Conversations by E-mail

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF's e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson -- [email protected] -- or Jim Forest -- [email protected]

Conference in Finland

On OPF's behalf, I attended the conference on the Social Witness and Service of the Orthodox Church held at the New Valamo Monastery in Finland, 30 April-5 May.

My brief talk about OPF was received well. An Armenian bishop asked me if any OPF members were active in Armenia and Azerbaijan (I didn't know), adding that that was an area needing peace desperately. I also had a brief conversation afterwards with one of the Russian participants, who said that such a voice as OPF's was needed in the Russian Orthodox Church -- particularly with reference to the war in Chechnya. I brought enough copies of the "What is the OPF" folder for all participants to have a copy, and also copies of the Iraq statement and other documents found on the OPF web site. Demetrios Constantelos told the plenary that he had recently joined the OPF, and strongly recommended those present to join it. Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky referred to the OPF's Iraq letter and noted the vigorous discussion it generated in the United States and elsewhere. He also mentioned Jim Forest's book on the Albanian church.

In introductory remarks, Alex Belopopsky highlighted the need of the churches not only to treat the effects of injustice, but to get at their root causes. However, this emphasis was not pursued with the vigor it deserved.

There were substantial papers from Emmanuel Clapsis (on wealth and poverty in the early church) and David Breyer (on the history and future of international aid and development work). The Clapsis paper emphasized three realities that he argued ought to be at the center of Orthodox life: the Eucharist, the poor, and the world. This idea was to be repeated several times in discussions. Breyers emphasized the need to bear witness in the face of the "powers" (my word, not his) and the need to address the root causes of human suffering today, themes that also struck a chord with the participants.

There were five working groups. I was a member of the "Church and Civil Society" group. In the group discussions I pressed for including the church's prophetic role in civil society, and for recognition of the possibility that the church's witness will run counter to the values and practices of the surrounding society. I also advocated an emphasis on the church's learning to live out the Eucharist in the economic and social realms. These emphases were included in the working group's final recommendations.

The main result of the conference was a call to establish an international network for Orthodox diakonia. There was also a call for a follow-up conference, and for more informal networking between and among the conference participants.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of sobornost that was present. I also sensed that there was a great desire not only to work more closely together, but to speak with a clear, unambiguous Orthodox voice to address the suffering and injustice we see all around us. There were by one count 26 different countries represented, as well as both Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions.

Grant White

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OPF's future

There is little that I would subtract from Timothy Beach's vision of an "activist" OPF [see pp 16-19]. I would add to his list of priority areas, however, in the contemplative or intellectual vein, and perhaps in the middle ground between scholarship and worldly -- here just meaning "in the world" -- activity (which Timothy has covered pretty well).

In the latter, I would see some new writing and speaking being appropriate; writing, for example, which tackles the rationales that are given by those who follow contrasting paths and treats them point-for-point in accessible, but still scholarly, fashion. For example, if the criteria for just war are being applied to a particular conflict, how does that doctrine or that particular application square with the gospels and the wisdom of the fathers of the Church? What is the standing, according to the canons of the Church, of those oaths and prayers that are currently being used by military chaplains?

In the former -- the slightly more contemplative realm -- I would suggest that the very prayers of the most-used divine liturgies, as well as less-used services for special feast days, Holy Week, etc. be explicated for the non-Orthodox, or for the interested Orthodox Christians who have not "put two and two together." That is, if we have a prayer for "the armed forces," what exactly is that to mean? If we pray for "victory of Orthodox Christians over their adversaries," what was the original intent of that formulation? When we sing "blessed are the peacemakers," what are we singing about?

Quakers have been designated "a peace church" because they protest wars. If the Orthodox Church is not called "a peace church," why is that? Surely, the answer cannot lie in the teachings of Him who founded the Church?

Alex Patico

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Mother Maria

I read the biography of Mother Maria on the OPF web site and was touched by the account of her death, partly because my maternal grandmother died in Ravensbruck in the same month, March 1945, right before liberation. Perhaps they knew one another?

You may recall that a few years ago I asked about information about Ravensbruck survivors groups and you gave me the name of a Dutch group who referred me to the French group which my mother contacted when she visited Paris that year. Unfortunately, no one knew her. My mother knows so little of her mother's time there. She was sent there for unwittingly referring a Gestapo officer posing as an English airman to the underground. She was working for the Red Cross.

Paul del Junco

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Visit to Rue de Lourmel

This afternoon we visited 77 Rue de Lourmel, formerly the location of the "House at Rue de Lourmel" of St. Maria and headquarters of "Orthodox Action." I made a pencil rubbing of the plaque that stands by the entrance to the apartment complex that now stands on the site.

Looking around, thinking about what the neighborhood might have looked like in the 1930s and 40s, I was overwhelmed with a simultaneous feeling of presence and absence.

"She was here." This is the sense of presence. Mother Maria walked here, cooked here, prayed here, lived here. She engaged in the famous Sunday afternoon discussions with the likes of Berdyaev and Bulgakov here. She used to walk from Rue de Lourmel to buy groceries at Les Halles, just down the block from where we are staying. The place is sanctified by her presence. Acts of unspeakable courage and plain everyday kindness took place here, but also acts of great evil and betrayal.

"It is all gone." This is the sense of absence, of loss, coupled with an awareness of evil and the power of human choices. Despite the fact that Sts. Maria and Demetri have been an inspiration to so many, despite our recognition that their sacrifice is not in vain, the reality is that with their deaths Orthodox Action ceased to exist, and nothing like it has emerged to take its place. The House at Rue Lourmel is gone. The intellectual and spiritual ferment is gone. There is no monastic community to hand on a living memory and witness to the manner of St. Maria's life. We have her writings, and the story of her life told by many. But the loss is achingly real, a loss of personal and historical continuity, a kind of spiritual genocide. What might have been if the Nazis had not come? What might have flourished and ultimately been handed down if she, like her contemporary in the Catholic Church, Dorothy Day, had lived to old age? What has grown in the soil enriched by the blood of the martyrs to replace that which was lost?

Much good certainly, and much good still to come. But this, too, depends in some measure upon the power of human choices, our choices; depends, at least in part, upon what we choose to plant.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

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One of the most revolutionary contributions that Orthodoxy can make to cultural dialogue is the emphasis on personhood. The early Church appeared to nurture cultural change through a focus on persons. Then, transformed persons made for transformed values and systems. Persons first, then culture. By the time Constantine legalized Christianity, the Faith was the dominant worldview among one-third of the empire. Constantine did not create a Christian wave of culture; he responded to it. I find that rather exciting!

It may be that the degree to which Christians focus only on systems and values is the degree to which the task of cultural conversion appears insurmountable. A man can lend a hand to his neighbor, but he cannot single-handedly reform tax law; a woman can open her home to an unwed mother, but she cannot overhaul the Office of Housing and Urban Development. Systemic change is desirable, and those working for it -- Christian lobbyists, boycott organizers -- are probably to be supported. But the general pattern of missiology established by the early Church appears to be one rooted emphatically on persons within local communities who "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

Fr. John Oliver

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The Early Church

I wonder whether the difference was that in the early church the Christians saw themselves as making disciples of friends, neighbors, family, rather than as really trying to convert kingdoms. A Christian Kingdom -- apart from the end of the world -- was not part of their imagination. So they weren't trying to create a Christian culture/kingdom, they were waiting for the kingdom which would end all worldly kingdoms.

The early Christians were a minority group and a persecuted group. That was part of their self-identity. They lacked power, prestige and permanency. But, they weren't dreaming that they would convert kingdoms or that they would come to power. That was not part of their self-image. They felt it was not moral for Christians to become soldiers or teachers -- they weren't trying to participate in society or make society better. They were hoping for an end to all earthly societies and the establishment of God's kingdom.

They were countercultural and/or subcultural. They didn't have the mindset that they could be or would be cultural. Why should they? They believed the world was going to end with the imminent arrival of God's Kingdom.

Constantine changed all that. Now they aren't simply trying to convert people, they are shaping a Christian empire, a Christian culture, so their focus changes. And Christian "mythology" even begins to identify the Byzantine Roman Empire with the kingdom of God.

I would note that monasticism really blossoms, not when Christianity was oppressed and minority, but when Christianity became mainstream and cultural. Monasticism was the Christian effort to retain/regain the subcultural/countercultural milieu of early Christianity. Monasticism aimed again at converting persons, not shaping the main culture. It was in opposition to cultural Christianity that monasticism grew, not in opposition to paganism.

But later monasticism again becomes "mainstream" Orthodoxy, and Christian Orthodoxy will turn away from making the empire Christian to trying to make each Christian into a monk. Which is something we 21st Century Orthodox inherited and have to ponder -- are we really trying to make monks of all Christians or should we be trying to make Christians of all people. They really aren't the same thing, even though Orthodoxy does come close to confusing the two.

And in the modern age -- I will speak specifically about Christians in the USA because I don't know how this is lived out in other parts of the world -- Christianity still struggles to have that subcultural/ countercultural identification. Now, I'll use the commonly accepted but broad terminology. Politically and religiously conservative/right-wing Christians see themselves as opposing mainstream culture which they identify as Hollywood, liberals, homosexuals, evolutionists, the media, feminists, socialists, relativists. Politically and religiously liberal/left-wing Christians see themselves as opposing mainstream culture which they identify as the US government and military, corrupt capitalists, patriotic nationalism, bigots, and the consumer culture.

Both the left and right wing of Christianity see themselves as countercultural/subcultural, they just identify mainstream culture differently, and so set themselves apart from (ecclesia -- called out; holy -- separate from) different groups.

Who you think is in real power/control, determines who you as a Christian want to distinguish yourself from and identify yourself with.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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God's Personhood

You may remember how important it was to early saints that the doctrine of the Incarnation be safeguarded. For St. Irenaeus, the tremendous vision of Christianity was that God became Man -- not spirit or knowledge, but Man. Christ had to be the second Adam, for only then could He sanctify the whole race of men. St. Irenaeus vigorously opposed the Gnostic separation of the "heavenly Christ" from the "earthly Jesus." A bit later, the Cappadocian saints would emphasize that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not modes or forms or masks, but Persons, all with qualities shared yet each with qualities distinct. So the theological context of the early Church was imbued by this emphasis on the Persons of the Holy Trinity, with the Second Person become flesh.

So, unfolding in this context of God's Personhood, here's an example of faith put into practice: Within the first 250 years of Christian history, there were two devastating epidemics that swept through the Roman Empire. The first began in the year 165 AD, and medical historians suspect that it was smallpox. Whatever it was, it was lethal: during the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, an estimated one-quarter to one-third of the entire empire was wiped out. The second epidemic occurred in the year 251 AD -- this time it may have been measles, and the country areas were hit as hard as the cities.

Notice how the 3rd century figure, Dionysius, writes about how pagans dealt with the issue: "At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest ones, throwing them into the roads before they were dead, hoping to avoid the spread and contagious-ness of the fatal disease. But do what they might, they found it difficult to escape."

Now, here's what Dionysius wrote about the Christians: "The Christians behaved in the very opposite way. Most of [them] showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. In spite of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them they departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, taking into themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their place."

That kind of attention to persons -- rather than pushing the Empire government to reform health care -- resulted in mass conversions to the Christian Faith, so that by the time of Constantine, his legalization of Christianity was almost a necessity. (I do not intend in any way to diminish his own conversion to Christ.)

I support systemic change through cultural activity -- political and otherwise. But the healthy outrage at systems that emerges on the OPF List now and then is directed at them because of their negative impact on persons. So, because persons matter, systems should change. Corporate culture reverses that order: because systems matter, persons must change.

Fr. John Oliver

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The peace movement and veterans

Albert Rossi's "Purity of Heart" essay in the Winter In Communion was puzzling, but his response to criticism in the next issue left me feeling downright uncomfortable, especially his claim that during the American war in Vietnam the peace movement was responsible for the mistreatment of veterans. That's the same argument that militarists have used for decades to belittle efforts being made to stop the violence of war. Militarists often claim that Vietnam veterans were spit upon when they came home. Therefore opposition to war equals opposition to veterans.

There is virtually no reliable documentation of all this alleged spitting on veterans. Quite the contrary is closer to both historic truth and to my experience. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I returned home in 1966 and joined the peace movement shortly thereafter. The real threat to soldiers was deployment to a war zone. We didn't worry much about the chance of getting spit upon if we made it back alive. Here at home, as is clearly recorded, peace activists were the victims when they were attacked, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered for their activism. As a veteran of the very war being protested, I was embraced by the peace movement.

After the U.S. government lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, three million of us were sent to Vietnam. Of those, 59,000 died, more than 150,000 suffered physical wounds, and uncounted hundreds of thousands continue to suffer the psychological damage that results from war. More than three million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died.

"The anti-war demonstrations contributed to the polarization of the country," Rossi wrote in his response. That is an astonishing idea to me. A more accurate view might be that the peace movement awakened a huge shared longing for peace, and ultimately forced an end to the violence in Vietnam. Is that polarizing?

In the U.S. there is a particular need to bring attention to the injustice of wars being waged for dubious and deceitful reasons by the world's only superpower. As Jesus intervened publicly against the moneychangers and on behalf of the scorned, so should we when our government fails to use diplomacy and resorts to violence in our name. Dr. Rossi might examine the "hidden demons" within foreign policy before he dismisses the peace movement for "its embrace of lust, euphemistically called free love." In other words, Dr. Rossi is guilty of painting stereotypes with the same broad brush used whenever one group attempts to discredit and persecute another. To characterize the sexuality of peace activists as Rossi does is insulting and laughable.

Before renouncing participation in public demonstrations against war, I think it is necessary to examine our motives. As Abba Evagrius said: "Do you wish to know God? Learn first to know yourself." I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity of more than 30 years. I work as an iconographer adorning Orthodox churches with traditional imagery. And I participate to the best of my ability in the peace movement. At demonstrations I sometimes am asked to serve as a "peacemaker," wearing an armband and walking along the edge of the crowd where demonstrators are most likely to be attacked. It's an easy and safe job. Only a couple of times over the years have I stepped in front of people who seemed angry. They were always people who seemed like they might attack the demonstrators, never the other way around.

The quest for peace is an inner journey. But to deny participation in the outward manifestations of the peace movement as unworthy or impure, seems to me a denial of our humanity. I always pray when I'm marching for peace. I don't know if my colleagues are praying. I can't judge that. I do know, however, that they are conducting themselves peacefully and bringing attention to the constant need for peace.

If we were bystanders along the paths of Galilee, and we saw "great crowds" following Jesus as described in Matthew, would we be creating division in society if we followed the crowd to the mountain and listened to the speaker say: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?" And even if society were divided at that moment, would we be forgiven if we stood by, like Pontius Pilate, and did nothing on behalf of peace?

David Giffey

Arena, Wisconsin

Author response

Dear David, I am humbled by your thoughtful response to my article. Your life as a Viet Nam soldier and your return there to rebuild peace speaks louder than any words. You speak from an experience that I can't begin to imagine, nor can I hope to comprehend the depths of your thoughts. You bring a vision which provides a fresh and vibrant look at demonstrations.

I guess all I can say is that we each speak from our own experience. My own is that of a clinical psychologist who has seen the ravages of the war from that vantage point. I certainly agree that the "hidden demons" in our foreign policy need examination and that these hidden demons are huge and ugly, more huge and more ugly than anything I can imagine.

I am grateful for your perspective which is that of a veteran who returned to the US and embraced the peace demonstrations. I greatly admire the fact that you put your money where your mouth is and actually went to Viet Nam. I can understand the peace demonstrations embracing you because you now joined them and have much to say. Most veterans I know don't return to join the peace movement but they simply come home to try to reconstruct their lives. The reception of these veterans has been variable.

There is probably much more to discuss about the place of sex and violence during the time of the demonstrations. Those in the demonstrations were of different life styles and I admire those who lived a life of integrity. However, the culture, as evidenced by music, TV, entertainment, art, etc. included diversity but was heavy into such slogans as, "Make love, not war," etc. The university campuses were rife with a free-love atmosphere. Who knows how much was real or what was the connection with the peace demonstrations? I am not addressing the sexual activity of peace activists but am saying that the culture was rather loose at that time and that it may not be "insulting and laughable" to reflect upon the larger scene within which the demonstrations took place. I was there and would agree that it would be unfair to paint all, or even the majority, as free-love advocates. But, there was a strong movement in the air.

Again, it seems to me that persons of good will can embrace peace demonstrations and persons of good will can be allergic to peace demonstrations, at least in the form I experienced them.

All this discussion seems to me to be healthy and productive. We learn from each other. We don't hold monolithic views. We can disagree and we can continue to fight for peace in whatever way seems authentic to us. I am much more sensitive to the issues you raise and am grateful to you for all your comments. You bring a perspective based on a life which I admire and value. Please say a prayer for me as I will for you.

Al Rossi

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Pro-life guests from Romania

We've just had two guests depart who deeply impressed us: Gabriela Tanase and her fiance, Ionutz Mavrichi. (Ionutz means "Little John," though in fact he is not little.) Gabriela, 21, is a language student; Ionutz is a theological student who in time should become an Orthodox priest. They arrived in Holland last week to take part in an international conference on foster care in The Hague.

A few days ago we had been told by an OPF member in France to keep an eye out for them. We met them in our church in Amsterdam after the Liturgy yesterday and they spent the night in our house (not often do we have a chance to use both our guestrooms at once). Now they're on their way gone back to Amsterdam where their host will be another parish member, a Romanian graduate student finishing a post-graduate degree in biblical translation. Nancy is trying to arrange a meeting for them with staff of the main Dutch pro-life organization, VBOK. On Thursday they return to Romania.

After the fall of the Communist dictatorship in Romania in 1990, Gabriella's father, a priest named Nicolae, began to give talks about Orthodox belief to university students. When he explained the Church's teaching against abortion, some of the women explained that they often had no choice other than abortion -- they were either unmarried or lacked essentials for parenthood. Fr. Nicolae responded: "Have your baby and I will find people to care for it until you are ready to take your child back." (Gabriela said that in Romania there have been 12-million registered abortions in the past 14 years, the post-Communist period. The population is both shrinking and aging.)

The result of his response is that the village where Fr. Nicolae is priest -- Valenii de Munte, north of Bucharest -- is taking care of about 250 children ranging in age from newborn to 14 years old. (Many other children have been in the care of the two villages but are now with their mothers.) In 1994 Pro Vita was established as a legal entity. It receives economic assistance from various sources, including UNICEF, though far from enough.

Details about Pro Vita are on their web site: The information is in Romanian but the many photos on the site speak for themselves.

What good young people! We hope to maintain contact with them and will try to visit the Pro Vita project next year.

Jim Forest

[email protected]

PS: OPF has donated two computers to Pro Vita which Gabriela and Ionutz are taking back with them to Romania.