Spiritual Combat Against War

Father Georgi Chistyakov

Fire brigades, rescue forces prepared for natural catastrophes, repairmen of electrical and water networks, those who maintain the sewer system — such social roles are needed at all times, no matter what the political situation may be. But the army is another question, required only until an effective mechanism for peaceful resolution of inter-state conflicts has been worked out.

The last world war happened more than half a century ago. In recent decades the army is no longer used for solving political problems between parties more or less equal in strength, but used in attempts to subjugate disobedient satellites (the United States against Vietnam, the Soviet Union against Afghanistan, Russia against Chechnya), for solving contradictions of internal politics (as in various Latin American countries), or in internal conflicts within the ruins of collapsed empires (for example, Tito’s Yugoslavia). In the same period, the most severe political conflicts and confrontations have been resolved at the negotiating table. The role once reserved for the army is now played by diplomats with better results and without bloodshed. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, the International Court of Justice in The Hague — these are among the institutions which have in the past half century created a mechanism more effective than war, Armies, which once secured borders or defended national interests outside its borders, tend more and more to become a political police force.

As we approach the 21st century, can it be that mankind is reaching adulthood and becoming capable of abstaining from war? Can armies be made to serve peaceful purposes?

In the Russian children’s book Urfin Juice and his Wooden Soldiers by Alexander Volkov, this problem was solved at the level of a parable: soldiers became forest rangers. Transformation in real life is more difficult, yet in Russia’s Ministry for Crisis Situations, we have a prototype — a military mechanism made to serve a peaceful society. Here is a disciplined force that aims not to fight people but to contend with earthquakes, floods and avalanches. It is noteworthy that the Ministry’s leader is a general, Sergei Shoigu. In his Ministry, we see certain characteristics of the army of the future — the army that saves lives.

In Russia today, the idea of alternative social service is slowly making headway. It is a discussion that has the potential to decide the future of the army as a whole. This process has to do with a fundamental reform of the army itself so that it is no longer an instrument of violent coercion, but a life-saving force able to respond quickly and efficiently in times of emergency. An army that was formerly equipped with weapons for killing becomes a rescue and disaster brigade — truly “the Christ-loving army” we have so long been praying for.

In the transformation we are contemplating, let us consider the saints, some of whom we are used to thinking of as patrons of war — for example St. Alexander Nevsky. But is this saint really blessing the vocation of bloodshed? In Stalin’s time, Saint Alexander Nevsky was portrayed as a ruthless warrior, an image that survives into our own day. But if we study our history books, we discover the person he became after his victory against the Teutonic Knights on the ice of the Lake Chud in 1242. When faced with the Tartar invasion, this proud warrior, accustomed to solving quarrels with arms, exchanged his armor for the gown of a diplomat. From the medieval point, the negotiations he led were humiliating, but Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win. After he died, the Orthodox people remembered him as the warrior who became a peacemaker and who put on a monk’s mantel. It was only centuries later, at the time of Czar Peter the Great, that icons of this holy prince were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than a monk, and thus made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself.

In the first centuries there were many soldier-martyrs. Seeing them as soldiers, it is easy for us to imagine they gained eternal crowns for heroic deeds on battlefields. But this was never the case. They were recognized as saints for another reason. These soldiers serving in the Roman army, such as Martin of Tours, refused to kill people because they had been baptized. For this imperial Rome ordered their torture and execution. Accepting death rather than to dishonor their baptismal promises was the real victory of these Christian soldiers. To forget their witness and its meaning is a sin.

The road to rethinking the role of the army in society is extremely difficult. It is for this reason that God gives us saints. By imitating them, we find a way out of the dead-ends of life. It is not by chance that among the warriors of the past and soldiers of modern times, there are so many saints and righteous people with pure hearts — Prince Alexander Nevsky, Elder Varsonofi of Optina, Metropolitan Seraphim Chichagov, Elder Zosima Verhovsky, Brother Charles de Foucault, and our contemporary Jean Vanier. In studying their spiritual experience, we see in their lives at least one common characteristic. Each one of them made their own decision and consistently abstained from violence, but each took from their military past will power, persistence, courage and fearlessness. Their road was one of personal choice connected with the deepest inner struggle. Otherwise, abstaining from violence is probably impossible.

Violence is especially dangerous when it claims to provide a shelter against the aggressor and masks itself in the dress of defense. Its appearance is seemingly righteous and noble — in other words, the appearance of chivalry. But we need to remember that evil is not overcome by evil. Of this we are warned by the Apostle Paul.

The Roman principle was “vim vi repellere licet” — it is permissible to repel violence with violence. Christ responded with the teaching, “Do not resist evil” (Matthew 5:39). If you study the Greek text, you see these words the Sermon of the Mount mean, “Do not respond to evil with its own means.”

For all millennia of history, society has traveled the roads of violence. This is why taking a new road is so painful. We must understand that the renunciation of violence is not only historically justified but is a spiritual victory, one which we can obtain only with spiritual weapons.

St. Alexander Nevsky : Saint Alexander Nevsky was canonized in 1380 [117 years after his death]. He was included in the list of the saints not because he was a successful defender of the country and one of its most far-seeing rulers — national heroes have never been honored in this way by the Russian people. He is a saint because he was a Christian of exceptional integrity and faith. He was able to carry the heavy cross of serving his defeated people, without pride or despair, and he remained firm and humble in spite of every kind of derision and insult.

— Nicolas Zernov, The Russians and Their Church / (revised edition, 1978, p 24); St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, USA

Father Georgi Chistyakov is chaplain at the Moscow Children’s Hospital, a biblical scholar teaching at the Alexander Menn Orthodox University, and a priest in the parish of Saints Kosmas and Damian in Moscow. This is a shortened version of an essay published in the Paris-based Russian journal, Russkaya Mysl. Translation by Krista Berglund with the editorial assistance of Jim Forest.