Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Does the Orthodox Church have a political theology?

Lately I have been reading some pieces of political theology coming from a variety of Christian sources. And I’m not referring to political agendas or endorsement of political parties. Political theology is not partisan politics under the cover of Christendom. What is political theology? True political theology is neither Left nor Right. Political theology is bringing the gospel into the midst of the worldly powers and principalities and letting the gospel judge the powers and principalities of the world as only the gospel can judge them, in God’s total freedom. Any ecclesiastical attempt to domesticate God’s freedom and co-opt God into a caesaropapist hierarchy is a total betrayal of the gospel. That is why Paul posits powers and principalities even in the “heavenly places” – or what we presume to be heavenly places, such as what the churches claim for themselves:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, RSV)

Is such a thing as a political theology in the Orthodox Church? I consulted a book by Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Orthodoxy and Political Theology, translated from the Greek, and published in 2012 by the World Council of Churches. The straightforward answer is that there is no political theology in the Orthodox Church.

Kalaitzidis identifies a number of reasons why Orthodoxy has not developed a political theology, the primary and all-encompassing explanation being the theocratic and caesaropapist inheritance of Byzantium. As the church became ever more dependent on the state during the Byzantine era, it took on more and more the characteristics of the state and empire. And when the empire fell and many Orthodox nations became part of the Ottoman Empire, the church took over the duties of ethnarch (protector of the racial/national identity) while at the same time ensuring the required loyalty to the Ottoman authorities. In a sense, the Ottoman period was a logical extension and evolution of the Byzantine theocracy. The sole exception was Russia, which was not subject to the Ottomans. There, under czarist rule, the church preserved all the elements of Byzantine theocracy as an arm of the state. The recent resurgence of the Russian Church in the era of Putin is the modern extension of this ingrained tendency in Orthodox polity.

After the wars of liberation in the 19th century, two parallel phenomena occurred. On the one hand, the liberated countries fell under the sway of European “Enlightenment” and nationalism. The churches in traditional Orthodox countries, while opposing the values of the Enlightenment, capitulated to the new nationalism. In the words of Kalaitzidis: the church thus seems to be trapped in a purely ethnocentric dimension operating exclusively within history, restricting its mission “to the realization of the fortunes of the race and the nation” (!), and transforming the preaching about the coming kingdom of God into preaching about national salvation and the preservation of a glorious ethno-religious past.

What Kalaitzidis describes has been the situation in Greece since the liberation from the Ottoman yoke. Thus, when the Chutch of Greece attacks globalization and movements of resistance, it is not on theological arguments or criteria, but on cultural and national arguments and the need to defend national independence, language, religious uniqueness, and ethno-cultural identity.

An additional factor has been the so-called “return to the Fathers” – meaning the Fathers (but never Mothers!) of primarily the early church and Byzantium. As a result, biblical studies have taken a back seat and thus much of the gospel teachings of Christ about the poor and the weak, the victims of history and oppression, economic injustice, are absent in most Orthodox discourse. The most recent trend in Orthodox churches is an increasing turn inward. This is happening not only in the old-world churches but also in a big way in the Orthodox churches of North America, especially since the expansion of Athonite-style monasteries which foster an introverted form of pseudo-spirituality.

There are exceptions to this introversion, but the exceptions only prove the general rule. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is one of the few voices in the Orthodox world for any kind of political theology. Though his primary focus has been on the dangers of environmental destruction and global warming, he has also addressed issues of economic injustice, racism – sometimes in fellowship with Pope Francis, with whom he has developed a very close friendship. The Rev. John Chryssavgis has been closely associated with the Patriarch and has edited many volumes of the Patriarch’s speeches, encyclicals and scholarly papers. Most of these volumes have been published in beautiful editions by Fordham University Press.

While the churches of the old world have a history behind them that perhaps understandably keep them shackled to an ethno-religious paradigm, the failure of Orthodox churches in North America to move beyond these shackles is especially tragic and inexcusable. It seems they want to carry the Byzantine practice of subjection to the state into the context of North America where it does not belong – or should not belong. Money and fellowship with power become the prime motivators for church statements and priorities.

Does Kalaitzidis have anything to propose to make up for this lack that he so accurately describes? I’m afraid not; and thus he perpetuates the Orthodox lack that he has identified. In the second half of his book he repeats the usual patristic/theological affirmations about the church; in other words, he gives us the usual ecclesiology that more often than not contributes to precisely the lack that he describes in the first half of his book! This is the usual cul de sac of Orthodox theology. Eventually everything is reduced to ecclesiology!

Even the most aware theologians can’t avoid circling back to the same old, same old. And in the hands of Orthodox theologians – even the best intentioned – ecclesiology becomes ecclesiolatry. And when you have ecclesiolatry, you don’t need a political theology! You don’t need anything that reminds you that there is a world outside the church, the world of gospel imperatives. When your vision is the vision of the self-perpetuating church, everything – including the gospel imperatives of Jesus – becomes sacramental and wrapped up in “the mystery of the world”.

Walter Brueggemann wrote some magnificent advice in his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (p. 107):

It is my urging that a serious Old Testament student, situated in an ecclesial community, has a responsibility to do careful reading of the Old Testament and to present to the ecclesial community not only those readings that confirm church theology, but also (and perhaps especially) those that clash with, challenge, and undermine seemingly settled church theology. It is my judgment that church theology as commonly practiced is characteristically reductionist concerning the Bible, that it engages in providing settlement and certitude. Such reading may be disturbing and unsettling to “the world,” but it provides a coherence for the faithful.

Ecclesiolatry results when the church becomes “the world” – that world, the one that is unsettled and disturbed by the gospel. And let’s make no mistake about it, the so-called “Old Testament” is as much gospel as anything in the New Testament. As I like to say as often as I can, there is nothing “old” about the Old Testament!

In another informing statement, Brueggemann writes the following (p. 113):

The Old Testament insists that there is a moral shape to the public process that curbs the raw exercise of power. It equally insists that there is a hidden cunning in the historical process that is capable of surprise, and that prevents the absolutizing of any program or power. Thus at the edge of an Old Testament theology, we must ask about the ways in which this odd text might make a difference in the large public crisis in which we are all, willy-nilly, involved.

Only in a serious encounter with the entire biblical witness is a political theology even possible. The Orthodox churches have failed to do this beyond returning to the Fathers and their dogmatic, canonical interpretations.

The other major obstacle is the centrality of the Liturgy in Orthodox consciousness. Indeed, Orthodox view the Liturgy and the entire plethora of hymnography as the most accurate reflection of Orthodox belief. It’s the old affirmation, Lex orandi, lex credendi – “what we pray is what we believe.” That old Latin saying was drummed into me countless times in Seminary. No problem with it. Let the Liturgy and the sacramental life of the church represent the visual, aural and physical/material expressions of the faith. But let the scriptures stand in tension to the liturgical and sacramental self-understanding of the church! Brueggemann is masterful in adroitly addressing this necessary tension:

In tension with that propensity to reductionism, I propose that it is the work of biblical theology to counter the reductionism and to bear resilient witness to those texts and their interpretations that do not “fit.” Thus the work of biblical theology, vis-à-vis systematic theology, is one of tension that is honest but not quarrelsome. In practice, I suggest that it is the liturgy that is to enact the settled coherence of church faith, and the sermon that provides the “alien” witness of the text, which rubs against the liturgic coherence. There can, in my judgment, be no final resolution of the tension between the systemizing task of theology and the disruptive work of biblical interpretation. It is the ongoing interaction between the two that is the work of interpretation. (p. 107)

I will stop these reflections here and continue another day. I’ve only began to scratch the surface of this theme. I hope to continue my thoughts another day.


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God of the gaps is no God

I love reading from Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially in the series of the complete works in English translations put out by Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” written between April 1943 (when he was arrested for conspiring against Hitler) and January 1945, three months before he was executed by the Nazis. These letters and papers were published after his death and became classics of Christian faith and expression in the 20th century. Today I came across this letter, dated May 29, 1944, and I want to share it here with you, from the translation in the Fortress edition. It was written to Eberhard Bethke, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and the one who did the most to get these “letters and papers” published after the war. It is the kind of “Christian” writing that is so absent in the superficial Christian “religious” writings of today. Bonhoeffer could stand comparison to any of the giants of Christian history. Note how he speaks of the “fullness of life” from his own perspective of imprisonment and war, and how Christianity puts together the fragments of our lives. I love his calling life “polyphonic” – surely inspired by his great love of music. What he wrote in the concluding paragraph about God as the “stopgap” is extraordinarily important. He rejects any notion of God being the god of the gaps! “God is the center of life and doesn’t just ‘turn up’ when we have unsolved problems to be solved.” Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we declare on Easter night, “Christ is Risen, and life politeuetai!” And I do not translate that Greek word, because I want to write an article on just that word. But please do read this letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read it more than once! It’s the answer you may need for many questions in your life. TRULY THE LORD IS RISEN!

Dear Eberhard,

I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summery days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear—(I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun)—for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking—as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.

At first I was a bit disconcerted and perhaps even saddened not to have a letter from anyone for Pentecost this year. Then I said to myself that perhaps it’s a good sign, that no one is worried about me—but it’s simply a strange drive in human beings to want others—at least a little—to worry about them.

Weizsäcker’s book on the Weltbild der Physik continues to preoccupy me a great deal. It has again brought home to me quite clearly that we shouldn’t think of God as the stopgap [Lückenbüßer] for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then—as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat. We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, and guilt. Today, even for these questions, there are human answers that can completely disregard God. Human beings cope with these questions practically without God and have done so throughout the ages, and it is simply not true that only Christianity would have a solution to them. As for the idea of a “solution,” we would have to say that the Christian answers are just as uncompelling (or just as compelling) as other possible solutions. Here too, God is not a stopgap. We must recognize God not only where we reach the limits of our possibilities. God wants to be recognized in the midst of our lives, in life and not only in dying, in health and strength and not only in suffering, in action and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved. Seen from the center of life, certain questions fall away completely and likewise the answers to such questions (I’m thinking of the judgment pronounced on Job’s friends!). In Christ there are no “Christian problems.” Enough on this; I’ve just been interrupted again.


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Messages of the Just

A friend shared with me the concluding stanza of the poem September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden. Here it is:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden wrote this poem at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was first published in The New Republic on October 18th, 1939. Auden wrote it at the beginning of a very dark period in human history.

There is darkness today also, of various kinds: climate change and environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, terrorism and the threats of new world wars, racism and prejudices of many types, deadly viruses and the potential of biological warfare, tyrannical governments, electronic surveillance and cyber attacks, religious confusion, superstition and conflict, and I can go on with more. The darkness Auden confronted in 1939 was focused on one enemy; our darkness comes from many directions and different enemies. But the overall picture today is just as bleak as it was in 1939.

Most of us are able to go about our daily lives without much of a feel for this darkness. We watch manifestations of it in our evening or morning newscasts, but then quickly immerse ourselves in our work, family obligations and favorite forms of escapism. That’s one way to respond to the darkness. The other way is to acknowledge it, and oppose it as “ironic points of light” in the language of Auden.

I prefer the confrontational approach. Though I also have my favorite forms of escapist entertainment, I leave much room in my daily life for the Auden approach. I read, I inform myself about the world through reliable sources, I commune with the greatness of the human spirit – in music, literature, philosophy and religious writings – and I try to write and develop my own thoughts. I post stuff here on this website, though not nearly often enough. And I exchange ideas and encouragement with friends and people who also want to rise above the darkness. The friend who sent me Auden’s poem did so to encourage me. And I post it here to encourage you if you also are struggling or need reminding that you are here on earth to be light in the darkness.

The cover of LIFE magazine, March 26, 1965 (click to enlarge)

Physically I’m not able to take part in demonstrations or other forms of resistance, but I admire people and groups who engage in non-violent resistance and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other men and women who took a stand for what is right. Our own Archbishop Iakovos walked hand in hand with Martin Luther King in the famous walk in Selma, Alabama. He was one of the few white clergy and the only church leader to participate in the walk! He was on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine.

I recently watched the film Selma. An actor played the role of Archbishop Iakovos in the re-enactment of this important event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Iakovos was often quoted saying how important it was for him to support Martin Luther King and his struggle. Iakovos even received death threats warning him not to walk with King, but he did, and he made his mark in American history. On that day he was a point of light. He was one of the Just in Auden’s poem.

 

The walk in the film Selma, with the actor Michael Shikany portraying Archbishop Iakovos walking arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by the actor David Oyelowo (click to enlarge)

The real message of Auden’s poem is in the lines:

… wherever the Just

Exchange their messages.

Who are the Just? They are those who hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus calls “Blessed” in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). The Greek word in verse 6 and also in verse 10 is δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosyne. It is a pity that all English Bibles translate it as “righteousness” because the most direct literal translation of this word is “justice”. Righteousness is too focused on the personal, and Jesus himself wasn’t particularly fond of righteous people if you don’t mind my saying so. He attacked those who were righteous in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. And quite frankly, few people are going to be persecuted for being righteous (verse 10). But people can be persecuted when they stand in support of justice – as Archbishop Iakovos stood on March 15th, 1965.

Archbishop Iakovos sends us a message today, 52 years after he walked with Martin Luther King. He sends us a message as one Just man to the Just men and women of today: Where do we stand? Do we even stand for anything? The fight for civil rights is not over, it continues. Do we care for civil rights? Do we stand with those who are denied justice? What is our own message to future generations? Do we care for our planet and its environment? Do we care for climate change? Do we care to eliminate poverty and hunger? Do we care to end all wars? Or are we too busy with our lives to care for anyone or anything else? Let’s translate Jesus’ words a little more accurately so we can hear more clearly the call to be Just.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Let’s exchange messages with other Just men and women of today, of tomorrow and of the future – if there is to be a future.

Kneeling in prayer in the film Selma. Prayer of the Just – a message to us.


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The Church is Boring, You Say?

There is a false and pernicious idea that Liturgy is boring; that church is boring and irrelevant; and that is why people, especially young people, are staying away.

Personally, I’ve never been convinced of that argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Perhaps people find church and Liturgy boring because they are bored, and because their lives are boring! I’m not saying this to put anyone down or to imply that nothing about the Orthodox Church is boring. Far from it, I’m the first to point out the deficiencies in Orthodox church structures and ways.

But look around. People are bored. That is why we run to every new gadget, why we bury our faces in small and large screens, why we communicate with text messages and emojis and YouTube and Facebook. Because we are bored. Nothing Apple can produce will satisfy people’s boredom; we will always want more. That is why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Sony, and other behemoths, are constantly updating their products. People need something new every day: because they are bored!

So should the church join the racket of the weekly updates? Is that what will bring people to Liturgy? Don’t be fooled. Why are there so many revolving doors in evangelical and non-denominational churches? They look full every Sunday, but how well do they retain people? These churches change their songs and videos every week, they look like they’re catering to the market obsession with “the new”; but they don’t retain members any better than we do, they’re actually doing worse. But they look full because there is a constant movement of people from one “relevant, up-to-date” church to another. It’s the secret of evangelical success in this country – the revolving door of “believers” who are often nothing more than bored consumers of religion.

Look at your own habits, as I look at my own habits. I don’t go anywhere, even inside the house, without my iPhone in my hand or in my pocket. How often in any 5-minute span do you/I look at the notification screen of your/my phone or tablet? Why? Because we are bored.

So don’t tell me church is boring. That’s a cop-out. But let me say it more clearly: Church is boring, you say? I agree that it is! But it’s boring only because WE ARE BORING!

So let’s get off our boring and bored lifestyles. Let’s turn off the electronic devices that are turning us into carriers of attention-deficit disorder. Take a sabbath rest from the market empires that rule our lives. That’s what two hours on a Sunday morning can be for you: an entry into a new kingdom, a kingdom of beauty and peace and attention-fullness. If all of us could come to Liturgy with such awareness and such need for healing from our scattered, bored lives, then the Liturgy will becomes more alive for us.

There is nothing more “relevant” in our lives than the need for release and freedom. God ordained a sabbath for good reason. God has known from all eternity that a sabbath rest from the daily forces that feed on our boredom and lack of freedom is the most basic need of human beings. But for the first time in human history, the sabbath has been eliminated and it has been replaced by enslavement to the Now of computer screens and smartphone notifications. Don’t be a slave to boredom. Join the battle for holistic, authentic living, rather than the fakery that aims to claim every moment of your life with false promises of “something new” but only makes you more bored and hungry for more escape from boredom. Reclaim your life from the machine of boredom! And then church and Liturgy will cease to be boring as well. It’s a good goal to strive for in 2017. HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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Perfected in forgiveness

 

As I think upon the Cross of Jesus Christ today, I remember the first words that Jesus spoke on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Forgiveness, the hardest thing for human beings to do. Yet, the thing most characteristic of the one who was God and Man! Oh, but you might still say, so easy for him to forgive! After all, he wasn’t just a man, he was God! Yes, but God nailed to a Cross in human flesh, enduring human suffering. God humiliated by sinful men! You want to think again about how easy we should presume it was for God to forgive?

Here is the thing about forgiveness. It is not a theoretical thing, something for philosophers and theologians to write about or speculate about. It is an action. And only if you have suffered in the hands of someone else can you forgive, can you experience forgiveness. To be truly forgiving, God had to suffer the indignity of the Cross. That is the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus did not die in order to appease an angry God, as you often hear from TV and radio preachers. Quite the contrary, Jesus died to bring to perfection God’s love – because love is perfected in forgiveness. It is the highest human perfection – it is the thing that makes us most like God.

Hebrews 2:10-11  In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation (ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας) perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same source (ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες). So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Powerful example of forgiveness: seven French Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, beheaded by Islamic extremists in 1996. Their story was made into an award-winning film in 2010, Of Gods and Men. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France. Opened after his murder, it read in part:

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them—all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His passion. His secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.…

For this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you” … I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

The man who wrote these words understood the meaning of the Cross. We most likely will not experience death by beheading or death on a Cross. But we can forgive!

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There are many websites with information about the monks of Tibhirine. For example: Here and here.

Wikipedia has articles on Christian de Chergé and on the assassination of the monks.

The full text of the “last testament” of Christian de Chergé can be read here. Also here in a slightly different translation: Testament-engl


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Solidarity and love

Excellent commentary in the Guardian newspaper in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks. The key paragraph is near the end:

The biggest nightmare for Isis was how some European countries, such as Germany, welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms. The solidarity shown by thousands of citizens from Greece to Sweden harmed Isis. It cannot repeat enough that Muslims should come to its “caliphate” because Europeans are racists and Islamophobes. By hosting Syrian refugees, we have shown that Isis is wrong.

What many Islamophobes and racists in Europe and in the United States don’t realize is that this is a war for the minds and hearts of millions, if not billions of people. This is a spiritual war – not in the sense of a military war in the name of god, a holy war or a crusade. No, it’s a spiritual war because the spirits of people are at stake. The writer of this article, and countless others who have voiced similar thoughts in recent months and years, sees how our hatred plays right into the aims of the so-called Islamic State. It may sound idealistic and naive, but Jesus would agree with the message of this commentary: We fight hate with love.

The writer singles out Germany and Greece as examples of the solidarity that is needed to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Military strikes may achieve some victories, but this is in the final analysis a war for minds and hearts. We can’t speak hatred and expect the Moslem world to cave in to our world-view. (And we should never expect anyone to cave in to our world-view on the presumption that our world-view is better!)

It’s a war for minds and hearts – but not only for the minds and hearts of Moslems; the minds and hearts of European and American non-Moslems also hang precariously in the balance. Will we give in to hatred, racism and religious self-centeredness, as some hate-mongering politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are telling us to do? If we do, our souls are in greater danger than the physical lives of those Syrian refugees that are drowning in the seas between Turkey and Greece. Think hard so-called Christian of the West: God will judge us too!

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The evils of rigidity

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As the world is once again shocked by another brutal terrorist attack – this time in Brussels – I want to quote some words written by the late, great French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul (1912-94), in his book Living Faith. He wrote of the connection between rigidity and violence, and thus the two faces of violence – the violence of rigid religious fundamentalism and government’s response to it.

The more one is afraid, the harder one’s armor becomes, the more it turns into a part of one’s own body like a kind of carapace. Like fear rigidity manifests itself in every area of life. We find it in religious movements as a return to dogmatic narrowness, formalism, scriptural fundamentalism. We see rigidity in administrators and planners – a sure sign that dictatorial tendencies are reappearing. When fear sweeps over society, a security grid will have to be imposed upon it. And this will necessarily be some kind of fascism, whether of the Right or the Left, which, before bringing on the terror, will have people heaving a great sigh of relief, glad to think that at last they know where they’re going, that someone is protecting them. Rigidity in religion will be matched by rigidity in politics.

Ellul wrote this book in 1983, long before Islamist fundamentalism and terrorist movements and the West’s attempts to respond or deal with this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is rooted in fear. Religious fundamentalists invariably leads to violence on some scale. It can be on the scale of “Christian” fundamentalists who bomb abortion centers or kill abortion doctors; or it can be on the more global scale of the Islamist terrorists of recent decades. Either way, it is the same phenomenon: Fear of change and fear of women!

That’s right, you read that last line correct – fear of women! Islamists are afraid of women asserting their equality with men. I know I’m probably over-simplifying things as I usually do in big matters, but I have long believed that the primary fear that motivates Islamist terrorism is not the Israel-Palestine conflict – they use that as a cover – nor Western support of Arab dictators, but the fear that women in their societies will wake up… To whatever they wake up, it doesn’t matter.

And that fear is not only limited to Islamist fundamentalism. It undergirds much of Christian attitudes to women over the centuries and TODAY! Why do churches refuse to ordain women to any role other than cooks and servers of parish dinners and singers in the choir? Why does our Orthodox Church still maintain such strongly patriarchal language in its liturgical practice? Why do we always ask for the “prayers of our holy Fathers”? Why never our holy Mothers? Why even in the prayers of the Soul Saturdays with which we welcome Lent every year do we pray for the souls of our fathers and brothers and forefathers, etc. etc. – all male entities? Do our mothers and sisters not count? Or is it enough that we fill in their general absence with their specific names that we hand to the priest?

Why in the new Liturgy translation that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is printing for parish use has the English version of the Creed reverted to antiquated, gender-exclusive language – “for us men and for our salvation” – in willful, intentional, yes rigid, rejection of the changes that the English language has undergone in recent decades? When a woman has been hearing “for us and for our salvation” for the past thirty years in the previous translation now hears “for us men” is she supposed to think that she is now being excluded from salvation? Or is the expectation that she will mentally footnote this phrase and understand that “men” includes her too? Of course, most other Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world have been using “men” all along! Now the Greek Archdiocese of America has chosen to do likewise. Too bad, our loss.

There is a sickness in the world – the sickness of religious fundamentalism. Sometimes it leads to violence and death, as in Brussels today. More often it leads to the quiet despair of women in the pews of churches that refuse to recognize them as fully important human beings. (And there are other people and groups of people who also sit in quiet despair in our churches or simply drop away to escape the hatred and mistrust aimed at them!)

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We’re all in this together. Whether it’s death or quiet despair, the evil is the same. It flows from fear and rigidity. And the fear and rigidity of religious violence lead to a political response that usually results in the tyranny of the state. We see this trend growing in Europe and in North America; not to ignore Asia and elsewhere. In one brief paragraph, written over 30 years ago, Jacques Ellul brought to our attention both sides of rigidity and fear: the violence of religious fundamentalism and the violence of the state’s response to it. The future of life on our planet is looking pretty bleak right now. Sorry I can’t be more positive today on this, another black day of violence and hatred.