Conversations by e-mail – Spring 2006

Why so little protest?

Why is there so little anti-war protest in the US? One aspect is that there is no draft, but there's more:

We love violence too much. Look at our video games. Look at the most popular sport in America, American football, and its ties to the military. My God, if people were as excited about the Triune God as they are for their favorite team, we'd have a problem fitting all the people in the pews! Violence is our sugar and spice.

Love of entertainment: This is sort of like hedonism, perhaps, though not necessarily stuff that you feel/touch. More what you see/hear. Let's face it: wars are just not entertaining (unless the people the US are attacking are really vile, then it becomes a righteous Stallone/Norris/Schwarzenegger Hollywood blood fest). So we're not going to dwell on them. We're in a state of mind right now where logic and coherence have to be entertaining. Even our pundits are entertainers -- Dennis Miller, Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Michael Moore. We're not so informed as we are entertained.

Lack of creativity: Most of what is being done has been done before. The civil rights marches were profound for many reasons: the speeches, the sheer mass, sometimes the hostility shown to the marchers, etc. Now demonstrations are done with "permits" and with too many cameras, and with counter-demonstrations, press releases, etc. Each side can "mobilize" at a moment's notice. I don't know what would be creative about a war protest now. The predictability, the formality, the lack of innovation are things that I think are harming the peace/civil rights/whatever movement these days. Even having 50,000 people for a demonstration isn't impressive these days.

Fear of the unknown (lack of security): Because we've been well taught to remember that terrorists attack innocent people, we've learned that some things must be accepted in order to have security: like spying and restrictions of civil liberties. We're seduced here because we actually think that security is an inalienable right, or better yet, somehow God-ordained. To be honest, it is neither. "Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation..."

Lack of cohesion: When there were anti-war demonstrations here in 2003, a loose band of "anarchists" joined in and started smashing the windows of some of the ritzier local shops. That brought out the cops who dispersed everyone. What was peaceful was destroyed by a group of punks. Now there is a zero-tolerance policy in place for people who would choose to spontaneously assemble and demonstrate.

This point can be elaborated in this way: We are more in it for ourselves now. It's me and my, not us and ours. The cohesion is not there because the communion is gone.

Fr. Gregory Long

Meditating not allowed:

Let me mention an incident that I experienced in liberal Denmark. Many years ago, when I was part of an East Indian Yoga group (which I would now name as a cult), I followed a discipline of wearing an orange robe and a veil which was reminiscent of a Christian nun's veil. I also meditated four times a day wherever I was. Once, at midday, I found myself in a library in Denmark and thought it would be a nice, quiet place to meditate. So I sat at a table and closed my eyes. Almost immediately a woman who worked in the library came up to me and said,"We don't allow sleeping in the library."

"I'm not sleeping. I'm meditating'" I said, thinking that this quiet activity wouldn't be a problem.

"Meditating is not allowed in the library."

"Why not?" I asked in disbelief.

"It's like praying."

"What's wrong with praying?"

"Well, how would you like it if I started praying in the library?"

"I would think that would be great, as long as it wasn't noisy."

"No," she said. "It's against the law to pray in the library. It's a public place."

When I recall this incident, it's enough to make me want to run through the streets of Copenhagen shouting, "Glory to God."

Martha Dage


Although I have no claim to great acumen about terminology, my definitional cast of characters looks like this:

Liberal religion: the Unitarianism that I grew up with contained within it the idea of "reverence for reverence," as one theologian put it. I learned that faith can be a good thing, and thinking about God was edifying, sometimes even inspiring. Unfortunately, the Unitarian clan is not often comfortable saying in what one should have faith. Liberal religion, for me, was not so much wrong, as it was wholly insufficient -- like the difference between just agreeing that love is probably a good thing, and actually loving.

Benign Secularism: the idea that we can co-exist happily, even with fundamental differences in our belief, because we can agree that toleration, understanding, reconciliation and peace are "goods." This might be roughly equated to classical American political ideology about religion.

Malignant Secularism: this to me means that being secular is, in itself, a good. Like the librarian in Denmark or the government in Turkey, these folks seem to feel that the less religion "showing," the better. They might not go so far as to say that God does not exist, or that religion is bad, but that holy beliefs and activities -- like one's hole-y underwear -- it should not be seen by others, unless they are close family.

Atheism: the belief that faith is without foundation, and religion is meaningless.

Crusading Atheism: the idea that religion is not only unfounded, but intolerable; it must be opposed and rooted out.

Evil: the work of the Devil, who is perfectly willing and able to use any or all of the above to his advantage, and who does so regularly and vigorously.

Alex Patico

Flag-wrapped gods:

It seems that much of today's religious fighting comes out of popularized forms of the various faiths that actually are little more than thinly disguised nationalism wrapped up in religious language. Liberalism is one way to coexist with other religions, but surely when mature forms of the faith come together dialogue, respect and mutual learning should happen without compromising our creeds.

Joel Klepac

Peace church:

Alex Patico wrote: "How incredible it is, when you think about it for a moment, that one can't say 'historic peace church' and just mean 'Christian.' How could any church whose members are followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, not be a peace church? How could any nominally Christian denomination resist claiming the title 'peace church'? If Orthodoxy is not included in those considered 'historic peace churches' (and it is not), then isn't it time to dust off some of our forgotten history -- and maybe to make some new history."

I think, Alex, that you found a fresh way of describing the vocation of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Of course the Orthodox Church was a peace church, but that was a long time ago. How to we renew that dimension of the Orthodox Christianity? It's not something we need to make from new cloth. All we need to do is unwrap some packages that used to be on the ground floor and have somehow migrated to the attic and the garage -- things never thrown away but forgotten, or almost forgotten.

Of course one can understand that there have been many times in the past twenty centuries when Christians could see no way to defend the weak and to expel invaders except by battle, but even then bloodshed was seen as sinful and requiring a time of penance before resuming Eucharistic life. But what a strange idea that is in the church today! Now we seem untroubled by bloodshed, even the fact that more often than not the casualties of war are innocent people: children, the ill, the aged. We do not run to their assistance or even raise our voices in protest.

Jim Forest

Mind of the Church:

In his rejection of the Union of Florence, St. Mark of Ephesus had some good words that are worth recalling. He distinguished the Mind of the Church from the sayings (and we might add, the doings) of any particular Saint taken in isolation. The Mind of the Church is the consensus of the Saints, so picking out the words or acts of a few can be misleading.

John Brady

Saints who blessed warriors:

Here is my response to a letter lately received:

"I wish someone from OPF would comment on St. Sergius of Radonezh and the battles against the Tartars. I believe that historians agree that St. Sergius blessed Prince Dmitrii Donskoj as he marched off to battle and even sent two of his monks along with the Prince. More controversial is the additional commentary that these two monks actually physically took part in the battle which turned Prince Dmitrii into a sort of Russian George Washington."

Since the 4th century one can find examples of Christians taking part in wars in defense of their homeland. Even in these cases bloodshed was regarded as innately sinful. Prolonged penance was required before the restoration of Eucharistic life.

I have read about St. Sergius blessing Prince Dimitri before he set off on the battle with the Tartars. As no written texts survive from St. Sergius, it is not certain that this event is, in fact, something that actually happened or is, as often with saint's lives, something added at a later date.

Assuming such a blessing was actually given, still its meaning is not clear.

For example if one of my children were to take part in war and asked me to bless him before departure, I would do so. With it would go my prayer for the safety both of my child and those "on the other side" whose life may depend on my child's actions. My blessing would not a blessing of war.

But then we might say: perhaps St. Sergius gave a blessing which was meant to be a sign of his approval of this particular war. Perhaps he saw it as not so much a good thing -- no Christian can regard war as good -- but as unavoidable or a lesser evil. This reading of the story is not certain but it is possible. Even then, we cannot freely apply that blessing to any war but only to that war. St. Sergius, who himself only engaged in spiritual combat, did not give posterity a "blank check" blessing of bloodshed in general, no matter what the circumstances.

In the case of fighting the Tartars, it was a war of Russians fighting invaders and occupiers. It would be odd for Americans, who themselves have not been invaded since 1812 but have many times been invaders and occupiers of other countries (as now in Iraq and Afghanistan), to discover a blessing for their endeavors in St. Sergius. He was blessing those resisting an occupying power.

Another aspect of the question that others have already mentioned in their responses is that for Christians, as much as we revere the saints, it is not the saint we follow but Jesus Christ. We try to follow Him just as the saints tried to follow Him. We know no one follows him perfectly. Even the saints are sinners. Yet we see them as people who never gave up the struggle to come closer to Christ and to be more faithful to his Gospel.

One can find many examples of Orthodox Christians, including bishops, who have deeply implicated themselves in war -- oftentimes in wars we look back on with revulsion and even horror. Countless innocent people have died in wars in which one cannot easily say, though there may have been many heroes, that there was great virtue on either side. God alone can count the innocents who were wounded or killed or the solders who, surviving war, came home with their conscience haunted by dreadful actions they witnessed or committed. We are all subject to letting nationalism and propaganda get the upper hand in our lives. It is a very contagious state of mind. We even find churches where the national flag is placed in the sanctuary.

"Let me close with a story about my Uncle George, a simple village priest in the Pelopennessus. When the Nazis came, Papa George took off to the mountains where he organized and led a band of guerrilla fighters. Being of large stature with his long, wild beard and hair, he became known as "Killer George" to the Nazis. At the end of WW II, Father George was summonsed by the Bishop of Tripolis to explain himself. Papa George strode into the Bishop's office, rifle in hand and wearing his bandoleers. He took off the bullet belts and laid them with his gun on the Bishop's desk with the words: now, I'm going back to my village and church. There he finished out his days."

If I had such an uncle, I would regard him as a brave and honorable man. Living as I do in a country once occupied by the Nazis, I cannot help but respect those who, whether nonviolently or with weapons, resisted.

Even so, as an Orthodox Christian I would also have to consider that the canon laws of the Church require that a priest never kill another human being. Even if he does so by mistake, as with an auto, he is no longer supposed to enter the sanctuary. This is the Church's unbroken tradition. That this is sometimes set aside by bishops as an act of economia cannot be disputed. And yet the canons remain to challenge us, and behind the canons stands the Gospel. Our Savior, as we meet him in the Gospel, never killed anyone nor gave his blessing for any of his followers to kill on his behalf.

Jim Forest

Lenten Desert Experience:

On Sunday, April 2, I went with a group called the Nevada Desert Experience to the desert to pray beside the Nevada Test Site for nuclear testing. Forty-some showed up, many coming from Catholic Worker hospitality communities.

I can't reduce what transpired inside me into words, for it was as if I saw the face of God. Some crossed the line and were arrested, but I have never seen a gentler display of love. I did not cross, but found myself doing a prostration before all who were present, and before the earth.

The coming together of guards and demonstrators appeared to be a holy union. One in our group was a sheriff who arrested these folk last year.

For information see:

John Oliver

Lenten thoughts:

Here are some Lenten thoughts. They are listed not in any particular order, just things that occurred to me as the Great Fast wore on.

1) Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God. The serpent tempted them, enticing them with an idea that they could become "like" God, not just in His likeness. It appears that for Eve and Adam, being like God meant to be God's equal and in fact to displace God as One who had power over their own lives. They were unhappy with their unequal relationship with God and wanted to change the hierarchical nature of that relationship. They do not seek union with God but rather equality with Him. They disavow His Lordship over them. By attempting to change their unequal relationship with God, they ended up not being like God or equal to Him (as they aspired to), but rather they lost their natural position in the relational hierarchy and became even less human and their lives became more like the rest of creation over which they were supposed to have dominion. They lost their own God-given dominion/lordship over the rest of creation in their effort to claim God's Lordship for themselves.

2) Deification requires us to work with God to attain it. Deification does not result from normal aging or maturation. It will only occur if we actively seek it out. In addition to cooperating with God, deification also requires that we begin to live in love with those around us. We each must apply ourselves diligently to seeking out this union with God.

3) In American thinking, the self is the center of our very being, whereas in Orthodoxy, the notion that humans are to be deified places God at the center of our being as well as our personhood.

4) The freedom we were given by God is not so much the personal freedoms to do as we please and to pick what we want, but the freedom to love others -- there is no limit to this love or this freedom. It is boundless, enabling humans to aspire far beyond natural limitations, to become as godlike as we dare choose. It is in this ability to choose boundless love that we can be "like" God.

5) I am increasingly aware of how much we Americans believe we are each personally entitled to all the consumer goods that society can produce or to consume all the natural resources which the earth has to offer. Entitlement-thinking leads to wanting to limit or refrain or inhibit what others are doing that might interfere with what I believe I am entitled to. Entitlement-thinking effects individuals as well as our country as a whole. On the other hand, love-thinking encourages everyone to go beyond all limits to help others become as fully human (loving beings) as they are capable of being.

6) If we begin by thinking of a human person not as an individual who is free from the tutelage of others but rather as one who is always in relationship with others, we can understand how love rather than self-love is the highest good. True love is always oriented toward the "other." Its opposite, self-love, is self-serving and self-directed. Love is a choice we can make toward others: we are not obligated to love them; we will it or choose it because love is not an emotion but an action, an energy. Free will and love are inseparable parts of being human. Striving to be free of others is a movement in the direction of becoming less human. In a sense, Orthodoxy sees the Enlightenment freedom of the individual FROM the control or influence of others as also an entrapment in the self which then separates you (the self), isolates you, alienates you from the rest of humanity, and thus from your own humanness.

7) The current focus in human rights thinking is a distortion of the way in which humans rights were originally conceived and promoted. Human rights thinking was originally based in the Christian notion of love for others. But it got twisted around to become self-serving, rather than serving others. Enlightenment rationalism severed the action (respecting the rights of others) from its root (love for others) and then replaced love as the reason for the action with love's opposite: self-love. Now human rights thinking is not about the good of the other, but what's good for me. Even charity towards others often is done for how it will benefit me (tax write-off, feel good, be admired, etc.)

8) If we each acted in love, justice would never be a concern.

9) Do human rights advocates ever think about "what is good for the community/society"? If they think beyond the individual, do they then assume "what is good for the majority/greatest number"? How often is it the case that what is good for the community is also what is best for the individual? Since we are by nature relational beings (God said in Genesis 2 "it is not good for man to be alone"), at what point should we be thinking about community, relationships and love, when we enter into any discussion of human rights? Human rights thinking would be much improved if it were also human relations conscious.

10) Which attitude is more Christian? We are blessed with good things in order to give to others (we get in order to give), or in giving to others we will get even more in return (we give in order to get)?

11) When humans believe they are the highest power in existence, they come to believe that they in fact are the arbiters of right and wrong. Socially this often leads to majority rule, or "might makes right" thinking. When this happens in individuals it leads to total moral relativism. In both cases, it becomes easy to justify/rationalize most any behavior. Individualism/total autonomy means no relationships have a right to put any demands on me that limit my personal freedom of action. The self is the all-important, all-determining factor for judging any issue. Even God is relegated to a minor role when human autonomy is held as the highest good. It is the kind of thinking that led Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit.

12) The person who always does whatever he/she wants to do whenever he/she wants to do it becomes a slave to self (or said in another way, the person who is guided purely by self-love ends up being selfish, self-determined, self-centered and self-limited). The person guided by love does whatever he/she wants for the good of relationships, for the good of others, for the good of humanity, for the good of the world. That person's love is expressed in ways that also are socially conscious and responsible.

13) It has been said that in modern times globalization has changed how individuals relate to the world. Before the industrial age many people were engaged in activities that immediately benefitted themselves, their families, and their immediate communities -- farming, blacksmithing, trade. People's work and interest were locally geared and locally dependent. People shared a common life with similar interests and shared similar problems and local worries. The Church in those times served as that which connected the person and the local community to the rest of the world, to the big picture, to the cosmos and to God.

In the modern Western world, however, few people are engaged in work that immediately benefits or sustains themselves, their families or local community. People generally are working in and for global companies. Even the kid flipping burgers at McDonalds is working for a multi-national corporation! This globalization has also changed the way in which we relate to the world. Nowadays what relates us to the rest of the world is often our work, our employers. It is they who shape our world views, our worries, our relationship to the universe and thus to God. Thus, giving an individual a sense of place in the universe is no longer solely the work of the Church. The Church now finds itself competing not just with other religions but with industry and global economics in shaping the world view and beliefs of people. Not only has industrialization and globalization thus displaced what the Church saw as its eminent domain, but the mass media and now the Internet has increasingly taken over the role of being the source of information for how to understand and relate to the world. People aren't looking solely to the Church for understanding the cosmos, nor do they have to, for the Internet brings the world right into their homes, shapes their thinking and in many ways forces individuals to relate directly to the world unmediated through the Church's lens.

Some religions react against this by attempting to stop or control the effects of globalization and internet-ization, often by withdrawing from the modern world in one form or another. Many religious traditions are totally threatened by not being able to control the world view of their memberships. Orthodoxy is, I think, on the cusp of this issue right now. A number of Orthodox are trying the "withdraw from the world" approach -- increasingly turning to home schooling, condemning all forms of mass culture, requiring eighteenth-century dress or values, attempting to portray the whole world except themselves as evil and dangerous, demanding what at one time were monastic practices of all members, embracing cultish and sectarian methods to control members.

But such actions by the Church do not help the Church to be salt or light to the world. Rather than engaging the world and loving the world as God loves it, they in fact abandon the world which God so loved that He sent His Son to save it. They leave the vast majority of people to the world while insisting that only the elite ascetics are worthy of being saved. They abandon love, the seeking of the lost, the saving of the sick, the healing of humanity, in order to "save" themselves by following a self-righteousness. The question we need to face: How are we to pursue holiness without abandoning the world?

Fr. Ted Bobosh