War and Peace: an Orthodox Christian view

lecture for the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Saint Andrew, given by Jim Forest at the Cathedral in Dunblane, Scotland, March 11, 2000

Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)
Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)

Several years ago I was among the speakers at a conference on war and peace in Europe, an event sponsored by Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. We met in the newly opened diocesan conference center in Chania, Crete. Our host was the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Kydonia and Apokoronas.

Those of you who know Crete are aware how bitterly Cretans recall the humiliations and sufferings of their ancestors during the period of Turkish rule and how proud they are of their forebears’ success at finally expelling the invader, but I confess that until my visit this aspect of European history was simply a distant fact, not something haunting my thoughts. After all, though transplanted in Europe 23 years ago, I come from a country which has only invaded other countries, never itself been invaded since Europeans took control centuries ago. Unless we were sent away to battlefields in Europe or Asia, war was an abstract topic, something we learned about from films, books and news reports. One could climb without bruises to the high moral plain of pacifism, or, for that matter, think of war in idyllic terms without ever having to experience its hellish reality.

For the people of Crete, though untroubled by war since May 1945, the ground is still damp with blood. There are many painful memories of the German occupation during World War II, yet it is their long struggle with the Turks that seems to press hardest in their memories. Everyone remembers the costly struggle to drive the Turks back to Turkey which began in the 17th century and ended in 1898. The island’s motto is “Freedom or death.” Events of the 18th and 19th centuries are described with such immediacy that I had the impression I was listening to witnesses.

The battle for freedom is preserved in patriotic folk songs which Cretans still sing. Metropolitan Irinaios would sometimes translate the words for me as these ballads were being sung. In one of them, Cretan freedom fighters announce joyfully that they are setting off “to make women into widows and children into orphans.” The words of this rousing anthem were sung with enthusiasm by members of a local Orthodox parish — good Christian people who had no plans to take up arms, glared at no one, and certainly didn’t intend to startle or scandalize their guests.

I had been asked to give the conference’s opening lecture, the theme of which was Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, certainly no novel doctrines, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station, Martyria. Before I had finished, one person following the conference by radio arrived to take passionate issue with me. (I am happy to say we eventually parted on good terms.)

The debate continued that night when Metropolitan Irinaios and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies and pointed out that Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in a country suffering occupation, yet he neither blessed nor took part in the Zealots’ armed struggle against the occupiers. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He preceded to relate the story of a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island.

I have often thought since then how that late-night exchange in Crete revealed the usual contours of Christian discussion about war: we feel the need to justify wars fought by ourselves or our forebears and often turn to the calendar of saints — or people we think of as saints — rather than the Gospel to do so.

Let us consider the saints. To a certain extent, we can find whatever we like among those included in the Church’s calendar. Their company ranges from kings and emperors to desert hermits and holy fools, from those who wore armor to those who wore nothing. Some were soldiers, others had given up their lives by refusing to be soldiers. Still others were already soldiers when they were baptized and became martyrs because of disobedience. Still others, like Martin of Tours and Alexander Nevsky, had been able to leave their military attire behind and devote the remainder of the lives to the Church. Yet for all their astonishing variety, each saint gives us an example of heroic discipleship, of death to self and the readiness to lay down their lives for others. If you study the acts of canonization, you discover that no one has ever been canonized for his success in killing or for his exploits in war. They are placed on the calendar because, despite all their imperfections, Christ shines through them.

And yet saints have at times been made into the heavenly patrons of war and defenders of those under arms, the best known being the Great Martyr George, who so far as we know never killed anyone and in fact didn’t even kill the dragon he battled with. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church without the icon in which we see a beardless young man on a white horse in combat with a dragon.

It is very nearly seventeen hundred years since George’s martyrdom, time enough for all sorts of stories and traditions to have attached themselves to his name. According to a medieval legend that became well-known throughout Europe, a dragon lived in a lake in the province of Lybia, a region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, who “envenomed all the country” and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him first their sheep and later their children to assuage his appetite and subdue his rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter Elizabeth to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom when providentially the young knight Saint George appeared on horseback. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then wounded the dragon with his lance, afterward leading the vanquished creature into the city. According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded creature followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized. The king offered George great treasures but he asked that these be distributed to the poor.

Such wonderful tales came centuries after George had died a martyr’s death. The actual George never saw a dragon. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, this young man, possibly a newly baptized soldier, had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested and, like so many other Christians in that period, put to death after suffering from red-hot irons. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized.

The familiar icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, while not based on an actual event, reveals through symbols the most essential elements of a true story. The icon also offers symbolic metaphors for our own struggle. The dragon represents the power of evil and the rule of fear in our lives. The white horse Saint George rides is the courage God gives us when we overcome our fear and refuse submission to evil. The pencil-thin lance the saint holds is not a weapon of war but the holy and life-giving Cross: the power of self-giving love. Notice that the cross-topped lance it is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in George’s hand — it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. In the upper corner of the icon the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

The dragon myth offers yet another level of meaning. In the legend, the people came to worship the dragon, feeding him first their livestock, then their children. Is there not a familiar human tendency to worship power — to seek survival by submitting to those powers which destroy property and, through war, eat our children? Yet the myth is given a profoundly Christian treatment. Its theme is conversion, not retribution. The Christ-like Saint George battles and defeats the dragon but doesn’t take its life. The princess — an image of Christ’s mother — leads the pacified dragon into the town. The people will afterward have the opportunity to take care of the dragon just as the wolf tamed by Saint Francis afterward became the guest of his former enemies, the inhabitants of Gubbio.

We may think stories of saints like George and Francis make wonderful bedtime stories but have little bearing on real life, “real life” meaning the world we live in — the world of wars and “ethnic cleansing” — the world that again and again gives birth to such human dragons as Hitler and Stalin plus all the murderers and maniacs close at hand who speak our own language and roam the domestic headlines — armed people who go into schools and shopping center and start shooting — such a person as Thomas Hamilton, who shot dead 16 children and one teacher here in Dunblane four years ago.

The basic message we run into all the time, not only in the objections of others but in our own thoughts, is that the Gospel, sadly, doesn’t help us very much in our relations with the world we live in. The dragons are too real — in fact far more terrifying than the reptile in the icon. In any event we are not Saint George and have no fearless white horse.

Yet we are called not to be well-adjusted, respected, dragon-fearing citizens but God-fearing saints, and must work out as best we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what this means in our own lives, times and circumstances.

It is worth paying attention to the heroic example others are giving in our times, for example the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo who, while civil war was being fought around them, set about rescuing neighbors who might otherwise have been murdered.

Just a year ago in the area of Decani monastery, local ethnic Albanians fled their homes and hid in the woods. “The Serbs were setting all the houses and our apartment building on fire,” aid Imer Lokaj, a school principal. “They wanted to burn us alive.” Father Sava and another monk came down from the monastery in a van, searching for those who were hiding. “Come with us,” they said. “We will keep you safe.” Vanload after vanload of local Albanians were brought to safety within the monastery walls. “Without them,” said the 58-year-old Albanian painter and art teacher Nimon Lokaj, “my whole family would be dead.”

As you may have heard, this community of monks, like Kosovo’s Bishop Artremije, has been outspoken in its criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and for years has sought a solution for Kosovo which would allow for every ethnic community to live in security and peace side by side.

As you can imagine, hatred still simmers in Decani, yet Nimon Lokaj’s 24-year-old son, Artan, said he will always be grateful to the monks of Decani even though they are Serbs.

“Our mission is fighting against evil,” explained Decani’s abbot, Theodosie. “Now I think we will have more of a job to do.”

The abbot’s comment is central to our understanding of peacemaking. It is not enough that we try to live peaceful lives. We are called on to combat evil. As one of the rector of our parish in Amsterdam, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, has said, “It may be that a Christian should not be a soldier but it is essential that he be a warrior.”

For Christians, our combat is first of all spiritual combat. We are obliged by Christ not only to love our enemies but to pray for them. Without prayer, without God’s help, love of enemies is not possible.

Our great hope in this spiritual combat must be for the conversion rather than destruction of our adversary. This is certainly not a utopian fantasy. It was this great struggle without weapons in the early Church which brought about so profound a change of heart within both people of the Roman empire and barbarian tribes outside the empire’s borders as far away as Ireland.

The same commandment that calls on us to pray for enemies instructs us to do them good. A significant example of this was recently given by Greeks in their compassionate response to the devastating earthquakes that occurred in Turkey last year. Far from rejoicing in the suffering of their historic enemy, Greeks quickly raised great sums of money to help earthquake victims. Turks responded in kind when an earthquake caused destruction in Athens. The result is that for the first time in many years relations between Greece and Turkey have taken a turn for the better. In January Patriarch Bartholomeos said, while visiting Thessaloniki, that he believed “Turkey will now have a rapid course toward integration with the European Union.” Days later the Greek Foreign minister visited Ankara, the first such visit in 38 years. “There are very difficult problems that have not been solved,” said his Turkish counterpart, “but looking back six months ago, if we had said we could have achieved what we have achieved today, no one would have believed us.” In a situation so often tending toward war, one can begin to hope that peaceful relations may occur.

What impedes us as peacemakers?

First there is the failure of our imaginations. Though we have changed, thanks to the help of others and God’s grace, too often we cannot imagine others changing. We are convinced they are always going to have all the faults we currently perceive in them. We see all efforts to change them, even prayers on their behalf, as a waste of time. While it’s true that leopards don’t change their spots, thank God people do.

Then there is the factor of fear. “The root of war is fear,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. My Marxist father disagreed, arguing that the root of war is bad economics, but years later told me that he come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear. The opposite of love is not hatred but fear. So many decisions in our lives are the consequence of fear — the vocation one is drawn to rejected out of fear, trips not taken because of fear, words left unsaid because of fear, gestures of love not offered because of fear, the faces of strangers hiding rather than revealing the image of God because of our fear. If you are wondering what to confess the next time you go to confession, you might think about the role of fear in your life, not fear of God but fear of others. “The essence of sin,” observes Metropolitan John Zizioulas,”is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God.”

Not only do we need to be aware of the way fear tends to impede God’s love in our lives, but how much our actions and even thoughts are unconsciously shaped by social forces which may be demonic rather than divine in character. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor being cut off from those around us. It isn’t because of an innate attraction to evil that so many Germans and Austrians once cooperated in Hitler’s wars and assisted in the Holocaust, nor because white South Africans are worse than us that so many of them embraced apartheid. Through slogans, propaganda, fear, the manipulation of pride and prejudice, the idea of national or racial superiority, the individual can find himself drawn into social movements that acquire a tidal force so overwhelming that finally hardly anyone dares utter a word of dissent. I mention this not simply as an interesting observation but because we too are carried along by various currents of ideology, class, career, peer group pressure, propaganda, national identity, etcetera, and often hardly realize how cramped our spiritual life becomes in the squeeze of all these other items.

And then there is the problem of nationalism. Nation is an ancient word but nationalism is a modern term. Thank God, at least in Britain, nationalism is something one can occasionally laugh at. “The English, the English, the English are best, so up with the English and down with the rest,” Flanders and Swann used to sing. This is nearly every nation’s song, except of course the principal noun has to be changed to match the particular border. Americans are second to none in this regard. It astonishes and distresses most Americans I talk to in my travels if they discover that Nancy and I are now Dutch citizens. It is as if one has a national identify only by virtue of possessing a passport to prove it. Not that there is anything wrong with having a national identity. What a sad thing it would be not to have one. But national identity is not nationalism. On the one hand, for Americans like me, there is the annual feast of stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, on the other — malignant — hand, there is believing I belong to a new chosen people, a super people, for whom ordinary morals don’t apply. We Americans bask in our power and wealth, regarding ourselves as the greatest of democracies, the society most dedicated to the defense of human rights, the society which provides a model for others to emulate and imitate — God protect them if they decline. It is not that we are a people without redeeming qualities, but our collective vanity is massive.

Not that one need be American to experience the problem. Some of you will recall that war fever that swept through Britain at the time of the Falklands War. People who one day couldn’t have located the Falkland Islands on the world map had you paid them five pounds were ready and eager a day or two later to go to war on their behalf. O what a lovely war! My Argentine friend, Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, was barred from entering Britain in that period. It was counted an act of journalistic courage for The Times to publish an article by Adolfo while the war was being fought.

We have seen lately the appalling price paid for the collision of nationalisms in Kosovo. NATO intervened, siding with the Kosovo Albanian side. As a result Serbia was massively bombed, the Danube is still blocked by fallen bridges, the economy of the entire region is in ruins, and now Kosovo is under occupation. Ethnic cleansing continues, with NATO forces seemingly powerless to protect the Serb minority, which probably is regarded as deserving whatever violence comes its way. It is a situation in which on is hard pressed to find heroes, though one is pleased to say that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been remarkable in the depth and breadth of its response, condemning extremists on both sides, again and again raising its voice in opposition both to the policies of the Serbian government and also NATO’s actions, and assisting the war’s victims no matter what their ethnic or religious identity might be.

In Russia, by contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church repeatedly expressed its enthusiastic support for the war in Chechnya, saying not a word of protest against the destruction of Grozny or any other population center. One can assume there have been Russian conscientious objectors to the war, but one cannot presently imagine the Church offering them any support or encouragement. One understands that Russia has been fighting forces in Chechnya that seem to have no moral scruple, but neither has the Russian side been notable for its respect for the lives of those caught in the middle. One senses within the Russian Church a habit of uncritical support for the government no matter what. Not since the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war that followed has the Church raised its voice against whatever the government was doing.

But the purpose of this talk is not to criticize the failures of the leaders of national churches — bishops often make an easy target — but to focus on what we can do ourselves as persons trying to live the Beatitudes, including the Beatitude of peacemaking. How dare we to expect more of our bishops than we do of ourselves? Our main problem is what to do with the face in the mirror. How can I respond to conflict — within my family, within my parish, within my diocese, between the various jurisdictions and Churches, between segments of society, between nations? How can I live the peace of Christ?

It is not learned in a classroom or from a book or from a guru. We have the Liturgy to both teach and nourish us in this undertaking.

In the Liturgy we have no sooner heard the priest announce “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” then find ourselves confronted with the first petition, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is a precondition of worship — peace with God, peace with each other. How can we love God if we despise his image in others? We go on to ask “for the peace from above, and the salvation of our souls. . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all. . . . For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times. . . . For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity,” finally asking God to “help us, save us, and have mercy on us, and keep us . . . by your grace.” Later, as the eucharistic liturgy begins, we attempt “to lay aside all worldly cares” — all hostile feelings toward any other person, all division, all fear and personal anxiety in order to approach God in a state of profound peace.

Repeatedly during the service the priest offers a blessing of peace to all who are present, and they immediately return the blessing of peace to him. The Gospel reading is introduced with the words, “Peace be unto all.” Then in the Litany of Supplication we appeal to God “that the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless.” We ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.” We call on God for “all things that are good and profitable for our souls, and for peace in the world.” We ask God’s blessing “that we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Later we are summoned to “stand upright and stand in fear . . . that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” Finally, at the end of the Liturgy, we are sent away in peace. Having been privileged to take part in the Eucharist, we are returned to the world as ambassadors of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is.

The Liturgy is our school, our hospital, our place of healing, where peace — the Person of Christ — reenters our lives. Afterwards we bear Christ into the world through deeds of peace which reveal his presence.