Going to Hell with the Terrorists and Torturers

mikhail-nesterov-harrowing-of-hell-undatedIn 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev was Baptized and embraced the Christian faith. Among his first acts as a Christian ruler were to tithe his wealth to the Church and the poor, and to outlaw capital punishment and torture. It is said that the Bishops advising him counseled him that he might need to keep the torture in order to rule effectively.

This anecdote has always brought a wry smile to my face, it seems so quaint. Of course torture is not quaint, nor is it medieval. It is quite common in the so-called modern world and has recently moved to the front pages as the US has pulled the veil of secrecy back from its interrogation techniques in its war against terror. I have been interested to watch the reaction to all of this on social media. Many friends have reacted with moral outrage. Others, particularly those whose politics are conservative, have posted supportive pictures and thoughts. Christians find themselves on both sides of the question.

But there isn’t really a question. Prince Vladimir was right and the bishops advising him were scandalously practical. Their fear is apparently a modern fear: what if the lack of torture doesn’t work? Our enemies are dangerous and the lives of the innocent are at stake.

The conversation surrounding all of this (it will disappear as soon as the news cycle moves on) reminds me of several classical problems in ethics. All of them pose the question, “What would you be willing to do to save the life of your loved ones?” It is a tragic question, for in the scenarios of danger that are always suggested, there is no choice that does not yield human suffering – even unimaginable human suffering.

But those nightmare scenarios are not always make-believe. The regular posting of atrocity videos have made us all too aware of the nature of the game.

I do not offer a moral debate in this posting. Torture is wrong. Justify it if you will, but it remains wrong. St. Vladimir was right and the bishops, however practical their advice, did him a great disservice.

But there is something of far greater value that is too easily missed in our current round of hand-wringing. It is the dark places of the human heart that we see and quickly cover in the wrangle of debate. It is a place where our thoughts should linger.

For the place of torture and the smashing angry insanity that drives a plane into towers dwell in the same dark heart – and the heart belongs to us all. Some will protest immediately that I am drawing some kind of moral equivalency. One act is done to save lives, the other to destroy them. But it is not any kind of moral anything that I wish to draw. Rather it is our attention to the true character of the human heart.

There is a morality that is practiced in our day-to-day life. It may include the simple rules of etiquette and a host of other expectations. And for many people, the observance of these rules are what constitute their notion of good and bad. But there is often an abstraction that occurs within such moral musings. Polite society shields itself from many of its immoral actions. The violence of poverty is often covered with economic theory and political discourse. For the child who suffers – these are just words. The general wealth of a healthy standard of living grants the luxury of oblivion – the ability to ignore the true cost of the luxury. This is true whether the cost is the exploitation of slave labor in a foreign land or the torture of the enemy well out of sight. And these are only egregious examples.

More hidden still are the dark recesses of our own hearts. For the torturers and the terrorists are just human beings. They were not spawned on an alien planet. Whatever they know, they learned from other human beings. And though the dark recesses of our hearts may often yield nothing more than thoughts and feelings, we should remind ourselves that their true character is the stuff of which torture is made.

I am even more interested in the cold assessment of those 10th century bishops who cooled St. Vladimir’s jets and offered their advice on statecraft. For theirs is the calm, pragmatic mind within us all. There is a chilly moral calculus that governs their advice. “The kingdom must go on, even if it requires a little torture from time to time. The gospel is good and the Baptism of the Rus is even better, so long as the Prince of the Rus doesn’t forget that he’s a prince and do his job.” I fear the cool utility of such reason far more than I do the uncontrolled passions within us.

But it is right and salutary that we should allow ourselves to look in the dark places of the heart. Orthodoxy insists on proclaiming that the resurrected Christ first descended into hades. There is no easy transition from the cool tomb to the bright Sunday morning. There is the intervening and inconvenient reality of true darkness.

C.S. Lewis portrays a fanciful story of a bus ride from hell to heaven. Those in hell (“the gray town”) are invited to remain in the bright, solid reality of heaven. The conversations that take place in that delightful work (my favorite Lewis) are very telling. They are the confrontation between morality and reality, between the forensic model and the ontological. Heaven is so real that its solid objects hurt the feet of the hellish ghosts. Their moralities appear silly in the face of plain, solid being. The ghost of a wayward bishop protests that he cannot stay in this new place, since he has a prior engagement in a theological discussion group, where he is to read a paper – swallowed by hell and his life is unchanged.

Our own moralities are equally banal and empty, and we shudder and make excuses rather than examine the true darkness of our hearts. Dostoevsky repeatedly unmasked the emptiness of society’s morality. In the Brothers Karamazov, there are four brothers, all sons of a father who is a drunkard and a thoroughly disgusting human being. He is the definition of a “Karamazov.” None of the brothers appear, at first, to be like their father. One is a greatly tormented romantic, his life filled with pleasures and excess. Another is a cold, hard-bitten cynic who no longer believes in God. A third is a very dark character, ultimately a patricide. And the fourth is an innocent, a virtual saint. But even he admits, “I am a Karamazov.” And his brother says to him, “We are all insects.”

Dostoevsky (and Lewis) do not write in such a manner in order to simply tear down the pretense of public morality. But they know that our salvation cannot be found within the little efforts of our moral strivings. They (Dostoevsky in particular) dare to go into the darkness where Christ has entered and suggest to us that we all have a share in that place. We are all Karamazovs.

Entering into that darkness and acknowledging its depths is not an effort to consign ourselves to perdition or to embrace a doctrine of total depravity. It is an effort to unite ourselves to Christ. The traditional name for this journey is repentance. Moralism has all but destroyed the Christian understanding of repentance, replacing it with good intentions and apologies. Our sin is a brokenness and is best seen in the darkest corners of the heart.

St. Paul found Christ in the dark corner of murder and burning hatred. The heights of his holiness are only rivaled by the depths of his sin. Tradition holds that St. Stephen was a kinsman of St. Paul. The anguish of such sin is indeed a “goad,” as Christ described it.

St. Peter did not truly find Christ until his own encounter with cowardice. Always the first and the loudest of the Apostles, probably easily recognized as a leader by others, he was not given the care of Christ’s sheep until he found Christ in the depths of his personal hades on the shore of Galilee. And the resurrected Lord says to him, “Do you love me?”

We must not ignore the public sins of our culture (torture) or the sins of enemies (terrorists) who seek to destroy us. But if we are to stand honestly before God, then we need to see the place that such things have in our heart. Do we dare to speak and acknowledge the Karamazov within ourselves or do we pretend that we are offended and shocked by the hearts of others.

If we do not find Christ in hades, we will not likely find Him anywhere else.


  1. References to The Great Divorce and The Brothers Karamazov? You’ve outdone yourself, Batiuska. I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece that seemlessly combines two of my favorite pieces with excellent social commentary and patristic teaching. Great piece, Father.

  2. Your concluding sentence, “If we do not find Christ in hades, we will not likely find Him anywhere else,” cuts to the quick. What soul-searching this must take!

  3. I have enormous respect for your thoughtful essays…. but this one, I’m afraid, I just don’t get….Although you say you are not drawing a moral equivalency between terrorists murdering thousands or beheading most recently children for not converting, on the one hand, and Americans using water boarding to uncover terrorist plots, on the other, it seems to me that you are making the two morally equivalent. And they are not — and that is something else that I think is written on the heart…. I agree with you that “our own moralities are equally as banal and empty” — I just hope you are including your own moralities in this posting as among them.

  4. Frighteningly and beautifully written, Father. It was always disturbing to me that the Bishops sought to convince St. Vladimir that he had a responsibility to maintain what, in the spontaneity of conversion to Christ, he had clearly seen as being contrary to the Gospel whose radical love had captivated him.

  5. Ed Willneff,

    I believe you to be in the right. Most serious Christians of the “Classical Christianity” variety (whether Orthodox, RC, or Protestant) hold to a “just war” moral theory of one sort or the other (I understand the RC is now somewhat different than the Byzantine version – never made an in depth study of it myself). What this moralizing does is try on the one hand justify killing ones enemies, and on the other hand proscribe limits, etc. In the case of torture, it violates some definition or other of “battlefield”. Thus as the Orthodox journalist/commentator Rod Dreher wrote recently, it’s ok to kill and maim (i.e torture) the terrorist “on the battlefield”, just not when they are “captured”. With just a little thought and experience however one quickly recognizes that a “battlefield” is an idealism – that war always affects “non-combatants”, that war itself is a torture (every soldier {and civilian} that lives through it is really truly tortured in his memories, body, etc. – indeed the bodily tortures are the easier ones to heal), and that these supposedly morally important distinctions are hollow. Since at least WWI there has been no “battlefield” (or should we push it back to ancient city siege warfare?) – “terrorism” itself only exists outside the “battlefield” – except all war is a terror so what do these distinctions mean again?

    Indeed, in my opinion anyone who is not prepared for a radical pacifism (say of the St. Sarav variety) then theirs is just one form of moralizing or another. They might rail against “gun violence” and never consider owning/training with one themselves, but if they are truly threatened they will call a police officer who will use deadly force (i.e. a gun) in their stead. They would never fight in a war themselves, but benefit when others put their lives on the line for them. They might approve of “conventional warfare”, but nuclear weapons are off limits. They approve of imprisonment for life or execution of “war criminals” or “terrorists”, but they would never “torture” one (even though an American prison is a form of torture – anyone who does not understand this needs to do some prison ministry or something similar).

    Since I am not a pacifist (of the Christian or any other variety), yet have a morality, I too have my own “just war morality”. I recognize it for what it is however. Mine is quite dark (dark dark dark). I look at my wife and children, and know what I would do for them (or have my government do) is dark dark dark. For example, when it became public recently about how we have underfunded and poorly managed our nuclear arsenal these last 10 years or so, I was not happy. I expect our government to turn any country on the planet into a shiny piece of glass on a moments notice – but that is hell, it is the dark dark dark place in my heart.

    I also admit I am unimpressed with the distinction between the bishops and the prince. Was the prince still willing to defend innocents in his own country against depraved children of God who would rape and pillage and kill? If so that requires the sword. Was he willing to defend his borders against foreign invaders (who would plunder, rape, and kill)? That requires the sword. So the prince simply had one “just war” morality that was slightly different from what the bishops allegedly had. As Fr. Stephen points out, that matters little. What matters is that they all had that dark dark dark place in their hearts…

  6. This is beautiful: “Entering into that darkness and acknowledging its depths is not an effort to consign ourselves to perdition or to embrace a doctrine of total depravity. It is an effort to unite ourselves to Christ. The traditional name for this journey is repentance. Moralism has all but destroyed the Christian understanding of repentance, replacing it with good intentions and apologies. Our sin is a brokenness and is best seen in the darkest corners of the heart. “

  7. Ed,
    I couldn’t write this if I didn’t include the banal moralities of my own life. I have not drawn a moral equivalency – and I said so. I am, however, making an equivalency of every human heart. And I am in very good company in doing so. F. Dostoevsky’s character Fr. Zossima says:

    And the longer a monk lives within his walls, the more keenly he must be aware of it. For otherwise he had no reason to come here. But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all,2 for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth. This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every man’s path on earth. For monks are not a different sort of men, but only such as all men on earth ought also to be. Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety. Then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears … Let each of you keep close company with his heart, let each of you confess to himself untiringly. Do not be afraid of your sin, even when you perceive it, provided you are repentant, but do not place conditions on God. Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, nor those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you.

    My fault at the moment is having brought up this uncomfortable expression of the Tradition during a time when our passions in the matter have been stirred up.

    You last sentence, suggesting I pay attention to my own morality, had a note of anger in it. I’m sorry if that’s true and ask your forgiveness.

  8. “Evil prevails when good men do nothing”

    So I suppose nothing should have been done with the Nazi regime then?
    This is disappointing….and I so love your blog.

  9. Anna,
    You are misunderstanding the article. To say that nothing should be done is to reduce this question to simple moralism. “Is it right, is it wrong.” I was pushing the question deeper.

    I have heard the confessions of many veterans, including many on the front-lines, including WWII. They would all quickly tell you about what war does to the heart. I am not saying that wars will not be fought, or that Christians will not fight in them, only that when it is said and done, the heart has a darkness that must be healed.

    Orthodox canons prescribe healing remedies for those who kill in war. They are not punishments, but requirements for repentance (in some cases up to 3 years of penance).

    My own family has twice been disrupted by murders. I know the human heart in these things. That my hatred and anger and desire for punishment, etc., are “morally right” won’t heal the darkness of my heart.

    The heart cares nothing for what is moral or not. It’s a very different landscape and it is the landscape that matters. I hope you will think about this more and ask more questions. If you come to understand what I’m saying, I think you will not be disappointed.

  10. Anna, and others who are reacting negatively to this post — this article is not about Nazis, or Islamists, or even politicians; it’s about you. It’s about your heart, and mine, right now, in this place, at this time, and the darkness there that is being even now stirred up. Will you not take this moment to look there, and see what is revealed?

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your grace and patience in trying (and trying, and trying) to communicate such things to your readers.

  11. Anna,

    This is going to sound naive on my part, but I personally believe that if all Christians around the world possessed hearts purified with the repentance and humble love that comes from knowing “each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth,” then miracles beyond what we’ve ever witnessed before would accompany our tears of repentance. We might even save the whole world by love and wash away all of its sins. The Nazi Regime wouldn’t have stood a chance against such tears.

  12. Christopher (or anyone),

    Do you have a link to more info about the “St. Sarav” you mention?


  13. In the midst of great evil, we forget St Seraphim’s injunction to “Acquire the Holy Spirit [so that] a thousand souls around you might be saved.”

    Thank you for this, Father.

  14. Michelle and others,
    It is naive to think that our repentance will make the evil be good. They crucified Christ. We crucified Christ. There is no doubt that wars will continue to be fought – Christianity is not a solution for how to make this a better world. War certainly doesn’t make it a better world. But war certainly destroyed the Nazis. But it could not erase the Nazi heart.

    In none of this am I suggesting a practical pacifism. But, the teaching of the Church (and the Scriptures) does not hold that we can engage in “moral” killing and therefore not find our hearts victimized in the process. We have to train people to kill, and even then, they are often very reluctant to do it. This is the common testimony of soldiers everywhere. Soldiers themselves worry about their comrades who no longer have any reluctance or regret in killing. They know that something is wrong.

    But we become very foolish in our defense of war – even the best war – when we ignore the damage it does to very good people. As a child, my neighbor woke every night from a nightmare as he relived killing a young German face to face in the Italy campaign. And this is very common. My own father-in-law who served in the infantry in France and Germany would never (!) share stories of his experience. He did not want to talk about it. He was a profound Christian, not a pacifist and he recognized the “necessity” of what he did, but it also was a wound in his heart that had to be healed.

    The wisdom of the Fathers (not mine!) is that this wound is a common wound and that it infects us all and affects us all, justified or not. All the justification for killing will not keep it from damaging the heart. And that damage I have here described as Hades – for it is. Along with all the other things we do in the dark.

    I greatly desire that the wickedness that now tramples the Mideast under foot be defeated. But the darkness of the human heart that has been the single most important hallmark of the modern period, will not be abated by their defeat. In the course of our protracted war on terror, our own hearts must at length be healed.

    After the Second World War, do you think that England started liking Germany right away? In some places across the world the wounds of a darkened heart have lingered for many centuries. It is a dark underside of Orthodoxy. For we have been victimized repeatedly.

    But the Fathers, living Fathers, keep drawing us toward our salvation, which will include letting the light of Christ shine in the darkest corners of our hearts. For the truth of myself – is found closer to the madman within my heart than it is in the moral man that others see. If it were not so, we would not need to work so hard to hide it.

  15. Father Stephen is making a deeply radical statement about the faith, the world and ultimately my own heart as Christopher mentioned. As much as I recognize the truth of what he is saying (calling us to?), I too find it uncomfortable and unpalatable in some ways.

    Years ago when my son was 17 and wanted to join the Coast Guard, my late wife and I assigned him the task of researching the Church’s position on war and our participation in it. I thought it would be rather an easy task. It was not. He struggled with it in prayer, in study and in conversation for several years.

    Even the Orthodox scholar and retired military Chaplin, Fr. Alexander F.C. Webster, who has written extensively about the dilemma war and violence pose to we Orthodox, cannot come to a simple easy answer to the dilemma. There are saints on both sides of the question. I know my heart is divided as, it seems, are most posting.

    Clearly the sword is given to the state to protect but the state is also held to righteousness in its use. We, as persons under the law and in communion with God are held to an even higher standard (beyond that of the Scribes and Pharisees). (See below)

    There has been quite a lot of study done on methods of interrogation that do not use anything resembling torture. They are not as easy to learn as force but when done properly, they appear to be equally effective. They have the added benefit of respecting the humanity of both the interrogator and the one being interrogated. Torture or similar means de-humanizes both.

    My son ultimately came to the conclusion that 1. there is no such thing as a just war; 2. there can be righteous warriors but it is extraordinarily difficult and if someone enters that arena he must be fully prepared to give up his earthly life and risk his salvation to protect others; 3. this is not a doctrinal question and the ideology and politics that so infects our decisions to use force or not use force should not be allowed to divide the Church or the people in it from each other.

    My son takes the position that evil can and does use physical means to destroy the souls of men as well as their bodies. There are times when that must be opposed with physical means. Even so there is great risk involved of being drawn into the evil one is opposing even if the opposition begins righteously.

    Father Stephen is not preaching pacifism, but active spiritual battle against the principalities and powers in our own heart that call us to the darkness in whatever form. Classical political and theological pacifism can never fit within the Orthodox Church. The pacifism of the Quakers and the Mennonites for instance relies on a theology that simply makes us pawns of God. He is doing everything so why should we try to change anything (gross over simplification warning). It is, IMO, the other side of the war desire to control everything.

    There is no question that war and violence are part of our shared falleness in which we worship the created thing more than our Creator. As such it can not effectively be addressed solely on a moral plane, neither does it provide any lasting justice or real peace. “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

    Perhaps Fr. Stephen is simply calling us to recognize that, evil though their actions might be, our enemies are still human and that mercy, prayer and forgiveness for our enemies is the Christian way. My son recognized this as well. The first duty of any Christian in any such situation is to work for peace (peace maker is an activity after all, not something that just happens while we watch seeking not to stain our own hands.)

    If there is no peace to be had and the physical activities of evil must be confronted, well, not all men can or should do that. Nevertheless, we must always be on guard against the evil perpetrated on our behalf.

    I once saw an interview on TV with a man who was a soldier in Viet Nam, a helicopter commander. He was on patrol one day and saw below him what looked like a massacre of villagers by American troops beginning. He set his helicopter down between the villagers and the American troops and ordered his door gunner to fire on any American soldier who would not cease and desist. He stopped the massacre that day with no loss of life.

    The American way of life is not divine. It is a political and ideological construct that brings many benefits, but also is deeply infected with sin, just as we are. It is not inherently evil but can perpetrate evil. A Christian’s allegiance to the country where he lives is only conditional.

    We either engage evil where it is (mostly in our own heart) or we do not. It is a difficult work. Father Stephen is reminding us how difficult a work it is but also how important it is at a time when it is difficult to rationalize the consequences of that work.

    Seems to me that is what a priest is supposed to do.

    Thank you Father.

    P.S. Shakespeare put the question eloquently and more succinctly than any quotation of Scripture or the Fathers with which I am familiar:

    The quality of mercy is not strained;
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown:
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice.
    Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That, in the course of justice, none of us
    Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
    To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
    Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

  16. That being said, there is clearly a lot of sophistry and hypocritical hand wringing being done on this by the powers that be–mostly those who have no trouble at all setting policies that kill babies and the elderly in our own country. Murder is in my heart too. Lord have mercy.

  17. I am glad for Ed W’s second comment. It helps me appreciate one of the paradoxes in Christianity.

    War is dark, probably far darker than any of our private sins, but how would we have known about Christ if Constantine, Vladimir, and countless other military/political leaders had practiced what He taught? The question is impossible to answer on a human level. Perhaps love would have won out. We know that anything is possible with God. But history teaches a very different lesson. Even the history of the Church. So we live with contradictions.

    Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will.” I never understood that. It seems that as individuals we are doing well if we say, love and trust in God and hope for the best.

  18. Michael,
    Well said. I seriously am not addressing the morality of torture or killing in war, etc. They do not have to be addressed because the nature of those actions is not my point.

    My point would be to say, when you have acted as justly as possible, with every possible argument on your side, and as a result done violence to another person, let alone torture or killing, no matter how moral the action might be, it has a side-effect. That effect is within the human heart. And I know from personal experience (echoed by that of countless others) that knowing you were morally right in carrying out that action will not heal the wound in the heart. It just doesn’t work that way.

    And if Christ only dealt with the “morality” of things, then He would be leaving all of us completely justified killers in the tortured hell of our hearts. So, as public events have forced us to think about terror and torture and war and killing, I am simply saying, pay attention to your heart. I’m not even warning about the danger posed by the dark thoughts of our hearts – the danger of becoming a nation of darkened hearts.

    I’m saying that we already are a world (and not just a nation) of darkened hearts. And our public events are occasions that reveal it to us. Use the occasion to enter the heart and find Christ. He is working to bring light to that dark place.

  19. Fr. Stephen, thank you for this beautifully written article which is a very helpful encouragement to me. Please don’t mind any kicking or screaming that it might elicit. It’s a wonderful call to deep prayer and repentance of the heart, which is of great benefit to one and all. Lord have mercy on me.

  20. Father,

    i thought you were making a bolder, more Hauerwas-ian point: maybe it would be better to risk death than to become people not worth being.

    Also surprised at the rejection of Mennonite sentiments on this issue (i’ve heard multiple times Hauerwas referred to as a “high church Mennonite”). According to Guy Hershberger’s War and Non-resistance, the “rules” really aren’t the same for the church and the state. They have different roles to play. And for that reason, the church has a higher standard to meet on this very issue. Is that not consistent with Orthodox clergy being prohibited from engaging in any violence?


  21. This recent series of posts continues to frustrate me, Father. Either I am missing something crucial about them that prevents me to understand the messages you are attempting to convey, or I do understand them and you are simply splitting hairs on this morality thing. You continuously refer to the frivolities of our human morality only to use it in constructing your counterpoints. It is like human consciousness- deny it all you want, but it has to be postulated in order for human beings to talk about anything.

  22. Fr. Stephen, thank you! An amazing article that really digs deeply. This is the hard part:

    “Use the occasion to enter the heart and find Christ. He is working to bring light to that dark place.”

    How does one “enter the heart and find Christ” during this time? We stumble because we walk in the dark; it is both frustrating and depressing to not know how to do this. Prayer is all I can do. Thank you again.

  23. Guy,
    Hauerwas is good as far as he goes, but he does not really address the ontological problems – therefore he stays at morality in many ways. Indeed the ideal in Orthodoxy is required of priests and monks – we may not kill. And the ideal is enshrined for all in the penitential canons regarding killing in various forms.

    But the canons are not at all concerned with morality. They concern themselves with the healing and salvation of the soul. It is not possible to rightly understand Orthodox thought if it is engaged on the level of morality. It is not part of the Tradition. There is not a true just war theory in Orthodoxy, nor even a moral theory. There is only salvation. It is, of course, true that you can find examples of Orthodox “moral theology” particularly written over the past several hundred years and in the modern period. But those efforts are simply copying the models within Catholic and Protestant thought and they are not native to Orthodoxy.

    Yannaras’ book Freedom of Morality is a good introduction to the differences between Orthodox ontology and mere morality. I am so far removed from making this stuff up. But many people, including the average priest, has not come to understand these distinctions.

    But, and this is important, even for the pacifist – monk or priest, etc. – who does not engage in violence – the heart still remains just as marred and scarred by violence as that of the most experienced soldier. Make no mistake. This is about us and not about someone else.

    This is where Hauerwas and the Mennonite tradition fall short. It is the heart that must be healed and not just our sentiments and actions.

    An Anglican Benedictine once said, “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”

    And these thoughts that I offer are not about making the world a better place. The Kingdom of God is a better place and the only place a Christian must wish to dwell. What I am writing about here is how to enter the Kingdom of God. Strangely or not, it is by following the same path as Christ has traveled. And whether we like it or not, Christ’s path is not a moral path – it is a path through the midst of being and nothingness and it goes right through the depth of hell.

    St. Gregory the Theologian said: “If He descends into Hades, go down with Him.” I am merely pointing the way. Look at your heart:

    “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. There also are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the Kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace – all things are there.”
    — St Macarius the Great, Homily 43

  24. “Making the world a better place” is not what I meant when I said “…then miracles beyond what we’ve ever witnessed before would accompany our tears of repentance. We might even save the whole world by love and wash away all of its sins. The Nazi Regime wouldn’t have stood a chance against such tears.” But I see why you would think so.

    Christ was naive in the minds of the Jews when Christ told them that He was God and that His humility would save the world through His death by crucifixion. The Jews thought that what was needed to save the world was a Messiah who would make the world a better place through victory in war. But miracles beyond anything we have ever witnessed happened when God was Crucified.

    We feel that it is unfortunate but necessary to defend our family from harm with violent efforts when someone breaks into our homes to murder, rape, and pillage. But Christopher is right, there is a great darkness in this sentiment. And in Christ there is no Darkness, and it is in Christ where we want to be. Christ too has a family -the Church. How did/does He defend His family? Christ has the power greater than anyone to defend the innocent from murder, rape, pillage, and every other injustice. But something very different occurred during the Apostolic era and the few centuries following. Christians became willful martyrs, they did not defend themselves, but rather chose crucifixion with Christ. And miracles beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed in our own generation were witnessed and written down for us to hear. And the martyrs were/are saving the world. The Romans didn’t stand a chance against them. This is more along the lines of what I meant.

  25. Byron,
    First, tell the truth to yourself (and God) and perhaps your confessor, about the heart. Truth brings light. And when you see the dark stuff of the heart (with its shame), don’t immediately turn away. Look at it, admit it. And in prayer allow Christ to be there. In prayer, ask for Him to comfort you. Seeing and acknowledging this darkness and looking at it honestly and openly with Christ, begins the process of healing.

  26. Father,

    Now *that* was *very* helpful. Thank you. i’ll be chewing on those things for a while.

    The only thing i’m still having to “translate” is your utter rejection of the word moral. Your earlier comment identifying therapeutic moral deism was helpful. But, in my current circle anyway, the word “moral” is not used so restrictively. In my academic encounters, Aristotle has a “moral” theory. But it bears no resemblance to anything you seem to be attacking; and frankly, much of what you say sounds quite in line with the Nicomachean Ethics. –and by the same token, in line with Alisdair MacIntyre’s critique of ethics in the modern period.

    Anyway, seriously–that last bit gave me a good deal to think about. Thanks.


  27. MormontoOrthodox,
    Let’s make this a little more two-way. When you say “morality” – what do you mean by the phrase?

    The dictionary says: “a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”

    An example. Let’s say we come across a man who has been run over by a car. He is bleeding and injured. Which does he need most, a doctor or a lawyer? The lawyer can treat the rules that were broken by the driver, etc. But no matter who was at fault, and no matter what the lawyer does, the man will die if he is not treated. He needs a doctor.

    Orthodox thought treats sin as the kind of problem that needs a doctor instead of a lawyer. It is certainly the case that doctors have guidance for their patients: don’t eat this. Eat that. Exercise. Don’t smoke. But the guidance of a doctor is still different than that of a lawyer.

    An example in our culture of this difference has been the debate about marijuana use. The lawyer says, “Don’t smoke it. It’s against the law.” But that obviously hasn’t been very effective. Indeed, several states now say that his “morality” is incorrect.

    But the doctor might say, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s legal or not. It is harmful to your health.” If it’s legal (moral) you are certainly free to do it. But it might still ruin your life. “Legal” is similar to how I use the term “morality” and similar to the dictionary definition of the word. “Unhealthy” is similar to how I have used the term “sin” (and how the Scriptures use the term). The Scriptures tell us to do or not do things, because the doing of them brings life or death. That is not the same thing as punishment and reward (in the legal/moral sense).

    These are two very different things. Does that explanation help?

  28. Guy,
    Have you read Guroian’s Incarnate Love? I’m not sure that he goes as far as I do. As a student of Hauerwas, I was taught to press things pretty far. Generally, if I give an inch on the term “morality” others will drive the whole legal/forensic truck through that tiny crack.

    I think it is possible, particularly within virtue ethics, to reconcile all of this. So long as virtue is seen as ontological and not just a “habit.” The resurrected Christ, and not just Aristotle’s great-souled man, is the proper model of virtue. There can be no “morality” (the true virtue) apart from Christ. Christ is our virtue. Christ – truly – completely – ontologically – not abstractly – not in an exemplarist manner.

    At the Eucharist, I eat virtue. I drink virtue. Virtue flows in my veins and its aroma fills my lungs.

  29. guy,

    I was thinking (too quickly and thus I did not type his name) of St. Seraphim of Sarov. One of the well known aspects of his life is his radical pacifism when being robbed and beaten (he almost died and had health issues relating to it for the rest of his life).

    Katerina says:

    Those who live by the gun, die by the gun.
    Paraphrase of The Lord’s teaching.

    True but in a important and profound sense this is everyone. This includes those who don’t own/train with guns, and who try to life (or actually succeed in living) a radical pacifism. Let’s say a person abhors war, promotes/votes pacifism in politics, does not own a gun, etc. What would she do if a deranged child of God came to rape her in the dark of the night? Would she dial 911? If so, she lives by the gun because the police officer carry’s and uses a gun in her stead. Let’s say she is a nun in a monestary – does she live by the gun? Yes, as there are those around her (armed citizens, police officers, and the army) who maintain the peace in the land that she lives. Let’s say a modern St. Seraphim of Sarov finds a piece of true wilderness, an island somewhere and lives a life of real and true radical pacifism. Perhaps then, but one has to admit that the island is in an ocean and that ocean is patrolled by one or more navy’s that subdue pirates, etc.

    All this is simply the “existential facts” of living in the world and is ordained by God as St. Paul explains:

    “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. ” Rom 13 1-4

  30. Father,

    I think I understand. In my opinion (and it is only that – I am not at all certain on these things and I hope I have not overstated my confidence), a monastic has the “freedom from the world” to attempt to live what I am calling a “radical pacifism” that includes both a moral pacifism and a pacifism of the heart (is the first even possible without the second?). I say attempt because their are the recorded instances of monks taking up the sword to defend each other when attacked. The person “in the world” who has responsibilities for others (those with family, governmental authorities, etc.) in almost every case is not afforded a coherent “moral pacifism”. Now, there are cases of true martyrdom of whole families. However, I take most conflicts with evil that come to a “physical” point (as Michael put it) to actually not be God given opportunities for martyrdom, and thus a moral pacifism is actually a moral and even a spiritual mistake.

    In any case any moral right or wrong of anything is not on the “ontological” or spiritual or “the level of the heart”. Violence even “rightly used” is part of the tragedy and darkness of this world and of ourselves in our own heart and it is only through the His Salvation that we are cleansed from this.

  31. I have a dear friend, departed this life, who was in Viet Nam as a young man. While there his company was out on the aptly named “Search and Destroy” patrol. They ran into an engaged some VC. They won a brief battle and ended up with a captured VC.

    My friends commander ordered him to take the equally young VC into the forest and come back without him (kill him). My friend did that. He never got over it. It twisted and tortured his soul for the rest of his life. Toward the end of his earthly life, in the Church, he began to gain some peace.

    Interestingly enough, my son and he became deep friends. They somehow bonded over my son’s work on the war issue. They had some long virile discussions with each other about it to which I was not privy.

  32. albert, Augustine’s saying has long bothered me as well. One clue: he is not talking about the sentiment that passes for love. He is talking about the divine love that transforms us which lifts up into the Kingdom. He is talking about Theosis, Latin Father that he was.

  33. The final conclusion my son came to is that we in the Church must not assume we know the answer or we end up being governed by the political ideologies and passions of the time rather than by the Holy Spirit. We must not shy from openly probing these questions with each other in prayer and in a spirit of seeking the truth especially when we find initial disagreement.

    Otherwise we will be unprepared when the time comes to us and it is no more theoretical and we leave our young people to the whims and forces of this world.

    He is not one for this type of dialog, but I will share this conversation with him and see if he wants to add anything.

  34. RVW,

    For what it’s worth – St. Seraphim’s quote more accurately should be translated as “acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved”. And thanks for bringing it up.

    “Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.” This thought first enlightens the dying brother of the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov years before he becomes a monk, and profoundly influences him. It gives a radically different perspective: it’s not about us on high moral ground and them the bad guys. I am responsible to all men for all men.

    Thank you, Fyodor Mikhailovich and Fr. Stephen!

  35. This is a powerful essay. I wanted to commend Michael Bauman for his long comment as well – truly an example of Christian discernment. Thank you.

    A brief comment: the idea that we cannot make a “moral equivalency” with terrorists – ie, recognize that we are not somehow fundamentally different in our human condition and actions and sins of violence – seems completely wrong to me. We simply are not better people. In point of fact, our history and actions give us no cause to believe we are. We dropped atomic bombs on civilian populations incinerating them instantly, for goodness sake. We have just destroyed several middle eastern countries – leaving hundreds of thousands dead and displaced – and are at work destroying Ukraine for political ends. A few beheadings is small potatoes by comparison.

    I don’t want to distract from the fine essay and points made, but I strongly believe that Solzhenitsyn offered the only (Orthodox) Christian way of thinking about these things: we are not different. When we see the darkness in others we are required to see that it is a part of ourselves:

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

  36. I think we must admit that we are our brother and sister even if the person we have in mind is the most horrid sinner imaginable. We are all one with them in the same way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.

    New men in Christ should die Christ’s death every day, participating personally in the only death that breaks the power of sin holding all men. This is where God’s heart would have us be. In this there is no judging. External moral standards for measuring others is replaced by love.

    Civil authorities and soldiers are forced to attempt an imperfect justice because no justice of this world is adequate. When Christ returns He can judge all men like the prodigals they are, with lavish grace and love far beyond our comprehension.

  37. Father,

    i have the very same worry about violence; when we give an inch and say it is sometimes necessary, from what i can tell, people try to drive fleets of trucks full of war and personal violence through that tiny crack.

    i do have a couple questions:

    (1) If violence truly is sometimes necessary, then in what sense is the practice of clergy/monastics “ideal”?

    (2) Is there something distinctive or special about violence such that it is sometimes necessary or that its use may count as sacrificing one’s salvation for the sake of others where as this is not true of other actions? For example, what about covert operatives who may commit adultery to gain information needed to stop or prevent wars? i’m having trouble understanding what “sometimes necessary” might mean without it also including any conceivable act. If there were no hope of violent resistance, but an evil despot would spare us all if only a few of us would commit idolatry, then is idolatry “sometimes necessary”? Or if that evil despot demanded we torture our own child so that he would spare bombing an entire city, does torturing one’s child become “sometimes necessary”? (i understand someone might object to the use of such hypotheticals, but these are precisely the same type of hypotheticals that are used to justify violence.) Now, if both are also sometimes necessary, then it seems there are no actions which are in principle off-limits. But if there are some actions which are never permissible, but rather, it is more advisable to suffer death than to commit the action, and if violence is not one of those actions, then there must be some difference between violence and those other actions. i’d like to know what it is.

    About Aristotle–i hadn’t ever asked myself that question. i guess i always assumed Aristotle did have fairly ontological views that motivated what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics. Seems to me he thinks the difference between the virtuous person and the merely continent person is akin to the difference between a brand new car that runs beautifully and the older car that is reliable but clearly has internal wear and tear. Of course, Aristotle doesn’t have anything sacramental in his system, and many have pointed out that he really hasn’t given clear criteria for “eudaimonia.” Now, MacIntyre, on the other hand, probably does hold the more hollow, “merely habits” view you mention.


  38. If anyone is interested, there are multiple works that record instances of people who encountered violent situations (including situations of rape) who neither committed violence nor “stood back and did nothing” but modeled “third” ways of behaving and did so successfully.

    A couple short ones to start with:

    Safe Passage on City Streets by Dorothy Samuel

    Victories Without Violence by Ann Ruth Fry


  39. Josh Duncan you missed the entire point of this blog post. I pray that you will set the politricks game aside and pay heed to the most needful thing.

  40. Father bless,

    As I read your post I could only but think of my own conclusions about modern morality learned as a soldier in Aghanistan. I found myself in agreement with your article and the darkness that pervades us all -Experiential reality with war will often dull ideological concepts and moralism. Decisions in such environments are so complex that they defy moralism, that is to say they go well beyond its limits.

    Then we come face to face with the darkness of self

    As I read the comments section, I realized that words that healed (in a small way) my aching soul – simply stirs the pot for many others.

    It seems to me that it does so for many people at a macro-level…. It is quite a difficult thing for a person to hold two opposing thoughts in their mind. Many difficult moral decisions such as torture or killing are often abstractions in our modern world. Even how we kill with drones and video game-like weapons tends to make it more abstract for the soldier. Removed as many of us often are from the “ground-truth” and shame and pain that pervades the souls of those of us who in actuality must act upon and apply some of these “moral” decisions allows us to justify them more readily.

    For a much smaller group of us they are not abstract. The abstract part of their application is swallowed by application. Forgive the starkness of the imagery -but for many of us – decisions such as these are not abstractions. We have held the dying infant riddled by shrapnel. We have tried (against reason) to hold a person brains from spilling out of their skull. We have pulled the trigger out of spite. Hesse are realities of a dirty existence. We have committed or witnesses our own dark exploits and either justified them or pushed the thoughts out of our consciousness – ” we have a job to do.”

    I could certainly speak intelligently and experientially about torture and interrogation. I won’t.

    What I will speak about is the affect of all of this; PTSD- trauma- anger – and more bargaining with the dark. We cannot engage in the darkness without in some way embracing it – negotiating with it – and trying to control it. It is all of this, but esp. that last one -the control of the dark – which is external moralism. It has nothing to do with working internally to cure the source of darkness with the light of Christ.

    It was truly PTSD that drove me to Orthodoxy. Understanding that much of my hatred,fear, anger and despondency was the impossibility of moralizing the darkness of us all. The struggle to fit the darkness I’ve seen and done into moral frameworks creates part of the dissonance of PTSD. Orthodoxy has led me to Understanding that some of that is simply an abnormal passion for an sense of moral justice where none can be found.

    Perhaps this is what I mean…and on Jesus could make it clear.

    22″The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. 23″But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!…

  41. Guy,
    I only mean by “necessary,” that we feel it to be a necessity. We cannot bear to let it be otherwise. But it could be born. Christ bears it all the time. God is the ultimate pacifist. All of this stuff is happening on His watch. But we often find it unbearable to be like God.

    We pray in the Church for those suffer from any “sorrow or necessity.” My God, how we suffer from necessity!

  42. Josh,
    they are all laughing at us…all the time. They are servants of the princes of this world. It is, however, not the last laugh.

    And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)

  43. Aaron,
    Thank you for this profound witness and confirmation of the truth as it is in Christ. I know these stories, have heard the confessions… I would that everyone who reads my article will read your comment. May I have your permission to turn it into a small follow-up article?

  44. Reading Guy’s list of hypotheticals got me thinking of that Saint who answered the Mohammedans when they asked him why Christians kill (in war) when they are commanded by the Lord not to kill with something like “who is greater, one who follows one commandment or one who follows both?” – I am going from memory here, anyone recall what I am talking about? It is oft repeated by I could not find it using Google for some reason…

  45. One question: at what point does the discussion of violence “spiritualuze” things too much and end up ignoring the incarnational reality that we are body and soul meant to be inseperable?

    How do we address the reality that what is done to and with the body can have eternal consequences? Or does it?

    IMO one of the great weaknesses of the forensic model and can be of the ontological one is the bifurcation of the human being in a way that devalues our body or rather ignores the fullness of our being.

    Am I on the right track Father?

  46. Father, thank you for the personal reply. I think I better understand you now, and I believe I understand what caused my misunderstanding. I see morality in a broader, holistic sense that applies to what is good and what is evil.

    In your example with the doctor and lawyer I would say both are giving commands that fall within the moral framework, i.e. human beings ought to act a certain way because 1. God has established objective rules we should follow and 2. Not following these rules, or not having access to the healing sacraments of the Church widens the divide between us and the Giver of Life, and as a result we are subjected to spiritual sickness and death.

    I have never seen morality as synonymous with the legal constructs of humanity. To me morality has always been objective rules about how one ought to act independent of human opinion. That is the only sort of morality that ultimately matters.

  47. Father, I grew up in an evangelical church (which I am not involved in as an adult). We were taught hell fire and brimstone…. repent or God will send you to hell, to be tortured for eternity.

    I have a very difficult time believing God will do that. Of course torturing another human being or any living being, is wrong on every level. So why would God, to send us to hell? I can’t imagine God wanting to torture anyone.

    This is a question I have wondered about my whole life, and I am now 63.

  48. Linda,

    I grew up, like you, being taught that God is first a judge of men and then –only after His demands are met– our lover. I still wrestle with twisted notions about God; evil caricatures created by men who made God a monster. Christ, Who is the fullness of God, does not reveal Himself this way!

    He lovingly provides everything and will fill everyone’s hearts with their desires. He has even provided for those who, hating Him, want to be in hell forever — the fallen angels and those who follow them in darkness. God is not the cause of anyone being in hell. He grants it with great pain, but that pain is eternal because He bears it and and will continue to bear it because Christ has borne it all.

    Most men are not not haters of God. They are stupid victims of sin, careless, not watchful, not aware, not prepared for the truth to be revealed. When Lord appears to judge all men He will judge with frightening love beyond our comprehension.

    We must trust Him. He would never harm anyone! In that Day, when all deeds and all secrets are revealed it will be more terrifying than any hell fire we can imagine. It will also be precisely the the gift of everything we need to finally dwell in paradise — the burning away of sin away and clothing us undeserved in His own glory. What love!

    Please, trust Him and have faith to the end. I pray this for myself and also for you.

    Michael P

  49. Mormom to Orthodox says,

    {1.God has established objective rules we should follow and 2. Not following these rules. …between us and the Giver of Life….To me morality has always been objective rules about how one ought to act independent of human opinion….}

    This is the Law, this is moralism as far as I can tell. I think an Orthodox reply might be Christ’s commandments are not “objective” to be followed, rather they are “personal” and we follow Him (not them) out of Love (not duty as in the Law). How else can one explain the commandment to “love one’s enemies”. If you take seriously what an “enemy” is (very difficult for us fat, happy, and safe moderns) one can not see how God would have us “morally” love our enemies – it is not “right” in any way and can be against your own well being (though I suppose one could if one reduces morality down further to ‘arbitrary morality’).

    I don’t know MormontoOrhtodox, perhaps you are including the personal, the hypostatic union with God, Love (as opposed to duty – which is the only way one can relate to something “objective”, external, non-personal) in there somehow, though I don’t see it. Forgive me if I am wrong…

  50. Blessings to you Father,

    Being a soldier myself (and participated in Afghanistan war as an infantry on the ”front line” [if there is such thing in Afghanistan]), the comment section was an interesting read. I have a lot of things to ponder.

    At one time, you said that there is a difference between moral pacifism and pacifism of the heart. Could you elaborate on that ?

    Thank you again for all those text, even though I am Roman Catholic, you are the site I read the most.

  51. Thank you Father for your reply. I look forward to your follow up article. This article, and the comments that have come from it, have been very interesting and, if I am able to come to a fuller understanding of this issue, will be more enlightening over time.

    Several books have been mentioned; do you have a “short list” that you are willing to share that will help bring a deeper understanding of this viewpoint?

  52. Michael and Father Freeman,

    Thank you for your replies, I appreciate them. I will follow up with suggested reading.

    Peace and love to you all….


  53. The last line says it all. So how will this happen, say to a people and a culture, where there is no concept of sin? Where honor is the most important thing even if you lie, cheat and steal to save your honor? Where religion, economics and politics are all wrapped up in one as a way of life? Where your point of view is just black or white? This is what goes through my mind when I study the history(ies) of the Middle East going back to WWI. May the Lord have mercy upon all of us.

  54. Christopher,

    Loving one’s enemies is absolutely the moral thing to do because it is the most holy, most godly way to live. Not loving your enemies is inferior tribalism that just exacerbates conflict and hatred.

    To clarify, I see morality as synonymous with the will of God, i.e. if God wills it, then it is the most moral option.

  55. I’m home nursing a cold with my daughter who is worse off with the same this Sunday morning, so we have missed the Divine Liturgy. I hope I won’t be misunderstood if I confess in reading this post and subsequent comments, I feel myself drawn into the same Spirit that fills that Liturgy and am comforted. I feel myself drawn into that same rejoicing that we enter into at Pascha when we proclaim over and over, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

    After years of struggling more and more with the images of God elicited by the “Penal Substitution” views of the Atonement that predominated my Evangelical and Protestant background, it was owning the truth of the Saint where he says:

    For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.

    that opened to door for me to come home to the Holy Orthodox Church. Thank God for the grace of the Holy Spirit who opened the eyes of my heart.

    Words cannot express my gratitude for that, but thank you, Father, for so faithfully endeavoring once again to articulate this, the fullness, of our faith. Indeed, we don’t need acquittal by the Divine Judge, we need healing from the Great Physician of our souls, nothing less than our own resurrection from the dead!

  56. By the way, Friday evening my family and I watched the 2012 documentary Honor Flight, about the efforts of a group from Wisconsin to send their WWII vets to the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. It profiles the stories of several of those vets, who serve, I believe, as wonderful illustrations of your point here, Father. The events portrayed in the film manifest both the “heaven” and “hell” you articulate, while they most certainly glorify only the “heaven.” Well worth the watch if you haven’t see it, but (spoiler alert) keep the tissues close at hand!

  57. MormontoOrthodox
    I understand the framework you’re describing. It has a problem for me. The “morality” you describe, synonymous with the will of God, perfect as it is, remains external to us. As such, it would be inherently oppressive, even if it is good and perfect. It ignores the “Law written on the fleshy tables of the heart.” The framework that I describe – in which things are understood in terms of being (ontology) instead of law (even God’s law), do not have this external quality. God commands us to be truly human. The commandments He gives us are precisely in line with what it means to be properly and truly human. In keep His commandments we, in fact, become what we are truly meant to be. This may again sound like more semantics – but it is an essential difference. Describing the Law as “objective” and “perfect” and “God’s will” is insufficient. It can mean something very wrong and incorrect.

  58. Father Stephen…
    David asked to know the difference between moral pacifism and pacifism of the heart. It seems as if your answer above about the law, i.e., external or ontological, also answers his question.

  59. Morals as icons, revelatory of the state of one’s heart not to be things in themselves are important. Morals as things in themselves become idols. It was for this that Jesus upbraided the Scribes and Pharisees and why we are called to a righteousness must exceed theirs.

  60. Something must be said about the propriety of conflating what ‘torture’ meant in 998 in Kiev, with what is described as ‘torture’ in the recent U.S. report on the subject.

    For example, if one went to Kiev in 998 and asked the question: “Would there be any lasting physical injury after torture?” One would have been considered a pitifully foolish person for even wondering about it. Of course there would be lasting physical injury as a great many persons tortured in those days died shortly afterward of the consequnces of their injuries, not least infections from cuts and broken bones.

    In the present circumstance we have the likely reality of psychological damage, but in nearly all the cases documented no lasting physical damage of any sort.

    To pretend the former sort of ‘torture’ should be on the same moral plane as the latter speaks more about the agenda of the authors than the subject itself.

    I would hate to give an account as a priest after presiding at a funeral of those killed by terrorists– while having advised against means that do no lasting physical damage to gain the information necessary to have saved lives. Yes, there could be abuses and those should be punished. But when there is a justified true belief that an imminent threat to life could be prevented by means that do no lasting damage to one caught in attempt to do murder— we must choose from among the alternatives we actually have and the duty to protect has the better moral position.

  61. Father,
    What you’re calling morality is not akin to virtue, correct? Should we be pursuing virtue? I wasn’t sure if you addressed this question elsewhere.

    Thank you.

  62. Dear Mr. Coin,

    In some sense I don’t have a dog in this fight, in another I do. I’ve got practical experience with all of this. I can see your point of view. It has utility. That aside…removing my secularized and militarized hat and putting my christian hat on, these two are simply not compatible. Perhaps I can recommend reading cadoux on this subject.

    The article has nothing to do with putting things on the same “Moral plane.” I understand how truly difficult it is for people not to jusge thing by external moral judgements of utility and efficacy. But this is simply bargaining with the devil.

    Fine…support these policies … Call it whatever you like. I won’t argue about the utility of it. But don’t call it moral, it’s simply utilitarian. Or perhaps go back and read all of father Stephens ideas in regards to moralism and it’s external and artificial source.

    Perhaps IT IS moral in a secular sense, but secular and religious morality are not the same as truly Christian ethics and spirituality. Their values are not the same. The former two are both neurobiological illnesses. The later is the cure.

    “But in nearly all the cases documented no lasting physical damage of any sort.”

    I’m sorry But this is simply not true, even if it’s weren’t “documented”, Which it is. Documentation aside, I can tell you from experience that this is not true, but I will not be more specific. I can certainly point you to the documentation should you wish to see it. I can also sit down with you face to face and tell you the truth you don’t want to hear.

    In regards to the “agenda” of Father Stephen, I think it’s fair to point out his agenda. it is not a political one however. It was one borne and informed by the Spirit of Christ. One would do well to consider their own agendas before making unsustantiated statements about “documented” cases.

    You can hang your hat all you like on this no lasting physical damage thing all you like. 1)it’s not true…2) it puts more value over physical health than psychological trauma. I can tell you from tons of experience that the later trumps the former any day. my friends who have commuted suicide are the proof, the majority of whom had no “lasting physical effects.” 3). At the end of the day you’re still bargaining with the devil…and negotiating your way out of true Christian ethics…if the light inside you is darkness…how Great is that darkness!!!!

    The utility of these policies is spot on. The morality (external and negotiable) is spot on. The spirituality, Godliness and holiness of these acts cannot be compared to morality or utility. Therefore they are not on the same plane, but on a plane of Christian reality few can understand, and fewer can apply.

    Lord have mercy.

  63. PS. Applying that Christian reality of which I speak is about struggle and the acceptance of Christlike suffering. I myself have no idea how to pally this…yet. But I fight, “not as a boxer beating at the air”.

    It is exactly because we are unwilling to suffer righteously that we act in such a “moral” manner. Our spiritual laziness is what morality is; and not much more.

  64. Harry,
    Sorry you don’t understand my article. I clearly said that I was making no moral equivalency. I was not, in fact, making a moral point about terrorism or torture. Both are wrong. All killing is wrong. It is tragic. I easily recognize that people, ourselves included, will reason how these things are necessary, better than the other, etc.

    My point is about the darkness of the human heart. No moral calculus or reasoning can protect us from it. I chose to use the occasion of our public “debate” (it’s not a debate, really, just a little media fuss over a political event – America has no real debates and nothing about this is going to change – I’m a realist) – to make a theological point.

    God, when all is said and done, will ask nothing about torture or the terror or what you thought about or how you feel, or your reasoning, etc. He will confront us in the depths of our heart. And there, in the depths of that Hades, He will shine the light of truth as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. There will be no moral reasoning, no discussion, no issues. There will be the true reality of our heart – it’s precise content. And there we will have to confront the torturer and the terrorist (he is us).

    And Christ has not entered into this Hades in order to condemn us, but to save us (Jn 3:17). And, I am suggesting, even urging, that we drop our moral hand-wringing (it’s just a TV conversation) and get on with confronting Christ. But if we refuse to acknowledge the truth of our heart, then we hide ourselves in the delusion of our self-made Hades. And then there is condemnation:

    And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (Joh 3:19)

    I have no interest in the discussion of the relative merits of one moral position against another. I have no political agenda. I’m only interested in letting Christ get me out of hell and to take as many people with me as possible.

  65. Aaron,

    I want to say with Fr. Alexander Webster and others that there is a case for an Orthodox Christian and virtuous “war”, what he actually refines a bit with some important distinctions and calls it a “justifiable war” (somewhat contra Michael and his son who rejected it if I understand him correctly). So the “morality” of it is not entirely secular and utilitarian. I don’t take Fr. Stephen completely negating morality – just putting it in it’s proper place, in particular in relationship with our own “podvig”, the Church’s theology, etc. (I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong). This is difficult and somewhat radical because of it’s current emphasis in our thinking as modern people. If our call to suffer righteously as Christ was at all times, in every hour, a true and radical pacifism, well then certain people could not be Christians at all – no police, soldiers, or really any governmental authority of any kind – or anyone who thought something of the commandment of our Lord to lay down our life for our friends as I do. When St. Paul says that our governmental authorities do not bear the sword in vain, he does not qualify that with “but if they were truly spiritually able to suffer enough, they would lay it aside because it really is a vanity in the end”.

    Mr. Harry Coin is wrong to focus on the body, because anyone who is familiar with this issue from the outside (let alone someone like yourself who is intimately familiar with it) understands it is the psychological and spiritual damage of war in general (to say nothing of torture) that is truly painful, and is harder to heal.

    Mr. Coin also brings up the “ticking timebomb” scenario, and I have to confess this is one instance where I would have to seriously consider torture. As I understand it, at least in some instances our government thought they were acting in exactly this way. Apparently an important part of the criticism is that our government in no way limited it to such instances. I of course can say nothing about your experiences.

    As I have already said all of this comes from the “dark place in our heart” so to speak and as you very well know it is here in the heart where hell and Christ meet. In the end however, ALL this world is a shadow as the Fathers say, so you are right that it is in our spiritual struggle that we/God over come it. I suppose I don’t see how we reduce morality, the law to nothing at all (yes it is nothing in the eschaton like so many other things – or rather it is what it is meant to be) but here it is something and part of the landscape – like a bodily function. One does not make an idol out of it (let alone a whole religion) but then one does not pretend it is not there either. Like a bodily function, it in no way “saves” even itself, let alone the whole person.

    p.s. Just a note on Fr. Webster’s work, he also outlines and defends the “radical pacifistic” option for Orthodox as well. To the chagrin of many, it turns out that Orthodoxy holds a paradox in place here – you can be a righteous soldier and really do everything a soldier does (i.e. kill the enemy, etc.) and you can be a St. Seraphim of Sarov also. Turns out your heart is the key to your salvation and not your external morality and virtue…

  66. Christopher, et al
    I do not “negate” morality. I just don’t think it goes to the heart of the problem (pun intended). There will be no legal defense before God. There can be none. What takes place between us and God is entirely a matter of our being, our existence. No words or explanations, no reasoning. Just who and what you are. That’s all there is.

    So then the question about any action, finally, is: “What is its effect on my being?” And that is often a complex question. To stand by and do nothing while someone kills the person next to you is not without effect. And the effect will be different for different reasons. In most cases, I would probably personally choose to kill the perpetrator and I have no judgment to offer anyone else who does the same.

    But I do not think that such an action is without existential consequences regardless of my reasoning or motivation, etc. And the reality of that trauma (for we may call it such) becomes part of who and what I am. And it is in need of salvation/healing.

    And I think that this is the very heart of the gospel and the heart of proper Christian anthropology. It is our reality that needs saving. Not our morality.

    What I also observe is that we are all a very mixed bag. Our motivations are never pure. Our morality is never clean. Our reasoning is never entirely accurate. And I don’t think God plays games. He plays for keeps and brushes aside all of our games and confronts us on the ground of our true being.

    I will also observe that the mental habits of moralism are deeply, deeply engrained in our cultural and Christian mind – including that of many Orthodox. These articles and their conversations are revelations. Not just that it is a completely new idea to many, even most readers, but that it is incomprehensible to some.

    Parts of this I have been working with for over 35 years. Much of it was a primary part of the path that inexorably led me to Orthodoxy. It is as solid as a rock when it comes to its theological understanding. But it says that there are parts of Orthodoxy that have yet to make their way into our consciousness or to be admitted on to the playing field of modern discourse. The public habit of morality is so strong that many pronouncements of the modern Church are as couched in it as anywhere else.

    Jesus’ own paradoxical response to morality (the woman taken in adultery, the woman at the well, etc.) make no sense whatsoever in the forensic model. And certainly His teachings on killing/forgiveness/enemies, etc. have messed with the machinery of forensic morality since the beginning. He does not fit in the moral mode.

    Classical Orthodoxy is right about this. It is very helpful to understand it.

  67. My priest gave a sermon today on the cultural shift to a lack if moral accountability. It does matter what we do, it shapes who we are.

    The 2 pronged presumption that I am a good person and will therefore escape judgement and/or the pernicious theology of “once saved, always saved” leads to the same belief. There is no judgement at all.

    Without moral accountability to God we are simply slaves to our passions.

    That is when the idea of real morality was iconic in nature because my priest would never say that morality alone was sufficient. In fact, he has. ….and why our Lord says in Matthew that simply calling Him Lord is not sufficient

    Just some thoughts…..

  68. We are all Karamazovs indeed. Thank you, Father, for this post. I’ll be thinking about this one for a very long time.

  69. Father,
    I am so glad you blatantly stated that God commands us to be human. Psalm 118 (Septuagint)/119 -the longest of all – is often misunderstood as a moral adherence to rules when its depth can only be found within the context of your statement. It’s ‘obsessive’ focus on the Law would be odd in any other context. These life-giving commandments it keeps extolling are rather what Elder Sophrony called a manifestation of God’s life unto the human plane. This deep ontological reality of the resurrection, light, life and love, hidden in God’s ‘decrees’ (lost in the forensic model) is the only one that makes proper sense of it:

    I seek you with all my heart;
    do not let me stray from your commands.
    I have hidden your word in my heart
    that I might not sin against you.
    Praise be to you, Lord;
    teach me your decrees.
    With my lips I recount
    all the laws that come from your mouth.
    I rejoice in following your statutes
    as one rejoices in great riches.
    I meditate on your precepts
    and consider your ways.
    I delight
    in your decrees;

  70. Dino, I think you nailed it. We should distinguish morality from God’s commands, decrees, and laws:

    In the Hebrew sense the later are one-in-the-same and, importantly, they are icons of Christ, God’s Word who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

    I think morals and morality are an attempt to mimic God’s commands, decrees and laws but, being human in origin, they fail utterly as icons of Christ.

    This is the sin of the Pharisees; They worship the image, idolize God’s law and not even see Christ who is the icon’s subject — the One who’s presence we need.

    Dare I say that most Protestantism treats the “bible” in a similar manner. Idealizing the scriptures gives them a life of their own apart from Christ. In this way it becomes an idol.

  71. Those whose joy is to send Christians to heaven will be stopped by those who finds necessary sadness, insanity and possibly hell in dispatching the former.
    It is called duty, response-ability and obligation.

  72. I think today’s epistle reading is timely. In his letter to St. Timothy St. Paul here distinguishes the virtue of our works (i.e. morality) from the the virtue of God’s own purpose and saving grace (recall that God’s saving grace is His own uncreated power gifted. Only by sharing in this saving grace may we be like Him because we are not divine by nature, we are dirt into which He has breathed life.):

    Timothy, my son, do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

    — From St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 1,

  73. Dino,
    Indeed the Church considers Psalm 118/119 to be a verbal icon of Christ. Christ is the Law (thus He is its fulfillment). The Law, of itself, could do nothing. But the Law was always Christ Himself. Thus the Law always pointed towards Christ for those with a good heart. And it is the great irony that those who thought they were following the Law, fulfilled the Law by putting Christ to death – for He was always the sacrifice described in the Law.

    But the same mystery is at work even in our morality. If we rightly know and see Christ, then He is the keeping of the commandments, and they are not dry words or simple rules.

  74. Very true father Stephen. Those who were fundamentalist protestants usually are fundamentalist Orthodox. Often the obscurantist filter grows thinner but for others it remains as opaque as always.

  75. ” Those who were fundamentalist protestants usually are fundamentalist Orthodox.”

    First, “fundamentalists” are a strain of protestants that have a much larger presence in the modern mind than their actual numbers warrant. Even many who self report that they came from “fundamentalist” backgrounds actually did not. Second, a Southern Baptist is not a “fundamentalist” (this list of non-fundamentalist protestants who are wrongly attributed that label is quite long). Third, even real formal “fundamentalists” (let alone others from protestant backgrounds) are not “usually” anything, let alone incompletely converted “fundamentalists” who wear Orthodoxy like a fashion statement. My experience with the few true “fundamentalists” who came to be Orthodox that I have known is that they (as a group) are in fact more faithful and “Orthodox” than either their “cradle” or “RC/liberal/conservative protestant background converts”…

  76. I’m sorry I mentioned biblicism because it is a distraction from the on-topic of God’s concern — the condition of our heart, not of our morality.

  77. Christopher,
    I tend to dislike the label of fundamentalist – though there are some few who claim it proudly. It’s mostly a rhetorical device and not an accurate descriptor. My own experience is that there is a personality type that sometimes gets the label. And I think the theological positions mostly reflect neurotic needs. But that only describes some people (and they can be found everywhere and across the spectrum).

    We live in an amazingly politicized world (far more so than a generation or two ago). And the highly charged nature of our public life also colors our spiritual life. Like morality, it is a distraction.

  78. Alexander Webster also published an article in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly entitled “Justifiable War as a Lesser Good in Eastern Orthodox Moral Tradition.” It’s a bit long for an article, but i think it’s a briefer version of what he argues in his “Virtue of War” book. It’s Vol 47, Issue 1, 2003, pp. 3-57 if anyone wants to track it down and read it.

    Incidentally there are 6 or 7 other articles in that same issue–Philip LeMasters, John Breck, Joseph Woodill, and others–all of which respond to Webster, and, if i recall correctly, all of which reject his position.


  79. Thank you Father, I wasn’t actually aware of that [That particular Psalm as icon of Christ -spoken so unequivocally], I appreciate it…
    “I shall walk in freedom [‘in enlargement’], for I have sought your precepts.” (Psalm 118/119 : 45), certainly remind us of, e.g.: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. (John 8 : 36) or “be you also enlarged in heart.” (2 Cor 6 : 13)
    Obviously, numerous other verses throughout the Psalter are pregnant with this stuff.

  80. Going back, I realize my post about “fundamentalist” was without introduction – I should have opened with “fundamentalist is a problematic term that is often misused” or something similar so my post did not come across as strident. I confess my “tolerance” for its misuse and abuse has lowered lately because it is now being used by the Orthodox “innovators” for lack of a better word to label those who would faithfully oppose their agenda (or perhaps its history in Orthodoxy is longer but I did not take notice of it?). This misuse is of course straight from the culture and pejorative. I see what your saying Father but I wonder if it is one of those terms that has been swallowed up and it is best left to one side…

  81. I came by to wish you all a blessed Christmas. I am truly grateful for this little community.

    Carpe deum.


  82. Guy,

    I have that issue though I can’t seem to locate it right now. My memory of it was that it reflected in tone the inflamed passions of the time. Fr. Alexander Webster’s thesis still largely held. My recollection was that most of the respondents arguments were a mix of sentiments and did not address the position of the Church at all, instead substituting their own morally pacifistic (and frankly political) inclinations. One respondents however (can’t remember which one) seemed to be up to the challenge of giving a worthy counter point to Fr. Alexander’s multiple prong approach.

    I think his book “The Virture of War” is better organized and better supported, and it has the added benefit of directly addressing the RC and protestant history/positions on this issue…

  83. Christopher,
    I agree about its uselessness (unless you simply want to denigrate someone). I do not like labels for the Orthodox, for they destroy the manifest unity of the Church. They should not be allowed in our speech (other than proper national labels, etc.). I agree that the present use is purely political. The current culture battles surrounding sexuality/gender will doubtless enter the Church in some fashion. I completely expect the Tradition to be upheld, but I also expect some unpleasantness before that is done. We cannot and should not expect the Church to be unaffected by the culture – only that we should expect and pray for its faithfulness. This blog site will not label the Orthodox with “fundamentalist.” And I will welcome correction if I forget myself.

  84. Fr. Stephen, Can you please help me to understand your POV?

    You state that “Torture is wrong. Justify it if you will, but it remains wrong.”

    When I ask a Protestant to explain how God can kill all the firstborn, torture a nation into submission, wipe out the entire human race (save 7), command his people to commit genocide, kill an innocent child as punishment for his father committing adultery and murder, and send his own people into slavery, I invariably receive a reply that excuses God from having to abide by any moral obligations under which we as humans must abide.

    Their argument is “He’s God and can do what he wants” which sounds a lot to me like “Hey, Hitler’s in charge and can do what he wants.” I am not calling God Hitler, not by any stretch. I am simply saying that such an argument is absurd.

    What is the Orthodox view? Is God one who tells us how to behave but is not bound to behave under the same constraints? Why all these horrible things being blamed on god?

    One of the main reasons I left Christianity was because I could not reconcile the horrific behavior attributed to God in the Bible (and in Acts 5 He’s offing people for lying?) with the idea of a “good God.” To my mind, it is an incredible insult to attribute all that badness to any person (unless that person is really that bad). It’s just not reasonable to then turn around and call that person “good.”

    To me, it is better to believe in no god than to believe in one who is worse that I. (If there is a god, I hope he recognizes this and won’t hold it against me that I don’t have the heart to think so lowly of him!)

  85. John,
    Key in this misinterpretation of God as a punisher of others, a misunderstanding grounded on our cognition as ‘individuals-who-do-not-yet-encompass-within-themselves-the-entirety-of-being’, is that God is perhaps also an individual -like we feel we are… He is nothing of the sort in Orthodox understanding though.
    All who perish, suffer etc. including the very devil himself, are loved by God far more than they can ever love themselves. God’s hypostatic/personal existence implies not just that He is ontologically ‘relational’, it also means He includes within Himself all of Adam [including all those you mentioned as punished by Him]. The Lamb is slain before time.
    “The river of Fire” article Father referenced earlier makes this point from another angle…
    If God Himself did not want to transcend all torture, suffering, pain, and hell through encompassing it all within Himself for all of those so “punished” [for reasons that would possibly require omniscience to truly comprehend by human reasoning -as these are perceived by us ‘individuals’], what on Earth is He doing on a Cross then!??

  86. Christopher,

    Welllll….if i’m perfectly honest, i’m sure i read that entire issue through my own morally pacifistic inclinations.


  87. Hey John! Nice to hear from you. Merry Christmas to you and yours, too!


    P.S. Suffering in all its forms (and some of the language and narratives in the Bible, especially pressed through unOrthodox filters) can indeed be a great obstacle to our knowing and seeing God as He is. It is one of those things that tends to cloud our hearts. Only through Christ and especially Christ on the Cross (as it is understood in a fully Orthodox sense) do we begin to see rightly. It’s hard to unlearn stuff that was literally beaten into a person during his impressionable years (to put it mildly). May God grant you abundant grace and mercy! Hang on to that thought that this old image of a tyrannical, “amoral” (immoral) god, cannot be the true God revealed in Christ. Recognizing such a “god” is unworthy of worship means you are on the right track, for sure!

  88. Hi Dino and Karen: I really love you guys. More times that I can count, I have referred to you and this community as examples of true humans. My atheist and ex-Christian friends have a hard time believing that there is anything approaching a “rational Christian.” I am always happy to point them toward Orthodoxy. (My 2 best friends are also Orthodox which also helps me stay away from becoming bigoted toward all Christians.)

    I have also gotten in the face of many people who call themselves “Christian” for not being passionate enough about their faith to inquire into the thoughts of the Early Church Fathers (these are usually the same people who tell me that I just don’t understand the Christian faith and that I need to learn more). I don’t know how to sorta believe something. It baffles me every time I encounter someone who just takes whatever they have been told as “gospel” and fails to dig deeper for themselves.

    …that God is perhaps also an individual -like we feel we are… He is nothing of the sort

    Yeah. That’s where I get completely lost. I see no point in god becoming a human if not to demonstrate that he is a person in the only sense that we can understand. I’d prefer that he just remain mystical and distant. But that’s just me.

    If God Himself did not want to transcend all torture, suffering, pain, and hell through encompassing it all within Himself…, what on Earth is He doing on a Cross then!??

    Darned if I know. To me, it’s like expecting a nuclear bomb to understand the mind of Einstein. If the created being cannot comprehend the creator, why make any attempt to help him to understand? Heck! I can’t understand most humans! By and large, homo sapiens completely mystify me.

    Only through Christ and especially Christ on the Cross (as it is understood in a fully Orthodox sense) do we begin to see rightly.

    I may be mistaken but it’s my understanding that it is the Resurrection, not the death, of Christ that stands at the center of Orthodox thinking. Without that, what remains is a sacrifice as a form of punishment which really falls in line with how most Protestants view the whole matter. But Orthodoxy is not really about punishment, atonement or “saving” people from their sins as much as it is about conquering death and living a true life in Christ. The physical resurrection is an icon of a spiritual resurrection, right? I think this is a beautiful idea.

  89. John, you’re right that the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Cross isn’t complete without the Resurrection and would certainly be a distortion without that. No contradiction really. What I mean is, it is in the Cross we see demonstrated that we have a God, Who, far from remaining a distant Judge, or even choosing from His transcendent distance to wave a sort of “magic Holy Spirit power wand” like a fairy godmother to transform us and our circumstances (if we only jump through the right hoops first?), rather came all the way down to enter our Hades with us–to enter completely into our suffering and death–in order to lead us out of it and grant us the gift of life by restoring us to communion with Him. The Cross is the sinless God showing His complete solidarity with us even “while we were yet sinners” by “becoming sin for us” (i.e., accepting all the natural consequences and condition created by human sin upon Himself). This (His sinlessness) is precisely why death could not hold Him and will not be able to hold anyone who has faith in the God-Man Jesus Christ and His victory over sin and death and who, led and empowered by the presence and grace of God, chooses to walk the same path as Christ (the path of repentance Fr. Stephen is describing in this post).

  90. or even choosing from His transcendent distance to wave a sort of “magic Holy Spirit power wand” like a fairy godmother to transform us and our circumstances…came all the way down to enter our Hades with us–to enter completely into our suffering and death–in order to lead us out of it and grant us the gift of life by restoring us to communion with Him.

    If the end-results would be the same, I’d prefer the magic wand, personally. 🙂

    I’m not nearly smart enough (or determined enough) to go any other route.

  91. John,
    The vengeful, violent God depicted in many of the OT stories is not treated in a particularly literal manner by the Orthodox Tradition. I like the way St. Isaac of Syria states things:

    Just because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His (true) nature. And just as (our) rational nature has (already) become gradually more illuminated and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in (Scripture’s) discourse about God – that we should not understand everything (literally) as it is written, but rather that we should see, (concealed) inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all – so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in (our) supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind.<


    The early Christian community was properly troubled by the contrast between the teaching of Christ and many of the stories of the OT. They simply seem to contradict. What was taught was that Christ Himself was the meaning and fulfillment of those stories – and that they needed to be read in a manner (often allegorically) that was consistent with Christ. This certainly troubles some Christians, including some Orthodox, who fear that this treatment of the Scriptures just throws everything away. But it is deeply at the heart of the Tradition, even within the NT itself.

    Thus, I don’t believe God ever ordered the murder of any children, etc. It doesn’t mean that this is not what the stories say, but that as a Christian, there is a reading of those stories that takes precedence over the literal.

    Reading “within the Tradition” is part of the life of Orthodoxy. It is our guide since the literal is not good enough on its own.

    Christ’s death on the Cross is not His Father’s sending Him to death – it is His own voluntary self-offering for our sake. Not to pay anything owed to the Father, but to fully unite Himself with our condition and get us out of death and Hades.

    Of course, if He had prevented us from ever suffering death and Hades, it would be more pleasant. But to create us in freedom includes the freedom for us to mess it up. But it also includes the freedom for Him to get us out. And He does so without interrupting our freedom (or His), by freely entering into the worst of it and bringing us back out.

    I would like to have waved a magic wand and seen that my children got all A’s on all of their tests, etc. But it’s really a perverted love that would take freedom away from their children just to guarantee that their children never suffer. But more perverted would be to see our children suffer and to do nothing to help them.

    Good to hear from you!

  92. Fr. Stephen,

    To overly simplistic about this topic, I think you are saying that the important thing is to be made well, whereas all of your (mostly) North American readers are saying, “Yeah but it was always drilled into us that the important thing was to be made right!”

    It is a HUGE mental shift that will take years for some of us – but please keep trying! (grin)

    P.S. Hi John Shores, good to hear from you again! You have impeccable timing, always popping in on the juiciest bits! Good to see you nonetheless.

  93. John,

    I’ve also often begged for the ‘magic wand’ in my lack of understanding of what a great and honourable height we are called towards… no less than to become a god in the context of love (which presupposes freedom – wands are for automatons, perhaps even pumpkins and mice…).

    God became perfectly human in a way we can more than just understand, we can also become ourselves perfectly human like Him. This means not as disconnected, alienated ‘individuals’, closed in on ourselves, but as ‘persons’ -a somewhat specialist term in Orthodoxy meaning the (drum role…) ‘hypostasization’ of all others, all humanity in each person. In plain words, a person takes upon himself the whole, he becomes a ‘cosmic being’ in priestly unity with all – through God’s grace.
    This is utterly sublime, yet also utterly true.
    As the very recent Saint Porphyrios used to say, he need not even pray “have mercy on us all”, since by saying “have mercy on me”, this “me” contains the whole of ‘Adam’, all the 110 billion souls that have purportedly ever come into life in the history of mankind. It is cosmic rather than self-preoccupied.

    As for your other question, we do not separate the Resurrection from the Cross, in fact we see the Cross already as the exaltation of Christ and even characteristically depict Him in icons of the Crucifixion utterly serene, replacing the (historically literal) sign of “INRI” (“IESUS NAZARENUS, REX IUDAEORUM” / “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”) with the sign that reads: “THE KING OF GLORY”…

  94. Totally understand the sentiments, John, about the “magic wand” bit. Don’t we all wish that sometimes? However, we would have to be something other than human (created in the image of God) and God would have to be something other than He is (personal as the Fathers define it, not our rather caricatured notions of what that means) for that to work, and then we wouldn’t be here having this conversation, nor able to recognize love, truth, goodness, beauty, etc., when we experience them. The freedom about which Father writes is key to a genuinely Christian understanding of personhood (as is our inherent connectedness with each other and mutual responsibility for sin on which this post touches).

  95. Christopher,

    Thanks for the post. Forgive the length of this reply but I wanted to touch on your points with the limited time I have available. I’ve read both of Father Webster’s books on the subject. I’m no radical pacifist…but I find his defense of a “justifiable war tradition” less than compelling…having read dozens of books related specifically to the subject. Just my opinion. I can’t change anyone else’s. I’ve spent 15 years in the military and 2 years as a private military contractor. I don’t theorize from an armchair about such realities, they’re very real and present in my life…to this day I have been unable to wrest myself from my uneasy embrace of a warrior’s life. It is often frustrating for me (and my warrior kin) to listen to people opine about these things with which they are likely to never enact in their own lives. We act on them…and therefore know them like a man knows his wife.

    In terms of morality, I understand your point and its well taken. I perhaps gave the impression that I don’t believe morality has a place, or that I thought Fr. Freeman was discounting morality. That was not my intent. Of course, I agree, morality – as you say- ‘has its proper place.’ But let me tell you how I see that place. It is increasingly secular and utilitarian and externally based – neither focused on the healing of the heart nor fellow man – but on external measures of value and judgement which are worldly and suspect from nose to toes.

    I understand your point and neither am I negating morality- simply pointing out that IMO our modern concepts have morphed so wildly from Christian spirituality as to be not properly recognizable as morality in an Orthodox sense. To my mind they are perhaps best characterized by Saint Paul…

    “When the gentiles do by nature things required by the law, they are the law to themselves.” (Romans 2:14) This is morality – doing by nature things of the law. The law/ and our moral constructs have a purpose, I grant you. But Paul characterized the law (and morality apart from the law) as a “guardian” / “tutor” until Christ came.(Galatians) given because of “hardness of heart.”

    Morality, just like the law is limited and external, susceptible to abstract notions and self delusion to justify oneself and others.The law (and morality) is good, but even when “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,… I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22) Neither the law, nor “morality” make a man righteous. In fact, a different law (the law of sin) wars against the law from God written on all men’s hearts and continues to make us prisoners of sin, so that even the “good I wish to do, I cannot do!” In this I see morality as completely capable of being twisted by the “law of sin” which is “waging war against the law of my mind.”

    But now of course, we have Christ, the fullness of grace delivered to us to change our “noetic faculty”…which neither the law nor morality could. This in no way negates the power (or goodness) of the law / morality, such as it is (Romans 8:3)… It simply shows us how weak it truly is…and how far the grace of God can take us BEYOND such childish “milk” from our “schoolmaster” if we would only allow Him to.

    Touching on your observation “You can be a righteous soldier and really do everything a soldier does (i.e. kill the enemy, etc.) and you can be a St. Seraphim of Sarov also. Turns out your heart is the key to your salvation and not your external morality and virtue.”

    Perhaps. But I see this as about as possible as a “camel passing through the eye of a needle.” In both cases – the affinity for riches – and even more so (I believe) in war, a man ends up negotiating with – then embracing the darkness inside of him. We might start with the abstract notion and intent of being a “righteous warrior.” But sooner or later…those of us who in actually have to put a bullet through a man shake hands with the darkness. Then we start conversations with the darkness. Soon we invite the darkness to be an intimate part of us…letting us hold us on cold, lonely confusing nights, only because to see and to do and to see done the things done in war requires becoming in some way comfortable with the darkness to not go completely mad. I can’t expect those who have not been on the front lines to understand what I’m saying. I can only say it. Knowing this reality – it is somewhat fanciful (IMO) and my experience to think that a person can engage in such darkness and not have their heart churned into butter by it…then hardened into stone. Therefore…the idea you suggest that outward virtue and morality are not directly linked to our inner heart seems to put up a false division between the two. Our outward lives are a reflection of our inward heart. The two do not bifurcate. (Matt 15:18) The outward comes from the inward.

    I am NO righteous warrior. Maybe I’m jaded… But… I don’t believe in such a thing as a ‘righteous warrior’ in the Christian sense…but possibly in the secular (moral) sense I do. I admire many warriors…but I don’t romanticize our function. Neither should Christianity. I love my fellow warriors. I’ve been willing to kill and to die for my fellow warriors. But if I don’t believe in such thing as a “righteous” monk, for such pride of self and one’s own works is surely a trap of the devil…(so says the Philokalia) I surely don’t believe in a righteous warrior. The former fights the darkness…the warrior is forced to be comfortable with that darkness and harness it. No monk is righteous. No warrior is righteous. Christ alone is righteous.

    The rest of us scurry through our existence – making self-serving choice out of fear… Because “though fear of death” we are “subject to slavery…” all our lives (Hebrews 2:15) and run around hiding our nakedness with fig leaves we clumsily cobble together. Sometimes we call these leaves “morality.” Sometimes these figs are “justifiable” or “just war.” Sometimes we go so far as to call them “Christianity.” Human beings are supremely good at “putting lipstick on a pig.”

    Mr. Coin was right…we do have to make choices; fear of death…or freedom from it. Fear leads us to self-centered desires for security and happiness. I take John Romanides stance on fear and its conjuring of human desires for security and happiness as malformed passions and the root of envy, anger, violence, etc. (which I’ve added below for reference)

    Freedom from fear of death allows us to follow Christ in self-giving love and suffering, because He has “Swallowed death in victory.” It frees us from the emptiness of self-preservation and anxiety if we allow Him to work within our lives. His victory over death is given to us in mercy and love. For the Christian, this leads to the conclusion that not only is death overcome, but so to is the “sting of death,” which is sin (1 Cor 15:56 , and we are under no necessity to fear the former (death), or perform the later (sin) – for we are free. Truly and utterly free. Amen.

    ~Fr. John Romanides —“If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself – whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God – then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, (Heb 2:14-16) which in turn are the root cause of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like. Because man is afraid of becoming meaningless, he is constantly endeavoring to prove, to himself and others that he is worth something. He either seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory and bodily pleasures, or imagines that His destiny is to be happy in the possession of the presence of God by an introverted individualism and is inclined to mistake his desires for self-satisfaction and happiness for his normal destiny. He can become zealous over vague ideological principles of love for humanity and yet hate his closest neighbors. These are the works of the flesh of which Saint Paul speaks. (Gal 5:19-21) Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, through which the devil pervades all creation.”

  96. Thank you, Aaron, for all that you have written here.

    “It is exactly because we are unwilling to suffer righteously that we act in such a “moral” manner. Our spiritual laziness is what morality is; and not much more.”

    We Catholics call this Sloth, and it is a deadly sin.

    Peyton — ‘Nam — Project Phoenix — 1968

  97. AJ,
    Again, very well said with an authentic voice. I appreciate your honesty and witness. May God preserve you from the darkness! It is this very same voice that I have known pastorally for 34 years. We can recognize it in Dostoevsky’s works. Lewis, to whom I was more gracious than perhaps I should have been, actually opined about German and British warriors killing each other and then embracing in heaven. A bit too simplistic indeed.

    I believe in Christ. I also believe in the darkness, and have far more experience of the latter than the former, may God have mercy on me! And the darkness cannot be addressed through morality – it is insufficient. The darkness of a murderer cannot merely be “forgiven.” And victims and the family of victims (in their billions) need to know that this is so. The darkness can be trampled underfoot. The darkness can be vanquished. But only at great price. That price was and is, nothing other than the very life of God uniting Himself to our sin (He made Him to be sin who knew know sin) and bleeding the price. And the bleeding price is not something at a remove from us. For just as He required of Himself that He be united to our sin, and so He bleeds, so He requires of us that we be united to His atoning death, and so we must bleed.

    That “bleeding” is nothing other than the “purification” that so many cite too easily (purification/enlightenment/theosis). Purification is a frightful thing sometimes – a process so potent that even the darkness of the deepest murder can be purged. St. Gregory of Nyssa compared it to a ship’s rope being drawn through the ship’s hull opening – with its dried mud being scraped off in the process. I like Lewis’ claws of Aslan tearing the dragon-flesh off of Edmund even better. We Orthodox are too quick and glib in our dismissal of Catholic purgatory. There may be no such place – but there is such a process – or most could not be saved. Think of it any way you wish, but do not treat the darkness as if it were nothing.

    I chose to write as I did using the public issue of torture and terror. I could just have easily used the far more prevalent darkness of our deep sexual addictions and perversions – but our own shame would make it too hard to read. These, too, must be healed, the rotted flesh torn from the soul.

    Morality, for me, is simply too insipid a way to speak of these things. AJ, I understand the sort of things you have witnessed. And I appreciate your words. May God preserve us all and save us!

  98. Dino:

    we can also become ourselves perfectly human like Him.

    I don’t think I would like that very much. I’m actually quite content as I am. Whatever my foibles, there are only a very few with which I would be willing to part.

  99. Fr. Stephen:

    The early Christian community was properly troubled by the contrast between the teaching of Christ and many of the stories of the OT.

    I see no contradiction whatsoever. Jesus was no Brother Sun, Sister Moon kind of person. I see zero inconsistencies between the Jesus described in the Gospels and the God of the OT.

    But it’s really a perverted love that would take freedom away from their children…

    And yet we child-proof our houses. Isn’t that taking freedom away from our children? We make our children eat vegetables for their own good. We don’t allow them to drink alcohol or drive without proper training and licensing. We don’t leave loaded guns laying about. There are so many things that we to that take away freedom from our children.

    There is a plant called synsepalum dulcificum. When someone eats the leaf of this plant, everything else they eat afterward tastes delicious. Whether that other thing is Tabasco sauce or chocolate, it will be tasty to him. In a world where there are things that are poisonous and taste horrible in any normal circumstances, such a plant poses a possible danger. In such a world, I would agree with you that it would be perverted love to give this to one’s child and then leaving them to their own devices.

    But if it was in your power to create a body that could easily absorb and excrete poisons, thus removing all potential harm from them, why wouldn’t you do that?

    I cannot see any virtue in allowing evil just to make the good that much better.

  100. Peyton,

    I am humbled by you.

    May the Lord continue to give you the peace of His righteousness for all that you have known.

    Yours in Christ,


  101. I am troubled by my own past failure to grapple with these issues. I am afraid of the dark, yet strangely enough tonight I am also happy. There is so much goodness in these writings, so much honesty. A light in the darkness–reflected, to be sure, but still real, still light. I am very grateful to have been directed here (as i believe). Thank you, Father, for working so hard to provide the conditions for a Spirit-filled place.

  102. John,

    I don’t think I would like that very much. I’m actually quite content as I am. Whatever my foibles, there are only a very few with which I would be willing to part.

    Is the most common human safety-net. I also function in the same way – providing a certain confidence. AJ authentically explained this defense mechanism here – albeit talking on a different topic:

    run around hiding our nakedness with fig leaves we clumsily cobble together. Sometimes we call these leaves “morality.” Sometimes these figs are “justifiable” or “just war.” Sometimes we go so far as to call them “Christianity.” Human beings are supremely good at “putting lipstick on a pig.”

    But this is the very reason why in the Fathers, the locus is ‘knowledge of one’s weakness’. It is painful, yet most ontologically true and healthy to know one’s weakness and God’s counterbalancing transforming strength. St Isaac of Syria affirmed,

    It is a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins… The one who is conscious of his sins is greater than the one who profits the world by the sight of his countenance. The one who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than the one who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling among human beings. The one who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than the one who is deemed worthy to see the angels, for the latter has communion through his bodily eyes, but the former through the eyes of his soul.”

  103. AJ / Aaron,
    I deeply appreciate your genuine witness, the Lord Jesus Christ most certainly steers the wheel of your ship.

  104. Being tortured potentially places one in a position of Christ – you can ask authentically for the forgiveness of another’s sin! The exceedingly more palpable darkness of the torturer is also utterly swllowed up by closer unification to Christ. The sound of the rooster might always – like Peter – make me cry, but God’s mercy sings the transforming song of healing in your heart. “For Christ God has brought us from death unto life”.

  105. Whatever my foibles, there are only a very few with which I would be willing to part.

    I can easily imagine a moral universe in which our “foibles”, as you call them – our superstitions, prejudices, irrational beliefs, fundamentalisms, and all those things about us that make others throw up their hands in despair – are part of our permanent nature as Christ bears His wounds, but our hard-won virtues melt away as a wax statue before the foundry.

    I can also imagine Christ as the Lord of this moral universe.

  106. John,

    “I see no contradiction whatsoever…”

    Your arguments are impregnable. I appreciate the kind words you have for the community here, but I really see no real reason for the conversation you offer. That so many, so quickly respond to you is, I think, because they care. But it becomes very quickly like a game. You toss away whatever is said with glib responses.

    All of this in the midst of some fairly serious conversation. I will be moderating the conversation. If you had real questions it would be quite different. As it is, you have all the answers. In truth, I don’t believe your answers. I think you come here because you don’t believe them either. But I think your own soul-wound is too precious to you and you cling to it. You need healing more than answers. I have doubts that the blog can do that. It needs more flesh and blood. I’m sorry. I will remember you in my prayers.

  107. Fr Stephen – I was not being glib in the least. Indeed, I am somewhat baffled if you see a contradiction between God as he is described in the OT and the Jesus described in the Gospels. How are they different in your eyes?

  108. As albert says, the deeply honest exploration of the darkness has brought a level of hope and light to me as well especially in this season of the Nativity. It gives me a greater understanding of the famous saying: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Hell is not a place it is the darkness in my own heart which I cannot ignore.

    I too like the picture of Aslan using his claws to scrape the dragon skin off Eustace. An example I like better though is the one Richard Pryor spoke of humorously and poignantly that of having one’s deeply burned skin debrided with an iron bristled brush–something he went through after he immolated himself free-basing cocaine. He used the experience as a way to inner healing for himself and offered the story of it as a metaphor for others.

    I am beginning to see my expression of conventional moral sentiment as part of the bargaining with my own darkness–not unlike Dorian Gray and his picture in the attic.

    Nevertheless, I can’t escape the feeling that there is a deeper truth that really embracing the moral dimension of my being can bring me too. Is that not part of the lesson of the Law and why Jesus Christ said that we must not go against it but fulfill in Him? Can it not be a path to a deeper expression of God-inspired and sustained virtue?

    As my priest said in his sermon: morality alone will not justify, only Jesus Christ justifies, but we are morally accountable.

    Is seems that only be encountering the darkness in my own heart (not using moral self-justification to ignore it or bargain with it) can I get to where Jesus is.

    Lord have mercy. AND HE DOES! Inexplicable to my fleshly reasoning. Glory to Him!

  109. Hey Dino – I understand what you’re saying. Using the same metaphor of the leaves, what I am saying is that naked is better. I see no shame in being human. This was not always the case for me.

  110. Michael – I like Neil Gaiman’s quote:

    I think hell is something you carry around with you, not somewhere you go.

    I think this is what you are saying.

    For me, I simply choose not to carry it around with me. There are far too many interesting things to explore and wonders to see. Introspection tends to be an addiction that robs us of happiness, IMO. I just know that I am happier in the now.

  111. Michael Bauman,

    You see this conversation as asking you to give up your hold on morality. Morality provides structure within which there is comfort and security. I understand that, all too well. I’ll give you a mental picture which might help; it helped me once. Forgive me if you’ve already heard this one:

    Imagine a group of us standing inside a circle. Making the circle whatever size you wish. The line of the circle represents morality. If you step outside the circle, you are wrong/bad/sinful. (whatever term you prefer) Some people will huddle in the middle of the circle and others will see how close to the line they can get without crossing it.

    This is the picture of humanity of the Old Testament. It’s all about rules and law. What is the purpose of the circle? And where is the middle of it? No one really knows these answers, but they muddle on the best they can.

    Enter Christ. He stands at the middle of the circle. The answer to everything. More specifically the answer to our dilemma: walk towards Christ.

    –Walking toward Christ frees you from worrying about where the line is and whether or not you are going to cross it.
    –Walking toward Christ means you are automatically going towards the center of the circle.
    –Walking toward Christ shifts the focus from the external to the internal work and journey.
    –Walking toward Christ begins a healing process that we were only vaguely aware of our need for prior to this.

    Since this is the magic answer, why do other answers still exist? Well…I have found that using the moralistic measuring stick can be quite addictive. Not only are we able to determine our progress (that word again) but it gives us some measure of control. We feel compelled to do as the minutes tick away here on earth. We know God is working in our hearts but that doesn’t solve the “doing” problem. Yes there are the commandments and the gospels and the fathers, etc., but frankly these things are boring – and impossible – and depressing – and (fill in the blank).

    We are called each day to draw closer to Jesus Christ and ironically enough I find that I am more “successful” when I’m letting go of things: do my prayers no matter how pointless they are from my point of view, treat my neighbor well no matter how godless he seems, practice His presence no matter how hard it is, etc.

    Each time I live in this way my eyes are opened, the result of which being that I am simultaneously aware of how much He is God and how much I am not. Thus the reason I would rather refer to this improvement as “anti-progress” or a healthy “de-pression”. I must decrease and He must increase, that kind of thing.

    Hope this helps, drewster

  112. I don’t see it at all as asking that I give up my morality. Just the opposite. I see it as asking me to go more deeply into it so that I can find its real source. What I am being asked by Jesus Christ is to seek Him and not settle for pious sentiment. This conversation is a reminder of that as was my priest’s sermon on moral accountability in a more oblique way.

    On an existential level, the darkness is real. Running from it is futile simply because it is in my own heart much more deeply imbedded than moral sentiment and cultural norms of behaving. The are simply used to mask my cherished sins most of the time.

    I have known for some time, long before I became Orthodox, that I was being called to acknowledge and engage the darkness in my own heart. One of the reasons I suspect I have always been fascinated and attracted to Joseph Conrad’s short story “Heart of Darkness”.

    AJ’s comments on his experience simply made that inescapably obvious once again.

    There is a difference between moral sentiment and real morality grounded on the Rock. Genuine morality is a reflection of grace given virtue and righteousness–part of the armor of God if St. Paul is correct. Moral sentiment is a tool of self-righteousness, self-justification and judgment of others. Such sentiment I see as a worship of the created thing that St. Paul rightly excoriates in Romans 1 and following.

    I agree with what you are saying.

    AJ and Peyton I thank you for your comments; your courage and sacrifice.

  113. Drewster – It seems these discussions always circle back to “morality.” I don’t know that such a thing actually exists, tbh. I just know when I have hurt someone or someone has hurt me.

    Beyond that, I don’t think we really should use the term. All too often it has been used to define things that we don’t agree with rather than anything substantive.

    “Do unto others as you would have done to you” is really the lesson, isn’t it?

    I would also argue that there are so many opinions of who Christ is that it is dangerous to use this as a guidepost. I am sure that the members of Westboro Baptist also think they are walking toward Christ.

    Isn’t the simplest answer always the best? We all know when we are causing harm. Just don’t. And when you learn that you caused harm in ignorance, stop. Isn’t that the message of repentance?

  114. John Shores,

    “It seems these discussions always circle back to “morality.” I don’t know that such a thing actually exists, tbh. I just know when I have hurt someone or someone has hurt me.”

    Be very careful! You are ALMOST starting to agree with the main idea of this post. Easy man! You’re losing your touch! Abandon ship!! (Aa-OO-Ga!! Aa-OO-Ga!!)

    In other news, I do agree that the answer is simple. When you say “We all know when we are causing harm. Just don’t. And when you learn that you caused harm in ignorance, stop.”

    When you say this I wistfully agree in my heart. The problem is the underlying assumption. You say that “we all know….” Well we are all slowly losing that knowledge, even the basic tenants of morality, but we need a perspective outside ourselves in order to understand this.

    And this John, is why you need other people to be able to speak into that tight little ship of yours. Our points of view and even what we consider our most rock-solid beliefs can be shaken. Reality itself may not change but ability to judge it is fallible, tenuous. By our very nature we are fragile and made to be part of a group. No matter what has happened or will happen, truths like this do not change. We need each other to remind us of what it is we are doing that we need to stop, among other things.

    As I said before, good to see you again. You are our brother, however unlikely that may seem.

  115. “Morality… It is increasingly secular and utilitarian and externally based – neither focused on the healing of the heart nor fellow man – but on external measures of value and judgement which are worldly and suspect from nose to toes.”

    A.J. I wanted to repeat what you said here – not only is it an important point but the ending made me smile 😉

    A note about “righteous”. The Church has recognized many as “righteous”. We have the Righteous Job, Holy Righteous Anna, Joseph the Righteous, etc. If I recall correctly we also have some “Righteous” warrior saints though none come to mind at the moment. Maybe others can speak to what this exactly means.

    Thanks for your post – much to think over. What is the source for the Fr. John Romanides quote? I ask because I intend to read something of his (which I have never done) in the near future…

  116. “… there are so many opinions of who Christ is that it is dangerous to use this as a guidepost.”

    John Shores,

    Christ is the only true guidepost and goal.

    Talking in circles about your preferences, whims, pathologies, and so on, has become wearisome. As precious as you are, this blog isn’t about you.

    I will hold you in prayer and will hope, too, that you’ll heal and get over it; Whatever IT is.

  117. John,

    Hey Dino – I understand what you’re saying. Using the same metaphor of the leaves, what I am saying is that naked is better. I see no shame in being human. This was not always the case for me.

    I recognize this, but as an impermanent lack of the mindful awareness of our dependance. Besides “the leaves” are not actually just that in Orthodox understanding; they are whatever we humans do, when we want to stand on our own two feet without a need for God. The obliviousness to the profoundness of our contingent existence -and the accompanying conceitedness of the many ‘leaf-like’ defense mechanisms – is made manifest in a myriad permutations in every one of us. We can self-affirm with defiant denial, with karmic acceptance, with glib distraction etc etc etc. It takes great humility (often accompanied with profound joy) for a person to even suspect the depth of this delusion when things are going ok. And when God allows sobering tribulations to befall us, hopeful orientation towards God is crucial.

  118. As far as warrior saints, most are recognized for their martyrdom or other service to Christ rather than for their skills on the battlefield. Although many early saints served in the Roman military and were skilled in Roman warfare. Their skill frequently brought them to the attention of the Emperor. Martyrdom ensued when they refused to honor the Emperor as god. St. George is arguably the most well known of these but the list is long.

    If you want a militant saint, St. Demetrios of Thessalonica comes to mind or his friend St. Nestorious. St. Demetrious has an icon in which he is depicted lancing from horseback a Persian soldier on the ground. Hard to turn that solely into a spiritual depiction of fighting evil. I don’t know what to make of it but it is there.

    St Nikita the demon slayer was, in earthly life, an Arian general who served an Arian king. When the kingdom was attacked by a pagan warlord intent on wiping out Christianity, even the Arian variety, St. Nikita was captured in battle and ultimately executed for his refusal to deny Christ (at least this is what my research on him led to)

    If we were a Christian land we might have a modern cognate of righteous soldiers fighting to defend us when attacked by enemies of Christianity. Hard to make that case these days even with the likes of ISIS.

  119. Drewster – LOL. Thanks. I agree that in practice I am probably not very far removed from you.

    And I will admit that having been raised in a “Christian” herd, I am exceedingly wary of the idea that we “need each other to remind us of what it is we are doing that we need to stop, among other things.” While that may be true, it is equally true that nothing is more dangerous than a group that allows a select few to do its thinking for it. If I only listen to those who agree with me, what use is that?

    Michael – I am sorry to have become wearisome. Truly. This group has taught me so much, not the least of which was Fr. Stephen being willing to put up with my questions until I got the central and singular answer as to what the foundation of Orthodox thinking is. There is far too much noise in the myriad writings out there, so much so that it takes a determined effort to wade through it all to get to the essence.

    Fr. Stephen – Since I have become something of a blot on the landscape, can you go ahead and block me from your site? I’ll keep reading but I don’t know that I will be able to refrain from jumping in from time to time. Thanks.

    I really do love you guys and am very grateful for the part you have played in my life. I wish nothing by joy and peace, such as the season signifies.

  120. John, no one needs to block you from the site. Your questions are good for us. It keeps us stretching to express the truth we have experienced and find something to which it connects for you. Because we are talking about (or ultimately aiming to describe) spiritual reality as we’ve experienced it and not ideologies or arbitrary conceptual theologies and moralities, I’m convinced some things will connect for you at some point (and that they sometimes do, or you wouldn’t be reading).

    Besides, if it really gets too distracting from Fr. Stephen’s post, he’s a good moderator and can redirect the comments thread (or close it down) when necessary.

    Btw, I’m sure Drewster can answer, but I’m sure he didn’t mean we need others to do our thinking for us when he said we are connected and need others. Others (not just in our own camp, but all others and sometimes especially those we perceive as our “enemies”) help us by providing another vantage point when we’ve gotten too close to something sometimes to see what is going on (a pet bad habit, a wrong idea to which we are attached, a wound we are nursing–this is obviously not an exhaustive list). Nothing like a spouse or a teenage child, eh, to put us in our place when we think we’re something, and we’re not all that, after all! Am I right? I think we can’t go far wrong when we keep it as real as we can with ourselves and with one another (keep trying to take off the masks and avoid pretense). I would also offer the very biblical caveat that there are those with whom it is not safe to entrust oneself and one’s wounds (you know this as well and probably better than most reading here). I wouldn’t have wanted to be too vulnerable with one of those Pharisees who was constantly on the attack against Jesus in the Gospels, for instance. I tend to really distance myself from people who are intent on playing someone else’s conscience or taking the place of the Holy Spirit in others’ lives! True full-blown narcissists are very scary people to me.

  121. John,
    well, I am baffled myself if you think this observation you reiterated here stands to honest scrutiny:

    Indeed, I am somewhat baffled if you see a contradiction between God as he is described in the OT and the Jesus described in the Gospels.

    One hardly even needs “eyes to see” why -as Father Stephen, to whom you responded thus, wrote:

    The early Christian community was properly troubled by the contrast between the teaching of Christ and many of the stories of the OT. They simply seem to contradict.”

    , e.g.: “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?[ . . . ] And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8)

    The demonstrations approaching this type of forgiveness in the OT (as in Hosea 3:1) are more rare and less blatant, or even equivocal in comparison.

  122. John, et al,
    One thing that simply doesn’t work in these conversations, is the Biblical discussion. John, forgive me, but you look at the Scriptures like a Protestant. You assume that what Christians think should somehow come from the Scriptures – i.e. be determined by the Scriptures. An Orthodox understanding is quite different. We think the Scriptures should be read in a way that agrees with the received Orthodox understanding.

    They are our Scriptures – our Holy writings – that we use in the manner that we have been taught to use them. It is not the place of anyone else, Christian or not, to tell us how we should use the Scriptures. Nor can they tell us what the Scriptures mean, because the Scriptures have no “meaning” outside the community of the One, Holy Church. Or better, they have many meanings.

    The Church existed before the New Testament. The Old Testament, as something given to the Church, was and always has been radically interpreted in a Christian manner that simply ignores the literal level in many places. The Scriptures are read much like an icon is read.

    It’s possible to have conversations with Protestant treatments of the Scriptures – but mostly very frustrating ones. The Scriptures are a very different thing in the life of Orthodoxy.

  123. Hi Karen, _ wasn’t accusing this group of one person doing the thinking for them. Sorry if it appeared as such. I like you guys. You’re all good thinkers. I have found this to be the rule, rather than the exception in Orthodox folks. I just have personal prejudices against groups in general. I dislike the Limbaugh faithful and the Maher faithful equally.

    Dino – I guess one’s perspective is important here. When I compare the OT God and Jesus, this is what I see:

    In the OT, God is patient and tries to get people to see that honoring him is for their benefit. He provides great things for them. He blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, made Joseph the prime minister in Egypt, freed his people from slavery and gave them the Promised Land, and pretty much guaranteed their prosperity as long as they kept him at the center of the cultural mindset. (I realize this is a very generalized picture.)

    But when those people end up behaving as people do, they got 40 years tacked onto their travels away from Egypt and didn’t see the promised land or they got famine or they got sent into slavery.

    Jesus was no different. He went around doing good and trying to help people see God as a Father (a new concept for the Jews). Then in the middle of his “Blessed are the…” sermon he announces that people are no longer responsible just for what they actually do but now there are thought crimes (if you lust or are angry etc.) that are worthy of judgment, and by the way, instead of just killing you here and now, you are now eligible for eternal damnation.

    Jesus has no problem with telling people, “You think those people were bad because a tower fell on them? Unless you repent, you’re similarly at risk” or “…and these shall go away into everlasting fire, but the righteous…” etc.

    How are these attributes any different from the God of the OT?

    (I am not attaching any moral judgment on either OT God or Jesus, simply explaining how I see them and that by comparison I fail to see any real inconsistencies.)

    I was taken aback by Fr. Stephen’s accusation that I was being glib. I mean, if you know someone who is a really good and admirable man and you say that his son is “just like him,” would the natural reaction be to take offense? Of course not. If someone says, “He’s just like his old man” and an offense is taken, that offense can only be possible because the “old man” is not someone with a good reputation.

    Isn’t it Orthodox to say that The Father and The Son are one? As such, it seems strange to me that any Christian would ever balk at a comment in which someone like me says he sees no difference between the two. Indeed, I would say that one can only be improperly troubled by the contrast between the teaching of Christ and (pretty much all) of the stories of the OT.

    I have heard it said that the OT can only be understood through the lens of Christ. This, to me, implies that there is something distasteful about the OT God when seen without that lens. It also implies that there is nothing distasteful about Christ.

    But even Jesus knew that he was offensive to people. Not only was he offensive to the religious but even his own disciples had trouble with some of the things he said and did.

    I would think that both the Father and Son would be equally glorious throughout all Scriptures to those who see them thus and equally offensive to those who do not.

    If one sees them as equally glorious, what on Earth could possess them to be “troubled by the contrast” between them? To say that there is a contrast is to admit that one does not see them as equals.

    At least, that is how it appears to me.

  124. John,
    The “God of the OT” is not the same thing as the “Father,” for one. But there is not a “God of the OT.” There is God. Christ has made Him known and the Church knows Christ. How we read Christ, including the damnation stuff, is not at all how you are reading it. That’s why I’ve said you read Scripture like a Protestant.

    My “glib” comment is that everything already has an answer for you. And it pretty much doesn’t matter what anyone says.

  125. John,

    You said,

    “Jesus was no different. He went around doing good and trying to help people see God as a Father (a new concept for the Jews). Then in the middle of his “Blessed are the…” sermon he announces that people are no longer responsible just for what they actually do but now there are thought crimes (if you lust or are angry etc.) that are worthy of judgment, and by the way, instead of just killing you here and now, you are now eligible for eternal damnation.

    Isn’t it Orthodox to say that The Father and The Son are one? As such, it seems strange to me that any Christian would ever balk at a comment in which someone like me says he sees no difference between the two. Indeed, I would say that one can only be improperly troubled by the contrast between the teaching of Christ and (pretty much all) of the stories of the OT.

    I have heard it said that the OT can only be understood through the lens of Christ. This, to me, implies that there is something distasteful about the OT God when seen without that lens. It also implies that there is nothing distasteful about Christ.”

    We don’t understand the ontological gap that was filled by the God-man’s transfiguration in the tomb. Our understand is frail. This event fills all that is lacking, as the gospels before the passion does also more fully point to and express the ontological gaps (and reality of man’s crisis, which we don’t grasp, aren’t we all really OK?).
    Christ is not laying out further damnation as you suggest, but is putting a more accurate picture of our state in the gospels, thus pointing for the need of a radical remedy for our radical condition. We are sick – sick unto death. We are Lazarus. We stink (and that is only an outward expression of our inner condition)

    Orthodoxy (the truth of the God-man + the truth of the Church) and the resurrection event was a radical – radical paradigm shift. It is just that. The church saw this for what it was – an eschatological and ecclesiological event, because what constituted this event was the God-man. As such, he comprised all of creation (ecclesiological) and all of time (eschatological). It is the revelation which is Jesus Christ that the Church proclaimed. (What is ontologically true is what is ultimately true – And is “the meaning of it all”) Everything else is ontologically lacking, deficient and is crisis.

    Only from these lenses does the Old Testament begin to Make Sense. These two things are Not working at cross purposes. Christ revealed what was hidden in history because being the fullness of All things (what is eschatological and ecclesiological) How could That not have a revelatory component? That component was radical – it –was- radical. Given that, how could the Old Testament be viewed or understood any other ‘authentic’ way? The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed Everything – everything. In the gospels what was hidden gets further clarified. It simply wasn’t fully revealed in the Old Testament, but was revealed in all fullness with the reconstitution of all things, which was Christ on a “once and always” rescue mission.

    – but take the “Bible” out of The Church and we suffer ‘interpretations” and that is what you have: a God made in the image individual interpreters. You simply won’t have the God of The Church’s liturgy. You will know something else.

  126. Christopher & Michael B.,

    I am glad I could make you smile with the nose to toes quip Christopher! 🙂

    Michael, I very much appreciated your illustration of the circle of morality and Christ at its center. Very nice!

    The source for John Romanides quote is from his work “Original Sin According to Saint Paul. It’s short. I’d also highly recommend a series of youtube videos regarding his writings…on both original (ancestral sin) and his work “Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine.

    I posted a response to some of your points on my blog (so as not to completely inundate Fr. Freeman’s space with tangents on Sainthood, warrior saints and what “righteousness” means in relationship to them. It is here. http://theamericanorthodox.blogspot.com/

    In brief, my theses (backed up by data on my blog) are;

    1) All “warrior saints” are saints due to martyrdom and not an “angelic life.” This follows the early Tradition regarding martyrdom as Sainthood by default. I challenge people to find a “warrior saint” that is not a martyr, confessor, or Emperor…or a warrior saint that is specifically a saint because of his life as a warrior. In all cases that I can find…they are saints due to martyrdom…Fr. Pomazansky states;

    “NO SPECIAL ecclesiastical decree was required to authorize the prayerful veneration of this or that particular martyr. A martyr’s death ITSELF testified to the reception of a heavenly crown.”

    2) “The Orthodox Church does not follow any official procedure for the “recognition” of saints…” as with the Roman Catholic Church. “In the Orthodox Church…there is no legalistic weighing of evidence and examination of merits…” ( There is no dogmatism or doctrine associated with sainthood, simply conventions of local churches and their veneration of martyrs, ascestics, etc. Some Saints and theologians will represent outliers to the total scope of Christian witness, (either theologically or morally) even while specific circumstances and aspects of their lives simultaneously show holiness or an example to follow…esp. martyrs who are specifically recognized for the righteousness given to them by Christ to withstand torture and death. (as He Himself did.)

    3) The “holiness” and example of many early saint’s lives is based on martyrdom, much unlike ascestic monks after the 4th century. Their lives prior to martyrdom had no particular bearing on the sainthood of martyrs. Outside their “righteous” act of martyrdom graced to them by Christ, they would not have been considered saints in accordance with the traditions of the time. Additionally, the holiness displayed by ANY Saint is not always one of TOTAL righteousness, or holiness, but of a particular display of holiness and righteousness in a life of communion with God through the Church. Thus, the OCA website tells us;

    “The word “saint” means “holy,” thus “Saint John means, in fact, “Holy John.” This is not to say that he was always perfect…that his views on politics, social life, or economics were desirable and correct. It means only that, within the context of his age, he manifested the image of God IN SOME WAY —that he was an ikon, an original creation, a new creature in Christ.”

    4) The “righteousness” of any saint is in fact the “imputed / credited / reckoned / accounted” (Greek = ἐλογίσθη logizomai (Rom 4:22) righteousness of Christ to the Saint. Any saint’s “righteousness” is in fact not his own, but the righteousness of Christ.

    ~ GOARCH Web….”It must be stated at the beginning that the only true “saint” or holy one (Hagios) is God Himself. Man becomes holy or “sainted” by participation in the holiness of God. Holiness or sainthood (righteousness…my add) is a gift given by God to man through the Holy Spirit. Man’s effort to become a participant in the life of divine holiness is indispensable, but sanctification itself is the work of the Holy Trinity.

  127. John, I think you may have misunderstood my attempt to clarify Drewsters point about our interdependence on others. I wasn’t alluding to this group, Orthodox, Fundamentalists or particular groups like that. I was referring to our general human need for and condition of interconnectedness with other humans–the need to be vulnerable with others, etc., in order to be (relatively more) healthy specimens of the species. (From the perspective of faith, it is the way God designed us.) Does that make sense?

  128. I hope you will all forgive my comment, coming in media res, and somewhat off topic, though there is no doubt in my mind that it somehow connects back to the discussions which have preceded.

    During worst years in Iraq, before I began my own move towards Orthodoxy (which is rather nascent), I was deeply troubled by the questions that are posed in this discussion. I found myself drawn more and more to a strong pacifist conviction in my faith, but sensed that I could not really be a pacifist and love all men as Christ if I did not first know war personally. Consequently, I decided to join the military after graduation from college. This was June ’06, and I was scheduled to graduate in June ’07.

    Within two weeks of making the decision, my back had been permanently changed by a freak injury, which eventually made me medically ineligible for enlistment.

    I have not thought about these topics deeply since the spring and early summer of ’07, and now find myself not so much grappling with the questions of killing and pacifism, judgement and morality, as wondering quite painfully at those events leading up to and following my injury. I’m not sure, right now, what to make of it.

  129. Hi Matt,

    I have found that being conflicted about these things is natural and that we are all often caught between the two poles of the “law of our mind” and the “law of sin”. We are simultaneously repulsed and irresistibly drawn to war… I think because as Chris Hedges notes “War is a force that gives us meaning.”

    Beyond my life as an Orthodox Christian, nothing has had more meaning in my life than war.

    Speaking to your point. I once believed too that I needed to experience war personally or my rejection of it would be less meaningful or empty. Frankly, I’ve found this is rediculous.

  130. I cut off my post. Whoops. Experience with war is not necessary to reject it.

    In whatever way you can come to terms with your injury and what it may or may not have meant in relationship to your participation in war, please believe me when I tell you…

    You are better off having not gone.

  131. Thanks, Aaron.

    The issue isn’t whether or not I’m better off going to war. That’s, I mean, obviously I’m better off not having gone to war. Even with the injury. Perhaps the injury was itself providential. I don’t know. Really, there’s a lot I don’t know, and I’m not sure why I feel like I should have anything to say on those topics.

    The experience I did have allowed me to understand the darkness that lives in my own heart very well. The depths of anguish that I reached because of the pain of the injury, especially in those first few months, was about as far from feeling full of light as I imagine it’s possible to be.

  132. Karen, well said. You caught my intentions perfectly.

    John: Glibness. This is going to be hard one for you to see. Though it is a poor analogy, think of it like this.

    Inside an Orthodox church a priest is up front giving a teaching. In this case he is referring to the chalice with the wine and the plate with the bread. At some points he very reverently lifts each one and discusses what we know about them (which isn’t much) and then in an awed manner begins to talk about the many things we don’t know and how wonderful our God is.

    Then you stroll in, curiously pick up the candles in the back and idly inspect them. You casually come down the aisle and climb the steps to join him on the altar. Everyone’s watching in shock as you go around the table, pick up the bread, consider tasting it, deciding you don’t like the smell, and then – as if just noticing the audience for the first time – you wave and ask how everyone is doing.

    In other words you don’t display or acknowledge this sense of Holy Mystery which is part of Classic Christianity. It’s as if everything is common to you. Some of the things we discuss here are talked about with an assumption that we can’t know the depths of it, but still talk about them with hopes of bringing joy and perhaps enlightenment to each other.

    But you stroll in and dismiss these ponderings with a mere wave of your hand many times. That is glibness. It sends a message that we’re wasting our time on these topics – when in fact it is a lot closer to the truth to say that there isn’t much else worthy of our time.

    At this point you have a choice: you can sit back and ponder what it is that causes everyone else to be in awe of these things – and revelation will come with time – or you can write us off and move on. Blocking you doesn’t fix the problem. You are still there and you are still our brother – and you are still bleeding.

    As Fr. Stephen so wisely said, “You need healing more than answers. I have doubts that the blog can do that. It needs more flesh and blood.” It is good for you to be here, but you need more. Find a hospital and learn to trust the doctors and nurses there.

  133. Drewster, I appreciate your advice and want a share in your expression of support for John. Well said.

  134. “In other words you don’t display or acknowledge this sense of Holy Mystery which is part of Classic Christianity. It’s as if everything is common to you.”

    “”As Fr. Stephen so wisely said, “You need healing more than answers. I have doubts that the blog can do that. It needs more flesh and blood.””

    This is right. Everything is common, including the deep questions and longing of the heart because as John describes himself, he is satisfied with his everyday foibles (to say nothing of things deep) and protects his own “happiness” – so anything that would break through (and breaking causes suffering) is avoided and “bad”. This is simply to say that John is a type very common among men throughout all the ages and of course our own. I am John myself so very much throughout each and everyday. Mere words/dialogue does not normally break through this – God usually uses some unavoidable suffering and/or crises it seems to me. One has to have ears first before one can hear…

  135. Matt h,

    I see. I’m sorry I misunderstood your point. I think you have every right to comment.

    Mental and physical Trauma causes the same kind of despondency (wallowing in the darkness) no matter what it’s source. War does not have the corner on trauma.

    I understand your post now. The darkness isn’t really different, it’s how it engages us individually that makes it so insidious. Yours was a trauma no less real than torture or war. In a sense these were /are your own war- you own spiritual war- if I’m understanding you correctly.

    I’ll pray for your continued healing in Christ.

    Thank you for sharing.

  136. Father Stephen:

    Let me come at some of your reflections and teachings from a different direction.

    I work as a lawyer. I experience — I clearly see — I daily live the difference between the “doctor” and the “lawyer” — between a right/wrong model and the health/disease one. lol serve as advocate for my clients, and I work to achieve for the best result for them as they define their goals and choose among their options.

    Like a priest, but to a much smaller extent, people come to lawyers and lay baresome of their soul. It is often manipulative — they just want me to hear what I need to know, as they see it. But in the process and over the years, I have learned one truth:


    People just DO things. Law comes later, if ever.

    Of course, if someone wants to buy land they consult the statutes for the HOW. And companies run their plans through legal –and through public relations and through accounting, for that matter — to comply with regulations and to avoid pain or financial loss. But no one acts or desires to fulfill the law. No one.

    The heart we lawyers hear in private conference is full of greed and lust and pain and hurt. I recognize it as my own. The remedies I seek cannot cure the heart or touch the soul.

    One of the saddest matters I dealt with was breaking down barriers a father had placed to limit a son’s inheritance. The custodian was a “bad” man who had seriously mishandled funds. I was successful, and got a “good” result that put millions in the son’s hands. Within a short time the son’s addiction was unleashed and he was soon in prison.

    The law does not –can not — cure or even address the hole in our hearts. God have mercy on us all.

  137. Lou,
    Good a poignant examples. I very much agree about people doing what they want. I have said before that we’re about as “moral” as we’re ever going to be. Those rules we internalized as a child are largely what will govern us through life. We might come to believe differently, but we will struggle to act differently. None of this is saying anything St. Paul did not bemoan in Romans 7. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” And there is a way – we can become all flame. We can in fact be transfigured. I also think that this work may very well lie hidden, even from the struggling eyes of the person being transformed.

  138. I like your mention of Lewis’s story (“The Great Divorce” if I remember correctly). There is a scene where a man on the “excursion” from Hell says “I don’t need your bleeding charity.” And the response is, “Ask for it. Ask for the Bleeding Charity.”

  139. In the U.S. for whatever reason we often forget children in discussions like this. For some reason, people will look the other way if the victim of violence is a child being “disciplined” by its parent. Many Christians believe that such violence helps the child become a morally better person and may even prevent the child from going to Hell in some way or another.

    But this testimony of the darkness of even justifiable violence applies to the most righteous parent administering the most moderate and well-deliberated act of disciplinary violence. It creates a darkness in the child and the it creates a darkness in the parent.

    I grew up among people who had a highly developed theology of discipline and I saw the demons in their faces after they had practiced it for a time. People believed that if they spanked moderately, with expressions of love, and a prayer ritual, and a carefully explained connection between the sin of the child and the pain of the spanking, and if they always used an instrument and not their hand (or vice verse) that the Lord’s blessing would be on this practice and the outcome would be good. They got it from the Bible, after all. And yet in the end every one of those parents had to learn to switch off their compassion in order to carry through and every child learned something equally damaging. In the end, every home was haunted by darkness, no matter how “good” the children “turned out.” Whole churches festered with abuse.

    To bring a child up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” Jesus Christ is something entirely different. It takes courage to apply only goodness to a child’s upbringing. So many of us fear and believe that a dash of evil is necessary.

  140. AR,
    I agree though I am aware of the huge difficulty in applying what you correctly said (about discipline in a spirit of “only goodness”) in some special situations -that almost seem to be invented by the devil himself in order to not allow for such application.
    In fact, great reserves of stillness are the only dependable resource to make this application possible…

  141. AR,
    I generally oppose spanking – so few get it right. I vehemently oppose those who treat the Scriptures as if they command us to do this. I was raised in the 50’s and the culture of spanking (“whipping” actually). I took it in stride because I thought it was normal. But, as I’ve said before in lectures, all it taught me was how to lie. Since the punishment for lying was the same as the punishment for whatever I was lying about. Torture isn’t reliable. Neither is physical punishment.

    Pray for your children and truly model kindness, gentleness and truth-telling. Then pray a lot more. Stanley Hauerwas has said that the good news/bad news is that no matter what you do, your children are likely to turn out a lot like you.

    And so the sins of parents are visited on their children. But the repentance of children (especially as they become adults) can save their family for several generations.

  142. “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea.” -Elder Sophrony of Essex

  143. Fr. Stephen, what hopeful words about repentance. I agree about biblical interpretation. People may differ on inspiration, but no matter how you define it, it can’t turn a proverb into a commandment.

    I don’t think there is a way to “get it right” because no matter what the parent means by it or how he does it, there’s a second party to the transaction and that is the child who cooperates with what is happening to him. How the child takes it, how he psychologically constructs it, how he interiorizes it – none of this is up to the parent.

  144. Dino, I don’t think I understand what you are saying. If you took my words to mean that there is such a thing as discipline in a spirit of goodness, that is not what I meant to say. I don’t think that a Christian spirit of goodness will ever recommend violence and coercion for the benefit of someone’s moral character. No one ever became good through coercion. I believe the biblical proverbs recommending beating reflect a limited (pre-Christian) moral viewpoint, a brutal world full of necessity, and quite probably a primitive tribal juvenile justice system.

    The Christian virtues are enough for parenting in our time. If a Christian parent keeps the golden rule and the gospel, and does not lord it over his children or reproach them, if he does not demand respect and if he does not do anything self-serving with his children, they have the very best chance of receiving the goodness of the Lord. They may not behave perfectly all the time as children, but when they are old enough to govern themselves they will know how, and that is what matters.

    One of my parenting mantras is, “I am not raising my children for the temporary convenience of other adults.” Unfortunately many adults put pressure on parents to control their children so that they will not be any trouble. Our government and society also makes it hard not to parent out of fear.

  145. Father,

    So, to put this in Orthodox for Dummies language… are the following statements/questions true or am I severely misunderstanding?

    One can perform a “moral” action (no rule broken) that is sinful because it is damaging to the heart and therefore turning that person away rather than towards salvation.

    On the contrary, does performing “immoral” actions always result in damage to the heart? I think the answer to that one is yes..

    Is morality the square and sin the rectangle?

  146. AR, your statement that “No one ever became good through coercion.” is a bit too broad. Coercion is necessary and proper to stop behavior that is harmful to oneself or others. Stopping the behavior does not mean the person becomes good, you are right there, but there is simply no life that is or can be without coercion on some level–even if only be experiencing the natural consequences of ill conceived actions, immoral actions, etc.

    Sometimes people don’t do something they would otherwise do simply out of the threat of coercion. For instance, even grounding a child for improper behavior is coercive in nature. Taking you child to Church with you whether he/she wants to be there or not is coercive. All training involves at least some level of coercion. I don’t know about you, but I have to coerce my body and mind to actually pray. They don’t like it. It hurts sometimes. Often, even most of the time, I have to force them

    Violence is another story. Violence does not lead to good as much as the temptation is there to think that it can and does. Certainly in the raising of children it is not good.

  147. Amanda,
    Gee. That got deep. It is certainly the case that a “moral” action can be sinful – for example – stoning the woman taken in adultery would have been sinful – it would seem. But it certainly would have been in keeping with the Law. The reason is that “moral” in that sense is merely on the surface. We could speak of a “morality of the heart” that would never be sinful.

    The answers to all of this are predicated on what we mean by a moral and immoral action.

    There is another interesting situation. There are actions that are what I would describe as inherently “tragic,” which moral and immoral really fail to address. For example, the classic case of lying to save a life. Or even killing someone in order to save an innocent life. The saving of a life is a good thing – but the situation presents something that is inherently “tragic.”

    I think we do not give enough room to the concept of tragedy (something the ancient Greeks certainly paid attention to). We live in a “tragic” world – one that is fallen and marked by sin. We are being saved by Christ’s “eucatastrope” as it is described – a “good catastrope.” “Good Friday” was “tragic” (it was an unjust execution) but becomes a saving event because of the goodness of God.

    There are many “tragedies” in our lives that also become saving events because of the goodness of God. I think the commandments concerning sexual continence, chastity, etc., sometimes puts someone in a “tragic” situation. The Church asks certain people to be chaste – even for their whole lives. And they may argue that it is unjust, unfair, etc. I would say that it is tragic – but that they are being asked to embrace a “eucatastrope” through Christ.

    The same is actually true of everyone. Love always will be tragic. The person we love will die (or we will). They will break our hearts (always). They will disappoint (or we will), etc. And if you refuse the tragedy of life then you will also refuse love.

    Far too many people in the modern world want a world without tragedy. That is often salutary – but taken to an extreme it actually produces even more suffering. Stanley Hauerwas notes that whenever ending suffering becomes a driving principle in ethics, it always leads to murder.

    One of the things I most like about Dostoevsky is the tragedy within his books and within his characters. It is why there is frequently a profound embracing of repentance. Repentance requires the acceptance of tragedy.

    I hope those are fruitful thoughts.

  148. Michael, I agree. We are talking about proper boundaries around behavior here. Boundaries have their place–especially with younger children who need the safety of consistently enforced reasonable limits as well as plenty of warmth and empathy.

    What is true of coercion is that it can restrain behavior, but it cannot change the interior depths of the heart. The latter is the province of grace. If it is the transformation of the heart that is in view, coercion has no place.

  149. AR,
    sorry, your statement that it takes courage to bring up a child in a spirit of only goodness is what I was describing as requiring huge reserves of stillness.
    I used the word ‘discipline’ (only with goodness) meaning teaching right and wrong (and certainly not ‘punishing’ in any way). Of course punishing with only goodness (if that’s possible) would require no less than the spiritual discernment and clairvoyance of an Elder Joseph or a Saint Porphyrios…
    I have experienced that type of rebuke and it feels just as sweet (sweeter even) than being showered with kisses and hugs – but only a Saint of great spiritual discernment can walk such a tight rope without harming himself and others.
    Your parenting mantra “I am not raising my children for the temporary convenience of other adults” which I commend is what I was thinking of when saying that some special situations seem to be invented by the devil himself in order to not allow for such “only-goodness” application.
    For example: I can think of quite a few situations where we are not spared an amount of “tragedy” -as Father Stephen just described it- through a situation in which our children play the obvious part, and this tragedy is often shared between our children and others (eg adults, other children, etc).
    Without the discernment that comes from repentance and stillness will we not often err far more (towards one or more parties, including -or excluding- our children) whether we ‘do’, ‘overdo’ or ‘omit to do’ something about it…?

  150. Michael, as Fr. Stephen pointed out, all coercion IS violence behind a mask. There is no way to force someone to do something without a threat of violence. Whether that is fear of the police showing up, or your kid knowing that if he tries to leave his room after you grounded him you’re going to manhandle him back in there, this is categorically true.

    And yes, I keep my babies out of the street (and once I was willing to send my husband to war) but I carefully observe the damage done to when I have to exercise that necessity. It’s never good. It’s never the stuff of goodness.

    No, I do not force myself or my children to pray or go to Church. 7 out of 10 young people raised in Church leave as soon as they reach adulthood – in other words, when the coercion ceases. And many never come back.

    But hey, if I change my mind and decide that I want my kids to enjoy the same forced spirituality that you do, I’ll come back for more advice. Like Jesus said, “Force the little children to come unto me, for of such is the Sunday School populated – at least until high school is over.”

  151. Dino, I see what you are saying and I agree. Isn’t that gentle rebuke the opposite of coercive, though? Isn’t that its power?

    The word of God is lively and powerful and sharper than a two-edge sword, separating the soul and spirit, the joints and marrow.

    Without inspiration in our mouths – without true spirituality – we are a lot more blunt and bludgeony than that, aren’t we?

  152. AR,

    Parenting is a bit more complicated than, “Don’t ever coerce them.” If this were not the case, robots or government daycare workers would have taken over our jobs by now. When one of your children starts beating the other one, how do you handle the situation without coercion of some form? Or perhaps there is a better word to describe what a parent must do to keep their kids safe, even from their untrained and uneducated selves?

  153. “A word in due season, how good it is.”

    AR, when I was in high school we had a local Catholic priest, an anti-war activist (it was the Vietnam era) visiting on campus and there was a class discussion/debate viz. the war, that included the principal of the school. I was fiercely anti-war. In the course of the discussion, I got pretty heated and said some pretty tough stuff. The Catholic priest later said to me, “Stephen, there’s more than one way to do violence to a person.”

    I am far more likely to use verbal wit or just “low blows” to do violence than anything else. I think your jab at Michael was mildly violent. “Forced spirituality” is just unkind. We’re all friends here – not antagonists. I think there’s an energy within this for you that is pushing the envelope. Dial it down. Forgive me.

  154. AR, forgive me, I was not commenting on anything you do personally. That is your business. Just in general.

    In fact, I have no doubt that what you have described of you parenting practices both here and on your on blog are far superior to what mine were.

  155. Drewster,
    To have the Spirituality and discernment to know what to do in such tricky situations would certainly be ideal; and if one would err then, it would probably be on the humble and meek side rather than the coercive (even though that can prove more harmful to one of the parties involved too…). However, (AR) blanket statements are indeed of little practical help in some of the situations parenting sometimes throws at us.
    Metropolitan Anthony Bloom sometimes told the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students with a staunch pacifist. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave it because I was not a pacifist.”
    “Are you one?” Metropolitan Anthony replied.
    “Yes.” “What would you do,” he asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?”
    “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied.
    “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?”
    “I would pray to God to prevent it.”
    “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?”
    “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.”

    Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”

  156. Dino,

    That’s a good story, thank you.

    I’m still thinking about this coercion thing. There is of course merit on both sides of the discussion. My experience thus far in reference to this area of parenting is that there are two keys that make me more successful (please forgive the use of this well-worn term):

    1. Everything must be done in love.

    I used to have a 6am wake-up time for my children. If they woke up and got out of bed before that time, they better be sick or bleeding, so help me God. After awhile I came to understand that this was more about my ego and my precious sleep than it was about them. Once this realization dawned I started changing my focus to them and their needs. If they got up early I turned my attention to what was going on with them – instead of my own desires in the situation. The wake-up time never changed and in fact they now usually get up around 7, but my heart did.

    2. It is about persuasion, not coercion.

    God didn’t coerce Jonah but he had a way of persuading him. I have no doubt it was for Jonah’s good as well as the message he carried and the people he carried it to.

    I didn’t make a rule one way or the other about spanking with my kids, but in practice we gave very few. It turned out to be much more about modeling and having a relationship with them than about controlling or coercing them.

    Example: I am very active in church and 3 years ago started acting as our parish youth catechism teacher. My 14 year-old son was in the first class with 3 other kids, by the end of which he declared that he was a staunch atheist. It became obvious that he hadn’t thought through the theology, but he did know that it would relieve him of having to stand up in front of the whole church (he’s a severe introvert) to profess his beliefs and possibly get him out of church altogether, which he finds boring and pointless.

    I could try to coerce him but his personality is such that the harder I’d push, the more he would resist. So I don’t. Because he’s a part of our family I require him to come to church with us until he’s 18. He doesn’t have to sing or follow along. He doesn’t partake. But he has to be there with us.

    We join hands and pray at meal time. I sometimes read scripture during supper. Sometimes he comments, sometimes he doesn’t. We’ve reached an understanding that no matter what he believes about God, etc., we still love him and he’s still part of the family. We discuss all kinds of things. If the topic turns to religion, he knows what I believe and we don’t try to persuade each other.

    He lives his life in a very Christian manner (but would balk at being told that), so I simply love him. There are house rules he has to follow, but it’s about being in this house and not about coercing him to be a certain kind of person.

    The world doesn’t hand love out. I suspect when the reality of adulthood hits him, he’ll be smart enough to go where there’s love. And love only comes from one source ultimately.

    I’ve learned a lot from this experience. In the past I would have argued that parents who “lose” their children probably did something wrong. Now I understand that they were never really mine in the first place. The parents’ job is to provide a good environment and encourage/persuade each one in the right direction. The rest is up to them and God. This realization brought angst, then sadness…..but in the end peace. And that is one of the things my children need most of all in this chaotic world.

    Coercion, no. Persuasion, yes when necessary – but all done in love.

  157. The Latin root from which the word coerce comes means: “to control, restrain, shut up together” even “to ward off” is part of the Latin understanding as part of the sub-root of the word.

    How one controls or restrains may involve violence, but need not. It could simply be a re-direction. Certainly, spiritual warfare requires a good bit of control, restraint and warding off does it not?

  158. It’s about male psychology, Fr. Stephen. When I disagree using kind words, I walk away with a spiritual beating and condescending words. When I put on my scary face, I get respectful disagreement.

    I don’t wish anyone ill, but after all, Michael is the one who said that he forces himself to engage in spiritual disciplines. If that is not forced spirituality, then what is? Presumably that’s not ALL there is, but that it’s there is something he said first, not me.

    I’m not in the least offended by you so speak freely, please, and don’t ask for forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive, as you have my love.

  159. Michael, there is nothing to forgive. My words were not written out of a feeling of being offended. Old friends, no?

    Drew, I can see you are thinking. With all due respect, and assuming you know what is best for your own son, here’s something more to consider.

    In the spiritual world as in the material, there is a law of reaction. Every action brings forth an equal and opposite reaction. You’ve associated your son’s apostasy with something he was forced to attend, something he probably experienced as stupid. Most thoughtful kids do experience kids’ programs at church as stupid. You’ve said, moreover, that his apostasy is not due to theological or philosophical reasons. All this leads me to wonder whether it is simply a reaction.

    If you have the guts, you may want to consider not giving him anything further to react to. After all, making church a house rule, like leaving the toilet seat down or hanging up your coat or not staying out after 11, is kind of the same thing as saying that church is arbitrary. You may be setting him up to leave church forever, like a bow that is pulled further and further back just sets the arrow up to fly further.

    You may also want to consider the possibility that your son is intellectually gifted and needs to have contact with serious and creative theology and theologians. I mention this simply because you emphasized his intense introversion. Stats show a high correlation between introversion and high intelligence.

    All the best, and this comes with a prayer for your son.

  160. Hi, Michael,

    Christ is in our midst.

    Like you, your ongoing discussion with our sister AR has made want to explore a bit more closely the difference between coercion and violence.

    For quick reference–since I have quite limited time–I find this on Wikipedia:

    Coercion /koʊˈɜrʃən/ is the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner by use of intimidation or threats or some other form of pressure or force. It involves a set of various types of forceful actions that violate the free will of an individual to induce a desired response, usually having a strict choice or option against a person in such a way a victim cannot escape, for example: a bully demanding lunch money to a student or the student gets beaten. These actions can include, but are not limited to, extortion, blackmail, torture, and threats to induce favors. In law, coercion is codified as a duress crime. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in a way contrary to their own interests. Coercion may involve the actual infliction of physical pain/injury or psychological harm in order to enhance the credibility of a threat. The threat of further harm may lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced.

    Like you, I see that coercion may involve force/violence, but not necessarily. Also, it appears to connote the use of duress in order to get another person to engage in unlawful conduct or some other wrong, or to do something that is against his own interest.

    Does careful, measured discipline administered with love for the good of the one disciplined by one with proper authority (which ultimately has its source, if it is authority, in God) truly constitute coercion? I wonder . . .

    Here’s hoping to see you at the upcoming Eighth Day Conference.


  161. AR

    You are very courageous woman, so I hope for understanding:
    Sometimes, unwillingness to accept being asked for forgiveness is the other side of unwillingness to forgive others deep in the heart. In my limited experience love and forgiveness always go together (especially in the parenting). Maybe people who asked for forgiveness see something you don’t and it worth some pondering.
    Just a thought….

  162. AR and I have communicate quite a bit and I do consider her a friend. If she was not offended, then there is indeed nothing to forgive. I was not offended either. I do not mind boldness–especially toward me.

    As to forcing myself–if it were easy and required little effort, would it be a discipline? I don’t know about you, but saying no to the world and my passions requires a lot of effort most days and often I fail anyway.

    My late father frequently said the only real discipline is self-discipline which has its root in being a disciple.

    All I really know is that on the occasions when I do force myself against my gnomic will (is that right), I usually find myself in the presence of our Lord one way or another. Of course, He is there all along but I have been unaware.

    I remember a story told by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand about a Communist torturer who was tortured in return and came to the conclusion during his torture that such an act by a people who he had served faithfully was pure evil. If such evil exists there must be goodness beyond imagining (God) and he converted before he died.

    Just goes to show that “All things work toward good for those who love God”

    It is beginning to dawn on me after many self-created 2X4’s to the head (metaphorically speaking), that I have no control over anyone or anything but myself and precious little there.

  163. Michael,

    Your last comment puts me in mind of the Fathers’ take on that verse that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Coercion, without a doubt, has a negative connotation, as the dictionary definition Robert Bearer’s offers shows. This verse kind of turns that “violent” image on its head, because if I am recalling patristic commentary correctly, according to them this is talking about the intense movement of self-discipline/spiritual effort that is required to enter the Kingdom (I assume because our attempts are at every point opposed by the enemy of souls).

  164. The discussion, for me, bears much relationship to the morality discussion in the other recent articles. In Recovery circles they say: “Never say you’re going to try to do something. It only means you’re not going to do it.” Or, in the inimitable words of Elder Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” 🙂

    I spent some time in a long conversation today with a therapist friend about goodness and moral effort. I shared with her my recent train of thought on “no moral progress.” She generally agreed. But we both noted the unaccountable flare-ups people have of goodness. Just plain goodness.

    Evil and moral failures are generally quite explainable. The cause and effect mechanisms that contribute to them are among the more obvious realities of our humanity. But goodness frequently seems to just appear “out of nowhere.” For example, my friend collects stories of unexpected heroes/heroines. Say, someone carrying someone else 12 flights of stairs in the 911 disaster and the like. The heroes of that day were often not trained. Of the “trained” heroes – not all trained were actually heroic. It’s not the training that necessarily explains it.

    Heroism occurs in very unexpected ways and places – surprising the heroes themselves.

    My own belief is that our “goodness” is a gift from God and is generally hidden and not made manifest in this life. It transcends what we think of as the moral process. Everybody in the world is “moral.” And everybody will struggle according to their “moral light.” But this goodness is something else. The person who struggles long and hard at their morality may simply fail completely in the heroic test – while someone we would judge as only marginally moral will utterly surprise in an act of complete sacrifice. The thief on the Cross is just such an example. Where did that come from?

    It is obviously a grace and gift from God.

    In raising children, we do our best according to what light we have. But more important than anything is prayer. My children are in their 20’s and 30’s now and their lives take twists and turns I/they could not have expected. It is clear to me as the years go by that the longer you live the more likely you are to be surprised. One way or the other. If things happen in their proper order, I will not live long enough in this world to see the end of my children’s salvation. It is also true that I have no idea what they each need in that daily struggle. God does.

    I would be terribly dismayed if one of them announced they were atheist. And it would surprise me. But strange things happen. Being an atheist is the path to salvation (at least a way station on the path) for some. And my prayers would reflect it. It’s hard enough when we disagree now (and it must be even harder for them when they disagree with me – I mean – I know everything). But we must take salvation (in its full Orthodox meaning) in hand as beyond our control – and the one thing most to be desired.

    How frightful it is to love someone and desire their salvation. It is such a helpless feeling. But, I think AR is on the right trajectory in her comments, viz. coercion. If coercion worked, God would use it – and though we speak about His “2×4” – in truth – he really doesn’t use one. But neither does He waste the ones that come our way. He is ever working all things for our good. The song of creation that He sings constantly corrects the false melody and weaves the fugue very finely. Perhaps St. Isaac is correct. And if so, there will have been no coercion in His song.

  165. It amazes me how there is no aspect of life where deep theology (the sort of easy-to-misunderstand terms we had been talking of Father…) has not got something to help us out with.
    As you, Father Stephen, reminded us, we need to concentrate on repentance -irrespective of our correctness or our errors. We cannot have such a discernment that avoids all errors (in child-rearing or any other situation); nevertheless our contact with repentant ‘stillness’ [the amount of time we spend in the exclusive presence of the Lord] is the closest thing we have to contact with that discernment. It allows us to glimpse not just our utter brokenness, but also our nature’s astonishing vocation. Our will is fallen (what we call ‘gnomic’ in theology) and so are our decisions, opinions and inclinations when we rationally deliberate in our everyday circumstances. But, like the fish that swim deep when a surface turmoil threatens them, we can use the depths of this stillness to evade many perils of everyday life. The meekness, the perspicacity, as well as the courage needed in these snags only come from such a place. And that place is ‘stillness’, the place of encountering Christ, the utter solution to every problem. The more we take not our eyes of Him, the more we walk on water.
    I think that the theological notions of gnomic and [the contrasting to that] natural willing are indeed key to making sense of the darkness that obscures our judgments as fallen individuals and makes us drown in a turbulent sea, and this inevitably includes this topic too.
    The notion of ‘gnomic willing’ (from the Greek gnome, meaning ‘inclination’, ‘opinion’ or ‘intention’) designates that form of willing in which a person, of necessity, engages in a certain process of deliberation – whether careful research or mere impulse is the palpable motive – resulting in a choice. Its experience is also an experience of our falleness.
    Natural willing, on the other hand, designates the [free from ‘fallen slavery’] movement of a creature towards the fulfillment (telos) of its being. This is in accordance with its existential vocation, its uncreated ‘logos’- the inner ‘raison d’être’ of its existence, connecting its nature’s ontology with its eschatological consummation. Glimpsing it inside of us is like glimpsing the unfalleness within our falleness. In the infinite variety of life’s occasions, access to ‘natural willing’ is not just hampered by our conceited delusion and self-centeredness, it is obscured by the simple fact that we are not omniscient. It is little wonder therefore that ‘spiritual discernment’ is often regarded as the highest of charismas in Orthodox tradition, without which even love itself (the true meaning of existence without which everything has no value) cannot be properly completed.
    According to St Maximus the Confessor, the incarnate Jesus Christ possessed no gnomic will. Maximus clarified that the process of gnomic willing presupposes that a person does not comprehend what they ultimately want, and so must deliberate and come to some choice between a range of alternatives. Christ, however, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was omniscient. Therefore, Christ was never in a state of ignorance regarding what He wanted, and so never engaged in gnomic willing.
    We sing in Church (during the iambic Pentecostal cannon)

    Thus spake the august and revered mouth,
    for you my friends there will be no parting

    and yet we forget that we need to work on that union first and foremost rather than to try to solve all other problems – to which problems that union itself is the only solution… If we really see Him, we shall see the solution transparently through Him; we will still make use of our reasoning powers, but in His Light.

  166. What unexpectedly wonderful words from all of you. Thank you for digging so deep and speaking so honestly.

  167. I think of the “2x4s” as being one of two things–the darts and stones the enemy throws at me (often through the “gnomic” willing of others) or me, in my gnomic ignorance, hurtling my frail and blind self against the unchanging Rock that is God Himself and against the boundaries, in His goodness, He has established for me “in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:5-6).

  168. When something difficult comes into my life, I’ve never found it easy to explain it or categorize it or take it as something meant to teach me. Things happened to me that should never happen to a child, long before I had done anything to “deserve” it. Nothing I do quite works out – I’m clumsy, or unlucky, or however you put it, so in a way bad things happen to me all the time, no matter what I do. If I attributed divine origin to any of this stuff, I would go mad. It’s one of my disciplines to only attribute good things to God. I guess that’s why I only want to do good to my children.

    On the other hand, if you can trace a cause-and-effect relationship between some evil and your own behavior, then that is a useful wake-up call. But for me that’s less about defining God’s morality and more about coming to see myself as capable of freedom and responsibility.

    I have had to think a lot about necessity and what to do, as Drew asked, when a child is endangering himself or others whether morally or physically. There is, indeed, such a thing as necessity and I’m not saying there isn’t. But necessity is born from evil, whether the morally neutral evil in the fallen material Universe or the wrong choices of others. So, I try to defy it as often as possible. I believe that a saint in the flesh would never encounter necessity, even if his kids were beating one another up or his girlfriend were being raped.

    I’m not a saint in the flesh but I try to move in that direction. Maybe a saint in the flesh would simply get between the two kids and let the blows fall on himself instead of the little kid. Maybe he would be so brimming with love that at a single touch the beaten would forget his woes and the beater his anger.

    So there is nearly always a way to do better than we thought we could, which to find it takes a lot of thought, trial and error, prayer, preparation, and commitment. Also courage, as I keep saying, because our whole culture is pressuring us to live in constant fear as parents – terror that our children will turn out to be criminals on the one hand, or be victimized on the other.

    Practically speaking, I’ve learned to defuse the situation first and deal with any moral dimension to what happened later, when everyone has cooled down and the child’s natural capacity for remorse has kicked in. Children’s emotional states vary a lot more than adult’s, but at their normal stable emotional level, they are tractable and want to please their parents – even the most willful. (It’s trickier after 11, though.)

    The main trick is to not cause a reaction. And the main trick in not causing a reaction is to avoid activating shame in them.

    This means giving respect instead of demanding it, not “sticking it to them” when they’ve done wrong, and addressing things conversationally instead of didactically. Believing all things, hoping all things.

    Other than that, getting to know your child when he is not misbehaving is important preparation for those difficult moments. Then, the cumulative effect of the trust you build within the difficult moments – when you respond to evil with good (Jesus’ most basic teaching but for some reason we think it doesn’t apply to our relationship with kids) – will help a little more each time.

    So if one of my kids was beating up another of my kids, I would be tempted, like anyone, to yank the kid’s arm and scream, “Knock it off, that’s your little brother, I shed my blood bringing both of you into this world and I didn’t do it so one of you could kill the other one early!” Less tempting, but more fallaciously spiritual, would be the groans of grief and the dire predictions as I fall on my knees in front of him, “Son, if you don’t mend your ways, I’m going to see you standing in juvenile court a few years from now and when the judge locks you up and throws away the key, it will break my heart and send me to an early grave but I won’t be able to say a word because you KILLED YOUR BROTHER and that’s the sin of Cain!”

    However, both of these options activate shame and both of them set your child up to flee from you and react to you (or else internalize the shame and become self loathing.)

    (By the way, if my child does run away from me when I am trying to correct him, I just let him go – that’s shame, and sticking it to him will simply cause him to internalize his own evil. Leaving him alone and letting his natural desire to have a good relationship with his parents kick in has the best effect.)

    Where one kid is beating up another, defusing first would mean simply getting between the two kids and holding them. Or if that’s not safe, restraining the offender, perhaps holding his arms from behind, and just getting the smaller kid to safety. That’s worst case scenario in my mind. Realistically, most situations with children get defused just because an adult walks into the room. If not, getting down on their level and getting their attention and paying attention to them usually works.

    Some people say that you should ignore kids who are misbehaving, because they are just seeking attention. However, parental attention is a good thing and addressing that need is a good thing, too. Instead of manipulating the outcome, simply being good to one’s child may work wonders.

    Then, as I hold them or sit with them, it’s about waiting it out – not listening to their ugly words, adding none of my own, and just letting things run down. When a child has done something wrong, they may experience it as trauma. Usually something clicks and they both end up sobbing their woes into my ears. Later, I make like Father in confession and spend some time with the offender and just listen and say anything that might be helpful – but only on the assumption that this child wants to be good and wants to do right and is standing before God in his heart, without me, as a Person. So it’s working with the Spirit instead of against him, and that’s an art and there’s no sure-fire thing you can do and no system that ensures a good outcome.

    Oddly enough, it seems to be a passion peculiar to our society to ensure things. We all seem to believe that if we simply figure out the right configuration of rules, we will “ensure” that nothing bad can happen anymore. In pursuit of this impossible dream the rules get harder and harder to live with. I think Fr. Stephen said somewhere that our society is one in which Law has gone mad, and I think that’s true in more ways than one.

    That’s why it takes courage to see our children as capable of handling moral freedom. Freedom is what they need, because only then can they defy the necessity of sinfulness working within them.
    But Freedom is dangerous, so we are in the process of rejecting it. Children’s understanding and their ability to control themselves may differ from adults, but their nature is the same and they need the same kind of help that adults struggling with sinfulness need. Except less tough, because they are more innocent. If we learn to see them as inexperienced rather than wicked, we make a lot more headway.

    I am sometimes surprised by the lack of empathy that many children have. Empathy seems to be learnable. Sometimes if I walk a child through the mental steps of empathetic reasoning, he will be in tears about behavior he was defending moments before. But it has to be in a way and a time when the child is receptive.

    I think what I am saying is that chivalry is a Christian virtue – the only virtue that Christians invented. Maybe, I’m also saying that an un-moral upbringing is better for children than a moral upbringing.

    (For those who had trouble with this excellent term “un-moral” (as opposed to immoral or amoral) I refer them to “undead” (a way of being dead) and “unknowing” (a type of knowing) and “unschooling” (a manner of schooling.)

  169. great words AR…

    Though I have seen (I believe) a saint (if I could say that) in the flesh, -in the capacity of spiritual Father- having to deal with two of his spiritual children complaining of each other and the Father certainly encountered necessity! It’s just that his sublime discernment on how exactly to deal with it was nothing less than astounding.

  170. I’m sure you’re right, Dino. Do you believe Christ encountered necessity or did he always act in freedom?

  171. My late wife, memory eternal, was a street minister for awhile in some tough places (The Tenderloin in SF, South Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit). During one of those excursions she encountered a gang beating up a young man. She just walked into the midst of them, got hold of the boy being beaten and pulled him out. She was not hurt and no retaliation by the others on her or the boy. They walked away.

    On another occasion, she was clerking in a liquor store alone at night when a man walked in in a ski mask, pulled out a big knife and asked for the money. She looked him in the eye, reached out and pushed the knife away and said, “You don’t want to do that.” He just turned and walked away. Then she called the police.

    My late wife was not a saint but she was someone who was able to walk in faith in some pretty amazing ways when it was absolutely called for.

  172. I wouldn’t want to have a belief that is not that of the Church I believe in. Moreover, there are many ways to approach this AR, and some pretty standardised theological answers, consistently indicating that Christ acted in freedom – as I am sure you know, (which is why you question surprises me.) Besides, the transcendence of suffering wrought by Christ, certainly manifests utter freedom as acceptance of the Father’s will -within our plane of contingent being (a plane of necessity). I am certainly in no position to ‘teach’ you on the subject though AR. It soon stretches out to the unkowables of who is saved…
    But a combination of acting in freedom without forcing it on anybody else’s is feasible. However, as we never find out if the elder brother of the prodigal accepts his Father’s counsel we also never find out of the final outcome we hope for in this life – as Father Stephen mentioned above.
    Besides we see the whole gamut of reactions to Christ from His children, don’t we…?
    I am trying to shift the issue slightly though, as your question – to which I am sure you must know the ‘official’ answer –is not the main point I was trying to make (on the topic of discernment I mean). And the fact that a clairvoyant/discerning Saint might –on occasion- have such astonishing and creative solutions to the interpersonal (and other tricky) situations they encounter does not mean that they do not suffer hugely. But their focus on Christ alone, which is their constant provider of discernment in a very real sense, is also the ‘safeguarder’ of their joy in, and transcendence of, suffering.

  173. Dino, I don’t know a lot of formal theology, I just push around for insights. Christ in the flesh suffered other kinds of human limitations willingly, but the willing itself makes necessity a special category, I guess?

    However, I wasn’t so much looking for a Christology lesson as seeking to better understand the word ‘necessity’ from your point of view. If Christ didn’t suffer it then there must be a sort of huge territory left uncharted between the divine humanity of Christ and the furthest heights reached by a saint, in this matter of necessity. So that territory kind of helps me to clarify my ideas of the range of goodness.

    You pointed out that people sometimes suffer hugely when they act freely in the face of other peoples’ sins. As a parent, I think there has to be a willingness to suffer for one’s children, and at the same time one keeps in mind the reality that they need to have a healthy functioning parent around. The first part is the freedom, the second part the necessity. I think faith moderates the necessity as the freedom grows.

  174. Michael, what a wonderful story and it illustrates what my heart was trying to know beautifully. Maybe I’m hiding behind talk of saints, hedging my speech. Like Fr. Stephen said, goodness springs as a gift of God from ordinary people.

  175. AR,
    Indeed –as you put it – “faith moderates the necessity as the freedom grows”…!
    The more we trust in God’s providence against all adversity (faith), the more we breathe the air of freedom (in the midst of what the world would term tribulation, necessity or suffering).
    But the original question you posed “Do you believe Christ encountered necessity or did he always act in freedom?” creates a false dichotomy. Christ (and His Saints to the degree of their union with God), as all-loving, all-knowing, and omnipotent, acts in complete freedom as well as [paradoxically] complete respect of others’ freedom – even those who do not wish to be saved. [You see now why I said this subject can stretch out to the unknowable topic of ‘who is ultimately saved…?’] Man’s freedom is the Crucificial risk that God has given Himself (like the prodigal’s respectful Father) -He is slain from the foundation of time- however, we cannot say that the suffering that comes from that is not utterly accepted and free – He is Love.

  176. AtP, I am sure you did your best. I was blessed with a firstborn who was very articulate from almost infancy, who expressed to me the existential crisis that even a young child can experience around issues of shame.

    Dino, that seems like a good place to leave it.

  177. “Michael, as Fr. Stephen pointed out, all coercion IS violence behind a mask….And yes, I keep my babies out of the street (and once I was willing to send my husband to war) but I carefully observe the damage done to when I have to exercise that necessity. It’s never good. It’s never the stuff of goodness….I think AR is on the right trajectory in her comments, viz. coercion. If coercion worked, God would use it…”

    There seems to be some absolutes, some idealism creeping in here that does not seem real to me, perhaps because of the following assumption:

    “…I believe that a saint in the flesh would never encounter necessity, even if his kids were beating one another up or his girlfriend were being raped….Maybe he would be so brimming with love that at a single touch the beaten would forget his woes and the beater his anger.”

    I think it is safe to say that one could take any saint (say a current Elder/Saint or one of recent memory, like Saint Porphyrios) and put him in the squad car of his local policemen, and show him “necessity”. Indeed, one would quickly be able to prove to him the value of “coericion” – that is the real good that comes from it (sometimes) and the “lessor of two evils” that it can be an important part of. I would say that good even comes from “violence” – even if it has a tragic character and is part of a tragic world/reality. I wonder if we should not send some hard men to do violence on ISIS and send a good portion of them to Allah – good, real good, would come from it (even if it is not the ultimate solution, unintended consequences would ensue, etc. etc. etc.).

    I have nothing in principle against spanking, though I have a six year old daughter who has never been spanked. She is sensitive, and all I have to do is raise my voice to get her attention and correct her. My 7 month old, well, from what I can tell now it would not at all surprise me that she might be spanked one day. AR mentioned a “theology” around spanking, pain, and child rearing. I have heard of this but this extremism does not mean that all spanking, coercion, and “violent” in a negative way.

    I have a relative who has a little boy (age 5) who has a “hitting problem” – at school, at church, with other children, even with his parents. This child has never been spanked – instead a very intellectualized and “rational” program of discipline is being used. It is a complete failure. This child needs a spanking, and a sensible view of childhood and life that comes with it.

    I train police officers in Jui-Jitsu, which is to say I train them in the art of physical coercion and violence. It is a good thing, because it allows them to make arrests sometimes where they would otherwise have to use deadly force (i.e. their gun). Our government trains the army in deadly violence. It is a good thing because it keeps other violent peoples from doing violence on our people. Our government has even used physical and mental torture, and like it or not some good has come from it – it has “worked” in the past and it will “work” in the future (much to the lament of the political left). This is not to say that it is not been abused, is dark dark dark, and is not damaging on all those involved – it is not “salvific” but perhaps someone who is not senselessly killed in a terrorist attack was later found in Church working out his salvation…

    “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” George Orwell

    I say all this so as to not forget the place, the “necessity” of these rough men, the good that they do, and how they are as much a part of reality and God’s providence as the Saints who sleep safe in their cells and monasteries because of them…

  178. I knew a kid once who had “a hitting problem.” He had been born with a mental disconnect between his mind and pain. He didn’t even cry when he was born, he didn’t cry when he was pricked in his heel or left alone in his bed. Then he began hurting people experimentally before he was a year old and it quickly grew into a habit. The mom’s and dad’s families badgered them endlessly to “solve” the problem by spanking. They tried it once, and the little child became suicidal. He brought his mother a kitchen knife and begged his mother to kill him, because he couldn’t control himself and he felt that he was a mistake of nature and didn’t deserve to live.

    The mom told me later that when the child reached 7 years of age, he made a leap in maturity. Suddenly he became aware of himself as a real person, distinct from his parents, with responsibility. After that he was quickly able to stop hitting.

    However, the relationships with those family members that had been unable to love and accept the child unless he met their standards of behavior – were ended. The mother could not trust those family members anymore because they had caused such emotional damage with their judgment, and because they had wished so hard to see her child hurt, in retaliation and contempt for his problem. They did not see him as being like themselves or one of themselves. He was a problem to them, and embarrassed the family.

    People who don’t know the real story of a child’s experience do more damage than good, Christopher, by promoting violence against him. I hope you never say something like this to the 5-year-old child’s family, because you will cause a wound you can never imagine, among a group of people who are already confused and hurting.

    I’ve heard other stories like this, as well.

    Among women who were spanked there is talk on the internet, in certain cozy forums, of the sexual dysfunction that has often resulted from that experience. Sensitive girls experienced it as a form of sexual molestation. Some become lesbians, some lose their libido, some get addicted to s and m, some become nymphos, some are unable to trust, and the list goes on. And sensitive boys, too, have the same experience. In the book, “God’s Funeral,” there is a whole section on how widespread societal male homosexuality arose in Victorian times, largely as a result of boys at boarding school watching one another be spanked. You can write this level of spanking off as extreme, but I am telling you that it’s like a drug. No one starts off extreme – they start off concerned and sincere. But it takes more and more to get the same effect.

    I have tried to retreat from a position which is absolute or idealistic – in fact those are favorite words of mine so it seems as if you might have read my blog! I know there is such a thing as necessity – I have said so over and over. What I am trying to say is that even when necessity compels us to do something bad in order that good may come, that doesn’t make the bad thing good. It just makes it necessary. And I defy necessity for my children, even if I cannot do so anywhere else in life.

    I respect what you do with the police, and I respect what the police do. I don’t imagine that God will judge them, or you, for doing it. I also know that police, being fallible, too easily cross the line that must be held between them and the violent people they stand guard against. I know that police deal with higher rates of depression than others, that their marriages are more likely to fail, and that they often become such angry and traumatized people that their lives fall apart. My best friend’s life was ruined after she married a policeman who was injured in the line of duty. This is the price of what we need them to do for us. This is the price of our society’s problems, and of offloading them.

    I take issue with the idea that a five-year-old who hasn’t matured enough to stop hitting people is the same, in principle, as a grown-up who has matured into a rabid dog and who leaves the police no choice but to take him down.

    But most of all, I take issue with the idea that the religion of Jesus Christ can do nothing for even the most innocent among us, without the help of humiliation, pain, and terror. Because that is what spanking is, no matter how “lovingly” you do it. And if you are the one to inflict it, it will damage your spirit, no matter how “necessary” it was.

  179. Here’s another little example, and I don’t mean it to represent an absolute, just a possibility. My son started teaching himself to read when he was 2, but because of some sensory processing issues, he was unable to hear the difference between vowel sounds, so he became frustrated, stopped that process short, and resisted books and reading after that. When he was 5 and other kids his age were going to school, I panicked and became afraid he would never learn to read. I sat him down and forced him to learn the difference in the vowel sounds. I also did some less coercive things that helped. Soon he caught up and was reading well beyond grade level. The only problem was, he was a reluctant reader. His hatred of books grew and grew, to the point that this Christmas, when I gave him a very easy book on how to make comics, which is a current enthusiasm of his, he politely declined the book!

    This was just a few weeks ago, to emphasize the point.

    I decided to go with my gut and against my panic, and I made a deal with him. I told him that I would not require him to read a single word for the rest of the semester, as long as he would allow me to read to him. He agreed. I began reading The Wind in the Willows to him. I would read only a few pages at a time, and soon he was begging me to read more and I was regretfully refusing.

    Tonight as I write this, he is waiting for me in his room, reading Orson Scott Card’s “How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” under the covers with a flashlight.

    Ha! Take that, necessity! 😉

  180. “People who don’t know the real story of a child’s experience do more damage than good, Christopher, by promoting violence against him. I hope you never say something like this to the 5-year-old child’s family, because you will cause a wound you can never imagine, among a group of people who are already confused and hurting.”

    I have not said anything, but not for reasons you would have me I think. The level of trust with this boys parents is just not there, so such a topic is beyond a place where words would have any good effect. Your idealism is revealed when you say such over the top things as “by promoting violence against him”. What this boy is missing is certain basic boundaries and a recognition of the child that he is. The boys parents have tried to rationalize, literally “reason” with him about his problem since he was three (no that is not a typo – three)! They are confused and hurting all right, but it is because of their own idealism and philosophy that refuses to acknowledge basic truths about humanity and children (clue as to why: they are both university professors). The boy is a sweet kid, and quite “normal” emotionally, psychologically, etc. The problem does not lie in any extreme sensitivity or faculty in him (well, I suppose there could be something there but like the doctor says the first prescription is an aspirin and some rest – we will do the MRI later if the problem persists).

    The rest of what you say sounds fantastical. I am old enough to have been raised in a time where the majority of my peers were “whipped” or spanked. Yes for some children and parents it was “violent” – but for most it was controlled and was corrective (more or less – too often less for the reasons Fr. says above). The idea of it leading to the sexual perversion you speak of?? Well, that is just fantastical. Perhaps you deal with a certain subset of abuse and the associated trauma. Fine, but it does no good to project that on the rest of us. My father and mother, for all their faults, were not abusive and did not employ any correction that led to sexual perversion – and neither did most mothers and fathers of that generation. For every extreme and unique example (like the boy you describe above) I can cite 100’s, 1000’s of counter examples.

    I stand uncorrected: that boy needs a few good spankings (i.e. gentle, timed with offense so that it is a teachable moment, etc. etc.) and a parenting philosophy more aligned with this universe than some imaginary one…

  181. Also, you say much about police that is both true and some that is not. I am the first to criticize the way their training has become “militarized” due to the so called drug war, and especially since 9/11. The “us vs them” tactics – taken from the military – is what has lead to the gunning down of children with BB guns, etc. Much of what you lament about their personal failings is more due to the nature of the personality types that tend to choose that line of work IMO, though you are correct in that at least part of it is from the content of their work. “Society” is not “off loading it’s problems” I don’t think – because behind that idea lies the idea that “society” can “solve” humanities problems (i.e. it’s fallenness) , and we are back into the idea of “progress”, etc…

  182. Christopher, I do know somebody who strongly believes “spanking = violence” (with no room for any nuance there) and so from their earliest years also only reasoned with her children to attempt to shape their behavior/attitudes, etc.. I got the distinct impression on more than one occasion that the oldest child especially would have much rather had a simple cease and desist order, along with a quick spanking for non-compliance (or even a hot poker in her eye!), and gotten it over with a few of those times rather than had to face one of Mommy’s long talks again! 🙂

    On the other hand, I have also walked out of a “Christian” homeschool convention workshop in my home state on “biblical discipline” of children feeling physically ill because what was being taught was the very literalist interpretation of the OT injunction to not “spare the rod”–that “very highly developed theology of discipline” that AR describes in her initial post on this subject. I agree with AR completely that, that particular (highly rationalistic and calculated) theology and practice is dark, dark, dark and demonic. It is also, sadly, not as uncommon (at least within this particular “Fundamentalist” subculture) as you might like to suppose.

    I had profound misgivings from the get-go when the workshop presenter began the section on corporeal punishment (thank God, I was biblically educated enough not to buy his hermeneutic), but became physically ill when the question was asked “how much is too much?” about the “beating with the rod”, and the presenter answered in a completely cold and casual tone that if you strike the face that is too much and if you actually injure the child (i.e., his body) that is too much, but if you don’t actually leave a weal, you’re not doing the job right. . . . I wish I didn’t have to report that this nightmare of a teaching was under the auspices of a “Christian” homeschool convention and in the name of fidelity to the God of the Bible. It still makes me sick to think about it, and I know it is still going on. I have read enough to know there is an entire subculture within the American Fundamentalist subculture (could even touch the entire subculture to varying degrees) where the very thing that AR describes (including the connection to sexual abuse and profound sexual dysfunction in some cases) is not so very rare as you might think, and may even be endemic. For examples, you could just look up the (very current) scandals surrounding Bill Gothard’s organization, Vision Forum, and (most recently) Bob Jones University’s handling of complaints of sexual abuse, for starters. I personally know folks spiritually damaged by Gothard’s teaching–its extreme authoritarian approach did also make them easy prey for sexual predators in positions of authority over them. All of these teachers and institutions have had or still enjoy varying degrees of approval and legitimacy in the conservative Evangelical institutions and subculture I came out of.

  183. Karen, given that what you describe is still widely taught within the Southern Baptist Convention, I don’t even know that it can be called a subculture other than in the broadest sense. The SBC is, last time I checked, still the largest Protestant denomination. I remember years ago I thumbed through an earlier edition of James Dobson’s “The Strong-Willed Child” from the church library and being horrified. (I also heard one of the stories in it used in a sermon which left me rigid in anger.) I’ve heard he may have learned to make some of his language more palatable for a larger audience, but the underlying message is still the same.

    Christopher, it’s unclear to me, as a matter of simple definition, why there’s any debate over whether or not spanking is a form of violence. That act inherently involves the application of physical force striking a child with the hand or other instrument with the intent to cause pain in order to control behavior. It might, in certain cases, be a mild form of violence. One can argue, I suppose, that it’s a beneficial form of violence. But it’s not clear to me how it can be argued that ‘spanking’ is something other than what it is.

    It’s also something that has been studied repeatedly over the years, both in terms of utility and in negative effects and consequences on the child, and the results really aren’t ambiguous. Of course, children are resilient, often more so than adults, so in many cases they are able to metaphorically shake it off if it’s not chronic or overly severe. But “it probably won’t damage my child permanently or too badly” was never a standard with which I was comfortable when my children were younger.

  184. AR, thank you for sharing your parenting wisdom. It is quite beautiful and caring and hopeful. I believe it is also Christ-like, the Shepherd searching for the lost sheep….I am a parent who deeply wishes I had not been influenced by ‘Christian’ understandings of discipline that ARE inherently violent and completely inattentive to the uniqueness of each child and their nature as image bearers of Christ. Years ago, I even influenced others to view things the same way, to my deep shame. I wish I could take back every moment of that influence, every harsh word and every spanking thought to be delivered for their own ‘good’. The thought of them fills me with pain and nausea. I have seen how this kind of discipline has negatively impacted my own children, their relationship with us, with God, with others…. My own experiences growing up also significantly impacted my relationship with God and others. What you are saying is absolutely not fantastical. Thinking a five year old or a seven month old baby needs a spanking is fantastical and absolutely heartbreaking.

  185. We all face violence every day. Relatively mild forms most of the time, but the manipulation and fear that our culture is made of is a constant and it is rooted in violence against the created order and in rebellion against God.

    Being raised in a home where there was a constant threat of violence has had a lasting impact on me. I was rarely spanked nor was I often the target of the violence, but my father was an aggressive man who wanted his own way in most things. So despite his many wonderful acts and his fundamentally caring nature, violence always loomed.

    My parenting, the marriage to my late wife, my interrelationships with others and especially with God, suffers as a result.

    Until these discussions, I have never seriously considered the other options to aggressive behavior. I’ve never seen anything else modeled or even talked about except in the modern ‘pacifism’ which, to me, is just another form of anger and aggression in many.

    So violence has a deep root in me. It is like an addiction and/or a disease in many ways. I have begun to see that violence is the opposite of giving Glory to God and indeed the opposite of that we are called to as human beings. Seeing it and acting on it are still far apart however.

    Yet, like the poor, it will always be with us (wars and rumors of wars) until the Kingdom is made manifest. First in our hearts I think.

    May the Lord forgive me.

  186. Barbara, my own Mom is in Heaven. When she died we had been gradually working toward a better mutual understanding of what went on when I was little, me always trying to balance the wonderful things with the hard things, trying to understand how they could both come from the same person, and her always trying to hold on to the hope that she had been a good Mom even if some things didn’t work the way they were supposedly going to.

    But we never got to finally set the whole thing to rest. She was taken suddenly. I wish I could look her in the face now and tell her, I’m getting better, it’s OK, I forgive you, I know you were deceived by others and by your own maternal concern for me. I wish I could list all the wonderful things she gave me – her love for nature and animals, her ability to laugh at herself, her dramatic streak that made everything more interesting, her writing abilities, homeschooling me when school was hurting more than helping, giving me lots of siblings even though her health wasn’t good, making Christmas special every year, and so much more.

    My words are for those whose mistakes are still before them – not to cause guilt and shame in those whose mistakes are in the past. I’ve fallen into the same traps I preach against, finding patterns of behavior I thought I’d rejected burned deep into my psyche. We are all one, we all share everything at the deepest level, no one is in hell or in heaven alone.

    God grant you peace.

  187. Michael, your words resonate with me. I sometimes talk as if I’m only reacting to things that have happened to me but as I told Barbara, this is the outgrowth of struggling against things I find in my own soul. I’m glad we are in this together. Thank you for your forgiving spirit in the face of my sometimes impatience and harshness.

  188. Christopher. All those kids of your generation who took no harm, supposedly, from an occasional “gentle” spanking? Those kids grew up and parented my generation.

    Get the picture?

    Now I am not saying that EVERY spanking results in sexual dysfunction. I AM asking you to back up and look at the forest instead of the trees. That’s not idealism. That is simply a capacity for handling ideas.

    A culture in which moral boundaries are taught through violence is a culture which has incorporated violence into its morality.

    And a child who does the right thing through fear of pain may go on doing the right thing, but he is not doing it BECAUSE it is the right thing. Someone sticks a gun to his head and tells him do something wrong, guess which way he’s going?


    Atheists also find faith, God, and the existence of the human spirit to be “fantastical” and “imaginary.” I always tell such people, “Well, either I’m seeing things or you’re blind. Those are the only two options, really.”

    I’m saying the same thing to you.

  189. Well interesting – I have to admit I am surprised at the strong reaction around this subject. I have to admit at being a bit perplexed at some recent court cases that deemed ALL spanking to be “violent” but I see here this philosophy up close. I have noticed that not all courts and the larger society agrees with what I still believe to be a rather extreme and idealistic view. However, as our society lurches towards this utopia or that extremism, who knows?

    I was aware of the “spare the rod” theology (if you can call it a “theology”) but was not aware of how widespread it was. I would not have thought the Southern Baptists to be a major proponent. I know quite a few Southern Baptists quite well (some in my extended family) and this philosophy has taken hold of them – some of the have spanked their children and some not, though I am confident they have not done so in a “violent” way. In any case I will have to consider that this philosophy is more wide spread than I realized.

    As far as a definition of violence and its relationship to “spanking”, I don’t consider “spanking” to be an act of violence (though I recognize some people who abuse their children do attempt to label such abuse “spanking”). Indeed, I think I would have a narrower definition of “violence” than what many of the posters here want to hold. Indeed, by some of the above definitions even this discussion is “violent” (or any exhortation) , and I think that pushes the definition into meaninglessness. I would restrict the definition to something that can be defined as criminal in intent. Though as this discussion has revealed many of you want to criminalize “spanking”.

    I see some of you suffered unnecessarily in childhood – and while I can recognize that I do not believe that it necessarily leads to what I am calling an “idealistic” view of spanking. I also was spanked, and I do recall even being in “pain” (but I have to admit as an adult is was quite minor) and in “fear” (though I have to admit as an adult it was usually a good reaction because the consequences of not obeying my parents would have been worse), but looking back I can say that it was either a positive correction or neutral/problematic – I did not suffer “trauma”, either physical or emotional (unless I have managed to bury it unconsciously – don’t think so). Perhaps this is a result of having essentially loving (if flawed) parents. I did not then and do not today doubt their love and care for me. This is a real blessing that others do not and did not have I realize. Also, someone upstream seems to think I was advocating the spanking of infants/toddlers – I assure you I was not

    Perhaps also because of my personality and life experience I do not overly “fear” violence or rank it too high. Indeed, I practice it, train others in it, and am quite skilled in it (not to boast – this is simply the fact). I recall Fr. Alexander Atty of blessed memory often saying “we all suffer and die”. Anyone who has had a loved one die of a disease such as cancer understands the “violence” of disease and death – it is something that we ultimately all face one way or another and I would encourage anyone and everyone to Christianity start thinking about it, praying for courage and acceptance in the face of it (you will not escape it), etc. As the Saints witness this inevitable bodily destruction, pain, and death is nothing compared to our judgement, etc.

    Also, I believe many people suffer from unnecessarily from fear of bodily assault, lack of confidence, often resulting from childhood bullying they suffered (at the hands of parents or peers), past sexual assault, etc. I would encourage you to consider a local self defense class or karate/boxing/judo/jui-jitsu dojo (after speaking to your priest and/or counselor). It has been my experience that a little skill and fitness goes some distance to helping people find a certain “balance” with such trauma and the hard reality of living in a “violent” world. Such training is also good for children who fall on the “introverted” side of the spectrum, are unusually sensitive, etc. (like my daughter). Properly supervised, it can boast their confidence – though beware of the teachers/schools who seem to have taken the Cobra Kai dojo from the Karate Kid as their inspiration. There is a dark side to this, as there is to all youth sports in our culture. I also personally know women (and men) who have been helped by properly training with firearms and earning their concealed carry license – at least that is an option for those of you who don’t live in states that have de facto repealed the second amendment.

    Funny true story: I was late for school for the umpteenth time my senior year in high school. Mr. Ming, the diminutive assistant vice principle gave me the option of either so many days in detention (which meant getting to school a full hour earlier) or “swats” (i.e. corporeal punishment). I choose the latter – better to get it over with in a few seconds right? He gave me a sentence of five swats, got out the board, and told me to bend over the desk. One through four was nothing, and I was congratulating myself on my clever choice. Then five came, and “wham” – he put something behind that one and it really really, I mean really stung. I sprung out of my position and faced him, probably in a fighting stance and with a certain intent on my face. His eyes widen and he took a few steps back rather quickly, no doubt in fear as to what was going to happen next. A tense couple of seconds later I relaxed and said “that last one hurt” and he quickly escorted me out of his office…I still think it was a better choice than detention…;)

  190. There is an unspoken element in our conversation: male-female differences.

    The masculine challenge to each other and between fathers and sons is often physical in nature and it can get out of hand. It has a real purpose and function however for building character, resilance and chivalry.

    I’ve never met a woman who understands it. Many I have known are threatened by it even in a proper form.

    But that is likely as it should be…praise God.

  191. Well, hmm. Yes, spanking can be sexually conditioning. Denying that, to me, just seems prudish or naive, and not in a good way!

    I mean really, you are bent over a bed while an aggressive, emotionally charged “dominant” looms over you from behind and rhythmically strikes you on the backside until he gets his satisfaction. The likelihood of this becoming at least a mildly sexually charged experience for one or both parties seems high.

    I realize that spanking rituals vary, but frankly this is a common one, and for me a good reason of disapproving of the practice altogether.

    That said, I’m not idealistic about 100% gentle parenting methods, either, based on my own attempts to parent that way and observations of my peers! I believe those methods work and can be done well, but what can be harder to realize until you try is that they require a *lot* of self awareness, self mastery, empathy, intuition, patience, and attunement on the part of the parent, and most people just aren’t quite there, and trying to force oneself to parent at a level one simply lacks the emotional capacity for can cause a lot of frustration and back fire. My thought is that a swat on the lower leg or hand might be a realistic “second best” resort that is less problematic?

  192. Jane, spanking would only be “second best” in my mind if it accomplished anything other than short-term behavior modification and was not always accompanied by a raft of potential negative effects.

    But neither of those are, in fact, true. I’ve been wrapping up my bachelor’s (one I started in 1986) as I approach my 50th birthday and I’ve taken advantage of my access to peer-reviewed research online through my university’s library to see if anything has changed in recent years. And it hasn’t. Other than very short-term behavior modification, at which spanking is reasonably effective, it’s generally not effective achieving the parenting goals most parents at least say they want to achieve and it comes with a huge raft of increased risk factors, even after controlling for more severe forms of abuse.

    It’s both an ineffective form of parenting and highly risky. Those are as close to established facts as we can get studying human behavior and psychology. If chronic rather than occasional, spanking even alters the brain (neuroscience) of the child.

    The practice has nothing to support it. No justification. Nothing supported by the evidence. It’s a bad practice.

    Is it possible to avoid spanking and still be a poor parent? Sure. But if one is that bad at parenting, spanking a child isn’t going to make things better.


  193. Hey y’all, remember the story of St. Silouan’s father?

    An illiterate peasant, who often made mistakes with the Lord’s Prayer:

    Semyon’s was a large family: father, mother, five sons-brothers and two daughters. They lived together and were content. The older brothers worked with their father. Once, during the harvest, Semyon prepared dinner in the field. It was Friday, but Semyon had forgotten, and so he prepared pork, and everyone ate it. Half a year passed from that day, and one winter holiday, Semyon’s father turned to him with a kind smile: “Son, remember when you fed me with pork in the field? It was a Friday, and you know, I ate it then as if it were carrion.”

    — “Why didn’t you tell me then?”

    — “I didn’t want to embarrass you.”

    In telling about these events from his life in his father’s house, the Elder would add, “This is the type of Elder one should be: he never became angry, always had an even and meek disposition. Think about it: he waited a half-year for a good moment to tell me without shaming me.”

    And later:

    Young, handsome, strong, and by that time wealthy, Semyon enjoyed life. The villagers liked him for his happy and peaceful character, and the girls looked at him as a good marriage possibility. He also fell in love with one of them, and before the question of marriage was resolved, one late night, “something happened.”

    Strangely, the next morning, while working with his father, the latter asked Semyon, “Son, where were you last night, my heart was aching.” These meek words fell deep into Semyon’s soul, and later, remembering his father, he said: “I didn’t follow in his footsteps. He was completely illiterate, he even said ‘Our Father’ with mistakes, having learned it by ear in church. But he was a humble and wise man.”

    And the man succeeded in raising a saint.

  194. Well gee whiz Jane, when you put it like THAT, I confess I have been naive. Really, my wife and I have never thought of it like that…(that you are aware of)…

    I am not surprised though. I recall being shocked (well, mildly taken aback really) a couple of years ago when one of the other instructors showed me certain homosexualist web sites that make generous use of photographs of men practicing jui-jitsu. We are after all rolling around on the floor half naked…some of us are even good looking! 😉

    I should have seen that coming as quite a few years before that I was in a “team building excersice” at work. We were asked to come up and draw our favorite hobby on the white board. Well, the only thing I could think of was jui-jitsu, so naturally I drew myself and another person grappling. Everyone else thought we were doing something quite different…let’s just say the team thought of me different from that point forward.

    Scott, as far as research into spanking by those in the academy, I admit I am ‘a priori’ dubious if I may torture some language there. Given the bias in the academy (as evidenced by it’s current very political posturing on homosexualism for example) I wonder if it might not be safer to assume that the opposite of what they say is in fact the truth of the matter. My very last job in the academy I worked with a researcher who was trying to put together good data to show that infant boys are in fact traumatized by a circumcision, whether they are given a local or not. By the time I left, I was certain that the data was going to show this to be a fact whether the data showed it or not. Someone had to put an end to this Jewish conspiracy, and by gosh, she was going to be a part of it.

    Now if you’ll will excuse me I have to go find my wife and discuss this important new spanking idea……. :0

  195. Good points, Tess.

    Thanks, everyone. I have expended as much emotional energy as I can in this conversation and it is time for me to bow out. God bless each and every one of us.

  196. — Indeed, I think I would have a narrower definition of “violence” than what many of the posters here want to hold.

    — But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

  197. Whoa, Christopher, just did a double take on your sarcastic comment to my dear friend Jane, there. Being the sweet innocent flower that I am, I didn’t take your meaning at first. I guess we know now why you defend spanking so vigorously. What did you have, girls or boys?

    Yeah, now I am doubly glad I am walking away from this conversation. It is polluted.


    Michael, without dipping back into THAT well, I wanted to say that I found your comment very interesting. It is indeed like watching someone talk in a foreign language when I watch how respect seems to be the currency in the masculine world. It can be endearing or it can be frightening for a woman to watch. For some men, giving is more blessed than receiving, and for some, their need for respect is like a black hole. I think that love has a similar place in the feminine world.

    It’s funny but I’ve often thought that hierarchy would never, ever have been invented by women. We just wouldn’t have thought of it. Which is curious because lots of men over the years have seen themselves as being higher in a hierarchy than the women they loved, and I just wonder if for those women, that hierarchy just didn’t exist because the men loved them. How else could they have borne it? So it’s odd, right? But getting somehow close to the mystery.

  198. AR,

    I did not mean sarcasm with my response – indeed I was in agreement. I had not really given enough credit to the hyper sexualized response some might have, but we live in a hyper sexualized culture where semi-pornography is the norm in advertising and elsewhere and real pornography is just a click away, so it is a real danger. I don’t fear it for myself or for the many others who have a healthy view of spanking and it’s place in discipline, but I see the point. Now, what my wife and I do is between us and you will have to fish elsewhere… 😉

  199. Christopher, I am glad to learn I misread your jocularity for sarcasm.

    I wasn’t fishing; I don’t care. I thought you were saying, ‘of course spanking is sexual’ – so I didn’t see how you could go on promoting it for innocent children given that understanding.

    I’ll simply add that for many who experienced spanking as sexual, they were growing up in extremely sheltered homes where there was no access even to anatomy books, much less porn or worldly contemporaries, and where no one ever wore anything remotely revealing and one only had friends at church, where everyone was the same as your family, and they were all homeschooled or went to the church school.

    Now it may be that there’s a perfect balance of “in the world but not of it” where spanking does the least possible harm. And I don’t want to paint someone who smacks a diapered toddler with the same brush as a Gothardite – something a friend pointed out to me in private. And I’d like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

    My original point was more subtle – if the same goal can be reached through goodness or through harshness, isn’t the gentle path preferable to a Christian? There’s so much possible territory between trying to reason with a three year old and striking a three year old. Besides, reviewing your posts, I see that you do have young children, but you haven’t had to spank them yet. The first time you do strike one of your children, the look of betrayal in their eyes will be a cross-roads for you. Just a word of experience.

  200. AR,

    I have to admit that I often draw attention from those who come from (and concerns seem largely informed by) those with a *strict*, *extremely sheltered* or *fundamentalist* backgrounds. This is true on many subjects and has occurred for years. Does not seem to happen when I discuss these things in person, even with those from these same backgrounds. I even have friends (and have since I was a teenager due to the place where I grew up) who were true, honest to goodness “fundamentalists” (and not just mere Southern Baptists or “evangelicals” or such) Perhaps it’s my writing style? I will have to think on it. I do admit I am often not very sympathetic with what they seemed concerned with. Recently, on another blog, a women with such a background was very concerned about an allegedly real and growing threat of *fundamentalism* in SCOBA (I know, the term is now out of date but seems more widely known) Orthodoxy. Hogwash, it’s the opposite (a secularized, modernist, “liberal” mindset) that is the real present threat. No doubt someday *fundamentalism* will get it’s time in the sun in Orthodoxy in America – but clearly that day is not today.

    Coming back to my extended family and the boy I described – once, while he and his family were leaving our home after one the usual weekend visits, the boy was upset (he did not want to leave). His mother picked him up, and he struck her a few times, and finished it off with an eye gouging. She was literally crying – both from the physical pain of the eye gouging but also from her despair at the situation, the utter failure of her discipline, perhaps Fr. Stephen would say there is no small amount of shame involved in this situation, etc. Is there something in between? Seems like a hypothetical, one that seems like such a luxury in the immediate problem of the formation of the character of this child.

    If and when one of my children eye gouges me (or what ever the situation is that calls for a spanking) that ‘look of betrayal’ you describe, however heart felt in the moment on her part, will not signify something more important than the real threat to her physical, mental, or moral character that is the reason behind my considered decision to use a spanking. In other words, I as the parent am in the position to know what is and what is not a real betrayal to her true well being and if I am a loving parent then that will be apparent to her as she matures despite my (and her) flaws, failures, and sins.

    It does take maturity and no small amount of Grace in these decisions. Between “stimulous” or “data” and “reaction” one has to have “time” and habit of self control to have the correct decision. This is another (very Christian) lesson that has been reinforced for me through the martial arts. In a fight/self defense/high pressure situation, you will never control your opponent and/or the situation unless you have a certain amount of mastery over yourself. A large part of martial arts training is the cultivation of that inner calm, self control in the face of immense physical and mental pressure, all to the purpose of carving out that little bit of reaction time to decide “do I do A, B, or nothing at all right now?”. This allows you to put off to one side panic, anger, etc. (panicked and angry men/women never win fights). This self control is small at first, but grows with training and experience. However, the military has a saying: “self control is a limited resource”. In other words, we all have limits (some higher than others) and all will be defeated in the end. Thus, the need for Grace…

  201. AR, your point that every child internalizes and understands the experience differently is correct. From my experience, I can say that the few times I was spanked as a child were good for me–because I was given clear boundaries with consequences, and also because my mom would hug me and talk to me after the spanking, and wouldn’t let me go until we were reconciled, no matter how long it took.

    My memories of shame are different. The times when my mother took out her frustration by yelling or slapping me. The time when I was going out the door to right a wrong I had done to someone, and she treated me to an hour-long lecture. I’m glad I didn’t remember that experience when preparing for my first confession…

    I’ve disciplined a three-year-old who persisted in trying to swim to the deep end of the pool, against her parents’ orders, by simply scooping her up and shouting “Hey!” to scare her. Then I asked, “Are you going to stay where your parents told you?” She nodded, I took her there, and we played together.

    I guess what I want to say is that (controlled) violence may be necessary, but if the violent act is the end of the story, that’s when you’ve lost.

  202. I think the upshot is to work out our salvation with fear and trembling on the spanking issue, just like everything else. There are horror stories on both sides of the fence. I have noticed in myself that when there is the anger of wounded ego in me, I don’t do it right. My response must be doing whatever it is with love in my heart for the child in question.

    Called violence or not, it does seem to be required in some situations, but again without ego on the parents’ part. This can be extremely difficult – actually no matter what the discipline method is.

    Here in this broken world we still use carrots and sticks. I believe both will go away in the next life, but here they seem to be necessary evils. If that’s so then part of our job is to practice evil as little as possible, the best method of course being an ever-growing relationship with God so that we become like Him – all flame.

  203. Dewster,
    I cannot disagree.

    I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

    Elder Aimilianos who was adamant that one must always choose the meek method, when presented with the situation, rather than the force, through his discernment would breake his own rule.
    But there was never any ego, just love. If one can have the meekness of Christ, then and only then can they use what might seem like the coercion Christ used at some exceptional times. Once when the, young at the time, to-be-Spiritual-Father of the monastery knocked on his door, to his surprise he heard that the loving Elder was telling another monk off intensely (this monk was a particularly insensitive character)… He was even more surprised to hear the Elder welcome him in with the most sweet and meek greeting voice. He had to ask afterwards ‘how can you switch like that?!’ The Elder’s answer was that there was no anger, just discerning ministry involved. Greatest watchfullnes is involved in order to maintain such a dangerous thing.

  204. Dino, well said.

    We would like a formula. We crave a set of rules or a list of what is off limits. For the most part God refuses this request, offering a relationship with Him instead. This state of affairs will never change…..until we give up and give God His way. It is the only way.

  205. AR, thank you for your kind and helpful words. The path you have chosen is definitely not an easy path, the easy path is to get compliance at any cost and believe all is well – which you can get because you are bigger and stronger and control so much of a young child’s life. You may suffer a gouged eye and the blows of children just learning to deal with the hurts and frustrations of life. However the easy path leads to much more than a gouged eye when your children are older and find out that you really don’t control them in any way. Your heart will be broken in ways you never expect and you will realize that you missed many rich opportunities to share true wisdom with them. And then you will find your way onto the path of meekness because your love will take you there and you realize that there is no other path. And it is never too late.

    I think it was St. Silouan who said you cannot be too gentle or too kind. These words are difficult for anyone in authority to hear. Gentleness and kindness are viewed as passive, as doing nothing, but they are anything but passive. They require the strength of Christ who is meek and lowly and gentle of heart. They are an active path of attentiveness, humility, willingness to suffer with, self-emptying, and then a response that is timely, discerning and contextualized, nuanced for that particular situation and person/persons. This is economia.

    I am a person in authority. I speak from experience as a parent and an educator. I am sometime criticized for my gentle approach but I have seen its truth and the life it brings. I am willing to be criticized.

    I am a usually wary of false dichotomies, but in the matter of violence vs gentleness, I am willing to err on the side of gentleness and kindness and spaciousness because I am much more interested in calling others into being than in imposing my will on them. My will is a nightmare. Archimandrite Vasileios speaks so frequently of how our love for others needs to be spacious in order for their being to emerge. I am inspired by this word and look for more spacious ways of being with others continually.

    So much of the way we use authority is rooted in our views of the child and what we think about our ethical responsibilities towards them as adults. Children need our guidance because they are inexperienced, not because they are naturally evil. The child soldier does not choose this path without influence. There is also something very whole and beautiful about childhood. They can startle us with their moral heights and compassion at a very young age. I have seen tiny toddlers give up a loved toy to someone who they see is hurt. They teach us to love unconditionally, to forgive, play with joy, to be simple. It is not something to be escaped from, it is something for us as adults to honour and learn to enter and re-enter. God reveals himself to children.

  206. Barbara, I am silent before your gift of wisdom and experience. There is prayer on you breath. Thank you so much.

  207. Christopher, I had the same belief when I first became Orthodox – the liberals are the real problem, Orthodoxy should be helping the conservative cause win. If you go back five years you’ll probably find comments from me to that effect on this very blog. I’m sure you’ll think it’s a victory of liberalism that I no longer believe that. I think that liberalism and conservatism are just different stages in the same process of corruption, and depending on which natural virtue they possess, people representing various kinds of goodness stand, whether uneasily or more easily, on either side.

    I could go into the whole story but I don’t think you’ll be impressed. Your righteousness is your armor. Your healthy sexuality, in contrast to the rest of us, is your armor. Your right opinions are your armor. Your contempt of a woman who would rather be wronged by her child than do wrong to her child is your armor.

    Christian virtue – the goodness of Christ – began where Judaic and Pagan virtue left off, and it confused people then and it confuses people now. American virtue is not the worst in the world, and true, righteous people have been striking their children to teach them right and wrong for millennia, and some of those righteous people wrote things in the Old Testament and the practice made its way into the O.T. Law! I will grant you all these things and more.

    But Christian virtue still begins where American conservative virtue leaves off. And it still leaves righteous people confused. I know. I am in some ways the most prudish person I know. All my temptations are religious in nature.

    Still, the beauty of Christ is in no small measure his unmorality. He is the Image of a God Who sends rain on the just and the unjust. He told men that a scrap of legal paper didn’t make abandoning their wives a good thing, even if the Law gave them that right. He said to bless your enemies, still the hardest thing in the Bible. You can’t turn the Sermon on the Mount into a set of rules; they wouldn’t work in the “real world.” You can only inscribe them on your heart through prayer and let them begin to produce un-necessity, the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven which changes our present reality.

    It’s an insight, a vision. It changes the way you look at everything. What can I do? I can’t communicate this to you. I just know anyone would be better for it. Maybe listen to Barbara instead of me. Maybe read Fr. Stephen’s transcendent comments in this very conversation, which no one responded to because that would have simply ended the whole conflict.

    All the best,
    in Christ’s love,

    P.S. That woman you encountered on the other blog is my dear friend. She is not from a fundamentalist background, and after you talked to her, she and I had a conversation defining more clearly what fundamentalism is and is not. We are going to produce an article on that subject eventually. She’s a highly intelligent and spiritual woman who is actively gathering truth and understanding to herself. She’s also in the trenches as a mom of several school-aged children. Really not the kind of person you want to blindly oppose and stand in contempt of.

    However, I understand that conversing on the internet is different than in person, and impressions are more easily wrong, so no hard feelings, all right?

  208. P.P. S Lest we forget, Christ’s only comment on child-rearing are that it is better to drown horrifically than to offend a little one who believes in him. Paul extended this to weaker believers as well.

  209. AR your word contempt to describe Christopher is inappropriate.

    And I think you mistake his comments on the Church as well.

    There is at times a rigidity in some people in the Church that can seem like fundamentalism. But he is correct in his assessment that the far greater danger right now is embracing the worldly ideologies.

    For me that includes ideologies from any place within the political spectrum.

  210. I don’t describe Christopher as contemptuous, Michael, as I don’t know his character, but some attitudes expressed here have been contemptuous.

    As for fundamentalism, I know more about what it is and is not than I do about formal theology. I spent a year at a college that was basically centered around the history of fundamentalism. We had talks where old men came in and told stories about the founders of fundamentalism they knew as children. I am equally sympathetic and unsympathetic to the history and the movement.

    In our article, we plan to distinguish between severity, fundamentalism, and fanaticism – it’s basically an exploration of the differing ways in which religion goes wrong on the strict side of things (as opposed to the dissipating side of things.) I agree that when Orthodoxy goes wrong it usually topples into either severity or progressivism. However at this juncture in Orthodox history there’s a huge influx of fundie and evangelical converts and no doubt we’ve brought our fair share of ideology with us. Our challenge as converts is to let go of the rope, walk away from the tug of war and begin climbing the mountain that towers above the muddy plains of this hopeless conflict.


    I didn’t mean to associate Christopher with fundamentalism, just American conservatism.

  211. AR, et al
    I appreciate the thoughts about American conservatism and Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal. The American world is deeply enmeshed in political passions. They have been internalized so deeply that it is frequently difficult for people to discard them, even when they come to God. It is also easy for Orthodoxy to be seen as a bulwark and important tool in the political salvation of our nation. It is not. It is certainly the place of salvation – but we will not play a great role in the salvation of this land, other than to take up the Cross and allow ourselves to be the 10 by whose prayers and presence God spares Sodom. This is our true role.

    I think about politics. I vote. On January 25, myself and members of my parish will join others and March for Life in the nearby city center. Those things matter to me. But the most important thing I can do is to allow myself to be numbered among the 10. And to do that, I must allow myself to be made righteous and to pray.

    We will not make the world a better place (I have written). But by our prayers, and the prayers of our holy fathers, we can allow the world to exist and become the place of salvation. That is all there is in this life. The place of salvation. With that, we should be at peace.

  212. Just to reinforce what Michael said – I was not referring to the american politic scene at all with the term “liberal”. I should not have used the term, I was referring to “theology” (while that term is better it also is not quite right). Your friend is Tess no? Hi Tess! I was referring to the underlying current of theological, or more precisely anthropological thought that informs the “average” parishioner (especially the young, say those 35 and under), as well as those in leadership – our lay leaders, priests, bishops, and seminary professionals. These influences inform and influence their minds and hearts as to what a human being *is*, and thus they end up sounding allot like the culture and giving similar answers as the culture does to questions such as: What is the role of women in the Church – should they be ordained? What is the role of the Church in shaping our sexual understanding of ourselves, and by extension our sexual behavior? Is same sex attraction nature, nurture, both, and whatever the answer is does the normative moral Tradition of the last 4000 years stand or does it need revision in the face of modern “understanding”? Are our bishops and seminary professionals being influenced by “fundamentalists” when thinking about and answering these questions, or are they being influenced by the prevailing culture (or is it a mix)?

    For myself, the answer the above question is glaringly obvious: There is no “fundamentalist” influence to speak of in SCOBA Orthodoxy (the one or two examples that can be legitimately cited are the exceptions that prove the rule) , while there is a strong influence of the current culture in the minds of almost all the young parishioners, many (half?) of the older parishioners, some of the clergy, a few of the seminary professionals, and an unknown number of the bishops. When I reveal (or when others such as Fr. Lawrence Farley – who writes on these issues and is an OCA priest in Canada) that I have in part a “liberal protestant” background some with *fundamentalist* backgrounds attribute our observations of these facts to an observational bias – that is we are projecting our own background in the cultural wars, the various battles of “liberal” vs. “conservative” theology in the mainlines that we were necessarily a part of, etc. To which I answer (no doubt with not enough Christian patience and charity): Hogwash. If one can not see the culture for what it is and Orthodoxy in America for what it is, well, I am probably not going to convince you. Perhaps men like Fr. Lawrence and Fr. Stephen (or women like Sister Vassa), or a Fr. Robert Arida his own way will.

    As far as politics and the culture wars, while I had more of an interest up till just a few years ago, I find myself more and more in the position Fr. Stephen describes above. I simply don’t have anyone to vote for normally. Does that make me “conservative” according the definition in the current political scene? I don’t think so. For example, I support the continued dictatorship of the Assad family in Syria. I think that makes me a “traitor” to both the right and left in this country…no doubt my IP address has been flagged by the NSA (that unfortunately is not a joke)…

    As to “contempt” for my relative, or more relevant to this conversation to your definition of “violence” and spanking and your decision to abstain from it, if I have any then it is a sin. I don’t agree, obviously – and perhaps you are offended by my description of this philosophy/position as idealistic (and assuming I hold to a contemptuous connotation), and if so I apologize. I do stand by description of this philosophy as idealistic (with a non contemptuous connotation), because I believe it to be accurate, but that is according to my philosophy and we are obviously at an impasse here so we will have to agree to disagree. No hard feelings on my part! I learn from these sometimes “violent” conversations!!

    I look forward to Tess and your’s essay on “fanaticism”, the dangers of walking to the left or right of the Narrow Way, and how the influx of those with “fundamentalist” backgrounds has or might change the landscape of SCOBA Orthodoxy. I hope you plan on making a distinction between SCOBA Orthodoxy and the “Old Calendarists” and such communions because I think that is important when thinking about his subject. Tess appears to believe that this fanaticism is present within SCOBA leadership (at what level I am not clear), and I believe it is a non problem (and indeed a problem because making a non-problem into a problem is itself a problem). Convince me otherwise!

  213. Christopher, et al
    I will stop the discussion here (at least a particular direction). It is a policy of the blog never to criticize a priest or bishop. I often tend to broaden that to include the Church or jurisdiction. The stated teaching of the various Synods in SCOBA are quite clear and in no way deviate from the Tradition. In the current cultural climate, the winds will blow and the tides will shift, and I think they will invariably create a flutter of a flag or a bit of flotsam and jetsam. If there were a great movement embracing the culture’s false views, I would probably have to change the policy of the blog.

    As it stands, however, I would prefer that we refrain from drawing our observations on the topic. It’s simply not my purpose here.

  214. Father, may I just clarify that I have never intended to imply “fanaticism within SCOBA leadership”? I very much respect the policy not to criticize priests, bishops, or jurisdictions, especially on the internet (I have known innocent people deeply hurt by such dialogue).

    Thank you for your hospitality!

    (and hello back, Christopher!)

  215. Yeah, me too, I was more spinning theories on the possible influence of people like myself if we fail to be self-aware. I don’t even remember what SCOBA is.

  216. Fr. Stephen:
    I am impressed by your thoughts on this issue. i am not an Orthodox christian, a pentecostal, but an avid reader of the Fathers and many Orthodox writers. I am blown away by your comments to “Ed”

    “Your last sentence, suggesting I pay attention to my own morality, had a note of anger in it. I’m sorry if that’s true and ask your forgiveness.”

    I think you took the lower place in the argument and I see very little of that, in myself or others, these days, I prefer to win an argument. I think i will dig out my copy of “Brothers..” blow the dust off and try again to read it.
    Thanks for demonstrating true christian character.


  217. Historically the various jihads of Islam to take over Europe and subject her and her people to Islamic rule have only been stopped by overwhelming military force. Without that all of what we know of as western history would have changed radically and Christendom would have been severely truncated as dominant force.

    I believe the providence of God allowed the armies of the west to turn back the Islamic forces despite the great loss of life and limb on both sides in ways that we consider today excessively brutal.

    Wars and rumors of wars will always be with us and despite the many wars fought in the name of Christ, erroneously or not–Christianity remains the greatest force for what we consider civilization. The Chinese Empire, the Islamic Caliphate and the secularist tyrannies of our own age have either not had the reach or creativity of Christianity or their brutality exceeded our own.

    Christianity is still provoking outrage, resistance and even violent responses as it spreads in the communist version of the Chinese Empire, the Islamic world and in the hearts of those still devoted to the tyranny of secularism.

    Killing and maiming and torturing exact a high price on the body and soul of the survivors as well as on those subject to those things.

    Many of our brothers and sisters in Syria are daily faced with the question: kill or be killed; confess Christ openly and die an unknown martyrs death or see your children slain before your eyes (unknown to this world only).

    These questions and the events that give them rise are deeply troubling to many. The fear is often palpable. There are many in my home parish who have family in Syria and certainly ancestral roots that still run deep.

    Even in the lands that seem to hate us, Christ is calling many to Himself with and without direct human aid. The current President of Egypt addressed a large congregation of Coptic worshippers on the eve of Christmas with His Holiness, the Coptic Pope present calling for tolerance and reconciliation. It is not unknown for Egyptian Muslim men to stand unarmed guard in front of Coptic Churches during this season to help prevent their radical brothers from attempting to massacre the Coptic faithful as the leave Christmas Liturgy.

    Existentially it is not an easy question to even contemplate, let alone answer.

    May our Lord guide us and protect us and save us all.

  218. Evening John;
    it’s odd I am reading this exactly one year from the date you posted it. You likely wont find the reply- or perhaps Fr Stephen replied to you elsewhere.
    In short: Orthodox understand the only image we have of God is Jesus Christ and his love made manifest in dying for the life of the whole world even while we were his enemies.
    This is the only way we read the Old Testament then– through the lens of Christ and his passion. So any image of God that does not line up with the perfect revelation of Christ’s love is a distortion. The distortion may be in myself (usually is) or may be in a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the biblical text.
    Any reading of God in the old testament that is not reflective of perfect mercy and love in Jesus Christ, is a wrong reading.
    For example when I read of violence against “my enemies” in the psalms, as an Orthodox I can only pray this profitably by understanding that my true enemy is the sinful passions in myself and the demonic forces that act on my brokenness. This is the real meaning of these texts even though it is likely not the meaning the psalmist had in mind.
    This is one example how we Orthodox read the Old Testament through the light of Christ.

    -Mark Basil

  219. Mark Basil,
    Your observations are right on target here. Sadly, John to whom you address this comment passed away suddenly only several weeks ago as another reader of the blog and friend of John’s reported. Thank you for your post, though. It is s reminder to me to pray for him and his family. He left behind a beloved wife and children.

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