Tag Archives: Frederica Mathewes-Green

Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

8 thevisitationicon Lament

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is pro-life but not exactly in the way the term is typically used. Pro-life movements are normally associated with particular political agendas that differ across countries where they are active, but within our fellowship we simply self-identify as children of the Orthodox Church who seek to have our worldviews shaped therein. We recognize the inherent impotence of political ideology in transforming lives and would rather bring our Orthodoxy to our political activities than the other way around. The life of the unborn was cherished by Christians long before modern political realities came into being and will be long after they, as they inevitably will, fade into the past.

In 2000, In Communion published a special issue dedicated to the topic of abortion that was introduced by a letter written by Jim and Nancy Forest:

“Jaroslav Pelikan, distinguished Christian scholar and longtime professor at Yale University, also a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship advisory board, speaks of abortion as “the great human rights issue of our time.” Sadly, many do not see it that way. Even in some parts of the Christian community, traditional opposition to abortion has slowly been transformed to toleration or even abortion advocacy.”

No less surprising, those active in peace organizations—people who might be found protesting at military bases or at prisons where executions are about to occur—are rarely found engaging in efforts to make abortions less common. (On the other hand, it must be noted that many who campaign for the right to life of the unborn child often seem much less disturbed by war and executions.)

For the vast majority of feminist groups, endorsement of abortion has been a litmus test. Anyone troubled by abortion, who speaks of an “unborn child” in the womb rather than using Latin terms with a dehumanizing effect—embryo or fetus—is someone to be denounced. At all costs, the unborn must not be recognized as human beings with as much claim on social respect and protection as their parents. (Yet how readily an unborn child is recognized and celebrated as human by those who look forward to any child’s birth.)

In this issue, we follow with a few paragraphs from Michael Gorman’s excellent essay surveying the early Church Fathers’ view of abortion, which itself succinctly states our pro-life attitude. Next we offer an excerpt from an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The section finishes with an article by Nancy Forest.

Michael Gorman

The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. While both of these probably date from the early second century, they most likely drew on Christian sources which had their origins in the late first century.

Both these writings also contain a section based on a Jewish oral and written tradition known as the “Two Ways.” This tradition contrasts the two ways of Life or Light and Death or Darkness. Athanasius notes that it was used extensively in the early church, either as a separate document or as part of the Didache , especially for the training of catechumens and new converts.

The Didache maintains that there is a great difference between these two ways. In an exposition of the second great commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) as part of the Way of Life, the author makes a list of “thou shalt not” statements obviously modeled on, and in part quoting, the Decalogue of the Septuagint. Literally, it declares: “Thou not murder a child by abortion.”

Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, in its practical section on the Way of Light, repeats the same words in a list of “thou shalt (not)” statements including, just before the abortion prohibition, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” The fetus is seen, not as a part of its mother, but as a neighbor. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other-centered neighbor love.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

A woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces more than “inconvenience”; many adversities, financial and social, at school, at work, and at home confront her. Our mistake was in looking at these problems and deciding that the fault lay with the woman, that she should be the one to change. We focused on her swelling belly, not the pressures that made her so desperate. We advised her, “Go have this operation and you’ll fit right in.”

What a choice we made for her. She climbs onto a clinic table and endures a violation deeper than rape—the nurse’s hand is wet with her tears—then is grateful to pay for it, grateful to be adapted to the social machine that rejected her when pregnant. And the machine grinds on, rejecting her pregnant sisters.

It is a cruel joke to call this a woman’s “choice.” We may choose to sacrifice our life and career plans, or choose to undergo humiliating invasive surgery and sacrifice our offspring. How fortunate we are—we have a choice! Perhaps it’s time to amend the slogan: “Abortion: a woman’s right to capitulate.”

If we refused to choose, if we insisted on keeping both our lives and our bodies intact, what changes would our communities have to make? What would make abortion unnecessary? Flexible school situations, more flex-time, part-time, and home-commute jobs, attractive adoption opportunities, safe family planning choices, support in handling sex responsibly––this is a partial list. Yet these changes will never come as long as we’re lying down on abortion tables 1,600,000 times a year to ensure the status quo. We’ve adapted to this surgical substitute, to the point that Justice Blackmun could write in his Webster dissent, “Millions of women have ordered their lives around” abortion. That we have willingly ordered our lives around a denigrating surgical procedure—accepted it as the price we must pay to keep our life plans intact—is an ominous sign.

For over a hundred years feminists warned us that abortion is a form of oppression and violence against women and their children. They called it “child-murder” (Susan B. Anthony), “degrading to women” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), “most barbaric” (Margaret Sanger), and a “disowning [of] feminine values” (Simone de Beauvoir). How have we lost this wisdom?

Abortion has become the accepted way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and women who make another choice are viewed as odd, backward, and selfish. Across the nation, three thousand crisis pregnancy centers struggle, unfunded and unrecognized, to help these women with housing, clothing, medical care, and job training before and after pregnancy. These volunteers must battle the assumption that “they’re supposed to abort”—especially poor women who hear often enough that their children are unwanted. Pro-choice rhetoric conjures a dreadful day when women could be forced to have abortions; that day is nearly here.

More insidiously, abortion advocacy has been poisonous to some of the deeper values of feminism. For example, the need to discredit the fetus has led to the use of terms that would be disastrous if applied to women. “It’s so small,” “It’s unwanted,” “It might be disabled,” “It might be abused.” Too often women are small, unwanted, disabled, or abused. Do we really want to say that these factors erase personhood?

A parallel disparaging of pregnancy itself also has an unhealthy ring. Harping on the discomforts of pregnancy treats women as weak and incompetent; yet we are uniquely equipped for this role, and strong enough to do much harder things than this. Every woman need not bear a child, but every woman should feel proud kinship in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt is to reject our distinctive power, “our bodies, ourselves.”

Nancy Forest-Flier

In a recent letter, a friend explained his reluctant acceptance of abortion with the statement: “I also believe that the human race is overrunning the planet and destroying our Mother the Earth.” While recognizing abortion as a moral problem, he saw it as the lesser of two evils. The cost of saving the planet is to reduce the human population. This is a widely accepted notion, and there are many who have succeeded in making us believe that over-population is the problem and that birth control and abortion are the answers.

Population control is often an attempt by Western, wealthy nations to impose their values on poor, usually non-white nations, and these countries are not happy about it. At a 1998 Population Consultation of the UN NGO Committee on Population and Development in New York, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez, shocked the audience with a speech in which she sharply criticized groups such as Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood for trying to reduce fertility in countries that don’t want it (and thinking that it’s for their own good, etc.). She accused the West of targeting poor and darker-skinned countries, such as her own. “It used to be,” she pointed out, “that older women could depend on their adult children to care for them in old age. In 1960, for example, a Jamaican woman had an average of six children; by 1990 she was likely to have fewer than three. Now typically she has two. Who will supply the support system for this mother when she is old?”

Even more amazing was the speech by Dr. James McCarthy, Head of the Center for Population at Columbia University, who called himself a “recovering demographer” and told the audience that “population doesn’t matter.”

In her book Sex and Destiny, feminist Germaine Greer comments, “we [should] abandon the rhetoric of crisis for we are the crisis. Let us stop worrying about a world crammed with people…stop counting the babies born every minute…use our imagination to understand how poverty is created and maintained…so that we lose our phobia about the poor. Rather than being afraid of the powerless, let us be afraid of the powerful—the rich, sterile nations who have no stake in the future. More ‘unwanted’ children are born to us, the rich, than to them, the poor.”

Although there are clearly some over-populated places in the world, this does not mean that the world is over-populated. There are many, many factors involved. Someone told me recently that the entire population of the world, if it agreed to live at the same density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. Not a very savory prospect, but interesting.

Justifying abortion by the population-control argument boils down to saying that we should encourage the use of abortion as birth control. But there are already countries that use abortion as birth control—Russia and other former East bloc countries—and the women there are in despair. Some women have several abortions in their lifetime because the birth control possibilities are so limited, and they are urgently demanding better conditions so that they don’t have to resort to abortion just to limit births. So this argument just doesn’t hold water. Not only do the poor countries not want population control, not only is the whole over-population argument questionable, but individual women who are forced to control births through abortion are crying for help.

I would be surprised if any woman ever had an abortion for the sake of the planet or because of her concern for over-population. Among the women I have known who had abortions, none of them, at that terrible point in their lives, cared a hoot about over-population. Women have abortions because they feel cornered, abandoned, hopeless, scared, manipulated. At least my friends all felt this way and, after the abortion, mourned deeply. They may still be mourning. Frederica Mathewes-Green, in her book Real Choices, explains the psychological after-effects of abortion: if they had it to do over again, most women admit that they would choose not to abort.

My personal feeling is that abortion is just as much a feminist issue as it is a pro-life issue. I think women have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods. Radical feminist leaders have played right into the hands of Hugh Hefner types: abortion is a wonderful solution for both of them. Women are expected to make the “right” choice as soon as a problem pregnancy comes along (at least the playboy philosophy hopes they will).

The other argument one hears is that abortion is a more merciful solution for the children of the poor than growing up in destitution. My friend asked: “Isn’t poverty and isolation a slow, cruel death as opposed to an operation that deals with the new life before it can actually think and breathe?”

Not necessarily. That’s implying that poor people should consider abortion when they get pregnant, because it’s sure better than raising children in poverty and isolation. But there are lots and lots of poor women who curse their poverty, and then on top of it all they feel driven to the abortion clinic when they get pregnant, just because society has few other options.

With all our collective intelligence, with all our social science, with all our money, society in the West should be able to come up with a better solution for dealing with problem pregnancies (not medical problems) than abortion. Abortion leaves far, far too many psychological scars. But it’s the cheap way out. What abortion does is pressure the most vulnerable—scared pregnant women—into “getting rid of the problem” so that society doesn’t have to deal with it.

My friend wrote: “I shudder to think of our making common cause with the so-called ‘Christian’ right who are militantly against abortion but endorse war, sexism, and capital punishment.” But must we be inconsistent simply because others are inconsistent? Just because the far-right seems to have co-opted the pro-life argument doesn’t mean that nobody else can endorse it. This calls for a little bit of courage. I urged my friend not to let the agenda of the far right limit his agenda. If you think abortion is wrong, oppose it bravely!

Here in the Netherlands we have the lowest abortion rate in the entire Western world. And, says the Minister of Health, “we’re proud of it.” Proud to have a low abortion rate? That must mean that lowering the abortion rate, or trying to, is a thing worth doing. What I’m saying is, let’s try to lower the abortion rate everywhere. Let’s not abandon women to their own private darkness where they have to make these impossible decisions alone (and then face a society that shrugs its shoulders).

William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice is about such an impossible choice. On one level it’s about the Holocaust, but on another level it’s about the pressure to decide which of your children you will allow to live and which you will abandon to the hand of violence. Sophie could not live with her choice and finally took her own life.

One can find women who are no more troubled about an abortion they had than they are troubled about a missed bus, but for every woman who is blasé about having abortions you will find many more who wish they hadn’t had to do violence to their unborn children and to their consciences. I’m not insisting that the laws be changed (although it would be good if it did eventually happen), or that all women be forced to go through with their pregnancy no matter what (even if their health is at risk), or that we abandon women to back-street butchers. I’m saying, let’s work from the other side. Let’s try to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable. A society that forces the weak and frightened to shoulder the burden of a social problem should be ashamed of itself.

How do we do it? That’s a good question. My hope is that peace organizations will at last begin to explore rather than ignore the problem, to start some dialogues, to try to cut through the rhetoric and terrible division and to address a problem that everybody can rally around.  IC

Young Adam by Frederica Mathewes-Green

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Last summer we had a houseful at the beach, with our children and their spouses and the seven (soon to be nine) little grandchildren. The cousins don’t see each other much, so they splashed and ran and shouted, the wind tearing at their voices. But Adam, then four, stayed by himself. He moved along the edges of the dunes, circling the family like a silent satellite. Last year, Adam received a diagnosis of autism.

Adam is a beautiful child with a cream-and-rose complexion and clear blue eyes. He wasn’t quite two when, at a backyard party, he walked over to the cars parked in the yard and began reading aloud the license plate letters and numbers. No one had taught him this. He developed a fascination with the alphabet, words and numbers, maps and globes, and any repeating pattern (he loves M. C. Escher images). When he was evaluated at three-and-a-half, his cognitive level was that of a seven-year-old.

Ever since his toddler days, Adam has surprised us by coming out with things no one could recall teaching him, and it was sort of unnerving. I kept thinking we were going to find a bill from the University of Phoenix in his crib.

But talking – that’s different. When Adam began trying to talk, the strain was evident in his face and tender eyes. In photos from his first birthday, he looks worried and lost. Sometimes words would come out too loud, sometimes too soft, usually flat and expressionless, always halting and reluctant. Adam looks like someone who doesn’t speak English and is laboring to translate word-by-word in his head. I told his mom, “When God made him, he must have put in the Japanese module by mistake.”

So there’s a ring of silence around beautiful Adam. He doesn’t interact much. If you ask him a question, he’s likely to repeat it, or just ignore it. He isn’t interested in other children, and doesn’t have friends outside the family. He is remote, a space station overcharged with data, orbiting silently, far away.

The silence is what hurts. Parents don’t only love their children, they also crave to know their children. I’ve heard moms in the delivery room say to their newborns, “Open your eyes so I can see you!” – though they can see every inch of the baby but his eyeballs. A baby is a present you can’t unwrap all at once. It takes years of reading his eyes, learning what makes him laugh, watching him run and tumble with friends, hearing his bedside prayers. But with an autistic child much of this can be impossible.

When you think about it, language is a pretty tricky operation. It’s the thing that allows us to communicate, but also the thing that makes communication frustrating. The speaker must hike down to his scrambled storehouse of words and pick out ones that fit, more or less; then he hauls them back up and tips the bucket into the empty air between him and the hearer. The hearer receives the words sequentially, as each pebble hits the ground. He must gather them up and cart them back down to his own dictionary-storehouse; there they will jostle meanings and associations unanticipated by the speaker.

What a cumbersome muddle all of this is, and so complex that it’s amazing anybody ever gets it right. You can understand why an autist, finding this even more difficult than we do, might opt simply to withdraw.

Adam announces, “I am going to go off of the world.” He is going to be an astronaut, and go away in a space ship. This is his latest interest. “You” – here he pokes a forefinger into your arm – “you will stay here.”

Adam plans to go far away from this confusing, difficult place. Sometimes even non-autists can find that idea appealing. There are so many ways for us to misunderstand and hurt each other, and even when things are at their best a sense of separateness shadows our joy. We look at others from the outside, making guesses what they’re thinking about. We reach out, and the very skin that allows us to touch is the barrier that keeps us apart. The most that two people can be is two planets in a common orbit, and it’s at the happiest of times that we recognize this limitation. Maybe that’s why people cry at weddings.

The problem that autists have with other people is just an extreme form of the alienation that troubles us all. Autists have a bad case of the Human Condition.

Parents of autists may feel: if even the best human relationships are sadly limited, what hope is there for my child? A tragedy some years ago gave me unexpected light on another way – the only effective way – to be deeply connected with those we love.

When my father died in a car accident, I was 29. Our relationship still had lots of knots and tensions from my teen years – a different kind of communication difficulty than parents of autistic children have, but still a sad example of the pain that all humans who try to love each other know. But as I listened to the prayers and Scriptures at his funeral, it hit me that, from his perspective, all the confusion was over. He was standing in the searching light of God, where all things are made clear and all truth is known. That meant that, from his perspective, our relationship was for the first time perfect and whole, in a way it could never have been on earth.

Though I don’t yet have that perspective, I can still grasp its truth. The only place I can ever meet my father again is in the presence of God, who understands us both, perfectly – much better than we can understand ourselves. And even though he sees right through us, his response is endless love.

When we’re bewildered, lonely or hurt, when the futility of efforts to connect is too painfully obvious, we can relinquish our confusion to the Lord. He knows every heart from the inside, and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). His love is the life streaming through all Creation. So even in this life we are connected with those we love through God, something we can barely grasp now, but which will one day flood our awareness.

Parents are pained by their inability to reach an autistic child; he’s only a few feet away at the other end of the sofa, but might as well be circling the dark reaches of space.

But he is known by God. He is transparent to the light of God, who shines through us all, who understands us and our children, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t. Only in him will we one day love each other the way we want to, the way he already does. St. Paul writes, “Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12). We have been fully understood, even the least explicable among us, and one day we will rest in tranquil full communion.

Adam says, “I am going to go off the world. You will stay here. But I will come back to you. I will come back soon.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green, khouria to a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, is the author of many books – most recently The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts (Paraclete Press). Her article is excerpted from “Loving a Child with Autism” published on Beliefnet, April 13, 2007. She is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

llustrations by Michael Mojher,from The Diaries of Adam & Eve by Mark Twain

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

The Wounded Torturer

by Frederica Mathewes-Green
FrGeorgeCalciu.jpg

They buried my spiritual father last November. I have never seen a body in a casket look so not-there; the indistinct pale husk he left behind looked like something a breeze could lift up and carry away. It was the contrast, I suppose. Few people in life are as radiant and vigorous as Fr. George Calciu, or as full of joy. He was a few days short of his 81st birthday, still full-time pastor of a church in the suburbs of Washington, DC, still traveling world-wide to those who sought him as a teacher and spiritual father, still diligently reaching out to the poor and unchurched around him.

Fr. George’s radiance was a lasting rebuke to the darkest intentions of torturers. In his native Romania he was imprisoned twice by the Communist authorities, for a total of 21 years. He was a survivor of the brief but appalling “Pitesti Experiment,” the most intensive program of brainwashing to take place.

The plan at the prison in the Romanian city of Pitesti was to take promising young men, 18 to 25 years old, and utterly break them down, then rebuild them into the ideal “Communist man.” In the book Christ is Calling You! (St. Herman Press, 1997), Fr. George explained to an interviewer that the Pitesti experiment involved several distinct steps.

Incoming prisoners would be handed over to a team of guards and experienced prisoners, who would beat them and kill one or two, whoever appeared to be a leader. Then the “unmaskings” began, in which prisoners were required under torture to renounce everything they believed. Fr. George recalled being compelled to say, for example, “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I said, ‘I love my mother and my father’.” This was extremely painful, as it was designed to be. The intention was to undermine the prisoner’s memory and personality, to infiltrate his consciousness with lies until he came to believe them.

A few months ago I was able to talk with another survivor of Pitesti, Fr. Roman Braga, when I visited the Michigan convent where he now is in residence. The Communists had arrested Fr. Roman on an inventive charge: he was accused of trying to overthrow the government by discussing the writings of St. Basil the Great, St. John Climacus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. He spent his first year in solitary confinement. In the dark, narrow cell, he could not tell one season from another, nor could he look out the small, high window and see a horizon. “You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective,” he said, “because otherwise you would truly go crazy.”

Fr. Roman told me that religious beliefs were particularly mocked. Tormenters would set obscene lyrics to the tunes of familiar hymns, and celebrate parody liturgies designed to break believers’ hearts. His sole clue that Christmas or Pascha (Easter) might be near would be the appearance of their themes in the torturers’ arsenal.

One way guards particularly taunted Christians was by telling them that Christ and Mary Magdalene had had a sexual relationship. Fr. Roman noted, laughing, that in Romania this constituted torture, but in America people line up to pay for it in movies and books.

Neither man would describe what they’d endured. “It is secret, intimate,” Fr. Roman said, “I saw saints fall, and I saw the simple rise and become saints.” Fr. George admitted that he gave way under torture. When a victim is out of his mind with pain, he doesn’t know what he is saying. Fr. George told his interviewer, “It was a spiritual fight, between good spirits and evil spirits. And we failed on the field of battle; we failed, many of us, because it was beyond our ability to resist … The limit of the human soul’s resistance was tried there by the devil.”

This emotional and spiritual damage was even worse than the physical pain. Fr. George went on, “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer – that was the pain that lasted … We forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” At night a wash of tears would come, and with it, returning prayer. “You knew very well that the next day you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very good.”

Fr. George once attempted to write a memoir of his Pitesti experience, but found it impossible: “Sometimes I was hammering at one word, timidly, then persistently, then intensely, to madness. The word became nothing other than a sequence of letters or sounds. It had no meaning. It didn’t tell me anything. I would say: ‘beating’ or ‘pain’ or ‘prayer’ or ‘curse’ … and I would substitute one for another without any change; none told me anything! I would say ‘cell’ and the word would not speak. I could say instead ‘lelc’ or ‘clel’ or ‘ellc’ with the same result. Everything was mute and absurd.

“And suddenly a curse from that time would resound in my mind, or a song somebody sang during the unmaskings, and the whole atmosphere would install itself with a painfully striking character and with a reality more real than it was then. Affective memory! Proust was a genius in his intuitions, a part of the literature he wrote.”

Yet the worst was still to come. In order to demonstrate that they had truly become “the Communist man,” in order to fully embody the persona demanded of them, these mentally and physically battered prisoners were required to become torturers. They were compelled to assist in the “re-education” of new prisoners, and any reluctance or leniency was cruelly punished.

“This was the most difficult part,” Fr. George said, “for under terror and torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” In his case, “I was on a big staircase, three stories high. The moment I tried to climb over it to throw myself down, a friend of mine caught me and saved me.”

It may sound surprising that being a torturer was so much more painful and soul-destroying than being a victim. Yet the pattern holds in other realms. In her book, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (Praeger, 2002), Rachel MacNair examines a number of situations in which a person may be more distraught over harming someone – even if it’s socially sanctioned or in self-defense – than by being harmed personally. This sounds reasonable enough in the case of a policeman who kills someone in the line of duty, or of the person whose sad role it is to carry out a death sentence.

Yet even soldiers, who have been trained to kill and may well be themselves in mortal danger, can feel great distress about the violence they do to others. In “The Price of Valor” (The New Yorker, July 12 & 19, 2004), Dan Baum examines this puzzle. He spent a week with amputees at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and “was struck by how easily they could tell the stories of the horrible things that had happened to them. They could talk about having their arms or legs blown off in vivid detail, and even joke about it, but, as soon as the subject changed to the killing they’d done, a pall would settle over them.” When he asked a Vietnam vet how often he experienced flashbacks of killing villagers, he first said, “Every ten minutes,” but then corrected himself: “Really, it’s more like I’m always looking at a double image.”

The Army’s textbook for the medical corps, War Psychiatry, notes that “casualties the soldier inflicted himself on enemy soldiers were usually described as the most stressful events” and quotes a company commander that it is easier for a soldier to accept the death of a friend than to cope with the fact of having shot someone.

MacNair considers evidence for Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress among a number of groups – soldiers, executioners, police, criminals, and abortion providers – and presents some unusual information about the Nazi “Einsatzgruppen.” These were the soldiers who were charged with shooting Jews lined up at the edge of a pit – an act of unspeakable callousness. But, from the perspective of Nazi efficiency standards, the soldiers weren’t able to be callous enough. Because they shot their victims in the back they were spared the memory of the victims’ faces, yet found their nightmares haunted by those vulnerable, individual necks. Adolf Eichmann wrote that many of them, “unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad. Most of the members of these Kommandos had to rely on alcohol.”

When Heinrich Himmler observed a shooting squad in action, it disturbed him so much that he ordered a “more humane” approach be found; the result was the gas chambers, which allowed the killer to avoid seeing his victims die. An officer in charge of the Einsatzgruppen, von dem Bach-Zelewski (who would himself later succumb to hallucinations), insisted to Himmler, “Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando, how deeply shaken they are! These men are finished for the rest of their lives.”

The torture he endured did not “finish” Fr. George; it made him courageous enough to defy the authorities, and even accept a second term of imprisonment as the price of preaching the gospel. Fr. Roman says that, in fact, his time in prison brought him an unexpected blessing, because it was there that he first discovered the depths of prayer. “I was forced to find myself in prison,” he writes in his book, Exploring the Inner Universe (HDM Press, 1996). “Only then was I able to discover how beautiful the interior life of man is … We will never reach the same spiritual level of life as in Communist imprisonment.”

I asked Fr. Roman whether he was able to forgive his torturers. “Those who suffer much, forgive,” he said. “Those who do not forgive become victims. I embraced my torturers, once I saw that they were controlled by the devil. The devil is real, not a bedtime story.”

That would be one piece of the puzzle which Orthodox Christians would bring to a discussion of torture. We still believe in a real devil. Not a pitchfork-and-tail cartoon, but a vicious malevolence who gorges on human suffering. The person who feels an inner compulsion to acts of sadism is not being driven by human nature.

As Fr. Roman concluded, “Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery, too. We do not know what we are.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green is the khouria of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland. She is a columnist and movie reviewer, and author of several books, including most recently, The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts (Paraclete Press). Her essay is reprinted with the author’s permission from The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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