Human beings have an instinctive, some would say “God given,” revulsion to killing other humans. It appears to be as ancient as we are and the vast majority of human cultures have seen such killing as among the ultimate offenses and apply penalties appropriate to the crime. Such is our instinct.
So those who wish war for whatever reason have a hurdle to overcome. War requires young, healthy, bodies to fuel its ambition and under normal circumstances those people aren’t primally directed to kill and for the comfort of those who send them. Thus, that basic taboo about taking human life must be overcome.
Here lies the work of the propagandist, government, corporate, ethnic, it really makes no difference because to move a normal human being to kill requires a single outcome, the dehumanization of the ones those in power wish to die. If it is deeply and inherently wrong somewhere deep inside the average human, then that is an obstacle that must be overcome so a generation will be willing to endure and inflict trauma for those who wish it.
Witness the horribly racist pictures of slant eyed, buck toothed, Japanese of WW2. Witness again the spiked helmeted Germans tossing babies on their bayonets and raping the innocent of WW1. The Vietnamese became “Charlie” or “Gooks”, people from the Middle East become “A-Rabs” and the list could go on. Almost any or everything goes if the powerful want to condition young minds to see the people they wish dead as something less than human and, by doing so, give them a pseudo-moral framework to justify the horrors they wish to make real. Every side plays the game. Sadly, it seems to be one of the great commonalities among us as a species. If the powerful want to keep or increase their power, they need willing bodies with willing minds shaped by and endless flow of information to overcome a sense of common humanity with the desire to kill.
Sometimes, of course, the programming won’t work, or it takes reinforcement. Witness the executions of French soldiers in WW1 who, seeing the slaughter and stupidity, refused to continue to perpetuate it. Witness, too, the moments of humanity in any war where people faced with the flesh and blood reality of things find ways, large and small, to be humans even as those above them try to keep them animals. Witness, as well, the veterans of long-ago wars who somehow, in reflection recover that which the state tried to strip from them, namely the understanding that the folks shooting at them were, in the end, just “Little people” doing what the “Big people” told them to do and even discovering friendships with those they had been told were not even worthy of life. Witness, finally, those who never recover, people for whom the programming “took” and never let go of its grip, people who spend the rest of their lives embittered at people they never met who were actually more like them than they ever knew.
One must kill in their heart before they can kill in the physical world and that death of the heart is probably the worst part of war and the place where war, even the “good” ones, most violates the Christian conscience. In war one must kill twice, first in the soul and then on the battlefield and even those who survive it all never quite leave that ugly place no matter how many parades are held or how shiny the headstones are kept.
Still, our basic humanity is strong because it is God given, it is part of the image of God that now even war can ultimately remove. And when war is upon us perhaps this is also where we can all agree. We can pray that somehow in a secret place in the heart those who instigate war and those who choose or are coerced into accepting it will have a tiny light inside that allows a single question “Why?” and from that “Why?” they’ll see what they are becoming, what they’ve been told to be often by those who are far away and very safe from where they are and their humanity will return.
Growing up in the Plymouth Brethren, a loose confederation of “assemblies” deeply flavored by Anabaptist thought, the whole idea of war seemed remote to us. As I recall, it was considered a “worldly” thing, something the devout should be wary of and even though there were military personnel in our community, they were rare, mostly because of the draft, and I never recall a career military person among us for all the years I was one of the “Brethren.”
My father, who had actually enlisted in the Marines before he and our family joined the Brethren, made a sincere effort to keep us from the military and even forbid us from playing “war” with our friends because he didn’t want us to make a game of such things. Presumably he had seen enough and he often warned us about being “cannon fodder.” So even though there was a war going on in Viet Nam, without a TV and with a deep sense of trying to not be like the “world” the whole thing was distant from us.
Flash forward to seminary when the Evangelical Left was in an 80’s ascendancy. The Cold War was hot on our minds and the effects of things like war and hunger and global economics on the poor and disenfranchised of the world were front and center. Starting to experience an age when images of such things were not being carefully crafted by governments, the full picture started to emerge, especially of war. War is nothing like the movies, not even the graphic ones, and those who fight in them never really come back no matter how many parades we have.
One step forward to serving as a Chaplain in health care and taking care of the men who had been front and center, even in the “good” wars. I remember an older man speaking to me of how he was horribly wounded (he still had shrapnel in his body courtesy of the Nazi’s) and then had to wait for three days to get help because another soldier who came to his rescue was shot dead, fell on top of him, and he didn’t have the strength to get his decaying body off his own. Yet another sweet man, the kind you’d think of as your grandpa, breaking into tear as he recalled his buddy in the artillery spotting team here one moment and missing his head the next while they stood together. And then, my brother-in-law, a Navy corpsman who saw every bit of trauma there was to see in Viet Nam while his own government exposed him to Agent Orange.
That is war.
One last step forward to Orthodoxy where what I had seen in types and shadows before was given depth and dimension. The ancient Way is a way of peace
Now, when the TV tells me to hate, to wish the death of others, I think of those stories and more and how incongruent they are from the simple, earnest, messages of the Gospel in my childhood and the person of Jesus I try to serve today. I know much about war, at least from afar, because to be a student of history is, unfortunately, to be a student of war. None of it impresses me and I see nothing holy or ultimately good in it. Hell gets fed, the demons get their souls, and the only benefit is that it may delay the next one for a short time. Meanwhile everything God hold precious is trampled, including my own soul to the extent that I glory in it.
If I have to die, let it at least be in the pursuit of peace because I’m not sure that it would be good for me to face my Lord with another person’s blood on my hands and my only defense was “The TV told me to do it…”
Tell me please as I haven’t the wisdom. Which of Christ’s brothers should die so I may not be considered a coward? Which of His sister’s must I make widow, and which of His children fatherless? My heart is overwhelmed. Hard salt tears are my prayer. Devils rejoice as I stammer out hopes, and wishes, and shouts to the sky, my sadness to the only One with love enough to soften hearts from hate and its ugly child, War. Tired, dry, and struggling for air while the TV tells me I must choose. Still, I cannot and will not. Such things are God’s. Into your abyss of love O God, I throw myself. In seeing your face I will rest.
February 13, 2022
As we begin to approach Lent the Church has provided us with texts to lead the way into this holy season of renewal. This Gospel is the first.
Jesus is presenting a parable, a story whose details aren’t meant to be taken literally but whose larger point is meant to be taken to heart. The setting is familiar to His listeners, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the characters involved would be ones they see in everyday life.
The first is a Pharisee, a person whose distinct dress and exacting observance of the Jewish law would stand out in the everyday crowds. While Jesus often has harsh words to say about them, there was a certain admiration for them in the general populace even though most had neither the time nor the inclination to follow the Pharisee way. Despite being rather small in number they were politically powerful and many high positions both in government and religion were held by Pharisees.
The second is a publican, a person contracted by the Romans to ensure the required taxes were paid. They did this, essentially, by bidding for the rights to do the job with the Romans giving the task to those who were able to promise the highest return. Any income above and beyond the required amount they kept for themselves. To Jesus’ followers they represented an evil, two headed, monster as both collaborators with their oppressors and swindlers of their own people.
In the temple the Pharisee’s prayer is basically a rehashing of his own accomplishments, which, as a Pharisee, were probably accurate. His description of his life compared to the publican’s was also accurate. He wasn’t like him, he was ritually pure, observant of the law to the smallest detail and more, and he was apparently okay with reminding God about that in case somehow, He had overlooked it, even giving God something to compare his life to, namely the Publican with his eyes facing the floor and beating his breast.
By the way, the Publican was also correct about himself. He was a sinner and had more than enough evidence to prove it. Having nothing, really, to give God other than to throw himself on God’s mercy he, in his humility, beat his breast in a gesture of mourning with the hope that somehow, somewhere, God could find a way to overlook all that he had been and done.
Guess whose prayer was answered?
The Pharisee left the Temple and went back to his life, but the publican left forgiven.
The American evangelist, Billy Sunday, who ministered in the early part of the last century was once quoted as saying, “Hell is going to be so full of “Christians” their feet are going to be sticking out of the windows.” He was addressing those of his time who were so sure of their religiosity, so confident in their works, that they considered themselves “Shoo-ins” for heaven or at least a few spots in line ahead of their less than like them neighbors. Even Jesus Himself said there would be many at the Last Judgment who would share all the things they had done for our Lord and all their accomplishments only to hear Him say “Depart from me, I don’t know you.”
We must be careful, and the Church was wise to give us this passage as a warning on the road to Lent. We Orthodox can sometimes fall into the trap of spiritual pride. Having been blessed with such great riches of Faith there’s always a strong temptation to see them as our due, our possession, and something which makes us more than others, especially other Christians. This can be a particular challenge for those who’ve journeyed through other communities of faith to this place.
We sometimes forget that everything we have here is nothing about what we deserve or are entitled to but, in fact, a gift given to us by grace, as the Apostle says “Not of works lest anyone should boast…” If we ever think that what we have as Orthodox is somehow about us being special or entitled we put ourselves in grave risk of one day being outside the doors of the wedding feast, desperately knocking while those we never thought would make it walk past us with invitations in hand.
It would be good to also remember there will be those who come to us, to this Faith and to this parish, who like us in more ways than we can imagine, have been made weary and broken by the sin of this world. Here they must find a place of rest and not a court of justice. Here they must find not the “enlightened” condescending to those in darkness so much as those who had been thirsty showing another dry soul where to find the living water. We can and should keep the standards high and the goals lofty, yet essential to that is having mercy for those within and without our community who, like us, can be caught in the jaws of spiritual wolves.
We must also be careful, as well, about our own personal pride, our potential for arrogance, and our willingness to keep our eyes on everyone but ourselves, especially in this coming season of Lent. Outside of the very few who may be gifted with great spiritual insight you and I simply don’t know the heart of someone else and, quite frankly, as the late Fr. John Khoury of blessed memory would say, it’s none of our business.
Are they fasting in a way we approve of? Who cares? Keep our eyes on our own plate and God will honor the humility more than the specifics of the menu.
Is someone else praying or worshipping in a way we don’t think proper? Keep our face and heart directed to the floor in humility and our worship will be accepted, and our prayers heard in the temple.
Does someone have a fault we feel obligated to correct? Look in the mirror a hundred times for each flaw we presume to observe in someone else and we’ll find mercy in the day when all the deeds of everyone will be exposed to the light of the eternal Son.
And, by the way, our life will be happier because one of the easiest ways to become bitter, cynical, and unhealthy in soul and body is to try to correct everybody and everything in the world but ourselves. It’s why we have so many politicians with darkened hearts and pinched faces and Christians who can’t see the Light because their eyes are everywhere but on Christ.
It’s also the way the world we sometimes despair of will be made better as we choose to light our light instead of cursing someone else’s darkness, real or imagined, and, in doing so, start setting ourselves, and by our example others as well, on a better path.
Lent is coming and over the years I’ve come to love it precisely because I’m learning how much I need it and what good it can do for me and my sometimes-weathered soul. Let us all take the words of this parable to heart and find life.
And if I have sinned against anyone here, please forgive.
when I feel the urge to hide from the whole world and my imagination creates a mythical place far from everywhere, a place of peace and immeasurable quiet. And, for a moment, that “happy place,” which for me looks like a cabin by a small river at the edge of a woods, can be at least a temporary balm for those days when the world just seems too twisted to ever heal back into shape again.
It’s short lived, of course and my 4th floor apartment, nice enough with its view of the last remaining suburban corn field, rushes back the minute I open my eyes again. All I know, sometimes, though, is that I want to go somewhere or anywhere which isn’t whatever “here” is, a place far from voices, sales pitches, political yellers, and bad music made by thoughtless people.
Such a mystery it is, how God places people and times together. Of course, there’s never been a perfect time anywhere along the path of history so why should this “now” be the exception no matter how much I wish it so? Therefore, my only thought is that this time and this moment were somehow where I’m supposed to be and have become, in the great vastness of God’s design, the arena for my life and salvation. There will be no “long ago and far away” and perhaps no “happily ever after,” just responsibility to make the best of things and the promise of God’s presence as I try.
And I can survive if I remember the secret place of joy has never been “out there” so much as in a heart resting in God.
I want things to happen too quickly. Good things, for sure, but at too fast a pace.
What difference would it make if even the very best happened but there was no love, no time to reflect, no humility and awe at things eternal? Rushed for the sake of rushed is still rushed, and incomplete, all the stress of an emergency without the actual event.
Slow down, good soul, slow down. Everything good need not happen to day. Recall that God leads but the devil stampedes and rest.
He was younger than I was, late 20’s, early 30’s. At least it seemed that way. A vivacious personality, quick with a joke, sarcastic in a funny way. Too young, though, it would seem, to be in a nursing home.
Decades ago, as a young Chaplain, I was part of the team that spearheaded a program to accept HIV positive Residents into our inner city nursing home. There was, sadly, a need in the 90’s for such services as the advanced meds that hold HIV at bay today didn’t exist. You don’t have to be old to be in a nursing home, just over 18 with a need for continual care, and our facility just south of downtown Minneapolis cared for everyone from young men paralyzed by gunfire to seniors living with mental illnesses, and Russell, our first known HIV positive.
And he brought a certain kind of life to the place. He was ambulatory, verbal, bright, witty, and more peer than Resident in many ways. Perhaps because he was living with death he wanted to make the most of the days. Perhaps it was just his personality. But I remember Russell as at least having a fairly bright public face even as he came to us for all the usual reasons people eventually live in nursing homes, being ill and being broke.
I also remember a certain sadness about him. He had the purple blotches of sarcoma, a symptom of AIDS, he tried to hide. The face is the hardest and even makeup fails to undo what has been done. I was told there were times when he would, in unguarded moments, weep as he recalled how the man who claimed he loved him, wanted him, needed him, also betrayed him, given him the illness that was taking his life. Whatever promise was to be had for the future erased and, in the quiet moments, that hurt could not be concealed.
My hope is Russell is with God now and at rest. He was a candle in the wind, but most candles in the wind are not like the lyrics of a glamorous pop song as the winds that extinguish can be very cruel and HIV was, and still can be, very bitter. There’s no judgement either, each of us has a path made up of things we do and things done to us and that synergy is our life. Every sin destroys each of us in its own particular way even as every little bit of goodness gives us life and, looking back, I’m reminded that Jesus is the only antidote for us all.
Still, I remember Russell and the others who came to us in those days. I hope we did well by them and gave them some comfort. I hope in our own way we became a kind of Jesus to them providing oil and wine for the many wounds. I hope they all, eventually, found the love they were craving, not in the passing sensual, moment but rather in the arms of God where all who seek the truest love, no matter who we may think we are, find it.
To discover church history is to rediscover Orthodoxy…