Category Archives: Syria

Content related to Syria: OPF statements, supporting and background material, history, commentary, etc.


Content related to Syria: OPF statements, supporting and background material, history, commentary, etc.

[catlist id=40 numberposts=60]

St. Patrick’s Challenge to Nationalism

by Pieter Dykhorst

This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven….I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped [Ireland], except the gospel and God’s promises.

—St. Patrick

Few saints are as well known or have so much written about them as Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. The body of work attributed to the very real 5th century Christian missionary and saint of that name is so large––and the historical record suggests that much of that work took place over significantly more than the span of one lifetime––that some scholars suggest there must have been two Patricks or that some unknown contemporary shared the work.

The St. Patrick we know, on whom the legend is based, did leave behind a written record that tells us a great deal but far too little to confidently describe his accomplishments. Patrick’s own words suggest that while all of the astounding growth and success of Christianity in Ireland in that period may not be directly attributable to him, his work laid the foundations for much of it.

Patrick left us two documents––a short biography and a letter––that provide a brief sketch of his life, a number of clues about the nature and scope of his ministry, and considerable insight into the nature of his faith, theology, and character. The wide-angle picture they give of his life and ministry offer few details, and together they wouldn’t fill half an issue of In Communion.

Most of the legend of St. Patrick comes from hagiography written down more than a century later. They connect the dots Patrick provides for a more robust picture of his life. But they also conflate his story with what was done by others who came after him. Much in them may be taken as reliably descriptive of Patrick and his life but cannot be taken as factual without additional evidence.

A third narrative informing contemporary notions about Patrick is the popular cultural fiction full of fun things like green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold.

The Irish are not alone in surrounding an important historical figure with a popular mythology. The society without such mythologies probably does not exist. Patrick is on our cover in this issue for two purposes. Without begrudging Patrick his place in Irish hearts, we want to rescue him from being a saint merely for the Irish and restore him to the whole Church for all to venerate. By getting to know each other’s saints, we engage in bridge building and are drawn into a richer Orthodoxy and away from our tendency to remain too comfortably settled in our jurisdictional, cultural, or ethnic ghettos.

The makeover of Patrick from Orthodox saint to national patron also serves to exemplify how Christians may over time fall prey to erroneous thinking about not only our collective cultural and historical identities but also our Christian identity. By the 15th century, St. Patrick was only one of about thirty-five “pattern day” saints (patrons) in Ireland, albeit possibly the most important. He become Ireland’s Patron Saint when he was made the emblem of Irishness at the rise of Irish nationalism beginning in the 18th century. By teasing Patrick’s narratives apart, we find in him a father of the faith to the Irish around whom they may gather for celebration, but nothing like a national hero.

Very late in his ministry and near the end of his life, Patrick wrote his two documents. They clearly suggest he didn’t write much else, at least not earlier and nothing that might have been intended as a record. His very short Confessio was written self-consciously to the posterity of his Irish children in the faith, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus was written against the chief of a band of murdering and plundering slavers who raided the Christians under Patrick’s care. One may feel a natural skepticism toward autobiographical sketches, but while Patrick’s words erect a bare biographical framework, they convey a profound and believable humility. Reluctant to tell his story, he seems more compelled to talk about God’s faithfulness, his own unworthiness, and his great love for his Irish children in Christ.

Patrick’s confession begins “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” And then in one short paragraph, he offers nearly all of what he eventually gives us of the bones of his biography:

My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae [somewhere in Roman Britain]. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.

Image of Dumbarton Castle. One theory of Patrick’s origins holds that he came from near Dumbarton in present day Scotland. No one knows where Bannavern Taburniae was.
Image of Dumbarton Castle. One theory of Patrick’s origins holds that he came from near Dumbarton in present day Scotland. No one knows where Bannavern Taburniae was.

He tells us that his story would be long if he told his “each and every deed” in Ireland. But he doesn’t; instead, his biography is really a lengthy confession of God:

So I am…a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.

Only after several paragraphs does Patrick offer just a little more detail about his circumstances. We learn that he and the many with him were taken because they “deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments.” He describes his life as a simple shepherd and tells of hearing God’s voice prompting him to escape, which he did after six years; about his years-long journey to return home again; and how he eventually returned to Ireland ––again being directed by God in visions––probably in his forties and over the strong protest of his family. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is similarly written in the style of a confession but with a more practical purpose. A lament for the killing and plundering of Christians and an encouragement to his beloved suffering Irish children in Christ, he begins the letter with these words:

I declare that I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner indeed, have been established a bishop in Ireland. I hold quite certainly that what I am, I have accepted from God. I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God––he is my witness that this is so…. The truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbors and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death, if I am worthy of that. I live for my God, to teach these peoples…. With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death…. They are blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.

After descriptions of Coroticus’ crimes, encouragement to the suffering Irish Christians, and a defense of his ministry, Patrick ends with a purposeful appeal:

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it…be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God. However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptized women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity. Peace to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It would be surprising if “each and every deed” of Patrick’s life were not repeated, did not become legendary, and did not also evolve by the time they were written down. by his own testimony, Patrick converted thousands, preached all over Ireland, and had dealings with kings and chieftains––he tells of one king who was quite unhappy when his daughter, guided by Patrick, became a nun. There were also conflations, fictionalizations, and inaccurate attributions. We learn from the legends, for example, that Patrick founded monasteries, faithfully taught about the Trinity to a pantheistic culture, and wrote certain poems and prayers that have survived. Likely he did found monasteries—he wrote of the many Christians under his care who entered monastic life—though no historical proof exists that he founded any, and he gives clear evidence that he faithfully taught the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, though historians doubt he used the shamrock to do so. It wouldn’t be surprising if he wrote prayers and made contributions to liturgical practice, yet historians doubt he wrote the ones attributed to him, and none others any longer exist.

he ruins of Slane Abbey, where legend claims Patrick lit a Paschal fire in defiance of the local king, who in admiration of Patrick’s devotion allowed him to continue preaching. Slane Abbey is one of many monasteries possibly founded by Patrick.
The ruins of Slane Abbey, where legend claims Patrick lit a Paschal fire in defiance of the local king, who in admiration of Patrick’s devotion allowed him to continue preaching. Slane Abbey is one of many monasteries possibly founded by Patrick.

Some of what is handed down is wholly fiction. He didn’t drive snakes from Ireland. Scientists who know tell us there is no evidence there have been any in Ireland since at least the last ice age, though banishing snakes may be metaphor for converting druidic folk to the worship of God in Christ. Patrick didn’t convert all of Ireland––that was mostly accomplished by the 14th century. He didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland and wasn’t the first Christian bishop—Christianity reached the island about a hundred years earlier and at least one bishop preceded him. Probably he was also not the only bishop in Ireland during his lifetime.

It remains for the skeptic to believe, however, that Patrick is not central to the story of the Irish Church, for no matter how sparsely documented are the lives of certain figures, popular culture never escapes their influence or fails to form collective memories of them. When those memories are later recorded and work done by Patrick’s spiritual children and grandchildren is attributed to him, the credit isn’t wholly misplaced. Knowing better the true story shouldn’t diminish him. The man who spent himself for the Irish “so that you may have me for yours,” and who “traveled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went, to baptize and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfillment” remains worthy of collective commemoration of Christian faithful everywhere.

The Irish have succeeded in making Patrick their own, though he is not considered something like an Irish ethnic forebear. He became one of the most successful symbols of national identity anywhere by simple inclusion in the common national narrative. Patrick was one of many saints celebrated in Ireland when his feast day was taken over by parades, all things green, Guinness beer, and rousing music and fun prose. Over time many other elements of Irish identity were included—the Blarney Stone, Leprechauns, pots of gold—as St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of all things Irish.

As is very often the case among expatriate communities, Irish emigrants were among the most vocal advocates not only for creating and preserving a coherent and distinct Irish identity but for championing the political cause of the motherland. The keenest boosters of Irishness and Irish independence from Britain were found in America in the 18th century where the first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in New York City as part of the nascent Irish Nationalist movement.

As the Irish formed communities in America, they began for the first time to think of what it meant to be Irish in the midst of others. Most had never thought in terms of ethnicity or national identity. Being Catholic became subordinate to being Irish as they sought to build and preserve their cultural distinctiveness. Over time, Gaelic culture became the matrix of Irish identity, in contrast to English culture. As the narrative of Irish cultural nationalism secularized, so did Patrick. Nobody seemed to notice that the saint was being erased from the page.

Despite being a driving force in most civic and international conflict, nationalism is much misunderstood. Irish nationalism is but one form, and Patrick provides but one example of a figure being co-opted in a nationalist project. Americans do not think of themselves as nationalistic, yet America broadly fosters a Civic Nationalism of a politico-credal sort even while other forms of nationalism flourish among a variety of groups, among them the messianic, religious nationalism of some Evangelical Protestants in which America is God’s chosen among the nations of the world. Americans often confuse patriotism with nationalism but they are not the same thing at all 1. One need not be a patriot to be a nationalist or a nationalist to be a patriot, or one may be both. Orthodox too hold to a variety of nationalisms, some of them are overtly religious while others are less so.

Bridal Party on the Hardanger, by Norwegian Romantic Nationalists Adolph Tideman and Hans Gude, is an example of 19th century Norwegian art commissioned to strengthen the notion of Norwegian separateness in Scandinavia in a bid to split from union with Sweden. The boat is carrying a group dressed in “traditional” Norwegian garb who are leaving a church. The imagery mimics Orthodox conceptions of the Church carrying the saints in an alien and hostile world.
Bridal Party on the Hardanger, by Norwegian Romantic Nationalists Adolph Tideman and Hans Gude, is an example of 19th century Norwegian art commissioned to strengthen the notion of Norwegian separateness in Scandinavia in a bid to split from union with Sweden. The boat is carrying a group dressed in “traditional” Norwegian garb who are leaving a church. The imagery mimics Orthodox conceptions of the Church carrying the saints in an alien and hostile world.

Among all forms of nationalism, religion remains the most powerful tool in any nationalist identity-building project because of the nature of religious belief. Religion is primary to believers’ sense of being human in the world. With religion at the core of understanding about the world and self and how all things relate to one another, religion becomes a handy cornerstone of collective-identity building around which many nation groups are formed. Who we are (personal ideas of identity are not possible without collective identity—it is the matrix in which personal identity is formed) unconsciously infuses every thought and perspective and thing with meaning so that we may say culture—that which defines the parameters and content of collective identity—becomes as water is to a fish, something not noticed until it is either threatened or absent or until something in stark contrast is presented as an alternative. When our culture—that is to say our collective being—is threatened or challenged, it’s existential primacy becomes immediately apparent as we instinctively defend it as we would our lives. Religion thus is often usefully the key element, albeit only one, of a complete montage of cultural components built together to form the being of each member of a national group from birth.

Religion-infused cultures abound. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries (examples: Greece, Spain, USA) with long histories of Christianity being a dominant culturally formative factor could not be imagined without their Christianized character, regardless of whether or not any or most of their citizens still think of themselves as Christian. A couple of good examples of Christianity being consciously used to create an exclusive national identity, with varying degrees of success, would be in the increasingly influential narrative of America as a Christian nation uniquely blessed by God or the Greek nationalist project that conflates ancient Hellenic history with Byzantine Orthodox history to create an exclusive Orthodox Greek nation. Religion so used becomes the defining element of a nation-forming group’s identity. Their cultural particularities become the evidence of God’s blessing––the standard of good citizenship––and the means by which his blessing is maintained. Religious nationalism in any of many forms is the most obdurate and formidable of all nationalisms, Orthodox nationalisms being good examples rather than exceptions. Orthodox Christians often understand nationalism to be the same thing as ethnophyletism, which is the conflation of ethnic, or racial, and Orthodox identities to form nation groups that form the basis of both Church and State. The manifestations of this in the Balkans in the late 19th century—think principally of Greece or Bulgaria—was the cause of a Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Istanbul condemning this kind of nationalism in 1872. Orthodox who now routinely condemn ethnophyletism often remain nationalists of another type. But the nasty treachery of all nationalistic thinking is that it always makes us exclusive.

An example of non-ethnophyletic nationalism with religious dimensions among Orthodox is the Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath party (forming around cultural “Arabness” with language as the primary identity marker) and which is held by large numbers of Syrian Orthodox Christians. A recent statement posted to the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate’s website in the name of Patriarch John X,2 states that “The Church of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox makes a point to affirm at all times that it is a daughter of the nation and is the abode in which they reside.” In the statement, the Mosque and the Church are linked as equal sister-daughters of the nation of Syria. In the Arab nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath––as distinct from the Iraqi Ba’ath, which they split from in 1966––one is first a Syrian Arab and then either Orthodox or something else. Arab, Syrian, and Orthodox are thus conflated in a way that is not only wrong but much contested by other Syrians, Arabs, and Christians.

Not all difference is exclusive, however, and the warmth we naturally feel for our own cultural heritage is part of being human and is the natural consequence of how we are formed socially, culturally, linguistically, and generally in our whole-world view. The normal cultural differences that exist between groups are generally never intended to divide. The real problem of nationalism among Orthodox, however, is not in so benign a thing as the cultural preference of “Cristos anesti” over “Christ is risen” or “Krishti ungjall” or in enjoying plum pudding over baclava or in certain ritualistic preferences during the Divine Liturgy: while these things may naturally provide distinction as between families, they need not be divisive. The problem manifests when there is conflict or when difference forces the kinds of choice that expose competing allegiances and we begin to fight either to defend our difference or to elevate it. The contorted apologetics for the Syrian and Russian governments common among Arab and Russian Orthodox that fly in the face of fundamental Christian values is the result of such conflated loyalties.

One evidence of conflated Orthodox and national identity is the very modern phenomenon of making saints national heroes or national heroes saints. something that by its nature is divisive within the Kingdom of God and should be anathema to the Church but is instead common!

A common manifestation of softly held or unconscious nationalist sentiment is an elitism that sometimes makes others feel less “Orthodox” for being of another jurisdictional, ethnic, or cultural group because of the way we cleave to our national identity. The division of the Orthodox world into cultural and ethnic jurisdictions has created what some call Orthodox ghettos (ghetto implies separation not poverty) wherein a monolithic way of being Orthodox that results in isolation is created by the conflation of our own customs with the Orthodox faith. Visitors to Orthodox parishes should not be made to feel they must first, or even also, become Greek, Serb, Russian, or Arab to become truly Orthodox. Looking to the future, American Orthodox should avoid creating a similar attitude that elevates a version of culturally American Orthodoxy over other forms––something many are already promoting.

When Christ sent his disciples out, he called them ambassadors, people who represent the interests of one state to the leaders of another. Ambassadors who are confused in their allegiance are likely to be called spies and may be stripped of their citizenship rights, imprisoned, and often executed, as are citizens who switch sides to serve the interests of a rival state. It shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest missionaries usually found themselves in courts and before kings declaring their allegiance to God and were commonly martyred for it. Christ did not tell his disciples “You should not serve two masters”; he said “You cannot.” For, when you serve the one, you automatically oppose the interests of the other: you must choose. Ultimately, attempting to simultaneously serve two rival interests merely makes one useless to both. When the released Syrian and Lebanese nuns of Mar Thecla monastery contradicted the widely held perspective among Orthodox that they were being mistreated during their captivity, they were branded by the Church as traitors to Syria and unfaithful to the Church3. The conflated loyalties of the Church leaders in this instance promoted their national loyalty and compromised their spiritual sense.

When we consciously choose to exclusively serve Christ, we cultivate our Christian-ness to be a culturally transformative force rather than guarding it as part of our inherited cultural identity. Our lives are neither gift nor extension of anything earthly: we are not merely products of a history stream and so we do not owe our primary allegiance to any other product of history, such as a nation-state.

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ’For we also are His children’ (Acts 17:26-28).

The Irish rightly love Patrick for his sacrificial work of building up the Irish Church, a legacy that lasts into eternity. But the very inclusion of Patrick in the Irish nationalist mythology diminishes him and casts a shadow over a saint who belongs to the whole Church everywhere and everywhen. It is a fundamental aspect of being human that we are defined by others, though at times in our development we are allowed to choose by whom. Like the apostle Peter, Patrick chose his identity in Christ. In answering Jesus with “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” Peter was given his own identity. It was in his recognition—by the Father’s revelation—of Christ that he was captured and transformed into a citizen of God’s Kingdom to be eventually martyred by Rome, the symbol of earthly citizenship.

Patrick willingly became a servant of “the nations” to whom he was sent from his home in Britain—there was no Ireland then, only the chaos of competing kingdoms just the other side of the Roman frontier. By the 4th century, a primitive Irish was widely spoken but a variety of Celtic languages were still common. Patrick saw an island in need not of “civilized” culture, Imperial rule, or a strong local king to bring lasting stability but the gospel. He went to share the gospel with “the nations to which the love of Christ brought me” at the end of the world, where he thought he was. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, but it is possessed by the same sick spirit as tribalism, culturalism, ethnicism, imperialism, and so many other isms. Only as each of us discovers our full and true identity in an encounter with Christ, the Son of the living God, will we find the cure for the sickness of nationalism.  IC  [wpanchor id=”footnotes”]



1. Simple working definitions: Patriotism is the natural love for one’s own country; nationalism is a political philosophy that claims statehood belongs primarily to distinct and exclusive national-identity groups. Click HERE for information on the OPF resource on nationalism, For the Peace from Above. Also search our website for more resources.
2. The full statement may be found on our website in Arabic HERE and in English HERE. Ba’athism is a socialist Arab Nationalism that conflates numerous identity groups to form the fiction of a Syrian nationality for the purpose of creating a secular state of Syria. Michel Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox, was a founder of Ba’athism. Hafiz Assad was its champion, and like Bashar today, was ruthless in eliminating competing political parties. The current civil war is the continuation of that struggle. The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate supports the Assad family and its nationalist ideology, though they may not be Ba’athist––Patriarchal statements often reflect more general Pan-Arab nationalism. 3. From the Patriarchal statement referenced in footnote 2.


Competing nationalist narratives in Syria create false dichotomies that force people into mutually exclusive identity groups.

2 Christian muslim magic carpet cartoon

Ba’athist nationalism creates a Syrian identity that falsely conflates Christian and Muslim as sister-daughters of the nation. Sectarian nationalists of various kinds manipulate and exploit religious difference to divide and create conflict.

2 steeple minaret cartoon

War and Virtue, full text keynote address OPF conference 2013

WAV 3 papanikolaou at OPF

War and Virtue

Aristotle Papanikolaou, Fordham University

Paper delivered at the annual conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Washington, DC – October 2013

[The following is the full text of Prof. Papanikolaou’s essay/address. The first half was published as an essay in the summer issue of In Communion, IC69]

Orthodoxy and Secular Rule: Ethics and Politics

Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which, debates about just war criteria notwithstanding, combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. After briefly discussing the current debate within contemporary Orthodox theology on just war theory, I will draw on the work of Jonathan Shay to illustrate the effects of the ascetics of war on the body. I will then argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis.

Forgetting Virtue

When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello and jus ad bellum, and their respective criteria; there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a justifiable just war tradition within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.

The Vice of War

One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.
There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.

This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one-third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” It is also apparent in the study that showed that “35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s . . . This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (‘partial PTSD’) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.” This high rate of the experience of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and, the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they trained themselves for the sake of survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life-threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “[r]andom, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, [s]omatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, [p]eripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, [s]ense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer from symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms simply makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.

Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life, and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms, being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The characteristics of the berserk state are: “beastlike, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.” Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are deemed, ironically, the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entail “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk, and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, and Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in, “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event; he had to be told what had happened; and, on being told, he was afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he did not.

What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent: “On the basis of my work with Vietnam veterans, I conclude that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to life-long psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.” He amplifies that “[m]ore than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s by the congressionally mandated National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?

In addition to PTSD, a new category is emerging in order to distinguish a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war and that is no longer thought to be identical with PTSD, even if many of the symptoms are similar. This state of being is being called “moral injury,” which is distinguished from PTSD in the sense of not being induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to the state of being when a combat veteran experiences a deep sense of having violating their own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensure even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with an act he or she committed that is a never erasable act. Symptoms are similar to those as PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories that I’ve heard of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence. The necessity for some form of transcendence in order to enable self-forgiveness of an act committed that can never be taken back and never forgotten but is integratable in a personal narrative through an intuition of one’s narrative being a part of a larger cosmic and divine reality, in my mind points more powerfully to the existence of God than any other philosophical argument, whether it be the cosmological, ontological or teleological arguments.

It is very disturbing to hear the stories of combat veterans, which include: not sleeping with their spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and families; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces. These and many such similar stories reveal that there is an ascetics to war: either through the training received in the military, or through the practices that one performs in the midst of war to train the body for survival against constant threat of violence, war is the undoing of virtue in the sense that impacts negatively a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends and strangers. War does not simply cause “lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character.” From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the ruin of good character is not limited to the “soul” of the combat veteran; “character” is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.

What does theosis have to do with war?

On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in the monastery, the desert, on a stylite or in the forest; add to this the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms of being surrounded divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must expand the boundaries of the monastery and be made more worldly.

This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor (d. 662), communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be god-like should not conjure up images of Greek mythology; within the Greek patristic texts, it simply means that if God is love, then the human was created to love, and this love is simultaneously a uniting oneself with God, since God is love. In Maximos the Confessor, deification is the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues, and his Centuries on Love is a treatise in which Maximos discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of the virtue of virtues—Love. For Maximos, the human is created to learn how to love, and is in constant battle against that which weakens the capacity to love.

Virtue, for Maximos, is not a building of character for character’s sake; it is not a state of being where one displays one’s virtues like badges of honor; it is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love” (4.74). Virtues are necessary for the learning and acquisition of love: “All the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love” (1.11). Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” (2.14), which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger (1.71). This particular definition of virtue, then, illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, depth—love.

If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for the learning of the virtue of virtues, which is love, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “[t]he purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice” (4.17). He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts” (4.18-19). Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice; i.e., that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends” (4.81). Vices produce and are such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Thoughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.

Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’s discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations . . . The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations (3.39, 3.41). He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions (3.44). Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred” (1.29). “Detachment,” for Maximos, “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it become resistant to vice” (1.36). In terms of images that incite vice, this resistence is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke such feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.

The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but, rather, an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend’s head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.

If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty: all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, then the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self as openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kinds of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others.

Although there are many practices that enable the acquisition of virtue, and thus, the capacity for relationships of trust, intimacy, depth and love, I will restrict my focus to one that is key to any redoing of virtue in both the psychological and the ascetical/mystical literature—the practice of truth-telling or confession. In the Christian tradition, truth-telling is primarily associated with the sacrament of Confession understood forensically as fulfilling a contractual obligation to tell a priest one’s sins before forgiveness is granted; or, with the moral obligation not to lie. When speaking about truth-telling as a practice that enables the capacity for love through the acquisition of virtues, I am not referring strictly to either a forensic understanding of the Sacrament of Confession, or the moral obligation to tell the truth. Speaking certain truths in the midst of another or other persons has the power both to reconfigure the relationships in which such a truth is spoken, and to produce an affective effect on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires. Truths spoken hover in the midst of a relationship with the power to affect both the speaker and the listener(s). It is not uncommon to think that one can protect oneself from a traumatic experience by simply attempting to forget it, or by not verbalizing it to others. The irony is that only through a verbal acknowledgement or recognition, which cannot be revoked, can the power of the traumatic image be mitigated. It is also the case that the affective result of truth-telling as an event depends on the listener, who can use the spoken truth either to iconically presence the divine toward mitigating the power of the effects of violence, or can image the demonic by adding violence to violence. In short, the event of truth-telling to another is a iconically charged event, that can potentially presence either the divine or the demonic.

Both Jonathan Shay and Judith Herman in their experience with trauma victims attest to the basic truth that healing cannot occur until the trauma victim can begin to speak about the traumatic events. Truth-telling in and of itself is not sufficient for healing, but it is absolutely necessary. Also, truth-telling of trauma cannot begin until a safe and secure environment is established for the trauma victim, what Herman refers to as stage one of recovery. Once such a secure and safe environment is established, it is absolutely essential that the victim of combat trauma speak about the truth about the traumatic event and reconstruct a narrative of the event itself.

To even speak the truth about the trauma of war can be interpreted as an embodiment of the virtue of humility, in the sense that making oneself vulnerable is requisite to opening the self to loving and being loved. The sixth-century Syriac Christian ascetic, Dorotheos of Gaza, analogizes the Christian life to building a house, “[t]he roof is charity, which is the completion of virtue as the roof completes the house. After the roof comes the crowning of the dwelling place . . .[i.e. railings around the flat roof] . . . The crown is humility. For that is the crown and guardian of all virtues. As each virtue needs humility for its acquisition—and in that sense we said each stone is laid with the mortar of humility—so also the perfection of all the virtues is humility.” As Shay declares, “the fact that these veterans can speak at all of their experience is a major sign of healing.” The reconstruction of the narrative must also be in the context of other persons, in the form of a community. Shay argues that the “healing of trauma depends upon the communalization of the trauma—being able to safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community.” The mitigation of the demonic, thus, depends on truth, even if such a truth has to do with the experience of the demonic; and this truth needs to be “communalized” told and listened to by others.

Over the years, Shay has discovered that such communalization is most effective when the community itself consists of those who know, either directly or indirectly, the effects of combat trauma. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, the healing power of truth-telling depends not simply on telling the truth, but on who is listening. The rebound effect of truth-telling depends on the symbolic/iconic significance of the one listening. In the end, the veterans heal each other. Theologically, the veterans are iconically charged to presence the divine to each other, even in the midst of, and because of, their shared suffering.

The affective effect of truth-telling might also require a listener beyond a community of combat veterans. Shay’s “clinical team has encouraged many of the veterans we work with to avail themselves of the sacrament of penance. When a veteran does not already know a priest he trusts to hear his confession, we have suggested priest who understand enough about combat neither to deny that he has anything to feel guilty about nor to recoil in revulsion and send him away without the sacrament.” What this need for a form of truth-telling beyond the community of combat veterans reveals is that the experience of forgiveness needs another kind of listener other than the empathetic combat veteran. Although the same ascetical practice, truth-telling to distinctive listeners does different kinds of work on the landscape of one’s emotions and desire. The chances are very high that the ascetics of war will lead some to engage in practices in which there is a felt need for forgiveness. Tom Mathews’s father felt this need, as did John, who could barely speak about how combat in Iraq lead to killing of kids whom he realized “could be your kids.” On the cosmic scale, other combat veterans cannot iconically symbolize that forgiveness; cannot be a kind of listener that enables the realization of that forgiveness as an affective event in the combat veteran. Someone like a priest is iconically charged to perform that role.

The importance of truth-telling in the redoing of virtue only highlights how the military culture of denial and repression of the combat experience is corrosive. When mistakes were made and innocent people were killed rather than the “enemy,” the military thought it was helping by covering for the solider(s), who were told that it would be “all right.” Shay relays one story in which the soldiers involved in such a mistake were actually given medals as a way of covering up for the mistake. When friends are lost, soldiers are told to “stuff those tears,” or “to get even.” Whereas in ancient cultures, dead bodies, including those of the enemy, were treated with respect, the US military had no mechanism in Vietnam for memorializing the dead. Ancient cultures also had rituals for reintegrating soldiers back into society after battle. Such rituals did not depend on whether the battle was just or not. American soldiers return from war with little to no fanfare, trying to figure out what to do next. What’s especially egregious is how the US military has not provided sufficient enough resources for combat veterans showing symptoms of PTSD, often making difficult the availability of such resources because of budgetary constraints. Although improvements have been made, what pervades military culture, and American culture in general, is a pelagian-like “suck it up” attitude, with no realization at all of how a combat veteran is ultimately in the grip of the demonic until engaging in ascetic practices that undo the effects of war and violence.

It is both encouraging, ironic and a little troubling to contemplate how an ascetics of virtue in the form of fostering a community of people who learn to trust each other, who form bonds of affection through telling personal stories, who become friends, has the power to mitigate the effects of the ascetics of war. Beyond the debates over whether Christians should think about criteria for judging decisions to go to war, which this essay has not necessarily dismissed as illegitimate, the formation of communities of virtue both before and after combat has the power to mitigate the effects of violence on any one of the members in the community itself, especially if that community of virtue presupposes an open space for truth-telling.

There is an even deeper theological significance to the necessity of truth-telling as part of an ascetic of virtue that undoes the ascetic of war. First, it reveals that God meets someone in the truth of her concrete, historical situation. In the case of combat trauma, it is not a matter of first undoing the effects of war and then going off to the desert to achieve theosis; undoing the effects of violence is itself the desert in which the combat veteran finds himself in his struggle to (re)experience the presence of the divine. The ascetical struggle toward divine-human communion is entrenched in a particular history and a particular body, which then demands the virtue of discernment on the part of the community of combat veterans, the mental health professional, the priest, even family and friends in order to extricate the combat veteran from the grip of the demonic. As Shay argues, “Modern combat is a condition of enslavement and torture.” The formation of communities of virtue, which presuppose truth-telling, mitigates and breaks the cycle of violence. Second, sin committed and sin that is done to us cannot be forgotten, repressed or denied. It is part of the fabric of the universe that the truth must be recognized, otherwise it will haunt us in other forms. It is only by integrating the truth of sin into our narrative that it can then be neutralized in its effect. In the end, God is the God of truth, which includes the unique and particular truths of our narratives; if God is truth, then God is found in the verbal recognition of the truths of our narrative, no matter how horrific those truths may be. Although “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor power, nor things present nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), to love and be loved by God and neighbor depends ultimately on the practice and virtue of honesty, which includes the courage to acknowledge and accept the truths of our own narrative.

Suggestive Conclusions

In sharing these ideas with a colleague it was pointed out to me that perhaps I am confusing therapy with morality. I think that what I have presented here today is, in part, attempting to trouble the waters between too easy a divide between, to use a different word, spirituality and ethics. It is clear that in Maximos the Confessor that whatever virtue is it has to do with what humans are meant to be, which for Maximos was creatures built to learn how to love. In so far as the arena of war, which extends as far back as military training to post-deployment life, involves engaging in a set of practices that are constitutive of the self, then what happens to the combat veteran is as much an ethical concern as are the decisions about whether or not to go to war, and by what means should war be waged.

My discussion today did not in any way intend to undermine just-war ethics; nor am I advocating a pacifist position. Christian ethics still needs to discuss when and by what means violence is legitimate, or whether these are the right questions to ask. I do think, however, that an ethics of war that focuses simply on these questions is missing other dimensions in the ascetics of war which a Christian virtue ethics can illuminate and offer resources for reflection. There may, in fact, be just uses of violence, which are also motivated by courage, temperance, justice and charity, but such a use of violence is not the end of the ethical story. Ethics needs to consider the effect of inflicted and inflicting violence on the human person and the formation of virtue that could potentially mitigate or reverse such effects, the most damaging being the capacity to love and be loved.

Finally, this interrelation between violence and virtue that I am presenting today could also be extended to areas of ethics beyond the ethics of war, such as issues related to social justice. The effects of violence on the human is also clearly visible in the poor neighborhoods in the big cities of the United States (and I’m sure of Europe), where the threat of violence is constant. One teenager who lived in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, which is infested with violent gangs, described his neighborhood as a daily war zone. Related to this, one of the most difficult questions confronting educators in the United States is how to educate children in poorer neighborhoods, who are consistently underperforming in comparison with children in more middle-class or affluent neighborhoods. Paul Tough has recently reported on approaches to this problem that focus on character, such as the recent work and studies of the Nobel-Prize economist from the University of Chicago, James Heckman. Tough describes how educators for decades were focusing on improving what are called “cognitive skills,” which have to do with such things as reading and mathematics. Studies have shown that the skills correlated with success in such things as college graduation, or well-paying job are what are called “non-cognitive skills.” It is the development of non-cognitive skills that allow for the development of cognitive skills. Examples of non-cognitive skills are self-control, impulse control, anger management, delayed gratification, or thinking before making a bad decision. If you have not noticed already, these sound a lot like St. Maximus’s virtues.

What they have also discovered is that the stress from adverse experiences in childhood, such as the experience of violence or the threat of violence, can prevent non-cognitive skills from developing properly. If a child has experienced four or more adverse effects as a child, she is thirty-two times likely to develop learning problems. If a child is experiencing the constant threat of violence in the home, the stress that such a threat generates can prevent the development of the part of the brain responsible for non-cognitive skills. Another way it was explained is this: if one is in the forest and is confronted by a bear, then the part of the brain responsible for aggression will activate and that part of the brain responsible for reading and writing will deactivate in order for the person to prepare for an emergency response. Such an emergency response, however, is meant to be infrequent. For some children living in a family home situation in which the threat of violence is constant, the brain responds as if facing a bear every single day. If the emergency response of the brain is activated repeatedly, the brain forms pathways that get increasingly ingrained. In day-to-day situations, this means that it is difficult for such children to learn reading and mathematics in class when the brain is constantly on emergency response mode. It also explains why such children are plagued with two of the vices that St. Maximus says get in the way of love—fear and anger. It is not uncommon for such children to have behavioral problems in school that often manifests itself in rage. Being surrounded by or experiencing violence can actually form the brain in such a way as to form the vices of fear and anger (again, not necessarily self-love as much as self-loathing). These vices are impairing the ability to be in the kind of relationships that would not simply allow for love to occur, but to allow for learning to occur.

What was also interesting about these studies is that it is being shown how proper attachment to a parent or parents can help a child manage the stress of adverse situations. In other words, the development of proper relations through the virtues can counter the vices formed through the experience or threat of violence. What’s most hopeful is that these non-cognitive skills can be learned even throughout adulthood; in other words, the human was created in such a way that these non-cognitive skills can be learned no matter what the age of a person. What is really remarkable about all this, at least for me, is the connection between all that these studies are showing with all that St. Maximus says about the interrelation between the manifestation of the virtues and contemplation.

What I have attempted to suggest in this paper is that St. Maximus’s account of virtue can disrupt the current status quo in both philosophical and theological virtue ethics, as well as just war and social ethics, by offering a thick understanding of the human telos as one that entails learning how to love. St. John Chrysostom once said that even the poor need virtue. St. Maximus helps us to understand this comment in the sense that what is distinctive about an Orthodox war and social ethics for today goes well beyond simply congratulating the solider for his or her service, or helping the poor during a time of need, or advocating for systemic change. By never wavering in its understanding of the human being as being created to learn how to love, a Christian war and social ethics offers the very wisdom of the practices needed to form the human being in the virtues that would allow the human to mitigate the effects of poverty and violence, and enable the person to learn how to love, which is nothing less, according to St. Maximus, than the experience of God. If poverty and violence potentially depersonalize and render the human being faceless, then the ascetical practices that manifest the virtues and that enable the capacity to love are essential for the realization of the person as a eucharistic being in the world that is free (ekstatic) and irreducibly unique (hypostatic).

Patriarch John X Statement

Patriarch John X Statement (English translation) on the release from captivity of the nuns of Mar Tekla (St. Thecla) monastery in Syria

Patriarchate Damascus

The following is an English translation of a statement by Patriarch John X and the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch made in response to some statements made by the nuns of Mar Tekla (St. Thecla) monastery after their release from captivity about the conditions of their captivity. Their comments ran counter to the narratives of the Patriarchate, the state-run media in Syria, many Antiochian Orthodox Christians in the diaspora, and others.

The page address where this statement may be found (in Arabic) on the website of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East is here:

The Patriarchate’s website promises an English translation, but since March this has not appeared on their English version of the website.


Our Beloved Sons, Kindred, and Daughters,

On March 10, 2014, the fabric of the Syrian heart of which the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch forms a united party, celebrated in the arrival and return of the monastic sisters of Mar Tekla to peaceful soil after a much condemned kidnapping that lasted more than three months.

However, the joy of our sisters’ arrival is troubled by what came from the tongue of some of these monastic sisters upon their release from their forcible kidnapping.

Indeed, His Beatitude the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Greek Orthodox Church emphasizes to all Syrians—Christians and Muslims, sons and daughters—that these statements do not reflect the position of the Church, but were the result of a lengthy kidnapping. We are not here to justify them [the sisters] nor to analyze the circumstance of their release.

His Beatitude and the Church have followed repercussions [consequences/impact] of what happened [nuns statements?]; these defections [nuns’ unauthorized statements?] which overshadowed the event and authorization were therefore an affront to the whole Christian presence, which everyone realizes his [Patriarch John] role as a humanitarian to the nation.

“His Beatitude affirms that the affront does not reflect the positions of the Syrians and their patriotism, for this Church is known by its patriotism and by what its sons undertake for their country in way of opinions, actions, and testimony. They remain in the same manner as their sisters in patriotism.”

Indeed, we hope that our people in the nation will work and support one another for the deliverance from suffering and to not resort to language that does not express our spiritual and civic values, but instead to raise to the level of sacrifice.

We affirm that the Patriarchate, just as it was at the beginning of Christianity, will continue to defend all Syrians and Easterners, wherever they are, to work for the bringing of peace and security in place of killing, destruction, and charge of disbelief, and to work on the emancipation of all those who are kidnapped without distinction so they return to their families.

Since the start of the crisis in Syria, the Syrian people–whether Muslim or Christian–suffered under the cross of misery [which characterizes] the East. The Antiochian Patriarchate like others, did not hesitate to rightly name this misery. It condemned and condemns all terrorism, charges of disbelief, kidnapping, and violence, which strike the territories in Syria and razes the mosque as well as the church. For kidnapping and the vulnerability of the holy places are the two sides of the same coin and and has one name, and it is terrorism.

In the midst of its joy in the freeing of its nuns and in the pain from what came from some statements, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East condemns all terrorism, charges of disbelief, and kidnapping which touches every strand of the fabric of our society, which pays an expensive price for strange ideologies to the values of this country, and the lives of its united sons and those who acknowledge its history, near and distant.

The Church of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox makes a point to affirm at all times that it is a daughter of the nation and is the abode in which they reside.

The bleeding of Syria is the bleeding of our heart. Its peace is the salve for our hearts. The glory of Syria is a laurel wreath on our heads. The Church, which produced Jules Jammal in the 1950s in defense of national honor, produced and continues to produce legions of martyrs

May God protect Syria, and may God protect its president and its people. May the peace which we yearn for from the depths of our hearts, return to it.

Patriarch John X statement in Arabic

Patriarchate Damascus

The following is a statement in Arabic by Patriarch John X and the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch made in response to some statements made by the nuns of Mar Tekla (St. Thecla) monastery after their release from captivity about the conditions of their captivity. Their comments ran counter to the narratives of the Patriarchate, the state-run media in Syria, many Antiochian Orthodox Christians in the diaspora, and others.

The page address where this statement may be found on the website of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East is here:

The Patriarchate’s website promises an English translation, but since March this has not appeared on the English version of their website.


أبناءنا وأهلنا وإخوتنا الأحباء،
في العاشر من شهر آذار 2014، فرحت قلوب النسيج السوري الذي تشكّل بطريركية أنطاكية للروم الأرثوذكس جزءاً لا يتجزأ منه بقدوم الأخوات راهبات مار تقلا وعودتهن إلى بر السلام بعد خطفٍ مدانٍ ومستنكر دام لأكثر من ثلاثة أشهر.
إلاّ أن الفرح بقدوم أخواتنا عكّره ما جاء على لسان بعض أخواتنا الراهبات اللواتي كنّ قد خرجن للتوّ من اعتقال واختطاف قسريٍّ.
إن غبطة بطريرك أنطاكية وسائر المشرق للروم الأرثوذكس يؤكّد لجميع السوريين، مسيحيين ومسلمين، أبناءً وإخوةً، أن هذه التصريحات لا تعبّر عن موقف الكنيسة، وهي نابعةٌ من سطوة اعتقالٍ الطويل. ولسنا هنا بصدد تبريرها أو بمعرض تحليل ظروف صدورها.

تابع غبطته والكنيسة ارتدادات ما حصل؛ هذه الارتدادات التي تجاوز بعضها الحدث والتصريح للإساءة إلى الحضور المسيحي برمّته، الذي يعرف الجميع دوره الوطني والإنساني.
” يؤكّد غبطته أن الإساءات لا تعبّر عن موقف السوريين ووطنيتهم، فهذه الكنيسة معروفة بوطنيتها وبما قدّمه أبناؤها لبلادهم فكراً وعملاً وشهادة، وما يزالون، أسوةً بإخوتهم في المواطنة. ”
إننا نأمل من أهلنا في الوطن أن يكونوا عاملين ومتكاتفين للخلاص من المحنة وألا يلجؤوا إلى لغةٍ لا تعبّر عن قيمنا الروحية والحضارية بل أن يرتقوا إلى مستوى التضحيات.
ونحن نؤكّد أن البطريركية ، وكما كانت منذ غرّة المسيحية، ستبقى المدافعة عن كلّ السوريين والمشرقيين أينما كانوا، ساعيةً لإحلال السلام والأمن مكان القتل والتدمير والتكفير، وعاملةً على فك أسر جميع المخطوفين من دون تفرقة ليعودوا إلى عائلاتهم.
منذ بدء الأزمة في سوريا، والشعب السوري، مسلماً كان أو مسيحياً، يرزح تحت صليب شقاء هذا المشرق. والبطريركيّة الأنطاكيّة كما غيرها لم تنءَ يوماً عن تسمية الأمور بمسمياتها. وقد دانت وتدين كلّ إرهابٍ وتكفيرٍ وخطفٍ وعنفٍ يضرب الربوع السورية ويهدم المسجد كما الكنيسة. فالخطف والتعرض للمقدّسات هما وجهان لعملةٍ واحدةٍ ومسمىً واحد، وهو الإرهاب.
وفي غمرة فرحها بخروج راهباتها، وفي غصّةٍ منها لما جاء من تصريحات، تدين بطريركية أنطاكية وسائر المشرق كلّ إرهابٍ وتكفيرٍ وخطفٍ يطال كلّ شريحةٍ من نسيج مجتمعنا الذي يدفع ثمناً غالياً لإيديولوجيات غريبةٍ عن قيم هذه البلاد وعن عيش أبنائها الواحد والذي يشهد له تاريخها القريب والبعيد.
يهم كنيسة أنطاكية وسائر المشرق للروم الأرثوذكس أن تؤكد دوماً أنها ابنة الوطن والديار التي تحيا فيها. وأن ما يصيب سوريا يصيب هذه الكنيسة في الصميم.
نزيف سوريا هو نزيف قلبنا وسلامها بلسمٌ لقلوبنا، ومجد سوريا إكليل غارٍ على رؤوسنا. والكنيسة التي قدّمت جول جمال في خمسينيات القرن الماضي دفاعاً عن عزة وطن قدّمت وتقدّم إلى الآن قوافل شهداءٍ.
حمى الله سوريا، حمى الله رئيسها وشعبها، وأعاد إليها سلاماً نتوق إليه من أعماق القلب.

Orthodox Christian Statement Opposing Military Action Against Syria: Supporting narrative

Supporting narrative

The following offers some narrative support for the Statement. Whereas the narrative supports the succinct text of the Statement, it too is necessarily brief; however, numerous supporting materials are offered as background to help broaden understanding (we will begin adding these shortly).

Please bear in mind, this is offered as support and background, not dogma. Mistakes are mine and you are invited to bring them, and dissent or support, to my attention. The supporting documents and our website hopefully fill in many blanks that may exist in the narrative.

Pieter Dykhorst

Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
[email protected]

1.  The OPF foundation of the Statement:

In blessing peacemakers in the Beatitudes as the children of God, Christ makes the vocation of  healing damaged relationships a hallmark of authentic Christianity. Yet, the path of peacemaking is as messy and conflicted, individually and collectively, as is any aspect of Christian faith and living. What follows is a general summary of what we believe and how we apply it to the current situation. It cannot be taken as a dogmatic or binding statement on anyone’s conscience. We are children of the Church working out our salvation within its sanctuary; this is no exception.

a.  While not all OPF members are against all war at all times, we believe war is always an evil that comes about as a consequence of human weakness and that the good we pursue is less a negative avoidance of war but a positive, robust, and broad pursuit of just alternatives that end current wars and make future wars unnecessary. Thus, before we are “anti-war,” we are “pro-peace.”

However, the Christian peacemaking vocation is not passive. True peacemaking requires foresight and is a preventative work requiring wisdom, faith, compassion for all, courage, and a commitment to justice as well as mercy. Preemptive peacemaking undercuts the foundations of violence long before unavoidable crises that produce violence and war result.

Once war comes, violence always breeds more violence, presently or in the future as the roots of pain and suffering, bitterness and anger, revenge, division, and fear take hold and eventually bear the fruit of more violence. The Gospel is anathema to violence as a legitimate conflict resolution strategy.

b.  We believe when war seems unavoidable and does come, it is always a failure and must be terminated at the first possible opportunity and repented of after. Victory in war can never be celebrated but may sometimes be a least-bad outcome that must still be mourned: we should beg God to show us other means to resolve differences with our enemies.

There is sometimes debate among OPF members about when a war might in fact be unavoidable, when some understandable resort to violence seems necessary. We will not enter that conversation here except to acknowledge its legitimacy and to affirm our consistent opposition to violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy; however our website is replete with resources addressing this issue. We are united, however, in our conviction that war must never in any case be other than a truly unavoidable last resort.

We do not believe in this case that the current call to military action can possibly, in any rational framework, be considered necessary or an unavoidable last resort. Thus, we not only oppose this action but we believe there is no “economy” possible for it. Too many viable non-violent, political, legal, and humanitarian alternatives exist: they may fail, but they must be tried.

c.  We do not weigh one side’s actions against the other to make some qualitative or quantitative judgement of who is more evil and who less. Obviously, if we deem war always evil, all sides engaged in the Syrian civil war have resorted to evil solutions.

We do not base our opposition on political considerations or on party affiliations.

To be clear, we are not naive or without personal and even collective judgements: our appeal, however, rests on none of them. Active pursuit of all viable non-violent solutions requires a proper understanding of the problem. Our Statement must be understood to go beyond opposition to military action to engaging in finding and implementing just solutions.

d.  We must acknowledge that persuasive ideological, pragmatic, and sometimes impassioned arguments are being made for and against military action and that OPF members struggle with them as much as anyone might. Supporting documents address these arguments as broadly as possible.

The current situation in Syria and the region is extraordinarily complex and volatile, and we appreciate honest debate as Christians struggle for understanding and solutions. Many international actors have conflicted interests in Syria. Syria’s civil war does not consist of two monolithic entities pitted against each other: history, culture, religion, language, and ethnicity combine in a way outsiders cannot easily understand, creating a confusing mixture of loyalties and interests. Too many simplistic views are being presented in the US media and are grossly misleading because of their misunderstanding.

We make this acknowledgement and offer supporting arguments out of sympathy for those reading here who, like many of us have, may come to a similar vocational commitment through long and conscientious struggle and who value thoughtful and prayerful consideration of other views.

e.  Finally, we simply state that legal options exist for dealing with the crime of chemical weapons use. As, for many, this is taken as sufficient grounds for war, please consider that whoever–Assad, other officials, generals or lower commanders, and/or opposition forces–has used chemical weapons, this war will end and avenues for justice exist and will be viable.

The wight of evidence for guilt for the attack on 21 September may point to the Assad regime, but please consider dissenting opinions and evidence that suggests some rebel factions may also have used chemical weapons on other occasions. As a basis for war, none of this is sufficiently clear or conclusive.

2.  The Orthodox Justifiable War position:

a.  For many within the Orthodox Church there exists some uncertainty about when war may be a lesser evil or lesser good or when war may be otherwise justifiable. The OPF’s position is clearly stated in the first section above. We would not, therefore, base our opposition to any war on a conditional framework like Just War theory although we appreciate the robust debate among some Orthodox on the subject.

Our website contains many fine resources dealing with the questions of “lesser evil,” “lesser good,” and other problems created by real-world conflict scenarios.

Our comments here are restricted to the “justifiable war tradition,” as articulated and defended by Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster in his book The Virtue of War because he argues strongly that the contemplated military attack on Syria would not be justifiable. His books are listed in the bibliography. Any further supporting comments from him will be linked as we are made aware of them. He makes a distinction between Western Just War Theory and what he considers to be an Orthodox justifiable war tradition, an argument developed in his book. he has also written an excellent book on the pacifist tradition within Orthodoxy called The Pacifist Option.

b.  Obviously, our consistent opposition to war would not always find common cause with opposition from within a conditional moral framework. But in this case, the OPF finds it helpful to include in our statement an appeal to those who adhere to justifiable war principles. Fr. Alexander argues a “dual trajectory” (of pacifism and justifiable war) within Orthodoxy, and we feel that when we can agree in opposition to a particular war, it only strengthens our appeal and Orthodox unity to do so.

We thank Fr. Alexander for his contribution to crafting a clause in the Statement that allows us to include his “rail” in the dual trajectory, thus allowing him to support us and broaden our appeal to all Orthodox who are concerned about principled approaches to war within Orthodox moral tradition.

c.  We are concerned about the trend among some Orthodox to base their support or opposition to this or any war on purely political, prudential, or other transient moral/ethical grounds. This narrative with supporting documents, not to mention our entire website, intends to help Orthodox who are seeking moral clarity by furthering healthy and informed discussion.

d.  Additional considerations of justifiable war principles applied to the current situation regarding possible US involvement in Syria will be added to our supporting documents. Good sources to include are welcome. Please send these to me at [email protected]. Important points include:

  1. Consideration of punishment for crossing a “red line,” violating an international humanitarian norm, ignoring a US threat, committing a war crime;
  2. Considerations of deterrence against future use of WMD;
  3. Considerations of how this would be a defensive war from the US perspective;
  4. Considerations of what US involvement would look like in a defensive war from the Syrian perspective (including the government’s perspective and Syrian civilian’s perspective);
  5. Considerations of rules of proportionality;
  6. Considerations of non-combatant immunity (re: collateral damage);
  7. Considerations of prompt termination when a clear and just goal is met;
  8. Considerations of last resort;
  9. Consideration of whether doctrines of “Responsibility to Protect” accord with the Justifiable War tenet of just cause.

It is our contention, aside from the OPF’s clear and consistent opposition to all violent conflict resolution strategies, that the contemplated US action would not be merely problematic under a justifiable war framework but would clearly violate all its basic tenets.

We anticipate robust disagreement on one or more points but welcome honest and careful argument in opposition.

3.  Other Orthodox and Christian non-Orthodox positions being discussed:

a.  The OPF locates its opposition to war in the positive and robust vocational peacemaking principles of the Gospel as articulated by Christ, the Apostles, Fathers of the Church, Saints, and contemporary Orthodox writers as well as in numerous writings and icons found throughout our tradition and history. As such, our position seeks to preclude what might otherwise be self-serving, rational, or prudential arguments.

We do not reject those but rather believe them to be transient and reversible and thus not sufficient alone, certainly not foundational.

There are many such arguments currently circulating. We will address as many as is reasonable in our supporting documents; we briefly address two here:

b.  Those whose lives, loved ones, property, and way of life are existentially threatened as the Christians’ are in Syria cannot be considered self-serving in their cry for help from harm. We stand in prayer and tears with all Syrian’s particularly our Christian friends and family, praying daily for prompt peaceful resolution to the conflict. We ask God for wise and courageous leadership to show us how this may be accomplished and for the strength to follow.

Nevertheless, we see no help in the US plan to intervene. Those who disagree are invited to include their views in our conversation. We hope to include these in our supporting documents.

b. Last, we suggest recent polls in the US showing unprecedented opposition among the electorate must surely carry some weight. We do not base our position on transient popular sentiment, but this might be a convergent moment when the sheer weight of dissent from diverse quarters must give pause. We acknowledge minority voices are often lonely prophetic voices and the current majority view does not imply the minority is wrong. We merely take pause.

A concluding statement

Nothing thus far should be taken as an exhaustive or exclusive presentation of important issues and points. We are acting under time constraints and wish to get this posted and to begin adding supporting documents. All feedback is welcome.

Things not mentioned here may be found under categories in the supporting documents.

Thank you,

Pieter Dykhorst
Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship


Coffee Cups and St. Isaac the Syrian

by Vincent Rossi

When the issue of the environmental crisis is raised in Orthodox circles, I often notice an uneasy ambivalence. It is not a topic that lends itself readily to pleasant and congenial discussion. Is this because the Orthodox sensibility or ethos is aroused to defend itself against alien concepts, western bandwagons, and worldly trends? Or is it because we know in our hearts that there is something radically wrong with current human exploitation of nature and that we ourselves are not doing enough about it? Is it rejection of worldly vanities or reality-avoidance? Perhaps it is a bit of both. We thrill to the words of the great St. Isaac the Syrian when he sings about the “merciful heart” that embraces all of creation in love, even snakes and insects and demons. But we hate to talk about replacing in our church kitchens the cheap convenience of throw-away cups with breakable dishes and the hassle of finding dish washers for every parish function. We are proud of our Orthodox Tradition when others recognize in it the catholicity and harmony of its iconic, sacramental vision of the universe. But we are reluctant to recognize the ethical and ascetical responsibilities of our Orthodox cosmic worldview.

Consider what may seem a silly question: If throw-away cups and dishes had existed in St. Isaac’s day, would he have used them?

The point is that the goal of Orthodox spirituality is a transfigured life — in all its dimensions, human, non-human, cosmic. The pneumatic virtue acquired by the saint suffuses and transfigures everything in his life, not just his body, but his cell, his utensils, even his clothes. The significance of relics depends upon this fact. The saint in ancient times lived “close” to nature in a way difficult for us to imagine; and nature often spontaneously honored the saint’s virtue by an irruption of paradisal conditions. But most of us today are separated from nature by several technological levels. The utensils of a desert father were made by hand out of what nature provided; the utensils and artifacts of our consumerist culture are made by extractive, exploitative, and destructive processes unseen by most of us. A utensil like a throw-away cup or dish is not a simple product of an artisan’s craft. It is a complex artificial construct the making of which creates a trail of degradation throughout the natural world. It takes a strong ethical sense to imagine the destruction behind the seemingly innocent utensil. But it is this ethical imaginative power that is needed if we are going to live by a sound Orthodox environmental ethic.

According to Orthodox tradition, the world is a sacrament of the divine presence, a cosmic revelation, a means of communion with God, a sacred Temple. The vocation of every human being, as microcosm, is to be a mediator between the creation and the Creator, to be a center of unity, harmony and eucharistic transfiguration, to offer the world to God in thanksgiving. What kind of metanoia is needed for us to fulfill this vocation in the context of the world in which we live? How do we embody the eucharistic vision of the cosmos of St. Maximus and the merciful heart of St. Isaac in a way that honors God and reflects true Orthodoxy? It is the task of today’s Orthodox Christian.

What kind of cup did you pour your coffee into today?

And what is a merciful heart? It is the hearts burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.

— St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 8