Saturday, October 01, 2011

Prayer and the Fear of Enemies

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.


Jake said...

Wow. You make quite a few leaps and judgments here. Not everyone who is aware of the threat of Islam is gripped by an irrational or "unspiritual" fear. Not everyone who prays that this enemy be kept at bay from our wives and children ignores the True Enemy, or our state in this fallen world, or Christs call to love our enemies. Such prayer is not a low form of wishing ill will on our very real enemies (It's "love your enemies", not "love your enemies who aren't really your enemies because the evil that they do is not really evil").

I have no idea who this "Orthodox Leader" was or what he has said that so offends you "spiritually minded" people but that horse your on is pretty big and that fall is going to hurt a little bit...

Jake said...

Father, when we pray the litany of peace as we do every Sunday, for "our deliverance from all tribulations, wrath, danger and necessity..."
Do you consider this:

"hugely unhelpful"

A species of "religion conceived in fear"?

To be understood by the more "spiritually minded" as having nothing to do with any worldly tribulation, wrath, danger and necessity in the world but only on some higher "spiritual" plane?

A sign that the "U.S. Media" and "political system" has in unduly influenced the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom?

Is this prayer a sign of "frightened people", a sort of economia the Church has seen fit to grant to people who are ignorant of the enemy within?

How do "spiritually minded" people grasp this prayer, seeing that they are not frozen senseless in fear but rather see it properly, spiritually, correctly?

p.s. The idea that something called “the U.S. Media” has portrayed Islam as something evil is a real zinger. The U.S political system/elite and the media have bent over backwards to portray Islam as something it is not, a “religion of peace” to use former president Bush's own words. The facts of Islam are quite different, beginning with Muhammad himself instructing his followers to kill their enemies and rape/enslave their wives and children, through it's history of conquest and dhimmitude. Apparantly, the awarness of these facts convicts one of being possesed by a low spirituallity based on fear of the other...

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Christopher,
I don't know how to respond. You seem to be providing an example of the very alarmism I am talking about.
For the sake of clarity, however, I will add the following:

I used the expression "more spiritually minded" in contrast to those who read literally the political prayers that call on God to subject our enemies to "our Christ-loving king."

What I find "hugely unhelpful" is an interpretation of these political prayers A) as if a Christian empire still existed and B) as if the way to prepare for possible martyrdom is to be alarmed by its possibility.

Also, there is no dichotomy: very few people interpret prayers against enemies (or for deliverance from danger and necessity) as exclusively either an internal or an external matter. It is not an either/or matter. According to the seasons of our life, our circumstances and our spiritual growth, we interpret prayers according to our understanding of our needs at the time.

That's why we pray together; and God, who knows the need of each, answers according to His love for mankind, all mankind.

I find it interesting that in the end, God did not answer these political prayers politically. That is, the Turks won. Maybe we should learn from this.