Reconciliation On Wealth and Poverty: Repentance Fit for a King

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Do you wish to see what makes a bed truly beautiful? … I am showing you the bed of David. Not one adorned all over with silver and gold, but with tears and confessions.   St. John Chrysostom, First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man

As we are at the beginning of Great Lent, it is fair to bring up this point of Chrysostom’s chastisement of luxurious living. Here, the “golden mouthed” preacher makes reference to the Prophet Amos’s denunciation of those who “sleep on beds of ivory and live delicately on couches” (1).  In the parable, it is not hard to imagine the rich man doing this.  Dining sumptuously every day and dressed in purple, of course he would also have furnishings more of status and wealth than of function.  Poor Lazarus couldn’t even get a crumb from a table made of expensive materials.  While dogs licked his sores…

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Reconciliation to God: My Lenten Reading Assignments

Desert Fathers Dispatch

In our modern political argument of conservatism vs. liberalism, I couldn’t help but notice that almost no one on either side was making use of two of the most powerful patristic works in Christian literature. On Wealth and Poverty by John Chrysostom and On Social Justice by Basil the Great have stood the test of time when it comes to developing a heart and mind to respond to the less fortunate in our society. This is my self-assigned reading for Lent this year, as well as my assigned reading for the Antiochian House of Studies. I confess that, in some ways, a temptation to proof-text these works to a left-leaning interpretation. Politically, I am a moderate (blue-dog) Democrat. I also acknowledge a need for a Republican source of ideas to aid the poor and marginalized. Being a park ranger, I get to see our nation’s symbolic bird, the bald eagle…

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Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

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One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

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The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

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St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2

A Home for White Nationalist?

An African-American Orthodox Christian shared this article with me; “How the Orthodox Christianity Became the Spiritual Home of White Nationalism” (http://religiondispatches.org/how-orthodox-christianity-became-the-spiritual-home-of-white-nationalism/?platform=hootsuite). Much of the writing focused on the example of Matthew Heimbach, who was excommunicated by the Antiochian Orthodox Church for his racist activities. The author does mention that this action “means that he is technically unable to receivesacraments in any canonical Orthodox church” and that he may or may not have sympathy from a Romanian priest. Other than a generalization of “alt-right” thugs displaying Orthodox symbols on the web, she does not name anyone else or any other American movement except Heimbach. Combined with an incident of a priest in Corinth blessing an office of the Greek Neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” and the Russian nationalist fervor among Christians and supporters of Vladimir Putin, it would seem that the Orthodox Church has opened its arms to white nationalist. No doubt, there is a problem of white nationalism in the Church. But, from my experiences and what I see as an African-American Orthodox Christian, I think that the “alt-right” has some major obstacles to overcome if they are to make the Church their spiritual home.

First of all is the fact that Orthodox Christianity owes much of its spiritual wisdom to non-European people. It is hard to find any monk or nun that does not refer to the “desert fathers” of Egypt. St. Anthony the Great was a native Egyptian (according to St. Athanasius) and is widely regarded as the father of monasticism. Many monasteries are organized in a structure formed by St. Pachomius who lived in Upper Egypt where the residents are certainly not of Nordic stock. St. John Cassian, who brought monasticism to many places in Western Europe was heavily influenced by such monks including St. Moses the Ethiopian (also known today as “the Strong, Robber, and Black). Prayers from St. Macarius are found in many prayer books, including the widely used “Jordanville” prayer book of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Going back to St. Athanasius, he is credited to be a lead spokesman at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and put together the list of 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament. Even that canonization was done in the African city of Carthage. As nationalistic as Russian Orthodox Christians may seem, some of their most influential writers such as Sts. Ignatius Brianchaninov, John of Kronstadt, and Theophan the Recluse point back to these African saints. The works of American orthodox heroes Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Seraphim Rose also point back to this source of wisdom. Sure, a white nationalist may embrace the double –eagle and the idea of a holy dynasty. But, anyone who seriously studies where the great spiritual masters of the church came from will have to face the fact that they were not European.

Then, there is the mission of the Church, the spread of the Gospel and making disciples of all nations (as Jesus taught in Matthew 28). The apostles did not stay in Judea. They went through out the known world. Barnabas and Paul, the first missionaries, were ancient Middle Eastern Jews and were ordained in a Syrian city in part by two black clergymen (Acts 13:1). These brown skinned people brought the faith to the darkest of Africans and the palest Europeans. Had it not been for the Muslim invasions, Africa beyond Ethiopia would have been evangelized centuries ago. The Russians had spread the Church into China, Japan, and their Alaska territory not as a means of dominance and conquest. They did so because they believed and the Church teaches that the Gospel is for all people. If a white nationalist becomes Orthodox, he will have to justify his racial supremacy with the call of Christ and the history of the first believers.

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Finally, the modern Orthodox Church has been making much better efforts in evangelizing to minority groups than in decades past. Up until the mass conversion of evangelicals into the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1987, very few “whites” were converting to Orthodoxy. That event was a sign to America that the Orthodox Church was for anyone who would “come and see.”  The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a fellowship committed to spreading the faith to African-Americans, was inspired by the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA over 20 years ago. The internet broadcaster, Ancient Faith Radio has featured lectures from the Ancient Faith Afro-American Conferences since the 1990’s. Several bishops and well known priest have by voice and action expressed their support of minorities coming into the Orthodox Church.

Am I saying that Orthodox Christianity has no white nationalist and people with “alt-right” tendencies within our walls? I wish I could. When I posted a part of my conversion story on my blog, I had one person declare that I could not be black and Orthodox at the same time. There are some parishes who try to send minority inquirers somewhere else. There are some African-Americans who love the history and spirituality of this ancient faith. But, they have been put off by Orthodox clergy and laity that refuse to extend a hand of friendship and an unwillingness to find common ground on political and social issues. I am sorry to confess that in some places across the country and around the world that the Orthodox Church is a haven for bigots.

But, I know that is not the whole story. There is a Greek parish that has taken the time to offer the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with its weekly Compline (nightly) prayers before Bible Study. An Orthodox Church of America bishop and priest are working to bring a predominately African-American congregation into that jurisdiction. A Serbian parish has served as a model for helping to bring social services to poor inner city neighborhoods to create a “village” atmosphere where there was racial division. One white person left a parish when an icon of St. Mary of Egypt was being venerated.  He wanted nothing to do with any saint that didn’t look like him.  I have seen and participated in too many instances of racial brotherhood in the Eastern Orthodox Church to let a few toxic people keep me from practicing the faith of my ancient African, Middle Eastern, and European fathers & mothers. With the multicultural history and spirituality of the Church and the jurisdictional leaders reaching out to minority communities, white nationalist cannot remain comfortable in Eastern Orthodoxy for long. Those who do are being superficial and should not be taken as model examples of who we are.

Reconciliation: Ambassadors of the Greater Kingdom

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Tomorrow is the end of the road (I hope) to the most contentious presidential campaign of my lifetime.  Many things have already been said about both of the major party candidates, the question of why third parties are not given an equal public platform, and how some groups will respond if the results do not go their way.  I have already determined that I’ll go to work, return home for a while, and go back to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday, November 9th.  We are continuing with the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with our Compline Prayers followed by Bible Study.  While I am at it, I want to thank Fr. Milton and my good brothers & sisters at St. Demetrios for committing to this fellowship.

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In such a political hurricane as we are experiencing, we Christians of all stripes tend to forget where our true citizenship belongs. …

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Reconciliation: Consistency over Complacency

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Recently, the VABSMB and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church have started praying Compline and the Canon of Racial Reconciliation on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm.  A half hour of prayer is not the same as getting out in the streets to protest, or lobbying a legislature.  While no town is perfect, Williamsburg’s racial climate is milder than many other places in the state and nation.

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But, our town does have the oldest history of class and race divisions in the nation.  English colonist committed genocide against local native people about a decade before the first African indentured servants arrived in nearby Jamestown.  After two failed insurrections, the remaining Powhatan tribes were removed from the Virginia Peninsula in 1645.  Twenty to thirty years later, the colonial government made laws restricting the mobility of free blacks and establishing chattel slavery based on skin color.  Between the end of Reconstruction up until the…

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A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

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The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

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Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

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For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

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The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

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Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

A Deeper Freedom

 

Both sides on America’s political divide love to talk about freedom.  There are constitutional concerns such as the right to bear arms or to marry a partner of the same-sex.  There is the fear of being killed Islamic terrorist or racist policemen.  We sing in our national anthem that we are, “The land of the free,” and in a hymn of our Civil War, “let us die to make men free.”  In my morning spiritual readings, I have found that there is a greater freedom that we ought to be striving for and that is being woefully ignored in today’s political climate.

In the writings attributed to St. Anthony the Great:  Regard as free not those whose status makes the outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.  For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked or dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions.  Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things.  (Philokalia vol. 1, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life #18).  Rather than dwell on the words of America’s founding fathers, it would serve us Christians well to measure our level of freedom based on the teaching of this desert father.

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True freedom is in our character and conduct.  Character is how we think, speak, and act when people aren’t around to see us.  Anyone can work at having a good reputation; putting on a front of good moral behavior in public while willingly keeping a wicked private life.  But, we serve a God who knows our innermost parts.  He knows when we sell ourselves to indulging in self-indulgence, greed, hate, arrogance, and other sinful ways in our thoughts.  He knows the difference between a man who seeks to be transformed by the renewing of his mind toward His will (Romans 12:2) and those who are like whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, but are full of decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  Even if one is able to fool some of the people some of the time and perhaps all of the people all of the time, no one can fool God.

True freedom consist of purity and detachment from transitory things.  Our Lord taught that we are not corrupted by the things outside of us, but by the things inside of us (Matthew 15:10-20) and that we should clean the filth inside of us so that our outsides would also be clean (Matt. 23:25).  But, we surround ourselves with various advertisements and entertainments which stimulate our passions of anger, greed, and sensuality.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job, home, and a secure life for self and family.  But, when this “American Dream” takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), these earthly goals are corrupted by our non-transformed inward passions.  With his spiritual priorities and pursuits in order, a man in the worst poverty with the lowest paying job lives in a greater sense of peace than the elite and wealthy who may have a good reputation with a sinful character.

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26)?  This is the lesson that those who so vehemently argue from the left and right forget in the pursuit of freedom in this country in this political climate.  Having a sociopolitical point of view can be of value as both conservatism and liberalism are as necessary for a nation as a left and right-wing are needed for a bird to fly.  But, if we are not first and more so concerned with the pursuit of freedom of our souls, there can never be peace in mind for us as individuals nor as a nation.  Neither of the major political parties, third parties, well-financed lobbyist, nor street demonstrators can give us freedom of the soul.  This is a gift given by God by those who diligently and humbly seek Him.

My Wife Came Home

Desert Fathers Dispatch

When I decided to leave the Baptist church and convert to Orthodoxy, my wife was understandably concerned. First, there was the loss of income we would suffer as I would be leaving my pastoral salary.  I would have to be Orthodox for at least five years to be considered for ordination to the priesthood and even that isn’t guaranteed to anyone.  She was more concerned about me forcing her to join a church that we were not accustomed to.  We barely knew any white people who were Orthodox and there were none in our small southern town.  The worship was completely different.  To have to adjust to new styles of church decor (the Baptist are very iconoclastic), preaching, singing, status (we would no longer be pastor and first lady); Brenda found the change quite overwhelming.  I assured her that she could remain Baptist if she wished and could call anyone…

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Beyond Bathrooms

So, this whole transgender bathroom issue is the big issue in sexuality and society these days. Please forgive me for not giving too much thought to this.  Usually when I go to a public toilet, I could care less what the other guy is doing.  I am there to do my business, wash my hands, and leave.  If a transgender male feels uncomfortable standing at a urinal, I doubt if anyone is going to harass him for sitting in a stall.  I don’t even know of any lesbian who would want to stand at a urinal.  As far as pervert rapist fronting to be Trans to go in women’s restrooms to attack women and girls, there are children of either sex being raped in public restrooms even without this new transgender bathroom thing.

Actually, there is a far bigger issue of sexuality in America that no one wants to talk about because we are all, in some way or another, guilty of it. Jesus put it down like this:  “Whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28).  Lust is the exploitation of another person for one’s own gratification with or without the consent of the person being lusted after.  It is a mental form of sexual abuse.  When the abuse goes from the mental to the physical, we call it sexual assault or rape.  If the objectified person does consent to the act, she becomes nothing but a plaything for the abuser as he is seeking his own pleasure only regardless of her experience.  Even in marriage, if the husband and wife aren’t approaching each other for the sake of expressing their love and loyalty for each other but solely for their own gratification in spite of the experience of the partner, that is not lovemaking.

We are a nation of mental rapist with a society which encourages us to objectify the opposite sex for our own gratification. This is quite obvious in pornography where young women are persuaded (if not forced) to surrender their bodies to very degrading sex acts.  It is said that male performers also feel cheapened by the things they get paid to do and both frequently abuse drugs in an attempt to ease their consciences.  In some reports, the porn industry generates more money in this nation than all of the major sports leagues combined.

But, Satan needs not to drag us all into the world of hardcore pornography to turn us into mental rapist. Our society is so saturated with sexual images that we barely blink an eye at them.  There was a time when the Sports Illustrated “swimsuit” issue was nothing more than a couple of pages of a young woman somewhere in-between an article about Mean Joe Green and baseball’s spring training.  Now it is its own separate issue with the model photographed so suggestively that it magazine has to be covered on the news stand.  Nearly every sit-com has sexual jokes and situations.  Victoria’s Secrets has well-advertised television specials.  And women are encouraged to dress and feel “sexy.”  Men are also objectified as bare chested and muscular visions for the female appetite.

While we are outraged by men who rape and women who seduce young boys to have sex with them, we think little or nothing about the way we objectify one another. Yet this mental sexual abuse is a core reason of why so many of us fail to establish and maintain platonic friendships with the opposite sex and keep marriages from falling into divorce.  We are not considering that man or woman as a being made in the image of God.  We are only thinking about how we want them to please our desires.  While we Christians are good at declaring the surface level standard of the male-female marriage, we make way too many excuses too often for our lusting of one another.  Not only are we silent against a business like “Hooters,” we accept their money for our churches and will patronize them because, “they have really good hot wings.”  It is no wonder then that the homosexuals feel that they can establish and maintain relationships just as good (or poorly) as we do.  It is no wonder that impressionable teens and pre-teens are confused about how they want to be known sexually.  Fighting against transgender restrooms, worthy as the fight may be is a mere surface solution to a surface problem.  Unless we Christians get serious about repenting of our own mental raping of one another, the transgender and other challenges to the heterosexual standard will not disappear.  Indeed, more destructive ones will arise.

So, yeah, Pres. Obama and the LGBT have gone too far with this bathroom thing. Yeah, there are conservative Christians who have pulled some silly stunts to protest against it.  This issue is a symptom of our society’s sickness of mental rape.  And rape is the use of another person’s body for the sake of our own gratification regardless of the will of the other.  There is no quick fix for this deeper sickness.  We all will have to be repentant and transform our desires from selfish lust to selfless compassion.  Instead of hiding behind the cross, let’s try carrying it for the sake of healing what is really wrong with us.