Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

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“And who is like me?”

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I’ve heard the good Samaritan story many times before.  I even blogged about it a couple times because of the important message it contains about salvation.  But this weekend I’ve gained some new perspective on this account and wanted to share it.

First some context…

The good Samaritan story is the answer Jesus gave to a legal expert who had asked him how to obtain eternal life.

In Luke’s account we read that Jesus, rather than attempt to explain, answered the legal expert’s question with some other questions:

“What is written in the Law?”

“How do you understand it?”

To that the legalistic man answered by quoting Scripture:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”

“Love your neighbor as yourself…”

Jesus tells the man that he had answered correctly and further affirms with a statement: “Do this and you will live.”

However, the expert was not satisfied.  Luke tells us that he sought “to justify himself” and inquires further: “And who is my neighbor?

Here’s the twist…

I’ve never realized the full connotation of that question.  The question actually came loaded with more arrogance and elitism than is reflected in our modern reading of the language.  The word “neighbor” was understood to mean a close associate and thus the question asked was more to the effect: “And who is like me?

In other words the expert wanted Jesus to affirm his own understanding of Biblical text that gave him a legal loophole and means to escape the inconvenience of a broader interpretation of the law.  The expert wanted to love only those who added up according to his own religious standard.

Jesus, now having exposed the real intent of the expert’s questions, responds with a story about a traveler who suffered misfortune.  He had been beaten, robbed and was lying by the side of the road.  Two religious elitists approached and then crossed to the other side of the road and passed without making any attempt to help.

Jesus goes on to describe a Samaritan (a tribe who the legal expert would not associate with) who went above and beyond to help the wounded man and then asks the expert: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Jesus turned a question “who is like me” into an opportunity to reorient the questioner…

The expert, obviously trying to justify his own selective love, had asked who to love.  But Jesus does not directly answer the expert’s question.  Instead he takes the conversation from a question of who to love to a question of how to love and described a love without preconditions or prejudice.

To love God means to look past differences of race, social status or religion and love like the Samaritan.  It is a message extremely relevant in a time when we are told some lives matter and others not so much.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean sanctimiously calling out those who we deem to be racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted—as a means to wash our own hands of responsibility for those things—and then being on our way feeling smugly justified.

It means laying our own tribal identities at the foot of the cross, loving those different from us as freely as the good Samaritan did, and being a fulfillment of the ideal in Galatians 3:28…

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.

My engagement ended.  I had hurt someone that I loved deeply.  My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat.  I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later.  The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out.  I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend.  When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside.  Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope.  Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday.  I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message.  The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us.  She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue.  Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia.  There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly.  I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend.  Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain.  I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect.  I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do.  All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better.  My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch.  My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong.  But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later.  I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life.  I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral.  Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed.  They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt.  My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care.  Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me.  It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers.  I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes.  My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death.  Life is never the same after an experience like that.  But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided.  My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever.  My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me.  I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on.  It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.

Politics, Religion and (Media) Bias

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Here I go again talking about politics and religion.  Well, truthfully, this post is more about ideas, inquisition, how stories are presented by the media and alleged bias.

It seems everyone complains about media bias.  There is endless controversy over what stories get covered, how they are covered and why, with charges of favoritism from all sides.

I suppose I am just another voice adding fuel to that fire.  But hopefully I add a bit of helpful reason and rational to the discussion rather than just one more partisan crying foul only when his own side is (in his own mind) treated unfairly.

Two things got me thinking about media bias.  The first a couple cartoons and social media comments about the shootings in Chapel Hill that allege it was not being covered adequately.  The second the off-topic questioning of an American politician and the way it was presented.

Ho-hum, no story here…

I first heard about the three students killed in North Carolina the morning after (as evidenced by my blog post yesterday) and on the CNN website via my smart phone.  The shooting took place “just after 5 p.m. on February 10” and, according to the New York Times, it was early the next day before specific information was available about the shootings:

“In fact, the police did not release the names of the victims or the accused until after 2 a.m. Wednesday; Mr. Hicks turned himself in to sheriff’s deputies in Pittsboro, a few miles away, but it was not clear when. During a court appearance Wednesday, a judge ordered him held without bond. By that point, most major American news organizations had reported the story, but that did not slow the allegations of news media neglect.”

So basically a local homicide became a national news story overnight and that is likely something to do with the unusual nature of the crime.  But many complained within that time frame that the story was being ignored and that this was an example of media bias.  Here are a few examples I have found from those alleging media bias:

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Not every homicide receives widespread attention.  It took over a week before the Trayvon Martin shooting was picked up by Reuters and became a hot topic.  So, with that as a basis of comparison, the murder of Deah Barakat, Razan Abu-Salha and Yusor Abu-Salha was relatively quick.

Favoritism and presumptions…

If anything the murder of these attractive and ambitious young Americans will receive more attention than similar cases.  Beautiful people with promising futures are often are shown preference.  Add to that the man who confessed to the murders is an outspoken atheist, the victims identifiably Muslim, and that feeds speculation.

Having myself been raised in a tradition (Christian) where women veil, and having a dear friend (Muslim) who dresses similar to those pictured, I couldn’t help but take interest and wonder if their appearance played a part.  I have worried for my sisters and my Muslim friend because of prejudicial views I have heard expressed.

It is probably their appearance, the fact they were killed in the manner they were, the race and the views of the man, that made this a big story.  It is understandable the Muslim American community can feel embattled at times and unfairly blamed for the acts of people who do not represent them (terrorists) and thus afraid of reprisals.

However, this case is not necessarily a ‘hate crime’ as some speculate.  Yes, the shooter did openly share his views that blamed religious people for violence and (ironically) proclaimed atheism as the solution, but that doesn’t equal a motive. 

From available evidence he seemed to be an unreasonable and angry man who may have murdered over a parking dispute. Whatever the motive, it is an act beyond my comprehension and I mourn with those who have lost loved ones to this senseless act of evil.

Trading topics…

The other story concerns the Governor of Wisconsin (and potential candidate for President) who was on a visit to discuss trade with British officials.  The story headline, “Wisconsin Gov. Walker refuses to answer evolution question,” centers on a question asked that has nothing to do with trade.

The question if Walker “believes in the theory of evolution” seems a rather odd thing to ask a politician.  Doubly interesting is that the Associated Press writer felt it necessary to mention Walker’s faith and the occupation of his father, as if those two facts were relevant to the story:

“Walker, an evangelical Christian and the 47-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, also declined to answer a series of questions about foreign policy…”

Huh? 

I’m not really sure how his faith comes into play here, especially as it relates to the Governor trying to keep on topic of trade by not answering irrelevant inquisitions.  Maybe somebody can explain the connection between his father and foreign policy, but I’m not understanding it.

What I do suspect, both as the reason scientific theory is being asked about and also why religion is being mentioned, is an attempt to construct a label or pigeonhole Walker.  I think it is a classic example of dog-whistle politics in that the intend recipients are supposed to read between the lines and apply a particular stereotype. 

The intent is likely to paint the fiscally conservative Walker to voters, who are tired of government expansion and yet not religious, as dogmatic and ignorant.  I could be wrong, but when a story that should be about trade becomes one about refusal, theory of evolution and religion, there seems something to be amiss.

Bias is in the eye of the beholder…

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps bias is as well.  What we think deservers more or less coverage is probably as much a matter of our own biases as it is of anyone else’s. 

Muslims, understandably, take immediate interest when three who share their faith are killed ‘execution style’ by an irreligious man.  Me, being a political conservative and religious, know too well the presumptions often made about those of faith and saw some sort of prejudice at work in the Walker story.  We take notice when people we identify with in some way are targeted unjustly and we probably miss many instances that counter our own narratives.

The media is undoubtedly biased. The media is produced by people and people are inherently biased.  But our personal biases also mess with our own perception of what is important and our judgment of presentation.  We need to be as aware of our own potential biases to the same degree we believe others are guilty.