War and Peace in the Orthodox Tradition

Paper presented by Jim Forest at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece, at a conference (May 17-20, 2007) on “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” The event was co-sponsored by the Boston Theological Institute and the World Council of Churches.

As we consider the Christian vocation of peacemaking, the healing and restoration of memory has been a recurring theme in our discussion. We have forgotten so much. including key elements of the teaching that was normative in the early Church.

The issue of war and peace has troubled and even divided followers of Christ for the greater part of Christian history. In any war we are likely to find (1) a small but dedicated group of Christians refusing to take up arms because of their objections to bloodshed in all circumstances, their specific objections to a particular war, or their canonical obligations as clergy or monks; and (2) a great majority of Christians taking part in every aspect of military life without voicing any objection.

This is an entirely ecumenical phenomenon. It is as likely to be true among Orthodox Christians as Christians belonging to other churches, though the percentage of conscientious objectors is greater in churches in North America and western Europe than in most other parts of the world — regions where conscientious objection has come to be recognized as a legal option. Yet even in those countries, conscientious objection is often limited to those who oppose all war rather than those who, their consciences shaped by the criteria of the Just War Doctrine, object to a specific war because of its failure to meet one or more of the classical conditions of that doctrine.

The fact that relatively small numbers of Christians are conscientious objectors might indicate that such a position is at odds with authentic Christianity. Surely the majority is to be regarded as the more representative? On the other hand, it may be observed that many Christians in our world are far more influenced by their national rather than by their religious identity. Many obey orders to participate in war because no one, including pastors and bishops, has suggested grounds exist for Christians to behave otherwise.

However, if we consider the witness of Christianity in the early centuries, those whom we now call conscientious objectors may be seen as more representative of the teaching of the early Church.

Let us begin with the Gospel itself. In Christ’s Gospel, one of the most surprising elements is his emphasis on love — and love not only of neighbors but of enemies. Nor are his words simply abstract recommendations. The Gospels bear witness to the consistent example he gives. His merciful actions are provided not only to his fellow Jews, but to those whom Jews regarded as their enemies. We note his readiness to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, an officer of an unwelcome and oppressive army of occupation. We see his many acts of forgiveness — no one who seeks his forgiveness fails to receive it. We see him saving the life of a woman condemned to death. We note his final miracle before his execution was to heal the wound of one of those Peter had injured in his attempt to defend his master; at the same time he hear Jesus reprimanding Peter for his violent attack on the man: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” At no point in his arrest or the suffering that followed do we see Jesus offering any form of resistance. Indeed we find no instance in the Gospel of Jesus killing anyone or authorizing his followers to commit an act of homicide. Describing the Last Judgment, he says, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.”

Searching the calendar of saints, among the martyrs of the first centuries we find Christian soldiers who were executed for refusing to take part in battle, or even to take the military oath.

For example, there is Maximilian of Numidia, a 21-year-old North African, who was being drafted into military service, but refused to take the oath. Tried in the year 295, he declared to Dion, the proconsul who tried him, “I cannot fight for this world…. I tell you, I am a Christian.” The proconsul pointed out that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. Maximilian replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.” For his refusal, Maximilian was beheaded. He was immediately regarded by the Church as a martyr and saint. The trial transcript is preserved in the Martyrology.

There is also the case of a recently-baptized centurion, St Marcellus. In the year 298, Marcellus’ unit in northern Africa was celebrating the emperor’s birthday with a party. To the astonishment of his fellows, Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such parties as heathen. Then, casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” Marcellus was at once arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, the record of which has been preserved by the Church, Marcellus readily admitted what he had said and done. It was not, one notices, a question of his being required to worship pagan gods, a defining matter for many martyrs. Marcellus’s motive for objection was, he declared, that “it is not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of his stand, he was beheaded. It is recorded that he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

Not all who took such stands paid for it with their lives. One of the great missionary saints of the early Church, Martin of Tours. Martin is most often represented in religious art at the moment when he, wearing military attire and seated upon his horse, divides his officer’s cloak, sharing half of it with it a freezing beggar whom he afterward recognizes as Christ.

Martin was born about the year 336 in Sabaria, Asia Minor. He was a member of the elite imperial guard serving the emperor. While an officer, he became a catechumen.

St Martin’s crisis in military service occurred due to a barbarian invasion of Gaul, or France as we know it today. Called to appear before Julian Caesar to receive a war-bounty, he declined to accept it, saying to Caesar: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now permit me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others. They are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Not surprisingly, the emperor accused Martin of cowardice. Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. He was thrown into prison. As it happened, there was a swift end to the hostilities in Gaul. The emperor, who may have regarded the enemy’s withdrawal as a divine act, chose not to punish Martin but instead ordered his discharge. Remaining in Gaul, Martin was welcomed by the bishop at Poitiers, St Hilary, who not long after ordained Martin a deacon and later a priest. Martin became an effective opponent of the Arain heresy and served the Church as a bishop, bringing many to baptism.

The witness of such saints is not at odds with the catechetical teaching of the Church at that time.

For example, the Apostolic Canons of St Hippolytus (170-236 AD), Bishop of Rome, state that renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism. Here are several of the relevant canons:

Concerning the magistrate and the soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order…. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.

A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.” (Canons XII-XVI)

In brief, the Church was willing to baptize soldiers so long as they promised not to engage in war or acts of deadly violence. This was a difficult but not impossible condition, as in many situations of service the soldier was fulfilling either a noncombatant role or the role of what today would be regarded as a policeman.

In a criticism of Christians written in the first half of the third century by the pagan scholar Celsus, Christians were sharply condemned for their attitude toward military service: “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending contemporary Christian practice, a theologian of the Church in Alexandria, Origen, replied to Celsus:

“Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.” (Contra Celsum 3, 8 )

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather the higher duty to engage in effective spiritual combat with the forces of evil. He wrote:

The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.

In the same period St. Justin Martyr expressed himself in similar terms:

We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere he wrote,

We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ. (I Apol. 39)

Around the year 177, St. Athenagoras of Athens also stressed nonresistance to evil:

For we have been taught not to strike back at someone who beats us nor to go to court with those who rob and plunder us. Not only that: we have even been taught to turn our head and offer the other side when men ill use us and strike us on the jaw and to give also our cloak should they snatch our tunic. [A Plea for Christians]

Another of the Christian voices coming down to us from the early generations of believers is that of Clement of Alexandria. At the end of the second or early in the third century, Clement described the Church as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11, 116) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Prot. 10) “In peace, not in war, we are trained,” he declared in another essay. (Paedogogus 1,12)

In the New Testament and early Christian texts, we find numerous references to military service as a metaphor for Christians life, followers of Jesus often describing themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” but nowhere in the writings preserved to us from the early Church do we find any blessing of war or endorsement of military service. The closest we can come to that is the advice of St. John the Baptist that soldiers “should be content with their pay and be satisfied with their wages.” (Luke 3:14) To be content with their wages meant not to resort to pillage or taking spoils. It should be noted that soldiers were not free to resign from the army on any grounds except age or physical incapacity. Soldiering was regarded as a lifetime vocation; many were born into it. From the point of view of any government in the ancient world, the idea of conscientious objection was unthinkable. Those who failed to follow orders were subject to harsh penalties, including torture and execution.

Even in Constantine’s time, one sees within the Church a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service. At the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325, with the emperor attending, one of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators were categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but are barred from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. (Canon XII)

As you know, in the post-Constantinian world, attitudes regarding Christian engagement in war gradually began to shift. No longer regarded by the state as an enemy, the Church came to be seen — and to see itself — as a partner. The Church having become an object of imperial favor, the changes in attitude that followed must have been distressing to those who remained committed to earlier models of behavior. As St. Jerome observed in this period, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Late in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the foundations were laid of what eventually became known as “the Just War Doctrine.” This provided a justification for Christian participation in defensive wars under specific conditions. Even then St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430) were firm in maintaining the traditional view that the Christian is barred from self defense, but argued that acting in military defense of one’s community, when it was under attack, was a different matter. Yet both insisted that under all circumstances the command to love one’s enemies remained in force.

The Just War Doctrine had it roots in the classical world. Over the centuries, the doctrine was developed until it reached its classic form in the Middle Ages. Under its terms, a war could be considered just, and Christians may participate, if, without exception, it meets certain criteria: the war must be declared by the legitimate authority. It must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or to further economic or territorial gain. Just means must be employed, respecting the right to life of the innocent and noncombatants. The war must have a reasonable chance of success. There must be a reasonable expectation that the good results of the war will outweigh the evil caused by it. War must be the last resort. The burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

The Just War Doctrine is chiefly associated with Western Christianity. In his essay “No Just War in the Fathers,” Fr. Stanley Harakas, for many years Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, described his search through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals searching for texts concerning war. He reported:

I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a ‘just’ war, much less a ‘good’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries. [“No Just War in the Fathers,” full text on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; search “Harakas.”]

Fr. Harakas discovered what he referred to as the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church: The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances that had applied in earlier times to all baptized Christians in the early Church came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers.

To this day, Church canons bar those who serve in the sanctuary from having killed anyone for any reason, including accidental homicide. Some priests and deacons practice the asceticism of not driving precisely because of the danger of their accidentally killing someone. (On the other hand, there are bishops who, in acts of pastoral ekonomia, permit clergy to continue their eucharistic service despite their having been responsible for another person’s death.)

Contrasted with the early Church, how different attitudes are today! What has been notable about local Orthodox Churches for centuries has been the meager attention given to the teaching and practice of the early Church in regard to war and the readiness of pastors and bishops, especially since the nineteenth century, to uncritically embrace nationalism and tolerate wars or even bless them.

One also notes a certain emphasis being given to “soldier saints,” displaying icons which visually make clear they were in the military, yet ignoring the details of their lives. The uninstructed viewer is left to assume the armored saint whose image he is gazing at was a person who had no moral problem about warfare. Thus every Orthodox Christian will be familiar with St George, but few know that there is no record of his having taken part in any battles. He was tortured and martyred for publically professing his Christian faith during a period of persecution. The “dragon” we see in icons was in fact Caesar.

In Russia St Alexander Nevsky, who did indeed take part in battle, is more celebrated for his success in war than for the life of repentance he later embraced in becoming a monk. Early icons showed St Alexander clad in monastic robes; but from the time of Czar Peter the Great, he was instead dressed as a soldier.

In Greece one easily finds a saint-like devotion to priests and others who actively took part in driving out the Turks out of Greece. In a church publication, I once saw an icon in which the Greek flag had been inserted.

In defense of our absent-minded Church and its preoccupation with national identity, one must recall that the great drama of Orthodox life in the lands in which it is most deeply rooted has been survival in profoundly hostile circumstances. In country after country, until quite recently Orthodox Christians lived under the unfriendly rule of non-Christians. In that context, the Church became the main guardian of national identity.

For many generations, the Orthodox Church was a church of immense suffering. Without doubt there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. It is not surprising that Orthodox Christians longed for better days and came to regard with admiration and gratitude those who took up deadly weapons to speed the day of liberation.

What is even more remarkable, however, is the fact that in Russia, following seven decades of Soviet rule which had cost the lives of millions of believers, violence was not used to end atheist rule, and no wave of retribution was directed at those who caused so many to suffer.

To sum up: We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints, including the best known editor of the eucharistic Liturgy, St John Chrysostom, had to say. I conclude with these brief extracts from the teaching of that very saint:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies to another way of thinking than to kill them…. The mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.

And again from St John Chrysostom:

We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.

* * *

a report of the conference:

photos taken while in Volos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157600245657184/

* * *

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]
Jim & Nancy site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com

* * *