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Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity

 Pantocrator (Tahull Barcelona, 1123 AD)

By Fr. John McGuckin

Fr. John McGuckin is professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary and professor of Byzantine History at Columbia University, both in New York City. Footnotes are indicated by brackets. [1]

Ideals of Peace in a Violent World.

Christianity has had a very checkered history in terms of its peace tradition. It is often to images of Inquisition and Crusade that the popular imagination turns when considering the darker side of the church’s imposition of control over the personal and political worlds it has inhabited over long centuries. The figure of a pacific Jesus (the poet of the lilies of the fields, and the advocator of peaceful resistance to evil, who so inspired Tolstoy and Gandhi among others) is often contrasted with a church of more brutish disciples who, when occasion presented itself, turned willingly, and quickly enough, to tactics of oppression and coercion, policies which they themselves had lamented, as being against both divine and natural justice, when applied to them in the earlier centuries of the Roman persecutions.

The common version among Church Historians of this generic tale of a progressive sinking into the “brutal ways of the world,” also points to regular cycles of renewal and repentance, when Christians are said to reappropriate the “real” meaning of their past, and renounce violent resistance in the cause of a “truly Christian” non-resistance. This, of course, is usually a matter of occasional academic protest from the sidelines, or the wisdom of the aftermath, since in times of war the ranks of those who rush to defend the Christian defensibility of hostilities are rarely short of representatives, it would seem.

The key academic studies of the Early Church’s peace tradition, for example, had to wait until the 20th century. They appeared in two clusters, both of them the immediate aftermath of the great conflicts of 1914-18, and 1939-45, followed by a longer “tail” which was overshadowed by the Cold War’s generic fears of nuclear holocaust, and which produced a more thorough-going tenor of the “suspicion of war” in academic circles. Both the main-clusters of post-war re-assessments of Christian peace tradition in antiquity, witnessed a conflicted product in the tone of the literature. All lamented the fact and experience of war, from a Christian perspective, but some justified the concept of limited war engagement (usually Catholic scholars defending the then dominant Augustine-Aquinas theory of the Just War) while others were evidently more pacifist in tone (generally Protestant scholars calling for a “reform” of defective medievalist views). The more recent work, inspired by the public sight of several disastrously “failed” military interventions (such as Vietnam and Afghanistan) and the horrific record of genocidally-tinged conflict at the end of the 20th century (one of the bloodiest and nastiest on human record, though we still like to regard the ancients as less civilized than ourselves) have, again understandably, caused the Christian witness on war and violence to come under renewed scrutiny. Today the literature on war in early Christian tradition is extensive [2], and a synopsis of the primary sources has recently been collated in a useful ready-reference volume, with a good contextualizing discussion .[3]

While the common image of a militaristic Church is still, perhaps, prevalent in popular estimation, there are nevertheless, a multitude of pacific figures who feature in the Church’s exemplary stories of the lives of the saints.

One such hagiography was the narrative on Abba Moses the Ethiopian in the Tales of the Desert Fathers who, when warned in advance of the impending attack of marauding Blemmyes tribesmen in 5th century Lower Egypt, refused to leave his cell, and (though famed as a strong man of previously violent temper) stayed quietly in prayer waiting for the fatal assault of the invading brigands. This story of his election of pacific martyrdom was celebrated as most unusual; a heroic and highly individualist spiritual act of a master (and thus not normative). All the other monks of Scete in his time were either slaughtered because they were surprised, or else had much earlier fled before the face of the storm of invasion.

In terms of pacific saints, the Russian church celebrates the 11th century princes Boris and Gleb, the sons of Vladimir, the first Christian ruler of ancient Rus (Kiev) who, in order to avoid a civil war on the death of their father (when the third son, Svyatopolk, took up arms to assert his right to monarchical supremacy), are said to have adopted the role of “Passion-Bearers.” Refusing to bear arms for their own defense, and desiring to avoid bloodshed among their people, they followed the example of their new Lord, who suffered his own unjust Passion. The image and category of “passion-bearing martyr” is one that is dear to, almost distinctive of, the Russian church, so troubled has its history been.

Nevertheless, even this celebrated example contrasts, in many respects, with the witness of other Russian saint-heroes, such as the great warrior prince Alexander Nevsky and contrasts with the witness of many other ancient churches too (such as the Byzantine, Romanian, Serbian, Nubian, or Ethiopian) who had an equally fraught pilgrimage through history, but who proudly elevated and honored the icons and examples of warrior-saints who resisted the onslaught militarily, and died in the process.

In the Romanian Church one of the great heroic founders was the warrior prince Petru Rares who slaughtered the invading Turkish armies under the guidance of his spiritual father and confessor Saint Daniel the Hesychast. The saint commanded the prince to erect monasteries on the site of the great battles, to ensure mourning and prayer for the lost souls whose blood had been shed. This was an act that was seen as a necessary expiation of Petru’s “equally necessary” violence. Both he and his spiritual mentor were heavily burdened by their perceived duty of defending the borders of Christendom. To this day Romania’s most ancient and beautiful churches stand as mute witnesses to a bloody history where Islam and Christianity’s tectonic plates collided (as often they did in the history of the Christian East). The national perception in Romania of prince Vlad Dracul (the western bogeyman of Dracula) is diametrically opposed to the common perception of more or less everyone outside. Within the country Vlad himself is regarded as a national hero and a great Christian warrior who assumed the duty of defending the Faith against the military attempts of Islam forcibly to convert Europe.

Similarly, almost all the saints of Ethiopia are either monastic recluses or warriors. The saints of the (now lost) Church of Nubia [4] were also predominantly warriors. Likewise, the frescoes of saints on the walls of the ancient Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athos, on the Halkidiki peninsula, demonstrate serried ranks of martyr protectors dressed in full Roman battle gear, in attendance on the Christ in Majesty [5]. The monks were not particularly warlike themselves, but knew at first hand the terrors of living in the pirate-infested Mediterranean. Like the Nubians, a life entirely and permanently surrounded by hostile foes, gave the Athonite monks a very practical attitude to violence, pacific resistance, and the need for defense in varieties of forms.

The western church too has its share of noble saint-warriors. In medieval English literature the warrior saint was a highly romantic figure [6]. We can also think of the famed Crusading juggernaut Louis the Pious. These, however, are noticeably not, any longer, “popular saints” (as their counterparts remain in Eastern Christianity) though this may be laid to the door of a generic loss of interest in hagiography and the cultus of the saints in contemporary Western Christianity, as much to a sense of embarrassment that the ranks of saints included so many generals of armies.

Along with its warriors, the Western Church often appealed, for an example of pacific lifestyle, to the Christ-like image of Francis of Assisi, in preference perhaps to the more robust figure of Dominic and his inquisitional Order of Preachers, although one ought not to forget that the Franciscan order itself had from its early origins a foundational charge to evangelize Muslims in the Middle and Near East; its own form of potential “Inquisition” that never had the opportunity to flourish because of Ottoman power, but which was often felt as real enough and resented greatly by the Eastern rite Christians of those places.

This macro-picture of Church History as a sclerotic decline, where simple origins are progressively corrupted into oppressive structures as the church seizes an ever-larger foothold on the face of the earth, is so familiar, almost cliched, that it hardly needs further amplification.

It is perfectly exemplified in the general presumption that the Christian movement before the age of the Emperor Constantine the Great (4th century) was mainly pacific in philosophy, but afterwards began theologically to justify the use of coercive force, and so began the long slide into all manner of corruption of power, and abandonment of the primitive spirit of the gentle Jesus [7].

The theory is problematized to some degree by the issue of “conflicted contextualization” for the notable resistance of the earliest Christian movement (2nd through to early 4th centuries) to military service: whether this was predominantly pacifist in temperament; or was related to the military requirements to worship the pagan pantheon of gods; or was simply an aspect of the fear of an oppressed and persecuted group in the face of the state’s arm of power. In early canon law the military profession had the same status as a harlot when it came to the seeking of baptism: before admission to the church was countenanced an alternative career had to be sought.

After the Pax Constantina, that prohibition was relaxed as even the Christian emperors expected their fellow-Christians to take up their station in the army. Recent historical study has progressively argued that the advancement of Christians to political and military power should not be seen as a surprisingly miraculous event (as the legend of Constantine would have it be), but the result of more than a century of prior political and military infiltration of the higher offices of state by Christians bearing arms. The earliest materials (martyrial stories of how the poor resisted the Roman imperium) tend to come from the account of the churches of the local victims [8].

The full story (why, for example, Diocletian targeted Christians within his own court and army to initiate the Great persecution of the early 4th century) [9] is less to the front: but clearly the great revolution of the 4th century which saw an internationally ascendant Church, was not simply an altruistic “gift” of power to a pacific Christian movement, but more in the terms of an acknowledgment by Constantine that his own path to monarchy lay with the powerful international lobby of Christians. The question as to “who patronized who”: Constantine the Church, or the Church Constantine, remains one that is surely more evenly balanced than is commonly thought. The military and political involvement of Christians, therefore, (as distinct from the “Church” shall we say) is something that is not so simply “switched” at the 4th century watershed of Constantine’s “conversion.”

Nevertheless, the story that from primitive and “pure” beginnings the Christian movement degenerated into a more warlike compromise with state power, is a good story precisely because it is so cartoon-like in its crudity. It ought not to be forgotten, however, that it “is” a story, not a simple record of uncontested facts. It is a story, moreover, that took its origin as part of a whole dossier of similar stories meant to describe the movement of Christianity through history in terms of early promise, followed by rapid failure, succeeded by the age of reform and repristination of the primitive righteousness.

In short, the common view of Christianity’s peace tradition, as sketched out above, is clearly a product of Late-Medieval Reformation apologetics. That so much of this early-modern propaganda has survived to form a substrate of presupposition in post-modern thought about Christian history is a testimony to the power of the apologetic stories themselves, and (doubtless) to the widespread distrust of the motives of the late medieval church authorities in western Europe at the time of the Reformation.

The common view about Christianity’s peace tradition, however, is so hopelessly rooted in western, apologetic, and “retrospectivist” presuppositions (a thorough-going Protestant revision of the Catholic tradition on the morality of war and violence that had preceded it) that it is high time the issue should be considered afresh.

The common histories of Christianity, even to this day, seem to pretend that its eastern forms (the Syrians, Byzantines, Armenians, Copts, Nubians, Indians, Ethiopians, or Cappadocians) never existed, or at least were never important enough to merit mention; or that western Europe is a normal and normative vantage point for considering the story. But this narrow perspective skews the evidence at the outset.

Accordingly, the figures of Augustine of Hippo (the towering 5th century African theologian) and Thomas Aquinas (the greatest of the Latin medieval scholastic theologians) loom very large in the normative western-form of the telling of the tale. Both theologians were highly agentive in developing the western Church’s theory and principles of a “Just War.”

In the perspectives of the eastern Christian tradition, not only do these two monumental figures not feature but, needless to say, neither does their theory on the moral consideration of war and violence which has so dominated the western imagination. Eastern Christianity simply does not approach the issue from the perspective of “Just War,” and endorses no formal doctrine advocating the possibility of a “Just War.”

Its approach is ambivalent, more complex and nuanced. For that reason it has been largely overlooked in the annals of the history of Christianity, or even dismissed as self-contradictory. It is not self-contradictory, of course, having been proven by experience through centuries of political suffering and oppression. If it knows anything, the Eastern church knows how to endure, and hardly needs lessons on such a theme; but it is certainly not a linear theory of war and violence that it holds (as if war and violence could be imagined as susceptible of rational solution and packaging). Its presuppositions grow from a different soil than do modern and post-modern notions of political and moral principles.

Christianity was, and remains at heart, an apocalyptic religion, and it is no accident that its numerous biblical references to war and violent destruction are generally apocalyptic ciphers, symbols that stand for something else, references to the “Eschaton” (the image of how the world will be rolled up and assessed once universal justice is imposed by God on his recalcitrant and rebellious creation). Biblical descriptions of violence and war, in most of Christianity”s classical exposition of its biblical heritage, rather than being straightforward depictions of the life and values of “This-World-Order” are thus eschatological allegories. To confound the two orders [10] (taking war images of the apocalyptic dimension) for instances of how the world (here) ought to be managed [11] is a gross distortion of the ancient literature. This has become increasingly a problem since the medieval period when allegorist readings of scripture have been progressively substituted (especially in Protestantism) for wholesale historicist and literalist readings of the ancient texts. [12].

This is not to say that eastern Christianity itself has not been guilty of its own mis-readings of evidences, in various times of its history, or that it has no blood on its hands, for that would be to deny the brutal facts of a Church that has progressively been driven westwards, despite its own will, by a series of military disasters, for the last thousand years. But, Christian reflection in the eastern Church has, I would suggest, been more careful than the West, to remind itself of the apocalyptic and mysterious nature of the Church’s place within history and on the world-stage, and has stubbornly clung to a less congratulatory theory of the morality of War (despite its advocacy of “Christian imperium”), because it sensed that such a view was more in tune with the principles of the Gospels. What follows in this paper is largely a consideration of that peace tradition in the perspective of the eastern provinces of Christianity, the “patristic” foundation that went on to provide the underpinning of Byzantine canon law, and (after the fall of Byzantium), the system of law that still operates throughout the churches of the East.

In the decades following the First World War, Adolf Von Harnack was one of the first among modern patristic theologians to assemble a whole dossier of materials on the subject of the Church’s early traditions on war and violence. [13]. In his macro-thesis he favored the theory of the “fall from grace,” and argued that the Church progressively relaxed its earliest blanket hostility to bloodshed and the military profession in general. The relaxation of anti-war discipline, he saw as part and parcel of a wider “corruption” of early Christian ideals by “Hellenism.”

And yet, no Eastern Christian attitudes to war, either before or after the Pax Constantina, have ever borne much relation to classic Hellenistic and Roman war theory [14], being constantly informed and conditioned by biblical paradigms (reined in by Jesus’ strictures on the futility of violence) rather than by Hellenistic Kingship theory or tribal theories of national pride.

In the second part to his study (subtitled “The Christian Religion and the Military Profession”), Harnack went further to discuss the wide extent of biblical images of war and vengeance in the Christian foundational documents, suggesting that the imagery of “spiritual warfare” however removed it might be from the “real world” when it was originally coined, must take some responsibility for advocating the sanctification of war theories within the church in later ages [15].

For Harnack, and many others following in his wake, Constantine was the villain of the piece, and not less so his apologist the Christian bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. The latter finds no problem at all in comparing the deaths of the wicked as recounted in Old Testament narratives of holy war, with Constantine’s conquest and execution of his enemies in the Civil War of the early 4th century [16]. For Eusebius, writing in 336, the cessation of the war in 324 was a fulfilment of the Psalmic and Isaian prophecies of a golden age of peace [17].

Eusebius’ fulsome rhetoric has had a great deal of weight placed upon it by those who favor the “theory of fall,” even though on any sober consideration, to extrapolate a court-theologian such as Eusebius into a marker of general opinion in the Church of the early 4th century should have been more universally acknowledged to be a serious mistake. Eusebius’ more sober thoughts on the expansion of the Church (as exemplified by Constantine’s victory over persecuting emperors, and his clear favoritism for the Christians) was really an intellectual heritage from that great theological teacher whose disciple he prided himself on being — Origen of Alexandria.

It was certainly Origen who had put into his mind the juxtaposition of the ideas of the Pax Romana being the providentially favorable environment for the rapid internationalization of the Gospel. Origen himself, however, was pacifist in his attitudes to war and world powers, and was sternly against the notion of the Church advocating its transmission and spread by force of arms [18]. In his wider exegesis Eusebius shows himself consistently to be a follower of his teacher’s lead and the Old Testament paradigms of the “downfall of the wicked” are what are generally at play in both Origen and Eusebius when they highlight biblical examples of vindication, or military collapse.

Several scholars misinterpret Eusebius radically, therefore, when they read his laudation of Constantine as some kind of proleptic justification of the Church as an asserter of rightful violence. His Panegyric on Constantine should not be given such theoretical weight, just as a collection of wedding congratulatory speeches today would hardly be perused for a cutting edge analysis of the times. In applying biblical tropes and looking for fulfillments, Eusebius (certainly in the wider panoply if all his work is taken together not simply his court laudations) is looking to the past, not to the future; and is intent only on celebrating what for most in his generation must have truly seemed miraculous — that their oppressors had fallen, and that they themselves were now free from the fear of torture and death.

Origen and Eusebius may have set a tone of later interpretation that could readily grow into a vision of the Church as the inheritor of the biblical promises about the Davidic kingdom (that the boundaries of Byzantine Christian power were concomitant with the Kingdom of God on earth, and thus that all those who lay outside those boundaries were the enemies of God), but there were still innumerable dissidents even in the long-lasting Byzantine Christian politeia (especially the monks) who consistently refused to relax the apocalyptic dimension of their theology, and who resisted the notion that the Church and the Byzantine borders were one and the same thing [19].

The Canonical Epistles of Basil of Caesarea.

Basil of Caesarea was a younger contemporary of Eusebius, and in the following generation of the Church of the late 4th century, he emerged as one of the leading theorists of the Christian movement. His letters and instructions on the ascetic life, and his “Canons” [20] (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: and in the Eastern Church of antiquity (because monasticism was the substructure of the spread of the Christian movement), that more or less meant his canonical views became the standard paradigm of Eastern Christianity’s theoretical approach to the morality of war and violence, even though the writings were local [21] and occasional in origin. Basil’s 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 Nicaea (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.” [22]

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 4th 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 (in his own lifetime his reputation had been highly conflicted, his person exiled numerous times, and his writings proscribed by imperial censors), 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.” [23]

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 Church’s tradition on war, is simplistic, and that is 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 Church’s 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 be “amerced” [24]; all other armed conflicts are implicitly excluded as not being appropriate to Christian morality). Basil’s 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) [25]. 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 do not feel they can fight because of religious scruples. His sentiment is more that a passive non-involvement betrays the Christian family (especially its weaker members who can not 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 provocation to fighting, that Christians ought at some stage to accept (to defend the honor and safety of the weak), will be inherently a limited and adequate response, mainly because the honor and tradition of the Christian faith (piety and sobriety) in the hearts and minds of the 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 Church’s 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 communication to begin with (ritual preparation was extensive and involved fasting and almsgiving and prayer), and where a sizeable majority of adult Christians in a given church would not have yet 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 Basil’s 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. Basil’s arrangement that the returning noble warrior’ should stand in the Church (not 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 [26], and should set up a decided refusal of post-war church-sponsored self-congratulations for victory [27]. 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 kathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is “be penitent.” Basil’s 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 [28].

Concluding Reflections

We might today regard such early attempts by Christians as quaintly naive. They are wired through the early penitential system, clearly, and have a fundamental “economic” character about them. By Economy the early church meant the art of doing what was possible when a higher ideal standard was not sustained. In the case of war Basil and the canonical tradition are tacitly saying that when the Kingdom ideals of peace and reconciliation collapse, especially in times of war when decisive and unusual action is required, and the ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness fall into chaos in the very heart of the Church itself [29], as members go off to fight, then the ideal must be reasserted as soon as possible — with limitations to the hostilities a primary concern, and a profound desire to mark the occasion retrospectively with a public “cleansing.” While the honor of the combatants is celebrated by Basil (even demanded as an act of protection for the weak), one essential aspect of that honor is also listed as being the public acceptance of the status of penitent shedder of blood. The clergy (as with other economic concessions of morality operative in the church’s canons) are the only ones not allowed benefit of necessity. In no case is violent action permitted to one who stands at the altar of God. Even if a cleric spills blood accidentally (such as in an involuntary manslaughter) such a person would be deposed from active presbyteral office. The sight of “warrior- bishops” in full military regalia, passing through the streets of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, left its mark on contemporary Greek sources as one of the greatest “shocks” to the system, and one of the incidentals that were taken by the Greeks as proof positive that Latin Christianity in the 13th century had a serious illness at its center.

More than naive, perhaps, might we regard such a morality of war as seriously “under-developed”? Can such an important issue really be dealt with by so few canons of the ancient eastern church, and even then, by regulations that are so evidently local and occasional in character ? Well, the charges of inconsistency (praising a noble warrior then subjecting him to penance) and muddle-headedness, were raised in early times, especially by Latin theologians who wanted to press the envelope and arrive at a more coherent and all-embracing theory of war: one that balanced the apparent biblical justifications of hostility on the part of the chosen people, with the need to limit the obvious blood-lust of our species. The Latin theory of Just War was one result. Considered primarily (as it was meant to be) as a theory of the limitation of hostilities in the ancient context (hand to hand fighting of massed armies whose very size limited the time of possible engagement to a matter of months at most), it too was an “economic” theory that had much merit. It’s usefulness became moot in the medieval period when armament manufacture took ancient warfare into a new age, and it has become utterly useless in the modern age of mechanized warfare, where it could not stop the fatal transition (on which modernized mechanical warfare depends — both that sponsored by states, and that sponsored by smaller groups which we call “terrorism”) to the centrally important role of the murder of non-combatants. Be that as it may, it is not the purpose of the present essay to offer a sustained critique on Just War theory — merely to raise up a mainline Christian tradition of the ancient East which has never believed in Just War — and to offer instead of an elegant theory, a poor threadbare suggestion of old saints: that War is never justified or justifiable, but is de facto a sign and witness of evil and sin.

When it falls across the threshold of the Church in an unavoidable way, it sometimes becomes our duty (so the old canons say) to take up arms; though when that is the case is to be determined in trepidation by the elect who understand the value of peace and reconciliation, not in self-glorifying battle cries from the voices of the bloodthirsty and foolish. But in no case is the shedding of blood, even against a manifestly wicked foe, ever a “Just Violence.” The eastern canons, for all their tentativeness, retain that primitive force of Christian experience on that front. It may be the “Violence of the Just” but in that case the hostility will necessarily be ended with the minimal expenditure of force, and be marked in retrospect by the last act of the “violent Just” which will be repentance that finally resolves the untenable paradox. Ambivalent and “occasional” such a theory of War might be: but if it had been followed with fidelity the Church’s hands might have been cleaner than they have been across many centuries; and it might yet do a service on the wider front in helping Western Christianity to dismantle its own “economic” structures of war theory which are so patently in need of radical re-thinking. Perhaps the place to begin, as is usually the case, is here and now: with “Christian America” at the dawn of a new millennium, in which we seem to have learned nothing at all from generations of bitter experience of hostility: except the hubris that international conflicts can be undertaken “safely” now that other super-powers are currently out of commission. Such is the wisdom of the most powerful nation on earth, currently in an illegal state of war [30] which it wishes to disguise even from itself, even as the American military deaths this month exceeded 1000, with a pervasive silence all that it has to offer in relation to all figures of the deaths of those who were not American troops. Such is the wisdom under a leadership that is itself apparently eager to line up for a “righteous struggle” with the “forces of evil,” which so many others in the world outside, have seen as more in the line of a determined dominance of Islamic sensibilities by Super-Power secularism of the crassest order. In such a strange new millennium, perhaps the wisdom of the need to be tentative, finds a new power and authority.


1 The essay is published in: KK Kuriakose (ed). Non-Violence: Concepts and Practices Across Religions and Cultures. NY. 2005.

2 The chief sources in English are: RH Bainton. Christian Attitudes to War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. Nashville. 1960; CJ Cadoux. The Early Christian Attitude to War. Oxford. 1919 (repr. NY. 1982); A von Harnack. Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. (tr. DM Gracie. Philadelphia. 1980: original German edn. 1905; HA Deane. The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York. 1963 (chs.5-6); J. Helgeland. Christians and Military Service: AD 173-337. PhD Diss. University of Chicago. 1973. (summarized in Idem. “Christians and the Roman Army. AD. 173- 337.” Church History. 43. June 1974. 149-161; JM Hornus. It is Not Lawful for me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes to War, Violence and the State . (trs. A Kreider & O Coburn). Scottsdale, Pa. 1980; HT McElwain. Augustine’s Doctrine of War in Relation to Earlier Ecclesiastical Writers. Rome. 1972; TS Miller & J Nesbitt (eds). Peace and War in Byzantium. Essays in Honor of GT Dennis. CUA Press. Washington. 1995; EA Ryan. “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians.” Theological Studies. 13. 1952. 1-32; WR. Stevenson. Christian Love and Just War: Moral Paradox and Political Life in St. Augustine and his Modern Interpreters. Macon. Ga. 1987.

3 LJ Swift. The Early Fathers on War and Military Service. (Message of the Fathers of the Church. Vol. 19). 1983. Wilmington. De.

4 Byzantine in foundation and structure, until its annihilation in the late 15th century.

5 See: M Chatzidakis. The Cretan Painter Theophanes: The Wall-Paintings of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita. Thessaloniki. (published on Mount Athos). 1986.

6 Cf. JE Damon. Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors: Warfare and Sanctity in the Literature of Early England. (Ashgate press). Aldershot. 2003.

7 Helgeland (1973. p. 17.) illustrates how both Harnack and Cadoux’s works progress from this shared presupposition despite their different perspectives on the issue of pacifism as a general Christian ideal. (Cadoux regarded Harnack as having soft-pedalled the Church’s early peace witness).

8 The early martyrial acts are charged with the dramatic characterization of the martyr as the apocalyptic witness, and the condemning magistrate as eschatological servant of the Beast. The narratives often deliberately follow the literary paradigm of the Passion Story of the Gospels. The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one such example.

9 Or how it might well be the case that Christian soldiers had already taken the imperial throne by force of arms in the mid 3rd century (in the case of Philip the Arab).

10 What the ancient sources described as the “Two Ages” (This Age of turmoil that stands within the historical record and permits brutal oppression as the ultimate symbol of “the Beast,” that is evil personified, and the Other Age, which is the Transcendent “Kingdom of God” when peace will be established by the definitive ending of violent powers hostile to the good., and the comforting of the poor.

11 It is a major category mistake, therefore, for fundamentalist Christians to apply apocalyptically matrixed scriptural references to “war in the heavens spilling out on earth,” as authoritative “justifications” from the Bible for Christians to engage in violent conflict for political ends. The essence of biblical, apocalyptic, doctrine is that the Two Ages must never be conflated or confused. The “Next Age” cannot be ushered in by political victories gained in “This Age.” By this means Christianity, in its foundational vision, undercut the principles that continue to inspire Judaism and Islam with their (essentially) non-apocalyptic understandings of the spreading of the Kingdom of God on Earth in recognizable borders, and militarily if necessary.

12 As if, for example, the biblical narratives of the Pentateuch where God commands Moses and Joshua to slaughter the Canaanite inhabitants in the process of seizing the “Promised Land” were to be read literalistically — as both vindicating war for “righteous reasons,” and validating the forced appropriation of territories after conflict. Protestant fundamentalism would, of course, read the texts with that political slant (symbolically going further to adapt the text to justify Christianity’s use of violence in a just cause); whereas the ancient Church consistently reads the narrative as allegorically symbolic of the perennial quest to overcome evil tendencies by virtuous action. The Canaanites assume the symbolic status of personal vice, the Israelite armies, the status of the ethical struggle. While this allegorical symbolism still depends in large degree on a symbolic reading of violent images, it successfully defuses a wholesale biblical “sanction” for violence and war.

13 A. Harnack. Militia Christi. The Christian Religion and The Military in the First Three Centuries (Tr. D. McI. Gracie). Philadelphia. 1981.

14 Though Ambrose and Augustine take much of their views on the subject from Cicero.

15 He probably underestimated the extent to which the early Church was propelled, not by subservience to emperors, but more by the way in which the war theology of ancient Israel was passed on as an authoritative paradigm, simply by the force of ingesting so much of the Old Testament narratives in the structure of its prayers, liturgies, and doctrines. It is, nonetheless, worthy of note that formally, from early times, the war passages of the Old Testament were consistently preached as allegorical symbols of the battle to establish peaceful virtues in human hearts (not the advocating of conquest of specific territories). Harnack himself admitted (when considering the example of the Salvation Army, that this aspect of this thesis could limp badly.

16 Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. 9.9. 5-8; Life of Constantine. 1.39.

17 Is.2.4; Ps.72.7-8.

18 See N McLynn. “Roman Empire,” pp. 185-187 in: J.A. McGuckin (ed). The Westminster Handbook to Origen of Alexandria. Louisville. Ky. 2004.

19 For a further elaboration of the argument see: J.A.McGuckin. The Legacy of the Thirteenth Apostle: Origins of the East- Christian Conceptions of Church-State Relation. St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. 47. Nos. 3-4. 2003. 251-288.

20 The “Canonical Epistles of St. Basil,” otherwise known as the “92 canons.” They can be found in English translation in: The Pedalion or Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons by Saints Nicodemus and Agapius. Tr. D Cummings. (Orthodox Christian Educational Society). Chicago. 1957 (repr. NY. 1983). pp. 772-864.

21 Basil was the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, now a city (Kaisariye) of Eastern Turkey.

22 Basil. Ep. 188. 13; Pedalion. p. 801.

23 Athanasius Epistle 48. To Amun. full text in A Robertson (tr). St. Athanasius Select Works and Letters. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Church. Vol. 4. (1891). repr. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 1980. pp. 556-557.

24 That is find canonical forgiveness for the act of shedding blood: which is canonically prohibited. The background context of the canons which forbid the shedding of blood are important to Basil’s thought, and are presumed throughout. He takes it for granted that clergy are absolutely forbidden to shed blood: and even if they do so accidentally, will be prohibited from celebrating the Eucharistic mysteries afterwards. In this case, just as with the church’s canonical rules relating to the prohibition of second marriages, what began as a general rule, was relaxed in its application to wider society, although the clergy were required to sustain the original strict interpretation (see Apostolical Canons 66. Pedalion. pp. 113-116.) Today in Orthodoxy, marriage is described as a one-time occurrence: but if the marriage is broken a second (and even third) marriage can be contracted “as an economy” to human conditions and relational failures. The clergy, however, are not allowed to contract second marriages (even if the first wife has died). The economy is not permitted to them. Clergy in the Eastern tradition are still canonically forbidden from engaging in any violence, beyond the minimum necessary to defend their life (Apostolic Canon 66.)though they are censured if they do not vigorously defend a third party being attacked in their presence. For both things (use of excessive violence in self-defence, and refusal to use violence in defense of another, they are given the penalty of deposition from orders).

25 “A Christian should not volunteer to become a soldier, unless he is compelled to do this by someone in authority. He can have a sword, but he should not be commanded to shed blood. If it can be shown that he has shed blood he should stay away from the mysteries (sacraments) at least until he has been purified through tears and lamentation.” Canons of Hippolytus 14.74. Text in Swift (1983) p. 93. See also Apostolic Tradition 16.

26 As developed especially (out of Cicero) by Ambrose of Milan On Duties. 1. 176; and Augustine (Epistle 183.15; Against Faustus 22. 69-76; and see Swift:1983. pp. 110-149). But Ambrose (ibid. 1. 35.175) specifically commands his priests to have no involvement (inciting or approving) whatsoever in the practice of War or judicial punishments: “Interest in matters of war,” he says, “seems to me to be alien to our role as priests.”

27 Many churches have uneasily juggled this responsibility in times past. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously denounced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s post-Falklands-war service in 80’s London (St. Paul’s cathedral), as ” far too wet,” while other critics in the country were hard on him for not stating at the outset that the Falklands invasion did not fulfill the requirements of a “Just War” in terms of classical western theory, and so should have been more severely denounced by the Church.

28 Ordinary murder was given a 20 year debarment from the church’s sacraments as well as all accruing civic penalties. Basil’s Canon 56. Pedalion. p. 827; manslaughter received a ten year debarment. Basil’s Canon 57. Pedalion. p. 828.

29 Note that they are not querying the collapse of peace ideals outside the church as they regard the spread of hubris and violence on the earth as a clear mark of all those dark forces hostile to the heavenly Kingdom. The advocacy of war that is not a direct response to a clear and present threat of aggression is thus permanently ruled out of the court of morality in this system.

30 The conflict in Iraq, an invasion not given sanction of international law through the medium United Nations, but initiated to overthrow the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein on the pretext that he was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

* * *

Models of Self-Emptying Love

Fr. Alexander Webster

In imperial Russia several writers, among them Fyodor Dostoevsky, captured “the mind of the Church” on the issue of war and peace — at least that part of the Orthodox mind that upholds nonviolence, nonresistance, and universal forgiveness as moral and spiritual ideals: the “kenotic” model.

The Greek word on which the concept of kenoticism is based (kenein, to empty) appears only five times in the New Testament and only once in the sense that has become associated with kenosis. St. Paul declares in Philippians 2:6-7 that “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The meaning of “empty” is metaphoric, suggesting voluntary humiliation. The same idea is present in the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, where the Word “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11), as well as in Hebrews 2:14-18, where Christ is referred to as being “made like his brethren in every respect” and having “suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” Kenosis entails Jesus Christ’s willingness to identify with His human creation even to the extent of suffering unjustly.

Christ’s kenotic role is not, however, characterized by pathos alone. For a triumphant vindication of His absolute selflessness awaits the Lord at the end of His redemptive act. In the same text in which St. Paul employs the verb kenein, he declares about Jesus: “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9) The Johannine imagery of Jesus being “lifted up from the earth” refers not only to Jesus’ eventual visible manifestation of glory through the resurrection but also to the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross, where victory was hidden in seeming defeat and the fullness of redemption contained in the last measure of selfless devotion.

Kenoticism was prominent in Kyivan Rus’. George Fedotov remarks that the Saints Boris and Gleb “created in Russia a particular… order of ‘sufferers,’ the most paradoxical order of the Russian saints.” Boris and Gleb — the voluntary, nonresistant sufferers for their evil brother’s designs — have been held in special esteem since their martyrdom in 1015 in imitation of Christ’s Passion.

Russian kenoticism was the object of a revival following the death of Tsar Peter I in 1725. Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the “kenotic mood” was expressed through “meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, nonresistance, acceptance of suffering and death” in imitation of Christ. Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow (1782-1867) always referred to the kenotic passage in Philippians in his Christmas sermons on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Archimandrite Alexis Bukharev (1822-1871) often urged his fellow Russians to follow the “humiliated Lamb” and attempted to lead his own life as a “fool for Christ.”

Professor M.M. Tareev (1866-1934) of the Moscow Theological Academy honored the popular devotion to a “God’s man, humiliated and suffering.” In Foundations of Christianity, published on the eve of the Revolution, Tareev directly linked the doctrine of kenoticism to a pacifist emphasis on nonviolence and nonresistance. The Church, he argued, “cannot conquer the world in the Christian spirit unless by the victory of meekness.” The Sermon on the Mount occupied the center of his moral theology and represented for Tareev, as Gorodetzky observed, that “love which extends to the form of nonresistance.” Given “the duty of voluntary death” to which all followers of Christ are called, a Christian, in Tareev’s estimation, could only refuse to engage in violence against other human beings without exception. If the freedom to make of oneself a willing sacrifice were a moral necessity, then war and capital punishment were unmitigated evils that violated the freedom of mankind.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

Canonized in 1861, the mystical works of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1722-1783) became standard texts in Russian seminaries and were widely read beyond theological schools. An inspiration to Dostoevsky, St. Tikhon was one of the models for Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

St. Tikhon taught kenoticism in word and deed. Fr. Georges Florovsky referred to “his unremitting concentration on the memory and contemplation of Christ’s sufferings” even to the point of falling at times “into a helpless torpor, confinement, and immobility, when everything around him was dark, empty, and unresponsive.” Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the saint believed that the true basis of Christianity was the “voluntary self-abasement of Christ, both in His premundane life as the Son of God and in His earthly life.”

Perhaps the best testimony of St. Tikhon’s practice of kenoticism is the memoirs of one of his monk servants at the Zadonsk monastery, Ivan Yefimov. Yefimov wrote that during his first few years at Zadonsk, St. Tikhon “had a violent temper” and punished his attendants severely “for the slightest fault.” But the saint prayed to God for some measure to teach him patience and humility. In a dream about an infant in a church the saint was slapped on the left cheek by the child with such force that the saint awoke. He deemed the dream a sign from God and henceforth “began to acquire patience and humility.” Whenever he rebuked his peasant servants such as his cook and suspected that he had offended the attendant, the saint “would bow before him, asking to be forgiven.”

Another story by Yefimov illustrates how deeply this spiritual transformation affected those around St. Tikhon:

One day the saint heard of a squire who mistreated his serfs. His Grace intervened and betook himself to the lord of that estate in order to remonstrate with him. The hot-blooded nobleman started to dispute. The Bishop answered him gently but firmly. The anger of the nobleman grew, and finally he forgot himself so far as to strike the Bishop on the cheek. His Grace then left the nobleman’s house. But on his way, true to the evangelical precept, he resolved to return to the man who had insulted him and to beg forgiveness for “having led him into such a temptation.” So, going back, he fell at the feet of his host. The story goes on to say that this unexpected act of the pastor who knew no anger so deeply impressed the nobleman that he himself fell on his knees at the Bishop’s feet, imploring forgiveness. From that day on his behavior toward his serfs was completely altered.

Elements of this anecdote apparently inspired Dostoevsky in his characterizations of Prince Mishkin in The Idiot (the slap in the face) and the Elder Zossima (prostrating himself before Dimitri Karamazov) in The Brothers Karamazov.

In his letters and treatises St. Tikhon revealed an unyielding kenotic commitment to voluntary suffering, forgiveness, nonviolence and nonresistance. He exhorted those imprisoned for failure to pay debts: “Remember that you are co-sufferers with the martyrs and confessors, and Christ our Lord was bound for our sins. After this you will reign with Christ with whom you suffer.” Always mindful that “a vindictive heart” or a state of anger pleases Satan more than any other passion, St. Tikhon counseled unreserved forgiveness: “We offend one another; therefore, we must forgive one another.” He knew in his heart that reconciliation is of far more lasting value than enmity toward another: “If you make peace with him, your love will be remembered until you die.” In his will the saint added, “I have forgiven, and I forgive, all who have offended me; may God forgive them in His gracious mercy. I too pray to be forgiven wherein I have offended anyone, being a man.” We may easily concur with Gorodetzky’s conclusion: “Any form of vengeance, injustice or violence, whether it came from those in power or from their subjects, was to him a breach of brotherly love — a civil war.”

There is no clearer evidence of St. Tikhon’s pacifist aversion to the violence and lack of both forgiveness and voluntary kenotic suffering inherent in war than a letter written in September 1773 toward the close of the Russo-Turkish War. He bluntly referred to that war as an occasion “for breaking the divine law, dishonoring the Law-Giver, and causing the loss of men’s souls.” As a result of the war, the saint perceived a providential punishment for the Russian Christians: “We see our fatherland sighing and groaning because of the bloody war in which we are engaged with the Moslems.” St. Tikhon’s opposition to war is revealed most eloquently in the following passage:

Once more our fatherland groans and sighs as foreign arms are turned against us: once more all are seized with confusion and fear; once more our brothers are wounded; once more is Christian blood shed; once more are thousands killed; once more is heard the weeping of fathers, mothers, wives, and children. The issue of this public calamity is as yet unknown, but I do know that without God’s help we can expect no good. For we are saved, not by arms, but by God’s omnipotent aid. But God has mercy upon those who repent, and saves them; He defends those who trust in Him and not in gold or other things, who appeal to Him with true devotion.

Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot

If we were to judge from occasional letters and journal entries, Dostoevsky was hardly a pacifist. In the June 1876 entry in Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky proclaimed his belief in Russia’s predestined role in as protector of the Slavs, leader of Orthodoxy, and servant of all peoples, albeit for “for the sake of universal reconciliation.” Included in this grand scheme was the author’s expectation that “sooner or later, Constantinople must be ours.” Konstantin Mochulsky rightly criticized this aspiration, for “Russian messianism was converted into warlike imperialism.” However such militaristic language stands in sharp relief to Dostoevsky’s manner of life and with the attitudes that shine through his novels.

Among Dostoevsky’s fictional characters who illustrate the author’s pacifist leading is Prince Mishkin. In The Brothers Karamazov would come two others: the Elder Zossima, and young Alyosha Karamazov. All three reflects the classic Orthodox ideals of the absolute pacifist social ethical trajectory: nonviolence, nonresistance, voluntary kenotic suffering, and universal forgiveness. In exemplary rather than didactic fashion, Dostoevsky was, in the perceptive judgment of Metropolitan Antony Khapovitsky, “not a propagandist, tempting and tempted, but a preacher, confessing and causing confessions.” As Dostoevsky knew well, experience is the best teacher and the mother of spiritual growth.

The spiritual anguish that awaits the reader at the climactic scene of The Idiot may be unparalleled in the history of literature. Prince Mishkin’s reversion to “idiocy” is particularly troubling for the empathetic Christian who must wonder whether violent “evil” has triumphed and whether the “good” of nonviolent nonresistance is too weak and too ephemeral to endure. The anguish is intensified by the realization that Dostoevsky intended, as he wrote a friend, “to portray a wholly beautiful individual.” Mochulsky later termed the quality “the grace-filled image of the innate just man.” Mishkin is a fictional version of the nonviolent, nonresistant, Passion-bearing saint in the Orthodox moral tradition, an apotheosis of exemplary kenotic holiness.

Dostoevsky intended Prince Mishkin to be an exemplary figure. In a letter to a niece, he reiterated his goal of depicting a Christ-like character and referred to Cervantes’ Don Quixote as “the most perfect” of “all the noble figures in Christian literature.” Noting that the noble and the comic are inseparable, he continued, “The reader feels sympathy and compassion with the Beautiful, derided and unconscious of its own worth. The secret of humor consists precisely in this art of wakening the reader’s sympathy.”

Mishkin’s virtues are humility, forgiveness, justice, mercy, honor, courage, faith, hope, and self-sacrificing love. We see that those whom Mishkin encounters are frequently disarmed by the innocence of the Prince. When Natasha leaves Mishkin at the end of Part One, she calls him “the first human being I’ve seen.” Even the embittered Ippolit comes to appreciate the Prince for his inherent justice and goodness. According to an account of the delightful little Kolya Ivolgin, “Ippolit took hold of the prince’s hand and kissed it twice.” Others seem drawn to the Prince like moths to a pure flame even as they sometimes mock and deride him.

What allows Mishkin to be a truly exemplary religious figure is a reflection of the only original Beauty, the only real holiness. At least as well as any fictional character could be, Mishkin’s development is reminiscent of the Word described in John 1:11-12: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

What is it that subsequently makes Mishkin a human reflection of the divine? The Prince incarnates several attributes traditionally associated with the divine in Russian Orthodoxy or Christianity in the broader sense. The Prince is a “holy fool” (iurodiv’) who reveals Dostoevsky’s vision of voluntary suffering and nonresistance to evil.

Holy fools, or fools for Christ, have long been venerated in Orthodox Christianity. They voluntarily appear as imbeciles, renouncing all intellectual powers and forms of worldly wisdom in order to achieve the ideals of humility and self-denial. The personal value of this lifestyle as an extraordinary spiritual exploit, or podvig, was complemented by a useful social function. Like the court jesters in medieval palaces, the iurodivyi were able to exercise a critical prophetic role vis–vis those in political power, a role not easily assumed by others recognized as more “sensible.”

There is no better depiction in literature of the exemplary kenotic holiness of the iurodiv’ than Prince Mishkin in The Idiot.

In their initial encounter, Rogozhin, the primary antagonist, says to Mishkin: “You are a regular holy fool, Prince, and such as you God loves.” The motif of the holy fool pervades The Idiot from the title itself to the last page, where the often sensible Mrs. Lizaveta Yepanchin, deeply moved by the apparent demise of “this poor fellow,” the Prince, and, speaking to Radomsky, vindicates the witness of Mishkin by pronouncing “all this, all this life abroad, and all this Europe of yours… just a delusion.” She seems to be asking, “Who are the real fools in the long run?”

What the classic iurodivyi endeavored to effect, the Prince displays by the very constitution of his personality. Moreover, he is sometimes acutely aware of his seeming foolishness as a potential hindrance to his relations with others. “I know perfectly well myself that I’ve lived less than other people and that I know less of life than anyone,” he confesses in his first meeting with the Yepanchin women. “I’m afraid I talk rather strangely sometimes.”

Even when Mishkin wishes he could escape the strain of human discourse and “the idea of trying to solve the problems that filled his mind and heart to overflowing,” he reveals a beguiling tendency to blame himself for everything, a characteristic that strikes others intermittently as foolish or endearing.

Only a holy fool could address an assemblage of nobles, as does Prince Mishkin, in starkly critical terms mixed with self-condemnation: “It’s quite true that we are absurd and frivolous, that we have bad habits, that we are bored, that we don’t know how to look at anything or understand anything.”

Early in the novel, Dostoevsky recorded an incident that set the tone for the entire work. When he intervenes to prevent Ganya Ivolgin from striking his sister, Varya Ivolgin, Mishkin suffers a humiliating “resounding slap in the face” from Ganya to the horror of all the others in the room. At first Mishkin responds quietly, “Oh, well, I don’t mind you striking me, but I shan’t let you touch her.” Then, having repaired to a corner of the room and covered his face with his hands, the Prince says in a quivering voice, “Oh, how you’ll be ashamed of what you’ve done!” Here again in the emotion of the moment, without realizing what he has done, Mishkin has acted the holy fool in his prophetic role. For the significant effects of this critical prophetic statement are indeed profound. First, Rogozhin exclaims, “You’ll be ashamed, Ganya, of having insulted such a sheep!” — a choice of words pregnant with kenotic meaning (“the Lamb that was slain” referred to in Revelation 5:12) and indicative of the powerful religious effect of the Prince on Rogozhin.

In his address to the nobility at the Yepanchins’ party, the Prince, despite his at once endearing and distracting self-deprecation, offers sound practical as well as spiritual advice “to save you all, so as to prevent our class from vanishing for nothing into utter darkness, without realizing anything, abusing everything and losing every thing.” Virtually straight from the gospel message of Jesus Christ to His disciples, the Prince urges, “Let us stay in the front rank and be leaders. Let us be servants in order to be leaders.”

Mishkin displays an unrelenting desire to see the best in people. He perceives even the repulsive Antip Burdovsky as a defenseless and innocent man “who is being deceived by everybody.” Thus, as Mochulsky commented, Prince Mishkin “convinces unseemly and evil people that they are beautiful and good, persuades the unfortunate that they are happy, looks at the world lying in evil and sees only the image of pure beauty.” Far more than the noble but deluded Don Quixote, Mishkin is a fictional embodiment of the “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”

Mishkin’s most impressive quality is his Christ-like kenoticism. When the Prince announces to General Yepanchin early in the narrative, “I’m in need of good, kind people,” the reader should begin to wonder whether Mishkin is sounding his death knell in advance. It becomes obvious that not only are those simple needs of the Prince not met, but Mishkin continually diverts all of his own energies to meeting the needs of everyone around him, ranging from the troubled Natasha to the presumptuous, hostile Burdovsky.

The climactic bedroom scene, toward which the Prince appears almost predestined, is indeed his crucifixion and descent into hell. When at last people come in, they find the murderer in a raging fever with Mishkin sitting motionless beside him. Every time the sick man bursts out screaming or begins to ramble, Mishkin passes a soothing hand gently over his hair and cheeks, but he no longer understands the questions he is asked or recognize anyone. He is truly become the idiot of the book’s title — a “suffering servant” or “co-sufferer” who, like the patristic teachers of vicarious atonement such as St. Mark the Ascetic and St. Symeon the New Theologian, so identifies with those others that their evil is redeemed by the overwhelming, empathetic sorrow that engulfs the Prince and drains him of his last moments of consciousness, doing so graciously and freely in imitation of Christ’s voluntary kenotic humiliation for the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. often said that all innocent suffering is redemptive. His insight applies perforce to the Prince as a Christ-figure.

Having achieved all that he could in this paradoxical, antinomian world of freely-chosen spiritual death, the Prince, through his mental death, demonstrates the full measure of his pacifist self-sacrifice for and devotion to those in whom he rejoiced in spite of themselves. In this respect, his “departure” to a presumably happier state is one of triumph, not defeat: terror is transfigured finally into pure transcendence as the morning light breaks over the Light that dwelled in the Prince. Any serious doubt as to the ultimate victory of the Prince may be dispelled by the enriched and transformed lives of those who knew him.

This is an abbreviated extract from chapter nine of Fr. Webster’s book, The Pacifist Option: The Moral Argument Against War in Eastern Orthodox Theology (available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214; ISBN 1-57309-243-6; telephone 1-800-462-6420; hardcover $55, paperbound $31.50). Fr. Webster graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1977 and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988. He is parish priest of Protection of the Holy Mother God Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

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