By Alexander Patico
The winds of grace are always blowing; it is but for us to raise our sails.
– Sri Ramakrishna
Above: Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)
I was fortunate to be one of the thousand people who gathered in Kingston, Jamaica in May for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, an event marking the end of what the World Council of Churches had christened the Decade to Overcome Violence.
We were a diverse group, from the still-campaigning aged to the fresh, energetic young, from those who work “in the trenches” – from war protests to helping rape victims – to those who write and teach in academic settings. Some were survivors of violence and some were healers and some were both. There were torture victims determined to reduce the size of that fraternity of sufferers, and the lesbian person who lived in shame and self-doubt until finding fellow-sufferers and discovering her own voice. There were the parish leaders trying to shepherd their flocks through “the valley of the shadow of death” – from war to street crime – on a daily basis.
Clearly we who took part in the Decade to Overcome Violence did not succeed in our eponymous mission, but then none of us had imagined coming anywhere near such a utopian vision. Far from being overcome, violence persists in an infinity of locations with ever more deadly effectiveness, with robot warriors increasingly shedding human blood. Our convocation wasn’t a celebration.
And, yet whenever we sing “We Shall Overcome,” it’s not in expectation of a miracle. Rather, we are just stating our certainty that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We may not hope to see either peace or justice achieved in our own lifetimes, but we must do our best to bend that arc a fraction of a degree in the time God gives us.
Why was I there? When asked, I said that I represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, a group with members worldwide, though with the majority in North America – a group from a diversity of Orthodox jurisdictions – a fellowship most of whose scattered members have yet to meet each other face to face.
In another sense, of course, I was there as an individual. As a Christian, I cannot pretend that overcoming violence is “someone else’s job.” If I claim Christ, I claim his cross and his call to reverence and to protecting life. This I had in common with nearly all the extraordinary delegates assembled for seven days on the campus of the University of the West Indies. People who, in practice as well as theory, are “their brothers’ keepers.” People who in their daily lives are “known by how they love one another.” People who, as Jesus says in the beatitude of peacemaking, are to be known as “children of God.”
The setting was new to me, but at the same time familiar. It felt like the UN conferences on sustainable development I had attended in Rio and Johannesburg. It also seemed a bit like a summer camp, though without the archery and the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk. Masses of people who, as the days went by, gradually shifted from name tags into people, and then, in many cases, friends.
We talked after plenaries, comparing impressions of the speakers. During Bible studies, we teased out the meanings of phrases written long ago. Over meals, we shared information about the projects awaiting our return back home. Over drinks we talked about what we hoped for our families, our communities, for the world. We walked and we talked, back and forth on the sweltering college campus that was our temporary home. Important areas of discussion included:
Conscientious objection: In various ways and to different degrees, many governments seek to stifle the “still, small voice” of conscience. Until Kingston I didn’t know there are some 900 South Koreans jailed each year for attempting to be recognized as CO’s, or that both men and women are conscripted in Eritrea, with harsh treatment awaiting those who refuse to wage war. The UN Commission on Human Rights declared over fifteen years ago that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.” Developing this issue a few years later, that body acknowledged that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.” Even so, in most countries conscientious objectors in uniform often end up in military prisons. “Selective” conscientious objection – objection to engagement in a particular war and not necessarily to war in general – is something that is still not recognized in law in the US and many other countries,
Diversity and tolerance: I have never heard respect for “the other” expressed quite so well as one conferee did: “We are all different! God made us all in his image – God must be truly magnificent!” Indeed, Rabbi Arthur Waskow once shared with me the Talmudic wisdom that the coin Jesus pointed to, when he said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” was identical to other similar coins, whereas the products of God’s mint – human beings – are each unique. Each is made in the image of our divine monarch. God embodies the mystery of diversity in unity, while an earthly rulers’ reign is an assembly line of faceless conformity.
Disability, agism, sexism and discrimination: A speaker with a major disability asked the thought-provoking question: “Who exactly are the workers who were hired for the same wages at the eleventh hour – those who so annoyed the ones who were hired first?” They were probably not, she suggested, the strong and able-bodied, nor of the favored ethnicity.
Gays and lesbians: I was unaware of how heated the “debate” about sexual orientation is in places like Moldova, where an Orthodox priest reportedly was among those who attacked a bus carrying activists for gay causes and tried to set it afire. Then there was a case from South Africa, where Millicent Gaika was strangled, tortured and raped for five hours by a man trying to “cure” her of being a lesbian. Or Jamaica itself, where a co-founder of a community organization for gays was murdered with 70 machete wounds to his neck and face.
Theology: After much dialogue with various kinds of Christians, what still came as a shock to me are the truly negative feelings that surround the Eucharist in some churches. There are many who associate the “passion of Christ” principally with suffering and agony – and therefore with an ethic of voluntary submission to abuse at the hands of others – rather than emphasizing the triumph of God over death in the person of Jesus, in a saving outpouring of grace. Clearly for some the Cross is so large it hides the Resurrection. The Pascha-centeredness of the Orthodox Church is not to be taken for granted.
Peace building: It was instructive to have one of our speakers, an Orthodox priest from Eastern Europe, talk of peace building as “a preventive, therapeutic and developmental process.” This short phrase captured so well what is required of the peacemakers. We must act, whenever possible, in advance of disruptions or distortions of God’s beneficent plan. We must not just protect, but also help heal victims of violence. We cannot expect to accomplish much with a tidy plan, but must do as monks do: When we fall, get up and when we fall again, get up again.
During that week on a Caribbean island, I learned why I sit, often lonely, at my desk, reaching out to others whom I rarely see – people who are, like me, trying to “fight the good fight” – paradoxically, a fight which is no fight. Pushing the boulder up the hill again and again, but finding that we “run and are not weary” because we “wait on the Lord,” who strengthens us to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times. Seeking to serve, rather than to vanquish. This is the only struggle in which we can count on the support of Jesus himself. ❖
Alex Patico is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011