Category Archives: Essays

Essays published in In Communion by any author on any subject


by Jim Forest

The word “blessed,” the first word of each Beatitude, isn’t an everyday word. What do”blessed” and “beatitude” mean?

“Beatitude” comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the Greek gods, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word St. Jerome opted for in his Vulgate translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning that the hard headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” a few modern translations have preferred “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit…”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word that can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin, by the way, means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day’.”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is “hap,” the MiddleEnglish word for “luck.” The word “happen” is a sister word. A “happenstance” approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a “haphazard” manner is to do things by chance. To be “hapless” is be unlucky, but to have good luck is be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain in 1776, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word “blessed”? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Since at least medieval times, “blessed” meant something consecrated to God or belonging to God.

There are several Hebrew words which have been translated as “blessed,” beginning with baruk, as in the verse: “And God blessed them [the first man and woman], saying, Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen 1:28) Baruk is linked to kneeling — a blessing would be received while kneeling in a posture of respect and submission.

“Baruk is frequently applied to God, indeed the berakah is the characteristic Jewish prayer,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of the Monastery of St. Andrew in Manchester explained to me. “The typical Jewish prayer begins, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God…’ There is even a ‘berakah’ for forgetting the correct berakah. This has been taken into Christianity, in particular into Orthodoxy, where no service can begin without a ‘berakah’ — ‘Blessed is our God now and forever and unto the ages of ages,’ or ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…’.”

Ashre is another Hebrew word that has been translated as “blessed.” It’s an exclamation — “O the good fortune!” The root meaning is “to go straight, to advance.” The person of whom one can say ashre ha-ish is one for whom things are on the right track, going along a straight way, going forward, making headway. It is often used in the Book of Psalms, as seen in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The next verse offers a metaphor of what it is like to be blessed — such a person “is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

There is the similar Hebrew word ashar. In the Book of Proverbs it is used in a passage describing the ideal woman: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” (Prov 31:28)

All the authors of the New Testament wrote in Greek, even when it wasn’t their first language. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo, literally, “the saying of a good word” — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example: “And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.” (Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is the word makarios that is used again and again in the Beatitudes. We hear it also in such texts as, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Lari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix ma the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something that the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. What a gift! Weare not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky, all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away and that their light may be years or centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being filled with qualities that humanly seem impossible.

Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened section from The Ladder of the Beatitudes, published by Orbis Books in the US and Alban Books in Great Britain.

On Abortion and Over-Population

by Nancy Forest-Flier

In a recent letter, a friend explained his reluctant acceptance of abortion with the statement: “I also believe that the human race is over-running the planet and destroying our Mother the Earth.” While recognizing abortion as a moral problem, he saw it as the lesser of two evils. The cost of saving the planet is to reduce the human population. This is a widely accepted notion, and there are many who have succeeded in making us believe that over-population is the problem and that birth control and abortion are the answer.

Population control is often an attempt by Western, wealthy nations to impose their values on poor, usually non-white nations, and these countries are not happy about it. At a recent 1998 Population Consultation of the UN NGO Committee on Population and Development in New York, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez, shocked the audience with a speech in which she sharply criticized groups such as Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood for trying to reduce fertility in countries that don’t want it (and thinking that it’s for their own good, etc.). She accused the West of targeting poor and darker-skinned countries, such as her own. “It used to be,” she pointed out, “that older women could depend on their adult children to care for them in old age. In 1960, for example, a Jamaican woman had an average of six children; by 1990 she was likely to have fewer than three. Now typically she has two. Who will supply the support system for this mother when she is old?”

Even more amazing was the speech by Dr. James McCarthy, Head of the Center for Population at Columbia University, who called himself a “recovering demographer” and told the audience that “population doesn’t matter.”

In her book Sex and Destiny, feminist Germaine Greer comments, “we [should] abandon the rhetoric of crisis for we are the crisis. Let us stop worrying about a world crammed with people… stop counting the babies born every minute… use our imagination to understand how poverty is created and maintained… so that we lose our phobia about the poor. Rather than being afraid of the powerless, let us be afraid of the powerful — the rich, sterile nations who have no stake in the future. More ‘unwanted’ children are born to us, the rich, than to them, the poor.”

Although there are clearly some over-populated places in the world, this does not mean that the world is over-populated. There are many, many factors involved. Someone told me recently that the entire population of the world, if it agreed to live at the same density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. Not a very savory prospect, but interesting.

Justifying abortion by the population-control argument boils down to saying that we should encourage the use of abortion as birth control. But there are already countries that use abortion as birth control — Russia and other former East bloc countries — and the women there are in despair. Some women have several abortions in their lifetime because the birth control possibilities are so limited, and they are urgently demanding better conditions so that they don’t have to resort to abortion just to limit births. So this argument just doesn’t hold water. Not only do the poor countries not want population control, not only is the whole over-population argument questionable, but individual women who are forced to control births through abortion are crying for help.

I would be surprised if any woman ever had an abortion for the sake of the planet, or because of her concern for over-population. Among the women I have known who had abortions, none of them, at that terrible point in their lives, cared a hoot about over-population. Women have abortions because they feel cornered, abandoned, hopeless, scared, manipulated. At least my friends all felt this way. And after the abortion they mourned deeply. They may still be mourning. Frederica Mathewes Green, in her book Real Choices, explains the psychological after-effects of abortion; if they had it to do over again, most women admit that they would choose not to abort.

My personal feeling is that abortion is just as much a feminist issue as it is a pro-life issue. I think women have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods. Radical feminist leaders have played right into the hands of Hugh Hefner types: abortion is a wonderful solution for both of them. Women are expected to make the “right” choice as soon as a problem pregnancy comes along (at least the playboy philosophy hopes they will).

The other argument one hears is that abortion is a more merciful solution for the children of the poor than growing up in destitution. My friend asked: “Isn’t poverty and isolation a slow, cruel death as opposed to an operation that deals with the new life before it can actually think and breathe?”

Not necessarily. That’s implying that poor people should consider abortion when they get pregnant, because it’s sure better than raising children in poverty and isolation. But there are lots and lots of poor women who curse their poverty, and then on top of it all they feel driven to the abortion clinic when they get pregnant, just because society has few other options.

With all our collective intelligence, with all our social science, with all our money, society in the West should be able to come up with a better solution for dealing with problem pregnancies (not medical problems) than abortion. Abortion leaves far, far too many psychological scars. But it’s the cheap way out. What abortion does is pressure the most vulnerable — scared pregnant women — into “getting rid of the problem” so that society doesn’t have to deal with it.

My friend wrote: “I shudder to think of our making common cause with the so-called ‘Christian’ right who are militantly against abortion but endorse war, sexism and capital punishment.” But must we be inconsistent simply because others are inconsistent? Just because the far-right seems to have co-opted the pro-life argument doesn’t mean that nobody else can endorse it. This calls for a little bit of courage. I urged my friend not to let the agenda of the far right limit his agenda. If you think abortion is wrong, oppose it bravely!

Here in the Netherlands we have the lowest abortion rate in the entire Western world. And, says the Minister of Health, “we’re proud of it.” Proud to have a low abortion rate? That must mean that lowering the abortion rate, or trying to, is a thing worth doing. What I’m saying is, let’s try to lower the abortion rate everywhere. Let’s not abandon women to their own private darkness where they have to make these impossible decisions alone (and then face a society that shrugs its shoulders).

William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice is about such an impossible choice. On one level it’s about the Holocaust, but on another level it’s about the pressure to decide which of your children you will allow to live and which you will abandon to the hand of violence. Sophie could not live with her choice and finally took her own life.

One can find women who are no more troubled about an abortion they had than they are troubled about a missed bus, but for every woman who is blas about having abortions you will find many more who wish they hadn’t had to do violence to their unborn children and to their consciences. I’m not insisting that the laws be changed (although it would be good if it did eventually happen), or that all women be forced to go through with their pregnancy no matter what (even if their health is at risk), or that we abandon women to back-street butchers. I’m saying, let’s work from the other side. Let’s try to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable. A society that forces the weak and frightened to shoulder the burden of a social problem should be ashamed of itself.

How do we do it? That’s a good question. My hope is that peace organizations will at last begin to explore rather than ignore the problem, to start some dialogues, to try to cut through the rhetoric and terrible division and to address a problem that everybody can rally around.

Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor.

The Role of Conscience

Fr. John Breck

The conscience reflects the divine image in which we are created. It may be considered a function of our nature, which itself is good, even though, as “fallen,” it is subject to the corrupting influence of sin. The conscience, nevertheless, is either developed or undeveloped, that is, it reflects the divine image with greater or lesser degrees of faithfulness and fullness.

Used in a moral sense, the term “conscience” emerged in Greek philosophy during the first century before Christ. The noun is derived from a Greek verb meaning to have common knowledge or “to know with” someone. This became associated with the idea of bearing witness with, for or about someone, but particularly the self.

The oldest witness in Judaism to the concept of conscience appears in The Wisdom of Solomon: “For wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned by its own testimony; distressed by conscience, it has always exaggerated the difficulties.” (17:11) Here conscience appears as a moral voice signaling disobedience to the Mosaic Law. Significantly, conscience functions here both as preceding the act and as judging and condemning it once it is committed. Conscience not only declares acts of wickedness to be “cowardly” and “condemned,” but serves as a bulwark against the performance of further wicked deeds.

This same double emphasis occurs in the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul, speaking about the natural law perceived by the Gentiles, declares: “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 2:15-16) This passage suggests that the conscience is indeed an innate faculty that permits even the Gentiles to know the “natural” law or the will of God, and that same faculty also passes judgment on those acts and attitudes that contravene the divine law.

As St. Paul’s anguished reflection in Romans 7 makes clear, however, conscience does not automatically determine behavior. Even those who are baptized into the Body of Christ, whose lives are filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, experience an ongoing conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, between obedience to the will of God and enslavement to one’s own will. Conscience nonetheless remains as an inner voice of discernment that judges our behavior, gradually guiding us toward a fuller acquisition of virtues: moral qualities that lead us to reflect in our day-to-day actions and motives the compassion, love and mercy of God. A further illustration is provided in chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians. Here conscience guides the strong toward edifying behavior that serves to upbuild the Church as community both by directing behavior away from scandalous actions and by condemning such actions once they have been performed.

Finally, St. Paul also speaks of an aspect of conscience that confirms his judgment and feelings regarding the destiny of his “kinsmen by race.” (Rom 9:1ff) Here he affirms that his conscience witnesses and confirms to him (and to others) that the anguish and sorrow he feels over the rejection of Christ by his fellow Jews is authentic and unfeigned. Particularly significant in this passage is the fact that the apostle’s conscience bears its witness in the Holy Spirit, and the truth of that witness is grounded in the person of Christ.

Moral discourse of the medieval Western Church refers to conscience as that faculty of the mind by which one makes moral judgments. It is the capacity by which one recognizes the duty to perform acts deemed moral or in conformity with the divine will. This capacity is exercised in light of what Aquinas refers to as “the first principles of moral action.” Those principles must be inculcated through a process of education. Although conscience is God-given, it can nevertheless err. One can “in good conscience” perform acts that are morally reprehensible, including everything from child abuse through excessive punishment, to the crime of “ethnic cleansing.”

The education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God. In our day there is a tragic lack of spiritual elders (such as the 19th century Russian startsi) whose own life and experience have brought them to a height of wisdom that is essential for the perfection of the conscience. For the most part, we have to rely upon the written tradition of the Church: scriptures, liturgy, and lives of the saints.

In this respect we have a great deal to learn from the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). In his “Third Century on Love,” he declares:

Do not treat the conscience with contempt, for it always advises you to do what is best. It sets before you the will of God and the angels; it frees you from the secret defilements of the heart; and when you depart this life, it grants you the gift of intimacy with God.

St. Maximus depicts conscience as an intimate friend who advises us “to do what is best,” reveals the will of God, and protects and liberates us from the corrupting influence of our own reasonings and our own feelings or “passions.” More strikingly still, Maximus depicts the conscience as an advocate, which defends and vindicates us before divine judgment. At the same time, it lays the foundation for our eternal communion with God, insofar as it guides us to become “perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Elsewhere Maximus speaks of the education of our conscience as accomplished by the acquisition of virtues:

He who has succeeded in attaining the virtues and is enriched with spiritual knowledge sees things clearly in their true nature. Consequently, he both acts and speaks with regard to all things in a manner which is fitting, and he is never deluded. For according to whether we use things rightly or wrongly we become either good or bad.

This assessment of the role of virtues in life, clearly based on Maximus’ personal experience, conforms to the Christian conviction that the conscience is educated and the person becomes “good” precisely by performing good actions. Virtue is acquired through the exercise of virtuous deeds. Although the conscience is inherently good, and in a sinless world would lead spontaneously and inevitably to righteous acts, in our fallen world conscience — and with it the virtue of discernment — must be acquired through formative experience.

This, however, raises the question as to just how we exercise the discernment that leads to virtuous action. In Toward Transfigured Life, Fr. Stanley Harakas enumerates several elements that go into the process of making moral decisions, laying stress on the resources provided by the Church in the form of scripture, canons, hierarchical teaching authority, and the liturgy. These provide laws or rules that serve to reveal God’s will and to shape our responses to that will. The language will appear rigid to many in this time of acute egocentrism, with its self-serving relativism and relentless quest for instant gratification. Yet his point is well taken. America is a society devoid of an Orthodox ethos. Patterns of behavior tend to be shaped less by religious conviction than by economic forces. Consumerism and competition, considered vices by biblical and patristic tradition, have been elevated to virtues in modern Western culture. In contrast, consider patristic homilies which urge the Christian to live with a minimum of material goods and to share any excess with the poor.

As a result, Christian people often find themselves adrift, unable to distinguish between genuine values that reflect God’s will and those that derive from social custom or convenience — “Don’t we really need a new car?”; “Shouldn’t old Aunt Harriet be taken off the respirator?”; “Isn’t it better for a child to be raised by a ‘same-sex couple’ than to live in an orphanage?” Answers to such questions can only be formulated appropriately if the moral reflection that leads to them is grounded in the “mind of the Church,” the living Tradition that offers clear and authoritative guidelines for Christian behavior.

Yet, as Fr. Harakas notes, rules can contradict one another. Traditional guidelines may not be adequate to help us make decisions in critical situations. Other criteria are needed: the good or evil consequences of actions together with our intentions, motives, and means. Yet our attempt to translate moral principles into specific responses at critical moments does not mean that we substitute relativism for principle. It means we recognize that the application of moral absolutes must be made by giving full consideration to the specific circumstance. Placing a teen-aged accident victim on life-support would presumably be morally required, but the same cannot be said for an anencephalic newborn.

Unfortunately the kind of “situation ethic” popularized several decades ago by Joseph Fletcher still governs much moral reflection today. For Fletcher the criteria for moral judgments are supplied by the situation itself — moral absolutes simply do not exist. In its extreme form, this is an ethic of sheer relativism, permitting decisions based on purely subjective criteria such as “quality” of life.

In addition to the elements of Tradition already mentioned, are there any other resources provided to us within Christian life that can help us in making critical decisions, for ourselves and others in our care?

We are in fact making ethical judgments and acting upon them at virtually every waking moment of our life. The questions, “Do I raid the refrigerator?” or “Do I report to the police the gunshots I just heard coming from next door?” are both moral questions, albeit of differing urgency. They concern not only my behavior, but the consequences of that behavior for my own spiritual well-being and that of others. In most cases, a moment’s quick reflection — practically an instinctual reflex — leads me to act according to what I feel is best or most appropriate. When conflicts arise between what I want and what I know to be rather in accordance with God’s will, then conscience comes into play. Whether I opt for the former course or the latter, however, depends on the degree to which I have allowed the moral teachings of the Church to shape my own values and the behavioral responses I make based on those values. Again, this is usually a reasonably clear-cut process. Either I obey the dictates of my conscience, or I do not and lapse, knowingly and intentionally, into sin or disobedience to the divine commandments.

Many of the bioethical issues we are dealing with, however, either admit of no specific resolution that covers all cases, or else they have not been given sufficient consideration by theologians and others in authority within the Church to provide the clear and definitive answers we are looking for. Even the most sincere attempts to analyze an issue in terms of the Church’s rules, the motives and means of our actions, and the potential consequences, often leave us with a feeling of helpless frustration. A decision, perhaps a life or death decision, must be made, and we lack the resources to decide in a way that clearly conforms to what we know to be God’s will. Often, in fact, God’s will is not clear, and the temptation can be simply to throw up our hands in despair.

The reasoning process behind this frustration can only lead to a dead-end. Whether the decisions we make involve trivial matters in the course of a day’s activities, or a life-or-death judgment with little or no time to reflect and seek the advice of others, those decisions can be faithful to the divine purpose only insofar as they are essentially ecclesial decisions, made on the basis of a conscience that conforms to the mind of the Church.

This means as well that the critical decisions we may be called upon to make are in fact made within the community of the Church. This is the community of the living and the dead, the saints of all ages, who dwell with us in the universal Body of Christ. On the one hand, we turn to them for counsel, through personal dialogue or through the writings they have left behind. (How many of us today have gained fresh and blessed insight from the notes of persons like Nicholas Motovilov, or Fr. Alexander Eltchaninov, or St. Silouan of Mount Athos!) On the other hand, we ask for the prayer of the saints, their intercession on our behalf, that we might be guided appropriately. We ask that we might be led, by the inspirational grace and power of the Holy Spirit, to actions that in fact do correspond to the will of God for ourselves and for all others involved.

We never make ethical decisions alone. Our moral judgments, and the actions consequent upon them, are always made within the living Body of the Church. Through our baptism, we are incorporated into one another, we become “members one of another.” The decisions I make affect and influence the Body as a whole. Just as my own sinfulness has consequences not only for my family and friends but for the entire community, so my ethical decisions and their consequences involve and affect the entire “communion of saints.” The marvelous promise of that truth is that I can depend upon the Body as a whole to assist and guide me in critical decisions, through their love, concern, personal involvement, and, above all, through their prayer.

All of us need to build up personal support systems of trustworthy experts and friends who can provide us with counsel and advice as we make critical decisions. It means as well that we as the Church need to recognize and accept our responsibility toward one another, to provide the support, guidance and intercession. When death threatens or chronic illness plunges one of us into depression and hopelessness, or friends are moving toward divorce, all too often we tend to ignore the problem. We “don’t want to get involved.” It is the same self-protective attitude, translated into the parish setting, that makes us recoil when we see someone lying in a doorway or in the gutter. Little wonder, then, that Orthodox moral theologians have felt themselves obliged to develop an ethic founded on the imperative of self-giving and self-sacrificing love.

In the final analysis there is only one reason why Christian people accept the narrow way of the moral life. If we choose self-giving love over hedonism, God over Mammon, it is because we are fundamentally convinced — on the basis of our own experience as well as the witness of others — that God himself is love: that he is indeed the Author and End of our life, who alone endows it with meaning, purpose and value. As such, he is intimately involved in every crisis we encounter and every choice we make. Such crises and choices are part of our daily fare. They cannot be avoided, since to refuse to decide, and therefore to act, is a moral commitment in itself.

When it happens that we cannot discern God’s will in a given situation, then we need to remember that Satan — the Tempter — works most effectively through our confusion, frustration, and despair. When we find ourselves obliged to make a decision that has serious consequences, yet the elements needed to discern God’s will and purpose seem to be lacking, then we need to step back and remind ourselves of what is really going on. We need to recover the intuition of the Church’s great ascetics, that such critical moments in our life are battle grounds in which the most important decision we can make is to surrender into the merciful hands of God both ourselves and the other persons involved.

All this suggests a paradoxical yet inescapable conclusion: whether we can know with certainty that any given moral decision conforms to God’s will and represents the “right choice” ultimately does not matter. What does matter is that in our often agonizing moral deliberations (concerning, for example, the proper care for a terminally ill parent or an appropriate response to an addict’s destructive behavior) we reject the prideful temptation to seize control ourselves, and instead “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life to Christ our God.” This does not mean that we renounce our freedom or abdicate our responsibility. It means that we render to God what is God’s, namely the whole of our life, which includes our motives and desires together with our choices and actions. And we do so with the unshakable conviction that in any situation where disinterested love governs our behavior, God can bring out of our errors and poor judgments whatever is needed to fulfill his purpose. The faith of the Church is that God’s will governs all things. The essence of the Christian moral life, therefore, consists in surrendering our own will to the will of God, with the fervent prayer that his will be done.

This act of surrender is needed whether or not we feel confident that we share the mind of Christ and can conform our decisions and actions to it. It requires a profound act of faith and a large measure of humility to admit our own limits in making moral choices and to deliver over the decision-making process into the proper hands. It also requires both humility and trust to turn to others and beg them to accompany us in that process with their love and intercession. But this is precisely what is asked of us as members of a Body and members one of another. The first and last decision we need to make, then, is the decision to submit our moral deliberations to him who is the Head of that Body, with the single-minded concern that whatever action we may take in any specific situation will be to his glory and for the salvation of those he has entrusted to our care.

This is a condensed extract from the first chapter of The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; free phone for book orders: 1-800-204-2665; e-mail: [email protected]). Fr. John Breck is professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. With his wife, Lyn, he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, South Carolina.

The Serbian Orthodox Church

Not What We Have Been Led to Believe

by Jim Forest

The cover of a recent issue of the British weekly magazine The Tablet displayed a drawing of an Orthodox bishop kneeling in the rubble of abombed church. On his knees behind him, looking far and away themore pious of the two, was President Milosevic. The headline beneath the drawing read, “Serbia’s Martyr Complex,” the featured essay in that issue, but it was the drawing that interested me more than the text it illustrated. The bishop’s face was that of a typecast Hollywood villain. With only a small change in costume, he could have been Count Dracula contemplating a victim’s neck or a ruthless Mafia boss imagining an enemy’s death. The archbishop was the arch-Serb.

The art of enmity has for years given us a steady diet of images of evil Serbs, sometimes shown as cavemen, often dripping with blood, victimizing their neighbors. Nor is it unusual to show the Serbian Orthodox Church playing the role as chaplain to the state and accomplice in Serbian war crimes, preacher of a nationalistic mythology which the faithful heard as a blessing to create, by any means necessary, a Greater Serbia.

It is human nature, not only the nature of the mass media, to want to iron out the wrinkles that complicate our perception of others, always with a tilt toward bad news — a process that reduces the world to comic book simplicity. Thus the English say “rather” and drink tea,the French make love and drink wine, the Dutch grow tulips and drink gin, and Serbs kiss icons and drink their neighbor’s blood.

In fact the religious identity of Serbs is not what we have been led to believe nor has the Serbian Orthodox Church been a pillar of support for Milosevic. While it’s true that church attendance in Serbia went up during NATO’s bombardment — exploding bombs turn one’s mind to ultimate things — the Church is a minor element in Serbian social and political life.

Among the reasons for this is that Tito was extraordinarily effective in his 35-year struggle to marginalize the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Tito era, it was a major disadvantage to put one’s toe in the church door. Those who wanted to advance in life had to join the Communist Party, in which atheism was obligatory. Tito died in 1980, but many of his policies survived, including the view that religion belonged to the past. While Milosevic used nationalist rhetoric in his successful bid for power in 1989, in other ways he remained faithful to his political and ideological roots.

It was thus a weakened Serbian Orthodox Church that had to define its response to the events which tore Yugoslavia to shreds in the nineties. Serbian priests I have interviewed estimate that perhaps five percent of the population is engaged in the Church in a significant way, while the vast majority is unbaptized. There are few cities in Europe more secular than Belgrade.

Nonetheless, the head of the Church, Patriarch Pavle, now 85 years old, is widely respected and often described as a saint even by unchurched people. A small, lean, white-bearded man with a meek but determined manner, he is well known for having personally taken part invarious anti-war, anti-government protest demonstrations. In 1997 he led a procession of many thousands that freed protesting students who were under police siege in central Belgrade.

Pavle has touched Serbs even more deeply through significant gestures in his private life. One cleric in Belgrade complained to me how inconvenient it was when Pavle came to visit his parish. “You can never say how late he will arrive. He travels by tram and bus, then walks the rest of the way. He says he will get a car only when the poorest person can have one.”

Not every cleric set such an inspiring example. A deacon I know in Serbia complains about priests who “are more interested in cars than souls.” Two friends of mine had to delay their wedding in Belgrade until they could find a priest who didn’t begin the conversation by announcing his fee. (It should be noted that most Serb clergy have no regular salary and depend on gifts for services for their livelihood.)

Further complicating the problem of the Church’s role in post-Tito Serbia is that the Church, however crippled by past oppression, is the only institution that still incarnates Serbian identity. No other social structure is so deeply linked with Serbia’s history, traditions, achievements and sorrows. One easily finds Serbs who value the Church for “cultural” reasons while regarding its beliefs and teachings as irrelevant. For the ultra-nationalist, ultimate values are national, yet he may regard himself as somehow Orthodox simply because to be Serb is to be Orthodox. An icon in someone’s home can be more a sign of Serbian than Christian identity.

Every Serb I met, no matter how alienated from Christian belief, held the ancient monasteries and churches — many are in Kosovo — in high regard. In more peaceful times they were always ready to take guests like me to visit these “monuments,” but those who crossed themselves, kissed icons or visibly prayed in such places were the exception. Though there have been many conversions of young intellectuals, Serbs tend to regard the Church as a beautiful museum with little relevance to the modern world, though in recent years the outspoken criticism by the hierarchy in regard to the Milosevic regime has earned the Church a certain respect among those working for a more democratic society.

The direction of the Church’s hierarchy, while wanting to preserve all that is good in Serbian identity and tradition, has been to oppose malignant, intolerant forms of nationalism.

The church’s pastors see the neglect of spiritual life as being at the heart of the nation’s crisis. “For 45 years under communism, atheism was the official religion,” Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in an interview in 1995. “Priests were forbidden from going into schools and from visiting the army. People were educated without any contact with belief in God, and were taught that there was no soul. Those generations [who received an atheist education] are now soldiers. That is the reason for genocide. As one philosopher said, ‘If you take away God from man, man becomes the strongest animal’.” (One of Lavrentije’s projects has been to make available works of literature that will help restore Serbia’s spiritual life. The press he founded has published an edition of the complete works of Dostoevsky.)

Patriarch Pavle speaks with a similar monastic directness. When I first met him in 1994, I asked about the civil war that was then raging in Bosnia. Pavle responded that the blame must be shared among Serbs along with everyone else — the governments of the several republics of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States: “Everyone is guilty. There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” (His answer reminded me of the figure of Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) In such a situation, Pavle continued, “the Church must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”

Few bishops east or west have spoken so tirelessly against ethnic division, hatred and war. “Let us grasp the teaching of the Holy Apostle Paul, that one cannot accomplish good by evil means — a lesson our mothers taught us through the ages, warning us that evil never brings good,” he said on one occasion. “Oh, that God would help us to understand that we are human beings and that we must live as human beings, so that peace would come into our country and bring an end to the killing.”

The principle was summed up in a statement issued by the Serbian bishops on March 23, two days before the NATO attack: “The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God.” Still more significant are the special prayers the Serbian Church added to the Holy Liturgy early in the breakdown of Yugoslavia, including this petition:

For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and their hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even toward their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

For years Church response to the war was expressed chiefly in the reiteration of fundamental moral principles and efforts to relieve suffering. In the past year, as the danger of war in Kosovo increased, the bishops began actively promoting policies they hoped might make peace more likely.

The person chiefly responsible for Church peace efforts, Bishop Artemije of Prizren, made five trips to Washington and traveled repeatedly to European capitals in his efforts to convince the West that it was mistaken in its long-running support of Milosevic. In a letter the bishop hand-delivered to US Secretary of State Albright in February, he said: “We believe that US policy must cease to be perceived as hostile to the legitimate interests of the Serbian nation and must, instead, be directed toward the replacement of the Milosevic regime by a democratic government… The Milosevic regime, as the repeated generator of crises, cannot be relied upon to help secure a just and durable peace. However, current American policy seems to be repeating, once again, the mistakes of the past, relying on the one hand, upon guarantees given by the Milosevic regime, while holding only the Serbian nation responsible for the escalating cycle of violence. This mistaken policy, we believe, now on the verge of NATO intervention in Kosovo Province, will be entirely counterproductive.”

NATO intervention, he argued, would only strengthen the Milosevic regime and be a major setback for the democratic opposition in Serbia, which in turn would delay democratization, a precondition for peace in the Balkan region. “NATO intervention in Kosovo would risk setting back the cause of democracy in Serbia and in the Balkans for years to come.”

Bishop Artemije proposed a solution inspired by the Swiss example — that Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians each be granted the right to self-administration in rural areas in which they constitute relative or absolute majorities with economic, judiciary, and political links to Serbia, while in major cities a system of multi-ethnic rule be adopted in which political power is shared through a two-chamber Assembly.

On February 3, Patriarch Pavle sought permission for a non-negotiating representation at the Rambouillet negotiations. The request was denied. Even so a week later the delegation went to Rambouillet, hoping to put forward the Church-backed peace proposal. Bishop Artemije held a press conference in a local caf, telling journalists that “the Serbs in the castle represent only two parties, Milosevic’s socialists and the neo-communists of his wife.” He stood in prayer outside the chateau gates, truly a voice crying in the wilderness.

The monasteries in Kosovo, most notably the Decani monastery south of Pec, have given their own witness for peace both before and during the war (see various articles in the news section of recent issues of In Communion).

It was Hieromonk Sava, assistant abbot of Decani, who explained to a journalist, “This is a war between extremists. On one side is a totalitarian regime, and on the other, secessionists. We condemn violence on both sides.”

He regretted that “the spiritual side of Orthodoxy” was not so well known among Serbs after 50 years of communism. “You might be surprised to know,” he commented, “that at our Sunday service of worship we have only about ten people from Decani in attendance. For the Serb, tradition is important, but there has been a secularization of tradition here just as in other parts of Europe, and that has taken man further from God.”

Asked who Kosovo belonged to, he responded: “Adam and Eve, that’s who.” Asked which side does God take in this conflict? “God is on the side of the suffering people.”

Now, after dropping 23,000 bombs in 79 days, NATO is in charge of Kosovo and refugees are returning home while many Serbs flee the province. Much of Serbia and Kosovo lies in ruins, with thousands killed by soldiers and paramilitaries or as “collateral damage” of NATO bombing. While Serbia’s military was only slightly harmed, the country’s infrastructure was severely damaged. Even water purification plants were targeted. The results will be a high mortality rate for years to come among the more vulnerable members of society.

In June the Serbian Orthodox Church renewed an appeal it first made in 1992 for Milosevic to step down and for the creation of a government of national unity acceptable both to the Serbian people and other nations.

It may be a time of renewed persecution for Orthodox Christians. Bishop Artemije has had to flee Prizren after being under siege from the KLA, but remains in Kosovo and hopes to return to Prizren. As of this writing, two monasteries have been destroyed, one monk reported murdered, and a nun raped by KLA soldiers.

The most striking and hope-giving gesture since the bombs stopped falling has been Patriarch Pavle’s decision to move from Belgrade to Pec, the historic center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an action he hopes will encourage other Serbs to remain in Kosovo or return from Serbia. It is also a gesture to Kosovo Albanians. If Pavle and the monasteries of Kosovo can give witness of Serbians who love their neighbors, and even their enemies, perhaps there can be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Kosovo.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent books are PrayingWith Icons and The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis).

Models of Self-Emptying Love

Fr. Alexander Webster

In imperial Russia several writers, among them Fyodor Dostoevsky, captured “the mind of the Church” on the issue of war and peace — at least that part of the Orthodox mind that upholds nonviolence, nonresistance, and universal forgiveness as moral and spiritual ideals: the “kenotic” model.

The Greek word on which the concept of kenoticism is based (kenein, to empty) appears only five times in the New Testament and only once in the sense that has become associated with kenosis. St. Paul declares in Philippians 2:6-7 that “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The meaning of “empty” is metaphoric, suggesting voluntary humiliation. The same idea is present in the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, where the Word “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11), as well as in Hebrews 2:14-18, where Christ is referred to as being “made like his brethren in every respect” and having “suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” Kenosis entails Jesus Christ’s willingness to identify with His human creation even to the extent of suffering unjustly.

Christ’s kenotic role is not, however, characterized by pathos alone. For a triumphant vindication of His absolute selflessness awaits the Lord at the end of His redemptive act. In the same text in which St. Paul employs the verb kenein, he declares about Jesus: “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9) The Johannine imagery of Jesus being “lifted up from the earth” refers not only to Jesus’ eventual visible manifestation of glory through the resurrection but also to the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross, where victory was hidden in seeming defeat and the fullness of redemption contained in the last measure of selfless devotion.

Kenoticism was prominent in Kyivan Rus’. George Fedotov remarks that the Saints Boris and Gleb “created in Russia a particular… order of ‘sufferers,’ the most paradoxical order of the Russian saints.” Boris and Gleb — the voluntary, nonresistant sufferers for their evil brother’s designs — have been held in special esteem since their martyrdom in 1015 in imitation of Christ’s Passion.

Russian kenoticism was the object of a revival following the death of Tsar Peter I in 1725. Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the “kenotic mood” was expressed through “meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, nonresistance, acceptance of suffering and death” in imitation of Christ. Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow (1782-1867) always referred to the kenotic passage in Philippians in his Christmas sermons on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Archimandrite Alexis Bukharev (1822-1871) often urged his fellow Russians to follow the “humiliated Lamb” and attempted to lead his own life as a “fool for Christ.”

Professor M.M. Tareev (1866-1934) of the Moscow Theological Academy honored the popular devotion to a “God’s man, humiliated and suffering.” In Foundations of Christianity, published on the eve of the Revolution, Tareev directly linked the doctrine of kenoticism to a pacifist emphasis on nonviolence and nonresistance. The Church, he argued, “cannot conquer the world in the Christian spirit unless by the victory of meekness.” The Sermon on the Mount occupied the center of his moral theology and represented for Tareev, as Gorodetzky observed, that “love which extends to the form of nonresistance.” Given “the duty of voluntary death” to which all followers of Christ are called, a Christian, in Tareev’s estimation, could only refuse to engage in violence against other human beings without exception. If the freedom to make of oneself a willing sacrifice were a moral necessity, then war and capital punishment were unmitigated evils that violated the freedom of mankind.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

Canonized in 1861, the mystical works of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1722-1783) became standard texts in Russian seminaries and were widely read beyond theological schools. An inspiration to Dostoevsky, St. Tikhon was one of the models for Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

St. Tikhon taught kenoticism in word and deed. Fr. Georges Florovsky referred to “his unremitting concentration on the memory and contemplation of Christ’s sufferings” even to the point of falling at times “into a helpless torpor, confinement, and immobility, when everything around him was dark, empty, and unresponsive.” Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the saint believed that the true basis of Christianity was the “voluntary self-abasement of Christ, both in His premundane life as the Son of God and in His earthly life.”

Perhaps the best testimony of St. Tikhon’s practice of kenoticism is the memoirs of one of his monk servants at the Zadonsk monastery, Ivan Yefimov. Yefimov wrote that during his first few years at Zadonsk, St. Tikhon “had a violent temper” and punished his attendants severely “for the slightest fault.” But the saint prayed to God for some measure to teach him patience and humility. In a dream about an infant in a church the saint was slapped on the left cheek by the child with such force that the saint awoke. He deemed the dream a sign from God and henceforth “began to acquire patience and humility.” Whenever he rebuked his peasant servants such as his cook and suspected that he had offended the attendant, the saint “would bow before him, asking to be forgiven.”

Another story by Yefimov illustrates how deeply this spiritual transformation affected those around St. Tikhon:

One day the saint heard of a squire who mistreated his serfs. His Grace intervened and betook himself to the lord of that estate in order to remonstrate with him. The hot-blooded nobleman started to dispute. The Bishop answered him gently but firmly. The anger of the nobleman grew, and finally he forgot himself so far as to strike the Bishop on the cheek. His Grace then left the nobleman’s house. But on his way, true to the evangelical precept, he resolved to return to the man who had insulted him and to beg forgiveness for “having led him into such a temptation.” So, going back, he fell at the feet of his host. The story goes on to say that this unexpected act of the pastor who knew no anger so deeply impressed the nobleman that he himself fell on his knees at the Bishop’s feet, imploring forgiveness. From that day on his behavior toward his serfs was completely altered.

Elements of this anecdote apparently inspired Dostoevsky in his characterizations of Prince Mishkin in The Idiot (the slap in the face) and the Elder Zossima (prostrating himself before Dimitri Karamazov) in The Brothers Karamazov.

In his letters and treatises St. Tikhon revealed an unyielding kenotic commitment to voluntary suffering, forgiveness, nonviolence and nonresistance. He exhorted those imprisoned for failure to pay debts: “Remember that you are co-sufferers with the martyrs and confessors, and Christ our Lord was bound for our sins. After this you will reign with Christ with whom you suffer.” Always mindful that “a vindictive heart” or a state of anger pleases Satan more than any other passion, St. Tikhon counseled unreserved forgiveness: “We offend one another; therefore, we must forgive one another.” He knew in his heart that reconciliation is of far more lasting value than enmity toward another: “If you make peace with him, your love will be remembered until you die.” In his will the saint added, “I have forgiven, and I forgive, all who have offended me; may God forgive them in His gracious mercy. I too pray to be forgiven wherein I have offended anyone, being a man.” We may easily concur with Gorodetzky’s conclusion: “Any form of vengeance, injustice or violence, whether it came from those in power or from their subjects, was to him a breach of brotherly love — a civil war.”

There is no clearer evidence of St. Tikhon’s pacifist aversion to the violence and lack of both forgiveness and voluntary kenotic suffering inherent in war than a letter written in September 1773 toward the close of the Russo-Turkish War. He bluntly referred to that war as an occasion “for breaking the divine law, dishonoring the Law-Giver, and causing the loss of men’s souls.” As a result of the war, the saint perceived a providential punishment for the Russian Christians: “We see our fatherland sighing and groaning because of the bloody war in which we are engaged with the Moslems.” St. Tikhon’s opposition to war is revealed most eloquently in the following passage:

Once more our fatherland groans and sighs as foreign arms are turned against us: once more all are seized with confusion and fear; once more our brothers are wounded; once more is Christian blood shed; once more are thousands killed; once more is heard the weeping of fathers, mothers, wives, and children. The issue of this public calamity is as yet unknown, but I do know that without God’s help we can expect no good. For we are saved, not by arms, but by God’s omnipotent aid. But God has mercy upon those who repent, and saves them; He defends those who trust in Him and not in gold or other things, who appeal to Him with true devotion.

Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot

If we were to judge from occasional letters and journal entries, Dostoevsky was hardly a pacifist. In the June 1876 entry in Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky proclaimed his belief in Russia’s predestined role in as protector of the Slavs, leader of Orthodoxy, and servant of all peoples, albeit for “for the sake of universal reconciliation.” Included in this grand scheme was the author’s expectation that “sooner or later, Constantinople must be ours.” Konstantin Mochulsky rightly criticized this aspiration, for “Russian messianism was converted into warlike imperialism.” However such militaristic language stands in sharp relief to Dostoevsky’s manner of life and with the attitudes that shine through his novels.

Among Dostoevsky’s fictional characters who illustrate the author’s pacifist leading is Prince Mishkin. In The Brothers Karamazov would come two others: the Elder Zossima, and young Alyosha Karamazov. All three reflects the classic Orthodox ideals of the absolute pacifist social ethical trajectory: nonviolence, nonresistance, voluntary kenotic suffering, and universal forgiveness. In exemplary rather than didactic fashion, Dostoevsky was, in the perceptive judgment of Metropolitan Antony Khapovitsky, “not a propagandist, tempting and tempted, but a preacher, confessing and causing confessions.” As Dostoevsky knew well, experience is the best teacher and the mother of spiritual growth.

The spiritual anguish that awaits the reader at the climactic scene of The Idiot may be unparalleled in the history of literature. Prince Mishkin’s reversion to “idiocy” is particularly troubling for the empathetic Christian who must wonder whether violent “evil” has triumphed and whether the “good” of nonviolent nonresistance is too weak and too ephemeral to endure. The anguish is intensified by the realization that Dostoevsky intended, as he wrote a friend, “to portray a wholly beautiful individual.” Mochulsky later termed the quality “the grace-filled image of the innate just man.” Mishkin is a fictional version of the nonviolent, nonresistant, Passion-bearing saint in the Orthodox moral tradition, an apotheosis of exemplary kenotic holiness.

Dostoevsky intended Prince Mishkin to be an exemplary figure. In a letter to a niece, he reiterated his goal of depicting a Christ-like character and referred to Cervantes’ Don Quixote as “the most perfect” of “all the noble figures in Christian literature.” Noting that the noble and the comic are inseparable, he continued, “The reader feels sympathy and compassion with the Beautiful, derided and unconscious of its own worth. The secret of humor consists precisely in this art of wakening the reader’s sympathy.”

Mishkin’s virtues are humility, forgiveness, justice, mercy, honor, courage, faith, hope, and self-sacrificing love. We see that those whom Mishkin encounters are frequently disarmed by the innocence of the Prince. When Natasha leaves Mishkin at the end of Part One, she calls him “the first human being I’ve seen.” Even the embittered Ippolit comes to appreciate the Prince for his inherent justice and goodness. According to an account of the delightful little Kolya Ivolgin, “Ippolit took hold of the prince’s hand and kissed it twice.” Others seem drawn to the Prince like moths to a pure flame even as they sometimes mock and deride him.

What allows Mishkin to be a truly exemplary religious figure is a reflection of the only original Beauty, the only real holiness. At least as well as any fictional character could be, Mishkin’s development is reminiscent of the Word described in John 1:11-12: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

What is it that subsequently makes Mishkin a human reflection of the divine? The Prince incarnates several attributes traditionally associated with the divine in Russian Orthodoxy or Christianity in the broader sense. The Prince is a “holy fool” (iurodiv’) who reveals Dostoevsky’s vision of voluntary suffering and nonresistance to evil.

Holy fools, or fools for Christ, have long been venerated in Orthodox Christianity. They voluntarily appear as imbeciles, renouncing all intellectual powers and forms of worldly wisdom in order to achieve the ideals of humility and self-denial. The personal value of this lifestyle as an extraordinary spiritual exploit, or podvig, was complemented by a useful social function. Like the court jesters in medieval palaces, the iurodivyi were able to exercise a critical prophetic role vis–vis those in political power, a role not easily assumed by others recognized as more “sensible.”

There is no better depiction in literature of the exemplary kenotic holiness of the iurodiv’ than Prince Mishkin in The Idiot.

In their initial encounter, Rogozhin, the primary antagonist, says to Mishkin: “You are a regular holy fool, Prince, and such as you God loves.” The motif of the holy fool pervades The Idiot from the title itself to the last page, where the often sensible Mrs. Lizaveta Yepanchin, deeply moved by the apparent demise of “this poor fellow,” the Prince, and, speaking to Radomsky, vindicates the witness of Mishkin by pronouncing “all this, all this life abroad, and all this Europe of yours… just a delusion.” She seems to be asking, “Who are the real fools in the long run?”

What the classic iurodivyi endeavored to effect, the Prince displays by the very constitution of his personality. Moreover, he is sometimes acutely aware of his seeming foolishness as a potential hindrance to his relations with others. “I know perfectly well myself that I’ve lived less than other people and that I know less of life than anyone,” he confesses in his first meeting with the Yepanchin women. “I’m afraid I talk rather strangely sometimes.”

Even when Mishkin wishes he could escape the strain of human discourse and “the idea of trying to solve the problems that filled his mind and heart to overflowing,” he reveals a beguiling tendency to blame himself for everything, a characteristic that strikes others intermittently as foolish or endearing.

Only a holy fool could address an assemblage of nobles, as does Prince Mishkin, in starkly critical terms mixed with self-condemnation: “It’s quite true that we are absurd and frivolous, that we have bad habits, that we are bored, that we don’t know how to look at anything or understand anything.”

Early in the novel, Dostoevsky recorded an incident that set the tone for the entire work. When he intervenes to prevent Ganya Ivolgin from striking his sister, Varya Ivolgin, Mishkin suffers a humiliating “resounding slap in the face” from Ganya to the horror of all the others in the room. At first Mishkin responds quietly, “Oh, well, I don’t mind you striking me, but I shan’t let you touch her.” Then, having repaired to a corner of the room and covered his face with his hands, the Prince says in a quivering voice, “Oh, how you’ll be ashamed of what you’ve done!” Here again in the emotion of the moment, without realizing what he has done, Mishkin has acted the holy fool in his prophetic role. For the significant effects of this critical prophetic statement are indeed profound. First, Rogozhin exclaims, “You’ll be ashamed, Ganya, of having insulted such a sheep!” — a choice of words pregnant with kenotic meaning (“the Lamb that was slain” referred to in Revelation 5:12) and indicative of the powerful religious effect of the Prince on Rogozhin.

In his address to the nobility at the Yepanchins’ party, the Prince, despite his at once endearing and distracting self-deprecation, offers sound practical as well as spiritual advice “to save you all, so as to prevent our class from vanishing for nothing into utter darkness, without realizing anything, abusing everything and losing every thing.” Virtually straight from the gospel message of Jesus Christ to His disciples, the Prince urges, “Let us stay in the front rank and be leaders. Let us be servants in order to be leaders.”

Mishkin displays an unrelenting desire to see the best in people. He perceives even the repulsive Antip Burdovsky as a defenseless and innocent man “who is being deceived by everybody.” Thus, as Mochulsky commented, Prince Mishkin “convinces unseemly and evil people that they are beautiful and good, persuades the unfortunate that they are happy, looks at the world lying in evil and sees only the image of pure beauty.” Far more than the noble but deluded Don Quixote, Mishkin is a fictional embodiment of the “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”

Mishkin’s most impressive quality is his Christ-like kenoticism. When the Prince announces to General Yepanchin early in the narrative, “I’m in need of good, kind people,” the reader should begin to wonder whether Mishkin is sounding his death knell in advance. It becomes obvious that not only are those simple needs of the Prince not met, but Mishkin continually diverts all of his own energies to meeting the needs of everyone around him, ranging from the troubled Natasha to the presumptuous, hostile Burdovsky.

The climactic bedroom scene, toward which the Prince appears almost predestined, is indeed his crucifixion and descent into hell. When at last people come in, they find the murderer in a raging fever with Mishkin sitting motionless beside him. Every time the sick man bursts out screaming or begins to ramble, Mishkin passes a soothing hand gently over his hair and cheeks, but he no longer understands the questions he is asked or recognize anyone. He is truly become the idiot of the book’s title — a “suffering servant” or “co-sufferer” who, like the patristic teachers of vicarious atonement such as St. Mark the Ascetic and St. Symeon the New Theologian, so identifies with those others that their evil is redeemed by the overwhelming, empathetic sorrow that engulfs the Prince and drains him of his last moments of consciousness, doing so graciously and freely in imitation of Christ’s voluntary kenotic humiliation for the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. often said that all innocent suffering is redemptive. His insight applies perforce to the Prince as a Christ-figure.

Having achieved all that he could in this paradoxical, antinomian world of freely-chosen spiritual death, the Prince, through his mental death, demonstrates the full measure of his pacifist self-sacrifice for and devotion to those in whom he rejoiced in spite of themselves. In this respect, his “departure” to a presumably happier state is one of triumph, not defeat: terror is transfigured finally into pure transcendence as the morning light breaks over the Light that dwelled in the Prince. Any serious doubt as to the ultimate victory of the Prince may be dispelled by the enriched and transformed lives of those who knew him.

This is an abbreviated extract from chapter nine of Fr. Webster’s book, The Pacifist Option: The Moral Argument Against War in Eastern Orthodox Theology (available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214; ISBN 1-57309-243-6; telephone 1-800-462-6420; hardcover $55, paperbound $31.50). Fr. Webster graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1977 and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988. He is parish priest of Protection of the Holy Mother God Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

On Homicide

Metropolitan George Khodr of Mount Lebanon

cain-and-abel-mosaic-in-monreale-sicily-12th-centuryMetropolitan George is highly regarded throughout Lebanon for his untiring efforts to encourage dialogue and mutual respect as well as to make known basic Christian truths and principles. It is notable that during the Lebanese civil war, the only religious community which refused to form its own army was the Orthodox Church.

The life in us is a gift from God. Only God gives life and only God takes it back. Thus we are not to commit suicide or to harm ourselves, and certainly no one has the right to take another person’s life. Each person receives both his life and his neighbor from God. The other may live as he wishes. It is our duty to counsel him, to keep him company, to serve him and help him improve his situation to attain a better life. In doing this, our own spirit becomes better. But you have no right to kill another person, even if this person asks you to, because he has no right to put an end to his life which was entrusted by God to him. Accordingly, abortion cannot be permissible because the mother doesn’t own her fetus. Similarly a doctor has no right to kill his patient, no matter how bad his condition. He does not own his patient’s body. He cannot make the decision to kill a patient even when in a long-lasting coma. Your body is not an object for you to do with it whatever you like. Your body is a part of you as a person; it is not for the governor to flog nor for the judge to execute.

In the situation of human dialogue, the body is the place of conversation, but if a human connection cannot be established between you and the other, the destruction of the other’s body is an act of contempt for his human nature and with it the permanent loss of the possibility of dialogue.

You and the other, your body and his, are intended to mature together in a heavenward movement. God attracts you with your bodies to Himself where He becomes your meeting place. Your journey is always upward, and the other can only accompany you in his yearning for the higher. If you are not both attracted together to God, the relationship between you is severed; it becomes either abuse or slavery. Slave and master both become objects. A relationship between two beings is impossible apart from God. In the depths of its truth, a “being” cannot exist without openness towards its Creator and towards other creatures. There is no “I” unless it affirms “we.” The “I” can only be fulfilled in the communion of “we.” The same for the body. After its deliverance from itself and from its slavery, it becomes stretched towards embracing and accepting the other. The moment this “threesome” of “I,” “you” and the Divine is achieved, then God embraces the whole man and all humanity. Killing ruptures this threesome.

By annihilating the other you annihilate yourself and renounce the dominion of God over both of you. Every sin is alienation, a denial of one of God’s qualities: a denial of God’s patience, mercy and love. Killing is an absolute denial of God because it is a denial of Him as Lord and Giver of Life.

A man annihilates his opponent because he decides that the other is obstructing his plan, his business, passions or freedom. He thinks that only in this way can he be safe and have the guarantee of dominion. Killing is both isolation – the killer is alone in his imagination – and the deification of self. In his mind and deepest thoughts, the killer replaces God. Every time you sin, you substitute yourself for God to some degree. By killing, you replace Him completely.

In a recent movie about Joan of Arc, I appreciated an episode where she was deeply grieved by all the bloodshed suffered by her English enemies after the victory in the battle of Orleans. Despite the belief that she was delegated from heaven to fight this war, she couldn’t bear the waste of blood. The commander explained to her that no war is possible without bloodshed. She had a different logic. I will not analyze here the conversation between a virgin saint and an army commander, but the horror of war comes to my mind as I recite Psalm 50: “Deliver me, O God, from blood guiltiness.” No one of us, no matter what his capacity, is far from the temptation of blood guiltiness.

Because of the importance of blood, canons that come down to us from early Church require the dismissal from the priesthood of any priest who even accidentally causes the death of another human.

Relationship between humans is made possible by language, a word connected with logos . We know the from the Evangelist St. John that Christ is the Logos: the Word of God. “Word” is the relationship between you and the other. Otherwise you annihilate both him and yourself.

This brings us to the dilemma of genocide. When a group of people, in the grip of fear, proceeds to exterminate another group, it means the murderers think they can reestablish themselves only by existing alone, without the context of coexistence, solely because their victims are “different.” Cain killed his brother Abel, a herdsman (thus the words Habeel and Kabeel in Arabic), because he had a “different” occupation. The “other” is sentenced to death for his differences – he is not of your country, race, religion or party – and because he cannot be put to death legally, he is slain without a trial. After all, a trial is a form of dialogue.

Every massacre is an attack against the name of God. Every massacre is “religious,” in the sense that ethnicity or political ideology can become a pseudo-religion. “The time is coming when whoever kills you will think he is doing service to God.” (John 16:2) We can speak of a “liturgy” of extermination. They regard mass murder as a divinely appointed task.

The logic of genocide is that the world should be of one color, one kind.

In its ideal form, a national army does not desire killing but wishes, within existing possibilities, to maintain order and justice and defend the country without killing. We can say that the army has no enemy, it only has temporary opponents. The army is not supposed to occupy other lands, because occupation causes humiliation. This is why the greatest leaders, because they detested bloodshed, always sought paths of peace. The philosophy of the military is that it defends the entire nation. It is not, in its essence, hostile to any other nation. This was the ideal of the Byzantine Empire. Offensive wars were excluded. The army was to be used only as a shield for peace and a defense force.

In contrast there are militia groups, the “military” of certain groups. A militia does not support the general cause – it is set against other militias. It is an instrument of extermination of the other. This is why civil war is always the hardest to resolve. In the case of the Lebanese civil war, every group which participated in massacres must come to repentance in order for us all to repent to our motherland. God cannot be the victor unless every group comes forward and confesses his sins to the other group in the presence of the entire nation.

In the context of this logic, there is no worse proverb than the popular saying: “God forgives the past!” No, God does not forgive us. It is not in His nature to forgive unless every one of us has acknowledged and repented from his own sin of murder against the other. He who dipped his hands in blood, or wished the death or the displacement of the other, is an accomplice in the sin of extermination. Every murdered person, no matter what religion he belongs to, is innocent because he is part of God, and God does not need anyone to fight in His name. God knows how to put to death whoever He wants to. No one is the representative of God in the domain of death.

This is a shortened version of an essay published May 6, 2000 by An-Nahar, the Lebanese daily newspaper; the translation is by Salim Abou-Haidar.

The Witness of the Faithful and Peace in the Family

Issue 28 – Fall 2002by Greg Cook

Let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble, and not be surprised when difficulties come; let us bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord… When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them. This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment-seat?

— St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 6:1-4

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have accepted the family as a gift from God for the purposes of spousal love, mutual care, instruction and raising of children, and spiritual life. In Christ, the family becomes not merely an aggregation of related individuals, but a miniature church and icon of the body of Christ. As such, family members are called to bear one another’s burdens and to be at peace as persons and as a group of persons in communion. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church teaches that the family is central to the gospel; she teaches this truth through holy scripture, prayer and liturgy, the writings of the church fathers, and the lives of its saints.

One theme running through this teaching is the need for families to live at peace within themselves. This requires constant prayerfulness and repentance on the part of all involved. Living in the family, we are known in a unique way in a broad range of experience: emotions, habits, crises and stages of growth. As Frederica Mathewes-Green puts it, “Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life’s greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known.”

We are called to love one another and be at peace both because of and in spite of revelations about our flawed personhood, because we are created in the image and likeness of Our Lord. Quite simply, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us, not according to how we “feel.” This is the Gospel message of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The early Christians received numerous examples from scripture about keeping peace in the family, beginning with the bloody story of Cain and Abel, and including the strife in King David’s family. Indeed, although the scriptures include numerous injunctions about obedience, order and fruitful instruction within the family, they are also replete with examples of the effects of sin and the ravages of unchecked passions. We see that grace, repentance and forgiveness are the keys to peace in the family.

One example comes from the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s envious brothers sell him into slavery. They are upset because their father Jacob favors the young Joseph, who is also blessed with prophetic powers. Joseph endures humiliations and imprisonment, yet when he is in a position to exact revenge, he instead chooses to save his brothers. A second example comes from the book of Hosea. Although Hosea’s wife Gomer is unfaithful, he humbles himself to go purchase her and restore the family. In both examples, the aggrieved party would have been in the right under the laws of their time to either renounce the other family members or exact vengeance. They could also have continued to heap the transgressions of the offenders back on their heads, thus perpetuating the breach in the family. Both Joseph and Hosea serve as types of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile people to one another and to God.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches about peace and reconciliation in the family. Yet he acknowledges that strife may come. He speaks about the Gospel as potentially dividing relatives. Another example is found in what is perhaps the message par excellence about peace in the family, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal squanders his inheritance in a distant land. Finally he returns to his family, but with no expectation of enjoying any privileges as a son. The father welcomes him back, bestowing forgiveness and grace upon the repentant son. Jesus does not stop here, though. He also mentions a dutiful older son made envious of the prodigal’s warm welcome. Grace — precisely because it is undeserved — may stir up jealous feelings in the hearts of others. (Many parents can tell stories of how their children expect the strictest equality when it comes to bestowing and receiving favors or punishment.)

Our Lord’s own family is a good example of the struggle for peace. Joseph nearly divorced Mary when he learned of her pregnancy, before the angel told him of the divine nature of her child. The key to the Lord’s teaching is that God must be the family’s focus. In his epistles, St. Paul expands on the practical ways of loving God and one another: his key is mutual submission, along with the realization that the family is a mini-church or body of Christ.

Through the centuries, the church has expressed itself in worship through prayer. Since God is our focus and the sustainer of our lives, there are prayers for nearly any situation, and some of those prayers deal directly with family life. For instance, in the Pocket Prayer Book published by the Antiochian Archdiocese we find “A Prayer of Parents For Their Children and For Relatives and Friends,” “A Prayer of Married Persons,” and “A Prayer of a Child.” All these implore God to bring peace into troubled hearts and for peace among persons in the family. Likewise, the questions for self-examination before confession help us to see if we have fulfilled our responsibilities towards parents and others in the family.

The Fathers of the Church give us much practical advice on how to maintain peace in the family. St. John Chrysostom declares that parents should create peace in the family by preventive means: to lay a foundation for peace rather than wait for strife to break out and then address it.

“It is helpful for everyone to know Scriptural teachings,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “and this is especially true for children. Even at their age they are exposed to all sorts of folly and bad examples from popular entertainments. Our children need remedies for all these things! We are so concerned with our children’s schooling. If only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord! And then we wonder why we reap such bitter fruit when we have raised our children to be insolent, licentious, impious, and vulgar. May this never happen. Instead, let us take to heart Paul’s admonition to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Most of all, let us give them a pattern to imitate.”

Sometimes people come to belief in Christ later in life and so their children are not raised in a climate of faith; or, through disobedience of God and pursuit of worldly gain, children and parents may become embroiled in strife. Regardless, there are still God-centered ways of conduct which may help foster peace in the family. We see examples of this in the lives of many saints.

The Serbian Saint Sava experienced much pain and suffering due to power struggles and envy in his family, and yet — through God’s abundant grace — peace was restored. Although Sava’s parents were God-fearing and Orthodox, it was not until later in life that they truly dedicated themselves to God. Sava actually fled from his parents to enter the monastic life, but he was later reconciled to them. All three lived blessed ascetic lives in the monastic ranks; Sava’s two brothers, however, fought for control of the Serbian lands. Fr. Daniel Rogich, in The Serbian Patericon, writes that “The state of affairs in Serbia had been quite poor ever since Simeon’s [Serbian ruler and Sava’s father] departure in 1196: there was little religious leadership, and the brothers [sons of Simeon, brothers of Sava] Stephen and Vukan were locked in a terrible fratricidal struggle for political rule of the kingdom.” But the saint knew what he must do to save his family and people.

“When he returned,” the Patericon continues, “Sava brought with him the medicine to heal the entire situation: the relics of his father, [St.] Simeon…. Sava invited his two brothers to a Memorial Service for their father. As the casket was opened, before their eyes the body of their father was found to be sweet-smelling, exuding a fragrant oil and myrrh, warm and aglow, looking very much alive, as if he were only restfully sleeping. This act of veneration of their father was the first step in healing the fraternal schism between Vukan and King Stephen. Shortly thereafter, the civil war was halted and a peace agreement was drawn up.”

This reliance on God and veneration of his father also helped heal a breach between Sava and the king over Stephen’s political flirtations with Rome. Stephen eventually returned to Orthodoxy and was even tonsured a monk shortly before his death. (Sadly, his sons also fought for control of the throne, and Sava was only partially successful in reconciling them.)

There is a temptation for believers and non-believers alike to sigh and say of stories about saints, “Fine, but what about me?” The implication is that saints are not really human, hence their achievements are unattainable by ordinary mortals. Fortunately we have other examples from both literature and “real life” about the possibilities of peace in the family.

As is the case with most aspects of life and the Orthodox faith, Dostoevsky gives us many splendid examples of efforts to bring peace to families. In The Brothers Karamazov, we are introduced to a family best described (using a common term from our own time) as dysfunctional. The brothers suffer from the death of both mothers, estrangement from their father and each other, the existence of a malevolent bastard child of their father’s, and haggling over money and inheritance. Despite these impediments, there are efforts within the family to create bonds of peace and to heal old wounds. Book II of the novel begins with a “peace conference” at the local monastery. The family hopes that the holy surroundings will help the peace process. Alas, the attempt at reconciliation founders on the pride of some of those involved and the buffoonery of the father. It is a fateful event because the family goes on to splinter for a time, culminating in the murder of the father. But then grace begins its work. The oldest son, Dimitri, accused of murdering his father, repents of his sins and begins the process of spiritual healing. Ivan, the intellectual, is torn away from his rebellion against God and dalliance with devils. Alyosha, the youngest, puts into practice the lessons learned from his starets Zosima and works to bring grace, hope and love to his family and others he knows. The brothers are reconciled in God, even though they must endure pain and suffering in the process.

Not everyone accepts literature as a valid guide for life, and so we must also look at real life examples of ways to bring peace to the family. Stories told about the hieromonk and starets Fr. Arseny provide us with examples of “ordinary” Christians persevering in the faith even under the most trying circumstances. One such example comes to us from the book Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses. The story concerns Yuri and Kyra, two of Fr. Arseny’s spiritual children. When they asked for his blessing for them to marry, the starets told them, “Carry each other’s burdens and in that way fulfill the law of Christ.” This is what they did over the course of many years. During World War II, Yuri served in the Ministry of Defense, and during that time Kyra became pregnant by another man. When he returned from the war, Yuri came back not only to his wife but her child from adultery. He relates in his story that his parents had not condemned her when she went to them, pregnant. She writes the same in her story. There were hard years for them of emotional turmoil, during which they raised the girl Katia and a boy they adopted. At one point the couple prayed before an icon of the Holy Theotokos, and Yuri’s heart melted within him.

“I knelt before her [Kyra] and said, ‘Forgive me! I have been in the wrong, there will be no more of this artificial separateness. You know that I love you. My behavior has been the result of pride. This is certainly not what Father Arseny taught us, I lifted her up, stood her in front of me, and kissed her. It was all resolved. We had our faith, our children who united us and our love, a gift from God. I had been wrong, and I was guilty before Kyra since I had forgotten the blessing of our spiritual father and forgotten the fact that she was my wife. I had made her suffer and had suffered myself. All that was over.”

Later, Fr. Arseny was released from a labor camp and helped fully restore them to each other as husband and wife. The process involved confession and ruthlessly facing their own sins. In this way peace and harmony was restored in their family. There are similar stories throughout this book and its predecessor involving people forgiving unfaithful spouses and ungrateful children by trusting in God and living in humility, setting aside their own self-centered agendas.

We must not underestimate the power of forgiveness and holy striving as the path to peace in the family. Consider the example of the hermit Abraham, who searched for years to find his niece, St. Mary the Harlot. He found her, forgave her, and brought her back to God’s fold.

Or ponder Alyosha Karamazov’s speech to some grieving children at a funeral, where he urges them, “Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other!”

Finally, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul, who implores believers: “Let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ … And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians, 5:33-6:2a, 4)

There are no guaranteed solutions in this world marred by sin, yet the words of the scriptures and examples from the lives of faithful people provide us with guidelines for building, promoting and restoring peace in the family.

Greg Cook is a writer who lives in the Puget Sound region of Washington State with his wife Mary and their two cats, Benedick and Beatrice. He is a member of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brier, Washington. He works in a library, and has been a teacher, dishwasher, newspaper reporter, cook in the U.S. Navy and a musician. His writing has appeared in a number of publications including Parabola. He has been an OPF member since 2001.

A Christian perspective on Islam

Not much time has passed since Europe was last in danger of being overrun by Islam. In 1453, Constantinople, the Eastern bulwark of Christianity, was captured by the Ottomans. In1529 and again in 1683 the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna. The struggle to free Belgrade lasted almost 200 years, and it was only a short time before the First World War that the last Balkan countries were able to free themselves from the Ottoman rule. It is naive, however, to assume that Islam and Christianity were wrestling with each other in that region for six hundred years. The fact is that empires are not built on any religion but on economic and military powers. Christianity and Islam both became servants of empire, the first of the Roman Empire and the second of the Ottoman Empire.

Many Christians have forgotten that Syria and North Africa were once the heartland of the Christian world, but were overrun and fell under Arab control during the first Islamic invasions between 632 and 732 AD. Arab armies swept into Europe and stood within 200 kilometers south of Paris, and near Geneva, too. If Charles Martel had not stood firm, we might all be Muslims today.

Again many Christians are pondering the questions: What is Islam? Who is Allah? What relationship does Allah have to Jesus Christ and his Church?

Allah in the Thought and Lives of Muslims

A Muslim’s relationship to Allah can be seen in the five daily prayers, which belong to the five pillars of Islam. “Islam” means surrender, submission or subjugation.

If it were possible to watch from space, we could see the prayer ritual of Islam sweeping across our globe like a mighty wave five times a day, as millions of Muslims bow to the ground in worship. At dawn, as soon as one can distinguish between a white and a black thread, the prayer of the Muslim begins in the Philippines. The first wave of worship surges over Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, then Iran and Turkey. Finally it reaches Europe, at which time the second wave of worship begins at noon for the Muslims in China. This new wave will have reached India and the forty-five million Muslims in Central Asia just as a third wave will have started at 3 p.m. for afternoon prayers in the Far East. These three waves of worship follow each other successively, molding and determining life under the Islamic culture. Then, as dawn is breaking on the East Coast of America with its Morning Prayer, Muslims in the Nile Valley are bowing down in the heat of noon prayer and in Pakistan men are gathering in their mosques for afternoon prayer. When the final wave of the Muslim night prayer begins in the Far East two hours after sunset, the rays of the setting sun touch the worshipers in the Ganges Delta, while pilgrims in Mecca bow down for afternoon prayer before the black stone in the Ka’ba. At that moment the second prayer wave has already reached faithful Muslims in the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, while the first wave breaks with the early morning dawn in the Rocky Mountains of America.

These five waves of prayer unite millions of Muslims in worship. Many Muslims pray earnestly, disciplining themselves by repeating their prayers 17 times a day. Early in the morning, the Muezzins call from the minarets: “Arise to prayer! Arise to success! Prayer is better then sleep!” Everyone who serves Allah hopes to receive a reward from him. Muslims thank Allah because he has already granted faith, which leads them to pray and keep the law in order to have the goodwill of Allah bestowed upon them.

Islam, then, is a religion based on keeping the Law of God. Prayer is an obligation. In Saudi Arabia a visitor may observe policemen forcing passers-by into mosques during the prayer times, so that the wrath of Allah may not descend on the country because of neglected prayer.

There is also in Islam a deep longing for purity. Before each prayer time, every Muslim performs a compulsory ablution — the washing of hands, arms, feet, mouth, face and hair. Those who know something of Judaism will see the parallel with the Pharisaic ablutions. Everyone must be clean before entering Allah’s presence to pray.

A sentence from the al-Fatiha in the main prayer for all Muslims reads, “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed, not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray,” a cry expressing the desire for guidance and a total dependence on Allah. A Christian cannot deny the faithful intent of Muslims to serve God. On the contrary, their discipline, sincerity and consistency in praying can be an example to us. Without a doubt, every true Muslim desires to serve God with all his heart. He calls on Allah in his prayers; he wants to honor him; he fights for him and submits his entire being to him.

The Beautiful Names of Allah

“Allah” is the Semitic name of God which comes originally from El, Eloh and Elohem. What is the Muslim concept of Allah? Whom do they worship? In his struggle against polytheism, Muhammad waged a merciless campaign against all gods, idols and images. His outcry was: “Allah is One! All other gods are nothing!” He had accepted the basic monotheistic faith of the Jews who were living in the Arabian Peninsula after being exiled from their homeland by the Romans. Influenced by them, Muhammad freed the Arab world from idolatry. The first half of the Islamic creed makes a sharp distinction between the Oneness of God and the claims of religions and magical cults which teach that other gods exist. Millions of Muslims confess daily, “There is no god save Allah!” as the core of the Islamic faith. Any theological assertion that contradicts this is rejected without question.

Muhammad not only testified to Allah’s uniqueness, but described him with many names:. Islamic theologians have systematized all his statements into “the 99 most beautiful names of Allah”. Sorting through these names of Allah according to their significance and frequency, moves us closer to the heart of Islam. Allah is the Omniscient One with infinite wisdom who hears all and sees all, understands all and encompasses everything. He both builds up and destroys. He is the exalted one above everything, great and immeasurable, magnificent and almighty, without equal. He is the living one, ever-existing, unending, everlasting, the first and the last, the one and the only one, the incomparably beautiful one. He is praiseworthy and excellent, the holy one, light and peace. He is the true reality and the foundation of everything, who created everything out of nothing by the strength of his word. He brought everything into being, and to him we shall all return. He creates life and causes death (Sura al-A`raf 7:44; note that Eastern Christianity does not accept that God created death). He will raise the dead and unite the universe. Allah is the sovereign lord and king to whom the universe belongs. He saves whom he wills and condemns whom he wishes. Above all, Allah is called the compassionate and merciful one, and yet he is also the avenger. He has recorded everything and will be the incorruptible and indisputable witness on the day of judgement.

The authority of Allah may open the door to success or lock it. Nothing takes place without his will. He has no need of any mediator. Everything depends directly on him. He is also benevolent and patient, faithful and kind to Muslims, the giver of all gifts. From him alone comes provision for all mankind. He who possesses everything makes people wealthy and protects all who glorify him. He is guardian over all who worship him. Allah acknowledges those who repent, and forgives because he is the forgiving one. He is gracious toward Muslims.

Often, the names of Allah are ascribed to him in a spirit of wishful thinking rather than confident faith. The more oppressive attributes create fear and drive people to do everything possible to keep the law. Poverty and illness are regarded as signs of Allah’s wrath for secret sins. By the same token, riches, success and esteem in Muslim society are taken as indications of favor. Some Muslims say, “Because we have remained faithful to Allah for 1300 years, he has rewarded us with the oil.”

The wealth of the divine names of God can be discovered only in Sufism. Ordinary Muslims accept that Allah cannot be proved to exist, or described. One can only sense him through experience. A pious Muslim confirms his faith that God is beyond our understanding by the common words, “Allahu akbar! God is great!” This statement, repeated millions of times each day, is an abridged form of the Islamic creed. With this testimony Khomeini’s revolutionary guards ran blindly into mine fields knowing they would be torn to shreds. Yet it is not a complete sentence. Its literal meaning is “Allah is greater!” Every listener should complete the thought: Allah is wiser than all philosophers, more beautiful than the most fascinating view, stronger than all atomic and hydrogen bombs together, and greater than anything we know. Allah is the unique, and inexplicable one — the remote, vast and unknown God. Everything we may think about him is incomplete, if not wrong. Allah cannot be comprehended. He comprehends us. We are slaves who have only the privilege to worship him in fear.

Islam stands for renunciation of the rationalism that prevails in Europe and America. For a long time it was the characteristic of Islamic theology that Allah could not be described philosophically. Understanding this brings us to a crucial statement expressed by the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali, who meditated at length on the ninety-nine excellent names of God. He wrote that these names can mean everything and yet nothing. One name of Allah can negate another and the content of one may be included in the next. No one can understand Allah, so devout believers can only worship this unknown God and live before him in fear and reverence, observing all his laws in strict obedience.

Islam — a theocentric culture

What are the practical consequences of such an understanding for the daily life of a Muslim? The image of a great, all-embracing Lord has conditioned the home, education, work and politics. “Show me your God and I will explain to you why you live as you do.” Similarly Genesis tells us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” (1:27 ) This means that the concept of God is the pattern and measure of the culture associated with it.

In Islam, the father of the family is not an equal partner with his wife, but the patriarch of the house, holding all rights and authority. The children belong to him alone. He supplies provisions and grants no insight into his financial situation. His wife is not necessarily a life-time companion with equal rights, but often just a means of satisfying his physical desires, sometimes merely a baby factory. There are exceptions, of course, where noble and sensitive Arabs open themselves to the influence of world-wide humanism or where some resolute wives exert influence over their husbands. Christendom has also influenced Arab customs to some extent. In general, however, Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life. Khomeini in particular used the resurgence of Islam to reduce women to medieval subjection.

In schools, too, until a few years ago, the teacher gave instruction like a patriarch, ruling over his pupils and forcing the lessons down their throats. Any pupil who could not fully repeat the subject matter was punished. The main goals of education in many Islamic schools are not understanding, individual thinking and development of character, but acceptance and conformity. This is closely associated with the concept of thought in the Islamic religion, since a Muslim is forbidden to think critically about the Qur’an. He must accept it and memorize it. Being thus filled with the spirit of Islam, he walks in accordance with Allah’s law in his daily life. (How many Christians know even one of the Gospels by heart? Yet many Muslims have mastered the whole of the Qur’an.)

The forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam are based upon the picture of Allah given by Muhammad. A person is not guided to become active and responsible, but to submit himself passively to his fate. This is why Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably, for their entire education amounts to a submission of will and integration into an Allah-centered society. Again, in politics, democracy does not appear as the best model for social organization. Rather Allah, the king and lord over all, is the unconscious pattern for many sultans and dictators. The strong man who swept away corruption with an iron hand, who brought renown to Islam, has always been admired. (In Arab schools one can find children with such unusual first names as Bismarck, Stalin, de Gaulle and Nasser, because the parents wish and hope that there will be a glorious future for their offspring in the spirit of such historic personalities.) Complaisance and compromise mean weakness and incompetence.

It is not surprising, then, that Nasser and Khomeini were the dominating figures in the Near East. While Nasser attempted to combine an Arab socialism with Islam in order to meet the attack of atheistic communism, Khomeini trod a still more radical path by attempting to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth in Shi’ite countries. The ultimate aim of Khomeini’s revolution was not merely the removal of the shah or the elimination of Christian, capitalistic or communistic principles from among his people, but the reinstatement of an Islamic theocracy in which Allah prevailed in every area of life. This brought a “mullah state” into existence, where more people were killed in a few years in the name of Allah and Islam than during the long reign of the shah. Enemies of the Islamic revolution were no longer even regarded as people. Khomeini himself declared, “In Persia no people have been killed so far — only beasts!”

As the Islamic spirit cannot tolerate any other gods beside Allah, Islam will find no rest until all people have become Muslims. This mission-consciousness is based on the Islamic confession of faith which states that “there is no God except Allah.” Thus there can be no real peace on earth except through Islam.

We must confess, however, that Christians Crusaders who came to the Near East left behind them a trail of blood, engraving on the consciousness of Muslims the image of Christians as aggressive militants. Yet all “holy wars” are in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Do not resist evil! Put your sword away! Love your enemies!” Christ never commanded his followers to fight in religious wars; rather, he forbade them any demonstration of violence. Muhammad, on the other hand, repeatedly fought in person alongside his fighters until they conquered Mecca and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of Islam is based on the sword, holy war being considered a direct command of Allah. This is why there is still in Islam the potential for holy war. (Sura al-Baqara 2:245). In Islam, there is no separation between throne and altar, between politics and religion. Mosques are often the starting point for political upheaval. Friday sermons are not confined to the fostering of faith and spiritual life, but may stir up the people for political conflict in the name of Allah.

According to the Islamic portrayal of Allah, nothing exists outside the province of his omnipotence, and anyone not surrendering voluntarily must be brought into subjection either by cunning strategy, economic persuasion or revolutionary force. Islam demands surrender of all areas of life to Allah’s spirit and the Qur’an’s control over all thought and conduct. Bedouin tribes once said to Muhammad, “We believe in Allah ” But he replied, “You have not believed until you say, ‘We have submitted ‘”

Islam cannot compromise with any “isms” for any period of time. As its history unfolded, strong impulses repeatedly flowed out of the Qur’an, which overcame ideas and concepts that had penetrated the Islamic culture from Europe, Persia and India, resulting in an all-pervading legalistic religion. The ultimate aim was nothing less than the establishment of Allah’s kingdom on our earth.

Allah in the Light of the Christian Faith

Islam has recovered much ground and expanded in the last ten years, making a substantial thrust into the cultures of Christianity, Hinduism, communism and the African cults. When we as Christians meet Muslims and try to understand them, we should not forget that many of them are genuine worshipers who serve their God with dedication. We Christians should never despise their deep aspirations, but should love and respect every Muslim who sincerely worships Allah.

This, however, does not absolve us from the obligation to seek the truth about Islam. Our respect for Muslims leads us to compare the Qur’an and the New Testament, which for us is the only standard of truth. If one compares the 99 names of Allah in Islam with the names of God in the Bible, one must acknowledge that the Allah of the Muslims is not in harmony with our God. If someone says, “Your God and Islam’s God are the same,” he does not understand who Allah and Christ really are, or glosses over the deeply rooted differences.

Allah — No Trinity

In the Arabic language, the name Allah can be understood as a sentence: al-el-hu. ‘El’ is an old Semitic name for God meaning ‘the strong and mighty’. The Islamic name, Allah, corresponds to the Hebrew name Elohim. Although the Hebrew name contains the possibility of a plural (hum), the name of Allah (hu) can only be singular. Thus, Allah in Islam is always only one and never a unity of three. It is unthinkable for a Muslim to believe in the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense. Consequently, the Islamic confession of faith not only declares the uniqueness of Allah but at the same time firmly rejects the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Allah — No Father

The name ‘Father’, the revelation of God’s innermost reality, is an indispensable element of the Christian faith. God has bound himself to us as our eternal Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) In dialogue with Muslims and Jews, we must scrutinize anew statements of Jesus in the New Testament concerning the name “Father” for God. This name is mentioned at least 164 times in the Gospels. Christ did not preach about a distant God whom no one can know or comprehend, nor did he teach us to approach him with a trembling fear as the unapproachable holy Judge. Instead he gently moved the veil from before the God of the Old Testament and revealed him to us as the Father. He did not teach us to pray to Elohim, Yahweh, or the holy Trinity, but placed on our lips the loving name — “our Father.” Christ thus shared his own privilege with us, the unworthy ones. Through him we have become children of God, a relationship which Muhammad emphatically rejects (Sura al-Ma’ida 5:18).

If we compare the occasions when Christ used the name “God” with the occasions when he used the name “Father,” we are in for a surprise. Speaking to outsiders, demons or his enemies, Jesus spoke of the hidden God, the great and powerful Lord. But when he prayed or talked in the intimate circle of his followers, he revealed the innermost secret of God — his Fatherhood. For this claim Jesus was convicted of blasphemy when the high priest Caiaphas asked him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 26:63) For Caiaphas to refer to God as “Father” would have been scandalous to the Jews, so he asked Jesus if he considered himself the “Son of God,” implying God’s Fatherhood. Christ confirmed his confession. His first words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” But as the Father veiled his face the Son cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet the crucified One held on to the reality of God’s Fatherhood in the midst of his suffering and died with the words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The author, a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in Britain, prefers to remain anonymous. His homeland is a country with a Muslim majority.

The Architecture of War

by Jessica Rose

“The world has changed” was a view frequently expressed after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September. Yet, while the world of a great many people was changed, the world itself was not. It remains the violent and unpredictable place that it has been since the Fall of Adam.

In this context it is timely to present an introduction to the work of Rene Girard and his understanding of violence. A professor of literature, Girard turned his attention also to anthropology and psychology. In the course of his research, he was converted to Christianity. What he says is rooted in a deep and clear-sighted reading of the Old Testament and the Gospels. Girard has no easy solution to violence. He provides an analysis which demonstrates how difficult it is to overcome and shows us what each one of us can do, minute by minute, to try to combat it. Far from complaining that religion is outdated and dangerous, Girard insists that after two thousand years we are only just beginning to be capable of understanding the Gospel message.

A few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, a young man asked me, “What would it take to do nothing?” A frequent visitor to New York, with many friends there, he was heavy with the pain of what had happened. Yet something within him was struggling to break the cycle of revenge, of attack and counter-attack, to try to understand what it really would cost each of us to refrain from retaliation. What would it cost to pay attention not only to the real and terrible consequences visited on America, but to also the deeper challenge: was there any way this event could be turned to the purposes of peace? Unless we can answer these questions, we are in no position to make a free choice in our response to any kind of attack, personal or global. Only if we know what it would take to do nothing, can we understand what we are choosing if we do something.

Our concern here is what happens when our perception of the ordering of the world is turned upside down: when we are no longer sure who is powerful and who is vulnerable, who is strong and who is weak, who is free and who is in chains, who, indeed is right, and who is wrong. One urgent message given to the world on September 11 is that peace is not the concern of the few, of the government or world leaders. Peace — its making and keeping — is the task of each one of us. It becomes increasingly necessary not only to seek peace, but to understand the mechanisms of violence — collective and individual — which destroy it.

We shall explore here three of Girard’s basic principles: the importance of mimesis, or imitation, in the development of our own desire and behavior; the scapegoating mechanism, and how what is often understood as “peace” is in fact founded on violence; and finally the way in which these processes are overturned by a message we have hardly begun to understand: that of the Gospels.

Mimesis and the development of desire

Much of our conscious effort is devoted to learning, yet the bulk of our learning happens at an unconscious level. We learn above all by imitation, by absorbing what others do, and this plays a large part in our growing up as members of a particular family and society.

This applies not only to our speech, our attitudes and so on, but to our desires. Last summer a friend came to stay, bringing his palm-top computer. It was beautiful. I use computers but unlike my friend travel little, and have no need of a palm-top. Yet seeing it in his hands, I found myself desiring one. I went so far as to investigate prices. I still am drawn to places which sell them, although so far I have resisted the temptation to acquire one.

A classic example: Children are playing in a room where toys are scattered about. No particular interest is shown in them until a child picks one up and starts to play with it. What instantly becomes the most desirable object in the room?

This is nothing new. Any parent understands it. Indeed, our whole western economy is built on it. Mimetic desire, whereby we learn what we want by seeing what others want, plays a significant part in our lives. It is the basis of envy — but also of discipleship. In its positive form, mimesis moves us on. We discover what is desirable by observing someone we admire. Eventually we come to discern what it is in that person that is worth imitating. I may begin by admiring a competent musician. My admiration can turn to envy if I am unable to imitate his skill. However, if I begin to see that his desire for music is underpinned by his relationship with it, by his being prepared to give other things up for it, and to work at it, I may come to realize that those qualities can be imitated. In this way mimesis becomes conscious. I begin to develop not his, but my own way of making music. This is what is at the root of discipleship.

Most mimesis, however, happens at an unconscious level. We come to desire something because we see its desirability in someone else. But when too many of us begin reaching out for the same things, there is not enough to go around. Mimesis turns to envy and then to rivalry. We begin to identify ourselves over against those who have what we want. The situation becomes one of conflict, exclusion and finally violence.

The scapegoating mechanism

In a stable society, mimesis stays within limits because we also carry unconscious assumptions about what belongs to which members of society. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” I used to sing this as a child in the 1950s. It would be hard to find it in a hymn book now. Lazarus, the beggar, does not expect to become like Dives, the rich man. He asks for scraps, not for a place at the table. His desire for food is an instinctual need, and not a mimetic desire formed from seeing Dives feasting, and he therefore forms no threat to the stability of the world that both of them inhabit.

What happens, however, when we begin to perceive that the world order we have grown up with is not ordained by God, when we begin to interpret our dignity as human beings not as holding different places in that order, but as mere accident? What happens when we begin to deconstruct differences in class, opportunity, wealth, even gender? The whole of society becomes a much more risky place. Mimetic desire is let loose, and, remaining unconscious — we do not know what we are imitating, only that we are filled with compelling desire for what the other has — begins to divide us. We become rivalrous and competitive, and begin to break down the familiar structures. It is well known that revolutions begin not in a state of total oppression, but when there is a slight improvement: a vision is then possible of how life could be.

A major catastrophe can have the same effect. All afflicted by the same event — an infectious illness, say — begin to realize that no one is immune. Increased information, such as our passion for knowing about the private lives of the famous, can also bring down hierarchical barriers. This can, of course, be positive, leading to greater understanding, compassion and respect. If it remains caught up in mimetic desire, however, if our consciousness is occupied by our pain or anxiety and we are unable to move beyond that, we have to look for someone to blame — a natural human reaction. As a priest said to me recently, “When you are hurt, you shout.” It cannot be bypassed. When we get stuck there, however, the scapegoating mechanism comes into play. Egged on by our capacity for imitation, we draw together in finding a scapegoat responsible for our collective suffering. An alliance forms against the person held responsible.

Scapegoats tend to be chosen because they are different in some way. Again, the choosing is not thought out or rational. The scapegoat may be the person in the class who is cleverer than anyone else, or the one who has a different accent. A young man wrote to the “problem page” of a newspaper recently because he was uncomfortable at his new place of work. Everyone else had been to English public school, and called each other by their surnames as they had been brought up to do. Used to being plain “Paul,” he quickly found himself ostracized by the use of his first name. Everyone else remained “Jones” or “Cartwright.”

As a psychology student in the early 70s, I was impressed by something I heard in a lecture on the “shared dislikes hypothesis” of a psychologist named Festinger. Nothing, he claimed, is so bonding as finding something you dislike together. Since I was lonely, I adopted this theory as a technique in getting to know people. I would drop into conversations complaints about something — the college food, the lack of windows in the library, almost anything would do — and found it worked. People cheered up, and became warmer and friendlier as we discussed our shared resentments against “the system.”

When the stakes are higher than this, scapegoating becomes a very serious business indeed. Throughout the history of the world we find people — or groups, or particular races — who have been chosen for scapegoat roles. Since, as the Orthodox funeral service tells us, “No man lives and does not sin,” we can usually find something which enables the scapegoat to fulfil this role satisfactorily, and keep our sense of justice intact. The scapegoat is expelled or killed. The act of violence is cathartic. The communal dislike which has been generated is bonding. Peace is restored, and the act of scapegoating is what has brought this about. Ancient ritual and sacrifice, argues Girard, are based on this process. A violent act takes place. The story of the expulsion or killing of the victim is told from the point of view of the victor (the only point of view now available); and stability is maintained through re-enactment of the story in sacrificial rituals. Hence, shocking though this may be, civilization is founded on violence.

The Gospel message overturns the scapegoating mechanism

Throughout the Old Testament, Girard wants us to understand, we see a gradual undoing of the old mechanisms of scapegoating and sacrifice which progressively reveal a merciful God who forgives: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart he will not despise” (Psalm 50/51). Finally, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross unveils violence for what it is. Remember that while he was accused as a blasphemer and rabble-rouser, “it was out of envy that they delivered him” (Mark 15:10). Even Pilate was able to see this. Human beings, confronted by Love incarnate, were unable to bear what he had and they did not. They were unable to bring to consciousness what was troubling them, and to discover what form of imitation could bring them to a true sharing in what they perceived in him. Those who had begun to understand who he was and who witnessed his Resurrection were able to break free of the cycle of violence.

In Knowing Jesus, James Alison describes the Resurrection appearances as acts of forgiveness. “Peace be unto you” are Christ’s first words to the disciples hiding fearfully in the room in which he appears. There is no whisper of resentment for their abandonment of him in his Passion. He is as much as one with them as he has ever been. “Forgive all,” we sing in the Paschal stikhera, “in the joy of the Resurrection.”

There is an ancient tradition in both Judaism and Islam that God prays, and that God’s prayer is “May my mercy prevail over my justice.” This prayer reached its fruition in the crucifixion. There was no retaliation. Words of forgiveness were spoken from the Cross itself. The angels ministered and were amazed, but they were not called upon to rescue Jesus in a display of power. Christ entered into the condition of his fellow human beings and followed its consequences to the very end. Being also God, he took his human nature through death to life, and it is that path, without violence, that he calls us to follow.

Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. Her book Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship will be published in January by Darton, Longman and Todd, London. She directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England.

Further reading

  • A Girard Reader, Herder & Herder, Crossroads
  • Gil Baillie: Violence Unveiled, Crossroads
  • Rene Girard: I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books

Jesus and the Natural World

by Fr. John Jillions

Concern for the environment has become such a standard topic of daily life that many have become bored with the subject. Despite the best efforts of Patriarch Bartholomeos, now known among environmentalists as “the green patriarch,” it is difficult to find much sustained grass-roots enthusiasm among the Orthodox for environmental issues. After all, is anyone against protecting the environment? Add to this the scientific and political complexities that beset environmental policy-making, and the tendency of most Orthodox to focus on personal spirituality rather than social and ethical issues, it is not surprising that the environment is not high on the agenda of most Orthodox. But the question of our relation to the natural world goes much deeper than the used of plastic coffee cups, recycling and international summits.

Our attitudes to nature and what is “natural” affect our decisions on a host of issues. For example, when should we allow nature to “take its course” and when should we intervene to prevent it from doing so? Is the world of nature the ideal from which all other life has fallen? Should we be striving for a return to nature and natural living? And what exactly is “natural living”? Is an agrarian life far from the hustle and bustle of the city the one most suited to living the Gospel?

Looking at the issue of how we relate to the natural environment raises the question of how I view what is mine or not mine and my responsibilities toward each. How do I relate to the world beyond my own front door? Many people spend great efforts and money in beautifying their own home, but have little or no sense of personal responsibility for the surrounding neighborhood because it’s “not mine.” On a wider scale, this may mean communities of people, indeed entire countries, with little sense of civic responsibility for maintaining or beautifying the larger community beyond the borders of “mine” or “ours.”

More deeply still, what we think is “natural” affects what we think should be left alone or changed, and our willingness or unwillingness to take steps to make changes. If we view all events as “natural,” we might adopt a fatalistic attitude that is sometimes characteristic of the East. Whatever happens is “natural,” in God’s hands alone, so there is little point in taking action. Each and every tragedy can be met with a shrug of the shoulders and a “that’s life” attitude. The human being is minimally responsible. At the other extreme, if we take a high view of human intervention, we may be convinced that there is almost always something we can do — or should be able to do as science advances — to control nature. According to this latter view, the human being is maximally responsible, except for those rare cataclysmic events which are entirely beyond his control and thus labeled by the insurance industry as “acts of God.”

For Christians the first place to go to begin to look for answers to these questions is to the person of Jesus. His approach to the natural world gives important guideposts for a Christian response.

In the Gospels we most often encounter people who are thoroughly familiar with country ways. The images Jesus uses in his parables and are for the most part from the natural world, although he never once uses the word “nature.” And mostly he refers to agriculture rather than nature in the wild.

Yet in one of his few sayings about nature as such Jesus says there is no human glory that can begin to match the wonder of the created world: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt 6:28-29)

Jesus spent much time out of doors. Gospel texts reveal that he noticed what was going on around him in the natural world, reflected upon it, and had great affection for it. If we take for example just the first chapter of Mark, we have references to the various natural settings that were so familiar to Jesus.

Nazareth, where he grew up, in the hills of Galilee. The most famous of Jesus’ teaching takes place in the mountains, “the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7). Jesus often withdrew to a hill or mountain to pray alone or with his disciples, and it was in the mountains that Jesus would have seen shepherds guiding their sheep on narrow mountain paths, carrying the lambs in their arms, chasing away wolves. It was in the mountains that Jesus appointed the twelve (Mk 3:13), a mountain was the site of the Transfiguration, and his favorite place in Jerusalem was outdoors on the Mount of Olives, where he often sat, taught or prayed, outside the walls of the city opposite the Temple. Here too was the garden of Gethsemani. It was also on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19)

The wilderness around the Jordan river where John was living and baptizing and where Jesus spent forty days being tempted by Satan (Mk 1:9-12). But there was also consolation in the midst of temptation, for “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” (Mk 1:13)

The Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16) where time and again we find him teaching on the shore (or out of a boat) or getting into a boat and crossing again to the other side (e.g. Mk 5:21). Here is the setting for his call of the first disciples, the fishermen. Here also — in the Gospel of John — is where the risen Jesus meets for the last time with his disciples as they are fishing, where he makes a fire, cooks them a breakfast of fresh fish, talks with them on the shore and tells Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). And it was a storm on the Sea of Galilee that so frightened the disciples, which Jesus calmed with a word, so that they wondered “who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him.” (Mk 4:41)

The countryside (Mk 1:45): so many people flocked to Jesus for healing that the Gospel of Mark says he “could no longer enter a town, but was out in the country, though even there, “people came to him from every quarter.” (Mk 1:45) Out in the countryside, walking past the fields and farms of Palestine Jesus picked up many of the images that would re-appear in his teaching: the sower going out to sow his seed (Mk 4:3ff), the fields ripe for harvest (Mk 4:29), the vineyard, (Mk 12:1 ff) and fig trees (Mk 13:28ff).

Jesus was immersed in the natural world. But we should not romanticize this. He also spent much of his time confronting a natural world gone wrong. The first chapter of Mark also shows this darker side of nature. A madman shouting and convulsing in the synagogue (Mk 1:23ff); Peter’s mother-in-law lying sick with a fever (Mk 1:30-31); a leper who begs to be healed (Mk 1:40ff); crowds coming to Jesus with their diseased and demented (Mk 1:32-34).

The wonder of the natural world remains more glorious than Solomon, but in Jesus we find no idolizing of nature. For all the matchless glory of creation, the Father cares infinitely more for the human beings he created. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26) This immediately puts the Christian view of creation and the natural world at odds with much of secular environmentalism for which human beings are just another species. For Christians, human beings are the summit of the creation and have a unique role of care and oversight. More than that, the destiny of creation is mysteriously linked to human beings, such that St Paul can say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23) Jesus is less concerned about nature than about the redemption of the human race, through which the rest of creation will also end its “groaning.” Jesus does not see a natural world independent of the human world.

Perhaps this is why the most frequent analogies Jesus makes to the natural world are from farming, fishing, vineyards and shepherds: human beings working together with nature, transforming the raw materials of nature into food and drink and clothing. The images Jesus uses are dominated by a picture of the environment that shows human beings using, domesticating and cultivating nature for their own use: mustard seed, yeast, bread, sowing and seeds, vineyards and vines, new and old wine, sheep and goats, the good shepherd, the sheepfold, the flock, weeds among the wheat, fishermen, a net full of fish.

The natural world into which Jesus comes is not the world as it was in the beginning when all was “very good.” Although there is a theological debate as to whether the first creation was truly perfect or only potentially perfect (with Church Fathers of differing views), it is clear that much has gone wrong in the natural world. The desert, for example, is seen as a forbidding, hostile place, the dwelling place of Satan, the personification of all that is destructive and diseased and opposed to God’s purposes in creation. Yet it precisely to the desert that Jesus goes first before beginning his public ministry. All that now keeps the creation groaning is part of the “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21) which we see in the natural world as a kind of infection that St. Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness.” (2 Th 2:7) In this sense the natural world is no longer pure and therefore is no longer natural. Here too the Christian view of the environment must differ from secular environmentalists. Jesus never accepts the world as it is as the “natural” world for he never accepts sickness and death as “natural.” At the tomb of Lazarus he does not tell Martha and Mary that the sickness, suffering and death of their brother Lazarus was “natural.” No, he weeps at the tomb because all of this is a terrible deformation of God’s creation. And most people, regardless of their view of Jesus, share his view of death. They weep, because something deep within them protests at the loss and says this ought not to be.

The natural world continues to be a place of ambivalence. On the one hand it refreshes body and soul. Indeed, an article on pastoral life published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1970s recommended long walks in parks and countryside as an essential ingredient for a priest’s spiritual health! At the same time the natural world is a source of suffering and disease and we look forward to the time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) We look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev 21:1)

Yet it is significant that the New Testament’s final image of the Kingdom is no rural idyll but a bustling city. The kingdom of God is the “new Jerusalem.” (Rev 21:2) This is all the more striking because the city of Jerusalem was such a troubling place for Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:38) He was persecuted in the city and stayed away for long periods of time and his disciples were afraid of returning. And their fears were proved right. After a brief triumphal entry, the city becomes the setting for Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, torture and crucifixion.

But the city was also the place of Christ’s resurrection, where as Risen Lord he first appeared to his disciples, where he told the disciples to remain “until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)

None of us is unfamiliar with the temptations and irritations of cities with their congestion, traffic, crowds, stress, pollution, politics, corruption and crime. But throughout history cities have always been the centers of civilization and culture. The city, like the natural world, needs to be transfigured and redeemed, not abandoned. And the new Jerusalem is the image of the redeemed city, of redeemed human culture, the holy city where there is no mourning, nor crying nor pain (Rev 21:4). In this new Jerusalem, the city is not cut off from nature, for the river of the water of life runs through its main street, and the tree of life grows on either side, “with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:1-2)

Fr. John Jillions is Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. For information about the Institute, visit their web site: