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The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: An Introduction, IC70

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: A Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection (Easter verses, Orthodox Liturgy).

FraAngelicoSword-1005x1024 the OPF
“The Capture of Christ,” by Fra. Angelico, c. 1440

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God is an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to practice the Christian peacemaking vocation in every area of life, to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict at every level of human relationship, and to promote prayer and worship, acts of mercy and service, and love for all human beings and for all of creation. We are not a political association and support no political parties, agendas, or candidates, and we promote no ideology other than that we should “repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Were we to attempt to formulate an ideology, we could not improve on the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount.

From the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus have sought to live out their Christian faith in its fullness, working to build communities of worship, providing for those lacking the necessities of life, loving not only neighbors but enemies, seeking conversion of adversaries rather than victory over them, and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as normal virtues of sacramental life.

This has never been easy. Each generation has had to confront the problem of evil and combat its structures and also has had to suffer the tension that exists between membership in the Church and citizenship in a political entity, be that an empire or a nation-state.

Often the teachings of Jesus have been dismissed, even by believers, as too idealistic. Yet every generation, even in the era of Hitler and Stalin, has been blessed with heroic witnesses to membership in “an army that sheds no blood,” as Clement of Alexandria described the Church.

Among the principles that guide us:
  • Aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, we seek recovery of a sense of familial connection which, while respecting national identity, transcends every tribal, ethnic, and national boundary. This is the oneness the Church mirrors when it is gathered before the Holy Table.
  • We use our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, as we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the child in the womb to the aged awaiting death, in every circumstance of life and across all boundaries.
  • We aspire to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, and we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation, and other forms of nonviolent action.
  • We pray that, while no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.
  • We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We believe conscientious objection to participation in war is consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition.
  • We respect those who disagree with us and may choose to serve in their country’s armed forces. We do not promote the naive notion that a nation may be pacifist as a national defense strategy and acknowledge that in our fallen world people often feel compelled to choose collective violence in response to evil. Nevertheless, we find no basis for a Just War theology in Orthodox tradition and, consistent with the earliest teaching of the Church, consider all war sin. Rather than seek to justify war, we are encouraged to exhaust all efforts to seek peace. We believe more wars would be prevented by focusing on doing peace well before war rather than waiting for war to arrive to argue how to do it well.
  • We encourage the compassionate treatment of prisoners and their rehabilitation, with special attention to restitution by wrong-doers to victims of their crimes. We reject the execution of criminals as incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
  • We commit ourselves to pray for all, especially fellow believers, who suffer around the world from all forms of violence, evil, oppression, and injustice that they may be delivered from evil, healed from their wounds, and enabled to find renewed ways to live in peace and safety.
  • We further commit ourselves to prayer for enemies and endeavor to communicate God’s love for them, recognizing our own violence and praying that, through Christ’s saving death on the Cross, we will be reconciled with God and with each other.

Thus we strive to avoid bitterness in dealing with controversy, seeking conversion both of ourselves and our adversary. Aware that we are in need of conversion not only in the way we relate to other people but to the world God has put into our care, we try to change our lives in order to live as priests of God’s world, asking continuously for the Holy Spirit to descend and transfigure the earth. We seek to cooperate with efforts to protect and preserve the environment which do not involve violence, coercive methods of population control, the promotion of particular political agendas, or violations of the sanctity of human life.

Our work includes:

Theological research: Much needs to be done within the Church to better understand ways in which Orthodox Christians should respond to division, conflict, injustice, war, and the relationship of the believer to the state. We encourage research on peace in the Bible, peace in the Liturgy, examples of ways Orthodox people and churches have responded to war from ancient to modern times, and the collection of relevant quotations and stories from the Fathers and the saints. One significant result of this effort is the book, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest and published by Syndesmos, the international association of Orthodox youth. The full text of this reference book is also on the OPF web site.

Publication: Our quarterly journal, In Communion, not only provides its readers with helpful essays and news but serves as a forum for dialogue. The main articles from past issues of In Communion plus many other resources are made available via our web site: OPF members are also invited to take part in the OPF List, a news and discussion forum.

Practical assistance in conflict areas: As one of our members, a priest in the Republic of Georgia, points out: “Activity of the OPF is of particular importance in those Orthodox countries going through war and the horror of national conflict. The OPF can help Orthodox people to practice peace and tolerance and to show that war and national conflict are satanic traps.”

Structure: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has members in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its international secretariat is in The Netherlands. Decisions are made by the OPF secretaries and officers in consultation with each other, with counsel from members and the Fellowship’s Board of Advisors. Our largest branch at present is in North America. There are occasional meetings and conferences in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe. We encourage the formation of local and national chapters.

A description of our vocation:

We are faithful sons and daughters of the Church, not the Church’s rescue committee. Fr. John Meyendorff once said to a member of a schismatic Orthodox group, “We do not save the Church. The Church saves us.” Our modest task is not to invent anything or announce a new theology or reorganize the Church but simply to reopen forgotten or neglected Church teachings regarding day-to-day life in a world in which enmity is always a problem, in which millions suffer from hunger, thirst, and homelessness, and in which war is rarely not occurring somewhere on our small planet.

The Church has preserved the Liturgy down through the centuries. It has preserved the Bible and the Creed. It has preserved the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It has developed and maintained a calendar of sacred time. But it has been somewhat less attentive to calling us to account for the teaching it has preserved. Over the centuries, when state and faith were in conflict, we have more often been obedient citizens than obedient Christians.

We believe in a hierarchy of identities. We are not first people of a certain country, then Orthodox Christians. It is the other way around. We are first Orthodox Christians, then people of a particular state, national, or tribal affiliation. We renounce none of these identities nor do we ignore any of their obligations, but when the requirements of one identity clash with another, we are required to know which comes first.

We try to remind ourselves and our neighbors that there is no such thing as a good or holy war––that it defames God and the Gospel to use adjectives associated with sanctity and heaven in that most hellish of all activities, the organized killing of human beings and the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends. Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, but not by cowardly avoidance or failure to recognize evil for what it is and to resist it. Chamberlain was not a peacemaker. Those who fail to see and resist evil are its accomplices. Yet we believe that prayer and fasting are also weapons of struggle, that there is such a thing as spiritual combat, and that what we seek is not the killing of evil people—such a task would require a holocaust that would destroy the human race—but their conversion, which is also our conversion, for the line dividing good from evil runs not between people or classes but, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, right through each and every human heart.

We are people attempting, with God’s help, to love our enemies as Christ commands his followers to do. This is not a sentimental undertaking but a soul-saving quest to be liberated from enmity. In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor put it in these words: “‘But I say to you,’ the Lord says, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.’ Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.”

Our concern about the sanctity of human life is not limited to war. We seek to protect the lives of the unborn—not by denouncing women who feel they have no other choice, but to help them bring their children safely into this world and to do whatever is in our power to make the world more welcoming. With the same motives, we do not regard euthanasia as an acceptable solution for those whose illnesses seem to be incurable or who are severely handicapped. We do whatever we can in support of hospices for the dying, including effective pain relief for those who are suffering. At the same time we oppose taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when in the natural order a person is beyond hope of recovery.

Our view of peace is not borrowed from secular ideologies or political movements. It is not based on the life of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or any of the heroes of nonviolence, even though we greatly admire such people and learn from them. It comes from the Gospel. We understand peace both through the words of Jesus and through his actions. We experience peace in the Liturgy and the eucharistic mystery and try to bring it with us when we return to ordinary life. Day by day we discover peace as the mystery of healing—within ourselves and between each other—the healing that comes from forgiveness, repentance, and love.

Peacemaking is not an idea or principle. It is how we live. It is Christ’s life in us. It is less a refusal to do terrible things to others than doing those things which communicate the love and mercy of God.

We have heard it many times, but let us never stop remembering what Jesus teaches us about the Last Judgement: What we do to the least person we do to him. May God preserve us from harming the least person. May God give us the love which empowers us to be merciful to the least person.

Peacemakers are not rare. We find them everywhere: the parent sorting out a dispute within his or her family, the parish council member finding a solution to a conflict that might tear a parish to shreds, the priest hearing confessions who helps a penitent experience God’s mercy, the missionary who helps awaken faith in another and points the way to baptism, the volunteer who lives a life of hospitality in a neighborhood others avoid, the driver who responds to dangerous actions on the highway with a prayer rather than a gesture of hatred. We could spend the rest of our lives noting acts of peacemaking.

Our fellowship exists to give witness that peacemaking is something absolutely ordinary. It is an integral part of everyday life. It has to do with how we pray, for whom we pray, how we listen, how we speak, what we do with our anger and frustration, our willingness to forgive, and our attempts to serve as a bridge between those who hate each other.

May God give us strength to persevere in being instruments of the divine mercy.

Must I be a pacifist to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship?

No. Pacifism is not a Christian ideology. The term was coined in the late 19th century as a political philosophy and has since been used to describe a wide variety of philosophical and political attitudes toward various forms of violence at different levels of relationship from personal to international. The Gospel of Jesus Christ predates and excludes all political ideologies even while many are influenced by Christian teaching. Pacifism as is generally understood is a Western idea formed in a Christian civilizational milieu and often bears marks of Christian virtue but does not capture or fully reflect the ethos of the Gospel peacemaking vocation. But in its most simple definition, “the belief that all conflict should be resolved peacefully,” pacifism is a great idea! The OPF does not reject the idea but does not endorse pacifism in any form. Some OPF members are pacifists; some are not. Instead, we simply look to Christ and our Orthodox faith and tradition for guidance in becoming fully Christian peacemakers.

The aspiration to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution is something all sane people have in common, yet few would say that they would never use violent methods to protect the innocent. All we can do is attempt to find ways of responding to injustice that are consistent with the Gospel. Clearly nonviolent methods are to be preferred to violent.

Peacemaking is not something optional for Christians. A major element of Christ’s teaching is his call to become peacemakers. They are among the blessed and are witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To be a peacemaker, Christ says, is to be a child of God. In the years of Christ’s life described in the Gospel, one of the most notable aspects is that he killed no one but healed many. He is not a warrior king. Caesar rides a horse while Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Even when he clears the Temple of people who have made a place of worship into a place of commerce, he does so using nothing more than a whip of cords, not a weapon that can cause injuries; the only life endangered by his action was his own. His final instruction to Peter before his crucifixion is, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Saying that, he healed the wound Peter had inflicted on one of the men arresting him.

In the chapters prior to the story of Jesus and his disciples in the garden, Matthew records Jesus describing in several narratives what life on earth would be like, what the Kingdom of God is like, about the end and his return, and the final judgement. Then after the Last Supper came the Garden, where Peter, thinking he had finally put all the pieces together, drew his sword. After telling him to put it away, Jesus said a remarkable thing that is frequently left out in telling this story but when taken in full context, frames Jesus words about living and dying by the sword. Jesus asked Peter “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

When we consider the choice Jesus faced in the garden, we see it was not either swallow hard or chicken out, but was rather a choice between implementing God’s way of salvation or…what would the other choice have been? The alternative had to include slaughtering his enemies! The plan Satan offered Jesus in the desert involved glory, bounty, and bloodshed; surely the world’s template for victory remained an option for Jesus here. Indeed, it seems we too face the legitimate option of violence in dealing with our enemies. Jesus seems to have said not that we have no right to choose, but rather “How will scripture be fulfilled if you do it your way?”

And then, on the cross, far from calling down his Father’s vengeance on those who participated in his execution, Jesus appeals for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Again and again, throughout his earthly life Christ gives his followers a witness of making peace and restoring communion through forgiveness, love, mercy, and sacrifice.

There is quite a lot on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site that helps clarify what Christian peacemaking involves and its implications in one’s own life. Visit us at for resources that include past essays from the journal, membership options, and new postings.

Becoming a member:

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship links Orthodox Christians from different traditions and is not under the sponsorship of any jurisdiction. Membership is open to those who embrace the principles of the OPF and that the OPF is rooted in the Orthodox Church and Tradition. Those who wish to receive our journal but not to become members may specify so when they pay the annual donation amount. The annual donation for members and donors is $35, 35 euros, or 25 pounds sterling. Anyone may donate to receive In Communion.

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas: When Ideology and Theology Meet

by Fr. John Garvey

10 icon-of-christs-temptation-in-the-desert

When I was involved in draft counseling during the war in Vietnam, I had a liberal friend who knew I was anti-war and was also opposed to the death penalty. She was shocked when I said I was also opposed to abortion. When I told her I thought I was being pretty consistent, she didn’t get it. As she saw it, I was violating a kind of liberal package deal.

A couple of years later I met a man who was not at all liberal. He was very much in favor of both the death penalty and abortion rights, and saw no inconsistency. I found myself sadly agreeing with him: he was consistent.

What made him consistent was a total absence of any sense of the sacred. He didn’t think of life at any point as sacred. He wasn’t liberal in any sense of the word. He had a kind of heartless sense of the convenient: get rid of murderers and other unwanted criminals and also get rid of unwanted unborn children––anything or anyone who might interrupt his life was fair game.

My liberal friend was a more complicated case. She did have a half-baked sense of the sacred, of some value that should attach to a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth to or kill the life in her womb, and she knew that innocent people might be mistakenly con-victed, and that even guilty people should not be killed.

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punish-ment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases—one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious––there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely inno-cent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb––whether I want it to be born or not––does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; it makes my attitude toward a life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.  IC

For the Peace From Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism

51gV5M+Pk4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_For the Peace From Above:
An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism

edited by Fr. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest

The online version of the book is made from the first edition, published in Poland by Syndesmos in 1999. A much-expanded second edition (see below) has now been published by the Orthodox Research Institute.

Click here to view the table of Contents

The contents of the online first edition of the Resource Book may be reproduced freely, with reference to the source: For the Peace From Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism (1999 edition: Orthodox Peace Fellowship/Syndesmos Books).

* * *

Regarding the new edition:

The Orthodox Research Institute
ISBN: 978-1-933275-56-7
$24.95 plus hipping and handling (USD)

For the Peace from Above is a unique resource tool offering a wealth of information:

  • reference texts from Scripture, Church canons, the Fathers, liturgical texts and contemporary authors
  • official Orthodox Church statements on racism, nationalism and on specific wars
  • essays by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemeos, Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Bishop Irenaeus of Backa, Olivier Clément, Fr. Sergi Tchetverikoff, and many other authors
  • clear and challenging definitions from dictionaries, Fathers of the Church and contemporary authors
  • study tools for workshops and group activities

Table of contents:

Introduction — iii
Chapter One: Defining Terms — 1
Chapter Two: Reference Texts from Holy Scripture — 15
Chapter Three: Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts — 43
Case Study 1: The Definition of Religious Nationalism (Ethno-Phyletism) — 69
Case Study 2: The 1986 Chambésy statement — 73
Case Study 3: Church, Nation and State — 88
Chapter Four: Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period 99
Case Study 4: Acts of the Martyrdom of Early Christian Soldiers — 147
Case Study 5: Christian Soldiers in the Roman Army before Constantine — 152
Chapter Five: War, Peace and Nationalism — 155
Case Study 6: Prayer for Peace in the Liturgy — 177
Case Study 7: Commemoration of Warrior Saints — 179
Chapter Six: Reference Texts from Modern Authors — 199
Study 8: Orthodoxy, Culture and Nationalism — 233
Case Study 9: The Serbian Church and Milosevic — 238
Chapter Seven: Various Recent Official Statements — 243
Case Study 10: Orthodox Americans, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and Iraq — 287
Chapter Eight: Essays and Texts — 303
Chapter Nine: Study and Action Guide — 451

The book’s authors or persons quoted at length include:

Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Nicholas Berdyaev
Fr. Hildo Bos
Fr. Sergi Bulgakov
Bishop Irenaeus Bulovic of Backa, Serbia
Olivier Clément
John H. Erickson
Jim Forest
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon
Fr. Lev Gillet
Fr. Stanley S. Harakas
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Fr. Thomas Hopko
Anton Kartashov
Vladimir Lossky
Metropolitan Maximus of Sardes
Fr. John McGuckin
Fr. John Meyendor
A. Schmemann
St. Maria Skobtsova
Louis J. Swift
Gregory Trubetzkoy
V. Rev. Dr. Georges Tsetsis
Charles C. West

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To order from the publisher, Orthodox Research Institute:

St Nicholas Halts an Execution

St Nicholas stopping an execution

Saint Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, but few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is the patron of prisoners, seafarers and orphans.

Born in Asia Minor about 280, he was the only child of wealthy parents who arranged for their son to receive a Christian education from his uncle, the bishop of Patara. Taking literally the words of the Gospel, when his parents died, he distributed their property to the poor, keeping nothing for himself. Though drawn to monastic life, he felt led by God’s will to serve as a priest in the world. After his ordination, he was chosen as archbishop of Myra. During the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured.

Over the centuries, Nicholas’s life was embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 where, according to legend, he was so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he struck him on the face. For his violent act, he was briefly excluded from the Council.

Tireless in his care of people in trouble or need, he was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. At times, it is said, his face shone like the sun.

He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra’s cathedral. In the eleventh century, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, where they remain.

— Jim Forest

The icon detail is a panel from the border of a large St Nicholas icon, probably painted in Moscow, dated early 16th century, now in the collection of The Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Ilya Repins’ painting of this event:

Bishop Demetrios Attends Signing of Death Penalty Abolition Bill in Illinois

by Maria A. Karamitsos


Posted on 11 March 2011
On March 9, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation to end the death penalty in Illinois. In attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, and spiritual advisor to the last prisoner executed in the state. Bishop Demetrios praised the decision of the Governor to sign the bill and commute the remaining sentences of 15 death-row inmates as a victory for all Illinois citizens and a major moral accomplishment.

“This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment,” His Grace said in a statement.

Bishop Demetrios is a staunch advocate for abolition of the death penalty, and has worked tirelessly in this effort. He was spiritual advisor to Andrew Kokaraleis, the last prisoner executed in1999. Following Kokaraleis’ execution, Bishop Demetrios became more active in the movement to end the death penalty. He has served as President of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and is still a member.

Following Kokaraleis’ execution, and well-publicized exonerations of death-row prisoners, Governor Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted many sentences. The moratorium continued under Gov. Blagojevich. Bishop Demetrios has remained active in the effort to make the moratorium permanent. Now that effort moves forward.
The bishop praised Gov. Quinn. “On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy.Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of 16 states that have abolished the death penalty, so there is much work yet to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world.”  He noted that the Metropolis of Chicago spans six Midwestern states, and he pledged to continue working for abolition, specifically in Indiana and Missouri, “so that along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, every state where we have parishes will be death-penalty free.”


Regarding the Church's opposition to capital punishment

by Fr. Ted Bobosh

Any pastor living in a country in which executions are still carried out is likely to be asked why the Orthodox Church throughout the world has for so many centuries opposed, and still opposes, the death penalty. It is all the more confusing to many Christians because the death penalty is sanctioned in the Old Testament. Let me try to explain, even though I am well aware that such a brief reflection cannot provide a final word.

The scriptures that sanction the death penalty are part of the 613 laws of the Jewish Torah. The keeping of these laws was understood by the Jews to be the only way to be righteous in the eyes of God. For Christians, on the other hand, righteousness is no longer attained through the keeping of the Torah. As we see in such passages as Acts 15:28-29, the keeping of the Torah is not regarded as possible or even desirable.

Jesus Himself, most of the Apostles, and nearly all the early martyrs were themselves victimized by laws allowing capital punishment.

The Christian understanding of capital punishment cannot be reduced to quoting a few Bible passages. It is rather seeing the issue in the context of the overall message and witness of Christ, who came to destroy death, the final enemy of humanity. It is this Paschal dimension of Christianity that causes Christians to proclaim the sanctity of human life. Christ died on the cross to save sinners, not to condemn or punish them. In destroying death, Christ doesn’t transform death into a useful tool for overpowering the nations of the world.

St. Paul portrayed the Christian struggle as the defeat of spiritual powers and principalities and specifically rejected the idea that our warfare was with flesh and blood. Christians are not meant to conquer the world with armed forces, like a jihad, but rather to engage in spiritual warfare for the hearts and minds of all people. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Also, we should bear in mind St. Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Satan claimed the political world was his dominion, a claim Jesus doesn’t deny.

Apart from the Gospel message and the Paschal experience, it is not surprising that capital punishment was not viewed in a positive light in the early Church for it allowed the punishment of both righteous people and those, even if not righteous, who might still find their way to conversion.

The relationship of Christians to the death penalty has a long history. For the first 325 years of Christianity, Christians were a persecuted minority with no share in government power. Christians saw many practices of the Empire as the very opposite of what was expected of those who had, through baptism, become citizens of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom “not of this world” in which there was no capital punishment or an army sanctioned to kill anyone, not even Christ’s enemies.

Early Christians saw military service as incompatible with the life and teaching of the Crucified Christ. Likewise, from the Roman point of view, Jews and Christians were forbidden from being in the army since neither Jew nor Christian would recognize the emperor’s divinity, nor would they honor the gods of the Roman pantheon. Both the Roman Government and the Christians were in agreement that Christians could not participate in the military or in executions. Inevitably a problem arose for those like St. Martin of Tours who found their way to baptism while in the army. Martin explained to the emperor, “I am a soldier of Christ. To kill is not permissible for me.” Remarkably, in his case he was given a special discharge and went on to become one of the great bishops of the fourth century. But not all soldier converts were given a discharge – some died as martyrs.

Once emperors began to accept Christianity, a serious tension was created between the apostolic values of Christianity, which forbade killing, and the demands of the state, which sanctioned killing. In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians could not be in the army nor be gladiators, could not authorize or carry out executions, nor were they permitted to commit murder in any form even in self defense.

What happened for numerous emperors and public officials who knew they might have to kill or order an execution as a consequence of their office was the postponement of baptism until they retired from office or were on their deathbeds (as was the case with Constantine) so that through baptism they would be forgiven for any killing they had done in the past and, now so close to death, would never have any role in killing once they became a Christian.

One can see in the New Testament the struggle of Christians with government authority. St. Paul writes:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:1-4)

St. Paul assumes that government is necessary for civilization to exist and so Christians should have a proper respect for such a God-authorized institution, including the government’s authority to punish wrongdoers. His statement is exceptional, because Jews in general did not defend Roman authority in their lives. But, as many have noted, Paul oversimplified his case. He does not take into account government persecution of Christians (he may have written his letter before persecution of Christians had begun) or the possibility of an evil government punishing good citizens. Note, however, that for St. Paul government authority is limited – it is not supreme or divine in itself; the emperor is not divine, just God’s servant – but receives its power from a higher authority, the one God, to whom it must answer. He is in fact making a case for the Lordship of God over government, even over a pagan government or an emperor who was considered a deity.

One need only look at the Book of Revelations, written when persecution was in full swing, to see a Christian view in which the government, far from being blessed by God, is identified with Satan and all that is evil. Since most ancient governments were totalitarian, by the time Revelations was written early Christians no doubt assumed they would always be dealing with such a grim reality – as indeed they have, time and again, down through the centuries right to our own day. One could hope for a benevolent and just government, but even if the government opposed all righteousness, Christians would have to live with that. After all, their real citizenship was not in a kingdom of this world. The martyrs gave the most powerful witness of being citizens only of the kingdom of heaven – a witness many Christians are still giving even in the present day. It is no surprise that Christians living in situations of oppression view capital punishment as a tool of oppression that has the approval of the devil himself.

After Constantine’s conversion came the time of government officials and emperors who had been either raised in Christian families or been baptized as adults. Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Virtually all public officials were Christians. At the beginning of the fourth century, it was forbidden both by Christians and by the Roman government for Christians to be in the military, but by the end of that century, the Roman government required everyone in the army to be Christian. The Church faced the reality that its members would be killing others or authorizing killing. In the centuries which followed, a reality emerged which Christians of earlier generations could never have imagined: an all-Christian army.

Christians struggled with this new reality. Many found it intolerable. To a large extent, the monastic movement was a reaction against imperial Christianity. Not only monks but many others felt that the values of the Kingdom of God were incompatible with the values of the Roman Empire. One of the attractions of flight to the desert was that, in desolate places, one was out of reach of imperial interference.

Despite the monastic protest, the embrace of the Church by the Empire was completed. Many Christians now found themselves in positions where they had to participate, directly or indirectly, in killing others, or face severe punishment.

St. John Chrysostom remarked, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.” Like many others, he was troubled by the Church and state becoming identical. It is hardly surprising that he suffered so much at the hands of the state.

St. Basil the Great lamented the situation by declaring that Christians could serve in the army if called by the state to do so, but then afterward they had to serve a three-year penitential excommunication for having participated in such activity – even if they had not actually killed anyone. No matter what their role, they had been part of activity that led to others being killed and thus had to repent. St. Basil saw the continuing need for the military as a terrible consequence of the failure of Christians to convert the world.

The Byzantines believed that somehow as Christians they were to create an empire “on earth as it is in heaven.” Their earthly empire was to conform to their notions of heaven – including love, forgiveness and mercy. But this ideal proved impossible to realize, especially since they found themselves so often threatened by invading armies – Persian, Arab, Rus, Bulgar, Turk, and Latin armies. Short of surrender, the Byzantines found it all but impossible to uphold purely Christian practices in dealing with their enemies.

Christians, no matter what their rank. St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, when he accepted Christianity and was baptized, abolished the death penalty in his kingdom, on the grounds that it was incompatible with Christian faith. He did not want to be responsible before God for deaths that were committed in his name or by his decree. Two of his sons, Boris and Gleb, the first saints to be canonized by the Church in Russia, preferred to accept death rather than defend themselves against their murderous and ambitious brother, Sviatopolk.

Even once the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, there was a real struggle with the Christian message and Christian ideal about life and how it relates to such things as capital punishment. The Canons of the Church command bishops, as part of their normal duties, to go to the courts and plead for mercy for prisoners and the condemned. Church buildings throughout the empire became sanctuaries, where persecuted and condemned people could take refuge. In this same tradition, all the Orthodox Patriarchs and self-governing Churches still condemn the death penalty as an excessive power abuse by human governments.

This does not change the reality that we live in a fallen world, in which not only individual people do evil, but evil is a force to be reckoned with by both Church and governments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from murderous people within the society. Armies and wars are part of this fallen world, and, though undesirable, can in some cases be seen as a “lesser of two evils” or an “evil necessity,” but an evil nonetheless.

Jesus said there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends. Strangely, many Christians have come to understand these words as a justification of warfare, though the statement only blesses dying on behalf of others, not killing to protect them.

Since the basic message of Christianity is forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, and the defeat of death itself, Christians have had a fairly consistent belief in the sanctity of human life and have struggled with the use of capital punishment and armies to deal with the evil present in the world. Christ did not teach his disciples to kill anyone, nor did he advocate warfare or killing as a means to spread His faith, nor indeed did he bless any of his followers to kill. He even gave the example of rescuing from death a woman who was awaiting her execution by stoning. The early Christians conquered the Roman Empire without having any army or police on their side and without killing anyone.

Sadly, it is true that once the Christians came into power within the Roman Empire, some of them were not shy to use and rely on the police to enforce their teachings and to persecute nonconformists, heretics and non-Christians. Constantine placed the police at the disposal of Christian leaders, and Constantine demanded the Christians to conform to a uniformity of belief and practice which they had never had before his embrace of Christianity. Constantine used his powers exactly as he had as a pagan – there was no change in his totalitarian methods even after he granted toleration to Christianity. He even had his own son killed, when he believed his son had become a threat to his reign.

Perhaps because the Christians were not prepared to be regarded so favorably by the government, or because they didn’t take time to envision what a Christianized government would look like, many uncritically accepted the old ways of government as the inevitable ways of government and the only possible way of governing.

The partnership of Church and State ended up with a large scale acceptance by Christians of government practices that were in most respects unchanged from pre-Christian times, though over time efforts were made by the emperors to modify some old practices – crucifixion as a form of capital punishment was abolished and gladiator fights and chariot races abolished.

Let me make a personal confession: I was present when, a number of years ago, the All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America took up the issue of the death penalty. Ours was at the time perhaps the only Orthodox body in the world which had not spoken out against capital punishment. A vote taken of the delegates solidly favored opposing the death penalty. I regret to say I was in the minority which voted against that resolution. My opposition stemmed from the fact that I could imagine people who would only see our mercy as weakness and who would move to destroy us when they could and who would show no mercy to us and would be quite willing to kill us since we hadn’t killed them. I could even imagine filling our prisons with such people and then not being able to control these prison populations. However, since that time I have been converted to the view of the early Church. I believe the execution of prisoners, even of murderers, is incompatible with the Gospel. This change occurred in me even as I watch al-Qaeda in action, well aware that those who embrace that movement would kill me in a second, both because I am a Christian and an American. But I do not want to become like them, embracing their values and methods. I want to be more Christ-like. I am a disciple of the Crucified Christ. God is the giver of life while evil is the destroyer of life. Human life is sacred and sanctified, even though any human being can become distorted by evil.

One Byzantine emperor boasted that his Christ-loving army could destroy evil. It never happened. Neither evil nor the evil one can be defeated by war or the death penalty. I have come to accept that the battle with evil will continue on earth until Christ comes in His Kingdom and the final enemy, death, has its final defeat. Meanwhile I will sing, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.”

Fr. Ted Bobosh is the pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio. His most recent book, Questioning God: a Look at Genesis 1-3, is published by Light & Life.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Orthodoxy and Capital Punishment

St.Nicholas stopping executions
St.Nicholas stopping executions

Capital Punishment: Points to Consider by Jim Forest

Blessed are the Meek: Capital Punishment and the Gospel by Fr. Thomas Mueller

St Nicholas Halts an Execution by Jim Forest

Regarding the Church’s opposition to capital punishment by Fr. Ted Bobosh

A bishop’s opposition to capital punishment by Bishop Seraphim of Ottawa

The Voice of the Victim by Fr. Jacques-Jude Lepine

Doing Justice, Loving Mercy by Catherine Brockenborough

Assessing the Death Penalty: Let the Punishment Fit the Time by Danny Abbott

Bishop Demetrios Attends Signing of Death Penalty Abolition Bill in Illinois by Maria A. Karamitsos

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Jurisdictional Statements

In “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the death penalty is condemned, in part because it denies the criminal the opportunity for repentance:

The Orthodox Church in America condemned capital punishment without exception at its All American Council held in St. Louis in 1989:

Statements from Church Hierarchs

Patriarch Alexei likens the death penalty to premeditated murder:

Patriarch of Georgia condemns death penalty: , see also

Metropolitan Herman of the Orthodox Church in America issued statement condemning capital punishment, euthanasia and capital punishment in January 2005:

Metropolitan Evangelos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese applauded the State of New Jersey for being the first state to abolish the death penalty since its reinstatement in the 1970s:


Archbishop of Athens Christodoulos condemned capital punishment and calls for its abolition. See

Various Bishops condemn capital punishment

Archbishop of Ottawa and Canada (OCA) condemns capital punishment.

Bishop Demitrios (GOA) condemns capital punishment.,0,7764178.story

Other Orthodox condemnations of capital punishment

Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Prayer Service at St. George Antiochian Church condemns capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. See . In attendance were His Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos from the Greek Metropolis of Chicago, His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae, and His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos.

— this list of links is a work in progress; the page editor is Danny Abbott.

Assessing the Death Penalty: Let the Punishment Fit the Time

By Danny Abbott

Christianity in the United States has had a unique experience compared to the rest of the western world. U.S. church attendance is substantially higher than most other western democracies (noteworthy exceptions include Ireland and Malta). Since World War II, similar democracies with our shared western heritage – the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, France and numerous others – have become increasingly secular. American citizens still self-report in high numbers to be “born-again” Christians. The United States, however, despite its high level of self-identification with Christianity, has nevertheless retained the death penalty in the federal government and majority of states, and shows few signs of abandoning the practice.

Despite increasing secularization, the rest of the western world has in some ways caught up with mainstream Orthodox Christian teaching opposing the death penalty.

In a recent issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Fr. Ted Bobosh recalled that years ago he was present when the Orthodox Church of America voted in favor of a resolution condemning the death penalty. Recently, Metropolitan Evangelos of the New Jersey Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey applauded the state’s abolition of the capital punishment. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Fr. Ted noted that in 988, when Saint Vladimir, prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity, he banned capital punishment. In May 1998, almost a thousand years after the mass baptism of the people of Kiev, the late Patriarch of Russia, Alexei II, spoke out against capital punishment. In an interview in the newspaper “Ochnaya Stavka,” published by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s office, Patriarch Alexei stated that capital punishment is tantamount to premeditated murder and that it violates the biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill.”

Traditionally “Orthodox countries,” with the exception of Belarus, banned the death penalty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia itself has refrained from executing criminals since 1996.

Multiple multilateral conventions adopted since World War II have either banned capital punishment or limited its use to crimes committed during times of war. Major conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, American Convention on Human Rights, and importantly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have all been amended to ban the death penalty. The United States was a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but never ratified the amended versions banning the death penalty. Although the multilateral conventions banning the death penalty were only legally binding in countries in which they were ratified, they did reflect the growing consensus that the death penalty is illegal under international law.

Briefly, from 1972 until 1976, the United States banned the practice of the death penalty. In the seminal case regarding capital punishment in the United States, Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that the practice of the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” essentially because it was carried out in an irrational manner. Justice Byron White stated that there “was no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” The Court also noted that African-Americans were also much more likely to have the death penalty imposed than white defendants. The Supreme Court, however, did not hold that capital punishment was a violation of the Eighth Amendment per se but that the penalty’s application was unconstitutional.

In 1976 the Supreme Court held, in Gregg v. Georgia, that the death penalty was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment and that with proper safeguards the practice could be constitutional. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented that the death penalty is unconstitutional, no matter the circumstances and noted a study by a United Nations Committee that stated it is “generally agreed between the retentionists and abolitionists, whatever their opinion about the validity of comparative studies of deterrence, that the data which now exist show no correlation between the existence of capital punishment and lower rates of crime.”

Thirty-two years later, the available data still does not suggest that the use of the death penalty deters crime, despite deterrence being the justification often used for the practice’s retention. Years of longitudinal data have consistently confirmed that, in American states with the death penalty, the murder rate is in fact significantly higher than in states in which the death penalty has been abolished. The FBI’s study, “Crime in the United States,” noted that in the years between 1996 and 2006, in states retaining the death penalty, the murder rate ranged from a low of 5.7 per 100,000 people in 2000, to a high of 7.72 per 100,000.

During that period the murder rate peaked in abolitionist states at 5.36 per 100,000 in 1996. In terms of percentage, the murder rate ranged from 28% to 46% higher in states that retain the death penalty in the period studied. Deterrence has not been demonstrated but a positive correlation between the application of the death penalty and higher murder rates is consistently shown. This should not be counter-intuitive, given that it is not entirely logical that the public will be taught that the taking of life is wrong via the state sanctioned killing of another human being.

While internationally the practice of the death penalty has increasingly become seen as an ineffective and barbaric form of punishment, the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded has come to be seen as particularly egregious. Worse, the United States has practiced both until very recently and only then was the practice abolished by Supreme Court decisions determined by narrow majorities.

Critics of international laws often argue that it is completely voluntary, unlike other legal disciplines such as contract or property law. However, it is accepted, in virtually every legal system, that some practices and crimes are considered to be so egregious that any court in the world has jurisdiction over them. This applies without regard to where the crime took place (a concept referred to as universal jurisdiction). Such crimes are referred to as jus cogens, and under international law no deviation is ever tolerated. Despite the critics of international law, the concept of jus cogens is recognized and enforced in the federal courts of the United States. Examples of jus cogens include such heinous acts as piracy, torture, genocide, slavery, “crimes against humanity,” sexual slavery and according to almost all international legal experts, the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded.

The concept of jus cogens is taken so seriously in international law that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties renders any agreement in violation of it completely void.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2002 that customary international law had evolved to the point that the execution of juveniles constituted jus cogens. By 1990, the remaining eight countries known to execute juvenile offenders were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo, China, and the United States. Missing from the list were the countries President Bush’s labeled as belonging to the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. By early 2005, all of the aforementioned nations had either outlawed the execution of juveniles or gone on record disavowing the practice, leaving the United States as the international community’s sole offender.

One is left to wonder about the implications of what would have transpired had the United States been in compliance with international law regarding the execution of minors, and had Iraq been in violation prior to the removal of Saddam Hussein. Obviously the United States would have gone to war with Iraq regardless, but had the Hussein regime executed minors in violation of international law and the United States had not, one can easily imagine that apologists for the Iraqi War would use it as one more justification for the initial invasion.

In Thompson v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1988 that the execution of a 15-year-old violated the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless the decision was 5-3 and Justice Scalia argued that executing a 15-year-old did not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court in a subsequent 1989 decision, Stanford v. Kentucky, held that executing 16- and 17-year-olds was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The issue was finally revisited in 2005 by the Court in Roper v. Simmons, when the Court noted that allowing the practice of executing 16- and 17-year-olds would leave the United States essentially alone in the world. Again, however, the vote was 5-4.

The international community had for quite some time expressed particular frustration over execution of the mentally retarded in the United States. In 1989 the U.N. Economic and Social Council recommended that nations take steps to eliminate capital punishment for people “suffering from mental retardation.” The European Parliament passed a resolution in 1995 expressing that the death penalty is “cruel and inhuman” in every instance, but emphasized that the American practice of allowing the execution of the mentally retarded was particularly disturbing.

Finally, in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held (in a 6-3 vote) that the execution of the mentally retarded was unconstitutional. The dissenting judges, Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, complained that the majority had relied on following international trends and foreign laws in reaching its decision. They argued that what is “cruel and unusual punishment” should be determined only by “American conceptions of decency.”

The international community’s opinion of U.S. retention of the death penalty has continually regressed and diminished the standing of the U.S. as a protector of human rights and as a society in which the sanctity of human life is valued.

As early as 1989, the European Court of Human Rights, in Soering v. United Kingdom, forbade the United Kingdom from allowing the extradition of a young German national to the United States when any possibility existed that the defendant would face the death penalty. On the condition that he not be subject to execution, the defendant was eventually extradited to the U.S., where he is now serving two life sentences in a Virginia prison.

The decision was extremely important because it set precedent for what would become customary international law on the manner in which countries banning the death penalty treat extraditions when there is the possibility that a defendant will be extradited to the United States for a crime carrying the possibility of the death penalty.

In a very similar decision in 2001, United States v. Burns, the Canadian Supreme Court held it was a violation of Canada’s Constitution and of international law to allow the extradition of a criminal defendant to the United States where the possibility of capital punishment exists. Interestingly, in the body of the decision the Court noted that Amnesty International had made the argument that among nations banning the death penalty, Canada was the only country at that time that allowed the extradition of defendants where the possibility of the death penalty existed. The Canadian Supreme Court, while not conceding or affirming Amnesty International’s point, it did not challenge or offer evidence to the contrary. The Canadian Supreme Court cited a resolution of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights regarding extradition: “States that have received a request for extradition on a capital charge to reserve explicitly the right to refuse extradition in the absence of effective assurances from relevant authorities of the requesting State that capital punishment will not be carried out.” The decision made the international legal standard concerning the illegality of extraditing defendants to the United States where the death penalty can be sought part of Canadian domestic law.

In 1992, Paul Efthemios Tsongas, a Greek Orthodox contender for the U.S. Presidency, stated during a debate that he would prefer that the murderer of his wife, should such an event occur, be rehabilitated rather than to receive the death penalty. This was viewed by most as a blunder. Some have argued this statement prevented him from being elected president. However, what people considered laughable was entirely consistent with Orthodox Christianity. (Former Governor Michael Dukakis, another Orthodox Christian, exhibited a spirit of forgiveness rather than vengeance and exhibited concern for the reform of a sinner.)

Our nation’s love affair with capital punishment is entirely irrational. The United States was at one time the world’s foremost defender of human rights. However, we have retained a practice that has cost us the respect of our allies and that puts us in company of some of the world’s foremost human rights abusers.

Given the correlation between higher murder rates in jurisdictions retaining the death penalty, the U.S. loses more than just respect around the world. We also generate higher loss of human life and produce a public that becomes even more desensitized regarding the sanctity of life.

Orthodox Christians should regard capital punishment as being similar in nature to abortion and euthanasia, and act accordingly. As citizens of a democracy, Americans are able to express their beliefs concerning the death penalty and its inconsistency with Jesus’ teachings to their elected representatives.

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Danny Abbott has a law degree and currently works as an insurance claims analyst and adjudicator

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Saint Marcellus: Military Martyr

[Photo: The relics of St. Marcellus are preserved within the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana.]

In the ancient Roman Empire, many Christians refused to serve in the imperial armies, finding it was in conflict with their baptismal vows and the teaching and example of Jesus.

In The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, written in the second century and attributed to one of the first Bishops of Rome, renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On Professions)

But what about soldiers who were converted to following Christ? One could not simply walk away from the Roman army. To be a soldier was like any other trade: it was not done for a few years but throughout adulthood, until one was too old or infirm to continue. Some were fortunate – their duties did not require the exercise of deadly force. A few – for example, St. Martin of Tours – were able to obtain a special discharge. Some took the path of martyrdom.

St. Marcellus the Centurion, after some years of army service, found he could no longer continue in military obedience. One day in 298, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellus’s unit in northern Africa was celebrating the pagan emperor’s birthday with a party. Suddenly Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such celebrations as heathen. Casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.”

Marcellus was immediately arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, he admitted that he had done that of which he was accused. He declared that it is “not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Found guilty, he was immediately beheaded. According to the ancient testimonies, he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

As part of a protest against military training on campus, last year a play about

St. Marcellus was performed at Notre Dame by members of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The text, by Tom Hostetler, closely follows the actual trial transcript.

The Passion of Saint Marcellus

Lucius, the narrator, comes out with helmet in hand, standing on the grassy knoll, north of a gazebo. The crowd gathers around.

[Photo: Diocletian, emperor at the time of Marcellus’s martyrdom bust in the Istanbul Archeological Museum]
What is the price of conscience? How far will a Christian go to be obedient to the teachings and example of Jesus? And how long will a faithful witness be remembered? Today we present the drama of St. Marcellus, a centurion in the Roman Battalion, who laid down his sword in order to serve Jesus Christ, and laid down his life in order to be faithful. It is presented briefly, and in the simplest form, from what is known in the historical records, so that you may know of his courage, sacrifice, and conviction. It is a true story, from the year 298 A.D., and one that belongs to all Christians. I invite the crowd to come closer, so that you may hear, and to follow us from place to place as the scene changes. In this drama, I portray the part of Lucius, Marcellus’s friend and fellow soldier. Let us begin.


Lucius: Marcellus, I beg you to take back this sword.

Marcellus: I cannot. You know I cannot.

Lucius: If you go in there and tell them this, they won’t understand. I don’t understand!

Marcellus: Lucius, you’ve been my friend for eight years in the Legion. I thank you for that. Never has there been a more loyal companion in any battalion. We’ve fought together, marched together, been ready to die together every day in service to the Empire. We’ve spilled rivers of blood, and I, just as you, thought of the enemies of Rome as little more than dogs to be slain.

Lucius: But they are enemies. Even if you are now a Christian, you can’t tell me that you love them now.

Marcellus: They are children of God.

Lucius: They’ve killed our friends.

Marcellus: As we’ve killed theirs. And God is willing to forgive.

Lucius: Well, the vice-praetorian prefect is right over there, and he’s not going to be forgiving.

Marcellus [placing a hand on Lucius’s shoulder]: It doesn’t matter. Christ is my commander now, and I will not betray him. You have heard the words of the Master; how he said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Now that I belong to Him, I must turn the other cheek.

Lucius: Marcellus, this will end badly. You will pay with your life.

Marcellus: Perhaps… I pray not… But still, my life is a small thing. Since my Lord has surrendered His life for me, can I now withhold my own? The Lord Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those that can kill the body, but fear the one who owns body and soul.”

Lucius [as guards approach]: They’re coming. Marcellus, take back the sword!

[Marcellus refuses; all salute as guards arrive.]

Guard: Centurion Marcellus, you are ordered to appear before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect.

Marcellus: I am at his command.

[All walk briskly to the court set.]

Herald: Come near to the court of our lords the Augusti and Caesars on this third day before the calends of November, to state business before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect. Let all those who wish justice to be served announce their presence.

Cecilius: My lord, I am the consular official Cecilius, sent by the praeses Fortunatus, with a letter concerning this centurion before you.

Agricolanus: Let it be read out.

Cecilius: Yes my lord. [reads from scroll] “Manilius Fortunatus sends greetings to his lord Agricolanus. On the most happy and blessed anniversary of our lords the Augusti and Caesars, when we were celebrating the festival, this centurion Marcellus, seized by what madness I do not know, wantonly disgirded himself of belt and sword and decided to hurl down the staff which he was carrying before the very headquarters of our lords.

Marcellus stated before me these words: “I tell you today, loudly and in public, before the standards of this legion, that I am a Christian and cannot observe this oath unless to Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God.” I have decided that it was necessary to report what was done to your power, even for him to have been sent to you also. My lord, this man is so presented to you.

Agricolanus: Did you do those things which are recorded in the praeses’s record?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Were you serving as a centurio ordinarius?

Marcellus: I was.

Agricolanus: What madness possessed you to cast aside your oath and say such things?

Marcellus: No madness possesses him who fears God.

Agricolanus: Did you make these separate statements which are recorded in the praeses’s record ?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Did you hurl down your weapons?

Marcellus: I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service. What I have stated before to the praeses Fortunatus, I now state before you. I am a Christian, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ, whom I love more than all the honor and riches of this world. By His law and command, we are forbidden to take another man’s life or even to bear arms. By His example, we are taught to forgive those who harm us, and have mercy upon our enemies. Those who call upon His name are children of peace, with no ill will toward anyone upon earth. Those who are conformed to the image of Christ know of no weapons other than patience, hope and love – and these are only weapons to break the flinty hearts that never have been affected by the heavenly dew of the holy word. We know of no vengeance, however we may be wronged. We do not ask for vengeance, but with Christ we pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Agricolanus: Do you not remember that you took your military oath, in rites over which all the gods presided, when you confessed the Emperor’s deity. Have you forgotten how you received the standards upon which the image of the gods themselves were placed for your protection?

Marcellus: I will no longer sacrifice to gods and emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols. I serve Jesus Christ, the everlasting King! So far am I from seeking to escape suffering for the name of Christ, that I, on the contrary, consider it the highest honor which you can confer upon me.

Agricolanus: Enough! [Standing, addressing the crowd] Marcellus’s actions are such that they must be disciplined. It therefore pleases (the court) that the Christian Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held, by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’s records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword. Let the record so state. Take him away.


Agricolanus [to the guard and Lucius]: You both will carry out the sentence immediately.

[Agricolanus, Herald, and Cecilius exit. The guard takes Marcellus offstage (out of sight) and Lucius begins to go with them, but pauses midstage and turns to the crowd.]

Lucius: Marcellus was martyred for the cause of Christ and Christian conscience on that very day. His heart was steadfast and valiant. He did not fear death; nor was his life taken from him, but was changed into a better one. Among all of those who laid down their lives for the testimony of Christ, Marcellus produced within me a desire to know His Master, and to take his confession upon myself.

I do not know if others will follow this path he has forged, but I am ready now to lay down my own sword, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ.

[Lucius throws down his sword and staff and exits stage.]

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

Love Your Enemies As Yourself

by Jim Forest

But I say to you,

love your enemies

and pray for those who persecute you.

– Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:44)

[LEFT: illustration: Slaughter of the Innocents; Illuminated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France, created ca 1200, National Library of the Netherlands]

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands die.

During the Second World War, entire cities – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – became targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target – children, grandparents, ordinary people, the ill, the handicapped. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or execution. I recall visiting a place of executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truckload every day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits and many similar places of execution.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime – Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist, or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died of the consequences of living in such conditions and being worked like slaves. A vast number were executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but even in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was justified as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania it became a criminal activity to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home or to dye an egg red at Easter. Every church, synagogue and mosque without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in prisons and concentration camps.

One could spend hour upon hour briefly describing, country by country, the many horrors of violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements often develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

There are people who seem to have entirely lost any sense of the sacredness of life, and abuse and murder innocent people, even children – some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish pastime. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed by a sniper as she stood at a bus stop one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics.

Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. No matter where we live, most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened to us or to people we know – not to mention memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

Enmity is a central theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people who lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land enduring military occupation. There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies, it was not a teaching that would have been offered by a naive rabbi living comfortably in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him.

It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, embraces easily. What most of us do when we are abused is look for a way to return the abuse, perhaps in double or triple measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll return it, multiplied. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the Romans. Occupation troops are always resented and despised and become targets of deadly violence.

Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of any of his teachings that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived? In his own life, again and again we see both courage and nonviolence. His most violent action was to use a whip of cords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and repeatedly gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. We even see Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

Indeed, none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was seen as a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was nothing more than a joke.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking – the repairing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a sick servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the man’s home, but the officer said there was no need for that – Jesus’s word was all he needed. Jesus said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? Doing a good deed for a Roman? Then speaking admiringly of a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship.

But how do we go about loving an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without prayer for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them?

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, there is the possibility of repentance and conversion.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided, no matter how damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains us to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when a human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of The Gospel According to Hollywood is that evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their deaths.

The teaching of Christ, however, is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity. It’s like Christ’s conversion of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love. It starts with prayer.

To pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, a thread of connection is created. I have taken that person into myself. To pray for him means that I ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person, or community of people, are changed. We look differently at a those for whom we are praying. We listen differently. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But we struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as our own. In fact, the saints tell us, that the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worry about our own welfare, and the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Some years ago, at a conference on the island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the West. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable – no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources – in what I said, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Chania, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in comments or questions. Responding to a man who called to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested the caller not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George. But when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it turns out it was never for their activities as soldiers, but for other factors. Most were martyrs – people who died for their faith without resistance. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, and in some cases died for their disobedience. St. George dared to confess his faith publicly during a time of imperial persecution. The “dragon” he fought was fear of Caesar.

St. Maria of Paris and her coworkers

Another saint, Martin of Tours, narrowly escaped execution after refusing to take part in battle; he went on to become a great missionary bishop. Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered, but because afterward he lived a life of penance in exile, and in the process converted many to Christ.

It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?

A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians – that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We focus on the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and save lesser sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have St. Maria of Paris and her coworkersmet the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles we face is that it’s much easier to be nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in exerts a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of. If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and welcome the benefits that come from being part of a racist society.

Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” – all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly – without holding anything back, and without compromising with the demands of national identity, money or politics.

One such saint – canonized just three years ago – is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute, and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by the Third Reich. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. Eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp, Ravensbrck, dying on Good Friday, 1945. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who embraced Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism and Hitlerism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced three other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klpinin, her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood, and her good friend Ilya Fondaminskii, a writer, editor and publisher.

At the core of their lives and many courageous actions was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time, but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church is honored with incense during the Liturgy.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” Mother Maria said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she, and those who worked with her, give us an example of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened rather than being driven by fear.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews who were threatened. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer. It includes not only the born but the unborn, the handicapped and the old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but of making clear to others, through our response to them, that all human beings bear God’s image. Thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us. The self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies – the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary; and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all.

Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day to love, then day by day our conversion will continue, which will be a blessing not only for ourselves but for everyone else as well.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This lecture was delivered last October at St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Canada. Jim’s most recent books are The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis) and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47