Conversations by Email: Spring 2007

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

A house built on sand:

A few disconnected thoughts on God's judgment of the nations...

Unless we see the scriptures as purely a collection of fairy tales, I think we have no choice but to conclude that God sometimes brings disaster on nations for their sins.

When this happens, it seems that the individual righteousness or holiness of some of the "victims" isn't enough to prevent the disaster, or to exempt the righteous from it. I'm thinking of Daniel and the three holy youths (so well-loved in Orthodox hymnography) who were carried off to Babylon with everyone else when Israel was exiled. In their case, the disaster became another opportunity to exercise their faith.

In our time, wordliness and apostasy (always fond of one another) seem to have combined in a new and potent way in the form of modern secularism. Who can say what judgments will fall on the nations that have so enthusiastically embraced this secular god? I don't exempt North America here, though professed Christianity is much more visible than in Europe (not for long, though, I expect). How distorted does Christian faith need to be before it no longer counts as faith at all in God's eyes? That seems to be the American question.

With global warming, we have a complex of human disasters that we have plainly brought down on our heads through our collective greed. It seems that in our time, God doesn't need to intervene miraculously with floods, etc. - he merely lets us experience the consequences of our own deeds.

I don't feel as if I have any ability to discern God's hand in particular cases - whether New Orleans or the World Trade Center fell for our sins, I'd rather not try to say. We know that judgment belongs to God (that's why Christians don't kill, right?), and it seems to me that God's judgments are mostly hidden from us.

I've been watching Spike Lee's heartbreaking documentary "When the Levees Broke," about the flooding of New Orleans and its aftermath. Obviously, the blow fell for the most part on the poor - as the consequences of global warming undoubtedly will also. This makes me cautious about looking at these events as manifestations (in any simple way) of divine wrath. If they are, it works itself out in ways much too subtle for my own darkened understanding.

John Brady


OPF's Iran Appeal:

Reading several critical responses to OPF's recent Iran Appeal, I wondered if the record isn't stuck? This doesn't mean the critics aren't bright. Their argument was once a central one. The problem is the times have passed them by.

The Christian Warrior's stance makes sense, equal sense for all sides. It makes the case for U. to attack Serbia or Iraq. The same argument also makes the case for Serbia or Iraq to resist their attacker. It's an outdated argument. It fails to speak to our condition.

Our condition? We live in an unprecedented age in which atomic/hydrogen, chemical and biological weapons will level the playing field between powerful nations and people who earlier had no way to wreck unimaginable horrors on those who earlier did "whatever it takes" to assure victory.

I'm persuaded the question for our day isn't whether it is right or wrong to kill. The question for our time is what we do when we kill - to others and ourselves? Hannah Arendt wrote about this in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Christopher Browning wrote about it in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Books by Orthodox writers offer insights into the sacred character of life after birth (for example, see the writings of Fr. John Breck), as does Dostoevsky's monk Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. These are not people who would cry with horror at an enemy who targets civilians, then defend their own nation doing the very same thing.

Outdated arguments will not do.

John Oliver



Regarding Iran, there are several important things happening just now:

Disenchantment about Iraq had led to skepticism about the push toward confrontation with Iran. While there are only a few congressional or political leaders who have straightforwardly opposed such confrontation, many view the prospects of war with Iran through jaundiced eyes, recognizing that few Americans want more war and that the military is stretched to the breaking point.

The recent revelation of Iran's having reached out to the United States (especially in 2003), only to be rebuffed, is making people suspicious of the timing and seriousness of the current saber-rattling on the US side. It becomes apparent that there have been multiple opportunities for a diplomatic solution that have not been seized. So, just as it went with Iraq, the arc of Bush administration policy (which has Iran in our sights) seems to be as unchangeable as the trajectory of an arrow once it has left the bow.

The rhetoric on both sides (meaning most of the Bush administration plus the "Israeli lobby" on the one hand, and Ahmadinezhad on the other) has been inflammatory and alienating; the fundamental truth in the proposition that nothing can be solved in the Middle East until the Israeli/Palestinian problem is solved resonates strongly in this situation.

Most military leaders have counseled against a military approach to the Iran problem, but the Department of Defense continues to move military assets and conduct exercises, as required by their civilian superiors. Those who most disapproved of attacking Iran have been moved or removed, and others put in their place.

While there has likely been some Iranian involvement in support of their Shi'ite co-religionists in Iraq, there is also evidence of US covert involvement with minority groups in Iran (there was a recent terrorist bombing in Tehran by Baluchis, for example), Saudi involvement in support of Sunni insurgents in Iraq, Pakistani support of Taliban or "son-of-Taliban" groups in Afghanistan, Iranian support for reconstruction in Afghanistan and several other cross-border activities that make the area a nightmare to attempt to diagram, much less deal with constructively.

Alex Patico


Antiwar Conservatives:

While many conservatives are now back-pedaling on Iraq, there has been a consistent opposition to the Iraq war from people like Pat Buchannon for the paleo-conservatives and Justin Raimundo, of, for the libertarians. They have spoken out against the war since before it began.

It is ironic that people now associate conservatives with war. In 2000, Candidate Bush advocated a more humble US foreign policy, in contrast to the foreign adventures initiated by Clinton. If only he had listened to himself - and Washington's advice from the early years of the republic against foreign adventures seeking dragons to destroy.

Real conservatism is for defending the traditions and homes of the people of a political community, not for trying to remake other nations into one's image (a Jacobin enterprise). Unfortunately, the neo-conservatives, radicals of the most extreme stripe, have found marketing themselves as conservatives to be advantageous - and with their control of the "conservative" media (for example Fox) and the advantage they give to liberal media outlets of making conservatives look evil, they have managed to hoodwink most people. This is a tragedy.

Daniel Lieuwen


A donation:

Please accept my donation for the 2007 subscription and membership renewal. I enjoy reading your magazine and sharing it with other church members. It is a great forum for members of the Orthodox community dedicated to peace and charitable activities. According to Acts 2:44: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common." I believe that this passage urges us, as a community, to use what we have for those in need. Keep it up.

[name withheld]

Home from Iraq:

Just a note to let everyone know I made it safely back home. We flew from Mosul to Baghdad to Kuwait, spent a week there, flew to Budapest, then flew to MacGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, stayed over night, bussed to Philadelphia International Airport, then flew to Nashville where we were bussed up to Ft. Campbell.

I feel very blessed to be with my wife and son in a relatively safe environment. We are slowly transitioning back into life together in the house we so quickly vacated in the Fall for my deployment. I was worried that Elias may not remember me so well, but we have been inseparable since my return a few days ago. He oftentimes sidles up beside me and just pats me on the back... so precious. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and correspondence these past months. They were a great source of strength for me and my family.

Aaron Haney



Back in the fifties, the divorce rate began climbing, though marriage and family values had all the protection law and the culture could bring to bear. Fatherless children emerged from the chaos of divorce. Divorce redefined marriage. Divorce is a consequence of fallen human beings, damaged beyond the possibility of bonding to each other and raising their kids together.

Alice Carter



There clearly is a problem regarding marriage in today's world. 42 percent of Canadian couples choose not to be married. I think part of the root of all these problems remains the Protestant Reformation, which deconstructed Christianity and abolished so much "meaning." If you argue for 500 years that Tradition is bad, and you convince one generation after another, then many people eschew tradition in everything. To have argued that Tradition is bad, and then suddenly seek to "restore traditional family structures" you are, as the overworn proverb has it, closing the barn door after the horse has fled. If you argue, for 500 years, against hierarchical structure, then eventually you become taken seriously, and you cannot have any sort of traditional family structure without hierarchy; not in fact, can you have a successful social structure, let alone a Church structure.

The traditional definition of marriage does not come from Scripture, but from the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, specifically from the reign of Justinian and Theodora. Moreover, the definition of marriage in western society had degenerated into a licence to have sex. If a Justice of the Peace married you, then sex was legitimate. If you did not have such a piece of paper, it was a sin. Even Church marriages were regarded essentially as a permit to have non-sinful sex. If a Justice of the Peace can "sanctify a marriage," who needs the Church?

Compare the richness of meaning to be found in the Orthodox Crowning Service with the average sectarian marriage ceremony. But even in the Orthodox Church, the meaning of marriage is seldom discussed, and in many of the catechetical writing about the Crowning Service, the explanations are not meaningful. Truly, there is a lot of work to be done and it needs to be begun when children are still in church school. We should already be teaching the meaning of family, or parenting and of marriage at the earliest ages.

The redefinition of marriage began subtly with the Reformation when the priesthood was abolished and therefore no sanctification could take place; without a valid priesthood, there is no sanctification, no sacraments. There can be neither sacrifice nor consecration. Without Tradition, there can be no foundation or validity to conventions.

Another aspect: The "nuclear family" is not at all the Traditional Family. It was the first stage in the collapse of the traditional family, which began with the Industrial Revolution. Extended family systems began to break down as people left villages and farms, and formed nuclear families in strange cities and around coal mines and factories.

The next major stage was the Great Depression, when many fathers left their families to go in every direction searching for work. Following hard behind the Depression, World War II created a massive reservoir of single parent families. I remember those days well enough. So many had no father. We had mothers who worked in factories, often until late. We had been taken off the farm and settled near military bases. During the day, we were in some sort of day care center and would be brought back in the late afternoon. There would be a flag on the front lawn of the "duty mother." We were all left with her until our own mums got off and came to call for us.

Tens of thousands of dads never came home from the war. The Depression had destabilized the family structure - many men and women had left their farms, towns, villages and cities, and never returned again. Connections, relationships, family networks were all broken and many were never restored. After the war, there were many thousands of widows with children, single parent families in which the mother was the primary wage earner. There was never going to be a return to what had gone before, and there never will be.

Archbishop Lazar


Family decay:

I should like to add that the time at which husbands and fathers left their families to go to work in factories and away from home, field, and shop varied in different parts of the world. Certainly this happened during the Depression, but I think it had already happened for a large part of the industrialized world even before that. By the time the soldiers went to war, vast numbers of them had already grown up with very limited connections with their fathers. Psychologically that means that they did not know how to be men. So they go off to war, win it, and come back thinking that they had proved their manhood. They had, in a sense and to a degree, but they still had not internalized other aspects of manhood, such as care for their wives and children, tenderness and affection, the softer stuff that is not glorified in the military. The next generation-mine-grew up knowing that our fathers were phony, caricatures of genuine manhood. We rebelled against it in the 60s and 70s, and then in the 80s we realized we didn't know what manhood was, so the men's movement was born.

The change of attitude in the Christian community toward homosexuality is one of the most striking about-faces in the history of the Church. Yet nobody, so far as I know, has written about what has happened that has brought about this change. The immediate causes are obvious enough: the breakdown of the sense of manhood in the past century or so and the belief that the treatment of homosexuals is nothing but a civil rights issue. But it seems to me that there are other factors, and they have been cooking for several more centuries.

One of them is the desacralization of the body. At one time the body was considered the temple of supernatural powers (St. Paul said the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit, but pagans held comparable ideas). Another was the apotheosis of desire, largely under the influence of Freudian psychotherapy, i.e., the belief that we have a right to fulfill just about any wish we have.

Yet another is the rise of capitalism and industrialism, resulting not only in the breakdown in men's internal sense of self but in widespread narcissism in the culture. Putting these things together has led to an inability of most Christians to find any way to defend the tradition of the Church on this matter in an intellectually credible way.

David Holden


Marriage service:

As I recall, for the first couple of centuries of the church's existence there was no Christian marriage as such. Christian couples who wanted to be married took communion together, and that was regarded as the sanctioning of their union before God. Paul Evdokimov has a good explanation of this in his book on marriage, The Sacrament of Love, where he argues for a reintegration of the marriage service into the Divine Liturgy with Holy Communion.

Nancy Forest


State interest:

What is the state interest in marriage? It is the contract that marriage brings with it. Its interest is limited to that. The strongest position possible is to remove the state from the marriage business altogether, and simply register the contracts. This would be a civil union.

To those of us in the Christian church, marriage is a sacrament. It is primarily to promote the salvation and godliness of the participants. As such, it is a religious belief.

The answer appears simple: get the state out of the business of marrying people. Only offer civil union registrations. If people want to be married in a church, then they need to meet the criteria established by that particular faith. In my faith, there are no vows, which are the contract language of the ceremony. Yet the contract of marriage is imposed by the state through the granting of a license. In a sense, the sacrament of marriage has a separate meaning foisted upon it by the state, which is inappropriate.

John Martin Watt


Full Liturgy:

My eldest daughter and her husband were married in a ceremony that was integrated into a full Liturgy, by their choice and with our priest's encouragement. It was a wonderful and meaningful event.

The state's interests must be decided by the state. We should not mix up the categories by thinking that a justice-of-the-peace, judge or ship's captain can "sanctify" a union, just as a priest cannot create a legal contract (except in the same way that any citizen can). If the state decides that polygamy is something to be discouraged, in might be in order to simplify certain legal entanglements, but it is not clear that this would always and everywhere be in the state's interest to uphold. For the church, scripture, tradition and tenets must dictate the "rules" of marriage.

Alex Patico


Orthodoxy and Judaism:

I have the following query:

"I thought you might have some information regarding the Orthodox Christian position toward Jews. I mean officially - does the Church have a stated position? Do you think there is a sentiment among the laity in this regard?"

I would be grateful for any leads....

Jim Forest


Byzantine attitude:

I don't know of anything official and recent. The Byzantine attitude to the Jews was one of a kind of scornful tolerance; the Trullan Synod has a number of canons that concern the Jews, and prohibit much contact with them (not to consult Jewish doctors, nor eat with them, etc.).

In more recent times, there have been a variety of attitudes, many of them deplorable. Sergei Bulgakov wrote a book, Christianity and the Jewish Question, which was only published in Russian in 1991; there is no English translation that I know of, but there is brief discussion of it in Rowan Williams' book on Bulgakov.

On the unofficial front, things are better. For some decades, there has been a series of meetings in England between Jews and Orthodox Christians, which I think both sides have found useful. It continues under the chairmanship of Nicholas de Lange and myself.

Fr. Andrew Louth

Darlington, UK

People of God:

Bishop Kallistos Ware has written on this topic with great insight - see his text "Has God Rejected His People? Reflections on the People of Israel" on the OPF web site (search "Kallistos").

Kallistos states that Israel is still the Chosen People of God, in which case the Church of the Gentiles is grafted onto the ancient tree of Israel. Others in the tradition, however, have not seen it that way. They believe that the Church is the New Israel and that the Old Israel is no longer relevant. It is obvious that Bishop Kallistos is following Scripture (in particular the lengthy passage in Romans about election) more closely than some later thinkers and writers and it is also obvious that the later doctrine could be much more fertile soil for anti-Semitic and horribly uncharitable thoughts and actions.

Some questions remain. Where did the consensus of the Church finally land? It does not look like St. Paul's position was the one actually accepted. If it wasn't, how did later theologians justify their departure from apostolic teaching? But if it was, what did the tradition do with those voices that rejected Israel? And, furthermore, if the teaching of St. Paul was accepted, how was it that the Church became so virulently anti-Semitic?

David Holden


Ingrained prejudice:

I spoke at a Jewish-Christian clergy ecumenical conference about ten years ago, and, in doing my own research, do not recall any official position. However, I certainly uncovered a lot of issues - all negative - from historical developments to cultural biases to outright prejudice still reflected in hymns of the Orthodox Church heard in Holy Week.

As for sentiment among the laity, I'll speak from experience. Growing up as a third generation Greek-American, I simply assumed, as I entered adulthood, that Jews were conniving thieves not to be trusted, always on the lookout for getting the better of someone in a business deal. There's a common expression in modern Greek, "The Jews laugh" - meaning that someone has enjoyed taking advantage of someone else.

It took years for me to confront these subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices of my elders, and to unlearn their "sins."

Yet, to this day, I will still encounter Greek Orthodox people, particularly those who are older, who have such biases. Moreover, I have been vilified by such elders who detest anything Jewish. Once, in a casual conversation at the national assembly, a prominent Greek Orthodox woman interrupted me abruptly with "What did you say?"

I was startled, and realized that it must have been my saying that Jesus was a Jew. She was deeply disturbed, and, in the ensuing conversation (witnessed by an older priest and his wife) she became downright horrified when I went on to explain that not only was Jesus a Jew, but so were his mother, father, most of his followers, and almost all the authors of the New Testament.

She threatened to report me to the Archbishop and openly expressed her horror that I would teach such "trash" to "those fine young men" at seminary. She made it clear that she had been educated in the faith by many fine priests, bishops and even archbishops and no one had ever said such a thing before.

Although nothing came of this, I have never been surprised since by anything that comes out of the mouths of us Orthodox.

I think the laity are in deep ignorance, not just about this, but about so much else. How little teaching and preaching I have encountered about Jews, Judaism and the relationship of them to the Christian faith and Church.

Even the most popular introductions to the Orthodox Church routinely fail to take seriously the Old Testament and Judaism as the living fountain out of which come the New Testament Church!

Sentiment among the laity includes a lot of ignorance, prejudice, suspicion, animosity, indifference: very little that can be considered enlightened or responsible. How long will it take us to learn from Jesus himself and the apostle Paul?

Fr Harry Pappas



The problem isn't the Gospels, or even our liturgical texts. The problem is that, over these last twenty centuries of Christian history, ignorant Christians have worked themselves up into an anti-Jewish frenzy during Passion Week, eventuating in persecutions, property destruction, and even massacres of Jews.

This was resisted, of course, by the bishops, if not always by uneducated and prejudiced parish priests.

In recent memory, we have bishops in Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. resisting not only the Nazis in the 1930s-40s when they came to roll up the Jews, but opposing even their own people when they threatened Jews.

The southwestern Russian kazaki (Cossacks) were especially prone to this madness, yet the bishops of Kiev and Kishinyov (among others in other places) literally stood in the breach to protect the Jews.

Monk James Silver