The Orthodox Church has a very complicated relationship with warfare. On the one hand is the spiritual warfare we must all engage in to fight our passions, knowing that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). On the other are the battles to the death which have been around since time immemorial. This is the warfare that we read about in history books and see on our television screens in Syria at this moment.
It was the recent escalation in tensions in Syria which prompted this article. This author saw a post on an online group by an Orthodox Christian serving in the US Armed Forces. He did not wish to be drawn into Syria, something which in his view could entail fighting against Orthodox Christians (Russians). So what are the views of the Orthodox Church on war?
It is worth noting that unlike Catholicism with its theory of “just war” developed through St Augustine and Islam with the practice of “jihad” found in the Quran, Orthodoxy does not positively permit war. It is rather, as Fr Stanley Harakas has put it, “a necessary evil”. That raises the question of when that “necessary evil” is really “necessary”. Fr Philip LeMasters, a modern Orthodox thinker and academic, posits that it is necessary when it is “for the protection of the innocent and the vindication of justice”. Patriarch Bartholomew has said that:
“War and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a result. They are for the most part machinations of the devil used to achieve unlawful ends. We say "for the most part" because, as is well known, in a few specific cases the Orthodox Church forgives an armed defense against oppression and violence. However, as a rule, peaceful resolution of differences and peaceful cooperation are more pleasing to God and more beneficial to humankind."
And so we see that war is never promoted by the Orthodox Church, but rather is a last resort when all other ways of peacemaking are impossible and the innocent and the Orthodox way of life are targeted. Have Orthodox rulers waged offensive wars? Of course they have. Have Orthodox nations gone to war for reasons which weren’t necessary? Of course they have. Does this make those circumstances correct? Of course not.
It is not the purpose of this article to look over every conflict involving Orthodox nations or rulers and pronounce judgment on whether their motives were valid. Instead, it is to show that war and Orthodox Christianity is neither endorsed as in other denominations or faiths, nor rejected like the Quakers, a Christian denomination that practices non-violence at all times and whose members refuse to serve in war.
At each Divine Liturgy we pray for peace. In some versions of the Divine Liturgy, we pray for the army “dear to Christ”, and in others this is omitted. We might also pray in the Liturgy, “be mindful … of all civil authorities and of our armed forces; grant them a secure and lasting peace … that we in their tranquility may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness”. We hope and pray for peace, but know that in our fallen world we may be plunged into war at any time and need to be protected.
How then does the Orthodox Church treat soldiers who go to war? Should the soldier be forced to kill in war, then the canons of St Basil recommend that they not take Communion for three years. The length of this shows just how severe the taking of a life is, but also that it does not lead to eternal estrangement from God for violating one of the Ten Commandments. This time is used for the repentance and repairing of the soul, and shows us that war is not something good or beneficial.
The canons also preclude any person who has killed from becoming a priest or monastic. St Paisios the Athonite, when serving in World War II, only took up roles which would not involve killing. One might also ask about the many soldier-saints in the Orthodox Church. It is worth noting that many died a martyr’s death, some refusing to kill Christians. How often do we hear stories of the saints where in their tortures the torturers themselves convert and are martyred?
There is, however, no comparison to be made between soldiers who serve only the will of the state and the martyrs in serving the will of God. In the 10th century, the Emperor of Byzantium, Nicephorus Phocas, asked that the Church recognise the soldiers who died in war as martyrs, much like Islam offers eternal life as a reward for jihad or Catholicism offered similar rewards during the Crusades under Pope Urban II. The response from the Patriarch and the Synod was thus: "How could they be regarded as martyrs or equal to the martyrs those who kill others or die themselves at war, when the divine canons impose a penalty on them, preventing them from coming to Divine Communion for three years."
And so we accept that war is a fact of life, but we do not elevate it and glorify its participants. In concluding, let us remember the words of Christ in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).
In Part 2, we will look at spiritual warfare.