Archim. Touma (Bitar): Apathy and the Schism that is Taking Place

As the corona virus continues to sweep across the world, taking a horrifying human toll and disrupting our personal and ecclesial life, disunity and conflict continue to gnaw at our Orthodox Church, weakening her witness to Christ when it is all the more needed. With this in mind, Orthodox Synaxis will now resume publication, primarily in the form of translations of historical documents and analysis, in prayerful hope that these sobering times will wake us to the need for earnest work towards unity, free of lust of power and idle talk. We offer below a translation of an essay by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), originally published in Arabic this past March, in which he explains the responsibility of all the churches to involve themselves when a dispute between two local churches (in this case, Constantinople and Moscow), appears intractable. We pray that we may all follow God’s wisdom, as Fr Touma outlines in his exegesis of James 3:17.

Apathy and the Schism that is Taking Place

“… that the truth of the Gospel might continue with you.”

(Galatians 2:5)

Today the Orthodox world is in a state of division and perhaps of peril. There are cascading collapses. Until now, the fire is lit. Starting a fire is one thing and putting it out is another.

What is happening, if it is not treated, will establish a rift that will require a long time to be healed and if the right circumstances do not arise, it may not be possible for it to be healed. The current crisis, as its is being dealt with, does not leave room on the horizon for a clear ecclesiastical solution. Even if all the information about it is not sufficiently visible to our eyes, the political dimension, whose effects most people are noticing, appears to be more painful and fiercer than other dimensions of the problem. This is in addition to the explosion of the struggle, deep down, over ecclesiastical authority between the two competing poles and historical, national and personal sensitivities in a climate of no slight “spiritual sickness”. Its fate, inevitably, is to spread hazy vision and dull feeling that will impede the work of the Spirit of the Lord to no small degree, apathy in zeal for the truth, and a not insignificant loss of love. This causes what the Chosen Apostle feared with regard to the Corinthians: “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20).

Between a one-sided position based on careless logic that can only permitted by the convictions of its own partisans, devoid of anything of the tradition of the Church, as the tradition is recognized, which has no regard for others– in a Church whose foundation is consultation!– and the hasty, stubborn reaction to it, it is impossible, or nearly impossible, so far as we know, for there to be a margin within which others may to act to bring the two opposing sides closer to each other.

On the other hand, you find the rest of the churches themselves completely embarrassed by what has been happening, especially since until now both sides only accept the positions they are obstinately sticking to, in the manner of the saying, “he who is not with me is against me.” In such an atmosphere, the political factors that constitute the real substance of the confrontation are reflected in the ecclesiastical domain, as are nationalist sensitivities, special interests, and fears of reprisal. This is reflected as confusion in the rest of the churches, leading most to take a position of “self-distancing” in a context of fragmented positions and wasteful talk in public, evoking a half-hearted, bashful request for a general council, which those who call for it feel is out of reach, in order to deal with the crisis, and the two sides that are primarily concerned do not seem to be listening, until further notice.

In the meantime, many contradictions that until now were hidden are exploding into view in the Orthodox world in the background of the emerging problem, such that they easily become fuel for the raging crisis. Because of this, not only does unity between the autocephalous churches appear to be threatened, but also unity within a single local church and even a single diocese, and perhaps also within a single parish in some places!

Yesterday a Russian woman called us in tears: for many years she has been receiving the sacraments at a monastery in France. Today, she is no longer able to partake of the common cup with the monastery’s nuns because of the schism!

Words for the Conscience in Christ

Who is right and who is not right? As a Church, this is not something that concerns us except within the framework of unity in love. “Let all that you do be done with love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Neither unilateralism nor breaking communion is out of love! So what concerns us– and this is the right of each one of us in Orthodoxy– is for the two sides to remain in the truth. Truth in the form of falsehood is falsehood, no matter who commits it.

“Let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Romans 14:19) and we give greater honor to the small members (1 Corinthians 12:23)! There is no great and despised, powerful and weak. “You are all brothers!” Bullying and indifference toward others are of the spirit of the world. This condemns empty words and worldly honorifics because the foundation of primacy among us is not only service– anyone, in his place, can claim service– but rather Christ the Servant! “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). The issue, from beginning to end, is an issue of imitating Christ the Servant who emptied Himself and took on the image of a slave, since He loved His own until the end, until He sacrificed Himself for them. This is something that permits no bargaining. “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” Let us look at the two terms that the Lord uses here: “against Me” means “against Christ” and “scatters” means, in an Orthodox context, that he is a “hireling” who does not care about the sheep (cf. John 10:13).

That which is happening at the present time, what spirit does it come from? What wisdom lies behind measures and behaviors of the sort that have been practiced? There are just two kinds of wisdom for us, in Christ, and no more: the wisdom that is from above, from God’s Spirit, and the wisdom that is from below, which the Apostle James describes as “earthly, sensual, demonic” (James 3:15). How do we know the sort of wisdom that is governing what is happening? From the distinctive features of each sort of wisdom.

When the wisdom is based on bitter envy, it is, according to the Arabic language, in a “filthy and hateful” soul. Bitterness is a metaphor. This leads to partisanship. And according to the Epistle of James, “where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16).

The wisdom that is from above has other distinctive features. Take a look at James 3:17.

First of all, it is pure.

Second, it is peaceable.

Third, it is gentle.

Fourth, it is willing to yield.

Fifth, it is full of mercy and good fruits.

Sixth, it is without suspicion and without hypocrisy.

What spiritual fruits are born by either of the competing positions? Purity? I don’t think so! Peacefulness, when we are in a state of declared war? Gentleness, when each one pounces on the other to strangle him in the name of truth? Willingness to yield? What does willingness to yield mean in the present context? This is how brothers behave when they are willing to yield: each one is prepared to condescend to the other and tell him, “Your brotherhood to me, for Christ’s sake, is more important than anything else!” Is this the situation at the present time? What about the wisdom filled with mercy and good fruits? Until now, we see nothing but cruelty. No trace of mercy is evident on the horizon, let alone the fullness of mercy! And good fruits? What good fruits? I only know the fruits mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Because they are all connected to each other, we do not see, or can barely see, anything other than an east wind that is blowing through them, desiccating them. Last but not least, what about the quality of lack of suspicion and hypocrisy? Hypocrisy? Only God is the Knower of Hearts. Diffidence does not permit us to say anything about it. As for suspicion, what is happening in parts of the Orthodox world today is loaded with suspiciousness. It’s all suspicious!

Perhaps the complexity of the matter permits, exceptionally, the imposition of extreme measures of the sort that have been taken? Such talk is filled with ambiguity and completely unacceptable. If, in the Church of Christ, we are confronted with a difficult and longstanding organizational issue between two local churches, then it is not reasonable from an ecclesiastical perspective for each to be intent on cancelling the other and to take positions that make the issue more complicated, such that the solution and the reaction to it are incomparably more complicated than the issue that was at the root of the current repercussions! The entire Orthodox world must now suffer the consequences of an issue about which its say is not heard, accepted or even permitted by two sides that are primarily concerned. The policy of “breaking the vessel” is an unacceptable, worldly policy. Even the wisdom of this world rejects it because it means implosion and suicide. So how, when we are a church, do we accept such a solution? How, when we have hope in God, who is capable of all things? When, in human terms, we are confronted with an impassible wall, then there is no other solution than to return to the One who entered in to the disciples while the doors were locked! Any other solution is of the spirit of failure.

Ecclesiastically and traditionally, if two churches disagree over an organizational matter, they take recourse to the other churches to help them find a solution to their problem. If, for one reason or another, no matter what they reason, they do not take the initiative, the other churches come together, with or without the two churches concerned, to examine the problem in the Spirit of the Lord. Simply because love of Christ and His Church requires it! It is not fitting for someone to take the initiative to make an invitation because he wants to please one of the two sides, so long as it is in his interest, because this is abhorrent politics, without love or the zeal of Elijah. Likewise, it is not fitting for someone else to refrain from attending out of eagerness to please or go along with one of the sides or out of fear of it. This is dependence on humans and an abandonment of the bishop’s role and responsibility toward the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church!”For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

The policy of “self-distancing”, which is stained by political games and going along with one group or the other, influencing public discourse and the suspicious silence, is of  worldly and not divine wisdom. It undermines the witness to Christ the Lord, since it is a far cry from the position of Paul and the Apostles, who were brought before the assembly of the Jews and threatened so that they would not teach in Jesus’ name. How did they respond? “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered… And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:29-30, 32).

There is a weighty responsibility in these words! One who bears witness to the Lord’s Christ is a partner of the Holy Spirit in bearing witness! If he is not a successor of the Apostles, faithful to the Faithful Witness (cf. Revelation 1:5), obedient to God, then He does not bear witness with him! What did Jesus say to Peter when he displayed ignorant zeal toward Him, when Jesus spoke about how His departure from the world was drawing near? Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

Is Christ’s truth within us not supposed to be above every consideration? We are not charged with preserving our church buildings, their assets, privileges, acquisitions, our honors or even our life! We are charged with preserving the truth: “May the truth of the Gospel continue with you” (Galatians 2:5). Because the Truth is the Lord’s Christ! There is no greater proof of zeal for the truth than the attitude of Saint Abda the Persian, who destroyed a temple of idols. The shah told him to rebuild it or he would destroy thirty churches. He did not agree to this because his motto, which is the motto of all who are zealous for the truth of the Gospel, was: it is better for us that all the world’s churches of stone be destroyed, all worldly privileges be lost, than for Christ’s truth to be squandered on the altar of a single soul in this world.

It is not fitting for children of the New Adam, after He repelled the devil at his third temptation, according to Matthew– “All the kingdoms of the world and their glory I give to You if You bow down and worship me”– I say again, it is not fitting for His children to collaborate with Satan in even the tiniest thing! The devil comes, says the Lord Jesus, and has nothing to do with Me. This is how all who, in their conscience, are called by the name of the Lord’s Christ should behave as shepherds, so that they are not numbered in the lineage of Judas Iscariot! This is the Church’s capital and she has no other capital.

When Saint Polycarp of Smyrna and Nicetas of Rome disagreed about the dating of Pascha, as Saint Irenaeus of Lyon recounted, they did not split over the disagreement, but rather Nicetas had Polycarp preside over the Eucharist before him, so that the difference over the fast would not be a cause for division, but rather a reason for strengthening faith. When Victor of Rome broke communion with Asia Minor for the very same reason, Saint Irenaeus confronted him to bring him back from his error.

Behind every problem in Christ’s Church is the devil and also a shortcoming in love for God. But the devil is only expelled through prayer and fasting and shortcoming in love is only treated through sincere repentance. We are in need of collective repentance so that we do not die in our insensitivity. We need prayer, fasting, tears, sackcloth and ashes! We have reached the point of insensitivity and, as it appears, we are condemned either to die in it or to follow the way of Nineveh so that God may pardon us!

Do we not have in God’s saints and God’s works a model and lesson so that we may reform ourselves and follow guidance? So why is there this dullness in our souls, as though they have come to love death?

We stand before the danger of a great going astray!

It is as though we did not read Isaiah, who cries out, “Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; they have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment” (Isaiah 1:5-6).

Or it as though we paid no attention when Jesus cried out to His disciples, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17).

Or perhaps we missed Saint Paul as he cried out to the Galatians, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:11).

Honorable shepherds,

If what we are saying is not the gospel of truth, if we so dare, then tell us what is. Correct us! Improve us! Forgive us! Teach us! And if it is the gospel of truth, then why is what read so far removed from what we see?

In the end, “God has not given us a spirit of failure, but of power and of love and of  advice” (2 Timothy 1:7). The statement is clear, no matter what degree of futility has been reached: “We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Corinthians 14:8). If those who have been raised up to speak the truth fall silent, “then the stone shall cry out” (Luke 9:40)! “Be instructed O Jerusalem, lest My soul desiccate you…” (Jeremiah 6:8)!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan the Athonite

Sunday, March 15, 2020


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