It is with mixed feelings that this appeal letter is written. After 21 years editing In Communion, I now pass on this challenging responsibility to a new editor, Pieter Dykhorst. With my 70th birthday just a few months away, it seems a good moment for the transition. (Let me add that this is not goodbye by any means — I’ll remain international secretary. Also, as an associate editor, I expect to work closely with the new editor.)
I recall waiting with Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, priest of our parish in Amsterdam, at a bus stop in Oxford 21 years ago. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship had existed for several years but could hardly have been a smaller organization. The money in our bank account barely covered the costs of printing and mailing out the small newsletter we published in those days. Perhaps two hundred people were on the mailing list. To support our family, I had another job and thus had little time to devote to OPF. There was no OPF secretary in North America. The question was: ought I to give up my job and focus on building up the nearly penniless OPF? Fr. Sergei, who clearly saw the need for such work in the Church, said “Perhaps this is the moment for a leap of faith.” And so the leap was taken.
If OPF has not grown hugely in the two decades since then, it has grown a lot, is certainly better known than it was, has helped gather and make available a great deal of information about the theology and practice of peacemaking, and has played a constructive role in various situations of conflict and war, most notably in Iraq and former-Yugoslavia. More Orthodox Christians feel themselves challenged to be peacemakers than was the case when there was no Orthodox Peace Fellowship. More of us realize – using a phrase from Clement of Alexandria – that, through baptism, we are called to be part of “an army that sheds no blood.”
Dear friend, you are part of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Please help us not only continue but grow. Try to make a donation more than once a year and – equally important – to make the Orthodox Peace Fellowship better known to others. One way to do that is to give someone a gift subscription.
Donate $100 or more (or the equivalent in other currencies), and by way of thanks we’ll send you a gift copy of Saint George and the Dragon (see an extract from that book in this issue) when it’s published in September.
In Christ’s peace,
international secretary, Orthodox Peace Fellowship
People often speak of being “in relationship” to others, but I prefer the word “communion” to relationship. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so seventy times seven times a day we must re-establish communion – and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.
The obsession with relationship – the individual in search of relationships – in the modern world shows there is an ontological crack in our being. There is no such thing as an individual. He was created, probably, in a Western European university. We don’t recognize our essential communion. I don’t look at you and say, “You are my life.”
Modern interpretations of the commandments in the Torah reflect this individualistic attitude. The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness. So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says. The best English translation of that passage from Leviticus is, “You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.
An “individual” is a person who refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self-enclosed being trying to have proper relationships — usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine.
— Fr. Thomas Hopko
note: It was from this text that our journal took its name.
This is the last issue of In Communion that I’ll be editing. Pieter Dykhorst, an old friend and long-time member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is taking over the job. After this issue goes to press, I’ll be joining the community of people helping as associate editors.
It’s not easy to stop doing a work that has been so significant to me, but – after twenty-one years at the job – it’s time. I’ll be turning seventy in November and want to clear more space in my life for reading, writing and wandering.
Books, newspapers, journals and magazine have figured in my life since I was in the very early stages of literacy. Would that I still had a copy of a one-page family newspaper I made by hand using an alphabet of my own design. A year or two later, having become reasonably literate, mother gave me a set of hard rubber type in several fonts and sizes plus a tiny rotary press with which I turned out a midget publication that could be read by others. By the time I was ten, there were afternoons when I hung around the local daily newspaper, The Red Bank Register, watching several men set type from molten zinc on linotype machines. Occasionally one of them set a headline with my name – an instant treasure. In seventh grade, I started a school paper that was christened The Flame. In high school, on the staff of a monthly student newspaper, I was aware how lucky we were to have as faculty adviser a man who had been a journalist for The New York Times.
The first publication of real consequence that I worked with was The Catholic Worker. Its monthly print run was about 90,000 copies and its circulation was international. Encouraged by Dorothy Day, I acquired enough experience eventually to be appointed managing editor. Later on I was assistant editor of a monthly magazine called Liberation, whose focus at the time was on civil rights and whose authors included James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King.
Since then I have been involved with many other publications – newspapers, business journals, press agencies, news services, magazines – but none of these meant more to me or involved me for so long a time as In Communion.
I’ve seen the journal move from a simple two-page newsletter called The Occasional Paper (launched in 1987 by Mariquita Platov and Jim Larrick) to something more substantial after they asked me, late in 1990, to take over the job. It remained quite an occasional paper until 1995, when the newsletter became a quarterly journal named In Communion. (You hold the 61st issue in your hands.)
I don’t recall anything that, on reflection, I wish we hadn’t published. Articles have covered a very wide spectrum – the prevention and ending of war, the making of peace, hospitality, the protection of life at every stage and circumstance of its development, aspects of spiritual life, biblical studies, nonviolent alternatives and the lives of the saints. (Our year-after-year attention to the life and writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova may have played a part in her canonization.)
Thanks to the web, most of what we have published over the years is available at the click of a mouse button via the OPF’s much-visited In Communion site.
I’m delighted Pieter Dykhorst will be my successor. He has experience in all the key areas that the editorship of In Communion requires. It was during a two-year stint Pieter had in Albania that I first met him – I was then writing a book about the resurrection of the Albanian Church and he was working closely with Archbishop Anastasios, a member of our advisory board. Pieter was born in South Africa. He is now in the last stages of completing a master of science degree in international/inter-cultural conflict resolution. As it happens, he lives in Washington, DC, and thus is in the same area as Alex Patico, OPF’s secretary in North America, making face-to-face collaboration between them not only possible but easy.
I’m looking forward to the Fall issue.
At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.
In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.
All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.
Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.
What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.
To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance. Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:
I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.
“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?
Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:
Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.
When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.
What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.
Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.
Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.
The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.
Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.
In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.
It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.
Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.
Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.
1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent theOrthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositionson the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinctand intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:“Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that inthe end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but mustlong and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded fromour loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burnswith love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for thedemons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope evenfor the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).
The Christian faith began in the context of political and military occupation, in a situation where violent acts, both by the oppressor and the oppressed, were common. It is in such a context that the movement begun by Jesus of Nazareth took shape. Not only did Christ teach his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with them, but he also boldly spoke the truth to the religious and political leaders of Palestine, for which they crucified Him. Even though Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, conventional political rulers were threatened by his prophetic words and deeds. His ministry may be described as an act of nonviolent resistance against dominant religious, social and political ideologies in Palestine, then under occupation by the Roman Empire. This Messiah was not the Davidic warrior-king expected by many Jews – nor can he be reduced in our own day to a mere social activist.
The incarnate life of the Son of God provides a paradigmatic example of how to respond to evil with nonviolent resistance. The One who is both human and divine lived under military occupation and, precisely in that context, brought salvation to the world in a nonviolent way. Unlike the Zealots and others using violent methods, Christ embodied a more radical critique that went beyond shifting power from one group to another or reversing the roles of the victor and the vanquished. He created among his apostles, disciples, and followers an inclusive and peaceable society that brought Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, men, women, rich, poor, slave and free into the communion of his Body, the Church.
Nonviolent Resistance in the History of the Church: For the first few centuries, the Church’s life was deeply marked by the experience of persecution from the Roman Empire. Christians who would not worship the gods of Rome were considered traitors guilty of “hatred of the human race” for not fulfilling their civic obligation of serving the deities who were thought to guarantee the well-being of the Empire. We know the stories of these martyrs and continue to honor them for their steadfast commitment to Christ in the face of torture, mutilation and execution.
Some Christians served in the Roman army before the conversion of Constantine, including such martyrs as Saints George, Demetrius and Theodore the General. They refused to obey the commands of their military superiors and thus undertook nonviolent resistance to the dominant religious and political ideologies of the Empire. Like Christ, they suffered violence at the hands of the state for their refusal to place service to a worldly kingdom over obedience to the kingdom of heaven. As St. Peter said when forbidden to preach, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The martyrs’ refusal to worship false gods, Olivier Clément commented, “does not express itself through rebellion but through martyrdom … through a nonviolent stance, which has remained characteristic of the Christian East to this day.”
Examples of nonviolent resistance to evil do not cease with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Saint Athanasius’ struggles against Arianism resulted in successive exiles, while Saint John Chrysostom’s denunciation of imperial abuses led to his death. Saint Maximus the Confessor endured mutilation for his opposition to the Monothelite heresy, and the iconoclastic controversy also produced martyrs and confessors. These are only a few well-known examples of nonviolent resistance in the Byzantine Empire to both political and religious authority.
The first two saints of Kievian Rus’, Boris and Gleb, chose not to defend themselves against the assassins sent by their brother and rival for the throne. In The Pacifist Option, Fr. Alexander Webster notes that they died “not for the true faith in Christ, as was customary in the early Church and in the rest of the Orthodox world, but rather for the moral life in Christ. Theirs was preeminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”
During the Ottoman period, simply to profess the Orthodox faith was a form of nonviolent resistance to the dominant ideology and entailed a second-class existence within set religious, social, political and economic boundaries. The limits of Ottoman toleration were evident in the example of the new martyrs who refused to embrace Islam and were killed for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Nonviolent Resistance in the Twentieth Century: In 1905, over 100,000 people marched in the streets of St. Petersburg under the leadership of an Orthodox priest – some carrying icons – to protest their miserable circumstances and to beg the help of Czar Nicholas. Their petition stated: “Oh Sire, we working men and inhabitants of St. Petersburg, our wives, our children and our parents, helpless and aged women and men, have come to You our ruler, in search of justice and protection. We are beggars, we are oppressed and overburdened with work, we are insulted, we are not looked on as human beings but as slaves. The moment has come for us when death would be better than the prolongation of our intolerable sufferings. We are seeking here our last salvation…. Destroy the wall between yourself and your people.” Tragically, with the czar’s permission, soldiers fired on the crowd, killing and wounding hundreds in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Like Boris and Gleb, those who perished were not killed because of their faith; they did, however, respond nonviolently to injustice and lost their lives as a result.
During the decades of Communist rule, innumerable martyrs and confessors undertook nonviolent resistance by rejecting atheistic ideology and refusing to abandon or hide the faith, enduring poverty, imprisonment, exile, torture and execution in ways that mirrored the witness of the Church in pagan Rome. Opposing civil war in Russia following the Bolshevik coup, Patriarch Tikhon refused to bless the White armies and instead appealed to the laity for nonviolent resistance. “This was the time,” wrote Olivier Clément, “when Starets [Elder] Alexis Metchev opposed the calls for an anti-Bolshevik crusade made by some émigré bishops and declared that a powerful spiritual renewal was the only way in which Russia would be able to overcome anti-theism.” Many martyrs died praying for their tormentors.
Less well known is the nonviolent resistance of Saints Dimitri Klépinin and Mother Maria Skobtsova and other members of “Orthodox Action” who aided Jews during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. They violated various unjust laws in order to save the lives of innocent people and themselves died in concentration camps as a result. Mother Maria wrote of Hitler as a “madman …who ought to be confined to a madhouse” and tore down posters urging Frenchmen to work in German factories. She spoke forthrightly of the incompatibility of Christianity and Nazi ideology even to persons who were likely Nazi agents. When thousands of Jews were held in an athletic stadium July of 1942, she managed to enter the stadium, providing what comfort she could to the captives and, with the aid of garbage collectors, rescued a number of children. “If the Germans come looking for Jews [in our house],” she said once, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.” She, Fr. Dimitri and two co-workers died in concentration camps. They were canonized in 2004.
In the same period another example of nonviolent resistance is provided by an Orthodox layman, Alexander Schmorell, co-founder of “the White Rose,” a student group which distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Germany in 1942-43. One White Rose leaflet stated that “The only available [means of opposition] is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism.” Another leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust as well as criticism of the apathy of citizens “for allowing such crimes to be committed by ‘these criminal fascists’.” Schmorell, having served as a medic on the Eastern Front, had resolved never to kill an enemy. He went to his execution peacefully and stated that “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary … to put me on the right road and therefore was no misfortune at all.” Before his execution, Schmorell said that “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” Archbishop Mark of Berlin has announced his intention to canonize Schmorell. (For more information, see Jim Forest’s article “Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose” in issue 59 of In Communion. )
Though this brief survey of Orthodox nonresistance is neither comprehensive nor systematic, the examples cited demonstrate that nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present. Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience. Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy. Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil. These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and of refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.
Nonviolent Resistance and Contemporary Political Action: These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means. Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we are reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies. Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings. Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.
The martyrs and saints are not motivated by political efficacy but, as Fr. Alexander Webster comments, by “a distinctive Orthodox mode of pacifism” that resists “evil of a strictly demonic origin.” Indeed, the martyrs and confessors we have cited did not criticize social orders, promote change or refuse to obey unjust laws simply due to a conventional political agenda or a desire for power. At the same time, nonviolent resistance to evil inevitably occurs in given social and political contexts where moral and spiritual values have been corrupted in particular ways. When Christians speak the truth about these corruptions and refuse to cooperate with or endorse them, they denounce evil and call prophetically for a new set of circumstances that more closely embodies God’s purposes for human beings. Indeed, they have a responsibility to do so, even to the point of civil disobedience. As Fr. Stanley Harakas noted in Living the Faith:
In cases of particularly harmful laws, the Christian has the responsibility of disobedience. Historically, some injustices that have attacked the Christian identity itself have not been tolerated. The example of the early Christian refusal to worship the Emperors led to civil disobedience and martyrdom for thousands of Christians. There is a line between the advisability of bearing injustices and the duty of refusing to do so. Circumstances must be considered in each case. Both the Christian as an individual and the Church as a whole need to be ever ready to make the decision and accept the consequences when civil disobedience is the correct Christian action.
All members of the Church are called to participate in economic, social, political and cultural life in ways that reflect a Christian vision of human relations and community before God. Consequently, Orthodox may well take part in nonviolent marches or demonstrations protesting evils – racism, genocide, environmental degradation, militarism – that are clearly contrary to God’s will. Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, set an example when he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama. A photograph of the Archbishop, Dr. King, and the labor leader Walter Reuther was on the cover photograph of Life magazine on March 26, 1965.
In 1997, in the Milosevic period, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia led an anti-government march, preventing a police attack on protesting students. He had earlier appealed to the authorities for the release of political prisoners.
Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America recently led a delegation from “Orthodox Christians for Life” in the “March for Life” in Washington, D. C., a rally to protest the acceptance of abortion in American society.
Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine: Another example of nonviolent resistance is found in the work of the Holy Land Trust, which “seeks to strengthen and empower the Palestinian community in developing spiritual, pragmatic and strategic approaches that will allow it to resist all forms of oppression and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model and pillar of understanding, respect, justice, equality and peaceful coexistence.” One of the participants is Archbishop Theodosius Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a well-known opponent of the Israeli occupation and an outspoken advocate of the unification of the Palestinian people.
There has also been Orthodox involvement in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, an ecumenical project that provides an international nonviolent presence, offering a degree of greater protection to people under military occupation through reporting and monitoring, for example at military checkpoints, while providing solidarity with people struggling against the Israeli occupation.
In situations where the very existence of the Christian community is under attack, as in Palestine, simply to maintain the life of the Church is a form of nonviolent resistance to the intentions of the occupying power. For example, Dr. Maria Khoury describes the witness of Orthodox Palestinians in the village of Taybeh as a peaceable presence in stark contrast to the ongoing war between Israelis and Muslims: “We Palestinian Christians don’t believe in the violent struggle and we don’t believe in suicide bombings, but because we live the same frustrating life – our human dignity is violated every single day – we understand why this leads people to violence. Nevertheless, as Christians we have to be above these natural responses, and this is why our presence is so important.”
Dr. Khoury draws attention to nonviolent protests against the wall around Bethlehem “that has taken so much of the [Palestinians’] farmland and denies the farmers access to their own fields,” as well as protests against illegal Israeli settlements. Nonviolent resistance has often had a heavy cost for Palestinian Christians. For example, when the largely Christian town of Beit Sahour refused to pay taxes in 1989 to protest their lack of political representation, the Israeli military authority blocked food shipments for 42 days, cut phone lines, barred reporters and leveled over 350 homes, seizing millions of dollars in money and property.
International Orthodox Christian Charities has sustained many projects in education, agriculture, emergency relief and economic development for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though we rarely think of charitable efforts as types of nonviolent resistance, they certainly are in situations where they frustrate the efforts of dominant powers to destroy a community and a people.
A group of Christians under the name of Kairos Palestine declares that nonviolent resistance to injustice is a right and a duty for all Palestinians, including Christians. Kairos Palestine has been blessed by Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and the hierarchs of Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and other churches. Palestinian Christians are called to see in their enemies the image of God as they enact “active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression” and return their “land, freedom, dignity and independence.” Such resistance opposes “evil in all its forms with methods that enter into the logic of love and draw on all energies to make peace.” Promoting civil disobedience and respect for life, the Kairos document calls for “individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation,” the purpose of which “is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.”
Such contemporary examples of activism, and of cooperation with other religious, political and social movements, demonstrate that Orthodox nonviolent resistance is not reserved for the classic martyr or confessor who suffers for refusing to commit apostasy or heresy. Whenever Orthodox use nonviolent means to protest injustice or to work toward the creation of a social and political order more in keeping with God’s purposes for humanity, they are rightly understood to be involved in nonviolent resistance as a legitimate form of witness and action.
Theological Considerations: Olivier Clément cautions against making “nonviolence into a system” which forgets that Christ was crucified. In other words, there is an innate tension between Orthodox nonviolent resistance and the dynamics of human societies. Taking up the cross is rarely a way to achieve power and success as defined by the world. “The life of Gandhi was so fruitful precisely because of his constant willingness to lay it down, and the same was true of Martin Luther King.” In his book, On Human Being, Clément notes that
It is the Church’s business not to impose methods, even nonviolent ones, but to witness in season and out of season to the creative power of love. The problem is not one of violence or non-violence at all; and the solution, which can never be more than partial, lies in the ability to transform, as far as possible and in every circumstance of history, destructive violence into creative power. The cross which, as Berdyaev memorably said, causes the role of worldly existence to bloom afresh, here signifies not resignation, but service; not weakness, but creative activity.
“Fools for Christ” have provided some of the most creative activity in the history of the Church, and their example sheds light on the calling to nonviolent resistance. As Christos Yannaras explained in The Freedom of Morality, Holy Fools show “that salvation and sanctity cannot be reconciled with the satisfaction that comes from society’s respect and objective recognition.” They challenge “conventional standards and ideas of a world which measures the true life and virtue of man with the yardsticks of social decorum and ontology.” Their witness “manifest[s] prophetically the contrast between ‘the present age’ and the age of the Kingdom, the basic difference in standards and criteria.” Their complete abandonment of the ego enables them to accept their “own sin and fall, without differentiating it from the sin and fall of the rest of mankind” and to “transfigure this acceptance into…a life of incorruption and immortality.”
To take up the path of nonviolent resistance is usually to appear foolish and irresponsible in the eyes of the dominant culture and perhaps also of many in the Church. To suffer execution, torture, imprisonment, exile, unemployment or even a significant inconvenience in lifestyle as a result of refusing to endorse or cooperate with evil is irrational according to the dominant thinking of humanity. Pilate could not understand Christ, and the idea of a Messiah who died on a cross was simply foolishness to the Jews. To the present time, the risks to one’s safety and success associated with nonviolent resistance call for those who accept them to abandon their egos, to become fools for Christ’s sake.
In such humility, however, there is unparalleled freedom. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in The Orthodox Way, the Holy Fool “combines audacity with humility. Because he has renounced everything, he is truly free. Like the fool Nicolas of Pskov, who put into the hands of Tsar Ivan the Terrible a piece of meat dripping with blood, he can rebuke the powerful of this world with a boldness that others lack. He is the living conscience of society.” Orthodox who undertake nonviolent resistance may look to the Fools for Christ as models of the kind of dying to self that enables one to point out the imperfections and contradictions of present social orders in light of the Kingdom of God. Nonviolent activists provide an eschatological critique of the brokenness and partiality of even the best attempts to manifest social justice. And rather than making their enemies suffer, they will take upon themselves the consequences of turning the other cheek even to those who have no hesitation in using violence in order to get their way.
Such a vocation is a way of ascesis, of fighting to overcome one’s passions for self-righteous judgment and vengeance. Even in the pursuit of nonviolent resistance, there is the temptation to pride and self-righteousness – being on the side of the angels – unlike one’s opponents. Those who engage in nonviolent action require ongoing spiritual vigilance so that they will embrace their work as a selfless offering of themselves on behalf of their neighbors, and not as a monument to their own moral and spiritual purity. Resistance to evil must always begin with resistance to the evil of one’s own sins and passions, with taking up the cross and following the Lord in humility.
In Encountering the Mystery, Patriarch Bartholomew stresses the spiritual roots of nonviolent resistance, stressing that it “can never be reduced to an anxious attempt to prevent something terrible from happening to us. On the contrary, the resistance of silence can serve as a forceful ‘no’ to everything that violates peace…. Peace rests in the undoing of fear and develops on the basis of love. Unless our actions are founded on love rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism…. Only those who know – deep inside the heart – that they are loved can be true peacemakers.” Such peacemaking is “deeply rooted in the all-embracing love of God” and makes “a radical response” that “threatens policies of violence and the politics of power” and gives “the ultimate provocation” by loving and refusing to intimidate the enemy. Through the silence of prayer and turning away from “our pride, passions, and selfish desires,” human beings become capable of participating in the “love and generosity” of Christ as they respond actively to situations of injustice. In these ways, the Ecumenical Patriarch identifies nonviolent resistance and peacemaking as practical manifestations of Orthodox theology that grow from the very heart of the faith. ❖
Fr. Philip LeMasters is priest at St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church, Abilene, Texas, and teaches Christian Ethics at McMurry University. He is the author of The Goodness of God’s Creation (Regina Orthodox Press) and has participated in Orthodox consultations on peace ethics in Greece, Romania and Syria. This is a shortened version of a soon-to-be published paper presented in June at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece.
The winds of grace are always blowing; it is but for us to raise our sails.
– Sri Ramakrishna
Above: Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)
I was fortunate to be one of the thousand people who gathered in Kingston, Jamaica in May for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, an event marking the end of what the World Council of Churches had christened the Decade to Overcome Violence.
We were a diverse group, from the still-campaigning aged to the fresh, energetic young, from those who work “in the trenches” – from war protests to helping rape victims – to those who write and teach in academic settings. Some were survivors of violence and some were healers and some were both. There were torture victims determined to reduce the size of that fraternity of sufferers, and the lesbian person who lived in shame and self-doubt until finding fellow-sufferers and discovering her own voice. There were the parish leaders trying to shepherd their flocks through “the valley of the shadow of death” – from war to street crime – on a daily basis.
Clearly we who took part in the Decade to Overcome Violence did not succeed in our eponymous mission, but then none of us had imagined coming anywhere near such a utopian vision. Far from being overcome, violence persists in an infinity of locations with ever more deadly effectiveness, with robot warriors increasingly shedding human blood. Our convocation wasn’t a celebration.
And, yet whenever we sing “We Shall Overcome,” it’s not in expectation of a miracle. Rather, we are just stating our certainty that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We may not hope to see either peace or justice achieved in our own lifetimes, but we must do our best to bend that arc a fraction of a degree in the time God gives us.
Why was I there? When asked, I said that I represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, a group with members worldwide, though with the majority in North America – a group from a diversity of Orthodox jurisdictions – a fellowship most of whose scattered members have yet to meet each other face to face.
In another sense, of course, I was there as an individual. As a Christian, I cannot pretend that overcoming violence is “someone else’s job.” If I claim Christ, I claim his cross and his call to reverence and to protecting life. This I had in common with nearly all the extraordinary delegates assembled for seven days on the campus of the University of the West Indies. People who, in practice as well as theory, are “their brothers’ keepers.” People who in their daily lives are “known by how they love one another.” People who, as Jesus says in the beatitude of peacemaking, are to be known as “children of God.”
The setting was new to me, but at the same time familiar. It felt like the UN conferences on sustainable development I had attended in Rio and Johannesburg. It also seemed a bit like a summer camp, though without the archery and the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk. Masses of people who, as the days went by, gradually shifted from name tags into people, and then, in many cases, friends.
We talked after plenaries, comparing impressions of the speakers. During Bible studies, we teased out the meanings of phrases written long ago. Over meals, we shared information about the projects awaiting our return back home. Over drinks we talked about what we hoped for our families, our communities, for the world. We walked and we talked, back and forth on the sweltering college campus that was our temporary home. Important areas of discussion included:
Conscientious objection: In various ways and to different degrees, many governments seek to stifle the “still, small voice” of conscience. Until Kingston I didn’t know there are some 900 South Koreans jailed each year for attempting to be recognized as CO’s, or that both men and women are conscripted in Eritrea, with harsh treatment awaiting those who refuse to wage war. The UN Commission on Human Rights declared over fifteen years ago that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.” Developing this issue a few years later, that body acknowledged that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.” Even so, in most countries conscientious objectors in uniform often end up in military prisons. “Selective” conscientious objection – objection to engagement in a particular war and not necessarily to war in general – is something that is still not recognized in law in the US and many other countries,
Diversity and tolerance: I have never heard respect for “the other” expressed quite so well as one conferee did: “We are all different! God made us all in his image – God must be truly magnificent!” Indeed, Rabbi Arthur Waskow once shared with me the Talmudic wisdom that the coin Jesus pointed to, when he said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” was identical to other similar coins, whereas the products of God’s mint – human beings – are each unique. Each is made in the image of our divine monarch. God embodies the mystery of diversity in unity, while an earthly rulers’ reign is an assembly line of faceless conformity.
Disability, agism, sexism and discrimination: A speaker with a major disability asked the thought-provoking question: “Who exactly are the workers who were hired for the same wages at the eleventh hour – those who so annoyed the ones who were hired first?” They were probably not, she suggested, the strong and able-bodied, nor of the favored ethnicity.
Gays and lesbians: I was unaware of how heated the “debate” about sexual orientation is in places like Moldova, where an Orthodox priest reportedly was among those who attacked a bus carrying activists for gay causes and tried to set it afire. Then there was a case from South Africa, where Millicent Gaika was strangled, tortured and raped for five hours by a man trying to “cure” her of being a lesbian. Or Jamaica itself, where a co-founder of a community organization for gays was murdered with 70 machete wounds to his neck and face.
Theology: After much dialogue with various kinds of Christians, what still came as a shock to me are the truly negative feelings that surround the Eucharist in some churches. There are many who associate the “passion of Christ” principally with suffering and agony – and therefore with an ethic of voluntary submission to abuse at the hands of others – rather than emphasizing the triumph of God over death in the person of Jesus, in a saving outpouring of grace. Clearly for some the Cross is so large it hides the Resurrection. The Pascha-centeredness of the Orthodox Church is not to be taken for granted.
Peace building: It was instructive to have one of our speakers, an Orthodox priest from Eastern Europe, talk of peace building as “a preventive, therapeutic and developmental process.” This short phrase captured so well what is required of the peacemakers. We must act, whenever possible, in advance of disruptions or distortions of God’s beneficent plan. We must not just protect, but also help heal victims of violence. We cannot expect to accomplish much with a tidy plan, but must do as monks do: When we fall, get up and when we fall again, get up again.
During that week on a Caribbean island, I learned why I sit, often lonely, at my desk, reaching out to others whom I rarely see – people who are, like me, trying to “fight the good fight” – paradoxically, a fight which is no fight. Pushing the boulder up the hill again and again, but finding that we “run and are not weary” because we “wait on the Lord,” who strengthens us to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times. Seeking to serve, rather than to vanquish. This is the only struggle in which we can count on the support of Jesus himself. ❖
Alex Patico is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.
True stories become streamlined into legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths.
The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.
A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, Saint George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint among saints was the completely fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized. The probable date of his martyrdom was April 23, 303. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda (and today as Lod in what has become Israel).
Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. The attack finally ended in 311. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.
Persecution ended, but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed, he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but of cities and whole countries.
In icons made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to George’s name, we see him dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.
Perhaps he was in the army, but it may be that George is shown in military gear because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith.
Such symbolic use of a soldier’s equipment of war does not rule out the possibility that George was a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.
It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people who, in their fear, sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While she was going toward the dragon to meet her doom, George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.
According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services and show compassion to the poor.
From the point of view of journalism, the dragon story is a literary invention. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which enslaved and terrified most of the people of his time.
The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he faced the power of death. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.
In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.
Notice how thin the lance is and that, in many Saint George icons, there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.
Similarly, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that, even in conflict, his followers must love their enemies.
In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is
a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.
In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s royal parents watch all that happens.
Following George’s victory, icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt – a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.
Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.
Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought – courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to prefer the conversion rather than the death of our adversaries; courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us. ❖
This text is drawn from the afterword of a new children’s book, Saint George and the Dragon, due out in September from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent book is All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.
There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.
You cross the invisible border around 40th Street. Situated near this border is the Miller Brewing Company plant, the Miller Park baseball stadium and a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks – old and young, black and white – stand idly as they wait in the cold for the bus. Across the street, stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” [WIC – Women, Infants, Children – is a federal agency subsidizing food for low-income families.] Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust. Jaywalkers cross cracked streets, entering decaying mansions that were long ago converted to low-income housing.
This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury cars, jog along beautiful river walks after work, drink organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants while listening to live jazz and discussing business and home restoration. This is my world.
I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I am an English tutor at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong and Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just to obtain their financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat daddies, babysitters who failed to turn up, or unreliable bus schedules.
Despite the fact that 60 percent of my students fail my class each semester, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity and the fact many of them have a burning desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life in the suburbs. I forget the borders that divide us until I make that drive back home.
And then I remember. Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In my world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid the “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have obtained master’s degrees, even PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.
I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic wand that would open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, maybe little by little things could change for the better.
The ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.
I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.
I am happy where I live and sad for those living on the other side of the border, yet I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist. ❖
Heather Zydek is a writer, college English instructor and sustainability activist. She is the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World and author of the children’s novel, Basil’s Search for Miracles.
“In the Holy Spirit is the fountain of divine treasures; for from Him cometh wisdom, awe and understanding. To Him, therefore, be praise, glory, might and honor.” This brief hymn to the Holy Spirit from the service of Matins reminds us that our blessings ultimately come from outside ourselves. The “divine treasures” we enjoy are not ours by nature but by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
These treasures include attributes described by the apostle Paul: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) These nine jewels beautify whoever possesses them – or rather they beautify whoever possesses the Holy Spirit, for Christian life consists not in reaching for the fruit but in acquiring the Spirit.
There is a difference between fruit and Tree, between treasure and King, between gift and Giver. The Christian receives the one but pursues the other. The prodigal son returns to the loving embrace of his father, not to the nice robe, rings, new sandals or the fatted calf. His relationship is not with the good things, but with his father.
Consider the counsel of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” At first we might hear Saint Seraphim saying: become a peaceful person; go and do peaceful things. In fact he is calling on us to acquire the Holy Spirit.
Is the distinction important? The prayer to the Holy Spirit refers to Him as the “Treasury of good things,” so to reach for the fruits listed by St. Paul is like trying to live like God apart from God. The goal of Christian life is not to force our behavior to fit categories of “love,” “joy,” “peace,” etc. If that were true, Christian experience would merely be like painting a house that needs a new foundation or trying to improve behavior without taming the heart. Deep change is needed.
Christian life is about becoming a new creation in Christ, a process of daily renewal. Such inner renewal brings the heart under the control of the Holy Spirit, who then releases the attributes St. Paul described through us according to His time, measure, purpose and glory.
Without the Holy Spirit, love degenerates into lust, sentimentality or mere companionship. We reach for another out of selfishness, insecurity or loneliness; we become motivated by needs that ignore boundaries. We crave intense feelings, even drama. Instead of pursuing something noble we settle for emotionalism. With the Holy Spirit, love makes both the giver and the receiver well, even holy. We suffer long and kindly. We do not envy or parade ourselves or act puffed up but rejoice in the truth and bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. Relationships are born and grow in freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Saint Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, “there is liberty.”
Without the Spirit, joy degenerates into the pursuit of pleasure, a passage through life solely to avoid pain, pursuing only light while avoiding the darkness so necessary for spiritual growth. We imperceptibly knit ourselves to the fabric of this passing world and its transitory comforts. Living in search of good times, we grow weak. With the Holy Spirit, joy is not forced to become happiness. We are willing to sacrifice pleasure and happiness so that joy, which is not as dependent on circumstance, might emerge. We rest in the promises of God that run deeper than everything that troubles life’s surface. We know how to rejoice with those who rejoice, seeking nothing of our own and feeling no competition. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to embrace joy and reject its counterfeits.
Without the Holy Spirit, peace degenerates into conflict avoidance. We seek exterior tranquility as a distraction from inner turmoil. We lose principles worth defending and differences worth celebrating. We underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil, especially our own. With the Holy Spirit, peace reserves the right to a special kind of violence required to seize the kingdom of God (Mt 11:12). We wage war with ourselves, calmly battling passions that refuse to die easily. We discover an inner stillness. We do not react and we do not resent. We grow undisturbed by troubling thoughts as the heart enters a state of quiet listening. Because we have accepted this daily and quiet martyrdom, we grow into vessels of stillness that benefit others. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to become the peace that passes understanding.
Without the Holy Spirit, patience degenerates into sloth. We lose the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. We grow tolerant of inappropriate delay; we lose the relationship between justice and timing. We mistake laziness for perseverance. We neglect. With the Holy Spirit, patience pursues, but does not rush, a desired outcome. We do not force an agenda; we resist our need for control. We exercise the right restraint at the right time in the right way. We understand that no one can disturb our interior peace without our permission. We trust in God’s timing and in His way of doing things. We accept that true soul work is often slow, unhurried, mundane. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern the difference between waiting and hesitating.
Without the Holy Spirit, kindness degenerates into a lack of resolve. We lose the ability to say no. We erode the boundaries that define our personhood. We pacify beyond what is healthy, even enabling another’s self-destruction. We draw near when distance is called for and remain distant when nearness is needed. We forget what anger is for. With the Holy Spirit, kindness is not defeated by fatigue or prejudice or argument. We learn when an acquaintance should remain an acquaintance, and when an acquaintance should become a friend. We become generous and are not devastated when there is no return. We are honest, but not cruel; warm, but not seductive. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to express kindness while a storm of irritability may rage within.
Without the Holy Spirit, goodness degenerates into mere morality. We focus on external behavior and forget the condition of the heart. We compare ourselves with others, and usually come out favorably. We grow smug. We become legalistic, shallow, bland. With the Holy Spirit, goodness becomes empathy. We grow sensitive to those in need, including ourselves. Being right becomes less important than becoming righteous. Our understanding of the good transcends contemporary trends and cultural taste. We learn where true good is from and where it leads; we discern the fingerprints of God. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern God in all good and all good in God.
Without the Holy Spirit, faithfulness degenerates into inertia. We favor predictability over risk; we get stuck. We mistake fear for perseverance. We lose identity, energy and those qualities that distinguish us. We waste time, accomplish nothing, and fail to make the world a better place because we were here. We lack vision. With the Holy Spirit, faithfulness means we become not stuck but still. Distractions do not reach a heart that abides in a state of constant listening, so that when God says to move, we move. We follow where He leads, willing even to enter the dark. We are obedient but free; we voluntarily suffer. We choose the way of God even when no one is watching. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to understand faith as inseparable from faithfulness.
Without the Holy Spirit, gentleness degenerates into a lack of boundaries. We lose will power; we become passive. Assertiveness looks too much like aggression, and decisiveness too much like violence. Men, in fear, swerve toward the safe, the joyless, the weak; women favor the shy, the sentimental, the self-protective. With the Holy Spirit, gentleness becomes hospitality. We keep a reign on ourselves and make room for others to grow in our midst. We learn how to resist forcing ourselves on others, in body, will and opinion. We use a light touch if it will put people at ease and a heavy touch when necessary, but with grace. Silence no longer disturbs but nourishes. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to harness the energy of meekness.
Without the Holy Spirit, self-control degenerates into self-suffocation. We lose vibrancy; we lose life’s vivifying energy. We grow rigid and legalistic and recoil from what appears uncontrollable. The proper goals of discipline are lost as discipline becomes the goal itself. We intimidate others and provoke their suspicion. With the Holy Spirit, self-control means we become God’s clean instrument. We embrace fasting and prayer, and understand the role of the body in acquiring or losing salvation. Moderation is seen as strength and not weakness. Because we neither indulge the self nor obsess over the self, we can restrain or celebrate as an occasion calls for. With the Holy Spirit, willpower is delivered from the tyranny of the flesh.
The prayer to the Holy Spirit calls this “Treasury of good things” to “come and abide in us.” We do not approach God as a cosmic slot machine, feeding Him with the right formula of prayers and good deeds for the purpose of gaining a jackpot of favors in return. Instead, we are like children, who, as we grow and mature, discover that our true relationship all along was not with the gifts given to us by our Caretaker but with the Caretaker Himself. To keep that relationship alive, God may grant His gifts to us in measure and withdraw them for a season. “Why did the tongues appear to be divided among [the disciples]?” asks Saint Gregory Palamas. “Because the Spirit is given by measure by the Father to all except Christ. . . . Each one obtained different gifts, lest anyone should suppose the grace given to the saints by the Holy Spirit was theirs by nature.” [St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, edited and translated by Christopher Veniamin]
And when grace falls upon the ready soul, the chest of treasures overflows. Nine becomes no longer a number but a symbol of the numberless gifts that pour from the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov gave us the counsel to “acquire the Spirit of peace,” but he also gave us a radiant example of what acquiring the Spirit can mean. Material treasures shine, but, as his experience of the Holy Spirit reveals, not as brightly as the person who fully acquires the immaterial “Treasury of good things,” an acquisition that begins, according to Saint Seraphim, in the cleansing waters of baptism. ❖
Fr. John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church, in Murfreesboro, TN. This is a condensed extract from his latest book, Giver of Life: the Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition (Paraclete Press, 2011). A graduate of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, he joined the faculty as instructor in Old and New Testament and American Religious History. He and his wife Lara have three daughters and two sons.
Via video link, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople addressed the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in June. (See Alex Patico’s report of the meeting on page 17.)
“As faithful disciples of the Lord of peace,” said Bartholomew, “we must constantly pursue and persistently proclaim alternative ways that reject violence and war. Human conflict may well be inevitable in our world, but war and violence are not.
“The pursuit of peace has always proved challenging. Yet, our present situation is in at least two ways quite unprecedented. First, never before has it been possible for one group of human beings to eradicate as many people simultaneously; second, never before has humanity been in a position to destroy so much of the planet environmentally. We are faced with radically new circumstances, which demand of us an equally radical commitment to peace.
“In an increasingly complex and violent world, Christian churches have come to recognize that working for peace constitutes a primary expression of their responsibility for the life of the world. They are challenged to move beyond mere rhetorical denunciations of violence, oppression and injustice, and incarnate their ethical judgments into actions that contribute to a culture of peace. This responsibility is grounded on the essential goodness of all human beings by virtue of being in God’s image and the goodness of all that God has created.”
The patriarch remarked that many peacemaking efforts fail because of an unwillingness to give up established ways of wasting and wanting.
“In peacemaking, then, it is critical that we perceive the impact of our practices on other people, especially the poor, as well as on the environment,” he said.
Pro-Life Clinics to Open in Russia
A Russian pro-life organization, the Life-Family Medical Centers Network, is preparing to provide prenatal and postnatal care to women without providing abortion services. Created under the auspices of Za Zhizn (For Life) by two Russian Orthodox priests, the formation of the new organization was announced in Moscow on June 30 as a collaboration between the newly formed organization and similar American organizations such as Heartbeat International. The hope is to provide care for pregnant women while barring procedures that “contradict the teachings of the Russian Orthodox, Catholic and traditional Protestant churches,” said project manager, Alexey Komov.
“We think the idea is in the air,” said Komov. “We guarantee that people who come to the clinics, whether Christians or from other traditions, can rest assured they won’t be forced to have abortions or pre-natal screenings that harm expectant mothers.”
Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world – pro-lifers say women are often pressured into having them.
Komov said doctors who had to leave state or private clinics because they refused to perform abortions would be hired by the Life-Family Medical Centers. [Sophia Kishkovsky]
Moscow Church Barred from Feeding Hungry
For fifteen years, twice a week, the Russian Orthodox parish of Saints Cosmas and Damian in central Moscow has offered food and other assistance to the homeless.
`Every Wednesday and Friday from 300 to 600 people were sure of a full meal, medicine, clothes and some heat, which in the long Russian winter becomes as important as bread. (Every winter, about 200 homeless Muscovites die from the cold.)
But in May the municipality of Moscow ordered parish priest Alexander Borisov to terminate the service on the grounds that it was a health hazard. The more likely explanation is that the presence of homeless people offends the well-off residents of the area.
The parish is situated on Tverskaya Street, famous for its luxury boutiques, banks and branch offices of international companies – plus Moscow’s City Council.
It appears Mayor Sergei Sobianin did not like the sight of people in a queue waiting to be fed and so ordered the shelter closed.
“There are some people,” said Fr. Borisov, “who call themselves religious, attend services celebrated by the Patriarch, but then act only to destroy and never to build.”
Patriarchate Kirill has written to Mayor Sobianin asking that the city provide an alternative structure at which the parish can continue its social service.
“Aid to the homeless is precisely the sphere where church and state can work better together,” said Kirill. “The city council could provide the structure to welcome the homeless and we will provide the staff and volunteers to do the job.”
Church’s Response to Greek Crisis
The Greek Orthodox Church is “ready to contribute to help the country,” Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said after a meeting with the head of the Church, Archbishop Ieronymos. Venizelos said he was “optimistic on cooperation prospects with the church over practical measures to ease the plight of those who need help the most.”
Archbishop Ieronymos said the talks were constructive and vowed “the church would continue to fight for the people in these crucial times.”
The talks focused on an inventory of the church’s real estate assets. The church is the country’s second-largest land owner after the state. The assets could be brought into a fund jointly managed by the church and the state, the source said on condition of anonymity. The state would lift legal restrictions and the profits would be poured back into the church’s charities and social services.
Orthodox clergy will see their state salaries reduced by half. “It will be a hard adjustment for the Greek Church,” commented one bishop. “Greeks have never had to give or support their church and many are unlikely do it now.”
Syrian Christians Worry About Future
Above: Saydnaya church, near Damascus, is second only to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrimage.
As an increasing number of Syrians take to the streets to demand sweeping government reforms, many Syrian Christians are still hesitant to do so – afraid of an uncertain future as a minority that has until now been safe under the current secular government.
“Everybody is worried,” says Archbishop Yohana Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo. While supporting the demands for reform being made by protesters, he hopes a national dialogue can soon begin. “We don’t want what happened in Iraq to happen in Syria. We don’t want the country to be divided. And we don’t want Christians to leave Syria.”
Syria’s Christians have remained largely silent since the popular uprising began just over three months ago. Most of the protests have taken place after Friday prayers in rural areas, with only minimal turnout in Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest, mainly Sunni cities, where also the majority of Christians reside.
Syria’s Christians comprise about ten percent of the country’s population of 20-million. So far, few have been prominent in the uprising.
Many believe the community’s relative absence from protests is due to the stability they enjoy under the Alawite-run secular government, which has shown favoritism toward the country’s urban business elite – including secular Muslims and Christians – while taking a hard line against Islamist movements over the past 40 years.
“I’ve met Syrian Christians who’ve defended the regime because it’s not Islamic, but I think this could backfire on them,” says Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “If theyHind Aboud Kabawat, a Syrian Christian who divides her time between Toronto and Damascus, and who won the 2007 Women’s Peace Initiative award. link themselves to a dictatorial regime that is largely disliked by the Syrian people, then some might think this will justify reprisals against them.”
Historically, Syria has been a place of stability and safety for Christians. Tens of thousands fled there to safety following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Christian holidays are nationally recognized in Syria.
Some see it as being in Syrian Christians’ long-term interest to support the protesters. “Remember, if you are a real good Christian you have to side with the oppressed and not with the oppressors,” says Hind Aboud Kabawat, a Syrian Christian who divides her time between Toronto and Damascus, and who won the 2007 Women’s Peace Initiative award.. “It is scary, but if we all fight for a real civil society and include everybody in the system and learn how to accept others things will be fine.” [Brooke Anderson]