Tag Archives: 911

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.

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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.

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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.