Press release from the Ecumenical Patriarch’s delegation presently on Crete June 15th:
Ecumenical Patriarch expresses “joy of the fulfillment of our historical mission”
His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew arrived in Crete on 15 June, expressing his “joy of fulfillment of our historical mission” and urging the Orthodox Church across the world to join him.
The Holy and Great Council, he said, is “our sacred mission.” Although the joy of the historic events are clouded by the decision of some churches not to attend, “the responsibility for their decision lies with those same churches and their primates, since, just five months ago, at the Synaxis of the Orthodox Primates in Geneva, we made a decision and put our signatures to it, that we should come to Crete in June and realize this vision held over many years, which all our churches cherish, to declare and proclaim the unity of our Orthodox Church, and to examine and reach a common resolution of the problems that are of concern to the Orthodox world.”
It is not too late for those churches to reconsider, he added, “even at this very last moment, and honor their signatures and come to Crete, where, along with the joy of the fulfillment of our historical mission, we shall also have the joy of partaking of the hospitality and nobility of all Cretans, from the most elderly among them, to the youngest child.”
His All-Holiness also expressed his thanks to those who have worked for months in order for the Holy and Great Council to take place, “together as a group and each one individually who have worked zealously, selflessly and with great willingness for this great event of the Holy and Great Council of our Orthodox Church to take place.”
by Rev. Dr. Andrew Louth
It seems to me of paramount importance that the Synod, as His All-Holiness asserts, should show that the Orthodox Church wants genuinely to communicate with the world. We have treasures to share, in the Gospel, and the wisdom acquired through many centuries of believers following in our Lord’s footsteps and living in the grace of the Resurrection. It is also true that many in the West want to hear our voice, what we have to tell them of Christ. It will be a betrayal of everything we hold dear if the result of the Synod is that the world perceives the Orthodox apparently concerned solely with themselves in a fearful and introspective way.
Nevertheless, like many people, I have some reservations about the synod. First, eleven days seems minuscule in comparison with the 1200 and more years we have to make up. Secondly, the preparatory documents have been unavailable until very recently, and seem to have been prepared by a small circle of people, mostly (or exclusively?) associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whereas one would have expected widespread consultation beforehand. Thirdly, the ecclesiology of voting by patriarchates is unprecedented and unsustainable, apparently overriding the duty laid on each bishop ‘rightly to discern the word of your truth’, as we pray in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, citing 2 Tim 2:15. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the only voice that counts at the synod is that of the Holy Spirit, so, despite all the fumbling of human preparation, it is important that we should earnestly pray that the fathers of the synod will hear and attend to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Although the preparatory statements tend too much towards blandness, they seem to be on the right lines, with some reservations mentioned below. The emphasis on the Church’s concern for the world in which we live today is vital, and the presentation of the life of the Church as springing from the Eucharist is expressed well. So too the emphasis on ecumenism and a readiness to work and pray together with our fellow Christians, especially those whose baptism we recognize: all that is important. Although I can well understand the logic of the position of those who deny that there are other Christians than the Orthodox—since we, as Orthodox, hold that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Symbol of Faith is identical with the Orthodox Church—it seems to me that it is a logic isolated from life. We must (and in practice do) recognize that there are Christians who find their ecclesial identity in other communions than the Orthodox Church. Do any of us really believe, for example, that Catholics are not Christians, and that the see of Rome is vacant, Pope Francis being no more than an unbaptized pagan? It makes nonsense of our behaviour: one Sunday recently I worshipped in San Teodoro in Rome, a church given to the Greeks by the pope some years ago. Should we have refused this gift? When we look at the history of the Church, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that there is one community completely innocent, namely the Orthodox Church, and that division is simply the result of the sins of others: Catholics, Protestants, or whoever. The principle of ecumenism lies in repentance, expressed clearly in the words of his elder brother, recalled by the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov: ‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’.
Some of the preparatory statements could have been more radical. The statement on fasting is banal; it would have been useful in the context of understanding fasting in a non-Mediterranean world—the point raised by the statement—to have been reminded of the way fasting is justified by the Fathers: commitment to greater simplicity in our eating, an exercise in detachment, an opportunity to greater commitment to almsgiving. The statement on marriage fails to address any of the burning pastoral issues: what later commitment to marriage demands of young people; how marriage is to cope with a society in which men and women are much more equal; the challenges of the capacity to control pregnancy for the practice of sexuality. The section on War and Peace is all right as far as it goes, but makes no mention of conscientious objection to participation in war.
Finally, the statements on the diaspora and autonomy seem to me to ignore the changes in political society between the world of the Mediterranean in late antiquity and the world in which we live today. The ideal of one bishop leading the Eucharistic community in a city reflected the world of the early Christian centuries. The world today is very different, but the statements simply see the diaspora as a passing phase, leading to a worldwide network of autonomous/autocephalous ‘local’ churches. That, on the one hand, ignores the way in which the experience of diaspora enabled many to realize the Pauline sense of Christians as essentially aliens in this world, ‘every foreign country is theirs and every country foreign’, as the epistle to Diognetos put it, and, on the other hands, ignores the way in which many people, not least Christians, move from country to country, as well as the way in which ‘cities’ nowadays are vast amalgams of communities, so that the Christian community in a modern city is really, at best, an imagined community, made up of real communities without necessarily any territorial base. We need an ecclesiology to measure up to that, not an attempt to restore an ancient ecclesiology that no longer corresponds to the social reality in which we live.
Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University.
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Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost
By Matthew Franklin Cooper
On the 31st of March, we celebrate the dies natalis of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), a beloved martyr and witness to Christ among the Russian émigré population in France. Her “Essential Writings” are particularly recommended during this Lenten season, as her essays, though brief, are spiritually and personally challenging on a number of levels. My apologies in advance to my readers – but if I quote Mother Maria directly once too often herein, please understand that it is not due to a lack of reflection on my part so much as an awe of the depth of her work, that I cannot bring myself to express her ideas better than she expresses them herself.
The association Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which hosts a considerable collection of resources on her life and works) makes between her and Dorothy Day is not at all coincidental. Her life, like that of Dorothy Day, was decidedly not what one might expect of a saint, though of course no two saints are ever completely alike. Mother Maria Skobtsova, in her youth, had been a member of the left-populist, peasant-driven Socialist-Revolutionary Party which had been outlawed by Trotsky, and lived its fate in an all-too-personal way. She narrowly avoiding execution in late 1917 after her party was disbanded, later became deputy mayor of the small town of Anapa in Krasnodar, was captured by the White Army and put on trial as a Bolshevik, and saved again from the gallows by Daniel Skobtsov, a judge who would become her second husband. Their family fled first to Georgia, then to Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris. Even though she had no taste at all for Marxism after her run-in with Trotsky, and though she abhored the brutalities she witnessed in the Russian Revolution, as Olivier Clément writes, she ‘became a Christian without ever having stopped being the socialist revolutionary, an intellectual of leftist bent’.
Her exile and the tragic death of her daughter to illness led her to take monastic vows which, though canonical, were nevertheless highly idiosyncratic. She lived the ‘new monasticism’ in an unfurnished rented house, amongst her fellow émigrés in the world, which she took to be her cloister. She dedicated herself to an active nonpossession, and kept the door of her house always open to the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the orphaned, the homeless, the mentally-ill; she gave of herself and everything she had to those who needed her help. She also organised discussions on philosophy and on the Orthodox faith from her house, and she maintained close friendships with a number of people in the Russian émigré community of Paris: the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, her confessor Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and the historian Georgiy Fedotov. During the Second World War, her house became a refuge for Jews, and she and Fr. Dmitri Klepenin, another spiritual son of Fr. Sergey Bulgakov and the chaplain of her house, would give baptismal certificates to Jews who sought to flee the country. Eventually the Gestapo shut her down and sent her, along with Fr. Dmitri, her son Yuri, and her friend Ilya Fondaminsky – all of whom eventually met their martyrdoms in Nazi concentration camps. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück, and was eventually put to death in the gas chambers. It is said in some of her hagiographies that she took the place of another woman, a Jew, who had been assigned to be killed that day.
During her life and in her martyrdom, the faith she lived in service to the poor and the faith she discussed in the émigré circles were one. She was devoted to the Mother of God, and even painted a variant of the ikon of the Mother of God Akhtirskaya, portraying the Holy Theotokos embracing the crucified body of Christ her child. Perhaps drawing upon her own experience of losing her daughter, she offered her motherly kindness, as a nun, to a suffering world without reservation or exception. She was insistent that the love of God could be lived only through a radical openness to the sufferings and the struggles of one’s neighbour – that only through keeping the second commandment of Christ in the Gospel could the first even become possible. And throughout her writings, she holds up and defends from a Patristic basis the Russian religious-philosophical idea of sobornost’, of radical dynamic community which is at the same time freeing and completing of the person who participates in it.
Her writings attest deeply to how her radical Socialist-Revolutionary ideals stuck with her. She gave up the idle hope that human revolution could achieve anything on its own terms, but she never gave up hope that all things could and would be achieved through Christ. Indeed, in her essays, she excoriates both capitalism and communism by name for their mutilation and violent enslavement of the human person, and ends up advocating something that looks very much like distributism:
In fact, mankind has enough experience of the two opposing systems of coercion and violence. The old coercion of the capitalist regime, which destroys the right to life and leaves one only with the right to labour, has recently begun to deprive people of that right as well. Forced crisis, forced unemployment, forced labour, joyless and with no inner justification—enough of all that. But try going to the opposite system. It turns out to be the system of communist enforcement: the same joyless labour under the rod, well-organised slavery, violence, hunger—enough of that, too. It is clear to everybody that we must seek a path to free, purposeful and expedient labour, that we must take the earth as a sort of garden that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate. Who doubts that?
Her leftist bent extends to her personal ethics as well as to her social ones. She is highly critical of the tendency she saw within the Church to withdraw into one’s own shell of piety, to take only the vertical beam of the Cross descending from God to the individual man, and to leave behind the horizontal beam which embraces the other men and women around him as well. For Mother Maria, not only the crass and obvious impiety of greed, but also the much more subtle and insidious impiety of a philanthropy that is only seen as an occasion for the improvement of one’s own virtue or an exercise for the good of one’s own soul, is a form of selfishness which runs contrary to the Gospel. She writes:
A person should have a more attentive attitude to his brother’s flesh than to his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but also spiritual gifts. We must give him our last shirt and our last crust of bread. Here personal charity is as necessary and justified as the broadest social work. In this sense there is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work. He is called to organise a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness. In principle the value is exactly the same, whether he acts on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbour and not have any latent career or material purposes.
The social element of Christianity is, indeed, for her so inseparable from the core of Orthodox spirituality and the Gospel message, that she even criticises those Christians of like mind to her, who base their actions and their programmes not on the basis of an authentic Orthodox Christian (or Catholic, or Protestant) witness but instead upon the false ground of secular humanism.
The most doubtful, disputable and unsatisfying thing about all the concepts of… ‘social Christianity’… is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God. … All the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to this world, and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.
To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality. To substantiate it mystically and spiritually. It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy—which has not yet spoken in this area—can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.
Throughout Mother Maria’s work there is always this similar challenge. Typically of Russian religious philosophy, Saint Maria places upon herself the demand of complete commitment, and will brook no compromises or comfortable lies. The Christian life is not truly or fully Christian until it ‘faces the desert’, an image to which she, being well-versed both in the Desert Fathers and in the ‘holy fools’ of the Church, continually returns. The reality of the Russian exile haunts her every page, and she is keenly aware of it. She writes with very few comforts for those Orthodox exiles who want to withdraw and take refuge in the old trappings of the state, of ritual, or of the æsthetic forms of Church life; she calls them instead – lovingly, but insistently – to the radical witness to Christ’s life and death in their own lives.
And yet there is also all too much in Mother Maria’s writings to discomfort and disorient those who are expecting to see in her a liberal and an œcumenist. She was neither. Early in her life she was a penpal of the arch-traditionalist Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church himself, Konstantin Pobedonostsev; Olivier Clément alludes that it was from him that she learned the personal ‘love of neighbour as opposed to love of those far away’. The three authors she alludes to most fondly are Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, and it’s clear that she has absorbed much of their romantic-conservative Slavophil temperament. She has some notably harsh words for ‘godless and giftless… cool, uncreative, imitative… secular democracy’, which in her mind amounted to a form of ‘mystical totalitarianism’.
In the fog of the Second World War, she sees straight through those who claimed – and indeed, still claim in modern times, in the case of the EU and NATO – to be ‘defending the right cause, fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy’. Not only does she bluntly say that these things are ‘not enough’, but she deliberately likens them to those pitiable flights of fancy to which Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was prone, and further posits that no one truly wants to or should die for such milquetoast abstract ideals: ‘your life is greater and your death is greater’ than the sum total of these things. The personalism-in-sobornost’ Mother Maria insists on cannot be reduced to such paper-thin abstractions. She speaks with dismay of the ‘religious League of Nations’ whose highfalutin, carefully-worded statements of unity were totally inadequate to halt the advances of fascism and Bolshevism – both ideologies which she deems, referring to the Brothers Karamazov, to be ‘Smerdyakovism enthroned’. And she has some critical things to say – perhaps, from the point-of-view of many readers here, too critical – of Pope Pius XI, whose ‘diplomatic subtlety and refinement’ in addressing German Christians she deemed fatally ill-suited to the spirit of the times, and whom she likens to a ‘sympathetic acquaintance at a funeral’ who is unaware of how the gates of eternity opened at the cataclysmic catastrophe being faced by Europe.
And perhaps under the influence of Solovyov, she sees in consistent pacifism ‘something egoistically vegetarian… which makes one sick at heart’. In truth, she rejects, just as Chesterton and Solovyov do, the idea of wars of choice, pre-emptive wars, wars of aggression; she holds the ‘motivation of the robber’ to be utterly incompatible and at odds with the Christian life. But ‘much more complicated’ for Mother Maria, ‘is the question of enduring war, of passive participation, of war in defence’. She is not unaware of the terrible human and civilisational costs of war, and clearly sympathises with the pacifist denunciation of the same. But her maternal compunction is what leads her to pity the most powerless in war, as well as those who come to their defence, and it is what leads her to point to God’s presence even in the worst desolation.
Mother Maria’s understanding of freedom is complex in a similar but perhaps obverse way to her thoughts on war. Clearly she is influenced here by her reading of Dostoevsky: freedom is a vital necessity to the Christian life; in all things free participation is called-for, and there is no part of the Christian life that can be forced. Her excoriations of capitalism and communism for their totalitarian demands on the human person are evidence enough of the value she places on freedom, rightly considered. And yet at the same time, she understands what a terrible thing, what a privation, the prescription of the ‘freedom’ of exile has been for the Russian émigrés. ‘We have lost our weightiness,’ she writes, ‘lost our corporeality, acquired an enormous mobility and lightness, become unbound… we are almost like shadows.’
And yet it is a privation in which an even more terrible and urgent call is present: the call to again live the Gospel in a meaningful and creative way, without seeking refuge in the pieties of a motherland they no longer lived in, and without succumbing to the ‘spiritual philistinism, spiritual mediocrity, lukewarmness’ of the deadening liberal culture sheltering them. Even more so than when the first Russian monks set out into the wastelands of Siberia, she comprehends the call to a ‘new monasticism’ among the Russian émigrés in the streets and apartment complexes of the totally-foreign cities in which they’ve landed. But even as she sympathises maternally with the plight of her fellow émigrés – ‘hard as it is to say to impoverished people, “become still more impoverished”’ – she still holds forth bluntly the ‘inner command’, that ‘our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle’.
And Mother Maria was active and struggled to the very last. She was, as Jim Forest rightly notes, a great comfort to those who were imprisoned with her in the ‘hell’ of Ravensbrück. Even in a place where human dignity had utterly stripped away from everyone, even in a place where – to borrow Forest’s description – obscenity, contempt and hatred were as commonplace as hunger, illness and death, Mother Maria provided the inmates with a family and a refuge. She once again organised discussion circles and kept evening prayers, brought French and Soviet prisoners alike together, and shared even what little food she got with those who had still less, until her health failed and her friends would not allow her to give away any more.
Mother Maria pointed to God’s presence even in the worst of places and in the worst of times; in many instances, she herself was a great testament to that presence. She lived under regimes of great turbulence, depravity and cruelty. Yet, in spite of them, she witnessed throughout to a much higher ideal worthy of struggle: that of the Kingdom of God as realised in sobornost’.
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
Let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitry and Maria, George and Elias,
Who have borne the sufferings,
The bonds and unjust judgment,
In which like the martyrs
Have received the imperishable crown.
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Matthew Cooper is a parishioner and choir baritone at Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church in South Saint Paul, Minnesota a father of two, a former English teacher and now a data analyst working in the field of higher education. He has published articles online at Solidarity Hall, Christian Democracy Magazine, Oriental Review and Front Porch Republic, and runs the blog The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox. A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Dorothy Option.
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It is urgent for Orthodox Christians to recognize the terrible truth of March 10, 1946
On March 10, 1946, at Lviv, the Orthodox Church of Russia, under pressure from the Soviet government, forcefully integrated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and claimed jurisdiction over it. When the participants in the synod on March 8 and 9, voted for the “reunification” of their Church with the Patriarchate of Moscow, all the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops were behind bars in prisons. The 216 priests and 19 laymen, assembled in the Cathedral of Saint George in Lviv by the NKVD, the ancestor of the KGB, were at the mercy of a “group of initiative” led by two Orthodox bishops, Antony Pelvetsky and Myhailo Melnyk, and an orthodox priest Gavril Kostelnyk. The archives reveal that it was Stalin himself who decided to eliminate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in February 1945, twelve days after the Conference of Yalta with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
All serious historians and theologians have no doubts that the 8-10 March 1946 synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at Lviv was only a sham. Bohdan Bociurkiw, who was a professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote a comprehensive survey on this matter and it has never been contradicted. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it in 2006, referring to it as a “pseudo-synod” which “seriously harmed Church unity”. Nicolas Lossky, a French Orthodox theologian who is a member of the Patriarchate of Moscow, also recognized that this was a false synod. Because of its suppression in 1946 and until 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which counted more than 5 million adherents, became, in fact, both the principle victim and the principle force of opposition, within the borders of the USSR, to the Soviet regime. Thus we make an appeal to the present day Orthodox authorities in Russia and Ukraine and elsewhere, to recognize the invalidity of the tragic decisions of the council of Lviv.
The Orthodox Church of Russia as a whole cannot be held responsible for decisions taken by ecclesiastical authorities who were manipulated or terrorized by the NKVD-KGB. However we, as Orthodox Christians, living 70 years after the events, feel responsible for the culpable silence surrounding the destruction of this Church by the Soviet regime with the participation of the Patriarchate of Moscow. We know that millions of Orthodox Christians in the world firmly condemn the anti-religious persecutions of the Soviet government and of Joseph Djougachvili in particular.
Thus, on this commemorative day of March 10 1946 and on the eve of Sunday, March 13, 2016, Sunday of the Great Pardon in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, we assure the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of our solidarity, of our prayers for all the innocent victims of this Church who were imprisoned, tortured, deported and assassinated by the Soviet government with the complicity of the Patriarchate of Moscow. We humbly ask their pardon for all the injustices they have suffered under the cover of the Orthodox Church and we bow down before the martyrs of this Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
- Antoine Arjakovsky, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Andrey Chernyak, Orthodox Christian, Moscow
- Fr. Nicholas Denysenko, Orthodox Christian, Los Angeles
- Fr. Andrei Doudtchenko, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
- Taras Dmytryk, Orthodox Christian, Lviv
- Fr. Michel Evdokimov, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Jim Forest, Orthodox Christian, Amsterdam
- Fr. George Kovalenko, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
- Inga Leonova, Orthodox Christian, New York
- Fr. Christophe Levalois, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox Christian, Durham
- Fr. Bogdan Ogultchanski, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
- Iryna Pasternak, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
- Fr. Michael Plekon, Orthodox Christian, New York
- Olga Sedakova, Orthodox Christian, Moscow
- Constantin Sigov, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
- Cyrille Sollogoub, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Dimitri Strocev, Orthodox Christian, Minsk
- Daniel Struve, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Natallia Vasilevich, Orthodox Christian, Minsk
- Bertrand Vergely, Orthodox Christian, Paris
- Andri Yurash, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
For additional background, see the film “To Understand and to Forgive”:
1 Bohdan Bociurkiw, The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State (1939-1950), Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Study Press, 1996; cf. also B. Bociurkiw, “Le synode de Lviv”., Istina, XXXIV, n. 3-4, 1989.
2 “Lettre du pape Benoit XVI au cardinal Lubomyr Husar du 22 février 2006”, Istina, n. 2, 2006. P.193.
3 Mixed Commission of theological dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, Catholiques et orthodoxes: les enjeux de l’uniatisme; Dans le sillage de Balamand, Paris, Bayard, 2014.
4 Serge Keleher, Passion and Resurrection, The Greek Catholic Church in Soviet Russia. Lviv, Stauropegion, 1993.
Solomon’s Porch: A Blog of In Communion
Acts 5:12 “And they were all together in Solomon’s Portch.” Solomon’s Porch was a place where the early disciples gathered, witnessed many good works among the people, and were in one accord. And, of course, they talked about it all. Today we gather to talk in many places, most visibly in the public square via the internet. The good works are done anywhere Christians roll up their sleeves and get to it. Our blog is a place to engage in healthy analysis of the needs around us, centered on Christ the Truth, to help us go and do good works.
Click one of the images above for featured content from the latest print issue of In Communion. Scroll down for other content from the issue or look on the “In Communion” menu above and select “In Communion: Previous Issues”.
Also see our newest “Prayers” page which you can access through the “Content by Category” menu, or click here. We are building a library of prayers that you may find useful as you pray for peace.
From Herod to ISIS through Christ: No Record of Retribution!
by Pieter Dykhorst
Having beheld the strange and ineffable humility of the Incarnate God the Word, O Divinely-blessed Baptist, when He bowed His Divine Head to thee and received a servile baptism, thou thyself wast wholly filled with great humility. Entreat therefore this Divinely-loved virtue for us also, who are possessed by pride, that we may cry to Him from a humble heart: Alleluia!
Wholly filled with the gifts of Grace, in finishing the course of earthly life, John the Divinely-chosen, thou didst teach all to please God well through fulfillment of the Law and repentance. Therefore, we sing out thankful praises to thee, the great teacher of truth:
Rejoice, planter of the law and statues of the Lord!
Rejoice, exposer of Herod’s lawlessness!
Rejoice, zealot for his correction!
Rejoice, thou who didst suffer imprisonment and
bonds for the sake of righteousness!
Rejoice, thou who wast beheaded for the truth!
Rejoice, for thy body was given an honorable burial by thy disciples!
Rejoice, for by God’s providence thy head was preserved incorrupt!
Rejoice, for it has granted consolation, sanctification, and healing to Christians!
Rejoice, for the faithful piously bow down also before thy right hand
which baptized the Lord!
Rejoice, for many miracles are thereby accomplished even to the present day!
Rejoice, for by thee the faithful are delivered from the dishonor of passions!
Rejoice, for by thee the sinful are moved to repentance!
Rejoice, great John, Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord!
O great and most glorious John, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord! Receive from us now this supplication offered to thee, and by thy prayers, which are pleasing to God, deliver us from evil of all kind, and rescue us from eternal torment, and make us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, that throughout the ages we may chant unto God: Alleluia!
O Baptist of Christ, Holy Forerunner, last of the prophets, first of the martyrs, instructor of fasters and desert-dwellers, teacher of purity and close friend of Christ! I pray thee; I run to thee. Do not reject me from thy protection, but lift me up who am fallen in many sins; renew my soul by repentance, as by a second Baptism. Purify me, corrupted by sins, and compel me to enter therein where no corruption can enter: into the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen. (“The Akathist to St. John the Baptist,” Kontakion VIII, Ikos VIII, Kontakion XIII, Prayer to St. John the Baptist.)
Fr. John Parker of South Carolina recently wrote an article titled “An Orthodox Response to Beheading by Muslims” exploring the Church’s historical response to the martyrdom of its children and what it should be today.
The essay asks rhetorically “is violence—individual or large-scale––a possible Orthodox response?” To shape his answer, Fr. John looks at the examples of martyrs beginning with the first of the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, and the first of the new Church, St. Stephen. With each saint listed, Fr. John points to the historical record and it’s stunning silent testimony that “there was no record of retribution.”
Retribution for the murder of John or Stephen would be unthinkable! Imagine if Jesus had prayed for help to save or avenge John the Baptist––the entire Gospel would have turned upside down in a moment. We try so hard to find any justification in the Gospel for violence but there is none. Jesus never appealed to the authorities, raised a mob, or led a protest. He committed no act of violence––even when he cleared the temple, there is no record he harmed anyone. When he had the chance and justification at Gethsemane, he didn’t even encourage Peter’s zeal. What we could have done with different words! “Well done, Peter. Those who live by the sword understand the world. Today you defended me, but the time is coming when you must defend yourself. Wait until you gain strength. Today we will be passive because we are weak—one sword is simply not enough.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of the response of Jesus and his followers to the violence done to John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the young Church is that their actions ran sharply counter to what might be expected. In fact, Rome saw its violence against them as preemptive––the authorities sensed rebellion everywhere. Palestine of Jesus’ day was swirling with political and revolutionary intrigue—the Jews desperately needed a political, military Messiah, and had Jesus wanted to inaugurate his kingdom with violence, he could have: The twelve legions of angels Jesus had standing by in the Garden were probably more than enough. The space of calm into which Jesus was born was brief and rippling with unrest, but waiting for a champion. And Jesus ignored it, did nothing to encourage rebellion, and gave an example exactly the opposite of what any sane person would have advised.
Instead, when Jesus heard of John’s murder, he retreated by himself, but when he saw people following him, he got back to the work of ministering mercy to them.
After the murder of St. Stephen the Proto-martyr—who prayed that his killers be forgiven even as the stones began to rain down on him—“was there an apostolic uprising?” as Fr. John teasingly asks in his essay. Instead, through responses of prayer, love, and forgiveness, the Church swelled with the numbers of its enemies its love prompted to conversion! Stephen pointed the way as he was dying by praying in the manner of his Savior on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
As Christians scattered throughout the region in response to growing persecution, they left us no record of raising bands of fighters to return to Jerusalem “to kill our enemies there before they come kill us here.” Instead, they continued to preach to hostile reception wherever they went, often with the same murderous response. The historical record is instead replete with evidence like that from the trial of St. Cyprian of Carthage:
At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!” Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood.
We must try to imagine––we can’t know––the human suffering these murders caused, the grief and fear experienced by the Christian community, or their struggle with hatred and desire for revenge, though millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ are living it today, many of whom are giving the same testimony the Holy Spirit has handed down through the Church from the time of the first martyr.
Fr. John wrote before the twenty-one Egyptian Copts were killed on a beach in Libya in February, 2015, but surely their witness may be added to his list. One mother who lost her son that day and couldn’t be blamed were she to demand angry justice said instead when she was asked if she had a message for her son’s murderers: “I thank you [ISIS], may the Lord touch your hearts and light a way for you so you don’t end up in a bad place—light a way for you so you don’t end up in hell.” Another mother whose son was also taken said she’d invite his murderer into her home “and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
This makes no sense to the worldly minded because it is not of this world. It is the response of those who are in the world and know they are not of it. In “The Akathist to St. John the Baptist” we find joy, salvation, and consolation in contemplating not just the fact of his sacrifice, but in its purpose and Christ’s ultimate victory at the end of all things. IC
Letter from the Editor:
This issue represents an effort to introduce ourselves to those who are not already familiar with us. As a result of our efforts, you may be holding in your hands the first issue of In Communion you’ve ever picked up. Perhaps a friend who subscribes handed it to you or you came across it in church. Maybe you saw it lying somewhere and picked it up because you’ve heard of us and you’re curious to find out for yourself who we are and what we do. If we are new to you, you may want to start by reading “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: a Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers” on page seven, a short narrative that describes who we are.
As you read this issue of In Communion, you will discover exactly the sort of content we’ve always published, all of which is archived on our website where anyone may go to freely read. You may be surprised that we are conspicuously apolitical even though many of the topics we care about are those that perennially fill the public square with noisy debate. Yet, we do have members from all over the political map. No one must sign a political statement to join! But because the Gospel does not lend itself to any particular politics no matter how much we sometimes want it to, we seek to shape our attitudes and behaviors by looking to the words and example of our Lord, the Apostles, Church Fathers, Saints, and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. We bring our faith to our individual political activities, not the other way around, recognizing as we individually grow in salvation that disagreements are bound to occur. What matters is fidelity to our calling to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Nevertheless, we take certain stands that to some resemble standard political rhetoric (as examples: we are consistently pro-peace, which some misinterpret as appeasing anti-warism; others take our consistent pro-life stand as fundamentalist intolerance). I welcome you to read what you are holding, visit our website, and join our conversation, or start your own about what it means to be a Christian peacemaker in an increasingly violent world. You may decide to join us and contribute to helping us enlarge the conversation; but if not, feel free to make full use of the resources you find on our website. If you like what you see, please spread the word.
Pieter Dykhorst, editor In Communion
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: A Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection (Easter verses, Orthodox Liturgy).
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God is an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to practice the Christian peacemaking vocation in every area of life, to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict at every level of human relationship, and to promote prayer and worship, acts of mercy and service, and love for all human beings and for all of creation. We are not a political association and support no political parties, agendas, or candidates, and we promote no ideology other than that we should “repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Were we to attempt to formulate an ideology, we could not improve on the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount.
From the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus have sought to live out their Christian faith in its fullness, working to build communities of worship, providing for those lacking the necessities of life, loving not only neighbors but enemies, seeking conversion of adversaries rather than victory over them, and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as normal virtues of sacramental life.
This has never been easy. Each generation has had to confront the problem of evil and combat its structures and also has had to suffer the tension that exists between membership in the Church and citizenship in a political entity, be that an empire or a nation-state.
Often the teachings of Jesus have been dismissed, even by believers, as too idealistic. Yet every generation, even in the era of Hitler and Stalin, has been blessed with heroic witnesses to membership in “an army that sheds no blood,” as Clement of Alexandria described the Church.
Among the principles that guide us:
- Aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, we seek recovery of a sense of familial connection which, while respecting national identity, transcends every tribal, ethnic, and national boundary. This is the oneness the Church mirrors when it is gathered before the Holy Table.
- We use our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, as we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the child in the womb to the aged awaiting death, in every circumstance of life and across all boundaries.
- We aspire to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, and we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation, and other forms of nonviolent action.
- We pray that, while no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.
- We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We believe conscientious objection to participation in war is consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition.
- We respect those who disagree with us and may choose to serve in their country’s armed forces. We do not promote the naive notion that a nation may be pacifist as a national defense strategy and acknowledge that in our fallen world people often feel compelled to choose collective violence in response to evil. Nevertheless, we find no basis for a Just War theology in Orthodox tradition and, consistent with the earliest teaching of the Church, consider all war sin. Rather than seek to justify war, we are encouraged to exhaust all efforts to seek peace. We believe more wars would be prevented by focusing on doing peace well before war rather than waiting for war to arrive to argue how to do it well.
- We encourage the compassionate treatment of prisoners and their rehabilitation, with special attention to restitution by wrong-doers to victims of their crimes. We reject the execution of criminals as incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
- We commit ourselves to pray for all, especially fellow believers, who suffer around the world from all forms of violence, evil, oppression, and injustice that they may be delivered from evil, healed from their wounds, and enabled to find renewed ways to live in peace and safety.
- We further commit ourselves to prayer for enemies and endeavor to communicate God’s love for them, recognizing our own violence and praying that, through Christ’s saving death on the Cross, we will be reconciled with God and with each other.
Thus we strive to avoid bitterness in dealing with controversy, seeking conversion both of ourselves and our adversary. Aware that we are in need of conversion not only in the way we relate to other people but to the world God has put into our care, we try to change our lives in order to live as priests of God’s world, asking continuously for the Holy Spirit to descend and transfigure the earth. We seek to cooperate with efforts to protect and preserve the environment which do not involve violence, coercive methods of population control, the promotion of particular political agendas, or violations of the sanctity of human life.
Our work includes:
Theological research: Much needs to be done within the Church to better understand ways in which Orthodox Christians should respond to division, conflict, injustice, war, and the relationship of the believer to the state. We encourage research on peace in the Bible, peace in the Liturgy, examples of ways Orthodox people and churches have responded to war from ancient to modern times, and the collection of relevant quotations and stories from the Fathers and the saints. One significant result of this effort is the book, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest and published by Syndesmos, the international association of Orthodox youth. The full text of this reference book is also on the OPF web site.
Publication: Our quarterly journal, In Communion, not only provides its readers with helpful essays and news but serves as a forum for dialogue. The main articles from past issues of In Communion plus many other resources are made available via our web site: www.incommunion.org. OPF members are also invited to take part in the OPF List, a news and discussion forum.
Practical assistance in conflict areas: As one of our members, a priest in the Republic of Georgia, points out: “Activity of the OPF is of particular importance in those Orthodox countries going through war and the horror of national conflict. The OPF can help Orthodox people to practice peace and tolerance and to show that war and national conflict are satanic traps.”
Structure: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has members in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its international secretariat is in The Netherlands. Decisions are made by the OPF secretaries and officers in consultation with each other, with counsel from members and the Fellowship’s Board of Advisors. Our largest branch at present is in North America. There are occasional meetings and conferences in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe. We encourage the formation of local and national chapters.
A description of our vocation:
We are faithful sons and daughters of the Church, not the Church’s rescue committee. Fr. John Meyendorff once said to a member of a schismatic Orthodox group, “We do not save the Church. The Church saves us.” Our modest task is not to invent anything or announce a new theology or reorganize the Church but simply to reopen forgotten or neglected Church teachings regarding day-to-day life in a world in which enmity is always a problem, in which millions suffer from hunger, thirst, and homelessness, and in which war is rarely not occurring somewhere on our small planet.
The Church has preserved the Liturgy down through the centuries. It has preserved the Bible and the Creed. It has preserved the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It has developed and maintained a calendar of sacred time. But it has been somewhat less attentive to calling us to account for the teaching it has preserved. Over the centuries, when state and faith were in conflict, we have more often been obedient citizens than obedient Christians.
We believe in a hierarchy of identities. We are not first people of a certain country, then Orthodox Christians. It is the other way around. We are first Orthodox Christians, then people of a particular state, national, or tribal affiliation. We renounce none of these identities nor do we ignore any of their obligations, but when the requirements of one identity clash with another, we are required to know which comes first.
We try to remind ourselves and our neighbors that there is no such thing as a good or holy war––that it defames God and the Gospel to use adjectives associated with sanctity and heaven in that most hellish of all activities, the organized killing of human beings and the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends. Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, but not by cowardly avoidance or failure to recognize evil for what it is and to resist it. Chamberlain was not a peacemaker. Those who fail to see and resist evil are its accomplices. Yet we believe that prayer and fasting are also weapons of struggle, that there is such a thing as spiritual combat, and that what we seek is not the killing of evil people—such a task would require a holocaust that would destroy the human race—but their conversion, which is also our conversion, for the line dividing good from evil runs not between people or classes but, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, right through each and every human heart.
We are people attempting, with God’s help, to love our enemies as Christ commands his followers to do. This is not a sentimental undertaking but a soul-saving quest to be liberated from enmity. In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor put it in these words: “‘But I say to you,’ the Lord says, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.’ Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.”
Our concern about the sanctity of human life is not limited to war. We seek to protect the lives of the unborn—not by denouncing women who feel they have no other choice, but to help them bring their children safely into this world and to do whatever is in our power to make the world more welcoming. With the same motives, we do not regard euthanasia as an acceptable solution for those whose illnesses seem to be incurable or who are severely handicapped. We do whatever we can in support of hospices for the dying, including effective pain relief for those who are suffering. At the same time we oppose taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when in the natural order a person is beyond hope of recovery.
Our view of peace is not borrowed from secular ideologies or political movements. It is not based on the life of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or any of the heroes of nonviolence, even though we greatly admire such people and learn from them. It comes from the Gospel. We understand peace both through the words of Jesus and through his actions. We experience peace in the Liturgy and the eucharistic mystery and try to bring it with us when we return to ordinary life. Day by day we discover peace as the mystery of healing—within ourselves and between each other—the healing that comes from forgiveness, repentance, and love.
Peacemaking is not an idea or principle. It is how we live. It is Christ’s life in us. It is less a refusal to do terrible things to others than doing those things which communicate the love and mercy of God.
We have heard it many times, but let us never stop remembering what Jesus teaches us about the Last Judgement: What we do to the least person we do to him. May God preserve us from harming the least person. May God give us the love which empowers us to be merciful to the least person.
Peacemakers are not rare. We find them everywhere: the parent sorting out a dispute within his or her family, the parish council member finding a solution to a conflict that might tear a parish to shreds, the priest hearing confessions who helps a penitent experience God’s mercy, the missionary who helps awaken faith in another and points the way to baptism, the volunteer who lives a life of hospitality in a neighborhood others avoid, the driver who responds to dangerous actions on the highway with a prayer rather than a gesture of hatred. We could spend the rest of our lives noting acts of peacemaking.
Our fellowship exists to give witness that peacemaking is something absolutely ordinary. It is an integral part of everyday life. It has to do with how we pray, for whom we pray, how we listen, how we speak, what we do with our anger and frustration, our willingness to forgive, and our attempts to serve as a bridge between those who hate each other.
May God give us strength to persevere in being instruments of the divine mercy.
Must I be a pacifist to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship?
No. Pacifism is not a Christian ideology. The term was coined in the late 19th century as a political philosophy and has since been used to describe a wide variety of philosophical and political attitudes toward various forms of violence at different levels of relationship from personal to international. The Gospel of Jesus Christ predates and excludes all political ideologies even while many are influenced by Christian teaching. Pacifism as is generally understood is a Western idea formed in a Christian civilizational milieu and often bears marks of Christian virtue but does not capture or fully reflect the ethos of the Gospel peacemaking vocation. But in its most simple definition, “the belief that all conflict should be resolved peacefully,” pacifism is a great idea! The OPF does not reject the idea but does not endorse pacifism in any form. Some OPF members are pacifists; some are not. Instead, we simply look to Christ and our Orthodox faith and tradition for guidance in becoming fully Christian peacemakers.
The aspiration to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution is something all sane people have in common, yet few would say that they would never use violent methods to protect the innocent. All we can do is attempt to find ways of responding to injustice that are consistent with the Gospel. Clearly nonviolent methods are to be preferred to violent.
Peacemaking is not something optional for Christians. A major element of Christ’s teaching is his call to become peacemakers. They are among the blessed and are witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To be a peacemaker, Christ says, is to be a child of God. In the years of Christ’s life described in the Gospel, one of the most notable aspects is that he killed no one but healed many. He is not a warrior king. Caesar rides a horse while Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Even when he clears the Temple of people who have made a place of worship into a place of commerce, he does so using nothing more than a whip of cords, not a weapon that can cause injuries; the only life endangered by his action was his own. His final instruction to Peter before his crucifixion is, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Saying that, he healed the wound Peter had inflicted on one of the men arresting him.
In the chapters prior to the story of Jesus and his disciples in the garden, Matthew records Jesus describing in several narratives what life on earth would be like, what the Kingdom of God is like, about the end and his return, and the final judgement. Then after the Last Supper came the Garden, where Peter, thinking he had finally put all the pieces together, drew his sword. After telling him to put it away, Jesus said a remarkable thing that is frequently left out in telling this story but when taken in full context, frames Jesus words about living and dying by the sword. Jesus asked Peter “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
When we consider the choice Jesus faced in the garden, we see it was not either swallow hard or chicken out, but was rather a choice between implementing God’s way of salvation or…what would the other choice have been? The alternative had to include slaughtering his enemies! The plan Satan offered Jesus in the desert involved glory, bounty, and bloodshed; surely the world’s template for victory remained an option for Jesus here. Indeed, it seems we too face the legitimate option of violence in dealing with our enemies. Jesus seems to have said not that we have no right to choose, but rather “How will scripture be fulfilled if you do it your way?”
And then, on the cross, far from calling down his Father’s vengeance on those who participated in his execution, Jesus appeals for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Again and again, throughout his earthly life Christ gives his followers a witness of making peace and restoring communion through forgiveness, love, mercy, and sacrifice.
There is quite a lot on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site that helps clarify what Christian peacemaking involves and its implications in one’s own life. Visit us at www.incommunion.org for resources that include past essays from the journal, membership options, and new postings.
Becoming a member:
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship links Orthodox Christians from different traditions and is not under the sponsorship of any jurisdiction. Membership is open to those who embrace the principles of the OPF and that the OPF is rooted in the Orthodox Church and Tradition. Those who wish to receive our journal but not to become members may specify so when they pay the annual donation amount. The annual donation for members and donors is $35, 35 euros, or 25 pounds sterling. Anyone may donate to receive In Communion.
Living in Communion: Interview with Father Thomas Hopko
IC: Father Thomas, many people recognize there is a value in forgiving and being forgiven but see it only on the human level without a theological dimension. Would you say forgiveness is a divine act?
Fr. T: If a person is inspired by the spirit of God, he or she can forgive, certainly. People can forgive. But I’m not sure you can say that in general there is the feeling that forgiveness is of value. I have met people who would say, “I don’t care. I can go on and live my life; it really doesn’t matter to me. If I’m not bothering you and you aren’t bothering me, why be reconciled?” This is plain indifference.
Another reason why people don’t value forgiveness is that they consider it to be collusion with evil. They feel that if a person has done something really terrible, he or she should be reminded of it until death and, moreover, that the evil should be avenged. And of course, most of us feel that any offense committed against us is irreparable. Nothing that the other person does can ever cancel it. If you kill my child, for example, there is nothing you can do in reparation, and for me to forgive would simply be to condone the evil. So I’m not sure that most people value forgiveness.
When you look at it from the point of view of justice, there is no reason for forgiveness. Only if God exists and we realize that there is either a world with evil or no world at all can we understand that we are going to have to undergo the trial of evil. But if that is not there, I don’t know why anyone would forgive. Or want to. But I do think that people who are not believers in God, by the fact they are made in God’s image, can have the sense that reconciliation is better than allowing the evil to go on. By definition, forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil, beginning with recognizing that evil really has been done. People tend to think forgiveness means something bad was not really done, that a person didn’t understand the consequences, or whatever. If that were the case, there would be no need for forgiveness; it could be seen simply as a mistake. Forgiveness has to admit, and rage over, and weep over a real evil, and only then say, “We are going to live in communion one with another. We are going to carry on.” Never forgetting––you can’t, at any rate—but carrying on in a spirit of love without letting the evil poison the future relationship. Certainly that is what happens theologically. The striking thing in the Gospel is that God refuses to let evil destroy the relationship. Even if we kill him, he will say, “Forgive them.”
IC: Implied in what you say is that relationship is the highest aim, and that an obstacle to relationship is what calls the need for forgiveness.
FR. T: I prefer the word communion to relationship. The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so seventy times seven times a day we must re-establish communion—and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.
The obsession with relationship—the individual in search of relationships—in the modern world shows an ontological crack in our being. There is no such thing as an individual. He was created, probably, in a Western European university. We don’t recognize our essential communion. I don’t look at you and say, “You are my life.”
Modern interpretations of the commandment in the Torah reflect this individualistic attitude. The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness. So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says.
I recall a televised discussion program in which we were asked what was most important in Christianity. Part of what I said was that the only way we can find ourselves is to deny ourselves. That’s Christ’s teaching. If you cling to yourself, you lose yourself. The unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate act of not wanting to let yourself go. You want to defend yourself, assert yourself, protect yourself. There is a consistent line through the Gospel—if you want to be the first you must will to be the last. The other fellow, who taught the psychology of religion at a Protestant seminary, said, “What you are saying is the source of the neuroses of Western society. What we need is healthy self-love and healthy self-esteem.” Then he quoted that line, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He insisted that you must love yourself first and have a sense of dignity. If one has that, forgiveness is either out of the question or an act of condescension toward the poor sinner. It is no longer an identification with the other as a sinner, too. I said that of course if we are made in the image of God it’s quite self-affirming, and self-hatred is an evil. But my main point is that there is no self there to be defended except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying. It’s only by loving the other that my self actually emerges. Forgiveness is at the heart of that.
As we were leaving a venerable old rabbi with a shining face called us over. “That line, you know, comes from the Torah, from Leviticus,” he said, “and it cannot possibly be translated ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ It says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.’” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.
After this I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say—“Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another—His Son. The same thing happens on the human level. So the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerges only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. Now, if you add to that that we are all to some degree faulty and weak and so on, that act of love will always be an act of forgiveness. That’s how I find and fulfill myself as a human being made in God’s image. Otherwise, I cannot. So the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.
IC: You are making a distinction here between the individual and the person.
Fr. T: The individual is the person that refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self enclosed being trying to have proper relationships—usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. Without this, there is no way that we are going to be able to carry on.
IC: Forgiveness is not an achievement, an act, so much as the development of an understanding of reality?
Fr. T: It is a decision in the sense that you have to will it. You have to choose life. A person can choose death by not forgiving. So there is a sense in which you can destroy yourself by not saying yes to the reality that actually exists. That’s the choice: yes or no to what truly exists. Forgiveness is the great yes. So there is a choice. In the Greek patristic tradition, the more a person is a person, the more we realize and will our communion with others in the act of love, the less we choose. So the freer we are, the less choice we have.
That’s almost opposite to the post-Enlightenment, secular Western thought. We tend to think the freer we are, the more choice we have. For example, if you would sin against me and I want to love with the love of God, then I do not have a choice whether or not I should forgive you, I only have a choice whether or not I will. And I must, if I want to be alive. If I were truly holy, I wouldn’t even choose—it would be a spontaneous act.
As an individual, if someone insults me or offends me or betrays me, it is impossible to forgive them, lacking this understanding of the reality of our interconnectedness. So this understanding is needed because one suffers from not being able to forgive.
I think that in our culture the willingness to admit there is real evil is difficult for us—it is such a violent and awesome position towards life. Of course, people in tremendous pain—rape victims, incest victims, etc.—have to forgive if they are going to go on living. But the main forgiving that needs doing in everybody’s life, the central act of forgiveness and one that indicates spiritual maturity in every case without exception, is the forgiveness of the parents. We tend either to blame parents or idealize them—both of which cripple life. In order to forgive them, one must first admit the offense, and that may mean enduring incredible pain. Rage and sadness have to be faced in order to forgive. The reason that we can’t forgive is because we don’t want to face the pain and rage, to admit what really happened.
So people try to live without facing all this. Or when that becomes impossible, it can mean trying to lose oneself in a cult or other form of collective. You sell your soul so that you don’t have to choose anymore. This wish to escape is what fueled a great deal of what happened in the 1960s and since. People wanted to lose themselves; they couldn’t handle the individual freedoms, because they weren’t on a deep enough level. So there was a flight. I think even the feminist movement is a response to this. In The Flight from Woman, Karl Stern shows that in Western culture there has been an almost pathological flight from the feminine, from woman, which means a flight from communion, a flight from the other. The individualistic, radical, fallen, male values became the values for the culture as a whole, and that’s the cause of the Western neuroses.
The burden of freedom is cruel—“how cruel is the love of God.” But that’s what we are called for. The individualistic or the collectivistic solutions will not work. We are persons made for free and voluntary communion––in love, in truth, and in reality––with other persons. This means that in the way we experience life, mercy, and forgiveness are at the heart of it, beginning in one’s own family. That’s where it’s so, so painful.
My feeling, being a radical Orthodox Christian, is that God is not removed from the world but rather enters into the world and gets nailed to a cross. Unless we accept Christ crucified, which is a scandal to those who want God to be some kind of power figure and total foolishness to those who want it all to fall into place intellectually within their own terms, there’s no Gospel. But if Christ crucified is at the heart of the matter, then evil is real and forgiveness is real and freedom is real, and there’s no other way to deify life but through an act of mercy.
IC: There are some who feel that to understand all is to forgive all. If we could see the entire chain of causality, there would be no reason to forgive, because we would understand.
Fr. T: I wouldn’t agree. Actually, when you see things clearly, you can see that certainly we are victimized. There’s a woman I’m thinking of who must forgive her father and her uncle for raping her over a period of years when she was a child. Once she begins to see things, she can admit that her father was also a victim, that in many ways he was conditioned—that’s what the Bible means when it says sins visited to the fourth generation. There is such a thing as a tradition of evil. That’s why I like to use the expression that forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil. But everyone is given that possibility to break that chain. As long as I’m understanding, justifying, or explaining, I become just one more link in the chain of evil.
IC: Could you explain what you mean by evil?
Fr. T: In Orthodox theology, we speak about evil, or sin, as either voluntary or involuntary, conscious or unconscious. We would not define sin as the cold-blooded, freely sovereign and intellectual act whereby I perpetrate some evil—destroy someone’s life, for example. It’s much more complicated. One of the points of the Adam story is that we are not born in Paradise. It is anything but Paradise. A child of a hysterical, drug-addicted parent is going to be born drug addicted as well. There is a tendency toward evil in us, biologically, psychologically, genetically. Father Alexander Schmemann used to say that the spiritual life consists in how you deal with what you have been dealt. We’ve all been dealt something. Our theological claim is that where you have a good measure of faith, and love, and forgiveness, you can restore human nature. You can pass on a more healthy, integrated, peaceful, joyful humanity to your progeny. You can be a presence of forgiveness and mercy, but you can also be a presence of the opposite. In order to be a presence of mercy, you must admit tragedy; you can’t just explain it away in terms of genetics, or economics.
There is a freedom: what you do with what you have. It’s not a sovereign freedom as though I were just emerging as a pure, pristine angel. No. But the point is if you could see the causes and influences, you would come to the conclusion that there is a great deal of victimization, but at the same time, there are opportunities for people to break the chain of evil, to forgive and not to allow it to go on. Sartre says you make a choice every second. A choice about what? A choice about what you are going to do about where you are. At the very heart of that choice is always going to be an act of forgiveness.
In The Pillar of Fire, Karl Stern writes that what the modern person cannot accept is forgiveness and grace. We would rather take our punishment, as it were. God says, “No, I forgive you whether you like it or not.” That’s the only fire of hell—this loving forgiveness of God. That’s why Jesus says there is only one unforgivable sin—the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And what is that? It is the unwillingness to be forgiven and to forgive. The proud cannot accept grace.
IC: Much is being written about the need to forgive oneself. Does that make sense in Christian terms?
Fr. T: Of course. Forgiving oneself means accepting forgiveness from God—and from other people. Evagrios of Pontus, a fourth-century writer, said that there are in us many selves, really, but at base there are two: the real self, which is the Christ-self, and a legion of other selves, which are the Adamic selves. What happens when we hear the word of grace is that we are split down the middle. We don’t want grace because of the pain we have to face, the fears and so on. But one of the things that happens—one of the lies of the Devil, so to speak—is the conviction that we are not worth it. It isn’t for us. We are too bad, worthless. Then there comes a point, as Evagrios said, when the Christ-self needs to be convinced that “yes, I exist, and I am acceptable,” and so to have pity and mercy on those other selves.
IC: Do you see a difference between evil or sinful acts and a larger attitude that chooses darkness rather than light? Evil is not outside of us, isn’t that so?
Fr. T: For many people evil resides in someone else. But I think your distinction is very good, because our understanding of the Christian view is that we will sin until we die. Even baptism is for the forgiveness of sins “all the days of our life.” Baptism puts us in the context of forgiveness and mercy, which then allows what is called the invisible warfare, the unseen struggle, to go on. You are going to be sinful—that’s why Jesus says “seventy-times-seven.” It is inherent in the human life. Sin is to be expected, but the loving of the darkness is not.
IC: In the Christian view, we are reconciled, we are forgiven. Paul Tillich, in a sermon on the parable of the sinful woman and the Pharisee, points out that repentance comes after being forgiven. It is not a payment in order to be forgiven.
Fr. T: It’s both. However, it’s important from our perspective what the woman in the parable then does. She does not live happily ever after but enters into a life of tremendous struggle.
Chrysostom says you are baptized in order to struggle. Take Mary of Egypt, the classic example of the forgiven harlot: she went into the desert and wept the rest of her life, not to win God by her tears or to earn forgiveness, and not to make reparation, but out of the love of God for being liberated and for the sense of what sin really is and the desire not to fall into it again. One problem in both the liberal and the fundamentalist forms of Christianity is the absence of an ongoing ascetic dimension. If you don’t have to pay for your sins because Jesus has, this can open the door to a life of profligacy. The more liberal line is: this is the way I am, this is the way God made me. God loves me, God forgives me, and so there’s nothing for me to do but carry on with my life.
IC: What do you mean by the ascetic dimension?
Fr. T: It is making nothing an end in itself except God, that is, ordering the natural passions to their proper end, which is God himself and love itself. The passions are part of our nature but must be directed in the service of love, meaning the good of the other, the affirmation of the other. This nature must affirm the truth, the reality of things the way they are. The metaphysical base is a communion of love and being and truth for which we have been created. To say yes to that is the deified life. But to say yes to that, in the fallen world, means that you must, as Saint Paul says, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. You must kill the ego. The “old Adam” has to die, and he always dies kicking and screaming. The multiplicity of these false selves must be exposed, and that is not easy. The evil of other people has to be named and forgiven, which is also not easy.
In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, you find that the moment of grace is usually a violent moment. To see things clearly, to realize, as O’Connor says, that “even the virtues will be burnt up,” very often requires an incredibly violent act. We often need to be shaken into that realization. It seems to me that that’s the meaning in the scriptures of trials and sufferings and afflictions and so on—to have people realize what and who they are, really. That’s the ascetic dimension, because the minute a person says, “I will work to show mercy,” every devil in hell will work to try to stop him.
IC: You spoke of the division in us between the Christ-self and the legion of other selves—two natures at war within us. Is it that one nature has ultimately to be transformed? You also spoke about a person who is free and yet has no choice—this is a totally transformed being, isn’t it?
Fr. T: We would say there’s a human nature that when it is truly itself is full of the grace of God and in communion with God and is, therefore, deified and becomes one with the divine nature. On the other hand, there is the human nature that is broken, fragmented, estranged from its real foundation and in need of salvation. The transforming power of grace is there. But in a sense, it takes all of time to be deified. There are no miracles on this level. The degree of suffering that has to take place is very great.
IC: It’s an incarnated struggle on this level.
Fr. T: Yes, and I believe it can’t be done alone. You need a community.
IC: Our culture places great emphasis on improving oneself. There is a difference between that and being made whole, being brought to your true nature.
Fr. T: The saints speak about spiritual hedonism, where you want peace and joy but you don’t want reality. That’s why Saint Paul says that you can give your body to be burned but if you have not love, you are nothing.
You find people who love religion, love the Jesus Prayer, spend their whole life searching for pure prayer, yet they miss the mark. I once met someone who met a monk at Mount Athos who was in a very bad state, very dark, very bitter, very angry. When asked what was the matter, he said, “Look at me; I’ve been here thirty-eight years, and have not yet attained pure prayer.” This fellow was saying how sad he thought this was. Another man present said, “It’s a sad story all right, but the sadness consists in the fact that after thirty-eight years in a monastery he’s still interested in pure prayer.” You can make pure prayer an idol, too. Those are the worst forms of idolatry.
A person must be helped to want joy, to see that it is possible. And then what is difficult is that all of these other things have to be acknowledged for what they really are, together with all the pain that has to be experienced.
The other day a woman said to me, “It’s not enough for me to say I have to forgive my father. I can’t do that until I experience the rage and the sadness and the anger over how my childhood was. And that’s what I have been afraid to do.” Just because you know with your head that someone has offended you, that you ought to forgive them—that’s not forgiveness. But how do you achieve the actual reconciliation where you are really at peace with the other? One must experience in full the pain of the actual harm that was done. That’s the hardest part of forgiveness. That’s the block for most people. It has to be gone through again and again, and layer after layer has to come up.
When forgiveness is needed, one of the hardest things is to face the fact that the way I handled being harmed wasn’t always the best, that I have a certain responsibility for allowing myself to have been harmed. One does have to admit, very often, that there were choices for one as well. There’s always some form of symbiosis at work. That’s why Chrysostom could write that the world is filled with evil but no one can harm him who does not harm himself.
The great example for Christians would be their Christ-like martyrs who have not allowed themselves to be touched by that evil, what Evagrios calls “allowing the devil to rejoice two times.” You are sinned against, and the devil rejoices. You react with vengeance or without forgiveness, and the devil rejoices two times. Never give the second joy.
So forgiveness is not just the healing of the other, it is the healing of yourself, too. If you don’t forgive, you allow yourself to be poisoned. That’s why Jesus says, “Do not resist the evildoer.” The minute that you resist or react in kind, you become part of the evil yourself. That’s the radical teaching of the Cross.
Ultimately it comes to this. We are forgiven whether we like it or not. If we accept it, then we, too, become forgivers, and it’s called Paradise. But if we don’t accept it, it is hell. When you reject the forgiveness, you destroy yourself. You refuse communion. IC
Father Thomas Hopko, the author of many books and essays, was a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. He fell asleep in the Lord on March 19, 2015 at the age of 76.