The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West
Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole, Regina Orthodox Press, 2004
reviewed by Fr. Andrew Louth
review published in In Communion, Spring 2004, issue 33
This book is a work of polemic. The opening chapter is a clarion call to the Christian West to realize the danger of militant Islam and gird itself to fight back and defeat it. “Nine-Eleven” is presented as a belated moment of awakening for the West, and the purpose of this book is to convince Christians of the “virtue of war,” as the title puts it: that is, to demonstrate that in certain circumstances (which include the present circumstances of an Islamic attack on Western civilization) war is not only a regrettable necessity, but a positive good, in which good ends are achieved by the virtuous means of warfare.
The book is co-written by an Orthodox priest and theologian, Fr. Alexander Webster, and a Western theologian, of probably Protestant credentials, though with a deep and articulate sympathy for the Western Catholic tradition of the just war. The aim is to demonstrate broadly-based Christian support for an offensive war against evil, and especially to include the Orthodox tradition, that has often been presented as viewing war in deeply mistrustful terms. The opening chapter, as part of its clarion call, presents an alarming account of Islam, centrally and essentially committed to jihad in military terms, in the course of which there are several references to Orthodoxy’s long familiarity with Islam, as compared with the West.
This might be a good place to begin an assessment of the book, as it is certainly true that the Orthodox have a long familiarity with Islam, reaching right back to the beginnings of that religion. In the centuries since, Orthodox have often had Islamic states as close neighbors, and also lived cheek-by-jowl with Muslims, in Palestine and later under the Ottomans and the states that succeeded that empire. At times this relationship has been sharply antagonistic; so it was in the first century or so of Islam, when the Umayyad Empire sought to take Constantinople. But more often, the Orthodox have found a modus vivendi with their Muslim neighbors, as the Western crusaders found out to their annoyance, when they discovered that the Byzantine Emperor was engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the Muslims, to their mind simply enemies of the faith.
Plenty more examples could be cited for this Orthodox quest for a modus vivendi: Manuel Komnenos’ modification of the rite of conversion for Muslims, making it clear that Orthodox and Muslim worshiped the same God, however different their conceptions of him; Gregory Palamas’ favorable impressions of the mullahs with whom he met and engaged in theological discussion during the couple of years he spent as a prisoner of the Sultan (only Palamas’ more conventional, “apocalyptic” view of Islam is cited here).
In contrast, the West has tended to see Islam in terms of extremes: either the infidel, against whom one waged crusades, or a representative of an alluring “orientalism,” explored by the late Edward Said in his famous book of that name. Fr. Alexander, in his chapters in this book, seems anxious that the Orthodox should not be left out of this crusading drive against Islam, which is very much the fruit of such extremes of perception on the part of the West.
The chapters by Fr. Alexander are not a little confused. He seems to accept the virtual pacifism of the Church before Constantine, and seems uneasily aware that the Byzantine attitude to war was ambivalent; he speaks of a “penitential gloom” in Orthodox attitudes to war, but it is this that he seeks to dispel. His argument advances along several lines. First, he draws attention to the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament. He is certainly right to warn against the potential Marcionism of opposing a God of love in the New Testament to a God of armies in the Old, but in his resolution he seems to obscure the prevailing impression left by the Lord’s teaching.
The canonical tradition poses a fairly daunting challenge. As he admits, there is virtually no exception to the canonical requirement of penance for any Christian soldier who killed in war before the eleventh century, and it is only thereafter in the West that this requirement comes to be forgotten. He might have mentioned, but does not, how the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas – disturbed that Muslim warriors went into war with the promise of eternal bliss if they fell in battle, whereas Christian warriors had no such promise, but rather faced penance if they killed – pleaded with the patriarch and the bishops to change this canonical regulation, but in vain. Instead, Fr. Alexander tries to suggest that the canon of St. Basil requiring three years’ penance (that is, three years’ exclusion from communion) is in some way ambivalent.
Another argument draws attention to the Byzantine military martyrs: but what is striking about these martyrs is that none of them died in battle, indeed in many cases their military careers are largely, or entirely, posthumous (e.g., the historical Procopios or Demetrios). These are not glorified combatant soldiers, but rather notable participants in the struggle against evil, and defenders of Christian cities and peoples.
Fr. Alexander draws attention to prayers for the armed forces in the Divine Liturgy; true, he mentions the threefold petition for peace at the beginning of the Great Ekteny, but not the fivefold petition for peace in what the Greeks call the Eirenika. It is clear on which side the weight falls. A good deal is made of the services for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Here we touch on something that needs to be brought out into the open. There is no question that, in the wake of the conversion of Constantine, the Church, both in the East and the West, lent not only its prayers for the peace and prosperity of the Empire, but also its blessing (within the limits noted above) to armed defense of the Empire.
But is this part of the Church’s tradition, or a betrayal of it? The way in which the cult of the Holy Cross became part of the Imperial cult was dangerously close to idolatry, even if it is reflected in prayers and songs we still use. The way in which these remnants of the Christian imperial cult have come to serve a questionable role in modern Orthodox nation states might be regarded as one of the more dire consequences of “phyletism,” condemned, at least notionally, as a heresy by all Orthodox Christians.
I have concentrated in this review on Fr. Alexander’s contribution, because this is an Orthodox journal (and, indeed, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is singled out for criticism by Fr. Alexander). The rest of the book presents the Western case. There we have a fine presentation of the Western case for a just (or justifiable) war, and an exploration of its history. Some good points are made, notably that the idea of a just war in which the virtue of the warrior is displayed and tested actually provides a means by which justice in war can be maintained. It is still the case, however, that Dr. Cole favors quite a hawkish conception of the “just war”; he is unhappy with the idea of such a war as a “mere” last resort. His position here leaves this reviewer with the impression that for him a just war can actually be a good thing, something that can be pursued with enthusiasm, rather than regret.
Whatever the merits of some of the arguments advanced, this book’s wider purpose is to justify a modern crusade against Islam – even though it recognizes, though to no noticeable effect, that Islamic terrorism is not actually a tautology – and calls on Western civilization to commit itself to such a crusade. This seems to me to leave no ground for questioning the right of the United States, or any other state powerful enough, to set itself up as a world policeman, the consequences of which seem to me profoundly alarming.
For a world power to take upon itself the role of being a world policeman raises Cicero’s question: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos – who will guard the guards themselves? The damage that well-intentioned people can do with the resources of a state (especially one so wealthy and powerfully armed as the US), as opposed what terrorists can do (and I certainly am not defending terrorism, or minimizing the guilt of terrorist action), seems to me immense. Consider Kosovo.
Look even at Iraq, where it more and more looks as if the military action there has destabilized the country and region in ways that are likely to have unfortunate long-lasting consequences. Simply in terms of numbers (which are ultimately irrelevant), the body count from allied action in Iraq exceeds that of the terrorists – and there is also the question, still quite unresolved, as to whether attacking Iraq had any impact on al Qaedi, or even was ever expected to. The metaphor of the policemen makes one think of friendly people keeping the peace. But the reality depends on who you are.
Here in England there is growing consciousness of the dangers of “institutionalized racism”: the policeman is not perceived as friendly – and often isn’t – if you are a black and living in South or East London. I know about this from teaching in South London for ten years. Similarly in Iraq: for a great many people there, the American “policemen” are not welcome, and thus are finding it more and more difficult to fulfill a police role. The atrocities in the Shia holy cities, almost certainly the work of Sunnis, are blamed by the Shiites on the Americans.
But are such factors irrelevant to the book, The Virtue of War? They would be (or only tangentially relevant) if the book confined itself to a discussion of the question of war and the Christian conscience, but it doesn’t. The first chapter – drawing on a one-sided use of Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis – is, as I said above, a clarion call for Christians to support the American attack on militant Islam, supported by arguments that Islam as a whole is potentially militant.
It is interesting to see what Christos Yannaras makes of the Huntingdon thesis, which sees Orthodoxy as a separate civilization from the West, something Yannaras welcomes with undue enthusiasm, though I think he is right in saying that Orthodoxy has at least as much in common with Islam as with the West. This might lead one to the conclusion, which Yannaras does not seem to draw, that we Orthodox are in an unusual position to mediate in what could become a fatal fault-line for the history of the 21st century.
Fr. Andrew Louth is an Orthodox priest of the Diocese of Sourozh in Great Britain and Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, UK.
A related text:
Here is a response by Jim Forest to an essay (published in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 2003) by Fr Alexander Webster in which he argued that war should be recognized as a “lesser good” rather than a “lesser evil.”
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St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly vol 47 / 1 (2003) pp 65-67
War a “Lesser Good”?
by Jim Forest
In Fr Alexander Webster’s argument that the Orthodox Church should regard war as “a lesser good” rather than “a lesser evil,” it is striking how meager is his attention to the New Testament. Does he really imagine Jesus sanctioning war and obliging his followers to take part in it? The Savior became incarnate in a country enduring the humiliation of military occupation, yet failed to side in word or action with the Zealot opposition. There is no Gospel account of him sanctioning anyone’s death. In the one instance we know of when an issue of capital punishment was brought before him, he succeeded in saving the life of a woman who might otherwise have been stoned to death. When the apostle Peter used a sword in an attempt to defend Jesus from arrest, the injury Peter caused was healed by Christ—his final healing miracle before crucifixion. Jesus responded to Peter with words Fr Alexander has omitted from his essay: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus’ only act of violence in the New Testament narrative was to use a whip—not a life-endangering weapon—to cleanse the Temple. The only sword he wields is the sword of the truth. Again and again he insists on forgiveness. In the Beatitudes he blesses the merciful and refers to peacemakers as children of God. Following the way of the Cross, Christ gives the example of nonresistance. Quite literally he gives himself for the life of the world.
In the first three centuries Christians were notable for their refusal to kill, a situation that was problematic for converts in the military or in certain governmental positions. Catechetical texts coming down to us from the early Church put a special stress on the obligation not to kill either in war or through abortion. Substantial penances were established for those who broke this discipline. Even after Constantine’s conversion and the end of anti-Christian persecution, it remained obligatory for priests, deacons and iconographers not to kill anyone, not even in self-defense. These canons survive unchanged into our own day.
However convinced Fr Alexander may be that certain wars may be regarded as justifiable or even good, he would be forbidden by Church law to serve at the altar if he were to kill in such a “good” war—a prohibition one would assume should also prevent a priest from encouraging or blessing others to kill. Fr Alexander seems oblivious to the values that stand behind this prohibition. Does the Church forbid its priests doing what it regards (according to Fr Alexander) as “a lesser good”? What do these canons reveal about eucharistic life?
Canons do not, however, always solve the problem of what to do in the crucible of life. Many Christians faced with evil forces, such as St Alexander Nevsky, have found no nonviolent option in responding to attack but armed resistance—though later in life, struggling to avoid calamitous defeat, the same prince lost the respect of many fellow Russians for prudent compromises he struck with the Golden Horde.
Since the age of Constantine, time and again faithful Christians of every rank have found themselves drawn into war. Soldiers and their weapons have been blessed by pastors and bishops. We must recall, however, that often the wars on which blessings have been showered were not events which can be regarded as bringing any moral credit on those who fought in them, however heroic and patriotic the soldiers may have been: wars for the expansion of empire, wars of national hubris, wars of manifest destiny, wars of ethic cleansing, wars to gain valuable resources.
Consider what might be regarded as the very best of recent wars: World War II. Here there was an aggressive enemy driven by totalitarian and racist ideology willing to kill not only opposing soldiers but large categories of noncombatants. Many people could find no way to respond to the war imposed on them but to fight back with whatever weapons they had. At last the Allied counter-attack resulted in city bombing, fire storms and finally the use of nuclear weapons. There were hundreds of thousands of noncombatant deaths which, in today’s “Newspeak,” would be regarded as “collateral damage.” Many of those who fought against Hitler and his allies, though possessing medals for heroism on the battlefield, have had to live with nightmarish memories of the killing of noncombatants and other terrible memories of what occurs in the actuality of war. They may well regard the war in its overall objectives as justifiable and unavoidable, but certainly not good. Indeed, one cannot even speak of the killing of the guilty as good deeds.
For all his interest in what in the Roman Catholic Church has come to be known as the Just War Theory or Doctrine, Fr Alexander seems to take little interest in one of the key elements of that doctrine: the protection of noncombatants. In the reality of modern war, it is the noncombatant who is the typical casualty. In the age of St Alexander Nevsky soldiers fought soldiers, but in our world when bullets fly and bombs fall, it is the most defenseless members of society who are the most likely to die or be maimed. Can anyone, least of all a follower of the Gospel, speak of events which claim the lives of so many innocents—mainly women, children and the aged—as “a lesser good”?
Were states to call on Orthodox Christians to take part in the destruction of churches or the wholesale burning of icons, there would be organized resistance by the faithful with the hierarchy speaking out boldly. But when it is the destruction of human beings, bearers of the image of God, what is most striking is the cooperation of the faithful in it and the near silence of their shepherds. True, one does occasionally discover theologians who raise questions about war. One of them, Fr Stanley Harakas, is briefly if dismissively referred to in the Webster essay. But one rarely meets an Orthodox Christian who has heard about such debate regarding these questions. The questions are raised in academic journals and forums and, sadly, there they tend to remain.
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