Following Christ in a Violent World

Talk for the Orthodox Student Association of Finland conference, Kaunisniemi Camp, January 31-February 2, 2003

by Jim Forest

Our Orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus was not simply a great rabbi whose brilliant teaching and short but praiseworthy life inspired a legend of resurrection and the creation of a new religion. We know him as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who became incarnate for our sake, entered history purposefully, rose from the dead and is constantly giving himself for the life of the world.

Consider the circumstances of his birth as a human being. Do we think it was an accident that he was born as the son of Mary in a certain Jewish village two thousand years ago? Not at all. He was born at a chosen moment in a chosen place.

What sort of place and moment? Not the star-lit dream Bethlehem of the modern Christmas card, but a humiliated, over-taxed land kept within the Roman Empire by brutal, bitterly-resented occupation troops -- in many ways very like the actual Bethlehem we have today. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, was born, lived, crucified and resurrected in a land of extreme enmity -- a land in many respects resembling countries that were suffering German occupation 60 years ago.

He whom we try to follow was not born in ideal times nor did he possess the traits of the usual sort of hero. Think of the primary characteristics of Christ's life recorded by the Gospel authors. He told stories in which the major themes are forgiveness and mercy. We healed many people who were chronically ill or were possessed by demons. On several occasions he raised the dead. He also raised a voiced of protest, condemning those who pile burdens on others they do would never carry themselves. Using a whip, he chased money changers from the Temple. He was not socially indifferent. He wasn't simply doing good deeds while keeping silent about a corrupt and violent social order. It was not for his healing miracles or for the parables he told that the religious and political authorities of those times ordered his execution.

Yet we must also reckon with the fact that, despite his opposition to oppression, he never became part of the Zealot movement of violent opposition to the Roman presence nor did he bless anyone to join such the nationalist groups which was using violent methods to seek recovery of national independence.

We notice that Jesus neither assisted the Romans nor threatened their lives. We see in him following a third way, a way which is neither violent nor passive but centers on conversion, for it is only through conversion that we can live in what he calls "the kingdom of God."

One of the most remarkable things about the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is that he treats no one as an enemy. Consider his encounter with the Roman centurion who came seeking his help -- an officer who was part of the occupation army. Jesus not only responded positively to the appeal for help made to him but openly admired the centurion's faith, describing it as being greater than those of his own countrymen. You can imagine how some of those who heard Jesus's express respect for an enemy's faith must have spat on the ground and muttered to themselves, "Traitor! These Romans are filth." But we can also wonder whether, following his encounter with Jesus, if the centurion's life afterward didn't take a turn. It seems more than likely that he was one of the first Romans to place himself under the rule of Christ rather the Caesar.

Not once in the Gospels do we find a deadly weapon in Christ's hand. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money changers out of the Temple because their activities were profaning a place of worship. It was a fierce action but one that endangered no one's life but his own. We can imagine that it was after this event that those religious leaders who profited from the trade inside the Temple decided that this troublemaker from Galilee, the so-called Messiah, must die.

Again and again we see Christ healing people. Think about the last miracle before his crucifixion. Do you remember what it was? It is the most surprising healing miracle recorded in the Gospel, even more surprising than bring Lazarus back to life after four days in the tomb. Jesus healed the wound of one of the men who came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemani. It was an injury caused by the Apostle Peter who was only trying to defend his Lord. Consider what Jesus said to Peter at that frightful moment: "Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword."

"Put away your sword!" These words of Jesus were taken deeply to heart in the early Church. In the early centuries of the Church we find many indications of Christians refusing to shed the blood of others, including converted soldiers involved in war. Even after the age of Constantine, the Church imposed severe penalties on those who killed even if they did so in war.

In a criticism of Christians written in 173 AD by the pagan scholar Celsus, Christians were sharply condemned for their refusal to serve in the army. "If all men were to do as you [Christians] do," wrote Celsus, "there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians."

One of the responses to this criticism that comes down to us was written by the North African Christian apologist, Origen: "Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies," he said, "and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so." The Christian refusal of military service, he went on, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but response at the level of spiritual combat: "The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can.... The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies."

In the same century, St. Justin the Hieromartyr wrote along similar lines: "We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war ... swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks." Elsewhere he writes, "We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ."

Late in the second century we find another North African, Clement of Alexandria, calling on those not yet brought to the Christ's Church to enlist "in an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without wrath, without stain -- pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with gentleness, men adorned with love. Obtain with your wealth as guardians of body and soul such as these whose commander is God." "If you enroll as one of God's people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also."

At the heart of these and similar writings from the early Church is the conviction that we are, through baptism, people under the rule of God, obeying the rulers of this world only insofar as their regulations are not in conflict with God's law. As St. Euphemia, a martyr of the early fourth century, declared, "The Emperor's commands and [those of anyone in authority] must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven. If they are, they must not only not be obeyed; they must be resisted."

In the Church in Asia Minor in the early fourth century, it was declared: "Let a catechumen ... if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not, let him be rejected. For he has despised God by his thought and, leaving the things of the Spirit, he has perfected himself in the flesh, and has treated the faith with contempt." One finds similar declarations in other parts of the Church throughout the Empire in the pre-Constantinian era.

Yet we know that the Church was seeking converts throughout society, including in the army. There was no profession, high or low, respected or detested, which were seen as excluded from the Gospel message. Soldiers, prostitutes, tax collectors, criminals -- these and every sort of people were seen as potential converts.

Beginning at the end of the second century, we find burial stones indicating soldiers who had been baptized. The oldest known Christian grave marking indicating the deceased had been in the army dates from 197. Keep in mind that the army was not something you served in for a few years and left -- you were a soldier from youth until retirement due to old age. Often times you were born into the military -- if you were a healthy male and your father was a soldier, so were you. Nor was there provision for special discharge because you had been converted to a religion opposed killing.

What about those who came to baptism faith while in the army? They were told they must never take anyone's life. "Anyone who has received the power to kill. . . in no case let them kill, even if they have received the order to kill," stated the Canons of Hippolytus of the Church in Egypt in the mid-fourth century. This is similar to St. John the Baptist's instructions to soldiers: "Do violence to no one, accuse no one falsely, and be content with your pay."

Anyone guilty of actually killing another person was subject to grave penances and prolonged exclusion from the Eucharist. The Canons of Hippolytus stated: "If anyone has shed blood, let him not take part in the [eucharistic] mysteries, unless he has been purified by penance, by tears and groans." We notice that even today canons survive from the Ecumenical Councils which require that priests and iconographers be persons who have never shed human blood.

Records survive of Christians being martyred for their refusal to accept military service in a period when other Christians were willing to accept conscription. For example in 295, a young Christian, St. Maximilian, was brought before the Roman Proconsul, Dion, in North Africa. His testimony is recorded in the ancient Acts of the Saints.

"I will not be a soldier of this world," Maximilian said, "for I am a soldier of Christ." "But there are Christians serving in the army," the Proconsul replied. "That is their business," said Maximilian. "I too am a Christian, and cannot serve." Condemned to death, he proclaimed, "God lives!"

A generation later, in 336, we find St. Martin of Tours, an army officer who later became a missionary bishop, applying for discharge. "I am a soldier of Christ," he declared. "It is not lawful for me to fight." As his request was made on the eve of a battle, Martin was accused of cowardice. He responded by volunteering to face the enemy and to advance unarmed against their ranks. Julian Caesar instead ordered Martin imprisoned, but soon after St. Martin was permitted to resign from the army.

Late in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom compared the violent with wolves: "It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that [the disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves.... We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves.... This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace."

How strange all these texts seem even to us in the Orthodox Church. We are famous for our careful preservation of the ancient Liturgy and for maintaining many other traditions of the early Church. We are rightly scandalized and saddened when we notice new distortions of the faith in other sections of Christianity. Yet there is much from the Church's first centuries that we have forgotten as completely as everyone else.

When did the change begin? Perhaps the crucial years was 313, when the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution against the Church by issuing the Edict of Milan. No longer the object of suppressive actions by the state, Christianity soon became the most favored religion of the empire -- in a matter of a few generations, the only legal religion. Those who wanted to advance in the world had first to accept the Emperor's religion and quickly lined up for baptism -- though it is striking to notice that Constantine delayed his own baptism until he lay on his deathbed.

The relationship between the Church and state was drastically changed. Before Constantine, Christians had, in effect, been either barred from the army or permitted to serve in areas where their work was what today is done by police and firemen. Within a century of Constantine's death, all non-Christians were excluded from the army. As St. Jerome wrote from his cave in Bethlehem late in the fourth century, "When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue."

Within the Orthodox Church for the past fifteen centuries, only monks, priests and iconographers are seen as having a vocation which, of its nature, bars them from bloodshed. They are required to live by a standard that had once been normal for all followers of Christ.

Late in the fourth century the foundations of the "Just War Theory," as it is called in the Western Church, were laid by St. Ambrose of Milan and Blessed Augustine of Hippo. While both maintained the traditional view that the individual Christian was barred from deadly violence in self defense, they proposed that armed defense of one's community was a different matter. Yet even for the soldier, they maintained that Christ's command to love one's enemies remained in full force.

In the course of centuries the just war theory gradually evolved, obtaining the main elements in its development by the thirteenth century. According to this doctrine a war could be considered just only if declared as a last resort by the state, fought for a just cause, with the burden of guilt clearly on one side, undertaken with a just intention, employing just means, and respecting the lives of the innocent and of noncombatants.

Has the just war doctrine had any influence on the actual conduct of war or prevented certain wars that might have been? We can fairly say that whatever influence it may have had was long ago. What is most striking about modern war is how completely all restraints are ignored. In the past 150 years, there has been an ever-growing percentage of noncombatant victims in war. Today the person most likely to survive a war is the soldier while the typical casualty is a non-combatant. Modern war relies on methods which inevitably result in massive numbers of noncombatant deaths. We now have the hellish term "collateral damage" in our working vocabulary -- Newspeak for killing innocent people.

Development of the just war doctrine occurred chiefly in the west, gradually becoming a well-established doctrine if one without the authority of dogmatic teaching. While we can early find examples of Orthodox hierarchs fervently supporting war, it is noteworthy that in the Orthodox Church the just theory never acquired dogmatic status. In researching patristic sources, Byzantine military manuals, and a wide range of Orthodox declarations about war, the respected Orthodox theologian Father Stanley Harakas was startled to discover "an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the [Orthodox] tradition is any mention of a 'just' war, much less a 'good' war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition ... war can be seen only as a 'necessary evil,' with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries." Nonetheless, he continues, "the pacifist emphasis is retained in liturgy and in clerical standards."

We find what Father Harakas describes as a gradual "'stratification of pacifism" in the Church. "Clergy were to function as pacifists, uninvolved in any military activity, even prohibited from entering military camps."

Despite the gradual acceptance of military service that followed Constantine's act of peace with the Church, Christianity and war have never been happily joined. If the great majority of Christians came to regard war in some situations as the lesser of two evils, and military service an honorable calling, there has never been a period in Christian history without its nonviolent teachers and witnesses, nor a time without those who taught Christianity as a way of love rather than violence and coercion.

Reflecting on the word and example of Christ, we can identify seven aspects of spiritual life that are essential aspects of Christian peacemaking: love of enemies, prayer for enemies; doing good to enemies; turning the other cheek; offering forgiveness; breaking down walls of division; and resisting evil in ways which may lead one's enemies toward conversion.

Love of Enemies

As used in the Bible, the word "love" has first of all to do with action and responsibility. The stress is not at all upon sentiment. It doesn't refer to how you feel. To love is to do what you can to provide for the spiritual and physical well-being of another, whether you like that person or not, whether you feel like it or not. What God does is love. In explaining his Father's love, Christ talks about what God gives. He offers the metaphor of rain falling on both the just and the unjust.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of delight in someone else or, more significantly, it may be done despite anger, exhaustion, depression or fear, done simply as a response to God, our common Creator, "who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

Paul taught that the greatest gifts of God were faith, hope and love, and, of these, the greatest is love. Genuine love, he wrote, is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness; it doesn't demand its own way, does not rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything. These are the essential qualities of any peacemaker.

Prayer for Enemies

Inseparable from love of others is prayer for them. "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Prayer is the primary form of connection -- an invisible reaching out, first toward our Creator, but also toward other people, whether loved or feared, through God. The moment I pray for another human being, I am connected to that person. He may be unaware of it, but a relationship is established in prayer.

Without prayer for enemies, how can we possibly love them? In fact the only love we can offer anyone, friend or enemy, is God's own love. Prayer can give us access to God's love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear, contempt or active hostility.

We are given a witness to the power of prayer in the life of Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. He was a Russian peasant born in 1866 who fell asleep in the Lord in 1938 after many years of monastic life on Mount Athos. He devoted all his adult life to prayer. Earlier in his life he had an intimate experience of his own violence, nearly killing a neighbor in his own village. In his many years of spiritual combat as a monk, Saint Silouan learned that the love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is "the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.... Through Christ's love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence...for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind."

Doing Good to Enemies

Jesus calls us not only to prayer but to action: "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you." Prayer is not an alternative to action; in fact prayer may empower us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.... Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

This is what the Samaritan was doing to the Jew he found dying on the side of the road in Jesus' parable of the compassionate enemy. In offering help to an enemy in his distress, he transformed the wounded Jew's idea of Samaritans. He could never again think of Samaritans simply as enemies. If we were to tell the story in modern terms it could be a Turk assisting an injured Greek or a Christian helping a Muslim.

Turning the Other Cheek

Jesus says to his followers, "If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also." How different this is from the advice provided in the average Hollywood film or politician's speech! There the constant message is: "If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, you needn't be hit at all in order to strike others." Provocation, irritation, or the expectation of attack is warrant enough.

Turning the other cheek is often seen as a suspect doctrine, even dismissed as masochism. We hear it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: "Human beings, but especially my enemies, just aren't made that way." For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: "Turning the other cheek isn't manly."

The conversion of the ancient world had much to do with Christians turning the other cheek in many acts of courageous witness that can never be forgotten. In the 20th century such witness was offered again by countless believers persecuted in the Soviet time.


Every time we say the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Christ also says: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?" On another occasion, Peter asks Jesus how often he must extend forgiveness. "As many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." It is such teaching that inspires the verses we sing every Easter: "Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection."

The Desert Father Abbot Moses was once asked to take part in a meeting in which the community was planning to condemn a certain negligent brother. Abbot Moses man arrived carrying a basket from which sand was pouring out through many openings. "Why are you doing that?" he was asked. "You ask me to judge a brother while my own sins spill out behind me like the sand from this basket." The embarrassed community was moved to forgive their lax brother.

Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus' teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us. We are called to forgive. We need to seek forgiveness, offer forgiveness, and accept forgiveness. We are followers of Jesus who taught us forgiveness even when his hands were nailed to the wood of the cross: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do."

Breaking down Walls

In Christ enmity is destroyed. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesia: "For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity...that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing enmity to an end." Jesus gives the example himself many times, for example in his encounters with the Roman Centurion and the Samaritan women at the well.

We live in a world of many walls of separation: racism, nationalism, all sorts of tribalism. Nothing is more ordinary than enmity. Far from living in communion with others, we tend to flee from communion. Metropolitan John of Pergamon comments: "Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other's presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness.... The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God."

Resisting evil while seeking conversion

We are obliged to oppose evil and, as we are both flesh and spirit, we must use both flesh and spirit in our acts of resistance. But in what way ought we to resist? Certain kinds of resistance are clearly rejected in the Gospel: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil."

Responding to evil with its own weapons, though it can seem an obvious good, results in a life that is centered on evil. Very often people who live in fear of violent men become violent men. They take up the same weapons and even adopt characteristics and hated practices of the adversary. When the Nazi forces bombed cities, there was immense revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were perpetrated by Britain and the United States.

But then what are we to do? Are Christians supposed to do nothing more than pray in the face of injustice and oppression? Are there not warriors as well as pacifists among the saints?

We see in the example of many saints that our choice is not limited to passivity on the one hand and bloodshed on the other. There is the alternative of unarmed resistance. This is a form of combat that begins with the refusal to collaborate with injustice but which actively assists the victims of oppression, which protests evil, and finally which prays and works for the conversion of adversaries. Among the saints of this century, Mother Maria of Paris is an example of these qualities. The houses of hospitality she founded in France became, in the time of Nazi-occupation, centers for rescuing Jews and others whose lives were in danger. She herself finally was sent to a Nazi concentration camp, dying on Good Friday, 1945. We see in her that nonviolent, spiritually-rooted struggle is not without risk and great suffering. It can easily cost us our lives, just as happens in armed struggle. But we prefer to put our own lives at risk rather than the lives of others. Only we must not be cowards.

This approach to conflict begins with a conscious aspiration to find solutions rooted in respect for life, including the lives of our enemies, and our hope that they too may be saved. We cannot be sure we will always discover a nonviolent solution, but what we fail to seek we certainly will fail to find. As in expressed in the membership statement the Orthodox Peace Fellowship: "While no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, we pray that God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents."

This a way of life that many men and women witnessed in the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in peace with everyone around him and who sometimes fed a wild bear from his own hands.

"Men cannot be too gentle, too kind," he said. "Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. But remember, no work of kindness or charity can bring down to earth the holy breath, unless it be done in the name of Christ. When it is, joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other, not even those whom you catch committing an evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Keep away from the spilling of speech. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against the evil that creeps around."

Let us consider the Beatitudes, that short summing up of the Gospel that we find at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes are only eight. No Christian dares be inattentive to any of them. The seventh is the Beatitude of peacemaking.

In the early Church the whole world was astonished at how Christians witnessed to the peace of Christ, not only refusing to shed the blood of their enemies but trying in every possible way to save their enemies. May we do all in our power to renew such faithful witness in our time.

How desperately we need such people! We need them not only in places where wars are being fought or might be fought, but we need them in each household and we need them within the church and within each parish. Even the best and most vital parishes often suffer from deep divisions. And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. Often it is harder to forgive and understand someone in our own parish than an abstract enemy we see mainly in propaganda images on television. Even within our Orthodox Church that we don't simply disagree with each other of many topics but often we despise those who hold opposing views. In the name of Christ, who commanded us to love one another, we engage in a war of words in which, far from loving our opponent we don't even respect him. But without mercy and forgiveness, without love, I am no longer in communion either with my neighbor or with Christ.

At the deepest level, the peacemaker is a person being used by God to help heal our relationship with God -- for we get no closer to God than we get to our neighbor, that is any person regarded as "different" and a "threat." St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain taught that love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is "the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind."

Let us recall those challenging words of Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris, a martyr who died in 1945 in a German concentration camp:

"The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are equally justifiable and necessary. The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked."