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IC66 In Communion 2013

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

The Muddle that is the Middle East

by Alexander Patico

These days, we Christians have a reputation often based on our prejudices rather than our principles, our irritations with our neighbors rather than our love of neighbor. As the Orthodox columnist Terry Mattingly recently put it, Christians “are known best for what they are against.” We were once known for how well we loved one another. Not any more.

In his recent book, The Goodness of God’s Creation, Fr. Philip LeMasters says, about warfare, that we must not use the utilitarian criterion of Western culture in making life-and-death decisions. As Orthodox Christians, we must ask, “In the light of the human vocation for growth in holiness and communion with God, how should Christians respond to the prospect of warfare?” In any such cases, we must ask what the law of love commands – including in our response to the recent events in Gaza, and the ongoing conundrum of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The situation can, admittedly, be confusing. Labels often obfuscate: “Israeli” can be taken to mean citizens of the State of Israel (Jews, Arabs and others), or the government of Israel. Sometimes it is blurred to include supporters in other parts of the world. The term “Palestinians” can be used to mean “those who were born in Palestine” (whether in what is now Israel, on the West Bank, in Gaza, or wherever they now live); or it can mean “leaders of the Palestinian government” (including or excluding Hamas), or those who live in the occupied territories Muslim, Christian or something else).

The law of love leads us out of such briar patches of nomenclature. Whatever labels may be put on us, we are all brothers and sisters. While Paul was referring to the Church when he said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female,” whom can we place beyond the pale?

To heal the region, we must first put aside political divisions and historical Gordian knots, to recognize the basic human nature of the antagonists with all their needs and aspirations.

What is an Israeli Jew? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person with a rich tradition of searching and scholarship about how to treat fellow inhabitants of this earth. One with a special sense of connection to those who have been ostracized, oppressed or eliminated in many places and many times. A person who lives in some degree of fear.

What is a Palestinian? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person whose ancestors may have been among the first disciples of Christ, or among the early followers of Mohammad. A person with a sense of connection to those who have been displaced, made homeless or bombed. A person who lives in fear.

We Christians should be able to empathize with the anguish of Jews who never envisioned the State of Israel becoming an occupying force. After all, we went through the mixed blessing of having the Emperor Constantine embrace our faith, conflating temporal dominion with divine kingdom. We saw bloody crusades launched in the name of Christ, and the blasphemy of believers remaining quiet when their countrymen rounded up Jews, dissidents and the “defective.”
We can empathize with Palestinians excluded from their homes and homeland, stripped of human rights, punished as a people for the actions of a minority, with no power over their lives. We too have known, and still know, persecution (under the Ottomans, under Communism and in India today). We have picked up the rock – and the rocket – when we thought our lives depended on it.

There is no crime seen in this situation, of omission or commission, which has not been committed by those who called themselves Christians. So how, with our own blood-stained past, can we be helpful? We can – in just the way Our Lord specified – by showing our capacity to love.

We must remember the words of Dr. King, who said that the church “must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. … But if the church … will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of humankind and fire the souls of the people.”

Loving all the participants in this ghastly, perpetual drama of strike and counter-strike, intifada and walls, checkpoints and bus-bombings, means refusing to take sides. Refusing to sell armaments. Refusing to justify what cannot be justified, whether high-tech or low-tech, whether done out of desperation, preemption or revenge.

Positively, it means being willing to share our own experience, expertise and wealth, to reconcile the mortal enemies, and make the desert of Jewish and Arab hearts bloom. These are not easy things to do. But protesting the actions of others has always been easier than doing something constructive and redemptive ourselves.    ❖

Alexander Patico coordinates activities of OPF in North America. He has written previously for In Communion and authored a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iran relations.

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

Orthodox-Muslim Relations: The Search for Truth

by Hilary Kilpatrick


The Way, the Truth and the Life”: if we believe that Christ is all these things, we must seek to avoid falsehoods, in personal but also in public life. To lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not just politically misguided or un-ethical, it was un-Christian.

Many of the antagonisms which lead to war in our world feed on lies or half-truths about “the other.” This is especially true when two communities have a history both of coexistence and conflict. It is easy then to find justifications for fearing, hating and even attacking “the other.”

Thanks to geography, Orthodox Christians and Muslims have had a shared history since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Sometimes Muslims dominated Orthodox, as in the various Near Eastern Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire, sometimes Orthodox dominated Muslims, as in Tsarist Russia. Any community living under the domination of others suffers injustice, and both Orthodox and Muslims can point to wrongs they have endured as minorities ruled by adherents of the other faith.

Since before modern times the two communities identified themselves first and foremost by religion. They remembered wrongs – even when they had nothing to do with religion – as inflicted by Muslims on Orthodox (or the reverse), rather than as, for instance, by tax-collectors against peasants or soldiers against civilians.

As time passed, these memories became simplified, creating a picture of oppression remaining at a constant level over four or five centuries. In some cases the oppressor was then held responsible for everything that had gone wrong, although quite other factors might have been involved. Unscrupulous politicians could, and can, easily turn such a sense of injustice suffered into a desire for revenge, as the break-up of Yugoslavia has shown.

If we leave aside our collective memories and what we imagine the past to have been and look instead at contemporary records, we find a much more complicated picture. This corresponds to our own experience of life. Few situations we encounter are entirely black or white.

To take a concrete example: the book of memoirs and advice written by Synadinos, a priest who lived in the town of Serres in Macedonia in the first half of the 17th century, mentions violent attacks by Turkish (Muslim) fellow-citizens on the (Greek) Christians but also recognizes the just decisions handed down by high Turkish officials. He describes a combined attack by inhabitants of the town from all the different communities on a Muslim merchant who was selling grain abroad during a famine. And he feels loyalty towards the Ottoman Sultan, for whom he uses the Byzantine title “basileus,” rejoicing sincerely at the victories in Iraq of Sultan Murad IV, whom he admires for his good governance.

Judging by the space they take up in his memoirs, Synadinos suffered most of all from the conflicts and envy of members of his own community; these outweigh both oppression by the Turks and his grief at losing six of his children in early childhood. And indeed some of the worst Turkish outrages, such as their desecration of a church and turning it into a mosque, came about because quarreling Christians appealed to them to intervene.

What Synadinos writes about 17th century Serres does not necessarily hold good for the town a hundred years later or for elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire in the same century. The assumption that the same conditions obtained everywhere in this vast area is mistaken. For instance, the devshirme (the levying of Christian boys for the Janissaries) inflicted on Balkan Christians, was seldom carried out in Anatolia and never in the Arab provinces after they were conquered in 1516-1570.

Another example is the contrast between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch in the Ottoman period. Until the mid-18th century the Patriarchate of Antioch was independent of Constantinople, with Patriarchs residing in Damascus. As is well known, Patriarchs of Constantinople were frequently deposed and re-elected; very few of them remained in office continuously for more than ten years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw 40 clerics occupy the throne of Constantinople following some 70 elections or re-elections. During the same period there were seventeen Patriarchs of Antioch, a figure which includes rival claimants for the office, and no re-elections.

This last contrast raises the question: why was the turnover of Patriarchs of Constantinople so much quicker than that of their brothers of Antioch? Since in both cases the authorities were Muslims, causes other than a generalized oppression of Christians must be found.

One was the tremendous competition for office among the higher Greek clergy in the capital, with rival claimants buying the support of viziers and other officials. At times, too, Western European envoys intervened for or against a candidate. The Arabs, by contrast, often presented a united front, and European diplomats were not active in Damascus as they were in Constantinople. Moreover, there was less at stake, the Patriarch of Antioch’s sphere of influence being much more limited. No doubt other reasons exist too, waiting for researchers to uncover them.

One of the focuses of myth-making which has led to much bloodshed and misery recently is Kosovo. During the long years of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia, the battle of Kosovo in 1389 came to be represented in folk epics as a mythical struggle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, freedom and slavery. The Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, is regarded as a martyr who sacrificed himself for his faith and his people. The Serbs, characterized by the spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice, were a people in bondage, like the Israelites in Babylon, to whom God would one day give back their freedom. These folk epics were well known both among Serbs and among some other Balkan peoples, notably the Bulgarians.

Serious historians tell us a different story. The army led by Lazar in 1389 contained contingents of different origins, including Albanians; some Serbs fought on the Ottoman side. After the defeat Serbian vassal princes took part in Ottoman campaigns in Anatolia. Only in the mid-15th century were the Serbian vassal princedoms gradually eliminated; Belgrade was not captured till 1521.

The next three centuries saw a series of wars between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, often in lands populated by Serbs. The population shift from Serbs to Albanians in Kosovo set in at the end of the 17th century in this context. The Habsburg armies which had conquered Belgrade and entered Kosovo were forced to withdraw after the Ottomans reoccupied the area, and the Ottomans took reprisals against the local Christians, who had given support to the Habsburgs. To avoid Ottoman atrocities, Christians from Kosovo and surrounding areas, led by the Patriarch of Pec, followed the retreating Habsburgs and settled in what is now Voivodina. Similar emigrations followed in the early 18th century. Kosovo, now deserted, was appropriated by Albanian stock breeders who settled there permanently. This was a spontaneous movement, not government policy; the Ottomans mistrusted Albanians as undisciplined mercenaries and irregulars who committed outrages against the local population.

When in the 19th century intellectuals began to elaborate nationalist ideologies for the Serbian and other peoples of what was to become Yugoslavia, they first considered a shared language, Serbo-Croat, as the foundation of a country of liberated south Slavs. The myth of Kosovo, while alive in the folk memory, was not a source of inspiration then or for many years. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia established after the First World War, by its name implicitly excluded Albanians and other non-Slavs, and the government of Belgrade pursued a policy of settling Orthodox Serb peasants in Kosovo and forcing Albanians to emigrate or assimilate; the Serbs, moreover, received privileged treatment.

During the Second World War the Albanians reacted by collaborating with the Italian occupiers, killing and expelling Serbs and Montenegrins. After the war, to ensure Serbian support, Tito retained Kosovo within Serbia as an autonomous region, and Serbian dominance was strong until the late 1960s and 1970s, when constitutional changes enabled an Albanian leadership to emerge, enjoying many of the powers of a republic in the federal system. As a poor region Kosovo had the highest rate of unemployment in Yugoslavia, and emigration was widespread, especially among the Serbs, who were destabilized by their loss of dominance and sometimes subjected to Albanian violence.

After Tito’s death Yugoslavia entered a period of profound political, social and economic crisis, with the dominance of the Communist party being questioned and religion becoming a vital part of resurgent nationalism in all the Yugoslav nations. Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje on the 600th anniversary of the battle with the Ottomans skillfully exploited the myth of Kosovo to save the party (and his own position as its leader) by reconverting it into a Serbian nationalist movement. It also heralded the imposition of direct rule by Belgrade, followed by years of killings, destruction and expulsions perpetrated by both Serbs and Albanians.

Had the history of Kosovo, as distinct from the myths about it, been widely known to its people, the real problems of the region – social and economic backwardness and the absence of the rule of law, as well as relations between the Albanian majority and the minorities of Rom, Turks and above all Serbs, many of whose finest mediaeval monuments are in Kosovo – might have been recognized and addressed and the subsequent bloodshed and misery avoided.

Can any historically valid generalizations be made, then, about the Orthodox experience under the Ottomans? I would tentatively suggest three points – though any generalization is unsatisfactory.

First, Muslims usually regarded Christians as inferior and did not hide the fact. Second, Christians were taxed more heavily than Muslims.

Against these two negative points there is a positive one: since Christians had a recognized, if inferior, place in the Islamic political system, they were not subjected to systematic attempts at conversion.

Some Serbs who migrated from Ottoman territory to Habsburg lands later moved back to escape Catholic missionary campaigns. And when Paul of Aleppo, traveling through the Ukraine in the mid-17th century, sees the Polish Catholic drive to convert Orthodox, he is thankful that such things do not happen in the Ottoman Empire.

How different is the history of Orthodox under the Ottomans from the history of Tatars and Caucasian and Central Asian Muslims in Tsarist Russia? Comparative study of these two subjects might show similarities, bringing out parallels in relations between religious majority and minority communities which are independent of the specific religions concerned.

A commitment to discovering historical truth also allows justice to be done to individuals who go against the dominant opinion in their community and act with wisdom or according to principles of common humanity. For instance, if the Turkish authorities were to recognize the Armenian genocide, they would not only help to heal the trauma of its survivors and their descendants, but they would also be able to celebrate the courage and humanity of the handful of Turkish officials who refused to carry out the policy and even cooperated with foreign institutions to save Armenians.

In the shared history of Orthodox and Muslims such individuals exist, too. One example is the Algerian emir Abd al-Kader, an exile in Damascus after the French crushed his resistance to their colonization of Algeria; he was instrumental in saving many Syrian Christians from death in the riots of 1860.

On the Orthodox side, a memorable role has been played recently by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, welcoming all refugees from former Yugoslavia, whatever their religion.

In the search for truth and in Christ’s service, we need to be open to these individual acts of humanity and to admit that they may come from quarters we do not expect. For in the end, it is people created in the image of God with whom we deal. There is a temptation to forget this and to see only faceless masses whom it is easy to demonize in situations of tension or conflict. By trying to discover the truth about their history, we can give them back their faces and start to recognize them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hilary Kilpatrick, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an independent scholar in Lausanne (Switzerland). Her current research is on Arabic literature of the Ottoman period.

Letters Spring 2002

Attitudes to Islam

I found the last In Communion rich and thought-provoking, in particular Jessica Rose’s article, but the unsigned essay, “A Christian Perspective on Islam,” requires a rejoinder.

Some of the author’s statements correspond to what I have observed in visiting Muslim countries in the eastern Arab world. The author’s experience of living among Muslims rings true, for instance, in his description of the image of the Muslim community at prayer throughout the world. It reminds me of Egyptian Muslim friends explaining their sense of being part of a world-wide community during Ramadan, where as darkness falls across the globe the faithful break their fast.

But I could not agree with much of what the author said. In the first place, he appears to believe that “Allah” is an exclusively Muslim name for God. In fact “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, used by Muslims and Christians alike; the phrase “Bism illah” (In the name of God) may be followed by “al-Rahman al-Rahim” (the Compassionate, the Merciful) but also by “al-Ab wa-l-Ibn wa-l-Ruh al-Quddus” (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). The names of God, and the language which Islam has developed to talk about God, are far less remote from Christian theology than the author states. While the concept of the Trinity is indeed alien to Islam, Christians and Muslims share much thinking about the attributes of God.

This was brought home to me clearly last summer at a conference on Middle Eastern Christianity from 750 to 1100 AD. One of the speakers discussed the style and language of a section from a treatise in Arabic by a Christian theologian of the 11th century. It was the section on God, where the writer uses many terms and expressions which can also be found in the Quran and in Muslim texts about God. At the end of the paper the chairman of the session, a Muslim, said to the speaker, a Christian: “I wish your paper could have gone on longer. It was so beautiful to hear God being talked about like that.”

Like Christianity, Islam is spread over different regions of the world and consequently takes on very diverse forms. Senegalese, Omanis, Indonesians, Iranians, Muslims settled in the US and Tatars do not live their Islam in the same way, and the differences may be compounded if one takes account of whether the people concerned are villagers or city-dwellers. It is just as hard to generalize about Islam if one looks at how it is lived in these different countries as it is to generalize about Christianity if one looks at it in, say, Scandinavia, Nigeria, Brazil, South Korea and Kerala.

An easy way to realize this is to look at aspects of society, such as political participation of women. In Saudi Arabia they are completely excluded from political activity, in Iran they can be members of parliament, in Egypt they can be government ministers, in Pakistan and Bangladesh they are, or have been, heads of government. Yet all these countries describe themselves as Muslim. I do not doubt the author’s good faith, but statements like “Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life” have to be set against facts like this, and also against shots of streets in Cairo or Jakarta on TV news films.

This is not to say that women do not suffer restrictions on their freedom in Muslim countries, depending on the country concerned, the woman’s social position and so on. But one cannot generalize about this matter, nor can one claim that it is something specific to Islam. A few decades ago, how many women did one see in Greek cafes or Greek public life?

Some of the features which the author ascribes to Islam belong more to what is often called a traditional society than to a specifically Muslim one. When he describes traditional Muslim education, his remarks remind me of accounts of the early school experience of some Arab Muslim writers — but also some Arab Christian ones, where it was the local priest, not the imam, who was the teacher. The Lebanese Orthodox journalist, historian and novelist Jurji Zaidan paints a bitter picture of his first school in Beirut in the second half of the 19th century, run by an ignorant and authoritarian priest. (Instead of the Quran, the Psalms were the text the pupils had to learn).

The Palestinian poet, painter and critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who grew up in the Syrian Orthodox community of Bethlehem in the 1920s, came off better in church schools, for the teachers were not authoritarian. But only when he went to the state school did he really start to develop intellectually. His teachers there, some of whom were Christians, others Muslims, were committed to preparing their pupils for building a modern democratic state after the end of the Mandate. And if it were true that the “forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam” do not guide Muslims “to become active and responsible, but to submit … passively to [their] fate”, how could one explain the intellectual achievements of medieval Muslim civilization, the movements of resistance in different Muslim countries to British, French, Russian, Dutch or Italian colonization, or the success of a project like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has provided credit for small-scale projects to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, whom ordinary banks will not consider lending to?

The author does not allow for a diversity of opinions within Muslim societies, yet diversity exists. Fr. Stephen Headley gives examples from Indonesia. Elsewhere one can note that Khomeini’s ideas have always been controversial in Iran, contested not only by secularly oriented thinkers, but also by sections of the clergy who disapprove of the involvement of the religious establishment in politics. And they have refused to accord his successor, Khamenei, the same authority as he enjoyed. (In any case Khomeini is a reference only for Shiites, about 10 percent of Muslims.)

The Sunni Muslim world, like the Orthodox Christian one, does not have a single central authority, and so debates on ethical issues can, and do, take place, as one can see if one follows the decisions given by the Shaikh of al-Azhar or the Chief Mufti in Cairo, who do not always agree with each other.

Muslims living in Europe and America, facing the challenge of living in a non-Muslim and even an entirely secular society, are developing a variety of responses to the new situation they find themselves in. Some Muslims are very critical of those who claim to represent them. I have a Lebanese friend who refuses to make the Pilgrimage because he considers that the regime in Saudi Arabia makes a farce of Islamic values. Public expression of dissident views such as this is difficult in most Muslim countries but it can be found in all but a few. As in other countries, where freedom of expression is severely limited, literature is often the vehicle of critical reflection. Indeed, one good way to discover something of how Muslims live, of the role their faith plays for them (or does not play — there are nominal Muslims, just as there are nominal Christians), and of how many other factors determine the choices they make in their lives, is to read literature — novels, short stories, poetry — from Muslim countries.

Admittedly, it is not easy to write about another religion, especially if one has suffered at the hands of some of its adherents, as may well be the case with the author. But as followers of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we must be committed to seeking for truth, whether in our own lives or our relations with others, or whether truth in the academic sense is concerned. To make sweeping and sometimes denigrating statements about the beliefs and behavior of millions of people all over the world (“Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably”) does not help the cause of truth; rather, it contributes to false images and hostility.

The Gospels give some guidelines about how to approach people of another religion. It may be worth reflecting on those passages where Samaritans are mentioned. In the time of Christ the Jews regarded them as holding wrong beliefs because they had their own temple and did not worship in Jerusalem. But Christ saw Samaritans as persons. He recognized that they could be capable of extraordinary good, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When He healed ten lepers, the only one to come back and thank Him was the Samaritan. And when Christ met the Samaritan woman at the well, he approached her not as a faceless adherent of a false religion but as a person deserving of respect, with her own spiritual needs. He did not raise the issue of what the right beliefs were; she did, once they had been talking for some time and she had realized that this was no ordinary meeting.

To combine a commitment to truth with respect for the persons who hold other beliefs — but who may still have been touched by the Holy Spirit — is a starting point for approaching the mystery of the existence of different religions in the world.

Hilary Waardenburg

Pursuing peace

It is important to pursue peace. I think that this is required of us. I join the rest of you in finding peaceful ways to solve problems. I start with my own attitude towards others (the log in my own eye). I think that our individual witness of Christ’s love to those around us is more important than our words. This is not an accusation but a simple statement. I know that many of you are more engaged in this kind of face-to-face witness and service than I am!

It is important to point out that this or that war is “unjust”, but we cannot let it distract us from the harder and greater tasks before us. Are we working toward a Christian world when we denigrate those with whom we disagree? It is one thing when our Church offers an unambiguous answer to a question (“Thou shalt not kill”), it is another when it seems to offer contradictory commands (Don’t kill, but …). Rather than assuming we know more than our betters, why not learn from this? Certain things may at first seem contradictory, but the task of reconciling them might just make us wiser.

I may never be placed in a situation where I am asked to kill another person. Lord help us, few of us have or will. But every day, I am faced with the temptation to hate another person, and I think this is the standard of murder Christ has given us. War and violence are symptoms and indicators — two of many — that I am not the only one tempted to murder others.

Doug Perkins

Just wars?

During the course of this past week public radio aired the comments of a prominent Roman Catholic theologian as he expounded upon the principles of a “just war” as they applied to our present War on Terrorism. Augustine held that wickedness must be restrained, by force if necessary, and that the sword of the civil authorities is divinely commissioned to this end.

Historically speaking, theorizing on just or unjust killing only became a matter for consideration after the Church was no longer at odds with the civil authority about the 4th century. During the period which preceded that, while the Church was still the object of the state’s oppression or outright persecution, no Christian writing left to us condoned Christian participation in war. It was commonly held in the Christian community that all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or executioners, was unlawful according to Christ’s commandments. In order to fully appreciate their position we should recognize that it was not infrequently Christian blood that was being shed!

Hippolytus (c.170-c.260), who compiled a canon of apostolic tradition, maintained that a soldier who wished to join the Church must refuse to kill men even if ordered to do so. The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette says: “So clear was the opposition of the early Christians to bearing arms that Celsus (2nd cent. Pagan philosopher), in his famous attack on them, declared that if all were to do as did the Christians the Empire would fall victim to the wildest and most lawless barbarians.” This remains today the primary argument. The response of the Church was that if all were to become Christians, the barbarians too would also be Christian, and even then, while Christians were in the minority, their love, labor, and prayers were doing more to preserve the Roman Empire than the Roman army.

Nevertheless, when we contemplate what the world might be like if all Orthodox Christians attempted to live faithfully all of the Gospel Commandments like that early Christian community, we are faced with the problem of evil and violence, intolerance and prejudice all around us. St. Augustine attempted to address that problem with his theory of the Just War. St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, wrote “A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself.” In that famous treatise St. John argues that neither sickness, poverty, nor any other injury, nor even death itself can take from man what it is that our Lord has commanded us to store up as treasurers in heaven. Only a man himself can do such terminal injury to himself.

We may never know what the world might have been if Christians throughout every century had sought, even at the cost of their own blood, to live the Gospel Commandments of love like that early Church. As Celsus contended, perhaps the barbarians would have prevailed. But we the faithful of St. Nicholas of South Canaan Orthodox Church do have the present to discover what effect such living might have in our own city. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself exemplified for us the truly human life and left us His Commandments of unconditional love. At the end of His earthly life He was crucified at the hands of evil, but it is His resurrection, and our own, that we celebrate every Pascha.

Fr. Joseph O’Brien

The Lord of the Rings

I had a letter from a friend who comments that Lord of the Rings is a fantastic work of imagination that somehow taps into something very deep within our collective western psyche but “there is something fundamentally non-Christian about it… The interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.”

As I see it, the pivotal idea of Lord of the Rings is that weakness, foolishness, self-giving love and the renunciation of power are at the heart of the life God intends for us. Frodo, and Sam with him, in effect embrace the Cross. They even experience a death and resurrection on the side of Mount Doom after the ring of power’s destruction.

Jim Forest

Tolkien sometimes seems to be going out of his way to avoid a Christian “message” in his book — Middle-earth is devoid not only of Christianity but, to a notable degree, of any religion: no worship, no temples, no priests/shamans/etc. Events are guided by a larger, hard-to-discern purpose, a “doom,” as Tolkien likes to say, using an older sense of the word, but he’s very careful not to suggest more.

Tolkien wants to set his Christian commitment aside in the telling of this story so that, without violating or contradicting it, he can talk about things in another way. As it says in the Silmarillion, “In that hour was put to the proof that which Mithrandir (Gandalf) had spoken, and help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered.” But all the warriors making their stand “beyond hope” (another favorite Tolkien phrase) play an essential part in Frodo and Sam’s work, so it would be a distortion of Tolkien to say that Frodo’s path is held up as the “right” model for dealing with evil in the world — it’s an essential part of a larger picture. The world-view that most strongly informs Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, is that of the Norse mythology that Tolkien knew and loved so well.

Lord of the Rings is a meditation on how evil works in this world: Evil is real. Peace is not a norm. It is a blessing, achieved only rarely, temporarily, and at the cost of great pain, sacrifice and sorrow. There is no way out of dealing with the world’s evil, or with the world’s great events. (This is hardest for me, since I’ve always had a stay-out-of-it attitude toward “politics”). Frodo and Sam (Sam in particular) are people with no interest in glory, desiring only to live quiet lives, who are nonetheless called out to play a part in huge events. They don’t like it or really understand it, but they are faithful.

Faithfulness: I think that if there is one thing that moves us today about Lord of the Rings above all others, it’s the book’s emphasis on faithfulness, loyalty, true friendship, fealty. Faithfulness to friend, master, lady, land, duty, expressed by unwavering commitment to a way of conduct expressing that faithfulness, held to even “beyond hope,” is, I think, something that sets off a great yearning in us; it’s not what our world values, but our hearts long for it.

The book’s treatment of the working of the power in the world is very deep, and I don’t think I’ve really understood it. On the one side, it’s perilous and corrupting… that’s what the imagery of the rings, and the Ring, is all about. On the other hand, the book’s politics, if they can be called that, are monarchist (Tolkien’s were too — see Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien): the only chance of good in the world is rule by a noble king, who is hard to find and tragically corruptible.

Those who imagine that Lord of the Rings gives us a black-and-white treatment of evil can be cured by reading the story of Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring: a man corrupted by his desire for good, destroyed because a good end became so important to him that he was willing to use forbidden means to attain it. Perhaps not many in OPF would agree with Tolkien on what “good means” are, but his commitment is clear: no good end will come by bad means, no matter what the threat.

I’d be curious to know how, in your friend’s words, “the interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.” Is it because humans (and elves, dwarves and hobbits) seem so completely responsible for whether good or evil triumph in the world, that divine help seems lacking? Is it because violence seems to “work” in combating evil?

As for people being somehow on their own in doing good and fighting evil: some readers have missed the fact that, in Tolkien’s mythology the wizards, including Gandalf, are divine beings — angels — sent to aid the world in its peril. In a letter to a friend, Tolkien wrote “Gandalf is an angel.” From the Silmarillion: “Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom men called the Wizards … afterwards it was said among the Elves that they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.” Perhaps it’s a measure of Tolkien’s view of the corruptibility of all things that even some of the Wizards become corrupt.

Tolkien is describing the world before Christ — he said that Middle-earth is meant to be our own world in an earlier, forgotten age. I believe that, in all he wrote, he was pondering how divine providence works itself out, and sometimes reveals itself, in a world that does not know Christ. We could with as much (and, thank God, as little) justification say that the interplay of good and evil in the Old Testament is “fundamentally different from the Gospel of Jesus.”

All of Tolkien’s work is suffused with a sense of the goodness and rightness of the natural order, to a degree that many will dismiss as “medieval.” Pay attention to how often Sauron and his minions express their evil by twisting or tampering with the natural. A favorite Lord of the Rings quote of mine comes from Gandalf, when he is confronting the corrupted Saruman. He might as well be speaking to the scientists and engineers who define our world: “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

The question was raised: Is Frodo a “Christ figure?” In literature, what we call Christ figures are rarely meant simply to be Christ in disguise. They present some shining of Christ’s nature into the world, usually mixed up with their mortality, fallibility, sinfulness. Frodo might, at least, fit this description, yes? In Orthodox spirituality, Christification is the goal of every believer; in this life, we hope that it can be attained, by grace, in some degree, not that we will become equivalent to Christ, or Christ by nature — a demonic goal.

My son just located one of the key passages in Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo says of Gollum, “He deserves death.” Gandalf replies: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.”

John Brady

Gandalf’s wisdom

When we forget that this is a story and try to test out its parallel or lack thereof with the Gospel, we get into trouble. There are many beautiful, teaching moments where Tolkien portrays an aspect of humanity which may/will connect to others’ experience of the God we as Christians know. This combined with the childlike imagination and world of journeys and adventures of fantasy creatures is a fantastic story and a great way to both relax and learn. We must not get totally lost from reality, however, and remember that it is a story. Yes, one that we may love and cherish, one that may help to form our lives; yet to pick it apart in order to understand it or not fear it, well, to quote Gandalf, “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Sheri Bunn San Chirico

Not Narnia

Tolkien himself warned pointedly against the interpretation of his work literally or as allegory. This is not Narnia. Events, characters and things in the story aren’t supposed to have a one-to-one relationship with things in our world. And war is a reality — even the nonviolent are engaged in struggle. Take the struggle in Lord of the Rings any way you want to. It could be the good guys against the bad guys, or it could be a monk, or even a faithful Christian, struggling against sin or passions.

Matthew R. Brown

Purity of heart

Let me tell you about the “Purity of Heart” session I led for teen-agers of our parish.

In preparing it, I used the Philokalia, the Orthodox Study Bible, and Jim Forest’s book on the Beatitudes. After defining what a “Gospel” is, we talked about what Matthew the Apostle might have been like. We also talked about how the children how feel about their parents — how badly they would feel if something happened to their mother/father. We discussed their feelings when they told their parents good night and then said their prayers. This was a type of purity of heart since it is totally bound up in love with no thought of gain, anger, jealousy and so forth.

We went around the room in a roundtable discussion with each teen saying what they thought “purity of heart” is. A common answer was that when they sensed purity of heart within themselves when they were most happy and felt that those most inward feelings defined who and what they were; in other words “my heart — in purity — is who I really am.”

We also talked about going to confession, fasting and communion as methods to restoring purity of heart when we felt we had “lost it.”

It was a morning well spent.

Deacon Benedict Mann