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.
The Georgia-Russia War: "We have the especially difficult issue of having a Georgian woman in our parish during bombing of her country," Daniel Lieuwen wrote. "It was very sad to see her crying."
The scene in our church in Amsterdam was similar, just on a bigger scale as ours is a large parish with a lots of Russians and also a good number of Georgians, one of whom is our parish warden. Many were praying with tears. During the Great Entrance, our rector, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, prayed for peace in Georgia and Ossetia and for all who have died during these terrible days. He chose to pray in English, which is very unusual since he is a Russian native speaker and our services are either in Slavonic or Dutch. After the Liturgy he held a Panakhida for the dead.
Interestingly, there was a TV crew there filming the service. They probably wanted to see how a "Russian" parish (though there are over twenty nationalities in our parish) was reacting to the events.
Concepts of God: God the word gets used in many ways. Sometimes we use it to mean the Trinity, other times the Father, sometimes divinity, or the divine nature. So unless we have an exact definition of the word each time it is used, we may actually not be using it in the same way.
Orthodoxy does distinguish between person and nature in God: One nature, three persons that is how we say we are monotheists. Jesus is one person, two natures, God and man, and in this case we really are using God to mean divinity, otherwise we refer to God the son to mean the second Divine Person of the Trinity.
Being strict monotheists, Muslims and Jews make no distinction between person and nature when they refer to God. God is one as per the Shema and the Shahada. So they both do and don't mean what we mean when we say God. But if one says Creator, then all three might agree that they are talking about the same God, even though Christians might be vaguely referring to the Trinity or the Father.
The Quran is clear that God beget no one and no other is to be referred to as God. Mohammed was taking a shot against Christianity in these verses of the Quran.
When speaking about divinity, probably Christians, Jews and Muslims are talking about the same general concept. Though Muslims pay lip service to the scriptures of Jews and Christians, and though the Quran clearly is based upon our scriptures (in this sense it is a true heresy as it picks and chooses ideas from the scriptures and reinterprets them), the notions of God do differ between the three faiths.
Arab Christians use the word Allah for God, indicating there is a similar concept of God both in Islam and Christianity. Both Christians and Muslims pray to God, believe He is Lord, merciful, and judge and to be loved and obeyed.
Some have made the distinction of "the fullness," as in the fullness of the truth. And so some have seen the references to God in other religions as being true as far as they go, but still incomplete or lacking the fullness of the truth. This thinking is always looking for the good in other religions a good which can be built upon for revealing the fullness of the truth.
I live in Dayton, Ohio. When the Dayton Peace Accord was being worked on, it was agreed that a prayer service for peace should be held at the Air Force base where the negotiations were going on, and that this service would involve Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. As I spoke with the rabbi and imam, I never had any doubt that, however we conceived of God, we all were calling upon the one God to bring peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and truly it seemed to me that each respected my belief and expected me to pray in a Trinitarian formula. And the prayers for peace had a sameness about them, as we all believed it is God who gives peace to the world.
Admittedly my experience was limited. I wasn't confronted by a Muslim extremist, but rather met a Muslim imam who seemed as genuinely desirous of peace as I was.
The economic crisis: It has been curious to me to see all of the panic over the capital markets, the feeling that economic catastrophe is on the way. This is not to say that I don't value having food and water, heat and shelter for myself and my family, but it is curious that all along (while things have been really good) we have always had people living right alongside us in our cities who must live precisely in the way we are so afraid may be coming to us. Look at Iraq, where the people have lived for years without water, proper sewage, consistent electricity, living with perpetual violence. As well in Africa, Asia, Central America.
The Dutch model: In Holland, though abortion is legal, the abortion rate is extremely low (while in Orthodox Greece and Russia it's very high). There are several reasons for it being low here:
There is a good sex education curriculum in the schools. One consequence of this is that there is a much lower rate of unintended pregnancies than in the US.
There is strong and effective social support (economic, medical, housing) for women who, without such support, might well see no alterative but abortion.
Last but not least, the pro-life movement here really is pro-life, not simply anti-abortion. It doesn't aim at shocking anyone nor does it engage in scolding, but rather puts its stress on caring support and encouragement of women who may be considering abortion. The name group has the initials VBOK (it means the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). VBOK posters are regularly displayed at train stations, bus and tram stops throughout the country. The photos used on the posters are of young women who clearly are struggling with a hard choice. The images always strike a note of compassion. The text is always the same. The headline on top is "An unwished for pregnancy... What now?" The text at the bottom is: "There is help for both the mother and child." And then a free phone number one can call any hour of the day or night. I have no doubt these posters have saved many lives of unborn children and also saved many mothers from a lifetime of profound regret and depression.
Perhaps there is something that Americans can be learn from the Dutch model.
Suicide: Suicide is a very personal issue for me. Two members of my family committed suicide. For many the motive is unbearable pain. Someone I know well, not a person of faith, is in early Alzheimers. She has become increasingly frail and is dealing with a lot of pain, some physical, most of it psychological and spiritual. She can't do any of the things that used to make her happy. She told me again today, "I want to die." But she said she would never kill herself because it would hurt the family so much. (Thank God for her common sense!) I think she doesn't want so much to die as to be relieved of her pain. And since she can't imagine what is left of her life here in this world as even moderately free of pain, death seems like the only option.
But the fact is, that when death really draws near, really near, the vast majority of us fight against it "for dear life." I think it really makes no difference whether you think you've been a happy person or not. Faith helps of course, but the fact is we are all the same before the great unknown that is death. We are all equal before it, stripped of everything that we had, or thought we had. The help of faith is simply to surrender to that great abyss trusting we will be caught and embraced by God.
Staying alive: Speaking for myself, I have had neither much fear of death, nor a desire to short-circuit the process, but have had enough passing acquaintance with pain to know that it is quite conceivable that I would want to exit this life under the "right" conditions. Whether I would act on it is another question.
The major source of pain for me is the contemplation of the loss and grief that my loved ones would experience. Thus I go to the doctor regularly, do what he tells me to do, don't smoke, drive recklessly or sky-dive (though it sounds like fun), all in an effort to spare my family as long as I can.
The problem of letting go is often a much harder thing for the survivors, than for the one who is terminally ill. I don't mean to say that there are not plenty of folks who approach death "terrified" only that it is often a mixture of a number of different concerns, regrets, fears, etc.
The lethal side of law: It may be true that there is often good law and there is often bad conscience, but it is always true that on Earth law kills. It is because good law is needed to restrain errant humans that law is defended when it murders; once the rule is in force, though, it makes no distinction between bad men and good men. It sees only those who submit to it and those who don't. Reasons don't matter. The necessity doesn't make it a good deal. We are bent and law does restrain, but it is a flawed interim solution: to defend it as a high good is dangerous and makes one ready to kill. Once a person is in charge of enforcing the law, even his or her conscience is no longer of consequence. What a pity. Pilate was a man of conscience who had no choice but to murder the Christ out of responsibility to enforce the law. While it may be that it was the leaders of the Jewish community who railroaded Jesus, still it was Rome's laws and Rome's man who did the deed. And let's be clear he did it in defense of Rome.
Scale matters: I wouldn't want to be in prison under any system. Being president of the Jail Chaplaincy of Somerset County in New Jersey gives me enough information about how rotten it is to be in jail, where officers are often men who feel a deep need for power.
However, given a chance between several years of in Siberia with my books as an agitator under the tsar and being shot for no particular reason to fill a quota under Stalin, I'd certainly chose the former. Scale matters. There is a difference between shoplifting a pack of gum and murdering everyone in the store.
I distrust any state but I fear utopian dreamers most of all. At least under law, there are procedural norms, fought out over centuries that provide some protection.
To clarify, it was not the Jewish community that railroaded Christ, it was a tiny cabal of Jewish leaders who acted in a way contrary to the masses of the Jewish people. And in the Gospel telling, it is not Roman law that kills Christ, but Pilate's moral cowardice he knew Tiberius to be paranoid and that the accusation that Pilate was not sufficiently concerned about treason would be dangerous. We do have a tradition that he was later punished by Tiberius with exile for this judicial murder, though I believe Josephus attributes it to other crimes Pilate committed.
You are caught where many of us are caught.You fear law but defend it because you fear utopian lunatics more. I aspire to fearing neither and defending neither. The good news is you don't have to have your druthers between the tsars of the world or the Bolsheviks the world is run such that if you really want to be a Christian, it will find a way to trap you and kill you. We don't get to choose the system that kills us.
To my great consternation, I discover that living in this society these days, being a Christian makes me unpatriotic, a coward, a traitor, "a damned liberal,",and a long list of other things. It's not yet a death sentence but rather a kind of verbal burial.
The trick, I'm finding, is not the rules of the game but the game itself. The challenge for me these days is not to navigate the game, but to stay out of it. There is no Christian politics, period.
Regarding Pilate, we don't know the end of that story. I like to think he was at last redeemed. I'm sure Christ would receive Pilate. I like the end of "A Man for All Seasons" where Thomas More tells the executioner, "Do not be afraid of your office. You send me to God." What a beautiful story to illustrate what I see as the core dilemma here. A good man run afoul of the king refuses to abandon his stand and accepts his punishment without condemning the executioner! Perhaps also the executioner was a good man trapped by inflexible options.
Soldiers of Conscience:
above: Sgt. Kevin Benderman, after conviction by court marshal for refusing to return to Iraq, on his way to prison. He is one of the conscientious objectors featured in "Soldiers of Conscience.
Soldiers of Conscience: Last night Nancy and I watched "Soldiers of Conscience," a 90-minute documentary, now on DVD, that was shown on public television in the US in October. It's an impressive film not only about several soldiers stationed in Iraq who became conscientious objectors, but also opens a window on war itself.
The most startling element in the film is the footage of soldiers being trained to overcome any instinctive hesitation to kill a program that the Army developed after discovering how many soldiers in combat situations wouldn't in fact shoot at other human beings. The goal of the "reflexive fire training" program is to make shooting to kill an automatic response.
Two of the four soldiers interviewed were jailed. One of them comments that it was only in military prison that he experienced true freedom, the freedom that came from being obedient to conscience.
I happen to know one of those interviewed, Joshua Casteel. He was as interrogator at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. Since his discharge Joshua has written a play ("The Interrogation Room") and a book, Letters from Abu Ghraib.
The film's web site (which includes a "purchase the DVD" page):
I would recommend getting the DVD and watching it with friends.
Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51