Orthodox mission should find its strength primarily in love

23 October 2009
An interview with spiritual director of the Transfiguration Brotherhood and Rector of SFI, Fr. Georgy Kochetkov

Q: Recently there has been active discussion in the press of various amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations in Russia. Here are some excerpts from the bill which have caused the most violent protest: “missionary activity on behalf of a religious organization may be carried out by the head of such organization and/or by a member of its governing body. Other individuals and legal entities shall have the right to carry out missionary activity on behalf of the religious organization on the basis of a power of attorney issued by the relevant religious organization, or on the basis of some other written document confirming the right to carry out missionary activity on behalf of the religious organization... missionary activity carried out by persons without a specific document is prohibited.” Could you comment on this?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: This is more than strange, of course, as mission always presupposes that a person is bearing witness to his understanding of reality, which is a very personal thing. It’s a person to person affair – any and all mission begins from this level.

Yes – of course missionary activity has always been controlled by the state – and we should neither doubt this or be upset by it. Without this basic control, those who have more money or more experience in spreading their viewpoints – including those who are good at spin doctoring and can launch smear campaigns, or those who have developed better political strategies and advertising – will dominate. The state cannot allow this, of course. Any state protects its hierarchy of values; after all, the state itself is the fruit of the formation of this hierarchy of values in terms of spiritual, religious and social consciousness, as well as on the personal level. But in regulating, the state must take care not to replace the inner law of mission (the integrity of mission, as such) with itself and its own laws.

Mission flows out of an inner awakening of conscience. To restrict mission means to encroach on the testimony of another person's conscience. It is very important to understand that the state can and must have its own preferences and may give more opportunities to one party, and fewer to another. But the state cannot impose missionary language and action on anyone, nor can it prohibit anyone from bearing witness to his own inner sanctum, even if this inner sanctum is not quite at home within the context of this state. The state may support the mission or it may not, and it may even restrict it – but this restriction has to be spiritual and dialogical in character. It must not be the result of administrative coercion or any other type of coercion.

From the Life of St. Macarius of Egypt

St. Maсarius was walking from his skete to Mount Nitrian with one of his disciples. As they approached the mountain, Macarius said to his disciple: “You go on a bit ahead of me”. The disciple went on ahead of the saint and before long came across a pagan priest, hurrying towards him and carrying a big log. Upon seeing him, the monk shouted: “Hey you! You hear me, you demon? Where are you going?” The priest stopped and seriously beat the monk to within a hair of his life. Then, picking up the log he had dropped, the priest ran away. After some time had passed, the priest ran into St. Macarius who told him: “Save your soul, o lover of hard work, save your soul”! Amazed by the words of the saint, the priest stopped and asked him, “what good have you found in me which made you say these words?” “I can see that you work hard,” answered the saint. Then the priest said: “I am touched by your words, father, and from this I can see that you are a man of God. Before I met you I met another monk, who rebuked me and so I beat him and left him for dead.” Having said these words, the priest fell on his knees and embraced the saint's legs, saying: “I will not leave you, father, until you convert me to Christianity and make me a monk,” and he followed St. Macarius. When they had walked for a while, they approached the place where the severely beaten monk was lying and found him barely alive. They took him and brought him to the church on the Mount Nitrian. The monks living there were astonished upon seeing the pagan priest with St. Macarius. Afterwards, they baptized him and tonsured him a monk, and because of him a great many pagans converted to Christianity. Father Macarius commented on this event by offering the following instruction for life: “Mean words make good people mean, but good words make mean people good.”

Q: Then how can the state restrict the activity of such sects as Satanists, for example?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: Any sect that breaks the law must be liable not for being a sect, but for breaking the law. The simple act of being a sect is not a crime. The state must fight for the integrity of consciousness, for the traditions of its people, but it must not “fight against sects”, in general. Yes, perhaps we don’t like sects because their presence really does divide person from person and lower the spiritual level of consciousness and the responsibility level of groups within the nation. But striving for some specific teaching to be proclaimed by the government as the only true teaching while all the others are labelled sects which must be extinguished, is pointless and fruitless. This will never happen. When placed under these conditions, even truly veritable teaching becomes false.

Q: But of course this striving for some specific teaching does not appear out of nowhere: today’s society exhibits an irrational fear even in relation to the word “sect”, which is sometimes used with purpose and sometimes without reason.

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: If one regards citizens as small children, the easiest way to scare them is by bogeyman stories. For our society at present, among those stories is the notion of “the sect”, which is not based on any learned understanding, but has rather a negative and judgmental nature. But this is an unworthy thing. It is no coincidence that people try not to offend each other even if they disagree in matters of faith, which are apparently unprovable, and have only internal credibility or validity.

This reliance on internal belief is the essence of mission itself – a living testimony of the heart, and this is where Christian Orthodoxy must stand, first and foremost. It should not be powerful because of outside means – because of support from the state and governing bodies, whether formal or informal. Orthodox mission should find its strength primarily in love. In ancient times, when people got to know how Christians lived, they said: “Look how they love one another”. It was precisely this love that was convincing. All other remaining testimony will either be accessory to this love, or will be entirely unworthy.

Q: We say that one of the priorities of our movement is Orthodox mission. What can we, as a movement, say about missionary work at this point in time?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: That it is being neglected, that it is in crisis and is in need of renewal on the basis of love, faith and respect for human freedom, whatever the current beliefs or positions of the persons bearing testimony. After all, it is possible to convince a person in different ways, but the most profound conviction arises when a person opens his heart to truth and begins to take part in it. Those who thirst after something and are searching for something need help in finding a path; no force should be applied to them and no one should be rejected. Otherwise it will not be mission, but administrative pressure or spiritual violence.

When all is said and done, if we want people to join…let’s say not the Protestants, but the Orthodox, we must learn to be more convincing. We need to show greater love and respect for the freedom of others. Reveal your qualities, and even if takes time and is not easy, you will win in the end. Yes, it sometimes takes many years; sacrifice is needed, without it nothing is going to happen.

Q: Do you think that the Orthodox Church today has such resources?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov: There are always such resources in the church. Whether or not they reveal themselves is another question. You can stimulate their appearance and disclosure or, conversely, suppress and destroy them. Therein lies the question. It is not enough to be interested in mission, it is not enough to do missionary work: this is always a question for the church – how do we go about mission, what methods do we use and what is the basis of our mission. There are many very different “lovers of mission”, but some people base their mission in violence, slander and on “friendship others”, while others base their mission in open testimony about God's love, forgiveness, compassion, service, dedication and other wonderful things stored in the Christian tradition and in Christian sermons – in other words, in normal mission and Christian testimony. Let us be a living example of mission to others. Then there will be no need to suppress anybody, by means of the state or by any other means.

the end!