This is the myth that underlies our violence against the Other—our so-called “enemies”:
One of the motivations of violence against the Other is portraying oneself—or “our side”—as completely “good” and one’s enemies—or “their side”—as completely “evil.” We do it all the time—as individuals, as cultures, as races, as religions, as nations. This dual portrayal gives “our side” the permission to kill, incarcerate, torture, and oppress since our actions will automatically be deemed righteous, commendable, and sensible, as we are the “good” guys and therefore any actions we take—however objectively deplorable—are automatically considered “good.” And our enemies can be killed, eliminated, incarcerate, oppressed, and tortured as inanimate objects to be eliminated in the implementation of our ideologies and interests because they have no good in them and are therefore completely evil and thus worthy and deserving of their death, torture, incarceration, and oppression. Since there is nothing good in them (i.e., our completely evil “enemies”), no good will be destroyed when our enemies are killed, tortured, or otherwise oppressed.
The antidote to this crude, unthinking, facile, and toxic bifurcation is the prerequisite transfiguration for loving our enemies and building peace intuitively and (super)naturally. The resolution is therefore ontological rather than a forced and contrived imitation—good or bad. And part of what this transfiguration looks like is recognizing the good in our enemies and the evil in ourselves—that, as the gulag surviver, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, remarked, the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run between separate human beings or identity groups, but down the middle of every human heart; this requires stillness (hesychesis) and attentiveness (nepsis) to the vices and passions in ourselves and a commensurate life of repentance, all of which induces our transfiguration—the partaking of the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4), the same “stuff” as the Prince of Peace—that capacitates us for treating the Other in the same way that the Transfigured One treated the Other—i.e., the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the publicans, the Roman occupiers.
A desire for retribution is the response to our perception of complete evil in the Other; a desire for restoration is the response to our recognition of at least some good in all human beings—“the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn. 1:9)—that can still yet be unearthed, prioritized, and cultivated.
The following passage from St. Luke's gospel account—which the Orthodox Church, in her genius, focuses on as we enter Great Lent—expresses this unhelpful bifurcation and its antidote:
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 18:9–14).
The tax collector therefore exhibits the transfigurative repentance—and the requisite stillness that facilitates attentiveness to his own flaws and need of divine mercy and compassion—that I wrote about above. This is the basis of the Jesus Prayer or “prayer of the heart” in the Orthodox tradition: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is this prayer that pierces through the distractions that overshadow the divine image in each of us and that undermines the delusional bifurcation of us vs. them. Similarly, St. John Climacus wrote in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Fire and water do not mix; neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent.”
It is important to acknowledge, therefore, that we are all capable of the same evil for the revealing yet hopeful reason that our true selves—or “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn. 1:9) and image and likeness of God with which we are all equally stamped—are simply buried under layers that conceal and distort this true self. But, by God’s grace, these layers—these distractions—can be dismantled.
For example, the much vilified 4th-century emperor Constantine, who exhibited numerous examples of abhorrent behaviour with far-reaching consequences, was weighed down by several layers with which I don’t have to contend—cultural, expectations of power, familial dynamics, heavy political responsibilities, paranoia and other devastating psychological markers, standards of cruelty and other behaviour accepted within his particular era and culture, etc. But his true self under this unique set of layers is the same as my true self, even as I also contend with a similar—though perhaps lighter and milder, but no less distracting—set of layers, whether cultural, racist, nationalist, philosophical, religious, genetic, hereditary, emotional, psychological, etc. Constantine, therefore, didn’t only live 1700 years ago; I am Constantine too.
This is the central truth of the Orthodox neptic tradition (epitomized by the texts on “prayer of the heart” in the 18th-century anthology called the Philokalia), that our true self or heart—or as Met. Kallistos Ware describes it, “the spiritual center of man's being, the human person as made in God's image, the deepest and truest self, the inner shrine to be entered only through sacrifice and death”—are equally true and equally reflect the divine light—in me, you, ISIS members, those who kill Christians, those who killed God, and the well-dressed crowd of white Evangelical southerners who dismembered and immolated thousands of blacks in the 20th century.
But the recognition of this true self and the unique set of layers with which we must contend—and to which we must be attentive (á la hesychesis and nepsis)—not only demonstrates that we are all capable of the same evil, but it also suggests that we are all capable of restoration and redemption.
Fill in the blank: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: _________________.”
I do it all the time; Lord, have mercy.