|Jihadist, with Koran and Knife|
How does one deal with such atrocities? Especially when the atrocities naturally flow from Islam's own "sacred" writings and the example of its founder?
You may wish to say, "But these were outbursts by the Muslim Brotherhood in response to the violent takeover by the Egyptian Military." Okay, but what about in 2011, when the glorious "Arab Spring" movement was sweeping across Egypt? Then too the Coptic Christians were specifically targeted, not merely by the Brotherhood, but also by the Egyptian Military, as in the infamous Maspero Massacre. Then too churches were destroyed, Copts murdered, Christian girls kidnapped, raped and forced to convert to Islam, and so on ad nauseum.
Why dredge this up, someone might ask? In our day, this is so far behind the "news cycle" as to be ancient history. Well, for one thing, remembering even the very recent past proves the extreme precariousness of life for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and throughout the Islamic world. But secondly, it is a necessary contemporary reminder of the 1400-year long continuity of Islamic doctrine and practice against Christians. Islam itself creates the culture and mindset which causes persecution of Christians.
Some have commented that Muslims are the first victims of Islam, and I think we can work with such a statement. Consider the three-fold tragedy currently being played out amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. For here are persons created (as we Orthodox Christians believe) in the image of God. Yet they are so (literally, it would seem) "hell bent" on murdering and killing to advance their agenda that they prove their God-given conscience is seared, permanently deadened. That is the first tragedy, that they are dead to God and to their neighbor. The second tragedy is when they kill their neighbor and justify it with appeal to their God (screaming "Allahu Akbar"). The third tragedy is when they themselves are killed, thus forever losing the opportunity to repent and come to faith in Jesus Christ and the true God of Love and Forgiveness. We should weep over this.
The greatest tragedy is when Christians cannot come to forgive their oppressors. "Lord, do not charge them with this sin" (Acts 7:60), cried Stephen the Protomartyr. This is the cry of the Christian martyr, even as the jihadist saws off his head. "Father, forgive them," prayed the Lord from the Cross.
Which brings us to this interview with Fr Thomas Hopko. It is too long to be presented in one blog post, so I am breaking it up into several. This is a very patient discussion of the question of forgiveness, the challenge of which — specifically regarding Islam — may be summed up by Fr Thomas' words:
Only if God exists and we realize that there is either a world with evil or no world at all, only then can we understand that we are going to have to undergo the trial of evil... By definition, forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil, beginning by recognizing that evil really has been done... Forgiveness has to admit, and rage over, and weep over a real evil, and only then say, “We are going to live in communion one with another. We are going to carry on.” Never forgetting but carrying on in a spirit of love without letting the evil poison the future relationship.
Father Thomas, many people recognize there is a value in forgiving and being forgiven, but see it only on the human level, without a theological dimension. Would you say forgiveness is a divine act?
If a person is inspired by the spirit of God, he or she can forgive, certainly. People can forgive. But I’m not sure you can say that in general there is the feeling that forgiveness is of value. I have met people who would say, “I don’t care. I can go on and live my life; it really doesn’t matter to me. If I’m not bothering you and you aren’t bothering me, why be reconciled?” This is plain indifference.
Another reason why people don’t value forgiveness is that they consider it to be collusion with evil. They feel that if a person has done something really terrible, he or she should be reminded of it until death, and further, that the evil should be avenged. And of course, most of us feel that any offense committed against us is irreparable. Nothing that the other person does can ever cancel it. If you kill my child, for example, there is nothing you can do in reparation, and for me to forgive would simply be to condone the evil. So I’m not sure that most people value forgiveness.
When you look at it from the point of view of justice, there is no reason for forgiveness. Only if God exists and we realize that there is either a world with evil or no world at all, only then can we understand that we are going to have to undergo the trial of evil. But if that is not there, I don’t know why anyone would forgive. Or want to. But I do think that people who are not believers in God, by the fact they are made in God’s image, can have the sense that reconciliation is better than allowing the evil to go on. By definition, forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil, beginning by recognizing that evil really has been done. People tend to think forgiveness means something bad was not really done, that a person didn’t understand the consequences, or whatever. If that were the case, there would be no need for forgiveness; it could be seen simply as a mistake.
Forgiveness has to admit, and rage over, and weep over a real evil, and only then say, “We are going to live in communion one with another. We are going to carry on.” Never forgetting — you can’t, at any rate — but carrying on in a spirit of love without letting the evil poison the future relationship. Certainly that is what happens theologically. The striking thing in the Gospel is that God refuses to let evil destroy the relationship. Even if we kill him, he will say, “Forgive them.”
I prefer the word communion to relationship. The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so 70 times 7 times a day we must re-establish communion — and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.
The obsession with relationship — the individual in search of relationships — in the modern world shows there is an ontological crack in our being. There is no such thing as an individual. He was created, probably, in a Western European university. We don’t recognize our essential communion. I don’t look at you and say, “You are my life.”
Modern interpretations of the commandment in the Torah reflect this individualistic attitude. The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness. So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says.
I recall a televised discussion program in which we were asked what was most important in Christianity. Part of what I said was that the only way we can find ourselves is to deny ourselves. That’s Christ’s teaching. If you cling to yourself, you lose yourself. The unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate act of not wanting to let yourself go. You want to defend yourself, assert yourself, protect yourself. There is a consistent line through the Gospel — if you want to be the first you must will to be the last. The other fellow, who taught the psychology of religion at a Protestant seminary, said, “What you are saying is the source of the neuroses of Western society. What we need is healthy self-love and healthy self-esteem.” Then he quoted that line, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He insisted that you must love yourself first and have a sense of dignity. If one has that, forgiveness is either out of the question or an act of condescension toward the poor sinner. It is no longer an identification with the other as a sinner, too. I said that of course if we are made in the image of God it’s quite self-affirming, and self-hatred is an evil. But my main point is that there is no self there to be defended except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying. It’s only by loving the other that myself actually emerges. Forgiveness is at the heart of that.
As we were leaving a venerable old rabbi with a shining face called us over. “That line, you know, comes from the Torah, from Leviticus,” he said, “and it cannot possibly be translated ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ It says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as being your own self’.” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.
After this I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say — “Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another — His Son. The same thing happens on the human level. So the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerges only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. Now, if you add to that that we are all to some degree faulty and weak and so on, that act of love will always be an act of forgiveness. That’s how I find and fulfill myself as a human being made in God’s image. Otherwise, I cannot. So the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.
To be continued...