Conversations by E-Mail – Spring 2005

The e-mail section from the Spring 2005 issue of In Communion

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 or Jim Forest.

The word "evil"

Someone noted that most psychiatrists assiduously avoid the word evil, contending that its use would precipitate a dangerous slide from clinical to moral judgment

In fact, clinical judgment implies value judgment. Often that value judgment is in fact a moral judgment. Psychiatrists, and physicians in general, think that they operate in a world of fact not particularly influenced by their values. This is not so. Recent work about the philosophical underpinnings of psychiatry, especially in England, has in my opinion rather conclusively demonstrated this naivete. See in particular Moral Theory and Medical Practice by K. W. M. Fulford.

Another problem we face is the idea that everyone's opinions regarding good and evil are equally valid. This is supposed to get psychiatrists off the hook for not making value judgments. But they do make value judgments, and their judgments do in fact affect the lives of other people, often to the point of the State ending the lives of the convicted. Hiding behind this kind of moral relativism is irresponsible on their part.

It so happens that I am working on a workshop I shall be teaching next fall on medical ethics and all these issues are very much on my mind at the moment. Let me recommend to the list a book I have found particularly helpful entitled After Virtue by Alastair MacIntyre. One of the best written books of philosophy I have ever read. He says that current moral philosophy is bankrupt-unable to provide adequate and convincing reasons for one moral judgment as opposed to another. He encourages us to return to the tradition of the virtues, although not necessarily to return to Plato, Aristotle, or the New Testament in all the ways they framed their moral philosophy. Incidentally, it seems to me that much of what he says is very congruent with the insights in Being As Communion by John Zizioulas.

David Holden

Diagnosis: Evil

The topic is pertinent around here. My wife's boss was just called on to do a psychiatric evaluation of a man who (allegedly) murdered the family that had taken him into their home, then tried to hide the bodies in a home-made concrete tomb in the basement.

We're often grateful when the Science People seem to see things more our way, as when they start to feel the necessity of using moral categories in evaluating persons. But often their efforts (to my mind) do as much harm as good because they try to apply the categories outside the Church.

It seems to me that in Orthodoxy the boundary between "evil" and "illness" is inherently fuzzy: we're morally responsible for all our acts, yet we're prone to do evil because we're subject to corruption, as so much of the hymnography tells us, especially in Lent. Corruption, decay, subjection to death, is often described as a kind of congenital illness that helps to explain, but doesn't remove our responsibility for, our actions.

Some forensic psychiatrists seem to be seeing the bad guys they deal with as somehow evil by nature. It's hard not to sympathize with their dismay in dealing with some of the criminals they encounter. But I think it's contrary to Christian teaching to see anyone as evil by nature, or even as irredeemably depraved. It's fashionable to speak of some offenders - especially predatory sexual offenders - as unfixable, but the fashion is in my opinion both empirically mistaken and contrary to our faith that no-one is beyond the reach of Christ's transforming grace.

John Brady

Axis of Evil

I can't speak to the ramifications a diagnosis of "evil personality" might have, but I am afraid of its larger implications as the use of "evil" is scientifically justified and politically used to promote inhuman treatment of those designated as "evil."

The Nazis used science and psychology to drive their politics. Jews, gypsies and others were sent to concentration camps under pseudo-scientific guises.

I live in post-communist Romania where these ghosts of the Iron Guard still live in pervasive subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism. Recently, I spoke with a Christian guy who has a gypsy grandparent. I asked him how much he thought about his being part gypsy. His response was that being gypsy only means being criminal. "To the extent I live an upright life, I am not a gypsy."

It seems that once the term "evil" enters into politics it is a tool used in order to justify what we do with those who enter the category. Once we label people "evil," we allow ourselves to treat them in otherwise unacceptable ways while retaining our own sense of morality or justification no matter how brutal our response.

Our present political description "axis of evil" legitimizes any treatment of all those falling into the category. Any and all means seem permissible because it is evil we are fighting. Violence is acceptable because after all we are battling "orks." The morality of the violent means is no longer a question. Terrorists are evil and therefore sub-human. Torture and execution are somehow justified.

So I am afraid of the social and political use of the term "evil," which is equated with unredeemability and lets "good" people off the hook. We depend on such distinctions to justify our atrocities, our negligence, and our hopelessness.

Once we put people in the category of unredeemability, we reveal our lack of faith in Christ. The Good News is suddenly less good when we rationalize away its potential by saying it doesn't apply to the "evil" or the "axis of evil."

Joel Klepac

"Omnipotent" Satan

I note that in some forms of Christianity, Satan seems almost omnipotent and omnipresent. Satan is in our hearts, minds and souls, and every little problem in life is the result of the devil's work (running out of gas, dropping a glass and breaking it, feeling grouchy, running late).

Such thinking makes Satan God's equal and opposite, and the universe is simply the cosmic playing board of the fight between good and evil. That isn't scriptural; maybe Manichean.

But in the Judea-Christian tradition, God has not opposite nor equal. Monotheism does not have room for an evil twin for God. We are not helpless and hopeless in the face of evil, Satan, demons. We have the cross, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the saints and angels, and really the saints and angels are much more Satan's equals.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Raising children in peace

My wife and I are struggling with raising our children in this world to have a peaceful mindset. So much violence surrounds them in the media, and it is very attractive to them. I fear that banning these things will result in rebellion. Further, it is true that some of these things contain truths and morals which are uplifting. We often refer to Darth Vader's redemption in the end as an example of how people are not inherently evil but simply do evil acts and how the converse is also true - an unending struggle to do good at least until we die. Finally, they know that we as parents will sometimes watch a movie which has violence embedded therein (Lord of the Rings or Dead Man Walking) and which may be "part of life."

How do we teach them, at the ages of 6 and 9, that violence against others is inappropriate while at the same time not sheltering them so much against it that either it shocks their systems when they come face-to-face with it or they rebel and seek it out?

Jonathan de Jong

Sleeping with a sword

In our family our approach has been to let the kids see films like Star Wars and many others that have violent aspects and to do our best to talk to the children about the story, its deeper meaning, what may have bothered us, etc. We've had many fine discussions. I think kids have an ability to tell the difference between the kind of pretend violence that happens in cartoons and many films and movies in which violence becomes extremely real and tragic in its consequences.

To try and prevent kids from seeing films that most other kids are seeing may well drive them to other people's houses to see them - but secretly. This creates not only zones of secrecy by unnecessary guilt, invisible walls at home, and probably lies.

When our daughter Anne was quite small, she sometimes had nightmares involving a dragon. We finally gave her a plastic sword purchased at a local toy store to sleep with. It proved a great help! She went through a sword a years for several years. At some point she was startled to realize that Nancy and I didn't have a sword in our bed. "How do you protect yourself from dragons?"

We also distributed water pistols to the kids and had them ourselves and would have occasional water shoot-outs in the patio behind our house.

What I think matters most is the home experience of how differences are dealt with, how conflict is resolved, how well (or poorly) parents listen to each other, the experience of forgiveness in the home, the climate of love. This is what counts most.

Jim Forest

Vetting films

This has been an issue close to my heart, as I am the mother of a two-year-old boy, and an aunt to three boys and two girls. When I first saw my nephews and the children of close friends running around with toy swords and guns, I was shocked and knew there was something inherently wrong with letting our children play with things we ourselves wouldn't own.

As I discussed this with my friends, they often gave responses as "Even if you don't buy a sword or gun, they will make one out of a stick or their finger, it's just how boys are." My response was, yes, but children also lie and hit and throw toys, and we teach them that it is not right and teach appropriate behavior instead.

Our son is only two, but we are also parents to teenage boys that are escaping from life on the streets. They have been raised on violence, in movies, in their homes, on the streets, and a huge part of their recovery is teaching them how to resolve conflicts with something other than their fists.

We have made the choice to not have a television, which has eliminated a lot of the problems. We do watch movies on our computer once a week or so, and for a while allowed them to watch martial arts films, but we found that the violence was often accompanied by degradation against women. You will see that the two often go together - violence side by side with degradation of women. It is an oppressor-oppressed theme. So now we choose the films the boys can watch. We don't make them watch corny kids' ones, but ones with fight scenes with a "purpose" to the story, like historical dramas or spy movies. We also only allow the boys to participate in Karate or other martial arts classes after they have been here over a year, because at first they would not see it as self-defense, but as a tool to hurt others.

Many companies specialize in toys that encourage creativity and exploration. With our son Simeon, I think we have adopted the substitution route - fill his time and mind with positive, healthy activities, rather than ones centered on violence. This works partly because he is only two, and we don't have a TV. We live in Romania, a violent place, yet we are not surrounded by the violence forced on our children by American culture.

Monica Klepac


We have not been overly restrictive of play swords and such. I think it's the sense of respect that we instill in our family that will make the difference.

We talk about violence and discourage even pretending to "kill" someone else. As we've evolved as parents, we've stopped using physical punishment, and have slowly stopped thinking in "punishment" terms at all. Back to the idea of respect - I think showing respect for our children, even when they are behaving in ways that are unacceptable to us (difficult, but not impossible), shows them a correct way of dealing with the broader issues facing them as they get older.

Showing compassion for others will do so much more than teaching vocally about non-violence. And swords are more about a sport to us now - both kids have taken fencing classes, and see it as a decent way of having fun. It doesn't hurt anyone, as fencing students are taught to be respectful of other's vulnerabilities - foils (fencing swords) go down when anyone near isn't geared up with a mask, glove, and torso protection.

I have been trying to incorporate more non-competitive ways of having fun, though. The kids are in a soccer group that doesn't have hard-and-fast teams, and instead plays soccer in more of a flowing way, taking into consideration who is bigger and who has more experience, and then choosing up teams. The dad who plays with them will even spontaneously start playing for the team that isn't doing as well. The point is to have fun and get a good workout and to learn how to play soccer, not who wins.

Presbytera Elizabeth Schroeder

Peacemaking starts at home

Reading 19th century socialists, especially Saint Simon and Marx, I'm struck by their fierce concern to destroy the family. If I get it, they saw the family as an impediment to all-embracing love necessary for a new world order that would end exploitation and discrimination. Families are an impediment because they are too narrow, too restrictive.

What hits me for the first time is why I think they were wrong. Rather, I wonder if the family was not intended as a school to teach what love is about? Without the family, we can reason quite well, but can we know love?

For example, Terri Schiavo's parents seem to have little understanding of great issues like separation of power between branches of government. They only know what it means to love. When Western families fail, so may the capacity to comprehend love. All-embracing love can only begin with one person caring - beyond words - for at least one other.

Should Orthodoxy be busy instructing us with a theology of family - biological family, Church family, human family, etc.? Is this where love and peace-making begins?

John Oliver


An old Chinese saying has it: peace in the person produces peace in the family; peace in the family produces peace in the community; peace in the community produces peace in the nation; peace in the nation produces peace in the world.

Of course, just having "a family" does not make it a "mechanism for growing loving-kindness." There are certainly single-parent or gay families that do a far better job on that score than others that are (technically) intact nuclear families. Love is the key (and stability, continuity, etc.).

That's one reason I am dismayed at those who apparently see a dichotomy between what one does for one's family and what one does for "the outside world." What better way to save the world than to have a nurturing environment for the young of one's own family?

When this is neglected or distorted, the consequences are felt pretty quickly: offspring with a lack of altruistic impulses, inability to care for others, asocial or sociopathic personalities - leading to drug abuse, sexual and psychic abuse, violent crime, the establishment of yet more dysfunctional families - and it mushrooms in a generation or two. A contagion of non-caring.

Alex Patico

St. Gregory's Foundation

Recently Irina von Schlippe, founder of St. Gregory's Foundation, was guest speaker at St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. Her visit grew out of the parish's decision to focus our Nativity Fast collection on a project sponsored by St. Gregory's Foundation: a self-help project in Karelia, northwestern Russia, sponsored by the parish of Kondopoga. Irina gave us a detailed description of the remarkable parish in Kondopoga and how the money raised by our parish is being used.

She also told us a little of her life story: her deportation to Germany when she was six, living in Berlin during the Second World War, after the war going to Morocco as a refugee, later still moving to France and then England, after university working as an interpreter, then with the Russian Service of the BBC, followed by 23 years of teaching languages and literature. A 1990 visit to Russia was the occasion that brought St. Gregory's Foundation into existence, an endeavor warmly supported by her spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh.

One of the people Irina visited in 1990 was the widow of a priest who six years before had been burned alive in his church. Realizing the poverty in which her friend was living, and the destitution so many other were struggling with, she worked with trustworthy friends in Russia, to develop self-help projects. She and her co-workers were convinced that more important than charitable gifts that come and are quickly gone are endeavors which can change the lives of those involved: better than clothes are the means of making clothes; better than a shipment of medicine are programs that improve Russian health care.

In the course of the first ten years 57 shipping containers have been sent to Russia by St. Gregory's Foundation in support of various projects that created work: fabric, sewing machines, knitting yarn and knitting needles, etc. Also five ambulances and a wide range of medical equipment has been donated.

"We have worked only at the root level reaching people the state does not reach," Irina explained. "Many of our early collaborators were physicists and mathematicians. One the advantages is that such people are in fields in which it is impossible to lie. Also they were among the first to have fax machines and e-mail addresses, making communication easier."

One aspect of the Foundation's work has been to assist people with handicapped children. Furniture to meet their needs is specially made at the carpentry workshop set up by the parish in Kondopoga.

Another project that has been quite successful is "Well Mother, Well Baby." In one district of St. Petersburg the birth rate has been substantially raised and the frequency of abortion greatly reduced. When the project started in 1993, there was one live birth for every three abortions. Now there are two live births for every abortion. The project also works to improve the health of mothers and children using food supplements.

The Foundation has played a major role in introducing training programs in physiotherapy in Russia, which now is officially recognized as a profession and is being taught at several universities.

Irina has found the Kondopoga parish in Karelia especially inspiring. It is an area northeast of St. Petersburg where religious repression was especially strong. The last priest of the Kondopoga parish was shot in 1937. Only one priest in the region survived the repression, in his case because he was too crippled to move.

In the Kondopoga area 94 percent of the local population has a connection to the era of repression, either having been deported there as slave labor or as guards. Few have local roots. Many are desperately poor. The rate of alcoholism is high. In this setting, the Kondopoga parish, led by Fr. Lev Bolshakov and his wife Julia, has become a point of both religious and social renewal for the local population.

A church has been established in a former pumping station. Unfortunately, the 55-square-meter building can hold only one-eighth of the parish's present membership. After a long struggle with the local political leaders, the parish has at last been given land on which to build a large church complex. Now the foundations have actually been laid.

The parish's many projects include a daily meal for the poor, meals for destitute children on days when there is no school, agriculture (they now grow all the carrots, beetroot, garlic and herbs they need; they also raise cows, pigs, goats and chickens), a wood working shop, sewing workshop, summer camps and pilgrimages. The Kondopoga parish is also running a saw mill which will create more jobs and generate income to be used in building the new church. The parish also has an icon workshop led by Matuschka Julia, a skilled iconographer.

Address: St. Gregory's Foundation, c/o Leverton and Son, 212 Eversholt Street, London NW1 1BD, UK.

For more information, see the web site:

Jim Forest

"The law used to demand that your neighbor be loved and allowed hatred against an enemy. Faith, rather, requires that enemies be cherished. It breaks the tendency we have to be peevish and urges us to bear life's difficulties calmly. Faith not only deters anger from turning into revenge but even softens it into love for the injurer."

- St. Hilary of Poitiers (315-367) On Matthew 4,27; SC 254:146-48