The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount

Surgeon General’s Warning

This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.

A look at India in relation to my own roots and formation

My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I’ve been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India’s giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism. Gandhi might have said with perfect sincerity, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills,” but there is a certain motherlode as old as the hills that Gandhi may have mined that motherlode better than anyone else in history.

My own earliest roots, the brand of Christianity I received as mother’s milk, were in the Anabaptist tradition, and more specifically the Mennonite Church. I have never been a member of the Amish tradition, but I would contrast Amish as they are known today from Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation. Today Amish are seen as quiet, peaceful, and daft in being picky about which technologies they accept in their community.

(Amish are conservative, perhaps seen as a bit daft, and as Weird Al offensively jabs them, says, “Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1699, not seeing what on earth could be good about partying like it’s 1699.)

But Amish and other Anabaptists were originally the anarchist wing of the Reformation, the Radical Reformers who were radical even in the eyes of fellow Protestants, the Reformation’s Left Coast. That they would have been parodied in the future as “quaint”ly conservative and “please don’t point and stare” would have perhaps astonished Zwingli and his radical wing of the Reformation, and all their opponents, alike.

Before and during college, I went on a bit of a journey and a quest to bolster and advocate for pacifism. I studied the Sermon in the Mount; I read Gandhi write things that I thought only a Christian would write. Gandhi did not only say that his three heroes were Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates; he said that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, a perfect act. And it was only years later that I learned why Gandhi did not become a Christian, something not given a single stinging word in a single quote I ever saw attributed to Mr. Gandhi.

I was filled with shame when I learned that Gandhi wanted to become a Christian, attended a Christian evangelist’s meeting, and was turned away from being accepted into the Christian faith, because of the color of his skin. And he gave advice to Christians on how to present Christianity to Hindus, including displaying the hard parts very clearly, but he was not willing, after that, to consider becoming a Christian.

I would not have felt shame if I heard that Gandhi simply didn’t ever consider becoming a Christian, or that he found the Hindu mystical tradition deep enough that he would content himself with Hindu roots, or that he would not have considered adopting the religion of the colonial occupiers of India, or other reasons like Hinduism as perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all world religions, or if we may permit an anachronism, Hinduism as the deep tradition that would years later establish India as a software superpower. These are all bearable. But not becoming Christian because a Christian evangelist turned him away—that is not bearable, but shameful.

In my own journey and life practices, the very oldest of the major works on my website, Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength, was from my own search for pacifism. I don’t deny that the nonviolent power that Gandhi described in terms of “satyagraha” or hold onto Truth (from the Sanskrit), nor that satyagraha became incarnate with Indian flesh. “I am a man, so nothing that is human is alien to me,” as an ancient Roman said. The Church Fathers who quickly saw a path that meets its fruition in Christianity in philosophy or Plato is able to read of the practice of satyagraha and nonviolence, and the Indian cardinal virtue of ahimsa that recognizes you are tied to the other person and cannot harm the other without harming yourself, can be coherently interpreted without recognizing what Gandhi took, without compromise, from Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount. If Plato or Platonism can be purified, and someone Taoism can be purified, then perhaps something can be purified from Gandhi and the one nation on earth that established itself as sovereign and independent without shedding a drop of enemy blood.

I would like to briefly stop at C.S. Lewis and what is apparently an attack on satyagraha. The architect of “mere Christianity” as it is established in the West makes the only external addition to what is called “mere Christianity” that is in fact not part of Christianity as it was known then. He describes and condemns a guilt manipulation that one holds oneself hostage to make pity a weapon. And he is the only Protestant writer I have read who, in papers like “Why I am not a Pacifist,” says not only that Christians may wage war but in fact that conscientious exemption is not acceptable in any sense, and pacifists as much as anyone else should be compelled to try their best to kill men in military service. And on that point I really give Lewis an F. Ruling out even alternative service for people who believe it is always wrong to kill is FAIL, at least for someone pushing a comprehensive plan of “mere Christianity.”

A second look at my roots

I mentioned Anabaptism or Mennonites earlier as my earliest roots, and I have revisited them, not as a matter of regression but pushing a divide further. And there are some points of contact. The Anabaptist movement has three self-identified points of distinction:

  1. A “believer’s baptism”, meaning baptism only on adult profession of faith,
  2. A refusal to take oaths under any circumstance.
  3. Pacifism.

On the first point there is a disagreement between Orthodoxy and the Anabaptist tradition; what Anabaptists sought to dismantle in saying “Infant baptism is of the Devil,” is one of many continuities with Orthodoxy that some in the West has opted out of.

On the second point, there is strong agreement. Now in pastoral terms there is an issue of people’s comfort with a teaching, and it is not pastorally helpful to take a teaching someone is not ready to recognize, and ram it down that person’s throat rather than allowing that person to grow to accept the teaching. But as far as oaths go, there was one Athonite monk who refused to take a required oath before testifying in a court of law, and endured without complaint the four months of prison that he was punished with before refusing to take an oath. St. John Chrysostom, called “the moral theologian among the Fathers par excellence,” throughout every work that I have read, keeps on returning to certain moral topics regardless of perception. He keeps on hitting on the necessity of sharing with the poor, and of the theatre “in which the common nature of women is affronted” (think Internet porn, as it existed in the fourth century; to be an actress included being a member of a much older profession), and he more than once drops the hammer on the practice of taking oaths at all.

But as regards the question of pacifism, I regard my own Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength as an interesting early step, particularly as there weren’t too many other pieces playing in the same space that I was able to find. I asked a number of other people for feedback, and I regret my own sophomoric side of dealings with mature Christians who believe in a just war and who in every sense embodied what I advocate for here. (Wheaton College president Dr. J. Richard Chase asked for a copy for his personal files; part of this was undoubtedly kindness, but the kind gesture was against a backdrop where he probably had not seen too many works like it at all, even if he searched for them.) I’ve come back to review it, and there are things I wouldn’t say now in this the very oldest and earliest of my works. But my coming back to it after all these years is not so much a matter of recognizing I was young and idealistic and thinking I am practical and realistic now, but looking again and saying that I did not go nearly far enough.

(Coming back years later deepened in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, or at least slightly less immature, my further knowledge has unlocked things in my earlier position that I could not understand in my early career as a convinced pacifist.)

But let us not demand perfection from everyone, and give one concession, at least, for lawful gun ownership.

A cue from the military that might matter to gun owners

One Orthodox faithful explained gun ownership and challenged people who regarded gun ownership as simply nothing but a passion of anger. And he explained how, as a loving and careful father, he hopes to never fire his gun “live”, but as a loving and responsible husband and father, he knows what he would do if someone broke into his house with intent to do harm. He would bring such killing to confession, but he had his priorities straight.

(Note that this is reasoning about what would happen in an imagined scenario, not what was happening, a distinction which is important in Orthodox mystical theology.)

I have heard gun control advocates talk about how tragic it was when someone heavily armed opened fire on children; I haven’t yet heard a rebuttal after a card-carrying NRA member answered, “Yes, it was tragic not only that that started, but that there was no one lawfully possessing firearms available to stop the crime. Did you hear about one of those many incidents that never appears on television, where for instance a man armed to kill a bear entered a church sanctuary with intent to do ill, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a firearm legally and with explicit permission of her church shot and stopped a crime?”

And this may be just my observation, but the primary approach to persuasion taken by gun control advocates is to show hard-hitting images of traumatized people after an active shooter met no speed bump even, and the primary approach to persuasion taken by the gun lobby is to mount a logical argument appealing to research and statistics. Now as a mathematician I understand Mark Twain’s point that there are three types of lies (lies, ______ lies, and statistics), and I don’t put my weight onto statistics I haven’t seen investigated, but the question between gun control and gun lobby isn’t a matter of deciding which side has cooked their books. Perhaps the gun lobby has cooked their books: but it is a little sad when only one side of a discussion argues from research, evidence, and statistics.

I may be hypocritical or a freeloading parasite when I say this, but I do not personally own a gun; I never have and probably never will. I have some skill with firearms, but that is beside the point. But I feel safer now that my state has legalized carrying concealed firearms, with a few asterisks about how to opt out on your property. I would rather be in a situation where there are two guns in a room, owned by a criminal and meant for a crime, and one by a law-abiding citizen intending to stop crime in the most drastic circumstances, than only the gun carried by a criminal. I feel safer knowing that gun-using criminals do not know where there is a lawfully carried firearm, and criminals simply do not know if I am carrying a .45 with hollow-nosed rounds.

But if you’re keepinkeeping a firearm by your bed for self-defense, may I ask if you are also, for instance, investing in good night vision? Have you taken the time to install a respectable home security system? This may be slightly less “sexy” than having a powerful gun at hand, but have you established the powerful and immediate deterrent of flooding your home with light (a thief’s worst enemy) if someone approaches?

And have you considered that it may be easier, after training, to hit someone while shooting out a solid stream of pepper spray—especially in poor lighting, where at least without night vision you can’t really aim—than the few rounds in a gun’s magazine? And that the effects on your house are much easier to clean up from a vile liquid than a few bullet holes after a powerful gun has shot through an intruder’s body and hit the wall behind. Killing someone, however justified it may be, is a traumatic experience; even for trained law enforcement professionals, for instance, killing in the line of duty is trauma and good police chiefs can mandate that an officer who has killed in the line of duty get a year’s counseling. Training as a law enforcement professional or soldier does not change the fact that it is traumatic to kill another person. If I had a choice between stopping a dozen innocent men with pepper spray and stopping one guilty man with a shot through the heart, I know which one I would rather remember when I look in the mirror each day.

For a first cue from the military, snipers, who know well enough how to fire a rifle at a paper target, are given one round and only one round to keep with them, carry, hold, and move around, and then after a couple of days are given one shot to take a “hostage situation” (balloon full of oatmeal or whatever) shot. Most fail the first time. With a bit more training and preparation, it gets to one shot, one kill. But it takes some training to get there. I wouldn’t myself trust that with one shot, cold and in a panic, to hit home.

But with all that preface stated, may I ask people who look for safety via firearms to at least take a cue from the military?

Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War c. 500 BC, adapted for the business world in sometimes flaky ways, is arguably the greatest classic in military strategy and usually considered to be less dated than the best of the best from 100 years ago.

If one were to condense the multi-faceted classic into a single sentence, it should probably be one gem taken from the text, “All warfare amounts to deception.” To put it starkly, war is not achieved by killing people, with psychological considerations in any sense being a side issue. War is about deceiving people; killing people has more of a supporting role than anything else. The terms “strategy” and “strategem” are forms of the same basic word; they amount to how to trick the opponent. You don’t win well by killing each other’s soldiers and seeing who has some left over at the end; military forces at any rate fall apart at a third (maybe less) casualties, and rank and file U.S. troops have guns and ammunition intended to seriously wound in the average case, but not kill. (Part of this is love for enemies; part of it is a tactical consideration that if you instantly kill an enemy soldier, you take one man out of action; if you seriously wound a soldier with a wound that may be treatable, you take three men out of action.)

One ancient account talks about how a military leader stripped a force of thousand down to a few hundred, and gave them torches and the shofars that one would use at the head of a host. Then they crept around the host, surrounded it, and blasted the horn. The entire enemy warhost, “like the sand at a seashore for multitude”, fell into deep panic and was routed, falling to each other’s swords (original text).

World War II might have been won under even more dire circumstances, but at least it was not the armies of second-born sons whose blood was poured out like water who won D-Day without strategem. Also contributing to that scenario was an enormous effort to build up rubber balloon versions of tanks at the like, massing to look from the air like the Allies were intending to invade from the point where the English Channel was narrowest, but sent a double agent to keep Hitler believing the D-Day invasion was just a diversion and keeping his main forces to where the channel was nearest and therefore out of the way when the breach was made on Normandy breach.

What does this have to do with home security? Everything. You’re not firing on all pistons if you stop with a gun, and I do not mean that you need more firepower, or really even more gadgets.

Jack MacLean’s Secrets of a Superthief says, on the cover:

“They said I was the best, the one the police called the ‘Superthief.’ Before I went straight I picked every lock, turned off every alarm, found every hiding place. I know how burglars get inside—and gets them out. If you’re smart, you’ll pay attention to what I have to say…”

Possibly the most valuable observation in the text is that home security should be 60% psychological and 40% physical, and it is seriously confused to think that you can win a physical arms race with a thief who wants to get in and isn’t afraid of you. If you change your doors for heavier doors and less glass then a determined intruder will just change an already big crowbar for an even bigger crowbar. Then what other options are there? the book has some options; drawn from it:

Situation: There is an intruder accidentally making sounds in your house, or at least you think it is an intruder.
You say, crossly, with irritation and as much frosty, icy condescension as you can muster, “Yes, Sweetie, I know what the machine gun will do to the walls. I don’t care. I’m going to give 60 more seconds for the SWAT team to get here, and then I’m taking care of it MY way.”

Situation: A thief is casing your back door for possible entrance.
Have a clearly scribbled note on your back door, fresh-looking note that says, “Honey, will you please talk to Billy? He’s let that stupid pet rattlesnake escape his cage again, and right now, I can’t even find that idiotic scorpion! Can you explain to him that this is UNACCEPTABLE?”

(Women have sometimes taken to putting a pair of size 17 men’s boots outside the door each evening.)

Does it work? Perhaps you may not sound entirely believable, but nerves roughened by intruding in unknown situations where you don’t know how people are armed and you could legally be killed tell a different story. (The “Superthief” tells of not being able to count how many terrifying times he heard a barking dog answered by “Shaddap, Max!”

The most implausible note he described, more humorous than believable, was a notice when he wanted people to leave him alone, was a note saying that he had a severe case of crabs, and the crabs were strong enough to break people’s fingers with their claws.

However, it was enough to motivate other convicted felons in prison to simply leave him alone.

There’s a lot that can be accomplished by violence in certain very unhappy circumstances, and Gandhi respected those who use force nobly. Seriously, he did:

The people of a village near Bettiah told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be nonviolent, I hung my head in shame. I assured them that such was not the meaning of my nonviolence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who were under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own heads even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one’s property, honour or religion at the point of the sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrongdoer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonourable to forsake the post of duty and, in order to save one’s skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrongdoer. I could see my way of delivering the message of ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death.

– Gandhiji in Indian Villages by Mahadev Desai

But there is more…

…and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

“Our social program is the Trinity”

Of all the brief sayings that most mystifies people, “Our social program is the Trinity” may be the most confusing. A social program includes a blueprint for some more or less vaguely Utopian social order, and how by civil war politics it is possible to influence, manipulate, coerce, intimidate, bamboozle a plan to concretely build things on earth. And given such a bulleted list of key features to a social program, it seems an extremely strained reading of the doctrine of the Trinity.

But may I ask: What about devout Christian family communities saying, “Our juvenile correctional system is parents who love each other, stay married to each other, and love and discipline their children?” That’s wordier, but the key point lies in a similar vein. If you go to a staunch Evangelical community, you may not see terribly many prisons, courthouses, correctional officers, and so on and so forth, but the purpose of a staunch Evangelical community is not that it has abundant “department of corrections” responses to a 10-year-old arrested for pushing hard drugs or a 12-year-old arrested for rape; however much there may be support for repentance, an ounce of prevention is worth a much more than a ton of cure, and an ounce of bored children in a less-than-ideal Bible study is worth years of expensive state programs to care for children who have been incarcerated.

And in that sense, prayerful life, or the entire struggle in spiritual discipline, is the Orthodox martial art. Certain threads more than others, but the discipined Orthodox life offers more than a martial art as wholesome homes offers something better than a state Department of Corrections or a doctrine of the Trinity that effectively answers social planners: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, visible and spiritual, than are even dreamed of in your ideologies.”

Orthodox have various statements of how monasticism and the laity are compared, if they should be; I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to monastics to regard laity as fully equal, and laity to regard monastics as immeasurably above them. But some things in monasticism are falsely criticized as “just because it’s monasticism:” taking passages of the Bible at face value is not, or at least should not, be a particularly distinctive feature of monasticism. And some people have said that Lent is just how Orthodoxy should be year round, and it makes sense to say that the bulk of monasticism is just how all Orthodox Christians should be.

Monasticism is privilege.

Monasticism is privilege, easily on par with a full ride scholarship at a top-notch university. But doesn’t it entail poverty, obedience, and chastity? Well, of course. Aren’t they difficult? Yes. But the vow of poverty, of never providing for your future self, is a vow of accepting the Providence who knows and loves you (past, present, and future) more than you could possibly ask. It is one of three medications that carves out a niche for abundant health. Perhaps most laity should observe chastity through faithfulness, but it is the same virtue that powers one practice and the other.

We are to be as the birds of the air, highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller! And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

There is something very powerful here, a something that is missed in business as usual in the U.S. Business as usual means heaping up treasures on earth, saying “God helps those who help themselves” (a quotation from Benjamin Franklin not found anywhere in the Bible), to be your own Providence. The idea that we are to do God’s job as our Providence is at times treated harshly by Christ (Luke 12:15:

And [Jesus] said unto them, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?’ And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said unto him, ‘Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?’ So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

I wrote about the husband who owned a gun as a means of being responsible towards his family: but my inward wincing was less that firing a gun is not turning the other cheek, than that he responded out of a spiritual illusion. This side of the Fall, we cannot ever arrange things right, and we do not do well to oust God so that we can get back to steering the helm of our lives ourselves.

It may or may not be appropriate for Orthodox laity to arm themselves, but whatever other reasons there may be for arming yourself, shutting off risk is not one of them. It is non-negotiable that no matter what hedge we surround ourselves with, the sand we grasp will slip through our fingers, and this is actually good news: we have another option, living the Sermon on the Mount, not harmed because we do not have control, and free because we know we do not need to have control, open to a larger world than the constricted world we keep on making for ourselves.

There was a Linux fortune that said, on eloquent terms that I cannot fully reproduce, that there were a bunch of starfish clinging to rocks on the bottom of a rapidly flowing river, holding the rocks tightly and terrified they would lose their grip. Then one of them suddenly let go, was battered against a few rocks, and then finding a place in the flow. And, perhaps in a dig at Christianity, the other starfish who didn’t get it called the one starfish a Messiah and worshiped him while continuing to cling, and remaining terrified of losing their grip on the rock.

(But we are called to do both worship the Man, and imitate him.)

The Sermon on the Mount would almost speak more strongly about violence being unworthy of Christians if it didn’t address violence. The direct mention shadows the overarching theme, where silence speaks more powerfully than words.

But there are in fact words:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’ But I say unto you, ‘Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;’ Ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

St. Paul’s empatic plea to Christians to not demean themselves and the Church by secular lawsuits against fellow Christians (Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?) is cut from the same cloth.

But there is more.

How does the Orthodox Christian martial art really work?

Returning the theme of monasticism as privilege, one aspect of the depth of monasticism is that monks are not to defend themselves by force. When they are accused, they are not to defend themselves in words, as Christ Himself remained silent before Pilate (Note:…and terrorized Pilate more than any threat could have done). And this is not exactly a mainstream approach in the West. It’s a bit of an oblong concept: something that is a common assumption between the various permutations of pacifism and just war is that, once you’ve decided what are the appropriate means for self-defense, you can and should use the most effective appropriate means to end the danger with minimal harm to yourself and others. It just goes without saying that whatever limits may be, obviously defending yourself with speech is appropriate. But the monastic interpretation of “Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” is quite simply that we are not to defend ourselves. We are not to defend ourself by means of lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves by means of less lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves even by words; we are not to defend ourselves even in thoughts. Not a single angry thought is permitted to us, and there are two kinds of power that we wield after renouncing power.

The first kind of power, the (relatively) obvious one, is highlighted in a story from A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” “Fifty cents,” replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. “Thirty-five cents,” she said brusquely. The little boy again counted the coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said.

The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies – her tip.

C.S. Lewis’s article, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” which would be more accurately be titled, for what it says, “Why I Believe No Christian Should Be a Pacifist Nor Have Either Their Church Teachings or Their Conscience Respected As a Conscientious Objector,” dismissed what appeared to be Gandhi’s toolchest as a dog lying in a manger (as in “Aesop’s Fables:” which not only does not eat but also prevents other animals from eating). And it is not clear to me that all of the tools Gandhi used are appropriate: I’m not sure there is ever reason to seek out suffering, and after the Church’s decision to both canonize St. Ignatius (who brought martyrdom down on himself), and forbid future Orthodox Christians from trying to provoke martyrdom, apart from strained readings of the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t remember seeing any subsequent interpretations of hunger strike as appropriate. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount may give us tools, including a Do not resist evil that is never separate from the more foundational Truth in Do not worry, does not justify other tactics such as civil disobedience without direct provocation, or hunger strikes.

There’s plenty of reason for fasting, of course, but fasting is not a tool for straightening out God and his Providence: fasting is a tool to let God straighten you out. And in fact the Sermon on the Mount tells us that fasting, like prayer, should be as secret as manageable. Then it can reach its full power. However, Lewis himself may have furnished the most touching portrayal of Gandhi’s toolbox in Christian literature of all that I have read, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“Hail, Aslan!” came his shrill voice. I have the honor—” But then he suddenly stopped.

The fact was that he still had no tail—whether that Lucy had forgotten it or that her cordial, though it could heal wounds, could not make things grow again. Reepicheep became aware of his loss as he made his bow; perhaps it altered something in his balance. He looked over his right shoulder. Failing to see his tail, he strained his neck further till he had to turn his shoulders and his whole body followeed. But by that time his hind-quarters had turned too and were out of sight. Then he strained his neck looking his shoulder again, with the same result. Only after he had turned completely round three times did he realize the dreadful truth.

“I am confounded,” said Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion.”

“It becomes you very well, Small One,” said Aslan.

“All the same,” replied Reepicheep, “if anything could be done . . . Perhaps her Majesty?” and here he bowed to Lucy.

“But what do you want with a tail?” asked Aslan.

“Sir,” said the Mouse, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse.”

I have sometimes wondered, friend,” said Aslan, “whether you do not think too much about your honor.”

“Highest of all High Kings,” said Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is why I have been at some pains to make it known that no one who does not wish to feel this sword as near his heart as I can reach shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir—not the tallest fool in Narnia!” Here he glared very fiercely up at Wimbleweather, but the Giant, who was always at a stage behind everyone else, had not yet discovered what was being talked about down at his feet, and so missed the point.

“Why have your followers all drawn their swords, may I ask?” said Aslan.

“May it please your High Majesty,” said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honor which is denied to the High Mouse.”

“Ah!” roared Aslan. “You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the sake of the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

On an immediate level, this is what nonviolent resistance may seem to have. But the “big picture” realization was one that I realized in discussion with one friend about “What will you do in situation X [which had not, and has not, happened]?” and I told a joke:

A young man who was a prospective captain of a ship was being quizzed about how he would handle difficulties.

The person quizzing him said, “What would you do if a storm came?”

“I’d drop an anchor.”

“OK; suppose that the anchor gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on another storm came up again. What would you do?”

“I’d drop another anchor.”

“Ok, and if that gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on you see another storm, what would you do?”

“Where on earth are you getting all these anchors from?”

“From the same place you’re getting all these storms from!”

Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims says, “Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out,” and connects with “What would you do in situation X?” and the point I tried to make in Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth. We are not to store up treasures on earth only in things external to our bodies; we are not to store up internal treasures on earth, things that exist in our minds.

One of these kinds of false treasure exists in terms of our perceived need to map everything we do out in advance. One teacher talked about how some scholar claimed to map out what St. Irenaeos would have said in various circumstances that hadn’t happened: “What would St. Irenaeos have said if Adam and Eve, with their immediate children, had not sinned, but their grandchild did?” And regardless of the content of such scholarship, it is imposing on St. Irenaeos something utterly foreign to his mindset. As I have seen the academic community today, it is natural both to ask, “What is …?” and “What would …?” when trying to understand something. In patristic writers, only one of the two basic kinds of questions is valid for understanding something: “What is …?” And no real saint that I am aware of announces that we must have a plan that anticipates every possibility before we act. Part of the point in the Sermon on the Mount is that there is no need for planning. It is as if this dialogue plays out:

God: Will you trust me on this?

Us: I don’t know. I’m trying to trust you, but I really don’t understand what you are trying to do with me here.

God: I know you don’t know. That’s my point. As your Spiritual Father, I am not asking you to do my thinking for for me. I am asking you to trust me. Do you trust me?

Us: I’m trying to fit things together, really I am, and maybe can work together if I am able to work out a plan. Could you work with me on this?

God: I am very interested in working with you. Do you trust me?

It is not my point—and probably not my position—to try to tell fellow Orthodox what saints’ footsteps they may follow. There are warrior-saints, and then there is St. Acacius, mentioned in St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, who obediently served an abusive elder for nine years until he died, and when asked at his grave, “Brother Acacius, are you dead?” called out from beyond the grave, “No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?” And there are many others of various stripes, a kaleidoscope to the glory of God.

It is not my point—and probably not my position—to tell other Orthodox Christians whether they should join the military, or under what (if any) conditions firearm ownership is appropriate, or other questions regarding violence. I have a hunch that a good set of bright lights that turn on instantly whever someone approaches your house may, at least by itself, provide a more effective deterrent than a gun for when an intruder is already in your house. And it may be a mistake to assume that the real “I’m taking it seriously” way to address threats is something that starts with weapons. However, at least for the sake of argument, I do not wish to give a prescription for how others may relate to violence. But it is my direct wish to challenge the main assumption that keeps popping up when Christians regard violence as the real practical power.

One point regarding the Sermon on the Mount is that this side of Heaven, control that you plan out is simply impossible. The task is not to God’s thinking for him; it is to accept his Providence as intended to bless you entirely, and trust him with the complete trust that the Sermon on the Mount cries out. This may mean being with the birds of the field and the lilies of the field, and being so with (in some cases) or without openness to using violence. And, though this is a lesser point, I’m a little wary of a second assumption that lurks under the covers: “Pacifism is idealistic and appropriate for an ideal world, while sometimes using force is what works in the non-ideal world that we have.” But there is confusion for people stressed and worried to give that line to “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I’ve had times with more stress in my life, and times with less, and it may more be true that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need “Each day has enough trouble of its own, but in the rough circumstances in which we live, we need to take things one day at a time, and we need it much more than we would if we were in Paradise.

One ex-military person I spoke with talked about how top brass would keep on waking everyone up at very late night / early morning, sound the alarm, say the USSR was invading NOW, and everybody had to get up and go out to the tanks. And so soldiers would grudgingly walk out, dragging their rifles by the muzzle, and get into the tanks, and the live question in everyone’s eyes was whether the officers would call off the exercise before they got the tanks out and into mud. The live concern here is whether the soldiers would have to clean the mud off the tanks for moving into the field the next morning. And he talked about idealistically believing that if only he and his colleagues trained hard enough, no one would attack anyone else.

I remember hearing a missionary’s kid who grew up somewhere on the African continent saying, “You can’t defeat people who have nothing to lose!” and thinking that that sounded awfully idealistic, something I really wanted to believe but couldn’t, but that was over a decade ago, and since then the U.S. has been involved in multiple wars against third world nations and perhaps won none of them. World War I proudly paraded a mechanized army down to California for a sort of extended field training exercise where the entire mechanized army failed to apprehend the one single Mexican bandit that they were searching for. In Vietnam, the U.S. strategy was, “Our cool gadgets will win this war for us,” the Viet Cong’s strategy was to maximize the war’s unpopularity back home (“ballbuster”: a non-lethal anti-personell mine used by the Viet Cong, just powerful enough to crush testicles), and the present strategy in the present conflict of shooting at ISIL from the air and arming jihadists to fight ISIL jihadists is really less of a military strategy, properly speaking, than an all-American marketing strategy.

Having control this side of Heaven is not possible, and believing that firearms can be a way to opt-out of the conditions Sermon on the Mount addresses in its prescriptions. In that sense gun ownership is dangerous, because even if you accept 100% of what NRA advocates say, you have effectively closed your eyes to some of the bedrock of what the Sermon on the Mount says. In another matter, that of finances, the Fathers are quite clear: “That robe, hanging in your closet, belongs to the poor;” “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead.” If your firearm costs you the ability to live the Sermon on the Mount, drop it off at the police department; it is better for you to enter eternal life as killed where a firearm would have let you stop a crime, than to have your whole body (and your gun with it) cast into Hell.

I might briefly comment that I have brief experience with martial arts, and I have consistently noticed that they had become the driest portions of my spiritual life. Firearms and martial arts, if they are to be useful, depend on constant practice and preparation. As the banner for every school but one of Kuk Sool Won, “We need more practice!” At the grandmaster’s school, the banner says, “You need more practice!” The common concensus is that with martial arts, you fight noticeably better within months, but real mastery takesyears, and years, and years. And even then you don’t have a money-back guarantee; any martial arts instructor worth anything will make it clear before you reach black belt level (arguably before you reach anything above white belt) that martial arts instructors will make it abundantly clear that martial arts are no silver bullet; you may be safer in a conflict but not safe against every threat; someone testing for black belt can, if arrogant enough, wind up with a hole in the head. There have been attempts to make something simply easier to learn and remember—Goshin Jitsu is meant to be simple and effective—but keeping up on a martial art just because it might be useful in a fight is a bit like spending a few hours a week practicing a spare profession so that if you happen to lose your job you have a spare profession ready and waiting for you. It’s a lot of work, and it’s no more of a guarantee at that.

And there is a spiritual toll for practicing violence over and over and over. You sink in a lot of time that might be better spent sharpening your skills in your own profession. Aiki Ninjutsu talks about becoming a compassionate protector of others, and talks about building great compassion to offset the incredible destructiveness of the techniques. With all due respect, I need to give all the compassion to others that I can give, without preventably siphoning it off to offset other considerations. Perhaps you can numb or ignore what it feels like to practice violence on others and have others practice violence on itself; and martial arts have an occult ambiance; the concept of ki / qi / chi is a Buddhist practice, not really Christian, and there is a good case to be made that it’s magical, even without taking a common sense look at the philosophies Eastern martial arts draw on, which are almost invariably laden with an occult dimension.

…and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

Thoughts Which Determine Our Lives

Much of what I wrote in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction relates here. After Providence, here is perhaps the core payload for what is the Orthodox martial art.

The English word “practice” has two senses. One is, as a musician says, “I’m practicing,” meaning, “I am taking time to make dry runs at this skill and sharpen it as much as possible.” Or one speaks of a doctor “practicing medicine,” meaning “I am exercising and doing the proper live activity in my profession.” I will use the terms musician-style-practice and doctor-style-practice to distinguish the two meanings

With both firearms and martial arts, you need to practice to keep an edge, practice in the sense of the musician-style-practice. Competence requires an ongoing time sink. But live doctor-style-practice, comes very, very rarely.

One communication textbook talked about what your odds were for being assaulted on your way home: 1 in 10, 1 in 100, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 10,000. The point was that the more TV you watch, the more you overestimate the chances of suffering a violent response. The heaviest TV viewers expected a 1 in 10 chance of assault. The actual figure was the 1 in 10,000 per night figure. Notwithstanding shows glamorizing a highly romanticized view of law enforcement—when did a police show ever depict an officer filling out an hour of paperwork, or spending a day doing a daily grind of dull responsibilities—police officers draw their weapons (excluding training) perhaps once every few years.

In the musician-style-practice, you only practice very, very rarely, even including officers. No matter how much preparation it takes to keep a sharp edge, live doctor-style-practice is, and should be, very rare.

The discipline of nepsis or spiritual watchfulness over thoughts, has more than one relevance, but a nepsis that watches for and cuts off warring thoughts at the first is invaluable. Though this is a different meaning than when I last saw it, “They say that if you must resort to violence, you have already lost.” Read my article Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: then read Elder Thaddeus’s original Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and learn to appreciate your warring thoughts in deeper ways.

It may seem almost “sexist” that the blame, or at least attention and corrections, should be placed entirely on one side, yours; but this dark cloud hides an astonishing silver lining. If the correction is only put on one side, so is the power to change and make the situation better. Perhaps most (not all) conflicts include a feedback loop of escalating anger (and one that most or all truly good martial artists know how to shut down, by for instance meekly saying, “You’re the tough guy”—and this was a third-degree black belt who meekly and submissively opted out of having to be the tough guy). There is a classic enlightenment exercise where a group of sailors stand in a ring, with instructions to touch the shoulder of the soldier exactly as yours was pressed. And someone touches one of the sailors lightly, with one light finger press. The “equal to what happened to me” results in a heavy finger press, and before too long at all the light touch has become a meaty, and nasty, punch. It is very hard at times, but love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you: but you have the power, many times, to shut down the escalating unmerry merry-go-round that others will not step off of. Not that this is only for pacifists; I have seen soldiers beautifully live out of this power, and people who weren’t specifically soldiers but believed in a just war (a western concept that never really took in Orthodoxy even though Orthodoxy never really places an expectation of becoming a pacifist). If Elder Thaddeus’s sage advice could be summed up in a single maxim, it might be Proverbs 15:1: “Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger.”

Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” each day and practicing our nonviolent thoughts (doctor-style-practice) a watchfulness in thoughts that is alert to snuff out smoulders when it is small rather than heroically deluging a burning house, is harder up front, but far easier down the road.

It sounds small, but the results down the road are anything but small.

Holy and blinding arrogance

Elsewhere in The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

And this is far from what the Orthodox Church has to offer. Do we need to know the demons? No. The Philokalia may say as much about demons as any Orthodox writing may have, but we are allowed arrogance such as Sun Tzu would have considered a fatal weakness. As regards the demons, we are to be really, properly, truly, and blindingly arrogant, like the Orthodox elder who was speaking with a novice about a strange clatter the novice heard in a courtyard and told the novice, “It is only the demons. Pay it no mind.” This is cut from the same cloth as the liturgical references to “the feeble audacity of the demons.” The mind takes the shape of whatever it contemplates, hence St. Paul’s words, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We should look at Light, not darkness; live the Sermon on the Mount, and then, and not before, will we understand that the Light knows Himself and the darkness; the darkness knows neither itself nor the Light. If the spiritual eye receives things that make an impression on it, it matters what items it receives impressions from. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light: “single” in this context is cut from the same cloth as the Beatitudes that Orthodox chant in Liturgy, confessing in abbreviated form the entire Sermon on the Mount.

It has been said, “You can choose your options, but you cannot choose the consequences of your actions.” You can choose whether to look at Light or darkness: in so doing you may choose, by gazing on the Light, to be filled with peace, or to gaze deeply into darkness (and have darkness gaze into you) by training your eyes on the whirlpool of circumstances all of us face. The option is not presented to try to do God’s thinking for him, and analyze and work out how we will handle the future, and instead of darkness have all of the joys of peace that beholds the Light of God.

O that we could reach far enough into overreaching arrogance that we could, like saints old and new, look upon good and bad people and only see the beauty of the image of God in each!

Conclusion

A lot has been covered here; the past few paragraphs narrate what, in a very specific sense, can be done as the Orthodox martial art. Broadly and in a deeper sense, holiness matters.

We live in turbulent times, as did Elder Thaddeus, who wrote, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, a gift given to me by a friend who gave a very modest recommendation: “It’s not terribly deep, but I find it helpful.”. After reading it and writing, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction, I came up to him and told him he’d undersold it. It wasn’t long before he agreed.

We live in turbulent times, and probably more turbulent and rougher as time goes on. But there is an alternative to being whipped out in the vortex of our times and surroundings. (Elder Thaddeus had many sufferings and was repeatedly taken prisoner by Nazis.) We have a choice about whether we will be sucked into it. It might not seem like it, but we do. Psychologists advising addicts say that you have more power than you think. If we are attentive and refuse to consent to thoughts, perhaps praying to God to save us from this temptation, and if we are in anger, praying for God’s every blessing. This is not a quick overall process: it may be something that is a minute to start, and a lifetime to master. But though it may take years and years and years to master, but improvement may start much faster than months.

In Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth”, I try to unpack a small mystical slice of Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is bodily poverty, and monastics are blessed when they let go of physical possessions. But we have many false treasures in terms of ideas in our heads, and the letting-go of these false interior treasures is in step with why my previous parish priest said, “When we are praying, we should not have very good thoughts; we should have no thoughts.” And this has a poverty that is hard to come by. But once you have tasted it, earthly treasures taste suddenly flat. You’ve drunk something purer.

Beyond the Deep Magic of violence

When aggression and violence are met only with meekness and love, what results can be truly powerful. Evil is not always stopped from harming and killing no matter where you fall: witness Satan’s defeat in the martyrs, who are not in any sense killed because they are not good enough as Christians. Martyrdom is implemented by the Devil’s work, but the victor in martyrdom is always and ever in the Lord and in the triumphant martyr entering Heaven in glory as a son of God. What happens in martyrdom, but quite a few other places as well, happens when the Deep Magic of violence runs its course, but when it has run its course, the Devil’s work is transfigured into something immeasurably far beyond anything that the practical nature of violence can hope for. And its primary application is not reserved to the most extraordinary moments in a well-lived life, but the warp and woof of the daily living of those who practice it, be it on ever so small a scale!

Seeing as are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
And such and heavenly treasures are set within our reach,
Let us ever reach,
Further Up and Further In!