My speech at the 45th annual Congress of Russian Americans’ Forum in San Francisco

It was a great joy and honour for me to attend and speak at this wonderful Saturday, September 8th event at San Francisco’s historic Russian Center mansion. The Russian Center’s staff and volunteers beautifully executed all the details, both the Forum itself and the Banquet afterwards. It was a beautiful gathering of many interesting, passionate citizen diplomats, educators, businessmen and women, nobles, volunteers, and San Francisco lay Russian community leaders  and Church dignitaries!

My speech was well-received, and I was deeply moved by how many people from the audience asked thoughtful questions at the end, and then came up and congratulated me afterwards and asked for copies of the speech. My address—on the centenary of the martyrdom of the Russian Imperial Family—was only a very small contribution to a wide-ranging event, whose organizers prepared a detailed, comprehensive program in the historic Russian Center mansion. Every speaker was engaging, eloquent, and deeply committed to improving Russian-American cultural and interpersonal relations through interpersonal, Tier II civic diplomacy. It was a pleasure for me to be among the speakers at such a beautiful event.

Listening to all the speakers and interacting with so many of the different attendees, I was deeply inspired by the diligent witness and efforts of so many generations of Russian-American patriots who love this country, and also wish to preserve and pass on their cultural heritage and traditions to their children and grandchildren. The work of the CRA leaders, and their associated friends, sponsors, patrons, educators, and Church and business supporters, is vital to this process.

On Friday, before the Forum on Saturday, I was blessed to visit the house and orphanage founded by San Francisco’s great Orthodox saint, Archbishop John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (+2 July 1966). Here, his successor, the present Russian Orthodox Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco, unveiled and dedicated a lovely statue to the saint, which, like me, had traversed the country from New York to San Francisco, but had, before that, arrived all the way from Russia.

Standing with Vladyka John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Standing ‘with’ Vladyka Ioann, St John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (+2 July 1966). This new statue of the holy hierarch was dedicated at St Tikhon’s Church this past Friday by H.E. Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco, the present successor of St John over the ROCOR Western American Diocese. St Tikhon’s is the site of Vladyka Ioann’s cell, school, and orphanage. He rescued hundreds of Chinese war orphans whose parents were executed by the Japanese Imperial Army forces or, later on, the Maoist Red Army Communist forces.

After the dedication of the statue, we then enjoyed a lovely festive meal and great conversation. Afterwards, I explored the beautiful City by the Bay with a new friend, and, under the stars, put my feet in the Pacific for the first time.

After the delicious and entertaining Banquet on Saturday night, complete with traditional Russian songs and dance, I explored the city some more with new friends.

On Sunday morning, I met my gracious hosts, and we attended the historic Holy Virgin Cathedral—Joy of all Who Sorrow, where St John of San Francisco is entombed. I then drove with some dear new friends up through majestic Sonoma County, past vineyards, the Russian River, Bodega Bay, and the river estuary to the historic Fort Ross. This two centuries-old Russian fort and fur-trading settlement lays along California’s magnificent north Pacific coast surrounded by the Redwood forests and nearby wine country.

I could not have asked for a more gracious reception, and I am deeply grateful to those who invited me and graciously arranged my accommodation, especially CRA President Natalie Sabelnik, her wonderful children and volunteers, and Russian Imperial Union Order Los Angeles area director Ivan Podvalov​.

Not just Russians, but all of our ancestors, and all of our future descendants, owe the CRA and Russian Center a great debt, for the difficult work in preserving a society’s language, traditions, and culture in the wake of revolution, trauma, and the changing winds of time is invaluable in transmitting and preserving its history, not only for the peoples of that society, but for the knowledge and enrichment of the entire world. Я очень благодарю вас!

Me speaking at September 8 Congress of Russian Americans 45th annual Forum in San Francisco -- 8 Sept 2018

A friend took this photograph of me delivering my speech at the CRA Forum on Saturday, 8 September 2018 at San Francisco’s Russian Center.

I showed the following photograph of the Imperial Family as the visual background during my speech. The unabridged text of my original speech—which I shortened slightly for time considerations prior to speaking—is below. People may share it in full with my permission, but please accredit the source and link to the post here. Thank you.

Romanovs 1913

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At the Crucible of History: The Centenary of the Romanov Family’s Murder

and the Tragedy’s Implications Today

By Ryan Hunter

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Congress of Russian Americans’ 45th annual Forum and Banquet

San Francisco, California

Introduction:

Your Excellency [Ambassador Anatoly Antonov];

Your Eminence [Archbishop Kyrill];

Dear Nataliya Georgievna;

Esteemed ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today. Not being of Russian heritage myself, I am mindful of the honour that has been shown me in being asked to speak at this forty-fifth annual Congress of Russian Americans Forum. My topic is one quite familiar to most of us, and one which, I expect, is engraved upon all our hearts. Above all else, in terms of my remarks, I would ask you to keep in mind the old adage from George Santayana (1863-1952), the Spanish-American philosopher and man of letters, who observed that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

First, let me begin with a brief note about the photograph: it was taken in 1913, 105 years ago. In 1913, World War I had not yet begun, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, and George V the King of Great Britain and Ireland. Pius X was Pope of Rome, while China had only just overthrown its millennia-old monarchy. An Ottoman sultan still reigned from Istanbul, while the Meiji Emperor had died in Tokyo the year before. Most homes in the world used neither electricity nor gas, most people used horse-drawn carts or carriages rather than the just-introduced automobile, and the wealthiest kings and captains of industry were just as vulnerable as the poorest factory workers or paupers to numerous diseases which we now no longer have among us.

I invite you to look closely at this family pictured here, seemingly of a world so far removed from our own, a century apart, and see if you can find a glimpse into their unique personalities. Look at the faces of the two eldest daughters on the photograph’s left and right edges, beautiful in the golden age of their late teenage years. Notice the shy, inquisitive gaze of the oldest one, on the left, and the somewhat bolder smile and direct gaze of the next-oldest, on the right. The youngest daughter, who her parents called the ‘Imp’ for her mischievous antics, stands next to her clearly naturally reserved father. She is linked, arm-in-arm, with her brother, the family’s youngest child and only son. Standing in the back, the mother—who looks much like her own maternal grandmother—places her arm on her husband’s chair; even in this photo, worry etches her face, while to her right, our left, the middle daughter, whose face radiates kindness, looks on with a thoughtful stare.

Given the intimate serenity of this photograph, staged and pre-arranged as it was, it is almost astonishing to think about what happened to this family only five years after they sat for this photograph. This image here— born of a momentary flash of light, which captured forever a transient moment lost to Time in the blink of an eye—is a window into the ephemeral life of this family. It preserves for all time a moment when their father and husband’s dynasty had been on the throne of Russia for three hundred years, and—at the time this photograph was taken—seemed certain to continue in power for generations to come. Yet only a year after the family sat for their photograph, the old world order shattered as all of Europe and her colonies descended into the horrors of mechanised, post-industrial war.

The murders: A world ended in a hail of bullets in a foreboding basement

Just over one hundred years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of 17th July, 1918, the unlawfully imprisoned Imperial Family of Russia—held without any semblance of legitimate political authority, trial conviction, or legal pretext—was murdered by a team of Bolshevik Cheka secret police, along with four of their devoted servants and assistants. This was both a horrific tragedy and a history-changing political murder story.

The murdered family members were seven: The Emperor Nicholas II Romanov (50), his wife, Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (46), their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17), and their son and heir, the Grand Duke and Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich (13).

Murdered with them were their four devoted servants and friends, three men and one woman who have often been sadly forgotten next to their more illustrious co-sufferers. These noble souls who chose to share in the Imperial Family’s exile and imprisonment were: the physician Dr Yevgeny Botkin (53), palace footman Alexei Trupp (62), imperial cook Ivan Kharitonov (47), and maid Anna Demidova (40). All the servants who stayed with the Imperial Family and shared in their martyrdom were Orthodox Russians, save for Trupp, who was a Catholic Latvian. Interestingly, despite Trupp being a Catholic, he was also glorified (canonised) as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) along with the others in 1981.

[Do not read aloud the following two paragraphs mentioning the gruesome details of the murders].

The murders took place in the dimly lit cellar of the Ipatiev House in the isolated town of Yekaterinburg, Ural Siberia. Led by Yakov Yurovsky, the ten killers were all convinced atheistic Bolshevik revolutionaries from Baltic Latvia and Lithuania. From examining the sometimes conflicting later testimonials of the assassins themselves, it is believed that only the Emperor, the Empress, and the two men died from the initial hail of bullets, while tragically, the Tsarevich, his sisters the Grand Duchesses, and the maid Anna Demidova survived the initial blasts. The princesses—wearing diamonds and other gems sewn into their dresses, which had stopped the bullets—were savagely bayoneted and then shot at point-blank range along with their brother and Demidova, who had initially fainted but then, coming to, attracted the attention of her killers. In her last moments, according to the later testimonies of the men who killed her, Demidova attempted to fight back against her murderers.

One of the family’s poor pets, a French bulldog, had begun to bark from the noise; he was also killed by the Bolsheviks, while another dog escaped and was later found and adopted by the anti-Bolshevik White Army soldiers. To their horror, several days after the murders, the anti-revolutionary soldiers found that they had arrived too late in Yekaterinburg. So began, with these gruesome murders, Lenin and Trotsky’s consolidation of power and gradual defeat of the White Army forces. The details of the murders are disturbing to hear, but I believe that we must know these things—even the gruesome reality of the brutality inflicted—in order to fully understand the depths of the inhumane evil that motivated the murderers, both those who gave the order from afar and those who drunkenly carried it out.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the murders is that Lenin and all his lieutenants had—after inventing a revolutionary propaganda machine to spread both slander and distorted half-truths about the Tsar and his policies—somehow convinced themselves that these heinous murders were for the ‘good’ of ‘The People’. To them, no lives were sacred apart from the totalitarian cause of advancing the Soviet Proletariat against its ‘Class Enemies’, and no lives were to be spared in the relentless totalitarian pursuit of realising a classless utopia and cleansing it of all ideological enemies. In this madness, Lenin was consciously following in the ‘intellectual footsteps’ of one of his heroes, the Jacobin demagogue and would-be-dictator Maximilien Robespierre, upon whom rests most of the bloodletting of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and the near-genocidal massacres of Catholic royalists and counter-revolutionary traditionalists in the Vendee.

The latest archival research and careful examination of the existent primary sources has shown that the Soviet order to kill all those who were murdered on 17th July, 1918—not only the Emperor, but his wife, children, and their servants—came directly from Lenin and his close lieutenants, Yakov Sverdlov and Filipp Goloshchyokin. Not content with murdering the Imperial Family and their servants, their killers mutilated the victims’ bodies, attempting to destroy them by kerosene and fire before irreverently dumping them nearby at Ganina Yama. Typical of all dictatorial powers before or since, the Bolshevik revolutionaries sincerely believed that they would succeed in concealing the news of their atrocity from the world, but news of the murders began to circulate within days of the crime.

On 18th July, 1918—the very next night after the murder of the Imperial Family and their associates—the Bolsheviks killed the late Empress’ older sister, who was also the late Emperor’s aunt-by-marriage, the widowed Grand Duchess-turned-abbess Elizabeth Fyodorovna. Along with her devoted former maid and fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva and several cadet relatives of the Romanov family, Her Imperial Highness was taken by the Bolsheviks to an old mine shaft at Alapayevsk, clubbed on the head, and thrown alive down the mine shaft. Save for one grand duke, Sergei Mikhailovitch, who had been shot, the other victims survived the fall. They sang Orthodox hymns down in the shaft until they died of Bolshevik grenade blasts, blood loss, and smoke inhalation from burning brushwood that their killers had thrown down upon them.

One of the most beloved women in Moscow who was immensely popular with the faithful for all her social work and loving kindness—in some ways comparable to a kind of Orthodox Mother Teresa figure—the Bolsheviks did not dare to arrest Abbess-Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna in broad daylight. Like her sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and nephew, and millions of other future victims of Soviet repression and mass murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was arrested without legal pretense, imprisoned, and ultimately killed under that favourite weapon of tyrants, the shadow of darkness.

Glorified Orthodox saints with an ecumenical and universal appeal: The Imperial Family’s increasing veneration among Orthodox, traditional Christians, and both Christian and non-Christian conservatives and monarchists

Glorified (canonised) as martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1981, and glorified as passion-bearing saints in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Imperial Family and their dear servants are widely honoured and venerated throughout the Orthodox world today. They are viewed by many Orthodox worldwide as martyrs (Greek for ‘witnesses’) who were killed in large measure due to their killers’ ideological hatred for all religion, Christianity generally, but Orthodoxy in particular. Many other Orthodox view them as ‘passion-bearers’—those who went to their deaths with Christ-like composure, pious forgiveness, and longsuffering meekness. In the case of the Imperial Martyrs, if we remember the whole of their lives and their final witness, whether we use the term ‘martyrs’ or ‘passion-bearers’ becomes ultimately rather semantic or pedantic. All passion-bearers are by definition living ‘witnesses’ of the Faith in the literal sense, and all martyrs are always ‘passion-bearers’ when approaching their deaths. From the historian’s perspective, it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to clearly distinguish in examples of Christian martyrs between those killed only for their faith and those who were killed in related political persecutions. This is because, until very recently, religious and political affairs were deeply conjoined and interrelated in most states and societies, and victims of political violence were often targeted for religious reasons, and vice versa.

It is worth noting that the Romanov Imperial Family is widely loved and venerated beyond the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church by many Christians of other confessions, and even non-Christians, in a manner which can be called a kind of ‘ecumenism of sacrifice’. Many Catholics and high church Protestants today revere the Imperial Family as the first holy sufferers among the Russian people under the Bolshevik yoke. Conservatives, traditionalists, and monarchists of all nationalities and religions often see in the Imperial Family both a beautiful embodiment of the lost ‘Old World’ social and political order, and a praiseworthy example of righteous, pious Christians whose lives and deaths manifested a perfection of traditional Christian virtues.

Legacy of a Regicide unique among ancient and contemporary regicides

It is certainly possible to see historical parallels between the murdered Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna with earlier regicides of Christian monarchs, including the Jacobins’ judicial murders of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France (January and October 1793), Cromwell’s execution of the Anglican martyr King Charles I of England (January 1649), and that of St.  Charles’ paternal grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots (February 1587), who regarded herself as a Catholic martyr and was widely seen as such after her death at the order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The ‘long nineteenth century’ in Europe saw many regicides in the wake of the revolutionary forces of Liberalism and budding political Marxism. The century opened with the regicide of Emperor Paul of Russia, and approached its end with that of the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II (13 March 1881), the martyred Emperor’s grandfather, and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria (1898).

Serving as a monarch was, indeed, an immensely dangerous position in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Emperor and Empress would have been intimately aware of this reality, since the Emperor himself had survived a Japanese assassin’s blade while traveling as the Tsarevich in spring 1891, and, as a young boy, he had been present at his dying grandfather Alexander II’s deathbed ten years earlier. The twentieth century began with the regicide of King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, followed closely by the double regicide of King Alexander I of Serbia and his consort Queen Draga in 1903. Prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, King Carlos I of Portugal and his crown prince Luis Felipe were assassinated in 1908, while in 1913 King George I of Greece was assassinated. The First World War itself was famously begun as Serbia and Austria fought in the wake of the fallout of Gavrilo Princip’s June 1914 assassination of the Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. One can also discern a common ‘passion-bearing’ spirit, if not a full martyrdom, in the Romanovs’ Austrian contemporaries, the forcibly dethroned and exiled Emperor Karl and Empress Zita, both of whom are presently being considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor Karl famously longed to end the First World War, much as Emperor Nicholas had done so much to avoid its outbreak.

In these examples of other European regicides, I have no desire to at all diminish the significance of the Imperial Family’s murder—this was the first time that a monarch’s consort and entire immediate family were killed with him—but rather to instead show that they can be taken in association with other historic and contemporary regicides as examples in which these monarchs and consorts were attacked and killed by anti-traditional or radical revolutionary forces within their societies.

Out of divine providence: The murders/martyrdoms as a symbol of Russia’s outlasting of and triumph over Marxist-Leninism

 

In the short term, these brutal murders achieved what Lenin had sought—they eliminated the main focal point for the unity of anti-communist White Army resistance to the Bolshevik Red Army. Within several years, as the Russian Civil War began to wind down under Lenin, Trotsky, and then Stalin’s brutal regime, Britain and the United States recognised the Soviet Union as a legitimate political entity, and established full diplomatic relations with it, with other countries quickly following suit.

Yet today, increasing public veneration of the Imperial Family in Russia and Eastern Europe, and their popularity across Christian confessional lines, represents one of the most visible healings of memory, and a major component of Russia’s ongoing evaluation of its Soviet history in the wake of the 1991 dissolution. For many, the Imperial Family today serve as an inseparable symbol of the ongoing civil society transformations of post-Soviet Russian cultural, political, and religious life. Just as many formerly communist countries have torn down their Soviet-era statues of Lenin and Stalin, statues of Nicholas II and his family and shrines to their memory have risen across Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, with plans for more to follow. The increasing public veneration of the Imperial New Martyrs in Russian society is thus an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s vision of votserkovleniye, or the “in-Churching” of society, the comprehensive, multifaceted vision of a gradual re-Christianisation of Russian society and culture in the wake of the Soviet system’s collapse.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, Santayana wrote. Today millions of Western schoolchildren rightfully learn about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but very few are educated at all about the horrors of the Soviet persecutions, purges, and successive international communist revolutions, in which tens of millions of people have died since 1917 as “enemies of the People”. This was not just in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Cuba, but all across the world. From Vietnam and Cambodia to Georgia and Armenia, Ethiopia and Angola to Belarus and Latvia, Poland and Czechia to Slovakia and Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Serbia and Macedonia, millions of people died under communist firing squads, in gulags, concentration camps, torture chambers, and mental hospitals. Millions more died of deliberate famine-inducing policies and purges of dissenters.

It is undeniable that the Soviet Union was an experiment which could boast of many extraordinary scientific, industrial, and medical achievements, but I believe we should give praise for these successes to the peoples of the Soviet Union, rather than the Soviet government, which—especially under Lenin and Stalin—presided over policies which ultimately claimed the lives of tens of millions of people from 1922 to 1991. People worldwide—especially Westerners, and in particular, my fellow Americans—must study and educate ourselves about Communism’s murderous history or, in their ignorance, they will be more likely to sympathise with its proponents today. While it is fortunate that many American university students are increasingly reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings on the Soviet regime, the great majority of Americans remain unexposed to and uneducated about the realities of the Soviet system. We cannot afford to ignore the unavoidable historical realities of its brutal legacy of totalitarianism, mass murder, and systematic repression. This murderous legacy began symbolically, in many respects, with the murder of the Imperial Family on 17th July 1918.

The Imperial Family as a symbol today of Russia’s ongoing resurrection, healing, and revitalization in the wake of the Soviet legacy

The ever-increasing, popular veneration of the Imperial Family today is not merely a socio-cultural and political phenomenon. It is also undoubtedly part of something else, a metaphysical reality that transcends the purely earthly political dimension. There is something here which, while working “in” and through time, also stands outside of it: Divine Providence and the healing of historical memory which is only possible through such Providence. After an almost seventy years’ long experiment in atheistic, totalitarian Soviet dictatorship, today’s ongoing spiritual process of a gradual re-Christianisation of Russian society is something which—while often connected to visible political developments—also exists outside of or beyond them. It is here that the historian in me must put on another ‘hat’ or ‘face’, as it were, to observe a supra-political reality that is undeniable to those who perceive it. I must here put on the hat of ‘believer’, ‘amateur theologian’, and ‘Church historian’.

Through the wise actions and policies of so many brave Soviet citizens—Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Moldovan, Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrghiz men and women across the world—and, I believe, Divine Providence—the Soviet experiment collapsed in less than seven decades in the same place where it had first been violently launched a century ago. The devastating manner of its collapse—and the often either indifferent or incautious response of international communities and state actors to the enormous economic and political void left in its wake—is something that any sentient person would view with sadness and the greatest empathy.

Every country and people must come to terms with the complexities of its past, and my own nation is no exception. I am certainly among many of my fellow Americans who believe that the United States could and should have done far more to aid the peoples of the former Soviet Union in the destabilising decade of ‘shock privatisation’, economic collapse, and terror by oligarchic mafias after 1991. Despite that many Western and former Soviet economists and humanitarian leaders urged the United States, NATO, and the UN to lend far greater assistance to the peoples of the suffering former Soviet states in the 1990s, there was no Marshall Plan for the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Along with many related foreign policy issues, and moral and ideological shifts both in American and Russian political society, the historical memory of the 1990s is unsurprisingly a source of resentment among many people and governments of the former USSR today.

Yet, both as a believer and an American, I cannot help but marvel at the hand of God working in the gradual re-Christianising Russia of today. This Providential hand does not work in isolation, but acts alongside the extraordinary efforts of all levels of Russian society today to creatively reimagine, reconstruct, and revitalise their national identity and image after the Soviet dissolution. Who could have imagined, a half century ago, that we would be in our present state of affairs? For all the ongoing drama, dysfunction, and distrust fostered by the latest Moscow-Washington political crisis, unproductive consulate closures, mutual allegations of international election interference, and talks of this present ‘New Cold War’, I remain—perhaps due to my youth—a cautious optimist with a view toward the longue durée.

Even if one examines many of the conflicts currently dominating Eastern European and Central Asian politics—whether one is talking about internal Orthodox Church geopolitical conflict between Moscow and Constantinople over Kiev, the deepening Orthodox-Catholic divide over the Ukrainian crisis and the complicated relationship between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, or the response of both non-Muslims and Sufi Muslim religious leaders to the rise of fundamentalist Wahhabi and Salafist political Islam in Central Asia and the Middle East—it is undeniable that religion, once pushed to the very bottom and margins of Soviet society, is now a major component of public life, civil society, and political debate in all the former Soviet republics. None of the former Soviet states today maintain atheistic, single party communist dictatorships, and—regardless of the exact state of rule of law, due process, or democracy in any former Soviet states—none of the various political leaders in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) can aspire to anything even remotely approaching the totalitarian level of political control or terror held by Lenin and Stalin.

Think of all the progress that has been made in Russian and American commercial relations, developing business ties, and above all the laudable work of so many citizen diplomacy groups in overcoming negative stereotypes, biased news coverage, and misguided ideological prejudices between ordinary Russians and Americans. Think, also, of those who, even now, sadly seek to bring to Western countries the murderous communist ideology which inflicted untold suffering on tens of millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and indeed worldwide.

We certainly need a new spirit of mutual respect, rapprochement, and détente today, but I believe that it is vital that we hail what progress our two countries have made in the last five decades. Who could have imagined in 1968—shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which both superpowers confronted the very real possibility of imminent nuclear destruction—that an ambassador appointed by Moscow would one day gladly share the stage with a Russian Orthodox archbishop? Who could have imagined that, one day, the Russian president and prime minister would publicly attend Paschal and Nativity services in Russian cathedrals and monasteries, and exchange gifts and greetings with the Patriarch and bishops? These unquestionably positive developments would have been unthinkable only a half century ago, as would the notion of statues of Lenin being replaced across Eastern Europe with ones dedicated to the very family whose execution he ordered. We can see prudent statecraft, political changes, and careful diplomacy behind these shifting realities, but also, surely, the hand of Providence. As my godmother is often wont to say, echoing her dear, late spiritual father, His Grace Bishop Basil Rodzianko (1915-1999), a man who once served in this city: “the Providence of God brings good out of evil.”

Let us marvel at the work of  this Providential hand. A century ago today, the men newly ruling Russia ordered the murder of its previous ruler, its last monarch of a three centuries-old dynasty, and his entire family and household. Today, the people governing Russia overwhelmingly abhor the Marxist-Leninist ideology that inspired these murders, and instead, many of them are among the patrons and pilgrims of the commemorations taking place across Russian cities and towns this year. It is remarkable to me, as a historian, that this past summer, the men and women governing post-Soviet Russia today attended the solemn memorial services officiated by His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill in Yekaterinburg in observance of the centenary anniversary of the murder and martyrdom of the Imperial Family. This is a truly extraordinary development: in only a century, think of all that has changed in Russia and the other former Soviet states that has led us to this moment in history.

Conclusion

As we remember and honour the glorified Imperial Family throughout this centenary year, it is only fitting that we do so in the spirit which, I am sure, they would want us to remember them: prayerfully, charitably, and seeing them not as disunited from their people—whose first sufferings under the Bolshevik revolutionaries they themselves experienced all too intimately—but as co-sufferers with their people. This is the truest, highest, ancient ideal of Christian kingship: the notion that monarchy—far from being some sort of purely authoritarian top-down relationship—is a mystical three-way consecration, in which the monarch is consecrated to God and made responsible before Him for the spiritual welfare of his or her people. Given how seriously the Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich took this meaning behind the words of his Coronation Oath, it is not impossible that the Tsar-Martyr might have recalled them in his final moments on this earth.

It is only my imagining, but I cannot help but wonder if he recalled—even momentarily—some of the words of his solemn Oath, with which he consecrated himself to serve his people before God:

[…] I acknowledge Thy unsearchable purpose towards me, and bow in thankfulness before Thy Majesty. May my heart be in Thy hand, to accomplish all that is to the profit of the people committed to my charge and to Thy glory, that so in the day of Thy judgment I may give Thee account of my stewardship without blame…

The spiritual fruits of this “unsearchable purpose” can be gleaned in the notion which the Emperor himself referred to several times during his reign: his premonition that he would serve—in his earthly reign and ultimately his death—to symbolically expiate the sins of his people before God. This concept—introduced to the Emperor at an uncertain date, but, according to tradition, communicated to him through a letter which St Seraphim of Sarov had written many decades before and entrusted to his disciples—naturally utterly confounds and baffles secular historians. However, to dismiss it out of hand is to miss a vital aspect of how the Emperor saw himself and his own life, reign, and death. It is this inner, metaphysical, and deeply spiritual dimension to the Emperor, his ultimate podvig, in a sense, which is untranslatable or utterly inconceivable to an entirely secular mind, and yet glimpses of it appear in the late writings we have from the Empress, and from their eldest daughter, in the surviving diary entries of the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna, who famously composed the haunting poem in which she prayed for her family to receive the grace to pray for their persecutors (and ultimately, their killers), “Father, forgive them!”

On that infamous July night a century ago, after an extraordinary, tumultuous reign and a life of tremendous trials and tribulations, Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, entered into eternity, suffering—depending on one’s perspective—martyrdom or murder along with his entire family and closest servants. Recalling the cautionary words of St. Olga Nikolayevna written shortly before her death—words passed from her august father that “the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love”—we see both a magnificent encapsulation of the Christian message, as well as a cause for ultimate spiritual triumph. Bearing her words in mind, we can think of the family’s horrific deaths not with a sense of isolated tragedy, confined only to their suffering, but instead we can think of how they consecrated themselves to their people in an imitation of Christ’s sufferings.

Having been first consecrated together as Emperor and Empress of all the Russias on 26 May 1896, just over twenty-two year later, on 17 July 1918, Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna, along with their five dear children and four closest servants, were consecrated in a different way, a manner which ultimately mystically fulfilled the Tsar’s coronation oath in a deeply metaphysical sense. Bearing this in mind, it is then possible for us to say—in the same transcendent spirit which animated their last days and final writings— “Christ is Risen!”

While the sheer brutality and tragedy of their deaths would disturb anyone, we can also see the Imperial Martyrs as the first of millions of sufferers in the long Soviet saga of persecution, which, by the grace of God, came to an end in less than seventy years, while still casting its shadow across the world today. Honouring the Imperial Family’s lives and legacy today, we also inseparably honour the tens of millions of victims of communist totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union and, indeed, everywhere. In doing so, let us keep in mind the nuances and examples found in their lives and deaths, and the metaphysical reality of the hope of our Resurrection above all else. May this centenary year be a Providential source of healing of divisions and wounds between friends, families, neighbours, and nations and peoples, especially Russia and the United States, and Russia and Ukraine. May the witness and prayers of the Imperial New Martyrs, and all their co-sufferers, be with us, in every city and country, and may they bring much-needed healing of the traumas of historical memory, the bitterness of ancient conflicts, and resentment of past wrongs. May we strive to build a world worthy of their legacy as they intercede for us all before the Throne of God! Thank you very much—Я очень благодарю вас!

Open Letter to Archbishop Demetrios of America on Matthew Heimbach

We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.

– Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople

“Do you consider yourself a racist?”

“Sure! So what?”

– Matthew Heimbach to an interviewer in the video clip here.

To: His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Chairman of the Holy Eparchial Synod of Bishops, and Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.

CC: Ms. Marissa P. Costidis, Department of Communications, Coordinator, Managing Director of GOTelecom, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Your Eminence, bless!

I consider it the greatest blessing to be part of the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ which has produced so many holy men and women and Saints over the centuries. In particular, it is a great source of inspiration to me and so many of my Millennial generation that we have the prophetic words of the 1872 Council of Constantinople which, possessed of a divine vision for the inherent dignity of all humanity, condemned phyletism and other forms of racism decades before the national Civil Rights movement arose. I consider it a great honor and blessing that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in particular was blessed with so courageous a hierarch and Primate as the late and ever-blessed Archbishop Iakovos, who marched at Selma with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965. I am aware of Your Eminence’s own recent commemoration of this momentous event in the life and history of our nation.

My conscience obliges me to report to Your Eminence that a white supremacist named Matthew Heimbach, who claims to be a practicing Orthodox Christian, has unfortunately been receiving major media coverage from ABC News in the wake of the recent Charleston shootings. Only yesterday, an article appeared in ABC News in which Heimbach was interviewed while wearing an Orthodox cross. Mr. Heimbach has publicly claimed that the suspected shooter in the Charleston attach is a “victim” of a culture which, supposedly, hates and oppresses white people. Mr. Heimbach has claimed, and continues to claim –falsely– that his racist views somehow are in line with those of Orthodox Christianity. He further claims, despite having been excommunicated for his views by Bishop Anthony of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest, to be an active Orthodox Christian in good standing. While his constitutional rights to free speech allow him to do this, I and a number of my friends from across Orthodox jurisdictions are greatly concerned that Mr. Heimbach’s views will cause non-Orthodox members of the public to associate the Holy Church with his radical, un-Orthodox views. He is furthermore presenting a false narrative, claiming himself to be an active member of the Church when in fact he is excommunicated. I am especially anxious that the memory of your illustrious predecessor Archbishop Iakovos not be profaned by the shameful association of such an ignoble man with Holy Orthodoxy.

I and so many of my generation appreciate Your Eminence’s loving and strong message of support for and solidarity with the victims of the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting. It is a joy to have such a conscientious hierarch as yourself to express such sentiments which reflect the timeless Orthodox teaching on the inherent dignity of all human life. I am writing now to Your Eminence in your capacity as Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, with the fervent hope and prayer that, in your wisdom and charity, you will urge your brother bishops, both in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and in the Assembly itself, to 1) reiterate that Matthew Heimbach is an excommunicated person outside the Orthodox Church and 2) to issue a statement from the Assembly bishops condemning the Charleston shootings for what they were: a racist, hate-motivated terrorist attack.

Yours faithfully in Christ,

-Ryan Hunter (Christian name “Silouan”)

P.S. I have also written to His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese here.

Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes’ Lamentation for the Fall of Constantinople

Video

Tomorrow, June 11 (which is May 29 on the Julian calendar) we remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) on May 29 in 1453, 560 years ago.

Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, the “Eye of the World”. Most historians regard Chrysaphes as the most prominent Byzantine musician of the 15th century. He was a singer, composer and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two Byzantine emperors, John VIII and Constantine XI. His surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of Byzantine singing in the late Palaiologan period. The Portland, Oregon-based Byzantine choral ensemble Cappella Romana sings this otherworldly lamentation. Here is a review of Cappella Romana’s performance of the lamentation by The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson.

One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western and Ottoman history.

While the city had declined in population, power and prestige to become a shadow of its former self, and was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them, its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.

With the death of the Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose citizens had simply called themselves ‘Romans’, whose official name was Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, the Roman Empire, or Ῥωμανία, ‘Romania’, came to an end after 1100 years. When one thinks of the city’s repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Persians, Arabs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, and finally the Ottomans, it is remarkable that, until its first sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences.

Byzantium synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural and philosophical legacy from classical Greece and the Hellenic kingdoms with that of Roman law, political theory and imperial government structure, preserving thousands of classical and legal texts which would have likely been lost in the West. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of many centuries of external pressure, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim expansion into Europe..

From an Orthodox perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity with a vast contribution in liturgical tradition, homiletics, theology, and phronema. The fall of the city profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the most powerful Muslim empire.

The Ottoman Turks finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century since they conquered most of Anatolia and expanded behind Constantinople into Thrace and the Balkans. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Byzantium, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Byzantine refugees poured into Italy.

Awareness of God: Thoughts on theism vs. atheism

“The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one. The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that did understand and seek God.”

– Psalm 14:1-2 (Douay-Rheims Bible).

“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes all description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” 

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).

The divide between atheism and theism ultimately reduces to a question of whether one believes and is aware of the existence of another world, a spiritual dimension, or whether one does not believe such a dimension exists. Belief or disbelief in a higher power, in a force or dimension directed by something beyond what our cognitive rational mind can recognize, is a natural and logical consequence of where one falls in answering this question.
 
Ultimately, as decent as we can and should be in our dialogues and day-to-day encounters with those who differ from us in this regard, we have to recognize that we as theists adhere to a fundamentally different worldview and understanding of existence compared to atheists. We should remember that our particular worldview and understanding of existence as Orthodox Christians especially sets us apart in Western society from atheists whose primary engagement with Christianity is with Roman Catholicism and the vastly different Protestant denominations. 
 
At the core of who they are by their declared belief that Goes does not exist, atheists must inevitably think that those of us who believe in a spiritual dimension and who avow prayer as a means of communicating with the divine are hopelessly deluded. Likewise, all theists, but most especially we as Orthodox Christians, have to recognize with sadness that atheists are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality of God’s presence, of which we are intimately and experientially aware, for God is “everywhere present and filling all things”.
 
Thanks be to God that His design for all people to come unto Him and to know Him by His love – the will of the Father through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit – can and does illumine the hardest of hearts. As much as many of the recent sacrilegious public acts by those promoting militant atheism and other radical ideologies horrify us as Orthodox believers, we must remember that no theist can become an atheist without first losing trust in those whom they have seen speaking for or acting on behalf of God. We should be moved out of genuine love for their souls to pray for atheists – many of whom are kindhearted and fundamentally decent people – but we must always strive to answer the hatred of militant atheists with love, with silence when we are mocked, and kindness when we are scorned.

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Metropolitan Jonah’s 2011 Pastoral Letter at the start of Great Lent

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Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

      The beginning of another Lenten season is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for us to cast aside those things which have distanced us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Like a wise mother, the Church provides this period of time as a means for us to prepare for receiving the joy of Pascha and Christ’s holy resurrection.

      This same joy and blessing was granted to us at our baptism, when the following prayer was read:

      “Grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from himself the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

       Our baptism in the waters of regeneration enabled us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use the upcoming season of Great Lent to return to those baptismal waters. For this transformation to take place, we must first have a desire for a change of heart. Do we want to turn aside from the passions of our flesh? Carnal thoughts or deeds, idle chatter, gossip, lying, selfish acts, greed, and gluttony are all things which separate us from Christ. Isn’t it time to stop these destructive habits? Simply put, we know our passions stand in our way of entering into the heavenly kingdom. Now is the time to cast them into oblivion. Instead of tearing each other down, let us build each other up, as the Gospel commands. Instead of slander and accusation, judgment and condemnation, let us encourage and love our neighbors.

      If we truly desire to return to God, then let us do so in a spirit of humility. Let God transform our minds and hearts through true repentance, the fruit of that humility. We live in a society which encourages us to have an opinion or comment worthy of posting or tweeting about everyone and everything, but as Orthodox Christians it is time for us to stop thinking we have all of the answers. Let us turn off the rhetoric and excuses while rejecting our arrogance and pride. Denial of self is not easy. Yet we can echo the example of our Savior, who silently, and with meekness and humility approached the cross. When we take up our cross and follow Him, He will make our burden light.

      When we have reacquired a sense of humility, it is possible to more clearly recognize our sins and repent of them. Admission of our sins through repentance will not only help us as individuals, but also as communities of Orthodox Christian throughout North America. The effects of a broken and contrite heart can have a great impact on every relationship in our lives. True repentance replaces discord with harmony, and frustration with love. Individually and collectively, our lives should and need to reflect the love found in Jesus Christ.

      Great Lent is an excellent time for us to rediscover the importance of loving one’s neighbors. If, as Orthodox Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we have a responsibility to ask forgiveness for our failings, while banishing our grudges and egos. It means sharing the love of Christ with those in need, whether they are in our parishes or on the street. Putting an extra ten dollars in the basket is an excellent start. Or try to actually tithe your income (10%) to the Church during Lent. Taking it one step further to make a connection with someone by providing them with a meal or charity can make Christ present in their lives and so fulfill the law of God.

      The joy and radiant light of Pascha will quickly be here, and it is imperative that we make use of the time available for us during Great Lent to work on our spiritual health. It is time for us to cast off the works of darkness, as the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Romans. The services, prayers, fasting, and acts of charity we do during Lent are merely tools to help us return to God. Be careful, my beloved ones, that these tools do not become stumbling blocks for us, or that we use them to cause others to sin.

      I believe it is possible for each of us to turn from our sins and draw closer to our God the Father by redirecting our lives through Christ. What a joy it will be if each of us begins taking those first steps in love on the narrow path leading back to God. Our collective journey through Great Lent will bring us closer together as a community of love, and as the baptismal prayer says, may we become partakers of the Resurrection. Let us keep a sober mind to properly prepare for that moment on Pascha when we boldly and confidently may proclaim: Christ is Risen!

      In the many ways while serving as your archpastor, if I have failed or wronged you, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. May the Lord forgive us all!

      With my prayers for a holy season of Great Lent,

       With love in Christ,

      +Jonah

Abbot Tryphon on “Christian Pharisees”

Christian Pharisees
The Orthodox Faith is Nothing Without Transformation of Life

If your spiritual life is concentrated only on external practices and traditions, but does nothing to bring about real change, you have gained nothing. Too many people think as long as they keep the fasting rules, do their prayers, and attend the services, they are good Orthodox Christians. Yet if there is no love, no charity, and forgiveness of others, and your life is filled with gossip and judgement, your Orthodox Christian faith is worth nothing. 

Christ condemned the Pharisees not because they kept the law and attended to the traditions of the Jewish faith, but because they did so while filled with pride and arrogance. Without sincere repentance and holiness of life, their encounter with God led to an emptiness of heart.

Because our Orthodox faith is one of tradition and liturgical structure, it is easy to fall into the trap of being nothing more than a Pharisee. Being strict in one’s observance of Orthodox practices can easily lead to pride and arrogance. If you find yourself feeling better than others and proud of your piety, you have gained absolutely nothing. The external practice of the Orthodox Christian faith without heartfelt humility and repentance leads down the road of spiritual ruin. 

The Church is the hospital of the soul, but healing can only come if we put effort into it. If your doctor prescribes a medication for your condition but you fail to follow your doctor’s orders, you will not get well. The Church has all that you need for spiritual transformation, but healing only comes if you cooperate with the healing process. 

The goal is holiness (wholeness) and is the direct result of our having submitted in all humility to a life of repentance. When you do this Christ changes you. If you simply go through the motions of your Orthodox faith, you are no better off than the Pharisees whom Christ condemned.

Love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

ImageThe Very Reverend Igumen Abbot Tryphon is the spiritual leader at All Merciful Saviour monastery located on Vashon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington State. The monastery is within the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The monastery’s widely acclaimed and popular Facebook page can be found here. Abbot Tryphon’s popular blog can be accessed here.

Thoughts on the sanctity of all life

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Why do I have the right to be alive right now writing this? Why do you have the right to be alive now reading this?

Ultimately, if you defend any means of artificially ending life – the death penalty, abortion, suicide, or euthanasia of the elderly or of the disabled – as ‘situationally variable’ (as sometimes morally justifiable, and therefore intrinsically ethical or right in certain situations), then you have to deny that anyone has an absolute right to existing at all. If you believe that, in certain circumstances, it is morally justifiable to end a life, then life itself can have no inherent meaning as sacred or intrinsically worthy of protection.

If you believe that you have the right to terminate a developing life in utero, or execute a convicted criminal whom a court and society judges to be of no value, or euthanize an elderly person who is judged to be a burden to his or her caretakers and to broader society, then life itself can have no intrinsic meaning for you beyond what you subjectively get out of your own life or hope others get out of theirs. Thus, your life matters to you and those people in your life, but ultimately your life doesn’t actually have inherent worth to the world or to existence. Thus, your life matters to you, and the lives of your friends and loved ones have real value for you, but Life itself is gray, neutral, of no certain worth or value.

Why then do you have the right to be alive and thinking the thoughts you are thinking right now, and someone else who was aborted, executed, or euthanized doesn’t have that same right? If you defend the notion that some developing lives aren’t worth their cost or burden to the would-be mother, then why should your mother have ever borne you? If you defend the notion that some elderly people are a burden on their families and society, and that we should mercifully hasten their end, then why shouldn’t this be done to you when you are old and vulnerable, even if it is against your will?

These are major existential questions, and the confusion and internal struggle which they evoke in someone unsure of how to answer them can only be avoided by affirming that either everyone has the absolute right to life, or no one does.

If you believe the latter, then why fight for your right to live as you please in any way, since what you do with your life, and your life itself, doesn’t actually have any inherent worth or meaning whatsoever? This kind of thinking is the seed of nihilism and the inevitable consequence of taking the moral relativist position that not all lives are worth protecting.

The above image, taken at yesterday’s March for Life here in Washington, D.C., has been circulating widely on the internet, especially on Facebook. It makes use of a popular Facebook meme. Abortion (while on my mind due to the March occurring here yesterday) is not the principal focus of my thoughts here. The image featured above prompted me to engage with the much broader, deeper question of the value – objective or subjective – of life itself.

The sign which the marcher holds contains just four simple words. These words convey a very powerful witness: “Respect ALL the life!”. But what does this really mean? To me, it’s a whole philosophical worldview. Believing that abortion is a terrible tragedy, the loss of a developing life, is just one part of it. Babies developing in utero, infants whose babble we can’t understand, the physically and mentally disabled, the psychologically impaired, the dying elderly, and even murderers who might in our eyes deserve death: all deserve life. All received life from God, or from Providence or “Nature”, to use the Enlightenment language, but no one receives life from any laws or government.

All of us received our lives without any part in the process other than simply coming into this world. So what right have any of us to say who should be allowed into this world and who shouldn’t? Or when someone should be sent out of this world, and when they should be sent in? If we entertain these notions, we risk taking on the role of God. This thinking produces tyrannies beyond measure.

The foundation of the idea that life is a mystery and a gift which is not ours to dispose of when unwanted, or to take away when inconvenient, is thus the foundation of a civil and decent society. What is the alternative? A society in which people desperately want their lives to matter, but have no basis for them to actually have any inherent worth. Ultimately, in a society where life has no inherent meaning because people have agreed that lives can be morally ended at certain points, in certain circumstances, no one can actually justify their existence, their very living, as anything beyond sheer luck and fortune in time and circumstance.

Why am I alive writing this? Why are you alive reading this? If you believe that human life can legitimately be ended by artificial means ,whether through abortion, suicide, euthanasia of the elderly or the dying, or state-sponsored execution, then you really can’t answer that question except with an acknowledgement that your mother decided to bring you into the world. If you truly believe your mother could have been morally justified in, for whatever reason, deciding not to have you, then ultimately you cannot believe there is any real foundation for your existence, or that of anyone else in your life, or in this world. Life is either inherently worth protecting in all its forms, or it is inherently worthless in all forms. Which position would you rather take?

Talking to Muslims about Jesus

The need for a respectful approach

I have many Muslim friends whom I love and respect very much. Throughout my interfaith service work and dialogues all Muslims I have met and worked with were very kind, charitable, and community-minded individuals. Many have repeatedly told me that they feel freer to practice their faith here in the United States than anywhere else. How do we as Orthodox Christians go about talking about our faith with Muslim friends or colleagues? What is the best way to go about doing this?

I have only discussed theology with a few of these Muslim friends, and whenever we talk about Jesus in Islam and Christianity, they of course tell me they do not believe Jesus was God, and ask, “How could you believe Jesus (peace be upon him/”PBUH”) was a god?”

One thing you will notice right away is that Muslims always attach this honorary suffix to Jesus’ name, as well as any person they consider a prophet other than Muhammad, their final prophet, to whom they say, “May Allah honor him and grant him peace”. On the internet you will see “peace be upon him” often abbreviated by English-speaking Muslims to “pbuh” or the Arabic transliteration into Roman letters, “A.S”. That this suffix should be given to Jesus (Isa in Arabic) should immediately strike Christians as a positive thing.

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            It is very important to recognize in someone the common ground you share, and reaffirm your respect for them before you begin to civilly discuss your differences. A lot of people are very ignorant about Islam and are unaware of both its commonalities with many Christian teachings, and its many differences. There have been many cases since the September 11 attacks of Muslim American citizens being brutally attacked for their faith, as well as Americans of the Sikh faith being attacked because the attackers erroneously thought they were Muslims.

Having a respectful dialog with a Muslim can really go a long way in giving them a positive impression of Christianity in the event that they feel negative towards our faith. It is also an important part of the Christian Way to condemn violence and hatred wherever it is found, whether it is directed against those of our faith, as is often the case throughout the Middle East today where Christians endure severe persecution and restrictions on their basic liberties, or those outside our faith.

One area we have in common with Muslims is that we both accord Jesus a very high place of honor. In fact, someone cannot be a Muslim if she or he does not believe Jesus was a prophet of God and among those “nearest to Allah” (Sura 3:45). (Allah is the Arabic word meaning ‘The God’, the only God). Thus, if a Muslim ever insults Jesus during your conversation or speaks disparagingly about any of His miracles (many of his miracles are mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as some alleged ones which the Bible does not mention) do not be surprised if his or her Muslim friends rebuke or chide them.

Jesus in the Qur’an: in some ways similar, in many very different from Jesus in the Bible

The Qur’an repeatedly and emphatically states that Jesus was only a Prophet of God (4:171, 5:17, 5:75). It goes further, saying that at the Day of Judgment Jesus will emphatically deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity (5:116, 5:72, 3:55). This is a direct refutation of Christian claims that Jesus was the Son of God and God Incarnate. Islamic jurisprudence considers shirk,  (شرك‎) that is, making partners to God, the sole unpardonable sin: “Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden [Paradise] and the Fire will be his abode.” (5:72). In Sura (chapter) 5:17, those who believe Christ is God are condemned as living “in blasphemy”. Make special note of these passages, since many Muslims today raised in Western countries may not actually be familiar with them.

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            Islam thus incorrectly assumes that Christian belief in the Trinity is tritheism, belief in three gods, and therefore the unpardonable sin of shirk. In effect, the Qur’an teaches that Christians were misled or deluded into making Jesus and Mary ‘gods’ beside Allah (9:31, 19:88-92). This view of course ignores that Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant Christians honor and venerate (see Luke 1:46-55, the scriptural text of the Magnificat), but do not worship Mary, and consider Jesus to be fully God, not God’s ‘partner’ or a separate god beside Him.

Interestingly, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be directly revealed from God, holds that Jesus performed many miracles (5:110, 3:49), but by Allah’s power, not his own. Jesus in the Qur’an is only God’s servant, His prophet. Curiously, the Qur’an refers to Jesus indirectly and by name almost one hundred times in fifteen suras (chapters), far more than it refers to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an holds Mariam (Mary) in very high regard. In Sura 3:42 the Qur’an calls her “chosen” of God and “pure”, the virgin whom God has “preferred above all the women of creation”. The only woman mentioned by name in the text, it mentions Mary far more than the New Testament does. She is highly honored throughout the book (21:91, 23:50), which affirms her annunciation from the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) and her virgin birth (19:19-22).

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            The Qur’an also promises Jesus’ Second Coming (43:61), yet ironically, Prophet Muhammad is not expected to return to earth. Muslims believe Jesus was a devout Muslim (one who submits to Allah), was the Messiah sent to preach to the people of Israel, and heralded the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.

In its view of Jesus, the Qur’an can be considered an antithesis or attempted refutation of the Christian Gospel. It explicitly denies the Crucifixion (4:157) and thereby the Resurrection, claiming instead that Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven without death. Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, died and was buried at Medina, Islam’s second holiest city in modern day Saudi Arabia, where he and his first supporters found refuge after the Meccans expelled them.

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Correcting two major misconceptions which Muslims tend to have about Christians

1)      “Don’t Christians believe in three gods?”

The Qur’an accuses Christians of believing in three gods. This shows a clear misunderstanding of the Trinity. If the person or group of Muslim friends you are talking with wants to learn a bit more, then you can discuss the Trinity with them, but it is important not to get bogged down in complicated theology. You should share that the only people who claim to be Christians who worship anything resembling three gods are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, known among themselves as “Latter-day Saints” or LDS). Technically, Mormons are not tritheists, but henotheists because they believe in a possibly infinite number of ‘exalted’ beings who become gods through a process called exaltation, but they only worship the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Latter-day Saints are tritheists in the sense that they reject the Trinity, believing instead that the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three ‘separate beings [gods] united in purpose’. This will likely horrify or shock your Muslim friends, since it fits the very definition of shirk in Islam. You can also share that Mormon prophets historically taught, and many Mormons still believe, that God the Father was once a man who they believe progressed through a process called exaltation to become God, and that He has a tangible body of flesh and bone.

This will horrify Muslims, as it horrifies you. Muslims are strict monotheists, so in establishing common ground with Muslims, you can repeatedly reiterate that you believe Mormons beliefs about God/gods are not yours.

2)      “Don’t Christians worship Mary?”

This is an area where many Orthodox and Catholic Christians struggle in convincing evangelical and some mainline Protestant Christians that we do not, in fact, “worship” Mary. You should make clear that while you venerate and honor Mary as the Virgin Mother of Christ, and therefore the Mother of God Incarnate, (God come into the flesh among Men), you absolutely do not worship her, for she, while exalted and made holy by the power of God, is still human, a created being, and therefore not deserving of worship.

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The Discussion: Planting doubt in a Muslim’s mind that Jesus was only a Prophet

1)      If Jesus never claimed He was God, but the Qur’an says that at his Second Coming Jesus will insist to Allah that he was merely acting as His prophet and servant, why does the Qur’an put Christians (along with Jews) in a relatively protected status as “People of the Book”? Our Holy Book, the Bible, transparently supports Jesus’ divinity, which is considered the sole unpardonable sin of shirk, that is, ascribing ‘partners’ to God. Why then does the Qur’an considers the Christian Scriptures, which, it claims, so distort Jesus’ true message heralding the coming of Muhammad, worthy of honor?

Why, if Jesus truly never said the things about Himself which the New Testament preserves about Him (His repeated claims to divinity and the path to salvation only through faith in Him), would Muhammad order his followers to leave Christians alone, when what we believe about Jesus is the very antithesis of what Prophet Muhammad taught about him, deserving of eternal “fire” (5:72) due to our “blasphemy” (5:17)?

From Islam’s perspective, Trinitarian Christians commit “shirk”, that unpardonable sin of making “partners” to the One God (Allah), so why then does the Qur’an often put us in a more positive light than it does Jews, when Jews are strict monotheists, closer to Islam’s standard for monotheism, than we Trinitarians?

2)      Islam claims to be the fulfillment and correction of both Judaism and Christianity, but nowhere in the Qur’an are Muslims urged to read the Torah or any of the books of the New Testament. The latter makes sense, given that the New Testament clearly lays out that Jesus is the Son of God and God Incarnate, but how can the Qur’an claim to be the fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity when its ‘predecessor’, Christianity, included the Jewish holy scriptures into its canonized scriptures (the Holy Bible) as the Old Testament, and yet Islam does not make any actual use of the Jewish scriptures or Christian ones? Also, given that Muslims mirror Jewish dietary practice by consuming only halal foods similar to Jewish kosher rules of slaughter, and see the Old Testament prophets, especially Adam, Moses, Elijah, and Ishmael, as forerunners of Jesus and Muhammad, why do Muslims still not use the Hebrew Scriptures?

3)      In the Qur’an, Jesus ascends to heaven by bodily assumption, he never dies, and he is foretold to return to earth at the Second Coming. Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, died and was buried, did not ascend to heaven, and will never return to earth. Muslims at the Day of Judgment believe that Jesus will deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity, yet Jesus alone of all the prophets in Islam was assumed bodily into heaven and will return to earth close to the Day of Judgment. Somehow, despite his bodily ascension, his miracles, his birth to a virgin, and his foretold return, Jesus is still considered only God’s servant, the same as the Prophet Muhammad or earlier prophets. This does not make sense when you consider that all other prophets, believed to have acted and performed miracles through Allah’s power and grace, died, were not born to virgins, did not ascend bodily to heaven, nor will any of them come again to this earth.

Ultimately, from a Christian perspective, the claims of the Qur’an about Jesus only being a Prophet come off as an attempt to ignore Jesus’ divinity or cover up the claims He made in the Bible, while limiting the miracle-performing parts of Jesus’ life, as well as his true role and scope as Messiah to the people of Israel. The result is a kind of ‘hybrid’ Jesus who is plainly greater than the other prophets given all the unique things the Qur’an teaches about him, but he is still emphatically not considered divine. Why thus did Islam’s greatest and founding prophet Muhammad die, never to return again, yet Jesus in the Qur’an never died, but is to return again to earth? Surely this means Jesus is greater in Islam than the Prophet Muhammad- yet such a statement outrages and offends devout Muslims!

4)     In the Qur’an Jesus’ mother Mariam (Mary) is held in very high regard. In fact, she often appears with the suffix “peace be upon her”, the only woman honored in this way by name in the Qu’ran. In fact, an entire sura (19) is named in her honor. In the text, Mary is a righteous virgin who is astonished when the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) appears to her and reveals that she would conceive Jesus not by a man, but by the “holy spirit of God”. Islam honors Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Ishmael, Moses, and most of the Old Testament prophets, yet no prophet’s mother, not even Muhammad’s, conceived virginally or by the “holy spirit of God”! In the Qur’an, Jesus also miraculously spoke at his birth (19:22-33); not even the New Testament has Jesus speaking at birth! Surely, a mere prophet does not speak from his cradle and proclaim himself, at birth, to be a prophet!

5)      A common explanation I’ve heard among Muslims for why Jesus could not possibly be divine is that in the Qur’an, there is a verse attesting that Jesus and Mary both had to eat food for sustenance.

“Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. . .” (5:75).

This is a really weak argument. If Allah, the One God, deigns or chooses to  become Incarnate in His infinite grace and love for the world, then why should He not, if He deigns to take on humanity, then eat? Why should He not do so? He is God, capable of all things, of anything He commands or wills! Why should He not partake of a small part of His creation, of some food? Just because God deigns to eat does not mean He needs to eat for sustenance!

Thus, Islam argues, the Christian understanding of Jesus must be some kind of weak or flawed ‘god’—a god who needs to eat, what kind of god can that be? Christianity sees Jesus as fully man and yet fully God, who loses none of His divine majesty and transcendent power by choosing to take on our humanity.

This is what befuddles Muslims more than anything, since they reject the Incarnation entirely, and so once you plant doubts in their mind about Jesus’ role as only a Prophet in Islam, you can hopefully begin to start talking to them about the Incarnation and how everything the Christian Scriptures ascribes to Christ, and indeed, the miracles recorded in the Qur’an, make much more sense as the accomplishments and will of God Incarnate, than a mere Prophet.

Entering into the mind and the heart of the Faith

“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” – St. John of Damascus (675-749)

Since before I can remember, I have always been passionately interested in the study and history of world faiths and religious traditions. The shelves of my amateur ‘library’ in my bedroom at my family home are filled with books on ancient, early modern and modern European, Middle Eastern, American, Chinese, Japanese and Indian history, and books detailing the beliefs and histories of different world religions and philosophies, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Bookshelf

(Not my actual library.)

When I was home in New York over this past Thanksgiving break, I took what I intended to be only a few minutes and ended up losing myself for hours pouring over dozens of these magnificent books which marked my intellectual growth and absorption of knowledge as a child and teenager. It was a beautiful experience, transporting me back to the very pages which opened my mind, like a window, to the peoples, beliefs and practices of times ancient, medieval, and more recent.

As I looked through several books on Christianity and the history of Rome, Tsarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire, I became absorbed in the pages where my exposure to the teachings, spiritual life, and beautiful liturgy and aesthetics of Orthodoxy first began at a very young age: coffee table books such as Brian Moynahan’s The Russian Century or Rick Smolan’s A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, heavy art history books from the Smithsonian and the Hermitage about St. Petersburg and Moscows palaces, churches, convents and monasteries. All of these books which marked my entry into Orthodoxy, at least intellectually and in my imagination, were gifts from my grandparents, one of my father’s colleagues, and one of my uncles who had traveled to Russia.

russian_land

These books transported me to two very different places: the art history books and photographic histories ushered me to a magnificent bygone world of lavish Courts, opulent palaces, solemn liturgies, cozy-looking villages and beautiful monasteries perched on lakes and the edge of great rivers, while the books on twentieth century Russian and Soviet history made me aware- often through their wordless, graphic images – of the almost unspeakable horrors which millions of peoples of Eastern Europe endured in the past century. It seemed incredible to me that Orthodoxy had somehow managed to survive at all under an unimaginably cruel, repressive and totalitarian regime dedicated to the cause of militant atheism and the abolition of all religion, considered superstition incompatible with the basic principles of revolutionary socialism and Marxist-Leninism.

Years later, I would learn of just how savage the persecution of Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics had been under the Soviet period, especially  during the first years under Lenin, and then Stalin’s dictatorship prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR and the Khrushchev years. A regime which dynamited ancient cathedrals, churches and lavras, sent spies to monitor priests and their congregations, and which first symbolically lined up icons and sentenced them to death, then followed with hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, monks, and hierarchs, and untold millions of faithful laity.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral's demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a " Palace of Soviets " on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host of the world's largest public swimming pool.  The rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997 following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building. It stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral’s demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a “Palace of Soviets ” on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host to the world’s largest public swimming pool.

This exposure, both to the beauty and richness of Orthodoxy, and the incredible suffering of Eastern Christians in the past century, deeply touched something in me long before I ever worshiped in an Orthodox temple, finding myself immersed in the timeless grace and ethereal majesty of the Divine Liturgy. I felt an inexplicable connection to the history of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people, and wondered what it was about their faith that could have so threatened or outraged the Soviets that they attempted to completely eradicate it from the earth. How could anyone endure what so many Orthodox Christians had endured, how could people hold onto their faith when millions of their fellow believers went to their death for it?

Christ the Savior Cathedral

After the end of the Soviet Union, the rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997  following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building structural design. Once again a major feature of the Moscow skyline, it stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Russian Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

After centuries of existing as the only official State faith of the Russian tsars (a position which enabled the Russian Church to produce some of Christianity’s most eloquent and brilliant theologians and holiest saints, but which also led to institutional corruption, entrenched political factions, and the abuse of the basic freedoms of non-Orthodox religious minorities, especially Jews), how then did the Russian Church endure a complete reversal of fortune when it became the prime target of a militantly atheist communist State committed to its destruction?

Because of my intellectual introduction to Orthodox history and my familiarity with the twentieth century traumas to so many of the Orthodox peoples (Greek, Serbian, Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian especially), when I first experienced the Byzantine Liturgy, while I was astounded to have found myself having stepped into what seemed like an ancient royal court or an entirely new world, the heavenly realm itself, I still felt inexplicably at home. Amid the chanting of the ancient psalms, the ethereal singing of the choir, the censing of the church, her beautiful, expressive icons, and her worshipers, I became absorbed in not just the rich aesthetic smells and sounds and sights of the worship- the vestments of the priests, chanting, the bows and prostrations, and heartfelt prayer litanies- but I became aware of a grace, the presence of God, which was stronger than anything I had ever before encountered.

liturgy

In my spiritual journey, I had visited many different Protestant churches, attended different Catholic parishes, and also read widely on non-Christian faiths and attended several of their services and meditations. But when I encountered Orthodoxy, stepping into the light of the Liturgy’s eternal banquet, I experienced a kind of awe-inspiring awakening which confirmed not only God’s existence and power, but His unspeakable, transcendent majesty and timelessness, and His deep concern for me and all the world.

I realized the reality that worshiping the Trinity which created us should be the core purpose for our existence. For, if there is truly a God who created all that is, if we truly believe that, and if He loved us so much that He chose to become incarnate so that we might enter into mystical union with Him through the divinization of our very being, then how can we not make Him the center of our lives? By extension, how can we be Christians unless we love every person on this earth as a unique creation made in His image?

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