A Letter on War, Saints and the Church

This letter was sent in response to a query from a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in the United States.

Dear Vaseili,

>> For some time my intention has been to bring-up the following question concerning war in defense of the homeland and its requisite shedding of blood.

Since the 4th century one can find examples of rank-and-file Christians taking part in wars in defense of their homeland. Even in these cases bloodshed was regarded as innately sinful. Prolonged penance was required before the restoration of Eucharistic life. This is a topic Fr John addresses in his essay in the current “In Communion.” (This is part of a longer essay which is posted on the OPF web site.)

>> I wish someone from the OPF would comment on St. Sergius of Radonezh and the battles against the Tartars. I believe that historians agree that St. Sergius blessed Prince Dmitrii Donskoj as he marched off to battle and even sent two of his monks along with the Prince. More controversial is the additional commentary that these two monks actually physically took part in the battle which turned Prince Dmitrii into a sort of Russian George Washington.

I have read about St. Sergius blessing Prince Dimitri before he set off on the battle with the Tartars. As no written texts survive from St. Sergius, it is not certain that this event is, in fact, something that actually happened or is, as often with saint’s lives, something added at a later date.

Assuming such a blessing was actually given, still its meaning is not clear.

For example if one of my children were to take part in war and asked me to bless him before departure, I would do so. With it would go my prayer for the safety both of my child and those “on the other side” whose life or death may depend on my child’s actions. My blessing would not a blessing of war.

But then we might say: perhaps St. Sergius gave a blessing which was meant to be a sign of his approval of this particular war. Perhaps he saw it as not so much a good thing — no Christian can regard war as good — but as unavoidable or a lesser evil. This reading of the story is not certain, but it is possible. Even then, we cannot freely apply that blessing to any war but only to that particular war. St Sergius, who himself only engaged in spiritual combat, did not give posterity a “blank check” blessing of bloodshed in general, no matter what the circumstances.

In the case of fighting the Tartars, it was a war of Russians fighting invaders and occupiers. It would be odd for Americans, who themselves have not been invaded since 1812 but have many times been invaders and occupiers of other countries (as now in Iraq and Afghanistan) to discover a blessing for their endeavors in St. Sergius. He was blessing those resisting an occupying power.

Another aspect of the question is that for Christians, as much as we revere our saints, it is not the saint we follow but Jesus Christ. We try to follow Him just as the saints tried to follow Him. We know no one follows him perfectly. Even the saints are sinners. Yet we see them as people who never gave up the struggle to come closer to Christ and to be more faithful to his Gospel. Yet, as a proverb puts it, one can go to hell imitating the faults of the saints.

One can find many examples of Orthodox Christians, including bishops, who have deeply implicated themselves in war — often times in wars we look back on with revulsion and even horror. Countless innocent people have died in wars in which one cannot easily say, though there may have been many heroes, that there was great virtue on either side. God alone can count the innocents who were wounded or killed or the solders who, surviving war, came home with their conscience haunted by dreadful actions they witnessed or committed. We are all subject to letting nationalism and propaganda get the upper hand in our lives. It is a very contagious state of mind. We even find churches where the national flag is placed in the sanctuary.

>> Allow me to close with a story about my Uncle George, who was a simple village priest in the Pelopennessus. When the Nazis came, Papa George took off to the mountains where he organized and led a band of guerrilla fighters. Being of large stature with his long, wild beard and hair, he became known as “Killer George” to the Nazis. At the end of WW II, Father George was summonsed by the Bishop of Tripolis to explain himself. Papa George strode into the Bishop’s office, rifle in hand and wearing his bandoleers. He took off the bullet belts and laid them with his gun on the Bishop’s desk with the words: now, I’m going back to my village and church. There he finished-out his days. < < If I had such an uncle, I would regard him as a brave and honorable man. Living as I do in a country that was occupied by the Nazis for five years, I cannot help but respect and admire those who, whether nonviolently or with weapons, resisted. Even so, as an Orthodox Christian I would also have to consider that the canon laws of the Church require that a priest never kill another human being. Even if he does so by mistake, as with an auto, he is no longer supposed to enter the sanctuary. This is the Church's unbroken tradition. That this is sometimes set aside by bishops as an act of economia cannot be disputed. And yet the canons remain to challenge us, and behind the canons stands the Gospel. Our Savior, as we meet him in the Gospel, never killed anyone nor gave his blessing for any of his followers to kill on his behalf. So much more could be said on this issue, as you know, but this is all I can manage at the moment. In Christ's peace, Jim Forest * * * posted April 2006 * * *