Conversations by email: Spring 2009

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]>.

Fear of the other: Thomas Merton wrote that fear is the root of war. If fear becomes our primary way of looking at things, if we look at everything and everyone through the lens of suspicion and fear, then we blind and cripple ourselves.

Fear of the "the other" appears to me to arise in part from recognition. We fear the "ourselves" that we see in "the other." We hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves. Reconciliation with our own "self" is part of overcoming our fear and hatred of "the other."

Archbishop Lazar

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On giving: The latest New Yorker has a piece on the Wittgenstein family, whose best-known member is Ludwig the philosopher. The family was quite wealthy, and he had a large inheritance. At one point in his career he decided to renounce the world, give away his money and live a simple, rural life. He decided to give the money to his already-wealthy siblings, reasoning that more money wouldn't corrupt them any further. A novel approach.

John Brady

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Render unto Caesar: In an exchange recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (22:17), Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Given the fact that the Roman army was an unwelcome occupying force and that there was widespread resistance to their presence, it was a controversial question. Jesus' response was to ask the questioner for a coin (making clear in the process that he had no such coin himself). Drawing attention to Caesar's image on the coin, Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

Arthur Waskow, an American rabbi, comments that an older passage from Jewish Torah commentary mentions that the difference between Caesar (who called himself a god) and God is that, when Caesar makes coins in his own image, they all come out looking the same, but when God makes persons in His own image, each is unique. In this context, Jesus may have been saying, "render unto Caesar what is his" the currency of the realm stamped with Caesar's his own face and leave to God what is His: humankind.

Jim Forest

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Dying of sorrow: I was interested to read a newspaper article on the many health problems that result from eating too much red meat. But one point was neglected. Most people die from sorrow, broken hearts and a lack of understanding of God's desires for them. This effects our bodies in ways hard to quantify.

Renee Zitzloff

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Who would Jesus bomb? One of our recent visitors was Steve Jacobs, who arrived at out house wearing a t-shirt with the question: "Who would Jesus bomb?" Steve is one of the founders of St. Francis House of Hospitality in Columbia, Missouri.

One of the things we talked about is how best to respond to an annual military welcome-house at a Missouri military base. The event features a big tent in which kids are invited to play computer war games. It's very popular.

An idea that emerged in our conversations was the possibility of setting up a "peace games tent" outside the base where, using borrowed laptop computers, kids (and parents too) could play peace games. Even if no peace game sells as well as war games do, we found there are a lot of peace games out there. Searching this string computer games peacemaking pulls up many hits.

We got to thinking about making a hand-out to give to families visiting the base, but also one that could be adapted for use at stores selling war games. A possible headline: "Not all computer games are about killing."

A draft opening to the text: "Today our kids are being invited by the military to play war games games that make killing people seem like a fun thing to do. The truth is every act of killing is a tragedy, not only to victims and their families, but for all the soldiers who come home burdened with memories of killing real people. In many cases the hidden scars left by war never heal. That's a big part of the reason why so many returning soldiers can't hold down jobs, keep their families together, become homeless, turn to drugs, and even take their own lives.

"Do we want war to look like a game to our kids?

"Did you know that there are computer games that challenge kids and their parents to learn the skills of peacemaking?"

Jim Forest

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OPF in Los Angeles: In the spring of 2008, we received word from an OPF member, Chris Apostal, that he wished to create a local OPF presence in his area, starting at his home parish, Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral in Los Angeles, California.

Chris developed a one-page proposal, outlining what he intended and informing his parish priest and the congregation about OPF. His initial agenda included voluntary participation by interested individuals in a monthly discussion, potential formation of committees to address different concerns, and of chapter activities related to them. He carefully drew a distinction between the chapter and the parish and also expressed a hope that this initiative would "allow enough freedom for each parish member to find what their conscience and the Holy Spirit leads them to, and to express that in constructive Christian service and efforts at reconciliation."

A first OPF meeting was held at Holy Virgin Mary in June. Now there are twice-monthly meeting after liturgy. Those taking part have had animated discussions about issues of war, peace, capital punishment, forgiveness, and the relationship of peace to the environment. We saw a film entitled Forgiveness, a fictional story set against the backdrop of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and later the documentary, Soldiers of Conscience. At one meeting a parish member who is a poet read a poem about war, which served as a basis for discussion. Members prayed and send clemency appeals on behalf of a death row inmate who had recently converted to Orthodoxy.

Chris writes: "Our discussions usually come down to an impasse: The 'pacifist approach' contends that Christians have historically relied too readily on 'carnal weapons,' which betrays a relatively weak faith in the way Christ showed us the way of the cross. If we had enough faith, lived closer to the Lord, and worked at developing the "spiritual weapons" (faith, prayer, fasting, patient suffering, returning good for evil, etc.), we could disarm their foes without inflicting harm. The 'lesser evil' approach sees that view as naive and unrealistic, given the realities of the fallen world. It contends that there may be times when killing is a lesser evil than the alternative of refraining from violence. It holds that even if we decide to renounce violence in the defense of ourselves, that it is our duty to utilize violence when we have a responsibility (i.e., familial, governmental, to protect the 'other' who may be innocent and defenseless, or who may be depending on us."

Although average attendance rarely exceeds a dozen, the chapter is now a year old.

We often say "all politics is local." In the Church, we say that the Body of Christ is "catholic" meaning that in each local situation, even that of "two or three" gathered in His holy name, the fullness of the Church is present. Its very locality, though, acts to ensure that individual Christians learn to recognize the face of Christ in each other individual; they can exchange a Kiss of Peace, can take conciliar decisions, and can act in Christian solidarity with persons who know each other person-to-person. Such is the role of a chapter of OPF. The Los Angeles group has now blazed a trail and provided an example for anyone who might wish to follow their lead. May God bless their efforts and grant them many years!

Alex Patico

Note: For more information about the Los Angeles OPF chapter, contact Chris Apostal <[email protected]>.

Calling oil companies to account: Yesterday I participated in a protest at the oil company Chevron's world headquarters in San Ramon, California, while the annual meeting of shareholders was going on inside. The protest was organized by a coalition of groups working together to support communities across the world being destroyed by Chevron.

The devastation caused by oil refineries to local communities is incredible: higher rates of asthma, cancer and miscarriages, ecological devastation, and, in many cases, support for military dictatorships.

Acting as proxies for shareholders in Chevron, folks from Burma, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ecuador were able to speak, in the face of ridicule, to the Chevron board of directors and to present an alternative Chevron annual report chronicling the many ways Chevron hurts people and the earth.

Outside the meeting speakers took turns highlighting the damage caused by Chevron and other oil companies, highlighting the hypocrisy of the oil industries' "green-washing" ad campaigns.

At an opportune moment six of us with lock-boxes took charge of Chevron main entrance. For several hours we remained sitting, locked down, while others occupied the street, create a media spectacle. (To minimize negative publicity, Chevron decided not to have the police arrest us.)

A lawsuit is being filed in Ecuador that, if it's won, will impose a multi-billion dollar fine on Chevron.

Want to know more?

Visit to download the alternative annual report.

David Costas

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A change in direction: A recent Gallup survey found that 51 percent of those questioned call themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42 percent "pro-choice." It was the first time a majority of US adults have identified themselves as "pro-life" since Gallup began asking this question in 1995. (Last year, Gallup found that 50 percent termed themselves "pro-choice" while 44 percent described their beliefs as "pro-life.") Gallup said shifting opinions lay almost entirely with Republicans, or independents who lean Republican, with opposition among those groups rising over the past year from 60 percent to 70 percent.

What this says to me is that the battle has essentially been won among conservatives. What is needed now is an educational campaign that is expressly tailored to appeal to and persuade progressives those who advocate social equality and fair and favorable treatment of minorities and who are more ready to believe that government can be helpful in people's lives. Otherwise, we are looking at continuing polarization and demonization of each side by the other, and very little actual change in minds and hearts.

I believe that for most who favor women's "right to choose," the displaying of graphic photos of abortions is not persuasive. Similarly, for many the sanctity-of-life argument is not compelling either because they are not particularly religious or because they see a real tension between the loss of (fetal) life and the anticipated loss of quality of life and come down on the side of letting each person figure it out for themselves.

What could be tried is this: to have a debate, informed by science, faith, secular ethics and economics, which asks the question of how best to protect both life in an absolute sense, and quality of life as it is lived in various situations of parental age, family make-up, economic stratum, ethnicity, etc. Unless and until folks are willing to have such a difficult (and no doubt lengthy) joint examination of these things, we are doomed to firing mortars from one trench to the other and waiting for the cries from the opposing ranks to let us know we "scored." It is incumbent upon those who feel that the unborn child should be protected to make this happen there is little impetus on the other side to have such a process, except for those who are extraordinarily driven by intellectual curiosity and moral humility.

I doubt that it will happen anywhere near the political arena (within parties and such) because everyone sees the issue either as a vote-getter or as a hot potato. Either way, there's no incentive to open that can of worms when you don't know how it will come out in the end.

As to the gender factor, I would love to see more men who assert their parental rights (to have the baby who is in utero allowed to be born), as long as they are also willing to take on the responsibilities of rearing the child to adulthood. Too often, the male is something of a bystander in the whole thing. When it comes to career choices, if an employer cannot see the value of having not only a happier, less-stressed employee, but a healthy, well-adjusted next generation, then other collectivities, such as church or government, should.

If it takes subsidies or tax breaks to balance out the salary differential and lost promotions of the child-bearer, so be it. I'm ready to pay higher taxes if it means that fewer children are aborted, fewer kids are forced to fend for themselves without supervision, are fast-tracked into the criminal justice system and eventually are either supported by the state or left homeless on the street or stuck in dead-end jobs.

A new wave of the young and independent-minded may make this a very different landscape than the one we have been seeing the past 20-30 years.

If protecting the environment can rise to respectability, who knows? Maybe life in general will gain some measure of popular esteem! I look forward to the day when Time Magazine has a cover emblazoned: "Life is the new wealth."

Alex Patico

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Ethics: One of the reasons discussion on the abortion issue is so complicated is because the discipline of ethics, both in philosophy and in theology, is something of a swamp. There is no fundamental agreement on how to do ethics. The teleological camp (e.g., Aristotle and the ancient Christian tradition) is a minority and its ontological-anthropological fundamentals are not granted by the majority in the academy. The deontological camp (e.g. Kant and much of the contemporary Western tradition) reigns supreme, but it lacks the ability to give reasons for ethical obligations; it actually posits that there is an unbridgeable gap between Is and Ought we should do right just because it is right, or maybe because God said so.

This is unconvincing to people without strict superegos. So the result is that a discussion of what is right in areas about which people disagree becomes virtually impossible (think not only of abortion but also of whether the rich should be taxed more, whether animals have rights, whether euthanasia is ever O.K., etc.).

C.S. Lewis remarks in one of the Narnia books, "Don't they teach logic in schools any more?" There is no doubt that ethics has not been taught in an intellectually satisfactory way in a couple of centuries.

David Holden

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Pornography: While pornography has become available new ways cable, the internet, satellite TV other cultures in other times were awash in pornography in their own ways.

Visitors to the ruins of Pompeii will recall seeing vivid sexual imagery everywhere brothel walls covered with paintings illustrating the kinds of sex acts customers could purchase.

Historians of the Roman world as it was at the time of Christ show a culture in which sexual violence and coercion was normal. Slaves were required by law to submit to any sexual act on the part of their masters. Death was the penalty for resisting. Those of higher social rank could demand sex with anyone man, women or child of lesser social rank. Upper class outranked lower class, men outranked women and children. Slaves were subject to every kind of degradation.

It may be that St. Paul reacted so strongly to sexual immorality because, in the ancient world, sexual acts were so often imposed a system profoundly repugnant both to Jews and Christians. Perhaps the reason monasticism and celibacy emerged as an idealized way to follow Christ was that the ancients could not even imagine a world in which sex could be pure or an expression of God's love. Seeing sex as belonging to a fallen world, Christians in that world increasingly saw the rejection of sex as the only way to perfectly follow Christ.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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Co-suffering love: On the issue of pornography, it seems to me that there are two things to consider, and both have value. One is morality, or ethics, as they are expressed in the law, which has a protective value when it comes to pornography and sex-trafficking through prosecution by power.

The other is the morality in Christianity that grows out of love the healing kind found in co-suffering love of which Christ is the supreme model.

It also appears among His followers who, in relationship with Him, begin to act and speak out of love. Perfected, it leaves judgment and condescension behind and instead heals releases the sufferer from bondage to passions. The healer facilitates the work of the Holy Spirit, who helps the sinner see he or she has sinned against love and strengthens the desire for re-creation.

The weakness of power is that it draws strength or enforcement from the systems of this world that are passing away (or from Satan) and is easily corrupted (moving beyond jurisdiction or detection, false witness, etc.).

So law may have a preventive and even a prescriptive value, but not the healing value of re-creation that morality rooted exclusively in co-suffering love has.

Sally Eckert

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Summer 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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