by Philip LeMasters
Originally published in Worship 77/5 (September 2003): pp 408-425. Portions of the essay were presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s North American conference in the summer of 2002. The author is Professor of Religion and Chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at McMurry University, Abilene, Texas. His fourth book,
Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage, and Sex, was published by Light & Life in 2004. Other essays and reviews have appeared in St. Vladimir’s Quarterly Review, Theology Today, Worship, Perspectives in Religious Studies, and The Christian Century. He serves as deacon at St. Luke Antiochian Mission in Abilene, Texas.
Anyone who has ever attended an Orthodox worship service has heard petitions for peace. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the first petitions of the Great Ektenia are for “the peace from above, and for the salvation of our souls” and “the peace of the whole world; for the good estate of the churches of God, and for the union of all men…” Congregants then pray in this opening litany for their parish, the clergy and laity, the officials of the civil government, “for our armed forces everywhere” and their “victory over every enemy and adversary,”their city and all cities, “for peaceful times,” travelers, the sick, the suffering, “captives and their salvation,” and “our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity.” The litany concludes with a plea for God to “Help us; save us; have mercy on us,” and keep us by His grace. Finally, we remember the Theotokos and “commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”
Orthodox Christians find this listing of petitions so familiar than many would be surprised to notice their direct relevance for peace on earth. For these are not simply words sung at the beginning of each Liturgy; neither are they prayers which refer merely to the inner tranquility of worshipers, nor to an entirely future Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, they embody an Orthodox vision of salvation and call upon the Lord to help us experience His heavenly peace right now in every dimension of life: personal, public, religious, temporal, and political. Whoever prays these prayers is asking already to participate in the Kingdom of God on earth, to find the healing and blessing of salvation in every dimension of one’s life — indeed, in every aspect of God’s creation.
The entire Liturgy is an epiphany or manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth. The priest begins the service with a proclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages,” which declares that the assembly is now participating in the worship of Heaven. The Church is raised to the life of the Kingdom as her members gather to glorify and commune with the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ often used the image of a wedding feast or banquet for the Kingdom of God. The Divine Liturgy makes present the Wedding Feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation. Endnote It is the celebration and enactment of our sharing in Christ’s resurrected life and victory over death. As we prepare to receive the medicine of immortality, we pray that the Lord’s salvation will come upon all those created in the image and according to the likeness of God. Because we believe in the Incarnation and the goodness of God’s physical creation, we pray for peace and salvation upon people in “real life” situations of peril and suffering, for deliverance from the kinds of calamities and hardships that beset our mortal bodies in this life. Because we believe that human beings are persons created for communion with God and others, we pray for those who govern, protect the innocent, and endure the social and political realities of war and oppression. Endnote
The peace for which we pray is holistic, including every dimension of our existence before the Lord. God created us for communion with Himself in all aspects of our personhood: body, soul, and spirit. Christian salvation entails the resurrection of the complete, embodied self in the blessed communion of Heaven and the transformation of the entire creation in subjection to the Holy Trinity.
The peace for which we pray is our participation in that all-inclusive salvation. There is no true peace other than that found in the healing and transformation brought to human beings by the God-Man in whom our humanity is united with the divine. Since God intends to save us all in every dimension of our existence, His healing concerns the full range of human life. Even as bread and wine become the means of our communion with the Lord, we are to offer every bit of ourselves and of this world to the Father in union with the sacrifice of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will then find life-giving communion with the Holy Trinity in everything we say and do; our life will become a eucharistic offering as we grow in holiness and union with God.
If the Liturgy is a participation in the eschatological peace of the Kingdom of God, it is fair to ask whether the members of the Church recognize and live out this vision of heavenly peace. An immediate note of realism comes to mind, as the members of the Church are sinners who have not manifested fully the new life of Christ. Nonetheless, the presence of the Holy Spirit enables the Church to embody a foretaste of the eschatological peace of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is much in the history and ongoing life of the Church which witnesses to the saving peace of God here and now. Though there is some apparent ambiguity in the Church’s teaching on Christian participation in war, the Orthodox vision of peace prizes selfless love and forgiveness over violence, viewing war in some situations as a lesser, necessary evil with damaging spiritual consequences for all involved.
In contrast with Orthodoxy, it is easier to describe the traditional Western Christian justifications of war, which include both the granting of plenary indulgences to those who fought in the crusades and the affirmation of just-war theory. The former envisioned the killing of infidels as such a righteous act that the crusaders were released from all temporal punishments for their sins, including exemption from purgatory. The latter, which has been widely influential in western culture, provides moral sanction to wars which meet certain philosophical criteria. In contrast to these endorsements of war, Orthodoxy has never embraced the crusade ethic, and Canon XIII of St. Basil the Great prescribes exclusion from the chalice for three years for those who kill in war. Endnote Orthodoxy has viewed war always as an evil, “but a sometimes necessary evil for the defense of justice and freedom. The only normative ideal is that of peace, and hence the Orthodox Church has never made rules on the subject of ius belli and of ius in bello.” Endnote Moral rules do not remove the harm to one’s soul of killing another human being, even in war. To take life is to fall short of the norm of Christlike love, and exclusion from Communion for a period may be necessary to allow time for the spiritual healing which is necessary for one to commune worthily with the Lord. Endnote It is debatable, however, whether the Church has traditionally enforced this discipline. Endnote
Father Alexander Webster agrees that a theory of justified war “has never been systematically elucidated in Orthodox moral theology,” and he describes participation in such a war as “a lesser moral option than absolute pacifism, for those unwilling or unable to pay the full price of prophecy.” He suggests that Orthodox criteria for a just war include a “proper political ethos,” meaning that the nation going to war should follow “the natural-law ethic and have positive relations with the Orthodox community.” The war should also take place for the “defense of the People of God” from injustice, invasion, or oppression “by those hostile to the free exercise of the Orthodox faith.” A proper “spiritual intent” should also lead to “forgiveness and rehabilitation” of enemies as persons who bear the image of God, and not “mere revenge, self-righteousness, or conquest.” Webster states that
Whereas the pacifist seeks to emulate Jesus as the Good Shepherd who allowed Himself to be slain unjustly by and for sinners, the just warrior perceives a higher duty: to defend the relatively innocent from unjust aggression. If the Orthodox pacifist can never do anything evil even for a reasonably just end, the Orthodox warrior cannot preserve his personal holiness by allowing evil to triumph through his own inaction.
Though the Christlike response of “turning the other cheek” to assaults is the spiritual ideal, the Orthodox Church does not prescribe pacifism or nonviolence as a legal requirement of the Christian life. The Church’s moral guidance serves the goal of theosis, of guiding the members of Christ’s Body to growth in holiness and union with the Trinity. The canons of the Church are applied pastorally in order help particular people find salvation as they seek to be faithful in the given set of challenges and weaknesses which they face. The Church’s experience is that temporal authority and the use of force are necessary to restrain evil and promote good in our fallen world. Though the witness of the early Church was largely — but not exclusively–pacifist, the Byzantine vision was of symphonia or harmony between God’s Kingdom and earthly realms. Hence, Christian emperors and armies fought wars and sustained a social order that sought to embody faithfulness to the Lord in all areas of life. Church and empire were to be united “even as the divine and human natures of Christ are united in the One Person of the Incarnate Son of God.” Endnote That high-minded vision was never fully realized in Byzantium; human sinfulness corrupted its political and ecclesiastical leaders in many ways.
There have remained in Orthodoxy, however, indications of the ideal of peace. Monks and clergy, for example, may not serve in the armed forces and are forbidden to use violence even in cases of self-defense. Endnote Canon V of St. Gregory of Nyssa “states that should a priest ‘fall into the defilement of murder even involuntarily (i. e. in self-defense), he will be deprived of the grace of the priesthood, which he will have profaned by this sacrilegious crime.'” Endnote Those who hands have shed blood may not be the icons of Christ which priests are called to be, and are not suited to serve at the altar. Endnote Even as the sacramental priesthood is a special vocation to which not all are called, the straightforward embodiment of Christlike, nonviolent love — which is incumbent upon priests — is not canonically required of all believers. In keeping with the practice of economia, the norm of nonresistant love may not be directly applicable to those whose vocations in our broken world require the defense of the innocent. These may grow in holiness by fighting justly, even as they mourn the harm done to themselves and others by their use of violence.
Greater harm, indeed, might befall them and others if they refused to defend the innocent from attack and abuse. In a fallen world populated by sinful people, every Christian’s journey to the Kingdom will be marked by a measure of spiritual brokenness, and repentance is the only road to healing. Endnote A sixth-century Byzantine text on military strategy begins with a note of realism about war:
I am well aware that war is a great evil, and even the greatest of evils. But because enemies shed our blood…, because everyone has to defend his homeland and his fellow citizens…, we have decided to write about strategy.
Particular countries and peoples — such as Byzantium, the Balkan states, and Russia — have historically been so closely identified with the Orthodox faith that their defensive wars against Islamic invaders, though not western-style crusades, may be described as “a difficult and painful defense of the Cross.” The appeal for “victory over their enemies” at the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and other martial imagery in the liturgies, has at times been corrupted into a “national Messianism” in which the soldier becomes a martyr and the evil of war is forgotten.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that Orthodoxy has enthusiastically endorsed war. Even in cases of the defense of a Christian people from Islamic invasion, the spiritual gravity of warfare has not been forgotten. For example, St. Sergius of Radonezh in the fourteenth century gave his blessing to Grand Prince Dimitri to fight a defensive war against the Tatar Khan only after he received assurances that the prince had already exhausted every possible means of reconciliation. Kutuzov’s strategy in response to Napoleon’s invasion was similar, abandoning Moscow to the French and merely harassing Napoleon’s forcing during their withdrawal, “having no other aim than to drive him back to the frontier.” Endnote Not examples of unbridled militarism, these are instances which reflect the reluctant acceptance of war at times as a necessary evil.
These notes of realism should not be allowed to obscure the Church’s insistence that “non-retribution, the avoidance of violence, the returning of good for evil…and the harmony of peoples” are a holistic “normative good which Christians must seek with God’s help.” Endnote Father Stanley Harakas observes that “the Eastern Patristic tradition rarely praised war, and to my knowledge, almost never called it ‘just’ or a moral good….The peace ideal continued to remain normative and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm.” Endnote It is not difficult to compile a list of Fathers who stressed the superiority of peace to war, including St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom , St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Clement of Rome, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Endnote The evidence for widespread pacifism in the Church is strongest before St. Constantine, when the Empire was pagan, persecuted Christians, and often required soldiers to participate in the worship of false gods. Even after the Christianization of the Empire, with the eventual requirement that only Christians could be in the army, there remained teachers of pacifism in the Church, such as Pope St. Damasus, Prudentius, and St. Paulinus of Nola. Webster remarks that St. Paulinus in the fifth century was “the last great Church Father who addressed in explicit detail the moral problem of war from an absolute pacifist perspective.” Endnote From then on, pacifist sensibilities would manifest themselves in other contexts, such as the requirement of clerical and monastic nonresistance.
The contrast between the canonical requirement of pacifism for the clergy and the acceptance of military service by the laity requires further comment. Webster notes that the identification of clergy with the nonviolent norm and the allowance of participation in war on the part of the laity implies a bifurcated ethic with a higher and a lower class of Christians, which could be taken to imply that the clergy are necessarily holier than the laity. More faithful to Orthodox ecclesiology would be the affirmation that the norm now embodied by the clergy will at some future point become normative for all Orthodox. Here we are dealing with a point of eschatological tension that will be resolved in the Kingdom of Heaven, when all will be pacifists, for violence and other evils will be destroyed. In the present, the clergy are “expected to demonstrate the attainment of an advanced spiritual and moral state to which all Orthodox Christians are [ultimately] called.”
The recognition of pacifism as an ultimate norm or goal for all Christians should not be surprising. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ calls his followers to theosis, to growth in holiness and perfection before God. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) This teaching is the conclusion of a section focusing on the love of enemies, which is immediately preceded by the Lord’s repudiation of resistance against evil. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (5:39) These passages indicate that the repudiation of violence in self-defense is a sign of growth in holiness. Our Lord’s example of offering Himself nonresistantly on the cross for our salvation is the paradigmatic epiphany of the selfless love in which human beings are to participate as they come to share by grace in the life of the Trinity.
Though not absolute pacifists, some saints chose to accept death in a Christlike manner, and thus manifested their holiness. For example, the Passion of St. Edmond, who reposed in the ninth century, reports that this king of East Anglia offered himself for death to the invading Danish king in order to save the lives of his subjects. St. Edmund is reported to have “declared that he would follow the example of Christ and ‘refrain from staining my pure hands.'” St. John Vladimir, an eleventh century Serb, handed his sword to his Bulgarian foe, declaring, ” Take it and kill me, for I am ready to die, as were Isaac and Abel.” Though St. John had been a fierce warrior in the past, there is a “perfect, non-violent, Christ-like quality” apparent in his death. Endnote The famous Saints Boris and Gleb of Kiev accepted death without resistance at the hands of their ambitious royal brother’s assassins in the eleventh century. As Webster notes, “St. Boris offered himself as a voluntary, Christ-like sacrifice for the sins of the assassins and consequently made no attempt to resist the lethal violence visited upon his person.” An experienced warrior, St. Boris made “a conscious choice… to reflect the ideals of nonresistance and expiatory sacrifice modeled originally by Christ.” These saints are paradigmatic examples of “the moral life in Christ. Theirs was preeminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”
In considering the relevance of these saintly examples to the question of peace, we should remember that Orthodoxy does not separate morality from theosis, from the salvation of the whole person in the Kingdom of God. We will not find the healing of our corrupted selves and world in moral theory of any kind. Instead, the focus of Orthodox thought is on the person who is invited to participate by grace in the eternal life of the communion of Persons called the Trinity. We journey to that blessed communion as sinners who live amongst other sinners in the brokenness of our fallen world. Hence, the healing of our infirmities will have to take account of the particular set of limitations, weaknesses, and corruptions that beset us and those around us. We need therapy for spiritual strength, not a free-standing ethic of any kind.
Though the nonresistant love of Christ is the ultimate norm for the Christian in response to evil, the Church recognizes that we live in a corrupted world in which the use of force is sometimes mournfully necessary to restrain evil, protect the innocent, and foster a humane social order. Some who inhabit such a world are called to the pacifistic vocation of the cleric or the monk. Others find themselves with a set of responsibilities as soldiers, police officers, or public officials which precludes their straightforward embodiment of that ideal. They are not to be condemned, however, for they too serve God’s purposes for the protection and care of persons who inhabit a fallen world. Not a matter of abstract moral philosophy, the question of the vocation to which a particular person is called is a matter of noetic knowledge: of a spiritual, personal encounter with the Trinity. As we grow in our participation in the ascetical and sacramental dimensions of the Christian life, we will grow in unity with God and know more fully the path to salvation which we are to take. The discernment of vocation is not, however, an individual matter; it is a personal endeavor of growing in unity with the Trinity through the direction of a spiritual father or mother and a life lived in full communion with the Church. Personhood has nothing to do with the isolated individual of modern western culture, but requires a shared life in which we achieve the likeness of God, who is not an isolated monad but a community of Persons.
As we have seen in the lives of the saints, a successful soldier may hear the call to lay down his life nonresistantly as an epiphany of Christ’s selfless love in the world. Some, whether former soldiers or not, may advance in holiness to the point where anything less than complete pacifism is unthinkable and would amount to turning away from Christ. There is no ground for condemning the soldier, however, who after proper discernment offers his life to God and neighbor by mournfully using force to protect the innocent. The Church does not reject the particular form of dying to self to which he is called, as it may be necessary for his growth in holiness in the particular mix of broken circumstances which he faces.
The Canons do stipulate, however, that one who kills in war find spiritual healing through repentance before approaching the chalice. The rationale for this standard is not so much moral in the sense that a code has been broken. To take the life of a human being — created in the image and according to the likeness of God — is a grave matter which, regardless of the circumstances, threatens to do profound damage to one’s soul. The Church’s wisdom is that the appropriate therapies must be applied before the soldier communes with Christ in the Eucharist, for the risk of receiving the Holy Mysteries unprepared is great. As we pray before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, “Not unto judgment nor unto condemnation be my partaking of Thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.”
Since we are created and redeemed for communion with the Holy Trinity, we are intended for the peace and harmony of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are to grow in holiness by offering the entirety of ourselves and world to the Father in union with the sacrifice of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The one who takes life, who kills another created in the image and according to the likeness of God, participates in a paradigmatic sign of the estrangement of humankind from this eschatological harmony. Granted, to kill in war may well be an involuntary sin which is regrettably necessary as a lesser evil in a case of national self-defense. Nonetheless, to do so is to fall short of the mark of the fulfillment of God’s intentions for our personhood. The same could be said of those who support or benefit from wars. They too are involved in the corruption of the human condition, and need the spiritual therapy of the Church for their involuntary sin as they continue the journey of theosis.
The wisdom of the Orthodox view of war as a lesser evil is apparent from a sober reading of the application of just-war theory. Only the very naive would ignore how national self-interest and lust for power corrupt every instance of warfare. Political and military leaders typically control the information necessary to evaluate their own actions in war, and subsequently are their own judges in the matters in which they have the greatest self-interest. It is hard to imagine any nation, regardless of the form of government, preferring to lose a war when certain violations of just-war standards would increase the likelihood of victory or save the lives of their own soldiers. For example, the Allies during World War II destroyed any number of civilian population centers in Germany and Japan, and killed untold numbers of noncombatants, in the name of winning the war and saving the lives of Allied servicemen. Certainly, the Allied victory was as just as any military victory in human history; far greater harm would have come to millions of persons who bear the image of God from an Axis victory. It remains the case, however, that the Allied victory was a lesser and necessary evil in which all involved had at least some blood on their hands. The Church shows great wisdom in viewing war as an occasion for repentance and spiritual healing regardless of its place on a measuring stick of moral justification. Orthodoxy is ultimately concerned about the salvation of persons, not moralism.
The petitions for peace in the Ektenia of the Prothesis and the Ektenia Before the Lord’s Prayer shed light on these issues. In both petitions, we pray that “the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless,” and that “we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” These are descriptions of the kind of life that is most conducive to spiritual growth. A day of military combat is hardly perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless. Likewise, to complete the course of one’s life in peace and repentance would seem very difficult for one who is engaged in or preparing for war. Killing in war, no matter how morally justified and necessary it may be under the circumstances, falls short of the ideal embodied in these litanies.
When the gifts are brought through the royal doors in preparation for the Eucharist, we journey with Christ to Jerusalem. Having put aside all earthly cares, we prepare to commune with the One who raises our human nature to the eternal peace of God’s Kingdom. The priest prays that we will be made worthy to partake of the Eucharist “with a pure conscience: unto remission of sins, unto forgiveness of transgressions, unto communion with the Holy Spirit, unto inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, unto boldness towards Thee, and not unto judgment nor unto condemnation.” Those whose vocations include the taking of human life will likely need special spiritual counsel in order to lay aside their earthly cares and approach the chalice with confidence in God’s mercy. It is not uncommon to meet veterans who are tormented for the rest of their lives by the horrors of war. I recall the father of a childhood friend who suffered from nightmares thirty years after the conclusion of his military service during World War II. Those who are trained to kill sometimes have difficulty returning to the mores of civilian life, not to mention the life of theosis. When we join ourselves to Christ’s eucharistic sacrifice, we participate in a victory that is not of this world and which came through the nonresistant, selfless love of the Lord. The victory of the Kingdom is not that of an earthly soldier, but of the Lamb who was slain. Killing in war may be a necessary evil in the world as we know it, but it falls short of the way shown by Christ.
The Eucharist is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, a celebration of the eternal life of eschatological peace, not of worldly strife; and we must be prepared to receive it unto our healing and salvation, not to judgment and condemnation. A crucial dimension of preparation for communion is reconciliation with those whom we have offended or who have offended us. The Lord fulfills the Old Testament commandment against murder by extending it to the passion of anger. Hence, to have anger in one’s heart toward another is a violation of the commandment against murder. It should not be surprising that a murderer would need spiritual healing before being prepared to commune unto salvation. Jesus Christ told His disciples, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there and before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24) To attempt to commune with the Lord when we are not in communion with our neighbors is a travesty, an attempt to smuggle corrupting passions into the Kingdom of Heaven.
It also a refusal to forgive others even as we seek the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins. We receive the Eucharist “unto the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.” We pray that God will “forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus Christ’s parable on forgiveness concludes that severe judgment will come upon those who expect God’s forgiveness while not forgiving others. (Matt. 18:35) Those who undertake military combat will likely face great challenges to forgive those who tried to kill them and their comrades in war. The horrors of the shedding of blood, and other atrocities often associated with war, may make forgiveness difficult for whole nations who suffered at the hands of their enemies. Such experiences create obstacles for communion and growth in holiness, and are an indication that war falls short of the spiritual norm of the Kingdom.
Webster observes that the Church’s mystical, ascetic spirituality includes points of emphasis which hardly seem compatible with war. More important here is a life of spiritual warfare against temptations. Participation in violence would likely provoke anger and pride, and hinder the development of Christlike patience, forgiveness, and humility. Endnote Nonviolence, nonresistance, voluntary kenotic suffering, and universal forgiveness are characteristics of the Orthodox spiritual life that are in marked contrast to the mentality of military strategy and tactics. Endnote An Orthodox pacifist may claim that the complete rejection of violence flows naturally from foci on theosis, asceticism, unlimited love for others, and the eschatological peace made present in the Holy Mysteries. Endnote Webster cautions that “the disvalues” of such pacifism are also apparent, for “The cost of discipleship — the cross — is often borne more painfully by the ‘innocent’ victims of the aggressor than by their righteous pacifist brethren.” The pacifist who refuses to oppose evil with violence “must grapple with the involuntary human suffering by others that results from his voluntary kenotic moral decision.” Pacifists, he notes, look to the victory of the Lamb in the eschatological future as the answer to the present injustice of the world. Endnote
Webster is correct to conclude that absolute pacifists will have to come to terms with the results of their refusal to use force as a means to combat evil. If war is at times a necessary evil for the protection of the innocent, those who refuse to participate may well be asked why they do not do that which is morally necessary. A key consideration, however, is that of vocation; namely, how is one called to respond to evil in a way that will help one participate more fully in the holiness of God? Clergy, monks, and some laity have the vocation to make of their lives epiphanies of the selfless love of Christ, regardless of whether their actions are of immediate help in the resolution of a given political or military crisis. That vocation is a matter of noetic knowledge, of spiritual discernment which we find as we grow in holiness in the context of the life of the Church. Those who know that their path to salvation has no place for the violence of warfare will be pacifists, not because of moral theory, but because that is what God wants of them. That is how they are called to offer their lives to the Lord, to grow in union with the Holy Trinity.
At the same time, those who discern that their path to holiness requires them mournfully to take up arms in a given circumstance will do so in the context of the brokenness of the world. They will risk the spiritual damage done by warfare for the sake of serving God’s purposes for the protection of the innocent and the vindication of justice. Their military service will also be a matter of offering themselves to God, of progressing on the journey of theosis in the way in which the Lord has called them. They will need special spiritual guidance in order to find the healing of the Kingdom, but the way of salvation is certainly not closed to them. The petitions of the Liturgy on behalf of the civil authorities and armed forces indicate that they have a legitimate place in the Christian life. We pray for persons involved in these endeavors, even as we pray for all who need God’s healing and peace. As St. Cyril of Alexandria notes, we pray and offer “the spiritual sacrifice” of the Eucharist “for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succor…” The Church offers God’s great mercy to all those who share in the corruption of our fallen world.
It is notable that many of the Church’s saints are soldier-martyrs who accepted death rather than commit idolatry to the pagan gods of Rome. Endnote The soldierly virtue of courage is certainly evident in the witness of martyrs who endured terrible suffering for the sake of a faith which they refused to deny. A Russian author has claimed that “military language expresses better… than any other the ways of the Christian life… For the first Christians, the army was not something to abhor but rather one of the centers where the virtues of Christianity were prepared.” Endnote There are also saints who renounced the military vocation because of its incompatibility with the way of Christ, such as St. Martin of Tours. Webster notes that the saints’ martyrdom, not the particular details of their relationship to the military, was of decisive importance. The accounts of their martyrdom likely reflect different perspectives on the propriety of military service by Christians. Endnote Nonetheless, all Orthodox-pacifists and soldiers alike–venerate these saints as those who achieved great holiness by dying to self out of love for God.
The Orthodox Church prays for peace for the whole world and for the armed forces of our nations. We have saints who were pacifists and saints who were great military leaders. We do not have the precise moral categories about war which are characteristic of western Christianity. The focus of the Orthodox is on the salvation of persons by their growth in holiness and union with the Holy Trinity. All those persons are sinners who live in a world full of sinners; hence, it should not be surprising that wars and other conflicts arise which require violence for their earthly resolution, and even for the protection of the innocent and the vindication of justice. Some are called to fight in those wars, even as they mourn the involuntary sin of taking the lives of enemy soldiers as a lesser, necessary evil. They fall short of the nonresistant way of Christ, and the Church will provide the spiritual therapies necessary for their healing. Others-whether clergy, monastics, or laity-grow in holiness to the point that their lives become epiphanies of the selfless love of Christ in turning the other cheek. Their prophetic witness is a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, and reminds those who take up arms of the corruption of a world which has not yet found the peace of God.
The tension which we find in Orthodoxy between the norm of peace and the allowance of war is precisely an eschatological tension. When the Kingdom comes in its fullness, there will be no wars. Until then, we must grow in holiness, each of us being at a different point on the journey to the theosis. For some, that journey will involve the mournful taking of life; for others, it will not. Still, we will pray “for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls.”