In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006
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 -- markp[at]]earlham.edu -- or Jim Forest -- jhforest[at]cs.com.
Poor Excuse: It's clear that the Gospel puts rich and poor in different categories. I recall a book by Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, on the Gospel's world-view. After mentioning the Gospel's preference for the poor, Kraybill notes that, in applying it, we should always put ourselves in the position of the rich. True, I think. This seems to me to mean two things at least:
We're never entitled to puff ourselves up or see ourselves as having some moral superiority, even if we do it by saying "I'm one of the poor!"
No amount of objective poverty exempts us as Christians from founding our lives on love and service toward others. We'd consider Christ and the disciples poor - it seems they lived as wandering beggars (with a few un-poor donors) - but when speaking of "the poor" they typically meant not themselves but those that they were to serve. And the poor widow is praised for giving her last coin, putting herself in the position of the giver.
In our class-bound world it's very hard for us with money and security to establish any kind of personal fellowship/friendship with poor people, and the temptation is to turn them into an abstaction.
Backlash: There's a vague backlash within Christianity idealizing the poor, but it sure doesn't last very long or get much beyond the superficial. Most people don't truly idealize anything about the poor. I have seen very few people in my life that learn from the poor, or find solidarity with the poor, or seek out the poor, or even accept the poor. Usually this "perfect poor" language is a way for one to feel better about not dealing with the scriptural texts dealing with money or is an attempt at a loophole, giving something of value to the poor and therefore not having to pay them any more attention - i.e., they are the spiritually rich, so why change their situation?
I remember working at a state psychiatric hospital for a year. I worked with the people that were rejected from society for many reasons, mostly stemming from their illness. One day at a chapel service, I looked over the group and had a sense that these people were the ones for whom God has a special place, the apple of His eye, if you will. I must admit, I had trouble understanding why. They didn't always act lovingly to each other, they weren't pure as people often want to make them, they were often undisciplined and repulsive. Perhaps it was just because they too are human, and yet we have so much trouble accepting that and treating them well. Perhaps it is just like a teacher looking at a class full of students and seeing them treat one student so badly because of the way she dresses, or because he may learn a bit more slowly. The teacher can see that they are really not very different, but the students think that they are vastly different. Perhaps God sees that we are not very different at all, but we treat the mentally ill as the worst members of our society, indeed we try to forget that they are a part of our society.
I think we do the same to the poor, either abstractly or individually.
Sheri San Chirico
Beyond individualism: The idea that salvation comes to us exclusively as individuals and that our wealth or poverty are irrelevant factors is not Orthodox. Since when do we enter as individuals, one at a time? Where is koinonia? Doesn't the lesson of Matthew 25 say that our fates, the rich and the poor are intrinsically tied to the other? Where is our understanding of Eucharist or of incarnational theology here? Do we not pray for every corner of Creation in the Divine Liturgy?
This is a very tired conversation to say that "the church is not a social agency-or-who does or does not get a free pass to Heaven." Shouldn't we rather be talking about the scary consumption in this country and what a sin it is? Anyone who has been to the third world and seen first-hand the suffering that poverty brings will find it really hard to ever fully fit in any consumer society.
I am uncomfortable with any discussion that cannot see past the grace vs. works argument to know that the reason to pour oneself out for the least is because we are disciples of the Teacher of Poverty, Jesus. We do it because we love. It is the requirement of love. When it is pointed out that "everyone has to repent," does that not mean that the rich need to repent from greed or oppression, as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom so often warned? I don't know what good comes out of a rich person telling everyone that the poor need to repent. Most of the poor that I have walked with, worked with and lived for years with are already painfully aware of their sins. We could learn a great deal from their humility.
Romanian perspective: We mystify the poor in strange ways. Our experience of Orthodox culture in Romania tells us that. It is common to see beggars with an open hand and an icon of the Theotokos in the other. When receiving a gift, the beggar is expected to say a prayer or blessing. The donor feels vindicated and maybe more lucky, or less guilty, about not visiting a relative's grave, but little is done for the root causes of poverty. Both rich and poor tend to be exploited and neither is doing anything out of relationship.
Someone said that for the poor, poverty is an economic problem, but for the rich poverty is a moral problem. I do believe Christ prefers the poor only in the way a mother "prefers" whichever child is in need at the time. It does not mean she loves one more, just differently.
Christ calls us to a spirituality which puts us in relationship with the poor. And in these encounters where the presence of Christ is sensed and the veil is lifted, rich and poor no longer exist and we are all only children of God in solidarity in our common human suffering. I do believe the poor can be "salvific" in the sense of purification and theosis. Relationship with the poor can get us in touch with our true neediness for God, call us to our knees, and get us to pray in new ways, "Let Your Kingdom Come... Give us this day our daily bread." It is never the poor who save us rich people, but the suffering Christ, who is co-mingled in the suffering of the poor.
There is a certain pride in charity and helping out the poor guy. When they become your brother and you are powerless to really help them yet you stand with them before God crying out for them, them you are able to share in their powerlessness before God and cry out for His Kingdom to come. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
I agree that every person, no matter how poor, will enter as individuals, but again their poverty is only an economic problem, not a moral problem as it is for most of us.
God help us and save us.
In Communion: I just wanted you to know that I have really enjoyed the Spring issue of In Communion so much. And not just for the colorful cover. The articles were very timely for me and seemed maybe more down to earth and practical than other issues. I really appreciate all the work you and others do to put together a wonderful publication that I am proud to receive. I am thinking of translating parts of John Jones' article on stigmatization for our Romanian newsletter. We want to do an issue on the Romani (Gypsy) people who are often the objects of stigmatization.
OPF meetings: I attended the OPF conference at St. Vladimir's last summer and the OPF workshop in Akron with Sheri, Joe, Noel and others last weekend. We had a grand time together and with the folks not from OPF who joined us.
My recommendation is that we continue to arrange such gatherings. We need to think of "hubs" or "capitals" for OPF around the country, and go to those places as often as we can in a year. I doubt that I am alone in saying that I feel very alone sometimes, and the friendship and support of others in the OPF is very precious to me.
As for the weekend just past, the best part of it for me was the fellowship with other Orthodox. The workshop leader, Art Gish of the Church of the Brethren, was very gifted and insightful. I doubt that he agreed with all that we Orthodox believe, but he was very respectful of and curious about our tradition. He never said anything that contradicted our beliefs. Most of what he had to say was of a practical nature.
For me the most moving moment of the workshop was a remark from a Byzantine Catholic bishop who joined us for a couple of hours on Sunday. When our workshop presenter was introduced to the bishop, he said, "Thank you for giving a martyr to the Church." He referred to one member of a peacemaking team in Iraq who was held hostage and finally murdered. How seldom do I risk anything for the Gospel!
OPF's Akron gathering: A quick report: The first day began with reasons for peacemaking from the Old and New Testaments, some of which I had not understood in the texts before or had not seen in the same light. In the afternoon, Art Gish taught us about Christian Peacemaker Teams, its history, and his own history with them (he winters in Palestine and has for many years now). The second day was practical techniques of peacemaking, especially focusing on ways to interact with aggressors to defuse or deflect their attack in loving ways.
The most important thing for me was to understand more fully how much we as a society depend on violence and military strength to bring about peace.
Let me know if you have an interest in taking part in the next such meeting.
Sheri San Chirico
DaVinci Code: It has been good to see reports that not only Christians but Muslims have been critical of The DaVinci Code. Muslims see it as an oblique attack on Islam. As a moderator of soc.religion.islam list, I get to see a lot of questions from Muslims asking why Christians are not more active in objecting to such books and films.
I started reading soc.religion.islam in 1989, when I decided to learn something about Islam after working on several human right cases involving people in Islamic countries. In 1995, I was asked to help moderate. I have, in fact, been one of the moderators since about six weeks before my baptism and chrismation as an Orthodox Christian, over a decade ago.
Jurisdictionalism: Whenever I read any church history, I'm reminded that Orthodoxy continues by God's grace, not thanks to human endeavor. The organizational history of the church is one long tale of treachery, greed, ambition, bribes, illicit political influence, occasional murders, etc. The positive side is the realization that, as bad as our "political" dimension looks right now, it's really no worse than it ever was.
My opinion about the "organizational" canons is that they presuppose a Christian empire ruled by a Christian emperor. Trying to apply them helpfully in our time is almost useless. (A priest with whom I spoke about some of these issues said that the age of Christian emperors ended with Nicholas II.)
I took a Canon Law class at our diocesan seminary a few years ago. The teacher started out by saying that in Orthodoxy the word "law" probably shouldn't be applied to the canons at all.
One section was devoted to the jurisdictional situation in North America. First we considered the claims of Constantinople, Russia, etc. with their various canonical justifications. The teacher concluded that, in his opinion, we have a new situation that was never anticipated by the canons and to which none of them apply - which would mean that the Church needs to get together and come up with a solution rather than keep making competing "canonical" claims. But this is unlikely to happen, he said, because the various churches would have to humble themselves in ways that he couldn't imagine they ever would. I suppose this describes the situation in Western Europe as well as in North America.
I've been reflecting a lot on jurisdictionalism, and here's how it seems to me at the moment: we all say jurisdictionalism is a problem, uncanonical, bad for the church. But in our hearts we love it. It suits our modern notions of freedom as the ability to shop for what we want. If I don't like my bishop I can get a new one without even changing my address! It's a little more difficult than changing my cell phone provider, but not much. So if our hierarchs got together, sat down, and came up with a proper system where each region was served by exactly one bishop, I wonder if, when we realized some of the consequences, we'd accept it.