Category Archives: Alex Patico

by Alex Patico

Patience with God

FrankSchaeffer

by Frank Schaeffer
Da Capo Press, 2009, 230pp

Reviewed by Alex Patico

Reviewing Frank Schaeffer (author of novels such as Portofino, and non-fiction works including Keeping Faith), is challenging. His writing is so closely associated with the story-arc of his own life––a childhood within one of the inner circles of evangelical Christianity, and a journey across the faith spectrum to light in the bosom of the Orthodox Church––that it is hard to view that body of work on its own merits. One must be able to judge a book on several levels: literary merit, intellectual con-tent, style, authenticity and so forth.

Patience with God was published in 2009, after Schaeffer’s books about his son’s military service, and before his latest novel, And God said, Billy! All his books have to do, in some way, with religion, faith, and the search for God, but Patience is focused directly on that subject matter. It deals with three paths diverging in a wood, if you will: fundamentalist Christianity, atheism (especially the “New Atheism“) and an option that is contrasted with both of those poles.

The subtitle of the book is “Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).” Turned off by a politicized and intolerant Religious Right, and uncomfortable with acerbic attacks from non-religionists, many look for a third way, which retains the baby while tossing the bath water.

I was impressed with several ele-ments of this book. First is Schaeffer’s approach to the acquisition of spiritual knowledge (with which some readers may have a problem, while others will be encouraged):

“When salvation is understood as a journey, there is no pressure to make snap decisions and ‘get right with God.’ And because everyone is on the same path––even atheists––those at different stages on that path are not judged as ‘lost.’ In that sense, what many Fathers of the Church said is understandable…. The Church can only say how some people may find the path of salvation, but never who is lost…. One is freed from the illusion of certainty.”

This captures the essence of the volume: that sincere searching, of what-ever kind, is to be applauded, while zero sum standoffs about doctrine do no one any good. Does this flirt with anything-goes relativism? I think not, but readers will have to judge for themselves.

Second, judiciously chosen quotes from Soren Kierkegaard add meatiness to the narrative:

“Let others admire and extol him who claims to be able to comprehend Christianity…. I regard it then as a plain duty to admit that one neither can nor shall comprehend it.“

“One sees now how…extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity…, making of Christianity a miserable something or other which in the end has to be rescued by a defense.“

“Man is offended at Christianity… because it is too high, because its goal is not man’s goal, because it would make of a man something so extraordinary that he is unable to get it into his head.”

What Schaeffer takes from this nineteenth-century Danish philosopher (often called an existentialist) is the radical jarring of our modern Christian consciousness that real progress toward spiritual achievement requires.

Third, the author draws on personal relationships, such as those with the couple who ran his boarding school in England, or with a craftsman he met there. They taught him life lessons that have served his well––about kindness, diligence, integrity, and humanity.

Fourth, Schaeffer distinguishes between the responsible and serious atheists (and believers ) with whom he picks no quarrel, and others who are, by personality and mission, antagonistic. Figures like Bertrand Russell stand out as well-meaning and serious questioners of faith, who may in the end actually strengthen its claim on our spirit. This comment of Russell on mortality could find a comfortable home in the reflec-tions of an Orthodox monk: “To aban-don the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things––this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship…. United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love.”

I’ll let this quote of Shaeffer’s sum up my thoughts: “The cure for hubris…is, I think, to experience God through fail-ure, beauty, tragedy, community, and love.“ The open-minded will find much to like in Schaeffer’s third way––which is The Way of Christ. IC

Searching Every Which Way by Alex Patico

Searching Every Which Way

by Alex Patico

The following is not so much a review as a topical commentary on a few readings related to this issue’s theme.

A recent article in UUWorld, the magazine of the Unitarian-Universalist Association of Congregations, talked of “The End of Church.” The author, Fredric J. Muir, is the pastor of a UU church in Annapolis, MD, not far from my home. He notes that figures from Thomas Jefferson to contemporary scholars have suggested that his denomination has a potential to do well in America, yet “we remaina small religious minority.” He believes that UU’s are being “held back by a pervasive and disruptive commitment to individualism.” Although in tune with one of the characteristic strains of American culture, he says, this individualism also presents a problem. How can people who are “allergic to authority and power” also be deeply involved in their society? Muir is asking more than just how his faith tradition can be more successful and expansionary; he is wondering how it can be more conducive to the development of what Martin Luther King and others have called “The Beloved Community.” In other words, how can one (recalling the words of Hillel) be “for oneself” while also embracing social consciousness and an ethic of service?

Muir cites Emerson: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” and even, “men are less [when] together than alone.” The Beloved Community, in contrast, expresses “the ethical meaning of the Kingdom of God….the divine indwelling that equally graces all people” (citing Prof. Gary Dorrien about King).

Certainly, the latter is more consonant with the standard one gleans from Orthodox tradition: “One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian,” we say; we are saved together, rather than in isolation from our brothers and sisters. Leitourgia is the work of “the people,” not of a lone actor.

But, if this is the case, why are Unitarians so much more prominent in social endeavors than we Orthodox are? Their congregations are regularly engaged in a variety of efforts to seek the common good. Sure, we can point to the Ecumenical Patriarch addressing environmental stewardship, or find archival footage of an Orthodox hierarch marching with civil rights leaders, but no one would say that we have placed our stamp on society to the degree that Catholics, Jews, Quakers, or Brethren have, relative to our numbers. Is there a reason why Matthew 25 is not a Bible verse that we find in the lectionary for our Divine Liturgy?

Another periodical caught my attention. This one, called Prism, comes from Evangelicals for Social Action. The articles in a recent issue treated the conflict in Israel/Palestine, air pollution, homelessness, and “transcending the culture wars to build bridges for the common good.” One author prayed, “Whether we veer to the traditional or the innovative, may our focus be on Christ alone as we seek to follow him in a world that will change regardless of how we feel about budging.”

We Orthodox take pride in the fact that we honor tradition and resist innovation (at least for its own sake). But would it really be an innovation for us to involve ourselves in the community as the early Christians did? They spread out far and wide spreading the Good News of Christ’s life and teaching, and also took care of the sick, protected widows and orphans, held their wealth in common and showed their unique character in “how they loved one another.”

It is not as though the concerns for justice, peace, and the poor in other communities are embraced to the exclusion of core values. In the wind these days is a strong current of active searching for deeper and more profound expressions of Christianity. In what is usually called the “Emergent Church”—an untidy phenom-enon that is not quite an organization, nor exactly a movement—thousands are looking for ways to go beyond what they have in their own ecclesial backyard. Whether Catholic, Methodist, Baptist or Mennonite, the “Emergents” say they want a more serious relationship with Jesus Christ—less bureaucracy but more joy, less comfort and more challenge. Some form separate gatherings to augment their own church, others propose change in the way of “doing church” in their denomination.

A recent book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Tony Jones), attempts to corral the disparate threads of this surprising and sometimes baffling new development in Christendom. Jones says that, “The modern church— at least as it is characterized by imposing physical buildings, professional clergy, denominational bureaucracies, residential seminary training, and other trappings— was an endeavor by faithful men and women in their time and place, attempting to live into the biblical gospel. But the church was never the end, only the means.” He posts, as sidebars throughout his book, a series of brief “dispatches,” such as these:

“Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality.”

“Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy.”

“Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.”

The idea of theology being “temporary” would strike many of us as anathema, yet we can relate to Jones’ description of emergents as embracing “the messiness of human life.” In our tradition of ekonomia, we recognize that intellectual formulations may often miss much of the mysterion that is God and His Kingdom.

Interestingly, the Emerging Church is, I’ve learned, quite open to exploring and accepting key elements of the Orthodox faith. Its members are seriously curious about contemplative and monastic traditions, and interested in rediscovering the Holy Spirit (and the Trinity in general), while they simultaneously “downplay the differences between clergy and laity.” They may haul out their pews and bring in overstuffed sofas as part of their “remodeling”—never considering that large parts of the Church never installed pews in the first place!

Personally, I am not ready yet to have communion bread come in “cinnamon raisin or cheddar jalapeno sourdough,” as in one congregation the book describes, but I admire the Emergents’ urge to seek God Himself, even if the way leads away from the temple they grew up in. They, Jones says, “are pushing over fences and roaming around at the margins of the church in America” like feral animals that have become de-domesticated. Time will tell where the movement leads.

So, while we may have something to learn about doing social action, what do we do well as Orthodox Christians? Another book I recently finished does a good job of elucidating the soul of our Holy Tradition. Everyday Saints and Other Stories features some elements that might cause evangelicals, emergents and Unitarians to blanche: exorcisms, gulags, and superstition. But it also shows the heart of Russian monastic life in all its “messy” richness. Written by a monk of the Pskov Caves Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the book is a series of memoirs and hearsay, a work of non-fiction but as readable as a collection by Gogol. One encounters dozens of figures who have been Fr. Tikhon’s elders, peers, or parishion-ers over several decades, during both the Soviet era and the period of perestroika.

Saints has sold millions of copies in Russia and is available in a dozen languages. The stories told so captivatingly are too long to be repeated here, but the author also offers, from time to time, brilliant and moving passages on life in the faith:

“For us it was somehow completely obvious that Soviet authority would some-day live itself out and collapse with a magnificent crash. This is not to say, of course, that it could not seriously ruin our lives, putting some of us in jail, for example, or even getting us killed. But we believed that unless it was the will of God nothing of the sort whatever possibly could happen anyway. In the words of the ancient ascetic Abba Forstus: ‘If God wishes me to live, He knows how to make this happen. But if God does not wish me to live, then why should I live?’”

“This new world Fr. Raphael had joined was full of joy and light, and governed by its own particular laws. In this world, the help of the Lord would always come when it was truly needed. In this world wealth was ridiculous, and glamour and ostentatiousness absurd, while modesty and humility were beautiful and becoming. Here great souls and just souls truly judged themselves to be lesser and worse than any other man. Here the most respected were those who had fled from all worldly glory. And here the most powerful were those who with all their hearts had recognized the powerlessness of their unaided humanity. Here the true power was hidden with frail elders, and it was understood that sometimes it was better to be old and ill than to be young and healthy…. Here the death of each became a lesson to all, and the end of earthly life was just the beginning.”

Place Everyday Saints alongside The Philokalia on your bookshelf, if you are not called to enter the monastery yourself. The search is mainly within each of us, after all. Poet Corey Carlson wrote that God’s love is “never hidden far, though we seek as though it were.  IC

In Communion / Winter 2013

Who of These Is Not Like The Others? by Alex Patico

by Alex Patico

The Traveler

He wonders, what did I do wrong? Should I have realized that this was a risky time, what with all the threats coming out of Tehran and Washington? Should I have postponed my trip, even though my aunt in Isfahan is not getting any younger and may not be around much longer? Was there something wrong in the way I answered their questions in the windowless side-room at Imam Khomeini Airport? Would it have been any different had I flown into Mehrabad? A thousand questions in order to avoid asking the only important question: Will I make it home alive?

The Interrogator

He does not like this job, but it is a job. Most of the young men in his family are unemployed, even the ones with university degrees. It could be worse; he could be one of the guys who work in the back end of Evin Prison, the ones who can use (in fact, who are encouraged to use) any technique they can think up—just like in the old days under the Shah. But still, his job is boring and tedious. The “right” answers rarely come, nor are they necessarily required, if the bosses decide to proceed with a prosecution. At least he is serving the Revolution, which seems to be getting off-track lately.

The Motorcyclist

He throttles down, partly to avoid having his wheels catch the edge of the joob (an open drainage ditch bedside the roadway, sometimes five feet deep), partly so as not to alert their target. He approaches the car, parked beside an apartment building in North Tehran. His companion readies the device so that it can be affixed to the car’s side panel, just behind the driver’s side door, and they can roar away before anyone in the car or on the street has time to react. They will be out of blast range at the crucial moment, ideally with no one having gotten a good look at them.

The Scientist

He thinks about the meetings he has scheduled for the afternoon, about going home to have lunch with his wife. He will change out of his office trousers and into comfortable, pajama-bottom-like shalvor while she brings his tea—served in a small glass, accompanied by the irregular lumps of sugar called qand. He will place the qand behind his teeth and sip the hot, flavorful tea through it. They will talk about the children, how they’re doing in school. He hears a slight “click” on the side of the car, before he hears nothing…ever again.

The Marine

He feels oddly ecstatic, though he’s not sure whether it is their victory in the skirmish, or just the fact that he’s alive, when he didn’t necessarily expect to be. Though buoyed by the “win,” he’s also still jittery, hopped up on battle adrenalin. And there is the bitter rage that bubbled up inside him when he saw his bunkmate get it in the head, not eight feet from where he was crouched. Taking a leak has always been “the pause that refreshes” but it never felt as good as this. Take that, he murmurs, as a crooked smile splits his face.

The Talib

He looks down on his now-useless earthly body, which he had put so much effort into building up. Now, he is beyond being surprised by anything that human beings might do. Still, it doesn’t feel right, to see the khareji, the foreigners, desecrating the body that Allah had given him to use. He wonders whether his family members will see the pictures the other young man is taking. He muses about what his brothers in Islam will do when they see it. They will take offense, he knows. They may be energized by this new insult to our honor. It may lead to more killing.

Comprehension Quiz

Which of these is a child of God?

0 The Traveler

0 The Interrogator

0 The Motorcylist

0 The Scientist

0 The Marine

0 The Talib

0 All of the above

From the blog, Red Horse Down. Visit Alex’s blog and read his thoughts on Iran. Alex was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in the sixties and since then has kept abreast of events in Iran even as he maintains relationships with Iranians and Iranian-Americans. www.redhorsedown.blogspot.com

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

A High Wind of Grace in Jamaica

By Alexander Patico

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

– Sri Ramakrishna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

More Than Just Justice

by Alexander Patico

When I was a kid, there was a comic book series called “The Justice League of America.” Its members included Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman plus some lesser-known superheroes. The outcome of each confrontation was that the innocents were saved and the “bad guys” got “what was coming to them.” In fact, this was the never-varying plot-line of Dragnet, Zorro, the Lone Ranger and indeed all the fantasy worlds kids inhabited in those days. Justice triumphed, evil-doers were punished.

We’re not kids anymore. Our worldview isn’t shaped by comic books. We’re old enough not to see mutual destruction or the triumph of the powerful as desirable outcomes in human conflicts. We tend to think in terms of peace and justice. But here lies a tension. Is peace the goal? Or is justice our priority? Or shall we glue them together into “just-peace” – a hybrid word that welds justice and peace together, like yin and yang, inseparable segments of a whole?

Looking back on my initiation into American superhero justice, I am reminded of one of the dialogues of Socrates with his young colleagues in Book One of Plato’s The Republic. Plato presents (in the words of editor Benjamin Jowett), “a refutation of popular and sophistical notions of justice” (such as doing good only to one’s friends, justice as the interest of the stronger, etc.). In the process, Socrates questions the definition of justice as “everyone getting his due” – pleasant rewards going to the virtuous and negative consequences being meted out to the evil. Sounds like what most people mean when they say “justice.”

For Plato, justice was “based on the idea of good, which is the harmony of the universe.” Now Christians believe that “The Good” equals God and that the harmony of the universe is the peace of Christ. Therefore, “giving to each man what is proper to him” might include a good deal more than what usual human standards have regarded as appropriate.

If we Christians believe that each person is a bearer of the image of God, and that our ultimate destination is to be with God in heaven, then the concept of “what is due” each of us expands considerably.

Looked at this way, God asks much more of us than the promotion of human justice. If we give each “his due” – thinking about this in the usual constricted and grudging sort of way, then we are in danger of being like the persons mentioned in Luke 6 about whom it was said “even sinners love those who love them.” That is, even a non-believer might be willing to say that everyone should get what is due him, if they mean only a juridical type of “due-ness.” We, however, are bound to make the definition of the word “justice” subsume all that our instruction in the faith would lead us to include in it, the fullness of justice, if you will.
St. Isaac the Syrian actually made this distinction between God’s grace and man’s justice when he counseled, “Never say that God is just. If He were just, you would be in hell. Rely only on His injustice which is mercy, love and forgiveness.” Surely this explains why “Lord have mercy” appears so often in the Liturgy. Indeed, we strive to become people of mercy, as our Father first extended mercy to us. “Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

Added to the Christian’s calling to manifest mercy is the goal to seek out occasions to show mercy, especially under adverse or uncomfortable circumstances, and to strive for more than just expedient answers. As Laurel Rae Matheson recently wrote in Sojourners, “Justice is not just a matter of fairness or equity [but of] creating sustainable solutions for conflict.” In other words, justice should be strongly conciliatory and constructive, rather than “restorative, distributive or punitive.” The end result we seek should be better than any ante bellum condition, hewing much more emphatically toward “the peaceable kingdom.”

As real “just peace” is achieved, we will know it not by the fact that oppressors have become captives or corpses in the cemetery, or that the poor have finally become rich – as satisfying as that kind of compensatory balance might be. Rather, the sword will have been beaten into plowshares.

The peaceable kingdom is described in these amazing words: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” This is a vision that would be laughed out of most negotiating rooms as naively idealistic, yet our faith bids us embrace it. Micah’s prophecy promises that “every one shall rest under his vine, and every one under his fig tree, and there shall be none to alarm them…. All nations shall walk every one in his own way and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah: 4:4-5)
Justice? We might not all call it that all the time. Peace? Surely. Hurry, Christ, bring us Your peace, that we might learn what Your justice truly is!

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

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57

Conscience and War

by Alexander Patico

Advocates of going to war often speak of honor, duty and patriotism. Those who plead for peace often stress conscience and faith. Why the dichotomy? Is peace dishonorable? Are warriors without conscience? Does duty point us in one direction only? Does our faith preclude patriotism? Is peace unpatriotic? Can one imagine a border marking the point at which conscience ends and duty takes over? Is there any situation in life in which conscience should be ignored, however acute the tension may be between private and public, faith-based and secular?

Such questions sharpen analysis of “conscience.” Its Latin roots are con (with) plus the verb scire (to know). My dictionary has the additional information that “conscience” replaced the Middle English word inwit – “knowledge within.”
Entries that define conscience in Webster’s New World Dictionary include: “a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle.” To be “conscientious” is to be: “governed by, or made or done according to, what one knows is right; scrupulous; honest; showing care and precision; painstaking.”

Above Image: Rembrandt painting of Jacob wrestling with an angel

Conscience is often described as “the still, small voice” of God in our heart and is sometimes depicted as an angelic figure seated on one shoulder. In the Disney film of a puppet brought to life, the tiny figure of Jiminy Cricket is assigned to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience in his struggle to become “a real boy.”

When a hard decision has to be made, we often speak of “wrestling” with conscience, just as, in Genesis, Jacob wrestled with an angel.

In the case of deciding whether or not to take part in war, patriotism may dictate participation for some, while a careful examination of conscience (which for many people might mean simply reflecting on basic moral teachings) may steer others toward refusal and resistance.

The issue of conscience was at the core of the discussion at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War held this March at Riverside Church in New York City. “When rendering unto Caesar and unto God, God should be given the benefit of the doubt,” said one of the speakers. A retired military chaplain from the Christian Reformed Church wrote, “The imperative ‘to obey one’s government’ is a generalization and not a universalization (‘obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word’).”

In the conscientious objection case of prizefighter Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), who had refused to take part in the Vietnam War, Federal Justice John Noonan, ruling in Clay’s favor, took note of James Madison in his drafting the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution: “In the ultimate and absolute relation of each individual to God lies the limitation on civil society and civil government on which Madison insists. Without that relation, why should the individual not be absorbed by the community? With that relation to a Creator, Governor, Judge in existence for each individual, with that personal responsibility to a personal God, a government of human beings must be a government of limited powers.”

Interestingly, a Quaker policy statement holds that “whether allied to faith or not, the active conscience belongs to mature citizenship; neither individuals nor society can thrive without it … Quakers support freedom of conscience as both a human right and a social necessity.” (This is not to say that the Society of Friends does not recognize the centrality of Christ’s influence on their morality. In 1661, the founder of the Society, George Fox, rejected a commission in the militia not on the basis of societal benefit, but as evidence of his conversion: “I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.”)

At the Truth Commission hearings, Joshua Casteel, former Army Interrogator at Abu Ghraib Prison who withdrew from the Iraq War after becoming a conscientious objector, recalled being concerned, during basic training, with the chants of “Kill, kill, kill without mercy!” Casteel thought he “could make a difference – someone like me, with a conscience, should be in a position of authority, instead of someone who only wanted to drop bombs. But there is no private conscience. What you believe and what you do must be in accord with one another.”

In his writings about conscience, Casteel reminds his readers of the definition of conscience that was approved by the Second Vatican Council:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (Rom 2:15-16) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Mt 22:37-40; Gal 5:14) … The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, section 16)

The Commission’s host, Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., retired Army chaplain and former chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, said the military “teaches just war principles from basic training up through its war colleges. Yet current regulations prevent soldiers from using these ideas when called to deploy in a war.”

Others who testified in the New York hearings underscored the view that conscience necessarily has a social aspect and political implications. In Orthodoxy we say “one Christian is no Christian” – we work out our salvation in relation to other human beings. Conscience links us to others and thus is more than a voice of private moral guidance, even though, as a voice within, we may perceive it as private. Part of Eucharistic participation is each person’s regular examination of conscience, not merely as a means to individual soul-cleansing and guidance, but as a part of our preparation for communion – something we do not do alone, but with the other members of the Church and with God. Communion is an act of union, with God and with each other.

If we are honest with ourselves, tough questions arise: How do I know when I am heeding conscience, rather than just fabricating a self-serving rationale? Am I following my conscience or conforming to my peer group? Am I being honest to God or reciting a politically correct sentiment? What must I do when my conscience diverges from that of others? How dare I follow my conscience when people better informed than I, with access both to expert advisers and top secret data, order me to go in another direction?

In the U.S., the law allows for the exercise of conscience in decisions about military service, but with severe limits. One is not allowed to object to a particular war, but must reject all wars. Though most people would agree that there are both just and unjust wars, and many would endorse the traditional criteria for distinguishing one from the other, there is no legal recognition of those who object in conscience to a particular war now going on. It’s all or nothing. Many have been forced to go to prison or leave for another country because they weren’t recognized as objectors to all war.

One Truth Commission witness’s stark question – “Are the members of the military slaves?” – was taken up by Eda Uca-Dorn of the Christian Peace Witness. The military, she says, does indeed act as a slave-master when those whom it employs “lose the freedom to exercise moral agency” – that is, when they are required, under threat of severe penalties, to act contrary to the dictates of their conscience.

“Selective conscientious objection,” Uca-Dorn continued, “is a little-understood path – dismissed by some for not being perfect enough in its rejection of violence and dismissed by others as an ‘easy way out’ of combat. Soldiers who make no argument against all war but who cannot in conscience fight in some wars – especially if they change their mind after voluntary enlistment – are often accused of cowardice and opportunism: ‘Well, if you weren’t going to fight, then what did you sign up for? If you were truly for peace, you would reject the whole military industrial complex! Oh sure, you’ll take the job benefits, but when it’s time to do your duty, you run.’”

Ever since the Nuremberg Tribunal, at which war criminals were tried following World War II, there has been a growing body of international agreements rejecting the idea that a soldier has no alternative but to obey orders or be punished for failing to do so. One of the lessons of Nuremberg is that each of us is accountable. To say “I was just following orders” is no defense.

Pope Benedict XVI, who as a young man saw the genocidal consequences of totalitarian ideology and blind obedience in his native Germany, has written a book on conscience in which he sees “morality of conscience and morality of authority” as “two opposing models … locked in struggle with each other.”

Is it possible that patriotism and conscience may more nearly coincide than is these days admitted? George Washington, America’s first president said: “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” Can we claim that this standard has been consistently upheld in modern times? Washington’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Above Image: a soldier in training: a scene from the film “Soldiers of  Conscience”

James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth U.S. president, wrote: “War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” If Madison was right, then, is selective conscientious objection not a legitimate way to help safeguard a democratic society?

Fundamental to our attitude toward conscience and war is our conception of the moral status of war itself. One can view war in one of five ways:

• War is of its nature a sin and thus is never morally justifiable (what is usually termed the “pacifist” approach).
• War is sometimes necessary, in defense of one’s nation, but never just (the lesser of two evils).
• War can be morally tenable, but only under specified circumstances (the “just war” approach).
• War, while lamentable, is sometimes unavoidable and must be fought even if it does not meet the traditional criteria for a just war (the position espoused by most political leaders today).
• War can be, and often is, a positive good, a powerful force as a tool of statecraft in defense of order and one’s national interest (a pragmatic, realpolitik approach).

In the latter two, private conscience may play no part at all. One belongs to one’s society and is obliged to do what that society requires. In the first three, conscience (or at least an agreed-upon set of moral axioms) is an essential part of the decision-making process.

Individual conscience is less and less in the foreground as we go down the list of items above, and the last most closely approximates the unqualified “military mindset” – rulers decide and subjects obey, period. War is packaged as peacemaking. All military programs, no matter how far from our borders, are acts of “national defense,” and all soldiers, no matter what they do, are “peacekeepers.”

In contrast with such a military mindset, we are challenged by the witness of the early Church. In the first age of martyrdom, it would have been a rare Christian who didn’t agree with Tertullian’s declaration that “in disarming Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.” In Tertullian’s view, any Christian who took part in war was a person serving two masters, thus “turning his back on the scriptures.” One of the great saints of those early times, St. Martin of Tours (316-367), at the time still an unbaptized catechumen in the Roman army, told Caesar he could not take part in a battle that was about to occur: “I am a soldier of Christ,” he explained. “To fight is not allowed for me.” (It must be counted as a miracle that Martin was discharged rather than executed.)

In a recent paper, Marian Simion, a member of the faculties of the Boston Theological Institute, Hellenic College and Boston College, concluded that “one could argue that the Orthodox Church has a rather ambiguous record in its endorsement of defensive violence. … By remaining loyal to the teachings on non-retaliation, inherent into the Gospel (Mt 5:38-42), the Orthodox Church made strong efforts to resist temptations for a unanimous justification of violence and an adoption of the Just War theory.”

There is the case of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was beheaded in Berlin in 1943 for refusing to be part of Hitler’s army. Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, commented on the failure of the Catholic Church in Germany and Austria to support Jägerstätter at the time, though now he has been beatified. “What can we do,” Forest asked, “to help the Church respond positively to those who refuse to take part either in war in general, or in a particular war?” It is a matter, he said, that goes beyond individual moral responsibility: “Protest is not an end in itself, nor is it the most important aspect of peacemaking. When protest is called for, how can it be carried out in a way that makes it more likely for those with opposing views to rethink their position?”

Writer and film-maker Jennifer Rawlings, one of the speakers at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, reported on the case of an Army sergeant from her home town in Kansas who committed suicide earlier this year rather than be redeployed to Iraq. The sergeant put a gun to his head and killed himself in front of his wife and their four children.
“Suicide rates among soldiers are the highest they have been in nearly three decades,” Rawlings says. “There are months when there are more suicides among soldiers than troops killed in the line of duty, with an average of five soldiers a day trying to take their own lives.”

Perhaps those rates of self-destruction may have occurred solely based on the stress and carnage of battle and the variety of strains to which ordinary Americans are susceptible, but to suppose that moral misgivings and agonies of conscience figured into them to some extent seems reasonable. The costs of war are rediscovered in each generation, as much as we try to forget them. It is difficult to know the costs of widespread conscientious objection, as this has never been tried.    ❖

Alex Patico, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America, took part in the Truth Commission meetings. The complete testimony given at the Truth Commission can be found at: www.theriversidechurchny.org/news/article.php?id=337. Also see The Center on Conscience and War web site at www.centeronconscience.org. A prize-winning documentary, Soldiers of Conscience, is available from: www.socfilm.com/buyDVD.htm .

Advice on Peacemaking from the Saints

A selection of challenging quotations for meditation assembled by Alexander Patico, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America

First Century

For he is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. … He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. … Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather set aside wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, declares the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink.

St. Paul

Let us praise with reverent hymns of peace the Divine Peace. … God is the fount of all peace, who joins all things together in an unity without confusion. … There is no need to tell how the loving-kindness of Christ comes bathed in peace. Therefore we must learn to cease from strife, whether against ourselves or against one another, or against the angels, and instead to labor together even with the angels for the accomplishment of God’s Will, in accordance with the providential purpose of Jesus who works all things in all and makes peace, unutterable and foreordained from eternity, and reconciles us to Himself, and, in Himself, to the Father. Concerning these supernatural gifts enough has been said with confirmation drawn from the holy testimony of the scriptures.

Dionysius the Areopagite

Second Century

They [the Christians] love all men, and they are persecuted by all. … They are put to death, and yet they are endowed with life. … They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good, they are punished as evil-doers; being punished, they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life.

Mathetes

What, then, are these teachings in which we are reared? “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust. … “Who [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them … and to pray for those who plot against them? … We cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly. … We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him. So we have given up [gladiatorial] spectacles. … What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God?

Athenagoras of Athens

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, only twelve in number, who, by the power of God, proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God. We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

St. Justin Martyr

Third Century

The question is now whether a member of the faithful can become a soldier and whether a soldier can be admitted to the Faith … how will a Christian do so? … The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter. … We [the Christians] started yesterday and already we have filled the world and everything that belongs to you the cities, apartment houses, fortresses, towns, market places, the camps themselves, your tribes, town councils, the imperial palace, the Senate, the Forum. The only thing we have left to you are the temples. We can count your armies; there is a greater number of Christians in a single province! What kind of war would we, who willingly submit to the sword, not be ready or eager for … if it were not for the fact that according to our doctrine it is more permissible to be killed than to kill.

Tertullian

Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker. … I cannot persuade myself that without love to others, and without, as far as rests with me, peaceableness towards all, I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ.

St. Basil the Great

It is well known that Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus, who brought the mass of mankind under a single sovereignty. The existence of many kingdoms would have hindered the spread of Jesus’ teachings over the whole world because everywhere men would have been forced to serve in the army and go to war on behalf of their country How could this peaceful teaching, which prohibits a man from avenging himself even against his enemies, have gained sway if the whole world situation at the time of Jesus had not been made more peaceful,

Origen

God, in prohibiting killing, discountenances not only brigandage, which is contrary to human law, but also that which men regard as legal. Thus participation in war will not be legitimate to a just man; his “military service” is justice itself. … What are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation? that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence. … How can a man be just who injures, hates, despoils and puts to death? Yet they who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things.

Lactantius [tutor of Crispus, the son of St. Constantine the Great]

The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects the soldiers, and proclaims war. And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? … He has gathered the bloodless host of peace. … The trumpet of Christ is His Gospel. He hath blown it, and we have heard. “Let us array ourselves in the armor of peace, putting on the breastplate of righteousness, and taking the shield of faith, and binding our brows with the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So the apostle in the spirit of peace commands. These are our invulnerable weapons: armed with these, let us face the evil one. … If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also. … The Church is an army that sheds no blood.

Clement of Alexandria

The world is soaked with mutual blood. When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state. Impunity is acquired for crimes not by reason of innocence but by the magnitude of the cruelty. … Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, is an employment, is an art. Crime is not only committed but is taught. What can be called more inhuman, what more repulsive? It is a training that one may be able to kill, and that he kills is a glory … they adorn themselves for a voluntary death, wretched they even glory in their wicked deeds.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Fourth Century

I am a soldier of Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.

St. Martin of Tours

Both the Emperor’s commands and yours [person in authority] must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven. If they are, they must not only not be obeyed; they must be resisted.

St. Euphemia

It is good to live in peace, for the wise person practices perpetual prayer. … However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accident, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts … attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all members … dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.

Amma Theodora

If force is used, I cannot meet it. I shall be able to grieve, to weep, to groan; against weapons, soldiers, Goths, my tears are my weapons, for these are a priest’s defense. … I ought not, I cannot resist in any other way, for to flee and forsake the Church is not my way, lest any one should suppose I did so from fear of some heavier punishment. You yourselves know that I am wont to show respect to our emperors, but not to yield to them, to offer myself freely to punishment, and not to fear what is prepared for me. … Some ask whether, in case of a shipwreck, a wise man ought to take a plank away from an ignorant sailor. Although it seems better for the common good that a wise man rather than a fool should escape from shipwreck, yet I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets with an armed robber he cannot return his blows, lest in defending his life he should stain his love toward his neighbor. The verdict on this is plain and clear in the books of the Gospel. ‘Put away your sword, for every one that takes up the sword shall perish by the sword.’ What robber is more hateful than the persecutor who came to kill Christ? But Christ would not be defended from the wounds of the persecutor, for He willed to heal all by His wounds.

St. Ambrose of Milan

We, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. An ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.

Arnobius

Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law. … How great punishment must they deserve, who, far from themselves forgiving, do even entreat God for vengeance on their enemies, and as it were diametrically transgress this law; and this while He is doing and contriving all, to hinder our being at variance one with another? For since love is the root of all that is good, He, removing from all sides whatever mars it, brings us together, and cements us to each other. … To conquer enemies does not render kings so illustrious, as to conquer wrath and anger. For, in the former case, the success is due to arms and soldiers; but here the trophy is simply your own, and you have no one to divide the glory of your moral wisdom. You have overcome barbarian war, overcome also Imperial wrath! … Just as maniacs, who never enjoy tranquility, so also he who is resentful and retains an enemy will never have the enjoyment of any peace.

St. John Chrysostom

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Who are these children? Those who show forth in their own life the characteristic of the Divine energy. … This work He ordains also for you, namely to cast out hatred and abolish war, to exterminate envy and banish strife, to extinguish from within resentment of injuries smoldering in the heart. … For as light follows the departure of darkness, thus also these evil things are replaced by the fruits of the Spirit: by charity, joy, peace, benignity, magnanimity, all the good things enumerated by the Apostle. How then should the dispenser of the Divine gifts not be blessed, since he imitates the gifts of God and models his own good deeds on the Divine generosity? … But perhaps the beatitude does not only regard the good of others. I think that man is called a peacemaker par excellence who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind but is subjected to the higher rule and becomes a servant of the Divine ordinance.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Fifth Century

I have heard that there were two old men who lived together for many years, never quarreling, and that one said to the other, “Let us also pick a quarrel with each other, even as others do.” His companion answered, “I don’t know how to start a quarrel.” The other man answered and said to him, “Look, I will place a brick between us and will say, ‘This is mine,’ and then you say, ‘It is not yours, but mine’; and from this quarreling will begin. They placed a brick between them and one of them said, “This is mine,” and his companion answered and said after him, “This is not so, for it is mine.” Straightaway the other replied and said to him, “If this be so, and the brick is yours, take it and go.” Thus they were unable to quarrel.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sixth Century

Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer. You will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.

St. John Climacus

Seventh Century

“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. St. Maximus the Confessor

Ninth Century

You detach yourself from the cross to which you have crucified yourself alongside the Savior if you go and attack your brother.

St. Theodore Studite

Eleventh Century

Above all things: do not forget the poor, but support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. Take not the life of the just or the unjust, nor permit him to be killed. Destroy no Christian soul, even though he be guilty of murder.

St. Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles

Fifteenth Century

Our head, Christ our God … does not tolerate that the bond of love be taken from us…

St. Mark of Ephesus

Eighteenth Century

If the matter is solved with war, you will suffer much destruction. … If they find silver in the street, they will not bend down to take it. But for an ear of wheat, they will kill each other trying to take it first. … In the city [Constantinople], so much blood will be spilled that a three-year-old calf will swim in it. … After the war, a man will have to run half an hour to find another human being to join him in fellowship.

St. Cosmas the Aetolian

Nineteenth Century

God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil … then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well. … You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. … Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Twentieth Century

It is easier for a feeble straw to resist a mighty fire than for the nature of sin to resist the power of love. We must cultivate this love in our souls, that we may take our place with all the saints, for they were all-pleasing unto God through their love for their neighbor.

St. Elizabeth, the New Martyr

The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. … The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked. … Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself. Our love should not be any different.

St. Maria of Paris

Should we, Christians, embark upon the way of vengeance? Let this not be! Not even if our hearts would break from the … oppressions inflicted upon our religious feelings, our love of our native land or our temporary well-being, even if our feelings would infallibly tell us who and where our assailant is. No, let better bleeding wounds be inflicted upon us, than that we move to revenge … against our enemies, or those whom we take to be the source of our suffering. Follow Christ! Don’t betray Him! Don’t fall into temptation. Do not allow your own soul to perish in the blood of vengeance. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow

Twenty-First Century

If we live as people of God, there will be room for all nations in the Balkans and in the world. If we liken ourselves to Cain who killed his brother Abel, then the entire earth will be too small even for two people. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to be always children of God and love one another. We should remember the words of St. Paul: “If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.”

Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church

Any Georgian who kills another person shames his nation.

Patriarch Ilya of Georgia

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

Patriarch Aleksy of Russia

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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The Barrier Wall

by Alexander Patico

Defensive Wall
Defensive Wall

One of the sources of Arab discontentment has been the erection of the “Defensive Wall,” as Israelis call it, separating parts of the West Bank from other parts, and creating hardships for those, both Christian and Muslim, who reside and work in the areas thus fractured. For example, the 170,000 residents of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, cannot move freely in and out of their own town.

The International Court of Justice (an institution little known in the United States) ruled in 2004 that, under international law, the wall is illegal. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and others have called for removal of much of the structure.

The man who actually designed the Wall, Jewish settler Dan Tirza, has been quoted as saying, “There is a problem with hatred…The main problem now with this separation is that they don’t know us any more.”

Azmi Bishara, until recently a member of the Israeli Knesset, wrote: “Most of our children attend schools that are separate but unequal. According to recent polls, two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live next to an Arab and nearly half would not allow a Palestinian into their home.”

“A shrinking number of Israelis and Palestinians are studying each other’s language,” reported Scott Wilson in The Washington Post of April 1.

A teacher in a Palestinian cultural center in Hebron told the reporter that there used to be hundreds enrolled in his Hebrew courses. “Now, you can count them on one hand.”

The founder of a department of Arabic at Tel Aviv University was quoted as saying, “The attitude on both sides toward the other language, and by extension those who speak it, is very disappointing. Both sides are just very afraid of each other.”

In the Jerusalem area, thousands of Christians, including those whose families have been Christian since Jesus himself spread the Gospel there, are cut off from the churches, convents and monasteries that serve them.

The difficulties for Muslim Arabs are even worse. In May, at a Unitarian Church in Maryland, a local peace activist described her recent visit among the Palestinian people in a dozen communities. She described one Palestinian mother whose house happened to be adjacent to a dividing line. They had their front door (which now suddenly faced on “Israeli” territory of the West Bank) welded shut by soldiers. It was reopened after several months, but she then had to obtain a special permit (renewable after three months) to use the door of her own home; her mother was required to have her own permit as well.

Some 193 miles of roads on the West Bank are closed to cars with Palestinian license plates.

An Israeli poet, Alharon Shabti, wrote about the newly-erected barrier, calling it “a wall of fear, of hate, of incomprehensibility.” The wall is being built, said Shabti, “within the people themselves.” As it is a “barrier” for some, a “protection” for others, an “insult” to still others, Shabti says; the use of words in today’s Israel “ruins the fabric of the language itself.”

His critique is the same that George Orwell was known for – one that points to the signals and symbols that reflect inner attitudes and telegraph changes in values.

Katherine Von Schubert, author of Checkpoints and Chances: Eyewitness Accounts from an Observer in Israel-Palestine, wrote in an Easter 2006 e-mail:

A few hundred Palestinian Christians made their way yesterday – Good Friday – along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem to walk as Jesus did, carrying his cross on route to his death. Many Palestinians from Ramallah and Bethlehem can no longer join the annual procession in their holy city because they are prevented from traveling by checkpoints and a pernicious permit system. The checkpoint around the corner from where I lived in East Jerusalem, for example, has permanently closed the road into Jerusalem for tens of thousands of Palestinians from the North who have had their ‘Jerusalem ID’ card taken away. The enormous concrete Wall has now shut off access to the Old City for many other Palestinians living in East Jerusalem dividing the heart of the city into many fragmented enclaves. Jerusalem has long been dying. So have Bethlehem and many other Palestinian towns….That the Wall’s route was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice has fallen on deaf ears. We have stood by and done nothing… Thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of survival. This is not a foundation for peace.

Alex Patico is the new coordinator of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America and guest editor of this issue of In Communion. He is a member of the U. Committee for the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence. His text is excerpted from Reining in the Red Horse, a forthcoming book.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

Iran: The Next Evil Empire?

by Alex Patico

 Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen
Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen

To us in the West, Iran has been known as a place of ancient trade routes, exotic images and romantic poetry, and more recently as a place of religious and political movements that we struggle to understand. The road to the present impasse between the US and Iran has been as hard to navigate as the bus route from Zanjan to Sanandaj in northwestern Iran – magnificent views and pastoral scenes, but the ever-present danger of a precipitous fall into a rocky abyss.

Americans have been both heroes and villains to Iranians. A Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed during the presidency of James Buchanan, and the first US legation was set up in Tehran in 1883. Americans played a midwifery role in Iran’s first attempt at constitutional government in Iran between 1906 and 1925; other Americans were at the heart of innovations in Persian governance and development in the years that followed.

In his book Iran and America: Rekindling a Love Lost, Dr. Badi Badiozamani wrote, “Between 1830 and 1940, hundreds of Americans had established through their good and impressive activities a vast ocean of goodwill between Iran and the United States.” This goodwill has lasted even until today among the people of Iran.

Then came World War II. Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran. Iran appealed to Roosevelt “to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression.” The appeal fell on deaf ears. In 1943 the US Secretary of State advised Roosevelt, “From a more directly selfish point of view, it is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia” – unless, of course, it would be the US. Thus began a long tug-of-war over Middle Eastern “black gold.”

George V. Allen, who assumed the post of US Ambassador to Tehran in 1946, wrote back to the Department of State, “The best way for Iran to become a decent democracy, it seems to me, is to work at it, through trial and error. I am not convinced by the genuinely held view of many people that democracy should be handed down gradually from above.” But, as Dr. Badiozamani observes, “Unfortunately, neither Allen nor his successors followed this advice. Time and again, when the Shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as ‘non-interference.'”

In 1953 came the event that more than any other colors Iranian perceptions of the government of the US and its intentions toward Iran. When the elected leader of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the exploitative arrangements that governed Iran’s supplying oil to the West and nationalized its oil resources, he was overthrown in a coup orchestrated in part by the American CIA. The operation (acknowledged publicly by the US government decades later) was called “Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the US pursued in the Middle East” by Lee Smith, a journalist associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The monarchy was reestablished, and would endure, with its secret police aided by intelligence from the US and Israel’s Mossad, until the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979. Never again would American motives be taken at face value by Iranians.

American antagonism toward Iran stems largely from the taking of hostages in Tehran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. America became the “Great Satan.” Iran was viewed first with shock and bewilderment, later with fear and hatred, by many Americans. We failed to gauge correctly the anger of ordinary Iranians sparked by US support of the semi-democratic and often brutal reign of the Shah. It was their own loved ones who had been informed upon by the secret police, who had suffered in the Shah’s prisons and had been broken by his torturers. When the hostages were taken, it was not just a political or even religio-political move; it was also personal. The US came to stand for dictatorial rule as well as for economic exploitation, ill-considered modernization and cultural discord.

Now the situation is still more grave. A National Security document of March 16, 2006 asserted, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The document states as fact that Iran possesses weapons of mass destruction, though the IAEA has found no evidence of such. Again the abyss of war beckons.

Schoolgirls visiting the Chahel Sotun Palace

in Esfahan, Iran, May 2006.

According to Michael Chossudovsky, writing last year for the Global Research organization, the US military has “war-gamed” doomsday scenarios involving Iran. World war may be difficult for most of us to imagine, but it is always an item on someone’s to-do list. For the non-military reader, the current US presence in the Persian Gulf is hard to visualize. Just nine of the ships deployed there this year carry some 17,000 US personnel, added to 20,000 already in the area. According to reliable reports, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military blitz that would strike 10,000 targets in the first day of attacks. The proposed targets include airports, rail lines, highways, bridges, ports, communication centers, power grids, industrial centers, and even hospitals and public buildings.

A February 2006 analysis by the UK-based Oxford Research Group describes the likely scenario: “An air attack would involve the systematic destruction of research, development, support, and training centers for nuclear and missile programs and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible. A US attack, which would be larger than anything Israel could mount, would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian air defense capabilities and attacks designed to pre-empt Iranian retaliation. This would require destruction of Revolutionary Guard facilities close to Iraq and of regular or irregular naval forces that could disrupt Gulf oil transit routes…” An element of surprise would be considered critical. This means that there will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas.

Why should it have been impossible, during the almost thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, for us to have developed a way for our two governments to communicate? Neither country is the same as it was when the Islamic Revolution took place, yet leaders of both act as though frozen in time.

However, a policy shift has taken place. It presents, as former President Carter has said, “a radical departure from all previous administration policies” in its aggressive unilateralism and its embrace of preemptive or preventive action. Though a majority of Americans consistently favor limiting attacks by states to self-defense, this is not reflected in the administration’s approach to Iraq and Iran.

The two countries are hardly two peas in a pod. Scott Ritter, former IAEA arms inspector and a US Marines officer, made his first trip to Iran in 2006. He wrote in The Nation, “I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week…. I had my eyes opened…. Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation…. [It is] a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi life in the time of Saddam Hussein…. Iran has functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state…”

The signals coming from Iran over the past few years have shown both assertiveness and flexibility, both stubbornness and hints – sometimes broad hints – of possible compromise. But can we get past the one, in order to build on the other?

Recent indications are that we cannot. Though little has changed between our two countries since the 80s, the drum beats of war grow ever louder. Suddenly, women’s dress codes and human rights concerns seem to matter far more than in the past. Yet these concerns are, in truth, based on meager substantive knowledge. Not only is our hard intelligence on military, political and technical matters sorely lacking, but our direct familiarity with contemporary Iranian culture, and especially with the individuals who sit across the bargaining table, is nearly non-existent.

A February 2007 report by Network 2020 stated, “In the context of tensions between the US and Iran, American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the US and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. ‘There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,’ Burns said. ‘There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form.'” More recently, in a June 8 roundtable with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Condoleeza Rice “confessed that she couldn’t figure Iran out.” “I think it’s a very opaque place,” Rice said, “and it’s a political system I don’t understand very well.” Rice is our most senior foreign policy official.

I flew to Iran last May as part of a peace delegation of 22 Americans. After changing planes in Paris, I spoke with a young Iranian man on his way home. He had just visited a cemetery in Paris where several noted Iranian writers are interred, including one we both admired, the novelist Sadegh Hedayat. I recalled to him the opening line of Hedayat’s dark novel, Blind Owl: “In life there are sores that tear and eat at the soul, like cancer.” We agreed that the will to make war is one of these sores. Balancing the voices of bellicosity, there must be heard voices of charity and humanity. A young anthropologist in the group said, “If all I have done as a result of this trip is begin to dispel the myths that circulate about Iranians, then I have done a lot. And if I can hold up a mirror, then I have done even more. Violence begins in the smallest of spaces. Peace then, must as well.”

But instead, within America, there has been a disturbing sea-change in what has become acceptable in the public sphere. Such conservative TV commentators as Bill O’Reilly voice the opinion that Iran should be bombed into non-existence. Talking about the crash of an Iranian airliner, Don Imus remarked, “When I hear stories like that, I think: who cares?” Senator John McCain, now running for president, answered a reporter’s question on policy toward Iran by chanting, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Many in his audience cheered. An internet merchandiser is selling T-shirts, sweat-suits and underwear with a map of Iran emblazoned with the words “NUKE ‘EM!”

What is happening here? Isn’t it the process that Chris Hedges warned about in his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning – the need to demonize the enemy before the launching of an attack can become psychologically supportable? It was done with “the Japs,” “the Huns,” “the Gooks” and “the Towel Heads”; now it is the “Axis of Evil.” In this process, the other becomes a creature unworthy of our compassion.

While we are busy tarring the Islamic Republic with the brush of malevolence, the US has reached an all-time nadir in terms of how we are regarded outside our borders. We who dare to call ourselves Christians should be known, per the scriptural standard, according to how we “love one another,” yet we have a reputation as people who hate all those who are not like us. In poll after poll, fewer and fewer people around the world look up to us as a country with something of value to teach the rest of the world. A Pew Center poll, done in May 2006, showed that people in six Muslim countries – Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey – perceive the “Christian” West as “selfish, arrogant, immoral and greedy.”

For we who are Christians, the single criterion for evaluating any action or attitude is this: does it conform to the example of Jesus Christ? We are to refrain from focusing on the “speck” in the eye of the other, in this case the Iranians, without first remembering to take the “plank” out of our own eyes. Better to err in the direction of forbearance than to tilt toward smug and superior chauvinism.

Some will worry that pursuing such a path carries a risk that the adversary will take advantage of our delay. But could that not be said about any conflict situation? When, exactly, would it be prudent to “turn the other cheek”? The law of love represents a higher calling than prudence or even self-preservation. Looking at the full biblical context, we must admit that Jesus’ approach was truly radical: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:38-44)

The monk and author Thomas Merton, in his essay “St. Maximus the Confessor on Nonviolence,” wrote: “The love of enemies is not simply a pious luxury, something that [the Christian] can indulge in if he wants to feel himself exceptionally virtuous. It is of the very essence of the Christian life, a proof of one’s Christian faith, a sign that one is a follower and an obedient disciple of Christ.” (Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton, Crossroad, 1995)

Alex Patico is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America. His text is condensed from a forthcoming book, Reining in the Red Horse: An American Christian Looks at Iran. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran 1968-69. He is a member of the US Committee for the Decade to Overcome Violence, a co-founder of the National Iranian American Council, and a congregant of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, Linthicum, Maryland. His most recent visit to Iran was in May 2006.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47