Continuing debate about the OPF's Iraq Appeal

In March 2003 the North American section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship sent President George Bush an appeal to not to launch a war against Iraq. The text of that appeal and the list of signers (plus statements by several Orthodox hierarchs) is posted on this web site.

In the November 2003 issue of Touchstone magazine, there is an article by Fr. Patrick Reardon sharply criticizing the OPF's Iraq Appeal.

Here are several responses to Fr. Patrick's essay.

To the editor of Touchstone:

It is no easy thing to reply to Fr. Patrick Reardon's long essay, "Not So Quiet on the Eastern Front." I am reminded of a line in the film "Amadeus" in which the emperor's one mild criticism of a Mozart opera is that it contained "too many notes." I am trying to avoid preoccupation with particular "notes" in his essay and instead to respond to its main themes.

One theme is Fr. Pat's a critique of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship's Iraq Appeal, issued prior to the U.S. attack on that country.

He describes the OPF Iraq Appeal as a pacifist document and refers again and again to a pacifist ethos, pacifist ethic, etc. But our Iraq Appeal did not refer wars in general. It was a statement objecting to a pre-emptive war against Iraq.

If the designation "pacifist" is understood as a description of people who condemn and oppose all war, then the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is not a pacifist association. Our statement of purpose includes these sentences:

"Members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship try to use life-protecting methods to safeguard life and creation...

"Using our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the womb to old age...

"Aspiring to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation and other forms of nonviolent action...

"While no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, we pray that God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents...

"We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We support their conscientious objection as consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition..."

The full text is on the OPF web site at

The word "pacifism" poses the additional problem of sounding like "passive-ism." But no Christian is permitted to be passive in the face of evil. As do several words with "ism" endings, it also suggests an external ideology rather than an effort to be regarded as children of God, a blessing which Christ our Lord promised to peacemakers in the Beatitudes of the Gospel.

In our statement we declared that "the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good." We did not say that Orthodox Christians have never gone to war or that Orthodox pastors and hierarchs never blessed those who fought in war or that Orthodox Christians are immune to the ideologies of the particular societies in which they live. Certain wars have been seen, if not as just or good in themselves, as a lesser evil. As far as I am aware, however, the Church has always regarded war, even when there appeared to be no nonviolent alternative, as inevitably implicating those who take part in profoundly tragic, even horrific events that could not possibly be described in positive moral terms.

Fr. Pat objected to the use of the word "murder" in the Iraq Appeal. We used the term twice, first in referring to Saddam Hussein ("He came to office by intrigue and murder, and remains in power by the same means; he is his own country's worst enemy. The Iraqi people deserve to be rid of him.") and then again in remarking that the killing of noncombatants is murder. The alternatives -- for example "collateral damage" -- bring us into the world of agnostic Newspeak.

Our statement went on to ask the question: "Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilians?"

By "murder" we meant the killing of non-combatants, whether intended or a consequence of targeting non-military objectives. In modern war, it is the very old, the very young and the ill who are the most frequent casualties. It is true that to speak about such killing is profoundly distressing, not least for those, like Frank Schaeffer, who have sons or other family members involved in the fighting. The comfort the Church brings us is the good news of the kingdom of God and the good news of Christ's victory over death. But in many regards the Church very often discomforts us with a Gospel that requires us to be poor in spirit, to grieve, to forgive, to bear the cross, to care for the least person, not to serve two masters, to turn the other cheek, etc. Just to look at an icon of Christ is often to be made profoundly uncomfortable, realizing the great extent I fail to follow his example or embrace his Gospel in daily life. We often fail to recognize our sins until someone holds us to account for ourselves. We readily deceive and delude ourselves.

A major theme in Fr. Pat's essay is the idea that God has entrusted the United States of America with a divine mission. He refers approvingly to those who believe "that the Lord of history has laid on the United States of America, now and for the foreseeable future, a unique charge with respect to the preservation of world stability and the well-being of mankind."

There is, of course, much that is admirable about the United States, but I find it hard to believe that Fr. Pat really buys into the idea that America is the new Zion. Do I misread him? For me, draping the Cross with any national flag is an act of idolatry. I believe we serve our homeland best by being painfully aware of the many ways it falls short of the demands of the kingdom of God, keeping in mind that He whom we are attempting to follow said plainly that His kingdom was not of this world.

Another theme in Fr. Pat's essay concerns U.S. motives. He wrote: " many respects the United States was coerced into this international duty by reason of having decently intervened on behalf of friends, selflessly but with great reluctance, in wars that were not of its own making."

If U.S. motives for overthrowing the Hussein regime and occupying Iraq were humanitarian, there is a long list of other countries whose tyrants America would be obliged to overthrow even more urgently than Hussein. But I think U.S. motives in Iraq -- as Fr. Pat also suggests -- had more to with that country's oil reserves than concern for human rights. Indeed, the U.S. has often supported -- even set up -- states notorious for massive violations of human rights.

Another theme in the essay is the surrounding culture's challenge to the Orthodox Church to adapt itself to the American ethos in order to make it a more attractive choice for those who might in the future become Orthodox Christians. I share Fr. Pat's hope that increasing numbers of people will embrace Orthodoxy Christianity, but I believe it will happen not because Orthodox Christians become model patriots but rather because we become better Christians. Simply to live the Gospel -- is this not what Christ asks us to do? Wherever we are? No matter in what country or time? Yet there is hardly a word in Fr. Pat's essay about the example or words of Christ beyond a passing reference to turning the other cheek.

If anyone in the Church is obliged to be a man of peace, it is the priest. The canons require that those who serve at the altar should have killed no one, not even by accident or in self-defense. Why is it that those most responsible for the Church's sacramental life must not be guilty of causing the death of another human being? This is a question Fr. Pat can probably answer better than I. Surely one dimension of this canonical principle is that it must have an inward as well as outward reality: the priest should be innocent not only of actual killing but of murderous thoughts or words which could inspire others to kill.

Christ told us that He came "to give life and to give it abundantly." We learn from the Gospel and through the Liturgy to regard each person, however damaged, as a bearer of the divine image and as someone who may yet find the path to salvation. Thus we struggle to save lives insofar as we are able -- whether unborn children or even the lives of our enemies. As the Paschal hymn declares, "Let us call 'brothers' those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection."

In Christ's peace,

Jim Forest

secretary, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

November 5, 2003

I write as Coordinator for the North American chapter of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in the period when we drafted the "Plea for Peace." It was our hope that the document would remind readers of the obligation to safeguard the sacred gift of life in the context of the Iraq crisis. Fr. Patrick Reardon's essay suggests that we did not succeed in making this point as effectively as we had hoped.

The OPF's testimony against abortion offers a similar witness to the sacred nature of life. Note our recent appeal to Orthodox Senators Sarbanes (Democrat, Maryland) and Snowe (Republican, Maine) asking them to reconsider their votes against the ban on partial birth abortion. Here too our letter reminded them of "our Church's teaching that all human life is sacred." We hope Touchstone will report on our letter in its news section.

With Newton, I feel like a child gazing with wonder at an ocean of truth. If life is sacred, what does it means to kill a child? Or a civilian? If "murder" means only killing particular people with deliberate intent, our critics are right to contend that our use of "murder" in the OPF's Iraq Appeal was too strong. But we know Christ lives in the least person. If each person is created according to the image and likeness of God, and our Lord tells us that anything we do to the least, we do to Him, may the word "murder" say too little?

Are we who not, as people who venerate icons, heirs to a theology whose beauty and depth we may never exhaust? Is "Christ in our midst" not only in our liturgy, but in our enemies?

On this last Sunday of Orthodoxy I watched children carry icons to celebrate the victory over iconoclasm. Suddenly I saw not single icons, but pairs: one wooden, one living. At that moment, as we set about to kill living icons in Iraq, I dared to wonder, "Who are the real iconoclasts? Ancients who destroyed wooden icons? We who kill living ones? All of us together? Is a living icon less sacred than a wooden one?"

War, like abortion, dehumanizes brothers and sisters. Some days ago a priest kindly gave me an article in the National Review, "Ministers of War," in which a chaplain explains that "to prepare soldiers to... kill [the enemy],... they must believe... they are not personally connected with [them], but are acting solely as disinterested agents of the state." I was as mesmerized as when seeing children as icons, but this time by horror. I thought of the saying of one the Desert Fathers: "I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to see all humanity as one."

In this age of ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction, has recognition of the mystery of the sacred character of life ever been so urgently needed? Has it ever been so clear that W. H. Auden was right to say our choices are to love one another or die? Can a faith that sees the icon of Christ in every person and in all creation open our eyes to see enemies in a transforming way?

John W. Oliver

[email protected]

John W. Oliver is Professor Emeritus of History at Malone College, Canton, Ohio.

To the editor of Touchstone:

I am writing in response to Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon's article in the November issue of Touchstone. As always, Fr. Pat's writing was very thought-provoking. However, I will limit my reply to four observations.

Fr. Pat noted that it seemed "that the percentage of those opposed to the invasion of Iraq was higher among the Orthodox than in the American population as a whole." I will summarize the three possible reasons he listed for this: I) many American Orthodox of Middle Eastern origin share a common historical experience with Muslims; ii) many Orthodox have a great distrust of anything that even faintly resembles a Western invader heading toward the East; iii) the ascetical ideals of Eastern Christianity constantly encourage recourse to non-aggressive ways of dealing with conflict.

I would like to propose a fourth possible reason. Many, if not most, of the Orthodox Christians in America have either experienced the truth of the dictum "War is hell" first hand in their country of origin or they have relatives who have survived to tell them clearly what a war does to a nation over which it is fought. At least one of the lessons of the Civil War seems to have been lost from the consciousness of most Americans.

Later in the article, Fr. Pat listed some of the reasons given for the war against Iraq, and went on to say that "the Orthodox who favored (sic) going to war did so for the same reasons as other American citizens." I will not here discuss the relative merits of these reasons.

Since these stated reasons for war have no overt reference to the Orthodox faith but very specific references to issues of national survival, I believe this demonstrates that those Orthodox who supported the war in agreement with non-Orthodox Americans have done so on the basis of national interests and their American identity. Conversely, those Orthodox who chose to oppose the war made a moral decision based on their Orthodox faith. Fr. Pat tacitly acknowledged this himself by mentioning "Orthodoxy's disposition toward war" in general and, in particular, the ascetical ideals of Eastern Christianity which CONSTANTLY encourage recourse to non-aggressive ways of dealing with conflict. This raises the very serious question of where our ultimate allegiance ought to lie. One way of reading Fr. Pat's article is that if church and state disagree on an issue, the option of obeying the state and disregarding our hierarchs is a perfectly acceptable one.

"Many Orthodox Christians began to wonder, therefore, if their own church, thus committed to a pacifist ethic so out of step with American history (if not incompatible with American patriotism), could ever hope to be more than a fringe religion in this country."

In the issue of the Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly Fr. Pat cited, Nikolas K. Gvosdev urged Orthodox thinkers not to isolate their moral reflections from practical political discourse by too great an emphasis on ideals. If we begin to abandon the ascetical ideals of Eastern Christianity with regard to war, why should we expect to be taken seriously in other matters such as sexual morality or the sanctity of human life? If one part of the Church's teaching may be called into question when it is deemed to be unpalatable to Americans, why not other issues which conservative Christians hold dear? And if American history and American patriotism are to be the features which define the Orthodox mission to America, what will the Holy Orthodox Church have to offer America other than reheated americanisms? Balanced missionary sensitivity is commendable, but a faithful witness to the Orthodox faith also requires a call to repentance.

The final issue I would like to address is the one Fr. Pat raises about the role of America in world history. On this point at least, we are in utter agreement. I am grateful that it was America and not the Soviet Union which prevailed in the twentieth century. However, one need not search the Scriptures long to find what usually befalls those nations which God raises up to use as instruments. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and yes, even the Romans have played their role and been discarded. Even within modern times we can see the peril inherent in shouldering the "white man's burden." Within fifty years of Kipling's 1899 poem, the sun had set upon the British Empire. Serious Orthodox evangelism in America may not succeed in bringing America to Orthodoxy, but may God have mercy on us all if we fail to present the truth of Orthodoxy to America due to the idols of "American history" or misguided patriotism.


Peter Brubacher

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