Posts Tagged ‘Orthodox Church’

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon

A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)

At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.

In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.

Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.

What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.

To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance.   Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.

“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.

When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.

What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.

Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.

Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.

The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.

Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.

In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.

It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.

Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.

Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.

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1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Orthodox Approaches to Nonviolent Resistance

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

by Fr. Philip LeMasters

St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of John the Evangelist, martyred in Rome about 107 AD

The Christian faith began in the context of political and military occupation, in a situation where violent acts, both by the oppressor and the oppressed, were common. It is in such a context that the movement begun by Jesus of Nazareth took shape. Not only did Christ teach his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with them, but he also boldly spoke the truth to the religious and political leaders of Palestine, for which they crucified Him. Even though Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, conventional political rulers were threatened by his prophetic words and deeds. His ministry may be described as an act of nonviolent resistance against dominant religious, social and political ideologies in Palestine, then under occupation by the Roman Empire. This Messiah was not the Davidic warrior-king expected by many Jews – nor can he be reduced in our own day to a mere social activist.

The incarnate life of the Son of God provides a paradigmatic example of how to respond to evil with nonviolent resistance. The One who is both human and divine lived under military occupation and, precisely in that context, brought salvation to the world in a nonviolent way. Unlike the Zealots and others using violent methods, Christ embodied a more radical critique that went beyond shifting power from one group to another or reversing the roles of the victor and the vanquished. He created among his apostles, disciples, and followers an inclusive and peaceable society that brought Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, men, women, rich, poor, slave and free into the communion of his Body, the Church.

Nonviolent Resistance in the History of the Church: For the first few centuries, the Church’s life was deeply marked by the experience of persecution from the Roman Empire. Christians who would not worship the gods of Rome were considered traitors guilty of “hatred of the human race” for not fulfilling their civic obligation of serving the deities who were thought to guarantee the well-being of the Empire. We know the stories of these martyrs and continue to honor them for their steadfast commitment to Christ in the face of torture, mutilation and execution.

Some Christians served in the Roman army before the conversion of Constantine, including such martyrs as Saints George, Demetrius and Theodore the General. They refused to obey the commands of their military superiors and thus undertook nonviolent resistance to the dominant religious and political ideologies of the Empire. Like Christ, they suffered violence at the hands of the state for their refusal to place service to a worldly kingdom over obedience to the kingdom of heaven. As St. Peter said when forbidden to preach, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The martyrs’ refusal to worship false gods, Olivier Clément commented, “does not express itself through rebellion but through martyrdom … through a nonviolent stance, which has remained characteristic of the Christian East to this day.”

Examples of nonviolent resistance to evil do not cease with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Saint Athanasius’ struggles against Arianism resulted in successive exiles, while Saint John Chrysostom’s denunciation of imperial abuses led to his death. Saint Maximus the Confessor endured mutilation for his opposition to the Monothelite heresy, and the iconoclastic controversy also produced martyrs and confessors. These are only a few well-known examples of nonviolent resistance in the Byzantine Empire to both political and religious authority.

The first two saints of Kievian Rus’, Boris and Gleb, chose not to defend themselves against the assassins sent by their brother and rival for the throne. In The Pacifist Option, Fr. Alexander Webster notes that they died “not for the true faith in Christ, as was customary in the early Church and in the rest of the Orthodox world, but rather for the moral life in Christ. Theirs was preeminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”

During the Ottoman period, simply to profess the Orthodox faith was a form of nonviolent resistance to the dominant ideology and entailed a second-class existence within set religious, social, political and economic boundaries. The limits of Ottoman toleration were evident in the example of the new martyrs who refused to embrace Islam and were killed for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

Nonviolent Resistance in the Twentieth Century: In 1905, over 100,000 people marched in the streets of St. Petersburg under the leadership of an Orthodox priest – some carrying icons – to protest their miserable circumstances and to beg the help of Czar Nicholas. Their petition stated: “Oh Sire, we working men and inhabitants of St. Petersburg, our wives, our children and our parents, helpless and aged women and men, have come to You our ruler, in search of justice and protection. We are beggars, we are oppressed and overburdened with work, we are insulted, we are not looked on as human beings but as slaves. The moment has come for us when death would be better than the prolongation of our intolerable sufferings. We are seeking here our last salvation…. Destroy the wall between yourself and your people.” Tragically, with the czar’s permission, soldiers fired on the crowd, killing and wounding hundreds in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Like Boris and Gleb, those who perished were not killed because of their faith; they did, however, respond nonviolently to injustice and lost their lives as a result.

During the decades of Communist rule, innumerable martyrs and confessors undertook nonviolent resistance by rejecting atheistic ideology and refusing to abandon or hide the faith, enduring poverty, imprisonment, exile, torture and execution in ways that mirrored the witness of the Church in pagan Rome. Opposing civil war in Russia following the Bolshevik coup, Patriarch Tikhon refused to bless the White armies and instead appealed to the laity for nonviolent resistance. “This was the time,” wrote Olivier Clément, “when Starets [Elder] Alexis Metchev opposed the calls for an anti-Bolshevik crusade made by some émigré bishops and declared that a powerful spiritual renewal was the only way in which Russia would be able to overcome anti-theism.” Many martyrs died praying for their tormentors.

Less well known is the nonviolent resistance of Saints Dimitri Klépinin and Mother Maria Skobtsova and other members of “Orthodox Action” who aided Jews during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. They violated various unjust laws in order to save the lives of innocent people and themselves died in concentration camps as a result. Mother Maria wrote of Hitler as a “madman …who ought to be confined to a madhouse” and tore down posters urging Frenchmen to work in German factories. She spoke forthrightly of the incompatibility of Christianity and Nazi ideology even to persons who were likely Nazi agents. When thousands of Jews were held in an athletic stadium July of 1942, she managed to enter the stadium, providing what comfort she could to the captives and, with the aid of garbage collectors, rescued a number of children. “If the Germans come looking for Jews [in our house],” she said once, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.” She, Fr. Dimitri and two co-workers died in concentration camps. They were canonized in 2004.

In the same period another example of nonviolent resistance is provided by an Orthodox layman, Alexander Schmorell, co-founder of “the White Rose,” a student group which distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Germany in 1942-43. One White Rose leaflet stated that “The only available [means of opposition] is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism.” Another leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust as well as criticism of the apathy of citizens “for allowing such crimes to be committed by ‘these criminal fascists’.” Schmorell, having served as a medic on the Eastern Front, had resolved never to kill an enemy. He went to his execution peacefully and stated that “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary … to put me on the right road and therefore was no misfortune at all.” Before his execution, Schmorell said that “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” Archbishop Mark of Berlin has announced his intention to canonize Schmorell. (For more information, see Jim Forest’s article “Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose” in issue 59 of In Communion. )

Though this brief survey of Orthodox nonresistance is neither comprehensive nor systematic, the examples cited demonstrate that nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present. Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience. Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy. Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil. These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and of refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.

Nonviolent Resistance and Contemporary Political Action: These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means. Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we are reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies. Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings. Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.

The martyrs and saints are not motivated by political efficacy but, as Fr. Alexander Webster comments, by “a distinctive Orthodox mode of pacifism” that resists “evil of a strictly demonic origin.” Indeed, the martyrs and confessors we have cited did not criticize social orders, promote change or refuse to obey unjust laws simply due to a conventional political agenda or a desire for power. At the same time, nonviolent resistance to evil inevitably occurs in given social and political contexts where moral and spiritual values have been corrupted in particular ways. When Christians speak the truth about these corruptions and refuse to cooperate with or endorse them, they denounce evil and call prophetically for a new set of circumstances that more closely embodies God’s purposes for human beings. Indeed, they have a responsibility to do so, even to the point of civil disobedience. As Fr. Stanley Harakas noted in Living the Faith:

In cases of particularly harmful laws, the Christian has the responsibility of disobedience. Historically, some injustices that have attacked the Christian identity itself have not been tolerated. The example of the early Christian refusal to worship the Emperors led to civil disobedience and martyrdom for thousands of Christians. There is a line between the advisability of bearing injustices and the duty of refusing to do so. Circumstances must be considered in each case. Both the Christian as an individual and the Church as a whole need to be ever ready to make the decision and accept the consequences when civil disobedience is the correct Christian action.

Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King

Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King

All members of the Church are called to participate in economic, social, political and cultural life in ways that reflect a Christian vision of human relations and community before God. Consequently, Orthodox may well take part in nonviolent marches or demonstrations protesting evils – racism, genocide, environmental degradation, militarism – that are clearly contrary to God’s will. Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, set an example when he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama. A photograph of the Archbishop, Dr. King, and the labor leader Walter Reuther was on the cover photograph of Life magazine on March 26, 1965.

In 1997, in the Milosevic period, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia led an anti-government march, preventing a police attack on protesting students. He had earlier appealed to the authorities for the release of political prisoners.

Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America recently led a delegation from “Orthodox Christians for Life” in the “March for Life” in Washington, D. C., a rally to protest the acceptance of abortion in American society.

Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine: Another example of nonviolent resistance is found in the work of the Holy Land Trust, which “seeks to strengthen and empower the Palestinian community in developing spiritual, pragmatic and strategic approaches that will allow it to resist all forms of oppression and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model and pillar of understanding, respect, justice, equality and peaceful coexistence.” One of the participants is Archbishop Theodosius Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a well-known opponent of the Israeli occupation and an outspoken advocate of the unification of the Palestinian people.

There has also been Orthodox involvement in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, an ecumenical project that provides an international nonviolent presence, offering a degree of greater protection to people under military occupation through reporting and monitoring, for example at military checkpoints, while providing solidarity with people struggling against the Israeli occupation.

In situations where the very existence of the Christian community is under attack, as in Palestine, simply to maintain the life of the Church is a form of nonviolent resistance to the intentions of the occupying power. For example, Dr. Maria Khoury describes the witness of Orthodox Palestinians in the village of Taybeh as a peaceable presence in stark contrast to the ongoing war between Israelis and Muslims: “We Palestinian Christians don’t believe in the violent struggle and we don’t believe in suicide bombings, but because we live the same frustrating life – our human dignity is violated every single day – we understand why this leads people to violence. Nevertheless, as Christians we have to be above these natural responses, and this is why our presence is so important.”

Dr. Khoury draws attention to nonviolent protests against the wall around Bethlehem “that has taken so much of the [Palestinians’] farmland and denies the farmers access to their own fields,” as well as protests against illegal Israeli settlements. Nonviolent resistance has often had a heavy cost for Palestinian Christians. For example, when the largely Christian town of Beit Sahour refused to pay taxes in 1989 to protest their lack of political representation, the Israeli military authority blocked food shipments for 42 days, cut phone lines, barred reporters and leveled over 350 homes, seizing millions of dollars in money and property.

International Orthodox Christian Charities has sustained many projects in education, agriculture, emergency relief and economic development for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though we rarely think of charitable efforts as types of nonviolent resistance, they certainly are in situations where they frustrate the efforts of dominant powers to destroy a community and a people.

A group of Christians under the name of Kairos Palestine declares that nonviolent resistance to injustice is a right and a duty for all Palestinians, including Christians. Kairos Palestine has been blessed by Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and the hierarchs of Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and other churches. Palestinian Christians are called to see in their enemies the image of God as they enact “active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression” and return their “land, freedom, dignity and independence.” Such resistance opposes “evil in all its forms with methods that enter into the logic of love and draw on all energies to make peace.” Promoting civil disobedience and respect for life, the Kairos document calls for “individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation,” the purpose of which “is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.”

Such contemporary examples of activism, and of cooperation with other religious, political and social movements, demonstrate that Orthodox nonviolent resistance is not reserved for the classic martyr or confessor who suffers for refusing to commit apostasy or heresy. Whenever Orthodox use nonviolent means to protest injustice or to work toward the creation of a social and political order more in keeping with God’s purposes for humanity, they are rightly understood to be involved in nonviolent resistance as a legitimate form of witness and action.

Theological Considerations: Olivier Clément cautions against making “nonviolence into a system” which forgets that Christ was crucified. In other words, there is an innate tension between Orthodox nonviolent resistance and the dynamics of human societies. Taking up the cross is rarely a way to achieve power and success as defined by the world. “The life of Gandhi was so fruitful precisely because of his constant willingness to lay it down, and the same was true of Martin Luther King.” In his book, On Human Being, Clément notes that

 

It is the Church’s business not to impose methods, even nonviolent ones, but to witness in season and out of season to the creative power of love. The problem is not one of violence or non-violence at all; and the solution, which can never be more than partial, lies in the ability to transform, as far as possible and in every circumstance of history, destructive violence into creative power. The cross which, as Berdyaev memorably said, causes the role of worldly existence to bloom afresh, here signifies not resignation, but service; not weakness, but creative activity.

 

“Fools for Christ” have provided some of the most creative activity in the history of the Church, and their example sheds light on the calling to nonviolent resistance. As Christos Yannaras explained in The Freedom of Morality, Holy Fools show “that salvation and sanctity cannot be reconciled with the satisfaction that comes from society’s respect and objective recognition.” They challenge “conventional standards and ideas of a world which measures the true life and virtue of man with the yardsticks of social decorum and ontology.” Their witness “manifest[s] prophetically the contrast between ‘the present age’ and the age of the Kingdom, the basic difference in standards and criteria.” Their complete abandonment of the ego enables them to accept their “own sin and fall, without differentiating it from the sin and fall of the rest of mankind” and to “transfigure this acceptance into…a life of incorruption and immortality.”

To take up the path of nonviolent resistance is usually to appear foolish and irresponsible in the eyes of the dominant culture and perhaps also of many in the Church. To suffer execution, torture, imprisonment, exile, unemployment or even a significant inconvenience in lifestyle as a result of refusing to endorse or cooperate with evil is irrational according to the dominant thinking of humanity. Pilate could not understand Christ, and the idea of a Messiah who died on a cross was simply foolishness to the Jews. To the present time, the risks to one’s safety and success associated with nonviolent resistance call for those who accept them to abandon their egos, to become fools for Christ’s sake.

In such humility, however, there is unparalleled freedom. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in The Orthodox Way, the Holy Fool “combines audacity with humility. Because he has renounced everything, he is truly free. Like the fool Nicolas of Pskov, who put into the hands of Tsar Ivan the Terrible a piece of meat dripping with blood, he can rebuke the powerful of this world with a boldness that others lack. He is the living conscience of society.” Orthodox who undertake nonviolent resistance may look to the Fools for Christ as models of the kind of dying to self that enables one to point out the imperfections and contradictions of present social orders in light of the Kingdom of God. Nonviolent activists provide an eschatological critique of the brokenness and partiality of even the best attempts to manifest social justice. And rather than making their enemies suffer, they will take upon themselves the consequences of turning the other cheek even to those who have no hesitation in using violence in order to get their way.

Such a vocation is a way of ascesis, of fighting to overcome one’s passions for self-righteous judgment and vengeance. Even in the pursuit of nonviolent resistance, there is the temptation to pride and self-righteousness – being on the side of the angels – unlike one’s opponents. Those who engage in nonviolent action require ongoing spiritual vigilance so that they will embrace their work as a selfless offering of themselves on behalf of their neighbors, and not as a monument to their own moral and spiritual purity. Resistance to evil must always begin with resistance to the evil of one’s own sins and passions, with taking up the cross and following the Lord in humility.

In Encountering the Mystery, Patriarch Bartholomew stresses the spiritual roots of nonviolent resistance, stressing that it “can never be reduced to an anxious attempt to prevent something terrible from happening to us. On the contrary, the resistance of silence can serve as a forceful ‘no’ to everything that violates peace…. Peace rests in the undoing of fear and develops on the basis of love. Unless our actions are founded on love rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism…. Only those who know – deep inside the heart – that they are loved can be true peacemakers.” Such peacemaking is “deeply rooted in the all-embracing love of God” and makes “a radical response” that “threatens policies of violence and the politics of power” and gives “the ultimate provocation” by loving and refusing to intimidate the enemy. Through the silence of prayer and turning away from “our pride, passions, and selfish desires,” human beings become capable of participating in the “love and generosity” of Christ as they respond actively to situations of injustice. In these ways, the Ecumenical Patriarch identifies nonviolent resistance and peacemaking as practical manifestations of Orthodox theology that grow from the very heart of the faith. ❖

Fr. Philip LeMasters is priest at St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church, Abilene, Texas, and teaches Christian Ethics at McMurry University. He is the author of The Goodness of God’s Creation (Regina Orthodox Press) and has participated in Orthodox consultations on peace ethics in Greece, Romania and Syria. This is a shortened version of a soon-to-be published paper presented in June at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

A High Wind of Grace in Jamaica

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

By Alexander Patico

The winds of grace are always blowing; it is but for us to raise our sails.

– Sri Ramakrishna

Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)

Above: Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)

I was fortunate to be one of the thousand people who gathered in Kingston, Jamaica in May for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, an event marking the end of what the World Council of Churches had christened the Decade to Overcome Violence.

We were a diverse group, from the still-campaigning aged to the fresh, energetic young, from those who work “in the trenches” – from war protests to helping rape victims – to those who write and teach in academic settings. Some were survivors of violence and some were healers and some were both. There were torture victims determined to reduce the size of that fraternity of sufferers, and the lesbian person who lived in shame and self-doubt until finding fellow-sufferers and discovering her own voice. There were the parish leaders trying to shepherd their flocks through “the valley of the shadow of death” – from war to street crime – on a daily basis.

Clearly we who took part in the Decade to Overcome Violence did not succeed in our eponymous mission, but then none of us had imagined coming anywhere near such a utopian vision. Far from being overcome, violence persists in an infinity of locations with ever more deadly effectiveness, with robot warriors increasingly shedding human blood. Our convocation wasn’t a celebration.

And, yet whenever we sing “We Shall Overcome,” it’s not in expectation of a miracle. Rather, we are just stating our certainty that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We may not hope to see either peace or justice achieved in our own lifetimes, but we must do our best to bend that arc a fraction of a degree in the time God gives us.

Why was I there? When asked, I said that I represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, a group with members worldwide, though with the majority in North America – a group from a diversity of Orthodox jurisdictions – a fellowship most of whose scattered members have yet to meet each other face to face.

In another sense, of course, I was there as an individual. As a Christian, I cannot pretend that overcoming violence is “someone else’s job.” If I claim Christ, I claim his cross and his call to reverence and to protecting life. This I had in common with nearly all the extraordinary delegates assembled for seven days on the campus of the University of the West Indies. People who, in practice as well as theory, are “their brothers’ keepers.” People who in their daily lives are “known by how they love one another.” People who, as Jesus says in the beatitude of peacemaking, are to be known as “children of God.”

The setting was new to me, but at the same time familiar. It felt like the UN conferences on sustainable development I had attended in Rio and Johannesburg. It also seemed a bit like a summer camp, though without the archery and the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk. Masses of people who, as the days went by, gradually shifted from name tags into people, and then, in many cases, friends.

We talked after plenaries, comparing impressions of the speakers. During Bible studies, we teased out the meanings of phrases written long ago. Over meals, we shared information about the projects awaiting our return back home. Over drinks we talked about what we hoped for our families, our communities, for the world. We walked and we talked, back and forth on the sweltering college campus that was our temporary home. Important areas of discussion included:

Conscientious objection: In various ways and to different degrees, many governments seek to stifle the “still, small voice” of conscience. Until Kingston I didn’t know there are some 900 South Koreans jailed each year for attempting to be recognized as CO’s, or that both men and women are conscripted in Eritrea, with harsh treatment awaiting those who refuse to wage war. The UN Commission on Human Rights declared over fifteen years ago that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.” Developing this issue a few years later, that body acknowledged that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.” Even so, in most countries conscientious objectors in uniform often end up in military prisons. “Selective” conscientious objection – objection to engagement in a particular war and not necessarily to war in general – is something that is still not recognized in law in the US and many other countries,

Diversity and tolerance: I have never heard respect for “the other” expressed quite so well as one conferee did: “We are all different! God made us all in his image – God must be truly magnificent!” Indeed, Rabbi Arthur Waskow once shared with me the Talmudic wisdom that the coin Jesus pointed to, when he said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” was identical to other similar coins, whereas the products of God’s mint – human beings – are each unique. Each is made in the image of our divine monarch. God embodies the mystery of diversity in unity, while an earthly rulers’ reign is an assembly line of faceless conformity.

Disability, agism, sexism and discrimination: A speaker with a major disability asked the thought-provoking question: “Who exactly are the workers who were hired for the same wages at the eleventh hour – those who so annoyed the ones who were hired first?” They were probably not, she suggested, the strong and able-bodied, nor of the favored ethnicity.

Gays and lesbians: I was unaware of how heated the “debate” about sexual orientation is in places like Moldova, where an Orthodox priest reportedly was among those who attacked a bus carrying activists for gay causes and tried to set it afire. Then there was a case from South Africa, where Millicent Gaika was strangled, tortured and raped for five hours by a man trying to “cure” her of being a lesbian. Or Jamaica itself, where a co-founder of a community organization for gays was murdered with 70 machete wounds to his neck and face.

Theology: After much dialogue with various kinds of Christians, what still came as a shock to me are the truly negative feelings that surround the Eucharist in some churches. There are many who associate the “passion of Christ” principally with suffering and agony – and therefore with an ethic of voluntary submission to abuse at the hands of others – rather than emphasizing the triumph of God over death in the person of Jesus, in a saving outpouring of grace. Clearly for some the Cross is so large it hides the Resurrection. The Pascha-centeredness of the Orthodox Church is not to be taken for granted.

Peace building: It was instructive to have one of our speakers, an Orthodox priest from Eastern Europe, talk of peace building as “a preventive, therapeutic and developmental process.” This short phrase captured so well what is required of the peacemakers. We must act, whenever possible, in advance of disruptions or distortions of God’s beneficent plan. We must not just protect, but also help heal victims of violence. We cannot expect to accomplish much with a tidy plan, but must do as monks do: When we fall, get up and when we fall again, get up again.

During that week on a Caribbean island, I learned why I sit, often lonely, at my desk, reaching out to others whom I rarely see – people who are, like me, trying to “fight the good fight” – paradoxically, a fight which is no fight. Pushing the boulder up the hill again and again, but finding that we “run and are not weary” because we “wait on the Lord,” who strengthens us to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times. Seeking to serve, rather than to vanquish. This is the only struggle in which we can count on the support of Jesus himself. ❖

Alex Patico is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

The Real Saint George

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

by Jim Forest

illustration by Vladislav Andreyev for Saint George and the Dragon (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths.

The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, Saint George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint among saints was the completely fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized. The probable date of his martyrdom was April 23, 303. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda (and today as Lod in what has become Israel).

Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. The attack finally ended in 311. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

Persecution ended, but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed, he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but of cities and whole countries.

In icons made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to George’s name, we see him dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Perhaps he was in the army, but it may be that George is shown in military gear because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith.

Such symbolic use of a soldier’s equipment of war does not rule out the possibility that George was a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people who, in their fear, sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While she was going toward the dragon to meet her doom, George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services and show compassion to the poor.

From the point of view of journalism, the dragon story is a literary invention. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which enslaved and terrified most of the people of his time.

The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he faced the power of death. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.

In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.

Notice how thin the lance is and that, in many Saint George icons, there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.

Similarly, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that, even in conflict, his followers must love their enemies.

In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is

a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s royal parents watch all that happens.

Following George’s victory, icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt – a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.


Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought – courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to prefer the conversion rather than the death of our adversaries;  courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us. ❖

This text is drawn from the afterword of a new children’s book, Saint George and the Dragon, due out in September from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent book is All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.


 

The Invisible Border

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

by Heather Zydek


There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.

You cross the invisible border around 40th Street. Situated near this border is the Miller Brewing Company plant, the Miller Park baseball stadium and a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks – old and young, black and white – stand idly as they wait in the cold for the bus. Across the street, stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” [WIC – Women, Infants, Children – is a federal agency subsidizing food for low-income families.] Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust. Jaywalkers cross cracked streets, entering decaying mansions that were long ago converted to low-income housing.

This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury cars, jog along beautiful river walks after work, drink organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants while listening to live jazz and discussing business and home restoration. This is my world.

I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I am an English tutor at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong and Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just to obtain their financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat daddies, babysitters who failed to turn up, or unreliable bus schedules.

Despite the fact that 60 percent of my students fail my class each semester, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity and the fact many of them have a burning desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life in the suburbs. I forget the borders that divide us until I make that drive back home.

And then I remember. Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In my world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid the “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have obtained master’s degrees, even PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.

I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic wand that would open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, maybe little by little things could change for the better.

The ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.

I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.

I am happy where I live and sad for those living on the other side of the border, yet I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist. ❖

Heather Zydek is a writer, college English instructor and sustainability activist. She is the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World and author of the children’s novel, Basil’s Search for Miracles.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Treasury of Blessings

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

by Fr. John Oliver

Pentecost painting by Duccio

Above: Pentecost painting by Duccio

“In the Holy Spirit is the fountain of divine treasures; for from Him cometh wisdom, awe and understanding. To Him, therefore, be praise, glory, might and honor.” This brief hymn to the Holy Spirit from the service of Matins reminds us that our blessings ultimately come from outside ourselves. The “divine treasures” we enjoy are not ours by nature but by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

These treasures include attributes described by the apostle Paul: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) These nine jewels beautify whoever possesses them – or rather they beautify whoever possesses the Holy Spirit, for Christian life consists not in reaching for the fruit but in acquiring the Spirit.

There is a difference between fruit and Tree, between treasure and King, between gift and Giver. The Christian receives the one but pursues the other. The prodigal son returns to the loving embrace of his father, not to the nice robe, rings, new sandals or the fatted calf. His relationship is not with the good things, but with his father.

Consider the counsel of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” At first we might hear Saint Seraphim saying: become a peaceful person; go and do peaceful things. In fact he is calling on us to acquire the Holy Spirit.

Is the distinction important? The prayer to the Holy Spirit refers to Him as the “Treasury of good things,” so to reach for the fruits listed by St. Paul is like trying to live like God apart from God. The goal of Christian life is not to force our behavior to fit categories of “love,” “joy,” “peace,” etc. If that were true, Christian experience would merely be like painting a house that needs a new foundation or trying to improve behavior without taming the heart. Deep change is needed.

Christian life is about becoming a new creation in Christ, a process of daily renewal. Such inner renewal brings the heart under the control of the Holy Spirit, who then releases the attributes St. Paul described through us according to His time, measure, purpose and glory.

Without the Holy Spirit, love degenerates into lust, sentimentality or mere companionship. We reach for another out of selfishness, insecurity or loneliness; we become motivated by needs that ignore boundaries. We crave intense feelings, even drama. Instead of pursuing something noble we settle for emotionalism. With the Holy Spirit, love makes both the giver and the receiver well, even holy. We suffer long and kindly. We do not envy or parade ourselves or act puffed up but rejoice in the truth and bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. Relationships are born and grow in freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Saint Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, “there is liberty.”

Without the Spirit, joy degenerates into the pursuit of pleasure, a passage through life solely to avoid pain, pursuing only light while avoiding the darkness so necessary for spiritual growth. We imperceptibly knit ourselves to the fabric of this passing world and its transitory comforts. Living in search of good times, we grow weak. With the Holy Spirit, joy is not forced to become happiness. We are willing to sacrifice pleasure and happiness so that joy, which is not as dependent on circumstance, might emerge. We rest in the promises of God that run deeper than everything that troubles life’s surface. We know how to rejoice with those who rejoice, seeking nothing of our own and feeling no competition. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to embrace joy and reject its counterfeits.

Without the Holy Spirit, peace degenerates into conflict avoidance. We seek exterior tranquility as a distraction from inner turmoil. We lose principles worth defending and differences worth celebrating. We underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil, especially our own. With the Holy Spirit, peace reserves the right to a special kind of violence required to seize the kingdom of God (Mt 11:12). We wage war with ourselves, calmly battling passions that refuse to die easily. We discover an inner stillness. We do not react and we do not resent. We grow undisturbed by troubling thoughts as the heart enters a state of quiet listening. Because we have accepted this daily and quiet martyrdom, we grow into vessels of stillness that benefit others. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to become the peace that passes understanding.

Without the Holy Spirit, patience degenerates into sloth. We lose the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. We grow tolerant of inappropriate delay; we lose the relationship between justice and timing. We mistake laziness for perseverance. We neglect. With the Holy Spirit, patience pursues, but does not rush, a desired outcome. We do not force an agenda; we resist our need for control. We exercise the right restraint at the right time in the right way. We understand that no one can disturb our interior peace without our permission. We trust in God’s timing and in His way of doing things. We accept that true soul work is often slow, unhurried, mundane. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern the difference between waiting and hesitating.

“Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.” — St. Seraphim of Sarov

St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”

Without the Holy Spirit, kindness degenerates into a lack of resolve. We lose the ability to say no. We erode the boundaries that define our personhood. We pacify beyond what is healthy, even enabling another’s self-destruction. We draw near when distance is called for and remain distant when nearness is needed. We forget what anger is for. With the Holy Spirit, kindness is not defeated by fatigue or prejudice or argument. We learn when an acquaintance should remain an acquaintance, and when an acquaintance should become a friend. We become generous and are not devastated when there is no return. We are honest, but not cruel; warm, but not seductive. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to express kindness while a storm of irritability may rage within.

Without the Holy Spirit, goodness degenerates into mere morality. We focus on external behavior and forget the condition of the heart. We compare ourselves with others, and usually come out favorably. We grow smug. We become legalistic, shallow, bland. With the Holy Spirit, goodness becomes empathy. We grow sensitive to those in need, including ourselves. Being right becomes less important than becoming righteous. Our understanding of the good transcends contemporary trends and cultural taste. We learn where true good is from and where it leads; we discern the fingerprints of God. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern God in all good and all good in God.

Without the Holy Spirit, faithfulness degenerates into inertia. We favor predictability over risk; we get stuck. We mistake fear for perseverance. We lose identity, energy and those qualities that distinguish us. We waste time, accomplish nothing, and fail to make the world a better place because we were here. We lack vision. With the Holy Spirit, faithfulness means we become not stuck but still. Distractions do not reach a heart that abides in a state of constant listening, so that when God says to move, we move. We follow where He leads, willing even to enter the dark. We are obedient but free; we voluntarily suffer. We choose the way of God even when no one is watching. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to understand faith as inseparable from faithfulness.

Without the Holy Spirit, gentleness degenerates into a lack of boundaries. We lose will power; we become passive. Assertiveness looks too much like aggression, and decisiveness too much like violence. Men, in fear, swerve toward the safe, the joyless, the weak; women favor the shy, the sentimental, the self-protective. With the Holy Spirit, gentleness becomes hospitality. We keep a reign on ourselves and make room for others to grow in our midst. We learn how to resist forcing ourselves on others, in body, will and opinion. We use a light touch if it will put people at ease and a heavy touch when necessary, but with grace. Silence no longer disturbs but nourishes. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to harness the energy of meekness.

Without the Holy Spirit, self-control degenerates into self-suffocation. We lose vibrancy; we lose life’s vivifying energy. We grow rigid and legalistic and recoil from what appears uncontrollable. The proper goals of discipline are lost as discipline becomes the goal itself. We intimidate others and provoke their suspicion. With the Holy Spirit, self-control means we become God’s clean instrument. We embrace fasting and prayer, and understand the role of the body in acquiring or losing salvation. Moderation is seen as strength and not weakness. Because we neither indulge the self nor obsess over the self, we can restrain or celebrate as an occasion calls for. With the Holy Spirit, willpower is delivered from the tyranny of the flesh.

The prayer to the Holy Spirit calls this “Treasury of good things” to “come and abide in us.” We do not approach God as a cosmic slot machine, feeding Him with the right formula of prayers and good deeds for the purpose of gaining a jackpot of favors in return. Instead, we are like children, who, as we grow and mature, discover that our true relationship all along was not with the gifts given to us by our Caretaker but with the Caretaker Himself. To keep that relationship alive, God may grant His gifts to us in measure and withdraw them for a season. “Why did the tongues appear to be divided among [the disciples]?” asks Saint Gregory Palamas. “Because the Spirit is given by measure by the Father to all except Christ. . . . Each one obtained different gifts, lest anyone should suppose the grace given to the saints by the Holy Spirit was theirs by nature.” [St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, edited and translated by Christopher Veniamin]

And when grace falls upon the ready soul, the chest of treasures overflows. Nine becomes no longer a number but a symbol of the numberless gifts that pour from the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov gave us the counsel to “acquire the Spirit of peace,” but he also gave us a radiant example of what acquiring the Spirit can mean. Material treasures shine, but, as his experience of the Holy Spirit reveals, not as brightly as the person who fully acquires the immaterial “Treasury of good things,” an acquisition that begins, according to Saint Seraphim, in the cleansing waters of baptism. ❖

Fr. John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church, in Murfreesboro, TN. This is a condensed extract from his latest book, Giver of Life: the Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition (Paraclete Press, 2011). A graduate of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, he joined the faculty as instructor in Old and New Testament and American Religious History. He and his wife Lara have three daughters and two sons.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

The Muddle that is the Middle East

Friday, September 24th, 2010

by Alexander Patico

These days, we Christians have a reputation often based on our prejudices rather than our principles, our irritations with our neighbors rather than our love of neighbor. As the Orthodox columnist Terry Mattingly recently put it, Christians “are known best for what they are against.” We were once known for how well we loved one another. Not any more.

In his recent book, The Goodness of God’s Creation, Fr. Philip LeMasters says, about warfare, that we must not use the utilitarian criterion of Western culture in making life-and-death decisions. As Orthodox Christians, we must ask, “In the light of the human vocation for growth in holiness and communion with God, how should Christians respond to the prospect of warfare?” In any such cases, we must ask what the law of love commands – including in our response to the recent events in Gaza, and the ongoing conundrum of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The situation can, admittedly, be confusing. Labels often obfuscate: “Israeli” can be taken to mean citizens of the State of Israel (Jews, Arabs and others), or the government of Israel. Sometimes it is blurred to include supporters in other parts of the world. The term “Palestinians” can be used to mean “those who were born in Palestine” (whether in what is now Israel, on the West Bank, in Gaza, or wherever they now live); or it can mean “leaders of the Palestinian government” (including or excluding Hamas), or those who live in the occupied territories Muslim, Christian or something else).

The law of love leads us out of such briar patches of nomenclature. Whatever labels may be put on us, we are all brothers and sisters. While Paul was referring to the Church when he said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female,” whom can we place beyond the pale?

To heal the region, we must first put aside political divisions and historical Gordian knots, to recognize the basic human nature of the antagonists with all their needs and aspirations.

What is an Israeli Jew? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person with a rich tradition of searching and scholarship about how to treat fellow inhabitants of this earth. One with a special sense of connection to those who have been ostracized, oppressed or eliminated in many places and many times. A person who lives in some degree of fear.

What is a Palestinian? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person whose ancestors may have been among the first disciples of Christ, or among the early followers of Mohammad. A person with a sense of connection to those who have been displaced, made homeless or bombed. A person who lives in fear.

We Christians should be able to empathize with the anguish of Jews who never envisioned the State of Israel becoming an occupying force. After all, we went through the mixed blessing of having the Emperor Constantine embrace our faith, conflating temporal dominion with divine kingdom. We saw bloody crusades launched in the name of Christ, and the blasphemy of believers remaining quiet when their countrymen rounded up Jews, dissidents and the “defective.”
We can empathize with Palestinians excluded from their homes and homeland, stripped of human rights, punished as a people for the actions of a minority, with no power over their lives. We too have known, and still know, persecution (under the Ottomans, under Communism and in India today). We have picked up the rock – and the rocket – when we thought our lives depended on it.

There is no crime seen in this situation, of omission or commission, which has not been committed by those who called themselves Christians. So how, with our own blood-stained past, can we be helpful? We can – in just the way Our Lord specified – by showing our capacity to love.

We must remember the words of Dr. King, who said that the church “must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. … But if the church … will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of humankind and fire the souls of the people.”

Loving all the participants in this ghastly, perpetual drama of strike and counter-strike, intifada and walls, checkpoints and bus-bombings, means refusing to take sides. Refusing to sell armaments. Refusing to justify what cannot be justified, whether high-tech or low-tech, whether done out of desperation, preemption or revenge.

Positively, it means being willing to share our own experience, expertise and wealth, to reconcile the mortal enemies, and make the desert of Jewish and Arab hearts bloom. These are not easy things to do. But protesting the actions of others has always been easier than doing something constructive and redemptive ourselves.    ❖

Alexander Patico coordinates activities of OPF in North America. He has written previously for In Communion and authored a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iran relations.

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

Restoring the Diaconate of Women

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

by Teva Regule

“Master and Lord, You do not reject women who offer themselves, and by divine counsel, to minister as is fitting to your holy houses, but you accept them in the order of ministers. Give the grace of your Holy Spirit to this servant of Yours also, who wishes to offer herself to you, and to accomplish the grace of the diaconate, as You gave the grace of Your diaconate to Phoebe, whom you called to the work of the ministry….”

These are the beginning words of the second prayer of ordination of the female deacon in the Byzantine rite.  The female diaconate is a part of our history.  For over one thousand years, the Orthodox Church ordained women to serve as deaconesses. As the Orthodox theologian, Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, writes in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:

According to Byzantine liturgical texts, the ordination of the woman deacon occurred as any other ordination to major orders.  It took place during the celebration of the Eucharist and at the same point in the service that the male deacon was ordained.  She was ordained at the altar by the bishop, and later in the service, received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy. Depending upon the need, location and situation in history, the deaconess ministered primarily to the women in the community in much the same way that the male deacon ministered to men…. [The order] was gradually de-emphasized sometime after the twelfth century. It should be noted, however, that there does not exist any canon or Church regulation that opposes or suppresses the order.”

For over a century, various voices within the Church have called for the restoration of the female diaconate.  But what is the diaconate?  What is its function in the life of the Church? How has it evolved over time? What did the female deacon do? We know some of the roles of the historical deaconess. Lay women today are filling many of these functions. Is it still necessary to have an ordained ministry?  Is a permanent diaconate, especially a female diaconate, needed in the Church today?  What could this ministry look like in the 21st century?

The Diaconate in History: The Church’s ministry, modeled after Christ’s example, grew out of the needs of the community. In the early Church, when the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, the Apostles realized that they could not attend to both the word of God and serve “tables.” According to the account in Acts, they sought out “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” This marked both the embryonic beginning of the office of the deacon.

The first place where we find the word “deacon” used as a title is in Romans. St. Paul writing to the Romans says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae…” The works of Origen and Chrysostom show that patristic tradition upholds Phoebe’s position as a deaconess.

In one of the letters from Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan (112 AD), Pliny asks for guidance on how to handle the Christian sect, writing that he had to place “two women called >deaconesses’ under torture.”

We have a general understanding of the functions of the male and female deacon from early church documents. Each was answerable to the bishop. The male deacons ministered to men while the female deacons ministered to women. Each also had a liturgical role, although there is disagreement as to their precise functions. This parallelism can be seen in the Apostolic Constitutions passage that outlines the character of the deacon:

Let the deacons be in all things unspotted, as the bishop himself is to be, only more active; …that they may minister to the infirm…. And let the deaconess be diligent in taking care of the women; but both of them ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister, and to serve…

This reflects an earlier understanding of the functions of the office found in the Didascalia Apostolorum. The Didascalia contains sections on the character of the deaconess and her ministry of assisting in the baptism of women and instruction of women converts.

During the Byzantine period, the diaconal office in the east, especially that of women, flourished, as we see this in the many women deacon saints on the calendar, including Sts. Macrina, sister of Sts. Gregory and Basil (July 19), Nonna, wife of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (August 5), Olympias, friend and confidant of John Chrysostom (July 25), Xenia “the merciful” (Jan 24), and Irene of Chrysovalantou (July 28) We also have descriptions of the makeup of the clergy serving during the Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, including “forty deaconesses.”

During this time, the male diaconate in the East grew in prominence, holding high positions in church governance, including participating in the Ecumenical councils (e.g. Athanasius of Alexandria, a deacon, was secretary for his bishop at the Council of Nicaea in 325). They also served as emissaries and ambassadors of the episcopal seat in diplomatic matters and were administers of church-run homes for the poor and widows, orphanages, and hospitals.

The order of the female diaconate began to decline sometime after the twelfth century. There were fewer adult baptisms so female deacons were no longer needed at initiation. In addition, in late Byzantium the rise of influence of Levitical rules, especially regarding women, led to the perception that the shedding of blood made a woman Aunclean” and therefore, unable to enter the sanctuary or participate in the liturgical life of the Church, though this was in direct contradiction to the understanding of >uncleanness’ found in the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions. Chapter 26 of the Didascalia admonishes Christians to abandon the rabbinical rules of ‘uncleanness’: “Are they devoid of the Holy Spirit? For through baptism they receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess Him…”

The Apostolic Constitutions extends this emphasis: “For neither the lawful mixture [intercourse], nor childbearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution can defile the nature of a [person], or separate the Holy Spirit from him…. but only impiety towards God, transgression, and injustice towards one’s neighbor…”

With the rise of Islam and the subsequent fall of the Eastern part of the Roman empire to the Ottomans, the Church turned inward. It could no longer participate in many of the philanthropic aspects of its ministry. Moreover, many of the traditional duties of the male deacon were being assumed by the priest and by the growing number of those in the so-called “minor orders.” This led to the position of the diaconate being perceived as more of a “transitional” one along the way to being ordained a presbyter. Although the male deacon retained his role in the liturgical assembly, the office had devolved greatly. Unfortunately, this is what typically remains of the order in the East today.

Modern Renewal of the Office: In modern times, the diaconate has experienced a renewal and rejuvenation, most notably (and somewhat ironically) in the Western Christian churches. While this movement is due mostly to the needs of the local churches, it is instructive to us, as Orthodox Christians, to realize that the theological reasoning and justification for a re-institution of the order came from careful study of the Early Church, primarily its expression in the East.

Although the diaconate in the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained an active ministry since apostolic times, its scope and function have greatly diminished since the fall of Byzantium. The male diaconate generally functions solely in the liturgical realm and, oftentimes, is only a transitional stage on the way to ordination to the presbytery. The female diaconate has virtually disappeared.

There have been numerous attempts for over 150 years to reinstitute the female diaconate. As early as 1855, the sister of Czar Nicholas I tried to restore the office. Other prominent Russians also lobbied for its restoration, including Aleksandr Gumilevsky and Mother Catherine (Countess Efimovsky). In 1905-06, several bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans of the Russian Orthodox Church encouraged the effort. This issue was to be a major topic at the Council of the Russian Church beginning in 1917, but due to the political turmoil in Russia at the time, the council’s work was not suspended. (Other items on the agenda included adopting the use of the vernacular in the liturgical services and the reinstitution of the married episcopacy.)

Other efforts were made in Greece. On Pentecost Sunday in 1911, Archbishop (now Saint) Nektarios ordained a nun to the diaconate to serve the needs of the monastery. A few years later, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens appointed Amonastic ‘deaconesses,’ nuns in fact appointed to the subdiaconate.

More recently, the issue has been discussed at the international conferences for Orthodox women in Agapia, Romania in 1976 (at which its restoration was unanimously recommended), Sophia, Bulgaria in 1987, Rhodes, Greece in 1988), Crete in 1990, Damascus, Syria in 1996 and Istanbul in 1997.

In July of 2000, after over a year of careful review of the subject, a letter was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch by more than a dozen members of the Orthodox community in Paris, among them Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy, Olivier Clément, and Nicolas Lossky. The letter notes that the Patriarch himself has stated that there is Ano obstacle in canon law [that] stands in the way of the ordination of women to the diaconate. This institution of the early Church deserves to be revitalized.” It also states that the order should Ainvolve more than a simple and archaeological reconstitution of the ancient ministry of the deaconesses … It is a question of its revitalization … in the context of the … present day.”

What would the deaconess do in the Church today? The question is generally preceded by the acknowledgment that the ancient deaconess assisted in the baptism of women, etc. It is oftentimes assumed that since we no longer have many adult baptisms (infant baptism being the norm) that we no longer need deaconesses. (Although a simplistic analogy, it is interesting that the same question is not asked of the male diaconate. i.e. Since we no longer need ‘table servers’ at the Eucharist, a function of the biblical diaconate, why do we need male deacons?) This issue has been discussed within Orthodox circles as well. According to the report of the Crete consultation (1990), a deacon or deaconess could

lead people in prayer, give spiritual counsel, distribute Holy Communion where possible. The renewal of the diaconate for both men and women would meet many of the needs of the Church in a changing world… catechetical work… pastoral relations… serving the same needs for monastic communities without a presbyter … reading prayers for special occasions, …performing social work … pastoral care … engaging in youth and college ministry … counseling … anointing the infirm …carrying out missionary work … ministering to the sick, … assisting the bishop or presbyter in the liturgical services….

The report concludes that a creative restoration of the diaconate for women, could lead in turn to the renewal in the diaconate for men as well.

The Liturgical Role of the Female Deacon: When discussing the reinstitution of the female diaconate, the question of her liturgical role, including her service within the altar area, often arises. It is my opinion, if this question were settled, we would currently have women deacons in the Orthodox Church.

According to the First Apology of Justin the Martyr (100-165 AD), the ministry of the deacon was expressed in the liturgical celebration of the gathered assembly gathered for the Eucharist,

reading the Gospel, leading the intercessions of the people, receiving the gifts of the people and ‘setting the table’ for the meal, serving the Eucharistic meal…. [Moreover] the social service carried on by the deacons seems to be been rooted in the liturgical celebration.

As we have seen, the link between liturgy and service is crucial not only to the office of the diaconate, but to our understanding of what it means to gather as Church in worship. It is in our service to the other that we are united with them. Our service to the other brings them with us to worship. We are their visible representatives.

Although the liturgy enables us to encounter God in a variety of ways and at differing levels, allowing us to experience a “taste of the Kingdom,” we must always remember that we are not fully, as yet, in the eschaton (end times). We live in the here and now and are called to draw all closer to God. In my opinion, it is a distortion of the office to have the male deacon serve only during the liturgy, but not within the community, and conversely, to have a future female deacon serve within the community, but not during the liturgy.

As Dr. FitzGerald says in her book, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:

It is important to remember that in the past women deacons did have important responsibilities in the Eucharistic assembly as well as in the administration of baptism, in praying with and for those in need, and in bringing Holy Communion to those unable to attend the Eucharist. … Today, these expressions of ministry can certainly continue. At the same time, we also need to examine how women deacons can participate in the Eucharist and other liturgical services in a manner which is expressive of the living Tradition of the Church and which is not defined by cultural norms of another time.

Need? But do we really need a rejuvenated diaconate and, in particular, a restored female diaconate? To help answer this question, it is instructive to understand the responsibilities of a typical parish priest.

Fr. Alexander Garklavs outlined a number of functions expected of today’s parish priest in his presentation at the 2004 Pastoral Conference held at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in June 2004. In additional to all the liturgical duties of the priest (Sunday and any daily liturgical services, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.), he enumerates some of the priest’s responsibilities in parish life, including pastoral visitations, educational work, Bible study, adult study, youth work, teen work, working with choirs and choir directors, marriage preparation, marital counseling, visiting shut-ins, grief counseling, hospital visits, office work, preparing and printing bulletins and schedules, parish mailings, aspects of parish administration, etc.

In 1953, Archbishop Michael of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America realized that there is so much to do in each community that

the endeavors of these priests alone do not suffice. For should the priest wish to know, as he must, his spiritual children by name, their problems, and their spiritual and moral needs, this would certainly be beyond his physical and spiritual resources. These tremendous needs of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has urged us to make a fervent appeal such as this to our daughters-in-Christ… With the future welfare of our Church and membership at heart, we are considering the establishment in this country of an order of deaconess.

Clearly, a rejuvenated diaconate, a ministry that has service as its primary focus, is necessary in our Church today. No one person can fill all the duties necessary for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, AEach of us has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The diaconate is not merely a Astepping stone” to higher orders. It is, as Dr. FitzGerald explains, Aa full and parallel order of ordained ministry to which both men and women are called by God.”

But is an ordained ministry necessary? It is an unfortunate effect of clericalism that lay participation in our churches varies widely. This is especially true of the participation of women. The range of women’s participation in the life of the Church can vary from diocese to diocese and even from parish to parish within each diocese. Still, many laywomen are already doing diaconal work in our parishes.

What does an Aordination” mean? To begin to answer these questions, it is important to remember that we are all called to ministry within the Body of Christ. Each of us is called to minister to others in our daily lives C we are all expected to teach others, especially those in our care. And yet, we set apart certain people to undertake certain care tasks on a professional basis. Unlike us, they must be trained in their profession and pass exams before we, as a society, confer a designation on them as Ateacher” or Amedical professional.” Likewise, throughout history the Church has Aset apart” those Aconsecrated for service.”

The female deacon in the 21st century… The Church is blessed to have a number of laywomen working in diaconal roles already, including pastoral assistants, chaplains, ecclesiarchs, and monastics. Through conversations and reflection, I have collected some of their experiences that I would like to share with just one with you. In this instance I was interviewing a woman serving as a hospital chaplain:

The first time I was scheduled to serve over night as an on-call chaplain, I received a page at 5 AM. I groggily called the Intensive Care Unit, and spoke to a nurse who requested that I visit an anxious, weeping patient who would be undergoing surgery later that morning. I was told that the patient, “Andrew” was Orthodox Jewish. The nurse said that Andrea had a tracheotomy, and therefore could not speak. I entered the small ICU, which was silent but for the beeping ventilator and monitors. I introduced myself to Andrew, a 50-year old man with a scraggly beard and dark eyes. I told him that I would be happy to sit with him in this time of anxiety, and pray with him if he desired. AI understand you are Jewish,” I said, thinking that I might try to locate his rabbi if he had specific religious needs. He shook his head, and began awkwardly attempting to cross himself in an Orthodox manner. “Oh!”, I said, “You’re Orthodox!” Apparently, he had been misunderstood. “Actually, so am I!” I said. His eyes registered surprise and joy, and he began crying calmer, gentler tears. He took a pad and wrote in large, shaky letters, “I am Orthodox. I am scared.” I put my hand on his shoulder and consoled him, and after a short conversation, via the notepad, about his surgery and his fears, I offered to pray for him. I taped an icon of the Resurrection on the wall across from his bed, and standing beside him, chanted the Trisagion prayers and a Psalm. Andrew became visibly calmer; a sense of peace came over his face. He left for surgery, trusting in God’s protection. I did not see Andrew again, but I believe that God led me to him on that early morning, to ease his fears and to refocus his heart on God’s loving presence in a time of suffering.

Consider how much more complete would this story have been if, having been ordained to the diaconate, the chaplain could have brought communion to this afflicted, ailing and frightened man?

It is my hope that the Church will not only restore the ordained female diaconate, but revitalize the office, encouraging women to serve within the community and the Liturgy B borrowing the words of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel of blessed memory B in the Acontext of the culture and present requirements of the day.”

* * *

Teva Regule has completed her Master of Divinity degree at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is now pursuing a second level master’s degree in liturgical theology. She is managing editor of the St. Nina Quarterly (www.stnina.org). This is an abridged version of a paper presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Conference held in Maryland in September. The full text, with footnotes, is on the OPF web site in the Resources section.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51

Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

by Jim Forest

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

– Matthew 5:9

Like fish, we human beings tend to move in schools. When the drums of war are beating and the latest slogan of mass destruction is announced (“for God and country,” “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the war to defeat the axis of evil,” “the war against terrorism”), few and far between are those who, having been summoned, refuse to take up weapons.

On every side, there are those who go willingly, convinced of the war’s rightness or at least confident their government knows what it is doing and would not spend human lives for anything less than the survival of the nation. There are still others who have their doubts but avoid knowing better — they rightly sense that it’s dangerous to look beyond the slogans. There are also those who know that the war at issue is deeply flawed or even unjustified, but who go along anyway, knowing there is always a price to pay for saying no and not willing to pay that price.

For many the idea of disobedience simply doesn’t occur. There is the joy — at least the sense of security — of being in step with others and acting in unity, even if it turns out that such unity is being put to tragic or murderous uses. We’re human beings, after all, and thus — for worse as well as better — profoundly social. We like to bond with those around us — to cheer for the same teams, to see things in a similar way, to be “good citizens,” to do “what is expected of us.” Those of us who are Christians may well find ourselves urged “to do our part” even by our bishops, pastors and theologians.

And yet there are those who say no — sometimes only a few, sometimes many. It depends on the war and also how tolerant or intolerant the government is regarding conscientious objectors. Not many men refused to serve in the armies of the Third Reich — the almost certain penalty was execution. A rare kind of courage — or faithfulness — was required. In the United States, which provided the option either of unarmed service in the military or alternative civilian employment that would be of benefit to the community, tens of thousands of Americans were recognized as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. (However many were not recognized because they only objected to the Vietnam War rather than all wars; as a consequence, many of them were sent to prison while others migrated to Canada or other countries.)

While many conscientious objectors are opposed to war and killing in general, no matter what a particular war’s justifications may be, many others are opposed just to the war currently going on. There are also those who might in theory have fought in purely defensive wars in the past, in which the violence was more limited, but who find that the methods and weapons of modern war of their nature result in the death or maiming of far more innocent people than combatants and for this reason to refuse to take part in war.

Christ’s example

The majority of conscientious objectors are Christians. While some of them approach war via conditions laid out in what is usually called the “just war” doctrine, one of whose requirements is that for a war to be regarded as just it must safeguard the lives of noncombatants, the factor of greatest importance for all Christians is the teaching and example of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels.

Consider the question of war in terms of the example and teaching of Christ during the years between his baptism by John and his execution on the Cross. In which wars did Christ take part? Not one, nor did he say a single word of encouragement to those involved in the war of liberation against the Roman occupiers being fought in that period by those who were called Zealots. Did he kill anyone? Not one person. Indeed he managed to save the life of a woman who had been condemned to death. Did he harm anyone? Not a soul. Which of his followers did he commission to shed anyone’s blood? Not one follower.

Was Jesus a man without anger? Clearly not. In one of the few stories included in all four Gospels, we see him using a whip of chords to chase the money changers from the Temple while overturning their tables. It was a show of rage but not a threat to anyone’s life or health; the only life endangered by such a provocative action was his own.

He said that no greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his brother. The church calendar is mainly a long list of martyrs who did exactly that. How ironic these words of Jesus are so often a text used at the funerals of soldiers. Christ’s words of praise for those who lay down their lives for a brother is not a blessing to kill one’s brothers.

The only one of his disciples to shed blood, a brave action performed by Peter in Christ’s defense, was immediately admonished by Jesus, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

His last miracle before his crucifixion was to heal the wound of the man whom Peter had injured. This compassionate gesture provides a powerful example of what Jesus meant in commanding love of enemies to all those attempting to his follow him.

This raises the question: If one wishes to follow Christ, would that not include trying to be Christ-like in our response to war?

Surely the answer must be yes. Why call ourselves Christians unless we are trying to live in a more Christ-like way? In the words of the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

What any attentive reader of the New Testament finds instead is that peacemaking is an essential dimension of any Christian vocation. It isn’t something optional. Christ stresses the significance of peacemaking by including it in the Beatitudes, a compact summary of the Gospels. The same is true of the Liturgy, in which peace is a condition of worship, as we are reminded every week by the first petition in the Liturgy is, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” We are carefully warned against receiving the Body of Christ while being in a state of enmity.

The Approach of the Early Church

It is helpful to learn all we can about the early Church, in which Christ’s disarming words to Peter — “put away your sword” — were understood as being addressed to all Christians.

In the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, one of the first bishops of Rome, written in the second century, the renunciation of killing men, women and children is a precondition of baptism:

“A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On professions)

In a criticism of Christians written by the pagan scholar Celsus in 173 AD, Christians were sharply condemned for what today would be called conscientious objection to participation in war. “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending the Christian community, the theologian Origen replied: “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.” (Contra Celsum 3,8)

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, does not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather response at the spiritual and transcendent level: “The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

In the same period St. Justin, the Great Martyr, wrote similarly: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere St. Justin wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.” (I Apol. 39)

“The Church,” said Clement of Alexandria, is “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11, 116) “In peace, not in war, we are trained.” (Paedogogus 1,12) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Protrepticus 10)

Saints who were conscientious objectors

In narratives of saints of the early Church that come down to us, some concern those who refused military service or, while in the army, refused to take part in war.

One of the most detailed concerns a young Christian named Maximilian, tried for refusing military service March 12, 295, at Mauritania in Northern Africa. On trial for his life, Maximilian told the proconsul Dion, “I cannot serve because I am a Christian…. I cannot commit a sin. I am a Christian.” “Serve, or you will die,” said the proconsul Dion. “I shall not serve,” responded Maximilian. “You may cut off my head, I will not serve this world, but only my God.” “You must serve,” said Dion, “otherwise you will die miserably.” “I shall not perish,” said Maximilian. “My name is already before the Lord. I may not serve.” Dion said, “Have regard for your youth and serve. This is what a young man should do.” “My service is for my Lord,” Maximilian replied. “I cannot serve the world. I have already told you: I am a Christian.” Proconsul Dion then pointed out, “In the sacred bodyguard of our Lords [the emperors] Diocletian and Maximian, Constantinus and Maximus, there are soldiers who are Christians, and they serve.” Maxmilian replied, “They know what is best for them. But I am a Christian and I cannot do wrong.”

It is a long transcript. Let me cut it short, only adding that the effort of the proconsul to convince Maximilian to become a soldier failed. That day Maximilian was executed with a sword. His last recorded words were, “Thank God.”

There is also the story of one of the great missionary saints of the fourth century, Martin of Tours, born only 21 years after the execution of St. Maximilian.

Martin (named after Mars, the god of war) was the son of a tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard. When only ten, in the year 316, Martin was drawn to Christ thanks to a providential encounter. Despite parental opposition, he became a catechumen. Christianity was at this time no longer illegal, but was far from being the dominant religion. Five years later, Martin – still a catechumen — was obliged, as the son of a veteran officer, to join the Horse Guard himself.

It was while he was stationed is Amiens, France, that the event occurred in his life for which he is especially remembered. Passing on horseback through one of the city gates of Amiens, he noticed a freezing beggar. Martin’s heart went out to the man. Ignoring the ridicule of those witnessing the scene, he responded by cutting his officer’s cape in two, giving half to the man who was nearly naked. It is a scene represented in countless carvings, paintings and stained glass windows, especially in churches and monasteries bearing Martin’s name. That same night, Martin had a vision in which he saw Christ wearing the cape he had given the beggar. (No doubt as a catechumen he knew the Gospel words, “I was naked and you clothed me.”) Martin’s baptism followed soon afterward.

Even in modern Europe — including Holland, where I live, a country where the Reformation succeeded in getting rid of almost all saint-connected celebrations — St. Martin is remembered every year on the eve of his feast day, November 11. The tradition is for lantern-carrying children go door-to-door singing mischievous St. Martin songs in the hope that they too will be objects of a compassionate response — the gift of some candy from all who open their doors.

Another story of St. Martin is told less often, perhaps because it is more challenging.

At about the age of twenty, on the eve of a battle with the Gauls at Worms, his company was called to appear before the emperor to receive a war-bounty on the eve of battle. Refusing to accept such a reward, Martin explained: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others ?\ they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The emperor accused him of cowardice, to which Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was discharged from military service. Perhaps they sensed God’s hand in such an unexpected peace.

After his discharge, Martin became a monk under the guidance of St. Hilary in Poitiers. Later in life, the much-respected monk was chosen as bishop by the clergy and people of Tours. Regarding himself as unworthy, Martin tried hard to avoid the episcopal office. He went into hiding, but the noisy geese with which he took shelter gave him away. (Poor geese! In Austria, Germany and France, many of goose are roasted on St. Martin’s feast day.)

Martin lived a long life, dying at the age of 81 in 397. He was the first confessor who had not died the death of a martyr to be venerated in the West.

The Age of Constantine

The fourth century, of course, was also the century of St. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to favor Christianity rather than regard it as a threat to the social order. During the Church’s first three centuries, Christians had repeatedly been the object of state repression. Many had been martyred ?\ burned, beheaded, crucified, eaten by wild animals, tortured to death. Imperial persecution finally ended in the year 313 when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Though Constantine himself was baptized only on his deathbed and was a member of the Church only the final hours of his life, he nonetheless acted as a protector of the Church and was a person whose life, at its best moments, was clearly influenced to the Gospel. Yet not all his legacy, so far as the Church is concerned, was positive. As St. Jerome observed, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Constantine died in the year 337. Less than half a century later, Christianity had become not just a legal religion but the official religion of the Empire. Far from being persecuted, the Christians were favored by the state. For those who sought advancement, it was all but essential to be a Christian. No longer was the Church only concerned with a kingdom not of this world. Rather it was seen as the ruler’s partner in maintaining the kingdoms of this world.

While Christian attitudes toward war very gradually began to take a new direction following Constantine, remarkably the Church still maintained a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service and participation in war.

The First Ecumenical Council was held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325 in the presence of Constantine. One of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

“As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators are categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but are barred from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. But those who take the matter with indifference, and who think the form of not entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.” (Canon XII)

In the Canons of Hippolytus, written not later than 340 AD, fifteen years later, one finds a section that expands on canons from previous centuries:

“Concerning the Magistrate and the Soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order: they are not to wear wreaths. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

“Whoever has received the authority to kill, or else a soldier, they are not to kill in any case, even if they receive the order to kill. They are not to pronounce a bad word. Those who have received an honor are not to wear wreaths on their heads. Whoever is raised to the authority of prefect or to the magistracy and does not put on the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded from the flock and the bishop is not to pray with him.

“A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.” (Canons XIII-XIV)

St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote late in the fourth century:

“Scripture not only prohibits inflicting the slightest wound, but moreover all foul talk and slander (Col. 3:8; Eph. 4:31) and similar things that proceed from the incensive power of the soul; yet only against the crime of murder our fathers have imposed canonical sanctions. With regard to this crime a distinction is made between involuntary homicide and premeditated murder. As voluntary, murder is considered, first of all, when someone dares to commit this act in a premeditated manner. Secondly those are considered as voluntary murderers who during a fight, while exchanging blows, strike in some dangerous place. For once overcome by wrath and giving way to the movements of anger, during their passion they will not accept anything into their minds that may prevent evil. Therefore a killing that results from a fight is attributed to the effect of compulsion, and not considered an accident. Involuntary homicide can be recognized by the feature that someone, aiming to achieve something else, by accident inflicts such great evil. For those who wish to heal the crime of premeditated murder by repentance, a triple lapse of time is required. Three nine-year periods of penitence are imposed, with nine years in each degree of penitence…

“Involuntary homicide is considered worthy of indulgence, although not praiseworthy. I say this in order to make clear that someone who has defiled himself with murder ?\ be it involuntarily ?\ is considered impure through his impure deeds and the canon considers such a person unworthy of the grace of priesthood. (Canon V, The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene)

While details of penitential practices varied from region to region, in the sixth century, in the canons written by St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome at a time when the Roman Empire in the west was crumbling, the act of killing still required a long break in Eucharistic life. That break was longest for anyone guilty of murder. As St. Gregory wrote: “He that willfully commits murder, and afterwards repents, shall for twenty years remain without communicating of the Holy Sacrament. Four years he must mourn without the door of the oratory, and beg of the communicants that go in, that prayer be offered for him; then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers, for seven years among the prostrators; for four years he shall be a co-stander with the communicants, but shall not partake of the oblation; when these years are completed, he shall partake of the Holy Sacrament.”

Penance for involuntary murder was less severe ?\ eleven years of exclusion from communion. But killing in war also involved the least extended penance: “Our fathers did not regard killing in war as murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three year.” (Canons XI, XIII and LVI)

Christians had once been notable — for some notorious — for their abstention from war and their condemnation of gladiatorial combat and all blood sports. By the fifth century they were found in the military in every rank.

The Just War Doctrine

It was late in the fourth century that the primitive theological foundations were laid by St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, for Christian participation in war. While he maintained the traditional view that the individual Christian is barred from using deadly violence in self-defense, he proposed that defending one’s community was a different matter. However Augustine insisted that under all circumstances Christ’s command that his followers must love their enemies remained in force. (Does love of enemies actually occur in battlefield conditions? Few war veterans would answer in the positive.)

Beginning in the medieval period, a more developed doctrine emerged that sought to define what the conditions were for a just war. Theologians especially associated with the development of just war theory include St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine. Under the terms of this teaching, a war could be considered just, and thus Christians laymen could participate in it, if it met certain conditions: War must be declared by the legitimate authority of the state. It must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or to further economic or territorial gain. The methods and weapons used must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The lives the innocent and noncombatants must be respected. The war must have a reasonable chance of success so that the good results of the war will outweigh the evil caused by it.? War must be the last resort. Finally, the burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

In any western theological text book providing any treatment of war, the reader will find a section on the just war doctrine, though it never became a dogma.

While they have many things in common, one of the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches West is that the just war doctrine was never embraced by the Orthodox Church, despite the fact the Orthodox Christians have been as likely to take part in wars as their western counterparts.

The Orthodox Church never saw war as something which could, even in the case of warding off invaders, be regarded as just or good. Even in situations where there seemed no viable alternative to war, war was regarded as an evil, albeit a lesser evil, but still evil, as inevitably war involves killing and the commission of other grave sins. For this reason clergy were and still are forbidden by Church canons to be combatants in war. Even to kill another person in self-defense or by accident precludes a person from serving at the altar. Thus there are Orthodox priests who do not drive a car because of the danger of inadvertently causing someone’s death.

Fr. Stanley Harakas, long-time professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, in writing about his search through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war, notes: “I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a ?ejust’ war, much less a ?egood’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ?enecessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.” Fr. Harakas discovered what he referred to as “the stratification of pacifism” in the Church. The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances, applied to all baptized Christians in the early Church, in time came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers. ["No Just War in the Fathers," Harakas, posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site.]

Soldier saints

One might ask: If war is seen in the Orthodox Church as an innately sinful endeavor, then how come there are soldier saints on the Church calendar?

In the early Church converts were found in every profession, including soldiers in the military. One of these was the Great Martyr George, the best known of all “soldier saints.”

In icons we are used to seeing St. George battling a dragon, but that image arose centuries after his death. In icons of the first millennium, George stands erect, usually dressed as a soldier, face to face with whoever is praying before the icon.

The actual George never saw a dragon. He died a martyr’s death not unlike that suffered by thousands of other Christians of his generation. The “dragon” George fought against was his own fear as he confronted the demands of his rulers to renounce his Christian faith. George, a young army officer, lived in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian (303 to 311), when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners. George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the heathen gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given renewed courage to others who were already baptized.

His legendary battle with a dragon emerged centuries later: According to the story, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him their children to subdue the dragon’s rage. When it was the turn of Elizabeth, the king’s daughter, to be sacrificed and she was going toward the lake to meet her doom, St. George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance, and afterward led the vanquished creature into the city. The wounded monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized.

The icon of St. George in combat with the dragon is a simple but powerful image of the struggle against evil and fear, represented by the dragon. The white horse St. George rides is a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand ?\ meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often, in the upper left hand corner of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

While there is no record of St. George having taken part in war, one finds in the church calendar saints whose life story includes combat on the battlefield.

One of the best known of these in the Russian Orthodox Church is St. Alexander Nevsky, a prince of Novgorod. In his early life he led successful military campaigns against the Swedish army and later against the Teutonic Knights; Russians still commemorate his victory against the Teutonic Knights on the ice of the Lake Chud in 1242. In 1938, Alexander Nevsky was portrayed by the Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein, as an invincible warrior, an image that met Stalin’s needs at the time and is still dominant in our own day. However, when we study Russian history, we meet not only a warrior but the person Alexander Nevsky later became.

Exchanging his armor for the robe of a diplomat, Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win and winning concessions protecting Church life. Finally he retired from both military and diplomatic roles to put on monastic robes and lead a penitential life. After he died, the people of Russia remembered him as the prince-warrior who became a peacemaker and in the end embraced the ascetic life of a monk. It was as a monk that he was shown in early icons. It was only centuries later, at the time of Czar Peter the Great, that icons of the prince-turned-monk were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than a monk. “In this way,” noted the Russian biblical scholar, Fr. Georgi Chistyakov, “a monastic saint was made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself.”

Like Alexander Nevsky, many saints were soldiers at some time in their lives whose acts of courage and endurance on the battlefield still excite admiration. Nonetheless, the Church has never canonized anyone for his military skills, heroism under fire, or achievements in war.

National identity versus religious identity

To consider the question of conscientious objection requires facing the ways nationalism has shaped my view of myself and may even have damaged or silenced my conscience.

It is not possible to assign a date to the emergence of nationalism as a popular ideology. Some see it as being a major factor in the European reformation movements of the 16th and 17th centuries and the schisms that followed. The French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, is sometimes seen as a starting point. But it is only in the 19th century that nationalism emerged with vigor in many countries and former countries that had in the past been swallowed up by their neighbors, such as Wales by England or Serbia and Greece by the Ottoman Empire. Such modern nations as Italy and Germany had been a patchwork quilt of smaller political units until the late 19th century. For many, nationalism meant the recovery of linguistic and cultural life as well at least some degree of political autonomy. In a country like the United States, nationalism was a means of creating a unifying bond between people whose roots were in other countries. This is probably the reason that the United States alone has a daily ritual in its schools of pledging allegiance to the flag, a “melting pot” exercise.

Nationalism posed, and still poises, a challenge to Christians. Am I first of all a member of the nation into which I happened to be born? Or am I first of all a member of the Body of Christ into which I was baptized? If the state orders me to act in one way and the Gospel in another, which has priority? Am I even capable of recognizing that there might be a conflict between God and country?

It can be an agonizing dilemma. The state has at its disposal extremely powerful methods of winning assent. If these fail, it has the power to punish. One also risks the censure of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even of fellow Christians.

We are easily influenced by the society in which we live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had you been a German in the Hitler years, you would have been under immense social pressure to greet your neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had you been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, you might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than reverencing them. Had you been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had you been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing.

It becomes still harder when the Church, within a nation’s borders, seems to promote nationalism or leave it unchallenged. Orthodox Christians have a tendency to be passionately nationalistic and in too many cases are not welcoming when people of another nationality enter their churches. It’s a long-running Russian Orthodox joke that one is first of all Russian and afterward Orthodox, but not necessarily Christian. Change the national label and it can easily be made into a Greek, Serbian, Romanian or Georgian joke.

There is also the word patriotism. Patriotism and Christianity have become connected words. Sometimes we even find the national flag within our church buildings. “For God and country” is a phrase so often repeated that it sounds more like one word than four. In every war we see photos of chaplains praying with soldiers out on the battlefield as well as leading services at chapels on army bases. We can assume that almost never is love of enemies a theme of sermons (not that it is often a topic of sermons anywhere).

To Kill or Not to Kill?

Finally each of us is left with questions we alone can answer.

I can recall the long hours I spent in the chapel of my Navy base in Washington, DC, reading the New Testament and praying for God’s help as I struggled with the question of whether or not I should remain in the military. My work was only distantly of any relevance to war as such — I was part of a team of Navy meteorologists working at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau. The closest our unit had come to being linked with war was to provide weather predictions that were used in timing the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Even so, it seemed to me the most important thing I was doing in that period of my life was volunteer work in my free time at a church-sponsored home for troubled children. The work I was doing there made me wonder if involvement in works of mercy should not be the ordinary direction in life for a Christian.

It was not so much a question of making judgments about the military. I enjoyed my work and admired many of my colleagues. It was more a question of basic direction. It was a decision being forced on me because I had gotten into trouble with in the Navy for talking part in a demonstration protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion.

I had been given some questions to answer, one of which was: “Are there any circumstances in which you would not obey a command from a senior officer?” The obvious answer for any person with a conscience, no matter what his views about war, was, “Of course there are orders I would not obey. How can anyone promise unwavering obedience without knowing what his obedience might require?” But to give such an answer meant I had no future in the Navy and might even, as had been threatened by officers of the Naval Intelligence Service, be jailed.

Part of that night’s struggle was with fear. Would my friendships be damaged? What would happen to me within the military while my request for a special discharge was pending? What would my Navy co-workers think of me? Might I become an object of derision or violence? If imprisoned, could I survive in such an environment? How would this effect my future?

Somewhere in the middle of what seemed an endless night it became obvious to me that, no matter what else happened, anything less than a truthful answer to the question before me would be not only a mistake but a sin. In the days that followed, I ended up filing for a special discharge as a conscientious objector.

I was fortunate. One of the senior officers in my command gave me his wholehearted support, as did several priests and various other people. I didn’t go to prison. I was given an early discharge.
That night of reading, prayer and reflection has given me a lifetime store of sympathy for anyone facing hard vocational questions, especially when you might face penalties of some kind.
I have no regrets about what I did at that time and what happened as a consequence, but I feel a bond with those who have made very different choices. I look back with profound respect for some of the people I worked with in the years I was wearing the Navy uniform. Not often in my life have I met their equal. They were people of conscience who were deeply serious about their Christian faith. In supporting my application for discharge, one of them may well have sacrificed a promotion from commander to captain. On the way to his decision, at least as hard as mine, he had stayed most of a night reading a book on war and Christianity. No doubt it was a night not only of reading, but also of prayer.

Of the many questions we face, the most important, it seems to me, is how best to follow Christ in the context of the world we live in, with its temptations, its ideologies, it slogans, its idolatries, it sins, it sorrows and its wars.

Seeking assistance

Should you decide to not to join the military for reasons of conscientious objector, or to leave the military for that reason, you are not alone.

While laws about conscientious objection vary from country to country, most countries today recognize conscientious objection as a legal right, though in some recognition is often restricted to persons who object to war in principal rather than a particular war. In the USA, for example, in past periods of conscription, conscientious objectors to a particular wars have often had to serve jail sentences for their refusal to be part of the military.

Typically, conscientious objectors are required either to perform civilian alternative service or, if he or she does not object being in uniform, assigned to noncombatant service within the military. Civilian alternative service is often performed in hospitals or other community agencies.

Non-combatant military service has most often been performed in medical units, though any assignment is possible as long as the use of weapons is not required. It should be kept in mind that non-combatant personnel share in overall military goals. According to the US Army Field Manual, “The primary duty of medical troops, as of all other troops, is to contribute their utmost to the success of the command of which they are apart.”

Many people don’t think seriously about the question of war, peace and personal responsibility until they are actually in the armed forces. For those who become conscientious objectors while in the military, in most countries there are provisions for a special discharge. Usually any chaplain can provide information about how to apply for such a discharge. Many peace organizations also provide practical assistance to conscientious objectors, both in the military and out. Various religious and secular organizations exist to help conscientious objectors. Orthodox Christians seeking assistance should contact the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

There is no shortage of people eager to tell others what to do, be they government leaders, leaders of movements, parents or friends. But each of us stands alone with his conscience before God. Each of us must arrive at his or her own choice. Part of the decision-making process, however, ought to be consultation with people you respect and trust. While once it was difficult to find a pastor who understood or respected conscientious objectors, today it is difficult to find one who does not. The legalization of abortion in many countries has spurred the Church’s understanding of its role in the protection of life at all stages. There is today renewed interest in the witness given against bloodshed by Christians in the early Church.

With or without the support and understanding of friends and family, the questions remain intimately one’s own. What will I do? About war? For peace? With the rest of my life? How can I best follow Christ? The basic question is much larger than whether or not to be a soldier. It’s a question of basic direction. It is a question of putting everything, including citizenship and political opinions, in the context of faith.

Whatever choice we make, we must always bear in mind our responsibility to love even our enemies and to recognize Christ in the stranger. “What you have done to the least person,” Christ reminds us in the Gospel, “you have done to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

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Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Once a petty officer in the U.S. Navy, he received a special discharge as a conscientious objector. An author, his books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, The Resurrection of the Church in Albania, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, All Is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day, Religion in the New Russia, and Pilgrim to the Russian Church.

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Text as revised September 12, 2008

Capital Punishment: Points to Consider

Monday, March 28th, 2005

detail from a St Nicholas icon (early 16th century, The Hermitage, St Petersburg)

from a letter by Jim Forest to a friend in the United States

We are followers of Christ, who killed no one nor blessed anyone to kill and who on one occasion prevented a legal execution, saying to those who intended to take part, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Savior taught us a way of life that centers on love and forgiveness and which seeks the conversion rather than the destruction of our enemies.

It is chiefly through the love and care of others that each of us gradually comes to know the love of God. Can we not hope that people who have committed serious crimes, even murder, might also change for the better and even reach repentance and conversion? Consider the story Dostoevsky tells in Crime and Punishment of how a murderer, Raskolnikov, is led to repentance.

Many people cannot afford capable lawyers and, if indigent, may be assigned lawyers who invest little time or care in their defense. To favor capital punishment is to support a system that of its nature discriminates against the poor. As Sister Helen Prejean has written, “The death penalty is a poor person’s issue… After all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.”

Mistakes happen. Again and again cases come to light of innocent people who have been executed. We easily make mistakes — based on circumstantial evidence, what seem to us good guesses based on what we think we know about other people and other “types” of people. The film “Twelve Angry Men” is about a jury that comes within a hair’s breath of convicting an innocent man but, thanks to the resistance of thoughtful juror, realizes a mistake has been made and so finds the accused not guilty. In real life, unfortunately, the story could easily have had a different ending: the ritual killing of a man who happens to resemble a murderer, who belongs to a racial minority, has no money, is without effective legal defense, and isn’t articulate.

Consider two events in Russian history.

After the baptism of Rus’, Saint Vladimir abolished executions as being incompatible with the Gospel. It is one of several indications we have of how profound was his conversion.

One of the most impressive reforms that happened in Russia in the 19th century was the effective abolition of capital punishment. Instead convicts were sent to do hard labor, mainly in Siberia. It is striking that Russians usually call those in prison, no matter what their crime, not “crooks” or villains,” but “the unfortunate.” There is an attitude of compassion suggested in this that is missing in American culture. Perhaps this lack of compassion is itself a factor in the rising rate of crime.

painting by Ilya Repin: St Nicholas preventing an execution (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

One of the most loved saints in the Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, bishop of Myra, intervened to prevent three executions. In icons of St. Nicholas in which biographical panels are included, you always find the scene of Nicholas in his episcopal vestments putting his restraining hand on the raised executioner’s sword.

To this day priests are forbidden to kill, a law which comes down from the prohibition within the early Church of killing for all baptized persons. Consider why such a canon exists.

Consider also the words of an early Greek convert to Christianity, the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133-190): “We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him.” He reminds us that to be implicated in murder, one does not have to commit murder. We can become accomplices in the violent death of others through the words we utter or through passivity.

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation.” (Psalm 50)

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