Impressions of a Four-Day Conversation on Peace in Volos, Greece

by Jim Forest

May 17-20, 2007, fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece, for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local Orthodox bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in collaboration with the Boston Theological Institute and the World Council of Churches. The event was a contribution of the Church of Greece to the World Council of Churches’s Decade to Overcome Violence program, whose particular focus this year is on Europe.

In their presentations, the speakers looked at various aspects of the conference theme. A panel of speakers from Cyprus, Serbia, Russia and the Middle East discussed Orthodoxy in situations of conflict. Members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the St. Egidio Community in Rome and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland participated in a concluding round table on “Christian Churches Contributing to a Culture of Peace”.

Each participant in the conference will have his or her highlights to report. My account reveals what especially caught my attention but also reveals blind spots, both because I missed two sessions of the conference and also because I had difficulty at times following some of the lectures in simultaneous translation.

It seemed to me that the most important and difficult issue addressed at the conference was the relationship of church and state, a matter of passionate debate in Greece as it is in many other countries. At one end of the spectrum was the experience some of the conference participants had in attending the Orthodox Liturgy Sunday morning at the Church of St. Nicholas in Volos. It happened to be a service that ended with a commemoration of the mass killing of many thousands of the Greeks of the Pontos region by Turks during and after World War I. At a certain moment in the service uniformed representatives of the main branches of the Greek military came to the front of the church. One had the impression that the border between church and state is so thin as to be hardly visible.

There were many voices raised at the conference challenging so uncritical a relationship between government and church. One of the interventions we heard came from Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island that has been divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.” He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios, professor at Munich University, spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed.” What is needed, he said, is the “illumination of memory.” Without a “purification of memory,” he said, “we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person. The human being is an inexhaustible mystery. At the core of that mystery is the fact that each person is made in the image of God.” He spoke of the “apophatic dimension of Orthodox anthropology, with its total repudiation of all ideologies.”

“It is wrong,” he said, “to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas…. Recently important contributions have been published defending the notion of human rights and attempting to embed them within an Orthodox understanding of being human as communion in the context of the Trinitarian faith.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal “Synaxis,” spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Geiko Muller Fahrenholz, a German theologian who is organizing a concluding conference for the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, stressed the part played by humiliation in conflict and the importance of expanding forgiveness of sin to include the healing of humiliations. This requires an awareness of how one’s sin not only alienates the sinner from God but has profound social consequences. Sinful actions often “ignite the desire for retaliation, with humiliation taking on a life of its own.” Acts of revenge, unfortunately, have no liberating power but simply prolong the cycle of death and counter-death “until there is no one left except old women dressed in black.” Reconciliation, however, “is a process of liberation both for sinners and those sinned against…. Everyday life is only bearable to the extent we have learned to forgive.”

Canon Paul Oestreicher, Anglican priest and the former director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in England, made an impassioned appeal for Christians in today’s world to give a witness against bloodshed similar to that of Christians in the early centuries. “Abandoning the example and teaching of Jesus as irrelevant to political life, the great majority of Christians have engaged in war even to the point of treating it as holy and as God’s will, usually on both sides. We have put nation and often our religion above humanity. The Western churches have, since Augustine, paid lip service to peace as an ideal, while engaging in wars deemed to be just, all part of a necessarily fallen world. The medieval doctrine of the just war in theory rules out most actual wars. In practice almost every war has — perhaps with exceptions like Iraq now — been held to be just. Even in the most questionable wars, military chaplains in uniform are an undisputed presence and aid to military morale. Even Hitler’s aggressive war had the explicit support of nearly all German church leaders, Protestant and Catholic, including those who had the courage to oppose Nazi ideology. There were only individual objectors. The churches gave them no support.”

Dr. Rodney Petersen, director of the Boston Theological Institute, concentrated on “the seriousness with which religion must be considered in the quest for human security.” Religion, he said, “is a multivalent force. It can be a force for good, a force for chaos and conflict, or both simultaneously. Religion has been mobilized to sanction violence, drawn on to resolve conflicts, and invoked to provide humanitarian and development aid. In all of these capacities, religious leaders, organizations, institutions and communities are especially important in shaping the direction of conflict prevention or reconstruction efforts in fragile states. “

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Kostas Zorbas, theologian and sociologist as well as director of the Observatory of Social Issues of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, spoke of various problems in European Union, especially concerning the security in Europe. These include the policies of the European Union regarding Kosovo, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He noted that European Institutions have started to engage in regular dialogue between Christian churches and other religions.“Today in Europe we have to address new forms of insecurity,” he said, “including problems of immigration, terrorism, environmental pollution, refugees, etc. Churches should not rely on military intervention. Military intervention only worsens and complicates problems. We want our believing citizens to have confidence in Europe by seeing the values they all hold dear, values based on human dignity, reflected in Europe’s policies.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance — in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services. There is widespread ignorance concerning religious questions.”

Rania Flavie Touma of the Youth Department of the Middle East Council of Churches, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, said that in her homeland, Syria, peace is simply “a longing to lead a stable life without the fear of being kicked out or killed. Peace is hard to imagine in our circumstances. Our whole area is burning. For Christians, our vocation in such a context is to be the changer we want to see in others. We need to be a Church that reveals the kingdom of God and is not merely a church of national identity.”

Dr. Joan Patricia Back from Centro “Uno” for the Unity of Christians, the ecumenical secretariat of the Focolare Movement in Rome, spoke of the spirituality of reconciliation as experienced in this movement, which now exists in 182 countries and involves Christians of many churches. She stressed that one of the central elements of this spirituality is kenosis in order to bring about reconciliation and unity. It implies a self-emptying love as shown by Jesus on the cross. It is a path which entails embracing “nothingness.” She said, “This ‘nothingness’ is not something negative or passive, but rather something positive and very active.” Living as Jesus Forsaken, that is living the “nothingness of ourselves to live Him” in order to be able to love according to his measure. It is an active ‘nothingness’ because it means making ourselves ready to receive the other, ready ‘to make ourselves one’ in order to build a costructive dialogue with the other.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermos, an Orthodox priest and child psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. After all, you cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

Dr. Aruna Gnanadason, a staff member of the World Council of Churches and member of the Church of South India, stressed the problem of domestic violence, the principle targets of which are women and children. “Women have borne pain and hurt for centuries, silently many times,” she said, “standing on the threshold of a violent death in the hands of the men they live with because they have been taught that this is how they live their faith. Many women experience marginalization and even exclusion rather than acknowledge even for themselves that something is gravely wrong and they need not accept such abuse. This acceptance of violence is imposed on women by the strict mores and values of our societies – it is certainly not a biblical notion…. The churches need to become a ‘sanctuary of courage’ … a safe space where violated women know they will be nurtured and surrounded by care. The churches can become that space where women who experience violence can find safety, to recount for themselves their experiences so that true healing and reconciliation will take place.”

Dr. Claudia Jahnel, lecturer in religious and mission studies and intercultural theology at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, spoke about the problem of “otherness.” “The assessment of ‘the other’ and the process of judging other cultural symbols bear signs of the age-old Eurocentric relationship with ‘the other’,” she said. “What is happening here is the prolonging of the historic monologue of the West on ‘the other’, the follow-up of the continuous subsummation of ‘the other’ … an act of epistemic violence. While, in former centuries, ‘the other’ – other cultures, religions, societies – have been ‘discovered’ by European explorers and only from then on seemed to be ‘born’ – as childlike, immature, and primitive societies – today, again, there is a tendency to conceive of ‘the other’ from a European-Western and so-called ‘enlightened’ point of view which perceives the West as the developed and active pole: the West integrates and harmonizes the differences, brings peace and justice to other parts of the world, minimizes conflicts and proclaims the ideal of civilization.”

In a session on the healing of memory, Dr. Geraldine Smyth, a Dominican nun who is senior lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin, focused on the role of memory in the process of peacemaking. “Someone once said that civilization began with cemeteries,” she said. “Honoring the memory of the dead betokens civility, humaneness, spirituality…. In Northern Ireland, where a divided people is emerging from prolonged violence, the besetting temptation is to remember not wisely but too well the ‘chosen traumas’ and ‘chosen glories’ of their own community, culture or church. Here the prospect of making peace with the past is difficult and painful. For when society begins to think of how to memorialize grievous loss, often a pain too deep for tears is stirred up, and perhaps even a preternatural anger not easily biddable to the conscious mind. Many who have longed to forget, remain haunted by overpowering images of terror and an upsurge of grief or desire for revenge. Survivors of war or violent abuse, may, in the process of therapy, discover that their bodies hold memories even after conscious memories have faded. The art of remembering well means including the operations of mind and will, but also requires us to admit of a shifting, subjective emotional field. In these circumstances, such axioms whether to ‘forgive and forget’, or ‘remember and forgive’, may belittle people’s sense of abandonment and betrayal. This is not simply a matter of making a moral choice. It is no easy matter to reconnect memory with life rather than death, or to be ready to ‘re-member’ and include both the victims and perpetrators of grievous hurt into a restored life in community. Forgiveness is above all a sharing in the divine life and a gift of grace.”

Also addressing the issue of memory, the Rev. Meletis Meletiadis, an Evangelical pastor whose parish is in Volos, spoke of his experience of rejection while growing up in Greece, being labeled a heretic and shunned by classmates whose hostility was encouraged by teachers and school administrators. Such traumas “left deep wounds.” Later, while studying theology in the United States, he met Orthodox Christians who were not filled with contempt for non-Orthodox, and this was a life-changing event for him. “I realized for the first time that while Orthodox Christians have often built an impenetrable wall of self-justification around themselves, I was doing the very same thing in my own way…. For many years we not only hurt one another, but we hurt our Christian witness.”

The final session of the conference was on how various Christian churches focus on the creation of a culture of peace.

David Porter, a Protestant on the staff of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, described the initiative he and others took beginning twenty years ago in launching a biblical challenge to a nationalistic Protestant theology. It was an initiative that has born much fruit, contributing to the recent breakthrough.

Dr. Claudio Betti, Roman Catholic and a member of the St. Egidio Community in Rome, spoke of the Christian vocation of overcoming a culture of fear and violence. “I think that the role of the churches today confronting violence and striving to work for a culture of peace is that of starting once again from our faith. It is not courage that enables us to overcome the culture of fear, the feeling of powerlessness. It is faith that carries us beyond the narrow boundaries of prohibition, fear and intimidation. I think that our churches will be able to affirm a culture of peace if they are able to renew their faith by returning with humility and love to the Word of God, to prayer and to the liturgy. This is always the starting point.”

Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, spoke about the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints … had to say.”

He concluded with a quotation from St. John Chrysostom: “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”

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Photos taken in Volos:

Test of Jim Forest’s lecture:

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