This morning, the hierarchs gathered here met in the Church of the Annunciation in Kissamos in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy of All Souls Day. The departed who labored for this Council were particularly commemorated. The Gospel read today recounts the words of the risen Christ to the apostate Peter, “Do you love me?Feed me sheep.” This Gospel tells the story of a reconciliation, a word that shares the same root as council. It may be helpful to think of these gatherings of Bishops in terms of reconciliation. Each time the Bishops gather, they are being re-conciliated. If they spend too much time away from their brethren, differences appear that threaten the effectiveness of the Church. Successful councils have always gathered the Bishops together in order to course-correct. As such, the canons of the councils are collectively called the ‘rudder.’
Councils reconcile Bishops to one another because they love Christ. They do this so that they can feed Christ’s sheep more effectively. Today we are in dire need of a Council. There are significant pastoral challenges that have arisen from the inconsistency of the Church’s global response to changing times. In the past, the Church has adapted in order to more effectively minister to its flock. The issues of multiple calendars and of the diaspora both signal that reconciliation is needed in order to more effectively minister to the world.
It is a great misfortune that the pre-conciliar proposals for addressing present concerns are inadequate. The issue of the calendar is one of several that have not been on the agenda for some time, while those items which are on the agenda do not do that much to address problems in the Church. With this in mind, should we expect anything to come of this council? Substantive issues are diplomatically skirted. And even with the comparatively bland documents under consideration, four primates are missing. Antioch, one of the highest ranked patriarchates, is missing, as is most of the Slavic world, accounting for more than two-thirds of Orthodox Christians.
“Of course, it may be better to avoid any kind of meeting of bishops; I know of no good to have come from even a single synod; I know of no solutions that resulted, but only additional problems that arose. Their only outcomes are arguments, ambitions and rivalries; bishops prefer to reprove others rather than resolve internal church issues.” These are the words of St. Gregory the Theologian. I’ve read several reports saying that the Church is on the cusp of something tremendous. Either a renaissance will occur in which the Church rises up to shape the world, or some great schism will happen and Orthodox communities will be further relegated to the ghettos of history. If we truly are at such a critical moment, then what should we make of the lackluster progress of the Council so far? Should we lose hope? Or should we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that divisions in the Church are as old as the Church itself (see the book of Acts!).
Yesterday’s Epistle reading tells the story of St. Paul getting shipwrecked with his captors. Its a story that I’ve read many times before, but when I read it yesterday, something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before. St. Paul reprimands his jailers after they have encountered trouble, saying “Men, you should have listened to me, and not set sail from Crete.” He had told them to stay at Crete while the storm passed, but instead they left Crete and could not bear the storm. Details like these are easy to gloss over until you find yourself sitting on the island of Crete, amidst a ecclesiastical tempest, wondering why four bishops have decided to harbor away from the island.
Councils, as reconciliation, are anchors for the Church. They do not determine the consciousness of the Church, for they may be accepted or rejected. Councils do not change the Church so much as they anchor it. Conciliar statements add stability. They are a common reference which all may look to. Reconciling the Bishops hopefully gets everyone on the same page, so that they might go forth to feed the lost and the found sheep of the world. With several Bishops now absent, this ministry of reconciliation is now in jeopardy. The anchor is lifted, and the Church risks floating away, being swept up in some tide of nationalism, selfishness, or conflict.
Here it would be easy to dwell on the motives of these Bishops and to speculate. Were they right to leave? Is the Church not ready for the Council? Were these Bishops capitulating to ideology, or to pressure at home? Why did they leave just days before the Council, even though they had the documents for many months? Is there a power struggle at play? These questions are unanswerable with how much information is out there. Whatever the motives of the various parties, reconciliation is necessary. We may be tempted to do nothing but point fingers at others, rather than seek reconciliation. Now some reprimand may be necessary, just as St. Paul reprimands his jailers. In fact, if we do love the Church, we may be led to criticize her leaders. For as Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, it is those who love a town the most that criticize it. If you did not love a town, you would not be bothered if it burnt. But St. Paul does not end with a reprimand. Rather, he continues by saying “Do not be afraid.” He tells them that Christ has assured them safe travel. Do not be afraid, because Paul is destined to reach Rome with his jailers. Do not be afraid, because the Gospel will triumph.
Faithful observers of this Council may fear that the Gospel is being held captive by selfish Bishops who have departed from their mission on Crete. But I find St. Paul’s words instructive here. Even if the Gospel is held captive and marooned, we have assurance that it will not remain so. Christ has destined the Church to be salt and light. We should not be afraid, for as Archbishop Anastasios said yesterday, Christ will take this imperfect Council just as he takes imperfect bread, and he will make it into his body. If the Church fails to drop its anchor here in Crete this week, we may find ourselves floating in the sea, suffering in the tempest. But that also means we will be sailing no longer by our own strength, which will have failed, but instead only by God’s mercy. What is there to fear in that?
I’ve been on a journey for several days now, which has brought me to where I am now, sitting in the Orthodox Academy of Crete, where just a few meters away 10 primates of the Church are in deliberations in preparation for the ‘Holy and Great Council.’ Getting here was a task in and of itself. It involved three flights, long bus rides, and several long hikes. But if I ask myself again, ‘how did I get here?’ the answer must involve more than just travel itinerary. I’ve been on a journey towards unity with Christ and His Church for as long as I’ve been alive, a journey that started before I was born.
The journey towards the Holy and Great Council is similarly wrought. There have been starts and stops with many borders to be crossed. Yet, once again, this Council and its preparations are about more than its agenda and issues. Fundamentally, this council is about unity. “He called all to unity” is repeated again and again on all official documents here.
There is a sort of chicken and egg problem with unity in the Church. Christian unity is not mere agreement, that is too shallow. Agreement is only possible once the type of peace is achieved which allows differences to be mediated. Yet at the moment, there is little agreement among Eastern Christians. Four of the fourteen primates of the Council disagree with the Council’s current state so much that they are not even in attendance. Without unity, there is no true Council. But, the Council is not to blame for this lack of unity, rather it merely forces to the surface the already present, underlying disunity among the Churches. Without this Council then, it seems there would be no unity.
It is difficult to speak about the Council at all, because of the disunity of the Church. The Council is referred to as the first of its kind in 1,200 years in all the official documents I have received from the Council. At the same time, I have read many critics of the Council say that this is not the first since the 7th Ecumenical Council, pointing to the numerous Councils during the second millennium. Similarly, while some say, as I have in this essay, that the Council is meant to foster unity among the Orthodox Churches, others say that there is no disunity, for the Orthodox Church is the fullness of unity in Christ. As happens often in the midst of conflict, there is disagreement about just what is being disagreed about. Any attempt to characterize the conflict is open to criticism.
There is division among the Slavic Churches, with all the East and South Slavic Churches asking for postponement. There is division between the Middle Eastern Churches of Antioch and of Jerusalem, which are currently not in communion with one another. There is disagreement between more ‘conservative’ voices rightly wishing to preserve tradition, and more ‘progressive’ voices rightly wishing to more effectively minister to the modern world. The problems are many and it is easy to get lost in them. No one is satisfied with the statements as they are, which once again is a symptom of a deeper struggle.
Reading the statements from the various Churches on this Council is an instructive exercise. Each Church’s position, whether they have dropped out, championed the Council, or offered pious caution, seems very reasonable. Each perspective is held sincerely by intelligent men, and forms a compelling narrative in and of itself. But this is just the challenge of unity. Each perspective makes sense, yet when they make contact with one another the result is a litany of concerns. It is precisely this situation, made visible by the Council, which is the chief work the Council must address. The particular documents and issues up for consideration are just the presenting issues, not the fundamental ones.
On my flight into Greece this week, I observed something which struck me in light of the Council. I was on an overnight flight over the Atlantic. At one point while walking up from the back of the plane during the flight, I witnessed rows and rows of individuals, all watching a different in-flight movie on the back of the seat in front of them. Each small screen played out a compelling narrative. There were love stories, comedies, tragedies. Whole worlds were contained in these small rectangles. It struck me then how common this situation is. We are all always walking around with different movies playing in our heads. Events are framed differently, different things matter more to different people. We are all the main character of our story, and everyone else is supporting cast. This ego-centric obstacle to communion might be truly seen as a mere result of being embodied the way that we are, yet the Church stands against such separation and calls the cosmos to unity. Our narratives are compelling enough when taken in isolation. But Christ challenges us to live in isolation no longer. He called all to unity.
Contacting the other in true love is difficult. It challenges the core of what we take to be ourselves, not realizing that there is no self apart from communion. It takes true suffering to contact the other. When God reached out to mankind to make peace, it involved mankind killing God. Self-sacrificial love is the only way forward in a conflict like this. It is the example of Christ. Encountering others is the hardest thing we do. “Why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” asked novelist Walker Percy. There is a certain asceticism to loving others. It is harder to love another than it is to fast or to give alms. Charity and discipline can both be done in a self-enclosing way. Not so for agape.
The task for the Council is as great as it is holy. That task is to love, the only task that Christians are charged with. Many in the Church regard the Council, and the world, with fear. Nationalism, apocalypticism, ideology, these all breed fear. Some fear the Council will not succeed, others that it will. Some fear losing their power and status. Some fear the modern world and the changes it brings (and has already brought) to life within the Church and without. It is the task of the Church to stand against these fears and to proclaim love, “for perfect love casts out fear.”
Perfect love is no easy feat, and may in fact be impossible this side of eternity. Nonetheless, it is precisely this goal which we should keep in mind and pray for. It is easy to get caught up in the minutia of Conciliar proceedings, and in these proceedings find fear. Against this we should remember that love is the goal, not this or that statement. If there is no love, if there is not unity, the most perfect statements or agreements will mean nothing. The real fault line that threatens the Council is not political, or jurisdictional, or ethnic, or ideological, though those all contribute. Rather it is the fault line between the statements made at this Council and the underlying unity which supports them.
It is assured that some pious statement will issue forth from this Council. The real question is what comes next. This Council was convened in order to strengthen the witness of the Church in the third millennium and to overcome obstacles to that witness. Unified statements are themselves a powerful witness, but they are not the ultimate, nor the most important, witness. The real work of this Council then begins after the Council ends, when whatever proclamations made are put into practice. If some form of the documents of this Council are adopted at its conclusion, then it will call for increased efforts for peace and justice, for ecumenical labor with other Christians, for union in the ecclesial diaspora, for a rejuvenation of fasting, and for increased sanctity of marital unions. Our task is to take up these calls and put them into action. If done with discernment and love for Christ, then whatever is proclaimed in a week, our efforts will be a holy and great expression of the conciliar effort of the Church.
contributing editor, In Communion
correction: an earlier version said all slavic churches have asked for postponement, when it is only the east and south slavic churches which have done so.
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship and In Communion applied to the Holy and Great Council press office for journalist’s credentials for Nicholas Sooy to attend and cover the events of the council. We almost did it as a lark, not really expecting we would be approved. And we were about to leave on a road trip and weren’t sure we had either time or money for a trip to Greece if we were approved.
On the 5th of June, Nicholas and I climbed into my car and headed out of DC on a twelve day, 1750 mile trip to visit various Orthodox ministries to see what Orthodox hospitality and reconciliation ministries looked like at street level–we will publish more on that later!
We arrived back home late on the 13th and the next morning we received word our application had been approved. OPF & IC was going to Crete! We were a little blown away. By this time, we’d accepted that it was too late. Either the council was not happening or we simply weren’t approved.
Only one of us could go, and Nicholas was our man. He is OPF’s very first summer intern. He also happens to be a terrific writer with a gifted mind who will work with me as an unpaid staff member after the summer when he returns to New York, where he is a doctoral student at Fordham University. (Yes, he can do both things at the same time!)
We scrambled and found a flight leaving in less than twenty-four hours for half the normal price. Hard to say no to that! We also found an airbnb room for about $12 a night right in Chania–when we were looking online, Google told us, helpfully, that “4000 people are looking for rooms in Chania now.” We held our breath, and clicked confirm for both. This morning he emailed me that he arrived safe and sound, but exhausted. It was already mid-afternoon there, and he’d just completed a seventeen hour trip, so I expect he’s sleeping as I type this. Or he’s jet lagged and also typing!
While Nicholas has been orderred to have fun, we are serious about another agenda. Nobody thinks this council is not flawed, and we are no exception. But we believe with all our hearts that it must happen because no council at all is far worse than a flawed council. From our perspective, the real work begins after the council anyway. Whatever bridges are built relationally and administratively on Crete will form a beachhead from which the peacemakers in the Church can begin the slog of taking back unity for our Church.
“Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133). This ideal isn’t likely to be fulfilled in the next week, but we are praying and expecting it to become reality. In order for that to arrive sooner rather than later, we ask the Holy Spirit to move among our fractious and self-interested Fathers and those among them of brotherly good will. We’re praying for the council to start and to conclude and that perhaps those who have pulled out in advance may even have a change of heart and attend anyway, or at least return to work afterwards.
Our agenda, the real reason Nicholas has gone to Crete, is to make friends and establish realtionships within as many delegations as possible. OPF wants to partner with whomever we can to promote peace and reconciliation within the Church from our small corner office. We already have important contacts with whom Nicholas will meet. We are confident he will be introduced to more.
He will be blogging here starting tomorrow. Please pray first for the council and also for Nicholas.
And if you can, please help us recover the cost of the trip, as reasonable as it is, so that we can keep the presses rolling. Generous friends have already replaced about half the cost in our coffers–we only need a few hundred bucks more. Use our “donate” button or your paypal account and send to [email protected] (both ways go to the same account).
Solomon’s Porch will blog from Crete during the Holy and Great Council
Press release from the Ecumenical Patriarch’s delegation presently on Crete June 15th:
Ecumenical Patriarch expresses “joy of the fulfillment of our historical mission”
His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew arrived in Crete on 15 June, expressing his “joy of fulfillment of our historical mission” and urging the Orthodox Church across the world to join him.
The Holy and Great Council, he said, is “our sacred mission.” Although the joy of the historic events are clouded by the decision of some churches not to attend, “the responsibility for their decision lies with those same churches and their primates, since, just five months ago, at the Synaxis of the Orthodox Primates in Geneva, we made a decision and put our signatures to it, that we should come to Crete in June and realize this vision held over many years, which all our churches cherish, to declare and proclaim the unity of our Orthodox Church, and to examine and reach a common resolution of the problems that are of concern to the Orthodox world.”
It is not too late for those churches to reconsider, he added, “even at this very last moment, and honor their signatures and come to Crete, where, along with the joy of the fulfillment of our historical mission, we shall also have the joy of partaking of the hospitality and nobility of all Cretans, from the most elderly among them, to the youngest child.”
His All-Holiness also expressed his thanks to those who have worked for months in order for the Holy and Great Council to take place, “together as a group and each one individually who have worked zealously, selflessly and with great willingness for this great event of the Holy and Great Council of our Orthodox Church to take place.”
It seems to me of paramount importance that the Synod, as His All-Holiness asserts, should show that the Orthodox Church wants genuinely to communicate with the world. We have treasures to share, in the Gospel, and the wisdom acquired through many centuries of believers following in our Lord’s footsteps and living in the grace of the Resurrection. It is also true that many in the West want to hear our voice, what we have to tell them of Christ. It will be a betrayal of everything we hold dear if the result of the Synod is that the world perceives the Orthodox apparently concerned solely with themselves in a fearful and introspective way.
Nevertheless, like many people, I have some reservations about the synod. First, eleven days seems minuscule in comparison with the 1200 and more years we have to make up. Secondly, the preparatory documents have been unavailable until very recently, and seem to have been prepared by a small circle of people, mostly (or exclusively?) associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whereas one would have expected widespread consultation beforehand. Thirdly, the ecclesiology of voting by patriarchates is unprecedented and unsustainable, apparently overriding the duty laid on each bishop ‘rightly to discern the word of your truth’, as we pray in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, citing 2 Tim 2:15. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the only voice that counts at the synod is that of the Holy Spirit, so, despite all the fumbling of human preparation, it is important that we should earnestly pray that the fathers of the synod will hear and attend to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Although the preparatory statements tend too much towards blandness, they seem to be on the right lines, with some reservations mentioned below. The emphasis on the Church’s concern for the world in which we live today is vital, and the presentation of the life of the Church as springing from the Eucharist is expressed well. So too the emphasis on ecumenism and a readiness to work and pray together with our fellow Christians, especially those whose baptism we recognize: all that is important. Although I can well understand the logic of the position of those who deny that there are other Christians than the Orthodox—since we, as Orthodox, hold that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Symbol of Faith is identical with the Orthodox Church—it seems to me that it is a logic isolated from life. We must (and in practice do) recognize that there are Christians who find their ecclesial identity in other communions than the Orthodox Church. Do any of us really believe, for example, that Catholics are not Christians, and that the see of Rome is vacant, Pope Francis being no more than an unbaptized pagan? It makes nonsense of our behaviour: one Sunday recently I worshipped in San Teodoro in Rome, a church given to the Greeks by the pope some years ago. Should we have refused this gift? When we look at the history of the Church, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that there is one community completely innocent, namely the Orthodox Church, and that division is simply the result of the sins of others: Catholics, Protestants, or whoever. The principle of ecumenism lies in repentance, expressed clearly in the words of his elder brother, recalled by the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov: ‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’.
Some of the preparatory statements could have been more radical. The statement on fasting is banal; it would have been useful in the context of understanding fasting in a non-Mediterranean world—the point raised by the statement—to have been reminded of the way fasting is justified by the Fathers: commitment to greater simplicity in our eating, an exercise in detachment, an opportunity to greater commitment to almsgiving. The statement on marriage fails to address any of the burning pastoral issues: what later commitment to marriage demands of young people; how marriage is to cope with a society in which men and women are much more equal; the challenges of the capacity to control pregnancy for the practice of sexuality. The section on War and Peace is all right as far as it goes, but makes no mention of conscientious objection to participation in war.
Finally, the statements on the diaspora and autonomy seem to me to ignore the changes in political society between the world of the Mediterranean in late antiquity and the world in which we live today. The ideal of one bishop leading the Eucharistic community in a city reflected the world of the early Christian centuries. The world today is very different, but the statements simply see the diaspora as a passing phase, leading to a worldwide network of autonomous/autocephalous ‘local’ churches. That, on the one hand, ignores the way in which the experience of diaspora enabled many to realize the Pauline sense of Christians as essentially aliens in this world, ‘every foreign country is theirs and every country foreign’, as the epistle to Diognetos put it, and, on the other hands, ignores the way in which many people, not least Christians, move from country to country, as well as the way in which ‘cities’ nowadays are vast amalgams of communities, so that the Christian community in a modern city is really, at best, an imagined community, made up of real communities without necessarily any territorial base. We need an ecclesiology to measure up to that, not an attempt to restore an ancient ecclesiology that no longer corresponds to the social reality in which we live.
Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University.
On the 31st of March, we celebrate the dies natalis of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), a beloved martyr and witness to Christ among the Russian émigré population in France. Her “Essential Writings” are particularly recommended during this Lenten season, as her essays, though brief, are spiritually and personally challenging on a number of levels. My apologies in advance to my readers – but if I quote Mother Maria directly once too often herein, please understand that it is not due to a lack of reflection on my part so much as an awe of the depth of her work, that I cannot bring myself to express her ideas better than she expresses them herself.
The association Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which hosts a considerable collection of resources on her life and works) makes between her and Dorothy Day is not at all coincidental. Her life, like that of Dorothy Day, was decidedly not what one might expect of a saint, though of course no two saints are ever completely alike. Mother Maria Skobtsova, in her youth, had been a member of the left-populist, peasant-driven Socialist-Revolutionary Party which had been outlawed by Trotsky, and lived its fate in an all-too-personal way. She narrowly avoiding execution in late 1917 after her party was disbanded, later became deputy mayor of the small town of Anapa in Krasnodar, was captured by the White Army and put on trial as a Bolshevik, and saved again from the gallows by Daniel Skobtsov, a judge who would become her second husband. Their family fled first to Georgia, then to Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris. Even though she had no taste at all for Marxism after her run-in with Trotsky, and though she abhored the brutalities she witnessed in the Russian Revolution, as Olivier Clément writes, she ‘became a Christian without ever having stopped being the socialist revolutionary, an intellectual of leftist bent’.
Her exile and the tragic death of her daughter to illness led her to take monastic vows which, though canonical, were nevertheless highly idiosyncratic. She lived the ‘new monasticism’ in an unfurnished rented house, amongst her fellow émigrés in the world, which she took to be her cloister. She dedicated herself to an active nonpossession, and kept the door of her house always open to the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the orphaned, the homeless, the mentally-ill; she gave of herself and everything she had to those who needed her help. She also organised discussions on philosophy and on the Orthodox faith from her house, and she maintained close friendships with a number of people in the Russian émigré community of Paris: the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, her confessor Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and the historian Georgiy Fedotov. During the Second World War, her house became a refuge for Jews, and she and Fr. Dmitri Klepenin, another spiritual son of Fr. Sergey Bulgakov and the chaplain of her house, would give baptismal certificates to Jews who sought to flee the country. Eventually the Gestapo shut her down and sent her, along with Fr. Dmitri, her son Yuri, and her friend Ilya Fondaminsky – all of whom eventually met their martyrdoms in Nazi concentration camps. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück, and was eventually put to death in the gas chambers. It is said in some of her hagiographies that she took the place of another woman, a Jew, who had been assigned to be killed that day.
During her life and in her martyrdom, the faith she lived in service to the poor and the faith she discussed in the émigré circles were one. She was devoted to the Mother of God, and even painted a variant of the ikon of the Mother of God Akhtirskaya, portraying the Holy Theotokos embracing the crucified body of Christ her child. Perhaps drawing upon her own experience of losing her daughter, she offered her motherly kindness, as a nun, to a suffering world without reservation or exception. She was insistent that the love of God could be lived only through a radical openness to the sufferings and the struggles of one’s neighbour – that only through keeping the second commandment of Christ in the Gospel could the first even become possible. And throughout her writings, she holds up and defends from a Patristic basis the Russian religious-philosophical idea of sobornost’, of radical dynamic community which is at the same time freeing and completing of the person who participates in it.
Her writings attest deeply to how her radical Socialist-Revolutionary ideals stuck with her. She gave up the idle hope that human revolution could achieve anything on its own terms, but she never gave up hope that all things could and would be achieved through Christ. Indeed, in her essays, she excoriates both capitalism and communism by name for their mutilation and violent enslavement of the human person, and ends up advocating something that looks very much like distributism:
In fact, mankind has enough experience of the two opposing systems of coercion and violence. The old coercion of the capitalist regime, which destroys the right to life and leaves one only with the right to labour, has recently begun to deprive people of that right as well. Forced crisis, forced unemployment, forced labour, joyless and with no inner justification—enough of all that. But try going to the opposite system. It turns out to be the system of communist enforcement: the same joyless labour under the rod, well-organised slavery, violence, hunger—enough of that, too. It is clear to everybody that we must seek a path to free, purposeful and expedient labour, that we must take the earth as a sort of garden that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate. Who doubts that?
Her leftist bent extends to her personal ethics as well as to her social ones. She is highly critical of the tendency she saw within the Church to withdraw into one’s own shell of piety, to take only the vertical beam of the Cross descending from God to the individual man, and to leave behind the horizontal beam which embraces the other men and women around him as well. For Mother Maria, not only the crass and obvious impiety of greed, but also the much more subtle and insidious impiety of a philanthropy that is only seen as an occasion for the improvement of one’s own virtue or an exercise for the good of one’s own soul, is a form of selfishness which runs contrary to the Gospel. She writes:
A person should have a more attentive attitude to his brother’s flesh than to his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but also spiritual gifts. We must give him our last shirt and our last crust of bread. Here personal charity is as necessary and justified as the broadest social work. In this sense there is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work. He is called to organise a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness. In principle the value is exactly the same, whether he acts on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbour and not have any latent career or material purposes.
The social element of Christianity is, indeed, for her so inseparable from the core of Orthodox spirituality and the Gospel message, that she even criticises those Christians of like mind to her, who base their actions and their programmes not on the basis of an authentic Orthodox Christian (or Catholic, or Protestant) witness but instead upon the false ground of secular humanism.
The most doubtful, disputable and unsatisfying thing about all the concepts of… ‘social Christianity’… is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God. … All the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to this world, and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.
To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality. To substantiate it mystically and spiritually. It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy—which has not yet spoken in this area—can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.
Throughout Mother Maria’s work there is always this similar challenge. Typically of Russian religious philosophy, Saint Maria places upon herself the demand of complete commitment, and will brook no compromises or comfortable lies. The Christian life is not truly or fully Christian until it ‘faces the desert’, an image to which she, being well-versed both in the Desert Fathers and in the ‘holy fools’ of the Church, continually returns. The reality of the Russian exile haunts her every page, and she is keenly aware of it. She writes with very few comforts for those Orthodox exiles who want to withdraw and take refuge in the old trappings of the state, of ritual, or of the æsthetic forms of Church life; she calls them instead – lovingly, but insistently – to the radical witness to Christ’s life and death in their own lives.
And yet there is also all too much in Mother Maria’s writings to discomfort and disorient those who are expecting to see in her a liberal and an œcumenist. She was neither. Early in her life she was a penpal of the arch-traditionalist Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church himself, Konstantin Pobedonostsev; Olivier Clément alludes that it was from him that she learned the personal ‘love of neighbour as opposed to love of those far away’. The three authors she alludes to most fondly are Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, and it’s clear that she has absorbed much of their romantic-conservative Slavophil temperament. She has some notably harsh words for ‘godless and giftless… cool, uncreative, imitative… secular democracy’, which in her mind amounted to a form of ‘mystical totalitarianism’.
In the fog of the Second World War, she sees straight through those who claimed – and indeed, still claim in modern times, in the case of the EU and NATO – to be ‘defending the right cause, fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy’. Not only does she bluntly say that these things are ‘not enough’, but she deliberately likens them to those pitiable flights of fancy to which Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was prone, and further posits that no one truly wants to or should die for such milquetoast abstract ideals: ‘your life is greater and your death is greater’ than the sum total of these things. The personalism-in-sobornost’ Mother Maria insists on cannot be reduced to such paper-thin abstractions. She speaks with dismay of the ‘religious League of Nations’ whose highfalutin, carefully-worded statements of unity were totally inadequate to halt the advances of fascism and Bolshevism – both ideologies which she deems, referring to the Brothers Karamazov, to be ‘Smerdyakovism enthroned’. And she has some critical things to say – perhaps, from the point-of-view of many readers here, too critical – of Pope Pius XI, whose ‘diplomatic subtlety and refinement’ in addressing German Christians she deemed fatally ill-suited to the spirit of the times, and whom she likens to a ‘sympathetic acquaintance at a funeral’ who is unaware of how the gates of eternity opened at the cataclysmic catastrophe being faced by Europe.
And perhaps under the influence of Solovyov, she sees in consistent pacifism ‘something egoistically vegetarian… which makes one sick at heart’. In truth, she rejects, just as Chesterton and Solovyov do, the idea of wars of choice, pre-emptive wars, wars of aggression; she holds the ‘motivation of the robber’ to be utterly incompatible and at odds with the Christian life. But ‘much more complicated’ for Mother Maria, ‘is the question of enduring war, of passive participation, of war in defence’. She is not unaware of the terrible human and civilisational costs of war, and clearly sympathises with the pacifist denunciation of the same. But her maternal compunction is what leads her to pity the most powerless in war, as well as those who come to their defence, and it is what leads her to point to God’s presence even in the worst desolation.
Mother Maria’s understanding of freedom is complex in a similar but perhaps obverse way to her thoughts on war. Clearly she is influenced here by her reading of Dostoevsky: freedom is a vital necessity to the Christian life; in all things free participation is called-for, and there is no part of the Christian life that can be forced. Her excoriations of capitalism and communism for their totalitarian demands on the human person are evidence enough of the value she places on freedom, rightly considered. And yet at the same time, she understands what a terrible thing, what a privation, the prescription of the ‘freedom’ of exile has been for the Russian émigrés. ‘We have lost our weightiness,’ she writes, ‘lost our corporeality, acquired an enormous mobility and lightness, become unbound… we are almost like shadows.’
And yet it is a privation in which an even more terrible and urgent call is present: the call to again live the Gospel in a meaningful and creative way, without seeking refuge in the pieties of a motherland they no longer lived in, and without succumbing to the ‘spiritual philistinism, spiritual mediocrity, lukewarmness’ of the deadening liberal culture sheltering them. Even more so than when the first Russian monks set out into the wastelands of Siberia, she comprehends the call to a ‘new monasticism’ among the Russian émigrés in the streets and apartment complexes of the totally-foreign cities in which they’ve landed. But even as she sympathises maternally with the plight of her fellow émigrés – ‘hard as it is to say to impoverished people, “become still more impoverished”’ – she still holds forth bluntly the ‘inner command’, that ‘our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle’.
And Mother Maria was active and struggled to the very last. She was, as Jim Forest rightly notes, a great comfort to those who were imprisoned with her in the ‘hell’ of Ravensbrück. Even in a place where human dignity had utterly stripped away from everyone, even in a place where – to borrow Forest’s description – obscenity, contempt and hatred were as commonplace as hunger, illness and death, Mother Maria provided the inmates with a family and a refuge. She once again organised discussion circles and kept evening prayers, brought French and Soviet prisoners alike together, and shared even what little food she got with those who had still less, until her health failed and her friends would not allow her to give away any more.
Mother Maria pointed to God’s presence even in the worst of places and in the worst of times; in many instances, she herself was a great testament to that presence. She lived under regimes of great turbulence, depravity and cruelty. Yet, in spite of them, she witnessed throughout to a much higher ideal worthy of struggle: that of the Kingdom of God as realised in sobornost’.
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
Let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitry and Maria, George and Elias,
Who have borne the sufferings,
The bonds and unjust judgment,
In which like the martyrs
Have received the imperishable crown.
* * *
Matthew Cooper is a parishioner and choir baritone at Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church in South Saint Paul, Minnesota a father of two, a former English teacher and now a data analyst working in the field of higher education. He has published articles online at Solidarity Hall, Christian Democracy Magazine, Oriental Review and Front Porch Republic, and runs the blog The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox. A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Dorothy Option.
The below text, by Nicholas Sooy of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an expanded version of a text sent to the blog publicorthodoxy.org. Texts there are requested to be brief. Texts on the upcoming Council’s documents are generally limited to thoughtful critiques. Below this essay are comments from the editors of In Communion.
War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”
By Nicholas Sooy
“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a powerful and timely statement on war, peace, and justice. Peacemaking, as Christ tells us in the Beatitudes, is a fundamental Christian vocation. At the same time, the Orthodox Church has a long and complicated history regarding peacemaking and war. While the Church has held to a very strongly pro-peace message throughout its history, changing political situations have affected the extent to which that message is carried out. It is the duty of the Church to counsel the faithful on how to carry out the peacemaking vocation in a changing political environment. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the past 100 years, and so this document is timely and much needed. This document authoritatively endorses the more pacific strands of the tradition, and from this position recommends certain responses to contemporary conflict. These statements are much needed, but at times are vague and do not go far enough in addressing the nature of contemporary conflict.
According to the document, the basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological and spiritual lens. On this basis, the Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the document also calls on the Church to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).
This document is monumental for its clear and definitive statement that “The Church of Christ condemns war in general,” along with its condemnation of nuclear weapons in particular and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also recommends various peace efforts to be undertaken by Christians, calling it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). Along these lines, specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).
These recommendations are good and should be encouraged, but the list is neither as specific nor as complete as it should be. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means, for as it stands its vagueness means it carries little weight (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament and no calls are made to limit arms trading or weapons production. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice in some areas of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water.
In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of the modernist notion of nationalism more generally (4.3). Nationalism is a broad category with many types. Unless nationalism is better defined and specific nationalisms are identified, particularly Orthodox religious nationalisms, the document’s statement could provide deniability to those inciting conflict and even war based on nationalism, under the guise of attempting to censure the nationalism of others. Such nationalisms should be more explicitly condemned, just as religious fanaticism is condemned.
Similarly, while peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, more needs to be said to strengthen ecclesial support for these endeavors, which are proven to ameliorate war and conflict. In particular, the viability of and employment of nonviolent campaigns and nonviolent institutions have risen dramatically over the past century, and each decade nonviolence is used to greater effect. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many within the Church, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept,” and identifies Orthodox roots for the notion of nonviolence. Given the effectiveness of nonviolence and its employment within Orthodoxy, it is unfortunate that such language should be left out of a document on peace in the contemporary world by the Church. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation. The conflicts in the Middle East and in the former Soviet bloc are prime examples of this new face of warfare. In these contexts, nonviolence is all the more effective and appropriate, and the Church should explicitly call upon Christians, nations, and institutions to invest more in nonviolent resistance and development, and less in warfare, standing armies, and weapons production. The Church should also call upon Christians to respond to oppression through nonviolent resistance rather than insurgency or terrorism.
The omission of an explicit endorsement of nonviolence is part of a larger weakness regarding the proper Orthodox response to violence. War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding those who participate in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil’ that some bishops have employed, it would be better to leave out such a qualification entirely and instead say that the Church extends pastoral care to those involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions a Christian can engage in fighting. If, as the document suggests, the only condition under which Christians fight is when their own life or freedom is threatened, then the document should mention the witness of martyrs as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs of the Church faced death and imprisonment willingly, and the Church has always lauded martyrs over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for their own lives or freedom, but instead are employed in humanitarian interventions, as they are described by political leaders, or are fighting insurgents. Greater clarification is needed regarding this changing nature of warfare, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another within this document (4.3, 6.5).
Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. While the document suggests that the Church will extend pastoral care to those who fight, a similar pledge is not made to those who refuse for reasons of conscience or Christian discipleship. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend Christians to object to military service or the performance of duties in at least some circumstances. However, nothing is said regarding this, and nothing is said of the practice of universal military conscription in several countries such as Russia and Greece. The first recorded instance of someone dying for conscientious objection was in the early Christian period. Many saints and martyrs have explicitly refused military service, while other saints known as ‘passion-bearers’ have similarly suffered and been canonized for their refusal to fight.
There is a final weakness in this document’s account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than just the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be unfortunate and counterproductive if a document like this, condemning war, allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. The Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.
We the editors and members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship join Orthodox Christians everywhere with great anticipation for the upcoming “Great and Holy Council.” We pray that the Holy Spirit would lead the Council into all truth, and that peace would be ensured between all Orthodox Christians. We pray that the Council would be an occasion for Orthodox cooperation, love, and unity, and that The Gospel of Peace would shine forth from the Council’s proceedings both to the Church and to the broken and divided world. It is in the spirit of conciliarity that we engage and add our own voices to the work of the whole Church being conducted by the Council.
We are encouraged by the pro-peace message of the pre-conciliar documents, and wish only that this message would be strengthened. As they are, the documents are historic for their authoritative endorsement of peace and justice and their condemnation of war.
The editors of In Communion are watching the preparations to the council and are reading as many documents and responses as possible. We feel that because this is a very fluid situation and time sensitive, it is less important to write definitive statements than to respond thoughtfully “on the run” so to speak.
For now we wish to go just a bit beyond Nicholas’ “brief critique” and mention a few things we would like to see added to expand this document of the Council. We hope to refine a position that we can claim as an official OPF response. If what we say in the meantime has value, may it find it’s way.
The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (Mission Statement) should be considered a fine document in as far as it goes. Some of its points are vague or lacking, however. Others seem to miss important issues completely. While reading it, there grows a nagging sense that some of it was cobbled together ad hoc from various quarters’ talking points, reflecting less the clear thinking of the Church’s wisest and more what is politically in the air. We would like to see statements of the Council more clearly rooted in Orthodox theology and tradition, calling the faithful to think and see as Orthodox rather than “citizens.”
The Church should not neglect its history of disobedience to ungodly or unjust leadership. When any nation calls on its citizens to respond either aggressively or defensively in ways that violate the principles of the Gospel we are called to live by, the Church should not shy away from encouraging its children to disobedience. A clear option for conscientious objection should be bolstered by a duty to disobey in certain circumstances.
The Mission Statement fails to adequately address Nationalism and identity politics. It is gratifying to see it condemn war based on Nationalism, but one must wonder if such a simple statement without any expansion on what is at stake is a dodge or worse, as many States with significant or majority Orthodox populations are involved in identity-based conflict with other states.
While Christians are called to be salt and to seek to influence the world outside of the Church, we can never be confident in predictions of how successful applications of Christian principles and responses to violence may be in the world. Nevertheless, the Church must teach its children that while separation from the world does not equal disengagement with it, our calling to be children of God requires we identify with his kingdom and act according to its principles and mandates. We must militate against the world’s practice of identity politics and its preference for violence by manifesting life in the kingdom of God, not by imitating the world.
The Mission Statement should call out for the faithful everywhere the prevalence and nature of the various ethnic, religious, and civic nationalisms that exist in various States and lead too many Orthodox to conflate their citizen-based identity with their Kingdom of God identity. Such conflation always leads to conflict.
Trusting in the Holy Spirit, we pray that the document may be strengthened so that the Church might continue to bring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”
It is urgent for Orthodox Christians to recognize the terrible truth of March 10, 1946
On March 10, 1946, at Lviv, the Orthodox Church of Russia, under pressure from the Soviet government, forcefully integrated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and claimed jurisdiction over it. When the participants in the synod on March 8 and 9, voted for the “reunification” of their Church with the Patriarchate of Moscow, all the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops were behind bars in prisons. The 216 priests and 19 laymen, assembled in the Cathedral of Saint George in Lviv by the NKVD, the ancestor of the KGB, were at the mercy of a “group of initiative” led by two Orthodox bishops, Antony Pelvetsky and Myhailo Melnyk, and an orthodox priest Gavril Kostelnyk. The archives reveal that it was Stalin himself who decided to eliminate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in February 1945, twelve days after the Conference of Yalta with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
All serious historians and theologians have no doubts that the 8-10 March 1946 synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at Lviv was only a sham. Bohdan Bociurkiw, who was a professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote a comprehensive survey on this matter and it has never been contradicted. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it in 2006, referring to it as a “pseudo-synod” which “seriously harmed Church unity”. Nicolas Lossky, a French Orthodox theologian who is a member of the Patriarchate of Moscow, also recognized that this was a false synod. Because of its suppression in 1946 and until 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which counted more than 5 million adherents, became, in fact, both the principle victim and the principle force of opposition, within the borders of the USSR, to the Soviet regime. Thus we make an appeal to the present day Orthodox authorities in Russia and Ukraine and elsewhere, to recognize the invalidity of the tragic decisions of the council of Lviv.
The Orthodox Church of Russia as a whole cannot be held responsible for decisions taken by ecclesiastical authorities who were manipulated or terrorized by the NKVD-KGB. However we, as Orthodox Christians, living 70 years after the events, feel responsible for the culpable silence surrounding the destruction of this Church by the Soviet regime with the participation of the Patriarchate of Moscow. We know that millions of Orthodox Christians in the world firmly condemn the anti-religious persecutions of the Soviet government and of Joseph Djougachvili in particular.
Thus, on this commemorative day of March 10 1946 and on the eve of Sunday, March 13, 2016, Sunday of the Great Pardon in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, we assure the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of our solidarity, of our prayers for all the innocent victims of this Church who were imprisoned, tortured, deported and assassinated by the Soviet government with the complicity of the Patriarchate of Moscow. We humbly ask their pardon for all the injustices they have suffered under the cover of the Orthodox Church and we bow down before the martyrs of this Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Antoine Arjakovsky, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Andrey Chernyak, Orthodox Christian, Moscow
Fr. Nicholas Denysenko, Orthodox Christian, Los Angeles
Fr. Andrei Doudtchenko, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
Taras Dmytryk, Orthodox Christian, Lviv
Fr. Michel Evdokimov, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Jim Forest, Orthodox Christian, Amsterdam
Fr. George Kovalenko, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
Inga Leonova, Orthodox Christian, New York
Fr. Christophe Levalois, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox Christian, Durham
Fr. Bogdan Ogultchanski, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
Iryna Pasternak, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
Fr. Michael Plekon, Orthodox Christian, New York
Olga Sedakova, Orthodox Christian, Moscow
Constantin Sigov, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
Cyrille Sollogoub, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Dimitri Strocev, Orthodox Christian, Minsk
Daniel Struve, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Natallia Vasilevich, Orthodox Christian, Minsk
Bertrand Vergely, Orthodox Christian, Paris
Andri Yurash, Orthodox Christian, Kiev
For additional background, see the film “To Understand and to Forgive”:
1 Bohdan Bociurkiw, The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State (1939-1950), Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Study Press, 1996; cf. also B. Bociurkiw, “Le synode de Lviv”., Istina, XXXIV, n. 3-4, 1989.
2 “Lettre du pape Benoit XVI au cardinal Lubomyr Husar du 22 février 2006”, Istina, n. 2, 2006. P.193.
3 Mixed Commission of theological dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, Catholiques et orthodoxes: les enjeux de l’uniatisme; Dans le sillage de Balamand, Paris, Bayard, 2014.
4 Serge Keleher, Passion and Resurrection, The Greek Catholic Church in Soviet Russia. Lviv, Stauropegion, 1993.
Solomon’s Porch: A Blog of In Communion Acts 5:12 “And they were all together in Solomon’s Portch.” Solomon’s Porch was a place where the early disciples gathered, witnessed many good works among the people, and were in one accord. And, of course, they talked about it all. Today we gather to talk in many places, most visibly in the public square via the internet. The good works are done anywhere Christians roll up their sleeves and get to it. Our blog is a place to engage in healthy analysis of the needs around us, centered on Christ the Truth, to help us go and do good works.
Click one of the images above for featured content from the latest print issue of In Communion. Scroll down for other content from the issue or look on the “In Communion” menu above and select “In Communion: Previous Issues”.
Also see our newest “Prayers” page which you can access through the “Content by Category” menu, or click here. We are building a library of prayers that you may find useful as you pray for peace.
From Herod to ISIS through Christ: No Record of Retribution!
by Pieter Dykhorst
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