Conversations by email: Summer 2008

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 ([email protected]) or Jim Forest ([email protected]).

Obeying God rather than man: The claim is sometimes made that somehow those who are "decent" are those who are "law abiding." But in such a case as Nazi Germany (many other examples would do as well) one sees that such an equation is dangerous.

Germany in the Nazi era was a society in which civil laws had been passed that required or permitted people to do all kinds of things toward Jews and others - the "unfit," the handicapped, the mentally disabled - that we now regard as murder. We might also recall how slavery was once entirely legal in the US.

"Decency," as a moral or spiritual character of people, simply cannot be identified with those who are "law-abiding" according to the humanly constructed law of a society both because (1) the laws of a particular society can require or permit immoral actions and because (2) civil law simply can't regulate the intentions and attitudes themselves that are vital to notions of moral or spiritual decency.

John Jones

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Embracing the latest weaponry: I recently had occasion to do some research which led me to an essay by Henry C.K. Liu that was published five years ago in The Asia Times. It is interesting to contrast attitudes in the West with those in other cultures regarding the introduction of new, more destructive weapons.

"In Chinese dynastic culture," Liu wrote, "the use of firearms in war was considered cowardly and therefore not exploited by honorable warriors of self-respect. Firearms would not develop in dynastic China, not because of the absence of know-how, but because their use had been culturally circumscribed as not being appropriate for true warriors."

He goes on to observe: "In the history of human progress, willful rejection of many technological inventions is traceable to cultural preference.

"This is the basis for concluding that the technological militarism of the West is of barbaric roots and that a civilization built on military power remains barbaric, the reverse of modernity, notwithstanding the guise of technology.

"The oldest picture in the world of a gun and a grenade is on a painted silk banner found at Dunhuang, dating to the mid-10th century.... On the silk banner, demons of Mara the Temptress, an evil goddess, are shown trying to harm the meditating Buddha and to distract him from his pursuit of enlightenment, with a proto-gun in the form of a fire lance and a proto-grenade in the form of a palm-size fire-bomb. The fact that these weapons are shown to be used only by evil demons illustrates the distasteful attitude of the ancient Chinese toward firearms...."

Liu notes the attempt by the Second Lateran Council, meeting in Rome in 1139, to forbid the use of crossbows against fellow Christians, but finds that today's Christians are less troubled by nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction than 12th-century Christians were by crossbows.

Liu goes into how devolving warfare down the social scale makes it much more destructive, while relentlessly removing the restraints of "honor" on how weapons can be used. Warfare can be terrible when it is ritualized, but when it is de-ritualized, as in modern warfare, it can be apocalyptic.

"Gunpowder remained unknown in the West until the late 10th century," Liu writes. "However, Europeans abandoned outmoded rules of chivalry after the Middle Ages and enthusiastically incorporated firearms and artillery into the lexicon of their military arts after the late 15th century. In contrast, thanks to the Confucian aversion to technological progress, Chinese military planners did not modernize their martial code, basing foreign policy on the principle of civilized benevolence. They continued to suppress development of firearms as immoral and dishonorable up to the 19th century, much to China's misfortune....

"Modernity, as currently constituted in the West, can also be viewed as a relapse of civilization toward barbarism through advanced technology."

Daniel Lieuwen

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Church-state partnership: A recent article in the New York Times focused on the privileged relationship that the Russian Orthodox Church now has with the Russian government. I doubt there were any errors in it, and am disturbed by what appears to be a church-state partnership, but much was missing from the report.

One of the earliest signs that great changes were about to happen, once Gorbachev became head of state in 1985, was the rapid ending of religious repression and even the broadcasting of films that, far from promoting atheism, showed religious life (especially Orthodox religious life) in a positive light. The result, twenty years later, is that the majority of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox even if they are rarely in church. Even Russian atheists may regard themselves as Orthodox atheists.

What is missing in the Times article is attention to the positive changes that have taken place in the lives of millions of Russians now that the Church no longer has to operate within the many KGB-policed limitations of former times. For every working church that existed in Russia 25 years ago, I would guess there are at least a hundred today. One no longer has to hide being baptized, refrain from having an icon corner in one's home, or participation in church life. An astonishing variety of religious books are available in every town and city. Spiritual life is no longer something one discusses only with the most trusted of friends. Religious believers can openly, and in an organized way, provide volunteer services in hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes, and prisons. The Russian people today have an opportunity for an open and fervent religious life that their grandparents could not have imagined.

But sadly there is a dark side: the almost entirely uncritical relationship of the Church regarding the government and the Church's readiness to bless Russian weapons of war and even weapons of mass destruction.

Jim Forest

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The asceticism of love: Asceticism is greatly stressed in the Orthodox Church, and rightly so, but asceticism is not enough. Christ feared death. He sweated blood. Courage is not the absence of fear but facing it. It was not asceticism and certainly not duty which gave him the courage to face his fear. It was love. Suffering love. If it's not about love, it's about nothing.

Certainly this was true for Mother Maria. She was not an exemplary monastic in the traditional sense. The heart of her vocation was the suffering she endured from watching her daughter die. She didn't just endure it and gradually get on with her life. She embraced that pain ("and a sword shall pierce your own heart") and that pain became the basis for her vocation. With the death of her daughter, in a sense she died as a mother, but her motherhood was then reborn as compassion for all, lived out in service to her neighbor, especially those most in need.

If one truly embraces one's own pain, then that becomes it's own asceticism, if one is faithful to it. From there comes the capacity to bear the pain of the other ("love bears all things").

Christ's pain was our pain, that which we wouldn't and couldn't bear. The heart of Christ's divinity is his self emptying. He enters into the abandonment of the human condition. God became God-less for us. The Sinless One became sin for us. This is the heart of divine love. From this and nothing else comes the Resurrection. (The Transfiguration was for our sake, because of our human weakness, so that we would remember later after the cross when we had lost all hope. But of course we misunderstood it!)

Mother Maria lived that in her own life and death, and said as much in her writing. She said the greatest poverty was to live without any religious consolations. Now, that's true asceticism!

Paul del Junco

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Can evil be killed? Many godly people think that the destruction of the ungodly is the best way to establish goodness and godliness on earth, but that does not seem to have been God's plan as revealed in His Son. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." In fact after the great flood reported in Genesis, "The Lord said in His heart, 'I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done'." God puts the rainbow in the sky as a sign and reminder of that promise.

Despite God's conclusion that evil cannot be killed, whether by drowning or other means, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century believed his army could defeat Satan. If that seems laughable, one only needs to think in modern times that Osama bin Laden is also leading a war against evil which he believes his legions can win or President Bush taking the US military into war to destroy what he labeled as evil.

Human thinking does not change easily. We want to kill evil, and certainly favor killing the other over imitating Christ and sacrificing ourselves as the way to defeat evil. Some might say in defense of war and killing, didn't Jesus teach, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends"? The answer is yes. But to lay down one's life is not a command to take up arms. In other words, we can die for our friends as he did. He didn't command killing for our friends. "Love one another," Jesus said.

It ends up in God's plan that a good man dies for the life of the world. The death of an evil man, or even of many evil men, or, if it were possible, of all evil men would not have saved the world. The death of humans cannot bring an end to evil in the world, though admittedly it will stop the one who dies from committing further evil (or further good for that matter). "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)

Christians have not always valued that self-emptying love, the self-sacrificing love, or the co-suffering love, Christ modeled for His disciples to follow. We usually want it to be the death of the other person - the bad person - which will save us. Jesus said, "Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."

To follow in Christ's love, to imitate Christ, is not to kill the sinner but to change the sinner. "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." Our task is not to kill the sinner, but to turn the sinner away from death.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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History and faith: In a recent posting, David Holden noted that "history itself is at the heart of our faith." God intervened in the world of his creation by taking the form of a human being, while retaining his divine essence. He stepped into history in a way that showed the "transcendability" of history itself - mind-boggling when we first hear it, and a great mystery no matter how many times it is contemplated.

But can the resurrection be regarded as historically demonstrable - a real event in the same way that my getten up and having coffee this morning was?

Like the proverbial "tree that falls in a forest," events we do not observe still happen. Events do not, presumably, take on reality only because they are witnessed and documented. Most of us would not draw a distinction between the acts we did this morning that we attended to (like enjoying a cup of coffee), and those that passed unnoticed (our breathing, for example). If I had stopped breathing for a few seconds, it would not register in any "historical" evidence unless I was hooked up to a monitor continuously.

Why does this kind of epistemological hair-splitting matter? For the same reason that David got into it - its implication in "the heart of our faith." But history being "at the heart" is not quite the same as being the heart of it. Faith also includes belief in "things not seen." Faith is a blessing bestowed by God. Objects of faith are not always amenable to historical proof.

At the risk of saying something overly bold or perhaps internally contradictory, I would personally follow Christ despite any amount of historical research that seemed to disprove the fact of His earthly existence.

The fundamental importance, to me, of all history is to help us gain a sense of the presence and mercy of God. Since we believe that salvation is for all mankind, we must admit of the possibility of those who never heard of Jesus to find their way to God. While one may fervently wish to follow another route (namely, the Holy Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ), it is eternity - not history - with which we must principally be concerned.

Alex Patico

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Philosophy of history: It is certainly true that the events of history are one thing and our knowledge of them is another. History is, after all, a kind of story. That being so, there are always mysteries in events, especially when we are speaking of truly transcendent events. When we think of the Resurrection of Christ as a fact of history, that deprives it of none of its mystery. How a person can be dead, then alive, and able to ignore the ordinary limits of time and space - that gets out of history's depth right quick. But the awareness of mystery does not cause something not to be a fact. When I said that the Resurrection is demonstrable, I mean that there was a dead body, there was an empty tomb, there were people who saw and spoke with Jesus after His Resurrection, their testimonies were eventually written and collected, etc. This is a particular event that we do know about - and remains a profound mystery even so.

Theology that is distinctively Christian does not begin with what is possible. It begins with what actually happened. It begins with our Lord Himself, and with His death and resurrection. So we are back to history again. It is both the blessing and the curse of Christianity, what Kierkegaard called "the scandal of particularity."

Having said all that, however, there is yet another side to it. We are not talking about events that happened long ago and are now beyond our sight. We are talking about events that happened long ago - and are still within our sight. The kind of distant objectivity with which some historical research is conducted (or at least attempted) is not quite appropriate to the knowledge of the Resurrection. That event was like an electrical charge passing from Christ Himself to His Apostles to those who sat at their feet ... all the way down to us. We know that we did not generate this current within ourselves, and that those from whom we received this electrical current did not generate it within themselves. Anamnesis is not merely telling a story; it really is re-experiencing, because that same initial experience is still coursing through the world.

David Holden

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Just war doctrine? While the border between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is in places extremely thin or even nonexistent, in other places it is more substantial. One of these contrasting areas is this: if you look in any Catholic catechism or other basic resource on Catholic doctrine, you will easily find that the Catholic Church has a teaching called "the just war doctrine" and that it is quite developed and has been in place for centuries. If you search equivalent Orthodox presentations of our faith, you will not find anything like it. (This is not to say you will not find it in the writings of various Orthodox Christians.)

There have been numerous examples of Orthodox Christians going to war and even doing so with the blessings of hierarchs, not necessarily wars anyone can look back on with pride, but all my reading so far indicates that war has always been regarded in the Orthodox Church as an evil, even if, in defense of the nation in a given situation, no viable alternative could be found. Thus Orthodox use of the term, admittedly a troubling one, about war sometimes being a "necessary evil."

This is not to say that the just war doctrine that took root in the Catholic Church, in an undeveloped form by Augustine and in a developed form in the medieval period, is of no interest to Orthodox Christians. It was one of the ways the Catholic Church tried to prevent wars or limit them.

Like fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. No matter what church we belong to, Orthodox Christians not excepted, we are often more influenced by the attitudes of national leaders, neighbors and propaganda than by the Gospel. We have a deep desire to fit into the nation we are part of. The Pauline idea of Christ's followers being "strangers in a strange land" is in fact not one that appeals to most of us. We tend to bond with the nation we happen to live in and to take part in its wars no matter how far we are dragged from the kingdom of God in the process. (In some countries one even finds the national flag in church sanctuaries.)

I am not talking about others as if I were immune from such national fevers. I am not. It is a very hard struggle, in which I often fail, not to join the parade.

The writings of those who developed just war theology, significant as these writings may be, are far less important than the New Testament. On the issue of war, the most basic Christian question is: Would taking part in war be an act of obedience to Jesus and his Gospel?

The Gospel records Jesus healing and saving others. Neither Christ nor his disciples killed anyone. No wars were blessed, not even the Jewish national war against Roman occupation. One might say Peter made a minor attempt to kill an enemy, but all he managed to do was wound an ear and thus give Jesus the occasion for performing his last healing miracle prior to his crucifixion. Peter also won the admonishment that has ever since been a challenge to every Christian: "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." We hear nothing more either in the New Testament or in other ancient texts coming down to us about Peter (or any of the apostles or disciples) shedding anyone's blood.

Nancy and I were in Rome these past two weeks, in the course of which we became more and more conscious of how soaked in martyrs' blood is the earth of Rome. Which of the thousands of martyrs raised a sword either in their own defense or the defense of their fellow suffering Christians? Not one. Might we learn something from their astonishing example? Might their behavior have had something to do with the conversion to Christianity of so many Romans in the period when it was certainly no social advantage to be baptized?

These are just one person's thoughts, written, let me add, with great sympathy and respect for those who do take up arms, as Peter did in a passionate moment, in defense of others. I am not at all by nature a nonviolent person nor can I say with confidence there has never been a war in which I would participate. In fact I was in the military earlier in my life. All I can say is that I hope I will never be led to describe killing anyone as an act of witness to the Gospel.

Jim Forest

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Food: The price of food, along with the price of gas, is going through the roof. But let's not complain too much. Food prices are going up all over the world, and in many places this is pushing people to the edge of starvation.

Here is a list of things our family has learned about saving money on food.

Don't eat out. Prepare every single meal at home and you'll save huge amounts of money. Learn to pack interesting box lunches for school or work. Save eating out for special occasions.

No processed foods. By "processed" I mean prepared, heat-and-serve meals. Many people don't cook at all in any real sense: they take prepared food out of a box and microwave it. Dust off your cookbooks and do some real cooking.

Buy store brands. Store brands are almost always cheaper than the name brands and are almost always as good.

Eat it all. Studies show that many people end up throwing away ten percent of the food they buy. Don't let things spoil or pass their expiration dates without using them.

Protein. As the world's poor people already know, about the cheapest protein you can buy is dried beans. We buy and cook a lot - chili, soup, bean salads, etc. Fresh and frozen fish are expensive, but canned fish can be cheap. Think about meals that use meat as a component rather than the dominant element. Eggs are generally cheaper by weight than meat or fish.

Carbohydrates. Many people on tight budgets try to save by shifting to pasta, potatoes and other starches - admittedly very cheap by the pound but bad for you and one of the reasons so many people have become diabetics. You can save money by cooking whole grains - oat meal, brown rice, barley - and moderate amounts of pasta.

Last but far from least - gardening. At the moment we're hardly buying any vegetables, fresh or frozen, because we're struggling keep up with our garden produce. We do very little in the way of preserving food for winter - though we do make huge quantities of tomato sauce in an attempt to deal with the tomatoes that all seem to ripen at the same moment in late summer. The sauce lasts us into early winter. (News reports indicate a sudden upswing in vegetable seed sales; the seed producers are having trouble keeping up with demand.)

Note that money isn't everything. We try to buy fresh produce and meat from local farmers whom we know, even though it sometimes costs more.

John Brady

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Betancourt interview: I just watched an interview with Ingrid Betancourt made shortly after she was freed in Columbia. Her testimony is beautiful and her desire for forgiveness inspiring. The US interviewer's question reflected a mentality of retribution and revenge, but she kept coming back to compassion and forgiveness.

Some of her quotes:

"Vengeance is a chain and I left all my chains down in that jungle"

"I am so happy there is no room for revenge"

"For me it is very important to forgive, it makes you more human, a better person."

Monica Klepac

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OPF Conference in Canada: On the second weekend of September, we invite not only Canadians but others to join us for a conference on "War and Peace in the Post-Human Era."

The speakers are Timothy Cooper, a physicist, whose topic will be environmental issues; David Goa, a renowned philosopher as well as adjunct professor of Religion at the University of Alberta; Scott Fast, professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University College of Fraser Valley; Ronald Dart, professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at UCFV; and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Orthodox Christian theologian and abbot of All Saints of North America in Dewdney, British Columbia.

To register, go to the following web page:

Archbishop Lazar

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Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50