On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”
Gorbachev, still president of the soon-to-be extinct Soviet Union, was under house arrest, but Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles, as the White House. First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.
The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known – a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.
Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.
Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country – a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…
“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness. All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”
Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.
As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration. During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.”
All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.
The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:
“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.
“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.
“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”
The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.
By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.
Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy.
preface to A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011)
It is a pity Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams never met. What a friendship it would have been. Their age difference was the obstacle — Rowan was only eighteen when Merton died. Yet there is another sense in which meetings occur and friendships spring to life despite the impossibility of correspondence or face-to-face encounter. Good writing always remains in the present tense; the attentive reader meets the author in the intimate space of the printed page. When that occurs, a relationship can take root that flourishes despite the problem of death.
One sees the reality of such a friendship in this slim volume that brings together Rowan’s explorations of Merton’s writings. Merton would have been delighted to have found himself so carefully and perceptively read. The correspondence between them would have made this a much larger book.
In fact Merton’s own life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries).
Rowan looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life — first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.
Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.
We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.
Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.”
Both Merton and Rowan are people who have drawn deeply from Eastern Christian sources, both ancient and modern. Rowan’s doctoral dissertation concentrated on the work of Vladimir Lossky, whose writings also had great impact on Merton. Lossky was one of the Paris-based Orthodox theologians who distinguished the “individual” from the “person,” the latter understood as the self existing in communion with others rather than attempting to live in a state of one-person apartheid. To the extent one is becoming a person, Rowan notes, the process of sanctity is underway, for one “cannot be simply an individual pursuing an impossible ideal of individual sanctification in a sort of spiritual solipsism; this is, rather, the condition characteristic of hell.”
For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are “at least” seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest — a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.
December 8, 2010
note: The water color of Canterbury Cathedral on the book’s cover is by Owen Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton refers to his father painting in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury during his Easter vacation from Oakham in 1929.
In the early evening, a month and a day after the twin towers of the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet slowly descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, there was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, but now a maimed landscape.
It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the artificial light, like players in a football stadium, but couldn’t see them. Finally there was Battery Park and the glistening water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her golden torch in the sky, still offering her silent greeting to newcomers who had crossed the Atlantic. But it was mainly the wound in Manhattan that held my attention as our plane descended toward Newark.
I had seen the same view twice while in the US in June. Now not only were the city’s most dominant urban landmarks no longer there, but it was a very different America in October.
The September 11 attack had focused on primary symbols of America, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House was the probable target of Flight 93, which instead crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers battled the hijackers. When symbols are destroyed, it isn’t surprising that part of the response is also at the level of symbols: the national flag. America has long been one of the most flag-displaying cultures in the world, but even on the Fourth of July in earlier years I had never seen anything to match the outbreak of flags that greeted me once I was on the ground.
Those first few days in the US were spent in Red Bank, New Jersey, a town linked to New York City by rail. This is where I grew up and is now the home of my oldest son, his wife and their two young children. In the course of a leisurely walk to the center of the town and back, I counted more than two hundred flags, not including flag pins of various kinds that many people were wearing, or the small flags in a park by the river which had become a spontaneous memorial site for local victims of the events of September 11. More than a hundred people from Red Bank or nearby had been among the three thousands killed when the towers of the World Trade Center imploded. One of the dead had been a passenger on Flight 93. Here, amid many candles, were their photos as well as displays about them — wedding pictures, medals, prayer cards, poems, drawings and quilts. A smaller memorial was set up outside a nearby firehouse. Since September 11, when so many fireman and policemen sacrificed their lives rescuing others, Americans see heroes when they see people in either profession.
Visiting an Orthodox parish in Princeton, I was given a flag pin by a retired black woman whose son had narrowly escaped death at the World Trade Center. For her, she explained, the flag had become a different symbol after September 11 than it had been before. For her, it represented people trying to protect diversity in the face of ideologies that demand uniformity. But another member of the parish found himself uncomfortable with the flag. “Before the bombing of Afghanistan started, I saw it as a sign of mourning, but now it might be taken to mean that I support the [Afghanistan] war, which is mainly lengthening the list of victims of September 11.”
Traveling across the US giving lectures and leading retreats in seven states, from Massachusetts to California, I became aware of other changes that were not as visual as the flag.
There is the much greater care taken in searching passengers at air terminals. (A British bishop, Kallistos Ware, I know was searched with care three times on his way from London to Louisville because, as one searcher confessed, “you look like an imam.”) I also noted a greater tendency of strangers to talk to each other while waiting for flights. People seemed more inclined to reach out. Perhaps it had to do with the extreme nervousness everyone feels about flying after September 11. Again and again I heard people remark that not since the Wright brothers got the first plane off the ground has it been so safe to fly as it is today, given all the precautions, but now everyone anywhere near an airport feels a certain dread. With passenger traffic down sharply, there are fewer flights, but these tend to leave on time.
Whenever I mentioned that I live in Holland, I would be asked why it is that so many people in other countries hate and fear the United States? I responded that, while criticism of various aspects of the US is widespread, Americans should be aware that the shock and grief they experienced on September 11 circled the globe. Again and again I described the response of the Dutch — how on the day of mourning that stretched across Europe on the 14th of September, everything in Holland came to a dead stop at noon: every truck, train, car and bus pulled over, people stood still wherever they happened to be, transactions ceased in stores and banks, and a deep silence blanketed the land. Though the Dutch put out their flags only two or three times a year, every flag was out that day, all at half mast. Neighbors came to our door to express their condolences as if Nancy and I were local ambassadors of the United States.
In conversations at airports, schools and churches, I became aware of other changes that perhaps are best summed up by noting key words that one hears more often.
The word “war,” heard again and again each day, no longer referred to events in some distant place which many Americans would have difficulty finding on a map, but rather war up close, a war that might at any moment take one’s own life or the lives of family or neighbors, yet not war in any traditional sense. No particular country has attacked the United States. It is a war with people who refuse to name themselves, using methods which make it hard to identify those responsible. The main headlines during my month in America had to do with anthrax. Gas masks and anti-anthrax antibiotics were selling in huge quantities.
Another word I heard day after day was “vulnerability.” Americans were painfully aware that their country is no longer behind impenetrable castle walls. Clearly an enemy doesn’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile — he doesn’t even need a nuclear weapon — to become a formidable adversary to the world’s mightiest power.
One of the words being used far more frequently is “evil.” Though most people have had experiences of doing evil things, and also have been victims of evils of various kinds and degrees, the word “evil” itself was hugely neglected in the past generation or two. We preferred to speak of evil actions in psycho-therapeutic terms.
Inevitably the word “Islam” was being used far more than before September 11. I sensed an embarrassed awareness of how little most people know about Islam, how few and superficial or nonexistent are social contacts with Muslims. We are noticing both our own ignorance and the existence of an invisible wall.
The word “God” is being used far more often by people who don’t often enter places of worship and who think of religion as something for the brainless. It had been an embarrassing word for many people, a word one tried not to use, but the shock of September 11 has made Americans people think again about what life is all about, what is of ultimate significance. Many things Americans regarded as treasures on September 10th seemed like trash on September 12th. Churches couldn’t open their doors wide enough. People who hadn’t been at a church service in a long time were streaming in.
Perhaps the word one hears more than any other when talking about September 11 and its aftermath is “fear.” It is not that Americans were a people without fear before September 11. I wonder if there is another country on earth where there are so many privately owned weapons or so many locks per person? But the concentrated dread many have known since September 11 is of a different magnitude. The sale of hand guns has risen sharply. Stores selling gas masks couldn’t keep up with demand. Practically any product that makes the purchaser feel safer is selling briskly. According to press reports, the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen 40 percent.
While leading a retreat on the Beatitudes at Notre Dame University in Indiana during my last weekend in the US, I talked with a student who belongs to a group of peace activists on campus who have been wearing a T-short with the message “Pray for Peace” while handing out leaflets protesting the war, an activity in the present climate that requires real courage. “I think the bombing going on in Afghanistan right now is in part a political response to a contagion of fear,” he said. “Bombing is the government’s way of reassuring frightened people that we are taking the offensive now, even though it may be a strategy that makes acts of anti-US terrorism even more likely in the future. Bombing says, ‘We are doing something,’ even if the main thing achieved is to draw more Muslims to a pro-Bin Laden attitude.”
Before returning to Holland, I had a meeting in New York with a Greek Orthodox bishop. Taking the train from Red Bank to Penn Station, I walked the several miles to his office on East 74th Street. It was a beautiful fall day, the sky a deep cloudless blue, but every step of the way I was aware that this was not the same Manhattan I had lived in earlier in my life. Flags and signs of mourning seemed to be in every shop and bakery window, every restaurant, every newsstand. Everyone was wearing a flag pin. Faces revealed people still in a stunned condition. But what struck me most of all was the smell permeating the air, a strange burned smell. I recalled a phrase from an essay Dorothy Day had written in August 1945 just days after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though living in New York, she was aware that the radioactive dust of those two pulverized cities was being carried by the winds around the globe. She was, she wrote, “breathing in the dead.”
And here in Manhattan, a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, so was I. All of us were breathing in the dead.
For the Peace from Above brings together a substantial collection of primary texts on war, peace and nationalism drawn from the Old and New Testaments, Church Councils, the Church Fathers, various saints and many other sources, ancient and modern.
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Since the early days of the Church, Christians have struggled to come to terms with Christ’s words of peace and His example of peace. In Christ’s life, as recorded in the New Testament, it is striking that He neither killed anyone nor summoned any of His disciples to kill. Indeed, the final miracle Christ performed before His execution was to heal an enemy’s wound, an injury caused by the Apostle Peter in an attempt to defend his master.
Yet, in the course of more than twenty centuries of Christian history, we see Christians often involved in war and, in surveying the calendar of saints, find not only those who refused to take part in war but also those who served in the military, though no one has been canonized due to his skill as a soldier.
Besides the millions of Christians who have fought in armies, often against fellow Christians, we also find many priests, bishops and theologians who have advocated war and blessed its weapons. Our subject is an urgent one. Many people today live either near conflict areas or are directly touched by war or in areas where terrorist actions may suddenly occur.
Everyone on the planet is in some way affected by wars in progress or wars in the making as well as the consequences of wars in the past. Every day thousands of Christians struggle in thought and prayer with some of the most difficult of questions: May I fight injustice by violent methods? Am I allowed to kill in combat? Are there limits on what I can do in the defense of my country? Am I as a Christian allowed to disobey demands that I believe are unjust or violate the Gospel? When the demands of my country seem at odds with the demands of the Kingdom of God, how do I respond to this conflict? Rarely do we find easy answers to these and similar questions.
Thus, those of us in the Orthodox Christian tradition search for help in Holy Scripture, the canons provided to us by ecumenical councils, the witness of the saints, the writing of the Fathers of the Church as well as theologians of recent times. Imitation of saintly forebears alone, however, will not solve our problems. Different eras have adopted different attitudes. Also many of today’s problems never existed before, not least the changed character of war in an era of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and mass propaganda. Yet knowledge of the thought and action undertaken by the Orthodox Churches on the issues of war and peace in recent decades surely can help us find ways out of the dead ends that many communities are experiencing today. This is the aim of this book.
The icon on the cover is a panel from the border of a large St. Nicholas icon that was probably painted in Moscow in the early sixteenth century and now is in the collection of The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. (photo: Jim Forest)
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The Orthodox Research Institute
Paperback, 461 pages
$24.95 + S&H (USD)
note: The book is now out of print but a free PDF file is available on request. Use the contact form on this web site.
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The table of contents plus a list of principal authors of texts included in the book.
Introduction — iii
Chapter One: Defining Terms — 1
Chapter Two: Reference Texts from Holy Scripture — 15
Chapter Three: Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts — 43
Case Study 1: The Definition of Religious Nationalism (Ethno-Phyletism) — 69
Case Study 2: The 1986 Chambésy statement — 73
Case Study 3: Church, Nation and State — 88
Chapter Four: Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period 99
Case Study 4: Acts of the Martyrdom of Early Christian Soldiers — 147
Case Study 5: Christian Soldiers in the Roman Army before Constantine — 152
Chapter Five: War, Peace and Nationalism — 155
Case Study 6: Prayer for Peace in the Liturgy — 177
Case Study 7: Commemoration of Warrior Saints — 179
Chapter Six: Reference Texts from Modern Authors — 199
Study 8: Orthodoxy, Culture and Nationalism — 233
Case Study 9: The Serbian Church and Milosevic — 238
Chapter Seven: Various Recent Official Statements — 243
Case Study 10: Orthodox Americans, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and Iraq — 287
Chapter Eight: Essays and Texts — 303
Chapter Nine: Study and Action Guide — 451
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In addition to numerous Church Fathers and Councils, the book’s authors or persons quoted at length include:
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Fr. Hildo Bos
Fr. Sergi Bulgakov
Bishop Irenaeus Bulovic of Backa, Serbia
John H. Erickson
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon
Fr. Lev Gillet
Fr. Stanley S. Harakas
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Fr. Thomas Hopko
Metropolitan Maximus of Sardes
Fr. John McGuckin
Fr. John Meyendor
St. Maria Skobtsova
Louis J. Swift
V. Rev. Dr. Georges Tsetsis
Charles C. West
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Review by Fr Michael Plekon for Cistercian Studies Quarterly:
The past decades have been times of deep disagreement and division among Christians, Orthodox Christians included, on matters of politics. No area is excluded—the economy, the role and size of government particularly at the federal level, social values and policy and foreign policy. This excellent resource book, ably compiled by Fr Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, is a revision and expansion of a volume originally published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Fr Hildo Bos was long in the leadership of the former and Jim Forest of the latter organizations.
This collection is structured in a most effective and singular manner. There are selections of texts from the scriptures, from the acts of synods and canons, from patristic as well as modern writers and from contemporary statements—declarations of an ecumenical nature as those of Bosphorus, 1994, Vienna, 1999, Assisi, 2002 and Moscow, 2004, as well as statements from various church bodies—Albania, Serbia, the Greek Archdiocese in America, the Orthodox Church in America, from groups such as SCOBA and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and individual hierarchs—Patriarch Bartholomew I, Alexis II, Petros, Ignatius IV, Archbishop Ananstasios of Tirana, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, among others. And there is a fascinating selection of essays from some of the hierarchs just mentioned as well as contemporary authors such as Olivier Clement, John Erickson, Jim Forest, Stanley Harakas, and John McGuckin, to name a few.
Suffice it to say there is an amazing content in the sections just described. Two thousand years of witness, not only from the Orthodox Church but more broadly from universal Christianity are documented. However, the editors also chose to entwine these texts with a provocative ten case studies from an equally wide range of sources. These include the 1872 synodical condemnation of ethno-phyletism, the 1986 Chambesy statement on the Orthodox Church and peace, the 2000 “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” to ancient texts on Christian soldiers, the writings of Fr Lev Gillet on peace and Hildo Bos’ essay on the commemoration of warrior saints in the liturgy. Also there is Thomas Hopko’s essay on the Serbian Church and Milosevic. Lastly, there is Michael Azar’s probing essay on the debate among American Orthodox on the war in Iraq in the past decade, including the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s Iraq appeal, signed by many clergy and laity and the strong criticism of this effort by Frank Schaeffer, Patrick Reardon, Johannes Jacobse and others.
This will be, for a very long time, the resource on war, peace and in a lesser manner, on nationalism for readers of every religious background interested in the Eastern Church perspectives. The texts make it clear that there has always been debate about violence and warfare. There are prayers in time of war, prayers for the military, but also prayers for peace and the poignant plea of the late Patriarch Pavle of Serbia that clergy not use prayers for the blessing of weapons. The statements of the bishops of Serbia and Albania are also moving in their condemnations of killing, torture and other violence in the Balkans.
As valuable as this collection is, it will of course be criticized by some for its “pacifist” and “liberal” reading of the Orthodox tradition on war and peace and nationalism. However, I think this volume is marked by honesty about the many atrocities committed in the name of God, real deviations from the Gospel’s mandate of love. It is also careful in the use of source documents and texts, providing a striking array of points of view in different periods and from different writers. Finally, it is balanced and this is typified by essay which concludes the collection, John McGuckin’s very careful and discerning look both at the larger Christian tradition East and West and then, particularly, at the Eastern perspective. He warns against the easy and often “politically correct” simplifications about church history in general and the positions on war and peace in particular.
Rather than use a “just war” theory, the East was more often ambivalent, seeing in war and violence and betrayal, a loss of the vision of the kingdom of God’s peace and justice. Whether Saddam Hussein or Islam, the urge to want to remove variously perceived “forces of evil” or “axis of evil” is always a dubious undertaking of divine judgment and action, he writes. Just as Eastern churches have too often allowed the state to master them, so also the “blessing” of weapons and armies and war more broadly is more an aberration of the essential Christian vision in McGuckin’s view.
And such a nuanced perspective is given by the editors here. The history of engagement with war and nationalism and politics may be complex, but the message of the Gospel remains consistent, opposed to easy, expedient political alliances and strategies. The claim of any “declaration” or statement, by a single bishop, theologian or group, that theirs is “the” Orthodox position—none others allowed voice—is a clear deviation from tradition’s complexity and consistency.
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review by Ron Dart of the University of Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia:
My wife asked me a couple of weeks ago when we were on a retreat in the desert a leading question. ‘If I was on a deserted Island for a few years, what three books would I want with me?’ I pondered the answer to the question for a few days. Our answers to such questions often tell us much about the state and orientation of our soul. My answer emerged after some listening: the Bible, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Adages (all 1450 of them) of Erasmus.
What do all three books have in common? All deal with both the subtle inner and outer dimensions of war and peace. The Bible constantly returns to the war-peace motif, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the finest novel ever written on the theme, and Erasmus is, probably, one of the most important Christian theologians of peace within the Christian Tradition.
So, it was with much delight and anticipation that I received and read For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism.
I teach a course on ‘The Western Peace Tradition’, and Ronald Musto’s The Catholic Peace Tradition is a must read in the genre. Many of the historic Anabaptists had a passion for peace in opposition to the Magisterial Reformers, but it was the English Peace Tradition that did much to shape and inform via Erasmus the 1st generation Anabaptists. Sadly so, most in the West know little or nothing about the fullness of the Eastern and Orthodox thinking on war and peace: For the Peace from Above definitely and decidedly fills in a gap for many within the West about a well thought-out historic peace tradition. This timely tome is a must read.
For the Peace from Above is a comprehensive historic overview (origins of Christianity to the present) on how the Orthodox Tradition has thought about peace. ‘This resource book is a revised and expanded edition of a book first published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, working in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Now thanks to the Orthodox Research Institute, it will reach a broader audience, not only Orthodox, we hope, but Christians from other churches’. I would hope, for the thoughtful and curious, such a book will reach inquisitive minds and imaginations beyond the churches also.
For the Peace from Above is divided into 9 compact and succinct chapters. Each chapter emerges and unfolds from the earlier chapter. Each chapter builds up, brick by brick, the case for the Orthodox peace position.
Chapter 1, rightly so, deals with ‘Defining Terms: Definitions from Dictionaries and Church Authors’. It is essential, of course, that agreement is reached on what words mean, hence the priority of chapter 1.
Chapter 2 (should appeal to the best protestant instincts) lists ‘Reference Texts from Holy Scripture’.
Chapter 3, after dipping the bucket deep in Holy Scripture, turns to ‘Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts’. The argument is being made well and in an intricate and convincing manner. Both the Bible and Synods-Canons embody a distinct peace position. Case studies are offered to illustrate such authoritative positions. But, there is yet more.
Chapter 4 highlights ‘Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period’—-more case studies are brought forward that add to the peace argument.
Chapter 5 deals with the historic and contemporary dilemma of ‘War, Peace and Nationalism’—again, a couple of case studies are offered the reader to ponder. Some might argue that the authority of the Bible, Canons, Synods and Patristic authors are a necessary but not sufficient condition to be convincing. How do these founts of authority speak to us today? Fr. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest have not let us down.
Chapter 6 holds high ‘Reference Texts from Modern Authors (with more case studies) and chapter 7 includes ‘Various Recent Official Statements’ from Orthodox leaders on war and peace in our contemporary context. Bos and Forest have yet more goods to draw the aspiring and mature peacemaker.
Chapter 8 threads together ‘Essays and Texts’ and chapter 9, ‘Study and Action Guide’are a fine primer on how to act, in a peaceful manner, in issues of conflict and war.
For the Peace from Above offers many within the Orthodox tradition an alternate to an uncritical nationalism and patriotism. For the Peace from Above also spells out for those in the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant) the motherlode of the Orthodox peace tradition. There are moments on our journey when caricatures within the Christian Tradition dissipate like a cloud. There are many who have little or no understanding of the Orthodox Peace Tradition, hence caricatures of such a wise and time tried way abound—this book will correct such misunderstandings both within and outside the Orthodox and Western Christian Tradition. Those who have a passion for peace should have many copies of For the Peace from Above to pass on, like nutritious food, for souls that are hungry for the Divine banquet of true peace from above.
I asked my wife if I could, perhaps, take a fourth book with me to the deserted Island alongside the Bible, War and Peace and the sagacious Adages of Erasmus — just one more, I was kindly advised. So, I chose For the Peace from Above. It’s an A++ keeper and pure diamond.
published in Trouw, 23 August 2011 (in De Verdieping)
By Frank Mulder
We cannot work for peace without being open to our opponents, says Jim Forest, writer and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. And that requires setting our fear aside.
“Jesus loves Wikileaks” reads the banner in front of the American consulate on Museum Square in Amsterdam. A group of Christian activists are calling attention to the fate of Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who passed on military secrets to Wikileaks and has been imprisoned for several months without trial.
One of the participants is the 69-year-old peace worker Jim Forest. “Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for months,” says Forest. “People who dare to stick their necks out to expose abuses are the people I want to support.” He’s not very enthusiastic about the text on the banner. “Julien Assange of Wikileaks is not my role model. And you shouldn’t claim Jesus for your own particular cause. But I do know that Jesus told us to tell the truth. And that’s why I think we should be grateful to whistleblowers, especially when they expose what’s going on in Iraq.”
Forest is known in America mainly as a writer of books on spirituality. Recently he published a biography of Dorothy Day, the woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement in1933 and serves as a model for many Christian activists.
Forest himself lived in community with her in Manhattan during the sixties. “That was one of the ‘houses of hospitality’ for which the Workers are still known: communities, often in run-down neighborhoods, where addicts, refugees or other people in need can come for food, clothing and shelter. Since then hundreds of such communities have been established in all the cities of America and outside the US as well.” Catholic Workers are devoted to living out the Gospel in a literal, simple way, and they own as little property as possible. “Just like the early Franciscans. In a culture where many people prefer to live alone with their families, Dorothy challenged people to experiment with hospitality.”
Dorothy Day, says Forest, is still relevant for her radical social critique. “She didn’t think charity was enough. She wanted a society in which it was easier to be good, a society that was more hospitable to the poor and the stranger. Her action on behalf of trade unions and for peace often brought her into conflict with the authorities. She called herself an anarchist, by which she didn’t mean overthrowing the government but being loyal to the Gospel first and then to the government.”
Most Catholic Workers have spent time in jail, following the example of Day herself. Forest also spent more than a year in prison for burning draft records in 1968 during the Vietnam War. He conducted the action in public along with a group of clergy, while the Gospel was being read. “Sometimes you have to commit civil disobedience. But the purpose should always be to convey a message, never just to be confrontational.” His radicalism is not leftist, he says. “The good thing about the left is that sometimes they’re the only ones who do something about unemployment, war or racism. But when it becomes a religion, opponents are soon seen as political objects. Are you a follower of Wilders [the anti-Muslim Dutch politician]? Then I’m supposed to despise you! According to Christianity, however, I must always give the other the chance to repent by not getting in the way with a sense of my own self-importance. Every day I work on cleaning up my act.”
In 1977 Forest and his family came to the Netherlands to work for an international peace organization. “We were involved in the movement against nuclear weapons. They were being stored in Bergen, within cycling distance of my house. The movement was very important ? internationally, too ? but I always felt there was something lacking. The work of consciousness-raising was focused mainly on fear. ‘If the Russians launch a nuclear weapon on the storage site, all of North Holland will be destroyed!’ But it was that fear that was the most important cause of the Cold War.” For real peace you have to get to know the person behind the enemy, Forest believes, and for this reason he decided to visit the Soviet Union. He was so impressed by the church there that in 1988 he and his wife joined the Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam.
The Eastern Orthodox are not among the most progressive Christians under the sun, Forest admits, and he even has a joke about it: “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “None! What is this ‘change’?” The Orthodox churches have a survival mentality, Forest explains, which is quite understandable. “They’re in countries where you want to be seen as little as possible. But the social tradition is very rich. This is why we set up the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ? to tell those stories. We talk about the most important compiler of the Orthodox Liturgy, for example, John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. He was exiled by the emperor for being too socially radical. According to him, you cannot find Christ on the altar if you have failed to see him in the beggar at the church door. Every day you must try to see the face of God in the other.” Forest laughs: “Christianity is really so bloody simple!”
Without that attitude, working for peace becomes a matter of dividing people into the good guys and the bad guys, and you have to choose which one you want to belong to. “The other side is never going to listen to you. If you want them to change, you have to enter into a relationship with them. Peace work is tied up with love, even if ideology sees that as betrayal.”
For Forest, peace work is more than solving violent conflicts. “It’s about everything that makes relationships, families and society more healthy. If you’re not working for peace ? if you’re making things that people don’t need, for instance ? you’re probably not in the right place. Hospitality is peace work, too. Peace work begins when you open your door, when you open your face.”
That can be exhausting, Forest knows from experience. There are so many people in need. “The people who inspire me ? Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi ? all say that you won’t last without prayer. It was a daily discipline for them, and it was more than meditating. Prayer is conversation with God, in which God is usually silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hear him. There are deathly silences but there are also audible silences.”
This is how we find the strength to keep from doing what society and advertising tell us to do. “They tell us we ought to be afraid. We must always refuse to listen to them. This is less exciting than exposing abuses, of course, but it is just as much a form of civil disobedience.”
Jim Forest (1942) is a journalist. He is married and has six children. Despite his communist upbringing, he soon found his way to Christian belief. Through Dorothy Day he was introduced to the Catholic Worker community in New York. At that time he was actively involved in the civil rights movement and campaigns against the Vietnam War, for which he spent more than a year in prison. “A great year,” he calls it. “I could finally read Dostoyevsky, at Dorothy’s recommendation. And I had time for the Bible.” Forest was also a friend of the famous monk Thomas Merton.
In 1977 Forest was appointed general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the Netherlands. After traveling to the Soviet Union in the eighties he became Russian Orthodox. Since then he has been international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, for which he was the editor-in-chief of the magazine In Communion until this summer.
He has written several books on spirituality in addition to a few children’s books, and has recently published a new biography of Dorothy Day entitled All is Grace. Day (1897-1980) was an American journalist who, along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker, a movement for nonviolent action dedicated to helping the poor that is also active in Amsterdam.
One of the most bizarre and disheartening experiences I had during my many years working in the peace movement was the passionate opposition I encountered from a number of fellow anti-war activists when I circulated reports I had received from Thich Nhat Hanh and other reliable sources of major human rights violations in post-war Vietnam. The reports led me to propose an effort be made by well-known war resisters to urge the Hanoi government to open its prisons and “re-education camps” to inspection by staff of Amnesty International or the International Red Cross.
Little did I anticipate the firestorm that quickly followed.
(Apologies for any typos — this is scanned from a photocopy.)
Worldview magazine (NY) / April 1977
There will always be people to minimize violations of human rights and to justify those they acknowledge. This is happening now in the case of Vietnam.
Fighting Among the Doves
by Jim Finn
At the end of the war in April, 1975, there was no bloodbath, as some of the more harsh antagonists of North Vietnam predicted. That terrible possibility not having come to pass, many Americans were pleased to turn their attention elsewhere. But others, including some leaders of the antiwar movement in this country, did not let falter their interest in and their compassion for the cruelly tried people of Vietnam. They collected as much information as they could about what was going on in Vietnam. Much of it was admirable, even impressive. But gradually rumors, reports, unverifiable but persuasive testimony, foreign news stories, and the accounts from refugees forced some people to believe that there was also in Vietnam a substantial violation of human rights.
Those moved by this evidence mounted relatively modest efforts to place their concern before officials of the Vietnamese Government. At first they wrote private letters to Mr. Dinh Ba Thi, the Vietnam Observer to the United Nations, and when these went unanswered, they made a public appeal. But even as these efforts were going forward, they were attacked by people who questioned the accuracy of the reports and the propriety and usefulness of making them public.
It becomes increasingly clear that, taken seriously, the issue of human rights is divisive. It disturbs what might otherwise be stable relations between individuals, between organizations. between governments.
Having taken seriously the issue of human rights in Vietnam, the “peace movement” in this country has splintered into different and sometimes acrimonious factions. People who marched side by side in antiwar demonstrations and sometimes shared the same cell for their acts of resistance now approach quite differently the reports of human rights violations in Vietnam, the explanations and justifications offered by the Vietnamese, and the moral and political responsibility of American war resisters.
As trivial and unsavory as the exchanges between the factions sometimes are, the debate itself is important. It is important because its outcome will influence the attitudes of Americans toward issues of human rights, even more important because it may help determine the fate of political prisoners in Vietnam. On both sides of the debate are writers, publicists, and leaders in various organizations — people who influence attitudes and policies in this country and may even influence those in Vietnam.
That is what gives whatever significance it has to this debate on human rights.
The first organized efforts to get some response from officials of the Vietnam Government were begun last September, when Richard Neuhaus, senior editor of Worldview, in cooperation with Jim Forest, drafted an initial version of the Appeal. Forest, a prisoner some years back for acts of war resistance, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and editor of its magazine, Fellowship, also wrote an article (“Vietnam: Unification Without Reconciliation”) in the journal detailing the charges with which he was concerned. The draft of the “Appeal to the Government of Vietnam Regarding Human Rights” was then reworked with the help of Tom Cornell of FOR; Laura Hassler, formerly with the U.S. Liaison Office for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation; and Robert Ellsberg, managing editor of the Catholic Worker.
Before the Appeal was made public Jim Forest, wrote letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U. N. asking for some response. These went unanswered. Among other unanswered letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U.N. are a letter sent by over twenty Representatives to Congress and another sent last fall by Sanford Gottlieb, Executive Director of SANE. Citing the long history of that organization’s opposition to the war, the letter looked forward to the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, but it also expressed concern about reports of hundreds of thousands of detainees, including Third Force parliamentarians, Hoa Hao leaders, and Buddhists who had staunchly opposed the Thieu regime — reports that had come from both the press and private Vietnamese sources.
In gathering corroborative evidence for the Appeal this ad hoc group relied upon the reports of experienced journalists such as Jean Lacouture and Patrice De Beer, whom the Vietnamese revolutionaries had respected for their reporting during the war years and who had spent considerable time in Vietnam since the war; on individuals who had been reliable sources of information concerning repression and torture during the Diem-Thieu regime; on the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which, throughout the war, worked to bring it to an end, assisted draft resisters, and advocated political tolerance; and on the testimony of some refugees.
This Appeal was then signed by about a hundred people who shared opposition to the war and now share a concern for the violation of human rights in Vietnam. (See partial text and attached list of signers.) The Appeal calls for the admission of Vietnam to the U.N. and for aid to that country, and it ends, as it begins, on a note of hope. But the burden of the Appeal is to call attention to reported violations of human rights in Vietnam, the thousands in “re-education” camps, including named individuals who opposed Thieu, and the “tragic self-immolation of 12 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province” who burned themselves on November 2, 1975, as a protest against repressive measures.
This Appeal was sent to the Vietnamese Ambassador on November 16, with a request for a meeting. There was no immediate response, but the Appeal formed the basis for a well-publicized press conference held by The International League for Human Rights on December 29, 1976. The conference made public a letter from Roger Baldwin, a veteran fighter for the protection of human rights and Honorary President of the League. Formally requesting Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi to convey the Appeal to his Government, Baldwin’s letter said in part:
“As a non-governmental organization affiliated with the United Nations, we address you to convey our deep concern with reported activities of your Government which appear to be in violation of the human rights principles to which we assume your Government subscribes by virtue of its United Nations connection.
“These activities, supported by documentation, cover suppression of language held to be critical of the Government or its policies, thus contravening Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In similar fashion, other articles of the Declaration appear to be violated in the detention of political prisoners solely for activities not involving violence or organized opposition. In this connection, we enclose a petition addressed to your Government and signed by 90 well-known Americans concerned with foreign affairs.”
The Vietnamese immediately responded publicly to this press conference, and early in February I received — as I presume all who signed the Appeal received — a letter from Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi saying he had been instructed by the Prime Minister, Mr. Pham Van Dong, to reply to the November mailing. The rather sketchy reply was in two parts: first, a one-page “aide-memoire” denying in general terms any violation of human rights and second, a one-page statement commenting on three specific cases, including “The ‘Immolation’ in Can Tho.”
The aide-memoire stated that those who had opposed Thieu now occupied “well-deserved positions in the new society,” and those who were misguided but have learned better and repented are now full members of the new society. “Being detained are only those who had done so much harm to the people and the country and now continue to sabotage activities against the laws and the peaceful life of the people.”
What is offered as a description of what took place in Can Tho deserves full quotation:
“According to the testimony of the witnesses, the following are facts on the so-called “immolation” in Thien Vien Duoc Su Temple, Tan Long A hamlet, Tan Binh village, Phung Hiep district, Can Tho province, on the night of November 1, 1975:
“1. Pham Van Co was a wrong-doer who claimed himself specialized in medical treatment for women but his only purpose was to give sexual stimulation. He disguised a s monk and had been twice admitted to live in temples but twice he was expelled for immoral conduct of promiscuity which is severely forbidden by Buddhism. April 1970, he set up for himself a pagoda in Tan Long hamlet named Thien Vien Duoc Su and called himself Duoc Su Nhu Lai (Buddha The Healer) where he admitted young women as disciples for his sexual satisfaction.
“2. 1972, a nun called Dieu Hau was pregnant with him. He killed her and burnt her corpse at midnight, then spread the news about her “immolation for peace.”
“3. 1974, another nun named Dieu Nguyen became pregnant. He also killed her and burnt her corpse to erase evidences of his crime.
“4. After the liberation of South Viet Nam, Co continued his immoral conduct and housed prostitutes in his temple. In face of being exposed, Co decided to end his life, burnt the temple and himself after killing 11 others including two youngsters. This incident however was described by some reactionary elements as an “immolation” to accuse the local authorities of repressing religion.”
This account of what is taking place in Vietnam and of what took place in Can Tho differs from reports offered by reliable journalists, refugees, and the Unified Buddhist Church. One might expect that a group of people who had learned to distrust official government statements would at least express cautious skepticism of reports from Vietnamese officials and lend support to the Appeal, which suggests that some independent international agency investigate discrepancies in the accounts of what is taking place in Vietnam.
The Appeal has generated such a response, but it has also provoked sharp attacks against those who initiated and those who signed it.
For his efforts Jim Forest has been accused of being an agent of the CIA, of needing to spend some time in a reeducation camp, of being a covert anti-Communist, of being a white bourgeois American — of anything that might undermine the legitimacy of his efforts. The present Chairman of Clergy and Laity Concerned (of which Richard Neuhaus was co-founder) wrote a letter to the Washington Post and the New York Times to dissociate the organization from the Appeal, in the course of which letter he criticized not Vietnam but the United States. In the first issue of Seven Days, of which he is a staff member, David Dellinger, a longtime pacifist, accused those who initiated the Appeal of “circulating for sometime now every remotely credible rumor it could get its hand on that, if true, would discredit the new Vietnamese government.” He states that the two major sources of their information are Thich Nhat Hanh (who was not allowed in Vietnam under Thieu’s regime and is not allowed in now) and Ted Jacqueney, both of whom Dellinger suggests are untrustworthy because they were long hostile to the National Liberation Front and Hanoi.
Another person who totally rejects the grounds of the Appeal is Gareth Porter of the Indochina Resource Center (which Graham A. Martin, the last U.S. ambassador in Saigon, bitterly credited with undermining essential support for the war — no small beer). Porter has organized a group that subscribes to the sentiment that there is no evidence that allows anyone “to impugn the good faith” of the Vietnamese Government in regard to human rights. He assesses the facts as he perceives them and concludes that they do not provide a warrant for investigative action. Presumably, if he were led to a different assessment or were presented with irrefutable evidence that serious violations of human rights do exist, he would change his stance.
For others, however, even hard evidence would not be sufficient to warrant investigation. Consider, for example, a longtime pacifist deeply engaged in Vietnamese affairs over the years. Writing from Hong Kong to take issue with Jim Forest, he stated:
“Even if I believed that there was a consistent policy of the violation of human rights, I just would not have the nerve — as an American — to tell the Vietnamese how to organize their society. Rather I would, I do — acknowledge and confess my own complicity in allowing the war to go on for such a long time …. If the Vietnamese had chosen the course of mass executions and plunder, of political prisoners and torture, it would have been our own strategies of terror and brutality which drove them to it.”
Not to have the nerve to defend those unjustly punished be cause one is an American is failure of nerve indeed. Rational discussion on these terms is difficult.
Other prominent Americans have both minimized the evidence that has been offered and shifted responsibility on thi s issue from Vietnam to the United States. A number of these people signed a statement (drawn up by Corliss Lamont and published in the New York Times on January 30 of this year), which estimates the number of people “detained in re-education centers” as 40,000 and states that many of these people are guilty of “rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion.” That number of imprisoned “Saigon collaborationists” is smaller than almost all other estimates. (Early in February, 1977, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times estimated 200,000, and even Vietnam’s Ambassador to France put the number at 50,000.)
But the number is further diminished in importance by comparing it to the “several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort.” If these people are being “detained” for the crimes imputed to them in this statement, one would like to know if they have been so charged by the Government and whether they have passed through even a crude judicial process. These are questions usually pressed by those who are concerned with human rights. The signers of this statement assert, however, that “Vietnam presents a very different case.” That, of course, is what is at issue.
In the ongoing debate between those who signed what has been labeled the Forest Appeal and those who criticize it, the national office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has played an important role. Staff members, working from this Quaker office in Philadelphia, have circulated letters and statements sharply criticizing those who shaped that Appeal and challenging the validity of the evidence that has been offered. Louis W. Schneider, the Executive Secretary, wrote a letter to all signers of the Appeal saying that the evidence offered “is either open to serious question or is insufficiently substantiated in order to be able to make particular allegations concerning certain individuals who may have suffered a loss of human rights. Indeed, in certain instances, including the alleged immolation, there is contradictory information. Until such questions are dispelled or more authentic documentation is adduced, our colleagues demur to subscribe either to generalizations or to representations on behalf of particular individuals who may have been cited.” The judgment of AFSC, he concludes, is that the government of Vietnam is acting with extraordinary humaneness.
From the Quaker International Center in Paris, the Director, Joseph Heflin, “after much investigation into international law concerning the protection of human rights,” wrote to ask that his name be withdrawn from the Appeal, which he had originally signed, for the following reasons:
First, “Since the United States Government has failed to ratify a single United Nations Convention on Human Rights, I am no longer in a position to sign any appeal as an American citizen which is addressed to another Government….”
Second, “I also believe it to be most presumptuous of me to have taken this stand when the U.S. Government has still not officially recognized the Republic of Vietnam at the United Nations.”
The rationale of the first reason would, one presumes, hobble even President Carter and that of the second once again places responsibility on the U.S. And, in the meantime, about those political prisoners in Vietnam, well….
That reasoning does not, however, permeate Quaker activities in this country or in Vietnam. During the war, some members of the national staff talked with representatives of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) and publicly supported, not simply peace, but a North Vietnamese victory. Soon after the war the AFSC circulated a letter in which a staff member; describing the killing of looters in Vietnam, implicitly endorsed the execution of such summary justice. These staff members continue to be sympathetic to the victors in that war. Nothing criminal about that — even if it does suggest a political orientation most people do not associate with the Quakers. But it helps to explain why some AFSC staff members are skeptical of those whom they regard, correctly or not, as anti-Communist. (In this debate, perversely recalling some of those in the 1950’s, the charge of being anti-Communist is exactly that — a charge.)
One could spend more time threading the byzantine corridors of this potentially significant debate. But we only arrive, finally, at what in these circumstances is the overwhelming question: Presented with the evidence available and the argument that swirls around it, how can most of us reach a practical decision? Morally and politically, what are we to do? Ignore the alleged violations, accept them as the inevitable if regrettable concomitant of Socialist reconstruction, or urge their investigation and possible mitigation?
Each person who signed the Appeal — or refused to — must speak for him or herself. Joan Baez, for example, correctly pointed out that the letter was not an indictment but an inquiry as well as an appeal. And she added:
“Although there is doubt concerning the political prisoners in Vietnam, I would rather err in unintentionally offending government officials anywhere in the world, to whom I would apologize later if I have been mistaken, than to offend one political prisoner whom I might now conceivably help and whom later I may never be able to reach.
“In offering my own reasons for signing the Appeal I acknowledge that one moves in an area in which facts are inseparable from judgment and a degree of uncertainty is inevitable, that one relies upon reports from those one has earlier learned to trust. Many of us during the war relied upon the journalistic reports of Jean Lacouture. When he now reports on the number of prisoners in Vietnam, I know of no particular reason to distrust him. During the war some of the information I received came through the good offices of Jim Forest, Tom Cornell, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and their sources. It checked out. Although they are not infallible, I see no reason to distrust them now. And there are others I could name whose help I have received. For fear of reprisal some of these sources cannot be named, but that, too, was true during the war when we relied, many of us; on publicly unnamed sources.
“There is, in addition, the general attitude and expectation that one brings to bear on postwar situations. I don’t mean a possible ideological approach that might obscure — or clarify — one’s observations. I mean the kind of thing that forces one to feel with a heavy heart the truth of Lacouture’s remark, itself the expression of deep sadness, that ‘it is better for someone trying to preserve intact his admiration for a revolution not to know its victims.’
“This recalled to me when I first read it Camus’s reference to ‘justice, that eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.’ I have a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”
And what of those visitors to Vietnam, some of whom are obviously intelligent, sincere, concerned, diligent, who bring back highly favorable reports, contradictory to harsher views? Are not they to be trusted? For the most part, the efforts of these people are to be honored and their sincerity respected. But we know that honorable people have traveled through other countries and brought back glowing reports, unaware that they had passed through and around areas that were scenes of extensive misery and horror. I know that I could guide a stranger, even an English-speaking foreigner, through the streets of New York (skipping Harlem and South Bronx) and lead him to make a report of this city that Mayor Beame himself might find unduly fulsome. I cannot think the Vietnamese leaders are less skilled than I, and I consider it natural that they would like to display the most attractive aspects of their new society.”
There is one other point, which for Staughton Lynd was critical. In an open letter to Dave Dellinger explaining why he and Alice Lynd signed the Appeal, Lynd wrote that “Any revolutionary government finds itself much less threatened by the ordinary adherents of the overthrown regime, who often enough have opportunistic motives for throwing their support to the new men of power, than by persons who opposed the old regime for principled reasons other than the reasons of the victors. It is this kind of person who fares worst the day after the revolution. In Russia, the Social Revolutionaries, the Workers Opposition, the Kronstadt rebels were persons of this kind. This is a point I keep in mind when I read, for example, of the people described by Ted Jacqueney in his accounts of Vietnamese prisoners.”
What then is to be done? The Appeal itself is modest in that it asks only for an examination of the mounting charges of serious violations of human rights in Vietnam. The work of reconciliation should go forward, but we should not avert our eyes from possible abuses that we would object to in other countries tor whose people we felt special concern. As it was well expressed at the World Council of Churches meeting in Nairobi, “it is impossible to have zones of silence in the area of human rights.” It is not impossible to have some impartial international body investigate, with the help of the present Government of Vietnam, the questions that are being raised and that, if left unresolved, will continue to fester. Since it is not impossible, and since it is desirable, we should work to bring it about.
* * *
APPEAL TO THE GOVERNMENT OF VIETNAM (Partial Text)
Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.
Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. while some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the “bloodbath” so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons. including religious. cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks, such individuals as Bui Tung Hum, Doan Quoc Sy, Luong Trong Tuong, Fr. Tran Huu Thanh, Tran Van Tuyen. Tran Ngoc Chau, Vu Hoang Chuong, Hong Hai Thuy and Duyen Anh.
Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics….
We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.
We recall the tragic self-immolation of l2 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church (An Quang), including those assisting war orphans. have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated….
James K. Aiu
James V. Albertini
Joan C. Baez
David R. Brower
Angie O’Gorman Calvert
Arthur W. Clark
Community for Creative Nonviolence
Thomas C. Cornell
The Rev. Frederick Johnson
R. Scott Kennedy
Bishop John J. Dougherty
Bishop Carroll T. Dozier
Congressman Donald M. Fraser
Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
Mary Ellen Hombs
Wallace J. Inglis
Homer A. Jack
Bernard S. Lee
John E. Muior
Richard John Neuhaus
Ira J. Sandperl
Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild
Abbie Jane Wells
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf
* * *
VIETNAM: A TIME FOR HEALING AND COMPASSION (Partial Text)
… some Saigon collaborationists have been detained in re-education centers, perhaps 40,000 at present. But such a number is surprisingly small considering the several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort. it is well to recall the savagery with which the Saigon regime pursued its war policy before condemning the new Vietnam leadership for taking steps to punish and re-educate the worst wrong-doers. Many of those detained engaged in crimes against their own people, including rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion. On balance, consider the terrible difficulties left behind by the war and made worse by America’s continued hostility. The present government of Vietnam should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to achieve reconciliation among all of its people.
We share the view that American citizens should be gravely concerned about abuses of human rights, whether they occur in our country or abroad. This concern is especially appropriate where our government supports a foreign regime that is engaged in flagrant abuse of its own people — abuses including systematic torture. But Vietnam presents a very different case. The present suffering of the
Vietnamese people is largely a consequence of the war itself for which the United States bears a continuing responsibility.
James Armstrong, Bishop, United Methodist Church
Richard Barnet, Co-Director, Institute for Policy Studies
Norma Becker, Chairwoman, War Resisters League
Atlee Beechy, Mennonite Central Committee
Robert McAfee Brown, Professor Union Theological
Robert S. Browne, Director, Black Economic Research
Mrs. Eleanor Brussel, Educator
David Dellinger, Seven Days Magazine
Prof. Richard A. Falk, Milbank Professor of Law,
Howard Frazier, Executive Director, Promoting Enduring
Rev. Stephen H. Fritchman, Unitarian Minister
Don Luce. Co-Director, Clergy and Laity Concerned
John McAuliff, Coordinator, Appeal for Reconciliation
Paul F. McCleary, Executive Director, Church World
Grace Paley, Author
Dr. Paul Sweezy, Co-editor, Monthly Review
George W. Webber, President, New York Theological Seminary
Cora Weiss, National Coordinator, Friendshipment
Corliss Lamont, Author, Coordinator
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James Finn is Editor-in-Chief of Worldiew and author of Protest, Pacifism and Politics, a study of the antiwar movement.
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In Fr Alexander Webster’s argument that the Orthodox Church should regard war as “a lesser good” rather than “a lesser evil,” it is striking how meager is his attention to the New Testament. Does he really imagine Jesus sanctioning war and obliging his followers to take part in it? The Savior became incarnate in a country enduring the humiliation of military occupation, yet failed to side in word or action with the Zealot opposition. There is no Gospel account of him sanctioning anyone’s death. In the one instance we know of when an issue of capital punishment was brought before him, he succeeded in saving the life of a woman who might otherwise have been stoned to death. When the apostle Peter used a sword in an attempt to defend Jesus from arrest, the injury Peter caused was healed by Christ—his final healing miracle before crucifixion. Jesus responded to Peter with words Fr Alexander has omitted from his essay: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus’ only act of violence in the New Testament narrative was to use a whip—not a life-endangering weapon—to cleanse the Temple. The only sword he wields is the sword of the truth. Again and again he insists on forgiveness. In the Beatitudes he blesses the merciful and refers to peacemakers as children of God. Following the way of the Cross, Christ gives the example of nonresistance. Quite literally he gives himself for the life of the world.
In the first three centuries Christians were notable for their refusal to kill, a situation that was problematic for converts in the military or in certain governmental positions. Catechetical texts coming down to us from the early Church put a special stress on the obligation not to kill either in war or through abortion. Substantial penances were established for those who broke this discipline. Even after Constantine’s conversion and the end of anti-Christian persecution, it remained obligatory for priests, deacons and iconographers not to kill anyone, not even in self-defense. These canons survive unchanged into our own day.
However convinced Fr Alexander may be that certain wars may be regarded as justifiable or even good, he would be forbidden by Church law to serve at the altar if he were to kill in such a “good” war — a prohibition one would assume should also prevent a priest from encouraging or blessing others to kill. Fr Alexander seems oblivious to the values that stand behind this prohibition. Does the Church forbid its priests doing what it regards (according to Fr Alexander) as “a lesser good”? What do these canons reveal about eucharistie life?
Canons do not, however, always solve the problem of what to do in the crucible of life. Many Christians faced with evil forces, such as St Alexander Nevsky, have found no nonviolent option in responding to attack but armed resistance—though later in life, struggling to avoid calamitous defeat, the same prince lost the respect of many fellow Russians for prudent compromises he struck with the Golden Horde.
Since the age of Constantine, time and again faithful Christians of every rank have found themselves drawn into war. Soldiers and their weapons have been blessed by pastors and bishops. We must recall, however, that often the wars on which blessings have been showered were not events which can be regarded as bringing any mortal credit on those who fought in them, however heroic and patriotic the soldiers may have been: wars for the expansion of empire, wars of national hubris, wars of manifest destiny, wars of ethic cleansing, wars to gain valuable resources.
Consider what might be regarded as the very best of recent wars: World War II. Here there was an aggressive enemy driven by totalitarian and racist ideology willing to kill not only opposing soldiers but large categories of noncombatants. Many people could find no way to respond to the war imposed on them but to fight back with whatever weapons they had. At last the Allied counter-attack resulted in city bombing, fire storms and finally the use of nuclear weapons. There were hundreds of thousands of noncombatant deaths which, in today’s “Newspeak,” would be regarded as “collateral damage.” Many of those who fought against Hitler and his allies, though possessing medals for heroism on the battlefield, have had to live with nightmarish memories of the killing of noncombatants and other terrible memories of what occurs in the actuality of war. They may well regard the war in its overall objectives as justifiable and unavoidable, but certainly not good. Indeed, one cannot even speak of the killing of the guilty as good deeds.
For all his interest in what in the Roman Catholic Church has come to be known as the Just War Theory or Doctrine, Fr Alexander seems to take little interest in one of the key elements of that doctrine: the protection of noncombatants. In the reality of modern war, it is the noncombatant who is the typical casualty. In the age of St Alexander Nevsky soldiers fought soldiers, but in our world when bullets fly and bombs fall, it is the most defenseless members of society who are the most likely to die or be maimed. Can anyone, least of all a follower of the Gospel, speak of events which claim the lives of so many innocents — mainly women, children and the aged — as “a lesser good”?
Were states to call on Orthodox Christians to take part in the destruction of churches or the wholesale burning of icons, there would be organized resistance by the faithful with the hierarchy speaking out boldly. But when it is the destruction of human beings, bearers of the image of God, what is most striking is the cooperation of the faithful in it and the near silence of their shepherds. True, one does occasionally discover theologians who raise questions about war. One of them, Fr Stanley Harakas, is briefly if dismissively referred to in the Webster essay. But one rarely meets an Orthodox Christian who has heard about such debate regarding these questions. The questions are raised in academic journals and forums and, sadly, there they tend to remain.
All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day
by Jim Forest
Orbis Books, 344 pages, 2011
review by Amanda Daloisio
Upon opening All is Grace, the new edition of the biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest, one is struck first by the sheer number of photographs. Dispersed throughout the book, often accompanied by quotes from Dorothy’s writing, they are a large part of what makes this book so engaging. The pictures are by turns striking, surprising, familiar and new. They span her entire life and introduce us to those Dorothy loved: from her sister Della to her daughter Tamar to her nine grandchildren. There are photos of people whose names are Catholic Worker legend: Ammon Hennessy, Stanley Vishnewski, and Ade Bethune, but also snapshots of the various houses and farms, of demonstrations and of life in the New York Catholic Worker.
From the first page you realize that Jim Forest is a skillful storyteller, brimming with enough detail to be gripping, lively enough never to drag. Alternating between the fascinating facts of Dorothy Day’s life, the world in which it enfolded and the arc of her inner life, we are treated to a story that is part history, part biography, and part philosophy. And this seems fitting for a woman who so desired to engage the world and all its suffering and beauty. Her focus was in equal measure about the life of the body as experienced in the suffering of the poor, the life of the spirit and one’s relationship to God. She felt called to do all this in a community fed on the conviction that to work for peace and serve the poor is, indeed, a “duty of delight”.
From a very young age, Dorothy Day nurtured the seeds that would later germinate and influence her conversion and religious yearnings as well as the creation of the Catholic Worker. Growing up in a nominally Episcopalian household, Dorothy remembered a neighbor in Chicago telling her the story of a saint as a young girl. “[I] almost burst with desire to take part in such high endeavor… I was filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure.” What came with that desire were experiments with piety, even convincing her younger sister Della to sleep on the hard floor as the saints did in their monastic cells.
Later, intoxicated by new found freedom at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she willingly sacrificed comfort and worked at manual labor jobs to spend what money she had on books, wanting her education to be about the labor movement, socialism and Fyodor Dostoevsky and her time to be spent writing. This seed of precarity would only grow as she moved to New York City at the age of eighteen. With newspapers such as The Masses and The Call, she continuously worked for little wages, if it meant writing meaningful articles. There was already a firm connection between what she wrote and how she lived. Her heroes were those of all stripes, from saints to socialists, who struggled toward a goal at great personal sacrifice.
One ever present and astonishing aspect of Dorothy Day’s personality was her ability to see and experience beauty. An avid reader from a young age, she found inspiration in the way books and music could transform the drabness of daily life into a meaningful pursuit. As Jim Forest describes it, “Dorothy loved words, rejoiced in the way they could be sewn together to change seasons, leap across time and space, or simply describe the ordinary things around her that she found most captivating.” Often this reading pushed her out the door and into the world. After reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Dorothy spent time walking through the slums of Chicago. In these poor neighborhoods, she found “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”(19) She was then just a teenager.
This ability would stay with her and provide solace in the midst of chaos for the rest of her life. At the age of eighty-one, she wrote as she looked out of her window at Maryhouse, “At exactly 8:05 AM, the morning sun gilds the upper floors of the building across the street, creeping from the gray one to the red brick one. A lovely sight…The sycamore tree stirs in the cold, east wind. The sky is a cloudless blue. And now one side of the tree, reaching the third floor of those tenements, is all gilded, as the sun spreads rapidly around…’My’ tree is now radiant with sun!” Manual labor, beauty, books, and personal sacrifice- these are some of the elements of Dorothy’s story that begin in her as a child. It is the crafting of All is Grace that allows us to follow these elements as they snake through her life, becoming themes and philosophies that Catholic Worker communities continue to struggle with and strive for.
It could be said that this gift, as well as her sensitivity to the plight of the poor, led Dorothy to be very present in the world. In short, she was a woman who paid attention to the bigger picture as well as the slightest detail, to the sinful effects of war on entire countries as well as the sorrows the “filthy, rotten system” had on the person who comes to the door. Combined with courage and a headstrong nature, she took what she saw and heard and turned it into concrete work. She met Peter Maurin, heard his endless teaching and knew it to be truth. There are stories to be told and ideas to be discussed, let us start a newspaper to do just that. People need to be fed and housed, let us make soup and rent cold-water flats. And so the Catholic Worker began.
Rightly so, around the history of 1933 when the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper is handed out in Union Square, All is Grace ceases to be a book just about Dorothy Day and widens to include the growing community, as well as Dorothy’s own growing family. She saw the Works of Mercy, the nonviolent resistance of war and the struggle for justice as work that could not be done alone.
The gift of this book is the use made of recently published collections edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s diaries, and All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. Jim Forest so carefully weaves in these resources and the result is a life’s story told with much depth. We are privy not only to the stories of arrests and jail time, of meeting Peter Maurin and the beginnings of a newspaper, and then a movement, but we are blessed with her thoughts on these events, the doubts that plagued her as she raised Tamar, separated from Forster; as she wrestled with a growing movement and changing times. We might be amazed and inspired by what she accomplished, and rightly so. But we should be even more amazed and inspired to learn along the way that there was much sorrow, loneliness and second-guessing. All is Grace is, at times, heart wrenching in its honesty, due largely to the candor and diligence with which Dorothy recorded and reflected on her own life and Jim Forest’s use of these writings.
All is Grace is clearly written by a friend, colleague and admirer of Dorothy Day and includes his own personal reflections as well as memories told to him by many of those who knew her. This adds an element of intimacy to the writing that seems fitting for a woman who, by all accounts, would sit and talk, with an “ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts.” While often in the public eye, the spotlight was never where she felt most comfortable. Perhaps she might have felt the same about a scholarly textbook analyzing her life. But this warm, engaging account matches tone with content, and like Dorothy did for many a volunteer, “you [can glimpse] exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.”
True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths.
The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.
A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. The word “martyr” is Greek for witness. A martyr is someone who dies for Christ and whose death bears witness to his faith.
What made George a saint especially loved and remembered by the Church was the completely fearless manner in which he openly proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.”
For this Saint George was arrested, cruelly tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303. His body was later brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda, and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.
Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.
Persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but even of cities and whole countries.
In early icons, made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to his name, we see Saint George dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.
Perhaps George was in the army, but it may be that he is shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.
It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form, it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the defeated creature into the city.
According to the Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260 AD, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.
From the point of view of history, the story is apocryphal. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which terrified most of the people of his time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid.
The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he challenged evil. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.
In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.
Notice how thin the lance is and that in many Saint George icons there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.
Similarly, even in battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies.
In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.
In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens.
Following George’s victory, we are sometimes shown Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt or scarf — a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.
Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town in its new role of guardian provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.
Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought — courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us.
One of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Stories can save lives or turn us into killers.
In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.
Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boys and girls, listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.
The photo is an icon of the power of story telling.
“In traditional African cultures, not even the chief or the healer is as important as the storyteller,” Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who had spent much of his life in Africa, once told me. “The survival of the tribe from generation to generation depends on stories, only the stories have to reveal truth. With truth-revealing stories the storyteller becomes the guardian not only of his actual audience but of those not yet born. This is because, in times of crisis, people are guided not by theories or principles but by stories. True stories are life-saving, false stories lead toward disaster. Stories are proven true by the test of time. An old story that has been told for centuries and has been tested in many times of crisis can be regarded as true.”
“The testing of stories,” he added, “requires the passage of many generations. In fact two thousand years is about right.”
Our conversation led us to consider the question of what was the most basic story in the modern world. We quickly agreed that, in its purest form, it’s the western movie and decided to call it the Gospel According to John Wayne. (Not John Wayne the man, who may have been as nonviolent as Gandhi, but John Wayne the actor in the gunslinger roles he often played.)
At that the core of the Gospel According to John Wayne is a good man with a gun defeating bad men with guns.
The story needn’t be set in the Old West. The core elements adjust to any setting: rural or urban, past or present, or a Star Wars future set in other galaxies where distances are measured in light years. The Gospel According to John Wayne can also be the Gospel According to Luke Skywalker or the Gospel According to Batman. The moral is the same in any case: We are saved by deadly weapons and the courage of those community defenders who aim and shoot.
In the classic Western version, it’s the story of men who are evil to their core threatening decent people in a newly-settled town in the lawless West in which there is a battered saloon at one end of the street and a newly painted and school house at the other. Endangered by pathological killers, the wellbeing of the townspeople depends on the courage of one brave man and those, if any, that he is able to rally behind him. The iconic scene is the gunfight on Main Street — one man with a gun facing another man with a gun and both pulling the trigger. There is sometimes a prefatory scene before the shoot-out in which we see the reluctant hero open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon he once put away with the hope of never using it again. He is not, such scenes make clear, a man of violence but now there is no alternative. He straps on his holster, inserts six bullets in the gun’s chambers and walks out the door knowing he may be dead within the hour. In fact he survives. Thanks to courage plus good aim, goodness triumphs. It’s the men who love killing whose day ends in coffins.
It’s far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it — the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his defenseless neighbors from wicked men whose death we who watch the film cannot help but wish for and, once it happens, welcome. If only briefly, it seems the world has been made a safer place.
The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the troubling fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a completely good person.
Few biblical texts have more profound implications than this passage in the first chapter of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)
If so, then there are no bad seeds. Our DNA does not oblige us to be murderers. No matter how damaged a person becomes in the process of growing up and entering adulthood, all of us are born bearing the divine image and can never entirely lose it.
For John of Kronstadt, one of the Russian saints of the nineteenth century, to become aware of this was one of the main challenges of Christian life. “Never confuse the person,” he said, “formed in the image of God, 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.” St. John’s insight was not developed at a comfortable distance from the rough side of life — he was parish priest in Kronstadt, a port city with thousands of sailors and more than its share of drunkenness, crime and violence of every kind.
In common with many ordinary Russians at the time, Saint John of Kronstadt avoided dehumanizing labels for men who had been convicted of criminal actions. They were instead commonly referred to as “unfortunates.” It was this attitude that helps explain why so few executions occurred in pre-revolutionary Russia. Those who committed murder and other grave crimes were instead sent to labor camps in Siberia.
The inability to see Christ in the other is the most common form of spiritual blindness, as one of the most prominent saints of the fourth century, John Chrysostom, often stressed. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.” Or as Dorothy Day put it, “Those who do not see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”
Yet the Gospel According to John Wayne remains a compelling story — the lone man who puts himself in the line of fire and kills a human monster whose death is a blessing for every decent person. The story reminds us that that the community can only be protected by good guys — or good women — killing bad guys.
In the latter part of “Gone With the Wind,” a film that presents slavery as having been not so bad, the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, returns to her family plantation, Tara, after Southern defeat. Though the Civil War has caused much death and devastation, Scarlett finds the mansion intact even though the crops have been burned, her mother has died of typhoid, her father is insane with grief, her two sisters are ill, and most of the (formerly happy) slaves have run off. Forced to take up work that in better days had been done by slaves, Scarlett’s life now centers on reviving the plantation through blood, sweat and tears, even if the paradise that the Tara plantation once had been is lost indeed. When a drunken Yankee soldier arrives and seems poised to rape Scarlett, she stands on the mansion’s grand curved staircase, revolver hidden behind her back, then, at the last moment raises the weapon and shoots him in the face. Afterward, in shock, she says to her sister-in-law, “I’ve done murder.” To her credit and the credit of the storytellers, Scarlett uses a razor-sharp word, murder, that doesn’t mask what she has done. After pulling the trigger and seeing at close range the death she has caused, perhaps Scarlett realizes she might have aimed at the man’s legs and protected herself without becoming a murderer.
How rare is the movie in which the hero is allowed to aim for the legs or, rarer still, find a bullet-free, nonviolent solution. Film after film, the implicit message is that, in confrontations with evil, there are no non-lethal — still less nonviolent — solutions. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, period, next subject.