A friend of mine sent me a posting from a certain well known Orthodox leader in the U.S. The posting quoted Orthodox prayers that harken back to the Byzantine wars against the Turks and Saracens--often referred to as "Hagarenes" and "Ishmaelites" in the prayers. The "alarmism," as my friend put it, of this Orthodox leader's reading of these prayers bothered him, and he asked me to comment.
'Let our nation speedily overcome the abominations and blasphemies of the Hagarenes, and submit them to our civil authorities; establish Orthodoxy and raise up the race of Christians, and send down upon us they rich mercy.'
'Bend thy bow and proceed prosperously and be King, O Son of the Mother of God, and by the intercession of her that conceived Thee without knowing a man subject unto our Christ-loving king the Ishmaelite people that warreth against us, we pray, since Thou are God and the Friend of man.'
.... The days of the martyrs is not a time of the distant past, but is upon us....
[Most of the original comments on the texts has been omitted]
Below is my response to my concerned friend.
I, also find such a reading of these prayers hugely unhelpful. Yes, when the (Byzantine/Russian/whatever) empire was Christian and whoever came against the nation was considered evil by the Church, such language was appropriate from a church as state/state as church perspective--of course that only reflects the irony of a "Christian nation." (But then, when has life in a sinful world not been full of irony?) Such political prayer language--common in the Bible too--has always been interpreted on at least two levels. On a national level, it expresses the real fears of those who were really threatened by an attacking army; and those in fear will use whatever weapons they have--including religion as they conceive it in their fear-- to fight the enemy.
However, such prayers have also been understood by those more spiritually minded, who have already died (or are dying) to the world, as a cry to God to destroy the evil within themselves, the infidel, Ishmaelite, Hagarene in their own hearts. It grieves me to hear those who lead the Church succumb to the first interpretation, but I cannot judge them too harshly for I do not experience what they experience. The level of fear that is whipped up by the U.S. media and political system is so high that very few can resist it.
Certainly these are the days of the martyrs. Since the beginning of the world (remember Abel's blood?), it has been the days of the martyrs. Perhaps some in their alarm are just noticing. However, alarm will not help us face martyrdom. (Neither will using prayer as a weapon to smite the enemy outside of us, the neighbour whom we are to love, the ones who crucify us not knowing what they do.) What will prepare us for martyrdom is to begin dying today, to smite the enemy within us with prayer.
Fighting fire with fire only burns up the world.
Nevertheless, some people are alarmed. Some cannot see the infidel within because fear of the infidel without has captured them. And God loves the frightened ones too.
Therefore, Let us together pray, "Subject unto our Christ-loving king the Ishmaelite people that war against us, we pray, since You are friend of man [philanthropos]." Each will pray according to his or her inner state, and God will answer according to His love for mankind, all mankind. Certainly it is better that frightened people pray; it is better that they open themselves in some way to God's saving action--even if they misunderstand the prayer. But who can say that he or she truly understands any prayer? Who of us truly knows what it means that God is the friend of man? Who has known the mind of God? We all need to repent.