A Prayer for Peace and Repentance

by James Campbell

Readers of In Communion may recall that a brief prayer for peace and repentance in time of war was published in the Fall 2009 issue. Having been designed for insertion into the Litany of Fervent Supplication, it was actively sponsored by OPF North America and approved for use in the Liturgy by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America in the spring of 2010. For parish usage, it has been modified to read:

Also, we pray Thee for a speedy end to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and that all who are entangled in their violence may embrace the riches of Thy kindness, forbearance and patience, and enter into that godly grief which leads to repentance; vouchsafe that our hearts and theirs may turn to works of reconciliation, to mercy and compassion for all, and to a thirst for that peace from above which heralds the drawing near of Thy Kingdom, we pray Thee, O Lord, hearken and have mercy.

The idea of explicitly praying for repentance in this present time of war arose after hearing Metropolitan Jonah’s words “pro-war is not pro-life” being read from his pastoral letter for Sanctity of Life Sunday early in 2009. Consequently, the very first version of this prayer was modeled on the long prayer for Sanctity of Life Sunday read in OCA parishes. Circulating that version by email had only one verifiably positive result. Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship read it and suggested that a short prayer for the Litany of Fervent Supplication might find more support, since topical prayers are often inserted in that litany.

This indeed has been the case, thanks to a number of people. The prayer was first sponsored by Alexander Patico (secretary of OPF-North America) and then introduced into the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops by Fr. Alexander Garklavs (chancellor of the OCA). The openness of the Holy Synod to its message led to its being recommended for use at the discretion of each diocese. Lacking a diocesan bishop in the Diocese of the Midwest, the Chicago Deanery (led by Fr. Thomas Mueller) decided to let parish priests use it at their own discretion. (Fr. Alexander Kuchta now regularly inserts it into the litany at Holy Resurrection parish in Palatine, Illinois.)

Not only is the prayer now shorter and more focused, but it is also more scripturally based. Three passages in particular helped shape the text.

1) “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)

2) “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

3) “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?” (Romans 2:4; sentence order reversed)

The predominance of scriptural and liturgical language in the prayer has freed it from the personal rhetoric that was evident in the original long version. And the subsequent modifications of the brief prayer for the litany – made in collaboration with Fr. Alex as he began using it in the Liturgy – have acted in the same way. For example, the phrase “as participants or supporters,” found in the earlier draft, fell away because it was already implied in the preceding phrase “all those entangled in violence,” and because it could too easily become a bone of contention that would distract attention from our real need for repentance. A second modification – substituting “conflicts” for “wars” – was made for similar reasons, keeping well in view the fact that the prayer is most relevant in countries whose people will have the most difficulty truly hearing it.

To pray for peace in a time of war is only natural, for that is the end we desire. But prayer is about being willing, not just about wishing. So what must we be willing to do or suffer for the sake of finding peace? The prayer asks this of us: to repent of our entanglement in violence. Immediately we are faced with two difficulties. First, if the violence in question is part of what is commonly considered an honorable war, how can it be repented of? And second, if we are not ourselves combatants, how can the violence of distant battlefields entangle us? But these difficulties are more apparent than real.

To begin with, “violence” can be roughly defined as the unjust use of force; and more pointedly, as the intentional devastation and killing of innocent people. Whether or not the use of deadly force in Afghanistan and Iraq is believed to be justifiable, that use of force becomes “violence” the moment it devastates and kills the innocent. Here the facts on the ground speak for themselves, and the moral distinction between an accidental killing and planning for some “acceptable level of collateral damage” is clear. The violence of warfare inevitably entangles all those who participate in these conflicts to some degree, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Still, it is within the power of repentance to free the soul from its entanglement in violence – and of prayer to help to make repentance a reality.

The second difficulty can also be resolved by a little reflection on the realities of the situation. Moral responsibility for acts of violence perpetrated or precipitated by the Coalition Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is a shared responsibility. But it is shared not just by combatants on both sides of the conflict. Civilians who send others “into harm’s way,” and who condone the inevitable killing of innocent people to achieve their purposes – however noble those purposes may appear to be – are also morally culpable. Whenever we become complicit with violence in this way, we too become entangled in an unjust use of force and find ourselves in need of repentance.

The inherent sinfulness of using violence to accomplish our desires – even when they are godly desires – is captured by Fr. John Mefrige in his distinction between desire and demand in the last issue of In Communion. A demand asserts an unconditional right to what our will desires, and therefore imposes an unconditional duty on others to conform to our will. Performance of such duties can only be exacted through force of one kind or another, and any reluctance of others to acquiesce to our demand leads to their being summarily judged and condemned as malicious obstacles. Because we heartily resent such imposed duties when placed on us by others, we violate the law of love whenever our desires morph into demands. One could say the very violence of such demands entangles us in a web of unjust attitudes and actions.

Since demands imply the readiness to use force and ineluctably draw us into entanglement with unjust uses of force, when we imagine our demands will lead to righteous results we have been seduced by what Walter Wink calls, in Engaging the Powers, “the myth of redemptive violence.” This is a popular myth, but in reality violence does not redeem us. Never in history has it happened that violence as such (namely, the use of violence beyond the pale of just criteria) has truly protected from erosion or abrogation the cherished values it purportedly defended – although it has often provided the victors with a fleeting illusion of safety. It is for this very reason that when Christ frees us from the tyranny of death he does so by his suffering of violence, not by acting in violence.

Since repentance is how we lay hold of Christ’s gift of freedom, repentance for our entanglement in violence is one of its most valuable forms – particularly for Christians surrounded by the passions of an endless “war on terror.” Once we have freely turned away from violence, we can engage wholeheartedly in those works of “reconciliation, mercy and compassion” that make peace a living reality, the very embodiment of that “peace from above” for which we continually pray.

James Campbell is an adjunct instructor in World Religions and Ethics at McHenry County College in Illinois and holds a Master of General Studies degree from Roosevelt University and a Master of Arts in Divinity from the University of Chicago. He is a Vietnam Veteran, a retired zookeeper and a landscape designer who was received into the Orthodox Church in 1981. His essay, “Taking Responsibility for Evil: Addiction and Usury in the Light of Repentance,” was published in Ethical Dilemmas: Crises in Faith and Modern Medicine.