By Anton Kartachov
“Thou shalt not kill”, the Lord commanded mortals from the heights of Mount Sinai; in other words: do not lay your hands on what is not yours, what your hands have not created. The only master of life and death is the Lord Creator. “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up,” (1 Sam. 2:6). In the commandment to the Patriarch Noah the Lord has said: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:5-6).
The commandment that the life of a man belongs only to Him Who has given it, to God the Giver of life, protects life by a vengeance which, even though inflicted by the hand of man, comes not from man. Man as a private person has no right to vengeance, and for a Christian this is simply forbidden. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” (Rom. 12:19). It is God who avenges, “by the judgements that He knows” (prayer of St. Mardarios, third hour, ed.): by the seal of refusal on the front (ref. to Rev. 7:3 ed.), by floods, by sulphuric rains of fire, by drowning amidst the waters of the sea, by the opening up of the earth, by all the plagues of Egypt; i.e. by miraculous punishments and natural calamities, epidemics, plagues, hail and, equally naturally, by setting man against man and people against people. All of sacred history, all the prophetic books are full of explanations of the different fates of humanity as the judgment of God for sins and transgressions by means of the very same hand of man, chosen by God as a means of vengeance. On the same place where Ahab has shed the blood of the poor Naboth, the dogs lap the blood of his descendants, shed by Judah, whom God has chosen as an avenger (2 Kings 9 and 10). Therefore the Lord Jesus Christ says as well: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” (Mt. 26:52), and the Apocalypse repeats: “If any one is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if any one slays with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.” (Rev. 13:10).
What does this mean? It means that the commandment on Mount Sinai “Thou shalt not kill” is an unconditional prohibition to man as such, following his own passionate incentives, to raise his hand against the sacrament which is the life of his neighbour. But it also means that the Creator, All-foreseer and Avenger God Himself, sometimes gives man the order to be the means of his providential will, to shed the blood of another man not personally for himself, but super-personally, and, so to say, in a dispassionate way. This thought is so evident and so simple in all the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, that only the blindness of sectarians can refuse it. Sectarians, letter-worshippers and non-Christian humanists are trying to introduce into the teaching of the Church their idea, alien to Christianity, of the natural equality of the rights of all men. In their opinion, contrary to the views of the Church, no one ever has the right to kill. Certainly, if we consider an abstract private person. But the biblical world-view is not abstract, not dead, but a world-view of life and therefore not egalitarian, but hierarchical. Among all that lives, “there are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.” (1 Cor. 15:41).
All creation differs in quality, finds itself at different levels, in different orders, in different dignities, in different services. Not only angels, but also mankind. This is even more valid for people in their socio-religious organisation, as members of the sacramental body of the Church: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (Eph. 4:11). Of what equality of right we can speak here? To one the truly divine power has been granted to work wonders with the words: “and make this bread…” and “what is in this chalice,” and to me merely to humbly receive this supernatural mystery.
The natural hierarchical order in creation and in human society has been established and sanctified by the Creator and is in contradiction with a wrongly understood idea of equality. “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth” (Prov. 8:15), i.e. not only the power, but also the written laws which it creates finds the source of its authority in God. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself recognises that power of Pontius Pilate “which has been given from above” (Jn. 19:11) and the Apostle Paul traces all power to God (Rom. 13:1-2). In particular: the power of the sword, meaning the right to execute, to kill for a crime and to defend a state from its enemies. “For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Self-sacrificingly, St. Paul applies this right of the punishing sword to himself: in Caesaria, judged by the prosecutor Porcius Thestus, he declares: “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried; to the Jews I have done no wrong, as you know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them.” (Acts 25:11).
In the hierarchical order of life, which is both natural and full of grace, people are given supra-personal rights and obligations. And their rights in this case surpass the level of the commandments of personal morality. This concerns the rights of state power and its related functions of legislation, government, judgment and punishment. And, of course, it concerns military service, the essence of which is not to kill but to offer one’s life as a sacrifice for one’s society, killing enemies merely out of necessity, for we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” (1 Jn. 5:19) and is full of thorns, snakes, scorpions, evil beasts, wrongdoers and possessed, the struggle against which, in many cases, inevitably leads the “servants of God” (Rom. 13:4), i.e. the authorities, not to pacify but to physically destroy them. The Church from the very beginning accepted this order and sanctified it by its authority. The Apostle strongly warns against social revolution, asking all to remain in the position, which they occupied when they were called (when they entered the Church). This also includes the military profession, in the terrible period of the alien pagan Roman authority, which in the Apocalypse is described in the image of the beast and the antichrist! Among the soldiers of the Roman state many belonged to the Church, composing as soon as the IInd century almost entire legions in the army of Rome. For soldiers, as well as for civil servants and regular citizens of the pagan empire certain rituals of idolatry — but not military service itself — were an insurmountable barrier, which led them to martyrdom. The military rank has been sanctified by tens of names of martyrs and hundreds of nameless martyrs. After completing military service, Christians have become shepherds of the Church and ascetics-anchorites. The founder of organised monasticism, St. Pachomios the Great, was a soldier from the Egyptian legions.
The over-devoted sectarians who refused military service for Christians were not part of the body of the Church. They were the heretical Montanists of the IInd century and Donatists of the IIIrd. In the name of hierarchy and the segregation of specific services the Church has obliged members of the clergy to abandon any parallel worldly professions and state service of any kind. But never was military service prior to ordination seen as an obstacle for the priesthood, either in the pagan period of persecutions or when the empire became Christian and when military service acquired a clear meaning as a theocratic service, a defence of the Church herself. The canonical letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to the monk Ammon is very instructive in this respect, explaining the heretical sense of a dispraising attitude towards natural life, which has been made by the Creator (the life of the body, food, marriage, birth), in which the holy father explains that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” needs to be understood according to the aims and conditions of its application. He writes: “for instance: it is not allowed to kill. But to kill enemies in battle is permitted and worthy of praise… In this way, one and the same thing, considering some times and circumstances, is not permitted, yet in different circumstances and at the right time it is permitted and accepted”. In the first canonical letter to Amphilochius of Iconium the 13th canon of St. Basil the Great equally witnesses that “our fathers did not consider killing on the battlefield as murder, pardoning thus defenders of chastity and piety.” The holy father continues; “it might be good to advise that these, having unclean hands, would abstain three years from partaking of the holy sacraments.” The thought of St. Basil behind this is that any killing naturally contradicts the absolute ideal of the Gospel, that such killings, just as the whole worldly order of justice and authority itself “is the result of the original sin”, as the Apostle says) and that the Christian consciousness cannot but feel the need for a cleansing epitimia after any, even the most justified killing. All this is true. But another spiritual experience and canonical practice of the Church is characteristic as well. The XIth-century canonists Zonaras and Balsamon affirm that the advice of St. Basil has never been applied in the Church. And this can be understood: in Orthodox Byzantium, theoretically united with the Church, military service obtained so clearly a cross-bearing character, that the advice of St. Basil the Great, which had appeared in the atmosphere of the still half pagan empire and army of the third quarter of the IVth century, had lost its sense.
In the Orthodox Greek empire, in other Orthodox states and in our own Orthodox Russian empire the cross-bearing spirit and sense of military service subsequently become so self-evident and obvious for the conciliar self-consciousness of the Church , that military service as such, as the endeavour of defending by the sword the Church and the Christian fatherland against paganism and heresies, was itself crowned by an aureole of sanctity. Emperors, princes, generals as well as Christian soldiers entered into the host of saints. And the heavenly light of their holy glory has forever sanctified all Christ-bearing and Christ-loving military endeavours and struggles for the Holy Church, Christian statehood and the baptized people, for the Kingdom of God on earth.
The heavenly hierarchy itself is the most holy example of the earthly Christ-loving army. For the Lord Sabaoth Himself, after His descent to his creatures whom He granted freedom, has engaged in battle with Satan. Therefore He is the King of the heavenly armies: Sabaoth. His “powers, the hosts of hosts that serve Him constitute the heavenly armies,” led by the archistrateges, literally, “chiefs of command” face the army of dark powers, the angels of Satan and wage battle with them in the decisive moments of the final fate of the world and mankind. The Empress of heaven herself is not only the merciful mother and defender of the Christian generation, but also the “victorious lady” (“hypermachos stratigos), because she takes part in the battle of Christian armies against impious barbarians. In heavenly visions she is enthroned above the armies of Byzantium and in her holy icons sanctified the banners of Holy Russia at the battles of the Don, Kazan and Moscow. This is the ecclesio-religious, Orthodox and holy-Russian reality and the truth, full of grace, which rejoices the heart of the Christ-loving army. And as a linking image, a sacred symbol of the two armies “the heavenly and the earthly,” we have the image of the Archangel of the bodiless powers: the earthly soldier, the great-martyr George.
— From a special issue of the “Leaflets of St. Sergius” dedicated to the Russian Veterans’ association of St. George, Paris 1929