All posts by Nicholas Sooy

The Fishermen as Most Wise

This island smells like fish. The air, the towns, all is infused with centuries of fish catching, eating, and selling. It’s been difficult to find something to eat that isn’t seafood. On my way into town, I approached the lunch counter at the bus station. It was stocked with some of the most delicious Greek dishes, breads, and cheeses. Wanting to keep the fast that day, I looked up at the Greek inscriptions over the counter, trying to decipher ingredients from words that I could read,  but not pronounce. Giving up, I asked for something with no meat. In response, I was given a heaping plate of pasta with the most delectable and soft calamari I’ve ever had. While my vision of a meatless dish might be a bit more ascetic than this, you take what you can get.

Something similar happened Friday while taking a break from working in Kolymbari. I walked down the long road from the Orthodox Academy, past the armed guards, into the town in order to find something to eat. I stopped at the first place I saw. A Greek woman approached me, smiling. They were very excited for the Council, and I was their first customer who had stumbled upon them from up the road. I searched the menu for anything fast-friendly, and once again the best I could find was shellfish and pasta. I ordered this, and was surprised to first received two appetizers (which were both fast-friendly of course) before I received my large and scrumptious meal. I felt connected to the island, as I sat on a balcony overlooking the bay, eating mollusks that tasted as if they had just been plucked from the sea. Getting anxious about how much time this was costing me, I finished the meal and was ready to go when the proprietor approached me again and asked if I wanted desert. I declined, being both quite full and a little embarrassed about eating so much. She insisted, saying that it would be a free gift from the restaurant to me. What followed was a delicious chocolate jello of some sort with a full spread of fruit and a bottle of ouzo. The latter item reminded me of the hospitality I encountered on Mt. Athos; a glass of ouzo and a turkish delight at every monastery.

Hospitality is something that I’ve found again and again since my stay here. Its as ubiquitous as fish. For whatever reason, an island of fisherman also happens to be an island of great welcoming.

This morning I watched 10 primates of autocephalous Orthodox Churches gather at the Cathedral of St. Menas in Heraklion to celebrate Pentecost. It was a several hour liturgical marathon, beginning with Orthros, followed by a hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, concluding with the kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. The whole enterprise was as elaborate as the temperature was hot. The reflection of the gold in the room made it seem like even the icons were sweating. 

The celebration had its beautiful moments. There was a warm embrace among some of the patriarchs during clerical communion. I was moved by the smiles on their faces. The singing at times was also quite touching. EP Bartholomew, who today was wearing comparatively simple and and unassuming vestments given his rank, has a presence similar to his office. He is a small man with a resounding voice. His chanting was rivaled only by that of Patriarch Theodoros II, whose prayers certainly sound heavenly. But by far, my favorite part of the service was the hymn of Pentecost, “Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise, having sent upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them Thou hast fished the universe. O Lover of Man, glory to Thee!”

Christ revealed the fishermen as most wise. Christ came into this world as the King of Jews and High Priest and Messiah of the Jewish religion, but instead of exalting the religious leaders or civil authorities, it was the poor and simple fishermen who came out as wise. It wasn’t the scribes or pharisees, both of whom were keepers of canon law and among the most educated and brightest of Jewish society. It wasn’t the Romans either, or even the native Jewish rulers. It was the fishermen, who often didn’t understand his teachings, and even abandoned him.

This wisdom obviously has nothing to do with learning. At Pentecost, the fishermen did not become any more intelligent or any more knowledgeable. Instead, they became more open. It was at Pentecost that the Gospel was preached to the nations, the reviled gentiles who were not canonically permitted to receive the fruits of Jewish sacrifice, these received news of the great sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. The unclean nations were brought into the Christian fold with the sacrament of baptism, an act with roots in the Jewish purification ritual necessary for participation in temple life. The wisdom of the fishermen was hospitality, or philoxenia as it is called in the Greek New Testament. Philoxenia translates as love of stranger, and is the opposite of xenophobia. Pentecost was the overthrowing of centuries of canon law saying who is in and who is out which dates back to Moses, and which was strengthened by the exclusive reforms of Ezra-Nehemiah.

“And through them Thou hast fished the universe,” it is this universal vision of Pentecost which Bartholomew has set his sights on, as he made explicit in his sermon today. The love of stranger, of those unlike us, is the essence of the Church, and it is this vision which he hopes the Council will embrace.

Reflecting on the hospitality of the fishermen of Crete I’ve encountered these past few days has put this vision in a new light for me. On my first full day in town, I had to find my way to Eleftherias Square in order to pick up my badge for the Council. I wandered for several hours, trying to decipher the streets of Chania. Every once in a while, a local fisherman would call out to me and ask where I was going in an attempt to help me. One even walked with  me several blocks to get me to my next turn. Eventually, I ended up where Google told me I should be, but alas it was the wrong place. Giving up I approached a cafe and entreated the locals again for help. They sat me down, poured me a cold drink for free, and did everything they could to find my destination. They called the office, googled the address again, and eventually figured out where I was supposed to be. Then one young guy told me to hop on the back of his motorbike so he could take me there directly. Before long I was wondering how I ended up on the back of a motorbike in Crete, speeding through traffic, wearing my finest clothes with no helmet, clutching the large belly of a man whose name I never caught. Even with his help, and the help of several others upon arrival, it still took us another 20 minutes to find the place, but he stayed with me the whole time, and without complaint or reward.

That night I returned to the room I had rented. It is a small room with four beds in it. But when I told the proprietor that I was in town for the Council, he promised me that he would try his best to not book anyone else for my room, so that I could have it to myself. He was a happy man, middle aged and friendly. His cross was visible resting against his Greek fisherman’s full chest of hair, peeking out from his open shirt. He smiled while he talked, and when I didn’t have an adapter to charge my devices, he gave me one for free. On the drive over to my room, he expressed his great concern that this council might condemn non-Orthodox Christians. He said he realizes that its wrong, even heretical to be outside the Church, but that one cannot be so unkind as to unequivocally condemn. Other Christians need to be shown kindness and we must engage them, otherwise they will never be willing to listen to Orthodoxy or benefit from it.

Again and again I’ve met fishermen, wise and hospitable, with a universal love. Philanthropos is the term the Pentecost hymn uses to describe Christ. I saw that in the face of one attendant at the airport, who when I told him I was going to Chania for the Council, he looked at me with great joy and eagerness, bordering on tears. He told me that he wanted to help me and that he would do anything for me.

Just a week ago I was at another remarkable place. I was in Toronto, Canada last Sunday at the St. John the Compassionate Mission. St. John’s is one of a kind as far as Orthodox communities go. The Mission is open every day of the week, and feeds many poor and homeless. But they are not fed as if they were a soup kitchen, but instead as a Church. There are round tables set up in the narthex where the community comes to eat. The poor eat and work alongside the Christian community, preparing and serving the meals. They live according to the words of St. John Chrysostom, who said in Church there are two tables, one for the poor and one for the altar. The mission is dedicated to St. John the Compassionate, who said “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers, for they and they only are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are our masters is the philosophy of St. John’s Mission, and what motivates everything. Or as St. Maximus said, “The poor man is God.”

While at St. John’s, I sat next to a man named Bill, whose picture is the banner for this article. He is one of the ‘Masters’ of St. John’s. During my visit, he and I sat next to each other at lunch one day, and he told me endless stories of his days as a fisherman. We had only just met, but he was quite enthused to talk with me. He must have learned somewhere the wisdom of philoxenia- something the fishermen of Crete and lake Ontario have in common.

Bless, Master! These were the first words I heard this morning as Orthros began. In light of my recent experiences in Toronto, I found these words jarring. In a recent blog post by Fr. Ted Bobosh, he points out how Bishops weren’t referred to as ‘Master’ until the 14th century. The now common refrain ‘Eis polla, eti despota’ was originally reserved for the Emperor, but came to be applied to the Bishop as the office was changed through the years. Bishops did not wear the omophorion until the 9th century, for it was a sign of ostentation, and the Bishops crown, the miter, wasn’t universally worn until the 17th century. The ‘despotism’ of the episcopate is something that slowly accumulated as the position of the Bishop become less local and more hierarchical, emulating forms of dress and address that were traditionally associated with secular leadership.

Fr. Ted quotes Fr. Thomas Hopko, who says that ‘episkopos’ was a term that originally referred to the slave who oversaw other slaves. Fr. Thomas says, “The episkopos, the chief servant, is not the master, the despotis, nor is he king or vasilevs, nor is he lord or kyrios. He is a servant, a slave, a doulos, but he is in charge of everything that belongs to the master and the lord. He is in charge of all the master’s servants, goods, and property. He has all the master’s power and authority. He has everything that belongs to the master. He functions in persona, ‘in the place of’ the master. When you see him, you see the master. When you hear him, you hear the master. When he commands, you hear the command of the master. When he orders you to do something, you obey him as you would the master. But he is not really the master; the real master is the master.”

How strange it was this morning, observing the tremendous Byzantine trappings of a liturgy exalting simply fishermen. Beautiful as it was, there were moments that I found simply perplexing. The ten ‘masters,’ arrayed in their omophors and great crowns, all seemed to leave the center of attention when President Prokopis Pavlopoulos entered the Church, several hours into the service. The chanting was nearly drowned out by the sound of the military guard stationed outside the Cathedral, which broke into a great march with brass instruments. EP Bartholomew turned around and blessed the President as he walked down the center aisle, just as communion was about to be prepared. A second ‘great entrance.’

All throughout this Council, I’ve been struck by the presence of armed guards around every Church. Security at the Council is as high as the tensions among the Orthodox. The day I flew into Chania, my flight was delayed an hour, and had to circle the airport several times before we were cleared to land, all because the hierarchs were also arriving that day. When we did arrive, we were ushered unceremoniously behind a rusty barricade, while on the other side I could see and hear many soldiers, in uniform, playing fanfare for the arrival of the Bishops.

There is a very official atmosphere here. Press are restricted in what they can do and who they can interview. All the working sessions of the Council are closed. Press releases are very carefully worded and put together. Of course, this Council would be more of a PR disaster than it already is if protections were not in place, so I’m not necessarily complaining. Merely, the atmosphere is different than I imagined a Church Council would be. It was especially funny to see the military procession of the President into the Church of St. Menas this morning, given that St. Menas is himself a military saint who became a conscientious objector, and was eventually martyred for the stance he took against the Roman military and government.

Stranger still was the contrast between St. John the Compassionate, the bishop who called the poor ‘Master,’ and the poor fishermen of the Church, who now call the bishops ‘Master.’ There are traditionalist elements in the Church who fear this Council for its ecclesiology. This Council is unprecedented for giving executive power to only the primates of the Churches, and not to the whole body of Bishops. Moreover, each primate has absolute veto power over any of the documents. The fear is that this Council is turning patriarchs into popes, and that EP Bartholomew will benefit the most from this. While I am not as worried about that as those raising these concerns- I have faith in the conciliary identity of the Church and in the sincerity of the episcopate- these concerns do have an element of truth in them. Maybe a global Church does need global leaders like the patriarchs, but this does not mean that we should forget our masters, the poor.

I’m not trying to criticize any individual Bishops here. I haven’t actually met any of the primates during my time here; they have more important things to do than to meet me. I assume that behind the Byzantine wall of ceremony, these are good men. Archbishop Anastasios for example, is an advisory board member of In Communion and a friend to the editors. So I have no quarrel with them. Rather, I say all this with  hope in mind. If God can make the lowly fishermen ‘most wise,’ then maybe He can do something with our Bishops too.

It is tempting to criticize this gathering and these men. And perhaps this Council is incomplete. Where are the poor, whom St. Lawrence called ‘the treasures of the Church?’ Where is Moscow, Bulgaria, Antioch and Georgia? Why are only two women present as official delegates, when there are several hundred delegates and consultants? Why are no autonomous Churches represented, while autonomy remains on the agenda? Why are no married Christians given a vote on the document on marriage? This Council seems anemic in some areas. We might even be tempted to say that this Council is woefully unprepared to ‘fish the universe.’ Can a message be carried to the whole world by these men, as Bartholomew hopes? In the face of these questions, we should take heart. These men are no more unprepared than the fishermen who first followed Christ two thousand years back. Today, God has revealed the fishermen as most wise. It is the poor, the unequipped, the losers of the world who Christ chooses to use to save the world. So what if under the layer of gold and ceremony, Bishops are sometimes poor in spirit, in faith, in union, in charity, in wisdom? When we look upon the great poverty of our hierarchy, we should take comfort that these poor are our masters.

And who knows, maybe the charity of these Greek fishermen will have some effect while we are all here.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

The Gospel in Crete

This morning, the hierarchs gathered here met in the Church of the Annunciation in Kissamos in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy of All Souls Day. The departed who labored for this Council were particularly commemorated. The Gospel read today recounts the words of the risen Christ to the apostate Peter, “Do you love me?Feed me sheep.” This Gospel tells the story of a reconciliation, a word that shares the same root as council. It may be helpful to think of these gatherings of Bishops in terms of reconciliation. Each time the Bishops gather, they are being re-conciliated. If they spend too much time away from their brethren, differences appear that threaten the effectiveness of the Church. Successful councils have always gathered the Bishops together in order to course-correct. As such, the canons of the councils are collectively called the ‘rudder.’

Councils reconcile Bishops to one another because they love Christ. They do this so that they can feed Christ’s sheep more effectively. Today we are in dire need of a Council. There are significant pastoral challenges that have arisen from the inconsistency of the Church’s global response to changing times. In the past, the Church has adapted in order to more effectively minister to its flock. The issues of multiple calendars and of the diaspora both signal that reconciliation is needed in order to more effectively minister to the world.

It is a great misfortune that the pre-conciliar proposals for addressing present concerns are inadequate. The issue of the calendar is one of several that have not been on the agenda for some time, while those items which are on the agenda do not do that much to address problems in the Church. With this in mind, should we expect anything to come of this council? Substantive issues are diplomatically skirted. And even with the comparatively bland documents under consideration, four primates are missing. Antioch, one of the highest ranked patriarchates, is missing, as is most of the Slavic world, accounting for more than two-thirds of Orthodox Christians.

“Of course, it may be better to avoid any kind of meeting of bishops; I know of no good to have come from even a single synod; I know of no solutions that resulted, but only additional problems that arose. Their only outcomes are arguments, ambitions and rivalries; bishops prefer to reprove others rather than resolve internal church issues.” These are the words of St. Gregory the Theologian. I’ve read several reports saying that the Church is on the cusp of something tremendous. Either a renaissance will occur in which the Church rises up to shape the world, or some great schism will happen and Orthodox communities will be further relegated to the ghettos of history. If we truly are at such a critical moment, then what should we make of the lackluster progress of the Council so far? Should we lose hope? Or should we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that divisions in the Church are as old as the Church itself (see the book of Acts!).

Yesterday’s Epistle reading tells the story of St. Paul getting shipwrecked with his captors. Its a story that I’ve read many times before, but when I read it yesterday, something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before. St. Paul reprimands his jailers after they have encountered trouble, saying “Men, you should have listened to me, and not set sail from Crete.” He had told them to stay at Crete while the storm passed, but instead they left Crete and could not bear the storm. Details like these are easy to gloss over until you find yourself sitting on the island of Crete, amidst a ecclesiastical tempest, wondering why four bishops have decided to harbor away from the island.

Councils, as reconciliation, are anchors for the Church. They do not determine the consciousness of the Church, for they may be accepted or rejected. Councils do not change the Church so much as they anchor it. Conciliar statements add stability. They are a common reference which all may look to. Reconciling the Bishops hopefully gets everyone on the same page, so that they might go forth to feed the lost and the found sheep of the world. With several Bishops now absent, this ministry of reconciliation is now in jeopardy. The anchor is lifted, and the Church risks floating away, being swept up in some tide of nationalism, selfishness, or conflict.

Here it would be easy to dwell on the motives of these Bishops and to speculate. Were they right to leave? Is the Church not ready for the Council? Were these Bishops capitulating to ideology, or to pressure at home? Why did they leave just days before the Council, even though they had the documents for many months? Is there a power struggle at play? These questions are unanswerable with how much information is out there. Whatever the motives of the various parties, reconciliation is necessary. We may be tempted to do nothing but point fingers at others, rather than seek reconciliation. Now some reprimand may be necessary, just as St. Paul reprimands his jailers. In fact, if we do love the Church, we may be led to criticize her leaders. For as Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, it is those who love a town the most that criticize it. If you did not love a town, you would not be bothered if it burnt. But St. Paul does not end with a reprimand. Rather, he continues by saying “Do not be afraid.” He tells them that Christ has assured them safe travel. Do not be afraid, because Paul is destined to reach Rome with his jailers. Do not be afraid, because the Gospel will triumph.

Faithful observers of this Council may fear that the Gospel is being held captive by selfish Bishops who have departed from their mission on Crete. But I find St. Paul’s words instructive here. Even if the Gospel is held captive and marooned, we have assurance that it will not remain so. Christ has destined the Church to be salt and light. We should not be afraid, for as Archbishop Anastasios said yesterday, Christ will take this imperfect Council just as he takes imperfect bread, and he will make it into his body. If the Church fails to drop its anchor here in Crete this week,  we may find ourselves floating in the sea, suffering in the tempest. But that also means we will be sailing no longer by our own strength, which will have failed, but instead only by God’s mercy. What is there to fear in that?

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

Called to Unity

I’ve been on a journey for several days now, which has brought me to where I am now, sitting in the Orthodox Academy of Crete, where just a few meters away 10 primates of the Church are in deliberations in preparation for the ‘Holy and Great Council.’  Getting here was a task in and of itself. It involved three flights, long bus rides, and several long hikes. But if I ask myself again, ‘how did I get here?’ the answer must involve more than just travel itinerary. I’ve been on a journey towards unity with Christ and His Church for as long as I’ve been alive, a journey that started before I was born.

The journey towards the Holy and Great Council is similarly wrought. There have been starts and stops with many borders to be  crossed. Yet, once again, this Council and its preparations are about more than its agenda and issues. Fundamentally, this council is about unity. “He called all to unity” is repeated again and again on all official documents here.

There is a sort of chicken and egg problem with unity in the Church. Christian unity is not mere agreement, that is too shallow. Agreement is only possible once the type of peace is achieved which allows differences to be mediated. Yet at the moment, there is little agreement among Eastern Christians. Four of the fourteen primates of the Council disagree with the Council’s current state so much that they are not even in attendance. Without unity, there is no true Council. But, the Council is not to blame for this lack of unity, rather it merely forces to the surface the already present, underlying disunity among the Churches. Without this Council then, it seems there would be no unity.

It is difficult to speak about the Council at all, because of the disunity of the Church. The Council is referred to as the first of its kind in 1,200 years in all the official documents I have received from the Council.  At the same time, I have read many critics of the Council say that this is not the first since the 7th Ecumenical Council, pointing to the numerous Councils during the second millennium. Similarly, while some say, as I have in this essay, that the Council is meant to foster unity among the Orthodox Churches, others say that there is no disunity, for the Orthodox Church is the fullness of unity in Christ. As happens often in the midst of conflict, there is disagreement about just what is being disagreed about. Any attempt to characterize the conflict is open to criticism.

There is division among the Slavic Churches, with all the East and South Slavic Churches asking for postponement. There is division between the Middle Eastern Churches of Antioch and of Jerusalem, which are currently not in communion with one another. There is disagreement between more ‘conservative’ voices rightly wishing to preserve tradition, and more ‘progressive’ voices rightly wishing to more effectively minister to the modern world. The problems are many and it is easy to get lost in them. No one is satisfied with the statements as they are, which once again is a symptom of a deeper struggle.

Reading the statements from the various Churches on this Council is an instructive exercise. Each Church’s position, whether they have dropped out, championed the Council, or offered pious caution, seems very reasonable. Each perspective is held sincerely by intelligent men, and forms a compelling narrative in and of itself. But this is just the challenge of unity. Each perspective makes sense, yet when they make contact with one another the result is a litany of concerns. It is precisely this situation, made visible by the Council, which is the chief work the Council must address. The particular documents and issues up for consideration are just the presenting issues, not the fundamental ones.

On my flight into Greece this week, I observed something which struck me in light of the Council. I was on an overnight flight over the Atlantic. At one point while walking up from the back of the plane during the flight, I witnessed rows and rows of individuals, all watching a different in-flight movie on the back of the seat in front of them. Each small screen played out a compelling narrative. There were love stories, comedies, tragedies. Whole worlds were contained in these small rectangles. It struck me then how common this situation is. We are all always walking around with different movies playing in our heads. Events are framed differently, different things matter more to different people. We are all the main character of our story, and everyone else is supporting cast. This ego-centric obstacle to communion might be truly seen as a mere result of being embodied the way that we are, yet the Church stands against such separation and calls the cosmos to unity. Our narratives are compelling enough when taken in isolation. But Christ challenges us to live in isolation no longer. He called all to unity.

Contacting the other in true love is difficult. It challenges the core of what we take to be ourselves, not realizing that there is no self apart from communion. It takes true suffering to contact the other. When God reached out to mankind to make peace, it involved mankind killing God. Self-sacrificial love is the only way forward in a conflict like this. It is the example of Christ. Encountering others is the hardest thing we do. “Why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” asked novelist Walker Percy. There is a certain asceticism to loving others. It is harder to love another than it is to fast or to give alms. Charity and discipline can both be done in a self-enclosing way. Not so for agape.

The task for the Council is as great as it is holy. That task is to love, the only task that Christians are charged with. Many in the Church regard the Council, and the world, with fear. Nationalism, apocalypticism, ideology, these all breed fear. Some fear the Council will not succeed, others that it will. Some fear losing their power and status. Some fear the modern world and the changes it brings (and has already brought) to life within the Church and without. It is the task of the Church to stand against these fears and to proclaim love, “for perfect love casts out fear.”

Perfect love is no easy feat, and may in fact be impossible this side of eternity. Nonetheless, it is precisely this goal which we should keep in mind and pray for. It is easy to get caught up in the minutia  of Conciliar proceedings, and in these proceedings find fear. Against this we should remember that love is the goal, not this or that statement. If there is no love, if there is not unity, the most perfect statements or agreements will mean nothing. The real fault line that threatens the Council is not political, or jurisdictional, or ethnic, or ideological, though those all contribute. Rather it is the fault line between the statements made at this Council and the underlying unity which supports them.

It is assured that some pious statement will issue forth from this Council. The real question is what comes next. This Council was convened in order to strengthen the witness of the Church in the third millennium and to overcome obstacles to that witness. Unified statements are themselves a powerful witness, but they are not the ultimate, nor the most important, witness. The real work of this Council then begins after the Council ends, when whatever proclamations made are put into practice. If some form of the documents of this Council are adopted at its conclusion, then it will call for increased efforts for peace and justice, for ecumenical labor with other Christians, for union in the ecclesial diaspora, for a rejuvenation of fasting, and for increased sanctity of marital unions. Our task is to take up these calls and put them into action. If done with discernment and love for Christ, then whatever is proclaimed in a week, our efforts will be a holy and great expression of the conciliar effort of the Church.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

correction: an earlier version said all slavic churches have asked for postponement, when it is only the east and south slavic churches which have done so.

OPF & IC’s Nicholas Sooy arrives in Crete

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship and In Communion applied to the Holy and Great Council press office for journalist’s credentials for Nicholas Sooy to attend and cover the events of the council. We almost did it as a lark, not really expecting we would be approved. And we were about to leave on a road trip and weren’t sure we had either time or money for a trip to Greece if we were approved.

On the 5th of June, Nicholas and I climbed into my car and headed out of DC on a twelve day, 1750 mile trip to visit various Orthodox ministries to see what Orthodox hospitality and reconciliation ministries looked like at street level–we will publish more on that later!

We arrived back home late on the 13th and the next morning we received  word our application had been approved. OPF & IC was going to Crete! We were a little blown away. By this time, we’d accepted that it was too late. Either the council was not happening or we simply weren’t approved.

Only one of us could go, and Nicholas was our man. He is OPF’s very first summer intern. He also happens to be a terrific writer with a gifted mind who will work with me as an unpaid staff member after the summer when he returns to New York, where he is a doctoral student at Fordham University. (Yes, he can do both things at the same time!)

We scrambled and found a flight leaving in less than twenty-four hours for half the normal price. Hard to say no to that! We also found an airbnb room for about $12 a night right in Chania–when we were looking online, Google told us, helpfully, that “4000 people are looking for rooms in Chania now.” We held our breath, and clicked confirm for both. This morning he emailed me that he arrived safe and sound, but exhausted. It was already mid-afternoon there, and he’d just completed a seventeen hour trip, so I expect he’s sleeping as I type this. Or he’s jet lagged and also typing!

While Nicholas has been orderred to have fun, we are serious about another agenda. Nobody thinks this council is not flawed, and we are no exception. But we believe with all our hearts that it must happen because no council at all is far worse than a flawed council. From our perspective, the real work begins after the council anyway. Whatever bridges are built relationally and administratively on Crete will form a beachhead from which the peacemakers in the Church can begin the slog of taking back unity for our Church.

“Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133). This ideal isn’t likely to be fulfilled in the next week, but we are praying and expecting it to become reality. In order for that to arrive sooner rather than later, we ask the Holy Spirit to move among our fractious and self-interested Fathers and those among them of brotherly good will. We’re praying for the council to start and to conclude and that perhaps those who have pulled out in advance may even have a change of heart and attend anyway, or at least return to work afterwards.

Our agenda, the real reason Nicholas has gone to Crete, is to make friends and establish realtionships within as many delegations as possible. OPF wants to partner with whomever we can to promote peace and reconciliation within the Church from our small corner office. We already have important contacts with whom Nicholas will meet. We are confident he will be introduced to more.

He will be blogging here starting tomorrow. Please pray first for the council and also for Nicholas.

And if you can, please help us recover the cost of the trip, as reasonable as it is, so that we can keep the presses rolling. Generous friends have already replaced about half the cost in our coffers–we only need a few hundred bucks more. Use our “donate” button or your paypal account and send to [email protected] (both ways go to the same account).

Peace,

Pieter Dykhorst

editor In Communion

 

 

 

War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

The below text, by Nicholas Sooy of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an expanded version of a text sent to the blog publicorthodoxy.org. Texts there are requested to be brief. Texts on the upcoming Council’s documents are generally limited to thoughtful critiques. Below this essay are comments from the editors of In Communion.

War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

By Nicholas Sooy

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Iraq

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a powerful and timely statement on war, peace, and justice. Peacemaking, as Christ tells us in the Beatitudes, is a fundamental Christian vocation. At the same time, the Orthodox Church has a long and complicated history regarding peacemaking and war. While the Church has held to a very strongly pro-peace message throughout its history, changing political situations have affected the extent to which that message is carried out. It is the duty of the Church to counsel the faithful on how to carry out the peacemaking vocation in a changing political environment. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the past 100 years, and so this document is timely and much needed. This document authoritatively endorses the more pacific strands of the tradition, and from this position recommends certain responses to contemporary conflict. These statements are much needed, but at times are vague and do not go far enough in addressing the nature of contemporary conflict.

According to the document, the basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological and spiritual lens. On this basis, the Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the document also calls on the Church to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document is monumental for its clear and definitive statement that “The Church of Christ condemns war in general,” along with its condemnation of nuclear weapons in particular and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also recommends various peace efforts to be undertaken by Christians, calling it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5).  Along these lines, specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

These recommendations are good and should be encouraged, but the list is neither as specific nor as complete as it should be. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means, for as it stands its vagueness means it carries little weight (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament and no calls are made to limit arms trading or weapons production. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice in some areas of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water.

In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of the modernist notion of nationalism more generally (4.3). Nationalism is a broad category with many types. Unless nationalism is better defined and specific nationalisms are identified, particularly Orthodox religious nationalisms, the document’s statement could provide deniability to those inciting conflict and even war based on nationalism, under the guise of attempting to censure the nationalism of others. Such nationalisms should be more explicitly condemned, just as religious fanaticism is condemned.

Similarly, while peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, more needs to be said to strengthen ecclesial support for these endeavors, which are proven to ameliorate war and conflict. In particular, the viability of and employment of nonviolent campaigns and nonviolent institutions have risen dramatically over the past century, and each decade nonviolence is used to greater effect. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many within the Church, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept,” and identifies Orthodox roots for the notion of nonviolence. Given the effectiveness of nonviolence and its employment within Orthodoxy, it is unfortunate that such language should be left out of a document on peace in the contemporary world by the Church. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation. The conflicts in the Middle East and in the former Soviet bloc are prime examples of this new face of warfare. In these contexts, nonviolence is all the more effective and appropriate, and the Church should explicitly call upon Christians, nations, and institutions to invest more in nonviolent resistance and development, and less in warfare, standing armies, and weapons production. The Church should also call upon Christians to respond to oppression through nonviolent resistance rather than insurgency or terrorism.

The omission of an explicit endorsement of nonviolence is part of a larger weakness regarding the proper Orthodox response to violence. War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding those who participate in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil’ that some bishops have employed, it would be better to leave out such a qualification entirely and instead say that the Church extends pastoral care to those involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions a Christian can engage in fighting. If, as the document suggests, the only condition under which Christians fight is when their own life or freedom is threatened, then the document should mention the witness of martyrs as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs of the Church faced death and imprisonment willingly, and the Church has always lauded martyrs over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for their own lives or freedom, but instead are employed in humanitarian interventions, as they are described by political leaders, or are fighting insurgents. Greater clarification is needed regarding this changing nature of warfare, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another within this document (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. While the document suggests that the Church will extend pastoral care to those who fight, a similar pledge is not made to those who refuse for reasons of conscience or Christian discipleship. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend Christians to object to military service or the performance of duties in at least some circumstances. However, nothing is said regarding this, and nothing is said of the practice of universal military conscription in several countries such as Russia and Greece. The first recorded instance of someone dying for conscientious objection was in the early Christian period. Many saints and martyrs have explicitly refused military service, while other saints known as ‘passion-bearers’ have similarly suffered and been canonized for their refusal to fight.

There is a final weakness in this document’s account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than just the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be unfortunate and counterproductive if a document like this, condemning war, allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. The Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.


We the editors and members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship join Orthodox Christians everywhere with great anticipation for the upcoming “Great and Holy Council.” We pray that the Holy Spirit would lead the Council into all truth, and that peace would be ensured between all Orthodox Christians. We pray that the Council would be an occasion for Orthodox cooperation, love, and unity, and that The Gospel of Peace would shine forth from the Council’s proceedings both to the Church and to the broken and divided world. It is in the spirit of conciliarity that we engage and add our own voices to the work of the whole Church being conducted by the Council.

We are encouraged by the pro-peace message of the pre-conciliar documents, and wish only that this message would be strengthened. As they are, the documents are historic for their authoritative endorsement of peace and justice and their condemnation of war.

The editors of In Communion are watching the preparations to the council and are reading as many documents and responses as possible. We feel that because this is a very fluid situation and time sensitive, it is less important to write definitive statements than to respond thoughtfully “on the run” so to speak.

For now we wish to go just a bit beyond Nicholas’ “brief critique” and mention a few things we would like to see added to expand this document of the Council. We hope to refine a position that we can claim as an official OPF response. If what we say in the meantime has value, may it find it’s way.

The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (Mission Statement) should be considered a fine document in as far as it goes. Some of its points are vague or lacking, however. Others seem to miss important issues completely. While reading it, there grows a nagging sense that some of it was cobbled together ad hoc from various quarters’ talking points, reflecting less the clear thinking of the Church’s wisest and more what is politically in the air. We would like to see statements of the Council more clearly rooted in Orthodox theology and tradition, calling the faithful to think and see as Orthodox rather than “citizens.”

The Church should not neglect its history of disobedience to ungodly or unjust leadership. When any nation calls on its citizens to respond either aggressively or defensively in ways that violate the principles of the Gospel we are called to live by, the Church should not shy away from encouraging its children to disobedience. A clear option for conscientious objection should be bolstered by a duty to disobey in certain circumstances.

The Mission Statement fails to adequately address Nationalism and identity politics. It is gratifying to see it condemn war based on Nationalism, but one must wonder if such a simple statement without any expansion on what is at stake is a dodge or worse, as many States with significant or majority Orthodox populations are involved in identity-based conflict with other states.

While Christians are called to be salt and to seek to influence the world outside of the Church, we can never be confident in predictions of how successful applications of Christian principles and responses to violence may be in the world. Nevertheless, the Church must teach its children that while separation from the world does not equal disengagement with it, our calling to be children of God requires we identify with his kingdom and act according to its principles and mandates. We must militate against the world’s practice of identity politics and its preference for violence by manifesting life in the kingdom of God, not by imitating the world.

The Mission Statement should call out for the faithful everywhere the prevalence and nature of the various ethnic, religious, and civic nationalisms that exist in various States and lead too many Orthodox to conflate their citizen-based identity with their Kingdom of God identity. Such conflation always leads to conflict.

Trusting in the Holy Spirit, we pray that the document may be strengthened so that the Church might continue to bring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”

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