Conversations by e-mail – Summer 2005

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 .

Family values

Just how "family friendly" is the New Testament? A couple of points worth noting:

The word "family" occurs only once in the New Testament (Eph 3:14-15). There is no concept in the New Testament that corresponds to our modern conception of the nuclear family. The word "house" (oikos) includes both slaves and children of slaves fathered by the master of the house, and is generally much broader than our concept of family, being closer to the idea of "clan" (Somehow, politicians talking about "clan values" doesn't have the same punch).

On the other hand, there are many references in the New Testament that are not only not family-friendly, but give the impression that the family is a primary obstacle to following Christ. The eschatological consciousness of the early Christians leaves little room for an idea of the Christian family. One must "leave" one's parents, spouse and children to follow Christ, Christ comes to bring "division" and not peace to the family, marriage is a nominal second option for those who cannot live up to the Pauline ideal of celibate single-mindedness. Family values? The closest thing to a family in the New Testament, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, is hardly a traditional arrangement.

Why am I saying this? I suppose because it has struck me of late that all the talk we hear from some political and religious leaders about "family values," all the references to threats to the "traditional family," are not so much rooted in the New Testament as superimposed on it. The idea of the "traditional family" is supposed to represent something stable and unchanging, a source of comfort and stability. But the concept is essentially a fiction, at least from the perspective of the New Testament.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

School of love

If I understand aright, the nuclear family is in large part a modern "invention," following the industrial revolution and suited to a mobile society where we move with jobs, in contrast to small villages of earlier eons. The modern nuclear family is not only unfamiliar to Scripture, but to other earlier literature that comes to mind.

But are the Gospels "family friendly? Both "yes" and "no." We're not to worship idols or "other gods" (including mother, father, spouse, kids), but surely Scripture isn't unfriendly to the divine plan that began with Adam, Eve, and their children.

The destruction of the family brings social havoc, as we saw in Communist Russia and still see in many other communal experiments.

The basic question is: How we are schooled to love? I suspect this begins with the oneness God ordained between a man and a woman, then between parent and child. I suspect I can only care about the deaths of people I don't know when I understand what it would mean to kill one I love, So I understand the difference between Terri Schiavo's parents' love for their child and "good" folk who care about "the handicapped," but are on a different planet when Terri is starved to death. A social message devoid of personal love is, I fear, delusional and dangerous.

John Oliver

St. Paul

My sense is that Scripture is highly critical, not of family, but of any competing allegiances; we venerate our spouses, our children, but we worship Our Lord. To assert that one must not put one's spouse or child in the place of Christ is not to assert, therefore, that Scripture is ambivalent or hostile toward the institution of marriage or family.

Fr. John Oliver

First miracle

Regarding Christ's attitude toward the family, while he clearly challenges us to keep our priorities in order - "seek the kingdom first" - it seems to me no minor thing that his first miracle was done at a wedding. The genealogies in the New Testament also bear an implicit message to us about family.

Jim Forest


The family isn't the foundation of "Western civilization," the Church is! Marriage isn't universal, after all, not even in the Orthodox Church. The sociology of religion even suggests that religion comes before culture historically (or pre-historically).

Leo Peter O'Filon

The Schiavo case

The Schiavo case has led me to wonder why the courts will sentence squabbling parents going through a divorce to court-ordered mediation, yet none could conceive more creative ways to help the Schiavo family dialogue with each other? Why did this ordeal look more and more like a sick power struggle than anything else, with the courts drawn into the dynamic of forceful "solutions"? It seems all parties involved slipped ever deeper into conflict over the years. Why did no one seem to think of the effect of that discord on poor Terry's soul, as she lived and as she crossed into eternal life? Moreover, for someone suffering from a suspected eating disorder, to stop the feeding with no preparation seems like the ultimate deliberate traumatization.

What would be other ways to navigate these complex situations when they involve people in the church, where each family member may have different perspectives and be driven by different needs? What would be the role of several disciplines working together, in prayer, to seek God's guidance in each case? Could family, clergy, doctors, therapists, all come together to listen and reflect, with no recipes?

Can we look at the ailing person and attempt to discern what he/she is communicating through their general physical state and any non-verbal cues? Some people I have seen very serenely leave their bodies, regardless of the attempts to keep them alive. There is no force to hold back someone who is ready to depart. There will likely be steady signs of deterioration, which will continue and increase parallel with treatments or life-sustaining efforts, after years of 'no action'. Conversely, in other cases the suffering person will hang in and come back in many ways, surviving stages of deterioration in ways inconceivable to medical personnel.

I am inclined to think Terry showed some will to live in that state, as communicated by her very survival. (What if she was stuck in that state, awaiting resolution of the conflict that was splitting her loved ones?)

I have now a tube-fed client in her 90s who is in a much less responsive state. She has a family member who is a physician in stroke research. She has been like this for a year and constantly has complications. Family wants to treat her and try every experimental drug (which sometimes brings more pain with more responsiveness), so she lives on. Everyone is very clear on the fact that she did not want to be kept alive in this manner, yet they proceed and she goes along - her body does, anyway. My personal take on this (generally in disagreement with my hospice colleagues) is that she senses her family is clinging to her and she will assent, as long as God and her tired body will allow.

The bottom line is that there is an attunement between the ill person and her caregivers and that is where we may want to focus as regards understanding and facilitation .

There is a uniqueness to the responses and clues that each ill person communicates, over time, and I hope we can study these and learn to read them more sensitively, by God's grace. As technology advances, unless we want to see Dantesque buildings filled with machine-run bodies, we need to look for fresh ways to see and learn to use our God-given energy of free choice.

Ioana Novac

The Eichmann example

The Schiavo case has reminded me of Hannah Arendt's witness in "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." She saw a vision that terrified her, for it revealed, she believed, the future.

Eichmann, Arendt says, was a good man, not prepared to intrude his values into life and death decisions, He made trains run, moved folk from one spot to another. Doctors who worked with him simply did their jobs. It wasn't their business to second-guess experts.

I heard this later when another good woman explained to me that all responsibility for the decision to kill unborn children lay with those who made this choice. As director of a clinic, she offers a "medical service," nothing more.

I heard it yesterday when a retired judge I know to be a Christian commended the judges in the Schiavo case, who he said "did their job well."

The reason I dare dissent is a vision of the dignity and holiness of life that transcends words and reason. Arendt may have seen more - a world caught up in the "banality of evil."

John Oliver

OPF peacemaking trips

I want to announce that we are hoping to send OPF members on a Christian Peacemaker Team trip as a way to learn from their mission, experience and expertise in the area of active peacemaking in areas of division and conflict in the world. You may have read their reports of work in Iraq and Israel/Palestine, as they are often included in the OPF e-mail list. CPT is involved in many other areas in the world as well.

OPF would like to pursue this type of peacemaking, perhaps in the long term providing this kind of support for nonviolent resolution in areas of conflict. Our first step in this direction is to partner with a group that is doing this and learn from their experience and model.

I am hoping to send four to eight OPF members on a CPT delegation. At this point, I am seeking those who would be interested in this kind of a trip. Depending on the location, the amount needed to be raised per delegate is approximately $2000, which OPF would be committed to working with the delegates to raise in a variety of ways. The delegations missions usually last for a couple of weeks, and would entail working alongside Christians from a variety of denominations.

At this stage, we are open as to which trip on which to send OPF members, as well as the date for the delegation. CPT has ongoing and multiple delegations to multiple regions, though it has been suggested that Israel/Palestine would be a good destination for OPF members.

Please let me know if you are interested and what your availability would be.

Christian Peacemaker Teams offers an organized, nonviolent alternative to war and other forms of lethal inter-group conflict. CPT provides organizational support to persons committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives in situations where lethal conflict is an immediate reality or is supported by public policy. CPT seeks to enlist the response of the whole church in conscientious objection to war, and the development of nonviolent institutions, skills and training for intervention in conflict situations. CPT projects connect intimately with the spiritual lives of its constituent congregations. Gifts of prayer, money and time from these churches undergird CPT peacemaking ministries.

You can find out more about CPT on their website.

Sheri San Chirico

How to lose your mind

We spent some time over the weekend with V, a woman in our church who is far along in the Alzheimer's dementing process - a simple, kindly woman who has spent her life in the Orthodox Church.

Sitting by her in church this weekend, almost the only thing that my wife was able to decode of what she said was "I love you," which she said to almost everyone she saw (she doesn't know who anyone is anymore). The rest of the time she seemed to be muttering to herself some repetitive phrase that we couldn't understand. Then our Godmother (a niece of V's) pointed out that what she was saying was "Svyaty Bozhe, Svyaty Krypky..." The Trisagion - "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us" -- over and over. Surely a good alternative to the Jesus prayer.

John Brady

Living without memory

My mother, while not stricken with Alzheimer's, has lost nearly all of her memory. She is good "in the moment" but doesn't recognize most of those whom she sees in family photo albums, does not realize that she is repeating what she said five minutes before, and can't keep straight which granddaughter has which great-granddaughter.

We are thankful, though, that what she repeats is nearly all gracious, appreciative and full of wonder. On a ten-minute drive in the car, she may remark five or six times on how interesting and beautiful the clouds are (even when it looks to me like a uniformly grey sky), how gorgeous automobiles are these days with their great paint jobs, and how sparkly the lights are. She invariably thanks me profusely every time I take her back from our house to hers (an assisted-living home), for making the six-mile trip. When leaving, Mom always thanks my wife profusely for the meal she gave her and how delicious it was (even, on one recent occasion, for a meal that we hadn't had!).

It is hard for me to cope, sometimes, with "the mother that I have lost" - no reminiscing together about years past, no discussion of current events, no sharing of what she has been doing since I saw her last. But things could be a great deal worse! She might be repeating herself with complaints and gripes, or reminding me of my failings, or criticizing the home where she is staying. But she never does. Plus, she is teaching all of us - my family, her caretakers and any strangers that might be around - how one can get the most out of the miracles that are right in front of us this moment: a sunset, a colorful dress, a bowl of ice cream. I hope she can stay around long enough that I can really learn this last lesson from her. "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!!"

Alex Patico

The "S" word

We often hesitate to use the word "sin" because the word is so firmly connected to notions of shame and damnation. That is appropriate. It is a very sad and lamentable fact that many people who call homosexuality a sin are in fact trying to shame and damn the people who have same-sex attractions. I know of one Protestant preacher who goes to Exodus conferences and carries a sign saying "God hates fags." This quickness to judge and condemn is, in my opinion, worse than any disordered attractions.

But some of our hesitancy comes from our problems defining the word "sin." In the Roman Catholic tradition, for something to be a sin it must be deliberately and consciously chosen. From that point of view, homosexuality itself is not a sin. It is not good - but it is not good in the same sense that having cancer is not good. It is not good in a non-moral sense. But, also from that point of view, it is morally wrong and even sinful to condone or encourage something that is not good. To continue the same example: Having cancer is not good in a non-moral sense, but spreading cancer is a sin. From this perspective it is worse to spread the idea that homosexuality is a great way to be than it is to be homosexual.

However, the Roman tradition has yet another wrinkle in it. If one has a tendency to do something that expresses or encourages a non-moral evil, that tendency is also a bad thing to have. It is therefore not sufficient to say that having a homosexual orientation is OK, but acting on it isn't. The Catholic Church considers homosexuality a vice (a character trait disposing one toward evil) as well as a non-moral evil.

The definition of sin in Orthodoxy is more subtle. We have a notion of both voluntary and involuntary sin. We believe that a person can in fact sin without intending to, without even knowing that he or she has in fact sinned. Lots of figures express this idea: missing the mark is one, but I prefer to think of sin as being at a distance from God or having some barrier between oneself and God. In other words, we sometimes build walls between ourselves and God without intending to build them, and without even knowing that we have built them.

I think that from a deep Orthodox point of view, there are in fact a number of things that are incompatible with holiness, but they fall outside what we from a Western background think of us as moral. These things seem like holdovers from Judaism or some purely ritualistic or ceremonial legalism to folks from the West. But Orthodoxy has a good many of them all the same.

David Holden

Letter to the Greek Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister, I was sorry to see a press report regarding the sentencing of Georgios Koutsomanolakis, a Greek conscientious objector, to two years imprisonment for his refusal to do military service.

Mr. Koutsomanolakis was reportedly arrested on 12 May on the island of Rhodes and charged with insubordination 26 years ago, in 1979. He had at that time left Greece, which then and now appears to offer no legal recognition of conscientious objection. He was subsequently granted political asylum in Germany. He was on the island of Rhodes on a visit to Greece.

During the trial at the Military Court of Athens, the prosecutor proposed a sentence of one year of imprisonment. The five judges however decided on a sentence of two years. Mr. Koutsomanolakis is appealing against this sentence and has been released pending his appeal.

If you study the calendar of the saints in Orthodox Church, you will discover that a number of them made a similar stand in the early centuries of Christianity.

It would bring great credit to Greece to cease persecuting conscientious objectors and instead to provide opportunities for alternative service such as exist in many other countries.

Jim Forest, Secretary

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship

A birth

It is with great joy that Kerry and I announce the birth of our first child, Lucy Douglas San Chirico. She was born at 9:31pm on Friday, June 10, weighing 6 pounds 12 ounces. Lucy respectfully waited until all the posters for the OPF conference at St. Vladimir's Seminary were mailed before being born - but just barely. Only hours later, Lucy was overheard praying the Trisagion Prayers. We expect great things from this little one.

Sheri San Chirico