Excerpt from: Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition

20. Fanaticism or Martyrdom?

Recent events both in Britain and abroad have brought the words 'fanaticism' and 'intolerance' into the headlines once more. First there was a blasphemous film, to which extremists in Paris reacted by burning down a cinema. Then there was the Rushdie affair, Khomeini's death-threat and the assassination of a moderate imam in Brussels. The critics of religion have not missed these opportunities to attack religious belief in general.

Indeed it must be admitted that religions of the law do have elements of intolerance in them. It is true of Islam, whose history is coloured by militarism (the jihad or holy war) and brutal physical punishments for transgressions of its laws. There is a strong resemblance between this and Judaism, with its 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth' ideology, as put into practice, for example, by the revenge attacks of the Israeli State against Palestinian nationalists. And it is also true of certain Christians, who fall back from the grace of the New Testament into the law of the Old Testament. It was true of the Crusades and of the Inquisition, true of the Spanish in South America, and the Catholic Ustashi in Yugoslavia, who only 45 years ago massacred some 800,000 Serbs in the name of their god. It is also true of Puritan groups with their Old Testament literalism, witch-hunts and phobia of 'impurity'. ('Cleanliness is next to godliness'). It is true of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ulster and of the Catholic-Muslim one in the Lebanon. It is also true of many sects, ranging from Scientology to the truly demonic Jim Jones and the 913 victims of collective suicide in Guyana in 1978. But does all this mean that religion is inherently fanatical and intolerant? What are the sources of fanaticism?

Fanaticism can appear on two levels, individual and collective. On an individual level, fanaticism is bold in sick minds and psychologies. It stems from personal pride, lust for power over others. It says 'I am right', and therefore cuts itself off from all others in sectarian self-righteousness. It uses its supposed exclusive truth as an axe to grind, as a stick with which to beat others. It loves laws, behind which it can conceal its own insecurities. In saying that he alone is right, the fanatic is automatically wrong. The Saints never said that they were right. The signs of absence of fanaticism are peace, humility and love - not saying that one is right. Fanaticism and intolerance stem in fact from a weak faith, insecurity, and often affect neophytes, recent converts. True religion does not admit of fanaticism.

On a collective level fanaticism is the lust for power over others. It takes the form of virulent nationalism, jingoism - this is political, State-guided intolerance. Fanaticism stems from hatred of others; true religion from love of others. Historically, fanaticism is associated with periods of decline and decadence in religious life, when outbursts of pride and loss of faith affect individuals and groups. Individual and collective fanaticism are the opposite of the Christian virtue of love for one's neighbour, expressed either individually or collectively in the form of patriotism, home-love, the love of one's country. Only the patriot can love other countries; the nationalist hates them.

If we look at the history of the New Testament Church, we see that She treads the royal path, finds the golden mean, which is in humility. And humility is neither in fanaticism nor in humiliation. The Church in Her Saints neither feels hatred for those who hate Her, nor does She give way weakly to humiliating pressures from outside in an Erastian manner. Rather She stands up for the Truth; She speaks fearlessly in defence of the Truth. In Church history we find a multitude of examples: St Athanasius the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St John Chrysostom, St Maximus the Confessor, St John Damascene, St Gregory Palamas, St Mark of Ephesus, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, St Nectarius of Egina, St Vladimir the Metropolitan (of Kiev), the many-millioned host of New Martyrs of Russia, Archbishop John (Maximovich), Bishop Nicholas (Velimirovich) and Father Justin (Popovich), whom Orthodox already venerate as saints. In these examples, we clearly see that when official representatives of the Church fall silent out of human weakness in one land, the Lord raises up others in other lands to speak the Truth undaunted. The Church speaks not words of hatred, of censorious accusation, of aggressive condemnation, of tasteless polemics, but bold words of spiritual truth and purity, to burn out the pollution of the heart, to fire the soul to repentance.

The fruits of fanaticism are, in the short-term, success, but, in the long term, failure. The attitude of a firm stand taken by the Saints in defence of the Truth brings 'failure', slander, often martyrdom, in the short term, but in the long term, success. There is no greater example of the Church attitude to the defence of Truth than that of the martyrs. The Church is founded on their blood, from Abel to Christ, from the martyrs of the first three centuries who brought the Light of Christ to all the ends of the Earth, from the Balkan New Martyrs of the Muslim Yoke, to that of the Russian New Martyrs and Confessors, whose light is yet to shine forth in all its radiance to all the ends of the Earth.

And even in our own days, it seems that we may live to see a miracle, the day when the red stars on the Kremlin towers will come crashing down to the ground. Crosses will go up again as living symbols of the reality of the victory of those who were neither humiliated nor fanatical. They are those who stand firm for the Faith, threatening and hating none, but loving all, because their hearts are aflame with the love of Christ; they are those who speak bold words with a clean soul. And this miracle, if God wills it, will be worked when the Communists say, as Julian the Apostate 1600 years before them, 'Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!' And this miracle will be worked by the prayers of the martyrs, of those who spoke with peace in their minds and souls, with humility and love - in fearless defence of the Truth.

May 1989

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