From Herod to ISIS through Christ: No Record of Retribution!
by Pieter Dykhorst
Having beheld the strange and ineffable humility of the Incarnate God the Word, O Divinely-blessed Baptist, when He bowed His Divine Head to thee and received a servile baptism, thou thyself wast wholly filled with great humility. Entreat therefore this Divinely-loved virtue for us also, who are possessed by pride, that we may cry to Him from a humble heart: Alleluia!
Wholly filled with the gifts of Grace, in finishing the course of earthly life, John the Divinely-chosen, thou didst teach all to please God well through fulfillment of the Law and repentance. Therefore, we sing out thankful praises to thee, the great teacher of truth:
Rejoice, planter of the law and statues of the Lord!
Rejoice, exposer of Herod’s lawlessness!
Rejoice, zealot for his correction!
Rejoice, thou who didst suffer imprisonment and bonds for the sake of righteousness!
Rejoice, thou who wast beheaded for the truth!
Rejoice, for thy body was given an honorable burial by thy disciples!
Rejoice, for by God’s providence thy head was preserved incorrupt!
Rejoice, for it has granted consolation, sanctification, and healing to Christians!
Rejoice, for the faithful piously bow down also before thy right hand which baptized the Lord!
Rejoice, for many miracles are thereby accomplished even to the present day!
Rejoice, for by thee the faithful are delivered from the dishonor of passions!
Rejoice, for by thee the sinful are moved to repentance!
Rejoice, great John, Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord!
O great and most glorious John, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord! Receive from us now this supplication offered to thee, and by thy prayers, which are pleasing to God, deliver us from evil of all kind, and rescue us from eternal torment, and make us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, that throughout the ages we may chant unto God: Alleluia!
O Baptist of Christ, Holy Forerunner, last of the prophets, first of the martyrs, instructor of fasters and desert-dwellers, teacher of purity and close friend of Christ! I pray thee; I run to thee. Do not reject me from thy protection, but lift me up who am fallen in many sins; renew my soul by repentance, as by a second Baptism. Purify me, corrupted by sins, and compel me to enter therein where no corruption can enter: into the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen. (“The Akathist to St. John the Baptist,” Kontakion VIII, Ikos VIII, Kontakion XIII, Prayer to St. John the Baptist.)
Fr. John Parker of South Carolina recently wrote an article titled “An Orthodox Response to Beheading by Muslims” exploring the Church’s historical response to the martyrdom of its children and what it should be today.
The essay asks rhetorically “is violence—individual or large-scale––a possible Orthodox response?” To shape his answer, Fr. John looks at the examples of martyrs beginning with the first of the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, and the first of the new Church, St. Stephen. With each saint listed, Fr. John points to the historical record and it’s stunning silent testimony that “there was no record of retribution.”
Retribution for the murder of John or Stephen would be unthinkable! Imagine if Jesus had prayed for help to save or avenge John the Baptist––the entire Gospel would have turned upside down in a moment. We try so hard to find any justification in the Gospel for violence but there is none. Jesus never appealed to the authorities, raised a mob, or led a protest. He committed no act of violence––even when he cleared the temple, there is no record he harmed anyone. When he had the chance and justification at Gethsemane, he didn’t even encourage Peter’s zeal. What we could have done with different words! “Well done, Peter. Those who live by the sword understand the world. Today you defended me, but the time is coming when you must defend yourself. Wait until you gain strength. Today we will be passive because we are weak—one sword is simply not enough.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of the response of Jesus and his followers to the violence done to John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the young Church is that their actions ran sharply counter to what might be expected. In fact, Rome saw its violence against them as preemptive––the authorities sensed rebellion everywhere. Palestine of Jesus’ day was swirling with political and revolutionary intrigue—the Jews desperately needed a political, military Messiah, and had Jesus wanted to inaugurate his kingdom with violence, he could have: The twelve legions of angels Jesus had standing by in the Garden were probably more than enough. The space of calm into which Jesus was born was brief and rippling with unrest, but waiting for a champion. And Jesus ignored it, did nothing to encourage rebellion, and gave an example exactly the opposite of what any sane person would have advised.
Instead, when Jesus heard of John’s murder, he retreated by himself, but when he saw people following him, he got back to the work of ministering mercy to them.
After the murder of St. Stephen the Proto-martyr—who prayed that his killers be forgiven even as the stones began to rain down on him—“was there an apostolic uprising?” as Fr. John teasingly asks in his essay. Instead, through responses of prayer, love, and forgiveness, the Church swelled with the numbers of its enemies its love prompted to conversion! Stephen pointed the way as he was dying by praying in the manner of his Savior on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
As Christians scattered throughout the region in response to growing persecution, they left us no record of raising bands of fighters to return to Jerusalem “to kill our enemies there before they come kill us here.” Instead, they continued to preach to hostile reception wherever they went, often with the same murderous response. The historical record is instead replete with evidence like that from the trial of St. Cyprian of Carthage:
At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!” Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood.
We must try to imagine––we can’t know––the human suffering these murders caused, the grief and fear experienced by the Christian community, or their struggle with hatred and desire for revenge, though millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ are living it today, many of whom are giving the same testimony the Holy Spirit has handed down through the Church from the time of the first martyr.
Fr. John wrote before the twenty-one Egyptian Copts were killed on a beach in Libya in February, 2015, but surely their witness may be added to his list. One mother who lost her son that day and couldn’t be blamed were she to demand angry justice said instead when she was asked if she had a message for her son’s murderers: “I thank you [ISIS], may the Lord touch your hearts and light a way for you so you don’t end up in a bad place—light a way for you so you don’t end up in hell.” Another mother whose son was also taken said she’d invite his murderer into her home “and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”
This makes no sense to the worldly minded because it is not of this world. It is the response of those who are in the world and know they are not of it. In “The Akathist to St. John the Baptist” we find joy, salvation, and consolation in contemplating not just the fact of his sacrifice, but in its purpose and Christ’s ultimate victory at the end of all things. IC
This issue represents an effort to introduce ourselves to those who are not already familiar with us. As a result of our efforts, you may be holding in your hands the first issue of In Communion you’ve ever picked up. Perhaps a friend who subscribes handed it to you or you came across it in church. Maybe you saw it lying somewhere and picked it up because you’ve heard of us and you’re curious to find out for yourself who we are and what we do. If we are new to you, you may want to start by reading “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: a Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers” on page seven, a short narrative that describes who we are.
As you read this issue of In Communion, you will discover exactly the sort of content we’ve always published, all of which is archived on our website where anyone may go to freely read. You may be surprised that we are conspicuously apolitical even though many of the topics we care about are those that perennially fill the public square with noisy debate. Yet, we do have members from all over the political map. No one must sign a political statement to join! But because the Gospel does not lend itself to any particular politics no matter how much we sometimes want it to, we seek to shape our attitudes and behaviors by looking to the words and example of our Lord, the Apostles, Church Fathers, Saints, and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. We bring our faith to our individual political activities, not the other way around, recognizing as we individually grow in salvation that disagreements are bound to occur. What matters is fidelity to our calling to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Nevertheless, we take certain stands that to some resemble standard political rhetoric (as examples: we are consistently pro-peace, which some misinterpret as appeasing anti-warism; others take our consistent pro-life stand as fundamentalist intolerance). I welcome you to read what you are holding, visit our website, and join our conversation, or start your own about what it means to be a Christian peacemaker in an increasingly violent world. You may decide to join us and contribute to helping us enlarge the conversation; but if not, feel free to make full use of the resources you find on our website. If you like what you see, please spread the word.
This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven….I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped [Ireland], except the gospel and God’s promises.
Few saints are as well known or have so much written about them as Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. The body of work attributed to the very real 5th century Christian missionary and saint of that name is so large––and the historical record suggests that much of that work took place over significantly more than the span of one lifetime––that some scholars suggest there must have been two Patricks or that some unknown contemporary shared the work.
The St. Patrick we know, on whom the legend is based, did leave behind a written record that tells us a great deal but far too little to confidently describe his accomplishments. Patrick’s own words suggest that while all of the astounding growth and success of Christianity in Ireland in that period may not be directly attributable to him, his work laid the foundations for much of it.
Patrick left us two documents––a short biography and a letter––that provide a brief sketch of his life, a number of clues about the nature and scope of his ministry, and considerable insight into the nature of his faith, theology, and character. The wide-angle picture they give of his life and ministry offer few details, and together they wouldn’t fill half an issue of In Communion.
Most of the legend of St. Patrick comes from hagiography written down more than a century later. They connect the dots Patrick provides for a more robust picture of his life. But they also conflate his story with what was done by others who came after him. Much in them may be taken as reliably descriptive of Patrick and his life but cannot be taken as factual without additional evidence.
A third narrative informing contemporary notions about Patrick is the popular cultural fiction full of fun things like green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold.
The Irish are not alone in surrounding an important historical figure with a popular mythology. The society without such mythologies probably does not exist. Patrick is on our cover in this issue for two purposes. Without begrudging Patrick his place in Irish hearts, we want to rescue him from being a saint merely for the Irish and restore him to the whole Church for all to venerate. By getting to know each other’s saints, we engage in bridge building and are drawn into a richer Orthodoxy and away from our tendency to remain too comfortably settled in our jurisdictional, cultural, or ethnic ghettos.
The makeover of Patrick from Orthodox saint to national patron also serves to exemplify how Christians may over time fall prey to erroneous thinking about not only our collective cultural and historical identities but also our Christian identity. By the 15th century, St. Patrick was only one of about thirty-five “pattern day” saints (patrons) in Ireland, albeit possibly the most important. He become Ireland’s Patron Saint when he was made the emblem of Irishness at the rise of Irish nationalism beginning in the 18th century. By teasing Patrick’s narratives apart, we find in him a father of the faith to the Irish around whom they may gather for celebration, but nothing like a national hero.
Very late in his ministry and near the end of his life, Patrick wrote his two documents. They clearly suggest he didn’t write much else, at least not earlier and nothing that might have been intended as a record. His very short Confessio was written self-consciously to the posterity of his Irish children in the faith, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus was written against the chief of a band of murdering and plundering slavers who raided the Christians under Patrick’s care. One may feel a natural skepticism toward autobiographical sketches, but while Patrick’s words erect a bare biographical framework, they convey a profound and believable humility. Reluctant to tell his story, he seems more compelled to talk about God’s faithfulness, his own unworthiness, and his great love for his Irish children in Christ.
Patrick’s confession begins “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” And then in one short paragraph, he offers nearly all of what he eventually gives us of the bones of his biography:
My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae [somewhere in Roman Britain]. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.
He tells us that his story would be long if he told his “each and every deed” in Ireland. But he doesn’t; instead, his biography is really a lengthy confession of God:
So I am…a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.
So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.
Only after several paragraphs does Patrick offer just a little more detail about his circumstances. We learn that he and the many with him were taken because they “deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments.” He describes his life as a simple shepherd and tells of hearing God’s voice prompting him to escape, which he did after six years; about his years-long journey to return home again; and how he eventually returned to Ireland ––again being directed by God in visions––probably in his forties and over the strong protest of his family. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is similarly written in the style of a confession but with a more practical purpose. A lament for the killing and plundering of Christians and an encouragement to his beloved suffering Irish children in Christ, he begins the letter with these words:
I declare that I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner indeed, have been established a bishop in Ireland. I hold quite certainly that what I am, I have accepted from God. I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God––he is my witness that this is so…. The truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbors and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death, if I am worthy of that. I live for my God, to teach these peoples…. With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death…. They are blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.
After descriptions of Coroticus’ crimes, encouragement to the suffering Irish Christians, and a defense of his ministry, Patrick ends with a purposeful appeal:
I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it…be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God. However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptized women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity. Peace to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It would be surprising if “each and every deed” of Patrick’s life were not repeated, did not become legendary, and did not also evolve by the time they were written down. by his own testimony, Patrick converted thousands, preached all over Ireland, and had dealings with kings and chieftains––he tells of one king who was quite unhappy when his daughter, guided by Patrick, became a nun. There were also conflations, fictionalizations, and inaccurate attributions. We learn from the legends, for example, that Patrick founded monasteries, faithfully taught about the Trinity to a pantheistic culture, and wrote certain poems and prayers that have survived. Likely he did found monasteries—he wrote of the many Christians under his care who entered monastic life—though no historical proof exists that he founded any, and he gives clear evidence that he faithfully taught the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, though historians doubt he used the shamrock to do so. It wouldn’t be surprising if he wrote prayers and made contributions to liturgical practice, yet historians doubt he wrote the ones attributed to him, and none others any longer exist.
Some of what is handed down is wholly fiction. He didn’t drive snakes from Ireland. Scientists who know tell us there is no evidence there have been any in Ireland since at least the last ice age, though banishing snakes may be metaphor for converting druidic folk to the worship of God in Christ. Patrick didn’t convert all of Ireland––that was mostly accomplished by the 14th century. He didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland and wasn’t the first Christian bishop—Christianity reached the island about a hundred years earlier and at least one bishop preceded him. Probably he was also not the only bishop in Ireland during his lifetime.
It remains for the skeptic to believe, however, that Patrick is not central to the story of the Irish Church, for no matter how sparsely documented are the lives of certain figures, popular culture never escapes their influence or fails to form collective memories of them. When those memories are later recorded and work done by Patrick’s spiritual children and grandchildren is attributed to him, the credit isn’t wholly misplaced. Knowing better the true story shouldn’t diminish him. The man who spent himself for the Irish “so that you may have me for yours,” and who “traveled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went, to baptize and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfillment” remains worthy of collective commemoration of Christian faithful everywhere.
The Irish have succeeded in making Patrick their own, though he is not considered something like an Irish ethnic forebear. He became one of the most successful symbols of national identity anywhere by simple inclusion in the common national narrative. Patrick was one of many saints celebrated in Ireland when his feast day was taken over by parades, all things green, Guinness beer, and rousing music and fun prose. Over time many other elements of Irish identity were included—the Blarney Stone, Leprechauns, pots of gold—as St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of all things Irish.
As is very often the case among expatriate communities, Irish emigrants were among the most vocal advocates not only for creating and preserving a coherent and distinct Irish identity but for championing the political cause of the motherland. The keenest boosters of Irishness and Irish independence from Britain were found in America in the 18th century where the first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in New York City as part of the nascent Irish Nationalist movement.
As the Irish formed communities in America, they began for the first time to think of what it meant to be Irish in the midst of others. Most had never thought in terms of ethnicity or national identity. Being Catholic became subordinate to being Irish as they sought to build and preserve their cultural distinctiveness. Over time, Gaelic culture became the matrix of Irish identity, in contrast to English culture. As the narrative of Irish cultural nationalism secularized, so did Patrick. Nobody seemed to notice that the saint was being erased from the page.
Despite being a driving force in most civic and international conflict, nationalism is much misunderstood. Irish nationalism is but one form, and Patrick provides but one example of a figure being co-opted in a nationalist project. Americans do not think of themselves as nationalistic, yet America broadly fosters a Civic Nationalism of a politico-credal sort even while other forms of nationalism flourish among a variety of groups, among them the messianic, religious nationalism of some Evangelical Protestants in which America is God’s chosen among the nations of the world. Americans often confuse patriotism with nationalism but they are not the same thing at all1.One need not be a patriot to be a nationalist or a nationalist to be a patriot, or one may be both. Orthodox too hold to a variety of nationalisms, some of them are overtly religious while others are less so.
Among all forms of nationalism, religion remains the most powerful tool in any nationalist identity-building project because of the nature of religious belief. Religion is primary to believers’ sense of being human in the world. With religion at the core of understanding about the world and self and how all things relate to one another, religion becomes a handy cornerstone of collective-identity building around which many nation groups are formed. Who we are (personal ideas of identity are not possible without collective identity—it is the matrix in which personal identity is formed) unconsciously infuses every thought and perspective and thing with meaning so that we may say culture—that which defines the parameters and content of collective identity—becomes as water is to a fish, something not noticed until it is either threatened or absent or until something in stark contrast is presented as an alternative. When our culture—that is to say our collective being—is threatened or challenged, it’s existential primacy becomes immediately apparent as we instinctively defend it as we would our lives. Religion thus is often usefully the key element, albeit only one, of a complete montage of cultural components built together to form the being of each member of a national group from birth.
Religion-infused cultures abound. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries (examples: Greece, Spain, USA) with long histories of Christianity being a dominant culturally formative factor could not be imagined without their Christianized character, regardless of whether or not any or most of their citizens still think of themselves as Christian. A couple of good examples of Christianity being consciously used to create an exclusive national identity, with varying degrees of success, would be in the increasingly influential narrative of America as a Christian nation uniquely blessed by God or the Greek nationalist project that conflates ancient Hellenic history with Byzantine Orthodox history to create an exclusive Orthodox Greek nation. Religion so used becomes the defining element of a nation-forming group’s identity. Their cultural particularities become the evidence of God’s blessing––the standard of good citizenship––and the means by which his blessing is maintained. Religious nationalism in any of many forms is the most obdurate and formidable of all nationalisms, Orthodox nationalisms being good examples rather than exceptions. Orthodox Christians often understand nationalism to be the same thing as ethnophyletism, which is the conflation of ethnic, or racial, and Orthodox identities to form nation groups that form the basis of both Church and State. The manifestations of this in the Balkans in the late 19th century—think principally of Greece or Bulgaria—was the cause of a Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Istanbul condemning this kind of nationalism in 1872. Orthodox who now routinely condemn ethnophyletism often remain nationalists of another type. But the nasty treachery of all nationalistic thinking is that it always makes us exclusive.
An example of non-ethnophyletic nationalism with religious dimensions among Orthodox is the Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath party (forming around cultural “Arabness” with language as the primary identity marker) and which is held by large numbers of Syrian Orthodox Christians. A recent statement posted to the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate’s website in the name of Patriarch John X,2 states that “The Church of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox makes a point to affirm at all times that it is a daughter of the nation and is the abode in which they reside.” In the statement, the Mosque and the Church are linked as equal sister-daughters of the nation of Syria. In the Arab nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath––as distinct from the Iraqi Ba’ath, which they split from in 1966––one is first a Syrian Arab and then either Orthodox or something else. Arab, Syrian, and Orthodox are thus conflated in a way that is not only wrong but much contested by other Syrians, Arabs, and Christians.
Not all difference is exclusive, however, and the warmth we naturally feel for our own cultural heritage is part of being human and is the natural consequence of how we are formed socially, culturally, linguistically, and generally in our whole-world view. The normal cultural differences that exist between groups are generally never intended to divide. The real problem of nationalism among Orthodox, however, is not in so benign a thing as the cultural preference of “Cristos anesti” over “Christ is risen” or “Krishti ungjall” or in enjoying plum pudding over baclava or in certain ritualistic preferences during the Divine Liturgy: while these things may naturally provide distinction as between families, they need not be divisive. The problem manifests when there is conflict or when difference forces the kinds of choice that expose competing allegiances and we begin to fight either to defend our difference or to elevate it. The contorted apologetics for the Syrian and Russian governments common among Arab and Russian Orthodox that fly in the face of fundamental Christian values is the result of such conflated loyalties.
One evidence of conflated Orthodox and national identity is the very modern phenomenon of making saints national heroes or national heroes saints. something that by its nature is divisive within the Kingdom of God and should be anathema to the Church but is instead common!
A common manifestation of softly held or unconscious nationalist sentiment is an elitism that sometimes makes others feel less “Orthodox” for being of another jurisdictional, ethnic, or cultural group because of the way we cleave to our national identity. The division of the Orthodox world into cultural and ethnic jurisdictions has created what some call Orthodox ghettos (ghetto implies separation not poverty) wherein a monolithic way of being Orthodox that results in isolation is created by the conflation of our own customs with the Orthodox faith. Visitors to Orthodox parishes should not be made to feel they must first, or even also, become Greek, Serb, Russian, or Arab to become truly Orthodox. Looking to the future, American Orthodox should avoid creating a similar attitude that elevates a version of culturally American Orthodoxy over other forms––something many are already promoting.
When Christ sent his disciples out, he called them ambassadors, people who represent the interests of one state to the leaders of another. Ambassadors who are confused in their allegiance are likely to be called spies and may be stripped of their citizenship rights, imprisoned, and often executed, as are citizens who switch sides to serve the interests of a rival state. It shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest missionaries usually found themselves in courts and before kings declaring their allegiance to God and were commonly martyred for it. Christ did not tell his disciples “You should not serve two masters”; he said “You cannot.” For, when you serve the one, you automatically oppose the interests of the other: you must choose. Ultimately, attempting to simultaneously serve two rival interests merely makes one useless to both. When the released Syrian and Lebanese nuns of Mar Thecla monastery contradicted the widely held perspective among Orthodox that they were being mistreated during their captivity, they were branded by the Church as traitors to Syria and unfaithful to the Church3. The conflated loyalties of the Church leaders in this instance promoted their national loyalty and compromised their spiritual sense.
When we consciously choose to exclusively serve Christ, we cultivate our Christian-ness to be a culturally transformative force rather than guarding it as part of our inherited cultural identity. Our lives are neither gift nor extension of anything earthly: we are not merely products of a history stream and so we do not owe our primary allegiance to any other product of history, such as a nation-state.
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ’For we also are His children’ (Acts 17:26-28).
The Irish rightly love Patrick for his sacrificial work of building up the Irish Church, a legacy that lasts into eternity. But the very inclusion of Patrick in the Irish nationalist mythology diminishes him and casts a shadow over a saint who belongs to the whole Church everywhere and everywhen. It is a fundamental aspect of being human that we are defined by others, though at times in our development we are allowed to choose by whom. Like the apostle Peter, Patrick chose his identity in Christ. In answering Jesus with “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” Peter was given his own identity. It was in his recognition—by the Father’s revelation—of Christ that he was captured and transformed into a citizen of God’s Kingdom to be eventually martyred by Rome, the symbol of earthly citizenship.
Patrick willingly became a servant of “the nations” to whom he was sent from his home in Britain—there was no Ireland then, only the chaos of competing kingdoms just the other side of the Roman frontier. By the 4th century, a primitive Irish was widely spoken but a variety of Celtic languages were still common. Patrick saw an island in need not of “civilized” culture, Imperial rule, or a strong local king to bring lasting stability but the gospel. He went to share the gospel with “the nations to which the love of Christ brought me” at the end of the world, where he thought he was. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, but it is possessed by the same sick spirit as tribalism, culturalism, ethnicism, imperialism, and so many other isms. Only as each of us discovers our full and true identity in an encounter with Christ, the Son of the living God, will we find the cure for the sickness of nationalism. IC [wpanchor id=”footnotes”]
1. Simple working definitions: Patriotism is the natural love for one’s own country; nationalism is a political philosophy that claims statehood belongs primarily to distinct and exclusive national-identity groups. Click HERE for information on the OPF resource on nationalism, For the Peace from Above. Also search our website for more resources.
2. The full statement may be found on our website in Arabic HERE and in English HERE. Ba’athism is a socialist Arab Nationalism that conflates numerous identity groups to form the fiction of a Syrian nationality for the purpose of creating a secular state of Syria. Michel Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox, was a founder of Ba’athism. Hafiz Assad was its champion, and like Bashar today, was ruthless in eliminating competing political parties. The current civil war is the continuation of that struggle. The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate supports the Assad family and its nationalist ideology, though they may not be Ba’athist––Patriarchal statements often reflect more general Pan-Arab nationalism. 3. From the Patriarchal statement referenced in footnote 2.
Competing nationalist narratives in Syria create false dichotomies that force people into mutually exclusive identity groups.
Ba’athist nationalism creates a Syrian identity that falsely conflates Christian and Muslim as sister-daughters of the nation. Sectarian nationalists of various kinds manipulate and exploit religious difference to divide and create conflict.
Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment
Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 2014, 160 pp
reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst
Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment may sound like the start of one of those tough theology lessons you want to dodge because you just don’t want to go through the pain of failing the exam. But it isn’t. Jim Forest isn’t a theologian—not in the way most of us think of them anyway—but something undeniably of the theological arts resides in good story telling, and Jim is a first rate storyteller. Mixing theology up with stories is like giving medicine with a spoon full of sugar. Loving Our Enemies is filled with stories that make the medicine go down, stories of those who were compelled by Jesus loving them—we all start out his enemies—to begin loving their own enemies.
But Jim doesn’t rely solely on story telling. He clearly understands that “thou shalt” may be the least compelling start to a moral lesson if changing lives is the aim. Each chapter delivers what the book promises—a reflection, a devotion really, on the theme of actively loving our enemies despite how we may feel about them, the obstacles along the way, the hope and joy inherent in the effort, and the promise of potentially converting enemies to friends though there are no guarantees. By the time you finish, you will come to believe—you will have arrived there unawares somewhere in the middle— it is not only right and necessary but possible and desirable to love your enemies.
How does the reader get there? It’s fine to know who our enemies are—Jim defines them all the way down to the the one staring at us each morning in the mirror—and that we should love them, but that’s barely the start. Inspiration or feeling aren’t enough either. The subject isn’t just hard, it’s the hardest, too hard for any of us to accomplish on our own, and Jim knows that. So do we. Conversion, transformation, being made into new creatures for whom the hardest love is possible is what is wanted. This is the aim of the book, and each chapter takes the reader one step closer to going all in.
The essential oil of Christian theology is derived from the stories Jesus told, and by his life, death, and resurrection, he illustrated them, making theology something of a practical art. The reflections of Loving Our Enemies are about the possibility of transformation when knowledge, need, and inspiration move us to choice and action. That is when the anointing oil is applied and change takes place. Loving Our Enemies is about imitating what Jesus did and what many of his followers have been doing till now, and receiving the same grace they did to become new creatures capable of love.
“Making friends of enemies––and making choices not driven by enmity–– happens thanks not only to an inner act of will but still more to the grace we receive from the Holy Spirit. The word grace is often used to describe the transformed state of being that occurs at moments when God enters into our conscious lives. While the obstacles within ourselves often seem impossible to overcome—deeply entrenched boredom, indifference, prejudice, anger and hatred—the wind of grace can suddenly blow away walls that seemed immoveable and impenetrable. We can speak of “graced moments” when we see another person in such a light that we realize that, until that moment, we were blind. We “saw” but in so superficial and limited a way that we were unaware of God’s presence in that other life. The other was more a thing than a person.
“Invariably those graced occasions when God breaks through in us are turning points. We are changed and, even if held captive within the stone walls of a prison, we experience a deep freedom and unspeakable happiness. For the rest of our lives we know that what the French writer Leon Bloy said is true: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Ultimately, we don’t need to be convinced we have enemies, we need to know what to do with them. We need strategies, and Loving Our Enemies is about the hardest strategy, the counterintuitive strategy of love, introduced by Jesus to a desperate race wrongly convinced the only way to successfully deal with enemies is to neutralize, defeat, or eliminate them.
The book covers the tools needed for the journey: praying for enemies, confession, acts of mercy, regularly receiving communion, turning the other cheek, and more. All are amply illustrated by the lives of real people—many you’ll recognize, some appear frequently in Jim’s writing, a few might surprise you, and some you’ll likely meet for the first time. In many ways, in fact, Loving Our Enemies is not unlike Jim’s other books, but there is a key difference for me. More than any of his others, this book seems to contain more of the essential oil anointing Jim’s own life—I get the feeling as I read each chapter that I’m reading the words of someone who is beginning to close the circle, that Jim is now telling the lessons from his own life and using others’ stories to illustrate. I find few things more compelling than an old man telling his own story, having put-up as we say, but making me feel like it’s not about him.
The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality
Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, 349 pp
reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst
The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality is a collection of essays compiled to introduce readers “to the background, motifs, authors, and relevance for contemporary life and thought” of the Philokalia. It is an easy to read work of scholarship that can help make the challenging spiritual insights of the Philokalia more accessible to the average Christian, while also serving as a serious textbook for seminarians.
A work by and for scholars, the book is apparently long overdue on academic shelves. Many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that the editors created it while doing their own Philokalic research and discovering that “a large lacuna exists in scholarly literature on the Philokalia.” To begin to fill that gap, Bingaman and Nassif produced an anthology on the “History, Theological implications, and Spiritual Practices of the ” by leading scholars of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. And the list of authors makes compelling bait! The Orthodox among them include Kallistos Ware (who also wrote the introduction), John McGuckin, Andrew Louth, John Chryssavgis, and Bradley Nassif.
The Philokalia: a Classic Text is also an aid for the rest of us. If the Philokalia itself is like a field manual for spiritual boot camp, Bingaman and Nassif’s book is like the Field Manual for Dummies. Anybody familiar with the Dummies series knows that it takes an expert to make a difficult subject easy to read. While the Philokalia is considered by many Orthodox to be an indispensable guide to spiritual growth, it often seems impenetrable to the newly initiated . The essayists in A Classic Text succeed in unpacking the various themes of the Philokalia in a way that invites one in to begin the work of making it personal.
Likewise, nobody would ever take reading about fox holes as a substitute for digging one and spending the night in it. While The Philokalia: a Classic Text should prove to be an enticement to opening up the Philokalia for anyone pursuing Orthodox spiritual growth, there are no shortcuts. Before reading either book, any notions of finishing with an easy certificate in Philokalic studies should be dispensed with.
While exploring themes like the Jesus Prayer, asceticism, theology, and others––those one would expect a book like this to examine––Bingaman and Nassif included essays on more mundane but necessary topics, like the history of the Philokalia, and a few surprising ones as well, like the last chapter: Women in the Philokalia?
Other expected areas are examined through lenses that make fundamental concepts in the Philokalia understandable and useful in a modern context. A chapter by Christopher C. H. Cook, Healing, Psychotherapy, and the Philokalia, looks at “the nature of the pathologies that the Philokalia diagnoses,” what Orthodox call the passions, from the perspective of a mental-health physician. Reading again some of St. Maximos’ texts on virtue and the lengthy list of vices found in Peter of Damascus through the lens of modern psychology only made their insight more relevant to my life in a modern context.
As I read through The Philokalia: a Classic Text, skipping from section to section, I realized I was also, unexpectedly, having fun. I was treating it as if it were not the manual it is but also a travel guide. You’ll see what I mean if you pick it up: the essayists are all familiar with a beautiful place they have visited—“philokalia” means “love of the beautiful”—and write to tell about it. The best travel books don’t simply tell you where to eat, how to catch a cab, or about local customs—they make you want to go and find all those things out for yourself. This book is no different. Its authors seem to know the Philokalia and entice others to get to know it as they do. John Chryssavgis’ insights on Silence, Stillness, and Solitude, something I’m currently exploring, are like photographs from a beautiful land.
For all that, the book isn’t exhaustive, and one is left hoping for a follow-on book. Until then, this book will serve well and word of it should spread quickly as it finds its way into homes and studies.
The following offers some narrative support for the Statement. Whereas the narrative supports the succinct text of the Statement, it too is necessarily brief; however, numerous supporting materials are offered as background to help broaden understanding (we will begin adding these shortly).
Please bear in mind, this is offered as support and background, not dogma. Mistakes are mine and you are invited to bring them, and dissent or support, to my attention. The supporting documents and our website hopefully fill in many blanks that may exist in the narrative.
In blessing peacemakers in the Beatitudes as the children of God, Christ makes the vocation of healing damaged relationships a hallmark of authentic Christianity. Yet, the path of peacemaking is as messy and conflicted, individually and collectively, as is any aspect of Christian faith and living. What follows is a general summary of what we believe and how we apply it to the current situation. It cannot be taken as a dogmatic or binding statement on anyone’s conscience. We are children of the Church working out our salvation within its sanctuary; this is no exception.
a. While not all OPF members are against all war at all times, we believe war is always an evil that comes about as a consequence of human weakness and that the good we pursue is less a negative avoidance of war but a positive, robust, and broad pursuit of just alternatives that end current wars and make future wars unnecessary. Thus, before we are “anti-war,” we are “pro-peace.”
However, the Christian peacemaking vocation is not passive. True peacemaking requires foresight and is a preventative work requiring wisdom, faith, compassion for all, courage, and a commitment to justice as well as mercy. Preemptive peacemaking undercuts the foundations of violence long before unavoidable crises that produce violence and war result.
Once war comes, violence always breeds more violence, presently or in the future as the roots of pain and suffering, bitterness and anger, revenge, division, and fear take hold and eventually bear the fruit of more violence. The Gospel is anathema to violence as a legitimate conflict resolution strategy.
b. We believe when war seems unavoidable and does come, it is always a failure and must be terminated at the first possible opportunity and repented of after. Victory in war can never be celebrated but may sometimes be a least-bad outcome that must still be mourned: we should beg God to show us other means to resolve differences with our enemies.
There is sometimes debate among OPF members about when a war might in fact be unavoidable, when some understandable resort to violence seems necessary. We will not enter that conversation here except to acknowledge its legitimacy and to affirm our consistent opposition to violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy; however our website is replete with resources addressing this issue. We are united, however, in our conviction that war must never in any case be other than a truly unavoidable last resort.
We do not believe in this case that the current call to military action can possibly, in any rational framework, be considered necessary or an unavoidable last resort. Thus, we not only oppose this action but we believe there is no “economy” possible for it. Too many viable non-violent, political, legal, and humanitarian alternatives exist: they may fail, but they must be tried.
c. We do not weigh one side’s actions against the other to make some qualitative or quantitative judgement of who is more evil and who less. Obviously, if we deem war always evil, all sides engaged in the Syrian civil war have resorted to evil solutions.
We do not base our opposition on political considerations or on party affiliations.
To be clear, we are not naive or without personal and even collective judgements: our appeal, however, rests on none of them. Active pursuit of all viable non-violent solutions requires a proper understanding of the problem. Our Statement must be understood to go beyond opposition to military action to engaging in finding and implementing just solutions.
d. We must acknowledge that persuasive ideological, pragmatic, and sometimes impassioned arguments are being made for and against military action and that OPF members struggle with them as much as anyone might. Supporting documents address these arguments as broadly as possible.
The current situation in Syria and the region is extraordinarily complex and volatile, and we appreciate honest debate as Christians struggle for understanding and solutions. Many international actors have conflicted interests in Syria. Syria’s civil war does not consist of two monolithic entities pitted against each other: history, culture, religion, language, and ethnicity combine in a way outsiders cannot easily understand, creating a confusing mixture of loyalties and interests. Too many simplistic views are being presented in the US media and are grossly misleading because of their misunderstanding.
We make this acknowledgement and offer supporting arguments out of sympathy for those reading here who, like many of us have, may come to a similar vocational commitment through long and conscientious struggle and who value thoughtful and prayerful consideration of other views.
e. Finally, we simply state that legal options exist for dealing with the crime of chemical weapons use. As, for many, this is taken as sufficient grounds for war, please consider that whoever–Assad, other officials, generals or lower commanders, and/or opposition forces–has used chemical weapons, this war will end and avenues for justice exist and will be viable.
The wight of evidence for guilt for the attack on 21 September may point to the Assad regime, but please consider dissenting opinions and evidence that suggests some rebel factions may also have used chemical weapons on other occasions. As a basis for war, none of this is sufficiently clear or conclusive.
2. The Orthodox Justifiable War position:
a. For many within the Orthodox Church there exists some uncertainty about when war may be a lesser evil or lesser good or when war may be otherwise justifiable. The OPF’s position is clearly stated in the first section above. We would not, therefore, base our opposition to any war on a conditional framework like Just War theory although we appreciate the robust debate among some Orthodox on the subject.
Our website contains many fine resources dealing with the questions of “lesser evil,” “lesser good,” and other problems created by real-world conflict scenarios.
Our comments here are restricted to the “justifiable war tradition,” as articulated and defended by Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster in his book The Virtue of War because he argues strongly that the contemplated military attack on Syria would not be justifiable. His books are listed in the bibliography. Any further supporting comments from him will be linked as we are made aware of them. He makes a distinction between Western Just War Theory and what he considers to be an Orthodox justifiable war tradition, an argument developed in his book. he has also written an excellent book on the pacifist tradition within Orthodoxy called The Pacifist Option.
b. Obviously, our consistent opposition to war would not always find common cause with opposition from within a conditional moral framework. But in this case, the OPF finds it helpful to include in our statement an appeal to those who adhere to justifiable war principles. Fr. Alexander argues a “dual trajectory” (of pacifism and justifiable war) within Orthodoxy, and we feel that when we can agree in opposition to a particular war, it only strengthens our appeal and Orthodox unity to do so.
We thank Fr. Alexander for his contribution to crafting a clause in the Statement that allows us to include his “rail” in the dual trajectory, thus allowing him to support us and broaden our appeal to all Orthodox who are concerned about principled approaches to war within Orthodox moral tradition.
c. We are concerned about the trend among some Orthodox to base their support or opposition to this or any war on purely political, prudential, or other transient moral/ethical grounds. This narrative with supporting documents, not to mention our entire website, intends to help Orthodox who are seeking moral clarity by furthering healthy and informed discussion.
d. Additional considerations of justifiable war principles applied to the current situation regarding possible US involvement in Syria will be added to our supporting documents. Good sources to include are welcome. Please send these to me at [email protected]. Important points include:
Consideration of punishment for crossing a “red line,” violating an international humanitarian norm, ignoring a US threat, committing a war crime;
Considerations of deterrence against future use of WMD;
Considerations of how this would be a defensive war from the US perspective;
Considerations of what US involvement would look like in a defensive war from the Syrian perspective (including the government’s perspective and Syrian civilian’s perspective);
Considerations of rules of proportionality;
Considerations of non-combatant immunity (re: collateral damage);
Considerations of prompt termination when a clear and just goal is met;
Considerations of last resort;
Consideration of whether doctrines of “Responsibility to Protect” accord with the Justifiable War tenet of just cause.
It is our contention, aside from the OPF’s clear and consistent opposition to all violent conflict resolution strategies, that the contemplated US action would not be merely problematic under a justifiable war framework but would clearly violate all its basic tenets.
We anticipate robust disagreement on one or more points but welcome honest and careful argument in opposition.
3. Other Orthodox and Christian non-Orthodox positions being discussed:
a. The OPF locates its opposition to war in the positive and robust vocational peacemaking principles of the Gospel as articulated by Christ, the Apostles, Fathers of the Church, Saints, and contemporary Orthodox writers as well as in numerous writings and icons found throughout our tradition and history. As such, our position seeks to preclude what might otherwise be self-serving, rational, or prudential arguments.
We do not reject those but rather believe them to be transient and reversible and thus not sufficient alone, certainly not foundational.
There are many such arguments currently circulating. We will address as many as is reasonable in our supporting documents; we briefly address two here:
b. Those whose lives, loved ones, property, and way of life are existentially threatened as the Christians’ are in Syria cannot be considered self-serving in their cry for help from harm. We stand in prayer and tears with all Syrian’s particularly our Christian friends and family, praying daily for prompt peaceful resolution to the conflict. We ask God for wise and courageous leadership to show us how this may be accomplished and for the strength to follow.
Nevertheless, we see no help in the US plan to intervene. Those who disagree are invited to include their views in our conversation. We hope to include these in our supporting documents.
b. Last, we suggest recent polls in the US showing unprecedented opposition among the electorate must surely carry some weight. We do not base our position on transient popular sentiment, but this might be a convergent moment when the sheer weight of dissent from diverse quarters must give pause. We acknowledge minority voices are often lonely prophetic voices and the current majority view does not imply the minority is wrong. We merely take pause.
A concluding statement
Nothing thus far should be taken as an exhaustive or exclusive presentation of important issues and points. We are acting under time constraints and wish to get this posted and to begin adding supporting documents. All feedback is welcome.
Things not mentioned here may be found under categories in the supporting documents.
Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
New to In Communion? Please preview and download our current issue in full color for free below. Take it with you on your e-reader, laptop, ipad or phone. Share it with your friends who might enjoy receiving our journal either on paper or via PDF subscription. If you aren’t already a subscriber, we hope this issue will mark a starting point. To subscribe or make a donation, please click here.
This morning as I searched for some gem by St. Maximos the Confessor to offer as the first word on our theme “Peace: a word with meaning” before I send the issue off to the printer, I found this seemingly random, but relevant, verse instead: “A man writes either to assist his memory, or to help others, or for both reasons.” Amusingly, almost all writers (and editors) I know seem motivated to some degree by bad memory—paper and ink, and hard drives, are miracles! But that aside, it is the bit about helping others that stood out for me this morning.
In Communion is an offering of help as an act of love, each and every issue, nothing more and nothing less. I was reminded recently by my favorite priest that a good sermon should “simply share what we have been given.” I find that good advice generally. Every essay by our authors, every word squeezed into our tiny journal by your editor, is intended as an offering of what we have been given.
And that brings me to what that offering is, to that word, “Peace.” Is there a word more central to Christianity? Is there a word more ironically fought over and strangely employed in conflicted ways than the word peace? We attempt in this issue some effort to reclaim and restore to proper use this most amazing of words that has been so curiously euphemized, politicized, parsed, pimped, and distorted.
You’ll notice we’ve departed from the pattern of offering an icon with a cover story. In this issue, we intend to make clear from cover to cover that Christ and Peace are one and the same: the entire issue is the cover story! But our strategy extends beyond this single issue of In Communion. We aim for two things: creating tools that can help us grow OPF and spread the word, and our 2013 conference. This issue is a planned “give away” to promote who we are and what we are about. The content also addresses the theme of our upcoming conference in Washington, D.C. this Fall: a look at the relationship of the Church to the State through the lens of how Christians, corporately and singly, live out their peacemaking vocation in society and the world, at every level of community and relationship.
You can help. First, always, simply respond to the call of Jesus our Peace and be a peacemaker in whatever circumstance you find yourself. Second, do not keep this issue of In Communion—share what you have been given with someone who might be helped by it. And third, please respond to the letter enclosed by renewing your membership if you are due, helping us to grow by giving extra if you can, or considering other ways to spread the word such as ordering extra copies to give away. We are quite simply at a place where we can happily continue to roll along with just under 500 members, though barely surviving financially, or we can make every effort to grow, increasing our capacity to give away what we have been given with a larger donor base. Truly, humbly, thank you for whatever you can do.
What would you do if someone broke into your house and behaved like that?” asks Fr. Alexi Uminsky of Moscow about the activist band, Pussy Riot and their sacrilegious “Punk Prayer” performed in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. It is a hard question. Most questions that begin with “what would you do…” are. But while they rarely yield universal, prescriptive answers, they are important nonetheless. By grappling with them, we learn im-portant and revealing truths about ourselves, about others, and about conflict. This process of seeking to understand, more than mere retrospection or puerile indul-gence, is a preemptive work of conflict resolution—by it we grow stronger, wiser, and better prepared as a community to know how to respond when trouble visits.
A number of OPF members have engaged in thoughtful discussion on this topic recently on our online discussion forum. At lease one is convinced this is no more than a “liberal cause de jour” and beneath our mandate. Another has taken a lighter perspective and renamed his cat Pussy Riot—if nothing else, he has redeemed the band’s unfortunate name and given it some playful dignity. Some have expressed sympathy to the group’s message and to them as they begin to serve the severe sentence imposed on them by the Russian courts. Others have focused on the profound insult to Orthodox Christians by the young women’s invasion of sacred space. Most have struggled to make sense of this “intercultural moment,” recogniz-ing in the whole affair an indefinable alien quality along with clear similarities to a kind of protest and social interaction that has long been familiar in the West. We’ve all openly wondered what is being revealed about Russia, its society and culture, the Russian Church and its state institutions, and the interplay between them all.
I sense, though, as I engage with this story, that for many of us outside Russia a myth is dying. The lovely romantic image of a monolithic Orthodox Russia bears no more likeness to reality than the less romantic image of the Evil Empire I subscribed to as a young soldier stationed in Germany just six minutes by fighter jet from the barbed-wire divider that snaked across Europe. I am learning from friends and other sources inside Russia that Russia is gripped in a very real struggle over its soul, its authentic identity, and its future, and whether Pussy Riot is a cause, a consequence, a symptom, or a sideshow, it is all tied together. But why would that be surprising? Convulsive change washes increasingly over the whole world. All of this should really only bring us closer together in prayer and neighborly love and support.
Any attempt to sort it all out would be way above my pay grade, and the 48 pages of our journal would be too few for even a brief introduction. Instead, we offer three perspectives of the reflective sort expected from In Communion throughan inter-view with Fr. Uminsky, a sermon by Fr. Borisov (also of Moscow), and a comment on Orthodox culture by Deacon Steven Hayes of South Africa.
Dear friends, the summary in our last issue of Fr. Patrick Reardon’s report on his visit to Syria prompted a strong reaction from a number of readers. Several responses are in our from readers section, including one from an OPF member with contacts inside Syria, describing the peacemaking efforts of one Syrian monastery. While some wondered if we endorsed Fr. Reardon’s views or the violence of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, I assure you we do not, neither do we support any violence within or toward Syria or Syrians, from any quarter.
Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in North America sent Fr. Reardon’s delegation, in response to concerns from within the Archdiocese, to investigate what he saw as contradictions between what was widely reported in the media and “the reality based on our many contacts there.” Because of the deep spiritual and cultural roots of the Archdiocese in Syria and Met. Philip’s concerns, the trip and the nature of Fr. Reardon’s views qualified as news.
The world is learning that the Christian support of Assad is a decades-old arrangement made to ensure political stability and the Christian community’s survival. But what today seems bafflingly self-serving should not be judged without understanding that Syrian Christians’ lives and fate hang, literally, in the balance between Assad and the opposition. Staying with Assad works if he wins but not if he loses, while joining the opposition brings uncertainty if they win but perhaps suicide if they lose. Their relationship with the government is like a loaded revolver that they placed at their own heads when they sided with Assad’s father as he rose to power.
All this has provided an occasion for raising necessary questions. What options exist for Syria? Are there only two, the choice between stability at the price of supporting a dictator or justice at the price of violence and war? Do paths exist that might lead without violence to just peace? What responsibilities have we who are doing the talking toward those whose lives are affected? Without belaboring the discussion, these questions bear on who we are and on our deepest conviction, and the answers either encourage us broadly as peacemakers or make us hypocrites at worst, merely confused at best.
Conditions of just peace don’t just happen. Peace is built into societies and systems slowly, deliberately, by careful architects. This has not happened in Syria. Long before the shooting started, peace became the first casualty, for offering support to a dictatorial, unjust, and oppressive regime in exchange for stability and safety is a fraud: a form of peace may exist for a while, but eventually it breaks down into the kind of violence now wracking Syria. Because justice and peace were not loved enough, stability has shattered as events spin rapidly away from peaceful change, out of the control of the principle actors and the Syrians whose lives are most affected. Now, in a climate of fear, self-preservation, hegemony, and revenge—violence begets violence—human lives are harvested as the fruit of neglect, and the work of building peace becomes exponentially more difficult.
It is not news that the commercial media love a crisis—that and change, for with these two, they foster our dependency on them, telling us what to know and how to think, pretending they have the only story to be told. That the various State actors also pursue their own self-interests relentlessly, spinning their own deceptive narratives and breeding all species of violence is also not news. The plot elements of religion, oil, the Clash of Civilizations, Islamism, Zionism, terrorism, nuclear weapons, regional hegemony, and political survival are well worn as Syria, its five neighbor States, the United States, Russia, and Iran each tell a tale.
Yet, we must not feel constrained to choose one myopic, self-interested narrative over another, each unstable, partially informed, leading to its own set of unhappy consequences. As C.S. Lewis wrote, the Devil “always sends errors into the world in pairs … of opposites,” and relies on our particular distaste of one to lead us to choose the other. Lewis reminds us of our calling to find the narrow way between errors. We Christians know that Christ calls us to consciously choose our narrative worldview by which the universe and life in it find meaning, coherence, and harmony. When we do not heed—wisely as the serpent and gently as the dove—the comprehensive claim of the Gospel on our minds, we become vulnerable to competing propaganda.
This is the bias of In Communion. As friends of Christ, we are enemies to none; accepting the love of God, we love even our enemies; loving wisdom, our ideology is to do justice, to love mercy, and to live humbly before God; as peacemakers, we advocate the Gospel principles of reconciliation, forbearance, and forgiveness; as human beings, we oppose all violence and tyranny against others, together with whom we share our humanity; as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we pledge loyalty to Him and His laws; as citizens secondarily of this world, we honor solidarity with our historical, cultural, and social groups where we share the burden of community governance, carefully in keeping with our calling; and as neighbors to all, we encourage dialogue and friendly social intercourse everywhere, imposing on no one. We must work out how we will conduct ourselves toward Syria within such a framework.
Meanwhile, we cannot be shy to speak our minds as we search together for understanding, humbly mindful of our ignorance and weakness. And, of course, we will pray that the way forward toward a just and lasting peace in Syria may soon be found before many more lives and communities are shattered or lost.