Tag Archives: virtue

War and Virtue

War and Virtue: The Ascetics of War

WAV 3 papanikolaou at OPF

by Aristotle Papanikolaou

Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which––debates about just war criteria notwithstanding––combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. I argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis1.

Forgetting Virtue: When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello (criteria for just conduct during war) and jus ad bellum (criteria determining when going to war is just); there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a “justifiable war tradition” within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.

The Vice of War: One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.

There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.

This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” The absence is further apparent in the finding of the study that

35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s…. This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (“partial PTSD”) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.

This high rate of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) a hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they have trained themselves for survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, sense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.

Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms; being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The following are characteristics of the berserk state:

beast-like, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.

Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are ironically deemed the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entails “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, an Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event. He had to be told what had happened, and when told, he became afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he had not.

What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent. Based on his work with Vietnam veterans, Shay concludes

that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to lifelong psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.

The Crucifixion: by His Wounds we are Healed
The Crucifixion: by His Wounds we are Healed

He explains that “more than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s…reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?

A new category is emerging that distinguishes a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war that is not thought to be identical with PTSD even though many of the symptoms are similar. “Moral injury” is distinguished from PTSD in that it is not induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to a change in the veteran’s state of being when he or she experiences a deep sense of having violated his or her own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies, or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensue even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with a never-erasable act he committed. Symptoms are similar to those of PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence.

The disturbing stories of combat veterans––not sleeping with spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and family; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces––reveal that there is an ascetics to war. Either through training received in the military to do violence or to prepare ones body for survival against constant threats of violence, or through its application in battle, war is the undoing of virtue through its negative impact on a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends, and strangers. From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the lifelong ruin of good character is not limited to the soul of the combat veteran but is embodied; character is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.

But what of theosis? On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in various monastic settings. Further confounding is the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms such as being surrounded by divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must leave the confines of the monastery and be normalized for all Christians in the world.
This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor, communion with God, an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be godlike should not conjure up images of Greek mythology––within the Greek patristic texts, if God is love, then human beings were created to love and this love is simultaneously a uniting of oneself with God since God is love.

In Maximos’ treatise on love, he discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues. For Maximos, virtue is not a building of character for character’s sake; having acquired virtue does not bring one to a state of being where one displays virtues like badges of honor; virtue is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love according to Maximos: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love,” and “all the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love.”

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent

In naming the virtues, Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger. This particular definition of virtue illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends, and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, and depth—in short, love.

If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for acquiring the virtue of virtues, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “the purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice.” He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts.” Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice, that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends.” Vices produce, and are, such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Throughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.

Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’ discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations…. The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations.” He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions.” Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred.” For Maximos, detachment “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it becomes resistant to vice.” In terms of images that incite vice, this resistance is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.

The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but rather an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.

If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty––all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self for openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kind of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others.  IC

This is the first half of Prof. Papanikolaou’s keynote address as published in IC69: the full speech with footnotes may be found on our website here.
Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Professor in Orthodox Theology and Culture at Fordham University and is Senior Fellow and co-founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, also at Fordham. For a list of his publications or to contact him, visit http://www.fordham.edu

The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West

The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West

Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole, Regina Orthodox Press, 2004

reviewed by Fr. Andrew Louth

review published in In Communion, Spring 2004,  issue 33

This book is a work of polemic. The opening chapter is a clarion call to the Christian West to realize the danger of militant Islam and gird itself to fight back and defeat it. “Nine-Eleven” is presented as a belated moment of awakening for the West, and the purpose of this book is to convince Christians of the “virtue of war,” as the title puts it: that is, to demonstrate that in certain circumstances (which include the present circumstances of an Islamic attack on Western civilization) war is not only a regrettable necessity, but a positive good, in which good ends are achieved by the virtuous means of warfare.

The book is co-written by an Orthodox priest and theologian, Fr. Alexander Webster, and a Western theologian, of probably Protestant credentials, though with a deep and articulate sympathy for the Western Catholic tradition of the just war. The aim is to demonstrate broadly-based Christian support for an offensive war against evil, and especially to include the Orthodox tradition, that has often been presented as viewing war in deeply mistrustful terms. The opening chapter, as part of its clarion call, presents an alarming account of Islam, centrally and essentially committed to jihad in military terms, in the course of which there are several references to Orthodoxy’s long familiarity with Islam, as compared with the West.

This might be a good place to begin an assessment of the book, as it is certainly true that the Orthodox have a long familiarity with Islam, reaching right back to the beginnings of that religion. In the centuries since, Orthodox have often had Islamic states as close neighbors, and also lived cheek-by-jowl with Muslims, in Palestine and later under the Ottomans and the states that succeeded that empire. At times this relationship has been sharply antagonistic; so it was in the first century or so of Islam, when the Umayyad Empire sought to take Constantinople. But more often, the Orthodox have found a modus vivendi with their Muslim neighbors, as the Western crusaders found out to their annoyance, when they discovered that the Byzantine Emperor was engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the Muslims, to their mind simply enemies of the faith.

Plenty more examples could be cited for this Orthodox quest for a modus vivendi: Manuel Komnenos’ modification of the rite of conversion for Muslims, making it clear that Orthodox and Muslim worshiped the same God, however different their conceptions of him; Gregory Palamas’ favorable impressions of the mullahs with whom he met and engaged in theological discussion during the couple of years he spent as a prisoner of the Sultan (only Palamas’ more conventional, “apocalyptic” view of Islam is cited here).

In contrast, the West has tended to see Islam in terms of extremes: either the infidel, against whom one waged crusades, or a representative of an alluring “orientalism,” explored by the late Edward Said in his famous book of that name. Fr. Alexander, in his chapters in this book, seems anxious that the Orthodox should not be left out of this crusading drive against Islam, which is very much the fruit of such extremes of perception on the part of the West.

The chapters by Fr. Alexander are not a little confused. He seems to accept the virtual pacifism of the Church before Constantine, and seems uneasily aware that the Byzantine attitude to war was ambivalent; he speaks of a “penitential gloom” in Orthodox attitudes to war, but it is this that he seeks to dispel. His argument advances along several lines. First, he draws attention to the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament. He is certainly right to warn against the potential Marcionism of opposing a God of love in the New Testament to a God of armies in the Old, but in his resolution he seems to obscure the prevailing impression left by the Lord’s teaching.

The canonical tradition poses a fairly daunting challenge. As he admits, there is virtually no exception to the canonical requirement of penance for any Christian soldier who killed in war before the eleventh century, and it is only thereafter in the West that this requirement comes to be forgotten. He might have mentioned, but does not, how the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas – disturbed that Muslim warriors went into war with the promise of eternal bliss if they fell in battle, whereas Christian warriors had no such promise, but rather faced penance if they killed – pleaded with the patriarch and the bishops to change this canonical regulation, but in vain. Instead, Fr. Alexander tries to suggest that the canon of St. Basil requiring three years’ penance (that is, three years’ exclusion from communion) is in some way ambivalent.

Another argument draws attention to the Byzantine military martyrs: but what is striking about these martyrs is that none of them died in battle, indeed in many cases their military careers are largely, or entirely, posthumous (e.g., the historical Procopios or Demetrios). These are not glorified combatant soldiers, but rather notable participants in the struggle against evil, and defenders of Christian cities and peoples.

Fr. Alexander draws attention to prayers for the armed forces in the Divine Liturgy; true, he mentions the threefold petition for peace at the beginning of the Great Ekteny, but not the fivefold petition for peace in what the Greeks call the Eirenika. It is clear on which side the weight falls. A good deal is made of the services for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Here we touch on something that needs to be brought out into the open. There is no question that, in the wake of the conversion of Constantine, the Church, both in the East and the West, lent not only its prayers for the peace and prosperity of the Empire, but also its blessing (within the limits noted above) to armed defense of the Empire.

But is this part of the Church’s tradition, or a betrayal of it? The way in which the cult of the Holy Cross became part of the Imperial cult was dangerously close to idolatry, even if it is reflected in prayers and songs we still use. The way in which these remnants of the Christian imperial cult have come to serve a questionable role in modern Orthodox nation states might be regarded as one of the more dire consequences of “phyletism,” condemned, at least notionally, as a heresy by all Orthodox Christians.

I have concentrated in this review on Fr. Alexander’s contribution, because this is an Orthodox journal (and, indeed, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is singled out for criticism by Fr. Alexander). The rest of the book presents the Western case. There we have a fine presentation of the Western case for a just (or justifiable) war, and an exploration of its history. Some good points are made, notably that the idea of a just war in which the virtue of the warrior is displayed and tested actually provides a means by which justice in war can be maintained. It is still the case, however, that Dr. Cole favors quite a hawkish conception of the “just war”; he is unhappy with the idea of such a war as a “mere” last resort. His position here leaves this reviewer with the impression that for him a just war can actually be a good thing, something that can be pursued with enthusiasm, rather than regret.

Whatever the merits of some of the arguments advanced, this book’s wider purpose is to justify a modern crusade against Islam – even though it recognizes, though to no noticeable effect, that Islamic terrorism is not actually a tautology – and calls on Western civilization to commit itself to such a crusade. This seems to me to leave no ground for questioning the right of the United States, or any other state powerful enough, to set itself up as a world policeman, the consequences of which seem to me profoundly alarming.

For a world power to take upon itself the role of being a world policeman raises Cicero’s question: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos – who will guard the guards themselves? The damage that well-intentioned people can do with the resources of a state (especially one so wealthy and powerfully armed as the US), as opposed what terrorists can do (and I certainly am not defending terrorism, or minimizing the guilt of terrorist action), seems to me immense. Consider Kosovo.

Look even at Iraq, where it more and more looks as if the military action there has destabilized the country and region in ways that are likely to have unfortunate long-lasting consequences. Simply in terms of numbers (which are ultimately irrelevant), the body count from allied action in Iraq exceeds that of the terrorists – and there is also the question, still quite unresolved, as to whether attacking Iraq had any impact on al Qaedi, or even was ever expected to. The metaphor of the policemen makes one think of friendly people keeping the peace. But the reality depends on who you are.

Here in England there is growing consciousness of the dangers of “institutionalized racism”: the policeman is not perceived as friendly – and often isn’t – if you are a black and living in South or East London. I know about this from teaching in South London for ten years. Similarly in Iraq: for a great many people there, the American “policemen” are not welcome, and thus are finding it more and more difficult to fulfill a police role. The atrocities in the Shia holy cities, almost certainly the work of Sunnis, are blamed by the Shiites on the Americans.

But are such factors irrelevant to the book, The Virtue of War? They would be (or only tangentially relevant) if the book confined itself to a discussion of the question of war and the Christian conscience, but it doesn’t. The first chapter – drawing on a one-sided use of Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis – is, as I said above, a clarion call for Christians to support the American attack on militant Islam, supported by arguments that Islam as a whole is potentially militant.

It is interesting to see what Christos Yannaras makes of the Huntingdon thesis, which sees Orthodoxy as a separate civilization from the West, something Yannaras welcomes with undue enthusiasm, though I think he is right in saying that Orthodoxy has at least as much in common with Islam as with the West. This might lead one to the conclusion, which Yannaras does not seem to draw, that we Orthodox are in an unusual position to mediate in what could become a fatal fault-line for the history of the 21st century.

Fr. Andrew Louth is an Orthodox priest of the Diocese of Sourozh in Great Britain and Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, UK.

A related text:

Here is a response by Jim Forest to an essay (published in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 2003) by Fr Alexander Webster in which he argued that war should be recognized as a “lesser good” rather than a “lesser evil.”

Jim Forest

* * *

St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly vol 47 / 1 (2003) pp 65-67

War a “Lesser Good”?

by Jim Forest

In Fr Alexander Webster’s argument that the Orthodox Church should regard war as “a lesser good” rather than “a lesser evil,” it is striking how meager is his attention to the New Testament. Does he really imagine Jesus sanctioning war and obliging his followers to take part in it? The Savior became incarnate in a country enduring the humiliation of military occupation, yet failed to side in word or action with the Zealot opposition. There is no Gospel account of him sanctioning anyone’s death. In the one instance we know of when an issue of capital punishment was brought before him, he succeeded in saving the life of a woman who might otherwise have been stoned to death. When the apostle Peter used a sword in an attempt to defend Jesus from arrest, the injury Peter caused was healed by Christ—his final healing miracle before crucifixion. Jesus responded to Peter with words Fr Alexander has omitted from his essay: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus’ only act of violence in the New Testament narrative was to use a whip—not a life-endangering weapon—to cleanse the Temple. The only sword he wields is the sword of the truth. Again and again he insists on forgiveness. In the Beatitudes he blesses the merciful and refers to peacemakers as children of God. Following the way of the Cross, Christ gives the example of nonresistance. Quite literally he gives himself for the life of the world.

In the first three centuries Christians were notable for their refusal to kill, a situation that was problematic for converts in the military or in certain governmental positions. Catechetical texts coming down to us from the early Church put a special stress on the obligation not to kill either in war or through abortion. Substantial penances were established for those who broke this discipline. Even after Constantine’s conversion and the end of anti-Christian persecution, it remained obligatory for priests, deacons and iconographers not to kill anyone, not even in self-defense. These canons survive unchanged into our own day.

However convinced Fr Alexander may be that certain wars may be regarded as justifiable or even good, he would be forbidden by Church law to serve at the altar if he were to kill in such a “good” war—a prohibition one would assume should also prevent a priest from encouraging or blessing others to kill. Fr Alexander seems oblivious to the values that stand behind this prohibition. Does the Church forbid its priests doing what it regards (according to Fr Alexander) as “a lesser good”? What do these canons reveal about eucharistic life?

Canons do not, however, always solve the problem of what to do in the crucible of life. Many Christians faced with evil forces, such as St Alexander Nevsky, have found no nonviolent option in responding to attack but armed resistance—though later in life, struggling to avoid calamitous defeat, the same prince lost the respect of many fellow Russians for prudent compromises he struck with the Golden Horde.

Since the age of Constantine, time and again faithful Christians of every rank have found themselves drawn into war. Soldiers and their weapons have been blessed by pastors and bishops. We must recall, however, that often the wars on which blessings have been showered were not events which can be regarded as bringing any moral credit on those who fought in them, however heroic and patriotic the soldiers may have been: wars for the expansion of empire, wars of national hubris, wars of manifest destiny, wars of ethic cleansing, wars to gain valuable resources.

Consider what might be regarded as the very best of recent wars: World War II. Here there was an aggressive enemy driven by totalitarian and racist ideology willing to kill not only opposing soldiers but large categories of noncombatants. Many people could find no way to respond to the war imposed on them but to fight back with whatever weapons they had. At last the Allied counter-attack resulted in city bombing, fire storms and finally the use of nuclear weapons. There were hundreds of thousands of noncombatant deaths which, in today’s “Newspeak,” would be regarded as “collateral damage.” Many of those who fought against Hitler and his allies, though possessing medals for heroism on the battlefield, have had to live with nightmarish memories of the killing of noncombatants and other terrible memories of what occurs in the actuality of war. They may well regard the war in its overall objectives as justifiable and unavoidable, but certainly not good. Indeed, one cannot even speak of the killing of the guilty as good deeds.

For all his interest in what in the Roman Catholic Church has come to be known as the Just War Theory or Doctrine, Fr Alexander seems to take little interest in one of the key elements of that doctrine: the protection of noncombatants. In the reality of modern war, it is the noncombatant who is the typical casualty. In the age of St Alexander Nevsky soldiers fought soldiers, but in our world when bullets fly and bombs fall, it is the most defenseless members of society who are the most likely to die or be maimed. Can anyone, least of all a follower of the Gospel, speak of events which claim the lives of so many innocents—mainly women, children and the aged—as “a lesser good”?

Were states to call on Orthodox Christians to take part in the destruction of churches or the wholesale burning of icons, there would be organized resistance by the faithful with the hierarchy speaking out boldly. But when it is the destruction of human beings, bearers of the image of God, what is most striking is the cooperation of the faithful in it and the near silence of their shepherds. True, one does occasionally discover theologians who raise questions about war. One of them, Fr Stanley Harakas, is briefly if dismissively referred to in the Webster essay. But one rarely meets an Orthodox Christian who has heard about such debate regarding these questions. The questions are raised in academic journals and forums and, sadly, there they tend to remain.


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