by Jim Forest
Some years ago, while in Moscow as a guest of the parish of Saints Cosmos and Damien, a church not far from the Kremlin, I was sitting at a desk just outside the office of the rector making notes for a talk I was to give that night. I had been at work only a short time when the rector, Fr. Alexander Borisov, asked if I would be willing to share the room with two icon restorers. “Good company,” I replied. They came in with a large icon so dark I had no idea what image was hidden under the blackened varnish. The heavy panel — one restorer estimated it was 300 years old — was placed on a table. As the decades had passed and thousands upon thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under the smoke-absorbing varnish until it was like a starless night sky. Using a clear liquid, possibly alcohol, and balls of cotton, the two worked side by side. Gradually their painstaking efforts began to reveal sharp lines and vivid colors. After an hour’s work, part of the face of Saint Nicholas had been brought back to life. I found myself the witness of a small resurrection.
It was a minor act of repair that would soon grace this recently reopened place of worship which had for many years housed a Soviet-era printing plant. The resurrected icon was also a gesture containing in microcosm the great housecleaning that the Church was undergoing throughout Russia after so many years of destruction, vandalism, neglect, atheist propganda and immense suffering that cost millions of lives.
But icon-cleaning has still wider implications. As a writer always trying to find the right word, each day I am reminded of how much of our vocabulary has been blackened by the smoke of politics, economics, our culture of intensive consumption and permanent entertainment, the “newspeaking” of old words.
As someone who has been especially concerned about war and peace, I have long been aware of how difficult it is to use the word “peace.” It’s one of our most damaged words.
In Russia during the Soviet era, “peace” was incessantly enlisted by those who ruled as a word meant to sum up all they were doing or intended to do on the name of Marx and Lenin. Even a Soviet war or invasion — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, just to name a few — was justified as a means of peacemaking. “Mir,” the Russian word for peace, was emblazoned on countless banners and posters.
Peace is a damaged word in America as well. Peace is announced as their goal by America’s politicians no less than it was by those grim men who once supervised military parades from from the top of Lenin’s tomb. I can recall as a child growing up in New Jersey, watching live broadcasts on our small black-and-white television screen of the explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, an amazing act of political theater in those relatively innocent days when few people worried about radioactive fallout. These doomsday weapons, we were told, were made for purposes of peace. The atom bomnbs that had been droped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however horrific, had — it was agued — shortened the war and brought about peace. In the Cold War fifties, postage stamps were cancelled with the message, “Pray for peace.” The slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the wing of the Air Force created to fight nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” Peace could obtained, we were told, only by the threat of “mutually assured destruction” — a much-used phrase at the time which for some reason we no longer hear, though the military structures produced by this doctrine remain intact. The acronym, appropriately, is M-A-D — mad, a madness satirized by Stanley Kubrick in his film, “Doctor Stragelove.” There was an intercontinental, nuclear-armed missile that was christened the Peacemaker.
When a word becomes its own antonym, one cannot use it without first attempting to restore the word. But how? One way to scrub off the grime is to pay close attention to the various uses of the word “peace” in the Orthodox Liturgy. I refer especially to that liturgy not only because I happen to be an Orthodox Christian but because it’s a litugy that has been in continuous use since Christianity was young. The text we use every Sunday dates from the fourth century and is credited to Saint John Chrysostom, but in fact he was only editing and combining still older liturgical texts.
The Orthodox Liturgy begins with the Great the Litany of Peace. In this series of brief, connecting prayers, we hear the word “peace” used in a variety of ways. Let’s look at them briefly.
The litany begins with a summons: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is identified both as a goal and a precondition of worship. How can we pray as a community if we are divided by enmity? How can we be part of a service in which we seek communion with God if, before we start, we have broken communion with each other?
Next comes: “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is seen not as something we can obtain by ourselves, like an acadmic degree, but as heaven’s gift, a gift that is linked with salvation. We can receive that gift or lock the door. God never forces a gift on anyone.
Then comes: “For the peace of the whole world, the welfare of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Worship, if it’s real and not just the reading of a script, is an action of connection, not only with God but with all that God has made. We seek not only a private peace, but peace for the entire world, no one and no nation excepted. As such a peace partly depends on how well the churches of God succeed in being channels of God’s peace, we pray in the same breath for the well-being of the churches, and God knows they need to brought into a state of well-being. Churches so often stand in the way of God’s grace due to institutionalism and by turning religion into a “god business.” We also pray for “the union of all.” In fact, we are in a state of radical disunity. I wonder if even God knows how many churches there are, each with its own theological reasons for being separate from others?
Then comes: “For this holy house and for those who enter with faith, reverence and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The well-being of the place we worship depends on each one of us. This requires faith — not a state of being easily obtained. Being in a state of reverence is our effort to be aware of God’s presence. If we are unaware of it inchurch, a place designed to help us to become aware, it’s not likely we’ll be aware of it anywere else. Also it requires fear of God — not fear in the sense of dread, but the fear — the awe — that arises in contemplating that which is beyond our comprehension.
Then come a prayer for the place we live and for every place of human habitation: “For this city, for every city and country, and for the faithful dwelling in them, let us pray to the Lord.” No place where human beings live is excluded from God’s love and mercy.
Next comes an appeal regarding basic needs: “For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is not something remote or abstract but concerns the moment of history we happen to inhabit, and the place, along with its climate. Without a favorable climate, there will be hunger and thirst. Without peaceful times we are in a condition of enmity — probably actual war, the greatest of disasters.
We go on to pray for those who in various ways are uprooted: “For travelers by land, sea and by air, for the sick and the suffering, for captives and their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” It’s a prayer that draws our attention to the needs of others, especially those in desperate need. As Christ has told us: “What you do to the least person, you do to me.”
Coming to the end of the Litany of Peace, there our two urgent appeals. First: “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” Then: “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by thy grace.” The cry for deliverance and mercy has been the constant refrain of the entire litany, for to each segment the response of the congregation is, “Lord, have mercy.”
The Great Litany of Peace is a kind of extended definition of peace: the recognition that worship is at odds with enmity — also that we seek a gift that only God can give but for which we are co-responsible. God cannot give us something we refuse to accept. If we seek God’s peace but ignore the sufferings of others, or increase the sufferings of others, we will not receive the peace from above. Peace is so much more than a space between wars. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the eight Beatitudes. Becoming a peacemaker means playing a play a role in bringing God’s peace into the world. It’s not something God does while we passively watch and applaud.
Now let’s look at one other damaged word: love. In every language, it’s one of the most important words we have yet one of the hardest to define.
In ordinary contemporary usage, love has been sentimentalized. It has mainly to do with positive emotional bonds or longings or likings, from the sublime to the trivial. “I’m madly in love with (so-and-so).” “I love films made by Woody Allen.” “I love the pizzas they make at Danilo’s.” “I love Paris in the springtime.” “I love my new frying pan.”
Love in this sense, says The American Heritage Dictionary, is “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”
Such a definition makes the teaching of Jesus to love one’s enemies incomprehensible. We can safely say that even Jesus was without intense affection or warm feelings for his judges, torturers and executioners.
In The Oxford English Dictionary you find a definition that is more biblical:
“Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.”
As used in the Bible, love has first of all to do with action and taking responsibility, not about how you feel at the time. It’s how a parent cares for a crying child at three in the morning, even though that parent is exhausted and may wish he or she had chosen to be a monk. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not you feel affection for that person at a given moment. Love is a matter of doing far more than of feeling, of will rather than emotion.
An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite anger, depression, fear or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, who is our common Creator, in whom we are brothers and sisters even if we wish we weren’t.
Love becomes a degree or two easier when we realize we’re relatives. The idea that we are intimately related to each other is at least as old as the Book of Genesis. Few biblical texts have more challenging implications this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
There’s a rabbinic commentary in which the question is asked, “Why only one Adam and only one Eve?” The answer is so that so no one can claim to be of a higher descent. To be a descendent of Charlemage or Queen Elizabeth, of Shakespeare or Mark Twain is less significant than being a descendant of Adam and Eve, and it puts every one of us in the same family tree. One God, one human race, each human being a bearer of the image of God.
Unfortunately our way of seeing each other is to a great extent formed by what I often call the Gospel According to John Wayne — by which I mean all the stories which center on the obligation to be armed and ready to kill. It’s a powerful story that preaches survival by firepower. The basic idea in practically every Western movie — plus countless non-Western films that follow the same plot line — is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones — evil in their DNA. Forget about the Book of Genesis. These people are made not in the image of God but in the image of Satan.
The archetypical Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the lawless West. And there is that equally classic scene before the shoot-out in which we see the hero reluctantly open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon we are aware he had hoped never to use again, strap it on and walk out the door knowing he may not live till sundown.
The Gospel According to John Wayne is far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it – the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his community. The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the crucial fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
I think of another Russian, Saint John of Kronstadt, a man who had no illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. The main establishment in the port city of Kronstadt, not far from St. Petersburg, was a naval base. It was a city of much drunkenness, prostitution and violence. St. John was the local priest. The people he met in daily life, and whose confessions he heard every week, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence. He helped many of them change direction. This was possible only because he saw the image of God in them. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” he said, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
To fail to recognize the divine spark in the other is perhaps the most common form of spiritual blindness. It is a theme that was often addressed by Saint John Chrysostom way back in the fourth century. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.”
To become even vaguely aware of each person being a bearer of the divine image opens the door to love.
Love is linked with reconciliation, but reconciliation is a word rarely used and often misunderstood. For some it seems to mean reconciling yourself with what’s wrong in the world, accepting the status quo, smoothing over differences, being friendly at all costs, fitting in to the system in which you happen to find yourself. But the biblical meaning of reconciliation has to do with relationships that are restored, in fact transformed, in the peace of God. Reconciliation means the healing of community whose brokenness and deep-down injustice seemed beyond repair.
Reconciliation was the great dream of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream today!”
The big question is what can we do that might help convert a relationship of enmity to one of friendship? In the short time left to me, I want to focus on just two propoals.
The first is very simple and but also extremely difficult: pray for your enemies. It’s not an idea of mine. It comes from one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for them.” If you don’t pray for your enemies, you have no starting point. Prayer is an act of connection, on the one hand with our creator, on the other with whoever I am praying for. Prayer is an action of forging links. There is no way I will be able to love someone I basically regard as unworthy of love unless there is first of all an inner connection. The moment I manage to pray for someone who, in my worst moments I wish would die a miserable death, the harder it is to dehumanize him or wish him ill — or do him harm. In praying for an enemy you can pray for his enlightenment, his repentance, his conversion — at the same time praying for your own enlightenment, your own repentance, your own conversion. After all, you don’t only have enemies. You’re an enemy too. Not too many people are rushing your way to present you with a halo.
Don’t wait to pray for enemies until you’re in the mood. It would be a miracle to ever be in such a condition. Create small islands of prayer at the beginning and the end of the day and at least once a day find time to pray for others in need of prayer, both friends and enemies. Make a list of names and revise it regularly so as not to forget.
The second proposal is also very basic: do good to enemies. Once again, I’m quoting Jesus: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28) Prayer is not an alternative to action; in fact prayer may empower us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do. Do we really expect God to do what we pray for if we refuse to play a role in the process? If I pray for bread but refuse to work for it, do I expect my request to be taken seriously in heaven?
The teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as particularly idealistic and profoundly unrealistic, but in fact it’s a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must actively search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.
Let me cite a specific example — an instance of what has become known as “earthquake diplomacy.”
On August 17, 1999, Turkey experienced a massive earthquake that severely affected many towns and cities, with the industrial city of Izmit the most severely damaged. A second major earthquake occurred five days later. The official number of casualties was 17,000, although the actual number is thought to be more than double that. About a third-of-a-million people were left homeless. The shift in the fault line passed through the most industrialized and urban areas of Turkey, including oil refineries and major factories. Istanbul was also hard hit.
Immediately to the west of Turkey is Greece, for many centuries the bitter enemy of Turkey, yet Greece was the first country to pledge aid and support to Turkey. Within hours of the earthquake, senior staff of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted their counterparts in Turkey; the minister sent personal envoys to Turkey. The Greek Ministry of Public Order sent in a rescue team of 24 people and two trained rescue dogs plus fire-extinguishing planes to help put out the huge blaze at an oil refinery. Greek medical teams followed — doctors and nurses plus tents, ambulances, medicine, water, clothes, food and blankets. Throughout Greece, the Ministry of Health set up units for blood donations. The Church of Greece launched a major fund raising campaign for humanitarian relief. The five largest municipalities of Greece sent a joint convoy with aid. When the Mayor of Athens came personally to visit earthquake sites, he was greeted at the airport by the Mayor of Istanbul.
Both Greece’s official actions and the responses of ordinary Greeks were given wide coverage day after day in every newspaper and TV channel in Turkey. Turks were astounded by the compassionate Greek response to Turkey’s disaster.
Less than a month after the Turkish disaster, on September 7, 1999, Athens was hit by a powerful earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster in Greece in 20 years. While the death toll was relatively low, the damage to buildings and the infrastructure in some of the city’s northern and western suburbs was severe.
This time, Turkey responded. Turkish aid was the first to reach Athens from outside Greece’s borders. Within 13 hours a 20-person rescue team was flown in by a military plane. The Greek consulates and embassy in Turkey had their phone lines jammed with Turks calling to find out whether they could donate blood. One Turk offered to donate his kidney for a “Greek in need.”
For years Greece and Turkey had been on the brink of war. In the wake of this series of earthquakes, there was a very different climate — the sense that the time had come for a new understanding.
Nearly thirteen years have passed. During this period there has been no talk of impending war between Turkey and Greece. A major war may have been prevented all because two countries decided to aid their enemy in a time of crisis. [For more detail about this topic, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek%E2%80%93Turkish_earthquake_diplomacy ]
If we had time we could talk in more detail about peacemaking and nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution. We could talk about some of the people — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria Skobtsova and many others — who belonged to movements that demonstrate you don’t need to kill anyone to bring about constructive social change and whose example might inspire us to live our lives in such a way that our children and grandchildren have a better chance not just to survive but to live a good and loving life. I suggest you make it a priority to do what you can to know more about such people and the wells from which they drew their inspiration and courage.
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Oberlin lecture (presented 5 May 2012)
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