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War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

The below text, by Nicholas Sooy of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an expanded version of a text sent to the blog publicorthodoxy.org. Texts there are requested to be brief. Texts on the upcoming Council’s documents are generally limited to thoughtful critiques. Below this essay are comments from the editors of In Communion.

War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

By Nicholas Sooy

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Iraq

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a powerful and timely statement on war, peace, and justice. Peacemaking, as Christ tells us in the Beatitudes, is a fundamental Christian vocation. At the same time, the Orthodox Church has a long and complicated history regarding peacemaking and war. While the Church has held to a very strongly pro-peace message throughout its history, changing political situations have affected the extent to which that message is carried out. It is the duty of the Church to counsel the faithful on how to carry out the peacemaking vocation in a changing political environment. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the past 100 years, and so this document is timely and much needed. This document authoritatively endorses the more pacific strands of the tradition, and from this position recommends certain responses to contemporary conflict. These statements are much needed, but at times are vague and do not go far enough in addressing the nature of contemporary conflict.

According to the document, the basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological and spiritual lens. On this basis, the Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the document also calls on the Church to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document is monumental for its clear and definitive statement that “The Church of Christ condemns war in general,” along with its condemnation of nuclear weapons in particular and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also recommends various peace efforts to be undertaken by Christians, calling it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5).  Along these lines, specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

These recommendations are good and should be encouraged, but the list is neither as specific nor as complete as it should be. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means, for as it stands its vagueness means it carries little weight (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament and no calls are made to limit arms trading or weapons production. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice in some areas of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water.

In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of the modernist notion of nationalism more generally (4.3). Nationalism is a broad category with many types. Unless nationalism is better defined and specific nationalisms are identified, particularly Orthodox religious nationalisms, the document’s statement could provide deniability to those inciting conflict and even war based on nationalism, under the guise of attempting to censure the nationalism of others. Such nationalisms should be more explicitly condemned, just as religious fanaticism is condemned.

Similarly, while peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, more needs to be said to strengthen ecclesial support for these endeavors, which are proven to ameliorate war and conflict. In particular, the viability of and employment of nonviolent campaigns and nonviolent institutions have risen dramatically over the past century, and each decade nonviolence is used to greater effect. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many within the Church, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept,” and identifies Orthodox roots for the notion of nonviolence. Given the effectiveness of nonviolence and its employment within Orthodoxy, it is unfortunate that such language should be left out of a document on peace in the contemporary world by the Church. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation. The conflicts in the Middle East and in the former Soviet bloc are prime examples of this new face of warfare. In these contexts, nonviolence is all the more effective and appropriate, and the Church should explicitly call upon Christians, nations, and institutions to invest more in nonviolent resistance and development, and less in warfare, standing armies, and weapons production. The Church should also call upon Christians to respond to oppression through nonviolent resistance rather than insurgency or terrorism.

The omission of an explicit endorsement of nonviolence is part of a larger weakness regarding the proper Orthodox response to violence. War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding those who participate in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil’ that some bishops have employed, it would be better to leave out such a qualification entirely and instead say that the Church extends pastoral care to those involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions a Christian can engage in fighting. If, as the document suggests, the only condition under which Christians fight is when their own life or freedom is threatened, then the document should mention the witness of martyrs as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs of the Church faced death and imprisonment willingly, and the Church has always lauded martyrs over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for their own lives or freedom, but instead are employed in humanitarian interventions, as they are described by political leaders, or are fighting insurgents. Greater clarification is needed regarding this changing nature of warfare, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another within this document (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. While the document suggests that the Church will extend pastoral care to those who fight, a similar pledge is not made to those who refuse for reasons of conscience or Christian discipleship. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend Christians to object to military service or the performance of duties in at least some circumstances. However, nothing is said regarding this, and nothing is said of the practice of universal military conscription in several countries such as Russia and Greece. The first recorded instance of someone dying for conscientious objection was in the early Christian period. Many saints and martyrs have explicitly refused military service, while other saints known as ‘passion-bearers’ have similarly suffered and been canonized for their refusal to fight.

There is a final weakness in this document’s account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than just the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be unfortunate and counterproductive if a document like this, condemning war, allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. The Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.


We the editors and members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship join Orthodox Christians everywhere with great anticipation for the upcoming “Great and Holy Council.” We pray that the Holy Spirit would lead the Council into all truth, and that peace would be ensured between all Orthodox Christians. We pray that the Council would be an occasion for Orthodox cooperation, love, and unity, and that The Gospel of Peace would shine forth from the Council’s proceedings both to the Church and to the broken and divided world. It is in the spirit of conciliarity that we engage and add our own voices to the work of the whole Church being conducted by the Council.

We are encouraged by the pro-peace message of the pre-conciliar documents, and wish only that this message would be strengthened. As they are, the documents are historic for their authoritative endorsement of peace and justice and their condemnation of war.

The editors of In Communion are watching the preparations to the council and are reading as many documents and responses as possible. We feel that because this is a very fluid situation and time sensitive, it is less important to write definitive statements than to respond thoughtfully “on the run” so to speak.

For now we wish to go just a bit beyond Nicholas’ “brief critique” and mention a few things we would like to see added to expand this document of the Council. We hope to refine a position that we can claim as an official OPF response. If what we say in the meantime has value, may it find it’s way.

The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (Mission Statement) should be considered a fine document in as far as it goes. Some of its points are vague or lacking, however. Others seem to miss important issues completely. While reading it, there grows a nagging sense that some of it was cobbled together ad hoc from various quarters’ talking points, reflecting less the clear thinking of the Church’s wisest and more what is politically in the air. We would like to see statements of the Council more clearly rooted in Orthodox theology and tradition, calling the faithful to think and see as Orthodox rather than “citizens.”

The Church should not neglect its history of disobedience to ungodly or unjust leadership. When any nation calls on its citizens to respond either aggressively or defensively in ways that violate the principles of the Gospel we are called to live by, the Church should not shy away from encouraging its children to disobedience. A clear option for conscientious objection should be bolstered by a duty to disobey in certain circumstances.

The Mission Statement fails to adequately address Nationalism and identity politics. It is gratifying to see it condemn war based on Nationalism, but one must wonder if such a simple statement without any expansion on what is at stake is a dodge or worse, as many States with significant or majority Orthodox populations are involved in identity-based conflict with other states.

While Christians are called to be salt and to seek to influence the world outside of the Church, we can never be confident in predictions of how successful applications of Christian principles and responses to violence may be in the world. Nevertheless, the Church must teach its children that while separation from the world does not equal disengagement with it, our calling to be children of God requires we identify with his kingdom and act according to its principles and mandates. We must militate against the world’s practice of identity politics and its preference for violence by manifesting life in the kingdom of God, not by imitating the world.

The Mission Statement should call out for the faithful everywhere the prevalence and nature of the various ethnic, religious, and civic nationalisms that exist in various States and lead too many Orthodox to conflate their citizen-based identity with their Kingdom of God identity. Such conflation always leads to conflict.

Trusting in the Holy Spirit, we pray that the document may be strengthened so that the Church might continue to bring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”

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LA SIMANDRE: Pentecôte: Fête de la Descente du Saint-Esprit sur les Disciples
LA SIMANDRE: Pentecôte: Fête de la Descente du Saint-Esprit sur les Disciples

The Muddle that is the Middle East

by Alexander Patico

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These days, we Christians have a reputation often based on our prejudices rather than our principles, our irritations with our neighbors rather than our love of neighbor. As the Orthodox columnist Terry Mattingly recently put it, Christians “are known best for what they are against.” We were once known for how well we loved one another. Not any more.

In his recent book, The Goodness of God’s Creation, Fr. Philip LeMasters says, about warfare, that we must not use the utilitarian criterion of Western culture in making life-and-death decisions. As Orthodox Christians, we must ask, “In the light of the human vocation for growth in holiness and communion with God, how should Christians respond to the prospect of warfare?” In any such cases, we must ask what the law of love commands – including in our response to the recent events in Gaza, and the ongoing conundrum of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The situation can, admittedly, be confusing. Labels often obfuscate: “Israeli” can be taken to mean citizens of the State of Israel (Jews, Arabs and others), or the government of Israel. Sometimes it is blurred to include supporters in other parts of the world. The term “Palestinians” can be used to mean “those who were born in Palestine” (whether in what is now Israel, on the West Bank, in Gaza, or wherever they now live); or it can mean “leaders of the Palestinian government” (including or excluding Hamas), or those who live in the occupied territories Muslim, Christian or something else).

The law of love leads us out of such briar patches of nomenclature. Whatever labels may be put on us, we are all brothers and sisters. While Paul was referring to the Church when he said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female,” whom can we place beyond the pale?

To heal the region, we must first put aside political divisions and historical Gordian knots, to recognize the basic human nature of the antagonists with all their needs and aspirations.

What is an Israeli Jew? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person with a rich tradition of searching and scholarship about how to treat fellow inhabitants of this earth. One with a special sense of connection to those who have been ostracized, oppressed or eliminated in many places and many times. A person who lives in some degree of fear.

What is a Palestinian? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person whose ancestors may have been among the first disciples of Christ, or among the early followers of Mohammad. A person with a sense of connection to those who have been displaced, made homeless or bombed. A person who lives in fear.

We Christians should be able to empathize with the anguish of Jews who never envisioned the State of Israel becoming an occupying force. After all, we went through the mixed blessing of having the Emperor Constantine embrace our faith, conflating temporal dominion with divine kingdom. We saw bloody crusades launched in the name of Christ, and the blasphemy of believers remaining quiet when their countrymen rounded up Jews, dissidents and the “defective.”
We can empathize with Palestinians excluded from their homes and homeland, stripped of human rights, punished as a people for the actions of a minority, with no power over their lives. We too have known, and still know, persecution (under the Ottomans, under Communism and in India today). We have picked up the rock – and the rocket – when we thought our lives depended on it.

There is no crime seen in this situation, of omission or commission, which has not been committed by those who called themselves Christians. So how, with our own blood-stained past, can we be helpful? We can – in just the way Our Lord specified – by showing our capacity to love.

We must remember the words of Dr. King, who said that the church “must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. … But if the church … will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of humankind and fire the souls of the people.”

Loving all the participants in this ghastly, perpetual drama of strike and counter-strike, intifada and walls, checkpoints and bus-bombings, means refusing to take sides. Refusing to sell armaments. Refusing to justify what cannot be justified, whether high-tech or low-tech, whether done out of desperation, preemption or revenge.

Positively, it means being willing to share our own experience, expertise and wealth, to reconcile the mortal enemies, and make the desert of Jewish and Arab hearts bloom. These are not easy things to do. But protesting the actions of others has always been easier than doing something constructive and redemptive ourselves.    ❖

Alexander Patico coordinates activities of OPF in North America. He has written previously for In Communion and authored a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iran relations.

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52