Friday, November 2, 2012

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Politics and the Church

Arabic original here. Part one of this article can be read here.

Towards Elaborating an Orthodox Position toward What is Happening (II)

We are still speaking within the context of politics.

There is a distinction in the Church between the person and his opinion and it is the starting-point for how we deal with each other. In any situation, we are committed to the person without regard to his opinion. No matter how perverse his opinion may be, this should not affect our commitment to him. The correctness of his opinion, in our view, should not increase our commitment to him, nor should the error of his position opinion the power of this commitment. The sole commandment that we believers in Jesus Christ have received is for us to be committed: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is not the love that members of a tribe have for each other. We are not a tribe. This is our loving the entire world with the love that God has for us. The sign that we practice it in deed and not just in word is that we, as the people of the house of God are bound, in spirit and in truth, to the utmost limits of the commandment of love: “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who do you harm and persecute you.”

The difference between equating a position with the one holding it and distinguishing the person from his opinion is great. In the first case, we are standing before a human reaction. In the second case, we are before a divine impulse. In the first case, we stand before a human whom we have objectified. In the second case, we are before a being like us, who has what we have, who was brought out of nothing into being by the all-surpassing love of God. In the first case, we honor people because their opinions are compatible with our own. In the second case we honor others as a way of honoring God. In the first case, we fall in our selfishness. In the second case we rise in our otherness. In the first case, we judge people on the basis of our own opinion. In the second case, we respect people's right to have an opinion that is different from our own. In the first case, we stand before our conviction in the absoluteness of our opinion. In the second case, we are before the relative nature of how people express their opinions in truth. In the first case, we act, implicitly, as though we regard ourselves as infallible. In the second case, we act implicitly as though we regard ourselves as subject to making mistakes. In the first case, we act as though we regard ourselves as self-sufficient. In the second case, we act as though we regard ourselves as completed through others. In the first case, we seek our enmity to establish ourselves. In the second case, we seek our brotherhood, to establish that God is with us and among us. In the first case, we are prepared to go so far as to eliminate others, in one way or another, and we think that in this way we make the truth or offer a service to God. In the second case, we are prepared to go so far as to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, realizing the truth and imitating the Lord Jesus Christ! Finally, in the first case we stand before self-love, while in the second case we stand before God’s love with all our heart and soul and strength.

Relying on the distinction between a person and his opinion and being committed to the person in any situation is something difficult, you say? Indeed, it's humanly impossible! You say that it is theoretical? Not at all, it is spiritual, a work of the Spirit of God! It is theoretical if one does not know or does not follow things spiritual! You say that it is unrealistic? Not at all, it is very realistic! The important thing is which realism you mean. There is realism and then there is realism. There is purely human realism. Perhaps this is what you mean. Within the framework of this realism, what I am saying is naturally unrealistic! But there is theantrhopic realism that responds to the reality that the Son of God entered into our life through His incarnation! Within the framework of this new reality, what I am saying is not only realistic, but also intuitive!

And so, distinguishing between the ruler and his regime or between any group and the political opinions that they adopt is not only necessitated by the nature of the new life, exemplified in the consciousness of the believer, in the Church of Christ—it can only come out of true, authentic love in Christ. This does not come from fabrication, play-acting, or trading in words. It comes from exemplifying God’s love in the heart. And exemplifying God’s love comes from keeping the commandment. At the moment when we follow the commandment, God dwells within us and we are filled with love from His love. “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23).

Either Christ is with us and among us or we have nothing whatsoever to bring us together and unite us. We remain divided in our hearts, opposing each other in our intentions. Either the love of Christ or the stench of death! There is no substitute for divine love! What people say about us is worthless. People make judgments according to appearances. What God says has value, and God is the God of hearts. So the choice is between our authenticity in love and going astray, no matter how elaborate and researched our opinions may be! Then authenticity alone will bring about inner uprightness. When we walk in uprightness we are no longer concerned with pleasing people, but rather we are concerned with pleasing God. We no longer love them as they want, by going along with what they desire, but as God wants us to love them. We do not applaud their desires, fearing them or selling out. Instead, we bear witness to divine truth in their face, for their salvation and to the glory of God. We do not behave hypocritically, seeking cowardly profit, whether personal or for the community, or seeking to protect those in power. “God must be obeyed, not people.” So we obey God’s word and bear witness to it, even if the price is the martyrdom of blood! We have no profits and no privileges here! The people of the house of God are concerned with the kingdom and nothing else!

However, from the love of God and from the love of God alone within us, two things emerge, without which we have no true testimony: divine wisdom and the courage that is from above. If it is wise for us to be silent like the Lord Jesus before Pilate, then wisdom is what will inspire us to this. And if it is wise for us to speak like the Apostle Paul spoke before the ruler Faustus and the governor Felix, then we will speak the divine word of truth and not keep silent. If it is of God’s wisdom for us to say in all courage to those who are dealing with us what we see in them, it is not possible for us to hold back and keep faith in God. In the fourth century, Saint Basil the Great was not afraid of the Arian governor Modestus when he wanted to crush his resistance. Rather he said to him frankly, “The ruler does not believe in the true faith. You are heretics!” In 1922 when Saint Tikhon, the Russian patriarch, was brought before a Soviet tribunal and was asked by its head, “Do you consider the laws in force in the country to be unjust,” he did not hesitate to reply, “Yes, I consider them unjust!”

A beautiful account of the firmness of the faithful, when required, is found in the life of the martyr Saint Christopher, Patriarch of Antioch (d. 967). It is said that a priest who was a physician fell into a minor sin and the patriarch imposed a penance upon him. The priest asked one of the Hamdanid emirs to intervene, as he was a dear physician to him. When the emir asked the patriarch to pardon him, he replied, “It is not possible for me to do that, my lord.” He said, “Do you not fear me? What is it that you cannot do if I command you to do it?” He replied, “That which pertains to my religion, my dogma, and my law, because we are in your obedience and in other matters we cannot disobey you. But regarding that which has been set aside by religion, we are prepared to be imprisoned and beheaded. The emir said, “In any case, let me know what this offence is, that touches upon your religion.” The patriarch responded, “Before this, O emir, it was a minor crime and easy to put aright. But now it is great and impossible to pardon, since it is not permitted for a priest to appeal to you, a Muslim who is against our belief, in a matter that pertains to the Church and no one else.

For this reason we deal with rulers and those in whose midst God has planted us with true, pure, unwavering love. We love them and do not show them favor. We trust them in truth and do not endorse their passions. We pray from the heart that the Lord God will grant them His wisdom, keep them, and repel from them every trick of the Enemy, for their contentment, the people’s good, and God’s glory. We encourage them in truth and do not fear them in falsehood. We participate with them in suffering and sacrifice for the nation, and we share in their consolation.  We weep with those who week and rejoice with those who are joyful. We do not participate in their sins, but we participate in their suffering even if their sins are not our sins! We feed the hungry at all times, give drink to the thirsting, give ointment to the wounded, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. This is not a media posture. This is the life story of the faithful. This is not announced verbally. This is built upon upright behavior in how we deal with those who believe in Jesus Christ and others. All are our neighbors when we love them. Love is initiative and not reaction. Every day we untiringly build these up with others as bridges. These are the building-blocks of our politics at their deepest. From this well we draw our opinions in truth. Otherwise we are hollow and have become trivial among the trivial! What value is there to be sound in body and to be perishing in the soul? “What benefit is it for a person if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”?! One who does not love is not free from his whims. One who walks in passions is a slave to his passions. One who is not free from his whims cannot help to free anyone. True freedom is inner, existential freedom. Civil freedom is not a virtue and has no value in itself! This is our testimony in Christ, that we strive to liberate the world through the divine love that is active within us! Aside from this, we have no testimony to give!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan the Athonite- Douma
July 8, 2012


  1. I don't really know Orthodox theology on these issues. Is martyrdom a positive obligation? Is self-defense a sin?

  2. Regarding self-defense, it's common in Orthodox sources to read John 15:13 as sanctioning defense of family and country using force, usually contrasting it with Matthew 5:39, which is interpreted as forbidding violence in defending one's own person.