One of the remarkable aspects of the earthly life of Jesus is that he killed no one nor gave any blessing to his followers to do so. His last healing miracle before the crucifixion was done on behalf of a man whom Peter had wounded in defense of Jesus. At the same time he told Peter to put aside his sword “for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Far from blessing enmity, Christ called on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. Jesus waved no flags — he was not a zealot. Though the word “nationalism” had not yet been invented, no one could describe him as a nationalist. In cleansing the temple of the money-changers, he used a weapon that could bruise but not wound. In a situation where execution was the penalty prescribed by law, he shamed a crowd of would-be executioners into letting their intended victim survive unharmed. One of his eight beatitudes declares that peacemakers are the children of God. In The Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Imitating their Savior, in the early centuries of the Christian era Christians were notable for their objection to war and bloodshed. To give but one example, in the fourth century St Martin of Tours — at the time a military officer — explained to the emperor Julian Caesar (later to be known as Julian the Apostate) his reason for refusing to take part in an impending battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he said “To take part in war is forbidden to me.” His explanation makes one recall a definition of the Church given by Clement of Alexandria in the second century: “The Church is an army that sheds no blood.” We still see a trace of this commitment in the canons that forbid anyone to serve at the altar who has killed another human being.
How very distant the words of Clement and the witness of St Martin seem to the modern Christian! Who today would imagine that Christians belong to an army that sheds no blood? In many parts of the Christian world, a conscientious objector to war would be regarded as belonging to a peculiar Protestant sect. The disease of nationalism has infected many of us — influencing us so powerfully that we are not ashamed to adapt our reading of the Gospel so that it does not impede the demands of national identity, whatever that identity may be. Thus in many wars we find Christians on both sides obediently killing each other as well as anyone else who has been identified as the enemy. God alone knows how many millions died in the wars of the twentieth century. Even today both Catholic and Orthodox Christians are killing each other in Ukraine, to give but one example from the many wars being fought as we meet in this pacific monastery. How many bishops have blessed the weapons of war, how few have been the bishops who blessed those who refused to use those weapons. We frequently say, sing and chant the words “Blessed are the peacemakers” but our complicity in fighting wars suggests many Christians would prefer Jesus to have said “Blessed are the warmakers.”
I am reminded of these challenging words from St John Chrysostom, who died in exile for displeasing the imperial court. He said:
It is certainly a finer and a more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and to bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them (especially when [we consider that the Apostles] were only Twelve and the world was full of wolves). We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently [than the Apostles] and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep, we have the victory; but if we are wolves, we are beaten — for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves … [And can violent people dare to receive communion?] What excuse shall we have if, eating of the Lamb [of Christ], we become as wolves? If, led like sheep into pasture, we behave as though we were ravening lions? This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for this is the mystery of peace. [Homilies on Matthew, XXXIII; translation from St John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher by Donald Attwater (London: Harvill Press, 1959), p 72.]
May St John Chrysostom be with us in this conversation.
Here we are, a small gathering of Christians from both East and West who have come together in peace to explore the beatitude of peacemaking and how that beatitude might reshape our lives and renew our churches. We have heard some very helpful papers and now there are a few of us who have been invited to discuss what we have heard so far. The first part of the exchange will involve just the panelists, the second all of us.
There are five of us present at this table. Let me very briefly introduce us.
I start with Dr. Amal Dibo who comes to us from Lebanon. She is a former UNICEF program officer in charge of emergency assistance to the displaced; she was also responsible for a nationwide vaccination program that cut across lines of division and led education programs on human rights. She is one of the editors of Sawa, a magazine for children educating them about togetherness and peace. Presently she is teaching history of civilization at the American University of Beirut. She is active with several NGOs working for art, science, culture and peace. She has represented her church in the Middle East Council of Churches, work that allowed her to connect with such eminent Orthodox figures Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Olivier Clement. For many years she has worked closely with a great advocate and exemplar of peacemaking, Metropolitan George Khodr of Mount Lebanon. She has spent her life studying, working, writing and praying for peace in areas suffering the calamity of war.
Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis has been director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies the past fourteen years. He studied theology in Thessaloniki, then went on to study ancient and medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. His doctoral thesis dealt with the issue of Greek identity and anti-westernism in the Greek theology of the nineteen sixties. He has published three books and many articles dealing with such topics as the eschatological dimension of Christianity, the dialogue between Orthodox Christianity and modernity, theology and modern literature, religion and multiculturalism, religious nationalism and fundamentalism, and issues of renewal and reformation in Eastern Orthodoxy. He is editor of the English-language theological series “Doxa & Praxis: Exploring Orthodox Theology”. Besides his work at Volos, he teaches systematic theology at the Hellenic Open University in Thessaloniki and at St. Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris. His most recent book has the title Orthodoxy and Political Theology.
Dr Konstantin Sigov is professor of philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla in Ukraine where he also directs the Center of European Humanities Research. In 1992 he founded the cultural and publishing association “Spirit and Letter”, of which he is director. The project has involved such scholars and philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur, Reinhard Kozellek, Arvo Pärt and Kallistos Ware, and published such authors as Bartholomeos I, Walter Kasper, Rowan Williams, Enzo Bianchi and Michel van Parys. Much of his work has focused on the ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. Since the year 2000, he has organized an annual international ecumenical forum. A prolific author, one of his areas of concentration has been the history of culture. He has lectured at the Sorbonne, Oxford, Stanford, Rome, Geneva and Louvain. The French Ministry of Education has conferred on him the order of chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.
Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age seventeen, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography, from which he was again expelled, in this case for attempting to make a film on religious life. In 1974 he founded the Christian Seminar. Later he became a prisoner at Perm 36, the notorious camp for dissidents located in the Urals near the Siberian border. In 1987 he was finally released at the order of Mikhail Gorbachev. After his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for homeless children and adolescents. In 1995, Ogorodnikov set up the “Island of Hope” in Moscow, a center and orphanage for girls, victims of poverty, crime, drug addiction, parental neglect and extreme abuse. A biography of Alexander in English entitled Dissident for Life was published several years ago.
As for myself, I am Jim Forest. I come from the United States but the Netherlands has been my home for the past 37 years. In 1961 I was given an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector. In 1969-1970, during the Vietnam War, I spent a year in prison for interfering with the military conscription system. In 1977 I was appointed General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the work that brought me to Holland. Since 1988 I have served as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. I am the author of various books including Praying With Icons, The Road to Emmaus, Ladder of the Beatitudes and biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. My most recent book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. I am a member of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
The panel members met yesterday afternoon to reflect on issues raised in the various lectures do far presented. Here are seven questions for discussion:
1. A century ago, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians were killing each other. No church said “No!” Today Christians, many of them Orthodox, in Ukraine and Russia are killing each other. For many it is both a religious and national duty. What can we and our churches say that might help bring peace?
2. Nationalism easily becomes its own religion, with churches often seen as guardians less of the Gospel than national identity. How can this be changed?
3. The shortest of questions: Does the church bless weapons and war? But does the church in reality in various ways become an accomplice to war?
4. In the last century millions of Christians died, and now severe persecution is happening in the Middle East and other parts of the world. How can we respond?
5. We are told by Christ to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. How do we translate this into life in today’s world?
6. We have talked about the divine gift of peace in the soul- and the always temporary gift of peace in the world. ls there the temptation of ignoring the second in favor of the first?
7. Fundamentalism is a problem in all religions. How do we respond to it as Orthodox Christians?
— Jim Forest
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