August 15 we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep of Mary. August 15 is also the anniversary of the end of the Arab-Byzantine wars, by a miracle of the Theotokos.
For centuries, the Romans faced instability on their eastern front. The longest conflict in history is the series of Roman-Persian wars, which began 50 years before the birth of Christ. These wars ended in the 7th century when the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates conquered the Sassanid Empire. This did not bring peace to the Byzantine Empire, however, for these new Empires began their own expansionist campaign known as the Arab Conquests. This campaign culminated in the siege of Constantinople in 718.
The Byzantines were a notoriously peace-loving people, and viewed with derision by their contemporaries for this. They preferred to avoid open battle, often refused to fight offensively, and went to great lengths to achieve diplomatic solutions, even if it meant paying hefty tributes. As such, when the siege began, the Byzantine Emperor offered a gold ransom for every single person in the city if the siege were called off. Unfortunately the Umayyads refused.
What followed was a grim thirteen moth siege. Unfavorable winds hindered the Umayyad navy, while a harsh winter overwhelmed the troops. On August 15, 718, the Umayyads decided the siege was a failure and withdrew. Reportedly, a great storm and volcanic activity hindered the retreat of the invaders.
Inside the city that day, the faithful had gathered in the churches to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, the falling asleep of the Theotokos. The people of Constantinople attributed the peace that had broken out to Mary, and began commemorating the day as a ‘miracle’. They did not attribute the peace to their soldiers or their defensive capabilities. Rather, they saw in the decision of the Umayyads to withdraw the intervention of the Queen of Peace, who softens the heart of those who have grown violent.
In the aftermath, peace and stability was established on the eastern front for the first time in 9 centuries. Historians attribute this to the events of August 15, 718. The Byzantines refused to take advantage of the weakened state of the Umayyad forces following the siege. Had they done so, they could have conquered much of the Arab territory, and may have sown the seeds for another few centuries of conflict. Instead, they sought to win peace and security. Aside from scattered instances of banditry, the frontier did not experience any major war again until the thirteenth century with the beginning of the Ottoman-Byzantine conflict. The Abbasid Empire replaced the Umayyad, and the Roman Byzantines sent emissaries on peace missions, establishing a robust cultural exchange and several centuries of peace. For once, in the middle of Byzantine history, war was over.
The Dormition appropriately coincides with the commemoration of this peace every year. Observance of the feast began sometime in the sixth century, just at the end of the Roman-Sassanid wars. It commemorates the death of Mary. But rather than being referred to in these terms, the phrase Dormition, or falling asleep is used. The reason for this is that the Dormition became a mirror of Christ’s glorification. Christ died violently on the cross, while himself remaining nonviolent, so that death itself could be killed. Christ stormed hades so that no one else would have to languish there. Christ was glorified by the Father, gaining a resurrection body and returning to the shekinah of the Heavenly Father. Christians commemorate this with a great fast, followed by a great feast.
The traditions that came to be associated with the Dormition mirror this. Christians first fast for fifteen days, and then feast. Mary is commemorated as dying peacefully, and then after three days is glorified, raised from the dead and taken to the shekinah presence of God. Because Christ has been glorified and death has died, Mary does not fully die as one would have before Christ. Rather she ‘falls asleep’ and is then raised and glorified. Everything evokes Christ’s death, but is modified. The icons of the Crucifixion and Resurrection are filled with action. The Dormition icon rests peacefully. Christ holds the infant Mary, evoking and contrasting the tumultuous birth of Christ. The reason behind this modified parallelism is that Mary comes to represent all humanity. All humans are destined not to die, but to be raised because of the raising of Christ. And with Mary we see this in the middle of history, rather than at the end.
Taken together, these two commemorations complement one another. Death has died because Christ is risen and we have seen this in this world, in the middle of history. War is over because of the victory of the Prince of Peace, and we can see this as well in the middle of history. War, death, destruction have lost. Peace is secured. This is not just an end times proclamation, but insofar as we live in Christ and honor his mother, we too can taste of these things in our own time.
As Mary herself showed us on the Feast of the Dormition in 718, there is no better icon of the death of death than the end of war.
Christians are the people of hope.
This is especially the case during the season of advent and the following celebration of Christmas. Hope is a peculiar thing in this world; without God the violence and death of the world would be all that most humans would have to look forward to. Yet, we find in this season a great joy and a hope for a kingdom of peace and life. The most striking poems of hope come from the Prophets, those lone voices speaking out at the edges of civilization, declaring that another world is possible.
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
For You have broken the yoke of their burden
And the staff across their shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle,
And the garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning as fuel for fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end
These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah who announced this Kingdom of Peace from of old. The words of the prophets are full of life, of the Holy Spirit. They speak hope to a world “rolled in blood.”
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the lamb together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel
The prophets spoke of a world without killing, without enmity, without exploitation. A world where the violent are converted to the way of a peaceful child. A world where the outcasts of Israel, and even those gentile foreigners, are brought together. Where race and nationality no longer divide. These things would all be brought about by the Messiah. The Christ. The King. This King would raise a new banner for the nations. A banner of peace. A banner of hope. When this Christ comes, the order of the nations will be overturned. The Kingdom of God turns the way of the world on its head.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In these ancient words we hear their hope and expectation, foretelling of a great wonder. Mary herself continues this tradition, writing the oldest advent hymn in history, the Magnificat. In this hymn she references the prophets of old and continues their prophetic message, singing
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.
‘As He spoke our fathers.’ What did God speak to our fathers? He spoke of casting down the mighty from their thrones, of sending the rich away, of lifting up the lowly, and of filling the poor and the hungry with good things. This is a prophecy of hope. There are so many in this world today who are oppressed by the mighty, who are poor and starving, who live daily in fear of death from violent men. The way of the world is a way of death. And yet Mary, in the tradition of the Prophets, found a “great light” to hope in. This light would destroy the Kingdoms of this world and their way of death.
And then was born, a child. And it was proclaimed by heaven itself,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill among all people.”
This is the proclamation of the Kingdom for which the ancient tradition of hope had waited. Peace on Earth. Good will among all people. And this peace did not come through overthrowing the kings of this world with violence, as many zealots had hoped. It did not come on a fiery chariot. It did not come with a sword. It came in a manger, as a little child. The little child that Isaiah foretold, leading the lion and lamb. The most helpless, weak, meek, and poor child the world had seen. Born as a political refugee under a violent Herod. Born to a poor, teenage, unwed mother. Born to the care of the elderly Joseph, a working man. This King wore only a crown of suffering. He overthrew death by dying rather than by killing. He conquered the violent and dark world, not with more violence as so many from Alexander to Napolean have tried to do, but with simple words, with love, with peace. Just as the prophets foretold, he exalted the poor and lowly. Christ Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, echoing his prophecies,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
This day as I sit, filled with joy of the Nativity services, of the birth of our Lord, of family and of love I think of all those who do not have homes or family or peace. Those who now are clinging for their life in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, and captivity. And I hope for the Christ who has come and will come again to set us all free. I think of the words of the Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many years ago in the face of the darkness of the American Civil War, where brother killed brother,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
With these words I remember that Christ was not born once long ago, but that he is indeed born in us whenever we imitate him, in meekness, in poverty, in righteousness, in peacemaking. And I remember that even after the Christmas season is over, we remain in advent, in the season of hope. An advent that will last until Christ’s Kingdom comes, on Earth as it is in heaven. Until that time we will continue to proclaim the words of hope, as we do every liturgy, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will among all people.”
Today my response to “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was published on Public Orthodoxy, the blog of Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies center. You can find it here. I’m also posting the text below, and you can find an expanded version posted on our own website.
The Mission document is monumental for its statements on war and peace. Warfare and nuclear weapons are unequivocally condemned, without qualification, as an expression and fruit of sin. What strikes me about all of this is that I haven’t been able to find any discussions of these aspects of the document anywhere. From what has been released regarding the minutes of the Council, the discussion of this text centered entirely on the proposals of the Church of Greece about the use of the word ‘prosopon’ (person) and against religious syncretism. The war and peace sections were not discussed. That means they passed exactly as they were formulated at the pre-conciliar consultations, where this document was signed by all 14 patriarchates, and not just the 10 who have shown up. None of the 4 absent patriarchates cited the sections on war and peace as problematic. So as far as I can tell they are not controversial.
Even those outside the Council aren’t talking about these sections, as far as I can tell. I haven’t been able to find any other articles or commentaries on these sections. They are literally unremarkable, in that no one is making any remarks.
I find this silence remarkable, given how groundbreaking this document is for the Church. The highest level of Church authority has unequivocally condemned nuclear weapons and warfare, and has issued a call for Orthodox peacemaking, and for Orthodox cooperation with and involvement in organizations that promote peace.
There are some very radical consequences to these statement. Will the Orthodox Church lead the push for nuclear disarmament? Will Russia give up its nuclear weapons? Will peaceful opposition to warfare become the new norm for Orthodox Christians around the world?
War and peace issues, apart from the document, are being discussed quite regularly at the Council. Nationalism has been condemned many times by the bishops present, a statement was made about the attack on the Syriac patriarchate, and terrorism has come up several times at the press briefings. Territorial disputes are also on everyone’s mind. The last two days, the issue of the ‘New Lands’ between the EP and Greece has been all ablaze. Similarly, today at the press briefing, the Serbian and Romanian spokesmen were asked about the dispute between those patriarchates. This Council has been a voice for peace on most of these accounts. As special meeting was set up between the Serbian and Romanian patriarchate this evening, to discuss the issue in a spirit of humility and conciliarity. Thankfully, the atmosphere among the bishops and delegates is very open, direct, humble, and brotherly.
At the press conference today, it was suggested that this Mission document may be signed today, if so then it has already been signed. But it was also said that there are nearly 300 bishops signing these documents, and they sign them in all the official languages of the Council. During the press conference, the signing of the documents on autonomy and the diaspora was taking place, and it was taking a long time. So the Mission document might be signed tomorrow if it hasn’t already been signed. I’m especially glad for the timing of this, being posted on Fordham’s blog today as the document is being signed. Today is also the first day of the Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism conference put on by the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham.
The Mission document isn’t perfect, and I make some criticisms of it in my response. But these criticisms are constructive in nature. This document is a wonderful starting point to the conversation within global Orthodoxy on this vital topic. This Council is calling for future Councils to take place to continue to discuss these and other topics, a proposal which is consonant with Moscow’s and others’ calls for a fuller Council at a later date. The primates of this Council want the global Church to have regular Councils and synods, just as the ‘local’ Churches have regular synods of their bishops. So I hope my suggestions for ways to expand upon this work can be considered and codified at a later Council. Having talked to those behind the scenes, I know they are sympathetic to these points, and my text on this document did end up in the hands of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So we can only pray that the Orthodox Church would truly become a voice for peace and healing in the world, declaring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
WAR AND PEACE IN TODAY’S WORLD
“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers timely statement on war, peace, and justice. The nature of conflict has evolved and the Church needs to counsel the faithful on the peacemaking vocation. This document offers an authoritative peace stance, and makes recommendations, but these are mostly too vague and incomplete. In particular, more should be developed regarding faithful responses to violence.
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 lens. The Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the Church is also called 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 definitively states, “The Church of Christ condemns war,” and condemns nuclear weapons and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also calls it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). 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).
This list is good, but is incomplete and vague. 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 (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament or limiting the production and trade of arms, and the use of nuclear weapons is not unequivocally condemned. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water. In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of modernist nationalism generally (4.3). Orthodox nationalism should be condemned, since it divides.
Similarly, while the proven strategies of peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, they should also be explicitly called for. In particular, the viability of nonviolent campaigns and institutions has risen dramatically over the past century. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals, and each decade the ratio increases. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many including Patriarch Kirill, while Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept” with Orthodox roots. Given the role of nonviolence in the contemporary world, nonviolence should be mentioned. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation; the Middle East and former Soviet countries exemplify this. Nonviolence is most effective in such contexts, and the Church should recommend Christian investment and participation in nonviolent action, while condemning violent action.
War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding participation 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,’ it would be better to say that the Church cares for all involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions fighting is allowed. The only conditions listed are for life and freedom, but ‘freedom,’ a common excuse for unnecessary fighting, is undefined. Martyrdom should also be mentioned as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs faced death and imprisonment, and are lauded over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for such causes, but instead are employed in ‘humanitarian’ interventions or fighting insurgents. These realities should be addressed, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another (4.3, 6.5).
Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. In this document, the Church promises care to those who fight, but a similar pledge is not made to those who for Christian reasons refuse. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend conscientious objection or disobedience in at least some circumstances. Nothing is said of this, or of the practice of universal conscription in countries like Russia and Greece.
There is a final weakness in the account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than 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 counterproductive if a document condemning war allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. Such inconsistencies threaten the integrity of the document, and as such 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.
Nothing is more basic to Christian life than prayer. It is the foundation of all other response, not an alternative to response. Please find time each day to be aware of wars now going on in the world and to pray for peace.
Wars or near-war conflicts are currently occurring in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chechnya, Colombia, Congo, Egypt, India and Pakistan (over Kashmir), Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Mali, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. The list of countries at war regularly changes, but the reality of war is immediate and daily in the lives of millions of people.
As you pray for peace, remember also that all conflict begins in the passions, lusts, and desires that “war in your members” (James 1), as in every human soul. Pray that you would increasingly become a peacemaker at home and work, between neighbors and friends, and in your parish. All peacemaking begins in prayer.
Below is a list of prayers for peace, safety, reconciliation, forgiveness, and more that you may find useful and may be adapted for use in prayer alone, together with others, and in services.
The prayer linked here was written by Fr. Steven Tsichlis of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California for use in a prayer vigil for peace and was published in In Communion 70.
Special prayer being used at the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam for believers to turn from violence and be reconciled.
“St. Nikolailived his life surrounded by enemies. He was actively engaged in public life throughout the turmoils of WWI and WWII, caring for the suffering of those in his nation, as well as those outside of it. His public life guaranteed that many, to this day, still carry enmity for the saintly bishop. In 1941, he engaged in civil resistance and disobedience, refusing to collaborate with the Nazis. For his he was taken to the Dachau concentration camp. He then fled to America in 1946 as a refugee from communism.”
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Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.” Jesus gives His peace. He does not loan it; He does not take it back. The peace that is in Jesus “My peace” becomes the disciples’ final possession.
The Savior gives His disciples His peace at the moment when His Passion is about to begin. When He is confronted with the vision of immediate suffering and death, He proclaims and communicates His peace. If at such moments, Jesus is the Master of Peace, then the strength of this peace will not abandon the disciple in moments of lesser strife.
“But I say to you, do not resist evil.” How scandalous and foolish is this statement in the eyes of men, and especially of unbelievers? How do we interpret this commandment about turning the left cheek to the one who struck the right, giving our cloak to the one who took our tunic, walking two miles with the one who forced us to go one mile already, giving a blessing to him who curses us? Have we explored the ways and means of loving our enemy whether he be a personal or public enemy? “You do not know of what spirit you are.”
No, it is a question of resisting the Gospel. The choice is not between fighting and not fighting, but between fighting and suffering. Fighting brings about only vain and illusory victories, because Jesus is the absolute reality. Suffering without resis-tance proclaims the absolute reality of Jesus. If we understand this point, we see that suffering is a real victory. Jesus said “It is enough” when His disciples presented Him with two swords. The disciples had not understood the meaning of Christ’s statement, “He who does not have a purse, let him sell his coat and buy a sword.” What Christ meant was that there are times when we must sacrifice what seems the most ordinary thing, in order to concentrate our attention on the assaults of the evil one. But defense and attack are both spiritual.
Jesus goes out to the front of the soldiers, who with their torches and weapons, want to lay hands on Him. He goes freely, spontaneously, to His passion and His suffering. Jesus cures the servant whose ear had been cut off by the sword of a disciple. Not only is Jesus unwilling that His disciple defend Him by force, but He repairs the damage that the sword has caused. It is the only miracle that Jesus performed during His passion.
The example of non-resistance that Jesus gave does not mean that He consents to evil, or that He remains merely passive. It is a positive reaction. It is the reply of the love that Jesus incarnates, opposed to the enterprises of the wicked. The immediate result seems to be the victory of evil. In the long run, however, the power of this love is the strongest.
The Resurrection followed the Passion. The non-resistance of the martyrs wore out and inspired the persecutors themselves. It is the shedding of blood by the martyrs that has guaranteed the spread of the Gospel. Is this a weak and vague pacifism? NO, it is a burning and victorious flame. If Jesus, at Gethsemane, had asked His Father for the help of twelve legions of angels, there would have been no Easter or Pentecost and no salvation for us! IC
Excerpted and edited from a larger work entitled A Dialogue with the Savior. Fr. Lev is best known as A Monk of the Eastern Church, as he often preferred not to identify himself by name in his writings.
This morning as I searched for some gem by St. Maximos the Confessor to offer as the first word on our theme “Peace: a word with meaning” before I send the issue off to the printer, I found this seemingly random, but relevant, verse instead: “A man writes either to assist his memory, or to help others, or for both reasons.” Amusingly, almost all writers (and editors) I know seem motivated to some degree by bad memory—paper and ink, and hard drives, are miracles! But that aside, it is the bit about helping others that stood out for me this morning.
In Communion is an offering of help as an act of love, each and every issue, nothing more and nothing less. I was reminded recently by my favorite priest that a good sermon should “simply share what we have been given.” I find that good advice generally. Every essay by our authors, every word squeezed into our tiny journal by your editor, is intended as an offering of what we have been given.
And that brings me to what that offering is, to that word, “Peace.” Is there a word more central to Christianity? Is there a word more ironically fought over and strangely employed in conflicted ways than the word peace? We attempt in this issue some effort to reclaim and restore to proper use this most amazing of words that has been so curiously euphemized, politicized, parsed, pimped, and distorted.
You’ll notice we’ve departed from the pattern of offering an icon with a cover story. In this issue, we intend to make clear from cover to cover that Christ and Peace are one and the same: the entire issue is the cover story! But our strategy extends beyond this single issue of In Communion. We aim for two things: creating tools that can help us grow OPF and spread the word, and our 2013 conference. This issue is a planned “give away” to promote who we are and what we are about. The content also addresses the theme of our upcoming conference in Washington, D.C. this Fall: a look at the relationship of the Church to the State through the lens of how Christians, corporately and singly, live out their peacemaking vocation in society and the world, at every level of community and relationship.
You can help. First, always, simply respond to the call of Jesus our Peace and be a peacemaker in whatever circumstance you find yourself. Second, do not keep this issue of In Communion—share what you have been given with someone who might be helped by it. And third, please respond to the letter enclosed by renewing your membership if you are due, helping us to grow by giving extra if you can, or considering other ways to spread the word such as ordering extra copies to give away. We are quite simply at a place where we can happily continue to roll along with just under 500 members, though barely surviving financially, or we can make every effort to grow, increasing our capacity to give away what we have been given with a larger donor base. Truly, humbly, thank you for whatever you can do.
For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:16-18)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
In an increasingly complex and violent world, Christian Churches have come to recognize that working for peace constitutes a primary expression of their responsibility for the life of the world. This responsibility is grounded on the essential goodness of all human beings and of all that God has created, continues to sustain, and desires to redeem and make whole. For Orthodoxy, peace—as gift and vocation—is inextricably related to the notions of justice and the freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Peace and peacemaking as a gift and vocation provide opportunities to connect theology with ethical witness, faith with social transformation. The dynamic nature of peace as gift and vocation does not allow its identification with stagnation or passivity or with the acceptance of injustice.
While the Orthodox Church affirms that peace is an integral and indispensable element of the Christian gospel, it has not sufficiently reflected––in a morally consistent manner––on the nature of peace and peacemaking and what peacemaking requires, in practical terms, of their life and witness to the world. Orthodox theologians have noted that offering simply a theoretical presentation of the Orthodox understanding of peace is not a sufficient expression and witness:
It is not enough for us simply to theologize, to describe and to prescribe regarding the Orthodox vision of justice and peace. We must also mobilize and work together for God’s purpose to defeat injustices and to establish justice wherever possible, as well as to overcome the forces which threaten peace on earth.*
The contextualization of peace and peacemaking and the critical appreciation of the ecclesial actions or inactions for the advancement of peace compel the Orthodox Church to explore different but complementary ways to relate liturgical and spiritual experience and faith with the complex and conflictual issues of the world. Such a move evokes accusations that the Church moves from the spiritual realm to politics, an “activism” that would be alien to Orthodoxy. Commenting on the reluctance of the various Orthodox Churches to address issues of public life, Metropolitan John Zizioulas believes that they are right to give preeminence to those elements of their tradition that refer to the centrality of eschatology but they are wrong to disconnect eschatology from history, theology from ethics, and generally to be indifferent in finding and witnessing God in the historical realm.
Orthodox theologians, because of close association of many Orthodox Churches with the State and their long oppression by totalitarian regimes, have not adequately and critically reflected on either the reflexive relationship of self and society or the Christian imperative of the simultaneous transformation by God’s grace as well as of Christian discipleship of both. Oppressive, unjust, and violent social structures in the past jeopardized the humanity of the oppressed, but now the possibility of just societies is put at risk by unjust, greedy, and self-centered individuals. Fr. Stanley Harakas notes the undeveloped status of social ethics in Eastern Orthodoxy most especially on peace studies:
There are few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided theoretical underpinning for a consistent and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and, worse yet, the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacifism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet.
Despite this lamentable situation, opportunities for Orthodox theologians to reflect on issues of justice and peace have arisen. Among them, the military invasion of Iraq generated among Orthodox in the USA an interesting debate on whether the war was just, and whether judged by the standards of the Orthodox Church, war can ever be “Just,” or may sometimes be considered a “lesser good” or a “lesser evil.” All three views are problematic. Orthodoxy has never conceived a theory of Just War or the notion that any war may be just; further, violence is neither fully legitimized when it is viewed as a lesser good nor unconditionally renounced when it is considered as a lesser evil. Rather, most Orthodox theologians have defended the peaceable nature of the Orthodox Church and at the same time have conceded that the use of force is sometimes an inevitable tool of statecraft, while some evidence exists that the Byzantines at times attempted to place elements of strict and yet meaningful moral restraint on the execution of war. The theological assessment of violence, however, remains an issue of contestation.
Does the eschatological nature of the Christian faith allow us to give a condition-al theological legitimacy to violence? While the eschatological orientation of the gospel teaches us that a fully reachable earthly shalom is unattainable in history, it places the world in a dynamic process of transformation by the Holy Spirit that moves the world closer to the peaceable reign of God. Eschatology is thus a subversive principle questioning every necessity that legitimates violence. As Gregory Baum states:
Replying to the question “Can society exist without violence?” in the negative gives permission for societies to reconcile themselves with the violence they practice. Replying yes to the question, in the name of divine promises, challenges every society to review its practices and reduce its reliance on violence.
Peace, of course, is more than the absence of violence. It does not deny conflict, an intrinsic element of human relationships, but neither does conflict necessitate violence. Violence is not the only way to resolve conflicts. Peacemakers are con-stantly seeking creative applications of peacemaking principles to conflict situations whereby people and communities can resolve their differences without resort to physical violence. Peacemaking is a dynamic process, often without an absolute end point, that either strengthens conditions that prevent violence or introduces new elements that lead toward greater freedom and justice and away from violence.
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, living in a Muslim country and having experience with the cruelties of religion-sanctioned wars and strife, argues that the Church cannot exercise its vocation of peace and peacemaking and hold onto war:
In the church, a vision of inwardness where peace becomes our vocation is plausible only if war can be exorcised….Nothing can be accomplished until the biblical foundations of violence are shattered. For us the error lies not in history but in theology.
Alongside the image of a bloodthirsty God, there arises the image of a merciful God whose voice speaks through prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea and in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah. We are confronted here with two irreconcilably opposed faces of the Lord in the same Scripture.
Metropolitan George argues that these incompatible images of God must be understood through a “kenotic” reading of Scripture and suggests that the “the Cross alone is the locus of divine victory, and the source of the meaning of faith. Anything in the Scripture that does not conform to the mystery of Love is a veil over the Word.” Other Orthodox scholars, risking the accusation of being Marcionites, tend to bypass the violent texts of the Old Testament as earlier stages in under-standing God’s revelation that the New Testament has surpassed. In the Patristic tradition the violent texts of the Scripture have been interpreted through the allegorical method to describe “Spiritual personal struggles against evil and sin.”
However, the renunciation of violence and war as destructive of human lives, unjust, and oppressive becomes a credible expression of the Church’s faith only when it is complemented with ethical practices that point to their prevention. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of conflict and war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment about the legitimacy and rules of conduct of war or even its unconditional renunciation. Peace requires much more than either military action or passive pacifism. If our ethics focus only on when a military action is right or wrong, their scope is limited to the exclusion of preventive actions. A remedy to this limitation is for the Church to develop “just peacemaking” practices that move its ethical discourse from theories that justify or regulate the use of violence to preventive actions that contribute to the building up of a culture of peace.
The Church’s witness may not always prevent war, and Christians may continue to disagree on the justification of a particular war, but it must be possible to work together and reach consensus on what practices of violence prevention and peacemaking the Church should support. Orthodox pacifists have a particular moral obligation to address situations of aggression, injustice, and violent conflicts to contribute to the invention of peaceful means and actions by which justice, peace, and reconciliation are served and not simply to renounce violence and war.
The concern of the Church for peace and its active participation in movements of peace is a testing ground of its faith about the origins, essential goodness, and future of the world. The Church, as the sacrament of God’s peace to the world, must find ways to actively support all human efforts that aim to identify more effective ways of resolving disputes without resorting to violence. The Church’s peacemaking vocation, through prayer and action, is to transform the conditions that breed violence and to help those whom violence and war have put asunder to find wholeness in God’s peace and justice through reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness.
Theological Foundations for a Culture of Peace: The Orthodox Church understands peace and peacemaking as an indispensable aspect of its faith and of its mission to the world. It grounds this faith conviction upon the wholeness of the Biblical tradition as it is properly interpreted through the Church’s liturgical experience and practice. The Eucharist provides the space and the perspective by which one discerns and experiences the fullness of the Christian faith and is the witness of the Church as it bears its mission for the life of the world. Robert F. Taft concludes that since the formation of the Byzantine liturgy, peace had assumed a central importance as a greeting and prayer that expresses the Church’s understanding of God’s Kingdom. The peace of God in the Liturgy is referred to as “peace from on high,” as in the angelic greeting “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men” (Lk. 2:14). In the Liturgy, people receive the peace of God through unity with Christ once they enter, by the Eucharist through the work of the Holy Spirit, into unity with God. Finally, at the end of the liturgy, the people are sent away in peace and as bearers of peace to the world.
Peace in Scripture as well as in the liturgy is a greeting and a dynamic, grace-giving word: God Himself is Peace and peace is His gift; peace is a sign of communion with God, who gives peace to those who serve him; peace grants freedom from fear and is inseparable from righteousness without which there is no real peace—in short, “peace” is practically synonymous with salvation; peace is communion with God and Jesus Christ is our peace since, as the bond of communion, “We live in peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”; peace is granted to the world and to the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God within the world that guides the Church into unity “in one place with one accord” and grants to all peace, justice, love, and joy (Jn. 20:19-21, Jgs. 6:24, Ps. 85:8-13, Rom. 16:20, 1 Thess. 5:23, Eph. 2:14-17, Rom 5:1, Acts 2:1, Rom. 14:14).
Christians, as it is reflected in the liturgy, place primary emphasis on the eschatological peace that God grants to them as a gift of communion with Christ. Yet, they do not ignore the conflicts, power struggles, and violence they presently experience in the world. Although the early Christian Church of the first three centuries was primarily pacifist, grounding its attitudes on the Sermon of the Mount, the Fathers of the Church later––without abandoning the pacifist attitude of the early Church––justified defensive wars without developing theories of Just War or giving theological legitimacy to violence. Still, the Orthodox Church gave far more attention to the question of how to establish and maintain peaceful and just societies than it did to justify, or even tolerate, any instance of war. It remains that the Church has a dynamic commitment to the praxis of peace.
In every dimension of life, the Church invites us to embody the way of Christ as fully as we can in the circumstances that we face: to forgive enemies; to work for the reconciliation of those who have become estranged; to overcome the divisions of race, nationality, and class; to care for the poor; to live in harmony with others; to protect creation and to use the created goods of the world for the benefit of all. Advocacy for peace must not stop with praying the litanies of the Liturgy. We can pray these petitions with integrity only if we also move beyond prayer and offer ourselves as instruments for God’s peace in the world, ready to live the petitions out in relation to the challenges to peace that exist among peoples and nations, believing that God has destined the world to live in peace. As St. Nicholas Cabasilas states: “Christians, as disciples of Christ who made all things for peace, are to be ‘craftsmen of peace.’ They are called a peaceable race, since ‘nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace.’” The Third Pre-Conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference (1986) exhorts Orthodox Christians to be active peacemakers grounded in their faith:
We, Orthodox Christians, have—by reason of the fact that we have had access to the meaning of salvation—a duty to fight against disease, misfortune, fear; because we have had access to the experience of peace we cannot remain indifferent to its absence from society today; because we have benefited from God’s justice, we are fighting for further justice in the world and for the elimination of all oppression; because we daily experience God’s mercy, we are fighting all fanaticism and intoler-ance between persons and nations; because we continually proclaim the incarnation of God and the divinization of man we defend human rights for all individuals and all peoples; because we live God’s gift of liberty, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, we can announce more completely its universal value for all individuals and peoples; because, nourished by the body and blood of our Lord in the holy Eucharist, we experience the need to share God’s gifts with our brothers and sisters, we have a better understanding of hunger and privation and fight for their abolition; because we expect a new earth and new heaven where absolute justice will reign, we fight here and now for the rebirth and renewal of the human being and society.
There remains, then, a need to learn practical ways, develop pastoral projects, and create opportunities that allow Orthodox people and the Church to participate in movements of social transformation and contribute to a culture of peace. For, as the Christian understanding of peace and how it is advanced in the life of the world is guided by the eschatological peace that God grants to the world––the reality of being with God and participating in the glory of His reign––it remains primarily a gift and a vocation, a pattern of life. It discloses the life of those who have been reconciled and united with God. It is primarily this unity that enables Christians to embrace in love all human beings because of the active presence of God’s spirit in them. Since peace is constitutive of the Christian Gospel, Christian believers are involved in a permanent process of becoming more conscious of their responsibility to incarnate the message of peace and justice in the world as a witness of the authenticity of their faith. This is clearly stated by St. Basil: “Christ is our peace,” and hence “he who seeks peace seeks Christ…without love for others, without an attitude of peace towards all men, no one can be called a true servant of Christ.”
The Orthodox Church insists that the root cause for violence, injustice and oppression in the world reflects the pervasive presence and impact of the still active operation of the “principalities and powers” of the fallen world. Evil, violence, injustice, and oppression reflect the disrupted communion of human beings with God, the fallible nature of our human actions, and the failure to discern and do the will of God in the midst of the ambiguities of history. Violence has multiple manifestations: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity between individuals and groups of every organizational type. In the midst of violence and injustice, Christian faith recognizes the active presence of God’s Spirit, the subversive reality that enables the world, and in particular the suffering victims of injustice, aggression and oppression, to begin a process of liberation and movement towards a culture of peace and justice. A tension between the already given reality of peace and its not-yet-fulfilled reality characterizes the key theological stance of Christians involved in the struggle for peace. The awareness that peace is an eschatological gift of God and of the active presence of God’s Spirit in history makes it impossible for the Church to accept either the historical fatalism that makes wars, lesser clashes, and other violence an unshakable reality or to embrace the possibility of a permanent peace in this world by relying on simple human-centered ideologies.
The Christian notion of Peace in the Public Space: The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace. Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker and a worker for justice. This calling is nourished through prayer and repentance, by allowing Scripture to form our human consciousness, in participating in the Eucharist, and through recognizing the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed as living icons of Christ.
This calling is noble, and Christians, through the above mentioned devotional practices, receive the gift of God’s peace as the basis of their involvement in the life of the world. They are peacemakers because of their participation in God’s mission. Here it is important to differentiate between the gift of God’s peace and how this gift is received, acknowledged, and communicated by the Church and the faithful. While the gift of God’s peace is given through the Church to all by virtue of their identification with Christ, it is not equally true that the faithful are always the vehicles of God’s grace and peace to the world. Christian responses to situations of violence are always subject to God’s judgment that compels the Church and the faithful to repentance and asking for God’s forgiveness for all their failures to act as agents of His peace to the world.
Orthodox theologians have recognized that there is a need to “lift up in the consciousness of the Church the peacemaking character of Christianity and the Christian duty to serve the cause of peace and Justice.” Articulating only abstract theological truths, which nevertheless are normative for the Church’s identity and mission, cannot raise the consciousness of the Church. There is a need to enhance and concretize these theological ideals with insights about social injustice, oppression, and violence that the social sciences provide. As the report of the Orthodox Perspectives on Justice and Peace states:
It is important that we not only speak about justice and peace, but also develop projects and contribute practically in programs and sustained organized activity on behalf of the concrete realization of the values of justice and peace in our ecclesial life. In this regard the Church must learn to dialogue especially with non-Church bodies to find the most suitable common ways for the implementation of justice and peace.
We carefully note, however, that dialogue between opposing sides is not simply a means to reach agreement. The Orthodox Church should exercise its peacemaking mission through its active participation in peace dialogues seeking to end wars between and within states, resolve violent disputes of all kinds within society, and defeat racism, discrimination, and exploitation of the weak and the poor. The very presence of the Church in dialogue with others is witness to God’s love for all humanity and affirms the dignity of all human beings as well as affirms that dialogue itself is part of a reconciliation process. The Orthodox should defend not only dialogue on peace as such but also the inclusion of people who are very often neglected in crucial deliberations. Those who partner in true dialogue with open and sincere minds, ready to listen and not only to speak, are already on the way to peace.
On the basis of the theological understanding of peace, the various Orthodox Churches should participate in movements of peace and justice. However their involvement will not be credible unless they first liberate themselves from ethno-nationalisms that reflect the history of the long identification of church-nation-state relationship in most Orthodox countries where the Churches had been considered as national institutions. Ethno-nationalism has in some instances reduced the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to a “national” church, restricted geographically and shaped by a particular culture, shared history, worldview, language, and other idiosyncrasies that serves the political purposes of a state while helping to preserve its nationalist, racist, and chauvinist ideologies. The suggested liberation of the Orthodox Churches from ethno-nationalism does not mean that their members cannot be patriotic or love their nation. What is objectionable is the exclusive identification of God with a particular nation and the triumphalism that attaches to that. The partiality of ethno-nationalism not only hinders the Orthodox contribution to peace movements, but it debases basic tenets of the Orthodox faith.
The Church must learn to express its deep-rooted commitment to justice in concrete ways relevant in our time. We must continue to affirm, loudly and clearly, the truth that God’s image is present in every human being. We need to seek out and actively cooperate with all forces of good working for the eradication from God’s creation of all forms of prejudice and discrimination. We ourselves must teach our people to respect the integrity and dignity of all peoples of every nation, economic condition, race, sex, and political affiliation, so that reconciliation and tolerance may replace coercion and violence in our relationships. Our goal is nothing less than the reign of God’s love among all peoples.
Is it possible for Orthodoxy to justify wars in defending the dignity, the rights, the freedom and the liberation of oppressed people? As the report on Orthodox Perspective on Justice and Peace states:
The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defense of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed, a just war theory, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for Peace.
The Church, while it supports all human efforts to repudiate the logic of violence and war, must not forget its greater mission to lead the world to address the deeper issues. Peace is not a moral good in and of itself; it is linked with the most basic human values and practices as a permanent improvement of the human condition on all levels. Defending the dignity of every human person and the sanctity of life cannot be disengaged from the quest for greater justice and freedom as the foundation, source, and origin of real and permanent peace. “No society can live in peace with itself, or with the world, without the full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person, and of the sacredness of all human life.” The Church must be hesitant to fully support those peace movements that disregard fundamental human values like justice and freedom for the sake of merely avoiding the last explicit negation of peace, i.e. massive armed war and lesser applications of violence. Certainly, a Christian would always share in the efforts to avoid bloodshed because life is the most precious God-given gift, but he would try to remind people that when attempting to avoid war and keep peace they should critically examine what kind of peace they represent.
One has to speak of the Christian peace concept and its contribution to the general peace movement not as an absolute one in a general religious, self-sufficient sense but as a radical particularity which is unique in that it goes dynamically deep into the primary causes of war and violence and calls for thorough understanding in shaping a praxis of peacemaking. Particularity here refers to a uniqueness relating to Christ as our Peace, presenting God’s Peace as a paramount gift to the whole of humanity. There are good attempts in the secular realm regarding peace, and a Christian should affirm them as a first point of contact with God’s peace: “Whenever we see harmony, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity, generosity, and care for the weak in the common life of humanity, we witness a blessing of the Lord and catch a glimpse—no matter how dim and imperfect—of the peace of Christ.” Then the uniqueness of Christian peace could definitely become a necessary and positive counterbalance against all kinds of unilateral, human-centered and godless peacemaking.
Finally, the contribution of the Orthodox Church in advancing peace with justice and freedom depends upon the unity of all Orthodox Churches in their total commitment to the Gospel of love and reconciliation and on their courage to speak and act accordingly beyond any kind of temporary affiliations in the socio-political realm. Its contribution will, however, be truly Christian, if it is offered in all humility and in that spirit of repentance and forbearance which is the key prerequisite of true peacemakers. IC
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, MA where he has taught since 1985. In Communion thanks Fr. Emmanuel for his invaluable contribution to our ongoing quest to promote peacemaking not just as an ideal, an eschatological end point, or for those inclined to activism but as necessary for the whole Church. His essay has been edited here for length. The unedited essay with full notes and references may be found at: www.goarch.com.
* To save space, all footnotes and references have been removed throughout this issue. Any article is available, with full notes, to anyone upon request.
At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.
In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.
All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.
Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.
What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.
To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance. Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:
I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.
“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?
Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:
Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.
When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.
What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.
Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.
Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.
The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.
Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.
In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.
It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.
Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.
Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.
1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent theOrthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositionson the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinctand intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:“Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that inthe end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but mustlong and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded fromour loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burnswith love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for thedemons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope evenfor the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).
As an American convert to Orthodoxy, I am well aware that this dimension of the life of the Eastern Church is obscure. Outside of traditionally Orthodox nations and cultures, even most well-educated people have never heard or seen a public statement or act by the church (or her members) that demonstrates a commitment to peace or a distinctive stance on any public issue.2 The Orthodox community is a small minority outside of its traditional locations and, especially in such contexts, focuses more on the practical demands of sustaining diocesan and parish life than on public statements or acts of prophetic witness.
Traditionally Orthodox nations offer a wide variety of models of interaction between the church and public affairs. Greek, Russian and Serbian national identity, for example, are closely tied to Orthodoxy. It is not surprising in such contexts to encounter prayers for the blessing of weapons, military regiments with patron saints, and other practices that endorse participation in warfare. In majority Muslim nations, the Orthodox have had a range of historical experiences, including exclusion from military service, mandatory conscription and the possibility of pursuing a successful military career. In none of these examples, however, do the Orthodox appear to provide a distinctive vision of the moral and spiritual matters at stake in the use of violence, much less to make a bold witness for peace in the public realm.
There is no question that early Christianity was characterized far more strongly by practices of nonviolence and reconciliation than by those of bloodshed and warfare. With the conversion of Constantine and the gradual “Christianization” of the Empire, however, the dynamics of sustaining a suitable peace in the world took priority over a straightforward witness to the non-resistant love of Christ. Canon law, however, required – and continues to require – clergy and monastics to embody nonviolence. Their example is a sign to the church of the paradigmatic practice of turning the other cheek. The dominant experience of Orthodoxy is within empires and nations where the church had a definite and subservient relationship with the ruling political powers. Hence, it is not surprising that the church has tolerated war as a broken, tragic necessity of collective life in the world.3
Orthodox canon law has maintained, however, the recognition of the spiritual gravity of taking life in war. St Basil the Great recommended that those who kill in war should abstain from taking communion for three years. Soldiers were not sanctioned with nearly the same severity as murderers, but were given time to repair the damage done to their souls by killing through a period of repentance before communing. This canon may never have been applied strictly, and clearly has often been ignored in the practice of the church. Still, it stands as a reminder that war is not unambiguously good; the taking of the life of a fellow human being is a grave matter that threatens to impair one’s relationship with the Lord, the church and one’s neighbours.4
Past and current experience with the psychological and moral damage done by participation in warfare reveals the wisdom of St Basil’s canon. It is often a great struggle to heal from war’s traumatic effects. The author of a recent letter to the editor of the newspaper of my city makes this point: “I kept remembering the 300,000 old men and women and young pregnant mothers and children wild-eyed with fear who were killed when we firebombed Tokyo, and then there was what we did at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And I loaded the fuses for those bombs and have lain awake in the night wondering if there is forgiveness.”5 After 65 years, the wounds of war apparently still trouble the author of that letter. The sinfulness of bloodshed may manifest itself through a lifetime of guilt and sleepless nights. This man’s words witness to the wisdom of directing those who kill to pursue healing through the spiritual therapy of repentance.
In contrast with Western Christianity, there is no explicit just war theory in Eastern Orthodoxy. Certainly, the Byzantine Empire and other Orthodox nations have had rules of conduct for soldiers and expectations about when and how it was appropriate for nations to go to war. But even observance of the strictest moral or professional code does not make war good. Not only is participation in warfare often a spiritually and emotionally shattering experience for soldiers, it is inevitably tied to abuse and injustice. Ethnic cleansing, rape, oppression of religious minorities, abuse of prisoners and refugees, and other horrors often arise in the chaos of warfare. As Fr John McGuckin notes, war “remains what it has always been, one of the curses of the human race, dragging after it … death, orphans, widows, disease, destruction of the environment and cities, rape, forced prostitution, and all manner of human wickedness and misery.” Even wars fought in the name of justice “have led to many instances of the just finally acting as badly as the wicked, and losing sight of their goal”.6
That war is inevitably tragic and corrupt is apparent from a sober reading of the application of just war theory. National self-interest and a desire for dominion have corrupted every known instance of warfare. Political and military leaders routinely take actions that they know will result in the deaths of noncombatants. These leaders usually also control the very information necessary to evaluate the morality of their own actions in war. True transparency and accountability in government are recent and rare developments, and many wartime leaders are in effect accountable only to themselves. Even a nation with a legal commitment to fight justly will probably lack the political will to submit to defeat when certain violations of just war standards would bring victory or save the lives of their own soldiers.
In the American mythos, for example, the Second World War is often thought of as “The Good War”, a reassuring example of the virtue of the nation and its “greatest generation” of soldiers and citizens. It is obvious, however, that the unjust provisions of the Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds of World War II. Though the Allies had opportunities to preclude further Nazi aggression by the discriminate use of force in the 1930s, they did not do so. The Allies did, however, intentionally destroy many large civilian population centres in Germany and Japan, which killed untold numbers of noncombatants. These actions were taken for the sake of winning the war and preserving the lives of their own countrymen. Victory was also achieved through an alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which then imposed its oppressive hegemony over millions of Eastern Europeans. The very outcome of this war set the stage for the Cold War, which threatened the planet with nuclear annihilation and gave rise to wars between client states in Korea, Vietnam and other nations around the world.
The Allied victory surely produced more favourable results for humanity than an Axis victory would have done. All involved in the war had, however, at least some blood on their hands and endured at least some damage to their souls. The circumstances surrounding the conflict do not remove the destructive spiritual effects of the actions taken by both sides. This statement does not affirm moral equivalency between the actions of the Allies and the Axis powers during the war. It does, however, indicate that spiritual brokenness is an evitable characteristic of warfare, which by its very nature falls short of the selfless, non-resistant love of Jesus Christ. The often shattered lives of military veterans and of civilians on all sides of war bear witness to the tragic effects of armed conflict on those created in the divine image and likeness. Violent death and dismemberment, displacement from one’s homeland, and torture certainly do not embody God’s salvific intentions for humanity.
Orthodox Christianity is not concerned fundamentally with morality as an end in itself. The vocation of humanity is for deification, participation in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Human beings are to become by grace all that God is by nature. A common image for theosis is an iron left in a fire until it takes on the qualities of the fire. It then glows red hot and transmits heat to anything that it touches. Likewise, human beings are called to shine with the light and life of God, to participate fully in the healing and fulfillment that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world. All are called to embrace and be transformed by the holiness of God, to become saints.7
In this light, it is not hard to see why warfare, and any taking of human life, is fraught with spiritual peril. Death comes into the world as the result of sin. Christ has come to conquer death, to raise humanity to the eternal life for which humanity was created. To kill a human being is to do the work of death, to involve oneself in a paradigmatic act of spiritual brokenness and of estrangement from God and neighbour. Granted, some instances of killing may be tragically necessary, such as the actions of a soldier in defending his or her nation from invasion by a conquering power. Killing in such circumstances may be understood in light of the Orthodox category of “involuntary sin”, which includes actions that damage the soul despite the fact that they are done without malice and out of necessity. The church knows that killing does not have to be murder for it to be spiritually damaging.8
Repentance is understood therapeutically in Orthodoxy. The focus is not on paying a legal penalty for one’s sins, but instead on finding healing by reorienting one’s life towards God. The soldier who has killed in war needs repentance not because of breaking a law, but because taking life presents many profound challenges to spiritual health. It is obviously difficult to grow in holiness while killing people, regardless of the circumstances.
The prayers for peace before the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy provide a stark contrast to the practices and attitudes associated with physical violence. At this point in the service, the church prays that “the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless” and that “we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance”. A day during which one has killed others who bear the image of God is hardly perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless. Those engaged in or preparing for war will find it hard to complete the course of their lives in peace and repentance. Though particular instances of warfare may be necessary, and even legally and morally justified by certain standards, they fall well short of the vision of a holy life described in these prayers.
Orthodox Christians have often failed to proclaim the severe tension between the use of violence and a life of holiness. Serbia, however, provides a recent example of the church opposing the abuse of the faith in support of war. In the midst of the Bosnian civil war, Patriarch Pavle proclaimed that “the Church must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.” The Serbian bishops declared that “The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God.” They also added the following petition to the Liturgy: “For all those who commit injustice against their neighbours, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and their hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even toward their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.”9
The canons of the church are applied pastorally to repair the damage done by sinful actions. Soldiers, police officers and others may at times have no choice but to use violence to defend the innocent from abuse. Their roles and responsibilities preclude them from a straightforward manifestation of Christ’s nonresistant love for the enemy. They serve to protect the innocent from harm, and risk their own spiritual brokenness for the sake of others. Despite their “involuntary sin”, it is still possible for them to advance toward theosis by using force in as limited and just a manner as possible, while doing what is possible to guard themselves against the damaging effects of the passions that are often aroused in situations of violence. Passions are disordered attachments of the soul that tempt people to sinful actions. Hatred is a passion often aroused during war, for it is hard to kill without a hatred that dehumanizes the enemy. When human beings “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”, a great many passions are unleashed that often lead to the abuse and slaughter of innocents. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide are not uncommon symptoms of the ruin that such passions may wreak upon the lives of those who have shed blood.
Nonetheless, it is possible for a soldier to fight these passions successfully and to grow in holiness, even becoming a saint. According to the Passion of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia gave his life sacrificially in the ninth century at the hands of the invading Danish king in order to save his subjects from death. St Edmund “declared that he would follow the example of Christ and ‘refrain from staining my pure hands.’” The 11th-century Serb St John Vladimir gave his sword to a Bulgarian enemy and said, “Take it and kill me, for I am ready to die, as were Isaac and Abel”; a “perfect, non-violent, Christ-like quality” shines through his death, even though St John had previously fought as a brave solider.10 Also in the 11th century, Boris and Gleb of Kiev did not resist death at the hands of their ambitious royal brother’s assassins. As Fr Alexander Webster comments, “St Boris offered himself as a voluntary, Christ-like sacrifice for the sins of the assassins and consequently made no attempt to resist the lethal violence visited upon his person.” A seasoned soldier, St Boris took “a conscious choice … to reflect the ideals of nonresistance and expiatory sacrifice modeled originally by Christ.” These saints are shining examples of “the moral life in Christ. Theirs was pre-eminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”11
Orthodoxy does not canonize saints simply on the basis of military prowess or the fact that one died in battle, even for an Orthodox nation or in defense of the faith. St Basil’s Canon 13, which excludes from communion for three years those who have killed in war, demonstrates the church’s repudiation of holy wars or crusades. Patriarch Polyeuktos appealed to this canon to reject an imperial appeal in the 10th century to canonize as saints the Byzantine soldiers who died defending the Empire.12 This example is an indication that the shedding of blood calls for repentance, not for an automatic recognition of holiness.
In Orthodox moral theology, one simply does not find theoretical justification for war as good endeavour, let alone pronouncements that war is holy. Orthodoxy does not require nonviolence or pacifism as essential characteristics of the Christian life; neither, however, does it sacralize war. Instead, the church merely tolerates war as a sometimes tragically necessary or unavoidable endeavour for which repentance for “involuntary sin” is appropriate. The soldier is not condemned as a murderer, but should receive pastoral guidance towards the end of healing from the damaging spiritual effects of taking life.
The apparent ambiguity of Orthodox teaching and practice on this issue reflects the dynamics of Orthodox canon law. Through oeconomia, canons are applied pastorally in order to help particular people find spiritual healing and advance in holiness. Even as a physician takes into account the given challenges to physical health faced by a patient, the church takes into account the spiritual, moral, social and practical dynamics encountered by penitents. The peace of Christ – and the non-resistant, forgiving love by which Christ brought salvation to the world – remains the norm of the Christian life. Unfortunately, the peace of the world as we know it inevitably relies on imperfect arrangements of political, social, economic and military power, which both reflect and contribute to the brokenness of human souls and communities. The lives and well-being of those created in the image and likeness of God depend upon the institutions of human society operating with a measure of justice; otherwise, the powerful will mercilessly exploit and abuse the weak. The church does not simply condemn these realities or ask Christians to pretend that they do not live in the world as we know it. Instead, Orthodoxy calls everyone to work toward peace, reconciliation and justice for their neighbours. When doing so requires involvement in warfare, the taking of human life, or other endeavours that damage the soul, the church provides spiritual therapy for healing and guidance for growth in holiness.
The Divine Liturgy itself reflects the legitimate role of governmental and military power in our world. At the very high point of the Liturgy, in the Anaphora of St Basil the Great, the priest prays for God to “be mindful … of all civil authorities and of our armed forces; grant them a secure and lasting peace … that we in their tranquility may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.” Immediately following are similar appeals for God to “be mindful” of the victims of violence and oppression: “those who are under judgment, in the mines, in exile, in bitter servitude, in every tribulation, necessity and danger …”
These petitions indicate that the church itself benefits from a stable and just social order that enables the Christian community to live in peace. Of course, the church has endured with remarkable faithfulness terrible periods of persecution from wicked governments; nonetheless, “a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness” is preferable to all-consuming strife that inflames passions, tempts people to apostasy, and makes the demands of communal survival so pressing that evangelism and other ministries suffer greatly. It is surely at least in part through just and peaceable social orders that God is mindful of prisoners, exiles, refugees, victims of crime, and other displaced and marginalized persons. The social and political orders within which the church ministers, and within which human beings live, have great spiritual and moral significance; indeed, they serve God’s purposes for the sustenance of human life. Strong temptations lurk within these orders, but they are not intrinsically evil and Christians may serve within them.
Orthodox Christianity is not a form of Gnosticism. The church affirms the essential goodness of all dimensions of creation, including the embodied social existence of humanity. Salvation is not a matter of escaping the limits of the creaturely world or pretending that suffering in the flesh and in society is not real. The Son of God became incarnate to heal fallen humanity, died on a cross, was buried in a tomb, descended to Hades, and then rose again as a completed, glorified person – as the Victor over death. The Christian hope for salvation includes the resurrection of the body, a new heaven and earth, and the fulfilment of all dimensions of creation in the eschatological kingdom of God, which has not yet come in its fullness. In our life “between the times” of the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom, the imperfect peace of the kingdoms of this world plays a vital role in God’s providential care for the collective life of humanity and the flourishing of the church. As Orthodox Christians pursue a dynamic praxis of peace, they do well not to downplay the significance of real-life struggles for justice and peace faced by nations and societies in the name of an abstract spirituality. To relegate God’s blessings and requirements to an ethereal realm unrelated to the present conditions of life on earth is to fall prey to the ancient Gnostic and Manichaean tendencies to condemn creation as evil. This attitude views the collective life of humanity as profane, possessing only a negative spiritual significance.
Orthodoxy, in contrast, views all dimensions of creation eucharistically. The offering of the Divine Liturgy is the paradigm for human life in the world as we fulfill our vocation as the priests of creation.13 Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ through which the church participates already in the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God. Communicants are then to live the Eucharist by offering all aspects of their lives to the Father in union with the sacrifice of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a life should be characterized by peacemaking, forgiveness and reconciliation; a non-violent approach surely provides the most straightforward witness to the life of kingdom as revealed in Jesus Christ.14 Nonetheless, the process of theosis is dynamic and open to everyone in all walks of life and vocations; hence, the soldier, the police officer and others involved in the use of deadly force for the protection of the innocent may grow in holiness and find salvation. They do not fight holy wars and will not become saints simply due to their success in killing enemies. Indeed, their participation in violence will probably produce a variety of obstacles for their faithful pursuit of the Christian life. They will need the spiritual therapies of the church in order to find healing for their souls from the harms they have suffered. But as the many saints from military backgrounds indicate, it is possible for them to overcome the damaging effects of bloodshed and to embody the holiness of God. Fr John McGuckin notes that “most of the soldier saints … went voluntarily to their deaths, as passion-bearers, or martyrs; and some of them were actually martyred for refusing to obey their military superiors”.15 Those who returned home as “righteous vindicators” did so because they conquered not only a worldly enemy, but also “the very chaos and wickedness” of warfare and bloodshed.16
In conclusion, Orthodoxy’s distinctive stance on peace, war and violence does not view war as unambiguously good or holy. Orthodoxy has neither a crusade ethic nor an explicit just war theory. Instead, the church tolerates war as an inevitable, tragic necessity for the protection of the innocent and the vindication of justice. The canons of the church suggest a period of repentance for those who have killed in war, which indicates both that taking life is spiritually damaging and that bloodshed falls short of Christ’s normative way of non-resistant, non-violent love. Peacemaking is the common vocation of all Christians, but the pursuit of peace in a corrupt world at times inevitably requires the use of force. In such circumstances, the church provides spiritual therapy for healing from the damaging effects of taking life. In every Divine Liturgy, the church prays for the peace of the world and all its inhabitants, and participates in the heavenly banquet of the kingdom to which all – soldier and pacifist alike – are invited.
1See the statement “Called to Be ‘Craftsmen of Peace and Justice’”, Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Consultation Towards the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, Leros, Greece, 15–22 September 2009: http://www.overcomingviolence.org (Accessed 09.12.10). The Saidnaya conference produced “An Orthodox Contribution Toward a Theology of Just Peace.”http://www.overcomingviolence.org The present author was an editor of and contributor to these statements; hence, points of similarity in thought and wording should not surprise the reader.
2An important resource for Orthodox perspectives on peacemaking is the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship: http://www.incommunion.org.
3Marian Gh. Simeon, “Seven Factors of Ambivalence in Defining a Just War Theory in Eastern Christianity” in Proceedings: The 32ndAnnual Congress of the American Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Polytechnic International Press, Montreal, 2008, p. 537, comments that “Christian theologians generally agree that the Orthodox Church does not share a Just War Theory in the Western sense …”. See also Olivier Clement, “The Orthodox Church and Peace – Some Reflections” in H. Boss and J. Forest, For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, Syndesmos, Bialystok, 1999, p. 173; Fr Stanley S. Harakas, “The Teaching on Peace in the Fathers” in For the Peace from Above, p. 190–91; Fr John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp. 402–08; Grant White, “Orthodox Christian Positions on War and Peace” in Segma Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud, The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 2005, p. 38; and Fr Philip LeMasters, “May Christians Kill?” in The Goodness of God’s Creation, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, 2008, p. 69ff.
4See St Basil the Great, Canon 13 of the 92 Canonical Epistles, as quoted in Fr John McGuckin, “St Basil’s Guidance on War and Repentance” in In Communion (Winter 2006:2); Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1994, p. 86–88; “Canons of St Basil the Great” in For the Peace from Above, p. 45; Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, International Scholars Publications, Lanham, MD, 1998,pp. 84–87.
5Henry A. Buchanan, letter to the editor, Abilene Reporter-News, June 15, 2010, p. 5C.
6Fr John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.
7See, for example, St Gregory Palamas: The Triads, Fr John Meyendorff (ed) Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1983, p. 83; Bishop Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, New York, 1997, p. 231ff.
8H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, Swets & Zietlinger Publishers, Lisse, 2000, pp. 325–26.
10Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, p. 189–91.
11Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, p. 191–95.
12Fr John Erickson, “An Orthodox Peace Witness?” in Jeffrey Gros and John D. Rempel. Fragmentation of the Church and Its Unity in Peacemaking, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001,p. 48ff.
13See Fr Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1998.
14His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, Doubleday, New York, 2008), pp. 207, 227, stresses the centrality of the pursuit of peace to the Christian life.
15Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.
16Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.
The Reverend Dr Philip LeMasters is Dean of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University, Abilene, Texas. He is the priest of Saint Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church in Abilene, and a member of the Society of Christian Ethics, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and the Board of Trustees at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His publications address applied issues in Orthodox moral theology, including sexuality, marriage, environmental stewardship, poverty, and peacemaking.