Category Archives: IC 58 2010

Content of IC 58 2010

The Multiplaction of Loaves & Fishes

Dear In Communion reader,

The sixth-century mosaic on the cover was chosen because several articles in this issue touch on aspects of Christian economics – not a topic we can ignore. The Gospel account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes is not only a fact of history but demonstrates Christ’s compassion for the hungry. His action also poses the question: would it be possible for us to live in such a way that fewer people are hungry and homeless?

David Holden presents an alternative model to capitalism and socialism: distributism. (Note the related review by Daniel Lieuwen in the book section.) In a book excerpt translated by Macrina Walker, we find St. Basil the Great connecting our neighbors’ needs with our salvation. Danny Abbot’s report on the homeless in Nashville, Tennessee, opens a window on some of the casualties of the current economic order.

Let me use this letter not only to introduce the issue but also to ask you to help us put In Communion into more hands. We have no money with which to promote subscriptions. Our readership grows mainly by word-of-mouth recommendations and gift subscriptions. Christmas is not far away. Please consider giving a subscription to one or two people who matter in your life – a friend, a relative, your parish priest, or those who make use of your parish library.

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We are able to carry on only because of your generosity. Thank you for whatever you manage to send.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest, editor

* * *

Above: Loaves and fishes mosaic, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Church in Ravenna


On the love of enemies

The Lord has shown that we cannot have the good work of perfect love if we only love those from whom in turn we know the return of mutual love will be paid in kind. Hence the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of Gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies.
– St. Chromatios of Aquileia (406-407)

It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important: do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you’d never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.
— St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783)

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies to another way of thinking than to kill them…. The mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.
— St. John Chrysostom (347-407)

Above Image: drawing by Fritz Eichenberg, an illustration for The Brothers Karamazov


Distributism: a Primer for Orthodox Christians

by David Holden


above: The multiplication of loaves and fishes.

All of Orthodoxy honors St. Nikodemos of Athos for providing us with the Philokalia. Less well known is his Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession. First published in 1794, it contains the following story:

A king once happened to confess to a farmer, who was discreetly a Spiritual Father, and after having confessed his sins, said to the Spiritual Father, “I don’t have anything else to say to you.” “How so, O king?” said the Spiritual Father. “How? Have we finished the confession? No. You have said the sins of Alexis (stating the king’s first name), say now the sins of the king.” That wise Spiritual Father wanted to show by these words that every ruler and head, foreign or domestic, must not only confess as an individual or be examined by a Spiritual Father as a common person, but in addition to the sins he committed as a person, he must also confess those things he could have done as a ruler unto the good of his people but did not do, and as many bad things as happened to his subjects on his account which he did not correct, for which he will have to give an exact account to God.

This story illustrates the Orthodox Christian attitude regarding the relationship between faith and life in the world. When Orthodox people are in positions of authority and power, they are expected to follow Christ in those positions just as they follow Him in their private lives.

But what does that mean? The task of people in positions of authority is not to create a “Christian state” or “Christian corporation” or “Christian theater.” Only people can be Christian. Christ came to make people partakers of the divine nature, not institutions, agencies or businesses. The task is to do all that is possible to create an environment that will help people to see Christ, seek Christ, and find Christ.

To be more particular: How then do we bring the domains of commerce and finance under the lordship of Christ? We know the fundamental principles of Orthodox ethics that pertain to economics: that the material world was created good and beautiful and that it is appropriate to have and to pray for “the abundance of the fruits of the earth;” that poverty is an evil, not a virtue – a plight to be eased, not to be worsened; that indebtedness is not good; that living simply is; that the love of money has been and can easily be a root for all kinds of evil; that God commands us to seek justice and right relationships at all times and with all people; that charging interest is morally questionable, and certainly wrong when it is charged to people merely seeking the necessities of life; that it is about as easy for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. We Orthodox know all these principles, or at least we have heard them and know that we ought to practice them. The particular question here is, How do we create an environment that embodies those principles? Knowing that we Orthodox, like all the rest of the human race, are fallen creatures, prone to all kinds of sins both voluntary and involuntary, and knowing that all organizations and institutions magnify and entrench our sins, what kind of economic structures might restrain our sinfulness and encourage justice?

In this essay I invite my readers to consider an economic system known as distributism. The system is ancient and widespread, but this term for it appeared only in the last century. The term and original definition came from Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in the early 20th century. Both were devout Roman Catholics, highly influenced by the social teachings of Pope Leo XIII, but also disenchanted with the socialists. The term fell into obscurity after Chesterton’s death in 1936 and Belloc’s in 1953, but the ideas did not. They deeply influenced E. F. Schumacher, whose book Small Is Beautiful has had a profound impact on environmentalists around the world. In recent years distributism has been directly and consciously revived within Catholic circles. The Distributist Review is a website covering many aspects of old and new distributist thinking. IHS Press has republished many of the older texts. Some impressive new material is also now available, especially by John Médaille of the University of Dallas. He displays a grasp of recent developments in economics and its mathematical foundations, neither of which is found in the distributist writers of earlier generations.

What then is distributism? To answer that question we have to ask, How is distributism both like and unlike the three other major economic systems that have arisen in the course of human history? In point of fact, no society has any economic system in its pure form; every society, both past and present, has some mixture of the four. Any society with a system predominantly of one type will have some features of the other three. The four systems are, therefore, descriptions of tendencies and philosophy, but even so, these distinctions are instructive.

Four Economic Systems: The dominant economic system in the world today is capitalism. It has evolved into its present form over the past five hundred years. The discovery of America, the advance of shipping and trade during the colonial era, the progress of technology and the Industrial Revolution, and the increasing sophistication of marketing, accounting, computing, and mathematical models of economics all contributed to its rise. On the positive side, capitalism supports the private ownership of land and business, rewards the combination of intelligence and hard work, and supports democracy and limited government. Capitalism harnesses the (natural) inclination of people to compete with one another and the (fallen and therefore actually unnatural) inclination of people toward greed and acquisitiveness. In his Economics for Helen, Belloc said that in a capitalist system, “Every man, however poor, feels himself to be free and to that extent saves his honor.” Consequently, capitalism immediately appeals to Americans, who value freedom above just about everything.

On the negative side, capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of a minority. The claim that such a system had to develop because of colonial shipping or the need for vast sums of money to build factories during the Industrial Revolution is historically false. Capitalism developed because of the way that people – generally people already wealthy and powerful – have shaped laws and customs to their own advantage. In The Servile State, Belloc shows how England was already moving toward capitalism prior to the great age of colonization and long before the Industrial Revolution. It began with the closing of the monasteries in 1535. The same process – changing laws and structures to benefit the wealthy – still occurs. The present trend of CEO’s to earn as much as 600 times as much as the laborers in their companies is not an aberration. It is the natural and inevitable result of a capitalist system. If this process is left unchecked, capitalism eventually destroys freedom. While workers are legally free agents, they are economically powerless. Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointed to this in his State of the Union address of January 11, 1944. He said, “Necessitous men are not free men.” Furthermore, if left unchecked, capitalism destroys the legitimate power of government. When businesses and corporations become so large that the government cannot restrain them, they become the government. That is to say, democracy ends and plutocracy prevails.

In the past two centuries, the system proposed to replace capitalism was socialism. Its most famous proponent was Karl Marx. The essence of socialism is that the government of a state owns and controls all or almost all of the means of production and distribution. Rather than leave the economy to the greed and manipulation of private owners, or to be guided by an “invisible hand” (in the words of Adam Smith), the state would intervene. The great power of socialism, when it was merely a theory, was that its supporters were keenly aware of the injustices of capitalism. When countries put socialism into practice, however, its disadvantages were revealed in blood. Many lost their property, health, and even their lives to socialism. For all the promises made, socialism became one of the most tyrannical and oppressive systems in all of history, merely  moving the concentration of wealth and power from the hands of owners to the bureaucratic managers and leaders of the state. It proved to be much worse than capitalism.

Hilaire Belloc

At certain times in history a third kind of economic system was employed. Belloc called it “the servile state.” It was fairly common in ancient times. Ancient Egypt was an example of this kind of economy. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh owned everything and all the people were in fact his slaves. Ancient Sparta and the Roman Empire also depended on slave labor, as did the Confederate States of America many centuries later. Despite the obvious moral disadvantages, the servile state has a couple of very strong advantages: it is remarkably stable and people feel and really are secure, knowing that they will be fed and provided for. These advantages can be so strong that people have sometimes been known to support a servile state even if it means a loss of freedom and dignity.

Distributist writers speak of the servile state in two ways. On the one hand, some seem to believe that its essential element is that people actually and legally own other people. From this perspective, a servile economy differs from a capitalist and socialist economy in precisely a matter of law. Few if any capitalist economies have actually deteriorated into servile states, though Belloc argued that they eventually would. Chesterton even wondered whether brute force would return as a way of compelling people to work. It may well be argued, however, that the socialist economies did indeed devolve into servile states. On the other hand, others speak of the servile state more loosely, pointing out that people living under capitalist systems are treated like slaves. The term “wage-slave” is a figure of speech, but the intensity of feeling that it conveys makes it almost a literal term. The near-slavery of workers was egregiously obvious in capitalist England in the 19th century and was abundantly illustrated in the novels of Charles Dickens. In America today, we have a very high standard of living and even our poorest people live better than the poor of developing nations. But we also have now a global economy. The slaves of contemporary American capitalism do not live in America, but in countries where people work for less than a dollar an hour and where $60 dollars a week is not enough to live on.

The fourth system is distributism, but this is a strikingly misleading name. Belloc sometimes suggested calling it “the proprietary state,” which would be much less misleading. When people hear the term “distributist,” they often tend to think of a system in which money is taken away from the rich and distributed to the poor (who generally are thought not to deserve it). In other words, people mistake distributism for socialism. That is not the intention of the name.

G.K. Chesterton

The idea in distributism is that the legal ownership of the means of production in the economy is distributed as widely as possible in the population. This implies a double comparison and contrast. On the one hand, as in capitalism, distributism honors private property and rewards intelligence, hard work, and entrepreneurialism. But simultaneously, and differing from the usual structure of capitalist governments, a distributist state takes measures to discourage the endless accumulation of wealth in the hands of a minority. While capitalism believes in private ownership, it also believes that only a few people should own what really matters, that is, the ways of producing money and goods. Distributism is not content, therefore, with great numbers of people owning their own homes or having shares in the stock market; they need to have real control over the land, farms, factories, and institutions that produce money and goods.  On the other hand, as in socialism, the state remains the most powerful entity in the country; the state does not permit plutocrats and corporations to usurp its authority, as they ceaselessly attempt to do in capitalist countries.  But simultaneously, and differing from the common ideal of a socialist economy, distributism is realistic enough to acknowledge that some are still going to be rich and some are still going to be poor. The rich are not automatically dispossessed, nor are the poor put on the welfare rolls.

Although is sounds utopian, a distributist economy was a common reality in the past. It is the natural form an economy takes when its societal structures are relatively simple and local. Imagine a primitive society. In such a society people accumulate wealth by the work of their own hands either on farms or in small industries. Some people do get wealthy, through the combination of hard work, intelligence, inheritance, and divine providence (usually but wrongly called “good luck”). But when trade is limited to an area the size of a county (a few hundred square miles), even the wealthiest people will generally not become vastly wealthier than their neighbors. Vast accumulations require theft, slavery, war, or some other form of exploitation. Numerous examples from history illustrate this kind of simple, local economy. The Roman Republic had a distributist economy before the rise of the Roman Empire. A distributist system gradually developed out of the ruins of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages in Western Europe. When England began to colonize North America, people thought that England’s economy was still distributist, though they never used such a word for it and the dispossession of the monasteries had already steered their economy on the course toward capitalism. In early America, the economic system of the English colonies in the North was largely distributist; in the English colonies in the South, it was mixed with a servile state. Today, with the coincidence of modern technologies and the tradition of law and polity for the past century and more, capitalism has eclipsed distributism in the United States. But distributism is not forgotten. Remnants of the old distributist order remain in practice, in law, and in the collective memory of the nation. The importance given to personal home ownership, the “family farm,” and small business; the current movement toward eating locally grown food; the continuing appeal of arts and crafts as full-time occupations – all are living remnants of distributism.

Distributism’s goal is not to overthrow and destroy the capitalist system. It is too obviously successful and productive. Besides, the socialists tried that and failed. But the limitations and injustices of capitalism are real. The goal in contemporary distributism is to promote, enact, and entrench distributist ideals. The distributist hope is that at some point the scale will tip, and what is now a capitalist system will become a predominantly distributist system with capitalist elements still remaining within it. The goal is not to establish socialism, to give undue power to the state, or to play Robin Hood, but to change laws, especially regarding taxation, so that it becomes very difficult for money and power to become concentrated in the hands of the few and easier for ordinary people to own their own farms, workshops, businesses and industries. Distributism is economic democracy.

Sergius Bulgakov was one of the greatest, and one of the most controversial, of modern Orthodox theologians. He was reared in the faith, but lost it in his youth. He then studied political economy in law school, was a Marxist for a while, and published his first books on the subject of economics before regaining his faith and writing the many and profound books for which he is now remembered. Perhaps his best known book is The Orthodox Church, first published in English in 1935. In this brief introduction to Orthodoxy, Bulgakov included a chapter entitled “Orthodoxy and Economic Life.” He seems to be bound to the dichotomy of capitalism and socialism that has paralyzed discussion of economics for the past couple of centuries. Furthermore, the essay betrays no knowledge of any of the distributist writers or even of the Roman Catholic encyclicals that criticized both capitalism and socialism. It is therefore quite significant that Bulgakov should say: “Concerning distribution, the Church is called to be a social conscience which should raise its voice, speaking to the hearts of men and mingling in their public life.” And further: “The best economic form – whatever its name, and however it combines capitalism and socialism – is that which, in any given circumstances, best assures personal liberty, protecting it from natural poverty and social slavery.”

That is precisely what Belloc, Chesterton, Schumacher, and Médaille have called for. No doubt a distinctively Orthodox articulation of economic ethics would differ from the ways that Catholics and Protestants have responded to economic issues. Bulgakov suggested a few such Orthodox differences, noting that economic life falls within the scope of the Holy Mysteries, that agriculture, industry and commerce are aspects of the transfiguration of nature, and that democracy parallels the principle of conciliarity in Orthodox ecclesiology. It would be a great gift to the Church and to the world if Orthodox ethicists and economists would elaborate these suggestions. Nonetheless, the differences between distributism as it has developed in the West and distributism as it might be articulated in the East would be merely matters of detail. Both of them are seeking to beat swords into plowshares – and to find a way for all of us to live in peace and safety under our own fruit trees.

Suggested Readings:

Can distributism be grounded in Orthodox tradition? Read C. Paul Schroeder’s translation of St. Basil the Great: On Social Justice.

Hilaire Belloc is perhaps the primary writer to consult, though all his work dates to before World War II. For starters see: The Servile State and An Essay on the Restoration of Property. Belloc also wrote Economics for Helen, an introduction to economics for his niece, still strikingly helpful even though dated.

His friend G. K. Chesterton was prolific and hilarious. On this subject see The Outline of Sanity.

The British economist E. F. Schumacher taught the distributist message without using the term. See his classic, Small Is Beautiful.

John Médaille has written books for serious students of economics, superb for use in college and university settings. If you perceive the morality but question the real-world practicality of distributism, his works are the ones to read first. See The Vocation of Business and Toward a Truly Free Market.

Larry Burkett, a respected evangelical Protestant, was not distributist and his work may be faulted for being focused on individuals and not on systems and structures, but his Business by the Book is an excellent summary of ethical guidelines for commerce and finance.

Susan Pace Hamill has done some serious thinking about the moral implications of the existing American tax codes. See her The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians.

Tobias J. Lanz has edited a collection of essays, Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, that would be a great starter text for a discussion group.  Though distinctively Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians will find the book worthwhile.

David Holden studied Biblical languages at Duke University and received a Master of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His spiritual journey brought him to Orthodoxy in August 1999. He is a professional counselor and clinical addictions specialist. He and his family live in the country outside Boone, North Carolina.


The Social Doctrine of St. Basil the Great

by Kamiel Duchatelez

Basil’s social doctrine is grounded in the conviction that all people are equal and share the same human nature. The poor, the rich and the emperor are all companions in slavery, that is, they are all dependent on God. Moreover, human beings are social creatures and communal life and interaction with one another require a generosity that can alleviate the needs of the destitute. The scriptural command to “Give to anyone who asks” calls us to a sharing and a mutual love that are characteristic of human nature. The Acts of the Apostles teaches us how this is to be put into practice. In the first ecclesial community of Jerusalem, the Christians sold their goods and gave the money to apostles to distribute to those who needed it.

Basil encouraged the faithful Christians of his time to respond to the Gospel injunction to “sell your possessions and give to those in need.” He had long ago responded to this call and committed himself with all his heart to a life of voluntary poverty. In the Acts of the Apostles, the giving away of one’s possessions is presented as a free choice, and in the Gospel it is seen as a condition of perfection. However, Basil became even more radical and saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.

Basil simply swept aside such objections as “To whom am I unjust when I keep what is mine, asks the rich man.” His response: “Tell me, which things are yours? Where did you get them from at the beginning of your life? It is like someone who has a seat in the theater, and who objects when others also take their places. He claims that he owns what is for the common use of all. So too with the rich. They claim in advance that which is common property and make themselves the owners of it. Moreover, if everyone acquires what they need and leave the excess over for the destitute, then there will be no rich and no poor. Did you not come naked out of your mother’s womb? Are you not going to return naked to the earth? Where did you get your present possessions from? If you say ‘from fate,’ then that makes you an atheist who neither acknowledges your Creator nor gives thanks to your Benefactor. If you acknowledge that they came from God, then tell me the reason why He gave them to you. Is God unjust that He gives the things of life to people unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor? In any case, is it not so that you can receive the reward for good and faithful stewardship, and the other can receive the reward for his patient effort? But you, who grasps at everything in your insatiable greed, do you really think that you are doing nobody injustice by plundering so much? Who is the greedy one? The one who is not satisfied with that which is enough. Who is the plunderer? The one who takes that which belongs to all. Are you greedy? Are you a plunderer? The one who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.”

“Nice words, but money is nicer,” thought the rich in reaction to Basil’s harsh charge. Basil viewed the goods of the earth as a gift of the Creator. God had entrusted their stewardship to a number of people who were intended to share them with others. With his theory of stewardship, Basil went beyond a prevailing understanding of almsgiving in his day to lay a new foundation for the Church’s social work.

We can see in this a plea for the recognition of what we might call human rights, although Basil also goes further than this. In situating the inequality between rich and poor in God’s ordering of salvation history, so that the former are called to love of their neighbor and the latter to patience, Basil clearly saw that there is no such thing as private ownership in the strict sense. And, there should really be no such categories as rich and poor.

This radical approach sounds revolutionary in the face of corruption and excess. But it is an evangelical radicalism that we are meant to strive for nonviolently. This is not so surprising considering that Basil upheld the one same ideal for all Christians. He was realistic enough to realize that not everyone would follow that ideal, but it was lived out among ascetics and in monastic communities. Jesus and the scriptures held up certain ideals to which all were invited, but to which not all would respond.

The author is a Catholic priest living in Belgium. This is an extract from Basilius de Grote: Een Evangelische Revolutionair (Averbode, 1999, pages  110-112). The translation is by Macrina Walker. For more on the topic, see C. Paul Schroeder’s translation of St. Basil the Great: On Social Justice.


Getting to Know the Homeless

by Danny Abbott

Last year I attended the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at the Antiochian Village near Pittsburgh. It was a blessing to listen to experts on a variety of issues related to the OPF’s mission. For me, one of the highlights was not on the conference schedule but was thanks to a physician, Dr. Jim Withers, who arrived on the last day of the conference while everyone was eating breakfast after church. He had come to visit an OPF member who, in the context of her parish, works with the homeless. The founder of Operation Safety Net, he had become a “street doctor” almost by accident while visiting and doing health checkups on the streets of Pittsburgh. Listening to him inspired me to try to do something along the same lines. Realizing I am too old to attend medical school, I started looking for another way to serve the homeless.

Several months later my wife and I purchased a Nashville “street” paper, The Contributor, from a homeless man while taking a drive with our three-week old daughter, Katherine Martine. One of the articles in the paper was a story about a baby who had been born to homeless parents and soon after was placed in foster care. The only reason for the child’s removal from his parents was their lack of permanent housing at the time of his birth, even though they had obtained housing assistance. While in foster care, the infant boy died. My wife Jaime and I were outraged that the baby had been taken from his parents. Might he have lived had they been allowed to care for him? The circumstances surrounding his death prompted me to take a closer look at the epidemic of homelessness in my city.

We were also impressed that there is a Nashville newspaper dedicated to the problem of homelessness – a paper reporting stories like this one. At my wife’s suggestion, I decided to help out, offering to do whatever I could. (My daytime job, plus marriage and parenthood, preclude me from doing it on a regular basis.)

Though I lack any training in journalism, The Contributor’s director, Tasha French, a local artist and homeless outreach worker, gave me a crash course. Soon I was interviewing people I would otherwise never have met.

Among those whom I have met are people helping homeless prostitutes get off the street. In Nashville there is an Episcopal priest at Magdalene House, Rebecca Stevens, who has developed a program to help prostitutes find a new direction in life, free of drugs and no longer without an address. Residents of Nashville lovingly refer to her as “Becca.” Aside from arranging housing, she helps the women obtain high school equivalency diplomas. Magdalene House has graduated many women from its program. The next problem for them is finding work. A record of prior convictions, regardless of the nature of the offense, does not help anyone looking for a job. Becca’s solution was to start a candle factory for graduates who were unable to get jobs – a place to work where their past would not be held against them. The business, Thistle Farms, makes candles from natural products. Even in the present crippled economy, it is expanding its operations.

Thistle Farms’ national sales director, “Katrina,” a graduate of the program, gave me a tour of the factory as she described her past life of severe drug abuse and homelessness. It was extremely difficult to imagine that this bright and highly-motivated person was at one time a drug-addicted homeless prostitute. Katrina gave a candle for me to give my wife. It was heartening to learn that Katrina had been married just a few months earlier – Becca presided at the ceremony.

Thanks to my work with The Contributor, I have heard many encouraging stories from people who at one time had been homeless but managed to get a place to live. One non-profit group I visited, Safe Haven, is among the few shelters taking in homeless families and not just single people. At Safe Haven I met “Charles,” a man in his thirties, and his beloved three-year old son. It was amazing to see another example of the transformation that can occur when a caring community offers a helping hand. It was not easy listening to what Charles had been through, but he is now an assistant chef at a major Nashville medical center and is working on a degree in culinary arts.

One fascinating person I met, befriended and wrote about for The Contributor was John El, a talented folk singer whose songs range from country to vaudeville. John’s music centered on living homeless, the complications of romantic relationships, and his own spirituality. He is a man with a deep sense of God’s presence.

John brought me to his campsite at Tent City, a large encampment on public land down by the Cumberland River. With an estimated 3.5 million people homeless in America at present, there are tent cities all over the country. Aside from his instruments, I noticed his well-read Bible. He gave me a performance of some of his songs. Not many days later, the Nashville Flood hit, leaving many in Nashville without a place to live, including every resident of Tent City. Though I managed to find the place where John sheltered after the flood, since then he has moved on. I have no idea where he is now.

Since Tent City was washed away, there have been several efforts to set up another, safer place where homeless people can live in a “transitional” community, but the neighbors near proposed locations have passionately opposed being close to such a project. The result is that, at present, there is no place where homeless people who are married, have pets, or simply want the privacy that a shelter will not provide can go for transitional housing.

Above: Prayer gathering at Nashville’s former Tent City

Volunteering with The Contributor, I have also witnessed the fear and anger the homeless sometimes inspire. It is not unusual to hear people who shout “go away and get a real job” at the paper’s vendors. (Those who sell the paper pay 25 cents a copy. They sell it for a dollar, thus making 75 cents on every sale.) It made no difference that the people were at work selling papers in the hot Tennessee sun while their irritated detractors drove by in air-conditioned cars.

But the homeless also have their allies. One of the people I have interviewed is a celebrity, Jimmy Wayne, a Nashville singer with three top-ten hits in the country music charts. Once homeless himself, he now does a great deal for homeless people. I discovered he spent much of his adolescence “couch-surfing” – moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever space was available, staying a few days before moving on to the next – until he was adopted by an older Christian couple who helped him get his life on a better track. During our interview, Jimmy brought up a verse that every Christian has heard, but too few take seriously: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) After quoting this verse, Jimmy asked me, “What would happen if every Christian took those words to heart?”

Living rough in Nashville (photo by Justin Wright)

Above: Living rough in Nashville (photo by Justin Wright)

Writing for The Contributor has been an inspirational journey not only thanks to the people I have written about, but in terms of the people with whom I have worked, not least those associated with Amos House. Amos House is a local group inspired by the Catholic Worker movement. Its members come from various churches. It’s impressive to see how much Amos House has been able to accomplish despite relatively few resources. They provide a variety of services for those urgently in need. Many of its members are on the staff of The Contributor. One Amos House member, Jeannie Alexander, is a former lawyer who gave up a promising legal career in order to devote herself to the homeless; she is also a professor of ethics and religion.

I notice that people who write about the homeless fall into two camps. Some tend to romanticize them. Others want to paint them as mentally ill or as severe drug abusers, many of whom are involved in crime. Neither stereotype is accurate. If any generalizations can be made about the homeless, it is that almost all are stuck in their circumstances due to economic problems. Another valid generalization is that the homeless tend to be religious in one way or another – I have yet to meet a homeless atheist.

I do not know exactly where my newfound commitment will take me. It has been a privilege to meet some of the homeless and write about them. I want to continue to give a voice to those who rarely are heard. I know that God will lead me in the right direction. Perhaps one day I can dedicate more of my life to this passion for those who have had the carpet pulled out from beneath their feet.

Danny Abbott completed his graduate studies at the University of Arkansas. He is a member of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Currently training as a civil mediator, Danny hopes to find a way to earn enough money in service to other people and still pay his mortgage and support his wife and daughter.


A Prayer for Peace and Repentance

by James Campbell

Readers of In Communion may recall that a brief prayer for peace and repentance in time of war was published in the Fall 2009 issue. Having been designed for insertion into the Litany of Fervent Supplication, it was actively sponsored by OPF North America and approved for use in the Liturgy by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America in the spring of 2010. For parish usage, it has been modified to read:

Also, we pray Thee for a speedy end to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and that all who are entangled in their violence may embrace the riches of Thy kindness, forbearance and patience, and enter into that godly grief which leads to repentance; vouchsafe that our hearts and theirs may turn to works of reconciliation, to mercy and compassion for all, and to a thirst for that peace from above which heralds the drawing near of Thy Kingdom, we pray Thee, O Lord, hearken and have mercy.

The idea of explicitly praying for repentance in this present time of war arose after hearing Metropolitan Jonah’s words “pro-war is not pro-life” being read from his pastoral letter for Sanctity of Life Sunday early in 2009. Consequently, the very first version of this prayer was modeled on the long prayer for Sanctity of Life Sunday read in OCA parishes. Circulating that version by email had only one verifiably positive result. Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship read it and suggested that a short prayer for the Litany of Fervent Supplication might find more support, since topical prayers are often inserted in that litany.

This indeed has been the case, thanks to a number of people. The prayer was first sponsored by Alexander Patico (secretary of OPF-North America) and then introduced into the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops by Fr. Alexander Garklavs (chancellor of the OCA). The openness of the Holy Synod to its message led to its being recommended for use at the discretion of each diocese. Lacking a diocesan bishop in the Diocese of the Midwest, the Chicago Deanery (led by Fr. Thomas Mueller) decided to let parish priests use it at their own discretion. (Fr. Alexander Kuchta now regularly inserts it into the litany at Holy Resurrection parish in Palatine, Illinois.)

Not only is the prayer now shorter and more focused, but it is also more scripturally based. Three passages in particular helped shape the text.

1) “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)

2) “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

3) “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?” (Romans 2:4; sentence order reversed)

The predominance of scriptural and liturgical language in the prayer has freed it from the personal rhetoric that was evident in the original long version. And the subsequent modifications of the brief prayer for the litany – made in collaboration with Fr. Alex as he began using it in the Liturgy – have acted in the same way. For example, the phrase “as participants or supporters,” found in the earlier draft, fell away because it was already implied in the preceding phrase “all those entangled in violence,” and because it could too easily become a bone of contention that would distract attention from our real need for repentance. A second modification – substituting “conflicts” for “wars” – was made for similar reasons, keeping well in view the fact that the prayer is most relevant in countries whose people will have the most difficulty truly hearing it.

To pray for peace in a time of war is only natural, for that is the end we desire. But prayer is about being willing, not just about wishing. So what must we be willing to do or suffer for the sake of finding peace? The prayer asks this of us: to repent of our entanglement in violence. Immediately we are faced with two difficulties. First, if the violence in question is part of what is commonly considered an honorable war, how can it be repented of? And second, if we are not ourselves combatants, how can the violence of distant battlefields entangle us? But these difficulties are more apparent than real.

To begin with, “violence” can be roughly defined as the unjust use of force; and more pointedly, as the intentional devastation and killing of innocent people. Whether or not the use of deadly force in Afghanistan and Iraq is believed to be justifiable, that use of force becomes “violence” the moment it devastates and kills the innocent. Here the facts on the ground speak for themselves, and the moral distinction between an accidental killing and planning for some “acceptable level of collateral damage” is clear. The violence of warfare inevitably entangles all those who participate in these conflicts to some degree, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Still, it is within the power of repentance to free the soul from its entanglement in violence – and of prayer to help to make repentance a reality.

The second difficulty can also be resolved by a little reflection on the realities of the situation. Moral responsibility for acts of violence perpetrated or precipitated by the Coalition Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is a shared responsibility. But it is shared not just by combatants on both sides of the conflict. Civilians who send others “into harm’s way,” and who condone the inevitable killing of innocent people to achieve their purposes – however noble those purposes may appear to be – are also morally culpable. Whenever we become complicit with violence in this way, we too become entangled in an unjust use of force and find ourselves in need of repentance.

The inherent sinfulness of using violence to accomplish our desires – even when they are godly desires – is captured by Fr. John Mefrige in his distinction between desire and demand in the last issue of In Communion. A demand asserts an unconditional right to what our will desires, and therefore imposes an unconditional duty on others to conform to our will. Performance of such duties can only be exacted through force of one kind or another, and any reluctance of others to acquiesce to our demand leads to their being summarily judged and condemned as malicious obstacles. Because we heartily resent such imposed duties when placed on us by others, we violate the law of love whenever our desires morph into demands. One could say the very violence of such demands entangles us in a web of unjust attitudes and actions.

Since demands imply the readiness to use force and ineluctably draw us into entanglement with unjust uses of force, when we imagine our demands will lead to righteous results we have been seduced by what Walter Wink calls, in Engaging the Powers, “the myth of redemptive violence.” This is a popular myth, but in reality violence does not redeem us. Never in history has it happened that violence as such (namely, the use of violence beyond the pale of just criteria) has truly protected from erosion or abrogation the cherished values it purportedly defended – although it has often provided the victors with a fleeting illusion of safety. It is for this very reason that when Christ frees us from the tyranny of death he does so by his suffering of violence, not by acting in violence.

Since repentance is how we lay hold of Christ’s gift of freedom, repentance for our entanglement in violence is one of its most valuable forms – particularly for Christians surrounded by the passions of an endless “war on terror.” Once we have freely turned away from violence, we can engage wholeheartedly in those works of “reconciliation, mercy and compassion” that make peace a living reality, the very embodiment of that “peace from above” for which we continually pray.

James Campbell is an adjunct instructor in World Religions and Ethics at McHenry County College in Illinois and holds a Master of General Studies degree from Roosevelt University and a Master of Arts in Divinity from the University of Chicago. He is a Vietnam Veteran, a retired zookeeper and a landscape designer who was received into the Orthodox Church in 1981. His essay, “Taking Responsibility for Evil: Addiction and Usury in the Light of Repentance,” was published in Ethical Dilemmas: Crises in Faith and Modern Medicine.


Who’s to Blame for Human Suffering?

By Scott Cairns

How can one believe in a loving God who allows the innocent to suffer? I’ve been asked this many times, and I’ve never been quick to answer. Subconsciously, I’ve probably asked much the same thing in the past.

While I may not frame the matter this way now, it remains a useful question, if only because it reveals a premise I am no longer willing to buy – the illusion of individual autonomy.

The question reveals a keen ignorance regarding how intimately we are connected to one another – both now and forever – and more or less ignores the extreme freedom that God appears to insist upon in creation. These phenomena, together, provide a clue as to why all this suffering isn’t exactly God’s doing.

Above Right Image: Elder Zosimas: an illustration for The Brothers Karamazov

Sooner than later, we’ll want to puzzle over God’s curious insistence on the radical freedom of creation – its inhabitants and the volatile earth itself; but for now, let’s attend to the business of our intimate connection with one another and to the suffering caused by human failure.

I dare say that if the innocent suffer they do so because one of us – you or me or some other thug – now or in the past has set their pain in motion. If the innocent continue to suffer they do so because we have yet to take responsibility for their pain; we have yet to take sufficient responsibility for their relief.

Our failure to appreciate the degree of our own responsibility enables our famous indifference to those who suffer, allows us a continuing, dim-witted, and blithe condemnation of those in pain or in poverty. We suspect that something has caused their situation, but our failure to see our own hands in the mess leaves us thinking those suffering are somehow to blame. We shake our heads as we stand by or as we turn away, feeling both helpless and – assuming that we’re not completely dead yet – a little culpable.

That faintest whiff of our own culpability is subtle evidence that there may be hope for us yet.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Father Zosimas manifests a keen sense of this culpability. “There is only one salvation for you,” he says to his gathered brotherhood. “Take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friends, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”

And there is an even greater consequence that Zosimas would alert us to: “Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”

You might even join the grim chorus of those who cannot believe in a God who would allow such things.

In the midst of his own suffering unto death, the elder Zosimas makes clear his sense of this great mystery of our mutual complicity:

Remember especially, that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

In his book about the life and witness of his own spiritual father, St. Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony, a modern-day ascetic, further recovers for us this ancient understanding when he writes:

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. …Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.

My time with the fathers and mothers of the Church has made clear to me the truth that my own sin is not only about me. The general consensus would have it that your sin is not only about you either. Every choice that separates us from communion with God, and every decision that clouds our awareness of His presence, or erodes our relationships with one another, has a profound and expanding effect – as the proverbial ripples in a pool.

That profound effect is to give us precisely what, by so choosing, we prefer over communion with God, what we prefer over our cultivating an awareness of His presence, and over our having healthy relationships with one another – namely, ourselves alone.

Ourselves alone, it turns out, is a circumstance that must finally be appreciated as the antithesis of our becoming human persons. The very notion of the Holy Trinity (in Whose image we are made) should lead us to suspect that personhood requires relationship, that genuine personhood depends upon it.

My hope for healing, therefore, lies in my becoming more of a person, and more intimately connected to others. To succeed as we are called to succeed, we must all come to share this hope.

Satan himself (should we say, rather, itself?) proves an exemplary case in point. In Satan, we have a figure of one who has doggedly opted for isolation, for nonbeing, and for acute (albeit a comically moot) independence. Except for the Book of Job – another perplexing study in affliction – we do not find much about Satan in the scriptures. A good bit of our “Satan” has come to us by way of Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, rather than from Scripture. That isn’t to say the Miltonic construction isn’t useful to our thinking; Milton took his theology seriously. One revealing passage occurs in Book IV, where Satan speaks thus:

So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good;
By thee at least Divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold,
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As Man ere long, and this new world, shall know.

With a bit of dramatic irony, Milton offers up a Satan who – even in the midst of his strenuous denial of God’s authority – fails to notice how his own moral economy (in which God’s evil becomes Satan’s good) nonetheless depends upon God’s having established the prior economy in the first place.

With a keen sleight of the poetic hand, evil is revealed as merely a denial of the good, an absence of the good, and nothing of itself – nothing, really, beyond spiteful, infernal response.

Early in the 7th century, the beloved St. Isaac had already come to a comparable conclusion concerning the figure of Satan, and also came to understand the ontological status of sin, of Gehenna, and of death as similarly vexed:

Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin. At some point in time it had a beginning, but its end is not known. Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator. It will rule only a short time over nature; then it will be totally abolished. Satan’s name derives from voluntary turning aside from the truth; it is not an indication that he exists as such naturally.

In his translation of the above, Sebastian Brock puts it even more plainly: “‘Satan’ is a name denoting the deviation of the human will from truth; it is not the designation of a natural being.”

One might say further that “Satan” is not the name of natural being, period.

It is the name for that which rejects being, that which is satisfied to become aberration. It is necessarily the name for that which, turning away from the natural, the good, and the beautiful – and away from the God whose communion gives life to all things – has turned, instead, toward its own isolation, severance, and death.

So much for Satan.

Writing in the 14th century, St. Gregory Palamas made a similar observation regarding the nature of evil: “It should be remembered that no evil thing is evil insofar as it exists, but insofar as it is turned aside from the activity appropriate of it, and thus from the end assigned to this activity.”

As both St. Isaac and St. Gregory Palamas are eager to establish, while sin is to be understood as nothing of itself, it can be quite something in terms of its effects. Admittedly, our particular English noun, sin, can be misleading, given that, generally speaking, when we bother to put a name to a thing, we expect that thing to exist. The Greek precursor, amartía (literally, missing the mark), is a good deal more instructive for our apprehending the status of things; the Greek word’s construction, beginning with that familiar a – which is to say, beginning with not – attends to sin’s ontology, its originating energy. It is the great not, the infernal no to God’s eternal yes. It is ever and always mistaken. Dissing the marker, it misses the mark. It is the failure – the refusal – of being, plain and simple.

Those of us who struggle with habitual sins – and we know who we are – are very likely to break our hearts over the business of turning away from those chronic mark-missings. Our problems with recurring sin, and the more general human problem of being enslaved by sin, is never solved simply by our rejecting that sin, no matter how many times we try, no matter how strenuously we struggle to reject it.

This is because merely rejecting sin – that is, focusing on not sinning – is finally just another species of infernal no. “Just say no” is an insufficient principle.

The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by our saying yes to something else, by our saying yes, and yes, and yes – ceaselessly – to Someone else.

It is not finally our turning away from sin that frees us from sin’s recurrence; rather it is the movement of our turning toward Christ – and the mystery of our continuing turn into Him – that puts sin behind us.

One other illustration comes to mind. Orthodox Christians generally observe three fasting seasons during the year besides Great Lent; many also observe most Wednesdays and Fridays as discrete days of fasting throughout the year. These are days when, for the most part, neither meat nor dairy foods are eaten. In any case, the tradition is keen to insist that fasting be accompanied by almsgiving. One forgoes expensive foods in favor of inexpensive food, and one is encouraged to share with the poor whatever money is saved by eating on the cheap. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the tradition teaches us that a fast – or any manner of self-deprivation – that is not accompanied by good things done for others is understood to be “a Satanic fast.”

Forgive my inserting more poetry to bring home the point. This particular piece is one of a sort of playful, mostly serious series of poems having to do with word studies in New Testament Greek; in this case the word is metanoia.

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

– a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.

The good, on the other hand, is what actually exists; our long and continuing tradition tells us that all that is worthwhile is good, and all that is good is worthwhile. Moreover, all that partakes of the good is by good’s efficacious agency brought into existence, and is by that selfsame agency kept there.

Regardless of our situations, we are inevitably partaking of something or other at every moment. The catch is that we will either partake of what is, or we will partake of the absence of what is. We partake either of life (all that has true being by way of its connection to God) or of death (all that has opted to sever that connection).

As we all must have guessed by now, we actually are what we eat.

Scott Cairns is an Orthodox poet, memoirist, libretist, and essayist. He serves as a reader at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Columbia, Missouri. He is also a professor of English, Director of the Center for the Literary Arts and director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missouri.


If it Bleeds, It Leads

by Jim Forest

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (minaret in the foreground)

Above: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (minaret in the foreground)

Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. Love is communicated by merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.

We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at St. Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. St. Catherine’s has been a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.

Let me give another example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled – Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.

But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.

This is an extract from a recent lecture, “Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict,” given by Jim Forest at Orthodox parishes in Tennessee and Kentucky. The full text is posted here:


Three Faiths Meet at OPF Conference

By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Not your usual Orthodox Christian gathering: Daniel Spiro, left, and Haytham Younis

Above: Not your usual Orthodox Christian gathering: Daniel Spiro, left, and Haytham Younis

An imam, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this? A joke?” It’s not often you see Muslims, Christians and Jews in conversation. But at the 2010 Orthodox Peace Fellowship North America Conference, representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths talked together, laughed together, broke bread together and discussed the challenges of interfaith dialogue in today’s fear-charged world. The conference was held the first three days of October at St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California.

The stage was set Friday evening by keynote speaker Dr. Ben Campbell Johnson, executive director of the Institute of Church Renewal and the author of more than a dozen books, including Beyond 9/11: Christians and Muslims Together: An Invitation to Conversation. Johnson, a former evangelical, taught at Columbia Theological Seminary from 1981 to 2000. “Nothing in my life,” he said, “would have predicted that someday I would be standing here [at an interfaith event hosted by Orthodox Christians].”

At the age of 75, Johnson had an epiphany. He realized that the 21st century would be all about Christians and Muslims “and I didn’t know anything about Islam.” After reading and research on Islam, he found himself sitting across from a Muslim woman having a heart-to-heart conversation. He thought to himself, “This woman believes in the same God that I do. I began to see the world differently.”

Johnson admitted that for most of his life, he had been afraid of engaging people of faiths other than his own variety of Protestant Christianity. But the more he learned about different religions, and the more time he spent with people of other faiths, the deeper his own faith became.

“I'd Like to Buy an Enemy” – Ted Swartz on the right

Above: “I’d Like to Buy an Enemy” – Ted Swartz on the right

After dinner in the parish hall, the conference participants gathered for some comic relief from Ted & Company Theaterworks. Ted Swartz, a Mennonite, had planned to become a pastor, but fell in love with theater in college and has been performing ever since. His satiric play, “I’d Like to Buy an Enemy,” exposed the ironies of American society as it relates to peace, justice, and fear. “War is such an eclectic endeavor,” he sighs with a smile. “Sooner or later you get to play it with everybody.”

The next morning, three concurrent dialogue sessions were held: Jewish-Muslim (Daniel Spiro and Hytham Younis, co-founders of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society in Washington, DC); Catholic-Orthodox (Fr. Steven Tsichlis, pastor of St. Paul’s, and Fr. Al Baca of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in nearby Tustin); and Orthodox-Mennonite (OPF’s Alexander Patico, Fr. Alexander Goussetis of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Swartz).

Ms. Jahan Stanizai, a Muslim who is president the Interfaith Alliance in Culver City, then participated in a community dialogue with Fr. John-Brian Paprock, of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Madison, Wisconsin, and creator of Wisconsin’s Interfaith Awareness Week, now in its 12th year.

Stanizai is from Afghanistan – the “old” Afghanistan, before most of the country was seized by extremists. “We were a secular country that was 99 percent Muslim,” she said. “We were the Switzerland of Asia. We had women in power, we had excellent education. Now they say you can’t find a wall more than a foot high without a bullet hole in it.” As a result of the current power structure and the war, she says, “many opportunities have been lost. Educated people are under attack – killed, imprisoned or have left the country. Afghanistan has lost a generation.”

Stanizai, a psychotherapist who works in family therapy, senses peoples’ discomfort when they find out she is a Muslim. “People hold back. I can see their reaction,” she said.“I learned more about my religion in the US than I did in my own country. I analyzed the Koran here and I see how many Muslim cultures are wrong. [But hatred] is contradictory to the Koran.”

Fr. John-Brian Paprock, a priest and hospital chaplain, said he deals with interfaith issues all the time, especially at the hospital, where more than 90 percent of the people he sees are non-Orthodox. While serving in the Madison Urban Ministry, involved in issues such as homelessness, he worked with an all-white group of clergy. “We were talking about race relations and I thought, ‘There’s a problem here,’” he said. But when the group became more diverse, conflict arose – not between people of different races, but between people of different religions: specifically a Baptist and a member of the Nation of Islam (both African-Americans). “I realized the biggest issue we deal with is not race, but faith,” he said. Dealing with interfaith issues can be uncomfortable, “but it’s the struggle. When you are most uncomfortable, that is when you meet God.”

Like others at the conference, Paprock noted that, in becoming more involved in interfaith dialogue, “I’ve gone deeper into my own faith. And I realized that God is bigger than all religions. God doesn’t need religion; we do. God allows us to be separate.”

The author of several books, including Neighbors, Strangers and Everyone Else, Paprock believes that Orthodox Christians “can honor the goodness in others even if those others are deceived.… I do not believe there is more than the one Way to get to the Father. At the same time, we cannot judge anyone outside of our own community – for they may have a relationship with God we may not fathom.”

After lunch and into the evening, conference participants watched three films.

Arranged tells the story of the friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman her Muslim colleague, both new teachers at a Brooklyn school. The young women both respect their family traditions, which include arranged marriage, but must also deal with modern frustrations.

The second film, Out of Cordoba, is about inter-religious harmony in the ancient Spanish city of Cordoba. Director Jacob Bender attended the conference to comment on the film. The film takes Bender, an American Jew, on a post 9-11 journey to Spain, Morocco, France, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel. He found that conflict between Judaism and Islam is not inevitable.

Ruth Broyde Sharone presented God and Allah Need to Talk. Sharone is a film maker, interfaith pro-activist, community organizer and motivational speaker. The film portrays both the Islamic Center of Southern California, which welcomes visitors of other faiths, and Temple Kol Tikvah, which holds an annual Muslim-Jewish Seder of Reconciliation. Before and after the film, Persian singer Mamak Khadem performed some haunting melodies with Israeli musician Yuval Ron.

The conference presented all the participants with an amazing opportunity to live the biblical text: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:33-34]

Teresa Peneguy Paprock is a writer and a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. She is married to Fr. John-Brian Paprock of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Madison, Wisconsin. Next years’s OPF conference, on the theme of forgiveness, will be held in Madison.


In Communion-News- Fall 2010 nr 58

Turkey: monastery celebrates  first Liturgy in 88 years

On the 15th of August, Orthodox faithful flocked to the cliffside setting of Sumela monastery in northeast Turkey after the government permitted the Liturgy to be celebrated there for the first time in nearly nine decades. In May authorities authorized the Liturgy at the monastery once a year.

“After 88 years, the tears of the Virgin Mary have stopped flowing,” Patriarch Bartholomew said during the service.

The monastery was founded in 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I, after the discovery of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a mountain cave.

Around 500 people of local descent were allowed into the fourth-century monastery while around 2,000 people from Istanbul, Greece, Russia and Georgia outside watched the Liturgy on a giant television screen.

The site is of special importance to Pontian Greeks, many of whose ancestors fled the region around the Black Sea during fighting after World War I and were dispersed in Greece and Russia. When Turkey fought Greece between 1920-22, many Pontian Greeks were massacred or died while going into forced exodus. Greece estimates 350,000 people died, describing the event as “genocide,” a term rejected by Turkey.

“For us the Virgin of Sumela is more important than our own mother,” said Charalambos Zigas, a 51-year-old mechanic from Greece. “You have to be a Pontian Greek to understand the importance of this Liturgy.” He said that when his grandfather fled the region for exile in Russia in 1922, both his wife and son were eaten by bears.

Many sought out houses that had belonged to their ancestors. “Everyone here is like me, they came to see the region, find a house. We’ve even met two people from here who say they’re Pontian and we spoke Pontian Greek,” said Greek veterinarian Maria Piativou, 42.

Bartholomew used the event to deliver a fraternal message to other faiths, including Islam. “We would also like to take this opportunity to celebrate the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan,” he said. “We wish for you to live this meaningful month with peace, patience and prayer.”

“The culture of living together,” he said, “is a heritage our civilization left for us. Let’s make that heritage live on, and let us teach all, so that we do not suffer anymore, and families do not perish.”

Patriarch Kirill blesses hidden Kremlin icon

An icon of Christ over one of the main gates in Moscow’s Kremlin Wall, rediscovered after being plastered over following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, was blessed August 28 by Patriarch Kirill in a ceremony attended by Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. The unveiling coincided with the Feast of the Dormition.

“The history of these icons is a symbol of what happened with our people in the 20th century,” said Kirill. “It was claimed that true goals and values and genuine shrines were destroyed, and that faith had disappeared from the lives of our people.”

The icon is located over the Kremlin’s Spasskaya, or Savior, tower, near St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Experts say it dates to the middle or second half of the 17th century.

Historical justice and civic and spiritual solidarity are being restored, said the Patriarch. “What is happening today bears witness to the fact that the combining of forces of the State, Church and institutions of civil society for the sake of achieving mutual and important goals gives us a wonderful example of solidarity.”

Another icon, that of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, on the nearby Nikolskaya tower at the opposite end of Red Square Kremlin tower, is also being restored. It was damaged by bullets and shrapnel during battles in October 1917, but the saint’s face was unharmed.

Both icons were covered up by restorers who sought to save them from the Bolsheviks, who wanted to destroy them during their revolution against tsarist rule. [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Concessions urged for Christians in Turkey

In September the president of Germany’s Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, called on Muslims to do more to support religious freedom for Christians around the world, especially in Turkey, where most German Muslims originate.

“We hope reflection on the faith will lead to the overcoming of tensions dividing Christians and Muslims,” he said. “But we should also remember the difficult situation facing Christians in the Middle East. The Catholic Church in Germany has publicly supported justified Muslim needs, and we count on Christians in Turkey soon being able to enjoy full religious freedom too.”

At the same time, another German Catholic church leader welcomed a recent call by the Muslim head of Turkey’s official religious council for Christians to be allowed to repossess a historic church at St. Paul’s birthplace of Tarsus. “If this church were given back, it would be a signal for the whole world and German society in particular,” said Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne. “Members of Turkey’s government have made many promises to return it which have aroused hopes that turned out to be illusory. But our church hierarchy has never abandoned the ancient Christian principle of hoping against hope.”

Hagia Sofia a place both of Muslim & Christian worship?

A Turkish government adviser has suggested that both Christians and Muslims should be allowed to worship again in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia basilica, currently a museum.

“Hagia Sofia was built as a place of worship. It served people this way as a church and mosque for more than a thousand years,” said Mehmet Akif Aydin, an expert with the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which monitors religious sites in Turkey. “As a Muslim, I’d like it to become a mosque. But if Hagia Sofia were opened to Muslim worshipers on weekdays, it should be opened to Christians on Sundays. It disturbs me that it’s become just a museum and tourist destination.”

Aydin was commenting on calls for the sixth-century landmark to be reopened for religious events, after warnings from the European Commission that Turkey must offer better protection of religious rights as a precondition for joining the European Union by 2015. The basilica’s use by both faiths, he  said,  would strengthen Christian-Muslim cooperation in Turkey, which has witnessed several attacks on Christian clergy by Islamic militants, including the June murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese, president of Turkey’s Catholic Bishops Conference.

Originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, Hagia Sophia was rebuilt between 532 and 537. It became a mosque after the city’s capture by Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was turned into a museum in 1934.

Russia’s prisons seek religious help

Russia’s prisons, struggling with a growing crime rate, overcrowding and shortfalls in funding, are turning to religion to bring moral guidance to inmates. The move marks a dramatic change from the Soviet system, in which clergy and believers were often imprisoned for their faith.

“We have signed agreements with all of the leading confessions of our country,” said Aleksandr Reimer, the director of Russia’s Federal Correctional Service.

Although the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly close to the State in recent years, Reimer said that imposing Russia’s largest religion on inmates was not the goal. “Right now we’re preparing an agreement with Buddhists,” Reimer said in an interview. “We’re providing everyone with access. We’re building churches, mosques and synagogues.”

Reimer said that the correctional service had started a pilot project with the Russian Orthodox Church in four regions of Russia to introduce prison chaplains. He said practical issues needed to be resolved, such as whether priests would be on staff and paid by the prisons or by the Church. For now, while there are churches in prisons and prison camps across Russia, priests visit with varying regularity, said Reimer.

“It all depends on how specific priests fulfil their responsibilities,” he said. “Neither representatives of confessions, nor we today, have the goal of forcing everyone to go to church. Why should we engage in such sacrilege? If an inmate has come to faith, we think that it could stop him from committing a crime in the future.”

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has for its part created a department on prison ministry. The Moscow Patriarchate has already worked extensively with prisons in recent years. Last year the patriarchate’s external relations department held a three-day seminar for clergy and church social workers who provide pastoral care for HIV-infected prisoners.

At Prison Colony No. 7 near Veliky Novgorod, a historic city famous for its churches, a small wooden church built by inmates stands in the center of the prison grounds.

Vladimir Lazarenko, a man in his 50s, told a visiting reporter that he had returned to God in prison. “I was a believer from childhood, but I got lost and got in trouble,” said Lazarenko. “Here I remembered about God.” [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Bartholomew marks ‘Day for Creation’

The financial and economic crisis experienced by many societies could bring about a powerful change to “sustainable environmental development,” said Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on September 1, a day the patriarchate annually celebrates as the Day for Creation. It is the first day of the Orthodox church calendar.

“It is important to note that the current grievous financial crisis may spark the much-reported and absolutely essential shift to environmentally viable development … and not unbridled financial gain.”

“If ecosystems deteriorate and disappear,” he noted, “natural resources are depleted, and landscapes suffer destruction, and climate change produces unpredictable weather conditions, on what basis will the financial future of these countries and the planet as a whole depend?”

Report challenges U.S. reading of Iraq situation

The future of Iraq is more complex and uncertain than the current U.S. narrative claims, according to a report published in September by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq.

The report – Iraq after the Occupation – Iraqis speak about the state of their country as the U.S. military withdraws – quotes Iraqis who express doubt on the effects of the U.S. military “surge,” the trustworthiness of the Iraqi military, and the reliability of public figures and institutions. “Iraqis in this report challenge the simplistic success story that the U.S. is telling about Iraq,” says Marius van Hoogstraten of the CPT.

The report is based on extensive interviews with Iraqi citizens in various parts of the country. It recommends that the U.S. think creatively about ways to support Iraqi society before the U.S. military withdraws entirely at the end of 2011.

The U.S. recently announced an “end of combat missions” in preparation for complete withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.

The report notes that no consensus exists among Iraqis on the future of their country, with some interviewees expecting the security situation to get much worse, while others are more optimistic. However, none expect Iraq to be independent after a complete U.S. withdrawal. “I do not think the American army came all this way, spent all this money to leave [Iraq] a prey to others,” said one Baghdad resident.

Although the report confirms an improved security situation over the last few years, it questions the contribution of the “surge.” About half of those interviewed pointed instead to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities in 2009 as the major contributor to the improved security situation.

While many respondents see the increased skill and capacity of the Iraqi security forces as a positive factor, a majority express concerns about their trustworthiness and independence. Another Baghdad resident spoke of the Iraqi security forces’ lack of “educational aspects in the field of human rights and loyalty to the homeland.”

Respondents also express serious concerns about the credibility of Iraqi politicians, the “abominable state of public services” and the economy, and corruption. “The obscene opulence of some is excessive,” says one interviewee, “while the rate of wretched poverty in Iraq continues to pose a humanitarian problem.”

Tensions among ethnic and religious groups continue to threaten the country’s stability. Many respondents also fear interference by neighboring states, particularly Iran.

In its conclusion, CPT Iraq stipulates that in the waning days of U.S. military presence in Iraq, the U.S. should focus on the Iraqi economy, reconciliation efforts, and a culture of accountability in the Iraqi security forces. CPT stresses that the U.S. must also respect Iraqi democratic sovereignty. “There’s a lot that needs to be done that only Iraqis can do,” notes Van Hoogstraten.

The full report is on the CPT web site:

Nuclear weapons about values says Hiroshima survivor

A Japanese pastor who became a Christian after surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima says his decades-long pursuit of peace has involved a resistance to “nuclear weapons in the human mind.”

In a recently-published autobiography, the 82-year-old pastor, the Rev. Shouzo Munetou of the United Church of Christ in Japan, writes that nuclear weapons are “a symbol of the devil that was produced by egoism, greed, pride, conceit, enmity, hatred.”

Munetou contracted leukemia after being affected by radiation from the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 in the closing days of the Second World War. This led to his questioning why he had survived and what life meant to him. “The problem of nuclear weapons is not only a matter of weapons, science and technology, but also a matter of human existence, values, way of life, and thoughts that do not fear God,” he explains. He says the atomic bombing was “a result of a war of aggression and colonial rule in Asia by Japanese militarism, which cannot be talked about without a deep repentance as one who supported and cooperated with causing the war of aggression.”

Munetou studied in Tokyo and San Francisco, where he wrote his master’s theses on the apostle Paul’s understanding of human sin, and on the relationship between Church and State in the writings of Karl Barth.

“The beginning of my steps as a pastor for 50 years has been simply these two master’s theses, that is, the issue of human sin and forgiveness and what the social mission of one who has been forgiven is,” he writes.

Munetou has been actively involved in peace movements and Christian actions to promote world peace, and has written several books on peace and Christianity.

Christianity as a whole, he said, “has an obligation and a responsibility to continue to say ‘No!’ without any ‘Yes’ to nuclear weapons that are against humanity and the absolute evil that plunges humanity into ruin and is incompatible with Christian faith.”

At least 150,000 people died as a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.