REFLECTION ON “A COMMON WORD BETWEEN US AND YOU”
The Most Rev. Mykhayil Javchak Champion, DD., MA Th.
Archbishop of New York
Metropolitan of All America
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
Graymoor, New York, December 9, 2007
When I first pondered the task of reflecting on the document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” my thoughts immediately turned to discussions that had been taking place in recent months. These discussions were born out of various sermons, lectures, conversations and dialogs in which I have been fortunate to participate during this past autumn season. One of the recurring themes in many of these has been the need for openness and honesty between people of all faiths in light of the growing situation of globalization and mass world migration, facing us in these days.
In one very inspiring exchange during the Premir Graymoor Lecture Series at the Interchurch Center in Manhattan, the speaker spoke about the change that is taking place in ecumenism itself due to these shifts in the global scene. In the viewpoint of Dr. Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenism for our times involves not only dialogue about unity among Christians themselves, but indeed our situation requires an exchange between all of the world’s faith traditions. In Knitter’s opinion, we Christians had better soon get our appropriate “ecclesiastical apartment houses” in order” because the urgency on the religious front has shifted from inter-denominational to inter-religious. I will return later to one of the conclusions of this new consciousness.
The document we consider this evening was written by over 138 Muslim scholars to leaders of the Christian Churches. It has later been endorsed by hundreds more. For clarity, let us remind ourselves at this point that the theme of the letter of the Islamic leadership was the common ground of Love of God and Love of Neighbor which Christians and Muslims are equally called to maintain by their respective scriptures.
Fr. Gardiner, in his wisdom of thoughtful planning, saw this time of Advent as most opportune for us to reflect on this unprecedented letter. He appropriately named this series, “Glory to God in the highest . . . peace on earth,” in keeping with the documents emphasis on worship of the one God and peace between Christians and Muslims.
Fr. Jim, in graciously asking me to offer this reflection tonight, did so in order for the listeners to glimpse an “Orthodox-Christian” or “Eastern Christian” perspective and response to the document that we have come to refer to as “the Muslim Initiative.” So, in preparing, I naturally looked to see what some other leaders in the Orthodox Churches have said in response to this historically “ground-breaking” effort on the part of the Islamic leadership.
I read news articles, searched the internet, checked as many sources as I could, and what I discovered was that, to the best extent that my research can tell me, there has been NO response as of yet, by any leader in so-called “world-Orthodoxy.” This I find especially telling, since the letter was addressed not only to the Pope and Western Christian leaders, but it painstakingly mentioned, after His Holiness the Patriarch of the West, the heads of ALMOST each autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox church in the world.
We are familiar with the letter of Pope Benedict XVI, the responses of other Catholic leaders and theologians and the answers of many other Christian leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, prominent Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Evangelical and other Protestant leaders. There was even, as was mentioned by Sister Anne Tahaney, OP, last week, an article taken out in the New York Times and signed by about 300 Christian bishops, scholars, theologians, pastors and other communities. Still, not an Eastern Orthodox name among them.
So, I’ll try to make the most of this opportunity to be one of the first Orthodox hierarchs to respond to the outreach of our brethren of the Islamic faith, and address their initiative from the perspective of the Christian East.
I wish to focus on one interesting portion of the document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” because it particularly mentions a theologian-saint of the Orthodox Church, who was well acquainted with the interpretation of New Testament Greek. I thank the Muslim scholars for singling out an Orthodox perspective for finding common ground between us and thereby directing my own attention to one of our later-Byzantine sources. “Late or later-Byzantine” refers to the last several hundred years of the Byzantine Empire (fell in 1453) after the 7 Ecumenical Councils, the fall of Rome and the 1054 division between East & West.
In their letter, the Muslim scholars ask: “Is Christianity necessarily against Muslims?” To answer this question, they use the following from the Christian scriptures:
“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad.” (Matthew 12:30) “For he who is not against us is on our side.” (Mark 9:40) “… for he who is not against us is on our side.” (Luke 9:50)
Each version of this statement of Jesus, comes from a different “synoptic gospel.” The Islamic scholars want to find out if these sayings of Jesus are contradictory to each other. To solve this intrigue, they go to a good source. St. Theophylact, who lived from 1055-1108 of the CE, was the Eastern Christian Archbishop of Ochrid, in what is now Macedonia and Bulgaria. His episcopal see has its heritage in ancient Byzantium. It was the place where SS. Cyril & Methodius (two brothers from Thessalonika) first began their missions to the Slavic peoples and devised the predecessor of what would eventually become the Cyrillic alphabet as we know it today.
I hesitate to call Theophylact an “Orthodox” archbishop, because he lived so close to the breaking apart of East & West, an unfortunate schism that in some cases took decades or more to fully take root. Nevertheless, he is highly revered in Orthodoxy for his theological and spiritual insight.
For Theophylact, biblical criticism was something that was particularly natural, since his native language was quite close to the Greek of the New Testament. In his Explanation of the New Testament, Theophylact, speaking on the first quote from Matthew, has Jesus referring to demons or those who would in a sinister way, detract from Jesus’ work of bringing about God’s reign. This makes sense in the context of what immediately precedes the passage, which is an account of Jesus expelling demons. In opposition, the Pharisees accuse Jesus himself of using the power of demons to cast out demons. So Jesus must make a statement here: whoever is not on Jesus side, is against him and those who do not gather with Jesus (thus beginning the longed-for reign of God), are working with other forces, namely those of evil, that seek to destroy his work.
On the contrary, the quotes from Mark and Luke make the statement very differently. There, Jesus says that “the one who is not against us, is on our side.” Now this can take on an entirely different implication.
It is here that the Muslim writers assent to a point that is little known among the Christian world. They begin by using Theophylact’s interpretation that the second and third New Testament passages refer to people who recognized Jesus, but were not Christians. These people, who were not against Jesus, were thereby “on his side” or mutually supportive of him.
The authors of the document have the courage to take this next step. They continue to say that:
“Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, not in the same way Christians do (but Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ’s nature), but in the following way: ‘…. the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is a Messenger of God and His Word, / which he cast unto Mary and a Spirit from Him….’ (Al-Nisa’, 4:171). We therefore invite Christians to consider Muslims not against and thus with them, in accordance with Jesus Christ’s words here.”
For the first time in any recent memory, we discover that Muslims do recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, albeit in a different way. Many of us know that Islam considers Jesus to be a great prophet, but rarely do we hear that he is considered even to be a Messiah
What our friends are trying to point out is that they are not against the Christian method, but just see it in a somewhat different way than we do. They are trying to point out that the major truths of both religions are made of the “same stuff” – Love of God above all else and love of Neighbor besides.”
The document begins its conclusion by addressing a concern that occupies almost every mind and heart in our world today. It says:
“And to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
Quotes follow from the Qur’an and the New Testament, about the order to maintain peace and kindness and to work for harmony among each other in our world. The emphasis here can perhaps give solace to the many of us who are concerned for the safety of our world and indeed, it’s ultimate survival.
What is an appropriate response from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to these initiatives? The question is not easy or simple. The answer is even more perplexing. The lack of a greater response from the Christian East hints only at indifference and insecurity. However, from my experiences, pastoral and ecclesial, several things come to my mind.
Orthodox Christianity probably lives the closest to our Muslim brethren than does any other Christian branch. This has been true throughout the course of history. Throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe, Orthodox Christians and Muslims live side by side, many times in a very amicable environment. I know for a fact that in Jordan and Syria, among other places, there are not great difficulties between the two faiths. We have parishes in our Archdiocese that are of Arabic origin. The differences however are striking.
I know places where our clergy and parishioners associate freely and closely with their Islamic friends, especially those from the same areas. On the other hand, I am familiar with Orthodox who will continually argue and complain about the Islamic faith, pointing out what they see to be the “errors” of Mohammad and the truths of Christianity. It’s not a pretty picture.
When you think about it though, we should not be surprised that Christians, especially Orthodox (and Catholic) Christians look with such distaste upon those who believe differently. It can be understood why some, whose minds are perhaps not yet open to the “newness” which the Reign of God ushers in to us, prefer to repeat and repeat, arguments of who is right and who is wrong, while ignoring what is in common and failing to see the opportunities to work together for the good. When one is taught their whole life that they belong to the “one true church” against which “all others are false and fall short of the grace of God,” it is only natural that they might take the time to exhaust themselves on polemics.
One other thing comes to mind, in the sense of an Orthodox response. Many are aware of Orthodoxy’s lack of a powerful voice in the world scene, because of the amount of time spent endlessly trying to decipher who is first and who is last and who is not in the competition at all. There is still a campaign going on about who is to be the “new Rome.” Constantinople long ago lost the distinction (although they still use the title), and Moscow is still fighting its way to grasp the wreaths of laurel that would go with such a coveted name.
Here in the United States, Orthodoxy’s witness as a whole, has not been positive. Still today, some groups prefer to focus on exclusivity, and not inclusivity, thus styming the ability of God to further establish his Reign between people. They would rather fight the battle of “holy orthodoxy” than answer the call of the Gospel to invite all to the banquet table. Instead of being a vehicle of God’s grace, the Church often becomes a plug which prevents its flow. If the Orthodox Church continues to take this negative and exclusive approach, it will not, as a group, be able to respond to favorable initiatives such as “A Common Word.”
Finally, I am compelled as a Metropolitan of the historical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to speak a bit about the relations between Muslims and Christians in Ukraine. As is well known, Ukraine is a large nation, encompassing many diverse parts of Europe. After the days of Kyivan Rus’, in the 15 & 16 centuries, a large population of Muslims lived in the Crimea, which for a short period was an independent Islamic nation. This would include the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea which later became part of the Ottoman Empire. During the days of the Russian Imperialism, particularly in the later half of the 19th. c. there was much persecution of Muslims and very unfortunately, after 1917, during Stalin’s regime, much of the Islamic community (over 100,000 people), in the Crimea were moved to parts of the Soviet Union in Western Asia and elsewhere. Many died on the way to exile or while under harsh conditions.
After the independence of Ukraine in 1991, Muslims again began to move back to their original environs in the Crimea and the region of “Khrim” enjoys some autonomous characteristics within the Ukrainian Republic. The Crimean peninsula includes the famous city of Sevastopol and is known for its important Navel bases, ancient houses of worship and resort attractions. It is less than a three hour boat ride to Istanbul, across the Black Sea. So in Ukraine of today, Muslims peacefully co-exist with their Christian and Jewish neighbors – or so it appears. According to the latest available statistics, in Ukraine there are: 391 communities, 372 ministers, 151 mosques, 6 mosques are being built (source:RISU).
I will conclude with the thoughts of Dr. Knitter from the lecture of last month, which I referred to at the beginning of this reflection. The good Doctor made a groundbreaking suggestion in his presentation. He spoke of the fragmented nature of Christianity and added to this, the plurality of world religions in general. In a very brave hypothesis, Dr. Knitter suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, our search for unity has taken a bit of wrong turn. Rather than seeing the variety of religious expression as an unfortunate or divisive situation, could it be, could it in some way be, that God has willed it this way? Could it be that our differences are meant to compliment each other? Is it possible that the global community in which we find ourselves today brings together exactly what God the Creator imagined in the first place . . . that we can share and learn the fullness of the truth out of the many different expressions of faith which God, who always makes the first call and the ultimate decision, has taken the initiative to bring together in this particular time?
I think it is. I think God is calling us to a deeper knowledge of God’s self, of our world and of our own selves. It is coming, and it is up to us to respond. As those guests invited to the dinner, in one of Jesus’ well-known parables, the choice is ours. We can respond or we can say no. If we decline, then certainly others will take our place at the banquet table and it will be they who will discuss and dialogue with God and among themselves and we will not taste even a morsel of the wealth of wisdom to be gained.
To quote the document, “So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”
I also offer the equally supporting words of Benedict XVI, “we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God, the provident Creator and universal Judge, who at the end of time will deal with each person according to his or her actions.”
Let us not decline this opportunity to witness in a positive and inclusive way. Let us not forget the real truth that in the end, the Creator will judge us according to our actions or lack thereof.
That is this Orthodox hierarch’s response to “A Common Word Between Us and You.”