by Jim Forest
The Beatitudes — those few verses that preface the Sermon on the Mount — include the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” If we see the Beatitudes as an eight-runged ladder to heaven, then each Beatitude is one of the rungs, with peacemaking next to the top. Not one of the rungs can be left out of the ladder.
Christ himself gives a witness to what peacemaking looks like — the day-by-day laying down his life for the life of the world. He sought out both those who were well disposed to him and those who were hostile. We see his love of enemies in his readiness to respond to the appeal of an officer of Rome’s occupation army, healing the officer’s servant. We see it again is his appeal on the cross to forgive those who were responsible for his execution. After his resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.”
Yet in our time the word “peace” is often a suspect word, and understandably so. In many countries it’s a word that has been used by governments and advocates of war as a kind of cosmetic slogan: war as presented as a means of peacemaking. But the word “peace” has also been abused by peace movements, which often turn out not to be not very peaceably inclined when it comes, for example, to the unborn. All too often, peace groups have turned a blind eye to suffering and violence when it was being carried out by countries, or for purposes, with which they sympathized. It isn’t only governments that are drawn to double-standards.
Part of the work of the Christian peacemaker is to repair the damage that has been done to the such words as “peace.” Words, no less than smoke-blackened icons, can require cleaning and restoration.
How then might an Orthodox Christian define “peace” and “peacemaking”?
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has suggested “healing” is the best synonym. “Healing means wholeness,” he points out. “I am broken and fragmented. Healing means a recovery of unity. Let us each think that I cannot bring peace and unity to the world unless I am at peace and unity with myself. ‘Acquire the spirit of peace,’ says Saint Seraphim of Sarov, ‘and thousands around you will find salvation.’ If I don’t have the spirit of peace within myself, if I am inwardly divided, I shall spread that division around me to others. Great divisions in the world between nations and states spring from many divisions within the human heart of each one of us.” (The full text is on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org. Put “sacraments of healing” in the search field.)
One of the best ways to better understand peacemaking is to study the lives of the saints. We see in them the countless forms that the healing occasioned by peacemaking can take — witnesses far too diverse for peace to be compressed into an ideological or political system.
For example, consider just two of the physician saints of the early Church, Saints Cosmas and Damian, and the important role they played in the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity.
It is significant that the first Christian church in Rome that was established in the city center, on the grounds of the Forum rather than near the edge, was dedicated Saints Cosmas and Damian. They were brothers who, following their conversion, became unmercenary physicians — doctors who cared for the ill without any payment. There is a legend about the two that, so strict was their rule against accepting any reward, there was a brief period when one brother refused to speak to the other because he had accepted an apple from the family of one of those whom he had aided.
Their day-by-day merciful deeds proclaimed both Christ’s compassion for those who are sick and suffering and also, in their refusal of money, the fact that wealth gives no one advanced placement to enter the kingdom of God. Their lives proclaimed their love of enemies, for they were as eager to serve those who persecuted Christians as they were to assist their fellow believers. Like others who shared their faith, when they became targets of persecution they refused to use violent means to defend themselves. Dying as martyrs, they gave witness to Christ’s death and resurrection. No wonder so significant a church, placed in the heart of Rome, bears their names. These two physicians, who eagerly served their neighbors without fee, not only were a means of healing and consolation to many, but helped convert many to Christ.
A similar example is given in our own day in a great many places. I think especially of the witness given in recent years by the Orthodox Church in Albania.
Albania is Europe’s poorest and, in many ways, most damaged country. No regime in recent centuries has been so thorough in its attempt to completely stamp out all traces of religious life. During the Communist period, every place of worship was closed and either destroyed or turned to other uses. Ironically, many churches became armories, thus turning plowshares into swords. During those long years of suffering, even to make the sign of the cross or to dye an egg red at Pascha or hang an icon on the wall were seen as criminal actions. In 1991, of the 440 Orthodox clergy who had served the Church sixty years earlier, only 22 were still alive, all old and frail, some close to death.
Yet once the Communist political order began to collapse, the Church began to rise from the ruins. Under the leadership of missionary-minded Archbishop Anastasios, liturgical life resumed with astonishing speed. “Many times in the first months the Liturgy was conducted out of doors as no indoor place of worship was available,” Archbishop Anastasios recalls, “but preferably in a place where a church formerly existed.”
At the very same time, healing services to others began, no matter what their faith or lack of faith or attitude regarding Christianity. At first the work was improvisational, then strengthened by the introduction of church-sponsored structures of health care, education (both religious and secular) and environmental repair. All this was done under the umbrella of Diaconal Agapes — Service of Love — officially launched as a Church department by Archbishop Anastasios in 1992. So many non-believers have been served by the Church that Archbishop Anastasios is occasionally called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists (rather than All Albania).
“I am everyone’s archbishop,” he told me a few years ago when I was working on a book about the resurrection of the Church in Albania. “For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all.’ Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”
Part of the missionary witness of the Church in Albania is to set an example of forgiveness. As Archbishop Anastasios explained to me, “This begins within the Church in the way we respond to those who denied or betrayed the Church, in the Communist period. Especially in earlier years, I was sometimes asked, what do we do when such people want to rejoin the Church after having been apostates? Our response must be to forgive and receive them back, not to turn anyone away. Following the fall of communism, the first church we opened in Berat has an inscription above the central door which says — ‘Whoever comes to me, I will not cast away’.”
Forgiveness finds further expression in the Church’s willingness to meet with and even cooperate with those who once sought to eradicate religion from Albanian life. “We not only believe it possible that hardened atheists can change, we have seen it happen. In each person there is the possibility of conversion. In fact each person in the Church has experienced conversion. If such a thing can happen in my life, surely it can happen in the lives of others. But this partly depends on how I as a Christian meet others, including my enemies, and how I respond to them.”
In a country that is part of the Moslem world, Christian witness means refusing to demonize Muslims, the religion that, in the pre-Communist time, was dominant in Albania. Archbishop Anastasios never overlooks opportunities to meet with Muslims, whether leaders or unlettered individuals. I recall one poor man in the latter category who timidly approached the Archbishop at a place where we had stopped for lunch. “I am not baptized,” the man said. “I am a Moslem. But will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing, but was reminded by Anastasios that he too was a bearer of the image of God.
Truly these are moments of peacemaking — moments of healing.
Archbishop Anastasios might have retired years ago from his missionary labors. In recent years, he has often needed urgent medical care. Yet he carries on leading the Church in Albania and, through that service, gives witness to Christ’s love not only of those who are baptized, but to one and all, “those who love us and those who hate us.” One result has been the steady enlargement of the Christianity community in Albania.
But what about myself? I’m not in Albania nor do I live in ancient Rome. How, in my time and place, can I do better at living in a way that bears witness to Christ’s peace?
If peace means healing, what are the areas of brokenness in my own life and in the lives of people I am close to? What I can I do to overcome, with God’s help, my own fractiousness? My own greed and vanity? The fears that imprison me? Are there things that I do and say that feed the fires of enmity? Do I admit my own sins? Or am I always justifying whatever I do? Are there people I refuse to forgive?
Parish life is often a place marked by conflict and division. To what extent am I a peacemaker in my own parish? Am I someone who is looking for common ground? Do I help to repair damaged relationships? Do I turn a deaf ear to gossip? Do I belong to one of several bickering camps within my parish?
“Community” life is rarely peaceful. Neighbors are often at odds with neighbors. While Christians are urged by Christ not to resort to courts in resolving conflict, in practice Christians are just as likely as atheists to be found glaring at each other across courtrooms. Am I too carried along by the currents that have created a society able to employ so many lawyers? Am I open to mediation when there are inter-personal or community issues that require resolution?
Consider the world as a whole from ancient times to the present moment. History seems mainly to be a record of almost continuous warfare — human beings killing each other and destroying all that makes life possible. In the early Church the refusal of Christians to take part in war was something of a scandal to the pagan world. It surprises us to hear of saints who were, in today’s terminology, conscientious objectors. Today it’s hard to imagine that killing in war was a matter that could, centuries ago, result in lengthy periods of repentance and exclusion from the sacramental mysteries. Indeed our canons still bar anyone from serving at the altar who has killed another human being for any reason. But when it comes to the laity, it seems we rarely even wonder whether killing in war might be an issue worth thinking about long and hard. We are not even surprised at the spectacle of Christians killing each other simply because of their separation by national borders. Am I satisfied that I have thought deeply enough about war in the light of the Gospel and the witness of the saints? Are there ways in which I might contribute to preventing wars or hastening their end? Do I pray daily for peace? Does my life bear witness to my prayers?
The basic question is: To what extent does my life reveal — or hide — the light and peace of Christ? To what extent am I bearing witness to the kingdom of God?
* * *
published in Again magazine, summer 2009
* * *