Category Archives: War

Discussion of Orthodox Perspectives on War

A Letter on War, Saints and the Church

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

Dear Vaseili,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Basil’s Guidance on War and Repentance

By Fr. John McGuckin

St. Basil of Caesarea, also known as St. Basil the Great, was a younger contemporary of Eusebius, and in the following generation of the Church of the late fourth century he emerged as one of the leading theorists of the Christian movement. His letters and instructions on the ascetic life, and his Canons (ethical judgements as from a ruling bishop to his flock) on morality and practical issues became highly influential in the wider church because of his role as one of the major monastic theorists of early Christianity. His canonical epistles were transmitted wherever monasticism went.

Basil_of_Caesarea Because monasticism was the substructure of the spread of the Christian movement, in the Eastern Church of antiquity his canonical views became the standard paradigm of Eastern Christianitys theoretical approach to the morality of war and violence, even though the writings were local and occasional in origin. Basils 92 Canonical Epistles were adapted by various Ecumenical Councils of the Church that followed his time. His writing is appealed to in Canon 1 of the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), in Canon 1 of the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicea (787), and is literally cited in Canon 2 of the 6th Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (681) which paraphrases much else from his canonical epistles.

By such affirmations eventually the entire corpus of the Basilian Epistles entered the Pandects of Canon Law of the Byzantine Eastern Church, and they remain authoritative to this day.

Basil has several things to say about violence and war in his diocese. It was a border territory of the empire, and his administration had known several incursions by barbarian forces. Canon 13 of the 92 considers war:

Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that their hands are not clean.

The balance and sense of discretion is remarkable in this little comment, one that bears much weight in terms of Eastern Orthodox understandings of the morality of war. The fathers in question refers to Athanasius of Alexandria, the great Nicene Orthodox authority of the fourth century church. Athanasius defense of the Nicene creed and the divine status of Christ had won him immense prestige by the end of the 4th century, and as his works were being collated and disseminated, Basil seems to wish to add a cautionary note: that not everything a father has to say is equally momentous, or universally authoritative. In his Letter to Amun, Athanasius had apparently come out quite straightforwardly about the legitimacy of killing in time of war, saying:

Although one is not supposed to kill, the killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful and praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements. It is evident, therefore, that at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permissible, but when time and circumstances are right, it is both allowed and condoned.

This saying was being circulated, and given authority as a patristic witness simply because it had come from Athanasius. In fact the original letter had nothing whatsoever to do with war. The very example of the war-hero is a sardonic reference ad hominem since the letter was addressed to an aged leader of the Egyptian monks who described themselves as Asketes, that is those who labored and fought for the virtuous life. The military image is entirely incidental, and Athanasius in context merely uses it to illustrate his chief point in the letter — which is to discuss the query Amun had sent on to him as Archbishop: did nocturnal emissions count as sins for desert celibates? Athanasius replies to the effect that with human sexuality, as with all sorts of other things, the context of the activity determines what is moral, not some absolute standard which is superimposed on moral discussion from the outset. Many ancients, Christian and pagan, regarded sexual activity as inherently defiling and here Athanasius decidedly takes leave of them. His argument, therefore, is falsely attributed when (as is often the case) read out of context as an apparent justification of killing in time of war. He is not actually condoning the practice at all, merely using the rhetorical example of current opinion to show Amun that contextual variability is very important in making moral judgements.

In his turn, Basil wishes to make it abundantly clear for his Christian audience that such a reading, if applied to the Churchs tradition on war, is simplistic, and that it is just plain wrong-headedness to conclude that the issue ceases to be problematic if one is able to dig up a justificatory proof text from scripture or patristic tradition (as some seem to have been doing with these words of Athanasius). And so, Basil sets out a nuanced corrective exegesis of what the Churchs canon law should really be in terms of fighting in time of hostilities.

One of the ways he does this is to attribute this aphorism of Athanasius to indeterminate fathers, who can then be legitimately corrected by taking a stricter view than they appeared to allow. He also carefully sets his own context: what he speaks about is the canonical regulation of war in which a Christian can engage and find canonical forgiveness for a canonically prohibited act; all other armed conflicts are implicitly excluded as not being appropriate to Christian morality.

Basils text on war needs, therefore, to be understood in terms of an economic reflection on the ancient canons that forbade the shedding of blood in blanket terms. This tension between the ideal standard (no bloodshed) and the complexities of the context in which a local church finds itself thrown in times of conflict and war, is witnessed in several other ancient laws, such as Canon 14 of Hippolytus (also from the 4th century):

A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.

The reasons Basil gives for suggesting that killing in time of hostilities could be distinguished from voluntary murder pure and simple (for which the canonical penalty was a lifelong ban from admission to the churches and from the sacraments) is set out as the defense of sobriety and piety. This is code language for the defense of Christian borders from the ravages of pagan marauders. The difficulty Basil had to deal with was not war on the large-scale, but local tribal insurgents who were mounting attacks on Roman border towns, with extensive rapinage. In such circumstances Basil has little patience for those who feel they cannot fight because of religious scruples. His sentiment is more that a passive non-involvement betrays the Christian family (especially its weaker members who cannot defend themselves but need others to help them) to the ravages of men without heart or conscience to restrain them.

The implication of his argument, then, is that the only fighting that Christians ought ever to accept, in order to defend the honor and safety of the weak, will be inherently a limited response, mainly because the honor and tradition of the Christian faith in the hearts and minds of pious and sober warriors will restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum.

His economic solution nevertheless makes it abundantly clear that the absolute standard of Christian morality turns away from war as an unmitigated evil. This is why we can note that the primary reason Basil gives that previous fathers had distinguished killing in time of war from the case of simple murder was on the score of allowing a pardon. There was no distinction made here in terms of the qualitative horror of the deed itself, rather in terms of the way in which the deed could be cleansed by the Churchs system of penance.

Is it logical to expect a Christian of his diocese to engage in the defense of the homeland, while simultaneously penalizing him if he spills blood in the process?

Well, one needs to contextualize the debarment from the sacrament in the generic 4th century practice of the reception of the Eucharist, which did not expect regular communion to begin with (ritual preparation was extensive and involved fasting and almsgiving and prayer), and where a majority of adult Christians in a given church would not yet have been initiated by means of baptism, and were thus not bound to keep all the canons of the Church.

By his regulation and by the ritual exclusion of the illumined warrior from the sacrament (the returning victor presumably would have received many other public honors and the gratitude of the local folk ), Basil is making sure at least one public sign is given to the entire community that the Gospel standard has no place for war, violence and organized death. He is trying to sustain an eschatological balance: that war is not part of the Kingdom of God (signified in the Eucharistic ritual as arriving in the present) but is part of the bloody and greed-driven reality of world affairs which is the Kingdom-Not-Arrived.

By moving in and out of Eucharistic reception Basils faithful Christian (returning from his duty with blood on his hands) is now in the modality of expressing his dedication to the values of peace and innocence, by means of the lamentation and repentance for life that has been taken, albeit the blood of the violent. Basils arrangement that the returning warrior may stand in the Church (rather than in the narthex, where the other public sinners were allocated spaces) but refrain from communion makes the statement that a truly honorable termination of war, for a Christian, has to be an honorable repentance.

Several commentators (not least many of the later western Church fathers) have regarded this as fudge, but it seems to me to express, in a finely tuned economic way, the tension in the basic Christian message that there is an unresolvable shortfall between the ideal and the real in an apocalyptically charged religion. What this Basilian canon does most effectively is to set a No Entry sign to any potential theory of Just War within Christian theology, and should set up a decided refusal of post-war church-sponsored self-congratulations for victory.

All violence, local, individual, or nationally-sanctioned, is here stated to be an expression of hubris that is inconsistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, and while in many circumstances that violence may be necessary or unavoidable (Basil states the only legitimate reasons as the defense of the weak and innocent), it is never justifiable. Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the cathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is be penitent. Basils restriction of the time of penance to three years, seemingly harsh to us moderns, was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church.

Fr. John McGuckin is professor of Byzantine History at Columbia University and professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary. He was ordained for the Patriarchate of Romania but is currently assisting at St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church (OCA) in Manhattan. Among his recent books are St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, Standing in Gods Holy Fire: The Spiritual Tradition of Byzantium, and The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology. This is an extract from a longer essay, Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity, included in the newly published book, Religion, Terror, Globalism, Non-Violence: A New Approach (Nova Publishers) edited by Fr. K. Kyriakose. This full text of Fr. Johns essay, including end notes, is also posted in the Resources section on the OPF web site.

Downward Mobility

By Joe May

Let me begin with a story. It involves a beautiful wool pillowcase hand-woven in Greece in the late 1930s. Both the pillowcase and the story come from my mother, who was born and lived in the village of Agios Germanos, in Macedonia. During the German occupation, around 1941, much of Greece suffered from food shortages, due to the fighting and the fact that the Germans took whatever they needed. My grandmother was running the household while my grandfather was working in the United States.

One day a woman from Epiros walked into the village and passed out on my grandmother’s doorstep. My grandmother took the woman into the house and gave her food and water. The woman revived and told her story. She had walked for four days in search of food for her starving children. Could my grandmother spare some flour? Now, there wasn’t much food for her own children in my grandmother’s pantry. Food was hard to find and the world had been turned upside-down by the Italian invasion followed by the German invasion.

What would have been an easy decision in normal times in this situation could mean hunger for her own children. My grandmother agonized over it, but she gave the woman all the flour she could spare. In gratitude, the woman gave my grandmother this pillowcase. They cried together and embraced, said goodbye, and then the Epirote woman went on her way back home.

The pillowcase has remained a symbol in my family of the sacredness of the moment of extreme need. When my mom told me the story of the pillowcase, I was stunned. It was not about doing a good deed; it was about entering into the mystery that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ. My mom gave me the pillowcase when I opened Matthew 25 House.

I am neither a scholar nor a theologian. I am a student of our faith and I am working on being a disciple of Christ. I graduated with a Master of Divinity from Holy Cross, worked for three years with non-profit ministries in poverty settings, lived and worked for seven years with the Catholic Workers, five of those years running Matthew 25 House.

What I bring is not so much the “what” of the Gospel, but the “how” of it. How do we work this Gospel out within community, especially the poor community? In our neighborhood there are run-down houses. Broken cement and broken glass are everywhere. Some go to work – some have no work. Addiction, violence and crime hold on tight as a glove to our neighborhood. Yet there is also beauty. Beautiful children play outside. Families go about their lives and have porch parties and barbeques.

Last month our house was shot at. Earlier the house across the street was shot at. Two weeks ago five cars on our street were shot at – we found ourselves after midnight, with our neighbors, sweeping broken glass out of our cars and off the streets. Most of the neighbors were sitting silently on their porches. Like me, they felt fear, powerlessness and anger for the danger to children.

I was talking with a neighbor, Shirley, about the recent gunfire. I said, “May God protect our families…” and she finished it with “from things seen and unseen.” I pray for God’s protection, but I know that God’s protection is not magical. We could be shot. But our neighbors cannot leave. They have no choice but to stay, so we also must stay.

Earlier that evening, three guests from Mexico showed up exhausted and desperate for a place to stay. This happens a lot with us – usually when we’re least prepared to take guests. They had been victims of a slave ring. Somehow they made it to us. We had no free beds, but we managed to make space.

This is the way Christ is with us. We try to understand the poverty around us and we try to live in poverty. For us, this is where the Gospel is: being hammered out in our poor neighborhood, not in an air-conditioned office.

The Gospel is clear. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Great Teacher of poverty, has called on us to live in voluntary simplicity.

We are all disciples of Jesus Christ. What does Jesus say about wealth and poverty? Jesus says that to be rich is a problem. We all have heard his teachings about the rich. Again and again we have heard them in church as the Gospel readings. They are so hard for us to hear because we are rich.

In the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man shows not a bit of mercy to poor Lazarus and is condemned while Lazarus goes to Paradise to be in the bosom of Abraham.

There is the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Man (Luke 18:18-30) who asked Jesus what he needed to do to reach perfection. Jesus told him to sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Him. The young man could not do it and left feeling sad. Jesus then told His disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. I love the way so many preachers get around this. I am sure you have heard it: that in Jerusalem there was a gate called the “Eye of the Needle” – if the camel crouched down carefully, it could get through. A reading from St. John Chrysostom is more challenging: “What then did Christ say? ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of Heaven!,’ blaming not riches but them that are held in subjection by them.”

Jesus says His message is good news to the poor. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah who is to come, he answers: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

The poor are the people at the bottom, those reduced to begging, who have no money, influence, power, honor or respect. They are the lowly, diseased, afflicted, the helpless, the needy. At Matthew 25 House we find them as the people with nothing who come to live with us. We supply food, shelter, socks and underwear for them. These have the good news brought to them.

Jesus calls His disciples “little ones.” In Matthew, Jesus says: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt 10:42)

Jesus’ disciples are “little ones”! Jesus gives us a picture of what it means to be a disciple who is a “little one” in Matthew 20:25. Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Remember how He taught the disciples at the Last Supper that the mark of a disciple is servanthood by washing their feet? And when James and John wished to sit at His right and left, Jesus taught them that they would in fact share in His cup, which was the cross and death! This is why during the Bridegroom Service of Holy Week, Jesus is called the Great Teacher of Poverty! The cross is the ultimate form of poverty.

What we need to ask ourselves is: where do we see ourselves in all this? I am wondering: as American Christians, have we become too big to receive the Gospel message as Good News? Can we honestly call ourselves the “little ones”? I don’t think we look like little ones. We certainly aren’t poor.

I believe we need to use brutal honesty and look at ourselves:

Tonight as we sit here at St. Vladimir’s investigating wealth and poverty, there are 6.39 billion children of God sharing this planet with us. We in the United States make up about 5 percent of the world population, but we use up about 25 percent of its resources.

In 2001, median household income in the U.S. was $42,228. Among the poorer countries in the world, half of the world population lives on less than $2 per day, and worse, more than 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day.

While we in America spend $43 billion on weight loss and throw away 48 million tons of food every year, 852 million of our sisters and brothers across the world go hungry, which is ten million more than one year ago. In the underdeveloped world eleven million children younger than five die every year, most from hunger-related diseases. So while we eat hamburgers by the billions, most of the rest of God’s children are trying to find food just to survive. (These numbers come mostly from the United Nations World Health Organization.)

In my home, in Summit County, Ohio, one out of five children lives below the poverty line and experiences hunger – about in line with the national figures.

I am not saying anything new. These figures are presented over and over. What amazes me is how routinely these numbers just pass by us.

In America we have the biggest GDP, the biggest military (and we use it). We are the world’s largest arms manufacturer and seller. We drive the most and the biggest automobiles, take the most airplane flights, throw away the most clothing and buy more to replace them, and we have the most plastic surgery. Americans have the most cell phones, TVs, DVDs and video games.

Meanwhile, sisters and brothers are dying trying to cross the border into the United States from Mexico and Latin America so that they can have a chance to work and live just like us. It embarrasses us. We often call these children of God “boat people” and “wetbacks” and “illegals.” We incarcerate and kill them for trying to come here. And many of us claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

The same is happening all over the European news as desperate people from Africa die trying to cross into Spain and Italy. The Western European nations are setting up holding areas in Libya and elsewhere and are scrambling to stop the influx of the poor. It embarrasses them, too.

Can we really claim “little one” status? “Little” isn’t an America trait. As American Orthodox we participate in that “bigness.” Don’t we celebrate wealth in our churches? Be honest! The wealthy make a splash whenever they make big contributions; we celebrate the erection of new and beautiful edifices, the purchase of Summer Camps, and so on. This all has to do with wealth.

So, who cares? Why should we care about the fact that we have far too much when the majority of others have so little? We care because God cares, and because in Matthew chapter 25, God says that we must care, too.

Wealth brings inevitable changes. Wealth inebriates our minds, and causes us to get our thinking completely backwards. As disciples of Christ we cannot afford this. We should take a look at our wealthy-person way of thinking. I offer what I call “four vulgarities” that I think are forged from wealthy living:

Vulgarity One

A few years ago in Akron there was a conference on poverty with many experts in social work and urban issues. There was much talk about improving legislation and better funding for social programs. (These are not bad in themselves, but not the ultimate answers.) During the presentations I had a nagging feeling that something was inside out about their understanding of poverty, but I couldn’t say exactly what it was. The presenters were great people doing great work. At one point in the discussions an African American woman from my neighborhood stood up and asked the moderator, “How is it that you are here teaching us about poverty when you are all wearing expensive suits and watches and I have no money to get clothing for myself and my children?” I heard anguish in her voice. The pundits sat expressionless for a long time. I thought of a line said by Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire: “Sometimes so suddenly there is God.”

It dawned on me what was bothering me about the conference. In the presentation there was an implicit understanding that the real task with poverty was cleaning up those dirty poor people and giving them the skills and opportunities to become good middle-class consumers like us. Then everything would be okay. All of the changes would have to be made with the poor; we the rich would not be required to change. To me this was completely backwards. We are the ones who need to simplify and more closely resemble the poor, as Jesus told us.

Vulgarity Two

I have heard people from all walks of life debate the vexing question: “Should I give the beggar on the street the dollar in my wallet?” What usually comes next is the decision that this is not effective; therefore don’t give. Tolstoy asked the same question in What Then Must We Do? Tolstoy went to a poor neighborhood in Moscow and handed out money to the people he found there. Of course he ran out of pocket money long before he ran out of poor people. On reflection, he came to the conclusion that the question was wrong. It was not about giving money to beggars. It was far worse than that! He realized we have to change ourselves. We needed to live in a way that doesn’t exploit people – that doesn’t create a stratum of people at the bottom. We need to live with only what we need, not with the luxuries that we don’t need.

Vulgarity Three

Perhaps you have heard this before: “When you think about it, you know, it is actually the rich who are the impoverished ones.” I am never sure what I am supposed to make of this statement, other than it being some kind of escape hatch from responsibility to change our lives. It leaves us feeling as though we can live as usual in our wealth. I guess the phrase is true in a philosophical sense, but how does that help us to live as disciples of Christ? Imagine telling someone who is starving in Somalia that, “You know, when you think about it, it is actually the rich who are the impoverished ones.”

Vulgarity Four

Four goes like this: “Voluntary poverty may be your gift, your vocation, but it’s not mine.” This is another escape hatch. The unspoken part of this statement is that God has gifted me with the particular burden and the task of being the custodian and guardian of the wealth I possess. Others are gifted with the vocation of poverty and hunger and suffering. It is all God’s will.

In addition to such backward thinking, wealth causes separation. We have to protect our wealth. Tolstoy wrote that we have a built-in system of separating ourselves from the poor by means of our clothing, education, mannerisms and the way we speak. Any of these things give us away immediately as belonging either to one situation or another, to wealth or to poverty. Have you ever seen this? A poor person entering an expensive shop or restaurant sticks out and is made silently unwelcome. The reverse is true when the wealthy person tries not to stick out at a bus stop in a poor neighborhood. I have seen this over and over again in my way of acting in my neighborhood. Do I put people off? Am I welcoming of all people? I struggle to relate to people in a way that Jesus prefers for me – in a way that sees people as God does.

We separate ourselves with our choices: our automobiles, the neighborhoods we choose to live in, the schools that we choose, the careers we pick. We don’t act like “little ones.”

Even the way in which we talk about doing God’s work among the poor separates us. We use words like “philanthropy” and “missions” and “ministry” that place us over the people whom we are helping. I think that it is really about communion and relationship and not about helping and good deeds. What it should be about is that we live as family, God’s family. Living in voluntary poverty then means putting things back into a humble relationship with God and with each other. Christ brought communion, not separation. At least not separation from the poor! The poor are the ones Jesus chose to live with.

Wealth becomes idol worship. Jesus told us that we couldn’t serve both God and mammon. In this country we celebrate technology because it brings us wealth. We live in a dream that technological advancement will keep progressing toward greater material gain and more comfortable lives.

But technology does not bring holiness. While science has made incredible leaps, has our love for one another done the same? Has our love for God improved with technology? I don’t think we use our technology eucharistically, meaning offered in thanksgiving to God.

Take the Terri Schiavo case (God rest her soul). While we struggled with the ethical issues of the case, the vast majority of people around the world will never enjoy the safety net of medical care that she had for fifteen years. Millions in this rich country live without any health insurance or access to health care whatsoever. I haven’t heard many express any remorse about that fact, nothing like the emotions that surrounded the Terri Schiavo case. The fact is that we don’t share our technological gifts. We don’t use them eucharistically.

Another example: our nuclear weapons technology. We are co-author with the Soviets of the biggest monster known to the world: the nuclear standoff involving over 5,000 nuclear weapons on each side – a fraction of which, if used, would destroy all life on this planet. We’ve used it to destroy two cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people. The fate of the world rests in our hands. This is a beast rising out of the sea. There is no putting it back into the sea for there is no going back from having the knowledge of nuclear weapons, and now this knowledge proliferates to more and more nations.

Technology has become a false god. We lean on it for comfort and it changes us. Every Great Vespers we sing Phos Ilaron, O Joyful Light: “O joyful light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, the heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now that we have reached the setting of the sun and behold the evening light, we sing to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is fitting at all times to praise you with cheerful voices, O Son of God, the Giver of life. Behold, the entire world sings your glory.” Up against the real dilemma of nightfall, we turn to God – Jesus is our undying Light. But wait a minute… we don’t have real nightfall – we live in the perpetual daylight of electrical light. I never knew how much is lost by having this comfort until I went on a mission team to Uganda. When the sun went down in Uganda, you were done for the day! Everything stopped. We sat around the fire and talked. We became more interdependent.

Through technology we have rescinded God’s command in Genesis 3. God said that in great toil and by the sweat of our brow shall we eat. Not us. We produce our food mostly by machines doing the planting. Migrant workers, the “little ones,” who are paid next to nothing are picking the produce that we eat. We don’t make our clothing, either. “Little ones” in China, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and all over the poor parts of the world work in horrifying conditions and are paid pennies for the clothes and shoes that we wear.

The result of technology is not improvement for everyone, not communion with God or man. It has brought a chasm between the rich and the poor. The differences between Christian Orthodoxy and the Christian West pale in comparison with the abyss that has opened up between a self-contained wealthy world and the vast majority of people living in poverty.

Wealth married to technology is destroying God’s creation. We have polluted the air, water and land. We destroy trees and animals. The ice caps are melting and this summer the shrinking glaciers of Switzerland were being wrapped in PVC so that the wealthy can continue to ski this winter. This way of using resources is theft. We have learned not only to steal from the rest of the world today, but also from our grandchildren and all future generations. Patriarch Bartholomeos has urged us to reflect on the connection between our consumption and the destruction God’s beautiful creation, the ecosystem.

Wealth is sly and numbing. Kierkegaard called wealth a sleeping potion. Chrysostom tells us that wealth is a trap. Both writers are referring to the parable of the Sower of the Seed, where Jesus teaches His disciples that the seed that falls among the weeds and thorns gets choked off by the cares and pleasures and riches of the world. The result is no fruit for the Gospel.

Wealth has given us a false sense of what is real, normative, and appropriate for Christian life. It is like a horizon forever moving out ahead of us. We cannot see the sin in our waste and consumption. The chasm between the wealth and extreme poverty in the world is our only alarm clock to wake us from the sleeping potion of wealth. We may be able to dismiss poverty when we go to liturgy, when we hear the Gospel, when we interact with other wealthy people. But we are not able to dismiss it when we dare to enter the world of the poor.

I think of it as though I am on a train, looking at the train platform, seeing motion, but not knowing if it is the train that is moving, or the platform. Everyone on the train is telling me that it is the platform that is moving, but then I look over to see an apple rolling on a tray next to me and I realize that it is the train that is moving. We are wrong in our wealth. We need to be sure of our point of reference. As disciples of Jesus Christ the point of reference is the Gospel, not the American Dream. There is so much at stake.

I still fall asleep under the spell of wealth. The moving apple for me is the poor. It nudges me to wake up and concentrate again on God and on my neighbors in need and to live in communion – in voluntary poverty.

None of us finds it easy to let go of what we have. It is the most uphill, tiresome and impossible thing. What makes for a voluntary simplicity that is worthy of a disciple of Christ is not any effort immanent in ourselves, but that which is wholly outside ourselves: the grace of God. Chrysostom says this in his homily on the story of Jesus and the Rich man in Matthew: “Whence it is shown, that there is no ordinary reward for them that are rich, and are able to practice self command. Wherefore also He affirmed it to be a work of God, that He might show that great grace is needed for him who is to achieve this.”

The impossible becomes possible only through God. So we are not even allowed to boast or take credit, for it is God’s doing – He gives us the grace.

Our faith gives us tools to help us on our road to poverty. We have repentance, a complete turning around toward God. Reread every word of the Bridegroom Service of Holy Week! Poverty only makes sense in light of the loving anticipation of the arrival of Christ the Bridegroom. Within the prayers and hymns of the Bridegroom Service, we hear of shaking off our indolence, of the martyria of the Three Youths in the Furnace and of the Ten Virgins.

Now would be a good time to listen with fresh ears to the teachings of the monks on asceticism. Why did monks fled to the desert? Sin, corruption, wealth, and power. We have the lives of saints like Nektarios and Maria Skobtsova to light our path toward imitating Christ the Teacher of Poverty. Poverty is transformed into radiance in the saints.

We’ve got to put the collision back into the Gospel. Kierkegaard said: “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon a man, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything…”

The scandal of the Cross does this. When the Gospel of Jesus hits you, your life must change radically. There is no”life as usual.” Life-as-usual allows us to sit on our wealth. The road to poverty places you in jeopardy. It puts you at risk. But it is the same risk for the vast majority of the world, and it is a cross.

How do we put the “collision of the gospel” back into our lives? Let’s think for a moment. The Cross explodes politics. What would happen if a candidate for the presidency proposed an economic slow-down on behalf of the people of the world and the health of the earth? What if they called for voluntary simplicity from the citizens of this country, turning our direction toward God instead of Mammon?

How about in the church? What if a bishop or your parish priest called for the emptying of the coffers and a sale of the church’s non-liturgical valu ables in order to share with the poor? That is exactly what Chrysostom did, didn’t he? What happens when a parish board member suggests that outreach to the poor should take priority over a building project, or that the poor should stay in their facility for warmth in the winter? Is anyone uncomfortable yet?

Let’s move closer to home. What if a family decided, on the basis of the Gospel, to sell their expensive home and buy a modest home in a poor neighborhood? What if parents encouraged their child to pass up college and become a missionary (a life of poverty and hardship)? What if a child announced to his or her parents the intention to do so? What would happen? This is the collision I am talking about.

How do we use our money and our time and our talent? How do we love each other? The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the car we drive and how much we drive it, the house we buy, the mortgage we accrue, the neighborhood we live in – all of these things have something to say about whether or not we are disciples of Jesus Christ, the Teacher of Poverty.

Could the poor teach us how to do without luxuries? We could learn loads by living with the poor. I wish that each parish would have a house of hospitality for the homeless, the sick, the people fresh out of prison, teen mothers, the mentally ill, refugees.

Discipleship means giving witness as a “little one” in this life. Who do we testify that Jesus is? The ancient Roman World was not turned upside down by glossy magazines or magnificant mosaics. The Gospel spread because the disciples of Jesus gave up their lives. The Great Commission that Jesus gives us means proclaiming the Good News and pouring ourselves out for it. Chrysostom said that making the sacrifice to live in poverty is hard, but the cross may be required of us – we may have to die, to spill our blood for our witness to Jesus. Compared to that, the road of poverty is easy.

We need to simplify. It won’t happen all at once. I look at myself and daily I think… failure! But we have to try. That way, if we are faithful with the things on this earth, maybe we will be entrusted with the true riches.

I pray for the conversation about living in poverty to start. Begin with people in your parish, the people around you. Bring up voluntary poverty for the sake of Jesus who was born poor, had nowhere to lay his head, was buried in someone else’s grave and who rose from the dead on the third day so that we may have eternal life. Bring it up and mean it! Get it in your gut and be on fire for it. They may throw buckets of water on you in order to put out your fire.

Let them. Do it anyway.

Joe May’s text was one of the two keynote addresses at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference held at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in July. Joe May founded Matthew 25 House in 2001. Visit the web site:

No Just War in the Fathers

by Father Stanley Harakas

Occasionally one finds Orthodox authors who argue that the Orthodox Church espouses a “just war” doctrine similar to that which gradually developed in the Roman Catholic Church and, since the Reformation, is also found in certain Protestant churches.

The Orthodox Christian tradition is broad, long, complex, and variegated. It honors not only princes who gave up their lives rather than resist evil, but also warrior-saints whose icons were carried into battle by soldiers chanting, “Grant victory to Orthodox Christians over their adversaries.”

My understanding about this complex situation regarding issues of war and peace has evolved over a number of years, culminating in what was an ethical revelation for me.

The first opportunity I had to speak publicly on the issue came at during the Vietnam War. My speech in that period echoed the assumption that the Orthodox stance was grounded essentially in the just-war tradition. I spoke out of some familiarity with traditional Orthodox ethical handbooks, having been taught from the textbook of Professor Chrestos Androutsos at the University of Athens School of Theology. The evidence seemed to show a wide range of attitudes and worship celebrating victories in war, while it also affirmed peace values. What could this be, if not some kind of just-war position? And so I rejected pacifism as an Orthodox position.

My next invitation to speak on this topic came from Fr. George Papademetriou, chaplain of the Orthodox Fellowship at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The research I did for this presentation raised some serious questions about my heretofore uncritical assumptions about an Orthodox just-war position. The most striking point was the canonical exemption of the clergy from any military activity, although this activity was permitted to laity.

The more I studied the relevant texts, the clearer it became that the Church preserved in its clergy an ideal standard that it somehow could not demand of its laity. I called this the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church. Clergy were to function as pacifists, uninvolved in any military activity, even prohibited from entering military camps. (Eventually the substance of that speech was published as a chapter entitled “The Morality of War” in Orthodox Synthesis, edited by Fr. Joseph Allen; Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

The next step in my intellectual odyssey came with an invitation from Catholic University in Washington, DC, to contribute a chapter to a book of evaluations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. That document was a thorough attempt to apply just-war theory to issues such as nuclear deterrence and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As I searched the sources of Eastern Orthodox tradition for material regarding war, I began to see that these contained none of the traditional components of the western just-war theory. The West, beginning with St. Augustine, had developed a set of ethical prescriptions and proscriptions concerning entrance into war (jus ad bellum) and behavior during war (jus in bello). I couldn’t find such ethical reasoning in the Greek Fathers or in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

In that chapter, published in 1986, I focused on patristic sources, Byzantine military manuals, and contemporary Orthodox statements about war. I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a “just” war, much less a “good” war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I concluded, war can be seen only as a “necessary evil,” with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.

Still, that conclusion regarding war seemed to be missing something, like the obverse side of a coin. A conference in 1986 sponsored by the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Geneva, Switzerland, finally made it clear to me what the missing element was. The conference theme was “The Orthodox Concern with Peace.” Paper after paper revealed that peace, in its multifarious dimensions, was central to the ecclesial, patristic, canonical, and ethical concerns of Orthodoxy. I was assigned the topic “The Teaching of Peace in the Fathers.” Suddenly I had found the Orthodox motif for talking about the issue of war!

That study documented the “pro-peace” stance of the Church Fathers throughout the whole range of theological and social concerns. It discerned differing strands about involvement in war, showing how the pacifist emphasis is retained in liturgy and in clerical standards. My research also showed the divergent responses in East and West to the ethical problem of war.

In light of the patristic evidence, my conclusion was and still is: The East did not seek to answer questions concerning the correct conditions for entering war and the correct conduct of war on the basis of the possibility of a “just war,” precisely because it did not hold to such a view. Its view of war, unlike that of the West, was that it is a necessary evil. The peace ideal continued to remain normative, and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm. In short, no case can be made for the existence of an Orthodox just-war theory.

Fr. Stanley Samuel Harakas, now retired, was for many years Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is now pastor of a mission parish in Florida. This text is based on an article first published in the Winter 1992 issue of American Orthodoxy.

Text revised: August 15, 2003

Venerating the Cross After September 11

a Sermon for the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, 2001

In venerating the Cross, we are reminded that the Cross is part of every believer’s life. Normally, we hope and pray that our Cross might be small and light “ some minor aches and pains, some financial difficulties, or our struggles to live a Christian life in a world increasingly hostile to our faith. But on September 11th, we saw the face of evil incarnate and are witnesses to and victims of darkness and death. We were given a Cross that none of us ever imagined and certainly never desired. And we wonder how we are going to carry it. We have been shown that our comforts, wealth, and abundance of material possessions are mere shadows “ fleeting wisps of smoke that can vanish as soon as a decent puff of wind rises up.

We live our lives in such abundance and comfort that we are tempted to believe that abundance and comfort have power and strength in and of themselves. We are seduced into thinking that we have control of this world and our lives in it, when in reality we have no control whatsoever.

It was not just buildings and people that were attacked. Each and every one of our immortal souls has been attacked. And it is that attack that we need to worry about now. Satan and his disciples want to compound this awful sin and recruit numerous co-conspirators by watching us sink into a bottomless pit of passions.

We are tempted to be angry, to be bitter, to be hateful, to be bloodthirsty, to be judgmental. We feel totally justified in all those emotions, which is the greatest temptation of all. But it is in fighting these temptations that we are called to hear the words of the Lord from today’s gospel reading: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

What does following Christ mean for us today? He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”

Our faith is easy to practice when we have small crosses. But it is hard to practice when our crosses are large and heavy. It is obvious that to “follow Christ” means we are called to something different than mere human response. We are called to emulate Christ. We are called to love, not hate. To bless, not curse. To pray for our enemies. Even to forgive them. A great expectation, to be sure. But it is the way for anyone claiming to follow Christ. Concretely, each and every one of us should be on our knees praying to God for our attackers and asking Him to soften our hearts and remove all bitterness, hatred, anger, and judgement. Otherwise, we are “deader” than those who lost their lives in the attack.

— extracts from a sermon preached by Archpriest John Dresko at Holy Trinity Church, New Britain, Connecticut, on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

September 11 and Reverence for Life

by Jim Forest

Our world has changed since September 11. While in the U.S. from mid-October to mid-November, I experienced aspects of that change again and again each day.

Arriving in America, I had a view from the air of the wound the September attack left in New York. In the early evening, a month after the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, now a maimed landscape. It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a still-smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the intense artificial light, but couldn’t see them. Finally, beyond Battery Park, there was the glistening ebony water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her torch in the sky.

A few days later, I was in Manhattan for a meeting with Bishop Dimitrios at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on East 79th Street. Inevitably, we talked about September 11 and its aftermath. Bishop Dimitrios told me a statistic which brought home the hidden struggle going on in so many people’s lives: the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen by 40 percent since the World Trade Center was destroyed. (The sale of hand guns and gas masks had also shot up.)

While the date September 11 opens many themes for reflection, at the top of the list is the word “murder.”

One of the remarkable things about human beings is that no other species appears to be so deeply disturbed by death. Even though few events are so common and nothing so inevitable as death, we never regard it as ordinary. Why is that? Even when we reach the point when death is welcome — the passing of an elderly person who has been patiently awaiting death’s arrival, or the last breath of a person who has been suffering a grave, untreatable illness — there is still the shock of the abrupt absence of someone torn from the fabric of our lives. We experience death as an injury, a violation.

But murder is unnatural death and disturbs us in a special way. No other crime horrifies us so much as murder, even when the victim has few good qualities. It is no defense against the charge of murder that the world is better off without the person killed. In the negative hierarchy of criminals, it is the murderer who is regarded as worst and is punished most severely.

We are both shocked and fascinated by murder, reading murder mysteries, watching murder films and studying accounts of murder trials. We want to know not only who did it, but why. How does a human being become a killer? It gives us satisfaction to see a murderer caught, whether by a real policeman or a fictitious Miss Marple. Murder mystery novels sell by the millions, suggesting not only our fascination with murder but the importance of stories in our lives.

Life’s understructure — stories

If you have ever been to Amsterdam, perhaps you discovered that this attractive city of canals and gabled houses has a prosaic underside. It’s built on sand and mud. Those houses would have sunk long ago if it weren’t for the pilings they stand on — tree trunks driven deep into the sand and clay. Sadly, many an old Amsterdam house has been torn down because the pilings rotted away, while some of the survivors now lean at odd angles.

Basic stories are like the pilings that hold up the houses of Amsterdam. These are the stories at the foundation of our lives, reaching deep into the darkness and mystery beneath consciousness, shaping and arranging perceptions, revealing patterns and meaning.

Father Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who has spent much of his life in Africa, once told me that he had learned from African culture that the most important person in any society is the storyteller. Nothing protects a person or a nation as much as a true story — or threatens it more than a false story. In moments of crisis, it isn’t ideologies or theories that guide us but our primary stories. True stories help make us capable of love and sacrifice and light up the path to the kingdom of God. False stories condemn us to nothingness and disconnection. Much depends on our story-foundation. If the stories we live by are false, our foundations rot and we sink into the mud.

What worried Father Donders most about America is that our basic story isn’t the Gospel but the cowboy movie — always a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. Let’s call it the Gospel According to John Wayne, as no star in cowboy films was more convincing in the hero part. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, a modern city or a far-away galaxy that exists only in our imaginations. No matter what the setting or period, what the stories have in common is the portrayal of killing as the ultimate solution to evil.

The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it — the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect others. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story — a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the profoundly Christian story of George, he only wounds the dragon. Afterward the dragon is cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about the conversion, of self, of others, of evil enemies. The problem with the modern John Wayne version is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also no such thing as a completely good person, apart from Christ. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Russia’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

(vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)

Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person, or ourselves. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder, suicide, was a real temptation.

The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that with the Fall of Adam and Eve, the likeness was lost and can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace.

The perception of the Divine image is something Thomas Merton recounts in one of his most striking journal entries, found in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. In Louisville on an errand, he describes standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change when suddenly he is overwhelmed with love for all these strangers. He speaks of “waking from a dream of separateness.” Everyone was suddenly “shining like the sun.” Reflecting on this God-given epiphany, a mystical experience in the city, he goes on to say:

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness or cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.


More than anything else, reverence for life is a question of how well we see, how unblind we are, how unafraid we are. To see well is to be aware of the miraculous dimension of being, to sense the sacramental aspect of life, to be aware of God’s presence.

Think about the story of the man born blind in Saint John’s Gospel. Here’s a beggar in Jerusalem who has never seen anything but darkness his entire life. Yet the miracle ignites a controversy. John describes a kind of trial in which Pharisees twice interrogate the man himself and also his patents, to be sure that this is indeed their son and has been blind from birth. But the story John tells is less about the miracle than about people not believing what they have witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom. Take your miracles and beggars and go away.”

We learn from John that it takes courage to see and, having seen, to take responsibility for what sight reveals to us. Wide-eyed seeing can rock the foundations of your life. It can change everything. It can get you into trouble.

With eyes that really see, you don’t need a geneticist to tell you that we are human beings not only from the cradle to the grave but during all those months before we reach the cradle. Such knowledge necessarily makes one a protector of the unborn. With eyes that really see, we cannot turn away from a pregnant woman who for lack of encouragement and support, trapped in panic and fear, may feel she has no alternative but abortion.

With eyes that really see, we can no longer speak of the death of innocent people in war as “collateral damage,” truly a phrase from hell. With eyes that really see, we cannot advocate anyone’s execution, however appalling the crime, not only because such an action makes us co-responsible for an act of bloodshed and vengeance, but because we destroy the possibility of the killer ever leading a repentant life. With eyes that see, we cannot live at peace with a world that abandons so many people. With eyes that really see, we will not dehumanize others or make ourselves into enemies of the environment. Eyes that really see can heal our lives.

The Root of War is Fear

The main impediment that brings us close to blindness is fear. It was an insight of Merton’s that “the root of war is fear.” He perceived that even deeper than the fear men have of each other is the fear we have of everything, our distrust even of ourselves:

It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves that is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.

[New Seeds of Contemplation, p 112]

The Greek theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, writes on similar lines:

The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.” … The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.

[The full text of Met. John’s essay is posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site]


If fear of the other is the essence of sin, what is sin? This is a three-letter word that has been carefully avoided by many people in recent years but which, after September 11, seems to be finding its way back into unembarrassed common usage.

The Greek word hamartia, like the Hebrew verb chata’, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional.

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs list seven things which God hates: “A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren.” [6:16-19]

Though murder is on the list, pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs. [16:18] In Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a young brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” These words cured the brother of his pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, more valued than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Because of pride, the way is opened for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence and all acts that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that we explain what we did rather than admit we did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about 50 people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

There are two vivid signs of a serious sin — the hope that it may never become known, and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is so before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life.

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans. It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Self-justification or repentance

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to admit a certain action was sinful and to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live anymore as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.”

One of the blessings that has come out of the tragedy of September 11 is that we are much less embarrassed speaking about God, more able to admit own capacity for evil, and find ourselves less reluctant to pray.

Life is not recognized as sacred unless we nourish a capacity to sense the sacred and understand that God exists. Our struggle to develop a deeper, more consistent reverence for life and to help others do likewise is essentially a religious pilgrimage and an evangelical task. Our life must have a missionary dimension. We must help our neighbor to see, and assist our neighbor in becoming less fearful. It takes so little to save a life — if only we would see and, from that seeing, respond.

Jim Forest’s next book, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, will be published by Orbis in February. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and co-editor of In Communion. This is based on a talk sponsored by Harmony magazine and given at the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker house in San Francisco, November 3, 2001.

The Architecture of War

by Jessica Rose

“The world has changed” was a view frequently expressed after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September. Yet, while the world of a great many people was changed, the world itself was not. It remains the violent and unpredictable place that it has been since the Fall of Adam.

In this context it is timely to present an introduction to the work of Rene Girard and his understanding of violence. A professor of literature, Girard turned his attention also to anthropology and psychology. In the course of his research, he was converted to Christianity. What he says is rooted in a deep and clear-sighted reading of the Old Testament and the Gospels. Girard has no easy solution to violence. He provides an analysis which demonstrates how difficult it is to overcome and shows us what each one of us can do, minute by minute, to try to combat it. Far from complaining that religion is outdated and dangerous, Girard insists that after two thousand years we are only just beginning to be capable of understanding the Gospel message.

A few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, a young man asked me, “What would it take to do nothing?” A frequent visitor to New York, with many friends there, he was heavy with the pain of what had happened. Yet something within him was struggling to break the cycle of revenge, of attack and counter-attack, to try to understand what it really would cost each of us to refrain from retaliation. What would it cost to pay attention not only to the real and terrible consequences visited on America, but to also the deeper challenge: was there any way this event could be turned to the purposes of peace? Unless we can answer these questions, we are in no position to make a free choice in our response to any kind of attack, personal or global. Only if we know what it would take to do nothing, can we understand what we are choosing if we do something.

Our concern here is what happens when our perception of the ordering of the world is turned upside down: when we are no longer sure who is powerful and who is vulnerable, who is strong and who is weak, who is free and who is in chains, who, indeed is right, and who is wrong. One urgent message given to the world on September 11 is that peace is not the concern of the few, of the government or world leaders. Peace — its making and keeping — is the task of each one of us. It becomes increasingly necessary not only to seek peace, but to understand the mechanisms of violence — collective and individual — which destroy it.

We shall explore here three of Girard’s basic principles: the importance of mimesis, or imitation, in the development of our own desire and behavior; the scapegoating mechanism, and how what is often understood as “peace” is in fact founded on violence; and finally the way in which these processes are overturned by a message we have hardly begun to understand: that of the Gospels.

Mimesis and the development of desire

Much of our conscious effort is devoted to learning, yet the bulk of our learning happens at an unconscious level. We learn above all by imitation, by absorbing what others do, and this plays a large part in our growing up as members of a particular family and society.

This applies not only to our speech, our attitudes and so on, but to our desires. Last summer a friend came to stay, bringing his palm-top computer. It was beautiful. I use computers but unlike my friend travel little, and have no need of a palm-top. Yet seeing it in his hands, I found myself desiring one. I went so far as to investigate prices. I still am drawn to places which sell them, although so far I have resisted the temptation to acquire one.

A classic example: Children are playing in a room where toys are scattered about. No particular interest is shown in them until a child picks one up and starts to play with it. What instantly becomes the most desirable object in the room?

This is nothing new. Any parent understands it. Indeed, our whole western economy is built on it. Mimetic desire, whereby we learn what we want by seeing what others want, plays a significant part in our lives. It is the basis of envy — but also of discipleship. In its positive form, mimesis moves us on. We discover what is desirable by observing someone we admire. Eventually we come to discern what it is in that person that is worth imitating. I may begin by admiring a competent musician. My admiration can turn to envy if I am unable to imitate his skill. However, if I begin to see that his desire for music is underpinned by his relationship with it, by his being prepared to give other things up for it, and to work at it, I may come to realize that those qualities can be imitated. In this way mimesis becomes conscious. I begin to develop not his, but my own way of making music. This is what is at the root of discipleship.

Most mimesis, however, happens at an unconscious level. We come to desire something because we see its desirability in someone else. But when too many of us begin reaching out for the same things, there is not enough to go around. Mimesis turns to envy and then to rivalry. We begin to identify ourselves over against those who have what we want. The situation becomes one of conflict, exclusion and finally violence.

The scapegoating mechanism

In a stable society, mimesis stays within limits because we also carry unconscious assumptions about what belongs to which members of society. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” I used to sing this as a child in the 1950s. It would be hard to find it in a hymn book now. Lazarus, the beggar, does not expect to become like Dives, the rich man. He asks for scraps, not for a place at the table. His desire for food is an instinctual need, and not a mimetic desire formed from seeing Dives feasting, and he therefore forms no threat to the stability of the world that both of them inhabit.

What happens, however, when we begin to perceive that the world order we have grown up with is not ordained by God, when we begin to interpret our dignity as human beings not as holding different places in that order, but as mere accident? What happens when we begin to deconstruct differences in class, opportunity, wealth, even gender? The whole of society becomes a much more risky place. Mimetic desire is let loose, and, remaining unconscious — we do not know what we are imitating, only that we are filled with compelling desire for what the other has — begins to divide us. We become rivalrous and competitive, and begin to break down the familiar structures. It is well known that revolutions begin not in a state of total oppression, but when there is a slight improvement: a vision is then possible of how life could be.

A major catastrophe can have the same effect. All afflicted by the same event — an infectious illness, say — begin to realize that no one is immune. Increased information, such as our passion for knowing about the private lives of the famous, can also bring down hierarchical barriers. This can, of course, be positive, leading to greater understanding, compassion and respect. If it remains caught up in mimetic desire, however, if our consciousness is occupied by our pain or anxiety and we are unable to move beyond that, we have to look for someone to blame — a natural human reaction. As a priest said to me recently, “When you are hurt, you shout.” It cannot be bypassed. When we get stuck there, however, the scapegoating mechanism comes into play. Egged on by our capacity for imitation, we draw together in finding a scapegoat responsible for our collective suffering. An alliance forms against the person held responsible.

Scapegoats tend to be chosen because they are different in some way. Again, the choosing is not thought out or rational. The scapegoat may be the person in the class who is cleverer than anyone else, or the one who has a different accent. A young man wrote to the “problem page” of a newspaper recently because he was uncomfortable at his new place of work. Everyone else had been to English public school, and called each other by their surnames as they had been brought up to do. Used to being plain “Paul,” he quickly found himself ostracized by the use of his first name. Everyone else remained “Jones” or “Cartwright.”

As a psychology student in the early 70s, I was impressed by something I heard in a lecture on the “shared dislikes hypothesis” of a psychologist named Festinger. Nothing, he claimed, is so bonding as finding something you dislike together. Since I was lonely, I adopted this theory as a technique in getting to know people. I would drop into conversations complaints about something — the college food, the lack of windows in the library, almost anything would do — and found it worked. People cheered up, and became warmer and friendlier as we discussed our shared resentments against “the system.”

When the stakes are higher than this, scapegoating becomes a very serious business indeed. Throughout the history of the world we find people — or groups, or particular races — who have been chosen for scapegoat roles. Since, as the Orthodox funeral service tells us, “No man lives and does not sin,” we can usually find something which enables the scapegoat to fulfil this role satisfactorily, and keep our sense of justice intact. The scapegoat is expelled or killed. The act of violence is cathartic. The communal dislike which has been generated is bonding. Peace is restored, and the act of scapegoating is what has brought this about. Ancient ritual and sacrifice, argues Girard, are based on this process. A violent act takes place. The story of the expulsion or killing of the victim is told from the point of view of the victor (the only point of view now available); and stability is maintained through re-enactment of the story in sacrificial rituals. Hence, shocking though this may be, civilization is founded on violence.

The Gospel message overturns the scapegoating mechanism

Throughout the Old Testament, Girard wants us to understand, we see a gradual undoing of the old mechanisms of scapegoating and sacrifice which progressively reveal a merciful God who forgives: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart he will not despise” (Psalm 50/51). Finally, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross unveils violence for what it is. Remember that while he was accused as a blasphemer and rabble-rouser, “it was out of envy that they delivered him” (Mark 15:10). Even Pilate was able to see this. Human beings, confronted by Love incarnate, were unable to bear what he had and they did not. They were unable to bring to consciousness what was troubling them, and to discover what form of imitation could bring them to a true sharing in what they perceived in him. Those who had begun to understand who he was and who witnessed his Resurrection were able to break free of the cycle of violence.

In Knowing Jesus, James Alison describes the Resurrection appearances as acts of forgiveness. “Peace be unto you” are Christ’s first words to the disciples hiding fearfully in the room in which he appears. There is no whisper of resentment for their abandonment of him in his Passion. He is as much as one with them as he has ever been. “Forgive all,” we sing in the Paschal stikhera, “in the joy of the Resurrection.”

There is an ancient tradition in both Judaism and Islam that God prays, and that God’s prayer is “May my mercy prevail over my justice.” This prayer reached its fruition in the crucifixion. There was no retaliation. Words of forgiveness were spoken from the Cross itself. The angels ministered and were amazed, but they were not called upon to rescue Jesus in a display of power. Christ entered into the condition of his fellow human beings and followed its consequences to the very end. Being also God, he took his human nature through death to life, and it is that path, without violence, that he calls us to follow.

Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. Her book Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship will be published in January by Darton, Longman and Todd, London. She directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England.

Further reading

  • A Girard Reader, Herder & Herder, Crossroads
  • Gil Baillie: Violence Unveiled, Crossroads
  • Rene Girard: I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books

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

Note: The web version of the book has been copy-edited by John Brady, who corrected many spelling and punctuation errors and made many other improvements in the text. Our thanks to him for all his help. We ask readers to notify us of further corrections that may be needed.

For the Peace From Above: a Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism is dedicated to all Orthodox youth living in places of war and conflict, as a tribute to their courage and faith.



Chapter 1: How to use this Resource Book

Chapter 2: Defining terms: definitions from dictionaries and Church authors

Chapter 3: Reference texts from Holy Scripture

Chapter 4: Canonical reference texts

  • 4.1. Canonical texts from the Apostolic period
  • 4.2. Canons from the Ecumenical Councils
  • 4.3. Canons from the Local Councils
  • 4.4. Canons from the Fathers of the Church

Chapter 5: Reference texts from the Holy Fathers

Chapter 6: Reference texts from contemporary authors

Chapter 7: Nationalism, War and Peace in Orthodox liturgical texts

  • 7.1. Prayer for Peace in the Liturgy Archimandrite Lev Gillet
  • 7.2. From the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great
  • 7.3. Commentary on the Mysteries: St. Cyril of Alexandria
  • 7.4. Prayers by the Lake: Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid
  • 7.5. A Soldier’s Prayer
  • 7.6. Prayer for the Salvation of the Russian State: St. Tikhon of Moscow
  • 7.7. Prayers for peace in former Yugoslavia
  • 7.8. On the Issue of the blessing of weapons
  • 7.9. Prayer for the pacification of animosity

Chapter 8: Fact sheets

  • 8.1. Martyrs from among Roman officers of the first four centuries
  • 8.2. Monastic Peacekeeping in Kosovo

Chapter 9: Official statements

  • 9.1. The Local Synod of Constantinople 1872
  • 9.2. The Bosporus Declaration
  • 9.3. Statement on the situation in Armenia-Azerbaijan, 1993
  • 9.4. Statements on the events in Russia, October 1993
  • Appeal by the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Alexy II, 29/9/1993
  • Statement by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, 1/10/1993
  • 9.5. Statements on the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1994
  • Statement of Patriarch Pavle of Serbia to the participants at the WCC Central Committee meeting in South Africa, 20-26/1 1994
  • Message of the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church from its extraordinary meeting in Banja Luka, 1-4/11 1994
  • Appeal for peace and understanding among all people, 4/9 1994
  • 9.6. Statements on the situation in Kosovo, March 1999
  • Kosovo Peace and Tolerance — Vienna Declaration, 18/3 1999
  • Peace Appeal of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 23/3 1999
  • Statement of the Orthodox Church of Albania, 29/3 1999
  • 9.7. Syndesmos Statements
  • Declaration of the Syndesmos War and Peace in Europe Seminar, 1-9/10 1994
  • A cry of World Orthodox Youth regarding the Kosovo and Methohija Crisis, VIth Syndesmos General Assembly, 24/7 1999

Chapter 10: Essays and Texts

Chapter 11: Study and action guide


In 1968, a Syndesmos General Assembly took place at the very moment that the established order in Western Europe seemed about to be shaken. In his address to the Assembly, Syndesmos President Mr. Albert Laham from Lebanon stated

The world is not in peace. Neither is it in unity. The spirit of this world, which burns from the black ghettos of Chicago to the streets of Paris, from the Holy Land in the Middle East to the jungles of Africa, this spirit is not the Spirit of unity and peace. It is not a bond which can pacify and unite. It is a barrier which can only divide and destroy. But the firm belief of Syndesmos, and its only reason for existence, is that there is a Spirit, not as this world gives, which is a power, a unity and a peace. There is a Spirit which can burn in men and movements and can empower them to go beyond every spirit of this world. This is the Spirit which Christ gives, the fire which He has cast upon the earth. And Syndesmos desires, as its only consuming desire, to be alive and burning with this spiritual fire.

In 1973, the Syndesmos General Secretariat had to be evacuated from Beirut following the Lebanese civil war. Ten years later, political turmoil still prevented Syrian and Lebanese delegates from taking part in the XIth Syndesmos General Assembly in Crete. The XVIth General Assembly of 1999 took place under the sign of tensions in former Yugoslavia, the Russian Federation, the Holy Land, Georgia and other places where Orthodox live.

Many Orthodox young people today live near conflict areas or are directly touched by war. Every day, thousands of believers face some of the most difficult of questions: Am I allowed to kill in combat? May I fight injustice by violent methods? When the demands of my country seem at odds with the demands of the Kingdom of God, how do I respond to this conflict?

Rarely do we find simple answers to such questions. Thus we search for help in Holy Scripture, the Canons, the writing of the Fathers of the Church, and reflect on the lives of the Saints.

We hope this resource book can help, drawing as it does on the experience of our fathers and forefathers. They teach us examples to follow and attitudes to reject. The Tradition of the Orthodox Church has much to give to its faithful who are caught up in the vicissitudes of Twentieth-Century warfare.

Nonetheless, we cannot simply copy what other have done in the past. Different eras have found different attitudes, and many of today’s problems never existed before. Yet knowledge of Sacred Tradition may help us find ways out of the dead ends that many communities experience today.

His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, a former Syndesmos Vice-President, says: “All religious communities must turn to the very depth of their doctrine and to the best pages of their respective traditions in order to find the principles of a sacred anthropology which puts the emphasis on sincere respect of the whole human person.”

This is the aim of this book.

The present Resource Book attempts to provide original resource texts concerning Orthodoxy, War, Peace and Nationalism. In compiling the book, we have attempted to gather documents that express well the variety of points of view on the theme. These texts do not necessarily express the point of view of the editors or of Syndesmos.

The Syndesmos Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism was supported by the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe.

Syndesmos expresses its deep gratitude to all those who have made this book possible. In the first place, we thank His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos for providing his speech at the 1994 Conference on Peace and Tolerance. We also thank His Beatitude Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, His Eminence Bishop Irineaus of Backa, Fr. Stanley Harakas, Archimandrite Grigorios (Papathomas), Mr. Olivier Clément, Mr. Tarek Mitri, Mr. Yevgeniy Petrovskiy and the Service Orthodoxe de Presse for their kind permission to use their texts. Finally, this book would not have been possible without the support of many others: Deacon John Sewter, Mrs. Hélene Klépinine-Arjakovsky, Mrs. Cathérine Aslanoff, Mr. Michael Bakker, Mr. Alexander Belopopsky, Mrs. Tatiana Bos-Arjakovsky, The Fellowship of Orthodox Youth in Poland, Syndesmos Secretary-General elect Ms. Rebecca Hookway, Mr. André Lossky, Syndesmos Secretary-General Mr. Vladimir Misijuk, Mr. Spiridon Tsimouris and Mrs. Svetlana Yerchova.

November 1999

Hildo Bos, Vice-President, Syndesmos

Jim Forest, Secretary, Orthodox Peace Fellowship


For the Peace From Above — Table of Contents



4.1. Canonical texts from the Apostolic period

Canons and rulings not having Conciliar origin but approved by name in canon II of the Synod in Trullo.

The 85 Canons of the Holy and Altogether August Apostles[1]

CANON VI: Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, undertake worldly business; otherwise let him be deposed.

CANON LXVI: If any clergyman shall strike anyone in a contest, and kill him with one blow, let him be deposed for his violence. If a layman do so, let him be excommunicated.

CANON LXXXI: We have said that a bishop or presbyter must not give himself to the management of public affairs, but devote himself to ecclesiastical business. Let him then be persuaded to do so, or let him be deposed, for no man can serve two masters, according to the Lord’s declaration.

CANON LXXXIII: If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, shall serve in the army, and wish to retain both the Roman magistracy and the priestly office, let him be deposed; for the things of Caesar belong to Caesar, and those of God to God.

4.2. Canons from the Ecumenical Councils

First Ecumenical Council of Nicea

The 20 Canons of the 318 Holy and God-inspired Fathers who gathered in the city of Nicea under Constantine the Great … in the year 325 A.D., before the 13th day of July.

CANON XII: As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military girdles, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, (so that some spent money and by means of gifts regained their military stations); let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators[2]. But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretence, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favourably concerning them. But those who take [the matter] with indifference, and who think the form of [not] entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time[3].

Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon

The 28 Canons and two more in the form of questions and answers, of the 630 Holy Fathers gathered in Chalcedon during the reign of Marcianus … , before the 8th day of November, 451 A.D.

CANON III: It has come to [the knowledge of] the holy Synod that certain of those who are enrolled among the clergy have, through lust of gain, become hirers of other men’s possessions, and make contracts pertaining to secular affairs, lightly esteeming the service of God, and slip into the houses of secular persons, whose property they undertake through covetousness to manage. Wherefore the great and holy Synod decrees that henceforth no bishop, clergyman, nor monk shall hire possessions, or engage in business, or occupy himself in worldly engagements, unless he shall be called by the law to the guardianship of minors, from which there is no escape; or unless the bishop of the city shall commit to him the care of ecclesiastical business, or of unprovided orphans or widows and of persons who stand especially in need of the Church’s help, through the fear of God. And if any one shall hereafter transgress these decrees, he shall be subjected to ecclesiastical penalties[4].

CANON VII: Those who have entered the clergy or have been tonsured into the monastic state may no longer serve in the army or accept any civil charge; otherwise those who have dared do so, and who have not repented and returned to their prior occupation for the love of God, shall be anathemised.

4.3. Canons from the Local Councils

The Local Council of Ancyra

The 25 canons of the August Fathers gathered in Ancyra in 314 A.D., canons which precede the Council of Nicea but which come in second position given the authority of the Ecumenical Council.

CANON XXII: Concerning wilful murderers let them remain prostrators; but at the end of life let them be indulged with full communion[5].

CANON XXIII: Concerning involuntary homicides, a former decree directs that they be received to full communion after seven years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees; but this second one, that they fulfil a term of five years[6].

The Local Council of Sardica

The 20 canons of the Holy Fathers gathered in Sardica in 343 A.D., fathers who gathered after the fathers of Nicea.

CANON VII: Bishop Hosius said: Our importunity and great pertinacity and unjust petitions have brought it about that we do not have as much favour and confidence as we ought to enjoy. For many of the bishops do not intermit resorting to the imperial Court, especially the Africans, who, as we have learned from our beloved brother and fellow-bishop, Gratus, do not accept salutary counsels, but so despise them that one man carries to the Court petitions many and diverse and of no possible benefit to the Church, and does not (as ought to be done and as is fitting) assist and help the poor and the laity or the widows, but is intriguing to obtain worldly dignities and offices for certain persons. This evil then causes murmuring, not without some scandal and blame to us. But I account it quite proper for a bishop to give assistance to one oppressed by some one, or to a widow suffering injustice, or, again, an orphan robbed of his estate, always provided that these persons have a just cause of petition.

If, then, beloved brethren, this seems good to all, do ye decree that no bishop shall go to the imperial Court except those whom our most pious emperor may summon by his own letters. Yet since it often happens that persons condemned for their offences to deportation or banishment to an island, or who have received some sentence or other, beg for mercy and seek refuge with the Church [i.e., take sanctuary], such persons are not to be refused assistance, but pardon should be asked for them without delay and without hesitation. If this, then, is also your pleasure, do ye all vote assent.

All gave answer: Be this also decreed[7].

CANON VIII: Bishop Hosius said: This also let your sagacity determine, that — inasmuch as this was decreed in order that a bishop might not fall under censure by going to the Court — that if any have such petitions as we mentioned above, they should send these by one of their deacons. For the person of a subordinate does not excite jealousy, and what shall be granted [by the Emperor] can thus be reported more quickly.

All answered: Be this also decreed[8].

CANON IX: Bishop Hosius said: This also, I think, follows, that, if in any province whatever, bishops send petitions to one of their brothers and fellow-bishops, he that is in the largest city, that is, the metropolis, should himself send his deacon and the petitions, providing him also with letters commendatory, writing also of course in succession to our brethren and fellow-bishops, if any of them should be staying at that time in the places or cities in which the most pious Emperor is administering public affairs.

But if any of the bishops should have friends at the Court and should wish to make requests of them as to some proper object, let him not be forbidden to make such requests through his deacon and move these [friends] to give their kind assistance as his desire.

But those who come to Rome ought, as I said before, to deliver to our beloved brother and fellow-bishop, Julius, the petitions which they have to give, in order that he may first examine them, lest some of them should be improper, and so, giving them his own advocacy and care, shall send them to the Court.

All the Bishops made answer that such was their pleasure and that the regulation was most proper.

The Local Council of Carthage

The canons of the 217 blessed Fathers who assembled at Carthage, 419 A.D.

CANON XVI: Likewise it seemed good that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should not be “conductors” or “procurators;” nor seek their food by any base and vile business, for they should remember how it is written, “No man fighting for God cumbereth himself with worldly affairs.”

CANON LXXV: On account of the afflictions of the poor by whose troubles the Church is worn out without any intermission, it seemed good to all that the Emperors be asked to allow defenders for them against the power of the rich to be chosen under the supervision of the bishops.

CANON XCVII: That there be sought from the Emperor the protection of Advocates in causes ecclesiastical.

It seemed good that the legates who were about leaving, viz., Vincent and Fortunatian, should in the name of all the provinces ask from the most glorious Emperors to give a faculty for the establishment of scholastic defensors, whose shall be the care of this very kind of business: so that as the priests of the province, they who have received the faculty as defensors of the Churches in ecclesiastical affairs, as often as necessity arises, may be able to enter the private apartments of the judges, so as to resist what is urged on the other side, or to make necessary explanations.

Local Council of Constantinople “Prime-Second”

The seventeen canons of the Fathers gathered in the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, in the year 861 A.D.

CANON XI: The divine and sacred rules submit priests or deacons to deposition, who take upon themselves worldly governing tasks or responsibilities, or who have the rank of director in the houses of worldly rulers. We then, confirming the latter for all members of the clergy, declare that if any member of the clergy enters into worldly civil office, or takes upon himself the rule of director in the houses of worldly rulers or in the cities: such will be deposed from their priestly rank. Since, according to the word spoken by Christ himself, our true God, no-one can serve two masters.

4.4. Canons from the Fathers of the Church

Canons of St. Gregory of Neocaesarea

The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Archbishop of Neocaesarea ( 270 A.D.), who is called Thaumaturgus, concerning them that, during the incursion of the Barbarians, ate of things offered to idols and committed certain other sins.

CANON VII: That they who joined the barbarians in their murder and ravages, or were guides or informers to them, be not permitted to be hearers, till holy men assembled together do agree in common upon what shall seem good, first to the Holy Ghost, then to themselves.

Canons of St. Basil the Great

The first Canonical Epistle of our Holy Father Basil ( 378 A.D.), Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia to Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.

CANON VIII: He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of wilful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and undesignedly kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defence, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it die upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway….

CANON XI: He that is guilty of involuntary murder, shall do eleven years’ penance — that is, if the murdered person, after he had here received the wound, do again go abroad, and yet afterward die of the wound.

CANON XIII: Our fathers did not think that killing in war was murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three years.

CANON XLIII: That he who gives a mortal wound to another is a murderer, whether he were the first, aggressor, or did it in his own defence.

CANON LIV: That it is in the bishop’s power to increase or lessen penance for involuntary murder.

CANON LV: They that are not ecclesiastics setting upon highwaymen, are repelled from the communion of the Good Thing; clergymen are deposed.

CANON LVI: He that wilfully commits murder, and afterwards repents, shall for twenty years remain without communicating of the Holy Sacrament. Four years he must mourn without the door of the oratory, and beg of the communicants that go in, that prayer be offered for him; then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers, for seven years among the prostrators; for four years he shall be a co-stander with the communicants, but shall not partake of the oblation; when these years are completed, he shall partake of the Holy Sacrament.

CANON LVII: The involuntary murderer for two years shall be a mourner, for three years a hearer, four years a prostrator, one year a co-stander, and then communicate.

Canons of St. Athanasius the Great

The Epistle of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria ( 373 A.D.) to the Monk Ammun (extract).

… One might reasonably say no natural secretion will bring us before him for punishment. But possibly medical men (to put these people to shame even at the hands of outsiders) will support us on this point, telling us that there are certain necessary passages accorded to the animal body, to provide for the dismissal of the superfluity of what is secreted in our several parts; for example, for the superfluity of the head, the hair and the watery discharges from the head, and the purgings of the belly, and that superfluity again of the seminative channels. What sin then is there in God’s name, elder most beloved of God, if the Master who made the body willed and made these parts to have such passages? But since we must grapple with the objections of evil persons, as they may say, ‘If the organs have been severally fashioned by the Creator, then there is no sin in their genuine use,’ let us stop them by asking this question: What do you mean by use? That lawful use which God permitted when He said, ‘Increase and multiply, and replenish the earth,’ and which the Apostle approves in the words, ‘Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled,’ or that use which is public, yet carried on stealthily and in adulterous fashion?

For in other matters also which go to make up life, we shall find differences according to circumstances. For example, it is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honours, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible. The same reasoning applies to the relation of the sexes. He is blessed who, being freely yoked in his youth, naturally begets children. But if he uses nature licentiously, the punishment of which the Apostle writes shall await whoremongers and adulterers.

Canons of St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa ( 395 A.D.), to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene.

CANON V: Voluntary murderers shall be nine years ejected out of the church, nine years hearers, nine years prostrators; but every one of these nine years may be reduced to seven or six, or even five, if the penitents be very diligent. Involuntary murderers to be treated as fornicators, but still with discretion, and allowing the communion on a death-bed, but on condition, that they return to penance if they survive.


1 The 85 Canons of the Holy Apostles most probably originate from Syria in the IIIrd century. They were confirmed by the Quinisexte Ecumenical Council “in Trullo” (the Church where the Council took place) in 691, which issued the canons of the fifth and sixth Ecumenical Councils. The Canons of the Holy Apostles should not be mistaken for the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hyppolyte of Rome, which has not been confirmed by the Councils.

2 Prostrators are one of the categories of penants.

3 In his last contests with Constantine, Licinius had made himself the representative of heathenism; so that the final issue of the war would not be the mere triumph of one of the two competitors, but the triumph or fall of Christianity or heathenism. Accordingly, a Christian who had in this war supported the cause of Licinius and of heathenism might be considered as a lapsus [those who fell away from the Faith, ed.], even if he did not formally fall away. With much more reason might those Christians be treated as lapsi who, having conscientiously given up military service (this is meant by the soldier’s belt), afterwards retracted their resolution, and went so far as to give money and presents for the sake of readmission, on account of the numerous advantages which military service then afforded. It must not be forgotten that Licinius, as Zonaras and Eusebius relate, required from his soldiers a formal apostasy; compelled them, for example, to take part in the heathen sacrifices which were held in the camps, and dismissed from his service those who would not apostatize. Comment by the canonist Lambert.

4 Two cases excepted, the undertaking of secular business was made ecclesiastically penal. This is not to be construed as forbidding clerics to work at trades either (1) when the church-funds were insufficient to maintain them, or (2) in order to have more to bestow in alms, or (3) as an example of industry or humility. It was not the mere fact of secular employment, but secularity of motive and of tone that was condemned. Comment from the canonist Bright.

5 An ancient epitome of this canon reads: A voluntary homicide may at the last attain perfection.

Constantine Harmenopulus the Scholiast in the Epitom. Canonum., Sect. v., tit. 3, tells the following story: “In the time of the Patriarch Luke, a certain bishop gave absolution in writing to a soldier who had committed voluntary homicide, after a very short time of penace; and afterwards when he was accused before the synod of having done so, he defended himself by citing the canon which gives bishops the power of remitting or increasing the length of their penance to penitents. But he was told in answer that this was granted indeed to pontiffs but not that they should use it without examination, and with too great lenity. Wherefore the synod subjected the soldier to the canonical penance and the bishop it mulcted for a certain time, bidding him cease from the exercise of his ministry.”. Comment by the canonist van Espen.

6 Of voluntary and involuntary homicides St. Basil treats at length in his Canonical Epistle ad Amphilochium, can. viii., lvi. and lvii., and fixes the time of penance at twenty years for voluntary and ten years for involuntary homicides. It is evident that the penance given for this crime varied in different churches, although it is clear from the great length of the penance, how enormous the crime was considered, no light or short penance being sufficient. Comment of the canonist van Espen.

7 Nothing is more noteworthy than how the first princes summoned bishops in counsel with regard to affairs touching either the estate of the Church or of the Realm; and called them to their presence in urgent and momentous cases, and kept them with them. Justinian, the emperor, in his Novels (Chapter II.) defines that no one of the God-beloved bishops shall dare to be absent any more from his diocese for a whole year, and adds this exception, “unless he does so on account of an imperial jussio; in this case alone he shall be held to be without blame.” On this whole matter of bishops interceding for culprits, and especially for those condemned to death, see St. Augustine (Epist. 153 ad Macedonium ). Comment of the canonist van Espen.

8 This decree is threefold. First, that the bishop in going to Court should not fall under suspicion either at Court or of his own people that he was approaching the Prince to obtain some cause of his own. Second, according to the interpretation of Zonaras, “that no one should be angry with the Minister or Deacon who tarried in camp, as the bishop had departed thence.” And third, that the Minister could carry away what he had asked for, that is (according to Zonaras), the letters of the Emperor pardoning the fault, or such like other matters. Comment of the canonist van Espen.


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