Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scandals in the Family Tree: Homily for the Sunday Before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; St. Matthew 1:1-25
              During the season of Christmas, many of us will see family members whom we may not visit often.  I hope that most of us truly enjoy our family celebrations, but unfortunately they can be difficult for many people because of strained relationships, old resentments, and the fact that no one is perfect, including those to whom we are related by birth or marriage. In the world as we know it, family can be a struggle.   
            Our gospel reading today does not shy away from such difficulties, even in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, Who had the right heritage to be the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled for the entire world.  What family would not be strained by remembrance of scandalous stories involving figures such as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, Gentile women who were disreputable in one way or another, precisely the sort of women Jewish men were told time and again not to bring into the family.  For example, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and bore twins by her father-in-law.  Rahab actually was a prostitute.  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.   Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman.  The Old Testament is full of warnings to Jewish men against marrying Gentile women like Ruth.  Just think for a moment how amazing it is that St. Matthew began his gospel by reminding us of these embarrassing stories. Their presence in the genealogy is a sign that God worked through generations of families not unlike our own to bring salvation to the world.  They are a reminder that His blessings are not only for the proper and upstanding with perfect reputations, but for everyone with faith in the Lord, no matter their memorable failings or roles in embarrassing situations that we would rather forget.  Through this shockingly honest family tree, St. Matthew prepares us for the unique Messiah we encounter in Jesus Christ Who came to save sinners, to heal the sick, to exalt the humble, and make those who are dead last in the eyes of the world the very first in the Kingdom of God. 
            This family tree does not stop with unlikely characters from the Old Testament, for it culminates in the shocking and unconventional event of the Most Holy Theotokos’s conception of Christ.  That is the kind of news that would shake up any family even today.  When we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity for the salvation of the world, the story becomes even more shocking.  For we like to think that God’s ways are like our ways, that He favors those who are living the dream, who appear healthy, wealthy, and wise by our culture’s standards.  But when we do so, we simply make God in our own image and ultimately let ourselves off the hook as though holiness were not really for us because our lives are not perfect in every way. We forget, however, that many of the Saints we know best were once outrageous sinners, and that even those who were not faced difficult struggles that were embarrassing, unconventional, or inconvenient. Just think of the suspicions people had about the Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed.   
Though not many people noticed it at the time, God’s promises in the Old Testament extended to all who believed, including Gentiles and sinners. Think for a moment of all the sufferings and struggles of the righteous people of the Hebrews. As our epistle reading states, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  As astounding as it sounds, the promises to them awaited their fulfillment until the coming of Christ in Whom we may all become part of this family tree.  
For Jews and Gentiles, for the upright and the scandalous alike, He is the vine and we are the branches.  True, we are all unworthy and unlikely members of such a family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and have served Him since, we are also sinners whose lives in many ways fall short and wide of the mark. Perhaps that is why the Son of God chose a human heritage full of imperfect people who often stumbled themselves;  perhaps that is why He was born in circumstances that at least outwardly commanded the respect of no one.
Yes, the good news that we will celebrate at Christmas is that there is hope for us all in Him.  And if we want to have hope in Christ for ourselves, then we must also not give up hope for other people.  Whether family members, friends, coworkers, or whoever, our Savior calls everyone to become part of the current generation of this blessed family tree.  Perhaps there are those we think are just too broken, who have made such messes of their lives that they appear as better candidates for condemnation than for salvation.  When we start thinking that way about particular people, we should immediately turn our thoughts to the humble repentance of the Jesus Prayer, for not one of us deserves a place in the Kingdom on the basis of our accomplishments.  The Lord’s human ancestors include notorious sinners; tax-collectors and prostitutes were among His first followers; St. Peter denied Him three times; and St. Paul had been a persecutor of Christians.  If His healing mercy extended even to them and if we want that same grace for ourselves, we simply cannot write anyone off as a hopeless case.  Much less are we ever justified in speaking or acting in self-righteous, judgmental ways toward anyone.  
Of course, there are broken and severely strained relationships that we do not have the power to heal.  But to the extent that it depends on us, we are to be at peace with everyone.  That may mean keeping our mouths shut when we would like to remind someone of their failings or otherwise to criticize them or to slander them behind their back.  It may mean small gestures to let others know that, despite a painful history, we do not judge or abandon them.  It may mean simply praying in silence for God’s mercy on those who have lost their way and for strength to treat others as we would like to be treated.  We must show others the same mercy that we have received as undeserving members of His most blessed family. Above all, we must remember that God knows people’s hearts—including our own—in ways that we do not.  Christ was born to save sinners, not to condemn them.        

So as we conclude our preparation for Christmas, let us fast not only from rich food and drink, but also from words, thoughts, and deeds that would discourage anyone from finding their place in the ongoing story of Christ’s salvation.  Let us ask for forgiveness of those whom we have offended and otherwise take the steps that we can to bring health to strained relationships.  Let us refuse to see other people with eyes blinded by our own passions or the conventional standards of our society.  Who knows whether God will make great saints out of some whose lives are scandalous?  It should not surprise us if He does, of course, for Christ’s family tree included many such people.  His birth continues to be good news for them, for you and me, and for all who so desperately need the healing and transformation that the Savior was born to bring.      

Friday, December 19, 2014

Rod Dreher on Torture

‘Such Language Is Not Helpful’

 by Rod Dreher
America is a nation that is willing to torture people, and that has tortured them. So says the Senate Intelligence Committee report released today. This is the part ofThe New York Times’s account of the report that sticks in my mind:
Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in C.I.A. custody.
The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.
The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.
During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.
“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic),” wrote Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.
“Such language is not helpful.”
Such language is not helpful. Well, no, I suppose it isn’t, if you want to hide the evil you do from overseers, and from yourself. Think of it! The torture was so horrible that even the torturers wept — but their masters at Langley ordered them to carry on.
Rahim was usually shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts, the report said. His diet was almost entirely limited to water and liquid Ensure meals.
Other detainees were subjected to “rough takedowns” where they were dragged naked down long corridors while being slapped and punched by CIA officers.
At one detention site known as Cobalt, detainees were held naked in tubs as interrogators poured cold water on them, according to the report.
“Others were hosed down repeatedly while they were shackled naked, in the standing sleep-deprivation position,” the report said.
Majid Khan, who the CIA thought had knowledge of a plan to attack gas stations, was one of at least five detainees subjected to rectal feeding. He was fed a pureed mix of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins.
He tried to chew into his arm at the elbow, attempted to cut his wrist on two occasions and tried to cut a vein in his foot, according to the report.
A team from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons inspected one of the secret detention facilities, saying they had “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived,” according to a December 2002 e-mail in the report’s summary that redacted the identity of the sender and receiver. “There is nothing like this in theFederal Bureau of Prisons.”
The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations, although they had no experience as interrogators nor specialized knowledge of al-Qaeda. The CIA paid their company $81 million between 2006 and 2009, and has paid out more than $1 million under a 2007 multiyear indemnification agreement protecting the company and its employees from legal liability.
You will recall that the CIA tried to infiltrate Senate computers to find out what Intelligence Committee investigators knew about them. That is, the spy agency attempted to undermine the legitimate activity of the people’s representatives.
According to a separate Bloomberg report, the White House decided not to tell Secretary of State Colin Powell about the torture out of fear that he would “blow his stack.” And the CIA lied to the Congress, to the White House, to everybody:
According to the report, the CIA provided “extensive amounts of inaccurate and incomplete information” about its operations and their effectiveness during several briefings and statements to Congress, the public and in response to questions from the White House.
The report also revealed that President George W. Bush was briefed by “no CIA officer, up to and including CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss … before April 2006,” two and a half years after Powell and Rumsfeld.
So why didn’t Powell and Rumsfeld tell the president? To preserve plausible deniability? I find it impossible to believe that Bush did not authorize, even if implicitly, their silence.
USA Today quotes directly from the report. It reads like a horror film. Excerpts:
“According to CIA records, Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi was subjected to nudity, dietary manipulation, insult slaps, abdominal slaps … stress positions and water dousing with 44 degree Fahrenheit water for 18 minutes. He was shackled in the standing position for 54 hours as part of sleep deprivation and experienced swelling in his lower legs requiring blood thinner and spiral ace bandages. He was moved to a sitting position, and his sleep deprivation was extended to 78 hours. After the swelling subsided, he was provided with more blood thinner and was returned to the standing position.
“The sleep deprivation was extended to 102 hours. After four hours of sleep, Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi was subjected to an additional 52 hours of sleep deprivation, after which CIA headquarters informed interrogators that eight hours was the minimum rest period between sleep deprivation sessions exceeding 48 hours.”
The Republicans are fighting back against the release of the torture report, calling it a partisan attack on the Bush Administration. The Weekly Standard links to the long statement of a former CIA interrogator writing under the pseudonym “Jason Beale,” who tears into the Senate report, and says the Democratic leadership was well aware of what the CIA was doing, and didn’t disapprove until aspects of it became public.
Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.
So, the language in the report that tells the truth about what our spies actually did to people is what aids the enemy, not the actual deeds themselves. Got it.
Releasing this report serves the interests of the United States because it shows our government’s capacity for committing barbaric evil, and for lying to cover it up, and for rationalizing it — a rationalization that continues today, as we see from most of the GOP and conservative response.
This is a matter of deep conscience. What kind of country are we? Is this what America is? Is this what we defend? The worst kind of barbarism? In particular I want to say to my fellow Christian conservatives: think hard about this report, and the idolatrous attitude that so many of us have toward America. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first. When our country has done evil, we must not hesitate to condemn it, and work to reform it. What we must not do is fall victim to an instrumentalist mentality that calls evil acts good because they achieved, or are believed to have achieved, desired results.
I would also point out to liberal and Democratic readers that President Obama, despite his statement today praising the report, hid 9,400 documents from Senate investigators. That man’s hands are not clean either.
This is my first reaction to the news. I may amend my views after reading more in the days to come. I am grateful to the Senate Democrats for this investigation and report. If it had been up to the Republicans, everything would have been thrown down the memory hole, and they would have called themselves patriots for having done so. As Marco Rubio and others are doing today.
I want to associate myself with Nick Gillespie’s remarks at the Reason blog, especially these:
Whether the report sparks violence in the Middle East and beyond—I’m betting that our actual foreign policy over even just the past few years is the likelier culprit—it is a terrible but necessary examination of what the United States has allowed to happen under the name of making the world safe from terrorism.
Most accounts have the Senate Republicans dissenting from the report’s conclusions. By all means, bring on the debate over what actually was going on in an agency that has never been particularly respectful of either the Constitution or respect for any limitations placed upon it. We may well learn things that shed new light on some of the report’s darkest passages.
But until that happens, it seems as if the Senate report is one more reason to deeply, deeply question the government when it tells you that it is being straight even with itself and asks that your surrender any aspect of your freedom or skepticism in the name of safety.
I want to add one more thing. My dear friend Frederica Mathewes-Green was the spiritual daughter of the late Father Gheorghe Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest who was gruesomely tortured in Pitesti, the most notorious of the communist prisons, for his faith. In this recollection of him after his death a few years back,Frederica writes about what Fr. Gheorghe said about torture. Excerpt:
 There was yet one more stage of “brainwashing,” the worst of all. The mentally and physically broken prisoner would ultimately be forced to torture someone else. This was what completed the destruction of their personalities. Fr George said, “Under terror and torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” Fr. George says he tried to throw himself off a three-storey staircase, and was saved only when another prisoner grabbed him and pulled him back.
The Romanian poet Razvan Codrescu wrote,
“All the life of this man after the tragic Pitesti episode was one of confession and sacrifice. In his soul and in his flesh he measured the distance between hell and heaven. Perhaps no survivors of Pitesti achieved a moral victory as brilliant and as enduring as his. Because the case of Gheorghe Calciu exists, it can be said that the Pitesti experiment was a failure.”
I think of the Americans who tortured those prisoners. I don’t know who is in greater danger of Hell: those who committed the evil deeds that landed them in the lap of the American torturers, or the American torturers. And you know, people, we are citizens of a democracy, and therefore all complicit in this.{6735C534-C731-4DEB-B76A-4801F7263D10}&mid=a9e0814f7406487b5a274103e4f40b90-9db438350989a3db12ccf107f3de5a76cf2e026c&lang=en&ds=oo011&pr=sa&d=2012-07-09%2009:22:08&v=

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Orthodoxy in South Africa before and after Apartheid

17 December 2014
Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, the first democratically-elected President of South Africa, has been a beloved figure for decades, and his death drew an outpouring of grief all over the world. But few of us know much about the South Africa that he helped to radically change. Wanting to learn more about life in South Africa–and especially about missions and Orthodox Christianity- before and after the fall of apartheid, I have asked Father Deacon Stephen Hayes to answer some questions.
Deacon Stephen Hayes
Fr Dn Stephen serves two congregations in Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. As an Anglican in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, he worked as a missiologist training self-supporting priests and deacons, as well as developing theological education by extension. As a result of his missionary efforts across racial lines under South Africa’s apartheid government, Fr Dn Stephen was deported, listed as Enemy of the State #1658, and banned from 1972 – 1976.
While converting to Orthodox Christianity in the mid 1980s, Fr Dn Stephen and his family participated in founding the Society of St Nicholas of Japan with the aim of promoting the Orthodox Christian faith among people of all ethnic groups. Fr Dn Stephen remains active in missionary work, participates in a number of internet discussions on Orthodoxy and missiology, and continues to supervise post-graduate students in missiology at the University of South Africa. His blog Khanya has articles on Orthodox missiology, the history of St Nicholas parish, and other topics.
More extensive biographies can be found here and here.
Father Deacon, what was apartheid? How did life function under it?
I think the best way I can answer that is to refer to a series of posts I wrote on my blog, to answer that question, and similar ones. The series is called “Tales from Dystopia”, and you can see it here.
In what ways is your day-to-day life different today than it was before 1989?
In some ways very little. We live in the same house, we travel around in much the same way. But there is a better feeling about it. There is no longer the feeling that someone is watching over your shoulder to see who you meet, who you talk to, listening to your phone calls, opening your letters (especially ones to foreign addresses).
As a song we used to sing put it, in the old days:
When I’m walking down the street
I must be careful not to greet
people of a different pigmentation
lest the government suspect
or the Special Branch detect
a dark affiliation
to a communist organisation.
Is there any link to be made between President Mandela himself and Orthodox Christianity?
Not much. He was a Methodist, but he welcomed Orthodox bishops (and the Pope) when they visited him.
Is there any link to be made between the anti-apartheid movement and Orthodox Christianity?
Again not much, except that in Orthodox Christianity phyletism (racism) has been declared a heresy. Most Orthodox Christians here have been immigrants, and therefore not much concerned about local politics outside their ethnic communities.
To you, personally, is there a link?
Very much so, but that was because, even before I became Orthodox, I saw that the apartheid ideology was directly opposed to many fundamental truths of the Christian faith. As a Protestant might express it, it was salvation by race, not salvation by grace.
From an Orthodox point of view, any ideology that says that belonging to a group of people who have the same skin colour as you is more important than belonging to a group of people who were baptised into Christ with you is, ipso facto, heretical.
Should I be calling this the anti-apartheid movement, or would use use a different term?
It was usually called the anti-apartheid movement in other countries. But inasmuch as apartheid was the policy of one political party, most other political parties and groups were against it to a greater or lesser degree.
My generation–North Americans who came of age in the 1990s–know of Nelson Mandela only as a symbol of kindness, graciousness, and reconciliation. I myself think of him in the same category as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. We hardly see him as a person, but mostly as a picture. We also have very little sense of what the anti-apartheid movement (and post-apartheid life in South Africa) looked like beyond the person of Mandela himself. What can you tell us to give us a better picture of Mandela himself as a human rather than a symbol, and what can you tell us to give us a broader picture of South Africa beyond the person of Nelson Mandela?
As our bishop said when he urged every parish in the diocese to hold a requiem for him last Sunday, he stood for justice, peace and freedom.
For me, it is above all freedom. But unlike Gandhi, or even Martin Luther King, he was a disciplined member of a political movement that he regarded as bigger than he was. There are good points and bad points about that. Since the ANC came to power, the movement has been infiltrated by people who have been seeking to use it for personal advantage. I think it happens in America too, and I think you have a word for it — “pork barrel politics.” There has been a lot more of that since he retired, and I think it has been growing.
Will you say more about how you see Mandela standing for freedom above all?
I’ll quote again from one of my blog posts:
My main memory of that period was that the ANC, in particular, seemed to be taking one of their own slogans seriously — that “the people shall govern”. A lot of energy and effort was put into soliciting public opinion and ideas on all kinds of things, from the content of the constitution to the promotion of education, art and culture. Conferences were held, submissions sought, and many of these things were subsequently incorporated into the constitution.
There was a feeling of “inclusiveness” in the best sense. If there were to be leaders, the leaders must be sensitive to the needs of the people, and must listen to the people. There was a Zulu proverb, that a chief is a chief because of the people. So there was a ferment of ideas, and a feeling that anything was possible.
This inclusiveness of was not the ideological western kind, but part of the African idea of ‘ubuntu’.
But Nelson Mandela, in particular, had a vision of a free and democratic South Africa, and part of that vision was that people should be free to say what they thought freedom should be like.
As late as the 1980s, many people in the United States viewed the anti-apartheid movement in general- and Mandela in particular- as either terrorist or Communist or both. The ANC wasn’t officially removed from the United States’ terrorism watch list until very recently. Given the European (and Ethiopian) context which associates Communism with violent anti-religious persecution, targeted particularly on terrorizing Orthodox Christians, what do these ideas have to do with the reality of the anti-apartheid movement and with Nelson Mandela himself?
For people in South Africa, the apartheid regime tried to scare us by saying that anyone who opposed them was “communist”, but in fact there was little to fear from a communist takeover, because we already had the most fearsome features of communist regimes — secret police, detention without trial, an authoritarian state system, persecution of Christians (except for the government-approved varieties, which enjoyed special privileges).
The ANC was (and still is) allied to the Communist Party, but since they came to power, we have had a democratic constitution that guarantees freedom of religion, and that part of the constitution was drawn up by a communist lawyer (Albie Sachs, you can Google him) who invited the widest participation of religious groups in drawing it up. You see, in South Africa, most persecution of Christians came from the ANTI-communists.
Would you give one or two brief examples of persecution of Christians under apartheid?
You can find a couple in my “Tales from Dystopia” and also here and here.
When reading South African history, we sometimes hear of people having been ‘banned.’ What does it mean to be banned? Were you ever banned? How does it affect a person’s life?
I’ve got a web page on that, which should tell you most of what you want to know, and also one of the “Tales from Dystopia” series. I was banned from 1972-1976.
Does South African history have something to tell us about love for enemies?
Yes, quite a lot. Actually, your president Barack Obama summed it up when he spoke at Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday — “He freed the prisoner and the jailer.”
Our struggle, as St Paul says, is not against blood and flesh. The people who advocated and enforced apartheid were not uniquely evil — they were slaves of an evil system, and needed to be free.
I was once catechising a girl who had been brought up as an atheist, and she said she had difficulty with the idea of giving thanks to God for everything. “How can you give thanks for Mr Vorster?” she asked. I said, “You can thank God for giving you Mr Vorster to love.”
And I immediately thought, who said that? Did I say that? Where did that come from? And then I realised that it must have come from the Holy Spirit. It certainly wasn’t something I was thinking of.
A common theme among North American Christians is that Christians–and especially the Church as a body–should be apolitical. In the United States, the notion of ‘separation of Church and State’ is sometimes taken as an Eleventh Commandment. Does organized political involvement by the Church or by Christians–especially perceived leftist political action such as liberation movements–contradict Christian belief? What about armed struggle? Do politics, by their nature, pollute Christianity?
Since our primary loyalty must be to Christ and his kingdom, that must come first. So yes, there is a sense in which the Church as a whole needs to be apolitical, in the sense of not endorsing any particular party, policy or movement. I think Christians can join parties and work for political goals, but never uncritically, never in the sense of “my party right or wrong”. Yet many Orthodox Christians, and even Church leaders, have worked for political liberation movements — Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus, for example, and
some of his associates were called “terrorists” by the British. Another, in a different time and place, was St Sergius of Radonezh.
I’m inclined to be pacifist, and am not too keen on “armed struggle”, but I recognise that not everyone shares that point of view. Americans have the example of George Washington, who was leader of an armed struggle, and so was probably just as much a terrorist as Nelson Mandela. But if a Christian’s conscience allows him to take part in an armed struggle he should always remember that military power is the power that is most susceptible of all to abuse, and be alert to the danger of its abuse, whether by himself or others.
When I hear about South African politics and South African church life, I frequently hear the term ‘ubuntu’. What is ‘ubuntu’?
‘Ubuntu’ is a Zulu word that means “humanity”, the quality of being human, and humane, and seeing other people as people and not as things or objects to manipulate.
One of the most noteworthy examples for me was an Anglican priest named Hamilton Mbatha. He was on the board of a church hospital, and one day there was a block in one of the sewers of the hospital. They dug up the drains, and found the blockage was caused by a human fetus, dead of course. It was probably one of the nurses, trying to get rid of an illegitimate child. But the thing that shocked him most of all was when they burned the fetus in the hospital incinerator, along with all the medical waste — old bandages, swabs
etc. And Hamilton said, “You don’t just throw a person away.” That’s ‘ubuntu’.
Whether it’s an unborn baby, or a youthful drug addict, or a middle-aged AIDS victim, or an old person with Alzheimers, a prostitute, a banker or a terrorist — you don’t just throw a person away. Jesus didn’t. And that’s ‘ubuntu’.
People like to talk a lot about ‘ubuntu’, but there’s not much of it around these days.
I have some experience of ‘ubuntu’ decision-making in the Tanzanian context, although that particular terminology isn’t used. It strikes me as being similar to the Orthodox Christian concept of ‘conciliarity.’ Is there a similarity?
It’s more the compassion that the Fathers keep urging us to show, to love and go on loving.
But yes, conciliarity is part of it. Majority rule is better than minority rule, but consensus beats both, and that springs from ubuntu, the desire to not shut anyone out.
What do you think North American Orthodox Christians can learn from South African Orthodox Christianity? From South African Christianity? From South African history and culture?
Perhaps a slightly different approach to the relations between religion and secular society? But I’m not sure, I haven’t had enough experience of American culture to know. And in South Africa, Orthodox culture hasn’t really got deep enough roots, so in a sense it is too early to say.
How old is Orthodox Christianity in South Africa? Is it rooted in immigrant history, in indigenous movements like those in East Africa, or both?
Orthodox Christians from other places, mostly Greece, Cyprus and Lebanon, began coming towards the end of the 19th century. The first bishop was appointed in 1924.
There were some discussions between the leader of the African Orthodox Church, Daniel William Alexander, and the local bishop of Johannesburg, but, unlike in East Africa, not much came of them at the time.
You are a non-immigrant (indigenous?) Orthodox Christian South African and member of the clergy, and I understand that you have relationships with a handful of primarily non-immigrant congregations. Did the growth of Orthodoxy among non-immigrant South Africans begin before or after the end of apartheid? Has the end of apartheid affected the way Orthodoxy has developed?
It began shortly before the end of apartheid, manly because some of us knew about the African Orthodox Church and tried to make contact with them, though they had then split into several factions. We formed a mission society (the Society of St Nicholas of Japan) and made contact and then worked directly with the patriarch because the local bishop was not much interested.
During the time of apartheid, all Orthodox clergy came from overseas, and were only given visas if they (and the bishop) signed an undertaking that they would confine their ministry to their own ethnic community. That was in accordance with the basic principle of apartheid with its notion of “own affairs”.
That was one reason why we founded the Society of St Nicholas of Japan. It was founded by South Africans, so the government couldn’t deport us (as it could with most of the priests), and if they asked the bishop about us, he could disown us, and say we weren’t under him.
North American Orthodox Christians are accustomed to overlapping jurisdictions, where a single city might have Orthodox congregations under five or six different bishops, all answering to their own synods or patriarchs overseas. In South Africa, I understand that all Orthodox Christians are under the same bishop, who is a member of the Holy Synod of Alexandria. Does this mean that congregations are generally of mixed ethnicity, or is there de facto ethnic segregation from church to church?
There are various ethnic parishes, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian, but all fall under one bishop.
Many of the ethnic parishes concentrate on one ethic community, using the language of that community, but, depending mostly on how mission-minded the parish priest is, some have outreach into local communities as well.
Some of the parishes are “community” churches, run by an ethnic committee, which employs the priest, and those are less interested in what happens outside, and tend not to like it when the priest engages in what they regard as extra-curricular activities. Others, like the Serbian parish, are church-controlled, not community controlled (there was a bit of a fight over that), and it is the priest who encourages the laity to take part in mission, rather than the laity discouraging the priest. The church-controlled parishes are generally more open and mission-minded than the community parishes.
And then there are mission congregations, established with local people and using local languages. Most of them were started after 1997.
All images belong to Fr. Stephen Hayes, via

Join us in prayer for these parishioners of the Orthodox Church in Pakistan

O God and Lord of the Powers, and Maker of all creation, Who, because of Thy clemency and incomparable mercy, didst send Thine Only-Begotten Son and our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind, and with His venerable Cross didst tear asunder the record of our sins, and thereby didst conquer the rulers and powers of darkness; receive from us sinful people, O merciful Master, these prayers of gratitude and supplication, and deliver us from every destructive and gloomy transgression, and from all visible and invisible enemies who seek to injure us.
Nail down our flesh with fear of Thee, and let not our hearts be inclined to words or thoughts of evil, but pierce our souls with Thy love, that ever contemplating Thee, being enlightened by Thee, and discerning Thee, the unapproachable and everlasting Light, we may unceasingly render confession and gratitude to Thee: The eternal Father, with Thine Only-Begotten Son, and with Thine All-Holy, Gracious, and Life-Giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Please remember:
Aster Anjum
Esther Samuel

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thousands of Roman Catholics Continue to Join Syriac Orthodox Church in Guatemala


Mor Titus  &  Mor Yacoub Edward
Mor Titus & Mor Yacoub Edward
Ann Marai Husser (OCP Delegate of North & South America)
OCP News Service – 27/10/14
More photos here:
Visit the Guatemalan Archdiocese website here:
Also visit the Mayan Eastern Orthodox Church here: 
Guatemala City: Large numbers of Roman Catholics are joining the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and All East in the country. It is estimated that, during the past few years, nearly two million Roman Catholics have left their church to be part of the ancient Orthodox Church of Antioch. The faithful are organized into the Patriarchal Vicariate of Guatemala. Archbishop Mor Yacoub Edward is the primate, who was ordained by the late lamented Patrairch Ignatius Zakka-I Iwas, on 6th March 2013 at the Monastery of St. Jacob Baradeus in Atshaneh – Bikfaya, Beirut, Lebanon.
Archbishop Mor Titus Yeldho – Primate of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of USA paid a visit to the Guatemala on 23rd October 2014 where he was given a warm welcome. Mor Titus met with Mor Yacoub Edward and visited several congregations.
Apart from Syriac Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches also have large number of converts from Roman Catholicism. Orthodox is experiencing exceptional growth in most of the traditional Roman Catholic hubs in several Latin American Countries.
OCP News Service

The Un-Moral Christian by Fr. Stephen Freeman
00-vladimir-yeshtokin-a-joyful-place-07-12-12In recent articles I have challenged the place of contemporary morality in the Christian life. Some have had difficulty with this, wondering how we should then think about the commandments that are directed towards our behavior. Others have suggested that my challenge is merely semantic. There are certainly semantic distinctions being made here – but the reason for them is important and goes beyond mere words. But if it is not proper to think of ourselves as “moral” beings, how should we think? How do we confess our sins if morality is not the issue?
Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct – it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions – but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.
But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart – that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being “from God.” The “unmoral” life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.
This “unmoral” life is not necessarily exception for its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a “Christian gentleman” meant nothing more than a “gentleman.” This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?
If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?
It is about being a god.
This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.
But is our primary confession simply that we fail at being gods? As difficult as it may be to understand, this confession is closer to the point than repeatedly admitting that we’re only marginally good at being moral. One of the failures of morality is that it seems so tantalizingly possible. And so we distract ourselves as we wrestle with our morals, condemning ourselves for what we somehow imagine that we can and should do.
But think carefully about the commandments of Christ: “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Morality withers in the face of such a statement. Christ’s teaching destroys our moral pretensions. He doesn’t say, “Tithe!” (Priests and preachers say “tithe”). Christ says, “Give it all away.” He doesn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He says, “Love your enemy.” Such statements should properly send us into an existential crisis.
The disciples recognized this. “Who then can be saved?” They wondered.
Christ responded, “With men it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”
The modern fascination with morality is a theological travesty for Christians. It is the reduction of the Kingdom of God to the Democracy of the Mediocre: “I give thanks to God, for I’m doing better and making progress!”
But the Kingdom of God is found in what we cannot do. Morality is not a treasure buried in a field – that treasure is nothing less than the Divine Life of God.
So how do we live the Divine Life of God?
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)
This is the life in which we moment by moment offer ourselves up to God. We voluntarily empty ourselves before Him and yield ourselves to what He can do in us.
…to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…be glory. (Eph 3:20-21)
The root of this life is our communion with God. And the rupture of this communion is the true nature of sin.
…for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)
And this is the proper character of our life. We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breathe Christ. We do all things in Him and through Him. Learning this manner of life is the task of our faith. It is the path of the saints and the teaching of the Fathers.
We could describe our lives in a “moral” manner, but this would not touch upon our communion with Christ. Our “moral” efforts, when done apart from Christ, do not have the character of salvation about them. Christ does not die in order for us to act in a certain manner. He died in order to enter into our death that through our dying we might enter into His life.
In confession, it is our communion that should most concern us. We do many things that are contrary to Christ’s commandments, and they are worth mentioning. But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most. Morality is little more than our feeble attempt at self-sufficiency.
Apart from Me, you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)
Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God. It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try. Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention. This emptiness and futility of lives is often experienced with shame and embarrassment. We feel that we should somehow be able to do better. But Christ intends to bring us to this recognition of our futility. It is why our salvation begins at the point of death (the ultimate futility). Since everyone can die, everyone is capable of salvation. But it is death that we most fear.
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)
Our fear of death is a place of bondage because our new life can only begin there.
 Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luk 17:33)
The point of confession is to lose our life. If moral failure is part of that – well and good. But moral success can be just as problematic. Witness the Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph: “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart … what more should I do?” The elder stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”
Indeed. Why not?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It is Time to Get Ready for Christmas: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers in the Orthodox Church

             Today is the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, when we commemorate all those in the Old Testament who foretold or prefigured the coming of Christ, from our first father Adam to the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.  We remember today that the Incarnation of our Lord did not simply occur one day out of the blue, but was the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring humanity into His divine life, which took many generations to fulfill.  No one was forced, of course, to prepare for our Lord’s coming.  Today we honor those who responded in freedom to God’s calling, who accepted His invitation to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  And in this season of the Nativity Fast, we want to be like them.  For we all face powerful temptations to pay more attention to worldly cares than to welcoming Christ into our lives.  
            Today’s gospel text reminds us of what is at stake.  When a great man invited people to a great feast, they all had better things to do.  They turned down the invitation because they had land to inspect, oxen to test, or family responsibilities.  In other words, they did not want to attend and made excuses out of their everyday obligations. So their places at the banquet were taken by the most unlikely of party guests:  the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame.  Strangers from the highways and hedges came to the celebration, but none of those who were originally invited tasted of the supper.
            The Lord often used the image of a great feast for the Kingdom of God.  This parable reminds us that many of the religious leaders of Jesus Christ’s own people refused to accept Him as the Messiah, while many disreputable people—such as tax collectors and others of low standing, including even Gentiles—did accept Him.   But we would miss the meaning of this passage if we think that it refers simply to what happened long ago to other people.  Just as they were, we too have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, to the life of the Kingdom of God.  Unlike the people of the Old Testament, we have more than the Law and the Prophets to foreshadow the coming of Christ.  We have Him, living in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit; nourishing our souls with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; we are members of His Body, the Church; He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride.  He has brought us into the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  We could not ask for more.  
            But unfortunately, we often act just like those who refused to attend the great banquet in today’s gospel lesson because we use our daily habits and concerns as excuses not to accept the great blessing and glory to which our Lord invites us.  We do so because we make false gods out of just about all the blessings God has given us.  Instead, of seeing that our work, family, health, friendships, and even our recreation and pastimes have their proper place only when we offer them to the Lord, we so often choose them instead of God.
            So we worry instead of pray; we would rather obsess about our problems and indulge our desires than serve our neighbors, forgive those who have offended us, and find healing for the damage that we have done to our own souls. Instead of making our life a Eucharist and offering of every bit of who we are to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment, we try to live on our own terms.  And when we do, we turn away from the greatest blessing of all, from participation in the eternal life of our Lord and His Kingdom.  And consequently we shut ourselves out of the great banquet and turn away from the unspeakable glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.   
            St. Paul reminded the Colossians to put their sins to death, for they are all forms of the idolatry that have brought corruption and misery into our lives. Everything from anger and slander to sexual immorality and covetousness are symptoms of the “old nature” that Christ came to heal for all humanity.  Yes, we really are all invited and enabled to turn away from those corruptions and to have our lives put in order by the Second Adam.  
            The problem, of course, is that we are good at excusing ourselves from accepting the invitation.   We tend to prefer the corruption and decay, the way of the first Adam, the old man, over that of the Second Adam, the new and true man, Jesus Christ. The problem is not with the good things of life that draw our attention, it is with us.  We make false gods of our families and friends, our possessions, our daily responsibilities, and just about everything else in life.  Pride, anger, lust, greed, and other passions tempt us mightily to believe that satisfying our desires is more important than loving and serving God and neighbor.  We do not even have to appear overly sinful in order for this to happen, as it is easy simply to define ourselves by what we like to do each day, the problems that we face, and what we think is necessary for a good life.  If we are not careful, these ways of thinking will become temptations that lead us to become like the people in the gospel lesson who really believed that they had better things to do than to share in the great joy of the Lord’s banquet.
            Christmas, of course, is a banquet, a great feast.  It is a celebration of our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God Who became a human being in order to unite our fallen, corrupt humanity with divinity, to bring us from mortality to immortality.  No matter how seriously we have taken the Nativity Fast so far, we all have a choice whether we will use the next ten days to prepare to enter more fully into the blessed truth and reality of this feast.  And it is clear what we need to do:  to confess our sins and repent, as we do in the Sacrament of Confession that we should all take during Advent; to be generous to the needy with our resources and attention; to fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances; to open our hearts, souls, and minds to God deliberately and regularly in prayer; and to be mindful, keeping a watch over our words, thoughts, and deeds.
            As those who practice them know, these spiritual disciplines will not make us saints overnight and none of us does them perfectly.  Fortunately, that is not really the point.  Instead, these disciplines are our way of accepting the invitation of the Lord to the banquet of His Kingdom, of putting Him first before the routines and worries of life.  They are how we fight our passions, resist our temptations, and do what we can to prepare to receive Him at Christmas.  They are what Advent is all about.
            Christmas will be here soon.  Regardless of whether your tree and lights are up or how much shopping you have left to do, the most important part of the preparation is spiritual.  Will we be ready to welcome Christ into our lives at His birth?  Will we be ready to accept the invitation to the feast?  I certainly hope so. For we stand at the end of a very long line that goes back to Adam, the first-created; that extends through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David, Bathsheeba; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; that includes Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos. 

            The good news of Christmas is that in Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of all God’s promises are extended to people like us, who are poor, blind, and lame with sin, who suffer from the pain, weakness, and corruption of life in the world as we know it, and who certainly are not yet perfect.  The good news is that, in the Babe of Bethlehem, even unlikely people like you and me are invited to take our place with the Holy Forefathers and Foremothers of Christ in the heavenly banquet and to shine with the light of heaven, with the Divine Glory.                Now is the time to stop making excuses and get ready for His coming, to get our lives in order for the feast, and to prepare to receive Him with the fear of God and faith and love.