Conversations by e-mail / Pascha / Issue 60

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 [markp /at/] or Jim Forest [jhforest /at/].

Casting out fear:

Thomas Merton once wrote, "One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love."

The question is how. We are basically brought up to deal with fear by becoming tougher, developing a "thick skin." In a sense this is inevitable. It is part of growing up. The stock answer is to pray for courage. Jesus himself tells us several times not to be afraid. But I suspect many of us hide our fear under a mask of piety.

Perhaps first of all we have to confess to God just how terrified we really are underneath that adult thick skin we've cultivated over the years. Most of us are potentially only moments away from absolute terror – spiritual fear, of being alone, cut off, undone. The apostle Peter, sinking under the waves, cries, "Lord, save me!" That is the place from which we must call out to God.

Paul del Junco

Thick skin?

I've never developed a "thick skin" and doubt there is such a thing – but if there is I can't imagine how it would help anyone overcome fear. It would just help make you less sensitive to the problems and sufferings of others and more indifferent to (often constructive) criticism. But isn't praying for courage a very good idea? I don't think courage comes from within us. It's not a genetic trait. It's a gift from God, though no doubt it helps to nurture ourselves on stories of courage – and to have icons of one or two martyrs in our icon corner.

Jim Forest


Adam & Eve:

I like the image of a thick skin, or perhaps "extra skin" is even better, because it has a biblical inspiration for me. In Genesis God made "garments of skins, and clothed them." I see part of the meaning of this being that Adam and Eve could not bear the vulnerability of their nakedness anymore and so God in his mercy "clothed them" to help make the human condition of the fall bearable. Everybody except small children and some mentally ill folks have this protection to help them negotiate their way through life. A fairly banal example is a small child receiving an injection for the first time. Is their horror at seeing this instrument and then pierced by it imaginary, an exaggeration? I think not at all. They are experiencing its reality in a way we no longer have to.

I see these "garments of skin" as our basic day-to-day consciousness, the toughness we develop to help us get through life. And God help those that don't. The world is full of those who, for better or worse, never properly developed this extra layer of protection, to help them cope with the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" as Shakespeare said in Hamlet. They are in our streets, and in our prisons, and in our mental institutions, in the prisons of their own minds.

Maybe it's not so bad admitting I'm afraid. Maybe it's a sign of really knowing my need for God. All of us have that primal fear of abandonment, no matter how deeply buried. There are innumerable ways of dodging our own fear, basically involving some form of denial, "whistling through the graveyard." And then there's fighting it off. Anger. Love casts out fear, but anger is much quicker and easier. Isn't it amazing how if you're afraid of someone, getting angry with them will banish your fear?

Paul del Junco


Out on a limb:

Paul's take on things adds a dimension, that of recognizing the depth of the fear and how far back it goes. We are not just people who have a few things that scare us; we are a species that realizes always at some level how much "out on a limb" we are and how far down the ground actually is (the image of the iconic "Gates of Hell" ought to be in your mind's eye at this point.)

Alex Patico



Fear is at the base of our human "condition." As Adam said to God in the garden, "I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself." There we have it, afraid of being seen as we really are and hiding because of it. Then Adam goes on to blame Eve for the situation, and she blames the serpent. So, we are afraid inside of our selves, hiding from God and blaming others. That pretty much sums up our negative condition. Thankfully, there is more to our humanity than that and God is not through with us.

Thomas Snowdon


Fear of death:

Fr. John Romanides argues that one of the results of the Fall is that humans came to fear death. This fear of death resulted in a multitude of sins as humans moved further away from being creatures relating to each other in unselfish love ("like God") to becoming creatures pre-occupied with survival and guided by self-preservation. This is what in turn makes our fears so deadly for others. The antidote is found in what Archbishop Puhalo calls self-sacrificing love – the love which Christ exhibits in his willingness to die on the cross for us. He wrote:

"When we take into account the fact that man was created to become perfect in freedom and love as God is perfect, that is, to love God and his neighbor in the same unselfish way that God loves the world, it becomes apparent that the death of the soul, that is, the loss of divine grace, and the corruption of the body have rendered such a life of perfection impossible. … Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival … Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love." (The Ancestral Sin, 162-3)

Fr. Ted Bobosh


The terrorist label:

As citizens, as believers or as lovers of peace, does it benefit us to slap labels as "terrorist" on groups or individuals who take innocent lives? When we use terms because we think they are more concise, we may be saving column inches in the newspaper or making our e-mails quicker to write, but possibly at the expense of truth.

For example, if a bomb is set off in a public market, does it help anyone to say this is the work of "terrorists" as opposed to a "disturbed persons?"

We always used to employ terms like "Cosa Nostra," "Mafia," or "the Mob" while today, we speak of "organized crime." It is a little longer, but is actually more expressive, since we eventually learned that those groups can be Irish, Russian or Mexican, not just Italian. Every time we use "shorthand" we shortchange some of the content.

If we immediately categorize the offender, we run the risk of oversimplifying motives and strategy. Perhaps the aim was not to terrorize, but to repay a specific perceived harm or to strengthen a political faction. Have we closed our thinking along those lines because we think we know what "terrorists" are all about?

If we speak of "Islamist terrorist" or "Muslim extremist," we tend, even if inadvertently, to sweep all followers of Islam into that group, at least in the minds of those who have no other significant associations when they think about Muslims.

Though people in law enforcement have to deal at some point with the background of any suspects or potential criminals, the ordinary person may be ill-served by such designations. For instance, if a Timothy McVeigh blows up a bomb, the investigation of his crime may actually be hindered by public expectations that the culprit must be a "Muslim terrorist."

Are there groups that mix violence and religion? Of course there are. But the current, growing polarization and antagonism between our faith communities is arguably doing more to stoke that fire than to extinguish it. If the confrontation between law enforcement and other security apparatuses and the Muslims who are involved in violent acts spills over into a general disaffection, that violent minority has achieved one of its goals and the rest of us have failed to achieve what ought to be ours – understanding, harmony and peace.

Alex Patico


Feeding the Hungry:

When I was in college, I had a friend in his early 50s, a great bluesman who played the harmonica and guitar. He was working for the campus cafeteria, and at the end of the night it was his job to throw away whatever food remained. It was "policy." Regardless, he'd give food away to people who, if they weren't yet homeless, they were still hungry.

This went on for several months and someone reported him. He got a write-up and did it again two nights later and was fired after working there five years. Luckily it was the mid-90s and even with a 7th grade education he found another job a few days later. If it happened in 2011, with jobs so hard to find, I'd give him an award and nominate him for Man of the Year.

I've read that if only 2 percent of the world's food supply was allocated to the poor, world hunger would end. There are organizations like "Food Not Bombs" that feed a lot of people with what businesses throw away. There are people in Nashville, and probably in every city, who are called "freegans." They only eat what has been thrown away but edible.

Danny Abbott


A Burning Question:

I've been reading about the protests in Syria and the government's violent reaction to them. I've noticed an interesting conflict in myself, a conflict that extends to the Egyptian revolution. From what I've been able to learn, Syria is one of the few places in the Muslim world where Orthodox Christians can worship without vicious persecution. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was another, a situation that changed when he was overthrown thanks to Western military attacks. Since then, life for Christian in Iraq has become almost impossible.

So I find that, as I look over the news from the Middle East, I often wonder whether these military actions are likely to benefit the already-struggling communities there, and my answer is often "probably not."

So I find that a part of me hopes for the survival of regimes that I know to be quite cruel, because they provide the only realistic hope (that I can see) for Christians to worship in peace in the Middle East. And of course this troubles me.

John Brady



Is it not perfectly natural for the Christian to be persecuted and do we really have any right to complain? "Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness."

I want to set the theological context. I love my comfort as much as anyone and I certainly don't want to be accused of being glib about hard real life situations, but let's not have any illusions. If I have to support a dictator, or any political leader for that matter, because they'll protect me from those nasty Muslims, there's something seriously askew in my priorities as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Paul del Junco



As with many aspects of being Christian, there are ambiguities if we follow the Scriptures. In the New Testament Epistles, we see a certain respect for government – given the sword by God to punish the lawless, which in many Muslim countries should mean punishing those who attack Christians for being Christian. According to this thinking, government was given to keep order and protect citizens. St. Paul appealed to Caesar when his life was threatened by his fellow Jews.

It seems to me in the current culture wars in the US, some want the government to enforce Christian morality. I think this is not an issue addressed by the New Testament or by the Church in the post-Apostolic pre-Constantinian period. It represents an idea that is substantially different than the notion that the government should protect Christians from illegal persecution.

My personal problem with this kind of thinking is that it is not defensible as based in the Gospel teachings. We are told to go into all the world and make disciples of nations, and discipleship involves a personal willingness to be disciplined by the Master. I don't see in the New Testament an idea that we are to compel people against their will to obey God. We cannot use coercion to force people to repent or love.

So I think the effort to make people obey Christian morality is not based in the Gospel, but it does make life easier for Christians if they are in power. We want the government to compel people to be Christians (or at least follow Christian morality) because that makes it easier for us to compel our own children to "behave." As St. Paul says, "I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some." (1 Cor 9:19-23) He becomes all things to all people so that by all means some may be saved. He doesn't say he uses some means so that all may be saved.

The reality is that not everyone, including our own children in our families and parishes, are interested in salvation. But we do all that we can so that some may be saved.

But honestly, it often seems to me that many Christians in fact don't like the New Testament notions of freedom and free will. We don't like to live in a society where people won't acknowledge God, and we want to force those who don't choose to be Christian to live as Christians.

I am also intrigued by St. Paul's words in Ephesians 4:20. Here Paul is addressing the Christian community at Ephesus, but then he throws in a line "assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him..."

This seems to me to imply that St. Paul recognized that there might be, not just in society as a whole but even in the Christian assembly, people who have not even heard about Christ. That seems to me to be a pretty open, not closed, community.

Is it wrong to hope for peace for our fellow Christian who live in politically dangerous or difficult places? We pray for peace in our liturgies for the world and for our fellow Christians. So if they are given some peace by a dictator do we wish instead that they be persecuted by a democratically elected government? Being thankful for what peace they may have is not wrong.

This world is not paradise. We may have to live in imperfect or even perfectly horrible places. That is part of taking the Gospel into all the world, not just to places we like, but even to places we don't or wish were totally different. If American Christians imagine they can't live in a country unless it conforms to their ideas of Christianity, then they are not willing to be salt and light.

Fr. Ted Bobosh


Making things worse:

I worry a good deal about the Christians of the Mideast. However, I think any intervention by the West is likely to make their status worse rather than better. We should not hope for a rapid change to democracy – which will most likely lead to a radical marginalization of the Christians of the Mideast. Nor should we prop up rotten regimes. We ought to allow the societies to make their own (often bad) choices. Intervening is likely to worsen the situation of Christians, however the end game plays out.

Daniel Lieuwen

Death penalty:

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released a study identifying which states are the most peaceful and which are the least. Their standard is the frequency of violent crimes.

It turns out the most peaceful states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Iowa and Washington.

The least peaceful are Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Maryland.

All but three of the most peaceful states have abolished the death penalty. The exceptions are Washington, Utah and New Hampshire, but New Hampshire could be called a de facto abolitionist state given that not one person has been executed there since 1977. Washington and Utah have executed a combined 12 individuals since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977.

Of the least peaceful states, 713 people have been executed.

This is stuff you can't make up.

While I don't think deterrence should matter to Orthodox Christians because the death penalty is just plain wrong, deterrence is the reason that people most often support it. But not many people seem deterred.

Danny Abbott

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60