Posted by: markbasil | August 31, 2016

Becoming Human: Nonviolence in context

 Fr John Behr’s “Becoming Human” lecture; YouTube video.
(Audio only, here)
 Below is my reflection on the insights of Fr John Behr, in the above linked lecture.

 

Introduction

I listened to a most wonderful lecture by Fr John Behr essentially on Christian anthropology.  Drawing on right understanding of the biblical tradition and the consciousness of early Christians, especially the martyrs, Fr John concludes essentially that we- you and I- are not human persons.  Not yet anyway.  We are at best Human animals endowed with the potential to become persons, to the measure that we unite ourselves to the only Human Person Jesus Christ in his voluntary self-emptying love of neighbour.

I am writing first to endorse Fr John’s excellent lecture and recommend it to you wholeheartedly.  Secondly I would like to draw out from it some conclusions and insights into the question of violence.  I have always been very concerned with the question of violence and fidelity to Christ.  I am committed to nonviolence for a whole host of reasons.  What Fr John’s lecture has done for me is to place Christian nonviolence in context; his insight has shown to me how nonviolence fits naturally within the broader reality of a struggling spiritual life, an effort at being saved by Jesus Christ.

Simply put, if our purpose for existing is to become Human Persons and we do this only by uniting ourselves to Christ’s voluntary death out of love for our neighbour, then nonviolence falls into place as a “spiritual exercise” toward the goal of salvation.  Of being united to God, of becoming what we are: made in the image and according to the likeness of God Himself.

This is the axiomatic framework for salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy:  God became human so that we humans may become god (see Jn. 10:34; 2Pet. 1:4; 1Jn 3:9).  We do not become ‘individual gods’ but unite ourselves to the only True God and through the grace of the Holy Spirit we become perfect, complete, beautiful.  We become by Grace what Jesus is by Nature:  God and Man in perfect harmony within one human being.  We come to say with the Apostle Paul, “I live now, not I, but Christ in me.”

For me, to live is Christ and death is gain.  (Phil. 1:21)

 

Part 1:  Becoming Human

“Christ shows us what it is to be God by the way He dies as a human being.”
-Fr. John Behr

Fr John Behr’s lecture is excellent and I cannot do it justice in summary.  However to whet your appetite I will sketch the arc of his argument here in Part 1, and I will bring in a few threads that I think further support Fr John’s insights.  (You may wish to pass over this section and simply look at the implications for nonviolence in greater Christian context if you have heard the lecture.)  In particular I will pause a moment on our greatest example in Christ, the first disciple chosen to bear the Lord within herself and the icon of God’s bride, Mary, Jesus’s mother according to the flesh and his follower according to her freely chosen path.
Parts two and three below presuppose the reader has already listened to the lecture or at least read part one.

What is salvation?
       In the theological gospel of John, when Christ comes to the moment of his death on the cross He says, “It is finished.”  What is He referring to?  His ministry; his earthly sufferings; his very life are all in a sense finished.  But to rightly understand this statement we must read it in light of the start of John’s gospel where this illumined gospel begins with the words “In the beginning…”

St. John intends to jog our Christian minds and recall that other “In the beginning,” the first chapter of Genesis, the Creation Narrative.  There we see God calling all of creation into being with a Word:  “Let there be… and there was.”  This is depicted as an instantaneous creation at the spoken Word of God.  But when we come to the creation of the human being something different occurs.  The Holy Trinity says something different:  “Let us make ADAM in our image after our likeness,” we read.  Here we do not have “Let there be…” and there is, instantaneously.  God takes counsel within Himself and a different verb, to make, is used for the human being.  Here God is announcing His project.  He does not speak the human being into existence and say “it is done”.  He only begins to make the human person with the creation of the first ADAM.

As we all know Adam and Eve turn away from the voice of God, grasping after a god-like existence apart from the only True God, and the long work of God to redeem His people makes up the spiritual inheritance we Christians call the Old Testament.

The Second Eve as First Disciple
    But in the fullness of time and at the appointed hour God does something new:  A virgin conceives.  Often throughout the Old Testament God works the miracle of a barren woman becoming impregnated, usually in old age.  In contrast, with Mary we have a young women who has not known a man, who is invited by God to give flesh to the Word.

God is a “perfect gentleman” and never coerces with his love; his offer to Mary is certainly not a shoe-in.  God knew she had a spiritual depth that enabled her to freely understand the cost of this invitation, and to make her choice.  Furthermore her “yes” had to be repeated again and again throughout her motherhood or she would fail to truly fulfill the deep challenge of raising a perfect child without causing Him the sort of distorting trauma that broken parenthood ordinarily entails, leading to generational sin.

With Mary’s “Yes” we return to God’s unique project, the creation of the human being, that God at last intends to complete only in the second Adam.  It is not completed in the virginal conception mind you, for we read of the child Jesus that he “grew in stature and in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).  Furthermore death is the only universal experience shared by every single person from the beginning of time.  How could God really become Man if He did not die as a man?  The incarnation itself is not made complete until the adult man Jesus undergoes his passion and dies in the very manner he does so, hanging as a curse on the Cross.  What are Pilate’s words when he brings the blameless Lamb before the crowd who will crucify Him?  “Behold the Man!” (Jn. 19:5)

The making of the human being that began with the first Adam fashioned from dust is made complete, brought to a finish at last in the second Adam just as He voluntarily returns to His dust.  There could be no true incarnation without Jesus’s death on the Cross.  It is noteworthy that St. Athanasius’s famous work, while titled “On the Incarnation,” is dominantly concerned not with the birth of our Lord but with his death and resurrection.  It is this atoning work on the cross inseparable from all of Christ’s life and ministry that truly defines his incarnation.

Why is this so?

Because the work God began with the first ADAM was impossible to fulfill without His creature growing and maturing into the fullness of the stature of the person Jesus Christ.

Perfection and Imperfection in Adam and Eve
      When a newborn child comes into the world and we see that she is perfectly formed, we do not mean she is yet ready to stand up and walk about freely.  In her infancy, her legs though they are perfect in suitability for her age, are yet unable to bear her weight or coordinated to take her where she would willingly go.

So it was with Adam and Eve.  Yes they were created in a sort of perfection but this was a perfection fitting to their infancy.  The inspired theologian St Ireneus taught that Adam and Eve were spiritual infants.  This was his orthodox understanding as a 3nd century  Christian bishop.  The infancy of ADAM is why they could be deceived.  In fact they were necessarily infants; God simply could not have created them as fully mature Human Persons.

God’s Self-limitation in our creation: the image and likeness of His Love
This is so because the human being- male and female- was created in the image of God and intended to bear the very likeness of the Holy Community of the One God in three Persons.  And this community is one of voluntary self-emptying love (God is Love, not just loving.  The three Persons of the Trinity are One through their perichoresis: a constant movement of self-emptying, one into the other.  No one Person can be known apart from the Other).  This is the key:  the very likeness of God is perfect love freely given.  If this self-emptying love is freely given then in a sense God began a project with ADAM that He was utterly powerless to complete:  He undertook to make a creature who would voluntarily give the whole of his life up for the love of the other.  It was not until the patient work of God with his chosen people had finally matured in the young virgin Mary’s voluntary, humble “yes” to the mystical Sword that would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35), that the final stages of the creation of the human being might at last take place in the Incarnation.  The whole history of the Old Testament, of God with his people, was in a sense all to bring about the spiritual and moral conditions for a teenage girl to freely say “Yes” to birthing the Son of God.

The Martydom of Motherhood
Too often we do not feel the dramatic weight of this young woman’s “yes” to God.  To perceive the hand of God we must think like poets about what God is doing with Mary and return to the first created woman, Eve.  In the Genesis story we see how a young girl’s “No” to God had the cosmic effect of crashing all of creation into decay and death, the wages of sin that all of human history has known since.  Why would God permit such chaos and tragedy in the first place simply at the free rejection of his juvenile creature’s “No”?  He allowed it because in a certain sense God was powerless to stop ADAM from his apostasy.  Since God said “let us make ADAM in our image and according to our likeness,” He cannot coerce Eve into not heeding the serpent’s voice.  He has made her to freely love Him and thus is powerless when she freely rejects His way.  (Let’s not make too much of this freedom, that is not the point in the story.  Eve was an infant and was deceived: she wanted something good- the fruit was beautiful, and becoming like a god is her destiny.  Like a child she did not know when or how these good things must be received as gift not taken through force of self-will.  Her freedom here is more an insight into God’s own humble non-interference in her chosen dialogue with the serpent.)

Reversing the Ancient Curse: Mary’s death
      As poets we can discern that the young Hebrew woman Mary is a ‘second Eve’.  Look at what hangs in the balance:  All of the curse that came with the first Eve’s apostasy can at last be undone and turned around toward salvation, but only if this time she will say “Yes” instead of “No.”  And so we are back in the garden again.  God is there with his creature but the serpent is too.  The serpent is all of human history whispering in Mary’s ear to “take and eat”- a good life, a life of your own making, a life free of the shame of a child born out of wedlock.  Just grasp after it, close your fist around your desire, choose your own will and it is yours.  God is powerless to stop you.  God never coerces.

So there is Mary, highly favoured by the Lord, the very one God has been waiting for and patiently working with his Hebrew people to bring into the world: a woman fitting to bear, to nurture, and to raise to manhood the saviour of the world who must remain without any blemish or stain of sin.  And here is Eve all grown up through the history of Israel and his God:  She is faced again with a “No” that is grasping a life of her own independence of God. Or with a humble “Yes,” submitting herself in trust to the word of God, though it will be a death to Mary’s own life.  “A sword will pierce your soul too,” the prophet tells her (Luke 2:35).

Her “Yes” is the gift of her own flesh to the Word of God.  God clothes Himself in the womb of the virgin; bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh He becomes Man.  In modern terms we might say that Jesus is genetically identical to Mary having received all of His humanity from her (save the theological mystery of His chosen gender).  In a very real sense it is Mary’s blood that Jesus will shed from the cross to redeem all of humanity and overcome the ancient curse of death.  The new Adam does not act independent from the new Eve; the new Eve’s “Yes” to God is essential to the life, growth and development of the new Adam.  Just as the first Eve’s influence on the first Adam thrust the world into tragedy, now the second Eve’s willing motherhood will begin to undo the ancient curse.  What God has joined together in holy mystery is truly one flesh in the synergy between Mary and Jesus.  His fate is hers; there is no “Yes” to Christ apart from the way of the Cross.

How we die is the issue
      To sum up, it is the very manner of Jesus’s death (in freedom, sacrifice, and love) that completes God’s saving work, which is identical to the completion at last of His greatest creation: the Human Person.  And we have in Mary’s own “Yes” to God the archetypal example of our necessary participation in this very same death with Christ.  How else could God effectively save us through His voluntary death in a meaningful way if we do not participate in what He has accomplished for us?  It is to the measure that we freely take up our own cross, losing our life for Christ’s sake (whom we find in the face of our neighbour even when he is enemy), that we too become Human persons, united to God.

The Lord announces his Ministry with these words:  Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!  Our present life is given to us for repentance: the voluntary motion of turning toward God and becoming dead to this world is the process of becoming truly human.  God cannot finish creating us without our willing participation; this is our salvation.

 

“Truly truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone.  But if it dies it bears much fruit.” (Jn. 12:24)

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:3-4)

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (1Jn. 3:2)

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” (St Irenaeus 130-202 AD)

 

Part 2: Nonviolence in context

“We move from Adam to Christ by voluntarily using our death.”
– Fr. John Behr

Why nonviolence?
      I was raised in a nonviolent understanding of the gospel.  I have always understood that obedience to Christ includes nonviolent love of enemies.  The gift I have received in Fr John’s lecture on Becoming Human is positioning this nonviolent enemy-love within the wider context of Christian life and spirituality.  I now have a much deeper understanding why Christ commands us to love our enemies.  Yes it is in imitation of the Father’s perfect love.  But there is so much more to our salvation than simplistic obedience or mere external imitation.  God does not desire us to be servants but sons and daughters.  God is wanting to create genuine god-like persons, in His own image.  Deep obedience fitting to our sonship is voluntary death to self for love of God and neighbour.  This is the obedience we see in Jesus, who can do nothing apart from the will of the Father yet He is wholly and truly a free man.

Obedience as death to self and new mode of life from within
      This image of loving obedience is the inversion of all the world knows:  power in weakness, rejoicing in suffering, life in death.  The perfect Human image of God is Jesus Christ and we know nothing of His humanity apart from His sufferings and crucifixion.  We must be transformed from within; this total change of our being into a new creation is salvation.  We come to nonviolent love of enemies not simply in obedience to the rules (outward imitation of Jesus (WWJD?); reading the gospels and actually expecting we can do what Christ commands by mere exertion of our will; etc.).  The sort of obedience God requires of us is in fact impossible without inner work- a synergy of God’s energy and our willingness- the transfiguration of the heart.  It is from the abundance of the heart (the centre of the human person; the inner temple where God dwells) that good works arise (Lk 6:45).  Our nonviolent labour then is an inner spiritual training, an effort to live into the reality of our baptism into Christ from the innermost depths of our being.  Christian nonviolence is a voluntary participation in becoming Human Persons.  In imitation of Mary we say “Yes” to our own death wound, for we know that this is the necessary passage to true life.

Participation in Christ’s death
Jesus is the “first born from the dead.”  He has demonstrated in his voluntary passion that self-giving love is the mark of completion, maturity, and perfection.  Such sacrificial love freely shown to our enemies is only possible through union with God the Father.  Thus the curse of separation from God is healed in Christ’s voluntary death, and God at last completes his masterpiece:  A Human Person according to the exact image of the Father.  “Behold, the Man!”  As with Jesus of Nazareth, so too with us.

Nonviolence begins with God’s action
      It is this understanding of the end goal, the telos of humanity that is seen in the only Human Person Jesus Christ, that must illumine everything we do in this life.  Christian vision begins at the end; we look at everything through the lens of deified humanity, the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ who in the age to come will replace the sun as the light that illumines all created things.  We the elect, chosen by God Christians, are given this illumined vision even now, even here in this corruptible life and broken world.  This eschatological vision is the key to Christ’s absurd and foolish teachings.

Do not even resist an evildoer the Lord said.  And why?  Because to do so is to faithlessly turn away from a chance at becoming human.  What is counter-intuitive to those who wish to save their earthly lives can become completely intuitive when lit up by the Resurrected Christ.  It is to realize that to lose our life freely out of selfless love is to finally become alive indeed.
Nonviolence then is a choice to be unimpeded from becoming truly alive.

 

Grace comes first
      Yet even before trying to apply Christ’s remarkable teachings we must look at the very means of initiation into the Mystery of the Christian Life:  Baptism and Chrismation are exactly about a life-giving death.  There is no independence from Christ in this; we must die with Him in our baptism and live the remainder of this life as ‘resident aliens’ in the apostate world.  Through baptism we are members of an illumined society, the very Kingdom of Love.  Baptism is much more than ritualistic dunking in water and public commitment to Jesus as Lord.  In the words of St Paul, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (Rom. 6:4).  In baptism we really die with Christ and are united to His resurrected life.  In baptism something really happens, and it is the Grace of God who first acts.  We are “born again” into a life of cooperation with the Holy Spirit given to us in Chrismation, enabling us to do what we could never do apart from grace: to become saved; become perfect, complete, whole human persons in likeness to our Father who is perfect.  Nonviolent love of enemies is impossible for human animals, but what is impossible for us on our own is possible for the Holy Spirit working in us.

As Christians then we must live our lives as if we were dead to the world.  This is no easy task!  It is in fact an eschatological reality; we engage in the spiritual struggle to live according to ultimate, end-of-things reality (I am already dead; my life is hid with Christ), even while we are continuing our sojourn in this broken world of corruption and suffering.

What must we do to be saved?
      Our cooperation with God begins (again and again) with the gift of grace.  Our ‘work’ is to continually receive this grace and be renewed by it.  This is not an abstract or mental process.  Just as baptism is a real death with Christ (God does something in our baptism), so too we are truly united to His death and resurrection when we receive His Body broken and Blood shed.  Our baptism is renewed through confession and communion.  And our communion with God begins with Him first offering His life to us.  We willingly receive His life which is ingested into our very body and blood and enables us to do what we cannot do apart from grace: to unite ourselves to Perfect Humanity himself.

Communion rests upon Christ’s nonviolent love of enemies
      We must never separate Communion from the Cross.  Here is where nonviolence comes vividly to the forefront of our salvation:
There would be no Holy Eucharist at all, no communion with Life, no salvation, if not for Christ’s own nonviolence.
In the Sermon on the mount we find the distilled essence of Christ’s radical gospel: The Kingdom belongs to the poor; the meek will posses the earth; persecution is a blessing.  This is the world turned upside down.  It is as if life is death and death is life.  And it might also be seen as a description of Jesus Christ Himself.  He was poor, meek, and persecuted for our sake.  In Him we find our riches, inheritance, and rejoicing.  Peacemaking as the mark of sonship (Mt. 6:9), and love of enemies to become perfect like our Father (Mt. 5:48), are part of this absurd mountaintop sermon.  Peacemaking and love of enemies are united in theosis: only the perfect Son of God possesses these qualities naturally.  Only as we unite ourselves to Christ may we become perfected sons and daughters of God.

Think of the Lord’s baffling teaching to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” when we are insulted, persecuted, defamed and lied about.  We are not just to bear this abuse but celebrate and give thanks to God for it.  This only makes sense if God has providentially allowed these things to befall us, and is offering us an opportunity to do what we should long for:  to become born as real human beings by uniting ourselves to the very same cross ascended by the Son of God unto eternal Life.

Ontological change
      But how can we do this?  We cannot force ourselves to rejoice; it is an organic emotional and cognitive experience that arises in us.  I may endure persecutions by an act of will but to rejoice would require that I become a different sort of creature than I am now.  It would require death to myself and totally new life in another mode of being.  This is only possible by the free gift of God’s grace at work in me.  All I can offer is my willingness and my cooperation as this grace comes to me.  This is why the Lord gives us himself in the Eucharist: to truly eat the body and drink the blood of Christ is to say “yes” with Mary and all the prophets and saints throughout history to my own death in the hopes of a totally new mode of life, born of the Spirit.

To say “yes” to Jesus and become a disciple of The Way is to say yes to our own cross, our own martyrdom.  Christian nonviolence is a natural and organic part of this Way, for we have already died in baptism and know that our only passage into new life is through voluntary death for the love of our enemies.  This is how God creates human persons, and He cannot do it without our voluntary participation.  To rejoice over this- over mistreatment, suffering and even the threat of death- will require that we have already become saints.  Nonviolence is the mature fruit of a life totally illumined by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  When I know that “for me to live is Christ and death is gain” (Phil. 1:21), then becoming a Human Person (weakness, poverty, persecutions, suffering, and death) has become a thing I may naturally rejoice in, and nonviolence is for me a spiritual exercise toward my union with the only Human Person.

It’s not about morality
      The Christian life is not principally about morality because our problem is not bad behaviour but falling away from the Source of existence as human beings, God Himself.  Since God cannot complete his work in us without our voluntary participation, we are not compelled to be nonviolent.  This is very hard for us to grasp in our legalistic, moralistic Modern society.  The Christian life has been erroneously framed in moralistic, legal terms for so long that it is hard to understand nonviolence as anything other than an unrealistic demand.  Christian brethren who ask, “am I not allowed to defend myself then?” are coming at the matter in the wrong way.  We must not think in terms of rules and permission but of love and freedom: we all must die, but in the Mystery of the Cross we may choose to make death profitable.  “Everything is permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial” 1Cor. 6:12.  The only nonviolence that is beneficial to us is that freely chosen after the fashion of our Master.  Not to resist an evil doer out of love for him even while he would attack us, must flow freely from a heart already transfigured into the likeness of the Prince of Peace.  It is unnatural in inappropriate to expect the perfection of nonviolence from spiritually weak such as myself.  Only when I freely choose to take up the cross before me do I participate in the Messiah’s salvation.  Doubtless there is grace enough for any cross no matter how difficult.  But in my fears and grasping desires for earthly things I may not be able to receive the grace of nonviolent love for my enemies.  And the circumstances of one’s life may make nonviolence virtually impossible.  Not all societies freely allow soldiers to conscientiously object.

This is why the Lord can praise the faith of the God-fearing centurion without any need to instruct him in leaving the Roman army (Mt. 8:5-13).  The Lord is not looking for “outward nonviolence” that might come from rule keeping, but a natural nonviolence that will bud forth from inner transformation.  The Lord never sees our outward trappings- status, occupation, persona, etc. are mere masks- but always sees and addresses the heart.

True nonviolence
      The 19th century Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov was cutting wood one day in the forest when he was approached by a band of thieves.  The thought of using his axe in defense crossed his mind but then he immediately remembered the Lord’s words, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”  The humble monk lay down his axe, and the thieves used it to beat him within an inch of his life, leaving him physically disabled thereafter.  Here is the true wellspring of Christian nonviolence:  Seraphim acted naturally according to Lord’s commandment because this was the very content of his everyday life.  After recovering from the attack he attended his enemies’ trial, forgave them, and pleaded to the judge to have mercy on them.

Nonviolent love for enemies of the sort Christ reveals in Seraphim is not possible except that it arise naturally from one who knows himself already to have died with Christ.  For Seraphim, being united to the only Human Person by cooperation with the Holy Spirit was the practice of his whole life.  It is this mind that we must struggle to acquire for ourselves if nonviolence is to become profitable in our own path toward fully human personhood.

Being known by God
      In the classical Christian tradition all that is created by God is good.  Sin then is not a thing in itself, it is only a distortion of something real.  Just as darkness is the absence of light so sin is the absence of  good, that which truly exists as created by God.  For St Athanasius, 4th century author of “On the incarnation,” the problem for us is not cast in moral terms.  We do not need salvation because we are bad and must learn to become good, rather we who were created to exist in communion with God are falling away into nonexistence.  The wages of sin are in a very real sense, death.  Christ came to save us from nonexistence.

Salvation is a process of becoming Human Persons, and there really is no alternative.  Communion with God who is the source of all Life is our only hope if we wish to be anything at all in the end.  There can be no human existence apart from the second Adam.  To the measure that we refuse our cross- which we may freely do- we refuse our own existence.  God knows that which truly exists, but cannot recognize us if we fall into nonexistence through unrepentant sin.  The Lord ends His sermon on the mount by driving home this very point.  We may do all sorts of good in this life and accomplish many things even in Christ’s name, but if we do not do the inner work of the heart, hidden from others’ view, and freely love our neighbour more than our own life, then we will ultimately fail to be born into true life.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matt. 7: 21-23

 

 “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
-St Seraphim of Sarov 

“He who will not love his enemies cannot come to know the Lord and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love our enemies, so that the soul pities them as if they were her own children.”
– St. Silouan the Athonite 

“When we read the Gospel, the reactions of Christ to what is taking place around Him astonish us. When Judas is going out to betray Him, He says, ‘Today the Son of Man is glorified’. At every Liturgy we commemorate this moment, we repeat it in our consciousness.  If a hostile enemy military force takes us to kill us, will we be capable of saying: ‘It is today that I am glorified and that God is glorified in me’?  You all know this account in the Gospel; it is the very content of our everyday life.”
-Bl. Sophrony Sakharov (Silouan’s disciple)

“Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.
Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than one unhunted, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They rather than I have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me whenever I have flattered myself They have spat upon me whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty they have mocked me as though I were a child.
Whenever I have wanted to lead people they have shoved me into the background.
Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.”
– St Nikolai of Ochrid, Prayers by the Lake

 

Part 3: So what then should we do?

 ” In a sense, we live today as hedonists and die as Platonists: When we live it’s all about the body… when we die we dont even bother with the body we just come together without the person being there and ‘celebrate their life’… The primary thing we have to do today is take back death…  the desacrilization of the ends of life leads to the hedonisation of life.”
-Fr. John Behr

No internal change of heart without external fruit
      After a deep theological reflection many of us rightly ask, “so what does this mean practically for my life?”  This is an essential question.  Theology that does not inform the living of our day-to-day lives is like a bird with only one wing who peers into the heavens while spinning in circles on the ground.  I must confess at this point that I am really something of a spiritual failure.  I have some ‘head knowledge’ but put very little into practice.  This is a very dangerous state and I worry about myself.  I am the one-winged bird; I am very immature and just beginning to take steps toward lifting my own cross in life.  So I haven’t a lot to offer but I’ll make an effort as a younger brother and in friendship.  Anything that does not sit right should be dismissed as misguided, due to the limits and inexperience of the author.  My one advantage is that I have had some very good teachers in nonviolence and the spiritual life; I can try to share what they have given to me.  This section especially might be treated as me “thinking out loud;” speculation that might have some benefit but will certainly be tainted by my own brokenness.  Take what is useful and leave the rest without a thought.

Begin with attention to my own motives
Perhaps I will start with this question, “but what do we do?,” itself.  It is essential to ask and also somewhat overwhelming.  Yet I also see in this question, or in myself when I ask this question, a kind of impatience that is rooted in a lack of faith.  It is like eating a wonderful three course meal and immediately complaining that instead of feeling energized by the nutrients we feel weighed down and need a nap!

Knowledge as prayer not as thought
      We must allow time for our heart to digest the truth.  Recall how often Jesus called His own disciples hard-hearted and misunderstanding.  Recall that it is only in our humble reception of the Grace of the Spirit that we might begin to understand in a dynamic and creative way; there is a heart-knowledge deeper than reason.  A saving knowledge that surpasses intellectual understanding (here the Road to Emmaus encounter holds some key epistemological insights, rooted in the passion and resurrection of Christ: Luke 24: 13-35).  We should not be surprised that, beginners and fools as we are, we do not immediately know how to translate deep theology into daily living.  Instead like the Mother of God we must “hold these things in our heart” as gospel seeds (Lk 2:19), meditating on them prayerfully and thus allowing the Lord to bud forth living fruit when the time is ripe.

Genuine, saving faith is not willfully believing propositions about Jesus.  Rather it is like a perceptive organ, one that has become atrophied; faith is like the eyes of the heart disabled by their own misuse.  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see” (Mt. 5:8).  We must strengthen this organ of faith gently, slowly, building our faith up over time.  A humble look at ourselves will produce very simplified expectations for our ability to understand, deliberate, and act.  The Truth may heal and strengthen our perceptions but healing takes time.  We should make a beginning in very small things; spiritual exercises like reading appointed psalms daily or fasting from a meal once a week and intentionally giving the saved money to the poor might be a start.

Perhaps the patience required to humbly walk with the Truth we have been given is itself the salvation God wishes for us.  Like the paralytic we must take up our palate (=cross) and begin to walk.  How can I give to another that which I have not attained myself?

Patience born of humility and repentance is our first death
      Patience, then, is perhaps our beginning in nonviolent action.  We must recall it is a spiritual transformation of the heart that constitutes our “New Birth”.  Thus understood, death becomes far more available to us.  Death is a much broader category than literal bloodshed.  Patience itself is a sort of death; a death to my powers, my importance, my own will.  As we humble ourselves and repent, we will see it is absolutely essential that we are patient- first of all with ourselves!  The journey is a long one and I for one am just beginning.  Patience is a virtue, and an effort to acquire all the virtues amounts to my own death, as I currently live without much virtue at all.  In fact virtues might be seen as a kind of eternal treasure that we can purchase during this life in exchange for our earthly treasure.  Voluntary poverty (giving all but our needs to the poor), gentleness, compassion, kindness, self-control; all of these are eternal for they belong to the likeness of God, Christ who is our only true identity.

To purchase this eternal treasure we not only give away our earthly possessions but must learn to give away our very lives.  In modern terms this might look like willingly surrendering our rights out of love; refusing to criticize our employer in the staff room; assuming that in every conflict I am the problem not the other party (for I can only change myself and death is the goal; God will manage the other’s faults).

This might also look like enduring criticism and even personal slander and injustice, not concerning ourselves with our reputation but accepting weakness and disrepute as a gift, putting our trust in God who will judge.  It might also look like holding very little or no financial savings at all due to constant generousity; a sort of financial foolishness that truly tests our faith by fire, in the God who provides.  Sometimes we do well to take the Lord’s baffling teachings at face value, especially if we are desirous of the death that makes us human:

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…
Consider the lilies of the field… Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt. 6:25-34)

If this is starting to sound a bit radical or even ridiculous, that is a good thing I think.  Because the most radical thing we must all face is our own death.  There is no escaping death; it will come to us.  What Christ has revealed is that we may become truly human by the manner of death we willingly choose.  We must recover the deep freshness and freedom of a life lived by faith, by taking some faltering foolish steps contrary to good sense informed only by Gentile-mindedness.

Humility as attention to my present circumstance
      Yet still it is safest to begin with small steps and not leap beyond our own little measure of faith.  (Physiotherapists do not recommend marathons at the beginning of recovery!)  I suffer from idealism (read: full of pride and presumption).  I have learned this the hard way; crashing and burning out is not the best approach to discipleship.  Rather than aiming for the greatness of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. I am learning to ask, “What is immediate to me?”
God desires my salvation; He wants to finish His work in me.  Our becoming human is not hiding in some great nonviolent action that is beyond my reach.  My spouse, children, extended family, churchmates, friends, coworkers- these are all available to love so much better than I do so now.  We would do well to begin in these common relationships ordained by God for our training in love, trying to offer a little more of ourselves (sacrificially, giving time and energy) and being willing to endure a bit more offense, unfair judgement, less respect than we feel we deserve, etc.  All of this, if done freely out of love for Christ and desire to unite ourselves to His own cursed and humiliating sufferings and death, might become something we can gladly undertake knowing it is a gift from God to shape us into ourselves.  We should not wait for “loving feelings” to motivate our actions.  It is the actions of faith that must come first (actually giving our money away, etc.); faith will grow from this as we are changed by grace from the heart.  The prodigal son began to repent simply to get out of the pig pen!

Dont go there, stay right here
      I will end by suggesting a few possible false starts.  Some things I’ve learned to be wary of personally as one concerned with social justice issues.  We who are appalled by the world’s violence are prone to becoming swept into the noise of contemporary solutions to these problems.  It is a Modern temptation to think that we can change the world and make it a better place.  How often do we hear, “you can make a difference,” or “together we can make a better world.”  This pervasive Modernist sloganeering is deeply counter to classical Christian understandings of the world and our place in it.  Instead of assuming I have the answers and can help- always casting my attention outward on the world’s tragedies and violence (someone else’s sin)- we do better to focus on our own little lives, even more precisely on our own inner life hidden from all view.  This is by no means to discourage activism or the need for structural change, but it is to relocate the problem: it is not “out there” but in my own heart, for I am not yet perfect.  And to relocate the solution: my own heart again, for the only true agent of change is God Himself and I must cooperate with God’s grace to have meaningful impact on the world.  We must shift emphasis away from outward actions (for me this is often rooted in a form of judgmentalism, self-presumption, and avoidance of more immediate responsibilities), toward the slow work of inner change.  The popular slogan attributed to Gandhi better catches the Christian mind:  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

He could make the very stones cry out
Let us not forget that we worship an Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth.  God can and will bring all violence to an end.  There is nothing at all that occurs in the world outside of His providential will.  In fact Jesus Christ has overcome the sum total of wicked violence already!  Faith in God’s providence is essential to Christian hope; to a posture of thanksgiving; and to nonviolent love of our enemies in the face of threat.  Jesus taught us to each individually repent for the Kingdom is at hand.  What I do in my own heart certainly does have ramifications for the wars and killings the world over.  The new order is already here; God has already overcome His enemies and changed the world for the better!   Everything that must be done to end violence has been accomplished by God on the Cross.

There is a paradox here.  In a sense we Christians are the hands of Christ in the world today.  Yet I also must regard myself not as part of the solution but still much more part of the problem:  “I am first among sinners” the Apostle says (1Tim. 1:15).  While I should be God’s hands in the world, I am not yet really much formed in his likeness.  It is just delusion to think that my “getting involved” will be more helpful than harmful.  Christ has called me so that I might be saved, not so that I should think I am immediately in a position to save others.  The good works prepared as a way of life for the elect are for our own salvation, not because we baptized have already arrived and know the solution to the world’s problems.  We are Christians because we freely admit that we are the spiritually and morally sick ones.  We concern ourselves with our own salvation precisely because to be ‘unsaved’ (still incomplete) is to fail to truly love my neighbour as I should.  I cannot really know how to love without continually working out my own salvation.  The whole world is not my concern; it is far too great a care for the likes of a blind fool like me.  We must leave room for God to act.

The one who needs help is me
Salvation is actually uniting to Christ so deeply that my human life begins to reflect the perfection of Jesus.  I must attend to my own salvation precisely out of love for my neighbour so that my unrepentant no longer harms the world.  I am the paralytic, the blind man, the Pharisee, the tax collector, the prostitute, the wounded beggar lying on the roadside.  Jesus is the Good Samaritan.

I think if this is my emphasis, God will be able to make better use of my actions than if I presume I’m already able to help others in tangled conflicts and matters requiring great wisdom.  If God truly needs me to confront today’s wicked princes He is capable of speaking from a burning bush to make His intentions known.

I am the raging war
Everything must be seen through the light of the Resurrection.  All that remains for God’s will to occur on earth as in heaven is for me to voluntarily submit the earth of my own heart to the transfiguring grace of God in my own life.  I cannot concern myself with my neighbour’s sins;  men of violence cannot be forced to stop.  Coercion is not Christ’s way, and God knows what He is doing with my violent neighbour.  I can however make angels rejoice (Lk. 15:7) and transform the entire world with my own repentance (Rom. 5:18-19)- just as one man’s sin brought the world crashing into bondage, so my own repentance can bring light and healing to the most distant violent conflict.  Just as the hand of God works secretly for good everywhere so too my own prayerful repentance is a power-from-weakness that soothes an angry world and brings peace wherever I might cooperate with the Spirit of Peace.  “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jms. 5:16). There is a war inside all of us and if we devote ourselves to this battle we may impact the whole order of creation.  “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12)

All is one
      All of humanity is one ADAM; we are not distinct individuals.  Recall the interconnection of Jesus and His mother Mary.  My neighbour truly is my life; we have no private individual existence independent of the rest of the world.  What you do in the privacy of your own heart affects the whole of the human race.  How else could the death of just one man, the second Adam (a failed Jewish rabbi from nowhere who was executed outside the city gates 2000 years ago), be the cause of salvation for all of humanity?  His is the same humanity we all share, and we may all participate in the same passion to the measure we take up our cross as disciples and become Human ourselves.  This all begins with recognizing I cannot fix anything “out there” without first submitting myself to the long work of inner healing and repentance.  “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your own members?” (James 4:1)

When Time Magazine asked what was wrong with the world GK Chesterton answered completely within the classical Christian mind when he replied:  “I am.”

Nonviolence and martyrdom are right here and now
      If we begin with a humble estimation of ourselves, repenting (the action of repeatedly turning toward God), we will see no lack of opportunity to act more nonviolently within the immediate circumstances of our lives.  There are so many constraints, frustrations, and limitations that surround us and rise up from our own brokenness.  All of these can be re-envisioned with eyes of faith.  Rather than impediments to the change we wish to see in the world these problems and limitations are in fact the very agents of death to self that God is providing us at every turn for our benefit.  “Today is the day of salvation” the Apostle says (2 Cor. 6:2).  Rather than justifying our thoughts and behaviours we should learn to admit our sins, come to expect our sins, even learn to befriend our sinfulness- in the sense that we must glory in our weakness and admit to our desperate need for grace if we hope to become truly Human.  We should certainly not think of ourselves as nonviolent, yet.  We are incapable of rejoicing in persecution, turning the other cheek, and really loving our enemies the way God does.  Admitting our spiritual poverty we might take the first step into the Kingdom, for blessed are the poor in spirit.

For the more courageous soul, acquiring inner virtues by practicing their concrete material analogue is a powerful action in death to self.  Thus for the rich man, who genuinely desired perfection, Christ gave him his death sentence in concrete terms:  sell all that you have and come follow (i.e. become Human with) Me.  Remembering that our actions must be free and from a place of love we cannot reduce their profit to outward effects (even if I give my body to be burned it may profit me nothing).  We may in fact turn almost any outward circumstance into eternal profit by taking action specifically for Christ’s sake.  Humbly choosing menial tasks (e.g. cleaning the church toilets, or doing the dishes in the staffroom) can become prayer if freely chosen as death to self (I only exist in love of my neighbour).

Even the disappointments and constraints of our lives which are out of our control can become voluntary deaths if we unite them to Christ’s passion- for He was at once at the mercy of political and religious powers yet the theological gospel reveals that He “did not resist” this but made Himself free in His chosen weakness:  ” “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”  (Jn. 10:17-18).  It is essential that we recall death itself is not our passage into eternal life (think of the tragedy of Judas’s voluntary death).  The Human Person is completed by the manner in which one dies: freely out of sacrificial love for our neighbour (Thus at an earlier point in His ministry Jesus evades His death (Jn. 8:59).  Let this temper any mislead enthusiasm for martyrdom among us.)

What is a Christian death?
      Think of the two criminals co-crucified with Christ:  on the left is one unrepentant who does not wish to die; he would ask the Lord’s intercession only as a display of worldly power for earthly benefit (and how often do our own prayers fail to rise above such idolatry; God help me!)  In profound contrast the thief on the right sees himself as deserving of death and asks for that which is eternal: to be remembered by Christ in His Kingdom.

This is a truly Christian death- the good thief does neither says the sinner’s prayer nor is ritualistically dunked in water, yet truly he is a baptized believer for he makes his own death both confession and baptism.  And the Lord replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23: 39-43).

Or think of the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16: 19-31).  All Lazarus does to enter paradise “the bosom of Abraham” is suffer without complaint all his life long.  There is nothing about his faith, righteousness, or good works that grants him entry into paradise.  All he does is patiently endure the cruel circumstances of his earthly existence and this becomes his entry into Human Personhood.

Let us imitate the good thief and Lazarus:  whatever constraints and cruel circumstances we find ourselves in let us take them willingly as the means God is granting for our necessary death.  Regardless of our own moral failure or even success in Christian deeds (prophecy, healings, worship leading, missions, activism, etc.),  what is absolutely necessary to be born again into eternal life is voluntary death for Christ’s sake.  This must be worked out in the inner life of each person, where she communes with God the Spirit in total privacy, beyond the view of anyone’s gaze save for Christ Himself.

“Therefore judge nothing before the proper time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”  (1Cor. 4:5)

Why we can never judge another
      Understanding this will have profound consequences for our ability to judge others, too:  we never have access to the inner workings of a neighbour’s heart.  Even someone as outwardly powerful and violent as Constantine may have made the best of his circumstances through the hidden efforts of his heart to accept Jesus as the true Son of God rather than himself (as he was regarded in the Roman paganism he repented from).

When to act?
      What then, about action?  Making a real difference in the world that so badly needs relief from violence and suffering?
We will recall that even the Lord Himself was an obscure carpenter for three decades of his formative life.  His own perfect “activism” required patience, humility, maturity before He was ready to act in peace.  We too must constantly work to redirect our gaze inward, seeing the raging war within us that regularly spills over into little hurts we cause others.  What use could we be in great things if we cannot even love our immediate family unselfishly?

Still, action will present itself.  The spiritual life is anything but linear; God will not wait for us to be perfect little christ’s before giving us opportunities to love our neighbour on a greater scale.  Attentiveness to our own inner life is a disposition and an emphasis, not an alternative to action.  While we are attentive, we should certainly take action.  There is simply no genuine inner change that does not organically manifest itself outwardly in actions.  However if we view the inner change as preparing the soil of our hearts so that gospel virtues might be like seeds planted by the Spirit in us, then we have a good time frame in mind.  If we focus on preparing our hearts to receive virtues as seeds of our new life, we might imagine the mature fruit of these little seeds as our nonviolence.  First the seeds must germinate, grow and mature, blossom and finally produce a harvest.  One day we may bear the ripe fruit of a great action for peace in the world.

I die daily
      This is a spiritual heuristic of sorts.  Context is everything; I may tomorrow have my very life threatened in which case the Lord might reveal the completion of His work in my martyrdom, if I die freely out of love rather than killing my enemies.  Again, the spiritual life is not linear.  But usually Christian martyrdom is a far less extraordinary thing.  “I die daily,” the Apostle says (1Cor. 15: 31).  Let us humbly assume that we sinners would muddle up great affairs and thereby shun influence and power in greater peace actions.  If this is our disposition we may please the Lord; as we decrease He may increase and He will not hesitate to bring great actions directly into our path.  God is the only effective power in the world; if He wills that Moses speak to Pharaoh, Moses will speak.  But only after he spent decades in the desert as an obscure shepherd of his father in law’s sheep.

I have spoken about death to self in somewhat radical terms.  Perhaps this is just my own foolish idealism and extremism.  True death to self will be a secret work; each person must take up her burden in the eyes of the Lord alone.  We may even make our sinful habits and moral failures profitable if we learn from them how- to be honest- pathetic and shameful we really are.  The Lord will never shame us or humiliate us, but we may voluntarily look at the reality of our own brokenness and bear the shame of this nakedness honestly before God.  We are dust commanded to become god.  Adam and Eve had no need for clothing themselves; we too may strip ourselves of the masks we wear in the sight of the Lord.  Perhaps the mark of genuine Christian freedom- the death that brings forth life- is joy itself.  To freely endure the shame of my worthlessness is to derobe myself before the Lord and dance in the joyful discovery that God loves me totally naked of any personal merit or accomplishments.

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Mt. 11: 28-30.

That which is not nonviolence
      We should be wary of opinions, which are not the same as action.  For much of my life I had a very narrow view of nonviolence.  I thought it meant holding the opinion that all killing- war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia- is wrong.  But holding such opinions will do nothing to cultivate the inner transformation to actually act in a nonviolent fashion.  A soldier who endures many hardships for love of Christ in his neighbour may be well ahead of the likes of me who will discuss nonviolence very intelligently over fried eggs in the comfort and leisure of my own North American wealth.  Christ cares nothing of my opinions, it is only as I die to myself that true nonviolence will manifest in a life-giving way.  Throughout Christian history there have been many soldiers who tired of bloodshed, retiring to become penitent monks; or who voluntarily died as martyrs or passion-bearers rather than defending themselves violently.  We simply cannot judge according to outward forms.  Neither can we expect perfection from strugglers as broken as ourselves.  Embracing the whole of the Church’s mixed history as our own, not considering ourselves somehow as apart from or above her many spots and blemishes over the centuries (tragic participation in warfare, power, politics, etc.), is most certainly a death I continue to live out in my own personal struggle not to judge my brothers and sisters in other times and circumstances.

Inner peace
      Be careful when reading the news; what does it stir in you?  Does it cultivate peace in your heart?  Instead of voicing your opinions try to rest in silence.  Assume you do not really know or understand matters greater than your immediate relationships.  Even if I must try to understand what is going on in the wider world, I may resist the temptation to think of myself as an authority or expert in my judgement of great matters.  If drawn into argument it is profitable to simply say, “I dont know much about that,” when I encounter disagreement.

I have in fact struggled much with choosing to write this essay for the very reason that I am certainly a fool and scarcely begin to know what I’m talking about.  We who wish to teach or influence others with our writing (for the good of course), should be sobered and even troubled to remember that the only occasion our Lord took to write any of his teachings, it was in the impermanence of dust.  It was the Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious lawyers who wrote texts to preserve truth as they saw it.  The way of nonviolence is at once more fragile and more confidently powerful than this.  The Truth is humble, still and quiet, gentle and totally unforced.  The voice of the Lord came to Elijah in a gentle breeze (1Kg. 19: 12-13).  We must quiet the noise of our thoughts and descend into the sanctuary of a quiet heart if we hope to hear God’s whisper.

So fragile is this whisper and yet Truth in pure simplicity is mighty to transform lives at their core.  Truth does not need our help to get the message out, but desires instead that we take the message deeply in and apply it to our own lives.  Lord have mercy on me in my own abundant verbiage.  The world does not need more cogent articulations of truth but transfigured human lives; saints in our very midst; the tangible witness of heaven in the earth of you and me.  All the more today, as we are drowning in verbal and visual noise.

I cannot judge what I do not really know
      Let us be generous, kind, and gracious toward those who differ from us- not just ostracized Muslims or transgendered persons, but toward right-wing politicians and conservative Reformed preachers too.  All sin is a manifestation of inner pain, even the sins of self-absorbed, ambitious, influential stupid white men.  Salvific death for me is to restrain from judgement.  This requires assuming the best of these enemies out of love for them as icons of Christ, and seeing my own sins as truly greater than theirs.  How this works itself out in tension with the definite need for prophetic voice, acts of civil disobedience, resisting systemic injustice, etc. will perhaps rest in our spiritual struggle to become child-like in spirit (then we may rightly see when the Emperor has no clothes).  John the Baptist, friend of the Bridegroom and voice of Elijah, first kept himself totally away from the distractions of the world, labouring ascetically in the wilderness for decades before he could begin public ministry, speaking prophetically to power (and losing his head for it).

My own opinions are not the same a godly prophesy.  For me, argument is usually a form of violence and unwillingness to die to myself.  Let us try to embrace foolishness and renounce argument for love of our neighbour above our own ideas.

Love under persecution
      Even St. Paul advised that we submit ourselves to unjust political authorities as to those appointed by God to execute justice through lethal force (Rom. 13:1-10).  Far from legitimizing the use of the sword (as today’s Christians anachronistically eisegete this text), Paul is simply stating that force  will be used by those in power and we need neither fear this (for God has providentially permitted their power) nor resist such corrupt authority with our own show of force (worldly princes will cut down such a rebellion with “the sword” they carry not in vain; Christians are not even to resist an evildoer).  We should read this admonition to the Christians in Rome as an exercise in how to love our political enemies (Emperor Nero was no friend to the Christian movement).  To grasp the paradox in Paul’s advice we must recall these very same Roman authorities who do not bear the sword in vain would eventually be used by God’s providence to perfect the apostle Paul in his own martyrdom. We see in this an echo of Pontius Pilate who had no power over Christ except that given by the Father- yet he used this same God-ordained authority to execute the Prince of Peace Himself.

We would do better to read Rom. 13:1-9 through the eyes of politically oppressed Egyptian or Iranian Christians’ today, or the eyes of German Christians when Hitler was voted into power.

Choose the Way of Life
      The Didache, a Christian catechism dating to the first century in oral form, opens with these words:

“There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.”

With the earliest Christians let us joyfully choose the radical Way, the Mystery of Life in death.  We must wrestle within ourselves in the tension and dissonance that will inevitably come as we try to become poor; accept weakness; admit our sins; renounce argument; become foolish; and assume the best of those we most dislike.  Personally I have to attempt all of this lightly, in small steps, with hope and joy.  Or I will be swept away.  Entering through the narrow gate will require attentive vigilance (nepsis), prayerful stillness (hesychasm), humility, patience, and repentance.  It will look like cultivating virtues within the God-ordained limits of our particular lives.  All of this will constitute our death to self and create the inner conditions necessary for genuine Christ-like nonviolence to arise organically from the wellspring of voluntary sacrificial love.  We must begin where Christians have always begun- by receiving the Grace of God to do what we cannot do ourselves.  This means true baptism (death with Christ), chrismation (walking with the Holy Spirit), confession and communion (receiving the medicine of immortality).  In synergistic cooperation with these Holy Mysteries we can sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

 

Conclusion

“Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God.  I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ…  Birth-pangs are upon me. Allow me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. … Allow me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being (anthropos). Allow me to follow the example of the passion of my God. “
Early second century Christian Bishop St Ignatius of Antioch wrote this in a letter to the Roman church, as he was being taken to the Coliseum where he would be martyred.

We all must die.  What Christ has accomplished in his passion and resurrection is the transformation of death into a narrow gate leading to eternal life.  Christ’s victory over death is God’s final beautiful strokes completing his masterpiece: the creation of a Human Person in perfect image and likeness to Divine Love. No longer is death the cursed end of relationships and bondage to Satan.  Death can become our glory if we will take up our cross and follow in voluntary self-sacrificial love of enemies.  We would have no baptism, no gift of the Spirit, and no Eucharist if it were not for Jesus’s own nonviolent love for his enemies.  Likewise for us nonviolence may become a spiritual exercise toward our desired telos: becoming perfectly human persons in cooperation with the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit.  As with Mary, we all face the free choice to say “Yes” to God and have Christ formed within us.  As with Mary, we too must accept the Lord as a mystical death wound; we can only become fully human if we are willing to die utterly to all we know to be ourselves in this corruptible flesh.  This will be a life-long work; a spiritual war waged in our own hearts against selfish impulses that would keep us from our freely chosen Way.  Our patient, ongoing struggle to acquire eternal virtues will become the very means of grace blossoming in us.  Only if nonviolence comes freely from this wellspring is it truly blessed.  We need place no moral burdens on others or judge anyone, as God alone knows the secret movements of a human heart.  God is a perfect gentleman; His love beckons us, woos us, invites us into the joy of eternal life.  But God cannot compel us to become Human.  Christ has already saved everyone and all, bringing an end to violence.  What remains is for each of us to receive salvation into the earth of our own hearts, for without this voluntary cooperation God is powerless to complete his work.  Let us who will, joyfully take up nonviolent love of enemies as a dear companion in the spiritual journey toward becoming Human Persons, passing from glory to glory in image and likeness of the Christ.

“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies… What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
– 1Cor. 15:36-44

Posted by: markbasil | August 8, 2016

Leftist Orthodox

[A comment on Fr Stephen’s blog: Remembering the End]

I live in Canada.
I often choose not to vote and I have very little interest in politics (I’ve been burned and need to heal).  But I do wish to say that I’m grateful for the starting point of this article Father as- in so far as such terms can apply- I’m liberal; I’m left-leaning; I’m not conservative in my politics (here in Canada even our conservatives would make American liberals; yet when I vote I go for far left all the way to the Green Party).
Often I find myself in strange company among converts to Orthodoxy in N.A. precisely because I find people are not entirely converting *to* Orthodoxy as much as *away* from Christian liberalism.The sadness in this is that of course the politics, ethics, the very questions and concerns that shape the ‘culture’ of the “political right” is then taken to be essentially consistent with Orthodoxy, while things of the “political left” are seen as essentially inconsistent.  So I find the culture in American Orthodoxy is often not really where I find myself at home.  Often I think converts to Orthodoxy in N.A. just assume that political conservatism is “the Orthodox choice”.
I have found a benefit in this though- being a minority among so many conservatives is that I have learned to love my conservative brethren; to see so much that is good in (the best) political conservatism that I was blind to before converting.  In fact I have in many ways become more conservative… but I have also become more deeply liberal in other ways:
For example I have learned through our Holy Mysteries and the materiality of our spirituality, as well as our ascetic contentment with “enough”, an even deeper care and concern for Creation.  (So my environmentalism, or ‘going green’ if you will, has deepened, as has concern over Food Industry and Agra-business, etc.)
I have learned from the likes of Basil the Great and John Chrysostom that, far from desiring a right to protecting my wealth and property that I freely ‘earned’, instead anytime I have a single item that I do not *need* for myself I have stolen it from my impoverished neighbour.  And the Fathers have made me even more concerned about our society’s economic entanglement with debt (usery is sinful.  Alms giving is about justice not generousity.  My social justice has deepened, as has my distrust of capitalist economics and a society of debt.)
Far from any “right to bear arms” the Church teaches that I must love my enemies; St Basil recommends even a soldier who kills justly has separated himself in some sense from Christ for “his hands are unclean.”  She attempts to retain witness to the prophecy that swords will be turned to ploughshares, forbidding her monastic ascetics to ever shed blood and even forbidding her community leaders (priests and bishops) to carry fire arms for self-defense.  So my advocacy for disarmament and opposition to warfare and all killing is at home here.
So too the Church teaches that I am worst of sinners and that judgement is in God’s hands; that I must be merciful toward all including terrible criminals and hold them in caring regard as if they are my own life; so my disgust with retributive systems of justice obsessed with “getting tough on crime” and opposition to capital punishment under any circumstances is totally Orthodox.

I say all of this by no means to shift the focus of the discussion to politics or even ethics.  I have too many thoughtful loving conservative friends now to care about such a discussion.  Anyone who writes back to argue with me on this wont receive a reply.
But I hope to soften the hearts of those who might be right-leaning, to make room for the likes of poor me and see that a thoughtful, serious Orthodox Christian can remain comfortably left-leaning too.  Join me in the discomfort of political disagreement, friends.  The sweet mystery of our Life in Christ makes room for everyone, and calls us to dwell in a unity that surpasses superficial agreement in a common cause or ideology or even outlook.

Love in Christ;
-Mark Basil

Posted by: markbasil | August 4, 2016

Wise pastoral insights from the Metropolitan

 

[I have been impressed before by OCA Met. Tikhon’s pastoral letters.  Here I am grateful for his clear language about non-violence; his linking of our sorrow at the world’s violence to the work we must do in our own hearts; and his direct challenge to consider St James’ words about the causes of war being our own passions.  All bolded below.]

[from here, Aug. 10, 2014]

Pastoral Letter from His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon to the Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America Concerning Violence and Extremism in the Middle East

“We have preferred profane and material things to the commandment of love, and because we have attached ourselves to them we fight against men, whereas we ought to prefer the love of all men to all visible things and even to our own body.” (St Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, 7)

Beloved in Christ,

Our hearts have been deeply wounded by the stories and images of war and fighting throughout the world. The recent incidents of violence in the Middle East loom as tragic examples of an increasing disrespect for humanity and disregard for human life and dignity. The Orthodox Church in America joins those in the Middle East, in North America, and around the world who have raised their voices against the inhumane actions we are witnessing. We join all who condemn this blatant disregard for human dignity and life.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, whose ministry in the Middle East consistently witnesses to the Gospel of love of Jesus Christ and the Gospel’s command to adhere to peace and non-violence, has issued a strong statement condemning the attacks against Christians in Mosul, expressed in “coercion forcing them to change their belief, pay a tax or leave their homes, while having their property confiscated.” The statement calls on “states that provide fundamentalist groups with any direct or indirect foreign support to immediately stop all forms of material, logistic, military and moral support.”

The Orthodox Church in America expresses its solidarity with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in its striving for non-violence and peace. We also express our solidarity with all the suffering Christian communities of Mosul, whose expulsion is ending the Christian presence there after nearly two thousand years.

Another story of violence is unfolding yet again between Israel and the Hamas organization in Gaza. In this violence hundreds of innocent civilians have already died, some of them Israelis, most of them Palestinians. This humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is overwhelming; hundreds of thousands of innocent people are losing their homes and struggling to survive without electricity and water.

Yet another narrative of violence continues in Syria. Many innocent people not involved in the fighting have lost their lives. A large proportion of the Syrian population has taken to flight, forced to live in refugee camps in the region. Millions have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones.

Those of us living in North America may feel a sense of helplessness when seeing and hearing of these tragedies. We ought to remember the words of St John Cassian, who writes that the “goal of peaceful improvement cannot be reached through the decisions of others, which is forever beyond our control, but is found rather in our own attitude. To be free from wrath is not dependent on the perfection of others, but stems from our own virtue, which is acquired through our own tolerance, not other people’s patience.” (Institutes, VIII.17)

St John is pointing to a fundamental spiritual principle: that real change only begins when we look within our own hearts. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of world tragedies, we need to recall our unity with all of mankind and to respond with prayer for the suffering and the departed. In addition, just as the ascetic struggles of the great saints, in their own time and place, have a cosmic effect, so our own effort to purify our own hearts will have an effect on the rest of the world.

Thus, a very concrete and practical way that we in North America can respond to the violence in the Middle East is to commit ourselves to establishing peace in our own families and communities. When the Holy Apostle James posed the question: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?”, he immediately answers with a challenge for us to consider: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.

In this way, our deeds will be joined to our prayers, and by the action of divine grace, we will have the assurance that our merciful Lord will grant consolation to those who are suffering, will provide a place of rest for those who have departed and will bestow upon the world the peace that passes all understanding.

With love in Christ,

+Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Posted by: markbasil | August 3, 2016

What is Holy Tradition?

Most succinctly the Tradition is exactly this:  Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Nothing added, nothing taken way; the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

[from an email correspondence on violence in Orthodox history:]

You said, “I’m not sure what you mean when you refer to “the pure Orthodox Tradition” when we have a history of war and militarism within our own Tradition!”  It seems the heart of this matter lies in this question about the “pure Orthodox Tradition.”  Of course we would agree that Holy Tradition is the undiluted, untainted gospel of Jesus Christ- nothing more and nothing less.  But all that has accumulated in the vast history of the Church is not identical to this pure gospel of Jesus Christ.  The gospel is the narrow Way that leads to life.  The Scriptures speak initially of our “Religion” as “the Way”- it is a communion in Christ who is our Way, our Truth, our Life.  Again I know we would agree.  I am pointing this out because in my own slow maturation I have shifted from initally taking Holy Tradition as “all the teachings and prayers of the church over the centuries” to a more accurate understanding that it is a Way of Life.  This is the infallible Tradition:  The Way that leads to life.
Not everything accumulated in Orthodoxy’s history is worthy of the Way.  In this sense we must discern the Tradition even when we read the history of the Church, etc.
I take my meaning from Blessed Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), the disciple of Saint Silouan the Athonite:  “...In the vast sea which is the life of the Church the true tradition of the Spirit flows like a thin pure stream, and he who would be in this stream must renounce argument. When anything of self is introduced the waters no longer run clear, for God’s supreme wisdom and truth are the opposite of human wisdom and truth. Such renunciation appears intolerable, insane even, to the self-willed, but the man who is not afraid to “become a fool” (cf. I Cor. iii:18-19) has found true life and true wisdom.” (from “Saint Silouan the Athonite”).
If we wish to stand in this pure salvific stream (or do the spiritual work to at least move toward it), then I suggest that participating in violence and drawing on ostensibly Orthodox resources to do so, is not helpful.  Otherwise why would our priests and monks be forbidden to shed blood even in self defense?  Are we not to look to them as examples?  Surely theosis is not reserved for the clergy alone (who are as much in the world as the rest of us, yet may not defend self, family, or nation with lethal force).

 

Posted by: markbasil | August 3, 2016

Christian Orientation, not “worldview”

A friend had an critical look at the phrase “Christian worldview”, and suggested “orientation” is more fitting for Orthodox:

“Acquiring an orientation to Christ is very different from acquiring a Christian worldview.  I can’t think my way into a better orientation, I have to move there, to practice staying there, to recognize when I’m not there.  I do this by following Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  His ways are prayer, fasting, almsgiving, service, self-emptying or humility, submission to the will of God, living in communion with God and others.  These practices become revelatory.  It is only as I practice this Way, putting myself in the stream of God’s light that I can gradually become filled with the light of God and can increasingly respond in life-giving ways to the messy and complex world I live and teach in.  This is the knowledge that matters, this is the wisdom I long for.  This is what we hope a Christian worldview will give us, but so often it doesn’t.”

 

A fellow objected, and argued for a worldview common to all “Christian orthodoxy” and made up of our “mere Christianity.”  He worried without this “worldview,” without this “mere Christianity” that is shared by all orthodox Christians, we would have no meaningful content to the word “Christian” at all.

Here was my reply:

“I see what you’re saying. I would agree that “Christian” loses meaning without some semantic demarcations. I remember attending a poetry class at UBC, and no one could come to consensus on the meaning of the word “Poem” having no definition drove me crazy! Like you, I felt we needed some sort of common understanding lest just anything pass as poetry… My voice was a minority. But then question; who’s authorized to define? Who is the keeper of the boundaries of poetry?
Your comment sounds like an argument why there “aught to” be an orthodoxy to the Christian Faith. But I do not think there actually is such agreement.
For example: who keeps the gates of this “mere Christianity”? If a group of people start claiming they are Christians, who’s right is it to disagree?
Mormons like to include themselves in the Christian fold; should they be considered within our “mere Christianity”? Initially St John of Damascus (I believe it was) spoke and wrote about “Mohammedism” (Islam) as a Christian heresy! They seemed to meet some standard of “mere Christianity” at the time. Another challenging set of puzzles come in the form of Christian heresies. Take the early Arians; were they Christian? They acknowledged much in the Christian Faith but denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ. And today, we have Charismatic Monists (or so I have heard), who do not believe in the Holy Trinity.
All of this is circling in on my point: I agree there should be a Christian orthodoxy, but I do not think it is possible via the route of a “mere Christianity”. In contrast I think of early church authority. St Paul wrote of a member of the congregation who should be excommunicated (for matters of behaviour, not belief). St Paul also, of course, was writing against the “Teachers” of various “Judaic” tendencies. These ‘teachers’ claimed to be part of a “mere Christianity,” but it did not prevent them from heresy. St Paul however, would not consider them members of the Apostolic Church. By this logic, Arians may claim they are Christian, but they have chosen a path that moves them away from Christian orthodoxy- this is made visible by their ex-communication.
To use a more challenging modern example, Calvinists may claim that they share the “mere Christianity” status, but Orthodox Christians would say their predestinationism is heretical, and has not place within the Christian gospel. So Calvinists cannot be Orthodox- and there is a break in communion. In this case the Holy Spirit’s work in the counsel of the Church holds authority. The earliest recorded example, of course, is the counsel at Jerusalem: the Apostles met and made decisions about gentile inclusion. They had the authority to determine who was “in” and who was not in. This authority rested in the established Apostolic hierarchy of the Church. I do not know where authority would rest in all the breadth of the “self-identified-Christian” world today. Do you have some thoughts on this? And even if we say that it’s those who hold to the creeds (which ones?), I would say first: what right do we have to proclaim this? And second, more importantly, what about the vastly different *meanings* attributed to the words of the creed? (for example Marcus Borg might say Jesus rose from the dead on the thrid day, but he would mean this is a “spiritual” resurrection. Who has authority to say to him, “that’s not the Christian faith”?)

More important is the question, why does it matter? What matters to the Christian Faith? Here I find myself in agreement with Kim’s point: Christian orientation is a more helpful descriptive phrase than worldview.
Afterall, can I not be a Christian during periods of doubt? Uncertainty about belief in the Resurrection? If I find a simple believer who faithfully attends Church yet does not know whether Jesus is God or not, could he still be a Christian? What if this person were a little child? What if this person were intellectually handicapped? Do they really have to believe these things to be Christian?
I think it’s unhelpful to be too precise in our definitions about what one has to *believe* to be a Christian. Our relationship with the Creator is such a deeply intimate matter of the heart; in this sense It is more about orientation. Repentance is the act of turning toward God; turning our minds and our whole being toward God and away from sin. Christian faith is movement toward deepening communion with Christ.
And it is in this sense that I mentioned to you things particular to my Tradition (Orthodoxy) that are indeed important for everyone’s salvation, yet not common to “mere Christianity”. Your questions to me about salvation already reveal differences in our understandings of so fundamental a notion as “what does it mean to be saved?”
I am speaking of “salvation” as synonymous with “union with God in Christ”. In this sense our salvation is something we can grow in. Here again, I found Kim’s use of “orientation”. more in line with this understanding of salvation.
As we know, Christianity was initially called “the Way”. It is a Way of Life (an orientation). Further, elements of the “worldview” shifted and grew and developed (E.g. the Trinity!) but the precision in articulated belief was not necessary for participation in the Church. Participation in God’s life is salvation; communion is salvation.
Fr Stephen has much to say about this understanding: http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/08/09/get-out-of-your-mind/
St Paul spoke of excommunication. He wrote to excommunicate a certain church member- someone placed outside the Church not based on a belief, but a behaviour. This person’s orientation was off- he was not fixing his gaze on Christ; he was not walking with the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure there is much that you and I would have in common in our shared Christian faith, however I believe some of our differences are relevant to salvation, when salvation is understood as communion with God that transfigures us into Christ-likeness. A friend described Orthodox Tradition as the passing down of tested “good farming practices” for preparing the garden of the heart to receive Christ’s gospel. I have heard Catholics speak of “anonymous Christians”- another attempt at getting beyond “belief” or even “self-identity”, to the matter of communion and participation. It is in this sense possible for Buddhists and Muslims and even Atheists to be “oriented” toward Christ- wherever they seek beauty, mercy, justice, etc. All of these are only possible by the work of Christ’s Holy Spirit in them.
Anyway I think I’ve said rather more than enough. I’m conscious of taking up too much space on this blog.
If you wish to continue the discussion in its finer points, I am open to email: man or they at gmail dot come [all one word]

Love in Christ;
-Mark Basil”

 

 

Posted by: markbasil | August 3, 2016

The Violence Question is “perfectly clear”

 

[below is a comment I wrote for Fr Stephen’s blog that I did not end up posting, as it was off topic.]

 

Christ is in our midst!

I would like to quote Fr Seraphim in the video linked above, beginning at 34 minutes:

If you look at humanity the way Fr Sophrony does, then very hot contemporary issues become instantly clear…
You cannot be a Christian in his sense, and allow for war, or the use of guns against other human beings at the same time. That can only mean two things: Either you have wrong theology and that is reflected in your practical life, or you have a correct theology of God but you dont allow the theology to inform your practical life…
It’s not only about our minds, our prayer, and our spiritual lives, although that’s the main thing. It’s also about the way we behave…
If you dont allow your theology to inform your life, then you’ve missed the point. And You’ll never fly.

As Fr Seraphim stresses we are talking about perfection– about how persons behave, when the “I” refers to all of ADAM and I can no longer differentiate between the “innocent” I am to defend and the “enemies” I am to kill. We are perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
This is what we are aiming for if only as stumbling fools. But the Tradition here absolutely does concern the question of violence against our enemies. There is a peacemaking, nonviolent love of enemies that is at the very heart of the Orthodox spiritual tradition, activated when it encounters violent threat from the worst of the world’s wickedness (a nonviolence that breathes through the witness of our greatest saints and of course completely shining in Christ’s voluntary passion).
St Silouan, with Christ, teaches, “your brother is your life.” Cain in the primordial individualism of his murder said, “am I my brother’s keeper?”
Again I see in this primordial example that the bible is about violence- brother killing brother- if it is about anything at all. War is sin par excellence; God is very much concerned with violence.

I am not talking about a politicized nonviolence, or a nonviolence that is imported from somewhere outside the Orthodox Tradition. I was catechized into Orthodox nonviolence by the priest who baptized me. I then met three monks living like angels who completely affirmed this nonviolence at the centre of the Tradition- and they live it out in their lives, secretly tucked away in seclusion like a pearl of great price. They moved even deeper into seclusion last year and no longer receive lay visitors.
I have a son from a past relationship who is now 14. The last thing Father Moses, one of the three monks, said to my son Josh before he left for a life of prayer and stillness in seclusion was: “Joshua, true Christianity is all about what you do. If someone says to you it’s about prayer, prayer is enough, never believe him. Real Christianity has to be lived out in love of neighbour or it is nothing at all.”
For Father Moses, this was epitomized in a nonviolent love for all of humanity and indeed the whole of God’s creation.

I have learned that contrary to my catechesis and the witness of the three most holy men I’ve met in the Church, most Orthodox dont see this. It’s like a blindness that I can barely fathom; a gaping black hole of broken reflection and limply, cowardly unconsidered implications to our own teachings. It’s the choice to say nice and pretty things in theory about love of enemies (“What is a merciful heart?”), but then shy away from what this really means lived out in social scenarios when such manifestations of virtue would get us in trouble with the politically powerful. What I see in the Church is the second of Fr Seraphim’s options: We have the correct theology (we know and preach that our brother is our life; the voluntary Cross is our salvation; weakness is strength; love never coerces and does no harm; etc.), but when it comes to the gritty affairs of national defense (or personal self-defense) we are like the one-winged bird, unwilling to live according to our own exalted anthropology or ethical implications of our love of enemies.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised given our terrible experiments with “christian empire” and the distortions this brought that plagued the purity of the faith ever since? And given that we have lived in political captivity for centuries since (a just punishment for attempting Empire by force? Constantinian co-opting of the Cross as a military talisman?)
When did we forget that Jesus Christ is our King- this is a political statement; it makes us aliens in every homeland and means that we are soldiers of Christ who shed no blood, not compelled to defend nations of this world who, today, bomb enemies to secure a way of life totally unrelated to the Kingdom of God. And where is the consistent, sustained, vocal Orthodox critique of this militarism?
To the measure that we are complicit with militarism (as the bloody wing of heretical nationalism) we are failing to preach and to live the whole of the good news, the radical life of love that Fr Seraphim says makes “all controversial social issues totally clear.”
We must denounce old errors such as these as much as we denounce new errors such as modernism I believe. Otherwise our voice lacks credibility, honesty, and humility with regard to our own history.

Toward such radical, active, practical peacemaking- that begins in humble, honest repentance for our Church’s historical blessing the use of coercive, violent force- such a counter-cultural commitment to Christ’s Kingship for the Orthodox Church to again take up, my heart hungers and thirsts for this. May God help me to shut up now and become what I long for.
Asking your prayers;
-Mark Basil

 

Posted by: markbasil | August 3, 2016

On God’s Wrath

 

[response to this post: Punisher or Pushover?]

 

I very much appreciate this correction, or addition, or “going further,” into the language of God’s wrath.  I did not find that section of “A More CLG” the most helpful.  As I examined my own life, I felt a sense that God was so often sparing me from the terrible (just/natural) consequences of my sin yet when I would persist and become hopelessly addicted He would use his wrath with a physician’s skill and carefully allow just enough bitter medicine to bring me to my senses (most dramatically in the conception of my first son).

I relate very strongly to G.M.’s words you quoted:
“The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while yet those sins remained: that would be to cast out of the window the medicine of cure while yet the man lay sick; to go dead against the very laws of being (George MacDonald, Life Essential, 15). ”

And especially appreciated your linking this punishment-as-medicine to the story of the penitent prodigal and (self-)righteous older son:
“And sadly, for the kid who didn’t run away, it didn’t end in the Father’s arms. Avoiding sin, he was still bound in self, a slave to his own self-righteous striving.”
Thank you for taking us deeper than the “sins” into the underlying problem of self-will too.  (My spiritual father used to say, “trying to stop sinning is like plucking mushrooms- a pointless task!  You must cleanse the soil to stop the mushrooming fruit from ever sprouting.”

I know you have to write with a specific audience in mind, and I’m learning I’m often not that audience.  For me, I always like trying to redeem the scriptures and the fullness of the biblical, classical Christian lexicon through nuanced, God-breathed ‘definitions’ and interpretation (thus I didn’t like doing away with “the wrath of God” neither do I like doing away with “punishment”)
I worry that to try and remove biblical, classically Christian language from our contemporary lexicon is just to delay the problem folks will have to have when they encounter the ‘difficult language’ of the gospels, or worse the psalms, read in worship).  I have a similar problem with loose contemporary translations that want to avoid ‘harsh language’ rather than interpret and define the language rightly.

So I enjoy your points 4 and 5, as they give me a way to work with the concepts of God’s wrath and His punishments when I find them on the lips of Christ or the prophets, etc.

Thank you;
-Mark Basil

Posted by: markbasil | July 25, 2016

Violence in the Bible Narrative

As for the centrality of violence in the Christian Narrative, here is just a smattering from the top of my head:
– Our Judeo-Christian Creation Story was written in contrast to other Creation Myths (Please read Girard on this).  You will see other ancient myths all have the world created out of violence- gods of violence (just like us) create the world through violence (this logic is at the heart of our false understanding of self-willed creation: i.e. Cain’s civilization).  But in the Biblical account the world is created out of Love and for love and communion.  There is no *need* for violence… So why then do we have so much of it, the text will ask?
– as soon as disordered desire enters the world (Eve and Adam), so does murder (Cain).
– God does not allow the murder (Cain) to be killed as an act of justice!  (bye bye capital punishment)
– The murderer then goes and is the founder of the cities.  Civilization *as we know it* is founded on murder (it will be contrasted with the city in the eschaton, which has even different foundational physics, being square not circular.  This is part of a deep revelation of God’s secret hand:  he never ‘fights fire with fire’– though Cain will do evil, he should not be killed to prevent this evil (worldly civilization)– instead God is doing something with the End in view:  He is creating the Kingdom of God which does not resist the evil doer but works even through what is evil to do a greater Good)
I.e. without God’s provision in the garden (or agrarian derivative where our punishment- sweat and thorns from work in the field- is received contritely by Seth’s lineage (Sons of God), Cain’s lineage looks to circumvent God’s punishment through the worldly organization of the Murderer’s cities apart from God (here the Sons of God will find “daughters of Men”- and eventually birth the Nephalim, mighty in warfare.  This path of the city apart from God, founded by the Murderer who rejects thorns and thistles as just and therapeutic punishment, will be perfected in Babel.  See Ps. 55:9).
– It is this tribal violence (just an expanded form of Cain killing Abel) that was the wickedness in every inclination of the human heart everywhere, that led God to sorrow for creating ADAM, and the need to destroy the world in the Flood (and start again with an agrarian).  Read the Noah Story again, Gen. 6-9, with an eye for violence as the Narrative.
– The Hebrew People were not to have a king like other nations, but God capitulates to their demand (giving them up to their desire).  What will come of this lineage?  Look at kingship from its beginning to end and you will see much that plagues Orthodoxy to this day (confusion of nationalism and faith).  But you will also see again this deep theme that God does not resist our evil doing (wanting a king, here), but transfigures the evil to a greater Good we could never have imagined.  This is why we dont need to “defend the Church” (against the Ottomans or Mongols, against ISIS, against the barbarians, against the Other.  God knows what He is doing, and He is certainly not trying to build or protect or maintain a “Christian empire” of this world.)
– King David, a man after God’s own heart, is not permitted to build the temple to the Lord precisely because of the blood on his hands.  Read 1Chron. 22:8-10.  A taste:  <b>You cannot build a temple for worship to me, because you have killed many people.</b>
(Of course the OT witness is a work in progress; David righteously kills Goliath to show God’s mighty hand in the humble servant- the righteous in the OT killed- and also had multiple wives and prostitutes lest we draw too much from it.)
– Who is permitted to build the temple?  David’s son Solomon= Shalom-man.  (though we Christians know the true Son of David, the true builder of the house of God, is the Christ.  He is our Shalom-Man).
– When the Hebrew people were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt, they were not empowered by God to revolt.  Instead it was the mighty right hand of the Lord who delivered them- for our God is a Warrior (“vengeance is mine” saith the Lord– it is not for us humans to take up arms).  We see that God will act on behalf of the weak and the poor, but He will do it in His time and in His way.  The Exodus should be paradigmatic for our response to oppressive regimes.  We do not need to ally with worldly kings or unite in military power to defend ourselves….  I have so far not even come to the New Testament!  The unveiling of all things in Christ’s Pascha, which of course is a story of bloodshed and violence, but it reveals something else entirely.  I will barely scratch the surface as we’re all getting a bit tired (or is it just me :)? )

– Think of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant on a warhorse, then the Christ coming in all humility and weakness on a donkey.  We see the fulfillment in Christ and it is meaningful.
– Nonviolence is part of the prophecy about the Kingdom- which is actually true of the Church (though obfuscated by history).  Is. 2:4, <b>they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.</b>  See St. Justin Martyr on this, who saw this fulfilled in the Orthodoxy of his time (before we allied with empire).
– Jesus comes as the Christ, but cannot be recognized precisely because the “cultural tradition” of the Jews (much like our Orthodox cultural traditions sadly) were encrusted with socially accepted violence:  They expected the Messiah to be a great Military General… And He was!  But He explicitly says, ”
“My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jews. But now, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (Jn 18:36).
He is the Prince of Peace.  His is an “army that sheds no blood” (to quote Clement of Alexandria, from our Tradition).
– Indeed look at how military imagery is *co opted* in the scriptures, precisely to reveal that we who belong to Christ no longer make war for we now know who the enemy truly is (sin in me, and demonic powers at work in the world).  When we are baptized (into death, therefore we need not fear death), we arise the “newly illumined warrior of Christ”.  He is our Peaceful General.  Our weapons are the gospel and prayer.  St. Paul has a whole discourse on this, and also explicitly tells us we fight with demonic powers not with flesh and blood.  (Eph. 6:12).
St James tells us exactly where wars come from:  from the passions at war in us; we want (e.g. want justice, want freedom), and we do not get.  So we fight rather than submitting to God who is our Warrior; the Mother of God who will Protect us.
The contradiction is so telling!  The quiet, peaceful, prayerful *woman* is the one will protect us?  This is God’s power perfected in our weakness, but only if we voluntarily remain weak and do not turn to violence to assert our will.
– Jesus’s lament for Jerusalem is a lament for the blindness to the Narrative of Peace, a blindness that perpetuates socially accepted violence to accomplish the will of us good guys, chosen ones, etc., failing to see how fundamental this lie is to our apostasy.  (Luke 19:41-44.
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it,  saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will… level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”  (for a closer look see, <a href=http://brianzahnd.com/2014/05/farewell-mars/>”A Farewell to Mars”</a>
– Jesus as our King reveals a Kingdom not of the world, founded on dying at the hands of our powerful enemies (who are they by the way?  Religious and political leadership (the worldly kind that lord’s over); the established powers of this present age).
He himself has no place to lay his head; he calls us to be nationless in this world- to make no commitments to princes and sons of men who will ask of our patriotism violent defense of the established order.
– I already mentioned Christ disarming Peter’s defensive violence, speaking not a trite but a deeply revelatory word that all who take up the sword will die by the sword (what kind of death?  It is not literally correct).  Tertullian comments that <b>”the Lord in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier”</b>.
… And on and on we could go.  Violence is most certainly a central motif of the whole of human history, the biblical narrative, and Christ’s revelation.
For a place to learn more, and indeed find many more moderate voices than mine who still recognize peace and peacemaking as central to the Christian Narrative, please see the <a href=http://incommunion.org/2015/09/11/the-orthodox-peace-fellowship-a-fellowship-of-orthodox-christian-peacemakers/>Orthodox Peace Fellowship</a>.
For example how many Orthodox dont even know of our long and venerable tradition (among the saints) of <a href=http://incommunion.org/2005/11/14/orthodox-christians-and-conscientious-objection-2/>conscientious objection to war</a>?
Please take the time to read Rene Girard or his interpreters to get an anthropological foothold in this (dip your toe through Orthodox essays on violence and desire by Donald Sheehan.  Also try these articles:  <a href=http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2013/06/a-culture-of-co-suffering-in-an-age-of-violence-part-one-fr-richard-rene.html>A Culture of Co-Suffering Love in an Age of Violence</a>; <a href=http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2009/07/are-the-gospels-mythical-by-rene-girard.html>Are the gospels Mythical</a>? <a href=http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2013/07/the-babylonian-captivity-of-the-gospel-by-michael-hardin.html>The Babylonian Captivity of the Gospel</a>.  For an accessible overview see <a href=http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/257787.The_Girard_Reader>The Girard Reader</a>, or interpretive works by Gil Bailie).
Posted by: markbasil | July 25, 2016

Philosophical thoughts on Tradition

Here is my reasoning:

The Church is One because Christ is One.  This is a foundational, ontological reality; it is the very nature of Christ that makes it the very nature of the Church that She cannot be divided.  The Church’s unity is not dependent upon anything human or of this world; it is rooted in the very one-ness of God and thus cannot be altered by anything that happens among men in the history of this world.  If this is the case then all the tragedy of schism we see throughout history has not actually broken the Orthodox church up, so that “some of the fullness” of Christ is now lacking in the Orthodox Tradition.  (This does not by any means entail that nothing can be learned from truth outside the Church, nor that we have no need of our non-Orthodox brethren, nor that we have everything balanced and correct at all times in our history).
What this does mean is that all the Fullness of Christ is to be found in His One Body, the Communion of the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church has always understood Herself this way.  It is rooted in the central Holy Mystery of the One Bread that unites us, and the One Holy Spirit that leads the Church into all truth.  Thus everything necessary for our salvation is found in the Orthodox Tradition, there is nothing lacking.  Therefore, belonging to the Tradition means “becoming a child again”- fully trusting our Mother just as we trust our Father.  They are not divided but One.
This way of belonging to the Church, then, is *part* of the Tradition; it is part of the fullness that saves.  Why?  Because it requires of us the humility and meekness that only come from full submission and full obedience.  This very attitude toward the Tradition, *is* part *of* the Tradition; it is requisite for the fullness of the Life that Christ would give those whom He has called to Himself.
Again why?
Because it is the only way that we can truly become *children*; inheritors of the Kingdom:  if we have a posture of total submission and obedience, in complete trust, to our Mother the Orthodox Church.
Anything else is to attempt to stand above, or outside, the Fullness of Him who fills all in all.

I believe this “standing above” or standing somehow outside the Tradition is a major temptation in today’s modern, pluralist, global village world.  This attempt to “stand above” or somehow outside the Orthodox Tradition is part of the perennialism philosophy, which is a deeply non-Traditional way of perceiving Traditions.  It is a way to in fact belong to no Tradition, since no Tradition teaches about itself that it is “incomplete” or a fragment of something greater, or deeper, or more universal.
It is certainly not a possible way to belong to the Orthodox Tradition, because this Tradition understands itself to be, ontologically, the Fullness of Him who fills all in all.
It is also a very presumptuous- or dare I say intellectually prideful- attitude toward the Traditions:  to presume that there is truth and error in them all, and it is *I* who am able to discern what the real, deep, full, Divine truth is that runs through them, and *I* am able to discern where they err.

The error of perennialist philosophy is analogous to the error of Religious Pluralism too:  to assume that there is a Divine truth in all religions and that they all are “about” the same thing (with varying degrees of success is sophistication), is to attempt to stand outside any of these religious and judge from some privileged position– and to come to a conclusion that is in fact supported by *none* of the religions own self-understanding!

The same logical error (rooted perhaps in misplaced generosity or hospitality) applies to this approach to the Orthodox Tradition (when it is thought of along the lines of something like a “branch theory”).  The error here is in assuming about the Orthodox Church that it is subject to the faults of corruption- the errors of men and of worldliness.
But this is not consistent with the biblical revelation of the Church (as pillar and ground of truth; as fullness; as one because of the bread; as the organic, living body of Son of God; etc.).  And it is not consistent with the early Church’s understanding of herself (think of occasions of excommunication- and what this meant.  Or of non-orthodox “Jesus movement” branches (various gnostics, etc.), or of heresies like arianism, etc.).  The Orthodox Church’s Tradition, thus, has a self-understanding that is *part of* the Tradition, and this understanding is that all the fullness of what we need for salvation is given to us within the Tradition.  All that we need for Theosis has been revealed and preserved by the Holy Spirit, within the Tradition.
Posted by: markbasil | July 20, 2012

Splash.1

Not without fear
but with faith, too

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