may fail, as we fail in so many things, but we must not give up trying.

How do we give a witness to Christ’s peace, especially in time of war? There are at least seven aspects of doing this.

The first is love of enemies. Love is another damaged word. It has been sentimentalized. It has come to mean a nice feeling we have toward a person whom we enjoy seeing and being with. The biblical meaning of the word is different. Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies. If you understand love as a euphoric feeling or pleasant sentiment, fulfilling this commandment is impossible. But if you understand love as doing what you can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear or despise, that’s very different.

Jesus links love of enemies with prayer for them. Without prayer, love of enemies is impossible. One of the saints who gave special emphasis to this theme was the 20th century monk St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Silouan’s stress may have its roots in the fact that, before becoming a monk, he nearly killed another young man. Not long afterward, he went to Mount Athos. Much of his teaching later in life centered on love of enemies. “He who does not love his enemies,” he insisted, “does not have God’s grace.”

The second aspect is doing good to enemies. Jesus teaches his followers, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28)

Jesus’ teaching about a merciful response to enemies was not new doctrine. We find in the Mosaic Law: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (Ex 23:4-5)

In his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul elaborates:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Christ’s teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as unrealistic, but in fact it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to turn the world into a cemetery, we must search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

The third aspect is turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” (Mt.5:39; Luke 6:29) Contrast this with the advice provided in the average film or novel, where the standard message might be described as “The Gospel According to Hollywood.” This pseudo-gospel’s basic message is: If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, as we saw in the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others. Provocation, irritation, or the fear of attack is warrant enough.

“Turning the other cheek” is widely seen as an especially suspect Christian doctrine, an ethic that borders on masochism. Many would say it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly. Only cowards turn the other cheek.”

But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent man, refusing to get out of his way, takes enormous courage. It is manly and often proves to be the more sensible response. It’s also a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

The fourth aspect is forgiveness. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us, not despairing of the other. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are telling God that we ask to be forgiven only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

How hard it is to forgive! For we are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime; they even spill across generations. As children, as parents, as husbands or wives, as families, as workers, as jobless people, as church members, as members of certain classes or races, as voters, as citizens of particular states, we have been violated, made a target, lied to, used, abandoned. Sins, often quite serious sins, have been committed against us. We may feel damaged, scarred for life, stunted. Others we love may even have died of evil done to them.

But we are not only victims. In various ways we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. If I allow myself to see how far the ripples extend from my small life, I will discover that not only in my own home but on the far side of the planet there are people whose sorrows in life are partly due to me. Through what I have done or failed to do, through what my community has done or failed to do, there are others whose lives are more wretched than they might have been. There are those dying while we feast.

But we prefer to condemn the evils we see in others and excuse the evils we practice ourselves. We fail to realize that those who threaten us often feel threatened by us, and may have good reasons for their fears. The problem is not simply a personal issue, for the greatest sins of enmity are committed en masse, with very few people feeling any personal responsibility for the destruction they share in doing or preparing. The words of Holocaust administrator Adolph Eichmann, “I was only following orders,” are among humanity’s most frequently repeated justifications for murder.

The fifth aspect is breaking down the dividing wall of enmity. In Christ enmity is destroyed, St. Paul wrote, “for he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing enmity to an end.” (Eph 2:14-16)

Walls would have been on Paul’s mind at the time; in the same letter he mentions that he is “a prisoner for the Lord.” His words of guidance were sent from within the stone walls of a prison.

Consider Christ’s response to the centurion who asked him to heal a sick servant. It must have been hard for his more zealous disciples to see Jesus responding positively to the appeal of an officer in an occupation army and galling to hear him commenting afterward, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” In this brief encounter, the dividing wall of enmity collapsed.

We live in a world of walls. Competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism, violence and domination: all these are seen as normal and sane. Enmity is ordinary. Self and self-interest form the centering point in many lives. We tend to be a fear-driven people. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies.

Many wars are in progress at the moment. The cost in money, homes destroyed, damaged sanity, in lives and injuries is phenomenal. So many deaths, and mainly non-combatants — children, parents and grandparents, the very young, the very old, the ill, all sorts of people. Countless hideous wounds, visible and hidden. There are also less tangible costs, spiritually, psychologically, for we have become a people who make war and preparations for war a major part of our lives. We hear of many people who expect to die a violent death and who live in a constant state of “low grade” depression. Fear and despair are widespread. Stress-relieving pills are selling better than ever in today’s world.

The sixth aspect is nonviolent resistance to evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “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 the one who is evil.” When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But for many centuries, Christians have been as likely as any others to take up the sword and often use it in appalling ways.

The refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness, yet Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil. It is searching for ways to combat evil without using methods that inevitably will result in the death of the innocent.

Responding to evil with its own weapons, even with the best of motives, often results in actions which mimic those of the enemy, or even outdo the enemy’s use of abhorrent methods. When Nazi forces bombed cities, there was profound revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were carried out by Britain and the United States.

Yet what is one to do? Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures which cause innocent suffering and death.

For centuries men and women have been searching for effective ways of both protecting life and combating evil. It is only in the past hundred years, because of movements associated with such people as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, that nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity, on the one hand, and violence on the other.

Such acts of nonviolent protest are far from unknown in the Orthodox Church. One powerful example occurred in Constantinople in the year 842 when, opposing the iconoclast Emperor Leo V, a thousand monks took part in an icon-bearing procession in the capital city. They were exhibiting images of Christ and the saints which, had they obeyed the emperor, should have long before been destroyed. Their act of civil disobedience risked severe punishment. Iconographers had been tortured, mutilated and sent into exile. Thousands of icons had been destroyed. The death of the emperor later that year was widely seen as heaven’s judgment. In 843 his widow Theodora convened a Church Council which reaffirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. The first Sunday of Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

There is one last element of peacemaking: It is aspiring to a life of recognizing Jesus. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ tells us, “Truly, I say to you, what you did it to one of the least of these, you did to me.”

Occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged together and not one by one as we die?” It is because our life is far from over when we die. Our acts of love, and failures to love, continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Plato did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did, what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Mother Maria Skobtsova did, what you and I have done — all these lives, with their life-saving or murderous content, continue to have consequences for the rest of history. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will matter forever.

It weighs heavily on many people that Jesus preached not only heaven but hell. There are many references to hell in the Gospels, including in the Sermon on the Mount. How can a loving God allow a place devoid of love?

A response to this question that makes sense to me is one I first heard in a church in Prague in the Communist period. God allows us to go wherever we are going. We are not forced to love. Communion is not forced on us. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose. We can choose life or death. Perhaps we can even make the choice of heaven while in hell. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has a tour bus leaving daily from hell to heaven. But the bus is never full and tends to return with as many passengers as it took on the trip out of hell. Heaven is too painful, its light too intense, its edges too sharp, for those who are used to the dullness of hell. In fact the older we are, the more we live by old choices, and defend those choices, and make ideologies, even theologies, out of our choices, and finally become slaves to them.

We can say, not just once but forever, as Peter once said of Jesus, “I do not know the man.” There are so many people about whom we can say, to our eternal peril, “I do not know the man,” to which we can add that he is worthless and has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die — whether of frostbite or violence matters little.

As St. John Chrysostom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the wrong ideas, if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I despised and avoided every day of my life?

Christ’s Kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division. But heaven is right in front of us. At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the Kingdom of God. This very day we can sing the Paschal hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb he has given life!”

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Jim Forest, international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is the author of many books, including The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life and Ladder of the Beatitudes. The text is based on a lecture given at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, New York.

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How St. Telemachus of Rome ended gladiatorial combat

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor [Honorius] was informed of this, he recognized Telemachus as a victorious martyr, and put an end to that impious spectacle.

– Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457); The Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chapter 26

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Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

The Nativity of the Mother of God

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

The first great feast of the Liturgical year celebrates the nativity of the Blessed Virgin. It is appropriate that, during these first days of the new year, we should be brought into the presence of the highest example of human holiness, that of the mother of Jesus Christ.

During vespers, several lessons from the Old Testament are read.

First there is the account of the night which Jacob spent at Guz (Gen 28: 117). While Jacob slept, with his head pillowed on stones, he had a dream: he saw a ladder reaching up from earth to heaven and angels ascending a descending along this ladder; and God himself appeared and promised that he would bless and keep Jacob’s seed.

Mary, whose motherhood was the human condition necessary for the Incarnation, is, in herself, a ladder between heaven and earth. As the adoptive mother of the adopted brothers and sisters of her Son, she says to us what God said to Jacob, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” She, who carried her God in her womb, is truly that place, Beth-El, of which Jacob could say, “Surely this is the house of God, and this the gate of heaven.”…

The final lesson (Prov. 9: 1-11) presents us with personified divine Wisdom: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars…. She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town.”

The Byzantine and the Roman Catholic Church both have established a link between holy Wisdom and Mary. She is the house built by Wisdom: she is, to the highest degree, one of the virgins sent forth by Wisdom to men; she is, after Christ himself, the highest manifestation of Wisdom in this world.

Fr. Lev Gillet (writing as a Monk of the Eastern Church)

The Year of Grace of the Lord

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press

Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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Dear In Communion reader

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Dear In Communion reader,

One of the topics discussed in this issue is how often we prefer justice, as humanly understood, to forgiveness and mercy. For Fr. Stephen Freeman, the matter isn’t an abstract question. Two members of his family were victims of murder. Similar wounds exist in many American families, mine among then. I still grieve over the death of my stepmother, whose life was cut short by a bullet as she stood waiting for a bus in San Francisco.

It is stories like these which, most notably in the United States, help explain the widespread support for the death penalty an urgent longing to “settle the score.”

One never has to travel far in the U.S. to find a Christian church of one sort or another. They often stand side by side. Yet the cross on each church is rarely seen by Christians or anyone else as a symbol of capital punishment or as an invitation to become a life-protecting people.

Of course it isn’t only Americans. While capital punishment has been outlawed in most countries, there are many ways, direct and indirect, to kill our neighbor. No matter where we live, it is a day-by-day struggle to become guardians of life.

How odd we 21st century Christians would seem to our forebears in the early Church! For hundreds of years, Christians even those who were judges understood they could not be baptized unless they first committed themselves to have no part in anyone’s execution.

It is part of the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship to recall such forgotten traditions and disciplines in the hope that the Church might once again be known for its love of enemies.

We cannot carry on our work without your help. If you are not a member already, please join. You can do so via our webs ite:

http://incommunion.org/articles/introduction/what-is-the-opf

If you donate once a year, what about donating more than once?

Or you might consider giving someone your parish priest or a friend a subscription to In Communion.

Thank you for whatever you can manage.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest

Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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The Georgia Russia Mini-War

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

by Jim Forest

The recent Georgia Russia mini-war in and around South Ossetia was definitely not a religious war, but serves as a reminder that religious identity doesn’t come in first place when issues of national identity are at issue. While the battle raged, most soldiers – and casualties – on both sides were Christians.

In both countries, the Orthodox Church – in practice, though not officially – functions as the national church. Russia has an icon of St. George at the center of its national coat of arms; the average Russian atheist regards himself as an Orthodox atheist. Georgia prides itself on having adopted Christianity in the 4th century, six centuries before the baptism of Russia.

No matter how borderless Christianity is in theory (Aneither east nor west, neither Greek nor Jew”), in practice, national borders are as solid in church as outside.

The Orthodox churches in Russia and Georgia – led by Patriarch Alexei in Moscow and Patriarch Ilya in Tbilisi – are no exception. It’s rare for either church to stand in opposition to its government. The Russian Orthodox Church has been especially notable for being quick to bless Russia’s military – and has been all but silent in voicing criticism about Russian actions, no matter how brutal. Patriarch Ilya also has been equally silent about post Soviet Georgia’s deepening association with the United States and the US sponsored military buildup that has resulted.

Thus it has been a surprise to note the efforts made by the leaders of both churches first to prevent the recent war and then, their efforts having failed, to speed its end.

Ilya seems to have been the one who took the first step. In April he sent a letter to Alexei in which he noted the potential Arole and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations.”

While Alexei’s response has not been made public, is likely that he intervened with Russia’s president and prime minister (he is on close terms with Medvedev and Putin) in hopes of encouraging renewed diplomatic efforts to prevent conflict.

But when Georgia’s military bombarded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on the night of August 8, hopes to prevent war were shattered. (What lay behind Georgia’s action is baffling. It was something like Connecticut opening fire on New York. The Russians had already made clear what would happen in such a case. Georgia’s small army hadn’t a chance against Russian forces. Was President Saakashvili imagining that America, his military sponsor, would join the battle? Had he even been encouraged to open fire? I’d love to know.)

What is remarkable in the context of the days that followed was Patriarch Alexei making a public appeal to the Russian state to declare a cease-fire.

“Today blood is being shed and people being killed in South Ossetia,” he said, Aand my heart deeply laments over it. Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox people, called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love, confront each other.”

In a sermon given in Tbilisi two days later, Patriarch Ilya said that Aone thing concerns us very deeply B that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians.” Speaking with journalists, he said, “Any Georgian who kills another person shames his nation.”

Note that when Alexei made his appeal, he was definitely not acting as the Russian government’s amen chorus. At the time, Russia’s leaders were strongly resisting international pressure for a cease-fire. It seems likely Russia was hoping, war having begun after years of tension, to seize the moment to bring South Ossetia, bitterly with odds with Georgia for many years, into actual rather than ex officio inclusion in Russia – a goal Russia is still pursuing, but at present without warfare with Georgia.

Will the two churches make more vigorous efforts to prevent renewed conflict? And if so how? How willing are the two churches to prevent the cross from being used as a flag pole?

* * *

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51

Orthodox Peace Fellowship letter to the Patriarchs of Russia and Georgia

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship, an association of Orthodox believers seeking to apply the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict, has written to the leaders of the Orthodox Churches in Russia and Georgia to express support of their recent efforts first to prevent war and then to bring about a cease fire.

“What a sin and a scandal it is to see these armies shedding each other’s blood.” the letter notes. “That such an event can happen is a poignant reminder of how often, among Orthodox Christians no less than others, national identity easily takes priority over our common identity as children of the One God.

“We hope to see you both standing side-by-side in continuing efforts to promote peace between the Russian Federation and the Democratic Republic of Georgia, to collaborate in healing the deep wounds left by this tragic conflict, and to bear witness in unity to the Gospel of Christ’s Peace, who called us to love, not slay, each other.”

The full text of the letter is attached.

* * *

August 13, 2008

Beloved Patriarchs Alexei and Ilya,

Though your efforts to prevent armed conflict between Russia and Georgia have received little attention in other countries, we have followed them as we have been able, including Patriarch Ilya’s proposal in April in which he noted the potential “role and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations.”

Sadly, despite work for peace by both of you, Russia and Georgia entered into armed conflict. Many have died, not only soldiers but innocent people. Many of our Orthodox brethren have blood on their hands.

More recently, with the conflict at its height, there was the cease-fire appeal made by Patriarch Alexei, which included these words:

“Today blood is being shed and people being killed in South Ossetia and my heart deeply laments over it. Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox people, called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love, confront each other.”

What a sin and a scandal it is to see these armies shedding each other’s blood. That such an event can happen is a poignant reminder of how often, among Orthodox Christians no less than others, national identity easily takes priority over our common identity as children of the One God.

We hope to see you both standing side-by-side in continuing efforts to promote peace between the Russian Federation and the Democratic Republic of Georgia, to collaborate in healing the deep wounds left by this tragic conflict, and to bear witness in unity to the Gospel of Christ’s Peace, who called us to love, not slay, each other.

We write on behalf of members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship who reside in countries around the world.

Jim Forest, International Secretary, Orthodox Peace Fellowship

Alexander Patico, Secretary for OPF in North America

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Written September 11, 2008 for the Sojourners magazine blog: http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/

Orthodox Response to the Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia

The recent Georgia-Russia conflict in and around South Ossetia was definitely not a religious war, but serves as a reminder that religious identity doesn’t even come in third place when issues of national identity are at issue. While the battle raged, the majority of participants — and casualties — were Christians on both sides.

In both countries, the Orthodox Church — in practice, though not officially — functions as the national church. Russia has an icon of St. George at the center of its national coat of arms; the average Russian atheist regards himself as an Orthodox atheist. Georgia prides itself on having adopted Christianity in the 4th century, six centuries before the baptism of Russia.

No matter how borderless Christianity is in theory (“neither east nor west, neither Greek nor Jew”), in practice national borders are as substantial as cathedral walls.

The Orthodox churches in Russia and Georgia — led by Patriarch Alexei in Moscow and Patriarch Ilya in Tbilisi — are no exception. It’s rare for either church to stand in opposition to its government. The Russian Orthodox Church has been especially notable for being quick to bless Russia’s military — and has been all but silent in voicing criticism about Russian actions, no matter how brutal. Patriarch Ilya also has been equally silent about post-Soviet Georgia’s deepening association with the United States and the US-sponsored military buildup that has resulted.

Thus it has been a surprise to note the efforts made by the leaders of both churches first to prevent the recent war and then, their efforts having failed, to speed its end.

Ilya seems to have been the one who took the first step. In April he sent a letter to Alexei in which he noted the potential “role and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations.”

While Alexei’s response has not been made public, it is likely that he intervened with Russia’s president and prime minister (he is on close terms with both Medvedev and Putin) in hopes of encouraging renewed diplomatic efforts to prevent conflict.

But when Georgia’s military bombarded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on the night of August 8, hopes to prevent war were shattered. (What lay behind Georgia’s action is baffling. Whatever provocations there may have been, it was something like Rhode Island opening fire on New York. The Russians had already made clear what would happen in such a case. Georgia’s small army hadn’t a chance against Russian forces. Was President Saakashvili imagining that America, his military sponsor, would join the battle? Had he even been encouraged to open fire? I’d love to know.)

What is remarkable in the context of the days that followed was Patriarch Alexei making a public appeal to the Russian state to declare a cease fire.

“Today blood is being shed and people being killed in South Ossetia,” he said, “and my heart deeply laments over it. Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox people, called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love, confront each other.”

In a sermon given in Tbilisi two days later, Patriarch Ilya said that “one thing concerns us very deeply — that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians.”

Note that when Alexei made his appeal, he was definitely not acting as the Russian government’s amen chorus. At the time, Russia’s leaders were strongly resisting international pressure for a cease fire. It seems likely Russia was hoping, war having begun after years of tension, to seize the moment to bring South Ossetia, bitterly with odds with Georgia for many years, into actual rather than ex officio inclusion in Russia — a goal Russia is still pursuing, but at present without warfare with Georgia.

Will the two churches make more vigorous efforts to prevent renewed conflict? And if so how? How willing are the two churches to prevent the cross from being used as a flag pole?

– Jim Forest

* * *

Jim Forest is the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org), editor of its journal In Communion, and author of Praying With Icons and The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life.

* * *

News: Summer 2008

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Belarus pressures Orthodox not to venerate martyrs

Belarus is discouraging the commemoration of Orthodox Christians killed for their faith by the Soviet Union, according to a report issued in May by Forum 18. The Belarussian KGB sought to have icons of the New Martyrs removed from the cathedral in Grodno.

New Martyr St. Pavlin, Bishop of Mogilev, shot in 1937 Deacon Andrei Kurayev charged that KGB officers had asked Grodno clergy “why they were inciting the people in such a way.”

Bishop Artemi (Kishchenko) of Grodno and Volkovysk refused to take the icons down. “He told the KGB that he couldn’t rewrite history.”

During the 1920s and 30s, over 20 Belarussian clergy, including three bishops, were shot in Minsk for their faith, according to Fr. Feodor Krivonos.

“There is a certain circle of people who don’t like these icons,” said Fr. Aleksandr Veliseichik. He said icons would be removed only if they were not Orthodox, “but these were painted entirely according to church canons.”

Some of the icons, he said, were copied from originals in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. One of the icons is of St. Pavlin, Bishop of Mogilev, shot in 1937.

KGB officers also often monitor visitors to Kuropaty, where many New Martyrs are buried in mass graves. Possibly 100,000 victims of Stalin’s purges are thought to have been shot at Kuropaty in between 1937 and 1941, but no archaeological research has been conducted at the site since the 1990s.

The act of going there is “fraught with tension” with the current Belarusian regime, said an Orthodox Christian who asked not to be named. An Orthodox chapel planned for the site has never been built.

The Moscow-based St. Tikhon Orthodox University estimates that 90,000 Orthodox were killed for their faith by the Soviet state.

Over 1,000 New Martyrs were formally canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in August 2000.

[F18 News, 12 May 2008]

Russia seeks to draft priests into the army

The young priest was not intimidated by the words “criminal case” and the green file that the officer said would land him in jail for refusing the draft. He was articulate and patient as he stood, wearing a cassock and cross, in front of a colonel at his district military commission, trying to persuade him that as an Orthodox priest there is no way he could serve as an army recruit. The priest, who asked to remain anonymous, serves at one of the city’s largest churches.

Following the February passage of a law that for the first time makes Orthodox priests subject to conscription, all draft-age Russian priests find themselves torn between a legal obligation and their religious obligations.

It is a serious dilemma. The Orthodox Church forbids priests, on pain of being defrocked, from carrying guns or being involved in military activities, while the law threatens them with imprisonment if found guilty of refusing the draft.

“The officer gave me a sour look and asked what village I was from, but that initial bravado disappeared when he saw that I was honest, respectful, and serious,” the priest recalled. “Soon I saw he was baffled. He even rang his superior in my presence to ask what he should do.”

In the end, the officers made a joint decision to let the priest go, but his battle might not be over, as the spring draft continues for two more months. “I’m prepared to have as many conversations with the officers as it takes,” the priest said. “I believe in the power of the word.”

Colonel Yury Klyonov of the Leningrad military district says the presence of priests in the army is bound to improve the moral climate among recruits. “This new measure is going to be beneficial for both the church and the army. After all, the Orthodox Church has always supported the idea of serving the motherland.”

“If priests are to be conscripted at all it must be only as chaplains,” said Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov of the Moscow diocese. “They must be allowed to fulfill their duties without having to compromise and betray their beliefs.” But the position of chaplain does not exist in the Russia armed forces.

Xenia Chernega, a lawyer representing the Moscow diocese, said the law was “a sign of blatant disregard for the canons of the Orthodox Church. The restriction is set by apostolic rule number 83: ‘anyone exercising military activities must be expelled from the priesthood’.”

The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly has appealed for the amendment to be vetoed. “Breaking into churches and dragging priests off to the army would be shameful. As a political successor of the USSR, Russia is still greatly indebted to the priests who perished in Stalin’s purges,” said one of the authors of the appeal, Vitaly Milonov.

In response to such criticism, Nikolai Pankov, the Deputy Defense Minister and one of those who instigated the changes in the conscription rules, accused critics of a “lack of patriotism” and of failing to support Russia’s defense needs. He and others argue that serving the motherland does not conflict with religious beliefs. One of their arguments is that drafting priests will help to reduce the bullying and brutality for which the Russian army has become notorious.

“Several thousand young men desert the army every year because they cannot bear the humiliation, beatings, and extortion of money by the senior recruits,” said Ella Polyakova, chairwoman of the St. Petersburg pressure group, Soldiers’ Mothers.

She believes the move was meant to send a tough message. “Russia has become a police state. True to its name, it has to constantly remind the people who’s boss. The other amendments are equally repressive. Just think about a young man having to leave a sick mother confined to her bed or a breast-feeding wife with no income. The authorities openly show that they see our citizens the way feudal lords saw their serfs.” [St. Petersburg Times, 29 April 2008]

‘Instant’ churches to ease church shortage in Russia

A group of Russian Orthodox benefactors has found a way to ease the continuing post-Soviet shortage of places of worship by devising a plan to provide prefabricated churches that can be erected in 24 hours.

A prototype is now in place at Kemerovo in Siberia, where church shortages are most acute, said Vasily Smirnov, director of the Russian Club of Orthodox Philanthropists.

“Communism changed the Russian landscape by introducing neighborhoods filled with towering apartment blocks, but because of official atheism, they almost never had churches,” Smirnov said. “In densely populated bedroom communities, there aren’t enough Orthodox churches and residents have to travel to the town center. We’re developing some innovative techniques in this sphere for people who want to build churches.”

The buildings, able to accommodate up to 200 people, will be erected in large numbers once the project gathers pace.

The Russian Orthodox Church opened more than a hundred churches and chapels in 2007 in Moscow, where a further 86 are under construction. However, Russia’s 142 Orthodox dioceses and 27,942 Orthodox parishes still have only a third of the churches the country had before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. [ENI, 7 May 2008]

Danger of War in the Caucasus warns Patriarch Iliya

War could erupt in the Caucasus unless Russia and Georgia take affirmative steps to reduce tensions, Patriarch Iliya II, Patriarch of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, warned in April. He stated the border dispute between the two former Soviet republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was in danger of spiraling out of control. He called on Patriarch Alexy of Moscow to join him in using “the role and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations.”

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two northern regions of Georgia, broke from the Tbilisi government following the collapse of the USSR. Georgia has not relinquished sovereignty, but has been unable to put down the Moscow-backed secession.

Four days before Iliya’s appeal, Russia announced it would strengthen its economic and cultural ties to the two breakaway regions and provide “complete protection” to Russian citizens resident in the country. Moscow had previously granted Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“The current condition of the bilateral relations,” said Iliya, “fails to meet the spirit of neighborliness and fraternity of the two peoples. Both sides have made mistakes in their attempts to normalize interstate relations…. I fear that the bilateral relations may reach a critical limit and plunge into uncontrollable processes…. We think that any confrontation, armed conflicts or military actions are unacceptable, because they will lead to irreversible consequences. That is why we think that regardless of the difficulties of launching negotiations in the present-day tense situation, there is no alternative. A peaceful dialogue is the only way out of the current situation.”

Church restoration in Kosovo to resume

The Serbian Orthodox Church has decided to resume the restoration of destroyed monasteries and churches in Kosovo. The restoration will continue in cooperation with the Culture Ministry, international institutions and the UN.

At the conclusion of its spring meeting, the Synod stated that the Church and the Serbian people would never countenance the unlawful, violent usurpation of Kosovo, and thanked all the countries that had not recognized the province’s unilateral independence declaration. [B92, 22 May 2008]

Serbian Orthodox Church relieves Patriarch Pavle

The Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced in May that 93-year-old Patriarch Pavle would no longer head the church because he is too ill to perform his duties. The synod will take charge of the running of the church, while the oldest bishop, Amfilohije, will act as president of the synod and “Guardian of the Throne,” it was announced. Pavle, who became leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1990, has been in and out of hospital over the past two years.

Serbian Orthodox church law states that a successor to the Patriarch must be elected by a secret vote during a gathering at which at least two-thirds of the 40 bishops attend. If two candidates receive the same tally of votes, a patriarch is chosen by the drawing of lots. [ENI, 19 May 2008]

Iraqi bishop urges pressure on US to keep its ‘broken promises’

An Iraqi Christian leader has appealed to US churches to pressure their government to keep promises made to Iraqis to improve humanitarian conditions after the 2003 US-led invasion.

“There is a tragedy in Iraq now because the promises made were never kept,” said Archbishop Avak Asadourian, primate of the Armenian Church of Iraq, during a meeting in June in New York. Asadourian is the current general secretary of the Council of Christian Church Leaders in Iraq.

He lamented that though Christianity has deep roots in Iraq, war is slowly depleting Iraq of its once-vibrant Christian communities. Christianity came to Iraq in the first century, when St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have visited Mesopotamia.

“Our natural resources, which are tremendous, must be utilized for the betterment of the Iraqi people,” said Asadourian. “Until now, the infrastructure in Iraq is in shambles, and people are still waiting for basic necessities, so they may live in a normal fashion. We were promised clean water but what we got is Blackwater” (a US-based private security firm that has played a notorious role in Iraq).

Asadourian described Iraq as “a severely wounded country,” with Iraqis living “under the strain of several hardships stemming from so many wars.” These included, the archbishop said, a 13-year US-led international embargo, “which in and of itself is an act of war” and which was in place before the invasion in 2003.

The 2003 occupation brought with it hope that conditions might improve in Iraq. Instead, Asadourian noted, the occupation had led to five years of terrorism, forcing tens of thousands of people, many of them Christian, to flee Iraq.

“People are aware that they can leave home alive and never return to their families,” Asadourian said. “My cathedral closed for a year and a half because of the lack of security,” he said. “What Iraqis need, before anything else, is security.”

“It is very difficult to live under the shadow of death for so many years,” the archbishop said. “It takes its toll on you.”

Until the military action in 2003, Christians accounted for roughly 3 per cent of Iraq’s 29 million people. Approximately 70 percent of the Christians belong to the Chaldean church, which follows the ancient Chaldean rite but is in union with the Catholic Church.[ENI, 18 June 2008]

Armenian spiritual leader decries Turkeys’ genocide denial

Catholicos Karekin II, leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visiting Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in May, spoke of the genocide suffered by his compatriots in the Ottoman empire, and said that those with power should ensure that justice prevails.

“We appeal to all nations and lands to universally condemn all genocides that have occurred throughout history and those that continue through the present day,” Karekin said in St. Peter’s Square on 7 May, where he had been invited by Pope Benedict to speak at a general audience. “The denial of these crimes is an injustice that equals the commission of the same.”

“Today many countries of the world condemn the genocide made by the Ottomans against the Armenian people, as John Paul II said when I was in Rome,” noted Karekin.

“The recent history of the Armenian Apostolic Church has been written in the contrasting colors of persecution and martyrdom, darkness and hope, humiliation and spiritual re-birth,” said Pope Benedict.

Armenia estimates 1.5 million of its people died between 1915 and 1923 in a systematic genocide initiated by the Young Turks’ government ruling then in Istanbul. Turkey rejects the term “Armenian genocide,” claiming that mass removals were intended to clear people from a war zone. It acknowledges that people died, but holds that the number was far less than that given by Armenia. [ENI, 13 May 2008]

Food crisis ‘artificially imposed’ says Kenyan theologian

The roots of the global food crisis that has led to soaring prices for basic foodstuffs are to be found as much in political as in economic factors, Professor Jesse Mugambi, a Kenyan academic, charged in May. Mugambi, who teaches religious studies and philosophy at the University of Nairobi, belongs to a church environmental network.

“The rise in price is not only because of decline in supply,” he said. “It is artificially imposed by rises in fuel costs and other constraints more political than economic.”

He said there could be no short-term solution to a long-term problem. “The long-term solution is equity, not charity. Equity is based on long-term investment.”

“Food prices have soared, without an improvement in personal and family income,” he said, adding that “current international economic and agricultural policies discourage Africa from growing staple foods in favor of cash crops. Africa is the only continent which produces what it does not consume, and consumes what it does not produce. Tropical Africa has some of the best soils for agricultural production in the world. Why should those soils be used for the production of non-staple agricultural commodities, while some of its people go hungry every day?” [ENI, 9 May 2008]

More than half of US firearm deaths are suicides

Suicides accounted for 55 percent of America’s nearly 31,000 firearm deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, CNN reported on 30 June.

Gun-related suicides outnumbered firearm homicides and accidents for 20 of the last 25 years. In 2005, homicides accounted for 40 percent of gun deaths, accidents for 3 percent and 2 percent either for “legal killings,” such as when police do the shooting, or cases involving undetermined intent.

Public health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater. Studies have also shown that homes in which a suicide occurred were three to five times more likely to have a gun present than households that did not experience a suicide, even after accounting for other risk factors.

More than 90 percent of suicide attempts using guns are successful, while the success rate for jumping from high places was 34 percent. The success rate for drug overdose was 2 percent.

Israeli human rights group warns of grave West Bank water shortage

An Israeli human rights group anticipates a serious water shortage in large areas of the West Bank, the territory Israel occupied in 1967, as a result of what the group says is the most serious drought in the area in the past decade and Israel’s “discrimination in [the] division of water sources.”

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, said, “The shortage will have serious repercussions on the economy and the health of tens of thousands of Palestinians.” The shortage, they said, was the consequence of “unfair distribution of water resources shared by the Palestinians and Israel.”

B’Tselem also blamed the water shortage on limits Israel places on the Palestinian Authority to drill new wells. “Access to water without discrimination is recognized by international law as a fundamental human right,” the group said in a 1 July press release.

The human rights group called on Israel to ensure an, “immediate, regular, adequate supply of water” to all residents of the West Bank and, “to allow the Palestinian Authority to develop new water sources.”

Najeeb Abu Rokaya, director of the field research department of B’Tselem, said, “Even if there is a little amount of water in this area, I believe there is enough for every human being, but we need to plan for it, and first of all make sure that every human being has enough drinking water. God created the world, and in this the water for all people, not just for Jews or Palestinians or Christians or any other group.”

B’Tselem said that many Palestinians who are connected to the water supply reported disruption because Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, which also controls the water supply to Palestinian areas, reduces the supply to Palestinian towns and villages in order to meet the increased need of Jewish settlements.

In Nablus, Fr. Ibrahim Nairouz said that he gets water only once every eight days.

B’Tselem reports that many poorer families draw water from unsupervised wells, resulting in an increase of infectious diseases.

“The average water consumption per capita of Israelis is 3.5 times that of Palestinians,” said B’Tselem. [ENI, 2 July 2008]

A gentler vision of Islam:Turkey’s import to Pakistan

Praying in Pakistan has not been easy for Mesut Kacmaz, a Muslim teacher from Turkey. He tried the mosque near his house, but it had Israeli and Danish flags painted on the floor for people to step on. The mosque near where he works warned him never to return wearing a tie. Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard.

“Show me a verse in the Koran where it is forbidden,” Kacmaz said to the men who insisted Muslim men cannot wear ties. He told the two men, both were wearing glasses, that scripturally there was no difference between a tie and glasses. “Behind their words there was no Hadith,” he said, “only misunderstanding.”

“Kill, fight, shoot,” Kacmaz said. “This is a misinterpretation of Islam.”

But that view is common in Pakistan, where schools, fueled by Saudi and American money, have spread Islamic radicalism through the poorest parts of society. With a literacy rate of just 50 percent and a public school system near collapse, the country is particularly vulnerable.

Kacmaz is part of a group of Turkish educators who have come to this battleground with an entirely different vision of Islam.

The Turkish schools, which have expanded to seven cities in Pakistan since the first one opened a decade ago, cannot transform the country on their own. But they offer an alternative approach, prescribing a strong Western curriculum with courses, taught in English, from math and science to Shakespeare.

This approach appeals to parents, who want their children to be capable of competing with the West without losing their identities to it.

The model is the brainchild of a Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. A preacher with millions of followers in Turkey, Gulen argues that “without science, religion turns to radicalism, and without religion, science is blind and brings the world to danger.”

In one of his books, Gulen states: “In the countries where Muslims live, some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon in hand than their fundamental interpretation of Islam. They use this to engage people in struggles that serve their own purposes.” [New York Times, 3 May 2008]

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

Death: A Second Baptism

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Fr. Patrick Radley

Apse mosaic, Basilica of San Marco, Rome

apse mosaic, Basilica of San Marco, Rome

“I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” – Luke 12:19-20

Do we not recognize the reactions of the rich man in this familiar parable? How often have we felt a burst of self-confidence because life seemed to be treating us well! We were successful at work, or were appreciated by someone whose opinion we value, or completed a difficult task, or even were able to help someone in need. Whatever the reason, we were boosted, felt more secure. “Life’s on my side. Why don’t I give myself a good time?”

But the rich man’s response, and ours if we behave like him, is wholly superficial. By not recognizing as God’s gifts both the land that produced his crops and the crops themselves, the rich man blinds himself to the fact that the whole pattern of his life is in God’s hands.

Moreover, death takes no account of good or bad fortune. And so, for good or ill, we let ourselves be driven to concentrate on our own experience as separate individuals, thereby denying the unifying source of being throughout creation.

This denial is nothing more nor less than sin, testifying to the power of evil within fallen human nature. And with it comes the belief in death as the end of all that we take for granted within our consciousness of life.

If we can no longer lay up treasures for ourselves – that is to say, satisfy those insistent individual demands we make on life – what is there left to us?

Through this parable, Jesus shows that when we are faced by the prospect of this apparently total dissolution of our selves, we are forced to ask: “Is death the final destruction of all that makes us human?”

We may even be shocked into considering how our lives, rather than being locked up within our own closed worlds, could be – in St. Luke’s words – “rich towards God.” At which point we have to say at once that we are standing here in the Church precisely in the desire to witness to our faith that Christ himself is the answer to all our questions.

For God’s response to the power of evil and the presence of death on earth brought about by man’s decision to lock himself away from the Creator’s universal love is to bring that very love to a climax. Having created us in his image and likeness in the first place – itself an act of infinite love – he now sends his only-begotten Son to become man and to make reparation in his own self for our sins in the suffering and death on the cross. Not only that, but having expressed through his death his total love for us, he rises on the third day and appears to his disciples, discussing with them, eating with them, and convincing them totally of his presence with them.

If, before the time of our own deaths, we wish to count ourselves among those whose faith is in Jesus Christ, and whose hope is in his resurrection, how are we to react to this reversal of what we thought of as death?

St. Jerome speaks of the effort that we must make to “know the hope of our calling.”

“This effort,” he writes, “comes in response to that renewing gift which God Himself gives in the glorious Resurrection of his own Son. This gift he gives not once but continually…. Every day Christ rises from the dead. Every day he is raised in the penitent.”

It is in this last sentence that we begin to see the true way to approach death. Repentance is where we must begin. We must repent of all we have done to close ourselves to the love of God and thereby opened ourselves to crucify Christ. We must turn our hearts at all times to the prayers of penitence; we must die to ourselves daily; and we must learn to live, to flesh out, Christ’s words, “he who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

St. John Climacus calls the thought of death “the most necessary of all works… The remembrance of death, like all other blessings, is a gift of God.” Finally he affirms, “Just as the Fathers lay down that perfect love knows no sin, so for my part I declare that a perfect sense of death is free from fear.”

Let us, in true repentance, in freedom from fear and in love for God, offer our death to God. Let us recognize that death is, for each of us, living or dead, a second Baptism, a cleansing of our souls in readiness for that general Resurrection of which we are meant to be a part. The Saints have led the way: “Not I live but Christ lives in me.”

God cleanse me, a sinner, and have mercy on me. Amen.

Our dear friend Fr. Patrick Radley, rector of the Parish of the Holy Transfiguration in Great Walsingham, England, died 28 March. He was a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and also its treasurer in Britain until failing health made it necessary to hand on that responsibility to Seraphim Honeywell. Please pray for him, his wife, Helena, his family and parish.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

Orthodox-Muslim Relations: The Search for Truth

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Hilary Kilpatrick

The Way, the Truth and the Life”: if we believe that Christ is all these things, we must seek to avoid falsehoods, in personal but also in public life. To lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not just politically misguided or un-ethical, it was un-Christian.

Many of the antagonisms which lead to war in our world feed on lies or half-truths about “the other.” This is especially true when two communities have a history both of coexistence and conflict. It is easy then to find justifications for fearing, hating and even attacking “the other.”

Thanks to geography, Orthodox Christians and Muslims have had a shared history since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Sometimes Muslims dominated Orthodox, as in the various Near Eastern Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire, sometimes Orthodox dominated Muslims, as in Tsarist Russia. Any community living under the domination of others suffers injustice, and both Orthodox and Muslims can point to wrongs they have endured as minorities ruled by adherents of the other faith.

Since before modern times the two communities identified themselves first and foremost by religion. They remembered wrongs – even when they had nothing to do with religion – as inflicted by Muslims on Orthodox (or the reverse), rather than as, for instance, by tax-collectors against peasants or soldiers against civilians.

As time passed, these memories became simplified, creating a picture of oppression remaining at a constant level over four or five centuries. In some cases the oppressor was then held responsible for everything that had gone wrong, although quite other factors might have been involved. Unscrupulous politicians could, and can, easily turn such a sense of injustice suffered into a desire for revenge, as the break-up of Yugoslavia has shown.

If we leave aside our collective memories and what we imagine the past to have been and look instead at contemporary records, we find a much more complicated picture. This corresponds to our own experience of life. Few situations we encounter are entirely black or white.

To take a concrete example: the book of memoirs and advice written by Synadinos, a priest who lived in the town of Serres in Macedonia in the first half of the 17th century, mentions violent attacks by Turkish (Muslim) fellow-citizens on the (Greek) Christians but also recognizes the just decisions handed down by high Turkish officials. He describes a combined attack by inhabitants of the town from all the different communities on a Muslim merchant who was selling grain abroad during a famine. And he feels loyalty towards the Ottoman Sultan, for whom he uses the Byzantine title “basileus,” rejoicing sincerely at the victories in Iraq of Sultan Murad IV, whom he admires for his good governance.

Judging by the space they take up in his memoirs, Synadinos suffered most of all from the conflicts and envy of members of his own community; these outweigh both oppression by the Turks and his grief at losing six of his children in early childhood. And indeed some of the worst Turkish outrages, such as their desecration of a church and turning it into a mosque, came about because quarreling Christians appealed to them to intervene.

What Synadinos writes about 17th century Serres does not necessarily hold good for the town a hundred years later or for elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire in the same century. The assumption that the same conditions obtained everywhere in this vast area is mistaken. For instance, the devshirme (the levying of Christian boys for the Janissaries) inflicted on Balkan Christians, was seldom carried out in Anatolia and never in the Arab provinces after they were conquered in 1516-1570.

Another example is the contrast between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch in the Ottoman period. Until the mid-18th century the Patriarchate of Antioch was independent of Constantinople, with Patriarchs residing in Damascus. As is well known, Patriarchs of Constantinople were frequently deposed and re-elected; very few of them remained in office continuously for more than ten years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw 40 clerics occupy the throne of Constantinople following some 70 elections or re-elections. During the same period there were seventeen Patriarchs of Antioch, a figure which includes rival claimants for the office, and no re-elections.

This last contrast raises the question: why was the turnover of Patriarchs of Constantinople so much quicker than that of their brothers of Antioch? Since in both cases the authorities were Muslims, causes other than a generalized oppression of Christians must be found.

One was the tremendous competition for office among the higher Greek clergy in the capital, with rival claimants buying the support of viziers and other officials. At times, too, Western European envoys intervened for or against a candidate. The Arabs, by contrast, often presented a united front, and European diplomats were not active in Damascus as they were in Constantinople. Moreover, there was less at stake, the Patriarch of Antioch’s sphere of influence being much more limited. No doubt other reasons exist too, waiting for researchers to uncover them.

One of the focuses of myth-making which has led to much bloodshed and misery recently is Kosovo. During the long years of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia, the battle of Kosovo in 1389 came to be represented in folk epics as a mythical struggle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, freedom and slavery. The Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, is regarded as a martyr who sacrificed himself for his faith and his people. The Serbs, characterized by the spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice, were a people in bondage, like the Israelites in Babylon, to whom God would one day give back their freedom. These folk epics were well known both among Serbs and among some other Balkan peoples, notably the Bulgarians.

Serious historians tell us a different story. The army led by Lazar in 1389 contained contingents of different origins, including Albanians; some Serbs fought on the Ottoman side. After the defeat Serbian vassal princes took part in Ottoman campaigns in Anatolia. Only in the mid-15th century were the Serbian vassal princedoms gradually eliminated; Belgrade was not captured till 1521.

The next three centuries saw a series of wars between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, often in lands populated by Serbs. The population shift from Serbs to Albanians in Kosovo set in at the end of the 17th century in this context. The Habsburg armies which had conquered Belgrade and entered Kosovo were forced to withdraw after the Ottomans reoccupied the area, and the Ottomans took reprisals against the local Christians, who had given support to the Habsburgs. To avoid Ottoman atrocities, Christians from Kosovo and surrounding areas, led by the Patriarch of Pec, followed the retreating Habsburgs and settled in what is now Voivodina. Similar emigrations followed in the early 18th century. Kosovo, now deserted, was appropriated by Albanian stock breeders who settled there permanently. This was a spontaneous movement, not government policy; the Ottomans mistrusted Albanians as undisciplined mercenaries and irregulars who committed outrages against the local population.

When in the 19th century intellectuals began to elaborate nationalist ideologies for the Serbian and other peoples of what was to become Yugoslavia, they first considered a shared language, Serbo-Croat, as the foundation of a country of liberated south Slavs. The myth of Kosovo, while alive in the folk memory, was not a source of inspiration then or for many years. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia established after the First World War, by its name implicitly excluded Albanians and other non-Slavs, and the government of Belgrade pursued a policy of settling Orthodox Serb peasants in Kosovo and forcing Albanians to emigrate or assimilate; the Serbs, moreover, received privileged treatment.

During the Second World War the Albanians reacted by collaborating with the Italian occupiers, killing and expelling Serbs and Montenegrins. After the war, to ensure Serbian support, Tito retained Kosovo within Serbia as an autonomous region, and Serbian dominance was strong until the late 1960s and 1970s, when constitutional changes enabled an Albanian leadership to emerge, enjoying many of the powers of a republic in the federal system. As a poor region Kosovo had the highest rate of unemployment in Yugoslavia, and emigration was widespread, especially among the Serbs, who were destabilized by their loss of dominance and sometimes subjected to Albanian violence.

After Tito’s death Yugoslavia entered a period of profound political, social and economic crisis, with the dominance of the Communist party being questioned and religion becoming a vital part of resurgent nationalism in all the Yugoslav nations. Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje on the 600th anniversary of the battle with the Ottomans skillfully exploited the myth of Kosovo to save the party (and his own position as its leader) by reconverting it into a Serbian nationalist movement. It also heralded the imposition of direct rule by Belgrade, followed by years of killings, destruction and expulsions perpetrated by both Serbs and Albanians.

Had the history of Kosovo, as distinct from the myths about it, been widely known to its people, the real problems of the region – social and economic backwardness and the absence of the rule of law, as well as relations between the Albanian majority and the minorities of Rom, Turks and above all Serbs, many of whose finest mediaeval monuments are in Kosovo – might have been recognized and addressed and the subsequent bloodshed and misery avoided.

Can any historically valid generalizations be made, then, about the Orthodox experience under the Ottomans? I would tentatively suggest three points – though any generalization is unsatisfactory.

First, Muslims usually regarded Christians as inferior and did not hide the fact. Second, Christians were taxed more heavily than Muslims.

Against these two negative points there is a positive one: since Christians had a recognized, if inferior, place in the Islamic political system, they were not subjected to systematic attempts at conversion.

Some Serbs who migrated from Ottoman territory to Habsburg lands later moved back to escape Catholic missionary campaigns. And when Paul of Aleppo, traveling through the Ukraine in the mid-17th century, sees the Polish Catholic drive to convert Orthodox, he is thankful that such things do not happen in the Ottoman Empire.

How different is the history of Orthodox under the Ottomans from the history of Tatars and Caucasian and Central Asian Muslims in Tsarist Russia? Comparative study of these two subjects might show similarities, bringing out parallels in relations between religious majority and minority communities which are independent of the specific religions concerned.

A commitment to discovering historical truth also allows justice to be done to individuals who go against the dominant opinion in their community and act with wisdom or according to principles of common humanity. For instance, if the Turkish authorities were to recognize the Armenian genocide, they would not only help to heal the trauma of its survivors and their descendants, but they would also be able to celebrate the courage and humanity of the handful of Turkish officials who refused to carry out the policy and even cooperated with foreign institutions to save Armenians.

In the shared history of Orthodox and Muslims such individuals exist, too. One example is the Algerian emir Abd al-Kader, an exile in Damascus after the French crushed his resistance to their colonization of Algeria; he was instrumental in saving many Syrian Christians from death in the riots of 1860.

On the Orthodox side, a memorable role has been played recently by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, welcoming all refugees from former Yugoslavia, whatever their religion.

In the search for truth and in Christ’s service, we need to be open to these individual acts of humanity and to admit that they may come from quarters we do not expect. For in the end, it is people created in the image of God with whom we deal. There is a temptation to forget this and to see only faceless masses whom it is easy to demonize in situations of tension or conflict. By trying to discover the truth about their history, we can give them back their faces and start to recognize them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hilary Kilpatrick, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an independent scholar in Lausanne (Switzerland). Her current research is on Arabic literature of the Ottoman period.

A Brief Guide for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Fr. Theodore Pulcini

Christianity and Islam share much common ground. Both trace their roots to Abraham. Both believe in prophecy, God’s messengers (apostles), revelation, scripture, the resurrection of dead, and the centrality of religious community. Despite these similarities, however, these two religions have significant differences which we need to be aware of, as true dialogue can be built only on nuanced understanding.

The Understanding of God: Muslims and Christians worship the same God (Allah, the Arabic word for God, is also used by Arab Christians). The basic testimony of Islam states “There is no god but God,” a statement Christians can also affirm. But how Christians and Muslims conceptualize God in their respective theologies is quite different. The emphasis in the Islamic theology of God is on “absolute unity” (tawhiid). Muslims insist that there is no distinction within the Godhead. God is sublimely one. Thus the Islamic polemic against Christianity has centered on the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims have caricatured Christians as “tri-theists.” As the Qur’an states: “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a trinity, for there is no God except One God.” (S. 5:76)

The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be adequately expressed within the limitations of human reason. It is an ineffable truth, ultimately not graspable by the human mind. How many heresies in Christian history have arisen because people attempted to detract from the ineffability of the Trinity, to devise doctrines that were more easily “digested” by the human mind. In all humility, we can only say this: God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do not rationally deduce this; we submit to him as Trinity even if we do not completely understand how he can be Trinity, considering it blasphemy to “reduce” God to something we can understand. The purpose of theology is not to “cut God down” to the size of human reason but to elevate human reason to the contemplation of the Divine Mystery, the Mystery which teaches us that the One God exists in three Persons. We render our submission (islaam) to the God beyond understanding.

One way to enable Muslim friends to understand why we believe that God must be a Trinity is to emphasize Christianity’s fundamental teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love can never be exercised in isolation; it is manifested in relationship, and for that reason the God who is Love exists as a “community within himself,” that is, a community of three Persons. The mutual love of these Persons is so perfect that they, though three, are perfectly One.

It is from this same perspective – that God is perfect love – that we should also explain how Jesus can be the Son of God. Such a statement is blasphemous to Muslims; they believe that God is “far above” having a son. On the contrary, Christians see the Sonship of Jesus as a testimony to the divine love, which is so intense that God was content not just to bless his creation from the outside but to sanctify it by humbling himself and becoming part of it through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. By becoming part of the created order, by taking on a full and a complete human nature, God sanctified humanity “from within.” Both Islam and Christianity say that God is totally other and beyond human comprehension, completely beyond the ability of humans to grasp, yet Christians add something completely different: that God so loved the world that he was willing “to come down from his throne” to became part of it, all the while remaining God “on his throne”! In this wonderful assertion, Christianity stands apart from Islam and Judaism in saying that the transcendent God actually became one of us, like us in all things but sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).

Yet, although we are Trinitarian, we affirm that there is only one God. In fact, the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East always say in Arabic: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the One God.”

The Understanding of Revelation: Christianity believes that God revealed himself and assumed human nature in order to redeem and save us, that is, to impart to us the fullness of life, freed from the destructive effects of sin, both in this age and in the age to come. According to Islam, on the other hand, the purpose of revelation was not to provide redemption but guidance – to provide a straight path through this life, leading to reward in the life to come.

In both Christianity and Islam, the message of revelation is enshrined in sacred scriptures. Christians affirm that the Bible is the Word of God but not that God mechanically transmitted it through people who simply served as passive conduits. Christians hold that the Bible was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Revelation was thus “filtered” through a human lens and written in human words and within human history. Thus our scriptures refer to historical circumstances but chronicle God’s definitive intervention in human history. In Islam the Qur’an is considered the unmediated word of God. Islam stresses that in receiving his revelation Muhammad was illiterate and hence completely passive. Thus the words of the Qur’an are not his words. He simply recited what was put into his mouth without any input of his own. Muhammad was simply the agent of revelation.

But according to linguistic theory, all communication is mediated. As soon as a thought is put into words, it is a mediated, human construction. The very fact that a thought is put into words means that it is “processed” through a human lens. Most Christians recognize this, aware that God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. Thus Christians would call the Islamic view of “unmediated revelation” into question on both linguistic and theological grounds.

Islam is much more book-centered than Christianity. The Qur’an is not to Muslims what the New Testament (or the entire Bible) is to Christians. What the Qur’an is to the Muslim, Christ himself is to the Christian. We have a Person-centered – that is, Christ-centered – faith. Christianity proclaims that Jesus Christ himself is God’s Word to humanity. For Islam, God has spoken in a Book: for Christianity, He has spoken in a Person. In Islam, the written Arabic Book is the marvel while, in Christianity, the Person of Christ is the ineffable wonder.

The Understanding of Sin and Salvation: Sin and salvation are central categories in Christian theology and spirituality. Christianity teaches that the effects of original sin have corrupted the world and the human beings who exist in it. In Islam, however, there is no such a thing as original sin. The Qur’an does indeed state that Adam and Eve sinned, but according to Islamic belief, they repented and were fully forgiven so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race.

I believe the Islamic rejection of original sin is really the rejection of a specific understanding (what I would consider to be a narrow understanding) of original sin. Islam rejects the notion that all human beings inherited the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve. This seems unfair to the Muslim: Why should we have to accept guilt for someone else’s disobedience?

To respond to such a question, we Christians must move beyond the understanding of original sin espoused by St. Augustine (+430) and those who followed his thought, according to which “in Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Calvinists later carried this view to an extreme, saying that the result of Adam’s sin is total human depravity – that is, that original sin has made human beings completely incapable of doing anything good without the assistance of divine grace. Such a notion is thoroughly incomprehensible to Muslims.

Eastern Christianity, however, understands original sin in this way: No sin that is committed is without its effect. Every sin disrupts the entire cosmos. Your sin has an effect not only on you but also on everyone and everything else. Any sin that you and I commit has a reverberation throughout the world, just as every puff that one takes on a cigarette pollutes the air that everyone else breathes. So when the Old Testament claims that the sin of the father will be visited upon the children, it is simply describing reality. Sin has a “snowball effect”: it accumulates throughout human history, impacting upon all who are born into the world. What started this off was the sin of Adam and Eve – the first, or original, sin. For the Eastern Christians to say that all suffer the effects of original sin is not to say that all are “born guilty” but rather that all have to deal with the powerful force of sin that has accumulated from the sin of our first parents until the present day.

Salvation means breaking loose from the bonds of sin that have grown stronger through the ages. With sin’s effects everywhere around us, we have an undeniable proclivity to sin. Because Islam has understandably reacted against the narrow understanding of original sin as inherited guilt, it has tended not to be receptive to this more realistic understanding of the pervasive effects of sin on all human beings and thus sees no need for salvation; it cannot understand how Christ’s death and resurrection brings salvation. “Salvation from what?” they ask. Just as it is unthinkable to Muslims that one person should have to shoulder the guilt for another person’s sin, it is unthinkable that another person (in this case, Christ) would be able to pay the penalty for another person’s sins.

Furthermore, because Muslims believe that prophets are sinless (`ima), it seems a blasphemy to them to say that Christ died the shameful death of a sinner on the cross. They therefore deny that it was Jesus that was crucified. (Some maintain that it was Judas, whom God made to look like Jesus so that he would suffer his rightful penalty for his treachery). In making this claim, Muslims see themselves as protecting the prophetic integrity of Jesus. In general, Muslims affirm that Jesus ascended to heaven but deny that he died on the cross.

Because Muslims do not recognize the universal and corruptive power of sin, unleashed as a result of original sin, they see no need for salvation in the Christian sense. What you should do, according to the Islamic view, is simply live a good life, pleasing God in all that you do. Submit to God and follow his directives. Religion, to the Muslim, does not mean salvation from sin; it means following the right path, or the sharii`a, mapped out by Islamic law. While Christianity is a faith concerned primarily with “orthodoxy,” or “right belief,” Islam is a faith concerned primarily with “orthopraxy,” or right practice. It is a religion of law, and it sees Christianity’s rejection of the Law (as taught by St. Paul in his writings, especially Romans and Galatians) as a serious deficiency. This, of course, does not mean that Islam is not concerned with right doctrine or that Christianity is not concerned with right practice. It simply means that the emphasis is different.

That difference in emphasis is very important. If one recognizes the pervasive power of sin, salvation is not just an option; it is a necessity. Christians lament the fact that an incomplete understanding of original sin led early Islam to “throw out the baby with the bath water” with regard to their understanding of sin. By reacting against an “inherited guilt” view of original sin, as described above, they have missed what Christians consider to be the central truth of human existence: that no matter how hard we try to conform to “right practice,” we will fall short of the goal. We cannot live the kind of life that God wants by our own power. And that is why salvation is necessary.

The understanding of religious community: The theme of religious community reverberates in the hearts of both Muslims and Christians. What the Church is to Christians, the umma is to Muslims. Christians and Muslims both consider themselves accountable to a community of faith. It is not enough to believe in isolation; we must link our lives to brothers and sisters in the faith.

Nevertheless, there are noteworthy differences between the Christian and Muslim visions of religious community. There is no ordained ministry or hierarchy in the Islamic umma. Also, in the umma there is more stress on homogeneity, on common pattern of life throughout the Islamic world, regulated by the sharii`a, than in the Christian Church at large. Christians have attempted to “incarnate” Christianity as much as possible in local culture. For example, the Bible, hymns, and liturgical texts are translated into the local language and adjusted to the local culture.

But to be a good Muslim one must learn Arabic as the Qur’an is considered to be untranslatable. Any translation into other languages is regarded only as an interpretation.

Moreover, Muslims and Christians have different understandings of worship. When discussing these differences, we should also note that Muslims are very attentive not just to the interior aspects of worship but to the external aspects as well. In this regard, Muslims have more in common with Eastern Christianity than with Western Christianity, especially Protestantism. Like Eastern Christians, Muslims use their whole body in prayer. Both groups, for instance, make prostrations in their worship. In much of Western Christian worship, what one does with the body seems unimportant. Not so in Islam. The submission of the spirit is symbolized by the submissive gestures of the body, made according to a ritualized pattern. Muslims have a much easier time, therefore, understanding the spirit behind the highly developed liturgical worship of Eastern Christianity.

On Presenting Christianity to Muslims: Let me conclude with just a few observations on how a Christian can best witness to Muslims.

Avoid polemic and argument and never give answers to questions that have not been asked. If you are questioned, “always be prepared,” as the First Epistle of Peter says, “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:15).

Second, the best way to make people want to know more about Christianity is to attract them to our shared way of life. The first step in witnessing is to build community! What will most impress non-Christians is a vibrant community where faith is strong and people live transformed and full lives. If they do not see that kind of community, why should they even be interested in Christianity? We must manifest a bond and a love among us that will make them wonder why we are different from others in the world. Recall the reaction of the pagans who encountered the first Christians. They marveled, saying, “See how they love one another!”

Keep in mind that for us Christians, the primary law is the Law of Love. Our emphasis on the primacy of love is perplexing to many Muslims. They do not understand it. It seems unjust to them. They feel Christians over-emphasize love, that Christianity’s teaching on love is “lop-sided,” unrealistic, impractical. Yes, Muslims too believe that God is a loving God, but love does not form the “heart” of their understanding of God. To them, above all, God is just; therefore their religious law has some harsh requirements. To them Christianity seems weak.

Love overcomes. It is stronger than any other force on earth. What may seem like weakness is really an unparalleled strength. Therefore the best way to witness to Muslims or any other non-Christian is to love them, to serve them.

Other-Appreciation and Self-Affirmation: Now more than ever, Christians have an obligation to develop an objective, nuanced knowledge of Islam not only for the sake of understanding this important “other” in our midst but also for the sake of better understanding the unique genius of the Christian view of God and humanity and of the relationship between them.

Make no mistake about it: despite areas of common ground, there is a wide theological chasm between Islam and Christianity. It was largely in reaction to an often distorted presentation of Christian doctrine that Islam formed its own doctrinal heritage. Islamic doctrine challenges us to embrace anew those facets of Christian theology which differentiate us from Muslims, especially the mystery of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ, and then to find new and ever more insightful ways of articulating these dogmas. Simple repetition of traditional formulas usually will not suffice to foster greater understanding of Christianity among Muslims (or among Christians, for that matter). In questioning the central Christian doctrines, Islam serves us well: it requires us to focus on those distinctive beliefs that are constitutive of our view of God and the world and to find more effective ways of proclaiming and explaining them.

All the while we must be realistic in our interactions with Muslims; these should always be characterized by consistent reciprocity and genuine partnership, not by triumphalism, ignorance, caricature, or manipulation on either side. We must call each other to consistent integrity and accountability. This kind of relationship is not possible in many other parts of the world. It is possible in the West. We should not neglect the opportunity for re-shaping Christian-Muslim relations. In doing so, we might just be able to provide new models of co-existence and cooperation for the rest of the world to emulate.

Fr. Theodore Pulcini, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, is Associate Professor of Religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. This is an abbreviated extract from Face to Face: a Guide for Christians Encountering Muslims, published by Light & Life: www.light-n-life.com.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50