For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism

edited by Fr. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest

For the Peace from Above brings together a substantial collection of primary texts on war, peace and nationalism drawn from the Old and New Testaments, Church Councils, the Church Fathers, various saints and many other sources, ancient and modern.

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Since the early days of the Church, Christians have struggled to come to terms with Christ’s words of peace and His example of peace. In Christ’s life, as recorded in the New Testament, it is striking that He neither killed anyone nor summoned any of His disciples to kill. Indeed, the final miracle Christ performed before His execution was to heal an enemy’s wound, an injury caused by the Apostle Peter in an attempt to defend his master.

Yet, in the course of more than twenty centuries of Christian history, we see Christians often involved in war and, in surveying the calendar of saints, find not only those who refused to take part in war but also those who served in the military, though no one has been canonized due to his skill as a soldier.

Besides the millions of Christians who have fought in armies, often against fellow Christians, we also find many priests, bishops and theologians who have advocated war and blessed its weapons. Our subject is an urgent one. Many people today live either near conflict areas or are directly touched by war or in areas where terrorist actions may suddenly occur.

Everyone on the planet is in some way affected by wars in progress or wars in the making as well as the consequences of wars in the past. Every day thousands of Christians struggle in thought and prayer with some of the most difficult of questions: May I fight injustice by violent methods? Am I allowed to kill in combat? Are there limits on what I can do in the defense of my country? Am I as a Christian allowed to disobey demands that I believe are unjust or violate the Gospel? When the demands of my country seem at odds with the demands of the Kingdom of God, how do I respond to this conflict? Rarely do we find easy answers to these and similar questions.

Thus, those of us in the Orthodox Christian tradition search for help in Holy Scripture, the canons provided to us by ecumenical councils, the witness of the saints, the writing of the Fathers of the Church as well as theologians of recent times. Imitation of saintly forebears alone, however, will not solve our problems. Different eras have adopted different attitudes. Also many of today’s problems never existed before, not least the changed character of war in an era of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and mass propaganda. Yet knowledge of the thought and action undertaken by the Orthodox Churches on the issues of war and peace in recent decades surely can help us find ways out of the dead ends that many communities are experiencing today. This is the aim of this book.

— Fr Hildo Bos and Jim Forest

Download a full PDF of the book! For the Peace from Above (rev-2-2011)

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The icon on the cover is a panel from the border of a large St. Nicholas icon that was probably painted in Moscow in the early sixteenth century and now is in the collection of The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. (photo: Jim Forest)

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The Orthodox Research Institute
ISBN: 978-1-933275-56-7
Paperback, 461 pages
$24.95 + S&H (USD)

note: The book is now out of print but a free PDF file is available on request. Use the contact form on this web site.

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The table of contents plus a list of principal authors of texts included in the book.

Introduction — iii
Chapter One: Defining Terms — 1
Chapter Two: Reference Texts from Holy Scripture — 15
Chapter Three: Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts — 43
Case Study 1: The Definition of Religious Nationalism (Ethno-Phyletism) — 69
Case Study 2: The 1986 Chambésy statement — 73
Case Study 3: Church, Nation and State — 88
Chapter Four: Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period 99
Case Study 4: Acts of the Martyrdom of Early Christian Soldiers — 147
Case Study 5: Christian Soldiers in the Roman Army before Constantine — 152
Chapter Five: War, Peace and Nationalism — 155
Case Study 6: Prayer for Peace in the Liturgy — 177
Case Study 7: Commemoration of Warrior Saints — 179
Chapter Six: Reference Texts from Modern Authors — 199
Study 8: Orthodoxy, Culture and Nationalism — 233
Case Study 9: The Serbian Church and Milosevic — 238
Chapter Seven: Various Recent Official Statements — 243
Case Study 10: Orthodox Americans, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and Iraq — 287
Chapter Eight: Essays and Texts — 303
Chapter Nine: Study and Action Guide — 451

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In addition to numerous Church Fathers and Councils, the book’s authors or persons quoted at length include:

Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Nicholas Berdyaev
Fr. Hildo Bos
Fr. Sergi Bulgakov
Bishop Irenaeus Bulovic of Backa, Serbia
Olivier Clément
John H. Erickson
Jim Forest
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon
Fr. Lev Gillet
Fr. Stanley S. Harakas
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Fr. Thomas Hopko
Anton Kartashov
Vladimir Lossky
Metropolitan Maximus of Sardes
Fr. John McGuckin
Fr. John Meyendor
A. Schmemann
St. Maria Skobtsova
Louis J. Swift
Gregory Trubetzkoy
V. Rev. Dr. Georges Tsetsis
Charles C. West

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Review by Fr Michael Plekon for Cistercian Studies Quarterly:

The past decades have been times of deep disagreement and division among Christians, Orthodox Christians included, on matters of politics. No area is excluded—the economy, the role and size of government particularly at the federal level, social values and policy and foreign policy. This excellent resource book, ably compiled by Fr Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, is a revision and expansion of a volume originally published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Fr Hildo Bos was long in the leadership of the former and Jim Forest of the latter organizations.

This collection is structured in a most effective and singular manner. There are selections of texts from the scriptures, from the acts of synods and canons, from patristic as well as modern writers and from contemporary statements—declarations of an ecumenical nature as those of Bosphorus, 1994, Vienna, 1999, Assisi, 2002 and Moscow, 2004, as well as statements from various church bodies—Albania, Serbia, the Greek Archdiocese in America, the Orthodox Church in America, from groups such as SCOBA and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and individual hierarchs—Patriarch Bartholomew I, Alexis II, Petros, Ignatius IV, Archbishop Ananstasios of Tirana, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, among others. And there is a fascinating selection of essays from some of the hierarchs just mentioned as well as contemporary authors such as Olivier Clement, John Erickson, Jim Forest, Stanley Harakas, and John McGuckin, to name a few.

Suffice it to say there is an amazing content in the sections just described. Two thousand years of witness, not only from the Orthodox Church but more broadly from universal Christianity are documented. However, the editors also chose to entwine these texts with a provocative ten case studies from an equally wide range of sources. These include the 1872 synodical condemnation of ethno-phyletism, the 1986 Chambesy statement on the Orthodox Church and peace, the 2000 “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” to ancient texts on Christian soldiers, the writings of Fr Lev Gillet on peace and Hildo Bos’ essay on the commemoration of warrior saints in the liturgy. Also there is Thomas Hopko’s essay on the Serbian Church and Milosevic. Lastly, there is Michael Azar’s probing essay on the debate among American Orthodox on the war in Iraq in the past decade, including the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s Iraq appeal, signed by many clergy and laity and the strong criticism of this effort by Frank Schaeffer, Patrick Reardon, Johannes Jacobse and others.

This will be, for a very long time, the resource on war, peace and in a lesser manner, on nationalism for readers of every religious background interested in the Eastern Church perspectives. The texts make it clear that there has always been debate about violence and warfare. There are prayers in time of war, prayers for the military, but also prayers for peace and the poignant plea of the late Patriarch Pavle of Serbia that clergy not use prayers for the blessing of weapons. The statements of the bishops of Serbia and Albania are also moving in their condemnations of killing, torture and other violence in the Balkans.

As valuable as this collection is, it will of course be criticized by some for its “pacifist” and “liberal” reading of the Orthodox tradition on war and peace and nationalism. However, I think this volume is marked by honesty about the many atrocities committed in the name of God, real deviations from the Gospel’s mandate of love. It is also careful in the use of source documents and texts, providing a striking array of points of view in different periods and from different writers. Finally, it is balanced and this is typified by essay which concludes the collection, John McGuckin’s very careful and discerning look both at the larger Christian tradition East and West and then, particularly, at the Eastern perspective. He warns against the easy and often “politically correct” simplifications about church history in general and the positions on war and peace in particular.

Rather than use a “just war” theory, the East was more often ambivalent, seeing in war and violence and betrayal, a loss of the vision of the kingdom of God’s peace and justice. Whether Saddam Hussein or Islam, the urge to want to remove variously perceived “forces of evil” or “axis of evil” is always a dubious undertaking of divine judgment and action, he writes. Just as Eastern churches have too often allowed the state to master them, so also the “blessing” of weapons and armies and war more broadly is more an aberration of the essential Christian vision in McGuckin’s view.

And such a nuanced perspective is given by the editors here. The history of engagement with war and nationalism and politics may be complex, but the message of the Gospel remains consistent, opposed to easy, expedient political alliances and strategies. The claim of any “declaration” or statement, by a single bishop, theologian or group, that theirs is “the” Orthodox position—none others allowed voice—is a clear deviation from tradition’s complexity and consistency.

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review by Ron Dart of the University of Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia:

My wife asked me a couple of weeks ago when we were on a retreat in the desert a leading question. ‘If I was on a deserted Island for a few years, what three books would I want with me?’ I pondered the answer to the question for a few days. Our answers to such questions often tell us much about the state and orientation of our soul. My answer emerged after some listening: the Bible, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Adages (all 1450 of them) of Erasmus.

What do all three books have in common? All deal with both the subtle inner and outer dimensions of war and peace. The Bible constantly returns to the war-peace motif, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the finest novel ever written on the theme, and Erasmus is, probably, one of the most important Christian theologians of peace within the Christian Tradition.

So, it was with much delight and anticipation that I received and read For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism.

I teach a course on ‘The Western Peace Tradition’, and Ronald Musto’s The Catholic Peace Tradition is a must read in the genre. Many of the historic Anabaptists had a passion for peace in opposition to the Magisterial Reformers, but it was the English Peace Tradition that did much to shape and inform via Erasmus the 1st generation Anabaptists. Sadly so, most in the West know little or nothing about the fullness of the Eastern and Orthodox thinking on war and peace: For the Peace from Above definitely and decidedly fills in a gap for many within the West about a well thought-out historic peace tradition. This timely tome is a must read.

For the Peace from Above is a comprehensive historic overview (origins of Christianity to the present) on how the Orthodox Tradition has thought about peace. ‘This resource book is a revised and expanded edition of a book first published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, working in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Now thanks to the Orthodox Research Institute, it will reach a broader audience, not only Orthodox, we hope, but Christians from other churches’. I would hope, for the thoughtful and curious, such a book will reach inquisitive minds and imaginations beyond the churches also.

For the Peace from Above is divided into 9 compact and succinct chapters. Each chapter emerges and unfolds from the earlier chapter. Each chapter builds up, brick by brick, the case for the Orthodox peace position.

Chapter 1, rightly so, deals with ‘Defining Terms: Definitions from Dictionaries and Church Authors’. It is essential, of course, that agreement is reached on what words mean, hence the priority of chapter 1.

Chapter 2 (should appeal to the best protestant instincts) lists ‘Reference Texts from Holy Scripture’.

Chapter 3, after dipping the bucket deep in Holy Scripture, turns to ‘Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts’. The argument is being made well and in an intricate and convincing manner. Both the Bible and Synods-Canons embody a distinct peace position. Case studies are offered to illustrate such authoritative positions. But, there is yet more.

Chapter 4 highlights ‘Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period’—-more case studies are brought forward that add to the peace argument.

Chapter 5 deals with the historic and contemporary dilemma of ‘War, Peace and Nationalism’—again, a couple of case studies are offered the reader to ponder. Some might argue that the authority of the Bible, Canons, Synods and Patristic authors are a necessary but not sufficient condition to be convincing. How do these founts of authority speak to us today? Fr. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest have not let us down.

Chapter 6 holds high ‘Reference Texts from Modern Authors (with more case studies) and chapter 7 includes ‘Various Recent Official Statements’ from Orthodox leaders on war and peace in our contemporary context. Bos and Forest have yet more goods to draw the aspiring and mature peacemaker.

Chapter 8 threads together ‘Essays and Texts’ and chapter 9, ‘Study and Action Guide’are a fine primer on how to act, in a peaceful manner, in issues of conflict and war.

For the Peace from Above offers many within the Orthodox tradition an alternate to an uncritical nationalism and patriotism. For the Peace from Above also spells out for those in the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant) the motherlode of the Orthodox peace tradition. There are moments on our journey when caricatures within the Christian Tradition dissipate like a cloud. There are many who have little or no understanding of the Orthodox Peace Tradition, hence caricatures of such a wise and time tried way abound—this book will correct such misunderstandings both within and outside the Orthodox and Western Christian Tradition. Those who have a passion for peace should have many copies of For the Peace from Above to pass on, like nutritious food, for souls that are hungry for the Divine banquet of true peace from above.

I asked my wife if I could, perhaps, take a fourth book with me to the deserted Island alongside the Bible, War and Peace and the sagacious Adages of Erasmus — just one more, I was kindly advised. So, I chose For the Peace from Above. It’s an A++ keeper and pure diamond.