Religions for Peace USA regularly spotlights member communities to be featured in The Interfaith Observer. This month, Suzy Lamoreaux interviews Archimandrite Nathanael Symeonides of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, who represents the Archdiocese on RfPUSA’s Executive Council. The Archimandrite was appointed director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in September 2013. Fr. Nathanael and his department work to spread interest in and knowledge of Church activities and teachings while “always respecting the sincerity of the religious convictions and spiritual sensitivities of others.”
The Archdiocese was in the news recently when Archbishop of America Demetrios walked alongside President Obama and thousands of others in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for civil rights. The church’s work on conflict resolution, humanitarian aid, and equality were the topics Fr. Nathanael was most eager to share with the interreligious community.
Suzy Lamoreaux: The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a history of condemning violence as a means of resolving conflict. How does the Archdiocese promote peaceful reconciliation between groups, especially between other religions as well as other Christian denominations?
Fr. Nathanael: In order to understand the Orthodox Christian view of war, one must understand the history of Church-State relations in the East. In the Eastern Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire, Church and State were always separate but equal entities. Therefore, the Church never declared war, promoted violence as a means of resolving conflict, or needed to develop a “just war theory.”
Simultaneously, however, the Church acknowledges that, due to the fallen nature of humanity, there are times when the State enters into violent conflict. What this leads to, therefore, is a Church that prays for and blesses soldiers who engage in conflict while never blessing the conflict itself. It is also important to note that even in those instances when violence is used as a means of defense, the Church always prescribes a period of repentance and spiritual healing for anyone who was forced to enact violence upon a fellow human being.
The Archdiocese promotes peaceful reconciliation between groups primarily through dialogue and collaborative efforts. On the one hand, we understand that any intrinsic problem must be surfaced through dialogue – in theological terms, confession. The exercise of recognizing those elements that keep us separated can indeed help lead us to reconciliation and forgiveness. On the other hand, engaging in collaborative projects not only helps us engage one another, but, during the reconciliation process, it can help us build stronger and broader communities. Both dialogue and praxis are equally important and must happen simultaneously.
Orthodox Christianity does not view itself as a Christian denomination, that is, Orthodoxy is not just one “version” or “brand” of Christianity. The Orthodox Church is a community of believers who gather together to form the Eucharistic community, which experiences and joins themselves to Christ in the same way as the early Apostles. While this Eucharistic community is always pointing to something beyond the world as its goal, it never rejects the world. Instead, it is called to pray for the salvation of the world. This, of course, includes all people, irrespective of their creed or lack thereof. Since conflict among people is often rooted in differences in identity, and since religious and faith convictions are a major part of identity, it is essential for people of faith and good will to identify those elements in their traditions that help forge positive relationships.”