Is it true when they say that Christians shouldn’t be brave? How can we combine courage with humility? What does it mean to “turn the other cheek”? When is particular courage required of a Christian? What should a Christian really fear? These are the questions we asked Archimandrite Melchisedek (Artiukhin). Our discussion is about boldness in the secular and Christian understanding, about imagined and real fears, and about true, and imitation, strength.
—No, he should not be a coward!
—It is popular to say that Christianity teaches, even cultivates cowardice; that it cultivates a fear of those who do not confess Christ and could be the source of temptations; that it cultivates fear of the world. What can we say in answer to these accusations? Are Christians really cowards?
—All of our victories and wars, including the time of Suvorov, Ushakov, and World War II, testify to the opposite! Many modern warriors are also Christians, and wear an Orthodox cross. In almost every army base [in Russia] there is an Orthodox chapel. When I served in the army in 1982, I was the only one out of 130 men at the recruitment office wearing a cross. But then society was atheistic, and today it’s all different; now there are many Christians in our army and security forces. So it’s fundamentally wrong to say that Christians are cowards. It’s just that they do not try to prove or show off their strength to others in everyday life; because a wise man is not just a smart man. What is the difference between a wise man and a smart man? The smart man knows how to find a way out of every difficult situation. The word “coward” is in no way a synonym for “Christian”.
—Apparently those who talk about the supposed cowardice of Christians are talking about a certain old-fashionedness—women in headscarves, concentrated, serious men, not smiling or laughing…
—This a stereotype, and we don’t even know who came up with it! Just look at the young people at the Pokrov Church! In the course of its ten years of existence over 55 married couples have come together in our parish. Just look at how our parishioners spend their time, how they mingle with their classmates and each other. They simply have something more than a person has who is without faith.
—A Christian should humble himself, and people think that humbling yourself means showing weakness of weakness of character. How does humility differ from weakness?
—A strong person does not look for guilty parties. A strong, bold person looks for God. Only a very bold person can find the strength in himself to be humble. I recently read an interesting historical note about our wars. In one Hussar battalion, one of the officers was fined. The chief in command comes and censures him, gets more and more carried away with his ranting, goes too far, and starts shouting at the officer… Then the officer says, “There was an order from the chief in command: Officers are not to shout at other officers!” Then the one who had gotten carried away by his anger stopped himself, and said, “The orders of the chief commander must be observed.” And his anger cooled. So what was in this humility—showing weakness or showing strength? The chief commander humbled himself before his officer at whom he had been shouting and who was most likely at fault, and considered his anger justified. But to become nobler than that anger, to become stronger than one’s own emotions requires much more strength.
The philosopher Democritus said, “Many people have ruled cities but were at the same time slaves to women.” It is a great strength to overcome your own passions—to get the upper hand over your passions—your anger, for example. In the world a strong person is one who can stand up for himself with his own roaring, his own arguing, or who bangs his fist on the table or door… But what does he resolve by this? Has he solved the problems in his own family? In one’s own family or in any personal relationships it is impossible to resolve anything with brashness. Some brash person has said, “Speak loudly, so that they hear you! Speak softly so that they would listen to you!” Will you, brash man, yell at your wife, your friends, your son or daughter? Will they listen to you or not? More strength and courage is needed in order to win against that false superiority over other people, especially over the weak. That is why Dostoevsky said, “Humility is a terrible force!”
This is a terrible force, which can change many things. I have thought about the word, “terrible”. Doestoevsky after all could not have said tautologically, “forceful force”. And therefore “terrible” means very, very great. That is the strength of humility.
However, we need to discern, to differentiate, when we are with friends or if someone offends a weak person, or girls; if our friend has been attacked, if our national flag has been trampled on as the English soccer fans did. We don’t necessarily have to punch them in the eye, but take the flag away from them…. I cite an example from everyday life. We also have to be brave when standing up for our country or close ones.
But we don’t go to soccer games, we don’t find ourselves in such situations where we have to stand up for each other. And there is a remarkable law of spiritual life: Don’t go where you’re not invited. Whoever looks for adventures will without fail fall into them. We don’t have the boldness to look for adventure. But if suddenly, God forbid, you find yourself in such a situation then you have to have the strength and boldness to stand up for yourself.
I remember one seemingly simple example that is in fact very complex. Here is a citation that justifies the pacifism of Tolstoy: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn your left cheek to him.” How can we fulfill this in our everyday life? The citation itself is not so simple. The thing is that when someone strikes you with his right hand the blow falls on your left cheek. But “if someone strikes you on the right cheek,” it means that we are not just talking about the physical relationship. Elder Ambrose explained it this way: “When someone has slandered you, you have been stricken on the right cheek. Therefore, remember your unrighteous deeds for which you received such punishment, only with a delay, and receive this criticism with the proper understanding; because there is justice in this.” This acceptance of criticism is “turning the other cheek.”
There was a perfectly concrete case that could serve as a good illustration of the fact that everything has some limit and some human explanation. I heard it myself from a well-known priest, now reposed—Father Dimitry Gudkov, may his memory be eternal. This is what he told me. One young man was departing the town of Pushkino for the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, and was waiting for the commuter train. A tipsy man walked up to him at saw that the young man was modest. He asked him, “What’s up, old man?” “Everything’s well, thank God!” the young man replied. “What? Thank God?! Are you religious?” “Yes, I’m religious!” The drunken man struck him with his right hand on the left cheek, on the jaw. The lad bore the blow. The drunk asked him, “Well, are you going to turn your right cheek or not?” and hit him again, with his left hand, on the jaw of his right cheek. The lad stood it again. The drunk drew his fist back to hit him a third time—and there is nothing in the Scripture about a third time. So the lad says to the drunk, “The third is for you!” and punched him in the nose. The man flew off the platform… I am not saying that this is what we should do, but everything has its limits. After all, it might have ended in murder. That drunk could have beat the boy to death…
Where you need to stand up for yourself, you need to stand up for yourself. If a person understands that it is not out of weakness that you are not standing up for yourself but because you don’t want to be bothered with that fool and think it better to part peacefully, that’s one thing. But when that person does not understand human relationships, then you have to defend yourself and those with you. This is a delicate question because it is better to get hit on the head defending yourself than to than loose your head altogether by not defending yourself; it’s better to jump in the water and die than to wait until they kill you.
But as far as close personal relationships are concerned… In personal relationships, in family relationships, no weaponry should ever be used—neither verbal, nor emotional. In family relationships you have to come to agreements; burdens should not be answered with burdens. By the way, a strong person does not get revenge; a strong person forgives, a wise person forgets. The one who seeks revenge is the weak one.
He who yields, acquires. Yielding—is that strength, or cowardice?
Furthermore: We should be bold with our own selves, because we are often very cowardly in admitting our own mistakes, our unprofessionalism, our inadequacies; we fight to the finish and justify ourselves.
—We are ashamed to admit that we are wrong…
—It is not as much a matter of shame as it is of cowardice. A strong person, who is able to admit his own mistakes, can accept his own inadequacies and not lull his own conscience. Dostoevsky said about one of his heroes, “He did not have a discussion with his conscience.” A discussion in what sense? He did not try to persuade his conscience, or lull it; he had no argument with his conscience. This is one of the great things and one of the strong sides of a person who shows that he is not a coward—when a person does not try to persuade his conscience, does not try to make an agreement with it, when he admits his mistakes—this is also very great boldness.
—You recalled the Savior’s words about how we need to turn the other cheek, which directly contradicts the natural laws of nature: the strongest survives, the strongest wins. People say to us Christians that since we act this way, it’s direct proof that we are weak and limited people.
—When we talk about our everyday life, boorishness has to be stopped with force if verbal arguments come to a standstill. When a person becomes aggressive he can and should be stopped. Why? Firstly, so that we won’t get hurt; and secondly, if it concerns those near you under your protection, you are simply obligated to protect them. There is a differentiation here. It is one thing to take control over your anger, and another thing how you behave with people who will never understand you or your turned cheek, and another matter how you behave with like-minded people, close ones, who understand that your turned cheek is a concession to them out of noble feelings. But when this doesn’t work on that person, when you have tried everything, then you need to defend yourself and others. This is the army rule: two warning shots and only after that shoot to kill. We first try to come to an agreement, try to halt the situation, to stop the lout or aggressor, but if we don’t succeed then we have to use force; because we are standing up for goodness; goodness and righteousness have to be defended.
—What do the holy Fathers say about cowardice? What is its root?
—There is no cowardice in patristic experience. The holy fathers pursued ascetic feats in both external and internal life, and did not pity themselves. This is where we get the fathers’ unbelievable ascetic feats of fasting, prayer, and simply of labor. There are many examples of this—take for example the modern Athonite Patericon. Each saint was an ascetic laborer, and ascetic labor precludes a certain braveness with respect to life, especially spiritual life.
—But holy people also experience fear. Like the apostle Paul, for example.
—No doubt. There were moments when they fell, and showed cowardice and fear in their lives… Everyone has the survival instinct. But someone said that if a person has no principles and no inner conviction, he will have no boldness. When there are no principles and no conviction! And what principles? Christian, or any other principles. Here is a remarkable example. There were bank employees, and a new manager came and said, “Folks, we are losing some money here, and so we have to work on Sundays till noon.” The employees came in one Sunday, then another, in order to set things straight… Although there is a saying: You can’t earn all the money there is. But human greed took over. Finally one clerk, an Orthodox Christian, said, “I can’t come to work on Sunday any more.” It’s one thing when there is a rush job, and quite another when work on Sundays becomes the norm. They ask him why. He says, “I am a Christian.” “So what?” “Sundays are my personal time, and I dedicate it to church.” “Then you’ll be fired. Choose what is worth more to you—a free Sunday or work in the bank.” “I’ll think about it.” A week later the young man came to the manager and said, “I have chosen: my faith and my convictions are worth more to me.” “Okay. You’re fired.” Three months go by, and an acquaintance comes to the banker and says, “I need a very trustworthy person to work as the director of the treasury department.” The banker says, “It’s hard to find a trustworthy and honest person.” “I know it’s hard, and that’s why I’ve come to you for advice.” “Wait a minute,” says the banker after a thought. “I know one man whose convictions are worth more to him than money.” And he recommended that young man, who was then made the director of the treasury department. That’s a real story. It’s an example of how a godless materialist values convictions.
In order for a person not to be a coward, he has to have convictions. This is first of all, backbone.
—We know that St. Paisius the Athonite was afraid of cemeteries and struggled with this fear in an interesting way: He spent the night in the cemetery. When parishioners come to you, you probably give them some advice on how to struggle with fear, cowardice, indecisiveness, and weak character. Please share this advice with us.
—This is an unexpected question… But here is one example that comes to mind. I always tell parents that they should raise their boys as boys, and girls as girls. When a boy only sits at the computer, when he has no manliness and courage, when his everyday circumstances do not lend themselves to the development of manliness, the boy will grow up to be effeminate. I will give an example from Archbishop John (Shakhovskoy); he recalled his upbringing. His family had an estate in Tula Province, and his mother made him climb trees and explained how to climb onto the second floor of the house, teaching him manliness in this way. He later participated in the White Army movement on the Don River. His mother understood that a boy should grow up to be manly, courageous.
And courage is taught in childhood; it doesn’t come out of nowhere. A manly man has to be brought up as such. It is good that there are classes that teach them how to stand up for themselves: martial arts, boxing, light athletics, heavy athletics… A person should be accustomed to difficulties from childhood. One writer, I think it was Dickens, said, “Until a person understands that work is an axiom of our life and difficulties connected with work are our everyday affair, he will never cultivate a proper relationship to life. And if he accepts difficulties as an axiom he will find the will in himself to overcome them.” Problems are our everyday affair; we were born to overcome them. We have to find the will and boldness in ourselves to courageously overcome them.
—You gave an example of cultivating courage in boys. What about girls?
—In girls, femininity should be cultivated primarily. This is primarily modesty, the ability to listen without interrupting… But in our culture a girl is always in first place, and she gets extra attention. I once had a thought: Boys should always be cared for, loved, and given affection; but girls should be held with an iron hand. Why? Because if a boy is accustomed from childhood to love and not hatred or severity, he will be gracious to his own family, and decide everything with love. But a spoiled girl will be spoiled for the rest of her life. When she gets married she will start “demanding her rights” from her husband. Nothing will be right or good enough for her. Many family problems come from this. You recalled Elder Paisius. He wrote a wonderful article on family relationships. He said that our whole world today is in a binary system—1 and zero. When a wife tries to stand in front of her husband, the value of that family is 01; when the wife stands behind the husband, that is the zero behind the 1, the family value is 10. To the woman the elder would say: Here, look at the value you want to give your own family. Do you want to be in front of your husband, or after him?
Therefore the girl should be taught this relationship. Of course, she has to be taught a lot of things; she should know how to do things. I am amazed when I come to a home and the lady of the house doesn’t know how to cook or sew—at age 30-35. They say that these days you can buy everything. Why sew or cook? They don’t know how to keep house at all. Whose fault is it? The parents’ fault—they never taught their daughters how to keep house.
The man should know how to earn money, to have a skill that will bring money into the family; but the girl should prepare herself to be a mother, and not with only one or two children. She should know how to keep house on a high level and how to solve household problems in the best possible way. This is the meaning of femininity. And there is boldness in this also—in taking your place. This is also boldness, and not weakness. After all, nothing touches a man more than women’s tears. That is why women’s tears are also a power. But this power should not be abused.
—The holy fathers teach us that the devil holds people captive in fear. This is fear of death, fear of social failure—the fear being a loser. Some gurus of various “training” say just that: Get rid of your friends that are unsuccessful. How should we relate to this? After all, the stigma of a loser is very hard to throw off, and these days it easily sticks to people.
—It is absolutely unimportant what various gurus say. The apostle said to us, Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15). Because everything that is in the world is lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eyes, and pride of life. And as for losers and how we should treat them… We have our own laws, our own credo of life. About this the apostle Paul said: We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Rom. 15:1). Therefore, the sign of a strong person is when he can extend a hand to the weak, defend the ones to whom others do not lend a hand.
In Russian literature there is a great example—the life of Dostoevsky. He first wrote the novella, Poor Folk, and then he wrote some unsuccessful stories; that is, he first had a rise in fame and got a high opinion of himself, and then—failure. But many supported him and did not turn away from him.
In our everyday life we, having definite success or position, should help others without waiting for them to ask. This is also strength. The ancient philosophers had an expression: “When they ask you for help, you are already late; you should have understood it, seen it, and heard it.” This is the sign of a strong person.
We should have a creative approach to situations and understand who we can be helpful to. Socrates also said, “True life is a life that is not just for oneself.” You have success, you have health, you have talent, status, connections, abilities—help others. “True life is a life that is not just for oneself.” Socrates was far from Christianity, but he was on the path towards our Christian spirit.
A strong person looks at whom he should take upon his shoulders and pull along a little, whose backpack or purse he should carry in life… And even if you are weak but you have some strength, you can also help a little. That is how it is in our Christian life. Do not pretend that you don’t see a weak person, so that you might not lose some time or energy on him and thus weaken your own daily success. Nothing of the sort! The successful are just successful. And in the secular world it is a slightly different situation: people just want fewer problems in life…
—They just want to make it easier for themselves to succeed.
—Right. Less work, more money—that is the slogan of modern life. No, we should not be afraid of hardships in spiritual or physical life. To the contrary, a person has grace or “good luck” from God when he shares his strengths and abilities with other people. This is the sign of a strong person.
—Father, you recalled the apostles, their struggle, their experience. Today we don’t have the same terrible persecutions here that we had in the twentieth century. It your view, what are the choices before us now? How are we, Christians, cowardly?
—We are cowardly in being ourselves. You cited the example of the guru… Yes, there’s clothing, fashion… We conform ourselves to this world—everyone is like that, and so am I. Everyone has a cooperative, and I will join the cooperative, even if it’s Great Lent or the Nativity fast. We have to have the strength to announce that we are Christians. But that is not enough—we have to answer for these words.
This is the greatest cowardice of our times: We do not present ourselves as Christians—for one reason, because we are ashamed. They might say to us, “What kind of Christian are you?” because we do not behave as Christians should. And we do not want to discredit the faith, and so we do not pronounce ourselves Christians—we are the worst representatives of Orthodoxy. Out of lack of wisdom we think, “Let them not guess.” But to the contrary we need for them to guess, to know, to see that you do not behave as you should, and so that they would tell you so. This is after all the courage to admit your failings.
—And to admit that I’m a coward…
—That I’m a coward, and that I do not live up to the name, Christian. But in time I will begin to come up to it. If I do that, then others will say, “Thank God that there is at least one normal person who holds to his convictions to the end.” And this will be a sermon without a sermon. A person will witness without words, by his deeds, his behavior; not just by the words he says but by what he doesn’t say, that he is a Christian. And this will also be boldness—to present yourself to the world as a Christian. This is great boldness, and not cowardice at all.
Our main cowardice is in that we do not behave as Christians. Someone said, “When a woman comes out of church she takes off her scarf, and unfortunately, she takes off her Christianity. This should not be. People should be able to guess from our outward behavior and our inner state that we are God’s people.
—And that it’s good to be with us…
—Yes. It doesn’t mean that there should be some ostentatious breaking of norms. But let our Christianity be seen. Faith without works is dead. Let them guess about our faith not because we talk about it, but because we act, having faith. This will be the most convincing preaching. Because words edify, but only deeds attract.
—What should a person truly fear?
—There is a very precious thought: Do not fear anyone but God. We need to fear that the name of God might be blasphemed because of us; so that no one would say, “What kind of Christian are you?!” This is what we should fear most of all.
We should fear that our faith would not correspond to our life. Because when this only has to do with us, that is one thing; but when we are constantly amidst people who are far from the faith, this will be a great scandal to them. It is said that one preacher can do very little to bring people to God, but one apostate can do very much to turn people away from the faith. Therefore, personal example, Christian dignity, and boldly bearing our Christian name throughout our lives—this is a great responsibility. But we should not be afraid of this responsibility, because we are God’s children.
—Thank you, Fr. Melchisedek.
—Till we meet again. All the best to you.