Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Vice of Anger, the Virtue of Discernment, and the Imperative to Stand for Truth and Aid Those in Danger

Over the last week or so I have been listening through a special podcast by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg on Ancient Faith Radio, and in the second Q&A session, Fr Irenei responds to some excellent questions concerning anger, and whether and how we should intervene if we see that someone is being wronged. The issue of righteous anger is discussed, as well as Gospel accounts of how Christ challenged wrong teachings and practices, and how he intervened on behalf of those in danger (e.g. the woman caught in the act of adultery, who was in danger of being stoned).

Such a discussion is profoundly relevant and helpful when it comes to the issue of Islam, and the Christian response to it. I can speak from my own experience in writing my book, Facing Islam, as to how I struggled with anger and outrage during my initial research into the religion of Muhammad. I was outraged by fourteen centuries of Muslim atrocities against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims. I was outraged at the thought of an estimated 270 million killed in the name of Islam, over 60 million of them Christians. I was infuriated that people could so deaden their conscience as to adopt the ravings and 'revelations' of a depraved desert warlord, and submit themselves to a false god of hate, murder, misogyny, pedophilia, perversion and bloodshed.

Over time, and thanks in large measure to conversations on the subject with respected friends and dear priests, I worked through that initial storm of passionate anger, hopefully having reached a place of tentative soberness. Although I would suggest the attainment of soberness in these matters is essential, likewise it might be better seen as a process, a path, which we all struggle along as we become aware of daily outrages and atrocities committed by fundamentalist adherents of Islam. When we read news reports out of Egypt of Coptic girls being kidnapped and sold into slavery by Muslims, or of Muslims burning down churches and threatening or killing Coptic priests and laity to collect the jizya tax, we ought to feel outrage, grief, pathos... If there is no initial reaction in our hearts, are we not defective in some way? Is lack of outrage evidence of a serious disconnect within us? If we give Islam a pass even after learning of the daily atrocities perpetrated in its name all over the world, and especially if we blandly offer sighing platitudes of "Father forgive them..." are we perhaps deadening our hearts so as to avoid the unpleasant truth, that we are at war with the age-old enemy of mankind, who is stirring anew the followers of Muhammad to persecute, torture, marginalize, subdue and kill the followers of Christ. Christ from the Cross offered up the divine prayer for His persecutors, "Father forgive them..." yet He did so not in a state of denial, false apatheia, or delusional pseudo-dispassion. He forgave his tormentors (and us, who nailed Him to the Cross by our sins) precisely at the peak of His suffering, under excruciating pain, experiencing every temptation common to man confronting wrongful persecution and death at the hands of one's enemies.

I am convinced that for a Christian, soberness when grappling with issues regarding one's enemies (and make no mistake, Islam is clearly a powerful enemy of Christians) does not mean in the least acquiescence, passivity or maintaining a false sense of quietude. Nor does soberness mean blinding oneself to reality so as to avoid the contest. Nor does it mean inertia, paralysis. All of these distortions of and substitutes for soberness are merely psychological tricks, clever ways of burying our talent in the ground, perhaps wrapped in a clean, pretty cloth of pseudo-dispassion.  All of these distortions are really forms of apathy (not apatheia), and, as the saying goes, "the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy."

Sadly, apathy is a classic psychological response to the immense, multifaceted and difficult challenge posed by Islam, as seen in this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on apathy:

US novelist John Dos Passos wrote that "Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with. The cure for apathy is comprehension."  

"Comprehension" is indeed part of the cure, hence the need for books and blogs such as mine.

When one looks at the global picture, the daily atrocities committed by the Tiny Minority of [Islamic] Extremists, and when one sees the denial of responsibility by Muslims for the same — and their claims that Islam is 'The Religion of Peace' and that they are the ones being persecuted by others — and when one considers that there are some 1.5 billion adherents of this religion, the dire implications of this horrendous scenario are almost too much to bear. When one considers that so-called "Moderate Muslims" are virtually silent in the face of the endless outrages of their co-religionists, yet protest with indignation over every imagined slight and incident of "Islamophobia", the temptation is to languish in apathy, and hope it all goes away, or gets better, or some other such rot.

Yet this is not the authentic Christian response at all. Below are excerpts from Fr Irenei's Q&A session (with my occasional observations interjected), which can greatly help us navigate these difficult waters. The goal is to become firmly established on the Royal Way, the Middle Path, giving in neither to the temptation to excessive softness and apathy on the left, nor to a fierce, combative 'super-correct' aggression on the right.

 Question: Hello, could you clarify, or give us more information, about not judging. I'm particularly interested in this as a parent because I know my children and myself need to learn how to distinguish between right and wrong.  So I'm wondering, does not making judgment mean more "forgive," when you see right and wrong?  Or does it just mean, "not make a judgment?"    What can you tell me?

Hieromonk Ireneii:  I think we have to start by defining what the commandment against judging can't possibly mean.  It can't possibly mean "don't distinguish between right and wrong" because Christ specifically tells us to do that.  We are called to know what is good and what is evil and to embrace what is good.  We are called to help other people do this.  And in fact, in the litanies during the Diving Liturgy, the prayers that we offer for the bishops of the Church are specifically that they may rightly divide the word of God's truth. And the word for "divide" is translated in many ways in English but in Greek it's the same word as "judge."  Division between right and wrong is judgment. 
So there is a need to be able to discern between what is good and what is bad.   And that is not forbidden by the commandment not to judge.  The difficulty is when we use that discernment not for spiritual growth but simply to cast a judgment upon another.   This is never spiritually healthy.  The fact that you may be doing something wrong and I may know that it's wrong doesn't mean that my telling you it's wrong —and telling you that's very bad — is spiritually good for you or for me. There may be occasions in life where pastorally I have to do that.  But pastorally in order to love another person I have to identify for them what is wrong and what they're doing and how it is self-destructive.  But the litmus test is precisely the pastoral question "Is this going to help somebody?"  ...
…if you're responsible for children or a flock or for a classroom or whatever the case may be there are times when you have to point our right and wrong in order to help them to grow.  For example, if I have a classroom full of young children and a guest speaker and the guest speaker starts to say blasphemous things as if they were true, I have to stand up and say "No."  It would be pastorally irresponsible of me to just sit and listen and do nothing. 
This last point by Fr Irenei is precisely where we engage as Orthodox Christians on the issue of Islam. When I read an Orthodox author who flatly states that Muslims worship the same God as do we, or an Orthodox hierarch who states that "Muhammad was an apostle, a man of God, and therefore when I speak against Muhammad I am not found in agreement with God," or a Metropolitan who tells his clergy that "Islam and Christianity are 90% the same," then I must correct those false statements. For to equate the Allah of Islam with the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-Creating and Undivided Trinity, or to view Muhammad as divinely inspired, or to accept any of Islam's foundational theological tenets is to, ultimately, deny our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ and commit apostasy. Even if I may not convince the author of the falsehood himself, the correct teaching must be put forth with as full a presentation as necessary so as to guide and protect other Christians from the false teaching. This is exactly the application vis a vis Islam of Fr Irenei's principle in his example above.

 Question   Thank you, Father,  for being with us today.  There's a show —I haven't seen it —but it's sort of an interesting premise, it's on TV.  It's called —What Would You Do? — And they stage scenarios,  like a soccer mom drinking before she takes her children into a car, or a man threatening a woman in a park.  And I'm curious.  If we close our mouth and do nothing, is that the preferred way when we see people in harm's way, or let's say within the Church —what is the proper response?
 Hieromonk Irenei   Very good question, thank you.   When we talk about closing our mouth and being still and being non-judgmental, this doesn't mean to become weaklings, and it doesn't mean to disengage from the pastoral care of other people.  We're talking about the fundamental ways in which we order ourselves.  We will all at some point find ourselves in positions where we are witnessing evil that causes suffering to another person.  And the example of Christ is not to stand by and watch the evil happen.  Christ interjects himself when the adulterous woman is about to be stoned.  He stands in between and stops it.  He doesn't do it by a great show of force but he gets right in the middle.  Christ throws over the tables in the temple —overturns them when he sees God being blasphemed in this way. 
The life in Christ is not a life that says in order to be non-judgmental and not angry I will just let evil happen. We are called to be pastoral, to look out for the care of others.  And that's where discernment is important, it's a skill we have to develop with time, to know when am I stepping in for the sake of the other person, when am I stepping in just to interject myself?  And again, the test always has to be the pastoral question:  "Does this person need my help?"  And if the answer we're giving is "Yes, because I'm brilliant and the thing I'm going to tell them is going to change their life," then that's always an illusion.  But if the question is, "That person is suffering, being abused, hit, attacked," or something, and I don't try to assist them, then you fall prey to precisely what Christ said,  "What you did not do to the least of these you did not do to me."
When we see clearly reported the atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims — a daily occurrence throughout the Islamic world, from Egypt and Northern Africa, to Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia, to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc, where churches are being destroyed and Christians persecuted, raped, killed, imprisoned and tried on blasphemy charges for insulting Muhammad —then we must seek to help our suffering brothers and sisters. Much of what we can do is through education here at home, especially as we come to better understand Islam, and can convincingly document how this horrible treatment of non-Muslims by Muslims is sanctioned by and codified in Islamic law, as propagated consistently for thirteen centuries by the ulema (Islamic clerics, those who guide the ummah). That persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims is growing exponentially throughout the Islamic world is proof of the urgency of the conflict. We must not let evil happen. We are called to do what we can to prevent it. And here, I personally believe that Christ's words to the Church in Laodicea apply. Better we get a little hot and bothered about this, rather than be mealy-mouthed and lukewarm. How ironic and tragic it would be if we, in our desire to live a quiet Christian life free from anger and the vice of judgment, find ourselves being condemned at the Last Judgment because we did nothing to say "No" to Islam, and did nothing to aid those suffering under its satanic yoke (not the least of whom are the Muslims themselves). "Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did it to Me."
 Question   Father, my question is how does one remain forgiving and hospitable towards one [or a people] who is known to be very toxic in one's life,  and destructive,  not only to an individual but to those who are around him,  his whole family [the family of mankind].  What does that look like, for somebody who's not only just trying to protect themselves from this destructive force but also their family?  What does that look like? 

 Hieromonk Irenei   On a personal level I think—one of the things I would say to begin—is that being forgiving doesn't mean constantly putting yourself into a position that you know might hurt you.   Christ, when he commissioned the seventy apostles said, "If you go into a town where they welcome you, stay.  If they don't welcome you, go."  He doesn't say "Go and suffer no matter what, on purpose."   In some cases we know that people cause us to be angry or they do things that are going to provoke passions and anger and things in us.  We don't have to continually put ourselves in those circumstances.  Of course, the difficulty is when you can't get out of them, when you're not in control of this.  But there's nothing unchristian at all of saying, "That relation is unhealthy.  I'm going to try to minimize my contact with it."  In fact, it's something explicitly called for in the Gospels, to be discerning in what company we keep.  
But you ask,  "What does it practically look like to forgive people like this?"  It looks strange.  It looks odd to see someone, and when you see a really forgiving person, it's puzzling because you see them wronged, sometimes very dramatically, and still loving to the person who has wronged them.  And it's hard to accept.  You want to have righteous indignation and say, "No! That person is clearly bad!" and therefore we wrung our hands of them. "I wash my hands of thee," said Pontius Pilate.  That's not a quote that we want to be taking for ourselves.  That's not one of the good quotes from Scripture. 
How do you do it?  How do you forgive someone who constantly makes a sport of hurting you?  Answering that question will take your whole life.  But the root of it has to be seeing suffering of another person.  When you simply see another person as someone who has chosen to do bad, to do wrong, what else are you going to do but judge them, to become angry at them, and frustrated at them, because you see a free agent freely doing what is bad.  But we have to come to a point, we have to come to a point where we understand that evil is done because of a sickness of the heart.  A basic Christian confession is that people are not born evil.  There's no such thing as an evil person.  There are people who do great evil.  Tremendous evil.   But they're not evil by constitution.  That wrong that they exemplify is because their heart is broken, cold, defenseless, poisoned.  And it's ultimately a fruit of suffering.  Any evil someone does is ultimately a fruit of a pain that they may not acknowledge.  They may feel fine. They may utterly repudiate any suggestion that they have suffering within them. They may just believe that "I am right and this is what I should do."  But from a Christian point of view, the only way we can understand this is that something is broken inside. Their heart is longing for something that it doesn't have. And if you see a person in that way, it becomes much harder to respond judgmentally and harshly.  I'm not saying it gets rid of the temptation, I'm not saying it's a magical way out, but if you look at a person who is doing wrong and you see a suffering heart in need of redemption, and you see the evil that they've done to you as the fruit of suffering, then the compassion is stirred up inside you.  But again, this is not something that happens overnight.  You can't all leave this room and the next time someone does something bad say,  "Oh, he's suffering and therefore I'm fine." This is a condition of the heart that takes long exercise. It's a real ascesis because my natural inclination is just to get mad.  Defensive.  Angry.  To want to punish.  Christ beholds the sin of the world—we should always remember this as Christians—a world which has from the first moment of its existence done everything in its power to rebel against him and deny him.  And taunt him, through centuries and centuries. And he becomes incarnate and they taunt and mock all the more.  None of us have faced that kind of continual hatred and anger. And yet, he responds by offering his life.  He could have called fire down and destroyed everything, and we would have had to say, from a rational point of view, that that was entirely justified.  But he offers his life in compassion to save the world.  That is our paradigm.  That is what we have to do.  Little by little, find a way to offer ourselves.  See that the cause of evil is pain, pain of sin, the pain of a world that needs to know God and doesn't, and respond accordingly. 
I find it absolutely amazing that Fr Irenei's words all throughout this podcast, and especially this Q&A session, can be so consistently applied to how we deal with Islam and Muslims. In this last answer, he is basically charting the course of the martyrs, the prototype being our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, followed by St Stephen (who begged God to forgive his persecutors) and the martyrs of every age, including for our consideration here the Holy Neomartyrs under the Muslim Turks, and those Christians suffering throughout the Islamic world today. We can even include ourselves here in supposedly free America (and throughout the West), where our right to criticize and speak out against Islam, Shariah law and Muslim aggressiveness is being vigorously challenged as "hate speech." Although it is true what Fr Irenei says, that none of us have personally "faced that kind of continual hatred and anger,"  yet it is also true that the Church —together with the Jewish people — has indeed faced continual and perpetual anger, hatred, persecution and aggression from Islam from the seventh century to this day. It is codified in the Koran, the Sira (the biography of Muhammad), the hadiths (sayings and traditions by and about Muhammad), and all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Our challenge is thus to stand against Islam, revealing it as a deception of satan, a false gospel presenting a different Jesus and a different spirit (cf. Gal 1:6-8,  2 Cor 11:3-4). Our calling is to "convince, rebuke, exhort" (2 Tim 4:2), to build up the faithful, and on Muslims if possible "to save with fear" (Jude 1:23). And above all this to do so with love and forgiveness, not judging or condemning, yet standing firm and strong in the faith. This issue is not going away. Muslim chiliastic dreams of conquering the West and the United States, ushering in an Islamic golden age and a global caliphate is the accelerent. The Church must stand firm in defending the Faith, and in its missionary work throughout the world, and especially among Muslims. May the Lord direct our steps.