Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict

St Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai. The white mineret of the mosque is next to the monastery bell tower.

(lecture given by Jim Forest 11 October 2010 at St Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and 16 October 2010 at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky)

The title of this talk could also be “Remaining Christian After 9-11.” Nine eleven — the only historical event I can think of that we refer to by numbers. Has there been an event since Pearl Harbor that has stalked Americans so powerfully? We are haunted by image after image, like icons from hell: the hijacked planes crashing into the two towers, the orange plumes of fire, small grey dots that we realize are men and women leaping to their deaths to escape an inferno behind them, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other, the stunned, bloodied survivors emerging from the clouds of ash, the “have you seen so-and-so” notices tacked to walls and fences in the surrounding area… So many such images are burned into our collective memory. Ground Zero has become a place of pilgrimage, as has the quiet field where Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

When Americans think of the word “enemies” these days, the people responsible for the attacks of nine-eleven and many other acts of terrorism are at the top of the list. However much or little we know about them as individuals, however much or little we know about their religion and its many divisions and sects, we know that the people involved in these attacks were Muslims who believed what they were doing, even killing fellow Muslims, was blessed by Allah.

America’s response as a nation has been two immensely destructive and costly wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Americans have died in combat while far more bear wounds — some physical, many in mind and soul — that they will contend with for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile we as a people are unrepentant that the war in Iraq was fought against a regime that had no connection with Al Quaida, had nothing to do with nine-eleven, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Nor do we seem very bothered about many noncombatant casualties our weapons have produced in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan as well, where our pilotless drone aircraft fire missiles that often kill the innocent — “collateral damage,” as it’s called. The mantra is, “Sad, but these things happen. We try to keep them at a minimum.”

During much of the same period there has been a major economic crisis in which the US has been hard hit. Nearly ten percent of the work force is unemployed. One in seven Americans is now living below the poverty line. Millions of people are out of work. Many thousands have lost their homes. There are tent cities all over the country. The poorer still sleep under bridges or wherever they can find some small degree of protection from the elements. The fortunate ones, the people who still have homes and jobs, feel little security. A lot of people go to sleep worrying.

A recession bordering on depression plus a war with an enemy who could be anywhere — it’s no wonder that we’re very much on edge. It’s a perfect moment for hotheads to gain an audience. Turn on the radio or TV, do a little browsing, and there the rabble-rousers are, some of them Christians, announcing their views with many exclamation marks and very few question marks. And many people are listening and nodding their heads.

Between the ranters and the grim realities of war plus economic bad news, it’s not surprising that we are suffering a pandemic of fear and anger. It’s at flood level, possibly worse now than it was nine years ago. Back in 2001, many people, including President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that Muslims weren’t the enemy, only fanatics who using their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But in recent months such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic zealots who are the problem. For many people it’s now Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While relatively few people want to get rid of freedom of religion as a civil right, there are many people who make it clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. These days one finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time. Because it’s nothing less than the Antichrist we’re dealing with, you can find Christians who say this gives us time out on that problematic command of Jesus that Christians must love our enemies.

In fact many Christians would rather their pastor ignored certain parts of the the New Testament. Probably you have heard of Tony Campolo, a popular Baptist minister. I recently came upon this comment from him: “I find it strange,” he said, “that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies’.”

We need to ask ourselves: Are the more challenging teachings of Jesus only for times when they are easy to practice? Does scripture change according the political season or the nation in which we happen to live? Can we call ourselves Christians while only following those teachings of Jesus that aren’t so difficult and won’t get us into hot water? I doubt any of us would want to be Christian only by label. Label isn’t substance. I think back to when I was a kid going to high school in Hollywood and worked one summer on the Warner Brothers movie ranch with it’s big Western town set — a complete town in which each building was all front and no back — great for gunfights but nowhere to live. Do we want our Christianity to be like that?

My assertion is that Christ’s teachings in their totality are for anyone trying to be a Christian. With that in mind, I’d like to spend a little time attempting to reflect on love of enemies in our post-nine-eleven world and the harm it does to us — and to others — when we decide, in times of conflict and war, that love of enemies is not an essential part of being a Christian. This means we need to take a close look at this particular part of the Gospel, trying to see what it actually means — and also consider at some of the obstacles that stand in our way in living it out.

In the Sermon in the Mount, there is a passage in which Christ speaks about our relationship with enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

My guess is that passages like this led Mark Twain to comment, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”

Let’s wait a moment before considering what Jesus meant by love and instead start with the word “enemy.” In commanding his followers to love our enemies, what is meant by enemy?

The Gospel text was originally written in Greek. The Greek word that we translate as “enemy” is echthros. It simply means someone we hate. The hatred may be justified — someone who is attacking us — or it may be based on our own misperceptions or fears. One way or the other, an enemy is anyone we feel threatened by. It might be your mother-in-law or it might be Osama ben Laden.

If you look at its root meaning, the English word “enemy” takes in even more people than the Greek. Enemy comes from the Latin word inamicus. Amicus means friend — stick in at the front it and you get inamicus: non-friend. It’s very digital — the world is divided into friends and enemies. An enemy is anyone we would exclude from the category of friend. That’s a lot of people.

Notice that, in his instruction to love enemies, Christ added, “and pray for then.” One good way of knowing who your enemies are is by listing all the people, or groups of people, you don’t pray for and in fact would rather not pray for or refuse to pray for — people who, in your heart of hearts, you think of mainly with anger.

The next question is even more important, perhaps the most primary of all of life’s questions: What does Jesus mean by love? It’s definitely not the love we hear about in songs. The love Christ is speaking about has nothing to do with a Romeo-and-Juliet state of passionate mutual attraction. Love, understood from a biblical point of view, is not sentimental affection. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. It has very little to do with feelings and a great deal to do with what we do. It’s how we care for each other.

We see what Christ means by love in such gestures as healing the wounded ear of one of the men who was arresting him at the Garden of Gethsemani. It is also an act of love to admonish Peter, his good friend and brave disciple, with the words, “put away your sword for he who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.” A loving act for an enemy, healing a wound, and a loving word for a well-meaning but misguided friend.

We learn about love in many of the parables. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not his co-religionists who come to the aid of a man robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but a passing Samaritan, someone whom Jews at the time would regard with contempt. Were any of us to retell the story using contemporary categories, it would become the Parable of the Good Muslim, and we would be telling it, in part, to challenge the forces of hatred and enmity in our own world. The point would be, as it was when Jesus first told the story, that a neighbor is not identified by his degree of us-ness but by his compassion, his active love. A neighbor is a person who, putting aside his plans for the day, acts mercifully to another and does so without regard for any external factor or social or religious dividing line.

Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. This is something Saint Paul stresses by saying, “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Your enemy’s need is your opportunity to let him know that you want enmity to end.

Love is communicated by compassionate, merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.

We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. Saint Catherine’s is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.

Let me give one other example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, still the home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled — Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.

But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.

What can we as Christians, as followers of Christ, do to overcome enmity?

In the passage I read from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For anyone who wishes to love his enemies, our first duty is to pray for them. Without that beginning point, it’s very difficult to go further. But if I had a dollar for every Christian who doesn’t pray for his enemies, my guess is I would be on the cover of Fortune magazine and have Bill Gates as my next-door neighbor.

Whenever you pray for someone, it creates a thread of connection. There may already be a strong connection anyway, as when you pray for a friend or family member, but when you pray for someone you fear or hate, then that thread is the only connection. Such a prayer creates connection where none existed. What do we ask of God? It’s enough to pray for the health, healing, well-being and salvation of an enemy. As for details, God doesn’t need our advice. But only we, through prayer, can connect ourselves to people who we regard as enemies. One can pray for specific people, like Osama ben Laden, or one can pray for large groups of people whose individual names we do not know. Keep a prayer list and use it daily. You will discover that once you begin praying for people you wish didn’t exist, you begin to think about them differently.

With the foundation of prayer, one can go further: learn more about Islam (which is as complex a phenomenon as Christianity), meet and talk with Muslims, even take part in events, nationally and internationally, that in various ways seek nonviolent solutions.

What are the obstacles to love of enemies? We could make a long list. I’d like to talk briefly about only three: fear, stories that undermine the Gospel, and peer group pressure.

First, let’s think about fear.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance. The “Other,” in most cases, is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. We carefully count Americans killed in war and try not to count others killed by us, though they may be far more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.

What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person or group of people but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” the monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father. Soon after he responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Thomas Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Christ tramples down death by death. Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

Another obstacle to the love of enemies is the influence in our lives of stories that undermine the Gospel:

We are very influenced by films. Cinema a powerful medium. Our primary text is what I call the “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” It’s a Gospel that preaches salvation by firepower. The basic idea in many movies is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones, evil in their DNA. The only solution is to kill them.

When I say “The Gospel According to John Wayne,” I am not talking about the actual John Wayne, only the role he played in so many movies. The classic Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, any modern city, or on a planet light years away that exists only in the film maker’s imagination. The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it – the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect his community. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story – a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the Christian legend of George, the saint only wounds the dragon. Afterward it’s cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about risking one’s life to bring about conversion, of self, of others, of enemies. It’s exactly what Christians did in bringing about conversion in the Roman world.

The problem with the modern “The Gospel According to John Wayne” is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person – also no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.” (vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)

Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person or being glad someone else did the actual killing. Certainly that’s true of me. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder — suicide — was a real temptation.

The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The human “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that, by our fear-driven choices, the likeness can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image,” notes the writer Anne Lamott, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Last but not least, there is the immense power of peer group pressure.

I first became consciously aware of the peer group pressure when I was in my early twenties and belonged to a community whose main work was to provide food and other forms of assistance to people living on the streets in a derelict section of lower Manhattan. The community was also concerned with civil rights, preparations for war and various other social issues. Part of the weekly rhythm of our life was for a few of us to go uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Lexington Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world you would be returning to would not be friendly to the human presence. Probably we argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for nuclear war.

Did many people accept the leaflet? No. It was something of a miracle to find any takers. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red traffic light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were part of that wave to take it were hugely improved. Though few of the people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in mid-town Manhattan and had been gathered into groups by the streetlight system — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry, often with irritation on his face — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.

It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have been convincing.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs, how powerfully it effects each of us, and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated. It requires conscious awareness of the fears that I struggle with and seeking God’s help in overcoming them. It means living as attentively as I can with the Gospel, letting its stories rather than Hollywood movies shape my responses to God and the people around me.

The mirror over the sink can help us. I recall a small piece of paper taped next to the mirror in a friend’s bathroom. On it were written just three short lines of text: “I am no big deal. I am no big deal. I am no big deal.” The priest who heard his confessions, my friend explained when I asked him about it, had suggested he recite these words every day. We can do something similar. Look at your face in the mirror and remember that “I too am an enemy” — an enemy of certain others, and also an enemy of myself. Keep in mind the final sentence in the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and King, grant for me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.”

I think too of these words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain for many years. “To be a Christian,” he said, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

The very best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world, is to follow Christ wholeheartedly. One crucial aspect of that discipleship is love of enemies. It isn’t an option. It is at the heart of the Christian calling.

* * *