Category Archives: Terrorism

Content discussing issues related to terrorism

Cover Story IC70: From Herod to ISIS through Christ

From Herod to ISIS through Christ: No Record of Retribution!

by Pieter Dykhorst

2 St john baptist Cover

Having beheld the strange and ineffable humility of the Incarnate God the Word, O Divinely-blessed Baptist, when He bowed His Divine Head to thee and received a servile baptism, thou thyself wast wholly filled with great humility. Entreat therefore this Divinely-loved virtue for us also, who are possessed by pride, that we may cry to Him from a humble heart: Alleluia!

Wholly filled with the gifts of Grace, in finishing the course of earthly life, John the Divinely-chosen, thou didst teach all to please God well through fulfillment of the Law and repentance. Therefore, we sing out thankful praises to thee, the great teacher of truth:

Rejoice, planter of the law and statues of the Lord!

Rejoice, exposer of Herod’s lawlessness!

Rejoice, zealot for his correction!

Rejoice, thou who didst suffer imprisonment and
bonds for the sake of righteousness!

Rejoice, thou who wast beheaded for the truth!

Rejoice, for thy body was given an honorable burial by thy disciples!

Rejoice, for by God’s providence thy head was preserved incorrupt!

Rejoice, for it has granted consolation, sanctification, and healing to Christians!

Rejoice, for the faithful piously bow down also before thy right hand
which baptized the Lord!

Rejoice, for many miracles are thereby accomplished even to the present day!

Rejoice, for by thee the faithful are delivered from the dishonor of passions!

Rejoice, for by thee the sinful are moved to repentance!

Rejoice, great John, Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord!

O great and most glorious John, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord! Receive from us now this supplication offered to thee, and by thy prayers, which are pleasing to God, deliver us from evil of all kind, and rescue us from eternal torment, and make us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, that throughout the ages we may chant unto God: Alleluia!

O Baptist of Christ, Holy Forerunner, last of the prophets, first of the martyrs, instructor of fasters and desert-dwellers, teacher of purity and close friend of Christ! I pray thee; I run to thee. Do not reject me from thy protection, but lift me up who am fallen in many sins; renew my soul by repentance, as by a second Baptism. Purify me, corrupted by sins, and compel me to enter therein where no corruption can enter: into the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen. (“The Akathist to St. John the Baptist,” Kontakion VIII, Ikos VIII, Kontakion XIII, Prayer to St. John the Baptist.)

Fr. John Parker of South Carolina recently wrote an article titled “An Orthodox Response to Beheading by Muslims” exploring the Church’s historical response to the martyrdom of its children and what it should be today.

The essay asks rhetorically “is violence—individual or large-scale––a possible Orthodox response?” To shape his answer, Fr. John looks at the examples of martyrs beginning with the first of the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, and the first of the new Church, St. Stephen. With each saint listed, Fr. John points to the historical record and it’s stunning silent testimony that “there was no record of retribution.”

Retribution for the murder of John or Stephen would be unthinkable! Imagine if Jesus had prayed for help to save or avenge John the Baptist––the entire Gospel would have turned upside down in a moment. We try so hard to find any justification in the Gospel for violence but there is none. Jesus never appealed to the authorities, raised a mob, or led a protest. He committed no act of violence––even when he cleared the temple, there is no record he harmed anyone. When he had the chance and justification at Gethsemane, he didn’t even encourage Peter’s zeal. What we could have done with different words! “Well done, Peter. Those who live by the sword understand the world. Today you defended me, but the time is coming when you must defend yourself. Wait until you gain strength. Today we will be passive because we are weak—one sword is simply not enough.”

One of the more remarkable aspects of the response of Jesus and his followers to the violence done to John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the young Church is that their actions ran sharply counter to what might be expected. In fact, Rome saw its violence against them as preemptive––the authorities sensed rebellion everywhere. Palestine of Jesus’ day was swirling with political and revolutionary intrigue—the Jews desperately needed a political, military Messiah, and had Jesus wanted to inaugurate his kingdom with violence, he could have: The twelve legions of angels Jesus had standing by in the Garden were probably more than enough. The space of calm into which Jesus was born was brief and rippling with unrest, but waiting for a champion. And Jesus ignored it, did nothing to encourage rebellion, and gave an example exactly the opposite of what any sane person would have advised.

Instead, when Jesus heard of John’s murder, he retreated by himself, but when he saw people following him, he got back to the work of ministering mercy to them.

After the murder of St. Stephen the Proto-martyr—who prayed that his killers be forgiven even as the stones began to rain down on him—“was there an apostolic uprising?” as Fr. John teasingly asks in his essay. Instead, through responses of prayer, love, and forgiveness, the Church swelled with the numbers of its enemies its love prompted to conversion! Stephen pointed the way as he was dying by praying in the manner of his Savior on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

As Christians scattered throughout the region in response to growing persecution, they left us no record of raising bands of fighters to return to Jerusalem “to kill our enemies there before they come kill us here.” Instead, they continued to preach to hostile reception wherever they went, often with the same murderous response. The historical record is instead replete with evidence like that from the trial of St. Cyprian of Carthage:

At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!” Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood.

We must try to imagine––we can’t know––the human suffering these murders caused, the grief and fear experienced by the Christian community, or their struggle with hatred and desire for revenge, though millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ are living it today, many of whom are giving the same testimony the Holy Spirit has handed down through the Church from the time of the first martyr.

Fr. John wrote before the twenty-one Egyptian Copts were killed on a beach in Libya in February, 2015, but surely their witness may be added to his list. One mother who lost her son that day and couldn’t be blamed were she to demand angry justice said instead when she was asked if she had a message for her son’s murderers: “I thank you [ISIS], may the Lord touch your hearts and light a way for you so you don’t end up in a bad place—light a way for you so you don’t end up in hell.” Another mother whose son was also taken said she’d invite his murderer into her home “and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”

This makes no sense to the worldly minded because it is not of this world. It is the response of those who are in the world and know they are not of it. In “The Akathist to St. John the Baptist” we find joy, salvation, and consolation in contemplating not just the fact of his sacrifice, but in its purpose and Christ’s ultimate victory at the end of all things.  IC

Terrorism

Terrorism: Content discussing issues related to terrorism

Oklahoma City Bombing 15th Aniversary
Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995

 

 

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

binladennews-300x224

A Sermon for the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, 2001

0000151744-sepatt047-050

Peace and Peacemaking as an Interfaith and Ecumenical Vocation: An Orthodox View

Peace and Peacemaking as an Interfaith and Ecumenical Vocation: An Orthodox View 

Mar 9, 2011

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis 

Abstract[1]

For Orthodoxy, peace is inextricably related to the notion of justice and freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as a gift and vocation. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment. She won’t prevent wars. Peace requires much more than a military action or passive pacifism. The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle and public actions that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace.

General Remarks

In an increasingly complex and violent world, Christian churches have come to recognize, along with other communities of living faiths, that working for peace constitutes a primary expression of their responsibility for the life of the world. This responsibility is grounded on the essential goodness of all human beings and of all that God has created, continues to sustain, and is leading towards unity and a greater future. For Orthodoxy, peace is inextricably related to the notion of justice and freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as a gift and vocation.[2] Peace and peacemaking as a gift and vocation provide opportunities to connect theology with ethical witness, faith with social transformation. The dynamic nature of peace as gift and vocation does not allow its identification with stagnation, passivity and the acceptance of injustice.

While the Orthodox churches affirm that peace is an integral and indispensable element of the Christian gospel, they have not sufficiently reflected – in a morally consistent manner – on the nature of peace and peacemaking and how peace affects in practical terms, their life and witness to the world.[3] Orthodox theologians have noted that offering simply a theoretical presentation of the Orthodox understanding of peace is not a sufficient expression and witness:

It is not enough for us (Orthodox) simply to theologize, to describe and to prescribe regarding the Orthodox vision of justice and peace. We must also mobilize and work together for God’s purpose to defeat injustices and to establish justice wherever possible, as well as to overcome the forces, which threaten peace on earth.[4]

The contextualization of peace and peacemaking and the critical appreciation of the ecclesial actions or inactions for the advancement of peace compel the Orthodox Church to explore different but complementary ways to relate their liturgical and spiritual experience and faith with the complex and conflictual issues of the world. Such a move evokes accusations that the Church moves from the spiritual realm to politics, an “activism” that is alien to Orthodoxy. Commenting on the reluctance of the Orthodox churches to address issues of public life, Metropolitan John Zizioulas believes that they are right to give preeminence to those elements of their tradition that refer to the centrality of eschatology but they are wrong to disconnect eschatology from history, theology from ethics, and generally to be indifferent in finding and witnessing God in the historical realm.[5]

Orthodox theologians because of close association of many Orthodox Churches with the State and their long oppression by totalitarian regimes have not adequately and critically reflected on the reflexive relationship of “self and society,” and the Christian imperative of the simultaneous transformation by God’s grace as well as of Christian discipleship of both. Oppressive, unjust, and violent social structures jeopardized the humanity of the oppressed and a just society is at risk of being corrupted by unjust and greedy self-centered individuals. Fr. Stanley S. Harakas regretfully notes the undeveloped status of social ethics in Eastern Orthodoxy most especially on peace studies:

There are few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided theoretical underpinning for a consisted and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and worse yet, become the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacificism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet.[6]

This lamentable situation in the words of another Orthodox Scholar, Grant White, “must not become an excuse for inaction in the face of suffering of incomprehensible proportions.”[7]

The World Council of Churches since the early 90s has provided opportunities for Orthodox theologians to reflect on the issues of justice and peace.[8] The military invasion of Iraq by the United States has generated among Orthodox theologians in the USA an interesting debate on whether Just War, judged by the standards of the Orthodox Church, is a “lesser good” or a “lesser evil.”[9] Violence is neither fully legitimized from the perspective of the Church when it is viewed as a “lesser good” nor is unconditionally renounced when it is considered as a “lesser evil.” Most Orthodox theologians have defended the peaceable nature of the Orthodox Church and at the same time have conceded that the use of force is sometimes an inevitable tool of good statecraft provided that it is guided by a set of strict and yet meaningful moral restrains in its practical application.[10] The theological assessment of violence however seems to remain an issue of contestation.

Does the eschatological nature of the Christian faith allow us to give a conditional theological legitimacy to violence? The eschatological orientation of the gospel while it teaches us that a fully reachable earthly shalom is unattainable in history, it places the world in a dynamic process of transformation by the grace of the Holy Spirit that moves the world closer to the peaceable reign of God. Eschatology is a subversive principle that questions every necessity that legitimates violence. As Gregory Baum states:

Replying to the question ‘can society exist without violence?’ in the negative gives permission for societies to reconcile themselves with the violence they practice. Replying Yes to the question, in the name of divine promises, challenges every society to review its practices and reduce its reliance on violence.[11]

Peace, of course, is more than the absence of war. It does not deny conflict, an intrinsic element of human relationships, but neither does it identify conflict with violence. Violence is not the only way to resolve conflicts. Peacemakers are constantly groping to find ways in which people and communities can resolve their differences without physical violence. Peace is a dynamic process not an absolute end point. Genuine peace means progress toward a freer and more just world.

Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, living in a Muslim country and having personally experienced the cruelties of religion-sanctioned wars and strife, addressing this issue of religious sanctioned violence has argued that that the Church cannot exercise its vocation of peace and peacemaking in a plausible manner if it cannot exorcise war. He notes:

In the church a vision of inwardness where peace becomes our vocation is plausible only if war can be exorcised. How can it have come about that pure and pious men like the inquisitors had such a bad theology? This constitutes one of the tragedies of our past. Nothing can be accomplished until the biblical foundations of violence are shattered. For us the error lies not in history but in theology. Violence is justified, fed by the belief that God of the Bible led Israel from victory to victory and that he willed all nations to submit to it…

Alongside this bloodthirsty God, there arises the image of a merciful God whose voice speaks in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea and in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah. We are confronted here with two irreconcilably opposed faces of the Lord in the same Scripture.[12]

He argues that for Christians these incompatibles image of God must be read and interpreted through a “kenotic” reading of the Scripture and suggests that the “The Cross alone is the locus of divine victory, and the source of the meaning of faith. Anything in the Scripture that does not conform to the mystery of Love is a veil over the Word. Love is the true locus of the Word, because it alone is a divine epiphany.”[13] Other Orthodox scholars risking the accusation of being Marcionites tend to bypass the violent texts of the Scripture especially of the Old Testament as early stages of understanding God’s revelation that the New Testament has surpassed. In the Patristic tradition the violent texts of the Scripture have been interpreted through the “allegorical method” to describe “Spiritual personal struggles against evil and sin.”[14]

The renunciation of the violence, war, and terrorism as destructive of human lives, unjust and oppressive becomes a credible expression of the Church’s faith only when it is complemented with ethical practices that point to their prevention. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of conflict and war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment about the legitimacy and rules of conduct of war or even its unconditional renunciation. Peace requires much more than a military action or passive pacifism. If our ethics focus only on when a military action is right or wrong it limits our concern to a military action and does not encompass preventive actions. A remedy to this limitation is for the churches to develop just peacemaking practices that move their ethical discourse from theories that justify or regulate the use of violence to preventive actions that contribute to the building up of a culture of peace.[15]

The peaceable witness of the churches won’t always prevent wars and Christians may continue to disagree on when, if ever, war and military force are justified. But it is possible for them to work together and even reach consensus on the question: “what practices of violence prevention and peacemaking should they support?” Even if they believe in the justification of some wars, they still need an ethic that enables them to think clearly about initiatives of peacemaking. Pacifists, also, have the moral obligation in situations of aggression, injustice and violent conflicts not simply to renounce violence and war but to invent peaceful means and actions by which justice, peace and reconciliation is served.[16] Depending on local situations and cultural or theological sensitivities, peacemaking efforts may be crafted differently. However, what is important is that the Churches complement their ethical judgments with peacemaking and peace-building actions.

The Church, as the sacrament of God’s peace to the world, actively supports all human efforts that aim to identify more effective ways of resolving disputes without resorting to violent conflicts. The concern of the Church for peace and its active participation in movements of peace and social justice is a testing ground of its faith about the origins, essential goodness and future of the world. It is Her vocation to be a peacemaker through prayer and action that transform the conditions that cause violence. The Church enables those human beings whom violence and war have put asunder to find their unity in God’s peace and justice through reconciliation, reparation and forgiveness.[17]

The Peaceable Vocation of the Church in a Global World

Peace and justice are notions that call the churches to contextualize their message. Christian churches cannot ignore that the world today is highly complex, interdependent, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and irreversibly pluralistic. In such a context, in order to be agents of reconciliation and peace they must find ways to communicate and to collaborate with people and communities of other living faiths, ideologies, cultures and beliefs. Such collaboration cannot be just an exchange of ideas and a comparing of different theologies nor a matter of political expediency. It requires religious communities not to abandon their particular unique claims about the origins of peace and how it can be fully established in the life of the world but to develop a theology of involvement and cooperation with other religious communities. Religious communities need to reflect on how the fullness of the world in all its irreducible diversities reflects the dynamic presence of God’s transforming grace. Religious and cultural plurality is a fact and communities of living faiths should teach and convince their followers to accept this fact.

An interfaith collaboration in peacemaking and peace building efforts presupposes that the communities of living faiths have acquired and developed the necessary theology and conversational skills that enable them to recognize and respect the integrity of other people’s beliefs, practices and communal life. The Third Pan Orthodox Preconciliar Conference (1986) encourages the Orthodox churches to move towards this wider collaboration:

The local Orthodox churches in close collaboration with the peace-loving faithful of other world religions consider it their duty to work for peace on earth and the establishment of fraternal relations between peoples. The Orthodox churches are called upon to contribute to joint effort and collaboration between religions, and thereby combat fanaticism anywhere; in this way work for reconciliation between peoples, the triumph of the values represented by freedom and peace in the world, service to humanity today regardless of race or religion…[18]

Peace has no religious frontiers. Religious communities through interfaith dialogue and collaboration must strive to overcome misunderstandings, stereotypes, caricatures and other prejudices, inherited or acquired. Their voices in favor of peace must be heard in the public realm (political life, media, and marketplace) and together must take initiative that promotes justice and peace in the world. The universal message of peace, that each religious faith community espouses, should enable their followers and other people to see one another, not as enemies, but as brothers and sisters across religious, national, racial and cultural frontiers.

Religious communities along with other movements of social transformation become credible agents of peace after they have examined and assessed critically their past and present performance in situations of conflict. Such a critical approach would humble them and help them to recognize that their declarations about peace are not always commensurate with their passivity, indifference or actions in situations of conflict and injustice. A critical assessment of their present and past performances could free them from multiple ideologies (nationalistic, political, racial, and economic) that have used the passion that religious faith evokes for the purpose to advance their own goals, values and interests.

The complicity of religious believers and communities in acts of violence is also greatly influenced by collective and personal insecurities and fears that guide their interpretation of religious texts and traditions. It is not uncommon for people in violent situations and conflicts to profess faith in God’s peace and at the same time to give legitimacy to their violent acts as their contribution to God’s cause for the world. In all these situations such people and their religious communities have forgotten that wars and divisions between people are the most immediate and visible expressions of sin and evil.

Orthodox ascetical tradition insists that violence and war begins primarily in people’s hearts with pride, rancor, hatred and desire for revenge, before it is translated into armaments, open violence and wanton destruction. Thus, peace starts with the formation of consciousness, with conversion of hearts. Consequently, an indispensable aspect of interfaith dialogue and cooperation for advancing a culture of peace is for communities of living faiths to join hands and educate the human heart in honesty, love, benevolence, compassion, solidarity, self control and especially respect for the rights of others. Violence is not overcome by further violence. Neither the politics of fear or of terror can bring peace and justice in the world. Hatred must be overcome by love, by conversion of heart, and by removal of the causes of war, which are injustice, selfishness, envy and indifference to human suffering and oppression.

Those who have studied the role of religion in violent conflicts throughout the world urge religious leaders and theologians to become more proactive in addressing the sources of violence that emanate from within their communities.

They can no longer disown their coreligionist extremists by simply dismissing their actions as being unreflective of the real values of their faith tradition. Religious extremists justify the atrocities that they pursue in the name of their God by taking advantage the ambivalence towards violence that is found in each of the different traditions. There is a need for a strong, unambiguous and clear articulation of those elements of religious faith that advance peace and justice for all human beings, repudiating those coreligionists who use their faith to incite communal strife and global terror. Such a declaration must necessarily affirm the dignity and the sacredness of human life and embrace religious freedom and diversity as an indispensable social right.[19]

Theological Foundations for a Culture of Peace

The Orthodox churches understand peace and peacemaking as an indispensable aspect of their faith and of their mission to the world. They ground this faith conviction upon the wholeness of the Biblical tradition as it is properly interpreted through the Church’s liturgical experience and practice. The Eucharist provides the space and the hermeneutical perspective by which one discerns and experiences the fullness of the Christian faith. It provides the norm for the witness of the Church in the life of the world. Robert F. Taft, reviewing the history of the formation of the Byzantine liturgy, concludes that since its formation peace had assumed a central importance as a greeting and prayer that expresses the Church’s understanding of God’s Kingdom.[20] Peace in Scripture as well as in the liturgy is a greeting and a dynamic grace-giving word (Jn. 20.19-21). God Himself is Peace (Jgs. 6:24) and peace is His gift. Peace is a sign of communion with God, who gives peace to those who serve him (Ps. 85.8-13). It grants freedom from fear and threat by enemies and it is inseparable from righteousness without which there is no real peace. In short, “peace” is practically synonymous with salvation (Rom 16.20; 1 Thes5.23). Peace is communion with God and Jesus Christ is our peace, since He is the bond of communion (Eph 2.14-17): “We live in peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom5.1). The peace of God in the Liturgy is referred as “peace from on high, “as in the angelic greeting of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men”. It is granted to the world and to the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God within the world that guides all into unity: “in one place with one accord” (Acts 2:1 and grants to all peace, justice, love, and joy (Rom. 14:14). In the Liturgy, people receive peace of God in their unity with Christ through the work of the Holy once they enter, through the Holy Spirit, into unity with God.[21] Peace once sealed the liturgy of world[22] and at the end of the liturgy the people are sent away in peace.

Christians, as it is reflected in the liturgy, give primary emphasis on the eschatological peace that God grants to them as a gift of communion with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, they do not ignore the conflicts, the power struggles and the violence that one experiences in the world. Although the early Christian church of the first three centuries was primarily pacifist, grounding its attitudes on the Sermon of the Mount (Mt. 5-7; Mt 26/52), the Fathers of the church later in situations of conflict without abandoning the pacifist attitude of the early Church, had justified defensive wars without developing theories of just war or giving theological legitimacy to violence.

The Orthodox Church gives far more attention to the question of how to establish and maintain peaceful and just societies than it does to justify, or even tolerate, any instance of war. It has rather a dynamic commitment to the praxis of peace.

In every dimension of life, the Church invites us to embody the way of Christ as fully as we can in the circumstances that we face: to forgive enemies; to work for the reconciliation of those who have become estranged; to overcome the divisions of race, nationality, and class; to care for the poor; to live in harmony with others; to protect creation and to use the created goods of the world for the benefit of all. Advocacy for peace must not stop with praying the litanies of the Liturgy. We can pray these petitions with integrity only if we offer ourselves as instruments for God’s peace in the world, only if we live them out in relation to the challenges to peace that exist among peoples and nations.

Placing the tradition of the Orthodox Church on peace in the context of the development in peace studies, Orthodoxy has never developed elaborate theories of just war nor it has embraced absolute pacifism. As such it is radically different in orientation from the quietist tradition of some religious sects, whose members tended to withdraw from public life and cede to the State the realm of practical politics. The absolute or “purist” pacifism is distinct from the more widely accepted tradition of pragmatic or conditional pacifism, which opposes war in principle but accepts the possibility of using force for self-defense or the protection of the vulnerable.[23] Pacifism is not just a philosophy, a set of abstract ideas and beliefs, but a passionate commitment and political program for social change. A Pacifist is someone who is personally committed to take action, to work for peace and reduce the level of violence. The ethos of Orthodoxy is much more related with pragmatic or conditional pacificism. The Orthodox people do not only pray for peace and believe that God has destined the world to live in justice, peace and unity, but as a result of their faith they are called to be active peacemakers as St. Nicholas Cabasilas states: “Christians, as disciples of Christ who made all things for peace, are to be ‘craftsmen of peace – τεχνίτες ειρήνης.”[24] They are called a peaceable race (εἰρηνικόν γέννος) since “nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace.”[25] The Third Preconciliar Pan Orthodox Conference (1986) exhorts Orthodox Christians to be active peace makers grounded in their faith:

We, Orthodox Christians, have – by reason of the fact that we have had access to the meaning of salvation – a duty to fight against disease, misfortune, fear; because we have had access to the experience of peace we cannot remain indifferent to its absence from society today; because we have benefited from God’s justice, we are fighting for further justice in the world and for the elimination of all oppression; because we daily experience God’s mercy, we are fighting all fanaticism and intolerance between persons and nations; because we continually proclaim the incarnation of God and the divinization of man we defend human rights for all individuals and all peoples; because we live God’s gift of liberty, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, we can announce more completely its universal value for all individuals and peoples; because, nourished by the body and blood of our Lord in the holy Eucharist, we experience the need to share God’s gifts with our brothers and sisters, we have a better understanding of hunger and privation and fight for their abolition; because we expect a new earth and new heaven where absolute justice will reign, we fight here and now for the rebirth and renewal of the human being and society.[26]

The Third Pre-conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference provided a theological manifesto that should guide the public witness and involvement of the Orthodox people. But still there is a need to develop and learn practical ways, pastoral projects and opportunities that allow Orthodox people and the churches to participate in movements of social transformation and contribute to a culture of peace.

The peace that God bestows to the world is given not only to humanity but also to the whole created world. Nature and history are, for the Christian faith, ontological realities bearing the marks of sinfulness as separation, division, opposition, ethical and natural evil, as well as the realm, the space, in which the drama of the salvation of the whole world is unfolding through the dynamic presence of God’s Spirit in them. Christians participate in the process of salvation as they embrace, in love, all human beings, who constitute an indivisible unity by virtue of their common origins, partaking of God’s breath, and living in His love. Hatred and divisions are not simply moral mistakes, resulting from the wrong ethical choice of a person, but they reveal the abyss of being-without-God.

Thus the Christian understanding of peace and how it is advanced in the life of the world is guided by the eschatological peace that God grants to the world, the reality of being with God and participating in the glory of His reign. It is primarily a gift and a vocation, a pattern of life. It discloses the life of those who have been reconciled and united with God. It is primarily this unity that enables Christians to embrace in love all human beings because of the active presence of God’s spirit in them. Since peace is constitutive of the Christian Gospel, Christian believers are involved in a permanent process of becoming more conscious of their responsibility to incarnate the message of peace and justice in the world as a witness of the authenticity of their faith. This is clearly stated by St. Basil: “Christ is our peace,” and hence “he who seeks peace seeks Christ…without love for others, without an attitude of peace towards all men, no one can be called a true servant of Christ.”[27]

The Christian Church insists that the root cause for violence, injustice and oppression in the world reflects the pervasive presence and impact of the still active operation of the “principalities and powers” of the fallen world. Evil, violence, injustice and oppression reflects the disruptive communion of human beings with God, the fallible nature of our human actions, and the failure to discern and do the will of God in the midst of the ambiguities of history. Violence has multiple manifestations: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless and innumerable acts of inhumanity. In the midst of violence and injustice, Christian faith recognizes the active presence of God’s Spirit: the subversive reality that enables the world, and in particular the suffering victims of injustice, aggression and oppression, to begin a process of liberation and movement towards a culture of peace and justice. A tension between the already given reality of peace and its not-yet-fulfilled reality characterizes the key theological stance of Christians involved in the struggle for peace. The awareness that peace is an eschatological gift of God and of the active presence of God’s Spirit in history makes it impossible for the churches to accept a historical fatalism of wars and clashes as unshaken reality or that it is possible to have a permanent peace in this world by relying simply on human-centered ideologies.

Communicating the Christian Notion of Peace in the Public Space.

The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace. Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker and a worker for justice. This calling is primarily nourished through prayers and repentance; allowing Scripture to form our human consciousness; participating in the Eucharist; and recognizing the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed to be the living icons of Christ.

This calling is noble and Christians, through the above mentioned devotional practices receive, the gift of God’s peace as the basis of their involvement in the life of the world. They are peacemakers because of their participation in God’s mission. Here it is important to differentiate between the gift of God’s peace and how this gift is received, acknowledged and communicated by the Church and the faithful. While the gift of God’s peace is given through the Church to all by virtue of their identification with Christ, it is not equally true that the faithful are always the vehicles of God’s grace and peace to the world. Christian responses to situations of violence are always subject to God’s judgment that compels the churches and the faithful to repentance, asking God’s forgiveness for all their failures to be active agents of His peace to the world.

Orthodox theologians have recognized that there is a need to “lift up in the consciousness of the church, the peace-making character of Christianity and the Christian duty to serve the cause of peace and Justice.”[28] Articulating only abstract theological truths, which nevertheless are normative for the Church’s identity and mission, cannot raise the consciousness of the Church. There is a need to enhance and concretize these theological ideals with insights about social injustice, oppression and violence that social science provides. As the report of the Orthodox Perspectives on Justice and Peace states:

It is important that we not only speak about justice and peace, but also develop projects and contribute practically in programmes and sustained organized activity on behalf of the concrete realization of the values of justice and peace in our ecclesial life. In this regard the church must learn to dialogue especially with non-church bodies to find the most suitable common ways for the implementation of justice and peace.[29]

On the basis of the theological understanding of peace, the Orthodox churches are encouraged to participate in movements of peace and justice. However their involvement in movements of social change will not be credible unless they first liberate themselves from “ethno-nationalism,” which reflects the history of the long identification of church-nation-state relationship in most Orthodox countries where the churches had been considered as national institutions. Ethno-nationalism has reduced in some instances the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to a “national” church restricted geographically and unduly influenced by civilizations, language, idiosyncrasy and serving political purposes, dictated by nationalism, racism and chauvinism of people and states.[30] The suggested liberation of the Orthodox churches from “ethno-nationalism” does not mean that their members cannot be patriotic, or love their nation. What is objectionable is the exclusive identification of God with a particular nation. The partiality of Ethno-nationalism does not only hinder the Orthodox contribution to peace movements, but it debases basic tenets of the Orthodox faith.[31]

The Orthodox churches should exercise their peace-making mission through their active participation in all peace dialogues between states which are at war, between ideologies and political trends fighting each other for the sake of justice and freedom in their respective countries, between the political status quo and liberation movements, as well as in all dialogues intending to defeat racism, sex discrimination and any kind of exploitation of the weak and the poor. It is the mission of the church in its participation and dialogue with the others to witness God’s love for all humanity and affirm the dignity of all human beings.

For this the church has to express its deep-rooted commitment to justice in concrete and relevant ways in our time. We must affirm, loudly and clearly, the truth that God’s image is present in every human being. We need to seek out and actively cooperate with all forces of good working for the eradication from God’s creation of all forms of prejudice and discrimination. We ourselves must teach our people to respect the integrity and dignity of all peoples of every nation, economic condition, race, sex, political affiliation, so that reconciliation and tolerance may replace coercion and violence in our relationships. Our goal is nothing less than the reign of God’s love among all peoples.[32]

Dialogue between opposing sides is not simply a means to reach/achieve agreement. The dialogue itself is part of a reconciliation process. The Orthodox should defend not only the dialogue on peace as such but also the inclusion in it of people who are very often neglected in crucial deliberations. Those who become partners in true dialogue with open and sincere minds, and are ready to listen and not only to speak are already on the way to peace.

Christians in the public realm join their efforts and contribute their resources to all efforts that intend to stop or minimize violence, loss of life, human suffering and deprivation. All actions that aim to save human lives and/or uphold the dignity of all human beings in the midst of violent conflict are acts that promote peace in a provisional but necessary manner. They are actions taken to avoid the immediate threat of armed conflict, massive bloodshed and cruelty but they do not address or eliminate the deeper issues and causes that generate violence and war.

Is it possible for Orthodoxy to justify wars in defending the dignity, the rights, the freedom and the liberation of oppressed people? As the report on Orthodox Perspective on Justice and Peace states:

The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defense of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed, a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for Peace. [33]

Christians can never admit that resorting to violence or to any kind of war could resolve conflicts and bring peace and harmony to the world. But as long as we live in this world this principle is not unshakeable and cannot –unfortunately – be absolutized. The “pacifist” option, although it is closer to the ethos of the Orthodox Church, cannot become an absolute principle for solutions to conflicts without condoning the world’s conditions and human sin, as well as the predicament of history. It is not possible to adopt one position only and apply it in all situations, at all times and in all places. There is always a need for careful discernment of the signs of the times. One may argue that whenever people or communities resort to violent to resolve their conflicts, they are putting at risk their unity with God and they are in danger of losing their humanity. Violence reflects realities and means of the world and not of God’s kingdom and as such cannot receive theological legitimacy.[34] All kinds of tortures, the holding of innocent persons as hostages, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians harm the life of the victims and dehumanize the victimizers.

It is important to differentiate “pacifism” from “non-violent” resistance to situations of injustice and oppression. Non-violence especially when it is organized as a pressure movement against power centers should not be identified with an entirely passive attitude to evil.[35] Non-violence provides a pragmatic alternative to absolute pacifism, a way of overcoming injustice and realizing political objectives while remaining true to moral principles. In all armed conflicts, there are possibilities of non-violent actions for reaching a solution or an agreement. A Christian always seeks and suggests such means instead of adopting an absolute, unilateral position.[36]

The Christian churches, while they support all human efforts that repudiate the logic of violence and war, must not forget their greater mission to lead the world to address the deeper issues. Peace is not a moral good in and of itself; it is linked with the most basic human values and practices as a permanent improvement of the human condition on all levels. Defending the dignity of every human person and the sanctity of life cannot be disengaged from the quest for greater justice and freedom as the foundation, source and origin of real and permanent peace. “No society can live in peace with itself, or with the world, without the full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person, and of the sacredness of all human life (Jas. 4.1-2).”[37] The Christian churches would be hesitant to fully support those peace movements that disregard fundamental human values like justice and freedom for the sake of merely avoiding the last explicit negation of peace, i.e. massive armed war and the application of violence. Certainly, a Christian would always share in the efforts to avoid bloodshed because life is the most precious God-given gift, but he would try to remind people that when attempting to avoid war and keep peace they should critically examined what kind of peace they represent.

One has to speak of the Christian peace concept and its contribution to the general peace movement not as an absolute one in a general religious, self-sufficcient sense but as a radical particularity which is unique in that it goes dynamically deep into the primary causes of war and violence and calls for thorough study and actions for peace. Particularity here refers to a uniqueness relating to Christ as our Peace, presenting God’s Peace as a paramount gift to the whole of humanity. There are good attempts in the secular realm regarding peace, and a Christian should affirm them as a first point of contact with God’s peace: “Whenever we see harmony, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity, generosity, and care for the weak in the common life of humanity, we witness a blessing of the Lord and catch a glimpse –no matter how dim and imperfect – of the peace of Christ.”[38] Then the uniqueness of Christian peace could definitely become a necessary and positive counter-balance against all kinds of unilateral, human centered and godless peace making.

Finally, the contribution of the Orthodox churches in advancing peace with justice and freedom depends upon their total commitment to the Gospel of love and reconciliation and on their courage to speak and act accordingly beyond any kind of temporary affiliations in the socio-political realm. Their contribution will, however, be truly Christian, if it is offered in all humanity and in that spirit of repentance and forbearance which is the key prerequisite of all true peacemakers.

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon

A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)[
A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)[

At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.

In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.

binladencelebr

Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.

What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.

To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance.   Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.

“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.

When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.

What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.

Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.

Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.

The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.

Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.

In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.

It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.

Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.

Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.

_____________

1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Venerating the Cross After September 11

a Sermon for the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, 2001

In venerating the Cross, we are reminded that the Cross is part of every believer’s life. Normally, we hope and pray that our Cross might be small and light “ some minor aches and pains, some financial difficulties, or our struggles to live a Christian life in a world increasingly hostile to our faith. But on September 11th, we saw the face of evil incarnate and are witnesses to and victims of darkness and death. We were given a Cross that none of us ever imagined and certainly never desired. And we wonder how we are going to carry it. We have been shown that our comforts, wealth, and abundance of material possessions are mere shadows “ fleeting wisps of smoke that can vanish as soon as a decent puff of wind rises up.

We live our lives in such abundance and comfort that we are tempted to believe that abundance and comfort have power and strength in and of themselves. We are seduced into thinking that we have control of this world and our lives in it, when in reality we have no control whatsoever.

It was not just buildings and people that were attacked. Each and every one of our immortal souls has been attacked. And it is that attack that we need to worry about now. Satan and his disciples want to compound this awful sin and recruit numerous co-conspirators by watching us sink into a bottomless pit of passions.

We are tempted to be angry, to be bitter, to be hateful, to be bloodthirsty, to be judgmental. We feel totally justified in all those emotions, which is the greatest temptation of all. But it is in fighting these temptations that we are called to hear the words of the Lord from today’s gospel reading: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

What does following Christ mean for us today? He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”

Our faith is easy to practice when we have small crosses. But it is hard to practice when our crosses are large and heavy. It is obvious that to “follow Christ” means we are called to something different than mere human response. We are called to emulate Christ. We are called to love, not hate. To bless, not curse. To pray for our enemies. Even to forgive them. A great expectation, to be sure. But it is the way for anyone claiming to follow Christ. Concretely, each and every one of us should be on our knees praying to God for our attackers and asking Him to soften our hearts and remove all bitterness, hatred, anger, and judgement. Otherwise, we are “deader” than those who lost their lives in the attack.

— extracts from a sermon preached by Archpriest John Dresko at Holy Trinity Church, New Britain, Connecticut, on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

September 11 and Reverence for Life

by Jim Forest

Our world has changed since September 11. While in the U.S. from mid-October to mid-November, I experienced aspects of that change again and again each day.

Arriving in America, I had a view from the air of the wound the September attack left in New York. In the early evening, a month after the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, now a maimed landscape. It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a still-smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the intense artificial light, but couldn’t see them. Finally, beyond Battery Park, there was the glistening ebony water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her torch in the sky.

A few days later, I was in Manhattan for a meeting with Bishop Dimitrios at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on East 79th Street. Inevitably, we talked about September 11 and its aftermath. Bishop Dimitrios told me a statistic which brought home the hidden struggle going on in so many people’s lives: the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen by 40 percent since the World Trade Center was destroyed. (The sale of hand guns and gas masks had also shot up.)

While the date September 11 opens many themes for reflection, at the top of the list is the word “murder.”

One of the remarkable things about human beings is that no other species appears to be so deeply disturbed by death. Even though few events are so common and nothing so inevitable as death, we never regard it as ordinary. Why is that? Even when we reach the point when death is welcome — the passing of an elderly person who has been patiently awaiting death’s arrival, or the last breath of a person who has been suffering a grave, untreatable illness — there is still the shock of the abrupt absence of someone torn from the fabric of our lives. We experience death as an injury, a violation.

But murder is unnatural death and disturbs us in a special way. No other crime horrifies us so much as murder, even when the victim has few good qualities. It is no defense against the charge of murder that the world is better off without the person killed. In the negative hierarchy of criminals, it is the murderer who is regarded as worst and is punished most severely.

We are both shocked and fascinated by murder, reading murder mysteries, watching murder films and studying accounts of murder trials. We want to know not only who did it, but why. How does a human being become a killer? It gives us satisfaction to see a murderer caught, whether by a real policeman or a fictitious Miss Marple. Murder mystery novels sell by the millions, suggesting not only our fascination with murder but the importance of stories in our lives.

Life’s understructure — stories

If you have ever been to Amsterdam, perhaps you discovered that this attractive city of canals and gabled houses has a prosaic underside. It’s built on sand and mud. Those houses would have sunk long ago if it weren’t for the pilings they stand on — tree trunks driven deep into the sand and clay. Sadly, many an old Amsterdam house has been torn down because the pilings rotted away, while some of the survivors now lean at odd angles.

Basic stories are like the pilings that hold up the houses of Amsterdam. These are the stories at the foundation of our lives, reaching deep into the darkness and mystery beneath consciousness, shaping and arranging perceptions, revealing patterns and meaning.

Father Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who has spent much of his life in Africa, once told me that he had learned from African culture that the most important person in any society is the storyteller. Nothing protects a person or a nation as much as a true story — or threatens it more than a false story. In moments of crisis, it isn’t ideologies or theories that guide us but our primary stories. True stories help make us capable of love and sacrifice and light up the path to the kingdom of God. False stories condemn us to nothingness and disconnection. Much depends on our story-foundation. If the stories we live by are false, our foundations rot and we sink into the mud.

What worried Father Donders most about America is that our basic story isn’t the Gospel but the cowboy movie — always a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. Let’s call it the Gospel According to John Wayne, as no star in cowboy films was more convincing in the hero part. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, a modern city or a far-away galaxy that exists only in our imaginations. No matter what the setting or period, what the stories have in common is the portrayal of killing as the ultimate solution to evil.

The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it — the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect others. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story — a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the profoundly Christian story of George, he only wounds the dragon. Afterward the dragon is cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about the conversion, of self, of others, of evil enemies. The problem with the modern John Wayne version is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also no such thing as a completely good person, apart from Christ. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Russia’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

(vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)

Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person, or ourselves. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder, suicide, was a real temptation.

The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that with the Fall of Adam and Eve, the likeness was lost and can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace.

The perception of the Divine image is something Thomas Merton recounts in one of his most striking journal entries, found in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. In Louisville on an errand, he describes standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change when suddenly he is overwhelmed with love for all these strangers. He speaks of “waking from a dream of separateness.” Everyone was suddenly “shining like the sun.” Reflecting on this God-given epiphany, a mystical experience in the city, he goes on to say:

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness or cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

[140-2]

More than anything else, reverence for life is a question of how well we see, how unblind we are, how unafraid we are. To see well is to be aware of the miraculous dimension of being, to sense the sacramental aspect of life, to be aware of God’s presence.

Think about the story of the man born blind in Saint John’s Gospel. Here’s a beggar in Jerusalem who has never seen anything but darkness his entire life. Yet the miracle ignites a controversy. John describes a kind of trial in which Pharisees twice interrogate the man himself and also his patents, to be sure that this is indeed their son and has been blind from birth. But the story John tells is less about the miracle than about people not believing what they have witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom. Take your miracles and beggars and go away.”

We learn from John that it takes courage to see and, having seen, to take responsibility for what sight reveals to us. Wide-eyed seeing can rock the foundations of your life. It can change everything. It can get you into trouble.

With eyes that really see, you don’t need a geneticist to tell you that we are human beings not only from the cradle to the grave but during all those months before we reach the cradle. Such knowledge necessarily makes one a protector of the unborn. With eyes that really see, we cannot turn away from a pregnant woman who for lack of encouragement and support, trapped in panic and fear, may feel she has no alternative but abortion.

With eyes that really see, we can no longer speak of the death of innocent people in war as “collateral damage,” truly a phrase from hell. With eyes that really see, we cannot advocate anyone’s execution, however appalling the crime, not only because such an action makes us co-responsible for an act of bloodshed and vengeance, but because we destroy the possibility of the killer ever leading a repentant life. With eyes that see, we cannot live at peace with a world that abandons so many people. With eyes that really see, we will not dehumanize others or make ourselves into enemies of the environment. Eyes that really see can heal our lives.

The Root of War is Fear

The main impediment that brings us close to blindness is fear. It was an insight of Merton’s that “the root of war is fear.” He perceived that even deeper than the fear men have of each other is the fear we have of everything, our distrust even of ourselves:

It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves that is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.

[New Seeds of Contemplation, p 112]

The Greek theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, writes on similar lines:

The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.” … The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.

[The full text of Met. John’s essay is posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site]

Sin

If fear of the other is the essence of sin, what is sin? This is a three-letter word that has been carefully avoided by many people in recent years but which, after September 11, seems to be finding its way back into unembarrassed common usage.

The Greek word hamartia, like the Hebrew verb chata’, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional.

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs list seven things which God hates: “A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren.” [6:16-19]

Though murder is on the list, pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs. [16:18] In Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a young brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” These words cured the brother of his pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, more valued than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Because of pride, the way is opened for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence and all acts that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that we explain what we did rather than admit we did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about 50 people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

There are two vivid signs of a serious sin — the hope that it may never become known, and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is so before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life.

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans. It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Self-justification or repentance

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to admit a certain action was sinful and to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live anymore as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.”

One of the blessings that has come out of the tragedy of September 11 is that we are much less embarrassed speaking about God, more able to admit own capacity for evil, and find ourselves less reluctant to pray.

Life is not recognized as sacred unless we nourish a capacity to sense the sacred and understand that God exists. Our struggle to develop a deeper, more consistent reverence for life and to help others do likewise is essentially a religious pilgrimage and an evangelical task. Our life must have a missionary dimension. We must help our neighbor to see, and assist our neighbor in becoming less fearful. It takes so little to save a life — if only we would see and, from that seeing, respond.

Jim Forest’s next book, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, will be published by Orbis in February. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and co-editor of In Communion. This is based on a talk sponsored by Harmony magazine and given at the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker house in San Francisco, November 3, 2001.

The Architecture of War

by Jessica Rose

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

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

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

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

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

Mimesis and the development of desire

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

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

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

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

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

The scapegoating mechanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel message overturns the scapegoating mechanism

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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